That well-dressed, paunch-harbouring, self-satisfied, cigar-smoking Yank had been largely forgotten throughout the Stu fiasco, although I could usually sense him a few metres behind me, pompously puffing away on his cigar.
After a small ‘welcome home’ ceremony for the beloved one, Stu disappeared up to his room to sleep…
It mightn’t have been my business but, so determined I was to ensure nothing disastrous should befall my new best friend, Stu, I took the initiative regardless; the night of his return, and before I had watched him clamber drunkenly up the hotel steps to his room, I had checked with the man himself then confirmed via his electronic recording device (because let’s be fair, at that point in the night I was struggling to believe a word that came out of Stu’s mouth), and was able to clarify that the date/time of his first ‘English Teacher’ interview was still over a full day in the future. I then relayed this day/time to Lieu at the desk, requesting ‘If Stu was not out of bed by a day/time several hours before the aforementioned day/time, please, afford him a rigorous wake-up call’.
…“Hey Tee-im…?” I heard from behind me. I didn’t turn immediately; I knew exactly who it was, and I just needed a moment to choke down the lump of abhorrence that was forcing its way up my oesophagus. I didn’t like the way he looked, I didn’t like the way he sounded, I didn’t like the way his shirt pulled tight over his belly when he sat back and smugly chewed on the tip of his fat cigar. Add to that, I didn’t like his demeanour, I didn’t like his aura, I didn’t like his accent, I probably didn’t like the way he smelled, I didn’t like his haircut and I guess, ultimately, I didn’t like this guy’s face.
“Teim,” he called again. I could just visualise him resting complacently on his chair, leaning back with all the self-satisfaction of a preening pussycat, speaking effortlessly and without exerting a muscle because nothing was worth this guy’s time or effort; making no attempt to engage anything but his self-indulgent Yankie-doodle voice-box…
Against my better judgement I half-turned and gave my addresser a nod.
…“Good to see your friend back safe, ay?” he asked.
I gave an affirming flick of the eyebrows and half-smile in response.
He smiled broadly and moved his arms in what appeared to be a languid ‘come hither’ gesture, “Come on, sit, I’ll buy you a drink.”
I had to do it, had to find out for sure if this was the creep supposedly hacking Facebook accounts, casting scurrilous aspersions and making juvenile threats, all in the supposed quest to ensure he was successful in wedding a Vietnamese woman half his age; I needed to know if this was, after all, the infamous, ‘Gary’. With adrenaline pulsating throughout my body I slowly stood, then even more slowly pushed in my timber chair, hearing it scrape across the timber deck (the height of irreverence in Vietnamese etiquette; I needed him to know that I didn’t give a damn about proper behaviour), lifted my fruity/bourbony concoction, turned back from the road and made my way towards the Loan’s café counter, beside where the Yankie-doodle arse-wipe poser was relaxing with all the grace of a sunbathing manatee. I placed my drink on his table and took a chair, offering my hand, “Tim.”
“Yeah, hey Tim,” he clasped my hand in an expectedly pithy grip, “Loan told me your name before, says you’re a real good guy.”
I cringed at his pronunciation of the Vietnamese name ‘Loan’; just as any Westerner would articulate the word ‘loan’ – Lown as opposed to her actual name, Luhn – nevertheless, I smiled and nodded, “Yes, Luhn, is a good woman.” I then hesitated, cursing my anxious disposition, “So, when you’re at home, what do they call you?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry Tim, right,” he leaned forward, unintentionally I’m sure, exemplifying his smarmy grin. “My name’s Gar –” he began; I froze, but then, instead of adding the ‘ee’ sound as I had expected would come next, he enunciated what, to my ears, was “– rick.”
I leaned forward, casually sipped my drink, consciously trying to outwardly calm myself, and looked askance at the man; inwardly trying frantically to decipher the dual syllable sound that I had just heard. After two enduring seconds I conceded, “I’m sorry, I think I missed that, did you say, ‘Garrick’?”
He just smiled at me, that same, intentionally endearing but realistically off-putting, grin, and, in what were probably supposed to be passively-aggressively patronising words, assured me, “Sure, no, no, it’s my accent, I’m Canadian … Sorry Tim, no, I said my name’s, Garrick.”
Seriously? I thought. Is this guy messing with me? I’d said, ‘Garrick’, then he’d said ‘No, no, it’s Garrick’. Is he trying to screw with my brain here? ‘Garrick’ versus ‘Garrick’ – where is the disparity? More interminable moments passed, then it came to me; probably it was a mildly nasally voice coupled with a presumed sloppy palate mingled with a thick North American accent – idiot, it wasn’t ‘Garrick’ it was ‘Derek’.
“So, Derek,” I said, backing myself, putting it out there (to which he smiled and nodded, indicating my gamble had payed), “what brings you to Vietnam?”
“Me?” he looked surprised at the question, “Why, Tim, I live in Vietnam.”
“Oh, wow … Do you live in Ho Chi Minh City, then?”
“Yep, sure do,” he confirmed (as, with an overwhelming sense of speculation cum paranoia I screened his accent, almost certain that what I was hearing was in fact little more than an overcooked US accent), “I work at the Casino … Have you been?”
“Huh, no,” I said without raising my eyes.
“Sure, not a gambler.”
“Oh no,” I laughed, “I most certainly am a gambler, it’s just that, on Bui Vien, I’m finding that, basically, every night’s a gamble and, typically, I can’t afford to gamble every night.”
Derek chuckled, “Sure, I hear you there, Tim … So, are you winning?”
“No shit no,” I replied without even needing to consider.
“Yep, that sounds like Ho Chi Minh, alright – you should come to the Casino, try your luck there…?”
Yeah, the frustrating thing about this supposed ‘Derek’ – who had supposedly taken a Vietnamese wife some years earlier, whom had supposedly blessed him with a brood of Vietnamese children – was that, once I got past all his perceived negative points (including that ghastly Canadian accent, ay), he was actually quite a likeable bloke.
In fact, I had further drinks with ‘Derek’, indeed, ‘Derek’ introduced me to his (stunning) wife and their four (gorgeous) Canadian-Vietnamese children; so now my paranoid theory about Derek being Gary was collapsing around me and I felt as though I was going to drown amid the rubble of its destruction…
Skip to the present. I am currently aware that the man named Gary Cooper, the 50+-year-old man who was evidently more appealing to the 26-year-old Lin Aug than I was, operates a menswear chain out of the US (his large fiscal package undoubtedly the reason Lin’s Viet father – who was in fact several months younger than Gary himself – gave them his apparent blessing to wed), and appears to make frequent trips to and around the Asian continent (go ahead, I did, find the creep on Facebook, send him an ‘embarrassed’ emoji, if you like); then Derek, the man I met out front of the Yen Trang while my brain was spinning from being perpetually bludgeoned with buttloads of duplicity then further cudgelled with, and finally asphyxiated in, the leftover bucketfuls of shit, reportedly, worked Casino surveillance and, despite my initial assessments, probably deserved every iota of happiness that his life, and wife, in Ho Chi Minh City was affording him.
…I recall seeing Stu, some days later, looking a veritable picture of health, bounding down the hotel steps, presumably on the way to his interview, departing from our lives without so much as a wave, a hug, or kiss, or even a peck on the cheek and a gentle ‘I love you’; I wondered if he’d been able to get out of bed on time or if Lieu had had to deliver him his wakeup call.
No question, I was ready to go home (although in fairness, I recall thinking that very thing by the end of week one). I was a wreck but the worst thing, I felt as though Vietnam had beaten me again.
Mind you, what I did not realise is that the glorious Vy (current tour, first night) was set to reappear and even Mai (2017 and 18 tours), would make a strange kind of, belated, if you like, final effort for me (which, now I hear myself say it, sounds more bizarre than the moment itself).
Only a few days to go and, where I feel as though things are naturally, finally, winding down for a steady transition to the end, my God, if I only knew the shitstorm that was brewing over the Vietnam horizon.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Ana Spected
Photography by D Lights