He had gone down a tunnel and disappeared.
His name was Ron Ryan and he had been with the First Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.
They blew up the tunnel but they never found him. Not a whiff, not a whisker.
She left Vung Tau, an old colonial resort with its beaches, with its ramshackle Grand Hotel along the esplanade, open to smooth easterly breezes coming in off the South China Sea.
Vung Tau was close to the Australian lines, and it was alive with Australian soldiers coming in, getting drunk, getting laid, carousing and grumbling and going away again. She’d taken a room in Vung Tau to be near to Ron.
Ron and his best mate, Johnno.
Back in Saigon, she moved into a place down by the river, the Royale. It was where the British journalists went, those who were too cheap or too adventurous for the Majestic. The Royale was a dump.
Before Ron vanished, she’d been sending home pieces on the wire service, she’d been filing regularly. There was, at this time, much talk of an expanded role for the Australian troops, of moving them out of Phuoc Tuy province into other areas of the war. Everyone knew the Americans had parked the Aussies in Phuoc Tuy because they believed the area to be insignificant—one of their many miscalculations.
All this was her material, and there were stories for the taking.
But after Ron died she no longer made enquiries. She stopped working.
Ron’s death had made plain that this was no business of hers, that nothing she could write would ever be honest, would ever make sense of the war, either to herself or to others.
She was afraid that she had lost her grip on the truth.
When they could postpone it no longer, when it came time for Ron to push off—his phrase—he would take a shower. She would get out his shirt, which during his brief time with her had been washed and ironed by an expert, a Vietnamese.
She’d press her nose into the cotton, listening to the noise of the shower. As long as she could hear the water running, it was still happening, he was still with her. In the freshness of the cotton, she searched for and found his smell.
Then he finished; he turned off the taps. It was beginning to be over.
She listened to him stepping out of the shower. Sometimes he hummed a tune at this point, but mostly not.
Then he started getting dressed, putting on his clothes. She would insist upon buttoning up his shirt for him. Ron would adjust it, moving away from her a little.
Taking his body away from her, back to the war.
But now she could not remember how Ron’s shirt had felt in her fingers. When she’d buttoned it up for him, before he moved away from her, before he left her. She could not recall the exact texture of the cotton, laundered and pressed, how it had felt between her fingers.
There had been no such thing as ordinary time, dull, in-between time. Every time was a last time, that was the whole point.
So how could she have forgotten?
Because she was not working she was going broke.
The Corsican who ran the Royale divined something of her situation and gave her one of the cheapest rooms at the back, overlooking the rear courtyard.
One morning at breakfast she was seated near the wrought-iron grille that separated the dining room from the staff area and she overheard the Corsican murmuring in French to the Vietnamese cook.
‘The Australian girl’—he said in French—‘the poor little Australian girl. She has lost a friend of the heart.’
Covertly, both cook and Corsican sent her tender glances.
The cook has problems of his own. His children—or at least children for whom he was now permanently responsible—roamed the staff area behind the iron grille-work. His entire village, it seemed, had come to live in the back courtyard of the hotel.
The room was very cheap.
Deirdre’s days take on the shape of someone out of work.
She waits until the rain has stopped, in mid-afternoon. Then she walks up to the Caravelle, along the crowded street, which is dense with the basic smell of Saigon: rotting garbage, exhaust and something else, a smell like wet cardboard; above that, and mixing with it, jasmine and gardenia, a surprising, uneasy sweetness.
The road itself seethes with old taxis, cyclos, motorcycles, bicycles, mini-buses with Lambretta engines, large army trucks, smaller fruit and vegetable trucks, police jeeps in bottle green and white. A few large American cars. And all of them propelled, it seems, by the honking of horns and the ringing of bells.
Deirdre walks along the footpath, dodging the Honda scooters that bump up in front of her at intersections. She walks beside the street stalls, which are selling cigarettes, American chewing gum, Vietnamese sweets and—strangely, it seems to her—ampoules of sterilized water. On the walls are signs in Vietnamese, in red and white. They are government signs, and they are saying something about the war, she doesn’t know what.
She picks her way around the rolls of barbed wire (to be pulled across the street at curfew), enjoying the moving crowds: women carrying shoulder poles with baskets at either end; slim young ARVN in their green and brown uniforms, laughing in groups or looking bored; children just being let out of school, who in their open sandals run down the shallow steps and burst out into the street behind a blaze of bougainvillea.
Often you see two girls on one bicycle.
‘Just like us as kids,’ she wrote. ‘I thought of you doubling me.’
Back in Kelly’s Creek I’d had a bicycle and she had not. I would stand and pedal and she would sit on the seat behind me, her legs dangling. We got about the countryside, Deirdre and I.
Sometimes I’d let her pedal, and I would swing my legs in the rush of air.
The letters she wrote to me described her room and the courtyard. She did not often mention the death of Ron Ryan. She wrote instead about Ron’s best mate, Johnno, who’d dropped his marbles. Johnno, who had been put under psychiatric observation, then declared fit and returned to his unit.
They’d gone about as a threesome, Ron and Deirdre and Johnno, seeking out the bars along the beachfront, ending up at the Grand, coming back to Deirdre’s hotel room, playing cards and drinking Fosters until Johnno said he reckoned he’d better push off and leave them to it. All three of them saying goodnight in a casual way that denied what each of them knew. Which was that Johnno would have taken Ron’s place. (Gladly, gladly.)
It was unintentional and unacted upon and nobody was to blame.
Did she want Johnno? If it weren’t for Ron? Johnno, who wouldn’t look her in the eyes, who instead glanced over her shoulder, then swiftly down at her breasts.
My two suitors. That’s what she said to me in letters, but not out loud to them. They wouldn’t have liked it.
They were both coming down to Vungers, Ron and Johnno.
With her record player blaring, Deirdre took a shower, then slipped into her newest miniskirt, the green one she’d had specially made out of real linen that smelled so good. She pushed her sunglasses up on her hair like an aviatrix.
Easy to summon up the music: Vivaldi, thumping briskly away.
I see her, stepping out into the steaming late afternoon.
Fair shining hair. Her face sunburned.
Emerald green linen shift.
Legs that emerge at mid-thigh.
Deirdre walks through the streets with Ron on one side and Johnno on the other, making for the beach—the beach was the focal point, the destination to be reached—and knows she is desired.
Together they gave her this, Ron and Johnno. The one who had her and the other who didn’t.
There was more to it than that. More than being desired,
In those early days in Vietnam, when she was first down in Vungers, she’d wake at daybreak and as the room righted itself she’d realize where she was, unable to believe her good fortune. She’d actually made it; after this she wasn’t ever going to be stuck out in Woop Woop reporting on pasture protection board meetings. Not now.
She was here, and she was sending stories home by Telex, out across the South China Sea.
And she wasn’t even a C-grade journalist yet, just someone with an honours degree in history who knows a bloke who knows a bloke who toils in the Australian embassy offices, in a corner suite of the Caravelle, right in the heart of Saigon.
It was far out, as the Americans said. It was too freaking much.
Deirdre paid attention to the banter that flowed easily between the two men, Johnno and Ron. They had a ritual of complaints, celebrated slowly, over cold beer. On such occasions they spoke with one voice,
‘You know what happened at Bien Hoa, don’t you?’ Ron would say, addressing Deirdre simply as a formality, to get things going.
As regular army, they’d been in Bien Hoa with the first battalion, Johnno and Ron. They’d had to work with the Yanks, who, to be quite frank, couldn’t go two rounds with a revolving door.
Within three hundred feet of the Airborne perimeter at Bien Hoa, the Aussie patrol had come across a permanent VC camp,
‘Out in the bush they hear a monkey fart and call in gunships to flatten the joint. Thousands of dollars up in smoke. Puff! Matter of minutes.’
‘Scares the monkey shitless but.’
‘Wastage on an epic scale, mate. Bloody Roman Empire.’
‘Decline and fall of.’
The narrative at this point reached a familiar resting place. Ron shook his head, Johnno sighed, and both emptied their glasses. ‘Things looked up when the ponies down in Canberra—’
‘Those idle mongrels.’
‘—finally extracted the digit and gave the go-ahead for our own lines at the Dat.’
They moved on to another of their themes: the superiority of the Australian lines.
‘The tents, mate.’
The Aussie tents were on wooden platforms up out of the wet, but naturally those Yanks preferred to flail about in the mud.
‘Mob of show ponies, waited on hand and foot. Fancy having the nogs in to do the lot.’ Vietnamese did not work at the Australian lines; the army maintained the place themselves.
‘Clueless Yank bastard doesn’t even have the gumption to roll down his shirt sleeves when it gets dark.’
‘Blind Freddy’d know better than that.’
‘Begging every passing mozzie to do the honours. Down on his knees, begging them please.’
Deirdre’s two uncles had come back from the jungles of New Guinea. They’d be fine one day, and the next, groggy and sweating, swimming in fever. Once malaria got into your system, it was there to stay.
‘He’s got that Hoover Dam tucked away behind his ears, reckon. Secret weapon of the Pentagon.’
She stopped listening.
What she wanted was what she wasn’t meant to hear. She came quietly back from the toilet, stood behind a bamboo screen, eavesdropped.
They’d skinned the fucking zipperhead cunts, shipped them right back to Uncle Ho.
She sat down in a hurry.
‘What’s been keeping you?’ Ron asked, his face tightening.
She didn’t answer. Put her middle finger into a drop of beer on the table, played with it, made a shape.
Fucking zipperhead cunts. Cunts: what kind of a word was that?
‘Couldn’t expect those dumb pricks to know sweet F.A. about the jungle, now could you? Don’t have a square yard of their own jungle over there, now do they, mate?’
‘A menace to themselves, not to mention their gallant allies.’
‘With friends like that.’
‘Don’t even know when to keep their big mouths shut.’
‘Lacking in rudimentary nous. I’d call that rudimentary, mate, wouldn’t you?’
‘Rudimentary, my dear chap.’
‘You can hear them all the way to Hanoi. Talking and smoking and tuning in their transistor radios to hear the hit parade.’
‘Phoning home to mother.’
‘Sticking out like a dog’s balls.’
‘Victor Charles has never laid eyes on a bigger bunch of drongos in his entire life.’
‘Sits up there like Jacky, snug in his hidey-hole.’
‘Charley sits up like Jacky?’queried Deirdre, to keep herself amused.
‘Mate,’ Ron said to her, looking pained. ‘Mate.’
But she was happy, drinking with them in an open bar by the beach, waiting for the sea breezes and watching the sun go down.
They were gorgeous to look at: strong and tanned and whole and handsome. And as they got more and more beer into them, they’d falter in their repartee and begin to look at her with a startled, hungry appreciation.
Ron, down from the Dat by himself, sat with his face to the window and told her Johnno was having a spot of bother. Taking a small holiday at the funny farm, he reluctantly admitted.
‘Where’s this funny farm?’ she ventured.
‘At Bien Hoa,’ he replied with contempt ‘Bien Bloody Hoa.’
What had Johnno done?
‘We were out on patrol. In the Long Hais.’ That was all Ron was going to give.
She was aware of the tightly guarded spaces underneath the words.
Deirdre went to visit Johnno. They were keeping him in a pre-fib in a dreary corner of the main base medical quarters.
They could do better than this, she thought, for men who were having such problems. You’d think they could come up with a colonial villa, stone walls and tiled floors and cool, vine-covered verandas. Why they hadn’t sent Johnno to the regiment’s own field hospital in Vung Tau, she didn’t know. (Inside her head she could hear Johnno fooling around, hear him, much too clearly, claiming they didn’t have a rubber room big enough at the field hospital.)
When Johnno came to meet her on the stifling porch, he was wearing only his boots, long khaki socks, and a pair of American boxer shorts.
They sat on steel chairs, facing each other. Perhaps the strange baggy underpants were the coolest thing he could find. Or maybe he’d lost his clothes in a card game, that’d be more like it.
She was going to make a joke about it when he grabbed her hand (he’d never taken her hand before) and began an urgent, talkative whispering. ‘You shouldn’t worry yourself,’ he said. ‘No need to get upset. The plans are well in hand.’
‘What plans?’ she asked, seeing the weariness around his eyes. He glanced around to make sure nobody was listening.
‘For the boat, of course,’ he confided. Inside the boxer shorts, he was becoming hugely erect. She made herself look away.
‘Only the finest materials. The bones of a bird.’ He took his hand away from hers, made a round, smooth shape in the air.
‘You’re making a boat out of bird bones?’
‘Bones are hollow inside,’ he said. ‘Light and tough and waterproof, very easy to steer. That’s the ticket.’
‘Who are you taking with you?’ she asked. ‘Who’s in your band of happy rowers?’
He sat with his hands joined, legs apart, considering. ‘Ron,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t leave without Ron.’
‘Just you and Ron?’
‘Lofty and the Ferret,’ he said. Two names she recognized. ‘Snow and Tiger Lyons too, I reckon.’
‘What about me?’ she asked, unable to resist. ‘Am I coming too?’ Now he was busy lighting a cigarette, couldn’t be hurried.
‘Of course, Sunshine,’ he said, exhaling, relaxing. ‘I thought you already knew that.’
‘Where are we taking the boat?’ she asked.
‘Where the hell do you think?’ he asked, his patience at an end. From one of his socks he pulled out a small sweat-stained Spirax binder, flipped it open, handed it to her.
There was a drawing, in ball-point pen, of what looked like an egg with a halo above it. But it wasn’t an egg; there were faces inside. It hung in the sky in front of some hills. It had long bright red legs all around it, so that it walked upon the earth.
He said ‘Pretty good likeness, I reckon.’
(So childish it was embarrassing. What was she doing hanging around with a man who drew like this?)
‘Who are they?’ she asked, pointing to the faces in the egg.
‘From hell,’ he said, pointing to the sky.
‘No, Johnno,’ she said. ‘Heaven’s up that way. Hell is down below.’
‘That’s what they say,’ he whispered, nervously. ‘It’s just a furphy.’
‘Let me get this straight,’ she said. ‘You’re building the boat to get away from these creatures that are coming down from hell.’
‘Ssshh,’ he said. ‘They might hear you.’ Had he turned into a six-year-old?
He reached for her hand again. Took it and placed it on his penis. Held it there.
‘Isn’t there somewhere we can go?’ Deirdre asked. Because clearly that was what he wanted.
The shrink, as it turned out, was a white-coated woman. Thick brown hair cut very short, good skin. I bet they call her Spike, Deirdre decided.
The shrink had a rapid, authoritative voice and what sounded like President Kennedy’s accent. It had begun to rain; it was pouring down in tropical buckets but the shrink had no trouble competing with the din on the roof.
‘In what capacity are you visiting Corporal John McCusker?’ she asked, looking Deirdre up and down.
Which way was she going to get more out of her?
‘Professional,’ Deirdre answered, and saw Spike brighten. She’d made the right guess. Good.
‘A routine case of traumatic neurosis,’ the shrink said briskly, ‘combat stress. You get it in every army, and every war invents a new term for it. Initially he didn’t talk at all, even though the physical injuries he had sustained were minor. When I first examined him he was tremulous.’
Deirdre almost liked her for ‘tremulous’. (A young wallaby caught in the car lights, unable to move.)
‘A borderline case. Under observation and responding well. He’ll be back with his unit in no time.’
‘What do you make of that drawing of his?’ Deirdre asked.
The shrink actually put back her head and laughed in pleasure.
‘Oh,’ she said, recovering herself, ‘sorry if l startled you. You don’t usually see something so straightforward. It’s a gunship, quite literally. From a nearby mountain he saw gunships. In a firefight, you understand. Steady fire from the ground, AK-57s, tracer rounds, and from the gunship itself, three mini-Gatling guns.’
What exactly were mini-Gatling guns? The shrink seemed to know.
‘We’re talking eight thousand rounds a minute here. You’d have so much firepower reaching the ground that it would look solid, exactly like legs reaching down. That’s what they say; I haven’t seen it myself.’
Christ, even the shrink rejoices in materiel. No doubt her boyfriend’s been and seen. We’re talking a little pillow-talk about firepower here.
‘But it’s interesting,’ she went on. And now she’s sitting back in her chair, she’s warmed up, she’s enjoying herself.
The Australian command’, she said, ‘does not favour diagnoses of character or behaviour disorder. Many of them have been professional soldiers for fifteen years or more. They’ve seen service in Korea and Malaya.’
I already knew that, Deirdre notes. Thanks for the history lesson.
‘The striving for perfection is very noticeable throughout the whole regiment; individuals very much need to believe that they’re the best, the most dedicated, the most experienced jungle fighters.’
She’s cooking up a paper on this, you could bet your sweet life on it.
‘Precisely because the regiment’s presence is insignificant overall, the unit ends up fighting a private war. No way they could affect the outcome, and this makes their participation purely symbolic. Hence the need to reduce it to personal terms, to bring it down to a single unit versus the enemy.’
With this verdict, the shrink treats Deirdre to a big smile.
Perfect, even teeth, pearly white.
Ron refused to discuss what happened to Johnno. Deirdre was not to ask, that was understood.
But later, when she was living in the room at the Royale, she thought about Johnno. Corporal John McCusker, the perfectionist, whose presence was insignificant overall and purely symbolic. Who had so much wanted her to touch him. Whose army boot had come down in the wrong place, one afternoon in the rubber.
On his first patrol after he’d been discharged.
She found it easier, she said, to think about Johnno than about Ron.
During this period her letters came thick and frequent. She described so much that what I have-what I am drawing upon now-is like a photograph, reassuring in its authority of detail.
The room at the Royale, she wrote, had rusty green shutters on the windows. There was a fan, with its electrical wires tied in place with a bit of string. You could close the shutters and run the fan, but it was noisy and stirred up the dirt in the corners of the room.
She had a wooden bed, a table, a chair and a big double wardrobe. Above the bed, a discoloured yellow canopy of mosquito netting, complete with holes.
In some other era the room had been painted cream. The outside wall now had quirky brown strains where rain had leaked down from the roof. There were lizards, insects and cockroaches. In the shower stall at the end of the hall, spiders held command of the drains.
None of these creatures bothered her; they reminded her of home.
The lizards were plump, putty-coloured, soundless.
In the mornings, after breakfast and before she goes out, Deirdre sits at the window and watches the people in the back courtyard: the women in patched black pants and old blue or white cotton shirts held together with safety pins. The old men stationary on their haunches. The young children running around with shirts but no bottoms, with red stains of mercurochrome over grazes.
They live in a series of sheds along the courtyard wall.
A tap over a cement drain is the centre of domestic activity. The tap, which drips constantly, is used for all washing. Around the tap, the women squat or sit on low wooden stools, chopping vegetables or fish with a sharp knife.
A small boy is dragging an infant in a big saucepan through the mud near the tap. He has a bit of string attached to the saucepan with which he pulls the little one along. At first she assumes it’s just a game, but then she sees that the toddler has damaged legs and does not toddle.
By the back wall, amid carts and boxes and a wire hutch where the chooks are kept at night, a few scraggy hibiscus bushes grow. On those bushes, washing is hung out to dry.
By day the chooks have the run of the yard, where they search for food, often climbing on the shed roofs.
One of the boys (was he twelve or eight, she wondered-hard to say, he looked so very young) is mending a bicycle inner tube. Carefully, he places it in a basin of water. The old men on their haunches advise and spit.
Once in a while all activity in the courtyard comes to an excited halt. There is much talking and gathering around. Even the chooks stop scratching and crane their necks.
The cook’s son has arrived on a motorized trishaw.
She avoided, if at all possible, being there in the early evening. The yellow light of the kerosene lamps, and the smell of braziers-the bitter smell of the fire, followed by the sharp smells of cooking-set up an aching inside her.
It was a small village out there in the courtyard. Families, living together, caring for one another, having rows, getting by somehow.
In these evenings she would write to me about how, at Vung Tau, she had been happier than anyone had a right to be.
Whoever said anything about rights, I’d chide in my letter to her by return post. We’re not talking about rights, surely; we’re talking about gifts.
Happy with Ron. Johnno standing to one side, wanting her too.
She wrote to me about how she longed for the rhythm of waiting, the rhythm of Vung Tau. Waiting for Ron (and Johnno) to come down from Nui Oat, counting the days off on the calendar, arranging her hair in front of the mirror, doing her nails, putting on clean sheets, standing by the long French windows for a smell of the sea. And afterwards, in the utter emptiness of the room, beginning-beginning within the space of a few hours-to wait again. Surely that. too, had been a kind of happiness? You couldn’t call it loss.
At the Caravelle in Saigon Deirdre sits in a high white banquette in the Jules and Jim, drinking a citron presse. She stares at the strips of brown paper on the windows. She’s smoking Capstans, slowly, one cigarette after another. She is waiting for the evening to come round.
To pass the time, she’s daydreaming about articles she knows she’ll never write. One about what the Aussies said of General Westmoreland. The top Yank general was all tight-jawed, spicky-span, creases in his trousers, stripes and gongs hanging off his ironed shirt. But get up close, take a look into those eyes behind their excessive camouflage of eyebrows. Nobody home.
To round the article out, she’d include descriptions of the elaborate jokey plans the Aussie pilots had to bomb Westmoreland’s Saigon HQ. Maybe she’d send that one home to the Quadrant hawks.
Another piece, this for the Women’s Weekly and the brave wives, would be about the steam-and-cream parlours, ten bucks a job. Ron had told her. He’d a wife, had Ron. The kind of man, solid and decisive in his truths, who could never forget he had a wife.
Could never let you forget it, either.
Deirdre lights up one more Capstan, orders another citron presse, drinks to all those women whose men were taken, married. 1£ you were the bloody wife, by now you’d have a nice big pile of condolences from the parish priest, from the rellies, from the nuns at the kids’ school, from the tennis club. A hand-signed letter from your MP, pricey stationery even though a little late. Everyone down on their knees praying for the new widow. Makes you want to throw up.
About men, she develops her own generalizations and prejudices. She won’t have anything to do with the Aussies. Not since Ron and Johnno. She’s afraid she will bring them bad luck. But she sits in the Jules and Jim and talks with every Aussie soldier she can find. She leans forward, asks all sorts of questions.
Without a word being said, by some kind of bush telegraph, she knows that they know she’s lost one of them, she’s off limits.
She stays right away from the civil engineers, those who are building the airfields, the roads, the bridges, making a mint. These men are older, thicker, Americans mostly. They booze in a deliberate way that has a mean, focused energy to it.
She also stays away from the journalists, British and American. The British journos drink themselves into a stupor so that the sex won’t have to count one way or the other. And they understand too much about her. They know she has lost someone, an Australian soldier. What is she doing living at the Royale, and in one of the back rooms? The Americans aren’t sure if she’s a real journalist or not. If she is, she’s competition. If she isn’t, she’s a bit flaky, isn’t she? Whose chick is she, exactly? If she doesn’t belong to anyone, why hasn’t she gone home?
She prefers the youthful Americans, the soldiers. Likes their anxious, polite faces. They are grateful, say please and thank you before they pass out.
By seven o’clock she’s found herself an American soldier for the night. She recommends a good French restaurant, the Guillaume Tell. She suggests he order the crepes suzettes (seems about his speed).
His name is Philip, he tells her. He comes from South Bend, Indiana.
She is amused at the way Americans recite the town and state, as if you were about to dash off a letter. He begins to tell her about himself, but she takes his wrist and says, no, no, she doesn’t want to know.
Uneasily, he laughs. Then he drinks a great deal of Algerian wine and feels much better.
In a good mood, they go down to the Majestic in a trishaw, to dance and drink on the sixth floor. She can tell that he doesn’t enjoy the Vietnamese singing. It’s too high and fast for him, too nasal and sweet. He’s much happier when they dance to rock-‘n’-roll music from the States.
At the end of the evening the band plays ‘Moon River’. He holds her close and she watches him looking over her shoulder to the windows, out to the Mekong. There are searchlights on the far shore.
Over there, the war is going on.
She reaches down and touches him briefly, right on the dance floor. She hears his indrawn breath, he’s shocked a little, he’s a polite boy, he isn’t used to this. But he likes it, oh yes, he likes it.
They find a room somewhere, quickly now, before curfew. He wants to stop to buy her a ceramic elephant at a street stall, but she doesn’t let him.
She does not take him back to the room at the Royale; she takes nobody there.
In the hotel room he rents for the night, she brings out of her bag a squat candle, which she puts by the bed, switches off all the lights. He is nonplussed by this, but definitely turned on. (Maybe she’s really some kind of weird pro? Doesn’t matter, he’s got tons of money.)
Her tongue moves down his belly and she takes him into her mouth, listening for his little groans of pleasure. These are the moments she loves best, when the man-really, it doesn’t matter who he is, she thinks, it’s supposed to but sometimes it doesn’t-becomes solemn and tender, finally permitting himself to admit to his enormous longing: he wants to be caressed, petted, comforted, now, more, more. His lips tighten, he calls her his baby; she licks his ears, her tongue poking and probing. Willingly, he giggles. He Sighs, whispers, reaches for her. She pushes him back down to stroke, in turn, the insides of his upper arms which, despite the sun, despite the war, despite the fact he is a soldier, are so soft and pale you can see their vulnerable network of veins.
Love me, he pleads. Please, love me.
She gets on top of him, and watches his face, highly coloured and earnestly full of sex. She moves on him until she sees his gaze turn inward, so that she, too, is alone.
Afterwards, he lies with his head between her breasts. This is a dangerous time. This is when they start to cry. To avoid such things, she has him roll on his tummy and gives him a back rub. He goes off to sleep. Sweetly, like a baby.
In the morning it’s different.
He’s had a shower and a shave. He sits in front of her, in his white underpants, putting on his socks. Everything about him, in the middle of a war, is extremely clean and tidy.
Tell me about your parents: she asks, deliberately. ‘What are your parents like?’
He looks as if he were trying to swallow a stone.
When it’s morning in Vietnam, it’s evening in the USA. Mom is in the scrubbed kitchen, making a pumpkin pie. Dad sits in his easy chair in front of the TV, which is flickering in shades of grey. He is watching the news about Vietnam, where their son is. Their son, Philip Wayne. Why, oh why does Mom have to bang around during the news?
Mom and Dad, South Bend, Indiana.
It is simply not credible: them there and him here.
Deirdre feels something hard inside herself, something hungry, being fed.
He’s more relaxed when she asks him what he does. ‘Cobras,’ he answers. This means that he does something on helicopter gunships that bristle with machine guns, rockets, grenades. A helicopter gunship was what Johnno had drawn, the faces behind the cone-shaped perspex, the firepower reaching down, thousands of rounds per minute.
The Yank says it again: ‘Cobras.’ He holds the word solidly. He will be relieved to get back.
‘What do you do on the Cobras?’ she persists.
‘I’m a gunner,’ he says.
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘What else would one do on a gunship.’
He considers this to be a question.
‘You could fly the thing,’ he suggests.
‘Quite,’ she says.
He smiles at her, politely.
In a matter of hours, she thinks, he will be back on the job: escort reconnaissance, or some other bland, deceitful term.
They go down to breakfast under the banyan tree.
She orders the small sharp strawberries that yesterday were flown down from Dalal. They fill the back of her throat.
He does not ask if he can see her next time, and she does not see him on the streets again.
She goes back to her room and the courtyard.
Beside the sheds there is an even smaller shed, used for storage. One morning there are women in and out of that shed on a regular basis, lifting iron bedsteads.
A young man rides into the courtyard and they help him load an ancient bed frame onto the bike. So that he can balance it, it has to be tied to him, then to the back of his bike. He rides off, holding himself stiff.
They improve upon it. One short bamboo pole is tied to the handlebars, sticking out to one side, for steering. Another bamboo pole is tied to the bike itself, sticking up, to balance the load. With this, he can carry five or six bed frames at a time.
‘They could carry the entire world on a bicycle’ she told me.
The next day there is a bright blue plastic bucket by the shed door, and in the evening, inside the shed, sporadic bursts of Iaughter.
‘I now have twenty-six Australian dollars left’ she wrote.
She did not write about coming home.
Instead, she described the way they cooked, in that courtyard. How they twisted the chook’s neck, slit its throat, watched the blood drain into a plastic bucket. Legs, feet, head, and neck went into the water for boiling.
They boiled and ate the coagulated blood as well.
‘Nothing is wasted here,’ she said. She added ‘I have begun smoking Vietnamese cigarettes. They are menthol, made from American tobacco, and come in packs of fifty. In piastres they cost the equivalent of twenty Australian cents.’
There was, in the lounge of the Royale, a bookcase full of the discarded English books the journos read on the long trip out from London: thrillers by Ian Fleming and Hammond Innes, Catch 22 and five copies of Homage to Catalonia.
She takes a copy of Homage to Catalonia up to her room, where she puts it on the table, next to her talcum powder. In the late mornings she opens the pages of this book.
POUM. To rhyme with room. Under the intense Spanish sky, the tall Englishman breathes deeply, looks around. He’s in love, this gangly articulate lad with blue eyes and big ears. He’s in love with a dream, a serious, generous, capacious dream.
But he discovers he has come too late.
He writes so well. Just looking at the words is soothing; he’s so clear and real. If she could look at such words for the rest of her life, she tells herself, she would be truly happy.
Sometimes, when she is reading Orwell, she reaches down and touches herself, makes herself come.
After that, if she is ready, she might think about Ron.
She is sitting in the train station at North Sydney. on one of those massive, sturdy wooden benches designed to withstand generations of schoolchildren. This is an underground station. On the far wall trickles of water are seeping down the soft sandstone cliffs. The city-bound train is about to arrive; there is a sour rush of air. She knows that when the train stops, when the doors open, he will be there.
She will have to look at him.
Or Ron is coming up the stairs at Town Hall station. Near Woolworths. He is wearing his army uniform, starched and pressed as if he’s going on parade. This time she is invisible above the dense crowds on George Street. The people on the street make way for Ron, smiling at the handsome, manly soldier.
Ron glances up and recognizes her, then looks away, briefly embarrassed.
He’s relieved she’s the one who’s dead.
Ron went down into the tunnel and never came back.
When they blew the tunnel, later, they found Lofty with his throat cut. But they never found Ron.
They got leave on Sundays, the young Aussie soldiers at Nui Oat. In the morning they came down by bus to Vung Tau and spent their time hurriedly having sex and drinking, then roaming along the waterfront, still thirsty for something, like a fight.
By mid-afternoon they had to be on the bus again, going back to their lines in the rubber plantation.
Deirdre and Ron stood at the window of her room, looking out. She was wearing her happy coat, the new one he’d bought her with the white chrysanthemums on it. They’d been in bed most of the morning. He didn’t have to be back until Tuesday. Heaps of time yet. Together they watched them, the youngsters doing their 365 days. They moved in groups along the street, down to the beach, shouting, kicking at things, throwing their arms around one another with nervy, uncertain bravado. (Ron was older, more experienced, he’d been in the regular army for over a decade.)
She turned away from the window, went with Ron back to bed. And this time was transformed into one of those female figures at the front of a boat, a boat that glowed with the whiteness of bones. It was sailing away in full wind, crossing the line of the equator, making for the edge of the world, racing with fine, flying energy over and down to their own country.
And they came at last to some deserted island off the north coast of Queensland. Just the three of them there, at peace. She and Ron and Ron’s best mate, Johnno.
She would remember how, just before she’d fallen down upon him, washed up on that quiet beach, Ron removed his hands from her body. Perturbed by her vehemence.
‘You always kick up such a racket’ he’d grumbled. ‘Calling out my name. Do you know you do that?’
In Saigon she could save money by eating at the street stalls. If she skipped breakfast and had noodle soup mid-morning, she could get through until night-time, when she could usually count on having somebody buy her dinner.
It was at a street stall that she met Sandy.
She already knew him slightly. His name was Sanderson and his hair was thin and fair. Most of the time he wore a floppy white hat, as if about to play a game of cricket.
He was tall and he stooped a little, overwhelmed by his height. She wondered if this stoop had become more pronounced since his arrival in Vietnam and decided that it had.
Sandy was a Kiwi who had become a Saigon regular. He had his own flat because, it was rumoured, he was having an affair with the wife of a high-ranking US intelligence officer.
They sat at a small wooden table on the street, and Sandy look off his hat, rode back in his chair, and leaned his head against the trunk of the tree.
The women at the stall appeared hugely amused to have two big white customers at the same time. Deirdre had soup. Sandy had a rice dish with buffalo meat, with lots of nuoc mam, fish sauce. Sandy attempted to order in Vietnamese (much laughter).
He knew about Ron, he knew that she was in the back room at the Royale, he knew she wasn’t working any longer.
‘I can see there are no secrets in Saigon,’ she said.
‘I think perhaps there are,’ he said, but gently, without a trace of argument.
She noticed how soft his hair looked against the tough bark of the tamarind. He wore his hair long, as everyone was beginning to; over the last year hair had turned into a virtue.
‘What are you doing these days?’
‘Nothing much,’ she replied.
‘Do you ever think’, he said neutrally, ‘of packing it in?’
‘I don’t want to go home,’ she said promptly. ‘I can’t,’ she added, more weakly.
‘No,’ he said, as if they shared some understanding. ‘No, of course not.’
She was silent.
‘Coffee?’ he asked. ‘Coffee should always be followed by a glass of Chinese.’ There was already a pot of Chinese tea on the table and two glasses.
The woman who was preparing coffee took the water from a tap on the street and began to boil it on a primus.
While they were watching the primus, a bus with chicken wire on it went by, slow and close. It was carrying American soldiers. She could tell from their faces that they were just arriving. They gawked at her and Sandy.
She felt proud to be out here on the street, on the side of knowing.
She looked over at Sandy and her face must have shown something of her thoughts, because he stretched his legs and laughed and took her hand for a moment.
Their coffee arrived. Sandy lifted up the small cup and drank carefully, like some large animal.
‘More light for the end of the tunnel,’ he said, gesturing his head towards the bus, which was now stopped at a checkpoint at the end of the block.
They sat at the table, drinking and sweating, and Sandy talked about how he’d been here for three years. ‘I love it here,’ he admitted. Then he talked at length about how some people are meant to live in the tropics. ‘You can be born somewhere completely different, but you know it as soon as you step off the plane. It’s a homecoming, a recognition of sorts.’
Sandy patted his long, thin hair with his hands, put his hat back on. Deirdre wondered if she looked as totally out of place here, on this Saigon street, as he did.
Before Sandy came to Saigon he’d been in the other big journo places: Algeria, Indonesia, Israel.
The coffee was making him loquacious. His face was going bright pink in the heat.
‘The very first day I got off the plane, by the time I saw the goats nibbling at the grass on the road just outside Tan Son Nhut, I knew it.’
I’ll tell him about Ron, Deirdre thought. Because he knows already.
Before Ron goes down the tunnel he takes off his watch.
It’s forty minutes since Lofty went down. He hasn’t come hack up. Ron’s in charge; he says he’s the one who should go find Lofty.
They are in a small group, Ron and his mates. In their sweat-drenched uniforms, out there in the midday heat. Surrounded by bush that has become too dense, too quiet. They are speaking very softly, aware of their words falling into the listening silence.
Ron’s mates are advising against it.
He’s too big, it’s a dumb idea. The Ferret wants to go instead. Him and Lofty, they were the ones who sniffed out the tunnels.
She can see Ron insisting. He’s the sergeant.
He takes off his watch and gives it to the Ferret.
Someone sends the watch home later. To his wife.
They began to meet regularly, Sandy and Deirdre, at one of the street stalls. They would have lunch together and talk. She found him very easy to talk to.
After about four weeks of this he asked her if she’d move in with him.
‘Come and stay with me in perfect safety,’ he offered. It was partly a joke; this was what the local advertisements always said: at this bar/hotel, you can drink/stay in perfect safety.
She looked down at the wooden table, at the cheap little pot of Chinese tea.
‘Are you going to say yes?’ he wanted to know.
She did not ask about the wife of the high-ranking US intelligence officer.
‘Say you’ll say yes,’ he urged.
She had five Australian dollars left.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘Yes, I’ll say yes.’
She became Sandy’s girl.