Starting the saga of that bizarre love triangle thing I found myself in last year. You missed the preamble. Click on the ‘uncomfortabler’ category. I’m sure you know how the internet works so won’t say any more.
All I had to do was pick up my suitcase. A quick hop from Bangkok to Saigon for four days and then onwards to England’s dark Fucktober rain.
“Come crash at mine,” my friend Simon had said. “We’ve got a spare room.”
By ‘we’, Simon meant himself and his girlfriend Nhien. Simon was a late fortysomething English teacher who had left the UK a quarter of a century before as a protest against Thatcher’s hated Poll Tax.
The Poll Tax was a dreadful Tory wheeze to shift the burden of local government funding from those with huge houses to everyone with a pulse. He had refused, on principle, to pay it. “Funny thing is,” he would say, “As a Law graduate I was due for a job interview the same week with the same cunt I was gonna appear in front of in court. Fuck Britain- I don’t miss it at all.”
Nhien, about twenty years younger than Simon, was a devout Buddhist- or so she claimed. Evidence for this came in the form of frequent trips to the pagoda and the fact that the last time I had stayed with them, at a previous place, she had insisted on the live disposal of a rat who had been vandalising the house when Simon and my reaction to the rat infestation was simply “Kill the fucker.”
Instead she had driven it seven kilometres away and released it at a park, no doubt gaining much merit along the way.
They were now living in a fifteenth floor riverside apartment overlooking Saigon Zoo. At $500 a month he was considering it a rip-off. We drank beer and admired the view of the elephants and ostriches, the cranes and docks of the Dong Nai river in the distance.
At street level, pretty much all of Ho Chi Minh City looks very samey: countless narrow buildings with two rooms on each floor and a ground floor that is either a shop, cafe or both else it’s full of parked motorbikes. From up here, the place almost seemed pretty.
“Mate, we’ll got to the beef place and get smashed,” he said. “It’s just down the road.”
“Yeah, we’ve got the beef place, the chicken place. I never go to Pham Ngu Lao these days. It’s a complete dive. Quite depressing actually.”
“Yes, I guess it is.”
“I’ll introduce you to Martin and Paul- they’ll be at the beef place tonight. Nice guys, actually. English and Irish.”
“Ok, cool. Are they teachers too?”
“Yeah. They work at a language school nearby. Really friendly. I get pissed with them quite often. Let’s have a quick beer in the living room before we go.”
Nhien was watching TV. I tried to make small talk.
“Is it right that if you meet the Buddha on the road you should kill him?” I asked.
She looked puzzled.
“It’s a koan,” I said.
The beer was finished. It was time to go.
* * *
When we arrived at the beef place, two Westerners in their fifties- who were clearly Martin and Paul- greeted Simon and Nhien with a big “Hi!” and we joined them at the table.
“This is Rick,” Simon said introducing me. “He’s another English teacher. One of me best mates.”
“Yeah, hi,” I said, shaking hands. “Nice to meet you both.”
“So, where do you work?” asked Paul, a genial and chubby Irishman.
“Well, I’m not working anywhere at the moment. I’m about to go back to the UK for an interview for a job in Saudi.”
“Saudi?” exclaimed Martin.
“Good god,” said Paul, looking like he was about to cross himself.
“Yeah, the pay’s good I guess,” I said, “And I’ve been in Bangkok for four months not working so I’ve spent loads.”
“You should come back here mate,” said Simon. “Tonnes of pussy and there’s jobs everywhere.”
“I couldn’t imagine being in a place like Saudi,” said Martin. “It must be awful.”
“Well it’s not so bad,” I said. Then, remembering, I added, “Actually it is. It’s a terrible place really. God-forsaken.”
“Come back to Vietnam,” Simon insisted with a slight slur, swigging back his sixteenth Tiger Crystal. “Boozing and screwing- you know it makes sense.”
Paul chuckled and Martin nodded.
I thought for a brief moment, weighing up the certainty of quiet despair in the Gulf against the opportunities in Vietnam.
“Fuck it,” I said. “I’m gonna come live here.”
* * *
The next evening we were back at the beef place- Martin, Paul, Simon, Nhien and myself. I was pretty pissed up. Simon was slaughtered.
Despite leaving Liverpool twenty-five years before (“Fuck England,” he would say, “I never want to set foot in the place again”), he still retains an unmistakeable Scouse twang and, as I can put on a very convincing Liverpool accent myself, I sometimes take the piss in a bantering way- about the Ferry across the Mersey; about stolen car stereos; about being on the dole; that sort of thing. This can go on to the point of him threatening to “Kick yer fookin head in” while I go all Harry Enfield in repeatedly saying, “Ey, calm down, calm down.”
As you can imagine, the whole thing is hilarious and exactly the kind of thing that makes Britain great (even if it is mainly a shit hole).
After Martin and Paul had left for the night, we were jokingly squaring up for a fight when Simon suddenly flipped out. Perhaps it was the booze, perhaps he suddenly felt he needed to defend the people of Liverpool but we went in a heartbeat to him bellowing at me, “Fuck you! That’s my fucking culture!” He then rounded on his girlfriend. “Fuck you as well! Fuck the fucking pair of you!”
Instantly I could see he had crossed over into craziness. “Simon,” I said, “I was only having a laugh.”
This made a bad situation worse. “Fuck you, you fucking CUNT!” he snarled at me then pivoted to Nhien, finger pointing like an angry conductor’s baton, “And fuck you TOO, you fucking cunt!”
Nhien was bewildered. “Simon, what’s wrong?” she asked.
“You fucking know what’s wrong! You both fucking KNOW!”
I was perplexed. “No, I don’t know, Simon,” I said. “I’m confused.”
“Oh yeah, you fucking cunt. Confused about fucking my girlfriend were you?”
We both began to protest that no such thing had happened- the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.
Simon stood there getting redder and redder in the face, visibly quaking with rage. “You’ve got ten minutes to get your stuff and fuck off. I never want to see either of you again!” He stormed out.
Nhien and I sat in stunned silence.
What the fuck was that all about?” I said. “We haven’t fucked each other at all. Where did that come from?”
Just then my phone rang. It was Simon.
“Get your fucking suitcase. You’ve got ten minutes before I throw it off the fucking roof.”
I tried to say I needed fifteen minutes at least- I had run out of fags- but Simon hung up on me.
Within seconds, he was calling Nhien. She was trying to calm him down but it wasn’t working.
“Simon has finished with me, but that’s okay. I never want to be with him now after this,” she said.
Fuck,” I said.
“I am sorry but I need to share a hotel with you tonight. I have no money.”
“Okay. But where are we going to find a hotel? It’s past midnight.”
“I know a place near here. We will take my motorbike.”
it took five minutes to find a place and check in and I left Nhien in the room before hot-footing it back for the suitcase.
The door of Simon’s apartment was open. He stood in the middle of the room with incandescent hatred burning in his eyes.
“So, I’ll just get my stuff together,” I said.
“You’ve got five fucking minutes before I chin you,” he replied.
I was done in four minutes of frantic stuffing, spare bedroom door shut and bolted in case Simon decided to barge in. We didn’t speak or make eye contact as I wheeled the case away.