The Cast Iron Shore – An Extract
Suppose I were to die in a hotel room? Would it really be so bad? The maid would find me in the morning, my body still warm. There would be no pets to have gnawed my corpse as it lay undiscovered. The more I think of it, the more I pass my time collecting in my mind hotels where this death could take place. The Metropole is not one of them.
I sit out my days stinking in the heat, under the great chinoiserie chandeliers, iced like a grey wedding cake with dusty cobwebs. There are frequent power cuts and when there are, the fans grow torpid, then still. We are hot and sightless in the gloom for hours. The claustrophobia torments me.
Sometimes my cyclo man takes me for a drive through the night streets where the air is thick with the smell of pork fat. In the market women are weighing out puppies by the pound but still the dim red bulbs, like fat glow worms, that hardly light the coffee ladies’ little establishments, lend a kind of enchantment and I say ‘Stop! Let’s have coffee.’ I want to sit at one of the kitchen chairs they place on the street but my cyclo man says they are not for that. ‘Madame, c’est pour les messieurs.’
Hanoi is coloured ochre and burnt sienna and umber. The lovely houses that the French built lie in roofless ruins, a dozen families in each, save for an occasional restoration. You can go to the most elegant street in any city and find the most beautiful building and it will be the Italian embassy. So it is here.
After these futile excursions, I come back to my room, labour up the stairs (the lift has not worked since 1957) and find that a rat has eaten another paperback, right up to the glued spine. The wooden frame of the mosquito net has rotted and crumbled. The Soviet air conditioning unit has a fungus. It splutters out a little cold air, two or three inches around itself, as if designed to cool only its own mechanism. The ceiling rose flakes. The claw-foot cast iron bath tub has rusted. I have already cut my foot. They say Jane Fonda stayed here, indeed in my very room.
Outside skeletal men hang about as if just looking at us, feasting on our fatness, will nourish them. When I come back to Hanoi they will be dead. But I would rather be dead myself than return to this place.
Finally there is a permission and a release. I am driven along the pitted road to the airport and climb aboard a frail old Aleutian fighter, converted for passenger traffic. In the next seat is a compatriot, from an oil company. We chat about the ordeal behind us and, as the plane taxis, the one to come, in the air. He tells me that Vietnam stands at the end of the second-hand plane queue. When the aircraft won’t fly any more, the authorities will retrieve it from the mountain it crashes into and make another kind of machine from it. I know. In Hanoi I have seen a man in a market with a machine full of sticky blue ink to fill ball-point pen refills.
Our in-flight meal is: a baguette, flecked with black weevils; a slice of something grey inside; an orange square, hard and sweet, possibly congealed condensed milk; a bunch of lychees, each revealing when the horny skin is peeled away, its own colony of squirmy white maggots. Everyone else is eating theirs and ours will not be wasted in the end. I tell my fellow passenger of a croissant I bought in Hanoi which was quite delicious when I bit into it and I was even surprised and glad to find that it had a filling: a pain au chocolat I thought. But it wasn’t chocolate, it was a cockroach.
We are flying south a thousand miles, to Saigon. I feel much happier for all ports all the same – Liverpool, Belfast, Hamburg, Marseilles, Barcelona, Genoa, Naples, Palermo, Piraeus, Odessa, New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, Manila, Shanghai. I know ports well. Through them come an infection of new ideas, a virus of difference. The races contaminate each other with the sudden vitality of new blood groups, the DNA runs rampant. No one who was born in a port knows who they really are. The line of ancestry terminates at the pier head. Beyond the sea we know only a country from which a venturesome man or woman once made a journey. Neither that country nor this is our home.
Nationalists fear ports, their dirt and insubordination. There’s no respect. Easy to come, easy to go, the sea is always there to offer an escape from the binding of the land. Stan was murder like that. He had jobs but he would never settle. One word out of place and he’d be off, down the dock road looking for a start. The next thing you would hear was a post card from the Orinoco River. Ports don’t inhabit the country they are in. Our backs are turned against the land, looking out for the stranger. Traders, traders all.
My room at the Caravelle is a considerable improvement. Nothing much has been done to it or the city since the Americans left but that was only fourteen years ago; the French had not been in Hanoi since 1954.
Here, there is a line of ants making a progress up the walls of the shower but everything works. There is even a clumsy attempt to imitate the lavish fruit bowls that are routinely provided in every Hyatt or Sheraton in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.
And a black Bakelite telephone by the bed. After all the fatigue and frustration of the last weeks, suddenly I am alert, thinking, calculating, my trader’s brain doing sums in my head. How many rooms are there in this hotel? How many phones? And how much would they take for all of them? It’s a windfall and Vietnam will not be a wasted journey after all. Cool at last, sweat washed off and legs freshly shaved and talcumed, moving around my room in a miasma of Madame Rochas, I am light-headed with optimism. What does Vietnam want with these old phones which can’t work properly? The Vietnamese need new technology, they’re communists, they know that. They see progress in a line of pylons marching purposefully from the Mekong Delta to the Red River in the north: electrification, hydraulics, dams, bridges – they follow the Soviet Union into the industrial revolution. Faxes, modems, satellite dishes cannot be far behind. Give me your Bakelite telephones, let me bring them home.
I dress carefully for my meeting with the Trade Representative whom I have arranged to meet in the lobby. First impressions are important in business and I make an entrance. I wear, this afternoon, a black straw cart-wheel hat with the brim pinned up at the front by a marquetry brooch from the forties in the shape of a basket of flowers. Red suede shoes with thongs that fasten round the ankles like Roman sandals. A black silk dress with a red belt. There are a couple of western women sitting in the lobby in khaki shorts and T-shirts with slogans on them I do not bother to read. Aid workers. Their eyes snap with disapproval as the old bell boy ushers me from the lift like a bride. All the time I am here I will never exchange a word with them. There are very few western women in Vietnam now, no tourists. I have just missed a woman journalist from the Observer, I hear. A whole film unit will arrive next month. But for the moment it is just me and these khaki women in their wrinkled work clothes.
The Trade Representative looks like every other Vietnamese woman I have ever seen in cheap brown slacks, the white thread showing through at the seams, a cheap brown checked shirt, plastic shoes, an East German briefcase she’s very proud of and a smile filled with broken teeth. I know from the briefing in Hanoi that she is a high-ranking Party functionary with a notable war record and so, as is customary with such initial meetings, green tea is brought. With these formalities she explains that she understands my mission. She has a programme for me. In Saigon there are many antiques available for export.
As it turns out, the next few days are dispiriting. The country is full of antiques, left behind by the French driven from their coloniser’s villas on the high ground of the rubber plantations. The problem is that the Vietnamese have no idea about the value of money. Listen. She takes me down to the old Rue Catinet, the street that runs down to the river. In the time of the French it was a place to shop for fashions from France, for lingerie and cigars and books. Then when the Americans came it was where you went to buy sex. Now, renamed some name like Renunciation or Victory, it sells the debris of its colonial past back to the colonisers.
We stop first at an antique shop that has nothing but Art Deco lamps, the kind where slim girls stand on tip-toe holding globes which light up when a button is pressed on the base. All made in France or Berlin in the twenties and thirties. In my shop in Holland Park I will not sell replicas, but one must travel far to find the originals.
So how much?
Two and a half million dong.
There are four thousand dong to the dollar which makes $625 and at an exchange rate of £1.79 to the pound that makes £349. There are ten really good lamps, all different and I will take them all. Crate them up, give me the export forms, I’ll sign anything I tell the Trade Representative.
She starts to prepare the paper work. It seems there has been a misunderstanding. The lamps are £349 each. Each. I’d pay that in an antique shop in Bond Street. Are they out of their minds? The Trade Representative communicates this to the shop owner. He says he knows the price of lamps in Bond Street. He says that if I want to buy all the lamps it will be thirty million dong.
‘That can’t be right’ I say. ‘Where’s the discount for buying in bulk?’
She confers. ‘He says there’s an extra tax for buying in bulk.’
I look at him, a man in his fifties with a blue mole under his right eye. He looks at me and laughs, a harsh bark like an unfriendly dog. The Trade Representative giggles along with him. Whatever he is laughing at is so funny that he doubles up, pressing his palms against his knees and when he straightens again there are tears in his eyes. It was a joke. A Vietnamese joke. Of course there is no tax for buying in bulk but no discount either.
I do not buy any lamps but the story gains me a necessary entre into a group that meets every night at the roof bar of the Rex Hotel where the bar tender makes the only cocktail you can buy in this country, a whiskey sour, which he learned from the Americans when the Rex was requisitioned as the US Army officer’s mess.
Every day I go out with the Trade Representative. Every night I push my way through the assault party of beggars at the door. Some of the children have the most extraordinary deformities – gargantuan heads, pure white eye-balls with no iris, no lens, like sightless angels. Agent Orange in their mothers’ womb did this to them the Trade Representative says. They want money. It’s no good giving them a fist full of dong. They want hard currency. ‘Madame’ they cry. ‘Gimme dolla.’ ‘Gimme fi’ dolla.’
Every night I make my entrance. Tonight I am wearing a deep pink silk aio dai. I’d seen the young girls wearing them as they rode their bicycles about the city, their slim arms and hands protected from the sun by elbow length gloves, like debutantes. I know that I look years younger than I am and turn heads but I see no flicker of sexual desire.
We sit together, high above the city, canopied and protected the sudden violence of its tropical storms, an advance platoon from Vietnam’s next invasion. Beautifully ironed in their Gucci is a team of Italians who are here to sell expresso machines. Abroad all Italians are babies, speaking no languages, the food disgusts them. Their spokesman, Gianncarlo, is in dispute with the hotel over a poorly laundered shirt. I know he approves of me and the way I dress, minutely assessing the provenance of every garment, but he is half my age, barely thirty I suppose, and thinking only of Milan, his apartment there and his fiancee.
The New Zealander sells earth moving equipment and although he is the closest of any of us to signing a deal after god knows how many months of negotiations, he has reached an apparent impasse over a crucial matter. He will not bring in his team of mechanics until the authorities provide what he calls ‘a few warm brown bodies to keep my boys happy at night’ He has made no personal headway with the girls in aio dai’s on their bicycles. He has heard (we all have) of a man called Dang who, uniquely, sees things in a western way having appeared as an ARVN officer in a film currently being made by Oliver Stone about the past war. Dang, it is rumoured, has many mistresses and fully understands a man’s needs.
One man is neither here to sell or buy though his company, in Modesto, California is, he tells us, one of the leading corporations selling trailer sanitation tri-county. He is looking for his brother, missing in action since his plane was shot down in 1968, two months after Tet. Privately, I think he’s raving. He sits with his beer picturing his brother, not older of course, in the tattered rags of his air force uniform, tilling a little land in the Delta, a brood of half-gook children beside him. Or, after many beers, a slave labourer somewhere in Laos, penned at night in a bamboo cage, for gooks, he tells us with implacable authority, are savages behind their smiles. Take their green tea away from them and they are all killers. Oh yes.
I can’t be bothered to argue and so I sit in silence with a man my own age in a cravat, a wine merchant from Nice. He and the bar tender have long discussions in which the old man writes down the names of vineyards, notes good vintages, makes lists of grape varieties.
Finally there are the two British men, the oil barons’ messenger boys. One of them, vast and pasty, habitually wears a safari suit. He must weigh about twenty-three stone. I have seen his tiny Thai wife about. She hangs on his arm like an umbrella. I’ve looked at them and thought of a child’s sum – how many of her would go into him? Four, five times? Unfortunately it is him that nightly goes into her.
But it is he, after we have argued over who really had Jane Fonda’s room, who has the best story of the evening, far better than my own offer abut the lamps and the tax for buying in bulk. He and his colleague came to Hanoi a year ago to negotiate their bid for oil exploration leases. Oil, we ask?
‘The Yanks discovered oil in the Mekong Delta in April 1975’ the fat man says. Everyone collapses. We’re always drunk. There’s so little liquid you can safely take here. No fruit juice, the water gives you typhoid, the milk tuberculosis, Coca Cola is rare for it is still illegal to export it to Vietnam. There is some Soviet mineral water that tastes like the Dead Sea, bottled. So even I have got through seven or eight cans of Dutch beer by early evening and beer is so bad for the figure.
‘We arrive in Hanoi and we tell them we want to rent a house for a year. We want a good house and the service of two maids and a cook thrown in. There are such houses. We’ll install our own office, put up our own satellite. How much? So the bureaucrats go away and do their sums. They come back. Six million dollars. We tell them you could rent a whole office block in London for that. But they won’t budge, they won’t negotiate. They don’t know the value of money. So we stayed at the Metropole like the rest of you. They got nothing.’
Fourteen years ago the Vietnamese won a great moral victory. As for the next war, they are like the Italians, babies. They cannot win. It makes my heart sad. I see no class divisions her. Everyone is poor or poverty-stricken or starving.
We, on the other hand, have booked dinner at Madame Suzanne Dai’s private restaurant, famously for years the only vestige of capitalism and the free market in the whole country, tolerated by the authorities. The restaurant is in her library, the chef was her children’s nanny. There are portraits on the wall of her ancestors, mandarins in fancy dress and funny moustaches. A film of brown grease covers the glass. The whole country needs a good clean.
Course after course is brought, prawn wrapped around sugar cane, great fishes whose eyes still stare at us. We’ve had nothing like this since we have been in Vietnam. We get drunker and drunker. No hand brushes my leg under the table, tonight or any other. I realise that apart from the Frenchman I am fifteen or twenty years older than the oldest member of our party. This and the whole of south east Asia for that matter, is no country for old women. With our coffee Madame Dai appears. She wishes to present us with invitations to the French ballet. It is not far. Her own cyclo man will take us.
‘Ballet?’ says the New Zealander. ‘You mean girls? Dancing? Do we have action guys? Sorry ladies’ – he gestures at me, the sole woman in our party – ‘the port has come, I think the gentlemen are going to retire.’ The men howl again.
‘No, this is French ballet, monsieur’ Madame Dai says, agonized. ‘Swan Lake, Copelia, Giselle.’
‘I can’t think of anything more incongruous ‘ says one of my compatriots. ‘I thought you people dressed in antique clothes with your face painted and did this.’ He gets up and imitates a generically Oriental mime, singing in a high-pitched voice to accompany himself, like a performance from The King and I.
Madame Dai is implacable. ‘It was the French who first brought us ballet. They gave us everything, their civilization, their sophistication, they laid out our streets like boulevards. I still smell their perfume.’ The Frenchman looks at her intently. One amongst us must be a spy, it stands to reason. Is it him? ‘But of course the Russians are now the greatest dancers in the world’ she continues, as if teetering on points. ‘They take our best dancers to train at the Kirov and the Bolshoi. Perhaps you have been to the Soviet Union and seen them?’
Only the Frenchman from Nice and I accept the invitation. Each of us climbs into a cyclo and the thin men pedal us along, past children carrying water from a stand pipe in an old American helmet. They pedal past the women selling black market cigarettes, gum, condoms. They pedal past a video booth where a large crowd inside is watching Rambo.
We arrive at what we think is a school auditorium. The electric light is very good here and I see the Frenchman from Nice for the the first time. He is around my own age, as well-preserved as I am myself. Not a man to have ever married, I think. He offers his arm to me and I take it. Inside a crowd of proud mammas and a sprinkling of elderly balletomanes eagerly await the curtain’s rise. There is one other European also, someone I have not noticed at the Rex or at the Caravelle and there is something in his face that makes me start. He is very old. His blue suit is good but it was made a long time ago. He will look at me again and again, at my black hair like a helmet, my nose curved like a saracen’s sword. I will look at his, again and again.
The evening’s programme starts with a spirited romp by a dozen or two little girls in tutus which renders their mamma’s into ectsasies. It seems a shame that none have cameras to record this winsome moment. Indeed how did they afford the tutus?
The old plush curtain closes and there is an interval. A middle-aged woman approaches us. ‘Vous parle francais?’ she asks. I do, not well, nor can I understand it through her Vietnamese accent. The Frenchman translates. We are to see a performance of ‘The Dying Swan’ by the prima ballerina. Afterwards there will be a stirring and emotional tribute to the spirit of th French Revolution. Why? Because this is the bicentennial year, he reminds me. The ballet company, which has struggled, banned and underground, since 1975, has recently been able to restore performances due to the patronage of the government’s Soviet advisors. There is a revival of interest in classical western art, he explains. Recently, a ragged but enthusiastic orchestra put on a public performance of Madame Buterfly, officially sanctioned because of its clear message about dangerous liaisons between east and west.
The curtain parts again. I know very little about ballet but I see the dancer’s movements are unsteady. Her limbs are not quite in the right proportion, really she cannot dance for toffee and her costume is cheap and preposterous as if it had been made for some turn-of-the century, end-of-the pier concert party. Yet someone had laboured so hard to get it right. Someone knew what it should look like. And now I see this girl has the face of a great ballerina, the huge tragic eyes, the etched, tender red mouth. Death comes. I feel a spasm somewhere.
There is a curtain call, even a garish bouquet of flowers and the ballerina gestures to the wings. An old man comes out, diffidently, trembling. ‘Mon mari’ the middle-aged woman says, proudly. You can feel a great change in someone, even if you cannot se them. Next to me the Frenchman is white. I feel his coldness. I turn towards him and he is crying. ‘Excuse me’ he says. I watch his straight back pass down the rows as we settle in for the main event.
On stage, the dancers perform the French Revolution; the fleur de lise gives way to the tricolour. How do you express Revolution? By noble gestures, athletic leaps, the depiction of the masses – there are plenty of roles, even for the youngest, clumsiest member of the primary school corps de ballet.
At the end of the performance there is no sign of the Frenchman from Nice. Madame Dai’s cyclo man pedals me back to the Caravelle. As we reach the square he stops at a cafe. He speaks a little English. ‘We wait’ he says. ‘Bad people. Go later.’ I have no patience with this sort of thing. We are only a few hundred metres from the hotel. I’m tired and, as every night in Vietnam, I’m drunk. I want to sleep. But in the square, this Saturday night, is something I have never seen before. Ten thousand, maybe more, kids on motor scooters, bicycles, anything with wheels, girls in miniskirts perched on handlebars, ghetto blasters on handlebars, blaring out rock and roll. They ride round and round the square. You can see they will mow down anything that comes in their path. No one can cross the road. These calm people with their scented tea and their endless bureaucratic formalities have turned aggressive, It is not a pretty sight and I am frightened. A cop on a white chromium Harley Davidson rides in, using his baton to plough through a path. Girls are screaming, rock and roll is getting louder.
I know what this is. It’s a demonstration.
I wait forty minutes for the kids to disperse, some are beaten and bloody, others ride defiantly off into the night. I stumble into the Caravelle. As I pass the dining room a girl singing ‘My Way’ accompanies herself on the pink electric guitar. I want to talk to someone. I call the Frenchman in his room. We need a drink, I tell him. In the fruit basket there’s a green coconut, already slit, with a straw jammed inside. I prise apart the flesh and pour in a jigger or two of Scotch. When he knocks and enters and sits on the end of my bed I offer him this disgusting creation but he won’t drink with me. I describe my ordeal outside and I confess at last how much I fear this country yet how strongly I wish it well.
‘We all come to Vietnam to take something from it’ he says. ‘The government looks to Thailand and Malaysia and sees their tourist trades and the bureaucrats fear the future but they cannot help themselves. They must have dollars. They’re renovating hotels. I sell them wine for the restaurants. I know the country well, very well.’
‘I thought it was your first time here, like the rest of us, the Vietnam virgins brigade.’
‘I was here from 1948 to 1953. I was with the French colonial service. I knew him, the maestro of the ballet.’
‘He was my lover.’ He wouldn’t drink.
‘They have to marry here’ I say. ‘You know that.’
‘Yes, there is no homosexuality in communist countries. All the homosexuals in Moscow and Kiev and Bucharest will tell you that. I wanted him to leave with me but he stayed on. He was a nationalist, they all were. But he loved the French ballet. He has never known luxe, only poverty and broken hopes. Still, he endures. Who knows what he thinks in the night?’
‘Did you speak with him?’
‘Yes, his wife introduced us. We will all meet for coffee tomorrow morning. His grandchildren will also be present.’
When he leaves, I go up to the roof where the journalists once gathered to watch the rockets fall on the outlying suburbs and hear the mortars’ thud. I listen to the World Service on my little short-wave radio. I have been away three weeks and this is the first time I have remembered to turn it on. Here, we are held in time. I don’t understand history’s clock. Something has been going on in East Berlin. Gangs have knocked great holes in the Wall. Thousands are driving through in their Trabants. Honecker has fled.
A girl is being interviewed in English. ‘Is reunification the next step?’ the reporter asks her. ‘What else would we want?’ the girl replies. I being to cry. It’s over. What had it all been for? What the fuck had it all been for?
In bed, as I drift off to sleep, I think of my fantasy. Suppose I were to die in the Metropole? The maid, I suppose, would strip me of my clothes, look in my mouth for gold, sell my carcass at the market where I would appear on stalls as an unfamiliar meat from a distant province.
I wake late the next morning the next morning and the Trade Representative is waiting for me when I go in to breakfast: salty coffee, a baguette, yellow jam, a tasteless slab of Soviet butter.
‘Today there is no programme’ she says. ‘It is good for you, you must be tired. You were out late.’ I knew there were spies.
‘What was going on last night, in the square?’
It is the children. They don’t want war memorials, they don’t want Ho, they don’t want formaldehyde bottles filled with the wildly-deformed foetuses of Agent Orange babies, they don’t want Party Congresses, they don’t want Five Year Plans, they don’t want the Russians and they don’t want to remember the war. They want ghetto blasters, air conditioning units, electric guitars, Hollywood films, fun.
The Trade Representative and I sit there, two women, no longer even in middle age. ‘Who were you?’ I ask her.
‘I was a novelist. Then when the war began I became a member of the bomb disposal squad on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I think you understand the fate of our nation and that all intellectuals had to make their contribution. Once, during the war, I saw an illustrated article about a football champion and I was so surprised that there was a happy life going on somewhere.
‘When I was young we had to wear green clothes, the colour of the trees. When I walk the streets and see how the young people have the right to be with their boyfriends and to wear beautiful dresses and go to dances I feel very sad for me.’
I take her hand, in solidarity and commiseration but she hasn’t finished. ‘A man was asking for you. I have a message. He wants you to meet him, here.’ She has a map, it is from the American’s time. On it is marked the abbreviation, Syn.
‘Who is it? Who is this man? A dealer? He has antiques for me?’
‘No, he is a librarian. I know him, I think. But the message comes from my office. He has sent his cyclo.’
She lets go of my hand and stands up. ‘Tomorrow there will be a programme for you. You will be pleased, I hope.’
How does Saigon look in the light? Like Nice, cream and pink stucco buildings lining with broad streets planted with palm trees. A city that once must have been like a glacé. There are docks and sailors of every nationality walk there in their tropical whites. Everywhere, I notice, are signs of the return of free enterprise. On the pavements everyone has something to sell. The cyclo man pulls me beyond the market into the suburbs where the French once lived, suburbs that I remember from my own childhood in a different port. Solid houses, large gardens. Houses for families.
The street is a long one and at the end of it I see something I had not expected to see in Saigon, never, not in the whole of Asia. A shut-up building. And set in a stained glass panel, a star.
The European I had seen at the concert is waiting for me, with the keys. He unlocks the door and we enter. It is all as I remember it, the wooden cabinet that houses the scrolls, the women’s gallery above.
‘Who are you?’
‘Etienne Goldstein. I came here in 1937 to take over my father’s company, we were traders from Marseilles. If I had stayed in France I would have been deported.’
‘But you didn’t go back when the war as over? Not even after the French had left?’
‘Because of Vietnam, Saigon, I survived. I owed them something. What the French did here, in my time, was at times as bad as what was done to us in France.’
‘But after 1975? Under the Communists?’
‘I am a communist. I was a Party member from the age of fifteen, in Marseilles.’
‘I was also a Communist once. I was a member of the Party.’
He looks at me, at my dress, my hat, my belt, my shoes, my gold bracelets, without belief.’
‘Believe me, all kinds of people were communists, even me. I was a communist and being a communist made me better than I was. It could all have been so much worse.’ But I could see he had come to meet a fellow Jew, not a fellow communist. ‘Where did you find your congregation?’
‘There have always been Jews in Asia. In China from before Marco Polo. There are Jews all around you, wherever you go. There is no religion here now, of course. We are communists and have no need of it. But shall we remember?’
He draws the ram’s horn from its velvet bag and raises it to his lips.
Tekiah. One long blast of alarm. The shofar sounds and a voice is heard, our own, waking us from self-deception.
Shevarim. Three long blasts, like wailing in the desert. The shofar sounds and those who are slaves hear, for it calls us to fight for our freedom.
Teruah. Nine short blasts, like broken sobs. The shofar sounds, calling even the most distant traveller home.