This Saturday’s prompt for What Pegman Saw was Hanoi, Vietnam. The challenge was to write a story about the location of 150 words or fewer.
I wrote a story and squeezed it into the word limit, but it seemed to me to have such potential that I simply had to write a longer version – and here it is! I hope you enjoy it.
A big ask – long version
“Now Vietnam’s normalising, we need a man there, open an office, build contacts. You speak the lingo, don’t you, Matt?”
Usually Matt could ignore the pain in his back that had throbbed persistently for twenty-five years, but it suddenly stabbed at the mention of Vietnam.
“You remember how I learned the language?”
“Oh, that.” With a wave of his hand the CEO dismissed the nine months of captivity, beatings and torture Matt had suffered.
“It’s a Regional Director post, Matt. You’ll be responsible for all our south-east Asia business. It’s a good job. Secure, too.” He dropped a thick file on the desk in front of Matt. “That’s the provisional analysis of the potential. Read it. Get an idea of the scale of your opportunity.”
‘Vietnam is different now,’ Matt told himself. ’Besides, it sounds like this job or no job.’ It wasn’t many weeks before he was settling into Hanoi.
And, as his months in the country passed, he found himself liking the Vietnamese – one of them in particular. Thirty years old, not beautiful but with a quirk to her lips when she smiled that he found irresistible, Nguyen Thi won Matt’s heart. They dated, danced, dined – and fell in love.
“Come see my Pa,” urged Thi.
“Sure,” said Matt. “I’d like that.”
“That’ll be fine. I’ll look forward to it.” Matt’s back twinged. Until he’d been captured, he’d fought against the Vietnamese of Thi’s father’s generation. He was not proud of some of the things he and his comrades had done. He hoped profoundly that the man wouldn’t recognise him and point him out as a killer.
On Saturday, Thi’s father, Nguyen Anh Dung was nervous. The table was covered with small dishes of food, spicy prawns, savoury meat, crisp vegetables, tangy fruits. He hoped the American would enjoy it. Perhaps at last his daughter would marry. He didn’t like the thought of an American son-in-law, but as he told himself, ‘Thi’s happiness comes first’.
The late afternoon sun lit the buildings, an eclectic mix of colonial and modern, elegant and utilitarian, as Matt and Thi walked hand in hand to visit.
“Here we are,” said Thi.
It was a plain apartment block, neither smart nor scruffy, but clean and in good repair. The couple were silent as they rode the elevator to the eighth floor.
At the door of Anh Dung’s apartment, Thi poised her finger on the bell.
“Ready?” she smiled. Her lips quirked. A surge of love poured through Matt.
“Go for it!”
A few seconds. The sound of shuffling feet. The rattle of a security chain being unfastened. The door opened.
The two men looked at each other. Their eyes met. They both froze.
Pain surged in Matt’s back. Terror washed icily through his stomach. He fought to retain self-control, not to run. He glanced once, imploringly, at Thi, and then locked eyes once again with Anh Dung.
Anh Dung saw the eyes of a young GI, at first defiant, then screaming, and finally broken, abject. He remembered the contempt he had felt then, and was filled with shame and horror at what he had done, who he had been.
Thi stared from one to the other.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
She seized her father’s arm and shook him. Gently, Anh Dung pushed her away. He bowed deeply and spoke to Matt.
“I once did you great wrong,” he said. “Nothing I do now can atone for that. Can you forgive the father’s evil for the sake of his daughter?”
He lowered his gaze, fixed it on the ground and remained silent, waiting.
Slowly, one finger at a time, Matt unclenched his fists. Slowly his panic subsided and his breathing slowed. Thi reached out to him, and he grasped her offered hand, drew strength from her.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “I guess I can try”.