“The irony was, I’d imagined the Revolution would be exciting and romantic,” said Madam Dai, fiddling with the gaudy jade ring on her fat middle finger, “But it turned out to be drab and incredibly boring.”
Robert pursed his lips to stifle his smile. He couldn’t recall a time in his life when irony hadn’t tasted sweet on his tongue. It was, he thought, chiefly a journalist’s disease, this delight in witnessing the miserable consequences of ill-considered decisions. And far from making him dislike Madam Dai for her embittered confession, it made her all the more likeable. So few people saw their mistakes with such honesty or clarity.
“I was a spy, you know,” she said with a giggle. Yes, it was exactly a giggle, kittenish and flirtatious. Incongruous in an 80-year old woman.
But everything about Madam Dai was incongruous, from her considerable bulk – elderly Vietnamese ladies tended, usually, to be tiny and birdlike – to her startlingly jet-black hair. At first, Robert had assumed it was the result of a home dye job, but realized, after she tugged it sideways in a moment of pique, it was a poorly made wig.
The ‘Thư Viện’ restaurant had been, she explained, her law library in earlier days, before the fall – or the liberation, depending on your political affiliation – of Saigon. The shelves were no longer filled with books. Instead they bowed under the burden of dozens of massive jars containing the corpses of poisonous snakes floating in clear rice-brandy. But every so often, the rows of glass were interrupted with dusty photographs in ornate and tarnished silver frames: the Madam with Mitterand, the Madam with Breshnev, the Madam with Pierre Trudeau.
“I see you like my drinks cabinet,” she purred. “Snake wine is very beneficial for men, you know. Men like you, of a certain age. It helps with…” she trailed off and, raising her eyes to the high, water stained ceiling, shrugged mutely. As if erectile dysfunction were a matter of which she knew much, but was reluctant to say.
“I’ve heard that,” said Robert.
Without asking, Madam Dai motioned the thinner of her two her elderly helpers over. What emerged from Madam Dai’s mouth was a scalding stream of verbal urine. Ten years of covering the war in Indochina had not accustomed Robert to the way in which the Vietnamese spoke to those they considered their inferiors. Clearly, Communism hadn’t cured them of the habit. For her part, the ancient, skeletal maid was not to be bullied. She responded with an equal measure of screeching venom. And this time, he did catch enough of the words to understand them.
“We’re trying to run a business here, you stupid old bitch.”
This time Robert couldn’t help the smile. The maid relented, hefted one of the enormous jars off the shelf and thumped it down onto their table, seemingly unconcerned with breaking the thing. Inside the glass, the violence both physical and verbal brought the entangled mass of dead cobras momentarily to life. They gyred lazily in the jar. Their opaque eyes bleached white in the alcohol, their scales sloughing off into the liquid as they slid over each other like sinuous, reptilian zombies.
The old maid came back with three small, thick glasses, so old and scratched they had lost their transparency. She banged each of them onto the table so hard it sounded like gunshots in the small, high-vaulted, bare walled room.
Madam Dai smiled serenely, revealing dental work that accessorized her jewelry, and unscrewed the large, rusted metal lid. “Have a drink with me, Mister Robert. We shall toast the old days.”
Only then did Robert recall the third member of their party. He turned to the quiet woman who sat at a little distance from the table, chain-smoking. The woman who had caught his eye at the Caravelle’s rooftop bar. The one who had brought him here, promising him amusement. At first, he’d thought she was one of the younger cadre of reporters here to cover the Anniversary celebrations. Then he’d guessed a Russian bar girl on a night off. But now he wasn’t sure. Too young for him, of course, but a visually pleasing enigma nonetheless.
“Are you up for drinking some of this?” he asked.
Nuria stubbed out her cigarette and pulled her chair back to the table. She spread her hands, palms down on the sticky plastic tablecloth. “Of course I’m up for it. I’ve always wanted an erection.”