“Chapter 1”

In District 5 they pulled up beside a rambling old French-style villa, the home of his friend Mrs Linh. There was no sign of life. Conway sat for a couple of minutes trying to decide whether to go in or not. ‘Why not,’ he said to himself. ‘If she’s not there I’ll leave a note to say I’ve called.’

He stepped off the bike, reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of Vietnamese dong and handed it to the boy. ‘You did well thank you for your service.’ The young man’s eyes lit up with pleasure. It was much more than he expected. Tonight he would take his girlfriend to a fancy restaurant in District 1.

‘Cam on nhieu sir,’ (thank you very much) he grinned, slipping the money into a shirt pocket and gunning his bike, sped off into the traffic.

Conway climbed half a dozen stone steps to the front door, knocked three times and waited. At first there was no response, then faint movement from inside. When it opened he stumbled back in surprise.

Standing before him wearing a silk pink and yellow traditional ao dai was one of the most beautiful Vietnamese women he had ever seen. She looked at him for a few seconds then mutual recognition dawned. ‘Oh Mr Steve,’ she cried, falling into his arms.

Her slim body felt soft and warm and the hug lasted a long time before he stepped back and held her at arm’s length. ‘My God Mai you are so…so, beautiful,’ he gasped, shaking his head in disbelief. He looked into the huge almond eyes glistening with tears, unable to find words. He didn’t need to because she pulled him close again laying her head on his shoulder, her body heaving with emotion.

‘I can’t tell you Mr Steve how many nights I have lain awake thinking about you, wishing and hoping you would come back to me. I can’t believe you are here in my arms,’ she said, hugging him even tighter.

Conway looked down at the glossy black mane now enveloping her face and brushed his lips across the top of her head. ‘I have never forgotten you either Mai. It’s been a long time and many things have happened to me and I’m sure to you, since we last met.’

She said nothing for a long moment and when she spoke there was pain in her voice. ‘Yes, many things.’ She paused again then said softly, ‘I am so sorry, Mrs Linh told me what happened between you and Kim Anh…I never thought I would ever see you again…’

They stood, both struggling for words, the silence broken only by the sound of the antique clock ticking on the mantelpiece.

‘Mrs Linh…where is she? Is she here?’

She brushed the tears from her eyes. ‘No, it is our Tet holiday she is in Ha Noi, visiting family. She won’t return until Sunday.’

Another three days, thought Conway, I’ll be in Manila by then. ‘Ok. I’m sorry but I can’t stay till Sunday I have to be in Manila, but let’s have dinner, are you free tonight?’

Her face fell and she shook her head. ‘Oh I am so sorry, not tonight, I have a class, can we have dinner tomorrow night please?’ ‘Of course. I’m staying at the Rex Hotel they have a great garden restaurant on the fifth floor. Can I pick you up here at say 8pm?’

Her smile made him want to hug her again. ‘No, that won’t be necessary Mr Steve, I will meet you in the lobby at 8pm. Now can I get you a drink? Beer, tea coffee. I am such a bad hostess, Mrs Linh would be ashamed of me?’

‘Coffee’s fine.’

She led him into a room he remembered so well; the same cosy lounge with the red velvet chaise lounge, the black mahogany coffee table, the objet d’art, the expensive antiques and porcelain figures, even the same yellow mai blossoms in china vases. It seemed like only yesterday he had sat in that same room with Mrs Linh discussing his romantic problems with Kim Anh.

Mai waved to the chaise lounge. ‘Please take a seat and I’ll make some coffee for you,’ she said, in that soft almost child-like voice he had first heard so many years ago in the village of her grandfather Mr Loc whom Conway had befriended while stationed in Phuoc Thuy province with the Australian army during the war.

She returned with a silver coffee pot and two cups and saucers of Spode china and a plate of banh chung, (sticky rice cakes, the traditional fare of Tet) and placed them on the coffee table between them. It was the same coffee set Mrs Linh had used when they had come back to her place after the drama at the Caravelle the night Conway had seen Kim Anh with her fiancé Dung.



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