I’m not here

by Dominique Wilson

IF SHE HURRIES she may still eat today. She shuffles down the empty street, a small Vietnamese woman dressed in a floral polyester dress and a man's grey cardigan with a long ladder up one arm where the wool has unravelled, held closed by a piece of rope at the waist. On her legs a sagging pair of football socks hand-knitted in bright red and white stripes, on her feet a pair of men's black lace-up shoes without laces. A burn scar, brown and wrinkled and tight, runs on the left side of her face from her lip to her ear and down her neck, pulling the skin downwards so that little white puffs of moisture punctuate each of her breaths as air escapes the permanent gap that exposes broken and rotting teeth. She clings to two white supermarket bags that bulge with her treasures, and as she shuffles she mutters: "I'm not here. I'm not here. I'm not here."

She hurries, crossing Queen Street diagonally, anxious to get to the market. She's late. The sky is just beginning to lighten and she knows the market-gardeners' trucks have started to arrive, their drivers loud and boisterous, cheerfully unloading their crates of produce in readiness for the day ahead. As she crosses the car park, the lights of Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market come on. She's too late. For a moment, she stands still in the dark, watching. She hears a truck coming up behind her and turns, blinded by its headlights. The truck swerves and she hears the driver's curse but doesn't understand his words. She watches it enter the market. There is still a chance.

Bent at the waist so as to better see under the empty stalls she zigzags across the market, occasionally picking up a wilted cabbage leaf, a half-rotten apple. Under one stall she finds an onion, whole and glossy and fresh, and she holds it in both hands for a moment, gently stroking its brown papery skin before placing it carefully at the bottom of one of her bags.

"Hey Tony, get a load of this!"

"Leave 'er, mate. She comes here sometimes. Doesn't do any harm."

She looks at the men, alarmed. She hadn't heard them arrive. I'm not here.

I'm not here.

"Shit! What happened to her face?"

"Don't know, mate. Reckon she's been in an accident or something." He turns, takes an orange from his truck and holds it out, but she dares not approach. "It's okay love, you can have it ..." and he gently rolls it towards her. She watches it until it stops at her feet, picks it up and scurries out of the market into the dawn.

A fine drizzle falls as she uses side streets and laneways to avoid roaming patrol cars, but today she doesn't mind the rain. She has food. And she has the onion and the orange. She will keep the onion for a day when she has nothing else but the orange she will share tonight with Ted. She sidesteps a drunk curled up in a doorway, watched by a black and white cat. The city is beginning to awaken. Cars swoosh across tram tracks. Eager office workers, their grey suits echoing the grey buildings they hurry towards, pass her by, oblivious to her presence. A young woman runs toward her, umbrella held high, the tight skirt of her business suit hindering her steps, high heels click-clicking on the footpath.

"Michael! Michael, wait!"

Michael? Is Michael here? She turns, her gaze following the young woman. Michael? She watches the woman rise on tiptoes to kiss the man, watches them link arms and walk away, umbrella shielding both. Michael?

 

THUY STIRRED RICE noodles into the pot of pho, breathing in the fragrance of ginger and onions. Soon Father and Younger Brother Quan would return with their catch, and would expect their breakfast while she helped her mother sort the fish. She removed the pot from the fire and looked out over the rice paddies that spread out to the hills. The rains had come early to Phuoc Tuy Province and the rice crop promised to be abundant – if it was given a chance to grow, and was not destroyed by Nature or Man.

She thought of the soldiers who had come through her village since she was a little girl – the Viet Cong mostly at night, the South Vietnamese during the day. Then, when she was about eleven, a new type of soldier had come from a country for which they had no name, and so they had called them Ucda-loi, which meant "Men from the South". More and more had come each day, and they had frightened her with their uniforms and guns and helicopters that swept low over her village. But her father had comforted her and said he would not let them hurt her, because although she was only a girl she was his treasure and he would always protect her. More than four years had passed and now she had grown used to them, as had everyone in the village. They knew their country was at war, but their lives and thoughts centred on growing enough food and catching enough fish to feed the village, and the constant stream of hungry soldiers.

The morning was already hot and the air smelt of wet earth, smoke and spices. Thuy could hear gunfire in the distant hills, but this too had become normal. She saw a jeep speeding towards her village, the soldiers shouting and shooting into the air, and she ran behind the woodpile, ready to slip into the tunnel it hid. The jeep skidded to a stop. A Viet Cong jumped out, still yelling and shooting, and Thuy knew this visit would be different. She saw Father and Younger Brother enter the village carrying a basket of fish between them, and she wanted to call to them to stay away. The soldier saw them and ordered Father to him, made him kneel and kicked him in the groin, demanding to know where the Uc-da-loi were hidden. Her father shook his head, mumbling that there were none in this village, but the soldier did not believe him. Thuy saw him place the muzzle of his gun against her father's temple and she knew she could not let him die. She ran from her hiding place, pointing down the road and yelling: "That way! That way!" The soldier pulled back the hammer of the gun but another called out something from the jeep, so he pistol-whipped her father instead, the crunch of metal against bone punctuating the seconds until at last the soldier climbed back into his jeep and drove away. She watched the jeep until it disappeared, only then becoming aware of the total silence behind her. She turned and saw her mother and Younger Brother Quan helping her father. She ran to him, but he pushed her away, the blood on his hand staining her ouida.

"Father?" But her father would not meet her gaze – would not answer. "Father?" she asked again, and this time it was her mother who pushed her away. "But what have I done?"

Her mother signalled Younger Brother Quan to help her father, then turned to face Thuy. "You have shamed him," she said.

"I saved him!"

"No! You have shamed him, and this village. You did not allow him to die like a man." Her mother turned and walked away.

Thuy looked at the villagers as each turned away without a word. Even the children refused to meet her gaze, and Thuy realised she could no longer stay in this village.

 

THUY WALKED TOWARDS the hills, the rim of her non-bai-tho pulled forward to hide her shame. She had been told there was a town on the other side of the hills, but had never been there, had never left her village. The sun was now high in the sky, the gunfire she had heard all morning had stopped. On either side of the dirt road, rice paddies surrounded by low earth dikes spread like green patchwork quilts, and for the moment all seemed peaceful. Then, softly at first, the throb of helicopter motors and the whooshing of their rotor blades. Thuy saw them coming, flying low like monstrous dungcoloured birds seeking small prey, their soft throb becoming louder and louder. She ran to crouch in a rice paddy, covering her ears to block their shriek. She could feel the air pulsate in a continuous assault that threatened to crush her small body into the mud. Dust and small rocks tattooed her face and hands, and she prayed to Buddha to make these great birds go away. They flew on, and the air became still and moisture laden once more.

Thuy climbed back on to the road, her clothes clinging to her body, dripping mud, the stain of her father's blood washed away. She saw jeeps come slowly down the road and soldiers on foot, their packs heavy on their backs. She stood there as they passed, as frightened as when she was a very little girl, but these soldiers looked tired and dirty and paid her no attention. Some were wounded, their bandages oozing blood. She looked into their eyes and saw nothing there. No fear, no sadness, no anger. Just emptiness. Thuy walked on.

She reached the foothills that afternoon. The road was dappled from the shade of trees, the air cooler here but thick with the stench of death. She walked cautiously now, aware of the stench but not of where it came from. A bird trilled. Insects buzzed and creaked and scurried. A butterfly fluttered before her as if guiding her way. It circled and dipped just ahead and she followed it around a bend in the road. The butterfly rose higher into the air, looped the loop, and Thuy's gaze followed it as it came to rest on the disembowelled body of a child.

There were fifteen of them, from a neighbouring village perhaps, their trousers and ouidas stained with blood and urine and faeces and sweat, the ground under them a dark brown shadow of absorbed blood. At the side of the road, women, old men and children lay across each other, arms and legs entwined in a jigsaw of destruction. An old couple still holding hands, the woman staring lifelessly at the man. His eyes rolled back as if trying to see the bullet hole in the centre of his forehead from which a steady wave of small green ants ebbed and flowed. A young boy lay face down along the road, arms above his head, stopped at that moment when courage left him, a piece of shrapnel embedded in his spine. Geckos exploited this macabre cornucopia. A baby lying on top of his mother, his lips still surrounding the nipple of her now-dry breast, apparently unhurt except for a missing foot. Bellies swollen with methane and sulphur gas. Flesh decomposing, liquefying.

Thuy held her hands over her nose, trying in vain to stop the smell, the spasms of her stomach. She had seen death before but not like this – days later. Bile filled her mouth and she vomited, the muscles of her belly squeezing reason and beauty and logic from her body until she had no more to vomit but still she retched. A movement caught her gaze and she stared at the butterfly as it gently looped the loop once more in front of her, then disappeared into the treetops.

Tradition nudged the corners of her mind as she looked at the cadavers, their mouths open as if awaiting the grains of rice and gold coins that were their due. The sky darkened, rumbled as if angry at her inadequacy. She knew the afternoon rains were near and wanted to find shelter, but she couldn't just walk away. I don't want to be here, she thought. Holding her breath she went to the old man and lifted his head. Ants covered her arms and bit her flesh as she pulled his non-bai-tho around to cover his face. She did the same to the old woman. I'm really not here, it's just a dream. One by one she moved amongst them, covering faces, pulling down clothing. Only the boy with shrapnel and the mother and baby had nothing with which to cover their faces. Taking her own non-bai-tho from her head, she placed it over the mother so its rim just covered the babe as well. Then, as the first great drops of rain fell, she put her hands together in prayer and bowed low, apologising to their souls for not giving them a proper burial.

 

"HELLO UC-DA-LOL! You buy me Saigon tea?" Thuy smiled at the tall Australian. Of all the men who came here to forget the horrors of their day, he was her favourite.

She had been working as a bar girl for six months now. Had become tougher, less naïve – Mamma-san had seen to that. Starving, living on the streets where each week someone was killed or raped or mutilated, she had been happy to work as a hostess to these men whose language she'd barely understood, and whose ways she found strange. She had been shy at first, frightened of them, but she would smile and nod while thinking of her village and her family, knowing she would never go back, worried these men would realise the "whisky and coke" she made them buy for her contained no whisky. The woman on the radio sang the song she heard many times a day and Thuy smiled now, understanding the words:

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,

He no buy me Saigon tea,

Saigon tea costs many many P,

Uc-da-loi he Cheap Charlie.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,

He no give me MPC,

MPC cost many many P,

Uc-da-loi he cheap Charlie.

How she hated these MPCs. She'd thought it so valuable at first, this military money, and had hoarded it until one day she'd gone to pay her rent and the landlord had refused it, saying it was now worthless. That was when Mamma-san had seen an opportunity and convinced her that she could earn twice as much by being more than just a hostess. She'd had no choice really – she had to live. But now she knew how it all worked, and she could sleep with these men, pretending she wasn't really there, feeling little emotion.

Uc-da-loi, Cheap Charlie,

He no go to bed with me,

Bed with me cost many many P,

Uc-da-loi he cheap Charlie.

Then one night she had noticed this quiet young soldier. She noticed he alone bowed to the Buddha shrine when he came in, treated the girls with respect, and never drank as much as the others. So she had made sure he sat with her, and he'd spent the evening telling her about his country. She hadn't understood many of his words but learnt his name was Michael and that his family were farmers, and that he didn't want to be here but his government had forced him. The next evening he had come again, then again the next and the next. He never asked to sleep with her and Mamma-san became angry and told him he would have to pay more, but he didn't object and so she was still his hostess each evening.

"You want more Ba Moi Ba, Michael-san?" Thuy asked and he nodded, ordering another Saigon Tea for her as well – he too knew how it all worked. She looked at the little brown bottles of beer on the table – more than usual.

"You okay, Uc-da-loi?"

"Sure I'm okay. I'm okay, you're okay, everyone in fucking Vietnam is fucking A-okay!" He drank the bottle in one go then ordered another. Thuy frowned. She had never seen him like this. He ordered still another beer, then another. He didn't talk to her, just raised his beer to her each time he started another, and she just sat, nodding, smiling. She heard a commotion outside the bar, heard the police whistle.

"Bloody White Mice!" he said, easing himself out of the booth, unsteady on his feet. "Bloody White Mice and their bloody whistles."

"Michael-san, where you go?"

"I'm going to shove his bloody whistle ..."

"No, Michael-san! He shoot you! You stay here."

But Michael stumbled down the bar. Thuy ran to him, not knowing how to stop a man so much bigger than her, and so she reached up and pulled his face down to hers and kissed him as she'd had men kiss her. He tried to pull away so she jumped up, wrapping her legs around his waist. His arms encircled her.

"Okay, Little Thuy, I stay ..." he said at last, and he walked back to the booth still holding her to him, her legs still around him. He ordered another beer and Saigon Tea.

 

THUY LOOKED AT Michael slumped back in the booth, asleep. Soon Mamma-san would close the bar and kick them out into the street.

"Wake up, Uc-da-loi," she said softly. "Wake up!" and she shook him, none too gently. With a start he woke, his hands around her throat pushing her down on the seat squeezing her throat. "Michael-san!" she managed to gasp, and for an infinity he looked down at her, confused, his hands still around her throat. Then, horrified, he jerked back.

"Oh my God! I'm sorry! I'm sorry, Thuy!" and he pushed his hands through his hair, head back, eyes clenched closed. "I'm sorry."

She sat up, coughing. Gingerly felt her throat. Noticed Mamma-san staring their way. "You buy Ba Moi Ba."

"What?"

"Buy Ba Moi Ba. Mamma-san, she look at you." He ordered another beer, downed it in one go. "We go now," she said then.

Together they walked down the length of the bar, past the Buddha shrine, out the doors. The evening rains had stopped, the soldiers gone back to camp to meet curfew. She saw Michael leaning against a wall, slowly sliding down to the footpath.

"You come," she said, pulling his arm around her shoulder.

Together they walked, stumbled, walked past shops and bars. Through open doorways the voice of Hanoi Hannah was listing the names of American GIs whose girlfriends were sleeping with someone else back home, and Connie Francis sang about losing her mind. Thuy thought she must be losing her mind, taking this man back to her flat. It was her second most important rule: never let them know where you live. She unlocked the door, walked him to her bed, pushed him on to it. He giggled.

"Sweet little Thuy," he mumbled, trying to focus. "Sweet gentle little Thuy, helping the Aussie soldiers."

"You sleep." She untied his boots, pulled them off his feet. Pulled off his damp socks.

"You going to help the boys in the minefields too, Thuy-thu?"

She undid his belt, pulled it off. "You sleep now."

"Whatch'a going to do with his arm, Thuy-thu? He's still holding his rifle, you know ..."

"I make tea."

"Still holding his rifle ... isn't that funny?" He giggled, and the giggles grew and grew, filling the room. "Holding his fucking rifle but his arm ain't got no fucking body on it!" and the giggles subsided, to be replaced by sobs. Great body-convulsing sobs that frightened her, not understanding all he had said but aware of his pain and his anger. So she lay next to him and he clung to her as if she could save him, still sobbing but quietly now, until the beer and exhaustion finally worked and he slept.

He woke confused by the light globe shining in his eyes and the unfamiliar room. Thuy was curled towards him, asleep. She seemed so tiny, so innocent, and he wished he could bury himself in her and forget where he was and what he did every day. He wished he were back home where he could make love to a woman without fear, without condoms and penicillin parades, without thinking this may be the last time. He saw the red marks on her neck and felt guilty. Gently kissed each one, then unbuttoned her blouse and kissed her small breasts, burying himself in the smell of her. She half woke, sensed his need, and allowed him that night to break her number one most important rule.

 

THUY RUBBED HER TIGHT SWOLLEN BELLY, wishing Michael were here. She was bored. At first she had enjoyed playing house, going with him to the markets to buy food, spending evenings making love. But the novelty had worn off and she'd gone back to the bar sometimes when she knew he'd be out on patrol, until her belly began to swell and Mamma-san had told her to stay away – pregnant bar girls were no good for business.

Now she was so big she didn't go out much. She looked out the open doorway but there was no sign of Michael. Drops of sweat wriggled down her back like fat, lazy tadpoles. She carefully lowered herself on to her bed. The sky rumbled, the rains fell, she slept.

When she woke, it was dark and she was still alone. She waited, all the next day and the next. After a week she hung around outside the bar at night hoping to see someone who might give her news of Michael, until Mammasan yelled at her to go. She went back home and counted the money she had left. If she were very careful, she would have enough to stay here until the baby was born.

The child came before dawn after two days of labour. Eager to leave her too-small body, he had pushed and ripped his way down but still would not be born, and she had screamed and panicked and lost her reason until the woman next door had heard her and come. She had understood the problem and cut Thuy with a kitchen knife, and when she placed the naked child still attached to Thuy's body into her arms, Thuy had smelled the blood and seen her father and the bodies once more and she had pushed the child away thinking This is not real, it's not happening, no I'm not here, I'm not here. But the woman was wise and she'd wrapped the child and placed him on the bed next to Thuy and cleaned her up, then left. Thuy slept then and when she woke it was morning and she could hear Country Joe and The Fish on someone's radio telling American mothers and fathers not to hesitate to pack their boys off to Vietnam:

Send 'em off before it's too late

Be the first on your block

To have your boy come home in a box

And slowly her reason was called back by the child's whimpers, and she saw she had a son and that he looked like Michael. She named him Tan.

 

TAN WAS THREE months old and wanted to sleep, but Thuy shook him every time he dozed. She wanted him awake now so he would sleep deeply when she went begging – a floppy, sleepy child always extracted more money than a cheerful one. A plane flew overhead. A shower of white paper fluttered from the sky but no one reacted – just more propaganda butterflies. This was the first day of the Vietnamese New Year and tonight there would be celebrations in the streets and more begging opportunities. A flash of light. A building exploded. People screamed. More explosions. Gunfire. Thuy ran. She tripped. Tan screamed.

"Thuy!"

She felt a hand grab her and pull her back into a doorway. "Michael?" She looked up. "Quan! Younger Brother!"

"Thuy! You're in Saigon?" Another explosion. More screams. "We can't stay here. Come."

Together they ran. Quan led them to a part of town where there was less fighting, less destruction. He unlocked a door and pushed them in. Thuy looked around. Modest, but better than anything she'd known.

"You live here?" she asked. Quan nodded, pride in his gaze. "Father? Mother?"

Quan shook his head. "They bombed our village. When they finished, nothing was left. I was fishing so I escaped. But Father, Mother, most of the village, they all died. I came here. Found work."

Thuy nodded.

"So who's this?" he asked, indicating the baby.

"Tan. My son."

Quan looked at the infant, at his blue eyes and fair hair. "Ah! Bui Doi!"

Thuy flinched. Bui Doi – dust of life – the value of a child born to Viet

namese girls from American or Australian soldiers was worthless.

"No. His name is Tan." Thuy stared at her brother, and he saw in her something that warned him not to argue. "Quan, can we stay here with you?"

"No. Yes. Look, you could, but I'm not staying. I'm leaving Vietnam. It's supposed to be tonight, but now, with all this ..."

"Take us with you."

"Thuy, it costs a lot of money ..."

"Take us with you."

Quan sighed. He looked at Thuy, so skinny, so ragged. She had shamed Father and the village. But Father was dead. The village no longer existed. And she was his Elder Sister. The Bui Doi was his nephew. He, Quan, was the man of the family now – the only man.

"Maybe. I'll see what I can do. You stay here. I'll be back when I can."

 

FOR THREE DAYS the battle raged. Fires burned, planes flew overhead and a layer of smoke dulled the sun. Quan returned and said the American Embassy had been broken into. Thuy didn't care. All she wanted was to leave Vietnam.

She awoke on the fourth day to silence. Out in the street the town seemed deserted. Only the chirping of birds. Quan left early. Was back by midday with news – they would leave that night.

They made their way via back streets to the riverbanks and hid amongst the grass. They waited. Half an hour. An hour. A light quickly flicked on and off on the river and Quan responded with a torch. Thuy heard the whisper of oars in water and a small fishing boat glided up.

Thirteen other adults plus infants were already on board. Thuy and Quan found a spot to sit on the crowded deck, their backs against the engine compartment. The engine started, its sound muffled with rags and canvas. No one spoke as they passed various checkpoints. As they made their way slowly down the river Thuy saw that many towns and villages had been attacked. It seemed the whole of South Vietnam was destroyed.

The boat continued slowly through the night. The drone of the engine lulled Thuy, and when she woke they had made it out to sea and it was day but no one was celebrating. All were aware of the dangers ahead, and all they had left behind. Tan woke and Thuy fed him then cooked a bowl of rice for Quan with slivers of dried pork from their provisions. They had brought enough food for five days. More than enough for the three-day trip to Malaysia.

For the first two days, the weather was perfect, the sea calm. The men kept watch for patrol boats. There were rumours of pirates from Thailand. Sometimes dolphins would play close to the boat as it made its way slowly towards land.

On the evening of the second day, the sky darkened with great rolling clouds and lightening forked down to meet the sea. A wind sprung up. Great waves tossed the small wooden boat. People vomited and a woman cried that they would all drown. Rain fell and the boat rose and plunged down columns of waves. The engine stalled. The boat filled with water but the small pump would not work and the men bailed by hand. All night the boat tossed and creaked and Thuy was sure they would drown.

Daylight came and the storm abated. The boat smelled of vomit and fear and engine fuel. They spotted a ship and everyone cheered and waved clothing to attract attention, but it just sailed past. The engine could not be started. The captain ordered a stocktake of all food and water, and it was then they all realised much of it had been lost in the storm. They cleaned themselves and the boat as well as they could and settled down to wait.

They drifted for three more days. Occasionally they would see a ship and burn clothes to signal, but no ship signalled back. They knew now that they were being ignored. The sun burned down and the smell of fuel grew stronger each day. Quan spent his time with the men, while Thuy tended Tan and was ignored by the women who would look at Tan then turn away. Bui Doi – the dust of life.

On the afternoon of the eighth day, a boat came towards them at high speed. It pulled smoothly beside them and five men with machetes jumped aboard. One produced a large automatic pistol that he waved about as he shouted orders and another busied himself securing the two vessels together. They held knives to everyone's throats, demanding money and jewellery, then announced this bounty was not enough and went from person to person looking into mouths until they found an old man with gold teeth. They twisted a rope around his ankles and wrists and up around his neck then used a hammer to try to dislodge the teeth. Thuy watched in horror and the old man screamed and bled, but still the teeth would not come out until one of the pirates found a pair of pincers and successfully harvested the teeth.

Once more the pirates walked along the line, pulling out the youngest women, Thuy included. They tore at the women's clothes, the material weak from seawater and sun. Thuy still held on to Tan, and one of the pirates ripped him out of her arms and threw him on to the deck then, with one sweep of the machete, beheaded him, the momentum of his swing sending the small head skidding across the deck into the ocean. People cried out and the small body twitched for an instant as a fountain of blood gushed from his body spraying those on deck in gruesome, ever-reducing arcs until the small heart had no more to pump. Thuy felt her sanity escape this surreal hell and she was transported back to the corpse-filled hills, but only for an instant and then she was back staring at the small lifeless body of her child. Time unravelled in slow motion. She watched in horror as the pirate picked the small body up by a foot and tossed it overboard. She welcomed the oblivion that enveloped her consciousness, her knees giving way under her, but a pirate grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her up again. I'm not here, she screamed silently. I'm not here I'm not here I'm not here I'm not here! Her gaze frantically swept the faces on deck and she saw Quan slowly withdraw the small fishing knife he kept strapped to his leg. But a pirate saw him too and without warning put his gun to Quan's temple and pulled the trigger. Blood and fragments of bone and brain tissue splattered onto the men near him and on to the naked bodies of the women. Thuy's moan was silenced by a fist.

Then the pirates threw the women on to the deck – now a mixture of blood and vomit and urine and bone – and raped them while the boat rocked gently with the movement of the sea, and beside the boat dolphins dived and played and whistled. Thuy's tormented gaze sought that of the men, begging for their help, but the only help they could give was to avert their gaze so as not to witness her shame.

Once more they drifted. They had been robbed of food and water, all except one small container in the engine room that had been overlooked, and this was restricted to just a small sip a day. One morning they found a couple missing – they had preferred drowning to this hell. The sun blistered their skins, the glare of the ocean blinded them, and at night they shivered from cold and shock. They woke one day to see land on the horizon, but the current was pulling them away. A man ran to the engine room and tried to start the engine. An explosion. A flash of flames and Thuy screamed as her hair caught fire. Another explosion.

 

"CAN'T TELL IF it's alive or dead. Bring 'er around a bit more." "Must be dead, Sir. Badly burned. Hang on, I've got it. Bloody hell, it's a woman ... Oh God! Her skin's come off in my hand!"

Thuy did not regain consciousness when they lifted her on to the Australian ship out on manoeuvres, when they inserted a drip and pumped her full of antibiotics. Nor did she regain consciousness when they transferred her to a helicopter and flew her to Darwin. She came to in a strange bed. Tubes entered her body, some attached to bottles, others to machines. Her gaze darted around the room, taking in other beds, other machines, other tubes, and she became frightened by the strangeness of it. Two men in white stood by her bed and she knew that white was for funerals and therefore she must be dying. Once more she lost consciousness.

When she came to again, the sun shone outside her window and a young woman stood beside her bed, holding Thuy's wrist and looking at a watch.

"Hello, you're with us then?" And Thuy recognised the language of the Uc-da-loi. The woman took a glass of water from the locker beside the bed and gently put the straw to Thuy's lips. "Just a sip, or you'll throw up." Thuy sipped the water. It tasted fresh and sweet on her swollen tongue. She kept her gaze on the woman. "I'll just get the doctor," she said, and left Thuy's side.

Thuy knew the word "doctor". She was in hospital, then. She raised her hand to her face and felt a bandage. There were bandages on her body as well. A man in a white coat came and she thought he was Michael, but when he sat on the edge of her bed she saw it was a stranger and she cowered back into her pillow.

"It's all right. I'm Doctor Nelson. You're in Australia. Darwin. Do you understand? Australia." Thuy stared at him expressionless. "Australia. Yes?" He sighed. "You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?" He rose and left the room. Thuy had understood him but her instincts warned of unknown dangers, and that it was wiser to pretend not to understand. Her head pounded and her tongue felt dry and tasted foul and she wished she could have more of the sweet water, but thinking tired her out and she slept.

When she woke again, the woman was beside her with men in a uniform she didn't recognise and she panicked at the sight of them, begging the woman not to let them take her, in a mixture of English and Vietnamese, and the woman understood her fear and reassured her.

"You're been transferred, dear. To Melbourne. They're really good with burns there. They'll be able to fix your face up." They lifted Thuy on to a barouche and she struggled, but the woman patted her hand, saying: "It's okay, it's okay", and those words Thuy understood so she laid back and let them move her into an ambulance. But when they drove up to a military aircraft, Thuy panicked, because planes meant war and soldiers and bombs and were not for girls like her, and she screamed "No! No! I'm not here! Please, I'm not here!" until she felt a pinprick in her leg and lost consciousness.

Thuy opened her eyes, rising from a nightmare of bodiless babies sucking her breast and soldiers drowning in a sea of blood. Rain beat a tattoo on the window. She tried to sit up, but quickly lay back feeling faint. She was in hospital once more. But hospitals cost money ... lots of money. And she had none. Only the rich and the foreigners could afford them. Once more she tried to sit but she was so weak. She closed her eyes and slept some more.

It took five weeks before Thuy was strong enough to walk around the ward. The staff were kind to her and she could understand what they said, although she pretended not to, preferring to find sanctuary behind a facade of incomprehension. They brought in an interpreter and Thuy noticed the young woman constantly glancing at her watch, so she answered a few questions then pretended to sleep and the woman left.

Several times in her wanderings, she would see a man in the distance she thought was Michael, but it never was. And as each day passed she worried more and more about what she would do when they asked her to pay for her hospital stay. Then one day during visiting hours she found a room temporarily without its patient and she stole the dressing gown left on a bed and walked out of the hospital and into the cold.

 

SHE SPENT HER first night shivering in a doorway surrounded by others without homes. In the morning, one of the men looked her over, taking in her damp clothing and bare feet, her features bluish with cold, her scars, and told her his name was Ted and that he had fought in Vietnam. She looked into his eyes and saw there the same hurt she had seen in Michael's eyes, and an instant bond developed between them. He took her to a place where they were given porridge and tea with milk and sugar, which made her gag but warmed her inside. When shops and offices opened, Ted took her to a place where he spoke to a man who took them to a room filled with second-hand clothes. Ted told her she could pick out some clothes for herself and so she chose a dress with a floral pattern and a grey cardigan. Then, out of a basket, Ted pulled a pair of woollen red and white striped socks, and she smiled for the first time in months. But Ted insisted they were just the thing for Melbourne and so she put them on, and they were so thick her feet could only fit in the black shoes with no laces.

From Ted she learned where it was safe to go and where to stay away from. She learned not to go to the same soup kitchen too often or the people there would ask too many questions, and to look out for patrol cars and how to avoid them. Once she found herself amongst a mob of people with placards and signs marching and shouting and she had run to her alley and cowered until Ted told her they were fighting for peace and would not harm her.

Then one day Ted said he knew of a place looking for workers, so she had gone there and found a room full of women like herself, who would not look anyone in the eye and spent their days sewing sheepskin souvenirs on big industrial machines. The man in charge would yell and swear at them, but Thuy was glad of the money. She rented a room in a building Ted called a "people's palace", which had cockroaches and bedbugs, but at least it was indoors. Sometimes she would sneak Ted in and they would both curl up on the floor to avoid the bedbugs, and Ted would make jokes about the man in the next room who urinated into bottles each night, lining them up on the window sill till morning, and they would sleep till daylight, warm and safe. But one day at work Thuy was thinking of Michael and lost her concentration until she felt the needle of the machine pierce the flesh of her finger and break against the bone. The pain and the blood oozing on to the sheepskin flashed her mind back to the bodies of her son and brother, and she curled on her chair trembling and mewing until the man in charge screamed at her and pushed her out the door, telling her not to come back and refusing to pay her because she had spoiled the sheepskin with her blood and sheepskins cost money.

 

SHE SHUFFLES DOWN the empty street, a small Vietnamese woman dressed in a floral polyester dress and a man's grey cardigan held closed by a piece of rope at the waist. On her legs a sagging pair of football socks, on her feet a pair of man's black lace-up shoes without laces. A burn scar, brown and wrinkled and tight, runs on the left side of her face, pulling the skin downwards so that little white puffs of moisture punctuate each of her breaths. She clings to two white supermarket bags that bulge with her treasures, and as she shuffles she mutters: "I'm not here. I'm not here. I'm not here."

I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-To-Die by Country Joe & The Fish, was originally released by Vanguard in November 1967; Uc-da-loi Cheap Charlie was a song popular during the Vietnam War, author unknown sung to the tune of Nick, Nack, Paddywack, Give a Dog a Bone.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 15: Divided Nation © Copyright Griffith University & the author.