I SUPPOSE HE was from the provinces, the heavily shelled country in the central highlands or further north, where Agent Orange left behind by the American military still seeps from the soil into waterways and poisons pregnant mothers. The result is tragic birth defects. One of the most common and most heartbreaking is encephalitis; though it is rarer on Saigon streets today, it was probable on any trip to Notre Dame Cathedral or Nha Tho Duc Ba (The Church of the Mother of God), as the locals call it, that you would see a mother with her child beside her on a towel, its head swollen to three times the size of a normal human head. Worse effects of the herbicide may be seen at Saigon's War Museum, which leaves the conviction that this was the cruelest weapon ever employed in war.
Cuong was my friend's name; I suppose he might have been considered lucky, for although his legs and arms were palsied, he could still walk, and could speak a few short words together before the effort exhausted him, and he had reached the age of forty. I met him on Christmas day, begging at the gate of the cathedral.
His face was contorted yet somehow beautiful. I watched him through the English mass that he could not have understood, yet he knew the rituals perfectly, and I remember him praying on his knees with arms outstretched though it caused him great discomfort, while the rest of us stayed seated comfortably on the pews. At the end of the mass he would move around the various votive shrines and pray in just this fashion, with special devotion to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and the first black saint, St Martin de Porres, who spent his life taking care of the poor in Peru.
After mass the gates were opened to the public and non-Christians could come in and view the cathedral – as a tourist attraction. I remember a large group of middle-aged American and British women snapping photographs of Cuong as he prayed, displaying all the tact of children at a zoo. I had a strange notion, seeing this little man shaking with palsy, his arms extended like Christ's, that he was holding up the entire edifice, that but for him God would let this pompous building fall – fall on all of us.
When Cuong stood I took his arm and asked him if he would have Christmas dinner with me. He laughed and latched onto my arm and we marched out of the cathedral. I had to stop him to get the packet of money the Catholic sisters were handing cripples at the entrance. He did not look at the packet once he had it. Just shoved it into his pocket.
The meal was difficult, I had to spoon-feed him, it seemed everyone at the restaurant was watching us. I suppose they thought I was a typical westerner trying to exhibit his great moral sensibility, but it was nothing like that. I was drawn to this man and his face and the way he prayed and I would rather we had eaten alone. At the end of the meal I put my hand on a one hundred thousand dong note, about five Australian dollars, but more than a beggar could expect in two or three days. No, I thought, it is a miserly gift on my part, even if it seems large to him. So I gave him five hundred thousand. He grabbed the note and put it in his pocket with the same indifference I had seen him pocket the packet the nuns gave him after Mass.
'Cai nay la Nam Cham... That's five hundred!' I said. 'Merry Christmas. For Christmas.'
He laughed and it was apparent he did not care how much I gave him, and I remembered how a few days earlier in Brunei I had seen an American man with a suit and briefcase arguing embarrassingly with a woman about the exchange rate on a cup of coffee.
I MET CUONG some nights later and he was begging again. He had bought a fancy new shirt with my gift, a new shirt and a rice cooker that, I was later to discover, his communal house did not need.
I gave him a hundred thousand dong and again he did not look at the note before he shoved it into his pocket. My God, I thought, here is the one and only man I have ever met who truly lives Christ's order, give no thought for the morrow. I was not wealthy, yet I believe I will never be able to relinquish the world so and I thought, he is a saint, a true saint.
He told me he wanted to go shopping.
'Mua gi?... What for?'
He said he wanted a telephone like mine. But you can barely talk, I thought. Cuong's hands were not steady enough to dial the numbers.
Instead we went to the zoo. We walked arm in arm, as was Cuong's wish, and I ignored the men lazing on motorbikes on the roadside who made homophobic insults. He took me then to see his house across the Kenh Thi Nghe tributary in Binh Than district. The district was poor, but the house he lived in, where he slept on a rough wooden floor in a room with four other men, was poorer still. I sat up drinking with the old man who owned the house, who said his son was in jail. To make penance for the neglect of his son in his youth he had given Cuong a place to stay.
On the surface the arrangement seemed little different to the professional begging scams you saw with Cambodian children and Vietnamese bosses. Yet, although Cuong gave a portion of what he made on the street to the old man, it was not the same.
Back in my own room I noticed my phone was gone. I remembered Cuong said he wanted a phone like mine and at my door I searched him – literally searched him like a policeman. I asked the owner of my building to ring my number and a taxi driver answered. I had dropped it on the seat. I felt ashamed. I could not look Cuong in the eye, though he had already forgiven me.
Later in the year I came to believe my life was in danger. It seems very melodramatic to have thought so now, but back then I was terrified. I went and found Cuong at the cathedral and asked him to come inside, to the altar and to the shrine to St Martin de Porres, and pray for me. He understood and did so. We prayed together on more occasions, and it was the only thing aside from alcohol that gave me any peace.
I LEFT VIETNAM and returned three years later. I found Cuong below the statue of St Mary in the grounds of the cathedral. He put his hands up to me to beg. I put my hand on his shoulder and spoke.
'Cuong nho ban khong?... Do you remember me?'
He leapt up and we embraced. We had lunch and after lunch he produced a photograph of a plain-looking, but well made up, Vietnamese girl in jeans and a fashionable T-shirt.
'Your girlfriend?' I joked.
Perhaps someone who has been kind to him, I thought. Then he made me understand that we were to go visit this girl. I had nothing on until the night so I agreed.
On the back of the photograph was an address.
We rode in a taxi for three-quarters of an hour. I hardly believed Saigon extended so far. We came to a dirty, unremarkable locale and got out and walked.
Cuong pointed to what looked like a shop with palm leaves obscuring the entrance. Giay Khat said the sign over the entrance. Café. So this girl must be a waitress.
It was eleven in the morning but we were the only customers at the café. We sat down on tatty deck chairs before an electric fan that moved the heat from one place to another in the room and I was brought some sweetened milk. I bought Cuong a coffee. There were three pimply and unpretty waitresses wearing very small shorts. Then Cuong's girl came in. She had pretty eyes above a vaguely masculine jaw. I introduced myself and we spoke with some difficulty. Cuong smiled and I smiled back. Then the girl sat on my lap.
My God, I thought, it's a brothel. The dourest, dirtiest, hottest most banal brothel I had ever been in.
Then I saw Cuong motioning toward the back room: a darkened doorway with an old shower curtain hanging in it.
'No, thank you.'
I made the girl get up and I stood up too. I paid for the drinks and angrily took Cuong by the arm.
'Chung ta di!... We're going,' I said.
Cuong was sad in the taxi on the way back to District One. I had enjoyed our trip to the zoo years ago, why not this? I too wondered why I was so upset. God knows I had sat in brothels before, sat in them with pleasure – not something I am proud of. But, I realised, I had made Cuong a saint and now I had seen him fall. He is no better than me, I thought. No better than any other man. Worse even. For this girl was using him as a tout, and he had tried to tout me. Me, of all people.
But that night my anger turned to sadness and then compassion. Cuong had never been told that a prostitute was not the same as a girl you met in an office, he had never been in an office. He had never been in a school. Prostitutes and beggars and dealers and police were the people he knew. I supposed he had used the girl; it had seemed that way at the brothel-café. One of the pimply girls had been touching him teasingly when I got up to leave. He was a tout for a brothel, but he did not even know it. You pious bastard, I thought.
I ALWAYS INTENDED to see him again before I left that year, but one thing led to another and I did not. I returned a few months later, for the Tet festival. I pushed my motorbike onto the street and rode to the cathedral but could not find him. Though the city sparkled under varicoloured lights that hung above the roads, my pleasure in the festivities was diminished because Cuong was gone. He no longer came to the cathedral, said the nuns, and the house in Binh Than had been knocked down and replaced by a newer dwelling for the lower middle-class. Forty years was a long time for a man with Cuong's condition to live, said one of the nuns.
'I am very sorry that you cannot find him.'
'Why are you looking?' asked the nun.
'He is my friend,' I said. 'And...'
But I did not say, could not say...