Full of dread, I got ready for the journey back to Dalat where, denying what I had been falsely accused of, I had been branded a liar.
Liar. One of the basest things a man can be. I am not a liar.
A colleague once hurled the name at me. I am not proud of how I reacted. It was a bit extreme. Even for me. But that is how deeply the accusation cuts.
My father must have been more irritated by me than usual. He was jealous of any time I spent with my mother, sneering at me, ” mother’s shadow”. Or sometimes, in disdain, it was “Princess” which really upset me with it’s implications about my character.
Even Mum had accused me once of something very low. My brother had recently been for a brief visit. It’s so long ago, I can’t remember the details, but Mum said I couldn’t do whatever it was I wanted, and I complained, “well Peter did!” I got a furious look and Mum angrily told me I was jealous. The word hit me as if she had struck me with her hand. It hurt terribly that Mum was angry with me.
Siblings are often jealous of each other, but there was more to it than that. I believe it was a matter of my mother’s conscience over appearing to treat her two children differently. I understand it now.
Then, the pain went deep. In truth even though I was only 12, I didn’t really think Peter had a whole lot to be jealous of, considering, and asking to be allowed to do whatever it was he had been permitted, had seemed a reasonable request.
I decided that day I would never, ever again be accused of jealousy. Under any circumstances. It set me up to be the perfect mistress for a married man.
That is a whole other story.
So there I was, on the morning of my departure for Dalat, feeling sicker mentally by the minute, when Mum asked Dad about our going to the train station, whereupon he declared having no intention of taking us. We could go in a taxi, and what difference did it make if he said goodbye in the house rather than at the station?
I was hurt and my Mum was incredulous. For one thing it meant she would have to find the taxi to take us. There were no telephones, and to this day I have no idea how she arranged it. I realized only recently, that she set in motion something else too. Looking at old pictures, suddenly the penny dropped. I can’t believe it took so long.
When Mum and I got to the train station that afternoon, I was surprised to see my parent’s small group of friends assembled on the platform. They each came up to me, laying a malai, or necklace of flowers, around my neck. I was astonished at being so honoured, not understanding. Five decades passed before I realized that those sweet people had taken the trouble to come to the station with flowers to make up for the fact that my father could not be bothered.
My mother was much beloved by almost everyone she ever met, and I am sure the gesture was as much for her as for me, but such kindness helped me on the start of a dreaded journey.
Dad had been completely right, of course. It made no difference at all where he told me goodbye. I was clutching for any sign that he accepted me as his child, that deep down he loved me. Eventually there came a time…yet another story.
Mum came with me to Bangkok, and from there I flew to Saigon to be met by a work colleague of my father, who had been coerced into accommodating me and seeing me on to the next flight. It seemed I was forever putting people out. This particular time, it was a major inconvenience.
My passport had been left at an office in Bangkok where a clerk was charged with obtaining my Vietnamese visa. In the car on the way to the airport, I scanned through the document, searching for the visa. My Dad was not good with annoying necessities of this sort, which had taught me to double check, even at the age of 12. “Mummy”, I said, “I don’t have a visa for Viet Nam!” Presumably she thought this was another ploy to avoid being sent back to school. Without looking, she said “Of course you do”. I was dispatched promptly to Saigon. Mum returned via Bangkok to Ubol (pronounced “Ubon”) where they were living.
Arriving in Saigon, I received a severe tongue lashing from the scary immigration officials who angrily screamed “Mais vous n’avez pas de visa!!!” “But you have no visa!”. I thought the Air France official on duty would have apoplexy. Her eyebrows when she surveyed me reached toward the ceiling. Sublimely annoyed, she regarded me as she might a piece of something nasty on her shoe. I wanted to say to all these people “Look! I’m 12 and I did point out to a responsible adult that I had no visa, but does anyone listen to me?” I was mortified and it was a big deal to get the matter sorted out. I almost expected that day, to be detained, but I suppose they thought the use of 12-year old British spies would be pushing it a bit, even for the CIA. I don’t know how much had to be paid to whom to rectify the matter, or how much grovelling was required, but I know it wasn’t the neglectful party.
When people helped me during those transit stops, I always wrote to thank them. I don’t know what sort of exchange went back and forth from my mother, but I felt it was my responsibility. I had to stay overnight in Saigon, which meant that my host’s son gave up his bed for me and slept on the sofa or floor. Something else I could feel guilty about.