After all the dread, and the drama of my journey back to Dalat, my return was totally anticlimactic.
For reasons I don’t recall, I was a day or so late returning to school and upon my arrival I was escorted to my new classroom which was already in session. As the door opened I thought I was going to be sick.
To my utter astonishment and enormous relief, my classmates all broke into smiles and called out “allo Caroleen!” Then I was shown to my desk and the lesson resumed.
What had happened? Did someone reveal that the story told about me had been false? Had the Sisters instructed my classmates to forget events of the previous semester? I doubt they would have complied. Had they all just forgotten about it? I never did find out. I certainly wasn’t going to ask, but I stepped very carefully for the rest of my time at Les Oiseaux.
There was another reason for me to be feeling better about things that semester. My Australian friend Sabrina was coming to join the school. I would have a real friend and someone else who spoke my language.
During my first semester at Les Oiseaux I had been the only English-speaker. There was, in fact, a British nun, I think her name was Mother Mary St Trea. I met her once and we said hello but she wasn’t one of our teachers, so after that I never saw her.
It was a bit strange, abandoning my mother tongue but by then I was fluent in French so I just began to think in that language. It’s what naturally happens. It didn’t really bother me.
Still, I thought it would be nice to be able to talk to Sabrina in English and we would be able to spend time together again.
Perhaps this was one of the early major disappointments that I came to expect. Sabrina is almost a year younger than me, which meant she was placed in a different class. As it turned out, her class and mine were differently categorized. We ended up in separate dormitories and our time schedules didn’t match. I would watch wistfully for my friend across the playground, and occasionally I caught sight of Sabrina, but we hardly ever got to speak to each other.
Politically, things were becoming very tense in Vietnam. One day we were told that we would have to march in a parade, and we had a few practice sessions, out on the playground, but it was all very disorganized.
We came back from one of these fiascos one afternoon to find a warning message written on our blackboard. It was in Vietnamese, so I couldn’t read it, but the Vietnamese girls were upset because they said it told us that if we walked in the parade we would be shot.
I don’t remember if we practiced after that, but on the appointed day, we were assembled and walked into town. There we joined the parade and tried to remember how to march in step. It was a pretty bad show. But we did our best. The attending officials were on a podium and as we marched past, the other groups were extending their arms in salute, but no-one had told us to do so and most of us didn’t. I don’t remember being afraid. I think I figured the Sisters wouldn’t have let us “march” if it hadn’t been safe.
I had been vaguely aware of “political intrigue” ever since coming to Viet Nam. I overheard people talking about the Viet Minh and about Communists, but I felt that as foreigners we would be immune to these things.
One of my classmates was a member of the Thai Royal family. She was known as Supitra, but I don’t know who she really was. Two of the Sisters came scurrying to our class one day to get her, and I was asked to walk with her down into the woods, to keep her out of sight. I think someone unauthorized had come looking for her. I liked a bit of excitement but it didn’t amount to anything in the end. I believe I was disappointed about that too!
There was an infirmary near my dormitory and one morning there was a long line of girls waiting for the nurse. There was a sick bay for girls who needed to be bed ridden, but soon all the beds were full and the rest of us just had to stay in the dorm. I woke one day with a headache that I thought would burst my head open. It may have been dengue fever, which was common in those days, but we weren’t told and I don’t think our parents were ever contacted about it. Eventually we were all back on our feet.
The political situation, however, was deteriorating. I think Sabrina left first. I stayed until the Christmas holidays and I looked forward to joining my parents in Thailand. Air France was on strike, however, and vibrating with impatience, I was held up for a couple of days.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, I found myself at the airport. It was the first time I ever saw a jet aircraft, a Boeing 707. I was tremendously impressed, but what a noise! As I was waiting, I saw a sad procession of passengers being escorted to their flight. I don’t recall how I knew, but they were the family of a Frenchman who had been killed by the Communists. It was then I became aware that we were not immune in this war.
I walked joyfully to the aircraft that, I still remember, was called “Chateau de Blois”. As it was Christmas Eve we were given some small gift, which I thought was nice. It was perhaps a diary, but I have forgotten.
Waiting in Thai Immigration was intolerable. I couldn’t wait to see my mother. Then as I got through Customs I saw a familiar face waiting at the exit. But it wasn’t my mother. My heart sank into my shoes. It was a friend that my mother used to stay with in Bangkok. She had come to meet me. But where was Mum?
Our very nice friend was sweet, but she looked a little, – apprehensive? Perhaps that is not the right word, but maybe she expected me to dissolve in tears? Throw a fit? I felt like it, but stiff upper lip, remember? I waited to hear the excuse.
“They just couldn’t wait any longer. They’ve gone to Malaya.” Oh, I thought, fantastic. She continued, “the flights are all full, so they couldn’t change, but you are going tomorrow”. I swallowed my disappointment and nearly choked on it, but what was one more day?
After that I added to the list of emotions I would never feel. Never again would I ever get excited, about anything. Ever.
At our friend’s house I was given a gift that my Mum had left, a huge koala bear. Normally, I would have been thrilled, but somehow it didn’t seem to do the trick.
After the overnight with our friends, it was December 25th. I am ashamed to say that I don’t remember wishing my hosts a Happy Christmas, but I daresay I did. Once more, there I was, causing distractions for put-upon friends, in the middle of their holiday. And I allowed myself to become disorganized.
A car arrived to take me again to the airport. As always, in the car, I glanced through my travel documents and realized that my health certificate was missing. Somehow it had got left out of my wallet. We were still within sight of the house. It would have been so simple to turn back. But why would the driver listen to a 12-year old? He was, in fact, the same individual who had been charged with, and failed to obtain my Viet Nam visa, during my previous “escapade”. We carried on.
Fortunately, Thai Airways did not prevent me from boarding my flight to Kuala Lumpur. I arrived, having noted the wide availability of seats. The Malay officials who confronted me about my lack of health certificate were not as scary as the Immigration officials in Viet Nam, but perhaps it was a lesser offense. (In Malaya I didn’t need a visa.) However, as a precaution, the offender had to be inoculated. Useless to protest that I had received both immunizations just two weeks prior.
My mother, concerned that I had not yet appeared, managed to gain access to the Health Office and arrived just as I was being jabbed in the arm. No fine little needles, in those days. Proper big thick ones, then! That was for cholera. The Malay doctor had a unique method for smallpox immunization. On my other arm, he smeared a spot with alcohol and proceeded to stab it numerous times, then applying the vaccine. “What are you doing?” cried my mother, appearing on the scene. She was told to expect that I should have a fever that night, but I didn’t. I was tougher than that.