Ho Chi Minh

Philip Langeskov

Ho Chi Minh

Philip Langeskov

There was A mountain of paperwork to get through, but finally she was able to fly back. She sat by the aisle, toward the rear. The seat next to her was empty, as was the window seat next to that. This was a luxury, she knew, a stroke of luck, and she allowed herself to feel the frisson of travelling alone, of being free. As the first complementary Bloody Mary was served, she wandered between realities – the possible, the impossible, the downright absurd. The cabin crew seemed attentive, more so than usual, and she saw, or believed she saw, some semaphore at work in the way in which they handed her her drinks, and then, when it came to it, her dinner. It was possible, of course, that they knew something, had received some intelligence in advance of her circumstances.

After dinner, she called for another drink; then, the lights were dimmed. At a guess she would have placed them somewhere over the South China Sea. With her earphones in, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift in and out of sleep. She permitted it to such an extent that the distinction between the state of sleep and the state of wakefulness began to blur. When she was awake, she assumed she was probably asleep, and when she was asleep she had half a mind that she was actually awake. In one of those moments, when she felt herself to be both awake and sleeping, she saw – or seemed to see – a man, sitting about three or four rows in front of her, throw himself back in his seat as if startled by something. His head rose (or seemed to rise) over the headrest at an unusual angle. With his neck so contorted, she was able to see, or otherwise sense, the unusual way in which his hand clutched toward his chest, snaking up over his body as if it meant to strangle him. The person next to him, was out of her seat in an instant, and the man fell to one side. This woman, the one sitting next to him, was taken by surprise. Nevertheless, she leaned back in and tried to prop him up, seeming to drive at him with her shoulders, as if keeping him upright were the key to it all, the secret to holding up the tide in the way of which she had suddenly, inexplicably, been placed.

In the delirious moments that followed, with her own head fallen slightly to one side, out into the aisle, she was able to make out stewards hurrying from further down the plane, seeming to arrive through the curtains as if out of cloud. Then a man came and another steward, carrying a black plastic case.

The next time her consciousness was intruded upon they had the man out into the aisle, lying on the floor, his head toward her. His eyes were open, or seemed to be, roaming the cabin, looking for something to latch onto, trying to make sense of the situation. The force that is expended when attempting to massage a body back to life is a thing to behold and she shrugged, or felt herself to shrug, as a doctor – it must have been a doctor –pounded on the man’s chest as if desperate to be let in at some door. In the background, a steward fumbled with the black case, trying to get the defibrillator out. Whether he did or not is unknown to her, because then she did fall asleep, properly, definitively, the unconscious kind, when nothing from the outside penetrates to the inside. If she dreamed in this period, she didn’t remember it.

When she awoke, it was morning. When she looked across, she half-expected to see the shape of a body covered in a blue airline blanket, but there was nothing, nothing at all, just an empty space with no sign of what had been there before, if anything had. She was nearly convinced that she hadn’t seen any of the things that she thought she might have seen. There was no announcement and breakfast was served with no discernible trace of distress on the faces of the cabin crew. Afterwards, a man from the middle row of seats leaned over and asked if she would mind if he sat by the window seat for the landing. The question took her by surprise, but she agreed and he came over.

Soon enough, they were landing and she was back in Ho Chi Minh. She was happy to be there – happy to smell the smells and hear the sounds. It was home, now, she knew, if she hadn’t before. She wouldn’t leave. When she made it back to the apartment in District 1, Trúc was waiting for her on the street outside. She didn’t know how he knew, perhaps he had been waiting there for days. She ruffled his hair and he followed her up the stairs. He had brought a parcel of food from his mother and he placed it on the low bamboo table. There were some bánh bôt chiên and a bò tái chanh.

'Thank you,' she said, squatting down in front of Trúc and putting her hands on his little shoulders.

'Where Mitchell?' he said.

She had expected the question, but still she didn’t know what to say. It was Mitch Trúc had come to see, she knew that. ‘Mitch isn’t here, sweetheart.’

‘When he back,’ he said. ‘When?’

Trúc didn’t hang around long. She didn’t know how to explain it, but she’d go and see his mother tomorrow or the next day. She was tired. When she went through to the bedroom she saw all of his things. It was hard to believe that he had accrued so much. She genuinely hadn’t noticed, but they say that about the things you live among – you don’t notice them change. Now she has to pack it all up and send it to his parents. They live in Brisbane, a flat in one of the towers overlooking the Gold Coast. How they’ll make room for it all is not her concern but it concerns her nonetheless, making her wonder if she shouldn’t just throw this stuff away, all of it, maybe keeping a few things for herself.

Philip Langeskov was born in Copenhagen in 1976. He has an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from University of East Anglia, where he teaches. His fiction has appeared on BBC Radio and in various other places, including Five Dials, The Warwick Review, and Best British Short Stories. His first book, Barcelona, was published by Daunt Books in 2013.