‘We Held Hands’: A short story by Kathryn Freeman

By Kathryn Freeman

‘We Held Hands’: A short story by Kathryn Freeman
Read Kathryn Freeman's winning entry for the The Footpath Library and Macquarie Short Story Competition.

“I found myself chaperoning Dong on his first date.  He must have been about 14.  Me, 25.  We went to the only Western cinema in town, located in an overly glamourous air conditioned shopping centre selling expensive brand names to those carrying wallets full of corrupted money.  We waited outside for the girl to arrive.  She didn’t.  Tensions rose.  Eventually, I was hit up for the cost of her taxi ride and, having never been a chaperone before, I presumed that paying probably fell into the remit, so I agreed.  Dong, a boy whose emotions are perfect for all their simplicity, has likely never been happier.  And she hadn’t even arrived.

Unable to channel his anticipation into the cool one might usually aim to exude on a date, and body getting bouncier and more uncontrolled, he threw his arms into the air and ran the entire block of the shopping centre.  In Hanoi’s summer humidity, arms up and down like a winner.  Caution sticking its finger up at the wind.  Whimpered enthusiasm that couldn’t quite form a word or intelligible sound, knocking past the glamour pusses and their cashed up men carrying bags of high heels.  One lap didn’t satiate him.  He smiled at me on passing and went around again.

When the girl finally arrived Dong was so sweaty and breathless he couldn’t talk to her.  She, full make up and irritable aloofness, barely greeted him.  They didn’t speak at all.  We watched the film.  Every few minutes Dong would look at me and beam a smile and fervently nod his head, but never did he engage with her.  We went home.  I never heard what happened to her, whether they saw each other again, whether they ever actually spoke.

I think about this every time I meet someone I fancy.  I imagine being so overwhelmed with emotion that I can’t speak and all I can do is a wild run.  I imagine it as an old primitive mating ritual; the faster a man runs from me, the less he talks to me, the more he digs me.  It’s a flawed but romantic logic.

I don’t remember when I first met Dong.  He was the youngest and wildest kid in a street gang we’d been working with in Hanoi.  They would sleep wherever they fell.  Bus shelters, on bridges, next to freeways.  They would pinch whatever they needed.  They carried knives.  He was small and dirty and vibrant and eager.  His chest concave, his hair long, thin and matted and what clothing he did wear had more holes than material.  Googly eyes.  Boney.  Horrific teeth that smelt bad.  He had no inhibition, no sense of space.  His body moved like an untamed animal, all arms and legs and a trunk leading them.  His laugh was unreserved.  When he did eventually own shoes, he had to be taught how to tie the laces.  At age 13.  He didn’t know how to ride a bicycle.  The leader of the gang, a rough but charismatic boy, always kept space on his bike to dink him, to make sure he wasn’t teased by the other louts that they didn’t necessarily like, but that they needed to hang around in order to make it a gang.

Most people were afraid of him.  Dong had no control.  He wouldn’t do what you wanted him to do.  He (heaven forbid) didn’t follow rules.  If he was mad, he’d show you he was mad.  When he was scared, he’d do anything he could to show you he wasn’t.  He had the tantrums of a 3 year old.  If he needed attention, he could make your day unbearable, not by doing anything harmful, but by being completely and utterly annoying.  Picking on people, poking girls, nicking cards from games, being loud.  Just being naughty.  I loved him.

His lack of control went for positive emotions too.  If he found something funny, he could laugh at it for hours.  The more times you told the same joke, the funnier it got.  I have heard the phrase ‘pho q’, pronounced ‘fuck you’, more times than a Vietnamese person has eaten pho. That’s a lot.  When he was happy he was blissful.  When he needed care there was not a maternal instinct he couldn’t caress.  There was nothing more delicate than when he slept.

Eventually I hired Dong as my assistant.  Thirty minutes every day.  For one dollar every day. No sick leave.  No leave loading.  To keep him out of mischief.  Some days we would order books, count cards, file papers.  Other days we would go to the café or watch Youtube videos.   I’d seen Dong hold a knife to another boy’s throat.  I’d also seen him petrified of Michael Jackson’s Thriller clip.  On the days he failed to turn up, he would make up outlandish and fanciful stories of what had delayed him; a policeman needing assistance had called on him; an old lady needed help carrying her shopping; his friend was upset and only he could help.  Excuses have a universal theme and always a hero character.   Dong was it.  He would squirm trying to answer my inquiries.  It was the kind of cunning that only someone who has always had to fend for themselves can muster.

When I asked him to paint a bookcase he tipped an entire can of white paint on top and used his brush to catch the spills and lather them into the wood, eventually covering the shelves.  Two minutes later, he was finished.  Excess paint gathered and dripped, formed shiny pools on the tiled floor and started a river toward the drain.  As I inspected, Dong doused himself in turps, and emptied the bottle on the ground using his now white shoes to scuff the paint away.  It only made for a bigger mess.  With my appreciation for literal thinking, I found it difficult to explain how he had not fulfilled the brief.  The bookcase was painted.  In record time.  If anything, it was over painted.  He had exceeded at the job.  He had done too good a job.

I never did know if he did this to infuriate me, or if he truly believed that was the best way to paint shelves.  I didn’t care.  I was hooked on him and I refused to be anything but proud of his ingenuity.  We laughed hysterically covered in paint.   We Westerners, or perhaps we adults, are too quick to worry about the right way to do things, about making a mess, about perfection.  The shelves took several days to dry, they were patchy in parts, thick globs of paint in areas, in others barely a scrape.  They were perfect for the memory and the reminder that sometimes it’s just better to do things differently.

We may never really know what happened to Dong in his early years.  He doesn’t remember much.  No photos.  Dong’s birth was never registered.  He didn’t have a birthday.  He chose a birth date and we celebrated his first birthday when he turned 14.  He had no known family.  An orphan.  He lived the early years in a centre.  No love.  With ribs gorging at his skin, not enough food.   He could write, but not behave.  No school.  He had the homemade tattoos you’d see on a hardened crim not a little boy.  No child’s play.  He tells me that at 11 years old he snuck out of the centre and walked the 64kms to Hanoi to escape.  He reckons he did it in 5 hours.  It’s likely a lie that I’m happy to oblige.

We were friends.   On Sundays, Dong and his chums would come to my house.  They would charm my foreign housemates, but perhaps not my Vietnamese neighbours who were wildly gossipy and suspicious.  We would eat.  Cook . Draw.  Make movies.  Play games.  Tell stories.  We would hold dive bombing competitions at the local swimming pool.

They did the washing up unrequested.  They brought gifts of fruit and flowers.  They started coming earlier and earlier so when I told them they couldn’t come before 8am, they would turn up at 6.45 and quietly sit on my doorstep, occasionally daring to ring the doorbell.  I would watch their impatience from my bedroom window and we would waste the first hour of the day arguing about whose watch had the correct time, as precious minutes together may have been lost.

We would do nothing in a way that made doing nothing seem like the most important thing that could be done.  They were safe with me.  And me with them.  We looked out for each other.  I joined their gang, and they mine.  The roughest and baddest boys from the street were babies in my home, were children again.

When my year abroad was up and it was time to go home, I crumbled.  Breathless with guilt for demanding this young boy better himself, be himself, trust me, and now I was leaving him.  For what?  My home?  I’d mended him back to health and he’d done the same for me.  There’s no words to explain neglect and desertion to those who have been neglected and deserted their whole life.  It’s primal, the sense of impending danger.  They’re experts.  They sense it before you spit out any explanation and by then the words are to placate the one speaking them anyway.

The drive to the airport felt more than the hour long.  We held hands, Dong shut his eyes and put his head on my shoulder.  Cheeks wet.  It was a hurried final farewell, in front of the manic driver, the pushy Vietnamese tourists who used cardboard boxes wrapped in cling wrap as suitcases, and amongst our friends.   A small Vietnamese homeless boy, an Australian woman, the product of a two parent suburban family, whose luggage was more than this boy had likely ever owned.  The oddest and bestest of chums.

That was 6 years ago.  I saw Dong tonight.  He’s 17 now.  Almost a man.  He is stable and good.  Clean clothes.  Confident shoulders.  He’s tall and well mannered.  His cheekiness tamed but his humour still raging.  He is goofy and gangly.  He still finds bald people funny.  He meets me at my hotel, grabs my hand and we swing them between us as we wander to find pizza.  Heads turn.  We don’t care.  Still a boy desperate for affection.  A boy who couldn’t dare dream of what the evening would bring now talks freely of his future, his plans to marry at 23, to have children, to not drink alcohol, to be a good person.  How dedicated he is to being normal, so mundane to most 17 year old boys, but to Dong a challenge that will take a lifetime to achieve.

He talks of the other boys we once both knew who chose the more difficult path to adulthood that routed via rehab and prison.  He talks of finding his family and them not really being family at all.  We talk about family, the idea of it, how you make it and what it is.  How family gives you a home and a place.  He has always called me sister, but tonight it means something more.  Spitting chunks of pizza across the table and guzzling his Coke, Dong innocently asks me who my family is.  You are, I tell him. ”

About the Author: After finishing a couple of degrees, Kathryn began listening to the stories of those in the welfare world, a privilege she meets with equal surprise and gratitude.  She keeps going back to Vietnam, working with Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation who always remind her that communication isn’t only about language, and if you bother, anything is possible.  Kathryn has never entered a competition before, unless you count Keno.  Her only writing experience has been sternly worded letters to get out of parking fines which to date have been less than successful.  She’s tempted to write more.


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