NaPoWriMo 2018 – #27 In Between Things Happening…

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There were times of course when nothing happened, though it always felt like something was about to happen, or had just happened; times when he would not do much at all, except sit on his balcony, looking down the very Vietnamese lane at men knocking down and rebuilding a three storey house with amazing rapidity and very little equipment other than a winch, a wheelbarrow and a few sledge hammers – lean, dark skinned, sinewy men who seemed to be able work ten hours a day in sweltering heat with hardly a break, knocking down walls, swinging off scaffolding, no helmets or high viz vests for them; or looking down at the street food stall on the corner of the lane, with its never ending stream of locals pulling up on motorbikes, sitting down on small, red plastic stools, expertly shovelling noodles, vegetables, meat into their mouths with chopsticks; or looking across to the beach road, where, for several weeks, police cavalcades sped up and down, sirens blaring, in preparation for the arrival of APEC, and Trump and Merkel who would be ferried to the luxury resorts up the road, past hastily erected billboards which screened off the swathes of idle wasteland in case the illustrious got the wrong impression of this never resting country; or spending an hour and a half doing a lesson plan for an hour and a half hour lesson, wondering why he bothered because he was pretty sure most of the other teachers didn’t, and would the students notice the difference anyway, and why didn’t he just put on YouTube videos for an hour or more, the way he had heard some did, and you didn’t get paid for lesson planning anyway; or wondering what his mysterious landlady was up to, with her new born baby whose father was apparently Canadian, but was not on the scene, and she disappeared to Saigon and Phnom Penh on a regular basis, but he had to say, whenever anything needed fixing she got someone onto it and made sure they did a good job before she paid them and you wouldn’t want to mess with her; or going to LotteMart to do his weekly shop, jousting with the busloads of Koreans who filled up their trolleys with packets of nuts, biscuits, chocolates, pretzels, crisps and a million things in shiny plastic bags, and wheeled the trolley through the checkout to husband or wife waiting with an empty suitcase which they would then fill with their booty; or just wondering, what was he doing here, in this strange country, which was not a country for old men.

In between things happening

nothing happened

with amazing rapidity

 


 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: Mike Hopkins – Alley in Phu Quoc

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

 

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NaPoWriMo 2018 – #25 The Woman Who Wouldn’t Move Out

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The Woman Who Wouldn’t Move Out

Early in his time as a teacher, he made efforts to befriend other teachers. He was still under the illusion that there could be some kind of social life found amongst the teaching staff at the school. Getting onto his motorbike after class one night, an American guy, maybe fiftyish, came out and mounted the bike next to his. They introduced themselves, shook hands, arranged to meet for coffee the next morning.

At the coffee shop, the American guy, Rob, told him that he’d been teaching for more than two years, that the school was a good one, that he’d always been paid on time and correctly, that the management could be trusted. These were all things he wanted to hear. Then Rob said “Have you got involved with any Vietnamese women?”. He was a bit taken aback by the question, said no he hadn’t and why the question. Rob had met a much younger Vietnamese woman online. Things had progressed quickly. Within a few weeks, the woman was staying over at his apartment. A few weeks later, getting home from school one night, he found her at the apartment. She’d got the caretaker, who she knew, to let her in. She’d brought her suitcases. She’d hung her clothes up in his wardrobe. She’d shifted his clothes into one drawer of the dresser, and replaced them with her underwear, blouses, socks, gym gear. Her toothbrush was next to his in the bathroom. Rob was a bit taken aback but decided to go along with it. He didn’t have much choice. At first, she cooked him meals, but soon she insisted they eat out every night. They were both drinking a lot, Rob always picking up the tab. It was fun for a while, but he felt trapped. Their conversation was severely limited by his total lack of Vietnamese and her limited English. There were long, long silences. He’d never made the effort to learn the language, never saw the need for it. This went on for a few months. Rob asked her to leave, said he loved her but needed his own space. She went ballistic, got violent, threw plates and mugs at him. He never raised the subject again. She knew staff at his school. In Vietnam it seemed like everybody knew everybody. He knew she had a brother who was a policeman and a cousin in immigration. They carried on the pretence – eating out, drinking, sleeping together. It affected his teaching. He was turning up late, unprepared, having no time on his own to prepare lesson plans. The students were complaining about him, that his mind wasn’t on the class, that he had lost his touch.

“So what are you going to do?” he asked the American guy.

“I have a plan” said Rob. “I’m leaving the country next week, and never coming back”.

 

A gift wrapped present

usually comes with

strings attached

 

 


 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : By Riza Nugraha  from Utrecht, The Netherlands (Saigon’s BeerUploaded by feydey) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

 

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #24 – Phú Quốc

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Phú Quốc

He goes to a bar near the beach, orders a tofu and vegetable stir fry and a bottle of Saigon Special. The Saigon arrives with the top off. It tastes weak and watery, like the Bia Hoi you can get for next to nothing in the streets of any Vietnamese city. He suspects the bottle has been refilled with the cheap substitute. He spends the next half hour watching the staff serving beer to other customers, looking for evidence that they were topping up empty bottles behind the bar. He sees no firm evidence, and then wonders if they’ve only done it to him, because he looks like a soft touch; that they wouldn’t dare try it on the hard-faced Russian tourists who frequent Phú Quốc.

He decides not to have another beer there, makes a sign that he wants the bill. They send a five-year-old boy to his table with the bill. It’s a cute thing to do, but in his cynical frame of mind he sees it as a ploy to extract a larger tip. He pays, leaves no tip and goes to the bar next door, called “Andy’s”, where he orders another Saigon. It’s cheaper anyway. The waitress takes the bottle straight from the fridge and makes a point of bringing it to his table and taking the top off in front of him. So maybe it is ‘a thing’ in Phú Quốc and he’s not imagining it.

He’s on his third beer, second if you don’t count the watered down one. Two policemen ride by the bar on motorbikes. In all his time in Da Nang he’d never seen a policeman near any of the bars he used to frequent in the An Thuongs, not even in the ones where weed was openly sold and smoked. He thought of the mural at the Crazy Kat bar: “A friend in need is a friend indeed, but a friend with weed is better”. The boss lady of Andy’s looks concerned about the police. They’ve gone into the bar next door that he’s just left. Perhaps there’s been a complaint about watered down beer.

At the next table is a Russian couple with a child, maybe four years old – a boy, blonde haired, pale skinned. The boy has a smart phone propped up two or three inches from his face, his chin level with the table.  His hands are placed either side of the phone. He is watching a video, the glow of the screen reflected on his face. For the next half-hour or more, the boy does not take his eyes off the screen. The waiter brings food to the table. The parents commence eating. The father interrupts his own eating every few minutes to cut up the boy’s food and spoon it into the boy’s mouth. The boy’s mouth opens automatically when the spoon approaches.  His head remains motionless, his eyes focused on the screen. The boy never lifts his hands from the table, chews the food and swallows it as if on autopilot. The father then picks up a bottle of cola, pushes a straw between the boy’s lips. The boy begins sucking.

He finds it hard to look away from this scene, imagines a future where this boy has grown into an adult unable to feed himself, unable to stand up from his chair, his eyes permanently locked onto a screen displaying a never-ending video, a servant or robot spoon-feeding him, a plastic tube delivering liquid directly into his mouth.

 

He recalls his childhood:

one video after another

and a vague memory

of spoons and straws

 

 


 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : By Riza Nugraha  from Utrecht, The Netherlands (Saigon’s BeerUploaded by feydey) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

 

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #23 – Subterranean Battambang Blues

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Poetry is not coming to me, but writing up experiences of the past 10 months is. I’ve appended a token few lines to the end of this prose, in an attempt to make it look slightly poetic.

Subterranean Battambang Blues

In Cambodia he feels the absence of Vietnam, a hard ball in his gut. Siem Reap is tourism on steroids. It’s selfie-sticks and climbing over sacred sites for the picture that will get the most likes. He avoids the throng, finds a small restaurant on the wrong side of the river. The wrong side if you’re a young, party going, good time guy looking for action; the wrong side if you want to hear a Led Zeppelin tribute band (admittedly they sound quite good), the right side if you want a quiet, friendly place to eat in unpretentious surroundings. He orders a vegan Amok – a Khmer curry. It’s warming and flavourful. The drinks menu has a simple pricing system – every drink is a dollar. He could work his way through the whole menu – four types of beer, eight types of soft drink, four types of juice and fifteen types of cocktail for $31. He decides against it. After three beers he orders a Margarita.

The next day he gets a small bus to Battambang. His hotel has arranged a tuk-tuk driver to meet him at the bus station. When he arrives, three or four men hold up cards with the name of his hotel. Some have several cards, one for each hotel in Battambang it seems. They are flashing them like Bob Dylan’s in his video of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.  He’s almost inside one of the tuk-tuks when he realises their game, and spots the right driver holding a card with his name on it.

That evening he gets a ride into town and eats at a place where you leave your shoes in the doorway. He nudges his expensive trainers into the shadows. By 9:30 p.m. the town seems almost deserted. Cafes and bars are open, but the only people in them are staff, their faces illuminated by the glow of phones. He finds a pub with a group of expats sitting outside on couches and armchairs around a low table. The owner, a tall Canadian guy, welcomes him. “Come over and sit with these guys and talk. They’re all interesting”, he says. “I don’t want to intrude”. “No, no, sit with them, I’ll introduce you. That’s my shtick.”  He walks over to the group with the owner. “That’s Jack, he’s an Aussie, and that’s Jasmine, his ladyboyfriend….”. He continues with the introductions: a Swiss guy who runs a NGO, three German tourists, an American guy who used to run a school in Saigon. The Aussie, Jack, is an ex-marine. He’s leathery and totally pissed, but in a benign way. He clearly adores his ladyboyfriend and she/he him. The Swiss guy talks to her in fluent Khmer. Most of the talk around the table is about Cambodia, how Sihanoukville has been ruined by the Chinese as has most of the country, they say. “There’s raw sewage running in the streets. They’ve built so many hotels, but no basic infrastructure”. The American guy says “Battambang is the last redoubt”.

He has a few more beers, swaps stories about Da Nang, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh. Tells them about the silent retreat he’s going on about twenty kilometres away the next day. They tell him to report back in ten days’ time. He says he will. By now it’s gone 11, too late in this town to find a tuk-tuk. He walks back to his hotel. The night is warm, humid. The sky is clear, unpolluted. He follows the Google map directions which, thirty minutes later, lead him down a pitch-black alley where dogs bark from every small house. He’s waking up the whole neighbourhood. He is near the hotel, but at the back of it, which is high-walled with no way in. He turns on the torch on his phone. A figure appears behind him, a young man, he thinks, who says something in Khmer. He can’t tell if it’s friendly or threatening. He keeps the light pointed towards the guy, whilst walking in the opposite direction. The guy keeps his distance but tracks him down the alley. The dogs are in a barking frenzy. He decides he needs to turn around, return to the main road. He walks towards the young guy, hoping that his phone battery doesn’t give out. The guy steps aside, the barking subsides, he finds the right lane to his hotel. The hotel gate is locked. He rings the bell, waking a shirtless security guard who opens up, giving him an accusing glare.

No, I haven’t been chasing women

although I admit to several alcoholic drinks

and the presence of a ladyboy

 

 


 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

 

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #22 – Vietnam is…

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Marble Mountain – Near Da Nang

Vietnam is… (draft #1)

Vietnam is a building site on a beauty spot in a village in a teeming city by a rubbish dump in a million-motorbike traffic jam on a white beach by a blue sea, swimming in plastic bags by a sewage outlet in a capitalist boomtown under communist control.  Vietnam is a ride on the back of an Uber bike racing a Grab bike in a cauldron of steaming Phở with a side dish of French fries drowned in a tower of beer washed down with ultra-sweet coffee sprinkled with chilli nibbled by cat sized rats and mouse sized cockroaches where everything somehow works and then doesn’t and then does. Vietnam is underpaid waiters giving five-star service, mostly, or sometimes, where things break and are miraculously fixed within the hour even on Sunday afternoon for next to nothing, where pavements are motorbike highways and every row of shops has a coffee shop, a spa, a street food stall , where destruction is creative and creativity is improvised, where coffee and beer cost thousands and there are twenty thousand to a dollar, where smiles outnumber snarls 10 to 1, where the roads are filled with raging traffic but no road rage, where nothing is what it seems and everything is an open book, but written in an incomprehensible script where a word can land in one ear and exit the other with no meaning or a multitude of meanings depending on the angle of approach.  Vietnam is an iPhone plucked from your hand by a thief on wheels and a taxi driver saying that what you’ve got is enough when you haven’t got enough. Vietnam is all go, on the go, round the clock, bad karaoke and face masks and tropical storms flooding the streets and stalling your motorbike.  Vietnam is rain capes and motorbikes stacked with chickens and pigs, washing machines and planks, four-up families, balloons and gutter pipes, plate-glass windows and funeral wreaths. Vietnam is Bánh mì and green tea, fairly lights and misting pipes, piles of bricks and daily rubbish tips and wi-fi in every café and cable tv in every apartment. Vietnam is old women cycling slowly through hair-raising roundabouts of chaos where an intricate interweave of vehicles negotiate unscathed (mostly), where every pavement slopes to the road so that every motorbike can drive on the pavement, and every motorcyclist has a phone in one hand and each day is dramatically better or dramatically worse than the previous day and every hour holds a challenge or a thrill or a delight but rarely boredom.  Vietnam is where nobody is to be trusted and everybody looks after you, where there are no public displays of affection, no discussion of sex or politics or religion, but men piss openly in the street and married couples seek solace in one-hour hotels.  Vietnam is dumpling sellers on motorbikes blasting out pre-recorded slogans up and down, up and down all hours, expats living the dream living the nightmare living in one hell of a paradise (until they get kicked out for not having a work permit).

 

 


 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

 

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #20 – Realising Perfection

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Realising Perfection

at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig

From this bay window

the black lough,

the banks of bulrushes,

the silhouetted swans

 

are perfect and yet:

a longtail boat

churning a wake

across the surface

 

or a boat woman

hawking soft drinks,

and one plastic bottle

floating in the shallows?

 

Below this bay window

the perfect lawn

is disturbed only by

the shadow

 

of a beech tree

but maybe:

tyre tracks

gouging the turf,

 

fast food boxes

scattered around

and a stray dog

scavenging?

 

The perfect sky

could be tinged

with exhaust haze,

the perfect silence

 

pierced by jack hammers,

the perfect paths

pitted with pot holes

and broken pavers.

 

The scones and cream

could be served

from a street cart

by a Bánh mì lady,

 

the brewed Italian coffee

made piquant

with a blob of

condensed milk,

 

the vegetables coated

in cheap chilli sauce,

the spotless kitchen

could sport a cockroach,

 

the empty roads

might feel the pulse

of swarming motorbikes

that I might fully realise

 

this perfection.

 

 


 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image of Tyrone Guthrie Centre: Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

 

NaPoWriMo 2018-#18 – It’s 2 p.m. and a Woman is Screaming at Me

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Today I’ve been feeling a bit wiped out so didn’t start writing until about 4 p.m. I tried a few different exercises, none of which worked, and then decided to write about this incident in Vietnam. Very much first draft.

It’s 2 p.m. and a Woman is Screaming at Me

It’s 2 p.m. and a woman is screaming at me

on the phone, I don’t know why

I put it down

and drink my tea.

 

It’s 2:30 p.m. and a woman is screaming at me

under my balcony

like some demented Romeo

but I don’t think it’s love.

 

It’s 3 p.m. and a woman is screaming at me

rattling my thankfully

padlocked gate

saying I’ve ruined her business.

 

It’s 3:30 p.m. and a woman is screaming at me

and the penny

drops: she’s from the restaurant

I left a 2-star review for on TripAdvisor.

 

It’s 4 p.m. and a woman is still screaming at me

out in the laneway

I call the restaurant, and a man says

“Yes, that’s my wife. I feel your pain”.

 

It’s 4:30 p.m. and a woman is not screaming at me

I’ve taken down the TripAdvisor review and see

that every rating for that restaurant

is 5 stars.

 

 


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: Barry Schwartz

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #17 His Photoshopped Life

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Yesterday I started my two week stay at the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. Now I have no excuses for not writing. This one is new today, but I’ve had more time to work on it. Hence it’s longer than most, which probably means it needs a good edit.

His Photoshopped Life

Now that he’d left Vietnam

he could Photoshop his memories,

rose tint them for public consumption,

make them suitable for family viewing,

crop the New Year’s Eve incident,

the altercation with the restaurant owner

and anything to do with women.

 

Now that he’d left

he could filter the green tinted anxiety

of daily dealing with surrounding strangeness,

the life-threatening traffic,

the challenge of just crossing the road,

the fear of being bribed by police.

 

Now that he’d left

he could tone down the times

when there was nobody to speak to

except waitresses and barmen

and his Vietnamese was too pathetic

to get beyond “Xin chào” and “Cảm ơn”.

 

Now that he’d left

he could sharpen those bits

where the kids were delightful,

where they chanted “Hello TEAcher”

and “Goodbye TEAcher”

and unpacked his bag for him

and repacked his bag for him

and hugged him at the end of class

and cried when he said he was leaving.

 

Now that he’d left

he could erase the smartarse teenagers

who wanted a young, square-jawed American teacher,

who completely ignored his only three rules:

  1. Turn off your phone 2. Speak English 3. Be nice.

He could cut out the time he shouted:

“Does anyone here actually want to learn English?”

and they all laughed and chanted “I do TEAcher”.

 

Now that he’d left

he could highlight the camaraderie,

the nights sitting on benches,

drinking beer, eating phở so cheap

that it was almost free,

of riding three up on a motorbike

down back lanes, dodging the rats and the dogs

and yes, even going to a karaoke bar.

 

Now that he’d left

he could get back to normality.

 

 


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: originally Mike Essl  with minor modification by Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #14 The Problem of Language

 

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The impossibility of tone

“Sweet. Candy. The difference?”

What timidity prevents

“Adjective+Noun. But if I have two adjectives?”

If the noun is a feeling

If the adjective betrays

“Call. Speak, Say. Give examples”

What is not confessed

The meanings of silence

“Now, all speaking stops”

What can be misread

“Why a dog barking up a tree?”

“and where to find red herrings”

 

 


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: Mxn at en.wikibooks

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #9 Foreign Bodies

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Foreign Bodies

Look at them

with their manspreads

their open plan sexual organs

their overdeveloped egos

their bass-boom voices

 

Just bloody look at them

with their alpha-male postures

their over-muscled buttocks

taking up three seats

their bad-designer stubble

their hangdog hangover eyes

 

Just fucking look at them

ogling the waitresses

complaining about the service

planning their moves

their cigarette smoke airs

poisoning the atmosphere

 

—-

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: wikicommons/friedc

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)