It is 1953 at the Rue Catinat, Saigon. The street bustled with bicycles and pedestrians, swarming through the wide streets in the hot midday sun. Amid the people walking down the busy road, two men stood facing each other across the road. One stood in the middle of the pavement, his old French police uniform frayed around the edges, plainly obvious in the broad daylight. The other one wore old military fatigues that held no insignia, and his drawn European face was hidden in the shade of a leafy tree above him. He was a smuggler by trade, but business had not been good.
They stayed there for a moment, quietly sizing up how time had took it’s toll on the other. For the policeman, he couldn’t help but pity how the smuggler looked so much older now. For the smuggler, he couldn’t help but envy how the policeman still looked so young. After what could have been a minute or an hour, the policeman finally spoke.
“How are you doing? It has been quite a while, yes?”
“Yes, it has been a while. Too long perhaps, or maybe not long enough.” The man’s mouth turned slightly up at the corners, a ghost of a smile. “What do you say I buy you a cup of coffee? For old time’s sake.” With a weary sigh, the policeman answered. “Of course. Why not.”
They made their way inside a nearby cafe, perched on a corner where the loud automobiles rolled past. Across the road, the Hotel Continental rose before them, its large, full sized windows stacked one on top of the other. In the cafe, a young girl took their order and went about preparing their drinks in the cool shade of the building while they found chairs outside. Getting himself comfortable, the policeman carried on.
“How long has it been, then – ten years now?”
“Eleven years inside. Eleven long years… And kept on my own for two of them as well.”
“Was it as tough as they say?” The smuggler turned to look into the distance, eyes focused on something many miles and many years away. His humour seemed to desert him. “Tougher.”
“And you are looking to go back? I have chased down some of your kind in my time. Men just looking to be chased down, to be sent back. Is that you?”
The smuggler returned to the present as he answered; he had that same shade of a smile on his face again. “I’m afraid you must have chased down some very lazy men. Lazy, or incompetent. No, that’s not me – I won’t be returning, ever again.”
The policeman lit up a cigarette, watching smoke languidly drift upwards as he did. “I chased all kinds,” he responded. “Some thought they were not lazy, or incompetent. And still they ended up the same.”
“Do you see me looking for a skiff to hire, or for guns to sell?” The policeman offered him a cigarette, replying “I do not.” The smuggler accepted, and leaned over to light it. “Exactly. I’m not going back.”
“Then take my advice to you, for old time’s sake. Do not take a job again.”
The smuggler took a deep breath and let the smoke exhale. “I will do what I do best – I take jobs. You will do what you do best – try to stop people like me who take jobs.” The young girl reappeared with their order, and they took a brief pause while she set their drinks down. There was a time when the smuggler would have looked to make a comment to her, to make her smile or laugh, but the years had taken such lightness out of him. Instead, he merely watched her with a longing for his youth. The policeman pulled him back to their conversation as he stirred his coffee.
“So, you never cared for a regular life, no?”
“No, never did. Not for lack of trying though; not for the many wives and girlfriends. How is the regular life for you?”
“It is not what I expected. Not for the best. I have a daughter who hardly knows me, I spend so much time working. My wife, she is used to it now. It is like we are passing by each other, slowly but surely. And all because I have spent my time chasing down men like you. For me, that is the regular life.”
The smuggler took a long, hard drag on his cigarette, savouring it. It felt good to him, to have a smoke offered to him with a quiet conversation. It had been a long time since such a thing. “I had some good advice while I was away, something I wouldn’t forget. I was told, don’t become attached to anything that you can’t walk away from as soon as there’s trouble. If you can’t walk away, then you are lost.” He turned to the policeman and said “If you are chasing a man like me, and have to make your move, how can you expect to keep living your regular life?”
“That is good advice…”
“Easy to hear, but difficult to follow. Don’t get me wrong, I know. I have a woman too.”
“So what is it that you tell her?”
“I lie to her. That I travel with work.”
“And when you have to leave? When you are being chased? No last minute goodbye, no change of heart?”
“That’s the rule.”
“Then you are a tougher man than me, my friend. A much tougher man.”
The smuggler sipped his coffee, easing back in his chair and looking up to the sun. “Well, that’s the way it is. It’s either that, or I should find a new line of work. The same for you.”
The policeman shrugged. “I do not know how to do anything else.” The smuggler’s eyes turned downwards. “And neither do I,” he added. “I don’t want to either.” The silence between them was filled with the sounds of other customers nearby, enjoying the day. A shrug from the policeman, both an agreement and an argument. “Me as well. It always seems that there is time when you are young, time to do everything. In the end, though, we do not have enough time.”
“Only enough time to do what we can, not what we want.”
“That is true.”
As they sat watching the people go by, a boy chased a football. Only six or seven, his battered shoes pounded the floor as he raced past. The policeman thought of his daughter, much older than this boy, but still a child. He murmured almost to himself “So young and with so much potential. With the right interests, with the right help, that child could go on to do great things. A doctor, a teacher, a policeman. So many possibilities.”
The smuggler finished his coffee quickly, ignoring the boy. He held his hand up to shade his eyes from the glare of the sun, and stood up. The policeman did the same.
“On the other hand, all it would take would be a few bad decisions, a bad run of luck, and he could be something worse. A liar, a thief, a smuggler.” They both paused, aware of what he meant, then the policeman answered.
“You do realise, don’t you, that we are sitting here enjoying this coffee like old friends… You will do what you do, and I will do what I will. If I have to give chase and catch you again, I won’t like it. Even so, I won’t slow down, I won’t stop.”
“I understand. But still, there’s another side to that argument. If I’m in a corner, and there’s no way out except through you, I won’t stop for you.”
“Of course, there is the chance that we may never see each other again.”
The smuggler paused, smiling. “Hmm, who knows?” And with that, they went their separate ways.