The General Bombardment
“Chambardement General” is the French term. The General Bombardment. Blowing everything up. Destroying Society to start again.
Life, she thought, is a general bombardment. A bombardment of passions, of lies, of struggles. A bombardment of troubles to be met with a bombardment of solutions.
She only believed in one thing only; that the world was very dirty, and only dynamite could make it clean.
Her lover, an Englishman who described himself as an “Explorer”, had taught her this. When he was drunk, which was often, he would quote Lenin,
“We destroy to build better.”
Lenin had said that more than ten years ago, and the world was not better yet. Clearly, she reasoned, much, much more needed to be destroyed.
But where to start… Saigon offered so many targets… so many dirty places that needed destroying. She did not know where to begin.
Fortunately she was still young, there was plenty of time.
‘Thuy,’ he called out to her across the crowded street from the tiny cafe where he waited for her. ‘You are late.”
“Always late,” she said with a smile.
“Better late than never, I have waited three months, what is one more hour?”
He stood and embarrassed her.
She normally hated it when he held her in public. A rickshaw driver frowned at her and spat on the dusty floor, and two old ladies selling corn muttered viciously. But tonight she did not care.
“Where have you been, Steven” Thuy asked him as she sat down.
He always said that when he didn’t want to tell her where he had been. She knew it was a joke, but she did not understand it. She laughed anyway.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked her.
“No, the weather is fresh after the afternoon storms, lets go for a walk.”
“Is it really like Notre Dame in Paris?” she asked as they walked past the replica that the French had built back in 1880.
“Not really,’ he replied.”But it looks good in the moonlight.”
“It would look better in fire light.”
He kissed her passionately.
‘Don’t,’ she hissed, “people are watching…”
She pulled away, and glanced round, the street was deserted.
He laughed, and she could not stay angry.
They had met two years ago, in the cafe where Thuy had worked.
He was sat drinking wine alone, watching her all night like a hunter, catching glances and smiles. He stayed until all the other costumers and the French manager had gone home. The air had hung heavy and humid that night. At that time, past midnight, the darkness on the street was disturbed only by the occasional rickshaw.
Then, in her own language, he caller her over and offered her a glass of wine. She accepted, it had been a long day, and she had never sampled the wine she spent her life selling.
He told her, in tolerably good Vietnamese, that he would be going to Malay the next morning, and wished to see her when he returned in a month. His Vietnamese was soon extinguished, and although she spoke a little English and excellent French, she did not know what to say. They sat in silence for a few minutes.
“It is monstrous!” he suddenly exclaimed with a wave of him arm to indicate everything.
He repeated himself in French for her benefit.
Her eyes showed that not only did she understand, she agreed.
The wine was going to her head. Her high cheeks blushed crimson.
“It is a mess,” she said.
“What is?” he seemed surprised and his head darted from side to side.
He spoke rapidly in English, mixed with French, Vietnamese and Russian. It was impossible to understand, but he was definitely angry.
“Sorry,” he said, after a pause. “I ought to go home. A bit too much wine.”
“Good night,” he said, “See you in a month.”
“See you again,” she said, and waved.
She did not expect to see him again.
He had surprised her when he was back exactly a month later. He was sat with a tall, gaunt man with a shaved head. They had ordered coffee, but they were both drinking from a bottle of vodka.
They were deep in heated debate, conversing rapidly in French and Russian.
Only one word stood out : Chambardement General.
Eventually he called her over.
“Good to see you again. This is my good friend Eric Kuchova. Erik, this is…’
Then the tall man started shouting in Russian, which she did not understand. He then snatched up the bottle of vodka and marched away.
“Most embarrassing,” Steven said, and then, “would you like to meet me for dinner?”
“You can see me here every day,” Thuy replied.
“Perhaps you might meet me elsewhere when you have time off work?”
‘You can see me here every day.’
He understood. His broad face turned grim, but then he smiled.
“See you tomorrow,” he said with a grin, “good night.”
“See you again.”
The next morning she found that her cafe had been destroyed. Seemingly by a bomb small enough to smash the furniture, windows and doors, but cause no serious structural damage.
Next, she spotted him across the street. he was sat in a tea shop and looked extremely pleased.
‘Good morning,” he called across to her, “I see you have a few days off work, where would you like to go?”
That was how it had started.
With a bomb.
And that was how it would end.
Love, she thought, is like the monsoon rain.
The heat and pressure increases until it is unbearable, then the storm. Pouring rain… flashes of light in the darkness… a flood.
Overwhelming and unstoppable.
Which only builds up to the next storm.
Like the fuse of a bomb.
“So you are going to marry the foreigner?”
“No, grandmother,” Thuy replied.
“But you said you are going to move out of my house to live with the foreigner.”
“So you are going to marry the foreigner.”
“How can you live together if you are not married.”
“He does not believe in marriage, but we must-”
“The foreigner does not believe in marriage? Is he crazy?”
“Yes, very crazy… And his name is Steven, please stop calling him ‘the foreigner’.”
Her grandmother thought about this. What was wrong with modern girls? She should have taught her better, but what was she to expect when the poor girl had no parents around… and there were foreigners every where, and everything was such a mess? A sly smile crept across her ancient, weather beaten face.
“Are you pregnant?”
“Why not? Is he French?”
“I’m very sorry, grandmother, but I really must leave soon.”
“I forbid it.”
Thuy left in the night, when her grandmother was sleeping.
Steven had rented a small house, using a false passport, where it would be difficult for the police to find them.
They had to go into hiding because of her Birthday.
Her birthday present was the problem.
Steven had given her a hand grenade.
When she was a little girl, her father had deserted her, and her family, without any explanation.
Thuy had been so angry that she had picked up her dad’s radio and smashed it against the wall. For one moment, before guilt or regret, she had felt overjoyed. She saw it break into hundreds of pieces, and she felt powerful. She could control things, she could destroy things…
That was how she had felt when she had thrown her hand grenade at the Police Station.
Their house was in the far north of the city, near the river. It had been built by a failed Dutch trader, and retained a Dutch style in its high, arched roof. It had only two stories, living room on the ground floor, and a bedroom above. It had an outhouse in the tiny back yard, and, most importantly, a cellar.
The cellar was accessed by a trap-door which was easily concealed from above.
To Thuy, their house represented freedom; to Steven it was a strategic base.
Erik would often visit the house, unexpectedly, and spend the night sleeping on the living room floor. He had learnt to trust Thuy, but he preferred to speak in Russian, so she rarely understood him. Still, she knew that he and Steven were planning something.
Steven had changed since the incident on her birthday, and even more after they had moved in together .On the one hand, he was generally more confident, more dynamic, more passionate. On the other hand, he had become prone to melancholic moods, where he would sit in silence for hours, scribbling in his private notebook.
He no longer went to visit ‘ Eldorado’.
It was clear that Steven and Erik were planning something very big.
One evening, a week after they had moved in together,and after an hour of silence, he put down his notebook and said,
“Thuy, you are my Anti-Muse.”
“An- ti-muse? What’s that?”
“A Muse inspires an artist to create, you inspire me to destroy.”
She did not know what to say.
The next night she woke and saw him sat at the foot of their bed. It was hot and stuffy in their tiny bedroom. The world outside was silent, as if they were alone in all the dark world. As her eyes accustomed to the gloom, she saw that he was holding a glass of vodka, and his head was bowed down low.
“What’s wrong,” she whispered.
He shuddered, and then gulped down his vodka.
“I can’t sleep,” he replied.
“Planning something big.”
“I know… How big?”
“The Governor General’s Palace.”
“Tell me about it in the morning.”
She embraced him, and gently pulled him down into her bed.
His plan was genius in its simplicity, and monstrous in its brutality. Steven and Erik would attack simultaneously at midnight on Tet eve. Whilst the rest of Vietnam was celebrating, they would deliver a crushing bombardment.
When Thuy heard the plan she clung to her lover passionately.
“You are crazy,” she said, “I love it.”
And yet, still, something went wrong.
At 1am on the first day of the Lunar New Year, Erik returned home alone.
He had last seen Steve two hours ago, when they had separated to attack from two flanks. They had planned to ron de vue at their home at 12.45. In the chaos, Erik had been late.
They waited for Steve until dawn.
Then the police came. Two French officers followed by eight Vietnamese lackeys came strolling down the street, brandishing their weapons and confident in their overwhelming numbers.
“Get in the basement,” Erik hissed to Thuy.
‘What about you,” she whispered, her eyes wide with fear.
“Get in the damned basement.”
Erik quickly covered the basement trapdoor with a rug and a chair.
Then he drew his revolver.
Thuy heard shots, then shouts in French, Russian and Vietnamese. Then more shots, screams, shouting, more shots… A moment of silence.
Then the stamping of many boots above her, and shouts in Vietnamese only. More stamping.
She was alone.
Her heart beat like a drum hammered by a madman.
Silent tears rained down.
The hot, dusty air burnt her throat and lips.
Eventually she recovered herself enough to climb up the ladder and push the trap door open.
Everything was ruined. Everything was covered in blood.
She ran upstairs, fell down on her bed, and cried.
For the next week she did nothing but listen to the radio and read newspapers. Desperate for news of Steven.
Then she finally read about him.
He was to be executed by Guillotine the next day.
Immediately, she searched the basement until she found what she needed.
She could not see his face, as he lay there under the Guillotine. She did not need to… she would always remember it.
She could see the grim faces of the guards and the priest. A French Official read from a paper. Words that would mean nothing to Steven as he waited.
She lit the fuse of the four sticks of dynamite that she had lovingly strapped together.
Without a word, without a war cry, without a sentimental whisper, she threw it at the terrible machine.
It is how he would have wanted to have gone out.
Wiped clean with dynamite.
People, Thuy thought, are like the moon. They change every night, but they always return to their true form.
But some people, she knew, are like the countless stars in the endless sky. Their changes are so subtle and so complex that it would take a life time to understand them.