6 Mar

On a bicycle with “up yours Germaine!” emblazoned on its belly, it could not look more incong­ruous. Insinuating its all-things-considered remarkably graceful path across the tarmac to my feet, the eighteen inch Mekong Catfish dodges tyre and sandaled foot alike in a futile and ill advised – there are worse ways to go than being skull-whacked by a fishwife – bid for freedom.

Terrible pronunciation for once works in my favour. Amid the cacophony of mid morning Kon Tum Market, from who else could so butchered a version of “xin xiao” have come but the ageing farang? As the woman meets my eye I finger the piscine Houdini. My conscience is clear. Its choices were few and the Buddha himself would applaud my tough, Middle Path call.

Taking her time about it, she strolls into the street to grasp and return the fish to its crowded and watery cell: a large plastic bowl; blue, as distinct from red for carp and green for eels. There’s also frog beige (no water for them) and, for large goldfish, off-white. Depending on oxygen needs of the species, an aerating tube is or is not bubbling up the water. I wait till a customer arrives. Warm courtesies are exchanged, carp of choice indicated. In seconds it’s dead and bagged: fresh fish in a hot country low on refrigeration.

* * *

On a street corner away from the market, a tailor operates an ancient, foot-treadle Singer in the now blazing sun. Only her eyes show. Her entire face and head are otherwise encased in fabric. I swear an ISIS bride would consider it over the top but this woman’s dream, vain in both senses of the word, is not of giving her life to Allah but of having a skin as pale as mine. To my Sheffield Hallam friends, here’s a research project for your undecided students come undergrad dissertation season: quantify and explain the vast sums South East Asia expends on skin-whitening products.

* * *

By the river at sunset she runs for joy, kingfisher blue. Her small bare feet devour the dusty track and I wonder what I could possibly have done to deserve such a sight.

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