Ronan shaves. He lathers cheap soap onto his chops, hacks at the stubble with the razor—old fashioned, single blade. Then swishes it in the plastic washing-up bowl resting on his knees. The tiny hairs are like iron filings. They get everywhere. Chaos in that bowl.
His face feels like a freshly broken scar. His brain is like that too. Yesterday he’d been lucky enough to find a copy of the Times. Some tourist had thrown it in the bin outside a government building. He’d spent all day on that crossword, but at least it had kept him away from the fake Irish pub in the Old Quarter, where the noise was always intense. The bloody noise, there’s no getting away from it. He can feel the vibration from the road now, through the building. It shimmers the water in the bowl.
He places the bowl on the floor, pours himself a Jack Daniels, cracks open a can of Coke, tops up the glass. Stands by the window and moves the curtain to one side. From the third floor he can see the street, heavy with motorbikes. Swarming. Insectile. The drink inside him whispers, catastrophe beckons. Could be a good day. Alcohol: the sharp spur, kicking into his side. He wipes the sweat from his eyes with his cuffs.
It was on this street that he’d seen Sara, waiting to cross. He’d been in Hanoi four days. She was just passing through, too. On her way to Australia, studying lizards. Optimism seemed to be flapping inside her, like a dying fish.
Motorbikes streamed through the road, ten, twelve deep. Some had four people aboard. The air fuzzed with dirt and smoke.
He had to shout. I’ll teach you how to cross the road. Ignore the noise!
Do you know, she said, that salamanders can’t hear?
What? he said.
She laughed, like she thought it was a joke, but the traffic was truly raucous. And he’d been drinking; the malaria tablets had given him a bastard headache.
She shouted into his ear. Salamanders! They can’t hear. They hug the ground, feel the vibration that way.
He grabbed her hand.
Crossing the road is an art, he shouted over the noise. You’ve got to close your eyes. He watched her face to make sure her eyes were shut. She was squeezing them like an excited child.
She would be so impressed by this. Crossing the Hanoi traffic with your eyes closed. They just go round you. It’s a piece of piss. Just hold on to me love. Once we’re on the other side, you won’t be able to let go, not for weeks.
I don’t like this, she said, shaking her head.
Trust me. OK, now step out.
Are your eyes closed too? she said.
Oh yes. And it was true, they were. Horns blasted, exhaust noise roared, fled past, chaos all around.
They were half way across. He could feel the change in the stream of sound. Now it was coming from the right.
This is so cool! she said, getting into the swing of it. She was jumping up and down.
You’re as good as mine, he thought. You’ve put your faith in me, and I haven’t let you down. He couldn’t hear his own heart beating.
He felt a tug on his arm. She was pulling him forward. Don’t run, he said.
He pulled her back, but when she was bludgeoned sideways, his wrist cracked, pain ripped through his arm, through his torso; he blacked out.
The pictures showed her flat on the tarmac, hugging the ground, seeping into it.
Two years of expat living, two years of crosswords he can’t finish.
Now he walks down the steps, through the open corridor, stale piss up the walls, out into the street, eyes closed. The sudden smell of burning dust. The tumult of traffic. He is a rock in a stream. They all pass by.