Excerpt of The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam
(Page 4 of 8)
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They ate. Their chopsticks and spoons clicked on the bowls. Each
regarded the square as if they had never before seen it, as if just noticing
the handsome post office that the French had built, which now was
also an army office. Three Buddhist monks with iron begging bowls
stood in the shadow of St. Francis Xavier, the Catholic church that was
famous for providing sanctuary to Ngo Dinh Diem, the former president
of Vietnam, and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, during the 1963 coup.
After finishing his noodles, Percival sipped his coffee, and selected a
piece of cut papaya using his chopsticks. He aimed for an understanding
tone, saying, Teacher Mak tells me she is very pretty. He lifted
the fruit with great care, for too much pressure with the chopsticks
would slice it in half. But your love is improper. He should have called
it something smaller, rather than love, but the word had already escaped.
Percival slipped the papaya into his mouth and turned his eyes to the
monks, waiting for his sons reply. There was the one- eyed monk who
begged at the school almost every day. The kitchen staff knew that he
and his brothers were to be fed, even if they had to go out and buy more
food. It was the headmasters standing order. On those steps, Percival
remembered, he had seen the Ngo brothers surrender themselves to
the custody of army officers. They had agreed to safe passage, an exile
in America. They had set off for Tan Son Nhut Airport within the protection
of a green armored troop carrier. On the way there, the newspapers
reported, the soldiers stopped the vehicle at a railroad crossing
and shot them both in the head.
Teacher Mak has nothing better to do than to be your spy? said
Dai Jai, his voice starting bold but tapering off.
That is a double disrespect to your teacher and to your father.
Forgive me, ba, said Dai Jai, his eyes down again.
Also, you know my rule, that school staff must not have affairs with
students. Percival himself kept to the rule despite occasional temptation.
As Mak often reminded him, there was no need to give anyone in
Saigon even a flimsy pretext to shut them down.
But I am not
You are the headmasters son. And you are Chinese. Dont you
know the shame of my fathers second marriage? Let me tell you of
Chen Kais humiliation
I know about Ba Hai, and yes, her cruelty. You have told
And I will tell you again, until you learn its lesson! Ba Hai was very
beautiful. Did that save my father? An Annamese woman will offer you
her sweetness, and then turn to sell it to someone else.
Percival knew the pull that Dai Jai must feel. The girls of this country
had a supple, easy sensuality. It would be a different thing, anyways,
if Dai Jai had been visiting an Annamese prostitute. Even a lovestruck
boy would one day realize that she had other customers. But this was
dangerous, an infatuation with a student. A boy could confuse his
bodys desires for love. Percival saw that Dai Jai had stopped eating, his
spoon clenched in his fist, his anger bundled in his shoulders. You cant
trust the pleasure of an Annamese.
You know that pleasure well, mumbled Dai Jai. At least I dont
pay for it.
Percival slammed his coffee into the table. The glass shattered.
Brown liquid sprayed across the white linen tablecloth, the fruit, the
porcelain, and his own bare arm. He stood, and turned his back on
his son to face the square, as if it would provide a solution to this conflict.
Peasants pushed carts with fish and produce to market. Sinewy
cyclo men were perched high like three- wheeled grasshoppers, either
waiting for fares or pedalling along, their thin shirts transparent with
sweat. Coffee trickled down Percivals arm, over his wrist, and down
his fingers, which he pressed flat on the hot marble of the balustrade.
Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wager
by Vincent Lam. Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Lam.
Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.