Hung clears his throat. He does not know what to say. The professional businesswoman has transformed into a girl defeated. A girl in search of her father. "A Hanoi man, was he?" She glances up, turning Hung into a frozen portrait of a man holding a ladle in midair. She looks so vulnerable - her eyes shining like rare black pearls, a slight tremor to her chin - her face far too revealing.
"He grew up in Hoi Phòng, but he moved here to train at the École des Beaux Arts in the late 1940s," she says.
It has been decades since a beautiful young woman has looked at him in such a way. Not since Lan, the girl who used to raise her eyes to him for answers. It is almost unbearable. If only he could offer this young woman - and himself - some relief. But he cannot honestly say he remembers anything about Lý Van Hai, except perhaps that combination of short syllables.
"His name is vaguely familiar," says Hung, leaning in closer. "What else can you tell me about him, dear?"
"He was sent to a reeducation camp in 1956."
"So many of them were," Hung says quietly.
"He was in good company then."
"Oh, he would have been, yes," Hung says. "Some of the very best." He feels the urge to tell her just how good, to boast about the poetry and the essays and the artwork the Beauty of Humanity Movement produced, the fearlessness the men he knew had displayed in the face of opposition, the reach and inspiration of their work.
"Come again," he says to the young woman instead. "Perhaps I will remember him."
She pulls a business card from her pocket and hands it to him.
Hung squints at the English letters and bows his head respectfully, not recognizing a single word.
Tu sits behind his father on the seat of the Honda Dream II as they head back toward the Old Quarter after breakfast, wending their way through the congestion of motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos, pedestrians, cars, wooden carts and back-bent widows peddling food in baskets hanging from bamboo poles, blazing a trail through air thick with diesel fumes and morning fog.
"You've never seen her before?" Tu shouts, as his father slows down to turn a corner.
"I told you - no," Bình yells over his shoulder.
"But what do you think she was doing there?"
"No idea," his father yells. "Strange morning."
Strange indeed. Auspicious even. Tu's father seems possessed with the strength of the new moon - look at his victory over the foreman this morning, after all. Although his father is a naturally reserved man, Tu has seen his father overcome his inhibition when it counts. It is their job to protect Hung, particularly now that he is getting older. Hung's eyesight has deteriorated recently, his movements have become stiff and slow; it pains Tu to realize that Hung is no longer the invincible street warrior, but a man showing the vulnerabilities of his age.
Tu squeezes his father's shoulder affectionately before hopping off the back of the bike in front of the Metropole, Hanoi's finest hotel, once the finest in all of Indochina. He skips up the steps and enters the lobby. The giant potted palms, chandeliers and ceiling fans keep the grand colonial air of the place alive. Phuong, Tu's best friend and partner in capitalist adventure, stumbles in just after him, looking foul tempered with the stink of late-night karaoke. He has neglected to shave and his lips appear glued together. Phuong has clearly not been fortified with the bowl of pho that is vital for one's daily performance.
"You missed some real drama this morning," says Tu.
"I've had quite enough drama of my own already this morning," says Phuong.
Phuong is the driver, and Tu, because of his better English, is the guide, but together they are the A-team employed by the New Dawn Tour Agency in their matching company T-shirts and knockoff Chinese Nike Shox Jungas with soles the color of ripe mango. On the job, Phuong goes by the name Hanoi Poison, Hanoi P for short. He says it's for the benefit of the tourists who can only seem to spit his real name, but the truth is it's his rap name and he's planning on becoming a famous rap artist. Phuong has solid musical training behind him, a growing reputation and many, many fans, but most of all, he has talent. He tries to mess with Tu's name as well - Tu Dangerous, TaTu - but Tu is not interested. "I'm old-fashioned that way," he says, "leave it be."
Excerpted from The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb. Copyright © 2011 by Camilla Gibb. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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