Thursday, August 11, 2005

I was the Passenger ('Cos breaking up is hard to do)

Teddy de Burca Jnr. can’t help feeling awkward about crossing paths with his old xe om driver, a man now minus a once-steady source of income

I have to change my route to work. I just don’t have the heart anymore. Every morning I drive out to the lane and there he stands, in the shade beneath the kapok trees, his head hanging on his chest, like a wounded soldier in a heart wrenching portrait, entitled – “Man as bucket of misery.”

As I pass by, I try to catch his eyes, just to be cordial. How could I pretend he’s not there, after all we’d been through, all those mornings we rode together, through the dusk, dirt, smoke and the city lights.

And of course, he knows I’m there. He knows I’m passing by, slowing down to say ‘xin chao’. He recognises the sound of the engine, or saw me coming around the corner, but he won’t look at me, lest I see the tears welling up in his eyes.

He, in case you are wondering, is my ex-xe om driver, a man, who due to some broken limbs, I depended on for the last three months. And as a result of the income I generated, he, no doubt, grew to depend on me. Recently, I noticed he had upgraded his brand of cigarettes to a Singaporean variety.

Come rain, come shine, together we drove over the causeway, around by the mausoleum, along the banks of the murky Red River and down the plush boulevards on Tran Phu. He never drove too fast or braked too suddenly. He even slowed down as we passed pretty ladies, so I could wink and say “Howya”. He also learnt some English phrases, my favourite being – “Where to, sir?” He told me that during the next Tet holiday I would be an honoured guest in his house. He thought this summer would last forever. Perhaps, we both did.

But alas, one fateful morning, weighed down by a heavy heart, I wheeled my bike out of the gate, and drew a long breath. I knew it would be awkward. I knew it would hurt.

As I approached, I saw him glance out of the corner of his eyes. He had been laughing with his friends. Looking forward to another day in the saddle, making a few dollars-worth, a decent day’s wages for most. Little did he know when he rose that morning that the gravy train would drive straight past. Should I have given one month’s notice?

And now every morning, as all the other xe om drivers head off with their regular passengers he is left, in the shade under the kapok tree, no money in his pocket and nowhere to go, a future as bleak as it is uncertain.
So that’s why I can’t take it anymore. Tomorrow morning, I will turn left and drive the long way round to work. Just to spare his feelings. So he can begin again.

In future, there will be other foreigners, he will coo them over and they’ll hop on his pillion, and he will smile sweetly, and say – “where to, sir?” And they’ll laugh at that one, especially if it’s a woman, and being new to Hanoi, she’ll pay double what an old skinflint like me ever did. It’ll be the start of a beautiful friendship. Until she plucks up the nerve to buy a motorbike, that is.


Anonymous said...

Duyen oi duyen.

Preya said...

Funny. Evokes memories of Hien, my very own xich lo driver of old (I eventually upgraded to xe om, and then taxi).