Monday, August 01, 2005

The vigilante’s guilt complex

Teddy de Burca Jnr. encounters a thief and saves the day for a shopkeeper, but ends up wondering why doing a good deed makes him feel so bad

I look into his eyes. He looks into mine. He has just slipped a large colourful volume under his shirt and down into his pants, quite skilfully I might add, and now he is staring at me, like prey before a predator, wondering – “does he see me here, three feet in front of his face, or am I somehow invisible at this moment in space and time?”

And yes, of course I see him, and he realises, and without batting a eyelid, he whips the large colourful volume back out and then holds it up in the air, squinting his eyes, as if measuring it with great academic curiosity, as though he might be thinking, “Yes that proves it – quod erat demonstrandum! One large colourful volume can slip snugly into a pair of pants. And if I wanted I could, y’know, rob it, but of course I wouldn’t do that, because I’m not invisible, which means that foreign guy saw me.”

I call the shop assistant over, thinking craftily, I will scupper this oddball. He won’t have the audacity to steal anything if she stands beside us. She toddles over, smiling beatifically, and repeats everything I say.

“I’m looking for a book.”

“…a book,” she says, turning towards the shelves, as if to say, well, help yourself.

“By James Joyce. He’s an Irish writer.”

“…Icelandic writer?”

“…” I think about trying to sum up the writer in 25 words or less. Irish. Alcoholic. Blind as a bat. Stream of consciousness. Hailed as the greatest by Irish people who have never read any of his books. Dead.

But then I see the would-be-shoplifter drop to his hunkers and then shunt the large, slim colourful volume up his shirt again, before sliding it down into his pants, and then, after wheeling on the heels of his plastic sandals in the doorway, with a flash he is gone.

“That man just stole a book,” I say pointing my finger at an empty space.

“Yes. Stole a book,” she says smiling, oblivious to the theft, searching for a book entitled Stole a book.

“Under his shirt.”

“Under his shirt?” she says, thinking, such names for novels.

I decide to take the matter into my own hands. I walk out and look down the road. Nothing. No one. I jump on my bike and drive around the corner and start to drive in the direction the man vanished into. I imagine a mini-headline – “Foreigner rescues two-dollar book from destitute man, marries shopkeeper’s daughter, declared national hero”.

About a kilometre away – he’s certainly no slouch with a book rammed down his pants – I find him on Pham Chu Trinh street, pacing furiously with the gait of a man, well, with a large colourful volume rammed down his pants.

“You. You have a book.”

“…” He waves me away with his hand.

“I know you have a book down your pants. I saw you.”

Pedestrians start to look as this odd altercation. His thoughts are visibly turning over in his head. He twitches as he turns towards me, walking while whipping the book from out of his pants and under his shirt, and another headline flashes in my head, “Foreign man bludgeoned to death by large colourful volume”, but instead he just hands it to me, quite delicately. Somewhat surprised by the anti-climax I throw it in my basket and drive away not bothering to explain that I am a good-willed vigilante who plans to return the book to its rightful owner. After all, I don’t know the Vietnamese word for vigilante.

He squawks as I drive away, “Schkou, ehuh,” gibberish for “hang on a minute” and starts to run after me, but not for very far. I suspect immediately that, in fact, he thought I might want to buy it off him. Now, he feels he is the one being robbed. Another headline, this time in the Vietnamese dailies, flashes in my head, “Local thief robbed by foreign thief”.

Unperturbed, I u-turn, drive back to the shop, deposit the large colourful volume in the hands of the proprietor.

“Here you are.”

“…here you are,” she says taking the book.

And that’s that, or is it? No marriage proposal. No medal. Not even a pat on the back. And as I drive away a nagging guilt niggles. Scenarios flood my mind. The man had given up too easily. Perhaps, he had paid and just didn’t like plastic bags. Perhaps, he lived in the worst part of town and his pants were the safest place for a large colourful volume. It was, no doubt, his crippled three-year old son’s birthday and I had run away with his gift.

I drive on, trying not to think about it, but his gaunt face returns to haunt me and spite my arrogant vigilance. I picture him sobbing on the roadside. His incomprehensible words – “Schkou, ehuh” – ring in my ears. Being a vigilante is not all it’s cracked up to be, I decide. I’m quite sure, that’s why Batman is such a dark and melancholy chap come cocktail hour on Saturday night.

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