by Anton Wills-Eve

<a href=””>But No Cigar</a>

a rewrite and corrected version of yesterday’s post, ‘run that past me again’.



Nguyen Oanh Anh had been warned by her family not to mix with Americans, especially the military, as they were rich, boastful, amoral and selfish. They really had it in for the US because they could think of nothing pleasant to say about the race that had taken over their capital city and were seducing every Vietnamese girl in Saigon. Anh was told they were off limits and no exceptions. But to be fair to her parents, they had a reason. Her elder sister, Tuyet, had become pregnant and in her shame had run away. A month later one of her friends told the family she had killed herself. So nine years later in May 1968, on her eighteenth birthday, Anh went to work in an orphanage for blind, abandonned children.

In early 1968 the Chinese new year was also the signal for a new Viet Cong Communist offensive against the American military in South Vietnam which rocked the anti-communist government. This turn of affairs involved many news organisations increasing their staff in South Vietnam and it was the worst thing I could ever imagine happening to me. I had worked for The largest British news agency for just over a year and was doing well for my age. I had been sent to the Middle East during the six day war in 1967 and then returned to London at the end of August. I was promised a permanent overseas posting in the new year and my fiancee, whose family I had known since she was a little girl, was hoping we would get married when she got her university degree in June 1968. I would be twenty six in May that year and she would be twenty three the November after we married. Everything looked great and we were both very much in love with each other.

The following January I got an awful shock. I was offered an overseas posting, as promised, at the end of January. I was to join the staff in Singapore, the office from which we ran all our news operations for Asia. This was great as it would double my salary. But there was a horrible caveat attached. As I was unmarried I would probably be sent to Vietnam fairly soon and might spend as long as a year there. The full posting to Singapore was for three years. But the condition was that I would not get married while in Vietnam. This was company policy. I had not told them that I was engaged but now I had to. They were very understanding and said they would send me to Saigon immediately and after a year would pay all my fiancee’s expenses to come out and join me to get married. I was distraught.

We had a long family discussion during which my fiancee, Lucy, told me in no uncertain terms that she could not stand a year without me. Not from the point of living together, but because she would not even see me in all probability. So we hatched a plot unknown to either of our families or my employers. We agreed that Lucy would join me in Saigon in June at the end of her exams and we need not tell my company. This was the best solution , but as we said goodbye at London airport she insisted on one thing, “Sebastian. I cannot go a year without marrying you and as we are both Catholics could you arrange for us to get  married in Vietnam as soon as possible after I arrive. I’ll have all the documents I need on me and get yours from your family.” That one promise made the rest of my parting possible.

Well Vietnam turned out to be a strange mixture. Being bombed and having mortar shells fall on us most days was far from fun. Flying around a war torn country in helicopters that were often overloaded was terrible. And finally, after four months of near hell it was all capped with two of my closest colleagues being killed in an ambush. If Lucy did not arrive soon I would be a total nervous wreck. I could feel it starting already. Early that May in the major worsening of the war in which my friends were killed, I was caught up in a street fight in the riveside area of Saigon and had to take shelter as best I could in a bombed out building. As a non-American correspondent I never wore military clothing of any type, just ordinary summer shirts and slacks. Several of us did as we thought it safer if we ever got captured. Well as I crouched down in what was left of  that building I saw a girl who looked about ten or eleven wandering around, shell shocked I presumed and seemingly unaware of where she was. I raced over to her and in my extremely basic Vietnamese asked her was she alright. I understood enough to know she had asked me if I was American and then I wondered if she understood French. Many Vietnamese did as their parents were brought up speaking it as the country had been a French colony. So I replied in French that I was British and asked her if she understood, She was unable to let go of me.

She grabbed hold of my arm and  told me in halting French, it was no problem for me as I had been to university in Paris, that she was lost and worse still was blind. She had no idea where she was. I have never been so grateful for aything as I now knew what to do for her. One of the secretaries at the British Embassy helped out at an orphanage for the blind and she had shown me where it was. I wrote an article on it. The girl told me her name was Marie because her mother  wanted her to be a French lady. I smiled and bet she could not say Sebastian. She pronounced it perfectly. “Oui je parle assez bien.Tu vois, Monsieur, she suis gatee d’etre aveugle!” What a beautiful thing to say. “You see how lucky I am to be blind,Sir. it makes me speak better.”

Naturally I made my way across town with her and after more than an hour I made the orphanage where a couple of the staff remembered me. Marie told them how we had met and what  I had done. The stiflingly hot, dusty building where they were housed was little better than a shelter, but one of the helpers, she introduced herself as Anh, said how kind and thoughtful I had been. Marie did not want to leave me but I explained what I did and why I had to go back to work. But I promised to see them all from time to time and asked Anh if there were any provisions or medical requirements that I could get them. She was delighted but did not hold back, giving me a very long list. We both smiled as we shook hands and I couldn’t helping noticing how very pretty she was in her flowing, white Ao Dai, the Vietnamese national costume.

Well I visited them all a couple more times by the end of the month and then came the minute I had been waiting for. Lucy had got a visa from the South Vietnamese embassy in London and was able to travel straight to the Vietnamese capital. I had got to know one of the US army chaplains, a Catholic like Lucy and I, and he was sure he could arrange an acceptable marriage. I will never forget the scene at Tan Son Nhut airport where Lucy just seemed to appear out of a haze of dust, cigarette smoke and armed soldiers everwhere. As she saw me she staggered towards me with two large cases, dropped them at my feet and threw her arms round my neck unable to let go for what  seemed like a lifetime.

“Oh darling, I don’t know how I’ve got though the last five months. I wouldn’t have credited that one man could miss one woman so much.” She didn’t reply. She couldn’t through the tears that would not stop flooding down her cheeks. She was fascinated by the street scene of speeding mopeds with whole families on them as I drove our office car back to town narrowly missing half a dozen poeple. “You’ll get used to it, Luce, you will. But I must warn you. You haven’t come for a luxury holiday, more a little glimpse of hell.”

Father Timothy and several of my fellow journalists took to Lucy right away and everyone told me how lucky I was. I had a bedroom above the office but of course I had never slept with Lucy and was at a loss what to do. I needn’t have worried. “Darling, before leaving London I did something I didn’t think you’d mind. I changed my surname to yours by deed poll so that from now on our passports would look as though we were married. Your friend, that nice chaplain, will marry us in the Church as soon as he can, won’t he?” I nodded on realising what was happening. That was the first night I slept with her and I loved her so much more that I knew beyond any doubt that we could not have done anything wrong. At least that was how I felt. I am sure we both did.

The two things facing us now were how quickly we could be married and secondly what Lucy was going to do while she was in Saigon. Well Father Timothy and about twenty journalist friends, as well as few of the British embassy staff, made it a lovely wedding. But sadly it was only in the eyes of the Church. As we already had the same surname the civil authorities said they could not legally marry us. We did’t care a bit. But it was Anh who solved our second problem. On discovering that Lucy’s degree had been in French and Spanish she suggested she should work with them at the refuge for the blind. It was the perfect solution.

Our set up lasted really well for a couple of months. I even got a letter from my company saying they thought it was very clever of us only getting married in Church as that meant, for insurance purposes, they did not have to consider me married. I hadn’t thought of this before. But life is never what you hope. Well not in my experience. It was in mid August that a mortar shell hit the refuge and literally flattened it while also setting fire to to the building. Chaos!

Many journalists who knew my connections at first tried to keep me away from the scene which I found odd, but when they did not join me in looking for Lucy I knew something was very wrong. They found her body, hunched over  two terrified children. Half her head was blown in, but nobody would let me see this. All I was told was that she had died saving the lives of two blind nine year olds. I was lost. No, I mean totally lost, my world in tatters and my heart just the shattered remains of my former self.

“Hey, come on Seb. I know it’s tough mate, but we’ll help you through.” An Australian chap who had become a good friend had his arm round my shoulder and he was crying as much as I was. But, if possible, worse was to come. As the ambulance took Lucy to the military morgue chapel and Father Timothy was everywhere at once trying to help and console people, I flopped down on the remains of a stone wall and could not get my mind straight. That is until a little brother and sister, or so they looked, slowly approached me and tapped my arm. There was somethng wrong about them and I soon realised what it was. They could see. Who were they? I soon found that out too. In our broken, slow Vietnamese, they had no other language, they managed to ask me.

“Where is out Aunt Anh? We can’t find Auntie Anh.” I was so overcome with the fear that she too had been killed that I could not even reply. Eventually I said I didn’t know and would start looking. As all three of us were scrambling through the rubble I saw Marie sitting by herself, blood stained and weary. The two children ran up to her. “Marie, Marie where is Auntie Anh?” Marie knew their voices at once and opened her arms for them. Of course she had not seen me. But I knew just enough local language to realise she was telling them their Aunt was dead. I was almost too afraid to approach them. But thank God I did.

“Marie? C’est Sebastian. Comment va tu? T’es pas blesse?” I had asked her was she hurt. But her reply was the biggest shock of all.

“No, Mr Sebastian, but Anh is dead. I have been told. These two twins are her nephew and niece. They will soon be looking for their mother.”

“They know who their mother is? But they aren’t blind, does she live near the  refuge?”Then I almost wished I had not asked. She told me they were the children of Anh’s elder sister who also worked with Anh. She thought I must know her. Her name was Tuyet.”

I knew her all right and had in my mind the picture of a pretty, hard working, lovely girl who looked almost exactly my own age. I exclaimed to Marie,

“But I was told she was dead, that she had killed herself!”

Marie shook her head. No, Anh’s family were fooled by some foul tongued gossips  and when she heard the truth she searched for her sister and brought her here. The twins  were her life, and she provided for all three of them. I think a lot of the things you gave her she passed on to them.

“Mr.Sebastian, could you take these two back to their mother and break the news of Anh to her as gently as you can.”

All that was five years ago. The twins, now aged thirteen, are a happy, smiling pair of rogues beloved by all at the good school I got them into in London. It’s not very far from the large house where Tuyet and I live and where we also look after Marie who is making great strides despite her terrible handicap. But she loves helping us look after our two youngsters, a boy and a girl aged three and one.

God, the cloud of  war’s a bastard. But it has its silver lining too!