His mum says the further you are from home the more you need to cling to your people like debris in a shipwreck. It’s why she puts up with Grandfather, why she sends Patrick into town to keep an eye on him. Why she’s stopped asking, at long last, when he’s going to find a nice girl and settle down. When she can expect some grandchildren of her own.
The old men meet at the café each day to sip strong coffee and play Chinese Chess. Everyone knows they’re gambling their pension money. They say there’s nothing else for them in this place, this washed-out version of the only home they know.
Bahn Mi used to cost three dollars when Patrick was a kid, five with an iced coffee. But the shop on the corner has put up its prices, thanks to the tourists who come through every Saturday on his company’s food tours. They sip at polystyrene cups of sugarcane juice like they’re sampling the latest vintage of Penfolds Grange, and nod knowingly when he tells them about the secret ingredient—cumquat puree—that gives the sickly-sweet juice a tart edge.
The tourists take selfies in front of the Pai Lau gate, ride the lion statues that guard the Freedom Plaza, then head back down the freeway to civilisation. Leaving before nightfall, before the youths coalesce. Before the locals scatter to the safety of their homes.
The archway was an attempt to revitalise the area, he tells them, a protective forcefield. Gold-leaf messages of peace and good fortune scroll across the marble surface in five languages. Over time, five cultures have melded with their adopted lot. The heroin trade has died down. This town does feel like a safe place now, a landing strip. Not that anyone lands here unscathed.
Patrick nabs a table in his favourite restaurant to wait. Steam rises off the bowl of pho, the broth rich with star anise and cinnamon. The raw beef strips are pink and fleshy but change colour in the soup, like the stone in his mood ring.
On the other side of the street, the old men have outstayed their welcome. The shopkeeper shoos them away along with the pigeons who roost around the square. His grandfather’s brown wool hat sits forward, shielding his eyes from the afternoon glare as he scans for a break in the traffic. On a good day, when the odds are in his favour, he will pick up a barbeque duck for his daughter as a peace offering. Patrick can tell from the slope of his shoulders that there’ll be no duck tonight.
He pays for the pho and rises to meet his grandfather at the door. Tomorrow morning, the old man will beg for a lift into town. And return to the café, to the clack of wooden tiles and dollars slid over the table, as though his life depends on it.
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