Mae, lapsed vegetarian and committed traveller, found herself late one Wednesday afternoon in a tuk tuk, Hanoi, her mid-twenties, broke and something of a stew.
Lately unkindled from a relationship she knew none of her friends or family at home would have approved (had they known of it), the nearness of the evening stirred her mind to action. He was not worth it. Oh, she was better than that. There were always plenty more fish in the sea. Fish and fish; many not as slimy. Or smily. Was that what she’d fallen for?
The heat and noise were crowding her, reminding Mae her immediate mission was ready cash and a warm meal. Her bags were probably still at the hostel, presumably locked up. The bank had long since stopped meaningful transactions and her father would likely be unreachable. She had told him she had a job, when in fact it had been her boyfriend who had funded her these past few months. The tuk tuk jolted; she tapped the driver’s shoulder and they stopped outside a cafe. She handed her last note over with a shallow smile and stepped out on to the busy pavement. Chili, fish oil, hot noodles, vegetables and rich stock broth infused her senses and she looked through the crowd in the busy cafe for her friend and former travelling partner. Raz, lapsed student, committed life junkie, had recommended working in the pho kitchen months before, but Mae had been too reluctant. It had all seemed far too much hard work. Now, with no prospect of food until she earned her own keep, these cooking smells felt like torture. She was in luck; Raz was working, serving a pair of Dutch customers with sunburn and various differences of opinion. It didn’t take a moment. Raz looked up and noticed Mae as she chatted, not missing a beat. Picking up the menus with twinkling eyes she left the pair, pulled Mae through a screen into the hot kitchen and grinned.
‘I don’t need to know details,’ she started, in her rich Wirral brogue, ‘but if you need work this evening grab an apron pet and give that pot a stir. I’ll be back in five. ‘S’alright, no one’ll question ya.’ Mae breathed out in relief. The apron was grimy, but the soup looked delicious. No doubt it had been prepared some hours before and was used for the basis of a number of hearty meals on offer. Mae had not made the effort to learn to read the language, or speak more than a handful of the most useful words, but as other waiters and cooks brushed past her she realised that she was in good company; many of those connected with the cafe were westerners, perhaps working for a few days or weeks to fund the next stage of their travels, no questions asked.
‘What kind of stew are yous in then?’ Raz probed as the shift ended.
Mae looked up and licked her spoon.