The March of the Dragons - Chapter 1
Mr Cường always wrote furiously on the white board: as if every word was a matter of the utmost urgency. His writing was large, leaned slightly to the right and finished with a full stop impaled like a darts player taking his shot. He turned, looking over the rim of his glasses. He tapped the white board twice with his middle finger.
'Read these pages, we'll be discussing them tomorrow.' Hawkish eyes darted from one student to the next. 'Don't forget your essays on the key problems of urbanisation. I'll be collecting them tomorrow.'
Tuấn sat at the front of the class. He glanced at the clock above the whiteboard and scribbled the study pages onto his dog eared notepad. He clicked his pen's retract button and without looking slipped it into his top pocket.
Mr Cường's toothless smile made his cheeks wrinkle, making him look older than his years. 'It's time. Class is dismissed for today. Remember; study hard for a bright future.'
The class stood almost as one. Chairs grated along the floor before students began to shuffle out of the room. A pupil at the back of the room lifted his head from his desk and let out an exaggerated yawn as he stood. He made for the door in long, confident strides.
'Not you, Huy,' Mr Cường called out, 'return to your chair.'
Tuấn swung his backpack over his shoulder. Narrowing his eyes at Huy, he made his way to the exit. Filing out last, he pulled the door shut. He'd wanted to linger and speak to teacher, but Mr Cường would want the privacy of the room to scold the wayward Huy.
Phượng was waiting in the hallway leaning against the wall. She'd let her dark shoulder length hair down. Whirling a pink hair band around her index finger, her face spread into a smile. 'Are you going straight home?'
'Yes, why?' Tuấn prodded his glasses a half centimetre up the bridge of his nose.
'Vân, Minh and I are going to stop for coffee. You should come.'
Tuấn shrugged. They often used to stop off for iced coffee, in this final year his visits had become less frequent as the impetus leaned toward the coming exams.
'Are you waiting to speak to Mr Cường?'
'Yes.' Tuấn peered through the narrow window of the classroom door, he felt Phượng's hair brush against his shoulder as she moved beside him.
Teacher rested his fists on Huy’s desk. Although Huy sat back nonchalantly in his chair he couldn't meet Mr Cường's gaze. Huy looked from the floor to the door. He locked eyes with Tuấn, with a broad mischievous grin he flexed his bicep.
'Hey!' Mr Cường slammed his fist onto the desk, 'I'm talking to you, foolish boy!' He followed Huy's gaze to the door.
Tuấn and Phượng ducked to opposite sides of the doorway. Tuấn cursed. Were they fast enough? He’d hate to bring teachers' displeasure on himself.
'He's right, Huy is a fool,' said Phượng.
Tuấn nodded. He could hear teacher shouting that he would report Huy's inattentiveness to his parents. 'I'll wait for Mr Cường. You go on, I'll catch up.'
'It's ok,' Phượng said, smiling. 'I'll wait with you.'
The door swung open, making them both jump. Huy breezed past with a lopsided grin. He made some gang sign he'd likely seen a hip-hop artist perform.
'What's up, Bro?' Huy spat the words at Tuấn, jutting his face forward with each word. Tuấn blinked and readjusted his glasses. Huy smirked, shaking his head he swaggered away.
Phượng stepped beside Tuấn. Her soft face etched with concern she gently lay her fingers on his forearm. 'Ignore him. He thinks because he's strong and cool he can do what he likes. He doesn't even study, just wastes his parent’s investment.'
'That is not your judgement to make, Miss Phượng,' croaked Mr Cường. The two students spun about to face him. Mr Cường waved them inside the room, they shuffled past him with heads bowed in submission. Mr Cường closed the door behind them, keeping one hand on the handle. 'Now, what can I do for you two?'
Tuấn cast a second reproachful glance at Phượng who looked down at her feet. He wanted to ask some advice about that message. He wasn't sure how he was going to ask. He definitely didn't want to mention it in front of her. She'd make a fuss. He scrambled for something else to say. 'Please, Mr Cường… I was wondering...I wanted to ask about the... Chinese.'
'Oh?' Mr Cường's eyebrow arched, 'what about the Chinese? There are many things about them. What do you want to ask me about the Chinese?'
Tuấn sighed. 'On the news: China’s threatening to stop trading with us because of the trouble.'
'Ah yes,' Mr Cường croaked. 'The Trường Sa Islands. They may contain a few drops of oil, apparently.'
'Teacher...' Tuấn's voice raised several pitches, his lower lip quivered, 'if we stop trading with China, our economy will suffer greatly. We are Economics students; it will be our duty to protect the future of the country's economy.'
Mr Cường chuckled, then coughed into his palm. 'Don't worry yourself, young Tuấn.' He clapped his hand over the student's shoulder making him jolt in surprise at the sudden gesture. 'You're one of the brightest students, yet it's not for you to shoulder the burdens of society.' He nodded reassuringly, perhaps noticing the student’s confusion he continued, 'China are well established in this country. They have many factories in Binh Duong, many mining operations, digging mountains for limestone in the Mekong delta. China aren't going to forsake that for the promise a few barrels of oil under the sea.'
Tuấn nodded. Chewing his lower lip, not really listening. He knew they could see he was upset, they probably thought he was foolish by blubbering over some silly politics. Maybe he should've just said what he'd wanted to.
Mr Cường, turned to Phượng who was awkwardly trying to find interest in her feet. Shaking his head, he slapped his thigh with an exasperated exhalation. 'Was there anything else?'
Tuấn glowered at Phượng. He already looked a fool so he might as well... 'Sir...I had a message on my phone. I wasn't sure... if I should respond.'
'A phone message?' Mr Cường's snorted, his eyebrow curved, 'young Mr Tuấn, I really can't mediate on adolescent problems. You're an adult. Make your own decisions.'
Tuấn closed his eyes and nodded. His cheeks felt hot.
'Along you both go now.' With a hand on his shoulder, Mr Cường guided Tuấn to the door. 'I will miss these little chats after you graduate, Mr Tuấn. But tonight you have study, and I have an evening class in thirty minutes.'
Tuấn walked down the corridor staring directly ahead. He heard Phượng's quickened steps before she appeared beside him in his peripheral vision.
'You're worried about China? I don't think you need to.'
Tuấn halted, gritting his teeth. 'I Don’t care about China.'
Phượng bowed her head. 'Are you mad at me?'
He sighed. 'I like to talk to teacher alone.'
'You mentioned a message...'
'Oh, stop it Phượng! You're always fussing over me!'
Her mouth twitched once, her wide brown eyes were like those of a Labrador.
'Forget it,' Tuấn dismissed his outburst with a shake of his head, 'we haven't hung out after class for ages. Let's go. Minh will be waiting.'
Phượng smiled, and linked her arm around his as they continued out into the bursting sunlight of the University courtyard.
'You know, Tuấn... We hang out after class quite often. It's just you don't.'
He knew she was right. She always asked: he'd always had something more important than socialising. She'd even taken to inviting Minh, his best friend; Tuấn knew that was an effort to attract his company. He'd been friends with Phượng for over two years, but with graduation nearing friends were a secondary concern.
Students still milled about after school: fetching their mopeds and motorbikes, or sitting on the benches as they poured over textbooks, notebooks and cell phones. Phượng waved to her friend Vân, who was leaning over the handlebars of her motorbike. Phượng skipped ahead leaving Tuấn to catch up
Tuấn shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand as he turned to the sound of a beeping horn and the incoming chortle of an engine as Minh's small motorbike weaved its way toward him. 'You're coming with us, Bro?' Minh said, his voice raised in surprise.
'Awesome. At least if you're with us I won't have to listen to Phượng talk about you.'
'Hey!' Phượng protested.
'Mrs Tam's cafe?' chimed Vân. Her skin was completely covered to avoid the sun's rays: long sleeves, white gloves, a long white scarf around her neck. Sunglasses and a surgical mask covered her face topped by her yellow motorcycle helmet. Only her perfectly trimmed and plucked eyebrows visible over the rim of her sunglasses. While most students preferred sandals, Vân tended to wear shoes and socks to class. Many girls similarly covered themselves from the sun, but there was no mistaking Vân with her posture naturally elegant even when relaxed.
'Yes, Mrs Tam's,' Phượng said.
Tuấn nodded his approval, Minh shrugged.
'Ok Phượng, lets get ready,' said Tuấn. He headed toward the nearby parking compound.
The parking area was always chaos at the end of the school day. A press of students driving their mopeds and motorbikes, competing to be first out. Others lingered strapping on their motorbike helmets, fiddling with under-seat storage compartments or sitting astride their bikes chatting on phones. Tuấn had to allow passing motorbikes by before he could enter the fenced off parking area. He walked slowly, taking his smart phone from his pocket he opened up the messages re-reading the message he'd had from his 'father' that morning.
'Hi Son, it's Dad. Your Gran gave me your number. Maybe you can visit next weekend - join us for dinner'.
It's Dad? Tuấn shook his head. How dare he call himself that.
'Watch out!' Phượng cried.
Tuấn heard the bike accelerating. He was forced to make a half jump to avoid it, almost dropping his phone. He felt a rush of air as the bike swept past. Huy skidded the bike to a halt in a small cloud of dirt, then turned on the spot dragging the back wheel around, revving the engine like a Knight ready for another pass at the tilt. He'd already stripped off his white shirt; he preferred the vest he wore underneath to show off his brawny arms. Fingerless leather gloves and a backwards black cap produced the 'gangsta' look he was fond of.
'Idiot!' Phượng shouted, waving her fist.
Huy winked at her, his gaze then drifting to Vân. 'Hey, sister! You and me- we should ditch these losers and go hang out together, honey. I treat you good. Nobody's going to mess with you when I'm with you.'
Vân presented Huy with her middle finger. He held his hands up and pursed his lips in mock offence.
'Nobody messes with her now,' interjected Phượng, advancing on him. 'Don't you have to go hang out at the park and show off body popping moves?' She placed her fists on her hips, leaning forward with her forehead creased in a frown like she meant business.
Huy’s grin was mocking. With a twitch of his wrist his bike shot past her in a short burst so that he stopped beside Vân. Leaning close to her he looked into her eyes. 'Ok baby. Maybe next time, we go on my bike out to Starlight bridge. Have some fun.'
'You are handsome,' Vân said, her surgical mask twitching as she spoke. 'But, you're an asshole.'
Huy whipped his right hand up parallel to his left ear, as if about to strike her with a back handed swipe. Vân made no move to defend herself, turning her cheek as if daring him to strike. Phượng rushed to put herself between them. He lowered his hand with a short, high pitched forced laugh.
'Don't worry baby. I don't hit no lady.' The thug winked and smiled again before revving the throttle on his 100cc motorbike. He drove out onto the road at speed, without a glance to check the traffic.
Phượng smiled at Vân, shrugging apologetically.
'I can handle that guy,' Vân said, 'lets go to the cafe.'
Phượng nodded and walked back toward Tuấn, she narrowed her eyes slightly. He stood rigid as he had been during the entire exchange. His sharp, chiselled face glum. Phượng opened her mouth to speak, but then after taking a breath closed her mouth again.
'It's better that you deal with him,' Tuấn explained, 'as he said- he won't hit a girl. He loves fighting. If Minh or I stop him, he'll fight us.'
Phượng walked past him. He stepped briskly to catch up, waiting for her response. She remained fixed directly ahead until she came to her moped. With her back to him she unclasped her little yellow helmet from the moped's handlebars and let out a long sigh.
Tuấn's bike was parked nearby, he watched her start her bike and join the back end of the throng of students leaving the parking shelter. He thought of heading straight home. Taking his phone from his pocket his eyes again scanned over the short message. He wasn't going to be l