The final story in Insignia: Southeast Asian Fantasy is a moving Vietnamese piece by UK based author, Eliza Chan.
‘Spirit of Regret’ by Eliza Chan
I had read the same line thirty times.
No matter how I tried, I could not find meaning in the words. Sighing, I looked up and realised the street lights had been turned on. Not that it made difference, the dim orange illuminated only that within whispering range, the shadow of a rubbish bag left below the lamp-post, or the helmet of a passing motorcyclist shining like a giant sequin in the dusk.
Thanh hadn’t noticed yet. She sat on the wicker chair like it was her sofa at home, her sandals kicked to the ground and her painted toenails wiggling every so often. Was it a good line she had read, or a reflex, I wondered. She looked so relaxed under the patio umbrella. What would she do if I leaned across and touched her? I knew I wouldn’t try. Not with the solid dark wood table between us, the dregs of café sua da between us, the used tissues, discarded knife and scattered crumbs between us. Not with the roar of traffic beside us and the waitress pacing with her jug of ice water, her heels clicking in time to the one noted cry of the cubes. Not with the mother bouncing her baby and the teenagers reading fashion magazines. Not with what she had had done, what we had decided, what had filled the last four hours in the quiet coffee shop despite no words spoken.
“It’s getting late,’ she remarked, folding over the page corner as she lay the comic book down on the table. She had carelessly placed it on a wet coffee ring. It would be ruined now. The brown stain would seep right through the unprotected pages until it had soaked in. Even the front, where those saucer-eyed manga girls smiled through impossible hair, promising easy escapism in moronic romanticism, would be ultimately destroyed.
“Vâng,” I agreed, as I had agreed before. Where did these words come from? They were driftwood, carried with the tide against my volition, without my permission.