Sunday 13 November 2011

Our very own Scarlet Pimpernel


‘Eliza! Hello-o.’ Luna is hovering over me. ‘If you can drag yourself away, it’s time to go get my glasses.’

As soon as I step away from my seat, Nancy sidles in. She addresses Duncan urgently in a low voice. I just catch: ‘… film about animal rights … the practice of eating dogs in Vietnam…’

Typical! As soon as he sees her Passion for Animal Rights, he’ll know I’ve been faking my Passion for Poverty ’n’ Film. 

We are at the opticians. It is the moment of truth. Luna heaves her new spectacles to her eyes.

‘Eliza! I can see! I’m not blind any more! This is amazing!’ Her voice is quavering with emotion. Beaming, she throws her arms around me and then turns to hug the white-coated optician and his dolly assistants, bringing smiles to all our stony faces.

Oh. My mobile! I fumble for it in my bag. New text.

Eliza. Hope yr phone switched on. Urgent. Come to Landmark 72 asap. Pls confirm you got this. Duncan x

A lover’s tryst! How thrilling! Hmmm. How to get rid of Luna? And what’s Landmark 72? 

‘Are you OK, now you can see?’ I ask Luna. ‘Can you get back to the hotel on your own?’

‘Oh, what are you gonna do?’ she asks.

‘I have an urgent appointment with one of the group,’ I say.

‘Right, and which one would that be?’ Honestly, I should introduce her to Dan. Then they can mock away to their hearts’ content.

‘Well it doesn’t really matter,’ I say. ‘But I need to go now.’

‘That’s OK. I’ll tag along.’


Landmark 72, the optician tells us, is a new building in the Cau Giay commercial district. ‘Tallest building in Vietnam,’ he adds as we head out to find a taxi.

Text Duncan: On my way. With Luna...!

Duncan texts: OK. We might need her. Hurry!

Oh God!

We pull up near a soaring sheeny grey skyscraper flanked by two lesser towers, the slightly dumpy ladies-in-waiting to Her Majesty. A small crowd has gathered round, necks craned and looking up. Ooh! Exciting! Someone in a red top is either cleaning the windows or scaling the building! I scan the crowd and see Duncan at the front with a small video camera on a tripod.

‘Hi!’ I say a little too breathlessly. ‘We’re here. What’s happening?’

Not taking his eyes off his screen, Duncan says, ‘Do you realise who that is up there?’

I look again, but my eyesight is almost as bad as Luna’s.

‘It’s Nancy!’ cries Luna.

I stare. She’s wearing black shorts and oh! It’s the red silk waistcoat! I wondered what high-flying occasion that was for.

‘What’s that trailing from her back pocket?’ I ask.

‘I’m not entirely sure,’ says Duncan, ‘but it’s some kind of banner she intends to hang from the top of the building.’

I look up to the skies and take in the eye-smarting enormity of Landmark 72.

‘I can’t bear it,’ I squawk. ‘She hasn’t got any ropes or anything. Do you know how high it is?’

‘Three hundred and something metres. 72 floors. It’s the tallest building in Vietnam. Quite a landmark she's chosen.’

‘Well I just hope I’m not gonna have to scrape up the strawberry jam,’ says Luna.

The suspense is palpable. There must be several hundred of us there now, the men around the edges sitting astride their motorbikes. It’s a drive-in spectacular! Nancy seems to be making steady progress, her arms and legs splayed as she spiders up the seemingly sheer edifice. She’s astonishing to watch, slender-limbed and graceful – I never noticed before, under the baggy grunge gear.

As she reaches one of the ribs that protrude at each floor level, she pauses to dip her fingers in a bag of chalk tied to her waist. There’s a tremor of excitement, a sucking in of breath, as she raises her arm to give the crowd a little wave, followed by an eruption of whistling and cheering. A scattering of chalk dust floats down.

‘I’d have stopped her hanging off doorframes every five minutes if I’d known this was what she was up to,’ says Luna.

‘Did she mention anything about climbing?’ I ask.

No,’ says Luna, indignant to have been kept in the dark.

A couple of guys have pushed their way to the front, a Vietnamese paparazzo and a tall, clean-cut Westerner.

‘Do you know about her?’ asks the Westerner.

‘I know her,’ I say, ‘but I don’t know about her.’

‘You know her? The Red Devil?’

‘The Red Devil?’

He nods towards the ascending figure. ‘Californian free soloist. Famed in the States and the climbing world…’

I’ve never heard of her,’ says Luna.

‘… always goes by her moniker,’ the guy continues, ‘never her true identity. She travels the world, scaling the tallest buildings. We were wondering when she’d pay us a visit! But you know her?’

‘I’ve just led her on a tour through Vietnam.’ I am bemused. Astounded. Hoping to God she doesn’t miss her footing.    

‘What’s her name?’ The guy has got out a notebook.

‘What’s this for?’

‘New York Times. I’m the Vietnam stringer. James L. Cranford.’ He holds his hand out to shake mine. I turn to face him properly for the first time. Mmmm. Something of Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously.

‘Eliza H. Gray,’ I say, shaking his hand firmly. I turn to Duncan. ‘Did she say what this stunt was for?’

‘I presume to do with animal rights.’

‘Animal rights?’ repeats James L. Cranford, scribbling. ‘It’s always a different message, usually aimed at the host country. In Dubai it was global warming, the one before that, in Hong Kong, anti-corporate.’

‘So she does want publicity?’ I check.

‘Sure. She has to keep it under wraps until it happens, so she doesn’t get arrested, but once she’s underway, she wants all the coverage she can get.’

‘But she doesn’t give away her name?’

‘She travels under false identities.’

‘Our very own Banksy,’ says Duncan.

‘Or Scarlet Pimpernel,’ I add.

I don’t tell James her name, if indeed it is her name, but I do tell him about the dog cage incident. ‘She’s a strict vegetarian,’ I embellish, ‘and she’s up in arms about the appalling treatment of dogs in Vietnam and particularly the practice of brutally killing and eating them.’ As James scribbles, I notice Duncan has turned his camera towards me. ‘She’s an absolutely Passionate Animal Rights Campaigner,’ I add, ‘and I support her 100 per cent!’

Duncan looks amused as he turns his camera back to Landmark 72. Nancy is about two thirds of the way up.

Sirens are wailing. The police swarm in from all directions. People are running in and out of the building. The tension is mounting.

‘I’m going to see if I can go to the top,’ says Duncan, heading to the entrance. He’s soon back. The place is cordoned off. Nobody’s allowed in or out. Two film crews and several photographers have jostled their way to the front.

A dozen pea-green policemen are waiting on the roof. Nancy is nearly there. She stops a few feet short, where hands can’t reach her. There’s a collective holding of breath as she turns to fasten her banner.

'She's wearing a mask!' says Duncan, who has zoomed in on his video. It's a rather exquisite red Venetian-style creation.

The banner unfurls. Written in dripping blood red on a white sheet, it reads:


There’s gasping in the crowd and a mass clicking and beeping of cameras.

Duncan leans towards me. ‘Do you think she’s dyslexic?’

‘I wish she’d asked me about the apostrophe,’ I murmur.

We watch as Nancy summits and is yanked away from the roof edge by a dozen pairs of grasping hands. A news broadcaster thrusts her microphone into the mêlée to get viewers' reactions. Duncan pans his camera around the crowd.

A few minutes later, there’s a surge of police and onlookers as Nancy emerges from the building, still masked, crying ‘Love dogs! Don’t eat them! Dogs are our friends! For Dog’s Sake, Vietnaaam!’ As the news crews push through the crush, waving their microphones above the sea of heads, Nancy is hustled inside a police car.

I look at Duncan, feeling a mixture of exhilaration and shell shock. ‘What now?’

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