The fellow-traveller

Sunday, 2017-04-09 13:57:39
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“Here we are! Get off, both of you, please!” the motortaxi driver said. Kha was startled.

“Why did he say ‘both of you’? I’m the only passenger here...” Kha whispered to himself.

“Please, give the helmet back to me. Now, you both take care of yourselves. I’d suggest you both go into the station and get a couchette ticket right away,” he said to Kha, who was carefully checking the haversack dangling over his chest with one hand.

Once again, the word ‘you both’ made Kha greatly anxious. He took three banknotes of 100,000 dong out of his breast pocket.

“As was decided by both of us before, this is the whole amount, neither more nor less,” he said, giving it to him.

The driver received the sum. Still wavering for a few seconds, he put one piece into his trousers pocket and handed the rest back to Kha.

“Just one note will do for the consumed fuel. I don’t need more,” he insisted.

“Why? That’s such a small charge for a three hour, 150-km trip!” Kha exclaimed.

“My humble effort means nothing in comparison with your sacred deed, dear brother,” and then he drove away into the bustling Saigon streets.

After a few minute, as Kha stood there confused, the driver returned accompanied by a tough guy.

“This man will help you get a ticket. Just follow him,” the driver told Kha.

“Take care of him,” he told the newcomer. “You won’t have to pay extra, you see.”

“Yes, brother. Compose yourself.”

“I wish a good journey for you both,” he told Kha. “I must be going now for darkness is coming down,” the driver added in a soft voice before leaving.

“This way, please!” the newcomer told Kha.

Kha followed suit. “Is this guy a go-between?” he asked himself.

“You’re carrying somebody’s ashes, aren’t you?”

Kha said nothing.

“You’re carrying that rucksack tightly over your chest,” he remarked. “Keep it dark or else you’ll soon be in trouble. Now, just stay here. I’ll get a couchette ticket for you,” he added. Kha sat down on a fixed seat with the big bag on his lap, even though the adjacent seats remained empty.

* * *

“Dear Brother Can, don’t be anxious,” Kha whispered to the bag of ashes. “In two days, you’ll reach home to see Mum. Do you know that before dying, Dad looked forward to seeing you? As for Mum, she’s been waiting for your homecoming since the day you went south. Poor her, she’s been bed-ridden for so many years! When I set off, she said to me, ‘My beloved son, try to bring him home at any cost before I breathe my last breath’.”

Kha remembered that she had unbuttoned her pillowcase to look for its special contents then handed them to him.

“They may come in useful for Can’s homecoming someday. They are all the donations offered to me by visitors during my long stay in hospital together with my minor savings,” she told him.

“No no, Mum. Keep them for your own expenses,” he said.

“I was told that your wife has just sold a big pig then borrowed a lot money to get enough for your planned journey…What’s more, a welcoming party for his return must be predicted. So, accept the whole sum to please me.”

He seemed hesitated for a few seconds.

“Well, if Mum has decided so, we’d better accept and regard it as a loan, darling. When Can’s issue is solved, we’ll pay her back,” insisted his wife.

“Now that my task is almost done. What comes next is your safe homecoming, that’s all,” Kha whispered. “Our family’s long cherished dream--which we’ve held without any news since your departure--may come true,” Kha concluded his explanation.

* * *

“Here’s your ticket, brother,” said the young guy. “Air-conditioned Carriage No 5 with its couchette mentioned. The fare is 1.2 million dong. Here’s our change,” he added.

“What about your charge?” Kha asked him.

“Oh no no, nothing at all. Just a menial job for your lofty duty! In an hour, the train will leave the station. Before that moment, I’ll come back here to help you both get on board. Behaving like a boorish guy, you only invite trouble during the trip. Relax here for a while, will you? As for me, I must earn some bread for my little kids at home,” he explained.

“Surprisingly, they know that I’m taking home my brother’s ashes, so their support is free of charge. How benevolent they are!” Kha said to himself.

He went aboard easily, thanks to that young man’s instructions. The young railway man in charge of the car cast a suspicious look at Kha’s rucksack, which was hung tightly over his chest, and then he eyed at Kha’s unshaved face stained with dust.

In his four-bed room there were only two passengers: Kha and an old man on the wrong side of sixty with a pair of spectacles in gold-rimmed frames, a white T-shirt and a pair of jeans. When he stepped in, he greeted Kha, observed the whole place, then stared at Kha’s bag before sitting down on the opposite bed. The train blew a long whistle then started moving. The old man began using his expensive iPhone.

Now Kha felt quite at ease. He might take a long, deep sleep. In thirty hours, the train would arrive at Nam Dinh station. “On the way home, we’ll take a cab instead of a motortaxi as an appropriate homage to you, my glorious ex-soldier. Surely, you’ll be warmly welcome at home,” Kha said to his brother’s soul.

Throughout the night, the train kept chugging. Time after time, street lights pierced into the car through glass windows as the train stopped at a minor station of a certain small township unknown to Kha; he had never gone beyond the border of his native village before.

All of a sudden, their door creaked open. Then the station master stepped in.

“Passengers are requested to show your tickets, please,” he announced loudly.

The old man gave his ticket to the railway man while he remained touching his big mobile. Kha also took his ticket out of his breast pocket and showed it for him to check. Yet, he did not hold it at once. After returned the ticket to the old man, he said to Kha in a serious voice.

“Bring your luggage out to work with us, will you?”

Kha felt greatly confused. “Oh dear, false ticket, perhaps!” he whispered to himself. “But why does he find it false when he hasn’t looked at it? What’s the matter?”

“Take all your things out for us to check,” urged the station master again in an angry voice.

Kha hung his haversack on his left shoulder while his right hand tightly held a small bag of clothes and the ticket. Kha stepped out of the air-conditioned compartment. The station master slammed the door shut and startled Kha. His body trembled violently according to the swing of the train.

“Sir, here’s my ticket,” Kha gave it to him. Without looking at it, the station master put it into his pocket. Pointing at the haversack on Kha’s shoulder, he asked, jerking up his chin.

“What are you carrying in the rucksack?”

“Nothing but a few kilos of dried tea, Sir.”

“Dried tea! Unbelievable! Tell me the truth. Are its contents a human being’s remains?”\

“No no, not at all, Sir!”

“If they really are, what do you think? Do you know that such things are strictly banned on the train?”

“Not at all, Sir…Well, frankly speaking, they’re my elder brother’s.”

“Dead soldier? Where’s his letter of confirmation?”

“Here you are, Sir,” Kha showed him the death certificate taken out of his pocket.

“You must get off at the next station.”

Leaving the train when it only travelled for three hours! “A 1,800-km distance to cover with my little sum of money on another vehicle? Impossible!” he said to himself.

“Please sympathise with my poor conditions. Would you mind letting me stay on the train with a fine?” Kha insisted.

“OK, two million dong. Give it to me right now.”

“So I still had a slim chance to pass the check. But how could I afford enough? Kha asked himself.

“But I haven’t got enough, Sir.”

“How much have you got…? Anyhow, take it out for me to see, quickly. Why so clumsy?”

“Nine hundred thousand dong in all!” Kha declared after counting the whole amount.

“No no, impossible! Just stand here. At the next station, get off.”

Suddenly, he remembered the money Mum had given him before leaving. He had put it in the outer small pocket of the travelling handbag. At once, he took it out.

“Here’s five more hundred thousand in cash. It was my mother’s savings for my ill-fated brother. So the whole sum amounts to one million four hundred thousand, Sir,” he added.

“Alright. Hand it to me then step in immediately. If you let out our secret, you’ll be punished severely.”

The train master grasped the money, put it in his trousers pocket then slowly walked away. Kha pulled the door ajar then walked in. Switching off the little bed lamp on the bed table, he lay down on his berth with his haversack on his side. Surprisingly, his old fellow-traveller remained supine, casually playing on his IPhone with his index finger.

“Brother Can, how disadvantageous! The same as the days you were embattled in the south that you had said in your letter home! Our poor clan! We’re too poor to take you home by car properly. Forgive me, brother,” Kha bewailed, sobbed and sobbed.

Kha’s complaint made the old man aware of his miserable situation. He looked at the rural youth, shaking his head, then sighed for a while. After that, he was engrossed in his expensive smartphone again.

“Passengers with food coupons, please go to the dining car for your meal,” announced the train loudspeakers.

* * *

The monotonous sounds caused by the wheels moving heavily on the railway tracks woke Kha. He felt extremely hungry. Since last evening, he had eaten nothing. With only a few small banknotes, inadequate for a few meals, Kha decided to make a phone call to his relatives when the train would reach his terminal station of Nam Dinh, then have a snack there.

The old traveller on the opposite couchette cast a surprising glance at him. Then leaving his mobile at his pillow, he silently opened the door and stepped out.

About half an hour later, he returned with two rations of food and two plastic cups. He put them all down on the small table between the two berths.

“Here are the food for both of you,” he said to Kha in a soft voice. It was the first time he had talked to him.

“Many thanks for your food and drink, Sir.”

“You’re welcome. Now help yourselves to them. No need to stand on ceremony further!” he said, smiling. Saying so, he stepped out and closed the door.

“Obviously, he knows I’m bringing home my relative’s ashes!” Kha whispered to himself. “Moreover, he also abides by our custom and culture for the dead by offering food to them.”

He opened the two packs of food then said his pray God to take his brother’s soul back for enjoying the frugal meal. The old man’s deed deeply moved him.

* * *

Kha woke up at midnight.

“Our train’s now on the way to Thanh Hoa City. Passengers should be ready to get off at the station with luggage in hand. Furthermore, in two hours, it will arrive at the Nam Dinh Station,” said the railway loudspeakers.

Perhaps, the old man did not sleep at all, because Kha found him busy fidgeting with his phone. When the train began to leave the Thanh Hoa station, the old man slightly opened the door. Again, Kha fell asleep. In his dream he vaguely heard a polite voice echoing near him. Keeping his eyes ajar he realised that it was the argument of the very station master.

“What’s the matter, Sir?” the railway man asked the good old man sitting opposite Kha.

“You’d better give the money back to the man lying near us right now,” said the man with an expensive pair of spectacles.

“But, which money, Sir?”

“The sum you robbed of him last night,” he told the railway man in a resolute voice.

“However, it was just a fine, Sir.”

“What for? Where’s its receipt? To the best of my knowledge about the railway regulations, such fine can’t be made here.”

“Because of his bag of ashes, Sir. It’s polluting the environment.”

“Shut up! How do you dare to hurt the soul of a revolutionary martyr? If something may cause pollution here, it’s your dirty deed. How can you have the heart to take away the honestly-earned money from this poor passenger?”

“But the railway authorities’ regulations force me to do so.”

“Yet, as a rural man, he doesn’t know that order. Meanwhile, you take advantage of his situation to coerce him,” he stressed. “Hmm, I recorded all your threats last night. Do you want to listen to them? You’d better give the money back to him, right now.”

“Forgive me, please. I’ll return it to him immediately. Would you mind not making it a big fuss?” he proposed in a nervous voice.

“OK, do it at once.”

When the station master went out, the old man shut the door then lay down on his small bed, playing with his IPhone as if nothing had ever happened. A few minutes later, the railway man came back and opened the door.

“Mr What-D’You-Call-It, allow me to give the money back to you. Forgive me, please,” he said in a shameful voice.

Kha got up to receive his money then count it. It was the same amount. Nothing was missing, including the small cash.

“I’m very grateful to you, respectful Uncle. Thank you as well, station master,” Kha said to both of them.

“Keep it under wraps, will you?” implored the railway man. Then he stepped out quickly after closing the door.

* * *

The train slowly rolled into Nam Dinh Station. Kha prepared everything to get off: the travelling bag hung on his chest, his haversack on his side. His new old friend had already got up and put his IPhone in his trousers pocket.

“Dear Uncle, I’m very grateful to you. Thanks for your help…,” he mumbled.

“That’s all right,” he replied. “A safe home trip to you both! Anyhow, the local authorities should have provided you with some expenses for the martyr’s homecoming,” he criticised.

“In fact, they told me that we’d only receive financial support when they saw brother’s remains with their own eyes. No money in advance, you see! As for us, affording such a trip is quite a problem.

Hence the trouble you witnessed,” Kha explained.

“Whatever is the case, the matter has been settled. Remember to give your old mother my best wishes!” After that, he softly patted the haversack on Kha’s chest and tenderly said: “Congratulations on your safe return!”

Kha’s eyes were brimming with tears. “Goodbye, esteemed Uncle,” he said before getting off.

* * *

Kha reached home at 5 a.m. that day. All members of his family had stayed awake all night to wait for the momentous event. Bed-ridden for years, his mother managed to get up quickly. She staggered over to him with everybody’s support.

Embracing the haversack tightly, she said in tears, “At last, you’ve come back home, my beloved Can. Dear me, my son Can’s returned home, villagers!” Her eyes were blinded by tears then she smiled, her mouth seeming to be ironing the long-standing furrows on her sorrowful countenance.

In the solemn atmosphere of paying homage to the martyrs at the local cemetery, Kha delivered a moving speech to thank all those who had made great efforts both in their unlucky previous searches and in the present one after their successful 1,000-km long trips from south to north.

“The noble comradeship between ex-soldiers and our fellow-countryman’s profound feelings are brilliant examples for us to follow in our lifetime,” Kha concluded his address.

When he finished, the smouldering joss-sticks planted in front of Can’s tombstone suddenly burst into flame, thus making its inscription brightly-lit, “In loving memory of Mai Van Can.”

“Oh dear, God bless him!” said the ceremonial crowd.