On a slow train

At the end of the year, Huong turned 30. Any baby girl born on the last day of the year will be unlucky in marriage, a Vietnamese saying goes. She did not really believe in such things or in fortune-telling, but her destiny had so far proved the saying true. There had been a lot of marriage proposals from many youths, local and urban, far and near, and they seemed rosy at first, but sooner or later, they came to nothing and left her in sorrow and despair. As another Vietnamese maxim has it: At the age of thirty, young men are still in their prime of life, and young women are on the verge of spinsterhood.

On a slow train

Whenever she stood in front of her mirror, Huong analysed the strengths and weaknesses of her looks. “No problem. Nothing to be worried about. Brilliant, dark eyes that look deep and impressive under bushy eyebrows,” she concluded. Actually, the eyes were not just mesmerising, they could read the thoughts of the young men sitting opposite. This led to several remarks from men that had hurt her feelings.

“Once, when I tried to be bold and hug her, she warned me off, point blank, and crossed her hands over her breasts,” said one of her former friends. Others observed that she was a “real lesbian,” and some went as far as to describe her as a frigid young woman.

She made her disdain of reckless attention from the ‘stronger’ sex clear with mocking smiles. “Actually, I’m very happy with my carefree attitude,” she once told some people who criticised her. When Van, one of her close friends, posed a teasing question, “Have you ever tasted the flavour of a sweet kiss?” Huong replied with a few mock blows.

* * *

Everything changed when Van’s husband made a tentative introduction to his close friend Quang. Having completed a 4-year business course with an MSc degree after doing his military service, he remained an eligible bachelor at the age of forty, partly because he was shy around women.

“He’s just won a spacious apartment in an urban luxury block of flats on the national lottery,” Vân told her old school friend. This was no big deal for Hương, however.

One evening Quang followed the couple to Huong’s place as planned by both sides. Halfway into the conversation, the couple took their leave, saying they had another appointment. The two single people were left behind to enjoy a free chat. Used to being alone, on the one hand, and not being good at social niceties, on the other, Quang did not know how to engage Huong in a conversation.

So they remained silent for a few minutes, enjoying their sips of hot, fragrant tea. Seeing that he was still bashful, she broke the ice by asking him, “Brother Quang, I heard that you’ve just won a lottery jackpot, right?”

Clearly upset at her question, he responded at once, stammering: “Well, that’s Van’s story to amuse you, I think.”

After an awkward silence, he said again, “Miss Hương, from the bottom of my heart, I’m here not to deal with the housing matter.”

As he stuttered, she felt ashamed of her awkward beginning, and changed the subject immediately.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked. “If not, I’m willing to be your matchmaker.”

He blushed and his discomfiture was obvious.

“I’m awfully sorry! I only did it as a joke,” she apologized. “Hmm, you must be a very picky man when it comes to choosing a partner or, precisely speaking, a sweetheart.”

“Not really. It’s just my fate,” he stammered again. “I’ve been sneered at because of my austere lifestyle, clumsy behaviour and my old age as well.” His sincerity touched her.

“Oh dear, my condition seems the same as yours,” she whispered to herself.

“Hmm, do you like music?” she asked.

“Oh yes, very much, and I listen to music quite often, especially a lot of piano by Richard Clayderman.”

“Would you like to enjoy a few pieces played by that talented French pianist right now?”

“Why not?”

“The volume called Love Songs… is that ok?”

“Great. That will be perfect.”

The melody of I Will Always Love You filled the room as the pianist put in a soulful performance. It was the first song they were listening to together in a warm atmosphere.

He walked to the window as the music went on. They felt relaxed, sharing a romantic space in a cosy nest.

Returning to his seat, Quang impulsively took hold of her hands and held them tight.

“I wonder if you will go with me to my native place to visit my parents tomorrow?”

“Isn’t it a hasty decision?”

“No, not at all.”

“Well… it could be a rare opportunity for me to discover his family and enjoy their hospitality,” she thought.

“But how will you introduce me to your parents?

“As a good friend. We’ve just met each other. Is that okay?”

“That’s the best way, I think,” she replied.

Sometime later, they said goodbye to the tune of Mozart’s Turkish March.

* * *

“This could be predestined. I’ve never accepted any invitation so quickly. Is Quang the man of my dreams?” she asked herself as she boarded the southbound train. After a long whistle, it started to leave the city at twilight, and her mood was melancholic and pensive.

“Where will this trip take me? To a dream home on earth?” she asked herself. The only thing she was sure about was that the man sitting beside her was honest and trustworthy. All the passengers seemed dead tired as the slow train proceeded on its long journey, stopping at all stations, big and small alike.

Resting against the shoulder of a well-built man sitting straight with pensive eyes, crossed arms and smiling corners of his mouth, she found herself completely comfortable. The train trudged slowly in the dark, and everyone seemed to have sunk into a deep sleep.

All of a sudden, loud screams broke out in the carriage.

“Thief! Stop thief!”

Everybody woke up suddenly. Hương heard a lot of cries from both ends of the car.

“What’s the matter? Anything dangerous?” she asked Quang.

He stood up abruptly.

“Keep calm, everybody. Don’t panic.” he told the scared passengers.

From both ends, the passengers were violently pushed into the central part. A few robbers in black masks appeared, herding the passengers together after tightly binding the hands of the railway employees and sticking large pieces of sellotape over their mouths.

Knives in hands, they shouted loudly, “Take all your money and precious things out of your bags and pockets. Keep them in hand, or else you’ll be killed.”

“Hurry up!”

“Hurry up!”

The train kept moving slowly in the dark.

“Both doors are locked. Don’t scream or cry. Keep your money and jewels in your hands,” their leader shouted.

“Here, this guy!”

“Now, you bitch!”

“That old man over there!”

They gathered things from passengers, one by one.

Hương was enraged that everyone was silent, handing over their precious belongings without any resistance. Quang stood powerless beside her.

Suddenly, one of the robbers clapped him on the shoulder.

“You bastard! Where are your cash and jewels?” he asked.

“This is my sweetheart. I’ll give you everything together,” he replied, cowering, raising his hands over his face.

“What a coward you are!” she said in contemptuous anger.

“Insolent bitch!” the robber shouted, turning his attention to her. Quang grabbed his hand immediately. While the two men were still fighting, the leader of the robbers approached them.

“Do you dare disobey us?” he shouted, rushing towards Quang.

Quang strongly shoved his opponent at the leader. Both of them tumbled to the floor. At once Quang grabbed the leader, pinioned his arms to his side and snatched his gun.

“Stay away! Or else I’ll shoot him dead,” he shouted loudly.

All the four gang members retreated to the ends of the car with their newly-obtained possessions in hand.

“Drop everything on the floor, and leave the train, one after another,” Quang said, pressing the pistol into the neck of the leader, and telling him to order his men to obey or die.

When the four robbers had jumped out of the train, Quang led their leader to the car door and fired a few warning shots into the sky. Hearing the salvo, the security men from other cars rushed towards them. Quang handed the leader of robbers over to them before returning to his seat.

The passengers collected their valuables and came to Quang, expressing their profound gratitude and praising his bravery. The train moved slowly into the dawn. Hương’s heart was filled with love and admiration. When the train stopped at Quang’s native place, he helped her down.

Hardly had they got off when the station master came up to congratulate him, and from the crowd, a young man rushed forward and shook hands.

“Allow me to introduce myself. I’m a reporter with the Vietnamese Railway Corporation magazine. Congratulations! May I know your name and have some photos of you both, please?”

“Yes, of course. She is my love,” he told the journalist, taking hold of Huong’s hand.

“I’m his fiancée,” uong declared boldly. “Please let us pass,” she told the inquisitive people who had encircled them and were showering praise.

Huong pulled him out of the crowd. They walked away, arm in arm, proud and happy. On the platform of the small suburban station, a lot of Quang’s relatives were waiting to receive the courting couple with bouquets of fresh flowers of all colours, all eager to see his pretty girlfriend.