“You’ve come by bus, haven’t you?” she asked him in a contemptuous voice. “Pawned your motorbike?” she went on.
Blushing with shame he replied, “I needed the money to wire a building for lighting and high-tech gadgets. I’ll get it back soon.”
“Hmm, at the age of fifty, with a degree in electrical engineering, you should be ashamed of yourself for having pawned your terrible motorbike,” she mocked him.
“It’s not a big deal, I’ll be sorted soon.”
“Really? What did you want to see me for then? Not for money, eh?”
“Certainly not! Have I ever borrowed anything from you?”
“Don’t beat around the bush, please. I haven’t got much time to waste here.”
After a moment of hesitation, he put forward a proposal. “Diem, I beg you for a favour. Can you take care of Thuy Phuong, our poor daughter, instead of me for a short time?” he asked.
She was greatly surprised at first and then refused point-blank.
“My husband doesn’t want involved in my past while we’re leading a happy life. If the kid stays with us, our life would change dramatically,” she said.
Dong felt totally confounded. He tried to convince her once again.
“By the end of this year, I’ll sign a few business contracts,” he explained to her. “Right now, I have to focus on getting paid. As for our daughter, she needs love and the care of a female very much. Therefore, I beg you for a favour, this one only, for a period of three months at most. Before Tet, when I finish work, please look after her,” he entreated.
“You’re always the root of my bad luck and despair,” she groaned. “Just go home, will you. I’ll explain the problem to my husband, I need to talk to him before answering you. I’ll ring you up later,” she concluded.
Standing up, he jotted down his phone number on a piece of paper then gave it to her. “Thanks anyway,” he said before leaving for the bus stop.
* * *
Some ten years ago, the married couple enjoyed a happy life in a little house in a narrow alley purchased with Dong’s honestly-earned income in a friendly community. She took pride in his good behaviour: dedicated to family and responsible to society.
* * *
In his late teens, he was enlisted into a frontier guard unit. Seven years later, after being demobbed he enrolled into the Hanoi University of Technology. After completing a three-year course of electrical engineering, he left the institution to join a team installing a 500 kv high-voltage line along the Truong Son. Finishing the task, he was appointed as bureau chief in a company in Hai Phong.
While the path to glory was still ahead, he returned home looking sad one day.
“I’ve given up the position of bureau chief,” he told Diem.
“Why?” she asked anxiously.
“I can’t hack the pace. So, I’ve yielded my post to a younger engineer.”
“What a crazy man! While your job is coveted by many, you’ve quit it,” she exclaimed angrily. “Remember that you promised never to leave me in despair or penury. Are you still a man of honour?”
“Frankly speaking, my health is getting worse and worse. I want a more suitable job,” answered Dong. As a result, from a power bureau chief of the city he became head of a group of technicians of a company with a lower wage, leaving home early in the morning on a bone-shaking motorbike with a set of tools in a plastic box.
“What a good-for-nothing guy!” she lamented.
Diem gave birth to a premature baby girl, whom she named Thuy Phuong. The little one had been fed in an incubator for nearly a year. When Diem was told by her doctor that her daughter suffered from a congenital heart defect, she accused her husband of not providing her with enough nutritious food to birth a normal baby.
At the age of two, Thuy Phuong, with her clumsy stature, could not move comfortably like other toddlers.
“Poor her! Just an ailing kitten!” Diem blurted out.
“To compensate for her defects, I hope that what she does have is perfect, including her name,” Dong told her.
“You told me the day you set up a high-voltage power line over the Truong Son Range, you were contaminated by Agent Orange. Because of that, our kid is mentally handicapped,” she said to him.
“But why haven’t you lodged a compensation claim to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs?”
“For a non-commissioned officer like me, I would be rejected. As a lawyer, you know I’m right.”
* * *
Greatly discontent with her husband’s submissive attitude, Diem was often engrossed in her work while she let Thuy Phuong crawl about the house. The little girl was once found picking up ants to put into her mouth. At the sight of her indifferent behaviour, Dong criticised her as a heartless woman.
“As a barrister in a private law firm, with a meagre salary, I’m writing and doing my best to make both ends meet,” she replied. “You should send the kid to an orphanage,” she added.
“No, never. How cruel you are! I’ll try my best to bring her up at home even if I have to sell my blood for her,” he objected.
“My life in penury is unbearable. I want a divorce. You’d better let me go,” she told him.
“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “But if you really feel so forlorn while living with me and little Thuy Phuong, I’ll not stand in your way.”
* * *
The next day Diem made a phone call to Dong to inform him her husband had agreed to let the child stay at her place for a little while.
Dong led her daughter to the bus station to come to the same refreshment stall on the street they had met on the previous day. In her early teens, she remained slim and weak, quite different from other urban children of her age. Finding Diem getting out of the luxury car and approaching the stall, the kid hid herself behind her father with an embarrassed look.
“That’s your mother,” he said, pointing at the approaching woman. “Don’t be so upset.”
Taking a glance at the little girl with a pale face and bad mood, Diem greeted both of them coldly.
“How does she do at school?” she asked him.
“In her primary classes, she scored rather low. In the secondary junior school, she performed much better.”
“What else can she do?”
“She knows how to have a bath and wash her clothes,” he answered. “Whenever I prepare a meal, she usually follows me into the kitchen to practise cooking, yet she’s still very clumsy. She likes music as well. When I’m away from home, I put her under the care of a neighbouring teacher with her music lessons on the electric organ in the hope that she doesn’t feel alone when I’m out.”
“I pity on both of you. But the more piteous I feel, the sulkier I become. You aren’t a fashionable man at all,” she remarked. “In comparison with you, although my husband Beu didn’t get a PhD degree with honours in arts he’s much more practical than you. Each year, working out just a few research works we can lead a life of plenty, provided they are endorsed. When she stays with us, I’ll let our little Dim play the piano for her to practise further, not a cheap electric organ,” she went on.
“Clearly, you belong to an upper class family. Anyhow, thank you for helping,” Dong said then he urged Thuy Phuong, “Go to your mum, my dear. I must go to work now.” Although she burst out crying, she reluctantly got into the vehicle with Diem. He waved goodbye to both of them then took a bus to his workplace.
* * *
Diem’s magnificent mansion was situated near a newly-opened road. Thuy Phuong lived in a self-contained well-furnished room. She was admitted into a junior high school nearby. Every day, she went to school and walked home. At home, on the first days when she stayed there with Dim who usually cast a curious glance at her, she felt rather uneasy. As for Mr Beu, he often watched TV from the sofa as if the newcomer was just a weird creature from an alien planet. He sometimes talked to her in jerky but bossy voice. One day, he explained to her about the universe, moral philosophy and economic notions like the negation of negations, surplus and its value, and so on. All were beyond her realm of knowledge. She just nodded her head for appearance’s sake.
Diem began achieving some success in writing. Each time, when a story of hers came out, she brought home two issues: one for her husband and the other for Thuy Phuong. “Read to improve your knowledge about life,” she told her. At first Thuy Phuong read them with enthusiasm, then the more she read them, the more she found them boring.
“Why don’t you like them?” Diem asked her.
“Perhaps they’re too sublime for me to get,” replied the girl. “Yet, why don’t you write easy-to-understand tales such as HC Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Little Match Girl, The Emperor’s New Clothes or The Little Mermaid and Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and so on.”
“Now they are all outdated, my little child,” she replied.
“My teacher says they’re classics, mum.”
“Let them be! I write for the intellectual circle to enjoy. Sooner or later, they will be warmly welcome abroad.”
“Nonsense! Your books, if published, would soon be thrown into bins,” Mr Beu mocked.
“What about your work, darling? Not to mince matters; they’re rubbish!” she retorted.
Whenever her mother and stepfather argued, the kid just stayed silent.
What interested her most was the orange Nokia mobile that Dong bought her when they were apart. It was always in her pocket. Due to her poor pronunciation, she often used it to listen rather than to talk to him. Time and again, he sang for her.
In their lounge, there stood a brand new piano behind the sofa that a skinny music teacher in a big pair of glasses came to teach to Dim. In reality, she wasn’t keen on music, she only practised the lessons given to her for a few minutes then she was engrossed in playing video games, much to the despair of the old instructor. Once Thuy Phuong was severely scolded by her mother when she tried to play with the keyboard.
“It costs a huge amount, so it’s not a plaything for you to touch,” she scolded the poor child.
The next morning, while listening to her father’s call, she just sobbed and sobbed, saying that Diem’s piano made her miss her music teacher very much.
“Keep calm, my beloved daughter. Everything will be OK,” he consoled her then sang a ditty to hush her cries.
During the first month after his departure, he almost rang her up every day. Then one month, two months and three months later, his calls became less and less frequent.
In despair, she gave up eating. She lay in bed for hours, skipping classes often, one after another, to the bewilderment of her mother.
When Tet was drawing near, everybody looked forward to its coming with great excitement. As for Thuy Phuong she only bore so gloomy a face that sometimes Diem reprimanded her severely.
“Why do you look so sad?” she asked her.
“Oh no, nothing special mum!” she replied shortly then walked away as if a huge burden was laying heavy in her heart. One night Diem woke up suddenly when she heard the music sounds of the piano echoing melodiously from the lounge. She slowly walked downstairs. To her amazement, Thuy Phuong was playing a charming piano piece. “Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante perhaps,” she said to herself. She saw the little fingers graciously sweeping over the keyboard while the girl was humming.
“How fantastic!” she exclaimed softly. Suddenly, she remembered that when she took the little girl home for the first time, Dong told her that Thuy Phuong had been taught music by his neighbouring electric organ instructor for a long time. In her mind’s eye, she thought that he said it only to boast. Therefore, she paid no attention at all.
Slowly and slightly she stepped toward the young pianist. It was there Diem silently enjoyed the wonderful piano piece together with her daughter’s clear singing as follows:“Tonight I can hear the wind rustling through the tree leaves and the ditty sung by Dad with his angelic wings resounding to welcome me. My dear Dad, you are the sun, the earth, the river and the yellow rice fields spreading far and far away under sunshine.”
As a natural instinct, Diem hugged her child tightly with great affection for the first time in her life.
“My dear daughter, your father told me that you had been learning music from the electric organ, not the piano. However, you can play the piano so beautifully. Why is that?”
“Dear Mum, Dad only paid the fee for my organ lessons. But thanks to my teacher’s pity and love, she taught me how to play the piano as well, free of charge,” replied her daughter.
“Does your father know that you had free piano lessons from her too?”
“Oh no no, Mum! She forbade me to let him know so that he didn’t have to pay more. If he had paid for my piano lessons too, in addition to the organ lessons, and if my teacher would have refused extra pay, Dad would have been greatly embarrassed.”
“Well, I see, I see! Being poor, yet he doesn’t want to owe anything to anybody,” she told her daughter. “What’s the title of the song you’ve just sung?”
“It doesn’t have a name, I wrote it because I miss Dad very much, that’s all.”
Saying so, she stopped playing then held her mother’s hand tightly.
All of a sudden, she burst into tears.
“Thuy Phuong, why have you cried so bitterly?” she asked, looking at her face in tears.
Thuy Phuong took a piece of paper out of her pocket and gave it to her mother. She read it carefully. Her face gradually turned pale.
“How long ago did you discover Dad’s lung cancer?”
“More than four months ago, Mum.”
“He told me that he’d put his motorbike at a pawnshop for money to invest into some projects, hadn’t he?” she asked her daughter again.
“Far from that, Mum!” she shook her head. “He sold it together with the wardrobe for money to get medicine,” the poor girl spoke with a stammer.
Diem collapsed on the floor, heaving a deep sigh. Thuy Phuong stooped down to lift her up.
“It seems to me that Dad passed right on the day he stopped calling me. He’s gone. He was blessed properly thanks to God’s mercy. Tomorrow I’ll go away to look for his close kin.”
“Oh no no, there’s no need for you to do so! Just stay here with me,” she told her daughter with a passionate embrace. “Early tomorrow morning, we’ll set off to look for his grave. It’s there we’ll burn some joss sticks to pray for his rest in peace.”