The three friends' story

“I have one foot in the grave!” Toan moaned. “We’re so old now, we haven’t got long left” he burst out laughing coldly. “Well, still see Hien, don’t you? In my heart of hearts I still have a deep hatred for him.”

Image for illustration
Image for illustration

“Shut up!” shouted Nhien, his ex-sweetheart. “Nonsense! How can you say that? You’re obsessed with death, aren’t you?” she asked him furiously before hanging up the call abruptly.

Toan’s incoherent and bitter rantings at a late hour made her quite uneasy and exhausted. Come what may, he was one of her close classmates and, furthermore, her first lover.

A few years before, he and his wife had divorced, leaving him to bring up their son. Unfortunately, the boy died of a drug overdose in prison while still a teenager. Despite all these hardships, she hadn’t realised how desperate his situation had become.

Soon after, Toan died in deep distress.

At the news of his death, she booked a Hanoi-bound flight. Arriving in the capital, she went straight to a luxury hotel on the banks of the Red River. Early the next morning Hung, another of her ex-classmates, picked her up and took her to the cemetery to pay homage to their ill-fated friend.

* * *

It was the end of autumn in Hanoi. The cold north-westerly wind bit into the skin and soul. Nhien had only slept a few hours because of the noises of the night market, the coach station and the sound of the waves of the Red River. At midnight waking up, she slowly walked to the window. Outside, a thin mist came down. In the courtyard below, the fragrance of the ylang-ylang flowers and her memories, sweet and bitter, made her heart all the more confused.

For a long time, her only contact with him had been on the phone. Therefore, his image had gradually blurred in her mind. Now his unkempt hair, with a bitter smile during their last encounter seemed to appear in front of her. But a few seconds later, the joyful and self-satisfied face of Hien replaced Toan completely.

“Where does he live now? Does he know about Toan’s death?” she asked herself.

* * *

Last August, she attended a scientific seminar chaired by Hien. During the morning break, he spoke to Nhien. “Good morning, my elderly beauty! No wonder, Toan is still obsessed with your fair face,” he whispered to Nhien, shaking her hand tightly. She frowned while he smiled broadly, winking at her. With his white teeth, he looked much younger than his age.

“If so, why did he marry another girl and spurn me?” she retorted.

“You’re still holding a grudge? Serves you right! You never paid any attention to me due to your arrogance,” he said with a sarcastic smile.

“Recently, our team of scientists discovered a new kind of plant. We named it Casovo, in scientific terminology it means a ‘henpecked’ single entity,” he added.

“Poor Hien! He’s dedicated his whole life to researching in deep jungles full of tiny leeches, to announce his study results in public, to enter into pointless arguments with his partners, domestic and foreign alike. Although, he can speak Russian and English fluently and has had many scientific articles published at home and abroad,” she whispered to herself.

On the contrary, Toan was a different kind of man, feeble and drunk.

“Give up your bad drinking please. You’ll soon die because of your addiction,” Nhien had once warned him.

“Oh my crazy lady. For a long time brandy has been my parents, wife, sweetheart and children, my raison d’être. In a word, it’s my everything! Without brandy I’ll die. Well, I’ll give it up with one condition.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Abandon what you’ve got in Sai Gon, everything. Come to me in Hanoi as soon as possible. Forget all your suitors, even Hien,” Toan replied in a choked voice.

She felt greatly embarrassed and uncomfortable. Without saying more, she hung up, as if that would cure her ex-lover’s madness.

* * *

When Hung took her along the streets, both familiar and strange, she felt very perplexed. Her childhood seemed to be here and there, under the canopy of reddish leaves, on the rough trunks of the trees and on sparkling lakes.

Nhien recalled that once Toan had driven her down this road on his motorbike.

“Over there, there was a hurricane,” he told her, pointing at a cluster of shanty houses nearby. At once, she knew that he meant his house, where he and his wife, a jealous woman, had often argued. Even after their divorce, that loudmouth woman still some times argued with Nhien. Looking back at those terrible moments, Nhien just sighed.

* * *

In their childhood, the three of them went to the same school. Toan was a clever, mischievous and talented boy, good at mathematics. On nice days, he asked Nhien to go with him to fish for shrimps in the ponds full of algae. Hien was nicknamed ‘prince’ because of his delicate way of speech, his wavy hair and his mastery of biology. In the evenings, on his old bicycle, Hien went looking for insects and flora and fauna to keep as samples. Nhien, the youngest of the group, could sing beautifully and was a gifted painter and writer. While other schoolgirls still looked like children, she developed fast. She often went to Hien’s place to watch him feed birds under the canopy of egg-shaped grapes, and to see fish, small tortoises and turtles in a large aquarium in the centre of the courtyard.

Finishing her junior secondary education, Nhien left Hanoi with her parents for a midland town where her father had been sent to for work. She reunited with Hien when they went to the same university, whereas Toan joined the army corps in Nghe An Province. Now in her late teens, she was no longer a little girl, but a pretty lady with the admiration of her two friends. Hien secretly fell in love with her. Whenever Nhien took part in a student performance, Hien would steal his elder sister’s ao dai for Nhien to wear. Fixing his eyes on her fair face with rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes, he heaved a sigh, “You look very pretty. If only I could enjoy your skills on the stage!” Nhien did not know that Toan had told Hien about his passionate love for her. In consequence, Hien kept his growing desire for her to himself. He buried himself in books to forget.

It seemed to him that he had been driven out of the courting couple’s hearts

* * *

At noon, the cemetery seemed quite deserted. Its large buildings with multi- levelled small numbered niches looked gloomy. Glancing over their photos, one after another, Nhien felt dizzy. With a small ladder, Hung climbed up to Toan’s memorial tablet to bow down before him then went down. When it was Nhien’s turn, she provided votive offerings as a homage to her ex-lover, eyes in tears.

Returning to the hotel, they stayed in the restaurant for a long while. Nhien ordered a glass of ice coffee for Hung and an orange juice for herself. Over the years, he had not only supported Toan financially, but also listened to his bitter rants about his miserable life.

“Toan led a needy life, like a skeleton, dear Nhien,” Hung said. “Recently, he became as skinny as a waif. He drank constantly after being abandoned by his wife and after his son died, his physical condition deteriorated fast. When his health turned worse and worse with every passing day, Hien sent him a considerable amount of money, but he refused it. He asked me to return it immediately…” Hung stopped abruptly.

Slowly, he stirred his coffee, making the ice cubes clanking. Aware of her unspoken reproaches, he blushed all over. Meanwhile, she was blaming herself, although she and Toan hadn’t been on good terms for a long time. His pleadings and complaints about his unlucky destiny and even his remorseful tears didn’t move her.

“When do you fly back to Sai Gon?” Hung asked her suddenly.

“Early tomorrow, my dear friend,” she replied. She was still lost in her thoughts. Toan had been through a lot in his life and she had gotten involved in a lot of it.

Hung left her. Nhien had a shower before going to bed. She hardly slept a wink. Waking up she recognised that it was already late evening. At first, she intended to take a stroll along some streets lined with many trees to enjoy a cool twilight in the autumn of Hanoi, then she changed her mind. She phoned Hien. No answer. “Perhaps, he’s abroad on business or wandering somewhere in the jungle,” she said to herself. She returned to her hotel in distress.

Early the next morning, she went to Noi Bai Airport to go back to Sai Gon.

* * *

She felt warm in her cosy house amid the canopy of yellow flowers and green leaves. Her son had gone abroad to study nearly a year ago, but she had become accustomed to the solitude. Walking into her bedroom on the ground floor, she flung the window open to enjoy the fresh air. After the rain, the flowers in the back garden gave off a sweet smell.

In the afternoon, she stayed in her painting studio. It was there she could find pleasure and peace of mind. Among the paintings on display, there were two oil pictures of a submerged forest with a green hue, several pictures of pretty young girls and her son in his primary school uniform. In addition, there were still a lot of small-and medium-sized flower and still life pictures in pastel. What she liked best was the one portraying a group of schoolchildren evading the rain. In general, they had beautiful, delicate, feminine and sad features which were deeply moving to some. What’s more, they had a soul, mysterious and lonely, of a woman lacking the support of a man.

Nhien paced to and fro around a room where there was a small wooden case with a little box on top of it. Inside the box there was a pile of letters, a dry leaf and a photo album, all of which smelt mouldy. Sitting on the floor she picked them out, one by one. All of them were associated with Toan. In one letter, he told her that he was being treated for a wound in a military field clinic. Immediately, she rushed by train to see him. Toan, with a clean-shaven head, a pale face and a thin body inside his large uniform, welcomed her with a broad smile.

“We have to fix him to the bed with bamboo lengths because last night he convulsed violently during a fever,” some nurses told her with mischievous smiles. She sat down on the bed’s edge then looked at him, blushing all over.

They only stared at each other without saying a word. The next morning, she caught the early Hanoi-bound train.

* * *

Nhien picked up the dry leaf, feeling very excited. Now it was curly, thinner and crispy. It was the one that Toan gave her when she visited him at his new barracks some ten kilometres away from where she was staying on holiday. To keep herself safe while riding her bicycle on the deserted road across the forest she carried a dagger.

They sat down side by side in a sweet-smelling eucalyptus grove. With a guitar, he played the tune and sang the lyrics of Those Were the Days. Looking at his smiling face, his thin fingers plucking the strings of the instrument and his black hair flowing down over his forehead, she felt a pang in her chest and thought of herself as the happiest woman in the world.

She dropped the dry leaf into her box then picked up the black-and-white photos, one after another, taken in different places and situations: making sticky rice, enjoying shrimp cakes by West Lake together with each other, and rowing a swan-shaped boat in the blue ripples of Truc Bach Lake with his warm kisses. Unexpectedly, there were a few letters written by Hien from Russia. One of them opened with a few vague words: “To Nhien of somebody…! The bunch of purple silk flowers with your loving words, ‘Don’t forget me,’ that you sent me on my birthday while I was teaching have become ‘Unable to forget you’. As for the packet of candies, I enjoyed only one piece whereas for the rest, they were given to my colleagues.”

By then, Hien knew clearly that the love between her and Toan had ended. Yet, it seemed to Nhien that he wanted to find out her real feelings.

After putting the old souvenirs back into the box, she stood up then walked to the window. Dawn began setting in with a thin veil of violet mist wafting into her dim bedroom. She had never understood why her first love had ended so miserably, just after Toan was demobbed. Coming back to Hanoi, he registered for university entrance exams. Luckily, he passed them all. All of a sudden, he fell in love with a female student on the same course, short and ugly, with thick lips. At first, Nhien was confused, then became angry because her pride had been hurt. “What makes him say goodbye to me with my sweet memories to run after that plain girl?” she asked herself. Her question had so far been left unanswered and tortured her.

After graduation from university she left Hanoi for Sai Gon to settle down. Soon she loved the bustling megacity, with its wide river, its two green banks and her encounters with other young people at parties. After that she got married, had children and led a busy life as a wife and mother. As time passed, the sentimental ties formerly binding them together slowly faded. However via Hien, she sometimes heard news about her ex-lover. It turned out that Toan’s wife’s uncle was a ministerial big wig. Thanks to this official plus his fluency in English, Toan was quickly promoted to an influential post with a huge, dishonestly-earned income. Unfortunately for him, while focusing on personal gain, he was disgraced due to some gross mistakes. Nevertheless, with his intelligence and resolution, he smuggled and made counterfeit products to get rich as soon as possible. His unlawful affairs were almost always protected thanks to his uncle-in-law and he soon became nouveau riche.

During a rare trip on business to the capital, Toan made an appointment with Hien at a café. Hien waited and waited for him while Toan talked with a known gangster at another table. After an hour’s encounter, when the thug left Toan came to his friend’s table with his sincere apology. Hien thought his friend was getting involved in a dangerous affair, yet he did not dare to mention it for fear Toan’s self-respect might be hurt.

Unexpectedly, Toan’s unlawful affairs were discovered by the police. Toan was arrested and found guilty. He went bankrupt. His wife divorced him at once. For some reason, Toan not only regretted being caught but also hated his old friends. After being released from prison, he started a new job: teaching English to eke out a livelihood. But this didn’t last long, as he couldn’t hold down a job for long due to his alcoholism.

In those days, Hien was often researching abroad. Returning home with a blue-eyed, auburn-haired Russian girl, Hien was very excited to see Nhien. Yet, his love for her was no more.

“Here’s Natasha,” Hien introduced her to Nhien proudly.

Natasha smiled a warm smile as a greeting.

For unknown reasons, Hien soon parted with the Russian lady to marry a factory worker because, in his opinion, he was badly in need of a young woman who would took care of his spinster aunt. “It was a mistake beyond retrieval, for our marriage soon led to divorce, leaving our two kids without a full family,” he had once confided in Nhien.

Later, when Nhien’s husband died of an accident, she and Hien co-habited. They were attached to each other by virtue of their childlike sweet memories, hoping together they could recapture them. However, they soon realised that they weren’t suited.

* * *

One day, Nhien visited Hien’s studio. It was small but tidy. On the wall there were many maps with tiny circles in blue and red. In the glass bottles she found multi-coloured kinds of water and in the other plastic boxes she recognised the samples of insects, flowers and leaves in transparent liquids.

“Sit down here please,” Hien told her in a coarse voice.

In a movable chair, she watched everything with sad eyes. Her slim and tall body in dark colour clothes with her pale arms folded on the table stung his heart greatly. For the past days, Hien did not go abroad, nor did he wander in the forest. At the news of Toan’s death he did not want to attend or hear about his friend’s funeral so he disconnected his internet. From the bottom of his heart he felt fairly at ease because the obsession about his former wrongdoing had been removed. Now, no more reproaches at midnight from Toan would be heard.

“I’m unable to go to Hanoi, dear Nhien,” he said in an embarrassed voice.

“You needn’t have gone either because the die is cast,” she consoled him. “Last night Hung phoned me. So I’m fully aware of what happened between you and Toan.” In his heart of hearts, Hien also wished that he had never made an attempt to win her back from Toan’s arms by introducing his cousin who later became Toan’s wife. But his plan came to nothing. In the final analysis, Toan’s despair was not merely his.

“Nhien, I … I… apologise to you,” he said.

“You’re not to blame, dear Hien.”

Then she stood up and proceeded to her old friend with hoary hair and stooped shoulders, eyes in tears. She seemed to find Toan’s figure appeared dimly with his sad eyes. They both stood close to each other. Suddenly, Hien seized her hands tentatively. Heaving a deep sigh, she buried her head in his warm chest. Hot tears trickled down her cheeks.