by Nguyen Thi Ngoc Ha
Choosing a secluded corner, he lay down in a rattan armchair by a table on which stood a small glass vase of a few newly-blossomed sweet-briar flowers. The melodious tune of Chopin's piano piece Tristesse had noticeably lessened his stress.
"What would you like to drink, sir?" a waitress asked him in a soft voice.
"How beautiful she is!" he whispered to himself when he looked up. "A cup of black coffee, please."
Gently she walked away. As a regular at Nghieng Coffee House, he was greatly astonished when he saw her here for the first time. At once, he called out: "Waitress, come back here, will you?" Face to face with her, he suggested, "Why don't you sit down here with something to drink?"
"With pleasure, sir," she replied politely.
A few minutes later, she came back to him with a tray on which stood a glass of orange juice and a cup of black coffee.
"Please, have some orange juice," he said, pushing the glass of fresh yellow fruit juice close to her.
"Thank you very much," she said.
Sitting opposite him with her hands on her thighs, she waited calmly for him to speak. Her tidy chignon revealed her long, lily-white neck. A few strands of hair flowing down over her temples made her face all the more attractive.
"You're a newcomer here, aren't you?"
"Where did you work before, if I may ask?"
"Do I have to answer now?"
"It's up to you." He shrugged his shoulders. "What an arrogant waitress!" he said to himself.
All of a sudden, a sad look appeared in her round, childlike eyes. While his cup of coffee was nearly finished, her glass of juice remained at the same level. There was something about this stubbornness, this break in her soft manner, that made him – a thirty-year-old youth, who took pride in his education and conduct – respect her.
Outside, it was getting darker and darker. A line of street lights dimly shone in the courtyard. At last, he stood up, smiling in a conciliatory way.
"Sorry, I must be going now. Hope to see you here tomorrow," he told her.
"Thanks a lot. See you later."
After making her acquaintance, he came to Nghieng Coffee House more frequently. Oddly enough, the landlady always reserved for him the most convenient place near the pretty waitress. However, besides her name – Thuong – she disclosed nothing else.
After a long business trip to Ho Chi Minh City, he returned to Ha Noi during the long holiday at the end of April. Before reaching his parents' home, he went to his favourite coffee-house in his Sunday best.
His parents had given him a large apartment in a costly block of flats, the best one in the capital. Previously, it was rented to foreigners, but now it had come under his possession. Standing in front of the mirror, he felt fairly pleased with his 1.7 m.-tall body and handsome face. Before leaving home to meet Thuong, he sprayed a little scent on his clothes.
"Miss Thuong's got the day off today, younger brother," said the shopkeeper.
He felt as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown over him. As the coffee-house was still empty, she came and sat down beside him.
"You like her, don't you?" she asked.
He was still lost in thought.
"I haven't seen her for so long! Why do you still keep Thuong on even though she never works anymore?" he asked.
"Because I take pity on her and set great store by her as well," she replied. "She comes from a poor family and has to do many small jobs to support them. Here she only works three afternoons a week and long weekends too. If you want to know more, you should contact her."
Going out, he smiled sarcastically without her notice. In reality, he was fond of her plain beauty. He wasn't in love with her.
After receiving a Masters degree in financial management at Harvard University, he was recruited to the CHT Corporation – where his father was General Director – to work in the Finance and Business division. The company focused on construction and real assets.
"Next year, I'll promote you (if the directorate consents) to the post of director of one of my six minor companies," his father said to him one day. Clearly his father wished him to make something of himself, so he always tried his best to climb up to the highest rung in society.
Early in the morning, while Ha Noi was still flooded with brilliant sunshine, it suddenly began raining in torrents. In less than half an hour, most streets had turned into rivers, big and small. His Mercedes crawled inch by inch through the current. Rain splashed at the windshield. All of a sudden, he glimpsed Thuong in a thin plastic raincoat. Her face was drenched with tiny raindrops. She tried to push her bike ahead, its wheels submerged in dirty water, while she was wading in the opposite direction. He tried to help her but his vehicle was going too slowly in the heavy traffic. Late in the afternoon, it had rained itself out completely and the streets became dry as usual. He drove his car towards Nghieng Coffee House.
It was deserted. Thuong, in a milky low-cut silk blouse and a tight pair of dark blue jeans, came out to welcome him with a warm smile.
"Haven't seen you for ages!" she said to him after a long silence.
"In fact, I've come here regularly. But I didn't see you," he replied.
"Sadly, today is my last day here so you won't see me any more," she said in a sorrowful voice.
She closed her eyelids slightly and turned towards the line of trees rustling in the wind.
"Not to mince words, I'm badly in need of money," she answered sincerely.
He cast a scornful glance at her.
"With such natural beauty, money issues shouldn't be a problem for you!"
She was offended by his contemptuousness, but she tried to stay polite.
"I'll make money honestly, not by doing what you're thinking," she blurted out. She slightly bowed her head in salutation, then quickly retraced her steps.
A few minutes later, he realised his error. He slowly walked to the counter to ask the receptionist to call her out.
"Thuong apologizes to you for being too tired to meet you again," the receptionist said.
Saving his face, he left the coffee-house immediately. "I've often broken off relations with a lot of fair ladies, but I've never run after any beautiful girls," he whispered to himself.
When the postman reached his place with a thick parcel of registered letters from Australia, he was just opening the gate. After driving his car into the garage, he went upstairs, then cast one of the letters onto the table. Without changing clothes, he flopped onto his bed. He felt ashamed because for the first time in his life, he had been refused by an ordinary girl. He had a shower, then had dinner with a slice of bread and some omelette and drank a glass of Chilean wine. Humming a simple ditty, he picked up the letter. It was a long one with many 13x19 cm photos taken by him and his sweetheart Tu during their meeting in New York. All of them bore Tu's signature with her inscription "I love you" on the back.
Tu was taking a tertiary course at a private university in Australia. His father was significantly indebted to Tu's father for helping him on the path to fame and success. When she failed her university entrance exams at home, he sent her to this far-away country as a way of returning the favour.
Both families hoped that the young couple would become husband and wife. Small wonder that he was usually invited to the parties Tu's clan held for major events.
He examined Tu's photos carefully. She looked a bit fat and her complexion was pale. One of the photos showed a broad smile set in a calm countenance. While contemplating them, he suddenly found Thuong's fine eyes mesmerizing him from her thin raincoat. she really invaded my soul so strongly?" he asked himself. At once, he threw some of them onto the table and a few others on the floor.
The next day, he begged the shopkeeper to give him Thuong's address.
The dim, narrow alley had many turns – now right, now left. The high walls were covered with small, damp pieces of broken bricks. Reaching the end of the alley, he stopped in front of a shanty.
Thuong blushed. She felt confused to see him standing at her gate.
"Why are you here?" she asked him.
"Just to apologize to you."
"What for, sir?"
"For my rude behaviour that day."
"That's okay, I don't remember anything. You can go home now," she said in a soft and polite voice to prevent him from going in.
"Sweetheart, invite him in, will you?" her father said in a breathless voice. He could see him lying on a bamboo bed in a corner of the dwelling.
"Good morning, sir!" he greeted the ailing old man. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Thuong's close friend."
"How kind of you to visit us!" he said, smiling, although he appeared to be in agony. "Sorry for being unable to welcome you!"
Although Thuong's house was only thirty metres wide, it was very clean and tidy. In the glass vase on the table was a cluster of wild flowers. While she was making tea, he glanced around. Suddenly, his eyes fixed on a young woman in a picture on the altar. This woman looked very much like Thuong, especially her eyes, which seemed to look straight through anyone sitting opposite her.
"That's my mother. She died in a traffic accident when I was only six years old. My parents were teachers at a junior secondary school in this area. After her death, my father stayed single to raise me. Recently, he was compelled to retire on a pension because he showed symptoms like Parkinson's disease," she said.
He felt nice and warm – more because of her moving eyes than from the hot tea. He no longer saw her merely as an attractive waitress, but as the elegant lady that he had often dreamt of.
On that autumnal evening her thick black hair, scented with the fragrance of grapefruit blossoms, was playfully teased by the breeze sweeping over them. They strolled side by side by the West Lake, waves splashing against the shore. He felt that he was in seventh heaven.
"Darling, look at the amber-coloured waves," she said to him.
"Splendid! Look at that amber colour!" he exclaimed. The lower the sun sank below the horizon, the more brilliant the glowing waves became. By her side, he felt quite at ease. All his worries disappeared in the twilight. What he was now most concerned about was that one day she would be out of his reach.
"You still have another year to go while your father undergoes constant treatment, so I want to help you through this hard time," he said.
"But what can you do?"
"I've found two ways to help. First, every month I'll provide you with an amount of five million dong until you leave university and work for my company. The sum will be deducted from your monthly salary," he replied. In his opinion, the issue could be solved fairly easily: a few extra hospitality fees wouldn't be noticed by the company.
"What about the second measure?"
"When my nephew's classes are over, you'll come to my place every day to tutor him in maths for two hours. Your pay will be five million dong for that as well," he said.
His elder sister had a boy with the nickname Cu Bi (Little Bi). He was in the third form at elementary school and extremely poor at maths.
Thuong accepted her lover's proposal.
Thanks to her teachings, Cu Bi made significant progress with each passing month. His study results surprised her teacher greatly and his mother also felt very pleased with her son's success. Nevertheless, at the news that her younger brother was infatuated with her, she objected to his plan point-blank.
"You'd better stop your crazy project. If you marry her, you'll shoulder her clan's burden for the rest of your life," she said. "Miss Tu is your future. Our dad still relies upon her father's power to some extent. When you become his son-in-law, the path to glory will be wide open for you!"
In spite of her advice, he was determined to conquer Thuong at all costs. The flame of love was rising high in his heart and he also saw that flame in her eyes.
But because of his sister's stubbornness, he was forced to tell Thuong that his sister had moved to another neighbourhood and hired another tutor for Cu Bi. In fact, her flat was only three floors below his place.
"Anyway, I'll still do all I can for her," he said to himself.
Since the day he fell in love with Thuong, he had not paid attention to any other girl – even Tu, who had given him her virginity.
During a party held by his family, his sister tried again to persuade him.
"My friend's younger brother is in the same class as Thuong," she told her parents. "One day he told me that Thuong is well-known on campus not only because of her beauty but for her dishonest way of earning money as a call-girl. Strangely enough, my brother is still passionately in love with her!"
His mother stared at him angrily. His father slapped his glass of wine down on the table. His brother-in-law frowned at him though his thick spectacles. Tension hung over the table. A few minutes later, his father lowered his voice.
"Next year, I'll begin to retire on a pension. Think about your career. You can't stay at the post of a minor company director for ever," the old man told his son. "Anyway, Tu's parents are very fond of you and set great store by you. His office term is still a long way ahead. You should think over the matter more carefully."
"Surely, that wicked rumour was fabricated by men who failed to win her," he whispered to himself. But come what may, he could not forget about it. The next day, he waited for her at the campus gate.
Thuong turned up in her familiar opalescent silk blouse. She hurried across the street to a waiting motorbike taxi. Her lover followed her – but in vain, as the motorbike turned into a street inaccessible to cars.
The next day he again waited for her. The same motorbike taxi was ready to pick her up. He drove towards her.
"Get in and I'll take you home," he told her.
"Sorry, I'm very busy," she said.
"Being busy doesn't mean you can't let me give you a ride," he insisted.
"Impossible, my dear! Tomorrow evening, I'll attend your birthday," she said in a convincing voice.
She smiled, giving him a placating look, as if her eyes were saying, "I have to go to work. Don't get angry with me, my darling." Poor girl, she failed to recognize the suspicious look behind his black pair of glasses.
On his birthday, she brought him a bouquet of sweet-smelling roses.
Harnessing his anger, he received the flowers and hugged her tightly. Their thorns pierced into his chest, making him loosen his grip. The bunch of flowers scattered on the floor. Hardly had she bent down to pick them up when he kicked them aside and lifted her up. "I must have her at any rate," he whispered to himself.
On his bed, he embraced her tightly and began making indecent assaults on her. With his 70-kg weight, finally he managed in raping her in spite of her violent resistance. "What's the use of being haughty! You're nothing but a prostitute," he said.
When he let her go, she darted to the lift. It was 7:30 in the evening. In a panic she ran down the street in the heavy rain. She felt ashamed that she had believed he loved her.
At midnight when he woke up, he found the white bedspread stained with blood. So she was still a virgin.
He rang her up and sent her lots of messages, but there was no reply.
At five o'clock in the morning he had to fly to the central region to deploy a new project. Incessant work, together with his ambition for fame, made him too busy to do anything else. "Certainly, she hasn't forgiven me," he said to himself. Sometimes he thought of looking for her. Once he returned to her alley, but he turned back halfway for lack of courage. "Anyhow, what's done is done," he said to himself.
An inter-branch fact-finding party in the company discovered many grave mistakes under his management. He was also accused of raping a minor. His father was no longer around to witness his son's downfall and his father-in-law had retired a long time before.
Sitting opposite him was his wife Tu. Her cheeks had sagged noticeably. Her smile was furrowed with new wrinkles. "I've found a talented lawyer who can plead your case successfully," she told him.
Seven days later, he was brought to the waiting room in the prison to meet his lawyer. He was greatly amazed when he recognized his old flame. Her attractive features remained nearly the same. Sitting there, he felt his mind wandering somewhere, out of his obese body. Perhaps his soul was going in search of the amber-coloured waves on the West Lake at sunset that day.
Translated by Van Minh