by Nghiem Luong Thanh
If a man cannot purchase a house to live and work in, to bring up his children well, to support his good wife, to look after his ailing old parents and, last but not least, to worship his honourable ancestors, he is not worthy of being called a man.
That's what I used to think. In reality, nothing is so simple. Nobody knows how the mind really works, even the well-known novelist Nam Cao, if he were still alive. At last, I found a house of my own – but the search was far longer and more exhausting than I anticipated.
My parents are farmers, born and bred. They highly valued the rice they devoted their lives to producing, yet they set even greater store in our schooling. Thanks to their efforts and perseverance, they managed to build a large wooden house on the plot of land they inherited from my paternal grandparents. What's more, they provided us with a good education. I received a BA degree in journalism while my younger sister took an IT course at the military academy, free of charge due to my parents' economic burden. Villagers came to our house to congratulate them for our outstanding achievements.
"Later, when you find good jobs in urban centres, stay there to work instead of coming back home," our father advised us. "And pay no attention if people spread bad rumours about you. Just don't do anything bad to anyone."
"Your father's right! Just aim to lead a happy life," Mum chimed in.
When I graduated from university and my sister was still a sophomore, my father passed away. My family was extremely shocked and my sister was so depressed that without our begging and pleading she would have dropped out of school. As luck would have it, I found a well-paying job at a well-known newspaper. As a result of my job as well as my mother's habit of thrift, our family was not driven into a miserable situation. Being a dynamic and smart reporter, I soon took charge of the family planning column. After taking part in some workshops in that field, I became a key contributor to many radio and television shows. I took great pride in my career.
Thanks to her innocent black eyes, sweet smile and had work, my sister found many suitors. After graduation, she married one of them. Because they were professional military officers, the couple was provided with a small plot of land, where they built a small house. Meanwhile, I had to live in the 30-sq.m.house of my friend Loi on Hang Hom Street, although I was said to be much more intelligent than her.
One day, she suggested that I return home to persuade my mother to sell her house in the country. "We'll pool our savings together to purchase a little house in the city, then take Mum to our new place to take care of her," she said to me.
"I'll help you by lending you my savings and you can pay me back at any time – provided you host an ample house-warming feast," Loi told me.
Consequently, our mother sold her house and came to stay with her daughter's little family. By that time, I had a girlfriend. Although we'd known each other for more than two years, we did not dare to think about marriage as we were unable to find a house.
I had gone everywhere in search of one. During holidays and at free moments, I went around the city outskirts and even to many nearby townships to look for a dwelling suitable for my future conjugal life. Sometimes I found a comfortable one, but the contract was illegal; or one that seemed perfect, but was too expensive. Sometimes I was recommended a nice house for a reasonable cost, but its owner had gone bankrupt, or it did not fit the requirements of feng shui. I felt hopeless.
"You can't be too picky about choosing a place," my sister insisted. "For the time being, marriage is the most important thing for you, so you'd better marry your sweetheart as soon as possible."
Following her advice, we held our wedding within two weeks.
After this great event – probably the greatest in my life so far – my wife and I were allowed to temporarily use my office as our bedroom at night. Every evening, when all my colleagues had left the office, we pushed several tables together to make a flat bed. Then the next morning, we got up very early and tidied the room.
Soon my wife was with child! I was both happy and worried. "Will our baby be born without a house to live in?" I asked myself. By now, my mother had become very weak due to her old age. I felt greatly sad that I was unable to care for her. I resumed my search for a dwelling-place, looking high and low, with all my heart and soul. I followed every tip and every relevant ad. Needless to say, I left no stone unturned. Then one day, while I was going along a narrow lane, I perceived a large, stained notice stuck on the gate of a small bungalow with FOR SALE written in large print. In fact, I had spotted that sheet of paper a long time before, but I paid little attention to it because I thought the house might cost more than I could afford. But this time, I stopped in front of the house. "Why shouldn't I just have a little look at it?" I whispered to myself. "At least I'll get some idea about how much places like this cost." I knocked on the gate.
The price that the landlord offered me and the title-deed that he showed surprised me greatly.
"Pardon, sir?" I couldn't believe what I had heard, so I wanted him to repeat it.
"As I was saying, all the documents are quite legal and my offer is reasonable," he replied, smiling broadly. "If you accept my proposal, I'll transfer the right to ownership to you as soon as you pay me the whole sum."
"I must go home to consult my mother. I'll come back to you tomorrow," I said.
After I told Loi all about the house, he burst out laughing.
"Sheer nonsense! Are you kidding me? For such a house in that alley? It must cost twice as much as you said – at least!"
"I swear I would never lie to you," I replied.
"OK, tomorrow you're on leave, so we can make a fact-finding investigation," he said. He could tell that I was tired, so he was trying to make amends.
Indeed, there was nothing serious to worry about. The house's owner was a well-educated honest man living in plenty. And the dwelling did not lie within the planned urban zone, but in the ancient town. But one thing made us doubtful: the dirt cheap price! In our experience, such a case was due either to the family being in desperate circumstances or the place being haunted. Worse still, one of the family members could have committed suicide. But a general survey proved that none of these unfavourable occurrences had taken place there. In the meantime, I was badly in need of a place for my sick mother and my pregnant wife to live in. "Hesitation can lead to failure," I whispered to myself.
After finishing the payment, I put the old brass key into the bottom of my trousers pocket and returned to my place in high spirits. Sympathizing with my living conditions, the owner offered me a sofa and two armchairs, a bed and the whole set of kitchen utensils. All I had to buy were a small bed for my mother and a big wardrobe for the entire family. Before taking my mother and my wife to this new house, I tidied the place thoroughly. Seeing my mother's pleased look at the well-arranged altar and the clean and tidy kitchen and watching my wife caress her bulging belly and say, "My beloved baby, now we've got a nice, cosy house," I felt very happy.
"You'll have to hold a house-warming party so that we can congratulate you on your new dwelling," one of my colleagues said.
"Of course, when everything is settled," I answered.
When that festive day of ours came, my relatives from the far-away countryside came with many presents – several chickens, some bags of sticky rice, a lot of pancakes and a few bottles of rice wine. My friends and colleagues came with flowers and bottles of whiskey, champagne and wine. Until late in the evening, everybody raised their glasses of wine and cups of brandy over and over, toasting the infant's health and our prosperity and luck as the house's new owners.
My wife took leave just one day before her Caesarian section so that she could have a longer period of time to care for her baby. During long weekends, I tried to make our nest cosier with colourful ornaments. Soon our hopes came true: my wife gave birth to a nice baby girl. Consequently, I asked my boss for an unpaid leave. After that I went to and fro between our home and the gyno-obstetrical hospital to look after both my feeble old mother and my fragile wife.
A week later, I took my wife and child home by taxi.
While my mother still lay in bed because of her illness, my wife wore thick clothes and stockings and our baby cried almost all night long, I felt utterly exhausted. In addition to everyday housework, I had to wash dirty clothes for everybody, go to the market to get food and vegetables, cook meals and do the washing up – all the things I did not have to do in my childhood.
It was the middle of spring. The weather was still humid and cold, quite harmful to rheumatics. It was after 10 PM During the first nights at our new house, while I was rubbing Mum's legs, my little girl began crying. I tried to help my weary wife by lulling the baby to sleep. Curiously, at night the baby cried loudly when I put her down onto the bed, but when I carried her in my arms and walked round and round, she stopped sobbing. Thus, with the infant in my arms, I stayed awake almost the whole night. Lying on the bed, my mother often stirred slightly from side to side, which showed that she was unable to sleep. But she did not complain. At three o'clock in the morning, my little daughter had fallen asleep in my arms. I carefully put her down on the bed, beside her mother, who insisted, "You'd better sleep a bit, or else you'll fall ill like Mum and me." I nodded and lay down, hoping that I could sleep a bit.
All of a sudden, loud noises woke me up. Listening, I recognized that those nasty sounds came from the loud-speaker hanging on the lamp-post in front of my house. I glanced at my watch. It was still very early. My mother groaned slightly and my little child began crying loudly. "Let me lull her to sleep and you can massage Mum's legs for a few moments," my wife suggested. The child cried more and more terribly while the loud-speaker kept on emitting noisy music as a voice read a story I had recently written. "Why is it so loud and lengthy?" I asked myself. Suddenly, I hated my article – and myself. When the narrative came to an end, a grandiose march resounded all the more unbearably. Mum groaned more loudly and my little angel screamed more terribly…
"Tonight the same will happen. Tomorrow morning, the situation will be similar to this morning. Then the day after tomorrow, and so on and so forth. Will things really go on this way forever?" I asked myself.
The more I thought about the matter, the more serious I felt it to be. While the aftermath of that wordy warfare was still lingering in my mind, I realized the exorbitant cost I had paid for my house. In my mind's eye, I watched that stained, dusty FOR SALE notice reappear, this time with a note of despair.
Translated by Van Minh