|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Do Tien Thuy
Although Mr Kho had retired on a pension, he still came to our office frequently, for it was very near his house. Whenever he reached our place, he went straight to the first floor and entered the initial room of the row with loud praise for the recent story by our Editor-in-Chief, saying that it was indeed perfect. After that, he called at the second room to declare loudly that the account by the Sub Editor-in-Chief edited a few years before was wonderful. After these superficial courtesies, he strolled along the corridor, looking up and down. He passed by the third room where we - the greenhorns of the editorial section - were seated to deal with literary subjects. In his opinion, we felt that most of his work were outdated. "How arrogant these poor kids are!" he mumbled. Finally, he went downstairs to the ground floor to chat with the pretty young girls of the administrative section for hours before returning home.
One morning our door slammed open! He stood there with a brand-new laptop.
"Hey, young mate! I'd like to ask for your help," he told me. His heart was going pit-a-pat. Standing in front of me, he quickly opened his PC. "Read it, will you?" he entreated me. It turned out that he had just received a new message from a young lady overseas.
First of all, allow me to introduce myself. I'm Jennifer Garteh, a single 23-year-old girl. I'm 5.8 feet and 110 pounds with black hair and brown eyes...
"How did this come to you?" I asked him.
"Recently I joined Baboo, a social networking site," he whispered. "Early this morning I saw it here by chance. Please interpret it for me right now!"
"For such a great author as you, it's quite inconvenient not to know any foreign languages," I remarked, smiling broadly.
"Well, the matter is not that simple," he blurted out angrily. "Bear in mind that while you were still a boy, I was engaging in the fight against the gargantuan imperialists." His voice had taken on a serious tone. Then all of a sudden, remembering the message on his handy PC, he entreated me in a soft voice, "What does it say, my dear mate?"
Perhaps you don't know that I'm now in great danger. The matter is as follows:
I was born in the city of Monrovia, the capital of the Republic of Liberia. My Irish father was a successful businessman and my Liberian mother was a skilful doctor. I enjoyed a happy childhood here. I was brought up properly and I completed my first year at the College of Medicine in Monrovia.
Unfortunately for us, a terrible civil war suddenly burst out in our peaceful country. Both my parents were killed and our house was levelled to the ground by the rebels to avenge our property donation to the then-Government. I was lucky enough not to be at home at the time. After that, I had to run away in order to avoid the wicked hunters' roundups.
For the time being, I have to take shelter in a church in the Dakar diocese thanks to the spiritual care and protection of Father Frank Johnson. In his opinion, I need to be saved by somebody from another country as soon as possible.
I thought a lot about this matter and at last I chose you, an honest Vietnamese writer who has, to the best of my knowledge, been living in a peaceful developing country that has healed from the horrible destruction of war. Only such a man as you can sympathize with me and my living conditions.
If you can help me, please contact him at E-mail... mobile phone number....He will arrange a lawful confirmation of our relationship. You would be my adoptive elder brother, or my foster-father, even my husband if necessary. It's up to you, but only you can help me escape.
To my surprise, I found him in tears when I finished reading the letter sent from Africa. My sides almost burst from laughing.
"What are you laughing at?" he asked, staring straight at my face. "Having grown up in a time of peace, how could you sympathize with her plight?"
His body trembled slightly. His eyes were closed. His brows knitted tightly as if he were one of the monks in deep meditation at the Tay Phuong Pagoda in the face of the everlasting suffering of mankind. Then he went home silently.
The next day, he came back to our editorial staff. He showed me a neatly written letter dotted with tears in numerous places. "Translate this into English, will you?" he said. "After that, send it to Jennifer immediately!"
I tried to make a precise translation for his two-page letter, but it was difficult.
"The heart of an author like me deeply stings at your plight. With the capacity and prestige of a famous writer, I'm willing to stand bail for you to come here to Viet Nam for the resumption of your tertiary studies... "
After that, I had my hands full with the correspondence between them. An outgoing letter in the first week was followed by a reply the next. Their terms of endearment became more and more abundant with every passing day. In the fourth letter, she included a photo. She was pretty and tanned. He admired her for hours in ecstasy.
When the sixth letter came to Mr Kho, he said to me in an eager voice, "How inconvenient it is for me to chat with the dear girl via a translator! Starting tomorrow, you'll have to teach English to me, my young colleague."
Luckily for me, I agreed with his suggestion immediately.
Surprisingly, he managed to learn basic English very quickly thanks to his strong motivation and diligence. Within a week, he could understand one hundred English words. In half a month, he was able to recognize simple sentences. One day, when she sent him a form of personal data for him to fill in so that Vicar Frank might complete the procedures for establishing the relationship between them, Mr Kho asked me to fill in the blanks and then stared at the document attentively. I knew his personal information very well. He nodded agreement at each. When I put in 65 for his age, however, he shook his head violently. "It should be 45 at most," he told me.
To my surprise, he continued to shout loudly. "For the purpose of lengthening my office term longer than my real age of retirement, it is a shameful behaviour; but for the sake of love, it's quite worthy of praise!"
When we came to a delicate item about sexuality, I jotted down without let-up, "Not good."
"Oh no, no! 'Good, or very good' is the right term here, you see," he criticized me.
"Once you told me that you suffered from diabetes so seriously that you could hardly enjoy sex, didn't you?"
"How stupid you are!" he whispered to me. "That's because I don't care for my wife, you know! In fact, my sexual desires are quite normal."
"I think you've got a serious malady, Uncle."
"You always despise young writers, but you extol young ladies to the sky."
"Right you are! That's my foible."
"For an elderly and ailing man like you, how can you stand such a hot girl coming from the scorching sun of the African desert?"
"Let's take this outside this afternoon. I'd like to see you show such strength then!"
At half past three, he was already present in the heart of the courtyard of our establishment. He shouted loudly, "Hey, young writer! Get down here for your chastisement."
At the tennis table, contrary to my initial assessment, he played quite well and I was defeated. "What a convincing match," he said proudly to the ladies of the administrative section.
At first, I deemed that the interactions between the two were nothing but a harmless game. But while my behaviour as the accomplice only aimed at rekindling the half-extinguished flame of his literary career, the situation ended up going far beyond my imagination.
One rainy night, he came to my bedroom with his thin laptop. "I can't stand my spouse anymore," he said.
"You've been already poisoned by that pretty girl. Think it over again! That love affair of yours is only virtual," I said sincerely.
"Only illusory? No! I've completed all the formalities for her to get here. In a few months, she will come here to live with me!"
"How can you be so credulous, Uncle?"
"Because I quite believe in my fate," he answered. "I'll purchase a farm in the suburbs for us to live together. I'll write a few big novels and she'll translate them into English. I'll produce the greatest works of my life!"
"Aren't you already a famous author with major literary works?"
"No, they aren't interesting enough. I wish to produce more excellent writing," he replied. "By the way, did you know that Lev Tolstoy's great masterpiece War and Peace was not only successful due to his talent but, to a certain extent, his wife's assistance in proof reading? As for me, my good-for-nothing wife only smears my name."
"I think otherwise, Uncle."
When his work Shabby Fields obtained a major prize, she claimed that her good-for-nothing husband could do nothing but write. Once she asked him to take two kilograms of first-rate ham to her parents, who lived rather far away, and he went downstairs with the food. A few minutes later, he turned up in front of her. She felt suspicious. "From this dwelling-house to my parents' place both ways takes at least half an hour by bike. How could he go that quickly?" she wondered. In doubt, she questioned him about his brief trip. "I thought that you told me to drop it into the rubbish can outside," he answered sincerely.
A few hours later, he said to me, "I've made a petition for divorce, but she refuses to sign it. She intends to use our assets and children to bargain with me. OK, I'll give her everything, except for the laptop. I'll leave home with empty hands. Would you mind letting me stay here for a period of time?"
"Why not? Frankly speaking, a lot of provincial leaders and directors suggested that I stay in a five-star hotel for the whole year at their own expense, but I refused them all. I set aside this honour for you. Even your Editor-in-Chief is ready to offer me accommodation for as long as I need so that I may write lots of novels without any obstacles, since I was a senior member of his publishing house."
"So why do you need my help?"
"You seem rather stupid, my dear. I wish to stay here to improve my poor spoken English. My reading and writing capacity is quite good, you see."
His presence at my place made lots of trouble for me. Instead of eating at popular restaurants, I had to cook for us. Luckily for me, a few days later, his wife phoned me, saying, "I'll provide you both with delicious food as long as you take care of him. I'm very grateful to you for your devoted help."
Eating the nice food she sent one day, he objected: "Tell her to stop these foolish things, please. I don't want to be bound by her dark schemes."
It seemed that he wanted to break off his relationship with her forever.
Soon, he had his hair dyed black and his teeth scraped white. Obviously, the flame of love had begun warming up his creative inspiration once again.
Rumour had it that a great prize for literature written during the period of national renovation would go to his novel Shabby Fields. He received the news indifferently. At first, he told me that he would refuse to accept it, but his actions contradicted his words. He dressed properly, as an author recognised worldwide should dress. "I take pride in this award, but I also feel ashamed for what I've written over the past years, for it's too superficial. For years, we've believed literature should deal with the necessities of life. Now we must change our minds as fast as possible. In this period of integration, we need to think about the rest of the world." It was a lengthy speech. Until the moment of deep ecstasy, he blurted out his half-finished address in English, which greatly confused the audience. "Is that really the author of Shabby Fields?" they asked one another.
Mr Kho told me one day that Jennifer would arrive in Viet Nam in twenty-nine days. With a view to meeting her needs, he did physical exercises in the morning, played table tennis in the afternoon and improved his English in the evening.
I tried to create a more practical teaching programme. I chose an intensive English course of conversation for him. We made person-to-person dialogues about common topics. After that, we changed to romantic subjects, then to social problems. One evening, I recited an extract from a newspaper article, saying, "Lots of people have been cheated by swindlers pretending to be from famous banks or online stores." His face turned pale and he collapsed on the table.
"What's the matter with you?" I asked him. He replied in an indistinct voice, which made me quite bewildered. I put him into a taxi and hurried to a nearby hospital.
"This man has suffered a cardiac infarction due to a strong shock. He is now out of temporary danger," the doctor told me as he left the emergency ward.
Heaving a sigh, I rang up his wife before returning to my place.
On the display of his small PC, I found the flickering words "Dear Jennifer, I'm deeply in love with you forever and ever." Hardly had I touched the mouse when my dear old writer's girl appeared, smiling happily. I went further and further into several romantic files, which I read carefully, one after another.
On the first one, I saw a red rose attached:
My dear lover,
I'm counting down the days left for us to meet each other. All my entrance formalities have been completed. As for the transfer of my inherited sum of US$2.3 million, it has been a bit troublesome. The bank requests a lawyer to take charge of this matter and there's a significant transfer fee. Under the circumstances, I'm unable to afford it. Can you help me solve this problem? My darling, everything of mine will belong to you forever - including myself. I've provided the relevant authorities with your phone number and e-mail so that they can contact you easily and directly.
The second file bore the logo of a well-known bank.
The Royal Bank of Scotland PLC, London, the UK.
Dear Mr Kho,
We've got a request from Miss Jennifer, a legal heiress of the sum of US $2.3 million from Mr Francis Garteh, deposited at our bank via his account. We need a lawyer present in Liberia as soon as possible in order to confirm the person, liability and rights of the heiress. We have the pleasure to inform you that all the fees for this service of investigation lie in the charge of the heiress.
On the third file was the stamp of the balance of justice.
Dear Mr Kho,
I'm lawyer Cheikh Musa, the man entrusted by the Royal Bank of Scotland for the confirmation of the person of Miss Jennifer in Liberia. Allow me to advice you of the following:
- The two-way airfare for the two localities of Scotland and Dakar plus the charge for road trips during the work period is US $ 5,000;
- The fee for transactions with the authorities of the related countries and the Government of Liberia itself is US $ 10,000;
- The private fee is US $ 2,500;
In a word, the total amount is US $ 17,500.
You are requested to transfer this amount to account... at the Royal Bank of Scotland.
On the fourth one, there was nothing attached.
Dear Lawyer Cheikh Musa,
I'm a Vietnamese author. You see, we Vietnamese writers are on the whole very poor. So I can't afford the sum of US $17,500. However, upon my word, I'm willing to support Miss Jennifer, in terms of spiritual and legal issues, for her to settle down in our peaceful and beautiful country. I'm motivated entirely by the goodness of my heart. I don't have any aim to make a profit.
On the fifth, there appeared a big icon:
I know that you love me tenderly. Nevertheless, you're unable to take me out of this stalemate. Forgive me, my dear Kho. I'm compelled to resort to another man's assistance.
At last, I understood the problem. "Was Mr Kho so pained by this dishonest scheme that he fainted that evening?" I asked myself.
I made up my mind to read more. The sixth letter bore a gorgeous red rose:
Perhaps God felt so deeply moved by our love that He blessed me with a meaningful gift: I've just been offered a major literary prize, just enough for lawyer Sheikh Musa's trips. I've sent the sum of money into his account at the Royal Bank of Scotland. Surely our union is not far away. Oh dear, my heart might burst from happiness. Infinite kisses!
Now came the seventh, also from Mr Kho:
My dear Jennifer,
I've already written to you as well as to Mr Cheikh Musa and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Unfortunately, I was told that these addresses don't exist. Besides, no one answered any of the phone numbers that you gave me. Why is that, my darling?
The next morning, when I got to Mr Kho's hospital room, I had to halt abruptly. My old colleague's eyes were closed tightly. Meanwhile, his devoted spouse kept a white chamberpot under his buttocks. She looked very pale, perhaps due to her sleepless nights. He moaned so strongly that she had to help him lie down on a white sheet and cover him with a white thin blanket. His hair had turned hoary and his hands looked bony. When I greeted them, she asked me to care for him for a little while so that she might go out with the dirty pot.
"Are you much better now, my dear Uncle?" I asked him.
"Not too bad," he replied in a low voice.
"What do you want to eat? I'll get anything for you to eat."
"Are grapes OK?"
"Or some apples?"
"Oh no! Not at all!"
"Or a few oranges?"
"Not, either. I've just told you I don't want to eat anything."
"Is your beautiful girl acceptable, perhaps?"
He was startled. Opening his eyes wide, he looked stealthily at the door. To my surprise, he burst out a distorted peal of laughter while pressing his chest slightly. He coughed and coughed. Finally, he uttered a few z... z... z… sounds, as if they were disgracing his given name Kho... Kho... Kho in agony.
Translated by Van Minh