|Illustration by Do Dung
by Tran Thanh Canh
This year, red flamboyant blossoms opened late.
By the end of May, the sole flamboyant tree standing by the gable of the library building of the municipal Special Secondary School, where Hoang worked as a librarian and clerical employee, had burst into red blossoms that brightened a corner of the schoolyard. From outside, its canopy looked like a huge bright red flame amid the green background of the surrounding trees.
After graduating from the University of Natural Sciences with a BSc degree, he worked for the provincial Centre of Pharmaceutical Materials in a far-away district. Then he was transferred to that school thanks to the support of his father-in-law, its headmaster. It was here that Hoang was entrusted with the task of welcoming an inspector from the Ministry of Education and Training, who would oversee the school's year-end GCE Examination.
Hearing the sounds echoing from the horn of a car parking in the schoolyard from his bedroom on the first floor, he hurried downstairs. To his surprise, stepping out of the vehicle was a female inspector of forty who looked very beautiful and elegant with a rosy complexion and a nice smile. Racking his brain, he thought that she was likely one of his old acquaintances.
At the welcoming party that evening, the headmaster introduced the newcomer to the participants, one after another. Strangely enough, both the guest and Hoang seemed greatly surprised.
"Excuse me, miss! I think you're Thuy, right?"
"And you? Could you be my former classmate Hoang?"
"So, you both were friends on campus?" the school leader asked them, surprised. "It's ironic: a BSc-graduate in botany turns librarian and a bachelor in chemistry becomes an educational manager in charge of supervising GCE exams!"
In fact, on campus, they were often at each other's throats. Now that they were host and guest after more than twenty years of separation, the task entrusted to Hoang seemed all the more meaningful.
In most of the secondary high schools across the country, including Hoang's, it went without saying that thoughtful care for the examining board, especially for inspectors, was a must. Considerate conduct could greatly influence the percentage of successful candidates. Moreover, the hospitality provided for the guests spoke volumes for the local authorities' cultural levels.
The next evening, when the first exam day was over, Thuy went upstairs to Hoang's room in the library building.
The flamboyant tree was now in full bloom. Its red blossoms reached his balcony and the building's corridor. The bright red colour seemed to further embellish her attractive lips.
"She remains as glamorous as she was before," he whispered to himself.
"Do you remember the bouquet of flamboyant blossoms that you unintentionally scattered over my face that day on the staircase of Building C?" she suddenly asked him.
"How could I forget it, my dear friend?"
"Anything else?" she added.
"I still owe you an apology."
That happened one morning in his third year at the Botany Faculty, while his classmates were engrossed in deep study. Hoang was entrusted with the task of picking a bunch of flamboyant blossoms on Ly Thuong Kiet Street, where that kind of tree grew abundantly on both pavements, and bringing it to the classroom for analysis. When he reached the campus, that period of study had already begun. He hurried upstairs. By chance, he ran into Thuy and she tumbled over. The red petals fell off and covered her entire face. One of her classmates snatched his hair, pulling his head away from her breasts and crying loudly. Thuy was taken to the school's dispensary.
After that, both of them always tried to avoid each other whenever they walked along the same path. In reality, he intended to apologise to her but failed because he was too ashamed and timid. Day after day, then month after month, he left the event unmentioned. This was due partly to his inferiority complex about his rural origin. She was a Hanoian, born and bred, coming from a long stock of city-dwellers. She drove to university on an expensive Honda Dream motorbike whose price was beyond his family's annual budget. She looked very beautiful with a lily-white complexion, full breasts, a shapely body and gentle gait that mesmerised a lot of students. On holidays, her low-cut, close-fitting long dress looked more alluring than anyone's.
That evening in the dormitory, Thuy was the talk of the campus.
"Could she become Miss University in an inter-faculty contest if she took part in such an event?" said one of the attendants.
"Hoang, how did you feel when you buried your face between her breasts?" asked another in a teasing voice.
Consequently, Hoang turned all the more ashamed. He did not dare to face her. As for her, she bore him an extreme grudge. "What a shame for him to bury his head between my breasts!" she said to herself. She swore that she would never see him again.
Ridiculously, now they were sitting face to face across the party table.
"That day, you must have hated me strongly?" he asked.
"Of course, I was greatly disgusted by you. When I saw you far away, I tried to get away as fast as possible."
"Actually, at the moment I was going to apologise to you, but I felt too scared to do so. Afterwards, I missed many more occasions. By the way, when did you stop caring about my blunder?"
"After leaving campus, of course. In the end, it was just an unintentional act, that's all," she replied sincerely.
"Obviously, I still owe you an apology."
"Now you've got that rare chance."
"Forgive me, my dear Thuy!" He held her soft, warm hands, staring lovingly at her face.
"It's high time I went to bed. You'd better go to sleep too," she urged him, shyly withdrawing her hands.
It was pitch-dark outside. The red flamboyant blossoms sank into complete darkness.
Although Hoang was compelled to do trivial things at school, year after year, he became a well-known writer and poet beyond everybody's imagination. What's more, he could sing beautifully. That evening, at the reception party, both the hosts and the guest joined a karaoke-singing competition. Hoang sang a ditty entitled A Season of Red Flamboyant Blossoms to welcome Thuy in memory of their unforgettable day on campus. His nice singing and emotive expressions nearly moved Thuy to tears. Luckily for her, the mobile phone in her handbag rang loudly. She rushed outside. It was her husband.
The three-day mission of inspectors seemed very significant, but in reality, it did not matter much. All the preparations of the local educational authorities were completed and the local pupils usually did well at school, thus the inspections usually proved easy. Her situation was no exception. Taking advantage of her free time, she chatted with Hoang on numerous issues from her familial affairs to her conjugal happiness.
When her second business day finished, he invited her to visit some beautiful spots in the region. While they were climbing up the hill to Phat Tich Pagoda, where there was a huge Buddha statue, she leaned on Hoang because her high-heeled shoes made it difficult to walk. Sitting at the statue's pedestal, they kept silent to enjoy the splendid scenery: several red-roofed brick houses lying amid the green canopies at the foot of the hill, the newly-harvested rice fields, a few small earth-trodden paths, a silvery stream meandering between some isolated hamlets and, far far away, the Duong River, like an immense band of silk flowing across the maize fields and mulberry groves.
Over the past two days, they had been lying in wait for something unusual to come, both excited and tense. They had just one more day. Between them, a new mysterious relationship had vaguely formed, which replaced their empty past of unpleasant memories with an optimistic future full of new romantic discoveries. When he pulled her close to him, she rested her head on his shoulder with an awaiting kiss from a soft pair of rosy lips. From on high, the Buddha seemed to bless them with a clement smile.
Their third day passed by quickly, in agitated hurry. "Is this encounter nothing but a jest of destiny?" Hoang whispered to himself. "After this, each of us will follow his own way, resulting in an eternal separation."
When the car of the municipal authorities came to bring Thuy back to her office, she stood hesitantly in the heart of the schoolyard, staring at the flamboyant tree in full bloom. She seemed to be waiting for her old classmate. Meanwhile, on the first floor, Hoang kept the door closed tightly. From his room echoed a popular ditty with sorrowful-sounding words: Every summer time, when flamboyant trees burst into bloom, their blossoms come down like bright-red raindrops.
That was Thuy's favourite song.
"Did it express his heart-felt feelings?" she asked herself. On her way home, she thought a lot about that lyrical song. "Was it meant as a farewell to me?" During the previous night, coming back to his room, Hoang was unable to sleep. "I've got a happy family; so does she. Why do we have to come madly to each other?" he asked himself. All of a sudden, he remembered R Roland's well-known saying, "Happiness is knowing your limits and loving them." After a sleepless night, he knew where his limit was.
On her way home, she sent Hoang a 30kb e-mail in which she expressed her deep emotions and innermost feelings. "Let's maintain our sustainable relationship, OK?" she concluded her letter.
"Enjoy your bliss beside your husband and children and forget everything that happened between us. Obviously, a turbulent current of the river of love ran through our lives, bringing us a few romantic days. Yet it will never happen again," he replied.
He believed that with the passage of time, calmness and balance would return to both of them and their current separation might ease the troubles in both of their hearts. However, things were not that simple. When he closed his eyes, he kept seeing her fair face and rosy inviting lips. Worse still, wherever he went and whatever he did, he perceived her image, although he tried to tide it over in the hope that he would lead a normal life as he had previously.
Surprisingly, Thuy did not leave him alone. She sent him several more messages, e-mails and Facebook messages entreating him to be her intimate and trustworthy friend.
In response to her calls, he kept silent. He believed that thanks to his good reasoning, together with the passage of time and their distance from one another, everything would fall into oblivion.
Without any reply from him after a long time, she sent him a letter through the mail, enclosing a photo they had taken at the Phat Tich Pagoda. It said, "Sadly, over the past year, you've proven yourself a good-for-nothing guy! I regret having offered you what I did that day…" After their long trip to the famous pagoda, she'd let him see her half-naked body in his room. He felt stupefied at her lily-white and well-developed breasts, although she had given birth to a baby boy. She hugged him tightly, whispering, "You're the third human being to kiss my tits, besides my spouse and little son."
Looking at the photo, he read the letter again. Then he set both of them on fire. A moment later, from his balcony, he let the half-burnt pieces fall to the ground. Their bright ash reddened the foot of the flamboyant tree.
"Thuy, may you lead a peaceful life and hate me to your heart's content as you did before," he whispered.
Nevertheless, sometimes at night, Hoang dreamt of an examination season full of red flamboyant blossoms.
Translated by Van Minh