|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by To Hai Van
The youth stared at the half-consumed cigarette on his terracotta ashtray. Its smoke was slowly curling upwards before vanishing into the air. "Is that an illustration of my fate in the months to come?" he whispered to himself. "After I turn thirty-five, my existence will go downhill like this cigarette. In a few minutes, it will be ash."
Suddenly, he picked it up and took a drag so huge that the cigarette sparkled brightly before he stubbed it out against the tray. "Anyhow, I must be going now," he said.
Walking along the street, he breathed the fresh air deeply. Although it was a bit dusty, he felt more comfortable in the open air than in his stuffy room. He had many errands to do, but he could hardly carry out any of them because countless seemingly trivial matters troubled him greatly.
He went straight to his girlfriend Hue's house in order to persuade her to move in with him. He had wished to be beside her for good for a long time. Now, that desire was still burning in his heart. He yearned to hold her tightly in his arms, as if he were swallowing her up like a hungry boa-constrictor.
For the umpteenth time, he was going to deal with their wedding to-be; yet his thoughts just formed in his mind and were never blurted out. Hue was fed up with his lengthy delay.
"I must get married as soon as possible," she said. "Any young man is OK, provided that he's honest and loves me dearly."
"Oh dear, why not me! So soon?" he asked her.
In fact, he had been driven almost into a corner. At the institute where he had been working for years, rumour had it that he might be, sooner or later, sorted out of major projects sponsored by the State. Worse still, he would be sacked from the institute. Although it was only a rumour, it worried him. "Am I so redundant?" he asked himself.
A few days before, he told her about his problem in the office. In reply, she tried to persuade him that it was nothing serious. "Without this project, you could do research for other institutions," she consoled him. "If worst comes to worst, I'll support you for good."
Her statement caused him great regret for the whole night because of his irresolution.
Now, on the way to her place, he looked at passers-by with alien eyes. While they were in seventh heaven, he was about to fall into an abyss, like those wandering tramps to whom he had never paid attention. Now he could identify jobless guys among the crowd easily, for he would soon join their ranks. This vista of unemployment obsessed him for many a week.
She welcomed him with her arms wide open. She looked the same, with hair that nearly covered her forehead and fell over the nape of her neck. A large pair of tortoise-shell framed spectacles highlighted her face clearly.
"Which one do you prefer, tea or coffee, my dear?" she asked.
"Either of them is okay. But will you come live with me as soon as possible?"
She giggled uncontrollably.
"What are you laughing at?" he asked.
"Quite an interesting thing!" she remarked scornfully. Such was her nature: when it came to simple matters she might feel offended, but as for significant affairs, she just smiled. "In the end, man is only a weird creature. When necessary, he's nowhere to be found. On the contrary, when he's uninvited, he turns up. Your presence here today is proof of that. Actually, you're jobless, aren't you?"
"Far from it!" he said, shaking his head. "I just need you so badly."
"OK, but not today!" she answered.
However, today he was very resolute. Darting to her quickly, he spread out his arms in order to embrace her. At once, she turned her body aside very fast. Having been an aikido pupil for one year and a karate athlete for another year, she dodged his blow easily. He ran headlong into a wall. Oddly enough, he somehow got through the wall and landed on the other side safe and sound. Coming to a halt, he found himself in a corridor.
He was greatly amazed. In front of him, just a few footsteps away, was Hue's closed door. "Am I in some kind of story? What a rare phenomenon!" he exclaimed. He proceeded to the door and knocked at it. Hue opened it. Her eyes were round behind her thick glasses.
He stepped forwards and touched the doorknob. Then he opened it by himself. In front of her, all his desires disappeared together with his anxiety about unemployment. Standing in front of him was none other than Hue.
In order to verify the fact, he touched her shoulders while she also did the same. Then she rubbed his hair. After that, both held glasses of water and drank them in one gulp like two thirsty camels in the desert. "Hey!" both of them called each other simultaneously. Their voices seemed to come from another world. By now, both felt extremely confused.
A minute later, he bit his lips. As a scientist, he had to make some experiments. Approaching the wall, he hesitated a bit and after tiding over his fear, launched himself at the wall. Strangely enough, he walked through it easily and swiftly. He tested his special capacity again and again. All these attempts were successful. He came to the conclusion that a wonderful blessing had been offered to him.
"Nothing is strange here," she remarked after a few minutes' thinking. "Similar things took place in France a long time ago."
She went upstairs to the attic, where dusty piles of old books lay. Half an hour later, she returned with a yellow work that she handed to him.
"Read it and you'll find the interesting item," she told him.
It was a collection of short stories entiled Le Pass-Muraille (The Walker-Through-Walls) by French novelist Marcel Ayme (1902-67) published in 1943 and later translated into Vietnamese by senior university lecturer Phung Van Tuu. It described a Frenchman with a special skill: walking through walls.
"Sheer nonsense!" he declared after browsing the account.
"Quite possible! It's an inspiring science fiction narrative written by that famous French author! The hero in that story can walk through a ferro-concrete wall." She heaved a sigh, spectacles sagging.
"If so, is my life also an invention?" he asked.
She stared at him in bewilderment. Then she touched his face to make sure that he was her real boyfriend.
"You should go home right away," she told him in an embarrassed voice, while looking attentively at him to check which way he would go out: through the wall or along the doorway.
Reaching home, he tumbled onto his bed and soon fell asleep. After a sound slumber, he got up and felt quite comfortable.
Now it was a late Sunday afternoon. He went along the street. Time and again, he was haunted by the image of himself as a redundant scientific worker, but he waved his hand to ignore it and made up his mind to enjoy a delicious dinner with a bottle of beer. Finally, he returned home. In the dim light of the street lamps, he was surprised when he found no kids playing on the pavement. He had the impression that the earth had turned more deserted. Where were they now? Suddenly, he felt more worried. At midnight, he woke up and decided to try out his new skill. In the dim light, he stood facing his wall for a long while. At last, he decided to step forwards and passed through it easily in a few seconds. Now he was outside his room. Turning back, he walked through it again and found himself already inside. It seemed to him that he remained in the same flat.
"I've stepped out, haven't I?" he asked himself.
While he was still in confusion, he walked through the wall again to contemplate the street.
At the crossroads, he looked up and saw a brightly lit signboard of a bank. By its side stood two ATM booths. All of a sudden, the story of that French writer returned to his mind like in a science fiction film. That man had entered a bank and taken away lots of money safe and sound. As for him, he was able to do so too. "Bear in mind that now it's the twenty-first century and I must beware of hidden cameras," he whispered to himself. He made a tour around the huge building, then quietly walked inside through one of the walls. Now he was standing in the centre of a foyer with numerous counters.
He made a tour to check its compartments carefully. Once a year, he withdrew his salary from a familiar ATM close to his office to avoid hefty fees. But now the bank seemed to be a huge safe that would serve him at any time that he was in need of money. To his surprise, it turned out that there were only several tables and chairs and grey walls there.
The gatekeeper may have fallen asleep and the cameras might be inactive, he thought. "What shall I do now?" he asked himself.
"Withdraw money, of course! I'll just take out some banknotes of high face value, then leave at once. When my small sum runs out, I'll come back here again to get some more." Instead of reaching a safe, he sat down on a chair and struck a match to smoke a cigarette. "Hm, how much should I take?" he asked himself, spreading his legs to relax more easily.
All of a sudden, thoughts of his thesis preparations came into his head. In those days, his professor often found fault with him: Professor Y had dealt with this matter in Book A, this idea had been expressed clearly in Book B by Lecturer X. "Without citing your sources properly, you'll be charged with plagiarism," he warned him.
That was just scientific research, but this was a monetary matter. "If I lose my job, I will be nobody in this small community," he whispered to himself. Standing up, he quickly walked toward the largest safe. "I'll just take out some from this one," he said to himself.
He inserted his hand through the strong steel box easily. Touching a big bundle of banknotes, he took it out immediately. "How interesting! I was able to take hold of it without being noticed. The packet is thick with a sharp edge. Surely, they are fresh notes! Their denomination is five hundred thousand dong each. The whole thing is tantamount to fifty million, equivalent to the value of four brand-new laptops or an entire expenditure for an extra project," he thought. "What's the use of preparing for another subject? If I'm fired from the study group by the boss, the monetary problem doesn't matter to me at all!"
When the banknotes had been taken out of the safe, he stared at them. It turned out that they had the lowest face value: ten thousand dong apiece. So the total was just one million: equivalent to the price of one PC keyboard and mouse. At once, he placed the whole lot into the safe and set off to look for another bundle. "How much?" he asked himself.
All of a sudden, he was tired of the whole thing. Without picking up any banknotes, he walked through the wall and went straight home.
The next morning, he came to his institute with a bulging bag.
"Eh, another invention, say, something like a paraffin lamp or an electric light? Well, why did you go to work so early this morning?" asked the security guard.
"Today, in my bag, there's a great secret," he replied, clicking his tongue. In fact, before going, he had put in a copy of the book by that French author of worldwide reputation.
In the reception kiosk, the boss's driver was drinking tea alone. "Since your first working days here, you always have had something secret!" he said, laughing. In fact, he remembered that on each of the youth's business trips here and there, he always criticised the young man for requesting crazy things. For instance, once their car was moving smoothly on the road and he told the driver to take a side road.
"But where do you want to go?" the driver asked him.
"Nowhere special! I only wish you to turn left, that's all."
"Please do as I've just told you," he insisted.
Immediately, the car turned left. After a short distance, they all found the destination in front of them.
"Why didn't you tell me this short cut before?" asked the driver.
"I don't know the reason either," he replied. "When I felt we ought to turn left, I told you to do so, that's all."
"Hey, look at me. Am I still myself today?" he said to the driver a few minutes later, as if he had been a general during a review of troops.
"Yes, nothing different at all, sir," the driver answered. "How silly he is!" the driver whispered to himself.
That day he was the first to step into his room. The air was so stuffy that he had to fling all the windows wide open before sitting down to start working. It was very quiet. It was here that the strange rumour rose up once again. Even if his name were crossed off the payroll of senior officials for the national project provided for the institute, it would not matter to him anymore, for he had a special ability: walking through walls to earn money, no matter what material or how thick they were.
His present job was rather boring: reviewing the results of the movement of initiating renovations. At first, he objected to that dull task, but on second thought, he had to resign himself to accept it on the grounds that the boss had put his name on the pay-sheet. It was the institute chief who often remarked that he was very dynamic and creative, due to the fact that he had been well trained abroad, that his capacity would soon be brought into full play, and that what was entrusted to him every year was just a minor task to perform. What's more, his name never appeared on the list of participants in major projects.
Sitting idly in front of the dim display of his PC in the tranquil air of the office, he felt a bid sad. The feeling of being redundant at work again haunted his mind. He believed that the boss had borne a grudge against him since he had successfully passed the selective contest held by the institute. He was the first laureate with full marks for his essay and the interview. With such an excellent result, he believed that he might carry out his work well at the institution. Furthermore, its head also congratulated him for his outstanding achievement and hoped that he would do well in the research group. Yet through the boss's special look, he knew that the chief had lots of antipathy towards him for some unknown reason.
These sensations were, to some extent, similar to what his primary teacher had taught him in his schooldays. She classified her students into two kinds: good and bad. Ridiculously, his chum, very close to him since their early childhood because they had lived in the same street, gone to school together and shared the same table, suddenly declared that he was ending their friendship due to his disobedience. "You belong to the type of naughty boys," this classmate told him one day. The more he was detested by his teacher, the more he wanted to stay away from her. He always received bad marks for behaviour in his school report. It was likely that in his CV kept at the archives or on his boss's desk, there were the same comments.
"Why can't I make a fact-finding investigation now?" he asked himself. "It's still very early in the morning and no one else comes to the office at this hour. So I'll try to enter the archives section to have a look at my dossier." At once, he stood up and hurriedly walked to the corridor. In front of the document shelves, he just shook his body slightly. Consequently, he got inside. What he needed to do now was remove his file and take it home for only one night. The next day, after getting full information about himself, he would put the set of documents in its former place; as a result, nothing wrong would happen to him. He proceeded to the file cabinet and stuck out his hand. But something made him pull it back.
Since his early childhood, he had had the habit of withdrawing his opinions when necessary and doing otherwise. The same thing occurred with Hue. On many occasions, he was going to ask her hand in marriage, but he was not bold enough to do so. Many years had elapsed and she felt greatly displeased at his procrastination. Now, he was hesitant to open the cabinet to take out his file. "Why do I have to rely on the yellow sheets in this dossier?" he asked himself. A few minutes later, he glanced at the cabinet with a snigger, silently turned back and walked through the wooden door to step back along the corridor.
A breeze swept over him. He inhaled deeply and enjoyed the fresh air to his heart's content. Except for the cleaner who was working in the toilet, none of the other members of his group came to the office that early. He kept on walking past a row of doors, one after another.
"How interesting! From now on, I can enter any place, even the boss's room. I could look for the project drafts and insert my name!"
He went upstairs to the fourth floor to reach the boss's place with a pen in his trousers pocket. But his footsteps were getting slower and slower. When he reached the boss's door, he felt as if he were being dragged away from it.
Back in his study, he dropped into the armchair. A few moments later, the members of his section came in, one by one.
"Why did you get here so early?" asked his section head. Without waiting for his reply, the group started dealing with numerous projects. "For the State's orders, we might earn a lot of money. On the contrary, several minor companies only spend their money stingily. Besides, with State projects, the names of their participants are mentioned and marks are given when some of them are promoted to the rank of professors. Of course, the head or deputy heads of the institute are always the managers or deputy managers of such projects."
"Not exactly!" said one member. "Deputy head Mr Quang hasn't been given any job titles for the past two years, you see."
"Really?" asked another.
"You seem to be an extra-terrestrial who came down here from a far-away planet," observed one of them.
"Hey, deputy section head! Let me register my name for one project with your recommendation, please," requested a greenhorn.
"You'd better wait longer," retorted another one.
He sat silently in his armchair. Huan, a chubby-cheeked MSc-degree holder, came to him and patted him on the shoulder.
"You'll have a place on the list, surely?"
"What about you? Have you registered yet?" he asked.
"My case is quite different," Huan answered. "Such a talented man as you is indispensable."
"I don't think so," he said, smiling broadly. To himself, he added: "My previous skills were never put into practice, let alone this one – walking through walls! Nobody needs me here."
"You really are a crazy man!" remarked Huan.
One afternoon Hue dropped in on him and invited him to dine out.
"How wonderful! But who'll pay the bill?" he asked her in a joking voice.
"Man is always the paying sex. You've forgotten it, haven't you? If I were your wife, I'd pay," she retorted.
"So, you've changed your mind and agreed to marry me?" he asked her affectionately.
"Let's wait and see! Formerly, when I was badly in need of you, you ignored my suggestion. Now, let me have more time to consider the matter seriously," she answered.
She ordered many dishes. As a result, another table was placed close to the existing one to meet her demand for food.
"Why this much?" he asked her while taking a glance at the prices on the menu.
"We women usually spend a lot to encourage men to work harder for the sake of social progress, you see," she explained to him with an indifferent manner. After that, she just ate and ate. "Now you can earn a lot of money to your heart's content," she added, then looked attentively at him, as if she were fully aware of his breaking into the bank the previous night.
"Might I have a diamond ring tomorrow?" she went on.
"How can you possibly say something like that?"
"You're really boring, aren't you?" she said instead of answering him. "By the way, do you know the World Wildlife Fund representative office's address in our city?"
"Consult it in the Business Directory. But, what for, my dear?"
"Because I want to send it a message to warn its chief that there's another creature now in danger of extinction… Well, I've made up my mind to marry you," she declared softly.
Translated by Van Minh