|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Le Minh Khue
The 30m-long bus, with passengers packed together like sardines, was inching forward by fits and starts as it made its way along the road during rush hour, before crossing the flyover to enter the inner city.
It was now 6:30 PM, the moment that might, according to westerners' beliefs, bring luck to anyone, good or bad. When it stopped near a secondary school, tall children and other waiting people tried to get on through the automatic front door while, at the central door, most of the commuters were getting off. Among the former group there was a trainee welder of about 17 coming from a far-away rural locality to work for an enormous 50-storey building project now under construction. Looking at the new passengers slowly moving further and further inside the aisle, the driver mumbled, "What a huge crowd!" and closed the automatic doors suddenly. At once, a loud cry resounded from the roadbed because the trainee's right foot got stuck at the half-closed door and he tumbled down on the pavement.
"Just a minor incident!" remarked the ticket collector after he came down to help the unlucky guy stand up.
"Why don't you call a taxi to take him to hospital at once?" asked one of the passengers. "It's your responsibility, isn't it?" he slightly reproached the crew.
"It doesn't matter much," said the young welder with a chubby face, wearing a dark, checkered shirt.
"Why have you tried to cling to the door when it's stuffed with passengers?" the bus assistant reprimanded the trainee.
"Because I was in a hurry."
"We are, too."
The driver gave him a 200,000-dong banknote. "Take it, then enter the street guild's clinic to have your injury bandaged," he told the young guy.
"Leave me alone, Uncle! I don't need that much," the youth insisted.
"What a stupid youth!" exclaimed an old passenger.
The young man tried to get up in vain when the vehicle had gone away. Now he felt deeply pained. He looked at the crowded street. The light from safety helmets and headlights of the high-speed motorbikes dazzled his eyes. He found himself quite abandoned.
Right at the moment, an arm suddenly stretched out to him. "Now try to get up with my support," said a strong-built youth. Finally, he managed to stand up thanks to the young man's great effort and soft voice.
"Your right foot's sprained," said the kind-hearted stranger. "Take a sit on my luggage carrier and I'll take you to hospital to check it. By the way, my name is Tien. It means money. It's what we all need for our living conditions, you see," he went on.
The young trainee also introduced himself to his saviour.
"I'm Ton, a trainee welder, Brother."
"It seems to me that your name sounds rather unusual, especially in this civilised society!"
"Mum told me that she named me after my Grandpa in memory of his blessing and his glorious death."
At the private clinic, his injury was checked carefully with a reduced fee equivalent to a trainee's monthly pay together with the following brief diagnosis: "Cuboid's cracked a bit. Patient must be bedridden for two weeks with a pair of splints to keep his foot steady during treatment."
Ton became confused. "I've been sharing a dirt-cheap hired flat with two motorbike-taxi drivers on the far side of the flyover," he said to Tien. "At night whenever I came back home, I found them sleeping soundly. I've got a small amount of money, enough for my daily meals bought at the entrance to the alley. So, don't worry too much about my situation."
"You think you can relax comfortably for an unpaid fortnight with such a small sum?" he asked Ton.
"Don't worry, Brother. Now, just take me to the bus stop, will you? I'll catch the last bus home."
The way Ton did not accept the bus driver's compensation at that moment made Tien greatly surprised. He stared at him inquisitively.
"Would you mind following me to my place?" he suggested. "Now take my hand to stand up. No more arguing! You'll feel quite at ease."
The man's hired bedsitter was by a small zigzag footpath. It looked fairly decent. In fact, it lay separate from a big building for public servants to rent. It was a self-contained flat with its own passageway and kitchen. It had two beds lying opposite each other across a narrow aisle for a motorbike to park. Delicious smells wafted up to them from the kitchen.
"Lan, please come here to help me lift this youth down from my luggage carrier," the flat owner told a pretty girl in her late teens wearing a red blouse. Finding Ton, she frowned at him.
"Hm, another good-for-nothing guy! Come what may, I must leave this place as soon as possible," she said to herself.
"Well, you'd go to Sister Thinh for a stay tonight. Ton is my younger brother who had just had a bus accident. He might stay here with us for a short period of time," he told her.
"Another brother! This year you've taken home two younger brothers to raise here. Is that not enough?" she asked.
"How can you say so? All of them need our help."
Nevertheless, she set the table in the middle of the room. Their frugal dinner was composed of a dish of stir-fried beef and a large bowl of fish and vegetable broth.
"Not a bad meal for two in the evening, anyhow," Ton remarked.
"Help yourself to the food, will you?" she invited the newcomer. "With such an injury, surely you'd lose your job. Anyway, you're lucky enough to have met benevolent Tien."
After the meal, she did the washing up, took the table away then brushed the dust off the two pillows on the beds. "Bread is placed on the bedside table. You may have it with fried eggs, if necessary of course," she instructed him before putting her bag on the shoulder, then she went out to catch a motorbike to her friend's place.
Ton took a painkiller to ease his aches. A few moments later, he fell into a sound sleep. When he woke he could hear a lot of noises from motorbike engines and cheerful children playing in the alley. To his surprise, Ton found a blanket covering half of his body against the autumn cold. What's more, he saw a loaf of bread stuffed with a fried egg on a large plate near his bed. Getting up he read a short note on the small table, "I've ordered for your lunch to be served at home. Don't move too much. Keep our place safe and sound. I'll return late in the evening. Brother Tien"
Tien's room looked rather empty, except for an old black-and-white TV set and two outdated trunks. However, Ton wasn't able to leave due to his responsibility to his saviour's belongings. Time passed slowly. The only thing Ton could do every day was watch numerous soap operas, one after another, on the small screen with good-looking actresses and actors.
Tien usually returned home very late. Lan twice a day came to cook for them. The three of them, each with their own trades and thoughts, gathered together there for dinner at twilight. During their meals Lan often used slang that motorbike taxi drivers or uneducated people usually used. Once, at dinner, the couple recollected that a small guy called Qua had occupied her place for over two months and that he earned as much as Tien did.
"What did that guy do?" Ton asked.
"Can you guess?" Lan said to him.
"No, I give up."
"He went to college in place of some lazy students who skipped their lessons."
"Actually, he was only present during the roll-call at the beginning of a class," Tien said. "In the meantime, the guy who played truant had a lot of fun somewhere outside the institution. Worse still, he hung a small noticeboard saying, 'Here's a hired student'. Consequently, he was detained for many days," he told him.
"Where's he now?"
"How ungrateful he is! He's never returned here to thank us even once," Lan observed.
"Not really! He might be having difficulties looking for a new job, I think."
"Poor you! How can you get enough money to rent a better place? And to get married as well? I don't care whether you'd marry me or not. The reason for my remark is that you don't have to concern yourself with my plight," she concluded.
Tien burst out laughing when he found Ton bewildered at Lan's words.
"Help yourself to the food, mate. You can hardly find such a kind-hearted youth as him," she said to Ton.
Autumn passed slowly. The multi-coloured canopies of the remaining tall, flowery trees gradually disappeared with the road-widening project over Tien's area.
Nearly two weeks passed.
Tien took care of Ton's work by speaking to the trainee's boss. At once, he heard the manager's answer: "When he recovers from his injury, he'll resume his work here, because he's a good apprentice."
"It's very kind of Brother Tien to help me!" Tõn whispered. His good will made Ton remember the unhappy days when he had lived under the sway of his drunken stepfather who often chastised him mercilessly for no reason. "If you let your mother know this punishment, you'll soon kiss the dust," the brutal man threatened him. Thinking of his far-away native village, Tõn wept bitterly that night.
"What's the matter with you, Ton? You're still aching gravely from the wound, aren't you?" he asked.
"No, not at all, Brother!"
By instinct, the two young men embraced each other tightly.
One day Ton lay in his strong arms, which were as firm as those of a stevedore. Yet, between the two, there were no caressing touches, nor endearing terms, but just strong emotions between them. Finally, they fell into a sound slumber.
Day after day, night after night, their friendly feelings seemed to gradually turn into romantic ones.
"After work, just come stay with me, Ton. I'll take care of all your needs. Don't worry!" Tien said to him, touching his chubby cheeks. "You'll belong to me for good. You're not allowed to fall in love with anyone else," he warned him.
One morning, Ton prepared everything to resume his half-finished job at the construction site. When he came back to Tien's place late in the evening Tien suddenly hugged him tightly right in the middle of the flat.
"What are you doing there?" Lan screamed loudly when she saw them embracing each other. That was the first time she had witnessed such a weird sight between the two men. At last, they released each other's arms.
"Just a trivial thing, Lan. I take pity on him as I often do for you, that's all," Tien told her.
"In fact, you've never done the same to me," she burst into crying. "In my heart of hearts, I know that you look down on me because I'm only a masseuse with a lot of prejudice. But things are not that bad as you think. I only do it because of my living conditions," she explained. The two young men looked quite embarrassed.
"You've misunderstood me. I've never scorned you or your occupation."
"You deny my accusation in vain. Let me go and I'll yield my place to him."
Immediately, Ton seized her hand. She looked at his delicate fingers. She found them quite different from those of a working man.
"Take your dirty hand off mine," she warned him with a contemptuous look.
"In reality, I don't dare to bother you, Sister. After work, every day, I'll return to my place on the far side of the river. I've paid my half-year rent. You should stay here to look after Brother Tien," Ton implored.
"Thanks anyway. But let me see," she replied.
"There's no need to bear a grudge upon each other! We belong to an under-privileged group of society," Tien said to Lan in a sad voice. "Why do we have to hate each other? Frankly speaking, between you and me, we've set up a long-standing relationship. Time and again, come to me. Without our help what would have happened to him on that day?" he went on.
However, she cast a scornful, pitiful and envious look at the two young men. Packing a school rucksack full of odds and ends on her shoulder, she left.
The two young men stared at each other.
"It doesn't matter. I'll support you. As to her, leave her alone. She usually behaves that way…" Tien told him.
Ton would never forget the special time of that evening - half past six. To everybody's convictions, as luck would have it, good or bad, according to each individual's karma. As for him, he was fortunate enough to meet Tien.
Outside, city-dwellers went wild among the menacing din, as if it were driving them mad.
Ton stared at the muscular body of his generous saviour.
"I'll rest my head on the shoulder of anyone, no matter who the person is. The point is that that human being must be a philanthropist with a golden heart," he said to himself.
Translated by Van Minh