by Ngô Nguyên
After completing the formalities for entering the mental home, Tân was provided with some personal things. Then he followed a nurse to the ward where he would be treated. At the threshold, he cast a final glance at his wife. She blinked. Then the door slammed shut, marking the boundary between the world of the mad and the world of the healthy.
Before leaving, his wife, Phương Ngân, stopped in front of the warden.
“Sir, we’re leaving him in your hands,” she said in a small voice. “At least this place is better than a prison. As for financial matters, money doesn’t matter to us at all; we just want him to enjoy his life here and be treated well. I’ll come to visit frequently.” She put a bulging envelope on the table. “This is just a small tip for the nurses. Please give it to them,” she said.
Walking out, she felt quite at ease. “I didn’t expect everything to go this smoothly, but thank God it did,” she said, sighing with relief.
Even though her sissy husband had not disturbed her before, now she was completely free. He would be locked up for the rest of his life, so she could do whatever she wanted. As for their daughter, who always stood by his side, she would soon marry a young man who lived far away. “Like most other wives, she’ll spend her free time caring for her own little family. Yes, letting her get married is the best thing for both of us,” Phương Ngân said to herself.
On the other side of the road, a car with a blue license plate had just come to a stop. Quickly, she crossed the road. A middle-aged man hurriedly opened the door.
“Is everything okay?” he asked her.
“Of course. Our problem has been smoothly solved,” she answered, glancing amorously at him.
“Let’s have a big feast tonight to congratulate ourselves on our success,” the man said, slamming the door shut. “I’ve lost weight after seeing to your husband’s affairs for months.”
“That’s good. You won’t be criticised for being a greedy official,” she retorted, lining her lips with red lipstick.
Tân stepped into the patients’ room suspiciously. Three men in uniform were playing a strange game like little children: two of them, as thin as a latch, were trying to lift up the third, who was big and heavy, from the floor. Hardly had they seen the nurse when they called out, “Hey, Lady Hồng, join us, will you? Let’s carry this ex-director to market to sell. He’s too heavy for us to take away.”
“Dear me! Save my life, Nurse Hồng. They’re taking me to the zoo for tigers to eat. I’m terribly frightened,” he implored.
“Don’t worry, you’ve got a new friend here,” she said. “Let me introduce the new-comer to you all. This is Mr Tân.” She turned to the others. “The ‘victim’ is Mr Hưng, a former director of a major company. This is student Côn and Mr Toản, a bricklayer.”
“You can sleep here in this common bed,” Hưng told Tân. “But remember not to play with these guys. They’re very wicked.”
The two other men seized Tân’s hands.
“Hưng’s very cruel. Previously, he was a criminal,” they told Tân. “If you follow our advice, you’ll have lots of candy to eat.”
Tân smiled as if everything was a big joke.
“Change into the ward uniform, then put your belongings in order,” Hồng said to Tân. “Actually, they’re kind-hearted and they’ll do you no harm. They’re very fond of sweets. If they do anything mean to you, just forbid them from eating candy. When I finish my duties this afternoon, I’ll tell you more. Don’t worry, your wife will visit you every week.”
Tân glanced at the common bed, then at the three men at play like little children. “No doubt, I’ll have to act like a madman,” he said to himself.
Several troublesome days elapsed. He’d never thought that he would ever be driven to such an awkward situation. Gone were the days of luxurious parties, expensive spirits and beautiful girls! Money came to him so easily. Friends clung to him in his free time and his subordinates praised him to the skies. All that was left for him for now was four mad people in a 24-square-meter room.
Côn had been a student at the municipal college of advanced education when he was abandoned by his sweetheart, who went to run after a Vietnamese youth living in a foreign country. His shock turned to depression and he was taken to this lunatic asylum seven years ago. The ex-director and the bricklayer became his pupils, who sometimes played nasty tricks on their teacher. Hồng told Tân that the ambitious but poorly-educated director, who had entered into many contracts for projects worth billions of đồng, was suspected to have been involved in bribery. As a result, he went mad and was treated for more than one year. When his disease had been reduced noticeably, he was transferred to this sanatorium for further treatment. At first, his wife visited him regularly, but after a few months, her visits came to an end. Out of pity, his mother, who was over seventy, paid a visit to him for the first time. Afterwards, during each of her visits, he always gave her a bundle of paper sheets that he regarded as banknotes and told her to keep them for a rainy day. When he did this, she wept bitterly.
Tân’s daughter Ngọc Dung, who had just come home after a long field trip organised by her university, dropped in on her father one afternoon. Finding him in such a lamentable condition, she burst out crying.
“Dad, what happened to you?” she asked. “I’ve just been told that you got involved in financial troubles because of mismanagement. What happened? Is it all due to my mother’s wicked ambitions?”
“Don’t think wrongly about your mum, my dear daughter,” he said to her. “She left no stone unturned to bring me here. Obviously, this place is far better than a prison.”
She was going to say more, but on second thought, she kept silent. Peeling a pear, then an apple for him, she cried quietly. “Living next to these weird men, you’d better watch out. They might hurt you,” she told him before leaving.
“No way, they’re all good-natured. They just amuse themselves as little kids do, that’s all. Anyway, take care of yourself and work hard on your thesis. You’ll soon be a qualified teacher. No more crying. You’re a grown-up now,” he said.
Reaching home, she found the gate ajar. She entered quietly. Instead of her mother’s motorbike, she discovered a strange one in the front courtyard. Tiptoeing to the window, she heard peals of laughter in the waiting-room. On the sofa, her mum was laughing happily, leaning against the shoulder of a strange man.
Seeing Ngọc Dung outside, the mother looked bewildered.
“My dear, when did you get home?” she asked her daughter.
“Sorry, I’ll be late for work. As to our business, we’ll deal with it later,” said the man.
Ngọc Dung cast a scornful glance at him when he passed by her.
“What has made you so happy, Mum?” she asked. “Is it because of Dad’s absence from home?”
“How can you have the heart to say that to me?” Phương Ngân retorted, blanching. “Are you the mother, or am I?”
Ngọc Dung burst into tears.
“Mum, I’ve just visited Dad,” she told her mother. “He’s in horrible conditions, and you’re this comfortable? Is his image still in your heart and mind? Who’s that strange guy?”
Staring at her daughter for a few seconds, Phương Ngân said to her in a soft voice, “You don’t think that I don’t feel worried for your father, do you? I’ve lived with your father for scores of years. But how can I feel sad forever? I’ve got my own business, and I’ve got to think about our living conditions as well.”
Ngọc Dung went into her bedroom.
“Luckily for me, she hasn’t noticed anything unusual! What would she think if she knew about my love affair?” Phương Ngân asked herself.
She tiptoed inside and saw Ngọc Dung ransacking the pile of old books.
“In fact, your father’s life there is far better than it would be in prison,” she said. “I spent a lot of money for him to go to that institution. So don’t blame me for the situation. Focus on becoming a good teacher.”
“Our family isn’t very rich. If Dad had been a corrupt official, we would have earned a huge fortune. Where’s the money? To the best of my knowledge, he was not bold enough to do such an ignominious thing. Perhaps he’s fallen victim to slander,” she said.
“You’re partly right. Poor man, he took all the responsibility for his superiors without weighing the matter seriously. Your father is an ambitious but gullible man. What happened to him was carefully planned by his leaders. He put his signature on the documents instead of them,” Phương Ngân said.
“It’s strange that as an adviser to him, you didn’t know what was going on! Is it possible that he did those things by himself?” Ngọc Dung asked her mother doubtfully.
“Well, I’ve done my best for your dad. It’s up to you whether you want to believe me,” Phương Ngân told her.
It was the middle of the night. The three mad men had fallen into a sound sleep. But Tân could not sleep a wink all night. He had been here for over one month. His living conditions were fairly peaceful in contrast with his previous ones. Meals were always served on time. Keeping her promise, Phương Ngân visited him every week with a great deal of tasty food. Thanks to the provisions she brought, his mates’ meals also improved, although they were not really aware of this fact. Soon Ngọc Dung graduated from college and became a teacher at a senior secondary school in a far-away province.
“Why didn’t you tell her to choose a school near our house?” Tân reproached his wife during one of her visits.
She kept silent. In fact, she had planned the matter carefully. If Ngọc Dung worked near their home, Phương Ngân’s affair would sooner or later be discovered. The farther Ngọc Dung’s school was, the better for her mother’s secret love affair. Their building, formerly a cosy nest, now appeared cold and deserted in the daytime and dim or dark at night. Phương Ngân was at work in her office, so its gate, doors and windows were always shut. Sometimes, a man in a cotton cap, black spectacles under his coat, passed by, then turned back suddenly to enter stealthily.
Tonight the street was more deserted than ever. The evening drizzle was still going on. Most of the gates, doors and windows were closed. Ngọc Dung had been sitting in a coffee shop across the street for more than two hours. The shopkeeper had tried to clear the tables noisily so that her last customer would leave, but her efforts were all in vain.
“Please let me stay here for some more minutes so I can wait for my friend,” Ngọc Dung said. In fact, she was acting like a detective to resolve a delicate problem. Her neighbours were all talking about her mother’s dubious conduct. Although Ngọc Dung knew that her mother had done many bad things to her father, however, she continued to believe that her mother would not dare to carry out such a wicked act.
“It’s night-time, sweetie. Let me close the shop, will you?” the woman said.
Ngọc Dung was compelled to stand up. By chance, she saw a man in his raincoat hurrying towards her house whose appearance matched her neighbours’ descriptions. She silently followed him for a short distance. He passed by her house, then suddenly turned back. Opening the gate, he went in quickly. She felt her heart going pit-a-pat and nearly collapsed. Immediately, she walked towards her house. Inside, all the lights were off. She opened the gate, then hurriedly stepped in. Outside, the rain was getting heavier and heavier.
“He must have entered through the back door,” she said to herself.
“Why are you so late? Already midnight!” Phương Ngân said to him in a reproachful voice.
“It’s better to be careful! Anyhow, this evening my wife talked to me in detail about organising my son Sơn’s wedding,” he answered.
“Your home affairs are more important than anything else, I know,” she added. “As for our own affair, just wait and see. Is that right?”
Ngọc Dung tiptoed to the back door, then pushed it slightly. Perhaps they were so engrossed in talking that they forgot to close it. From inside echoed peals of giggle. Ngọc Dung’s face turned blue.
“You shouldn’t think that your daughter is still too young to understand everything. Keep vigilant, mind you! This week she’ll return home, right?” the man said to Phương Ngân.
“She called me to say that she had to stay back to attend the wedding of one of her colleagues. Anyway, you should think about us, since we put so much effort into working out this plan. If Tân hadn’t obeyed my instructions, he would have never signed that document which caused so much trouble for him. Now that you’ve achieved your aim, you must think seriously about your commitment,” she went on.
Ngọc Dung did not believe what she was hearing. She tasted salt, for tears were trickling down to her mouth. She wanted to rush inside and curse them to her heart’s content, but she was not bold enough to do so.
“Anyhow, we have to wait until Sơn’s wedding is over, because I’m his father,” he told her. “I can only divorce my wife when she has a baby to make her feel better.” After that, they felt into silence. A few minutes later Ngọc Dung heard peals of laughter.
Unable to endure more, Ngọc Dung switched off the lights. Immediately, two screams resounded from her place. Darting out of the house, she ran away through the heavy rain. At last, she arrived at the house of one of her class-mates from senior high school.
Tân sat dumbfounded, staring at the trail of raindrops coming down from the roof. For nearly one month, since his daughter told him about what she had witnessed at home, he recollected what had happened to him previously. If the storyteller had been another person, not his own child, he would have never believed that his friend and his wife had set such a trap for him. “How could they treat me that brutally?” he asked himself. “If they are in love, they can go and date each other. Was it necessary for them to drive me into this situation? And why has my daughter been tortured by such a wicked mother?”
As a result of hearing the news, he had not slept well and his hair had gone gray. “How happy my jailmates are! They enjoy uneventful days together, without worrying much about the ups and downs of their lives or trying to do harm to others,” he said to himself.
This gave Tân the idea for a way out: pretending that he had gone mad. By doing so, he could make the courting couple regret their dirty schemes and also end his daughter’s suffering.
Since that fateful night, Phương Ngân had not been bold enough to pay a single visit to her husband. Ngọc Dung had not returned home. She respected her father too much; he was, in her opinion, far better than her mother. She phoned her mother to say that she had been staying with one of her colleagues in the boarding school for convenience’s sake. “So much the better,” Phương Ngân said to herself. With a view to bribing the medical workers of the institution, she offered them a lot of presents.
“Well, Mum, you’ve just come home from the market, haven’t you?” her husband greeted her one day. “I’ve been waiting for you for hours. Did you remember to get candy for me?”
Phương Ngân was taken aback.
“Ooh, she’s your mother – so nice and sweet! Any candies and cakes for us?” one of them asked. “Does she feel bad for you, Tân?” another chimed in. In response to their questions, he just smiled a disinterested smile.
“Of course, she loves me very much. Let me hand out sweets and cakes for you,” he said pleasantly. Then he threw all the packets of food that she had bought him at them, sat down on the ground and ate an unskinned banana.
Phương Ngân hurried away as if she had been surprised by a ghost.
“Doctor, what’s happened to him?” she asked the GP. “He has gone mad, hasn’t he?”.
“After his daughter’s visit, his eyes brimmed with tears and he grew very depressed. Something very important must have occurred in your family, I thought,” he replied.
“No, nothing at all, sir. At our place, everything’s plain sailing,” she answered in a confused voice.
“How strange! Before that, he was as healthy as usual,” he remarked with a frown.
“I rely entirely upon you, doctor,” she insisted. “Maybe he’s gone mad.”
“Don’t worry! I’ll see to his case carefully. If there’s anything special, I’ll phone you at once,” he assured her.
Strangely enough, for such a stubborn woman, when she left she was still in low spirits. Everything was beyond what she had envisioned. She felt she was responsible for his poor condition. A grain of repentance came to her, but in a few seconds, her stone heart justified her bad conduct: “In fact, this situation was partly due to his greed. While in power, he had lots of love affairs. If he could divorce his old wife, everything would be solved easily. I’d support him properly. Moreover, Ngọc Dung wouldn’t let her father be bogged down in such a muddy stalemate for good,” she said to herself. After that, she phoned her lover.
Ngọc Dung was packing all her necessary belongings into her large suitcase, while her mother watched her with a heavy heart. “Obviously, she sides with her father and doesn’t care about me at all,” she thought.
“I must be going now, Mum. You’ll be free to enjoy your own life. No need to take care of Dad! That’s my responsibility,” she declared.
Ngọc Dung slammed the door shut, thus terminating her period of familial bliss.
“Woe is me, I’ve lost both husband and daughter! Now only my lover is left! Well, I’ll turn over a new leaf,” she whispered to herself.
u v u
In the shade of the flamboyant tree in the sanatorium court where the hot sunrays danced playfully, Tân sat scooping up the sand, whereas his three room-mates were playing hide-and-seek. He acted a mad man so cleverly that he was said to be really insane.
Ngọc Dung visited him frequently. He took pity on his daughter very much; although the familial trouble was over, he knew that the relationship between her and her mother would be impossible to heal. “At least my daughter is able to stand firm on her own feet,” Tân said to himself.
An ambulance stopped in the centre of the lunatic asylum. A haggard-looking middle-aged woman was taken down. Her hands were tied by a cotton handkerchief. Her dossier was given to a nurse on duty.
“Rumour has it that this patient is greatly shocked,” she said. “She abandoned her husband and daughter to run after her lover. But that guy went back to his wife in the country. Poor woman! Deprived of everything, she dived into the river near her house, but she was rescued. Right now, she’s almost lost consciousness,” she added.
The doctor on duty glanced at the document. It read:
Full name: Lê Thị Phương Ngân.
Work place: Municipal branch of Commercial&Industrial Bank
Diagnosis: Madness in the initial stage
Tân stared at the newcomer, surprised. “Another lunatic!” he whispered to himself with a sympathetic smile.
Translated by Văn Minh