Viet Nam News
by Lương Khả Tú
The housekeeper Hải always came to Mrs Ca, a solitary woman, at 10am with a plastic shopping bag full of food. She would only leave after 4.30pm after preparing brunch and dinner for her and tidying her house as well.
She had been doing this for the past two months. After opening the gate by herself, she rode her old motorbike straight into the garage and then, with the shopping bag in hand, she walked into the kitchen to prepare lunch and dinner for them both. When lunch was over, the old woman attentively listened to her employee’s stories, either from the press or public gossip. These occasions were rare for her because she had few friends around while her two adult daughters lived with their own families far away, leaving her almost always alone in the huge house they had bought for her.
Thanks to Hải, Mrs Ca’s house looked much better. Moreover, it had become easier for her to move about, despite her obesity. Thanks to Hải’s clever arrangement of Mrs Ca’s possessions, for example the remote controls, pens and pencils, nail clippers, rubber rings, books and magazines and whatnot, the old woman could find them easily. Even a glass of milk in the fridge was within her reach.
“Could you make me something light to stay my hunger?” she asked Hải.
“OK, ma’am, right away.”
Two minutes later, Hải brought her a plate of small red bites.
“What are they?”
“Carrrot, ma’am. I’ll make you steamed pork chop for lunch in less than an hour."
“Give me the meat as usual.”
"You will have lunch in an hour. So, a few carrots should do fine.”
"What will I have for lunch?"
"Pork chop, boiled chayote, radish soup with minced pork and an orange."
Chewing a few small pieces of carrot reluctantly for a few seconds, she remarked, “Tasteless!”
“Maybe, ma’am! They’d be much better well-done. Does the menu sound good?”
“I prefer chicken balls with a glass of Coca-Cola.”
Hải burst out laughing. “Oh dear, it’s your favourite drink! Are you sad you didn’t have some earlier with a hamburger or KFC like when you were younger?”
“No, not at all!”
Opening a weak smile, Mrs Ca looked down at her grossly obese body. She had spent her whole life eating all kinds of food, both good and bad for her health. As a result, her weight exceeded one hundred kilograms before she reached fifty. While other elderly women kept fit by jogging, swimming, cycling and other exercises, she paid no attention to her body. She just ate and ate to her heart’s content.
Staring at Hải work, Mrs Ca remembered her work in her prime when she had done all kinds of jobs: waitress, cook, street vendor and so on. She only stopped manual labour at 35. Unmarried at such an age, a woman was regarded as a spinster. Fortunately, she spent her savings to buy an old small house in an alley of China Town. It was there she opened a dress-making shop to tailor blouses, skirts and other beautiful pieces of clothing. Through hard work and creativity, she designed various nice patterns and her products soon became much sought-after.
Then at the age of 39, she married a Chinese widower. A long time after their wedding, she turned into a different woman. Luckily, her husband had, thanks to his great fortune, helped her enlarge her business, with many more employees and a lot of new sewing-machines, she became the talk of the town. When their first daughter was born, she hired an elderly woman to take care of the baby. Now she didn’t have to work and could focus on raising the girl. She started eating more and more delicious food every day. Only when there was no more food on the table, did the old woman stop eating.
Her next daughter was born a year later. She got bigger and bigger with every passing year, while her business kept ticking over, with nothing changing. She remained faithful to her husband and held the family together even though he had betrayed her trust. When his days were numbered she kept on looking after him and on praying for him.
* * *
After her first daughter’s graduation from university, Mrs Ca shut her business as it started losing money. Of her two children, the elder sister found a well-paid job as the chief of a start-up project funded by a foreign company. She purchased a new spacious and comfortable house for her mother to live in, so Mrs Ca rented out the little shanty in China Town. So, Mrs Ca did not pose a problem to her family’s budget. What mattered to her now was her health. In defiance of advice from her children and others, she abided by her familiar eating regime. At last, her daughters had to give up.
“Mum, if you stay obese like this, how can you lead a happy life?” said one of them.
“It’s up to her, it’s her life,” chimed in her first son-in-law.
* * *
Hải did not help her employer very much when she tried to move between the waiting-room and the dining-room. Aiming to break the old woman’s bad habit, Hải pretended to do something else.
“Why don’t you have lunch with me?” asked Mrs Ca one day.
“Because I’m busy tidying your bedroom and bathroom, ma’am.”
“When do you eat?”
“When I finish working, ma’am! You should eat while it’s hot,” Hai suggested. Actually, while her employer ate alone, Hải had an apple or a small dish of salad. She did the same day after day.
“With such a diet, how can you keep fit?” once Mrs Ca asked her.
“I just want enough food for my work. No need to get more, ma’am!”
“You’d prefer a proper meal.”
“Maybe so, ma’am,” Hải replied, while gently sweeping her feather duster over the furniture. “I only eat when I’m hungry though.”
“Why does your housework here last five and a half hours exactly?”
“Because that’s how long it takes, ma’am!” Hải answered. “I want to leave your place at 3:30 pm. It’s a good time for me to return home, as it’s still hot before early afternoon. It’s also when the sun begins going down. Also, the streets get more crowded after that. That’s all.”
“May I ask you one question, just one, ma’am? Why do you need to eat so much?” Hải asked while dusting off the books that Mrs Ca had rarely read.
“Do you mean that I’ve eaten some of your food?”
“Oh no, ma’am! The money you give me for shopping is always spent entirely on your food. Have you ever felt hungry, ma’am?”
“I mostly eat vegetables. You think that I’m too stupid to realise that?”
“Far from that, ma’am,” she said, humming softly to herself. “In fact, lots of fried and greasy food that you like best have been removed from your diet. Instead of them, you eat a lot of boiled, steamed and other things. Does this make you displeased?”
At the end of the week, Hải prepared a potful of gruel of pork chops seasoned with lots of ingredients like cucumber, paprika and aromatic herbs.
“What kind of food is this?” Mrs Ca asked Hải.
“It’s very tasty and nutritious, ma’am,” she answered while giving her a little spoonful.
“Too many kinds of vegetables!” she frowned.
“They taste delicious, ma’am.”
“Hmm, I guess so!” she admitted, “but if…”
“Then you can hardly object, ma’am! You still have a bowl of chicken soup with boiled cabbage and a boiled egg in fish sauce,” said Hải. “ I’m going to lay the table in a few minutes. Can you help me a bit?”
Unexpectedly, she had become a kitchen hand under Hải. The old woman started putting glasses on the table and then got ready to scoop a bowlful of gruel out of the large pot.
“Mind the hot soup, ma’am!” Hải told her.
“Thanks a lot! I can manage. Come what may, today you must join my meal. There’s too much food!”
“Part of it is for your dinner this afternoon,” said Hải.
“Anyhow, too much!” she criticised slightly.
Hải scooped a big bowlful of gruel, enough for both of course, then put it down on the table before looking at the old woman as if she looked forward to her fit of anger.
After finishing the gruel, Hải stirred the rice, took some out and put it into two small bowls then placed each of them in front of their seats.
“Please, help yourself to the hot rice, ma’am.”
Mrs Ca smiled weakly after sitting down on her chair. She could not remember the last time she had shared a meal with her family.
Now face to face with Mrs Ca after so many days at her service and growing accustomed to her, Hải did not have to stand on ceremony at meals any longer. To Hải’s surprise, Mrs Ca kept on eating while Hải was also enjoying the food to her heart’s content. Mrs Ca ate a huge pork chop in a few minutes, without staining her fingers with fat at all.
“You seem greatly surprised at the greedy woman sitting in front of you?” she said to Hải.
Hải shrugged her shoulders, saying, “On the contrary, the way you eat pleases this humble cook very much. Another serving?”
“No thanks! I’ve had enough.”
Suddenly, Hải stood up.
“What! There’s still enough for both of us!” observed Mrs Ca.
“But most of it is vegetables.”
“Hải, you want me to consume these nasty things alone?”
Hải smiled. Sitting down again, she pushed the plate of pork chops towards Mrs Ca. Hải began talking as if she was explaining a lesson to a schoolgirl.
“Paprika is very good for your health,” Hải said. “It not only slows aging but also comes in useful for the body because it doesn’t have many calories. Furthermore, it gives us a lot of vitamin C, is extremely good for our bones and joints and keeps our hearts strong,” she went on.
“That sounds reasonable!” Mrs Ca interrupted Hải’s speech. “But why don’t you act as an advertiser for a marketing company, instead of working for this old, obese woman?”
“Actually, I don’t want to work for any business. I’m willing and able to help a person like you,” Hải retorted.
Accidentally, Mrs Ca acted too bossy. She went on eating the food on the table. Both of them stopped their boring dialogue at once. Not until Hải cleaned the last forks and knives then put them on the rack, did the old woman say cautiously after observing every gesture of her employee:
“Please go on with your unfinished narrative, Hải,” she urged her. “Precisely speaking why do you want to help me?”
Hải turned back. Leaning against the basin wall and looking at the old woman for a few seconds, she talked to her reservedly instead of answering:
“These days, you’ve been able to move about more easily, haven’t you?”
Mrs Ca nodded.
“You can pick up things a bit beyond your reach without difficulty or irritability?”
Again, she nodded.
“You don’t feel uncomfortable when standing up or sitting down?”
“No, not at all.”
“Your trousers aren’t as tight around your waist?”
“Quite true! You’re right. I’ve changed noticeably. What else?”
“Ma’am, that’s what I’ve ever wished to do for you during my stay here. I want you to lose weight gradually, to eat less fatty foods, even less meat and fish, and to enjoy more vegetables. In a word, I’m declaring war against your obesity.”
Mrs Ca was silent for a while.
“In my opinion, there are a lot of things that young people of your generation don’t understand,” Mrs Ca told Hải. “You know the war only through publications, which many of you have never read.”
“How can we know everything? We can’t see all the happenings across the world, right ma’am?” Hải said. “You should tell me about the major events in your life,” she added.
* * *
“I used to enjoy a happy childhood before war befell our whole area, including my house, of course. After American bombings no buildings stayed intact. Dead bodies lay strewn amidst the debris. Rice fields were destroyed and granaries burnt down. Food was scarce. At dinner, we little kids cried for meat. We did not know that meat and fish, even vegetables, were hardly available, and that cooked rice mixed with cassava roots or sweet potatoes were the only foods we could get. Adults and children usually felt faint with hunger, which lasted for years on end. Not until peace was restored, did our life return to normal.” Mrs Ca’s narrative abruptly came to an end due to a fit of coughing.
“Whenever I was hungry, I felt deeply unhappy,” she added. “Hunger has left so deep a wound in my memory that it makes me frightened to death when I think of it. Now, I only feel comfortable when I can eat delicious food with clean cutlery.”
“Do you think that you will be happy with this vitamin and mineral-rich diet I’ve been cooking you?” Hải asked her.
Nodding her head, she recognised that food played an important role in healing her past pain. “Yet, for the time being everything in excess isn’t good, I know!” she concluded.
“In other words, you may turn into a healthy and pretty woman if you eat well and exercise,” Hải encouraged her.
“It isn’t that easy.”
“Why not?” Hải exclaimed. “You used to be the owner of a well-known dress-making shop and had a flair for fashion. My mother was one of your regular customers.”
“Really? So, you came here to make me a decent woman?” Mrs Ca said.
“Not really, ma’am,” Hải replied. “I was hired to improve your health by your children. I soon realised it was important for me to help you.”
“What are you getting out of this? A lot of money?”
“No no, far from that!” Hải answered. “Your children are wealthy, indeed. Yet, I’m not greedy for money. I only have pay. I’m badly in need of joy in my work.”
“Now, it’s high time I left,” said Hải. “From now on, together we’ll try to get your weight back to normal, ma’am. Of course, it’ll take us a long time to achieve our aim.”
Obviously, Mrs Ca could hardly refuse Hải’s proposal, which was only good for her. Her obese body now looked much better than it had before. Both of them were in high spirits with their initial success. Seeing Hải off to the gate, she opened it with a sweet smile, something she couldn’t have done before Hải came to work for her. Finding her helmet inside the house before she drove her motorbike away, Mrs Ca called her back.
“Helping another person gives us some joy, big or small, doesn’t it?” she said to Hải in a soft voice. Hải just smiled a broad smile, putting it on her head then she waved the old woman goodbye.
“Anyhow, my health has improved. Is it my turn to help you, and how?” Mrs Ca whispered. “Could the problem be solved at 10am tomorrow when I’ll try to fill the generation gap still existing between us?” she asked herself.
Translated by Văn Minh