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Africa

Update: June, 19/2005 - 00:00

Short Story

(19-06-2005)

Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy

Africa

by Phan Hon Nhien

1. The Saturday morning was grey-blue. A rope ladder was hanging in the middle of the wall of a big house across the road. The ladder looked like a deep brown backbone that had suddenly pushed that soulless vacant space into view. Vinh left the bed and walked to stand in silence by the window and smoked. The icy February air made all the forms down there shrink and disfigure. Everything was clean and smooth. Those dull urban lines were so wonderful. Vinh flicked the cigarette butt away. The little flare moved in an arc like a firefly in fear, and then it died out. He poured a glassful of coffee from the coffee filter and walked back to sit on the edge of the bed.

The white telephone on the carpet rang. After a while, Vinh recognised An’s voice, so clear and yet still sleepy. She said sorry for having left him in the night without giving him a note.

"I thought there was no need to wake you up in the middle of the night. Any way, you handed me the house key," she said, laughing lowly. Then she asked him about their weekend plans. Vinh kept silent. He had no plans at all. It was silent at the other end, too.

"I’ll be with you any time, won’t I?" A frank, yet fearful, proposal.

"Yes," Vinh answered.

He looked toward the bed. Last night he had gone to a concert with her. They had gone home together, drank a little and listened to music again, then fell asleep. Yet, strangely enough, he had forgotten about it.

"What happened to you? What’s the matter with you?" The girl’s voice was louder, shriller.

"Nothing!" Vinh finished the coffee and put down the phone. He felt on edge. He went to the bathroom, turned on the tap and observed his empty face in the mirror. Suddenly, he buried his face in the basinful of water.

The clock struck eight. Vinh found the mobile phone he had dropped somewhere behind the bedside table. He turned on the mobile phone again. A sense of relief spread all over him. Living in a widespread partnership with the outside world had brought him confidence. He poured another cup of coffee and then sat down by his PC to check his e-mail. Not any important news. Yet, in his old address, he found some new mail. He opened it. A name appeared. After quite a long time, he recognised his situation. Hoan told him that she had returned home from abroad for a month now and she was now in the same city with him.

At the time, when she was just back home, she thought there was nothing left between them. But now, when her problems and his problems had been satisfactorily left behind, the old wounds had been healed and nothing was important any more. And the meeting again in a new cover could be a pleasant discovery between old flames. At the end of the e-mail, Hoan gave Vinh her new mobile phone number. He read it quickly and intended to forget it. No need to repeat a dangerous experience.

He quickly closed all e-mails and started to search for materials to support the design of an experimental tower in glass and metal ordered by a German pharmaceutical firm. At 10 o’clock, he took a break and finished his cold coffee. Suddenly, the mobile phone number appeared before his eyes, so clearly. Vinh was standing by the window, smoking. The fumes seemed to return him to calmness. He looked fixedly at the wall, all white, smooth and no stains or cracks. Strange! The emptiness began with perfection. He started thinking about the appearance of that rope ladder.

2. A week went by in tranquillity. Every evening, An, a translator, walked regularly from a rep office of a pharmaceutical firm to drop in on Vinh’s. She was there at six sharp as usual and did the cleaning up and tidying up of Vinh’s room. Then she cooked some food in a large kitchen and waited for him. Vinh always remembered her standing in the corridor, with her hands behind the back of her head, looking as if she were silently crying for help. It was that posture of hers, not her face buried in his chest during the cold January nights, nor her trembling breath, that Vinh remembered most. Hearing his footsteps, she would turn back right away and smiled at him – such a sweet smile, like a blue flower floating in the room.

The dinner passed in silence. It was so difficult to find any words to say. Outside the glass window, an airplane had just flown by, leaving two thin veils of fumes, looking like a rope ladder hung in the steel-coloured sky.

"Do you want to try climbing that ladder, if possible?"

"No."

"Are you scared?"

"There are many more things that scare me than that. But the unpleasant, even short feeling, seems more uncertain."

"Yes, that’s right."

"Why do we like asking me those questions?"

"At least it makes people think they are not chickenhearted." Vinh shrugged his shoulders.

An’s glints of doubt shot over his head. After dinner, she cleared the table and put everything back to the familiar order and cleanness. Vinh started working with his PC, continuing to look for data and material to match with those for the steel tower. An kneeled down to put an old album of Lewis Allen into the record player. The melody of Strange Fruit, so sweet and low on the double bass, repeated time and again. It was that music they had listened to their first night together.

‘Will you stay here tonight?" Vinh asked.

"Do you want to be alone?" An whispered.

Vinh nodded, absorbed in his work. Not a sound was heard. An closed the door and disappeared in the dark.

Those slow, boring sounds of Lewis Allen finally stopped. Taking his eyes off the PC screen, Vinh was stunned. He rushed to the window and knocked at the glass. The sun at 11 at night. The magical sunlight almost occupied all of the space outside the window. It seemed nature was dipped in fermented fruit juice. But it was only the special artificial light of a just-planted lamp post. The wall opposite under the effect of the incandescent lamp showed a brightly illuminated Africa. It took Vinh a long time before he could recover himself from feeling dizzy because of the accidental image of a half-painted wall. Africa, with Guinea Bay, the Red Sea and Cape of Good Hope. The dreamy land was now heaving. Vinh had at times read a lot about Africa. He had lost a great deal of time since that day. He picked up the phone and called Hoan. Hoan could not take his eyes off that wall with the rope ladder. An Africa was shining brightly in the cold January night in the north.

3. Like those people Vinh had known, when that certain time in life came, Hoan had changed completely without warning or explanation. That evening four years ago, no, it could be longer than that, Hoan suddenly made an appointment with him in a small coffee shop near the Institute of Architecture. Vinh asked for the reason. Hoan looked at him, beaming in the face.

"We’re going to say good-bye to each other, aren’t we? It’s time, you know."

After a long silence, he said with difficulty: "All right!"

"Of late, I have asked myself many times if our relationship could go somewhere. If we find it unsafe, we’d better stop!"

"Where does that lack of safety lie?"

"After graduation from the university, I had a good job. You’re always by my side. I’ve found the things I did aspire to have in the past. Nothing to complain about. But later I discovered that I am missing something very important. And I want to know what it is. So naturally I have to look for it."

Vinh felt a little bit offended.

"Does love have anything to do with it?"

Spreading her arms on the table, Hoan said slowly, "Love is also a habit."

Vinh kept silent. No more heavy questions. Two months later, Hoan decided to apply for a minor post in a rep office based in Russia. It was really a hard time for him. Vinh felt lonely and forgotten.

What had he found in Hoan? Surely, there were many more beautiful, more intelligent women who could give him deeper love. For quite a long time, some women had come and gone, leaving no trace. He had met An in the middle of last year, at an international architecture seminar. Gentle, sensitive, An had brought to him a complete warmth. They had not touched on love or on a long life together. At times, Vinh thought he had really needed An. Yet an Africa had appeared from an invisible white space. And Hoan had returned. She wanted to see him. It was always that way, at an unforeseeable point of time. Something would happen, causing all of the plans fall into disorder.

That old coffee shop. Vinh had arrived earlier, turning his eyes around. Nothing made him worried or tired any more, he said to himself. However, on the pavement appeared a short hair tousled in the February wind, and when those thin, warm arms touched his arms in the cold wind, a feeling of dizziness overcame him. Her large, grey eyes looked squarely into his.

"I’ve missed you so terribly."

"You’ve come back, Hoan!" he whispered.

They sat down together, hands in hands. It was just like when they first began loving each other, so sincerely and purely. It was as if they had never separated, they had never tasted sadness and they had never become old. Hoan spoke first, breaking the silence.

"I’ll get a new job in South Africa next month. I am meeting you here because I want you to go with me."

The young man was dumb with surprise.

"Do you want to go there?"

"Yes!" Vinh answered.

Love. Small chance. He had owned it. He had lost it. Then, out of the clear blue sky, it had returned one morning. Vinh thought about the strange coincidence. He would go to Africa. Africa appeared from that invisible wall, shining brightly, as if it were an intelligent, delightful omen.

4. In his recent dreams, Vinh often met with an even bolder South Africa than existed. Such distant names as Pretoria, Cape Town or Johannesburg had gradually become so near, as if they were echoing from the music of Kwela of the Afrikaans in the deep of the night. Some nights he found himself crossing that vast coastal area in an old car and stopping in front of a harbour near Cape Town, watching in silence the sun rising over the Atlantic. When he woke up, he still felt a taste of salty water from the sea and the tooting of a ship crossing the Cape of Good Hope. Life had suddenly become so valuable. Brushing aside the designs of the steel tower, Vinh found a job listing at a South African construction company. It seemed an attractive challenge to him. At the consultant office where Vinh worked, his colleagues asked him if he had gotten drunk or used drugs or gone crazy.

"I’ll quit this job soon," he replied calmly.

Those protruding eyes gave him a sense of delight.

One afternoon in midweek, he returned home at six. An had come. She had bought frozen food and put it in the fridge. Vinh went into the kitchen. Quickly he tore off that plastic bag from An’s head.

"Don’t get so scared, dear. I was only testing the feeling of suffocation for a moment," An said in an even voice.

"Do promise me that you’ll never do that again!" Vinh yelled.

She nodded and then left, putting his house key on the table.

Hoan was learning the Afrikaans language. They often made a date at a coffee house. Hoan read Vinh short sentences, and she burst out laughing at those vowels. A strange excitement occupied both of them when they looked at a picture carved on the Drakensburg Rock mountain by the aborigines, a smiling face from a brown-skinned half-caste Chinese girl.

"I’ve seen the map of Johannesburg. The place where we’ll stay is in the Chinese Quarter. This will be quite a different life."

Hoan often repeated this. But sometimes Vinh felt uneasy. He hadn’t yet found a job. One afternoon, Hoan talked with him about passports and air tickets. She looked deep into his eyes.

"We’ll go together to Africa. Do you have the guts to make such an adventure?"

"Probably we have to think more carefully about this!" Vinh said, suddenly feeling a chill.

Hoan’s voice seemed calm and alert.

"Do the things that are unknown and lie ahead of us, do the parting with the well-furnished house and the stable job, do these things make you frightened?"

Vinh kept silent. Hoan returned to her study of the Afrikaans language. She read in a low voice: "Goeie dag."

"What does that mean?" Vinh suddenly cut her short. The girl looked up, her face was pale.

"Good day to you!" she replied.

5. At the end of the slope, the tops of ancient trees were slowly swinging. The bus was stained with rain water and mud and dead leaves, making it look like a huge animal moving hesitatingly in the forest of the colonial yellow houses. Vinh came home. He waited for a sound or a smell from the kitchen. But there was nothing. The coffee filter made a whispering sound. The music from the mobile phone played softly. An was calling to him. Vinh breathed heavily and answered her.

"Will I come over to you? I call to talk about our parting."

"I will not fly to Africa any more. No need for you to go away from me."

"Really?" An whispered after a long silence. "So we don’t have the courage to do that?"

"Yes."

"Sometimes I ask myself what you and I need."

"There’s no point thinking too much about it. Because we haven’t done anything."

Vinh walked through the rooms and switched on the lights to wait for An’s return. After that he stood by the window, looking out to the wall. The rope ladder had disappeared. The wall had already been covered with a layer of anti-absorption paint. The calm grey colour, like a winter sea wave, had submerged a yellow, blazing Africa.

For many years after, Vinh sometimes closed his eyes. That cold February wind. It was the truth that the wind was not strong, but it left a strangely lasting mark. In that deep hollow of his memory, a slow Africa had returned, casting a charming light, making him exhausted. Through that veil of crimson light, Hoan walked closer to him, her large, ashy grey eyes looking a bit sad. Upon opening his eyes, Vinh vaguely recognised that Hoan had taken from him something, making him extremely lonely. Usually at this time, it was already late at night.

Translated by Manh Chuong

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