by Dao Quoc Huy
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
"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.
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,
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?"
"There are many more
things that scare me than that. But the unpleasant, even short feeling, seems
"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
‘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?"
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
"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
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
"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
"I’ll get a new job
in South Africa next month. I am meeting you here because I want you to go with
The young man was dumb
"Do you want to go
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
"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:
"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."
whispered after a long silence. "So we don’t have the courage to do
"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.
by Manh Chuong