|Illustration by Doă Duơng
by Ha Pham Phu
It was a cool autumn morning. The sky was crystal-clear, with scattered white clouds floating nonchalantly. Bon got up early, feeling relaxed. He intended to go downstairs to have a bowl of pho at Kim's and then go to the securities floor. As soon as he reached the door, he met his brother, who looked preoccupied. He asked Bon:
"Did you go somewhere for about an hour last night?"
Bon looked surprised and shook his head. His brother said in anxiety:
"You're relapsing into your old habit of sleepwalking, you know!"
"When did I do it?" Bon asked with indifference.
"Last night," his brother repeated. "Yesterday afternoon, I had some beer with my old army buddies. At night I got up and went to the toilet to relieve myself and saw you pushing the door open, dressed quite smartly. It was 12 o'clock. I wondered where you were going at that time of night, but I could not ask you. Then I saw you from the balcony driving the motorbike away. An hour later, I heard the noise again and figured you had come home."
Bon lived with his brother's family in a relatively large apartment on the fifth floor left behind by his father, a senior official. When still young, he did not pay any heed to girls, since he was the son of a high society family. But how time flies! Now he was already fifty and still single. His brother got married young and had two daughters. His first daughter married a European and settled down there. His second daughter still lived with her parents. The family considered her a ticking time bomb with each year that she did not get married.
As usual, that night the whole clan sat around a large table, enjoying fish soup. His brother reminisced about how during the war, Bon had evacuated to a village by the Day River. At midnight he climbed on the roof of the house as swiftly as a cat and then went back to sleep. Later their mother said that Bon had a sleepwalking illness, but when he grew up, the disease disappeared.
After dinner, Bon's brother went to watch the news on television. His sister-in-law washed the dishes as quickly as possible so that she could make it to her dance lesson in time. His niece was standing in front of the mirror to put on make-up before going to work the night shift. And of course, Bon returned to his own world by closing the door of his room and opening the window looking towards the opposite house. His room faced west, towards the Nam Luong building, where there was a single 40-year-old woman living in an apartment on the third floor. The window of this apartment was closed the whole day and opened only at a fixed time when the lights were on. It seemed that the woman had her meals somewhere else, because he never saw her cooking anything inside. When at home, she switched on all the lights and opened the window wide, then drank a glass of water, took off her clothes and went into the bathroom. Every day at this time, Bon pulled his chair closer to the window and observed the woman with binoculars. It took her a long time to have a bath. When she walked out, her hair had been dried and her body was covered with only a bra and red underpants. Then she lay down on the sofa and turned on the television. When she slept, she pulled the curtain shut and turned off the lights except for one bedside lamp.
As time went by, the sleepwalking was not mentioned anymore and the family atmosphere returned to normal. Yet one night, Bon's niece knocked vigorously at the door. While Bon tried to calm his niece down, the girl, still breathing hard, said that on the way home, out of the blue sky, a guy appeared in a red raincoat with a hood. He drove his motorbike faster and then put on the brakes and turned the machine towards her. Then he stopped it and walked towards her. Finally, he opened the coat wide, revealing his naked body.
"Then what happened?" her father asked.
"I stood like a log and got tongue-tied. When I came to myself, he had gone," the girl said, crying her heart out and embracing her father.
Bon quickly poured a glass of water and gave it to his niece, but the girl did not drink any. At that moment, his sister-in-law came home from her dance lesson. She found her daughter in the bathroom and wondered what had happened to her. She rushed to knock at the door, but there was no answer.
"Break down the door now to see if anything happened to our daughter!" she cried to her husband.
Right then, the girl called out that she was having a bath.
A few days later, Bon's sister-in-law came home from a dancing lesson. She said that she had met that lunatic man in the red raincoat. Several days after that, many other people also saw him. The stories of the man in the red raincoat were told again and again until nobody wanted to hear about him anymore. The guy might be crazy but he had not harmed anyone. So the atmosphere in the family of Bon's brother returned to normal. His brother went to switch on the television news, his sister-in-law quickly washed the dishes so as to make it to her dance lesson in time and his niece did her make-up before going to work the night shift.
However, this peaceful atmosphere was only a temporary lull. A few days later, the girl came home in great fear again. She told everybody that she had met the lunatic man again and he had done the same thing to her as he did the other night. Everybody in the family burst out laughing. The girls got angry at this reaction.
"Shall we report it to the police?" Bon said.
His brother shook his head, saying that it would be better to protect themselves first, and his wife nodded in agreement.
"From now on, when our daughter comes home late, you should pick her up," Bon's sister-in-law said to her husband, who responded that he would. But his wife felt scared because her husband was so weak that he could not fight back if the lunatic attacked him.
"I think you'd better take along a stick to be on the safe side," Bon said.
So, from then on, whenever Bon's brother went to pick up his daughter from work, he always brought the stick with him. He went day in and day out, but he did not find any trace of that guy. Still, the man in the red raincoat had become a fear for the whole family.
From the day when he found out that he was sleepwalking again, Bon stopped going to the toilet at night. He bought the buffalo bladder typically used by alcohol sellers. He put it under the bed, so whenever he wanted to piss, he could reach for the buffalo bladder.To prevent himself from sleepwalking, before going to bed, he tied a string to a bedpost and the other end of the string to his ankle. But when he needed to piss very badly, he forgot the buffalo bladder, so he untied the string and went to the toilet. After that, he tied the string to his ankle and went to bed again. But he could not sleep immediately. Lying there, he felt scared about his illness returning. Then he fell into a sound sleep. But the problem was that he did not remember anything when the day broke.
The doubt inside Bon had become ever clearer. Was he the crazy guy riding the motorbike, naked under the red raincoat? According to his niece's description, there were a lot of similarities between them. There was only one thing missing: he did not have a raincoat. He had never worn one, even when there was heavy rain. All of a sudden, he realised a fearful thing: a man could do something he himself was unaware of. Then he wondered if his brother, sister-in-law and his niece thought that the lunatic guy was him. What did he do at night when he went out for an hour in the street? Bon thought and thought. He asked the niece if she could remember the color of the raincoat and she said immediately that it was red. His brother and sister-in-law brushed the story aside, saying that it was no use mentioning it any more. Having heard it, Bon knew that his family members did not suspect him. But he continued to suspect himself.
The single woman entered Bon's life without his notice. He could not remember when it happened. But he could remember one thing. One day when he was arranging his father's mementos, he found the binoculars. He started to use them to look at the apartments in the Nam Luong building and by chance he saw that woman on the third floor taking off her clothes. From then on, Bon started to observe the woman with great interest. There was a bed with pink sheets, a yellow pillow and a wardrobe. Each time she took a bath, she often stood in front of the mirror for a long time with her back turned to him. She had short hair, revealing her snow-white neck. He could see her oval face in the mirror.
His niece was now over twenty. Her breasts were full of vitality, though it seemed that she was not yet aware of this fact. Sometimes she ran into his room to chat wearing only underwear, making him so excited. At night, while lying on the bed, consulting his pillow, Bon wondered whether he was the man in the raincoat. He went to the supermarket and bought a raincoat with a red hood and hid it under the bed.
Everything suddenly changed. The lights did not go on in the apartment of the single woman for several days. What had happened to her? Bon was so nervous. One night, after tossing and turning for a long time, he got up and went to the window. He found the apartment on the third floor brightly lit. But it was dark again for several days after that. His brother felt fed up with going to take his daughter home at night. The lunatic guy had disappeared. His niece came home from work at midnight as usual and his brother stopped going to pick her up.
It seemed that there was going to be an important ceremony, because the streets were bedecked with red flags and each house flew the flag too. That night, it was drizzling. He looked at the clock and decided it was time for him to act. So he stealthily walked downstairs, put on the raincoat and drove the motorbike away. He stopped on a dark corner and waited. Finally his niece appeared. He started the machine and tried to get closer to the girl. Seeing his red raincoat, the girl appeared too terrified to speak. Bon sped away. When he got home, he hid to see if there was anybody in the lift. Suddenly, the door of the lift opened and his brother walked out to pick up his niece. At that moment, his niece came home with shoes in her hand. She had run home. Her father asked:
"What's the matter with you?"
"That lunatic guy appeared again, Dad!" she said, panting. Then she lowered her voice: "This guy looks a lot like Uncle Bon."
"That would never happen, you know!" her father said.
"But at home, sometimes he looks at me in a strange way. I doubt his sleepwalking illness has come back," she said bitterly.
When they got into the lift, Bon ran upstairs as fast as he could. Fortunately, he was able to get into his mosquito net and pretend that he was sleeping before he heard a sound outside. He guessed his brother was checking if he was in bed. He lay there, wondering why his brother had the key to his room. It turned out that his brother had made another key to Bon's room and had gone looking through the room without him realising. Bon found something aching in his chest.
The next day, Bon met his niece and inquired about the incident the night before. His niece said:
"This guy in the red raincoat was not as scary as the previous one. He hesitated and did nothing to me, Uncle."
"So it was different from the previous incidents?" Bon asked.
"Yes, it was so scary before. I nearly fainted, Uncle!" the girl answered.
"Is it possible that he only wanted to have a look at you?" her mother asked.
"I think he was afraid that you would recognize him. Maybe this guy lives somewhere nearby, or even knows you and often says ‘Hello' to you," her father said.
"It's quite regrettable that I nearly saw his face. I could almost recognize him! I did see his eyes, Dad."
"What are his eyes like?" Bon asked.
"It's difficult to tell. But I could recognize these eyes if I met him, Uncle."
Since Bon found out that his brother had copied the key to his room, he felt sad and angry. One day, when he and his brother were at home, Bon asked vaguely:
"What does your daughter do?"
"She works as a cashier in the hotel."
"Are you sure?"
"What are you asking about it for?"
"It's fine if you don't want to talk about it," Bon said.
His brother looked worried.
"If you've got something to say, say it."
"Sex services have mushroomed these days, you know," Bon said slowly. "Senior officials and rich people go to sit over glasses of beer or sing karaoke with girls serving them. You can drink beer and embrace the girls at the same time…. Didn't you know? One senior official went to sing in a karaoke shop and unfortunately, his daughter ended up serving him!"
Bon saw that his brother's face had turned pale.
"I'm very worried that my niece works only by night and goes home at midnight. Do you have the address where she works?" Bon continued.
"No, I don't. She hasn't even given me her phone number,"
his brother said.
After the conversation, Bon's brother looked worried and followed his daughter closely. He dared not take up this subject with his wife for fear that she would get angry for nothing. Finally his brother said to Bon:
"I think we'd better discover the truth so that I can feel safe in the heart. Let's go tonight?"
After dinner, the girl changed her clothes and started her make-up routine. Bon and his brother looked at each other and went to their rooms to change their clothes. His sister-in-law found this strange. Why were her husband and brother-in-law changing their clothes to go out at that time of night?
"Where are you going now?" she asked.
"We are going to take a walk," her husband replied.
"We are going to a seminar on securities," Bon added, closing the door.
"What the hell are these two old men doing?" the woman said to herself.
They finally kept pace with the girl and tried to keep a suitable distance from her. Bon felt repentant, thinking that if the truth was discovered and something bad happened to the girl, his brother's family would become broken and his niece would hate him for good. They were now following the girl down a crowded street.
All of a sudden, Bon saw a familiar woman walking in the opposite direction. Walking beside her was a man. They were walking fast as if they couldn't wait to get home. An idea flashed through his head. He said to his brother:
"You keep on walking, brother. I've got something else to do."
"What?" his brother asked.
"I've just seen my old girlfriend and I want to say hi," Bon said and disappeared into the crowd.
Bon followed that woman. It was definitely the single woman living on the third floor of the Nam Luong building. She and the man walked quickly and said nothing. Bon followed them until they entered the building. Then he ran back to his own building and took the lift to his floor. But when he opened the window, the apartment opposite was pitch-black.
A short time later, his brother came home. Bon asked him if he found anything. His brother heaved a deep sigh and threw the keys onto the table.
"I followed her for some more minutes before she got on the bus," he said.
"Did you see the bus number?" Bon asked.
His brother shook the head. Bon quickly picked up the bunch of keys and showed his brother the key he had made:
"I don't know what you made this key for."
"Calm down!" His brother turned pale. "Let me explain!"
"I don't need your explanation," Bon said dismissively. "It's all over so I don't need an explanation anymore."
But the story was yet to come to an end. One night, at about midnight, there was a frantic pounding at the door. Bon rushed to open it and found his niece crying:
"Dad, Uncle, the lunatic in the red raincoat lives in this building!"
Bon rushed out first, shouting:
"Where is he? Where is he?"
"The lift went wrong and I walked upstairs and found he lives on the second floor!" the girl said, her voice now calmer.
The stairs were dark. Bon and his brother walked downstairs as fast as they could. Everybody was sleeping soundly. The stairs were deserted, making the men feel slightly afraid. When they reached the second floor, they saw a red raincoat hanging in a corner on the left-hand side. Wind blew, swinging the coat lightly.
Translated by Manh Chuong