by Hoang Ngoc Diep
When our Literature-Encouraging Camp*, whose members were almost on the wrong side of fifty, started its new course, Tram joined us three days later. She appeared among us like a breath of fresh air while we were in the large hall. She was fairly tall with well-developed breasts under a simple striped blouse. With the high forehead of a young woman in her prime of life, she brightened the place up with her lovely eyes. Surprisingly, she brought along a little boy and a basket full of ripe fruit.
"I'm awfully sorry for being so late. It's all due to my boss's untimely decision," she explained to our camp chief Toan in a soft voice.
"It doesn't matter much. We've just finished the first part of our programme: making excursions here and there to beautiful places in the region. We still have a long time ahead," Toan answered, smiling broadly.
Before dinner, he introduced her to all of us. Oddly enough, some female authors frowned at her uneasily. "It's ridiculous, she joins our writing camp with a little kid, like a kangaroo," one of them whispered. However, after the meal, everybody enjoyed her fruit joyfully.
By chance, her room was next to Toan's. Therefore, he could hear the child's footsteps thudding slightly in the veranda, his peals of laughter and her fond calls to him. "How well she's cared for her son!" he said to himself. Her little one looked quite handsome, with a healthy body and an attractive face.
Every morning she went out, umbrella in hand and bag on shoulder, while the kid carried a small plastic box and wore a sedge hat.
"Brother Toan, I'm taking him to the seashore so he can collect oyster shells for his chums at home," she told him in a cheerful voice. He felt a bit embarrassed when she led her kid away after he said only a few pointless words to her. His position as head of the camp made him rather cautious. What's more, she was always beside her little one.
The men began paying attention to the room of the newcomers. When they played cards, the loser was subject to get smeared on his or her face, which caused the winners to laugh to their heart's content. The boy was the most joyful. Sometimes he jumped around and shouted so loudly that she had to silence him with a menacing sign. After many games, the thin barrier between Toan and Tram gradually disappeared.
One afternoon, he took a stroll on the crowded beach. The sunshine had turned very pale. From afar, he perceived Tram diving amid the waves beside her child lying on a float. Then they lay down and relaxed under a large parasol. While the kid was wearing tiny trunks, she just had casual clothes on, instead of a bikini like most women.
"How strange she is! Is she too embarrassed to wear a swimsuit?" he asked himself.
Late in the evening, he saw her sit alone on a stone bench on the veranda facing the sea. At once, he sat down beside her.
"Tram, your kid is still sleeping soundly, isn't he?" he asked.
"At home he usually goes to bed at nine-thirty. Brother Toan, you're sitting up late too!"
"I'm too old to go to sleep early."
"Not so! You're just kidding, aren't you?" she said, smiling amiably. In the dim fluorescent light, she looked very attractive with her chestnut low-cut polka-dot skirt. For some unknown reason, he was deeply affected.
"To be honest, through reading your short stories I find your style very humorous and sarcastic," he remarked. Among the well-known post-war writers, he was greatly admired thanks to a number of awards and his special gift. During his long career, he had known a few untalented female authors, who became the talk of the town due to their beauty rather than their real skills. Certainly, she didn't belong to that group.
"Actually, I've written very little. I write only when I'm badly in need of money. If my pockets are ever full, I'll stop working."
"If so, I hope that you always need money. Giving up writing is a waste of talent, you see. Not to mince matters, you do it well," he said.
"When I received the invitation to take part in this course, I was rather surprised because it was beyond my reach," she said. "In fact, I've only written about the life of the slum where I've been living. Most of its residents are the out-law elements at the bottom of society: prostitutes, beggars, criminals, thieves. Just a few of them are honest people who do menial jobs to eke out a living. Frankly speaking, I know nothing about the lives of upstarts or beautiful blue-blooded ladies," she went on. After that she burst out laughing. He also laughed heartily. "Your description is true to life," he told her.
In reality, Tram was not beautiful due to her round face and irregular teeth. However, her bulging breasts under the blouse made Toan ecstatic. After she had recited an interesting story, he began casting admirable glances at her. It was a narrative about an old woman, a hired carrier of river water for residents' baths, whose death accidentally happened when she slipped on the muddy path. It excited him deeply. "With this clever style and her alluring voice, she'll surely make great strides in the future," he said to himself.
"Look! The murmur of the waves is similar to the paddy-grinding sound in the country!" she screamed.
"For me, it's the breath of the sea," he responded merrily.
"As a rural girl, I'm able to imagine what occurs in my native village, that's all," she admitted.
Through her Northern accent, he predicted that her family had evacuated to the South a long time ago.
They kept silent, enjoying the wonderful melodies of the sea. All of a sudden, a few strands of her hair were swept over his face by the breeze. He touched her hands and found her trembling a bit. His heart fluttered. The fragrance of her hair and her youthful body made him perplexed. He longed for her head to rest on his chest. Surprisingly, his sensual emotions, which seemed to have already hardened, were now aroused greatly. "Am I falling in love with her?" he asked himself while trying to keep her at a distance.
"I've often read your short stories in different magazines," she suddenly said to him after a long silence.
"What's the use of reading them?" he told her in a sorrowful voice. Actually, he was displeased with most of his writing. The older he grew, the more pessimistic he felt. His negative experiences made him more desperate.
When he retraced his steps to his place, his roommate Nguyen was busy writing a poem on his PC.
"You've just had a chat with Tram, haven't you?" he asked Toan enviously.
"Yes, quite right."
"It seems to me that this is the first time she's ever attended such a camp," Nguyen observed.
"A promising writer of her province, you see," Toan replied.
"In my opinion, she admires you greatly. How happy you are! Loved by young ladies from all walks of life!" Saying so, he continued his work on the PC as if he had paid no attention to the courting couple's strolls on the beach together with the little kid. He did not feel sad at all, for he often had a date with single ladies, very wealthy but thirsty for sex. He always succeeded in staying away from the beauty traps set for him by the fair sex.
He was married with two sons who lived with his divorced wife in the country. Worse still, he had never noticed their living conditions in that far-away place. He let her manage things by herself.
The next two days, Toan felt quite easy because Nguyen stayed with his relatives in another locality. In the meantime, Tram's little boy was led to an ice-cream stall. In the afternoon, Toan asked her to take a stroll and she agreed. She wore jeans and carried a plastic pair of sandals in her hand.
"I'm very interested in walking bare-footed on the wet sand," she disclosed when they went close to the water edge to look for shells. It was there on the beach that she let him know a lot of things about her life.
"I'm an ordinary civil servant with a paltry income, just enough for social hospitalities and milk for my child," she told him. "I love literature and try to make both ends meet by practising thrift as much as possible. I'm said to be good at my speciality, but I'm despised for not being bold enough to get a smart skirt or an expensive lipstick. Every year in my office, I always get the certificate of merit, but I'm almost lonely there. Nobody shares my woe," she added in a sorrowful voice.
"Solitude is the fate of most writers, my dear," he consoled her. He was fully aware of her plight. To some extent, it was like his own.
Toan got married at the age of twenty-six due to a pre-arranged plan. By now, after nearly thirty years of conjugal life, his spouse's simplicity and heedless nature had stayed the same. Whenever she lay down to rest, she slept like a top. During the night, when he was busy working, she snored like a pig. Between them, there was no love lost. In reality, there was neither comprehension nor grave discordance. As for housework, she usually did it well. Their monotonous and insipid life, like pre-planned programing, was a far cry from keeping their amorous flame warm enough to prevent him at the camp from being faithful to his wife at home. Then, a long time later, he was forced to come back to his home to gnaw at the boring life of a common minor official in a far-away province.
Sometimes, he asked himself whether he was happy. Yet happiness was a sacred and abstract word that seemed unreal. Finally, he felt quite at ease with what he could have. "Anyhow, the die is cast," he assuaged himself.
Actually, at the age of twenty Toan fell in love with one of his class-mates in university. Among the resident students, she was one of the prettiest, with rosy cheeks and clear eyes. Occasionally, he offered her a nice bouquet or a hot dog. In response to his enthusiasm, she always welcomed him eagerly. When his first short story was published in a well-known magazine, she was very joyful.
"Your story is very interesting," she told him. "I believe that you'll soon become a noted writer." She held his hands tightly with brightening eyes.
"Many thanks for your encouragement." He expressed his deep feelings towards her praise. Sadly, he was too timid to open his heart to her. Later, when he was finally brave enough to do so, she had already fallen into another youth's arms.
They talked a lot about everything before returning to their place at nearly midnight. The wind blew stronger and stronger. The sky looked dim and the crescent moon seemed to float among the clouds. "The moon is shining for those who take a late stroll," he joked. They walked slowly side by side, very close to each other, as if they wished to share the warmth of their bodies. They seemed to be on cloud nine. Finding her face pensive, he felt his heart sting a lot. "How lonely she is! Furthemore, she is very friendly and amiable," he observed. All of a sudden, he hugged her tightly. Her body trembled violently. She buried her head in his chest. She could hear his heartbeats clearly. Hardly had he kissed her when she pushed him aside.
Returning to his room, he made tea and drank it alone. Then he went to bed. Putting his hands on his forehead, he thought over and over. The splashes of the waves made him melancholic and regretful. He dreamt of living a blissful life in a city beside her. Immediately, in his imagination, he perceived her sarcastic smile. Heaving a sigh, he buried his face into the pillow and soon he had a broken sleep.
The next morning, with a pale face and tousled hair, he got up early and made for the beach, which was now completely calm. Far away, the horizon looked grey with a lot of immobile sails. He recognized that autumn was coming round due to the cold sea breeze. Again, he thought of her, smiled bitterly and was soon lost in reverie.
In the afternoon, she dropped in on him with her child, who jumped for joy because he would be fed a lot of candy. Observing the kid carefully, he realized that he did not look like her at all. "Perhaps he's like his father," Toan guessed and looked at the boy again with envious eyes.
Sitting across the tea table from her, his heart beat violently. When they began talking, they were interrupted by a phone call from her walkie-talkie. "Excuse me," she said to him, then proceeded to the bench on the veranda. When the little kid was going to run after her, Toan stopped him at once. "Just stay here with me, will you?" he told the child. Obediently, the boy threw himself onto his lap.
"So, your dad is staying alone at home?" he asked the boy.
"No, no! I haven't got any father. I've got only Grannie with Uncles Ba and Tu, that's all."
"Well, where's your dad?"
"I don't know."
"If so, his mother's divorced, otherwise... " Toan said to himself. "But she's still very young. Why is that?"
The new revelation made him both anxious and hopeful. "She seems quite chaste! Is that only her appearance?" he asked himself.
A moment later, she came back. At once, the kid jumped onto her lap, playing with her shoulder-length hair. "She looks rather sad and worried too," he whispered to himself.
"Tomorrow, I'll have to say goodbye to you early, my dear Toan," she told him in a low voice. "My boss doesn't permit me to stay here longer on the grounds that a huge heap of documents have been awaiting me at the office. Don't reproach me, my dear. Anyhow, it's very kind of him to let me attend this camp so long," she explained.
"So I'll lose her for ever!" he whispered to himself.
That night, finding the light in her room still on, he felt fairly nervous. Suddenly, she stepped out. Without hesitation, he rushed to her.
They sat down on the familiar stone bench. He seized her warm but rough hands tightly. Both were well aware that they would soon depart from each other. They just kept silent to enjoy the brief thrilling moment left. All of a sudden, she turned round and rested her face on his shoulder. She sobbed and sobbed.
"Over the past days, I've been very happy, for you've sympathised with me and always shared my weal and woe. Thanks a lot," she said to him.
"I'll miss you both very much," he said to her in a sad voice. He was very upset because he would be away from her for good and was unable to change anything in his lifetime.
"Tram, you're still very young. Happiness is awaiting you ahead," he consoled her. He caressed her shoulders and hair. Then he kissed her burning lips. "If she stayed here longer, what would happen to me?" he asked himself, although the kisses did not sparkle his desire, but a sweet feeling.
"My so-called happiness that you mentioned? I lost it a long time ago due to this boy. Yet I don't feel repentant at all," she blurted out.
"It turns out that the child isn't her blood son?" he asked himself, feeling quite at ease.
"Once, during my visit to the municipal pediatric hospital, I found the boy abandoned by his mother in a small cot due to his serious pneumonia," she told Toan. "When he woke up, he stared at me with his distorted mouth. Immediately, I picked him up and declared that he would be my adopted child in defiance of the advice of many, including my family and friends, who said I had gone crazy. Consequently, the institution authorities let me take him home and raise him."
"Actually, among the young men who fell in love with me dearly, there were two youths I liked. But they wanted me to put the little boy into an orphanage. Now the lovable boy looks quite healthy, you see. I'll never say farewell to him, my dear Toan," she said to me in a soft voice.
"I find his adoptive mother lovely too," he whispered. Saying so, he hugged her tightly and kissed her lips, eyes and hair. He felt as if he had remained young. "Thank you very much and thank autumn as well," he blurted out.
"Usually, autumn is a season of separation. Yet for us, it's a season of coming together," she said.
Again, she buried her face, brimming with scalding tears, against his chest.
*In fact, it is a State-subsidised professional course for greenhorn writers, painters,etc.
Translated by Van Minh