|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Do Bich Thuy
N.'s house lay deep in a small and narrow alley, dim and humid. Whenever a motorbike started going in or out of it, its headlights were switched on and its two-toned horn blared a continuous warning. The same thing happened with a bicycle, its bell resounding noisily, warning any oncoming vehicle of a possible head-on collision. About two metres above the heads of passers-by, some protruding kitchens and toilets made the alley even dimmer and more ill-smelling. Worse still, they felt somewhat nervous when they, more often as not, heard the flush of dirty water coming down the large plastic pipes.
While the first-floor flats were poorly lit with electric bulbs, the one on the ground-floor, with their iron doors screeching deafeningly when they opened outwards or closed, seemed steeped in darkness. Above every low door, a lot of kitchen utensils were hung and close to the pathway stood a gas stove and its cylinder placed a little apart. Running water was so scarce here that every five households shared an artesian whose pump, covered with a strong, theft-proof net, operated regularly through a network of small-sized plastic pipes leading to each home. This dark and dank small area became home to lots of daring house mice.
N. and her old mother lived in one of the two adjacent ground-floor flats. The poor old woman's neighbours could hear her daughter-in-law nagging loudly all the time.
"I've told you umpteen times that it is dangerous, that we can catch some disease someday, but you never listen. I told you never give those nasty creatures our leftovers, and I keep trying to chase them out, and never succeed.
"But it's really a sin to throw them away, my dear," the old woman with feeble eyesight, almost 90 years old, would respond.
The old widow had been living in the flat for more than seven decades. There was another person in the area who was much older than her.
Oddly enough, her 16sq.m. flat could accommodate ten people in all: her parents and their eight children, including herself.
N.'s father was a hard-working tailor. But he was only qualified enough to open a minor shop to make new clothes for kids or repair the local residents'old clothes to eke out a livelihood. As a result, most of his children grew up as ordinary working people when they became adults.
Her father had a special habit: drinking tea and having a light breakfast early in the morning. In order to prepare the tea, he put a small earthen stove in the attic where there was a big wooden box with black pieces of coal and a large tank of rain water; all neatly placed neatly close to a little dormer window. Through it, part of the green canopy of a dracontomelum tree could be seen in spring and its clusters of ripe fruit in summer. He made tea in a small special yellowish brown enamel pot with silver-coated spout and handle. He kept the tea warm by holding the spout over the flame for a while before drinking.
"Do you want to taste my strong tea?" he asked his eldest daughter.
"No, thank you, father. I'm afraid that it's too bitter for me" she answered.
Among his children, he liked her the best. She was gentle, obedient and hard-working, unlike her mischievous younger brothers and sisters.
Given their poverty, she often dreamt of good food at lavish spreads. She remembered that once, after taking part in a feast, her father brought home a big pack of cooked rice fried with Chinese sausage, onions, lotus seeds and egg. All of it wrapped in a large lotus leaf. It was divided into six equal parts, just enough for six hungry mouthfuls.
Usually, this common kind of food was served in a small rough-and-ready restaurant situated deep in a narrow lane near the Dong Xuan Market, whose fat Chinese chef was a pot-bellied man with a bald head and cheeks reddened by flame.
One day, when she had finished describing that food to her brothers and sisters, her father said: "If any of you wishes to become a good cook, I'll tell that Chinese guy there to teach you how." There were no takers.
Nevertheless, when the period of austerity was over and replaced by the market economy, fairly improving people's living conditions, adequate food was not the key problem in daily life any more. The children agreed that what they had eaten that day was the most delicious.
At nineteen, N. began working for a weaving mill. The pay was small, but she felt a little proud of her job because she was no longer a burden to her family. Each time she received her pay, she set aside a small amount to buy her father a big packet of first-rate Thai tea. At home, opening the box, he smelt it again and again, and then confirmed that it was the very thing he liked the best. In fact, she got it from a familiar grocery store in a small bylane close to Hang Dao Street run by an old kind-hearted woman with hoary hair. Sometimes N. bought it on credit because she was not paid on time, but the shopkeeper was quite willing to do it for her. "Why didn't you buy it last month? Your poor father, he must be extremely depressed not having enough of his favourite drink," the old woman would reproach her. "I know, he can skip meals for many days, but cannot abstain from drinking tea."
N.remembered that whenever his tea ran out, he was compelled to ask his daughter to get a few cups from a roadside refreshment stall. "How can I drink this tea? It'll spoil my taste," he would exclaim, looking out of the dormer window in despair.
Once, when she went to the old tea seller after taking her pay, she found the familiar window shut. She knocked and knocked, but it stayed closed. Suddenly, from the opposite house, a little boy turned up.
"Grannie Van is now in hospital, Auntie," he told her.
"She's been there for nearly a week," he replied.
"Which hospital, my little boy?"
"Bach Mai, I think."
N. stood in front of the old woman's closed door for a long time. She felt as if she had just lost something costly. That small window made with pieces of pine wood with tiny veins under a thin layer of green paint stayed closed too. Usually, when it was open, passers-by could see the shop owner sitting there with a thick pair of glasses, carefully disengaging the woolen threads out of a well-worn cardigan. Whenever someone bought tea from her, she put the woolen reel into a drawer in front of her. Then she scooped a few spoonfuls of tea from a big plastic box, placed it on a pair of scales, and poured it into pouches, big or small, according to the order, two or four hundred grams. When she was in a good mood, she smiled broadly, showing a fine set of teeth behind her thin lips.
When some of N.'s friends called on her father, they brought with them several bags of cheap tea as gifts. He gladly received them and after they left, he asked one of his kids to take them to the owner of a teahouse at the entrance of the alley to serve customers free of charge.
One morning N. visited the old tea seller in the municipal hospital with a big bag of oranges.
"I'm awfully sorry that I didn't know that you'd fallen ill," she said.
"Thanks a lot, anyhow, dear! It's just old age," the old woman said, expressing her gratitude with a sweet smile. "So these days your father has had no tea to drink," she remarked. "Don't worry, I'll tell my grandson to set aside some for him when you come to my place."
"Thank you very much. We still have a lot at home now."
"How did you get here?" she asked N.
"By tram, Grannie."
"Ah yes… the ding-dong, ding-dong of passing trams is quite pleasing to the ear. When I was still fairly young, I took them to the market several times a day."
N. touched the old woman's skinny hands. She found her fingernails rather long.
"Let me cut them short for you, Grannie," she suggested.
"Thank you very much, dear."
N. took her old nail-clippers out of her handbag and began trimming the old woman's nails.
"Does your father still make clothes these days?"
"What! Why do you know my Dad?"
"Because I once asked him to make a silk blouse for me.
"Unfortunately, that was the first one he had ever made in his life, I think. It was so poorly done that he had to repair it again and again, but all his efforts came to naught. The more he modified it the worse it turned, you see. Since I visited the place frequently, we became friends, that's all. You were then a little girl, in your early teens."
"Oh my! Why do you think that I'm his daughter?"
"Your eyes. They look like his very much. Your face is like your mother's, I think. Poor thing, she died young, leaving behind you little ones. It must have been so hard! All of you are much better now, I hope."
"Yes Auntie, thank you."
N. was about to say something more, but stopped, having second thoughts.
After a pause, the old woman continued…"Those days, if only I was more resolute about making up my mind… ." Then she stopped, suddenly, as though she was listening to the tram's ding-dong, ding-dong coming from afar.
That was the last time N. met the tea seller, because the next time when she went to the shop, the old woman had already joined her ancestors in the nether world near the town.
Some months later, N.'s father caught cold in a chilly draught when he went outside to look for a few hot cups of tea at a roadside refreshment stall early one morning, since his favourite thing had run out, and passed away suddenly.
One day, when N. and her siblings paid homage to their father in the suburban cemetery, she found a new grave. Staring at its tombstone carefully, she recognised the deceased in her last home, thanks to the clear photo, with a sweet smile under her thin lips like a newly-sprung up daisy.
"Later, on my annual death anniversaries, don't forget to place a hot pot of tea on the altar, dear daughter," he'd said on his deathbed. Later on, whenever she remembered her father, she prepared tea in the heirloom pot with its silver handle and spout that had been handed down through generations. She did not drink the hot tea. She only smelt its fragrance. At such moments, she saw him sitting by the window, enjoying his favourite drink through a thin trail of steam.
Translated by Van Minh