|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Thu Loan
Mien intended to visit her old classmates for a few days.
In fact, over the past 10 years, she had never returned to her hometown. In her heart of hearts, she often dreamt of meeting them again to cherish the sweet memories of the days they had been beside one another on the campus.
Now seated on a soft upholstered armchair in the meeting room of her office one morning, she felt very uncomfortable. She only wished to go out to enjoy the fresh air. Time and again she inattentively stared at the chairman in the hope that the boring ad hoc get-together might come to an end sooner than usual. In the meantime, her boss only indulged in a thick report. At last, she sighed with relief as if a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders.
At first she thought of Duyen, one of her chums, in their school days. To her surprise, they again shared the same class and bedroom in the dormitory of the campus, where she made use of the lower section of the 2-storey berth while her close friend occupied the upper one.
"If only we might live together like this for good!" Duyen, jutting her head down from the narrow bed, said to her one day.
"Sheer nonsense! Don't you want to marry?" Mien asked doubtfully.
"No, not at all! Why must I get married to lead a miserable life like others?" Surprisingly, she wedded sooner than any of her close friends.
u v u
"Let me get off here, please," Mien said to the coach driver when she reached her destination.
Ten years away from town, she found its face had changed remarkably: a lot of shops were mushrooming up along the streets, traffic was heavier, there were more pedestrians in a hurry on the pavements, and there was more noise from canned music centres.
She was startled when she saw a three-storey building in the place of Duyen's former shanty. She rang the doorbell. Not until the third series of ringing did it fling open.
"Who dares to disturb our tranquillity?" said a young man upstairs with a frowning countenance.
"Well... is that Mien?" he asked nervously.
"Anyone else? Bridegroom Long of yesterday?" "Of course! Hmm, forgive me! I thought of a certain naughty kid at first," replied a man of about 30 in a repentant voice.
Mien blushed all over at the thought that she herself had behaved rather clumsily. Realising that Duyen's husband was carefully watching her from head to toe, she felt utterly uneasy. She became more confused when she knew that she was stepping inside with her sandals on due to her long expectation.
"Is Duyen at home, Long?"
"Oh no, she is now at the tutorial class at school."
"Really! When is she back home?"
"Not sure, about 10 o'clock, I think!"
"Why that late?"
"Not quite so! Because of the kids' competitive race to university, that's all. Why just stand there? Come in for a cup tea, will you?"
Shyly, she sat down on a comfortable armchair in the cosy, cool lounge. Finding everything very tidy and clean, she felt a bit hesitant. Looking at the souvenir cabinet, she saw a lot of stuffed animals, sophisticatedly carved little wooden statues, mystical African masks and many other original beautiful things. Living in a small hut with four members – her husband, two little children and herself – she did not expect more in terms of material living conditions. Therefore, instead of looking for more part-time jobs, she spent lots of free time enjoying life by reading, listening music or doing housework.
Finding the host very busy with his housework, she thought that she'd better return to her guesthouse. So she stood up at once to say goodbye to him.
"Oh no, just stay here for a few more days!" Long insisted.
"When Duyen is free, I'll come see her later."
Opening her phone directory, she looked for the number of Nga, another close friend of hers. They had been living together on the same campus. She remembered that one day finding her quite upset on her bed for hours, she asked Nga, "What's the matter with you?" Finally, Nga told her and other classmates as well that after her visit to her lover Hai's clan in a remote and backward area she found it beneath her expectations, and she made up her mind to say farewell to him for good.
"Is she getting on in life nowadays?" Mien asked herself.
Answering her phone call was a polite reply: "Mrs. Nga, our boss, is now away on business. Do you want to leave a message for her, ma'am?"
Thinking that she could hardly meet anyone else during the day, Mien went sightseeing, entered the market place and walked into a nearby park and spent most time of that day in vain. When she began to leave the park to see Lan, also her chum, as was appointed, it was nearly 9 o'clock in the evening. All of a sudden, a motorbike stopped in front of her.
"Hey, can you recognise me, one of your old friends?" the rider asked Mien.
"Excuse me, you are... what-d'you-call-it, Lady?" Mien said to her.
"Oh no, no lady at all! Hmm, you've forgotten me totally? It's Lan the 'librarian' here," saying so she burst out laughing.
"Why does she look so thin and dark?" Mien asked herself. "Formerly, she looked very chubby and white," she whispered to herself. "Is it Lan of yore, who insisted in changing her place so that she might lie on the berth in a corner of the room to get more at ease? After class, she used to climb up to her little bed so that she could read quietly. Whenever she was free, she indulged herself in reading."
Holding Mien's hand tightly, Lan told her, "Please sympathise with me for I'm extremely busy. Now I'll take you home so that you may know my place. Honestly, I'm able to welcome you until 11 in the morning."
Mien felt rather disappointed.
"After so many years away from each other, Lan only can spare a few hours to chat with me?" she whispered.
Contrary to Mien's living conditions in this small town, she could entertain any friends for many days and nights on end.
Lan's house was situated in a narrow alley. The air smelt terrible, like chicken and pig dung. Moving her clothes, kitchen utensils and the kid's toys aside for a wider space, Lan entered into their dialogue.
"I was told that you're a millionaire businesswoman, aren't you?" Mien asked her.
"If so, what's the problem?" asked Lan.
"Oh no, nothing serious at all! But why don't you get a bigger and more decently-looking house?" "I must save up money for some major projects in the future," Lan explained.
"That means you need great capital?" "In all frankness, I must run against time. I'll get far behind others if I stay the same," Lan blurted out. "Do you know that after leaving college only a few years later I could get a second-hand motorbike, while most of our close friends kept on going to work on their bone-shaker bicycles? Surprisingly, just two or three years later, they all could purchase very expensive motorbikes, even luxury cars," she went on.
"But why do you have to keep up with the Jones?" "Because you only live in a minor town, you think so. If you stay here, you'll behave like us all. You can hardly do otherwise," Lan smiled, pouting her lips.
Mien smiled broadly. She remembered that when she still had two young mouths to feed, she had to do everything to eke out her livelihood. Later, when her siblings grew up and found well-paying jobs, she stopped working so hard immediately, no matter how many big, promising incomes were offered to her, provided that she might have more free time for her favourite hobbies.
"Anyhow, I don't mind your own business. However, have you maintained the reading habit you had when we were at college?"
"Sadly, I gave it up a long time ago. Just a waste of time! All I can enjoy now is browsing something short and easy to understand before going to bed, that's all," Lan replied.
Her sincere explanation made Mien all the more worried. Yet, it was the truth, the naked truth. Worse still, even lots of literature teachers were not very interested in literal works besides the syllabuses they always used for teaching.
"I remember that when we graduated from college we promised to have an annual get-together somewhere. Yet now our plan seems left unachieved properly due to your competitive business," said Mien.
While they were talking to each other, Lan's mobile rang and rang. "Something urgent is happening," Mien said to herself.
Indeed, Lan put her handset in her bag, saying, "Sorry, I must be going now. A pressing affair calls for my immediate presence." "What could I do during the remaining time of day when Lan's gone away?" Mien asked herself. Her hope of meeting her dear friends was now on the wane. "Perhaps, I could hardly find a calm person in this big town," Mien observed.
Getting up the next day, Mien predicted that idle moments would await her. Luckily for her, Duyen rang her up saying that she would come home early in the evening and a plentiful party would be held to welcome Mien and a few others.
Reaching Duyen's home, Mien found her still in her robe and high-heeled shoes with a few syllabuses on the table in the kitchen while she was cooking dinner.
"I have to prepare everything for this evening course, for I'm unable to get anyone else's help," Duyen confessed.
"Where's Lan?" Mien asked.
"She's gone to the western region for a special task. She asked me to convey her goodbye to you before leaving and looked forward to another chance to see you." "And what about Nga?" "You can ring her up at once. I've made a few phone calls, but she hasn't answered yet." In response to Mien's call, Nga replied in a sad voice.
"My dear Mien, I know that you're now at Duyen's place, yet I'm too busy to leave my office," said Nga.
"You'd better come here at once to have dinner with us." "Oh dear, my hands are full!" "But office hours are over!" "No fixed time for me, you see! I have to complete this current issue of our magazine. It'll come out early tomorrow morning. Otherwise, you both should come to my work place," Nga added.
"But... where is it?" "My headquarters, of course. We can have dinner together while chatting. Frankly speaking, I've been waiting for my boss's last review. As a staff secretary, I must be here all day long, ready to check anything that's wrong." "OK! Continue your work there. Is another time okay?" Mien told Nga.
"If possible, stay with us until Sunday," Nga suggested.
"I can't promise anything in advance," replied Mien.
"As I was saying," Duyen told her friend. "Nga's very busy. Usually, she couldn't go home before 10 in the evening," she added.
Together with Mien, Duyen finished dinner in a hurry to be in time for her evening tutorial classes.
When Nga reached home, the grandfather clock struck 10. She took off her robe and shoes, quickly had a shower then went to bed. She lay beside Mien. Their talk lasted only half an hour before Duyen fell asleep. In the meantime, Mien just stared at the ceiling of the room that was now flooded with rosy light. Listening the tick-tock of the wall clock, she only looked forward to an early sunrise.
"I'm dead tired. Actually, I always dream of a sound sleep," Duyen said when she woke up.
"Sleep further, my dear! Anyway, tomorrow you'll have a class in the morning, won't you?" Mien encouraged her friend.
"Come what may, you'd stay with my family for some more days. On Sunday, when I am free, I'll take you to other friends' places," Duyen said to her in a dreamy voice.
"Awfully sorry! I must return home early in the morning," Mien told her.
The next morning, Duyen drove her friend to the coach station.
"How busy you are!" Mien remarked. "But why do you have to do so much when you have a life of plenty? What's the use of getting rich but not having your own pleasure?" she added.
"When you do take part in such a rat race, it's not easy for you to give it up half way. We've become robots," Duyen admitted. After that she gave Mien a bundle of banknotes. "I'm told that your child has fallen ill. Take this for his treatment. Well, see you later," Duyen said.
For Mien, the sum did not matter much, although with that amount she could hardly save up. Suddenly, she felt as if something very precious had been lost when Duyen gradually disappeared in the huddle of pedestrians and traffic.
Translated by Van Minh