Calling home

May, 31/2020 - 11:44

A short story by Trương Anh Quốc


Illustration by Kiều Trinh

 By Trương Anh Quốc

The ship glided quickly on the perfectly calm and still ocean, pushing the water to the sides. The waters glistened, reflecting a deep blue. 

According to the regulations on the ship, sailors who drank alcohol weren’t allowed to be on duty. Those who had a can of beer had to wait at least four hours to be on duty. On the weekend the rules relaxed, and the sailors were given the green light to drink to their heart’s content, as long as they didn’t get drunk.

For sailors, to get drunk wasn’t an uncomfortable feeling; it was a thousand times better than to get sea-sick. When one got drunk, one could shut oneself in one’s room and sleep soundly. One couldn’t do that when falling sea-sick. No matter how many pillows one used to keep one’s body in place, it kept rolling back and forth like waves. Then one must get up and drink as much beer as possible till one got drunk and could fall asleep. If there wasn’t any beer around, one might be kept awake until morning. 

Besides beer, the ship also abounded in cigarettes. Ships traversing international waters were offered duty-free goods. Sailors often ordered beer and cigarettes before they ordered food. Many could live without food, but never without cigarettes. Without cigarettes, they would wander aimlessly like lost souls. Some desperate men even went searching for cigarette butts in ash trays or along the corridor. They would search in vain, because according to fire safety rules on board, sailors must smoke in a separate smoking room and empty their ashtray immediately upon finishing. Once, a sailor remembered that a dock worker had earlier thrown away a cigarette butt on the first deck crane near the ship’s head while unloading cargo. So despite a stormy weather that sent the ship shaking, that sailor pointed his flash-light along the foredeck almost 200 metres in length and climbed on the high crane to find a cigarette butt. When he found it, he lit it instantly as he couldn’t wait to relish it in his room. If he were caught smoking at such an inappropriate place, he would be fined $20. Luckily the captain was fast asleep.

Without cigarettes, the sailors could drink beer to drown their longing for a smoke. They could talk over beer on the weekend to kill time. When there was a party, everybody was often allotted the ideal serving: two cans. One wanted to drink to forget home, but the more one drank, the greater the longing, especially for first-time sailors. Everyone missed his family; one sailor was even requested for work just a few days after his wedding. Being a sailor wasn’t much different from being a soldier in that regard. 

The ship was sailing on the Pacific. As the weather was nice, the sailors told each other to call home. Whenever they had the opportunity, they would call home. Not only at sea, but even on land, calling home was no easy task. It wasn’t possible to call home at every port. Some ports were located near public phone booths for which the sailors would need to buy phone cards. Some ports were too far away so sometimes the sailors would have to take a taxi for tens of kilometres to get to a phone booth. Calling home became an unbreakable habit. A sailor would call instinctively to vent or satisfy his own feelings without questioning whether they were requited.

Even if the sailors managed to get clear radio signals, it didn’t mean they could call home. The ship might have entered a different time zone from Viet Nam’s, so when their families were available to talk, the sailors were working a night shift. Or vice versa. So before they made a call, the sailors had to mind the hours carefully to avoid disturbing their beloved’s sleep or causing unnecessary worries with midnight calls. When they landed, the sailors would take a taxi to a phone booth together for convenience and then tried to finish their call quickly to let others have their turn. So quite often, a sailor with a phone card might not have enough time to use it and would go back to his ship filled with regret.

If they couldn’t call home on land, the sailors would try to do it at sea. Again, having strong signal was necessary but not sufficient. In places like Australian waters, the sailors couldn’t call or else they would interfere with the daily transmission of all the navigation communication equipment on the ship. Some countries also forbade radio calling within their territories for national security and imposed heavy fines on violators.

On board, Captain Dong Jun San tried to avoid as much radio calling as possible for fear it would destroy his equipment. Those who knew less about machines often feared machines. The captain was a conservative man who always considered himself right. Whenever he used his desk phone to call somebody, he hung up immediately after delivering his message, without waiting to make sure the other side had received it. He’d never listened to anybody about anything. Once, as the captain was drinking with others, a sailor discovered that he had stuffed his ears with sewing threads to block out noise.

The captain forbade the sailors from making radio calls. Violators would be expelled from the ship. Some sailors had become as addicted to calling as to cigarettes, so they furtively made phone calls and assigned somebody to stand guard. It was difficult to anticipate the captain though, because he didn’t have a fixed schedule. He could stay awake until 3 to 4 in the morning, sleep for an hour or two, then wake up at 5 or 6 and take a stroll on the ship. He also had a peculiar way of walking about: heading straight then turning abruptly somewhere. But it was possible to catch his footsteps, because his big slippers made fussy noises along the corridor and up and down the stairs.

The sailors preferred their captain to wear those slippers, rather than his imperceptible shoes which he sometimes put on for his stroll. Nobody was perfect; the captain’s Achilles heel was a fondness for drinking. In the afternoon he would walk around, stop and knock on rooms whose doors were lined with slippers. He would knock exactly two times and walk right in without waiting for permission. At first the sailors felt honoured to have the captain as their drinking buddy, but later it became just another routine.

Over beer the captain and his sailors talked about everything but work. Yet there existed a cultural gap that they couldn’t fill. The captain drank a lot and spoke a great deal and with a contentious voice. As he pronounced his “i” and “s” in English, his saliva was spitted out, flying into nearby faces.

The captain drank beer his own way: craned his neck upward and poured beer down his throat. That way, the liquid would flow straight from the throat to the stomach, skipping the mouth. The smell and alcoholic content of the beer didn’t rush to the nose, which minimised intoxication. Others preferred to sip their beer slowly for enjoyment, but the captain gulped down his beer quickly, to get it over with. A few times the sailors took to smoking while drinking, but the captain didn’t notice. His presence made people feel awkward, so gradually everybody went back to their private rooms to drink, changed venues constantly, and moved all slippers inside.

There was a party this afternoon. As the weather was calm, the sailors were allowed to drink without limit. After drinking in the dining room, they moved to the club room where there was a TV to pick up where they left off. The captain brightened up like never before when others joined him. The sailors had planned to assign one of them to drink with the captain to prevent him from getting to the bridge.

The rest went to the bridge to ask the third assistant to find the right radio frequencies to make phone calls. Northerners would call the operator in Hải Phòng, and southerners, the operator in HCM City. This arrangement was the best way to ensure clear signals and low costs, as Viet Nam had the third most expensive telecommunication fees in the world. Even if they were sailing on the East Sea, Viet Nam’s home turf, the sailors might not be able to call home for one reason or another. And due to bad weather, the signal might be too weak, forcing the speaker to repeat himself until his voice got hoarse. At such moments, the sailors would curse their profession which forced them to live far from their families all year round, carry out intermittent conversations over the phone, and lose touch with their country. The sailors could get updated about national news only when they passed another Vietnamese ship. Otherwise they would have to land and find access to the internet, which wasn’t available everywhere.

The third assistant named Lộc called the Hải Phòng operator. The woman replied in a cool sweet voice. The signal was pretty good so the sailors could hear her quite well. Everybody waited for his turn with fluttering excitement. Priority went first to those who had important messages, second to older sailors, and as the joke went, third to pregnant women or their equivalence: men with big beer bellies. Meeting all these requirements, old Cút1 had the first turn. Old Cút was only christened with this nickname to replace his beautiful birth one after he got on board, a common fate befalling all seamen.

Over the phone, old Cút lamented his swollen foot which had gotten worse for the past few days. He had fallen off the stairs but hadn’t applied ice and medicine or massaged the injury properly. The slow-footed man who was approaching his retirement age had tripped and twisted his ankle as the ship wavered in rough seas. He called home to ask for his fortune teller’s advice. He was superstitious, especially on board; because he believed every place had its fairy. Old Cút said when he was young he believed in nothing but later changed his heart. One day, as he was sailing on a smooth, calm sea, a tsunami-like tornado suddenly formed over the waters. The waterspout reached up to tens of metres, threatening to capsize his ship. When everybody had put on their life jackets, an older sailor on the deck asked for a plate of fruit, burned incense, and prayed. Nobody knew what he prayed for but the waves subsided, and the sea gradually calmed down. You get what you wish for, old Cút concluded.

The old man inquired after his wife and kids summarily, then asked his wife to go check with the fortune teller, adding he would call back in half an hour.

Calling home at sea was a one-way transmission. It worked like a walkie-talkie: the speaker couldn’t hear, and the listener couldn’t speak. Those who were new to the experience might feel exasperated by the frequently interrupted conversation and waste their time and money repeating themselves or asking the other side to repeat. The trick was to speak a long sentence, then give the other their turn, and keep the phone further away for better hearing. Calling home on board also resembled listening to the radio. Everybody present could listen to a sailor’s private conversation. Sailors were used to a communal life. They often read each other’s letters, let alone making collective phone calls.

While old Cút was waiting for his wife to consult the fortune teller, Hà called to congratulate his girlfriend on her birthday. After going several months without talking to women, the man trembled and couldn’t utter a word distinctly. His girlfriend told him to call back later because “I can’t hear you”. Hà turned angry and tongue-tied. His teeth clanked against each other audibly. He hadn’t had a chance to call her, and had planned to call her precisely on her birthday. Yet, to his anger, she said she was busy! What was keeping her busy, and in Vũng Tàu too?! And how did he know she was in Vũng Tàu? Because he had caught the sound of waves through her phone. She was cheating on him! Hà and all other men there knew it. But it wouldn’t be fair to blame her. A seaman couldn’t expect his girlfriend to wait for him, not if it wasn’t true love.

After much calling, some sailors had grown tired. Vệ was assigned to watch for the captain. If the captain made any move, Vệ would use his walkie-talkie to alert the others on the bridge. But the captain was safe in Giao’s hands. Giao was taking great care of him by opening beer cans and picking up beer snacks for him. One, two, three, four and soon nine cans had been opened, accompanying reflections about the great circle of life. With somebody to listen to, the captain didn’t feel the need to go anywhere. Giao only needed to sit quietly and nod his head, and once in a while make a comment to keep the captain going. In other situations, few sailors were patient enough to listen to their captain rant except for when he was instructing or teaching them some foreign language.

It was Cách’s turn to call home. On the other side, a girl picked up the phone. Cách said, “Hello, who’s speaking? The big one or the little one?” The girl replied sulkily, “You don’t remember me, dad? You’ve been away for less than a year but you’ve already forgotten me? I’m angry! I’m your daughter. Listen dad, don’t call me little. I’m not little! There isn’t any little one in our house. My older sister is named Thanh Hương. Sister Thanh Hương is in the third grade. My name is Thanh Hoa. I won’t be angry with you anymore if you buy me a lot of gifts. You can buy me the same toys that my friends at school have. You know what, I’m in school now. Let me tell you about school.

“There’re 26 students in my class. My teacher is young and beautiful and sweet like a fairy in the stories you told me. My teacher never scolds anyone, and she loves me very much. She praises my long black hair. My hair has grown black and long, not sunburnt like when you were here. Don’t forget to buy me a comb. I like an ocean blue horn comb. Dad, I also like the milky white colour. Since you’ll have to buy one for me anyway, you can buy me two of different colours.

“Do you remember my birthday? You weren’t home on my birthday this year so do you know how old I am? You don’t remember, do you? I’m six years old. Please remember that! Why didn’t you call me on my birthday? You forgot, didn’t you? But it’s okay, you can buy me gifts to make it up for me.

“Do you remember our cat? It’s the cat you brought home from aunt Ba’s house. This cat can catch mice very well now. It’s delivered three cute kittens. Every evening I take the kittens upstairs to sleep with me. I’d better get used to sleeping without mom in case you go home and sleep with her. The kittens often play with Vàng2. Vàng has gotten very fat and flabby. Do you know why? Because it doesn’t chase chickens anymore. Our hen is pitiable. It delivered 14 eggs but the eggs only hatched after 21 days. Then just four days after they were taken to their fowl-house, they all died. They didn’t die of rising tides. Mom said they died of bird flu. You probably don’t know anything about bird flu. Fowls have died en masse. Not just our fowls, but our neighbours’ too have all died. There isn’t any cock crowing now, so mom has to set an alarm clock to wake her up to cook. Nobody dares to eat chicken and duck meat now. Remember not to eat them, dad!

“Listen dad, you should come home quickly to take care of the road in front of our house. It’s been dug up but hasn’t been refilled. Different teams have dug it up. Sister Thanh Hương said they did it to install electricity, water and telephone lines. You should come home and tell them to refill our road!

“Please come home quickly to tell me stories because sister Thanh Hương hardly allows me to watch TV. I can only watch cartoons for 15 minutes every day. Sister said if I watched more TV, mom wouldn’t have enough money to pay for electricity, because electricity prices have increased. When you come home, please tell me many stories about the sea! Now do you want me to recite poetry for you?” 

Then she recited a poem written by her older sister Thanh Hương and another one recited by her mother at night, and ran on with songs. She sang four songs in one breath. Her voice sounded as high and clear as a nightingale’s. As she paused to take her breath, Cách jumped in quickly, “You sing beautifully! I’ll hear you sing more later. Now can I speak to your mom?”

The girl replied, “Don’t you want to talk to me anymore? Mom goes to work and sister Thanh Hương goes to school all day long, so I often stay at home without anybody to talk to. If you don’t like to talk to me, I’ll be angry with you! Don’t forget to listen to me sing later. I have only three songs left. I’ll go get mom for you now.”

The girl put down the phone and ran out to fetch her mother.

Vệ went inside to get a glass of water and check on the captain. Yet the captain had disappeared. His big noisy slippers remained in place. He had put on Giao’s tight, soft-soled slippers by mistake. He hadn’t made a sound as he left. As for Giao, he was sleeping fast on the couch, snoring. 

Vệ called frantically on the walkie-talkie, “Captain has left. Watch out.”

Cách quickly hung up the phone. Everybody gently opened the two side doors of the bridge and slipped out. Somebody also walked out through the main entrance down the stairs, letting sunlight in. The sunlight revealed the captain standing close by the wall. He had been listening to Cách’s conversation with his daughter. His eyes looked moist. He had been crying. He was touched by a child’s babbling though he didn’t know any Vietnamese.


Taichung- Taiwan 23/2/2005


1Cút means quail. 

2Vàng means golden-haired, a common name for dogs in rural areas in Viet Nam. 


Translated by Đỗ Linh