Consultative office No 18
Saturday, 2017-03-25 10:06:37
“Frankly speaking, I don’t know how to begin my story,” said the caller in a hesitant voice. “You might think it’s ridiculous that a woman of forty like me is still so impracticable,” she added.
“Far from it, elder sister,” I said, while drawing her portrait from the other end of the line.
With a pastel in hand, I sketched her eyes round and big with curved eyelashes.
From the other end of the line, nothing but a deep sigh could be heard.
A few minutes later, the same voice resounded again.
“I live in Cu Kin Commune,” the caller resumed her narrative. “You might wonder why coming from such a remote area I came to know your Consultative Office No 8. It’s all thanks to my passion for publications. I used to work for the Cultural Affair Section of the district. I enjoyed reading all papers and magazines, one after another, page by page, including their ads. Because of my diligent reading I can tell truth from lies,” she went on lengthily.
I resumed my work: drawing her long wavy hair flowing down over her shoulders.
“Why did you change careers?” I asked her.
“Simply because I worked in the district office while my husband was teaching in a commune school. Our workplaces were very far from each other. I started working for the Association of the Commune Women when my daughter reached pre-school age. Work was only busy when there was a communication campaign running, so I had a lot of free time for reading,” she answered.
“Who is your favourite author?” I asked her.
“That’s a difficult question to answer,” she replied after a few minutes of silence. “When I was young, if I liked a story or novel I loved its author at once. Now that at the age of forty, my taste has changed noticeably. Yet, on the whole, I’m still passionate about literature. Whenever I have a novel or a story, I read it deep into the night. I’m very upset when I can’t attend my favourite writer’s talk shows,” she admitted.
I stopped drawing to get today’s papers and magazines off the rack, some of them said that there would a talk with a famous author. I recommended the magazines to her.
She might quickly skim through a few pages of a weekly, I thought.
“Here’s an interesting piece of information in the Youth Magazine. Do you want to know it in detail?” she asked me.
“Of course, I do, elder sister. Like you, whenever I find a good novel I stayed awake until midnight to read it. Surprisingly, the next morning I feel fine. My husband often teases me when by saying I love books more than our children,” I confessed.
Now I began to add two dimples to her cheeks. “She must have been very beautiful in her day,” I said to myself. I removed the curl of her hair and replaced it with a long wavy lock flowing down to her shoulder.
“Did you read today’s Van (Literature) magazine, elder sister?” I asked her.
“Not yet. It has an interesting story?”
“Maybe. Now listen to me,” I said, opening it to the story section and started reading. “You’re invited to join a cultural exchange with author Minh Thuy on Sunday with the editorial staff of the Literature magazine. She will answer questions afterwards.” The magazine also dealt with her career, her adventures to strange lands which inspired readers so much that a well-known travel brochure decided to pay for all her trips, provided she furnished them with a story on the places landscape and people. Yet, she refused this offer as she wanted to travel as she please. I waited and waited for a reply from the other end of the phone, but nothing could be heard for a long while.
“Hallo, Are you still on the phone, my dear sister?” I asked her in an anxious voice.
“Just a minute, dear artist! Do you believe in telepathy?”
“Yes, to some extent. Why have you put such a question to me?”
“I want to tell you something about Miss Minh Thuy,” she replied in a reluctant voice. “Last month, our commune administrative committee told me that they had great pleasure to welcome her to our locality”, she said.
“Recently, a Hanoian musician, born and bred in the capital, made a business trip to our province of Dak Lak,” she told me. “Inspired, he composed a song that made our home town famous nationwide. After that success, the Cu Kin Commune president and I myself hoped that our province would gain more fame through Minh Thuy’s article. Furthermore, the Provincial Association of Arts and Literature let us know that she would stay for a fortnight. So we would have to provide her board and lodging and travel fares. For me, it would be a golden opportunity: to be able to wine and dine her at home because in the whole commune there was not a single guest house. As the chief of the Commune Association of Women, I proposed to look after her at my place and to take her to local beauty spots. ‘As a city-dweller, she will be fond of the magnificent natural scenery all around here,’ I said to myself. Besides, she would have a rare opportunity to visit some ethnic groups in their tribal costumes and enjoy their special cuisine.
My husband, also a lover of writers and artists, was also excited. We would let her use our bedroom while we would sleep with our children on their beds. We would tidy our house and make the bed as well. From the bottom of our heart, we wanted to show our admiration and respect for such a noted figure in the circle of arts and literature,” she said.
“I would do the same, sister,” I told her from the other end. “Moreover, I would dress up nice to give a good impression,” I added.
“I bought a brand new mosquito net, a flowery pillow, a new pair of shoes and two fashionable skirts. Obviously, in cities, skirts are normal clothes, but here in the country, they look weird to rural people,” she clarified.
“Yes, I see, I see.”
“Minh Thuỷ’s publications are what I like to read the most,” recalled the middle-age woman. “Writing about real things is in no way easy, not like romantic stuff. I remember that in one of her stories, a woman sees her ex-lover, now a bigwig, in a meeting and is quite embarrassed. She does not know how to behave properly. She hopes that during the lunch break, she might bump into him to pour out her inner feelings. Poor her, he disappears without a trace when the meeting is over.”
The pastel in my hand stopped abruptly. I did not know how to add anything to her nice face. It seemed to me that I had failed to catch some important features on her face. As a result, she looked like a certain renowned artitst. My solution was to draw a V-shaped necklace on her lily-white complexion above her breasts.
“Where did I stop my story, my dear young painter?” she asked. “Well, a welcome party on that evening was held in her honour at a luxury restaurant in the district. Minh Thuy arrived at the place in a 12-seater mini bus rented by the provincial Association of Arts and Literature.
“‘Now come on, cheers!’ everybody raised their glass in expectation of her work taking being inspired by our locality. As the commune chairman’s accomplice, I sat in a corner to sneak a glance at her. She looked more beautiful than her photo in the magazine. ‘She’s a highly intelligent orator,’ I whispered to myself. While I was trying to find a reason to talk to her, she was asked to raise her glass once again so that everybody present, one after another, might congratulate her on her success. I was lucky enough to meet her over the nice wine. Taking advantage of her ‘Cheers’ going round and round I took a glass of cold water instead of wine, for I knew Icouldn’t drink as much as the men in the room.”
“Hello, are you still on the phone?” the caller brought me down to earth suddenly.
“Of course, I’m here, listening to you.”
“The reason for my lengthy story is to help you understand the matter better.”
“Sister; I see, I see.”
“What do you think?”
“Allow me to guess.”
“Your opinion of this literary icon was smashed into pieces because she made some conversational faux pas.”
“Oh no, far from that!” she said, “As I had told you before that she was a master in the art of oration. At our place, she was very polite. The problem was our house: all my careful preparations for her, my newly-bought bedsheet, pillow and mosquito net came to nothing.”
“She stayed in our house for one night,” said the caller. “The next morning, she asked me to go to the headquarters of the local authorities for a certificate saying she had stayed in our locality for two weeks. At noon, I came back home to give her the document. Much to my surprise, she asked me to take her to the highway to return to the capital as soon as possible after saying goodbye to us all with her thanks.”
“I needn’t have told you this, for earning more money by fudging expenses was very common among journalists or the like. Yet for my icon, it was quite different, I think. This morning, I went on the internet and read the Magazine Arts and Literature and came across Minh Thuỷ’s essay entitled ‘Cư Kin Commune, Let’s Come to Love’. You see, she came to our place late on the evening and left us early the next morning to return to home. ‘What did she see and who did she meet?’ you might ask me. What she wrote was completely based on Wikipedia. That’s all.”
I nodded my head, totally forgetting the fact that she was on the other end of the line.
Hanging down the receiver, I looked for my notebook and a pencil then clicked the mouse. In a few seconds, her article ‘Cu Kin Commune, Let’s Come and Love’ came up.
I glanced at its first line. “Fog, wilderness, mystery, immense jungle! And, last but not least, its magic charm makes you lose your way home!”.
|Nguyen Huong/ Translated by Van Minh|