The angel child

Sunday, 2018-02-18 15:37:11
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Illustration by Do Dung
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He sat waiting for his ex-wife at the coffee shop. He had not talked with anyone in a long while, so he was looking forward to it with a mix of excitement and unease.

He smiled at himself to ease his tension. Soon he was relaxed after two cups of coffee. He laughed quietly.

The stories of his marriages were very simple. His first wife was five years older than him. She was the owner of a tea stall by the roadside. In addition to tea, sweets, biscuits, bananas and a lot of simple fast food such as sticky rice cakes and boiled eggs, and so on and so forth, she also sold spirits for lorry drivers who, after their long and tiresome journeys, called at her place for a rest and something to eat and drink.

At first, he only flirted with her by caressing her hands while drinking; nevertheless, she made him dizzy with her amorous looks. In his eyes, she was quite charming. Her heart was true but her love was false. One day, she told him that she was with child, and he agreed to take her as his wife without a wedding. No problem, provided that each month he dropped in on her. Then their second baby came into being when the first one was only two years old. With the passing of time, she soon recognised that she had turned old and ugly. She was afraid that some day, he would stop his vehicle again in front of a certain restaurant by the road and give her up; therefore, she minimised his drinking habit. Once, she blended spirits with water to satisfy his thirst. Flying into a rage, he slapped her on the face and she called him a terrible name. Now, her spirits were false, but her love was true. Worse still, he was told that the first child was definitely not his.

One night, he made up his mind to leave home forever.

"What a cheek! No need for such a wife! Give her up, mate," one of his friends said.

To put it frankly, he regretted his ill treatment of her for a few days. But when he was told that an old man had replaced his vacant post in the clan, he felt quite at ease. Nevertheless, he drank less and less. Instead of spirits, he became addicted to coffee. Every day he had to drink dozens of cups.

Owing to his frequent presence at the coffee shop, he soon fell in love with one of the waitresses, a girl fifteen years his junior. She sobbed when she told him that she had been taken advantage of.

"Now I’m tired of life; whereas, you’ve got nothing left. We’ll live together. Is that okay?" he asked her.

She approved.

His new small flat, which was dirty and infested with flies and mosquitoes, became their paradise. When the first child of this union was four years old, she discovered that he had often stayed overnight in a gambling house. Unable to persuade him to stop, she took the son to her native village and put the baby under the custody of her old and weak parents. Worse still, she prohibited him from visiting the kid. Time and time again, he missed the child very much, but he did not dare to go to their house to see his poor little thing. Then one day, he had a message from her: she wanted to see him at the old cafe.

***

When she reached the cafe, he felt sorry for her – her cheeks were sunken and her eyes vacant. She fetched a chair and sat down opposite him, saying nothing. He also kept silent and motionless. When the owner came up to them, he asked his old flame: "What do you want to drink?"

"Anything’s okay."

He ordered her a glass of orange juice. She drank it quickly. He called for another one. She glanced at him suspiciously.

"You won a lot at the gambling house last night, didn’t you?"

Instead of replying, he asked her in a low voice: "Why did you ask me to come to this place?"

"The boy wishes to see you. Over the past few days, I’ve been unable to sleep because of his urges."

"So, I can return home?"

"No, never! Just drop in on him for a few minutes, then leave me alone."

"What will you do if he insists on my staying with him?"

"I don’t want him to miss you. It’s of paramount importance. Later, I’ll find a way out."

"You’ll look for a new father for the kid?"

"Maybe, provided he’s a good man. It’s none of your business."

Her answer made him upset. He had spent two Tets in solitude. Would the forthcoming one be the same?

"Hmm... Will you visit him?"

"Yes, of course! Looking forward to seeing him. He must be a big boy now."

"He’s so grown up."

"Am I that old? Ugly looking as well?" he wondered.

"You’re already on the threshold of fifty. Wish to be younger?"

"Oh dear! I’m old indeed!"

"You’re afraid of old age, aren’t you? You’ve forgotten your son and youth!"

"Sheer nonsense! I’ve told you I’d see him on occasion."

"What will you bring him?"

"What?"

"Say, a gift for the kid during Tet."

He looked away as if he had been thinking about something serious. His forsaken wife looked at him. Suddenly, he turned his head back, eyes half closed on his pale and rueful face.

"Take it easy! I’ll think about it."

"Think about what? Even a humble present for your son?"

"Don’t find fault with me. Surely, he’ll have one."

She put her hand into her pocket, unfastened a safety pin and took out a small parcel bound with several rubber bands.

"Anyway, I’ve already prepared for the worst. Take it."

She gave him a roll of banknotes wrapped with an old piece of paper.

He turned aside, eyes wide open.

"What’s this?"

"Five hundred thousand dong. I’ve saved up for nearly a year. Take it to get some presents for the kid or else he’ll feel depressed. You can’t go home with empty hands."

"No! How can I have the heart to accept this amount?"

"Don’t hide your shame. Silly!"

She thrust the roll of money into his hand.

"Okay, I might as well take it," he said to himself in a low voice. After that, he did not dare look up. It would be shameful to take it. But where could he get that much when it was only a fortnight away?

"Well. That’s what I wanted to let you know at this meeting. I must catch the last coach for home," she told him.

"How will you get to the bus station?"

"In the same way I came."

"I’ll take you there."

"No need! I can manage. I’m accustomed to doing everything by myself."

She put a shawl over her head, then got up.

"Try to return home on the first day of Tet to wish him a Happy New Year, or else he’ll become depressed."

"Okay."

***

He asked for another cup of coffee. Thinking of his lot in life, he found his existence similar to a dry piece of wood floating in a stream.

"Dear brother! You’re lovesick, aren’t you?" a strange voice asked him.

Taken aback, he stared at the newcomer.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "What else can I do at this old age?"

The youth sat down by his side. A few seconds later, he took out of his breast pocket a packet of cigarettes and tossed it on the table.

"Did you watch the match between Chelsea and Manchester United last night?" the youth asked him.

He nodded his head and heaved a sigh.

"I lost a lot of money, brother. What a pity!" disclosed the young man.

Taking one cigarette out of the 555-trademark packet and lighting it, he asked the young man: "Which ‘door’ did you stake on?"

"The ‘upper door’ of course," answered the young man, "I’ve been a loyal fan of Manchester for a long time. That’s my fate. What about you?"

The two went on talking about their favourite matches and players for hours.

"Actually, how much did you lose last night?"

"Ten million, to tell the truth. Do you want to join my game tonight?"

"No, never!"

"Hmm... you want to be the man of the year, don’t you?"

"Let me pay," said the elderly man.

"No, I’ll pay. I’ve got a lot on me," insisted the young man.

"Where are you going now? It’s still early."

The young man took out a parcel of money from his pocket and counted.

"I’ve just discovered a superb place. Will you follow me?"

"Where’s that?"

"Just a stone’s throw from here. As good as Las Vegas! There you can join all the games. I’m afraid that once you reach there, you’ll forget your way home."

"How talkative you are!"

The young man laughed noisily. He glanced at his elder.

"That’s enlightenment, you see. The point is to get conscious," he added.

***

On the first day of the lunar new year, he got up very early. However, he did not know what to do first. On the eve of Tet, he had said to himself that he would not visit his son as promised. Lying alone, he thought about the experiences he had undergone; some joy, some grief. Such was life! He could hardly understand it.

Actually, he wanted to pay a visit to a few families of his close friends, but he did not dare. "On New Year’s Day, you mustn’t bring bad luck to anyone," he was told by his grandparents. Prior to Tet he and that youth stayed at the local Las Vegas for five days. When they left it, they were penniless. His companion had lost a watch and motorbike.

All of a sudden, he got up, put on more clothes then left home. He took a motorbike taxi to visit his son.

The vehicle ran madly on the deserted road. Forty-five minutes later, he arrived at his wife’s native village. Getting off the motorbike and paying the fare, he stealthily crept along the ditch where wild grass reached his head. Approaching the gate of his wife’s compound, he stopped short, heart beating violently. From the fence of plants, he peeped through a large hole: he could see a few souls going to and fro in the courtyard. He heard the voice of a boy reciting a nursery rhyme inside the house. It reminded him of kids clinging together, one after another, going from house to house to play the game of lucky gifts – a few coins put inside in tiny red envelopes as rewards.

When he was on the verge of going away, an old woman came up to him. She stared at him from head to foot as if he were a beggar. She followed him, saying: "Just get in. On the first day of Tet they’ll get bad luck if you behave that way."

"No! Far be it from me...," he mumbled, walking very quickly. She stood watching him for a long while, then stepped into the alley. When he reached the brick gate at the entrance to the village, he heard somebody calling after him.

"Daddy! Daddy!"

He stopped short but he did not dare look back. He was confused and trembling with fear.

"Wait for me, Daddy."

The footsteps of the child could be heard more and more distinctly with every passing second. The child caught him at last. He turned back: a pair of round eyes on a rosy face stared at him. He seized the little boy’s hands.

"Forgive me, sonny! I’ve got no gift for you," he muttered, kneeling down.

"Gift? What kind of gift do you mean? No! No! I don’t need one at all. You must go home with me and make me a top. Every boy here has one, just not me. Is that okay, Dad?"

He looked into his little son’s eyes, which were brimming with tears.

From the bottom of his heart, something surged up inside him. For the first time in his life, he understood his reason for living.

VNS