The picture

Sunday, 2018-06-10 15:06:15
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Illustration by Do Dung
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To put it frankly, I did not want to attend Tra’s birthday party, for I knew that I would be out of place there.

However, if I didn’t show up, I knew our relationship would become even worse. That evening her room was full of writers, just as I suspected. Many of them recited their newly written poems passionately and only paid attention to me when they had been told by the hostess that I was a journalist. Minh, a would-be poetess – one of their most outstanding figures – came to me and asked me to set aside a poem corner for her club in the magazine I worked for. That reminded me of several others who had come to our editorial staff to beg us to print their complaints about their housing conflicts. I refused her proposal point-blank, on the grounds that I knew nothing about poetry and that my knowledge lay in the regulations on land and house administration. At first she complained that her fee was too low and then, a few minutes later, she told me that she had been granted a permit to edit a collection of her poems. Nevertheless, so far she had not found a painter to illustrate her work. All of a sudden, I remembered Dang, my young artist, to whom I promised to introduce her.

Hardly had Tra finished reading her new poem when her small circle of poetry lovers clapped their hands. She stared at me angrily because I had paid no attention to her performance.

To tell the truth, Dang was not a professional illustrator. Coming from a middle-class family, with his father being a high-ranking official, he didn’t get involved with cultural activities for fear of offending his parents. Instead, he made up his mind to stay in Ha Noi forever. As a result, the financial support from his parents came to an end, a way to punish him for his disobedience. That was why he – like so many other new graduates from the College of Fine Arts – had to earn his living by working for an advertising firm.

To the best of my knowledge, numerous experienced artists had painted pictures for various domestic galleries to sell to foreigners. I told him to follow their example, but he flew into a rage.

"You want me to sell out my artistic integrity for money, don’t you?" he asked me.

"Far be it from me to do so! I only want you to enjoy a better life, that’s all," I explained.

***

Throughout his school days, Dang was especially good at perspective geometry. This went into his work so deeply that his current output tended to be more academic than creative.

Now it was the end of autumn. The breeze had turned a bit cold, and the clouds appeared in varied colours.

Minh came to me so that I could introduce her to Dang. In her T-shirt hugging her well-developed breasts and her maxi skirt fluttering in the wind, she looked quite attractive. Nevertheless, this way of dressing seemed unsuitable for the occasion, because in order to reach his home, we first had to cross a tiny bridge made of bamboo with banisters. Then, we had to jump over a lot of puddles on a little alley running to a vast, smelly dump near his house.

When we entered his courtyard, we found him stretching a canvas over a wooden frame. Perhaps he was preparing for a new painting. In a dirty German parka and with his unkempt hair, he looked like a bicycle repairman rather than a painter. Minh appeared confused at first, but she regained her composure after a few seconds.

"Good morning," she greeted him in a sweet voice. Startled, he looked up. Later, I came to know that all his mishaps in life started from that moment.

"Would you please give me a little water to wash my feet?" she asked him in a soft voice. At once, he went to the well and fetched her a pail of water.

Inside his hut, we sat down on a jute mat spread over the well-trodden earthen floor. While Dang was busy making tea, Minh cast a glance at the dilapidated wooden hut, especially at his dirty clothes hung on the line.

I got right down to business.

"As for payment, you should find a way to resolve it."

Minh began clarifying her artistic vision for the collection. After that, she recited some of her poems. Meanwhile, I walked around the room to look at his new pictures.

"Your friend’s really an artist," she said to me on our way home.

"You’re an artist too," I remarked, jokingly.

***

"You young men are extremely strange. You flirt with all types of girls. It’s unbelievable! You can lead them all by the nose so easily," Tra observed critically. "As for Minh, what kind of girl is she?" she wondered.

"I don’t care for her behaviour," I replied.

Immediately, Tra disclosed lots of things about Minh’s notorious conduct.

"But, but... you’re one of her friends, aren’t you?" I remarked.

Trµ stared at me threateningly. I said nothing else.

I did not see Dang for several weeks. He was probably engrossed in making money, I thought. One late afternoon, he came to my office by bicycle and asked me to dine out with him. I put away the files of complaints and followed him to a restaurant in an alley to stay away from the cold wind. After a moment of silence, he told me that he and Minh had fallen in love with each other.

"It’s love at first sight," he admitted.

I was well aware that he had changed a lot. He talked and talked, much more than usual.

"Come what may, you’d better stick to painting," I told him. Then we sat pensively, warming ourselves up by sipping spirits, glass after glass. I reminded him to pay off the remaining rent, for he had now managed to earn lots of money. By chance, we both turned our minds to the street, where incandescent lights started going up to welcome another winter. Just in a few more winters, we would be thirty years old.

Before we said goodnight to each other, Dang timidly asked me what I thought about his sweetheart Minh. I said nothing.

***

These days, the value of land is being appropriately assessed. The Vietnamese proverb that an inch of land is equivalent to an inch of gold could be well applied here. While giving up the way of living together in a friendly way in blocks of flats, now people hurriedly improve and expand their homes. Consequently, friendship and fraternity have gradually turned into things of the past. Being in charge of writing about metropolitan housing problems, I had to receive scores of complainants from all walks of life. I welcomed them all impartially, the plaintiff and the defendant alike, and listened to their explanations and requests. I turned down their proposals to join their luxurious parties. What I accepted from them was a few cigarettes during our conversations. That was all. When I told Tra about my refusal to be bribed, she was greatly astonished.

We went to several printing houses to have Minh’s poems edited. Most demanded high fees. At last, we found something affordable. We took the head of the Planning Section in charge of the printing matter of the enterprise to a restaurant nearby, where we indulged him with a lot of mugs of draught beer and food. Everything was solved easily and quickly.

Returning to Dang’s house, I soon fell asleep. When I woke up, my head seemed as heavy as a stone. I looked at him. He was painting a young lady with a bright and holy countenance flying upwards and leaving the dump his hut farther and farther below. All of a sudden, Minh stepped in and greeted us in a soft voice. It was getting dark outside. Dang stopped painting, smiling happily.

At once, I said goodbye to the couple. While jumping over a large puddle of rain water near the dump to leave the shanty town, I realised by chance that the lady in the picture was none other than Minh.

A few days later, the proof-sheets of Minh’s poems, full of misprints, were sent to me. I went to Tra’s. She was studying English. I suggested we take a stroll, but she refused on the grounds that she was busy preparing for her test the next evening. I asked her to tell Minh that I had received the proof-sheets and that Minh had better come to me to correct the mistakes made by printers as soon as possible.

"Just go to her. I don’t like to be at anybody’s service here," Tra retorted. I asked her about Minh’s address. Reluctantly, she saw me off to her gate, book in hand. As I was silent, she suddenly changed her mind.

"Well, I’ll take you to her house," Tra told me at last. I agreed.

Minh’s mother stared at me suspiciously.

"A certain youth has just taken her away on his motorbike while we were going to have dinner," she said to us after a few minutes of silence.

Tra looked at me triumphantly.

***

When I reached Dang’s shanty, I found him sitting in his veranda, lost in thought. Although it was a hot Sunday, he was wearing his dirty German parka. Going in I glanced around to look for Minh’s picture, but it was nowhere to be found. Dang silently came in and stared at me.

"Where’s her picture?" I asked him.

He pointed at a bag that covered a large canvas. I picked it up, turned it upwards. It was Minh with a bright and holy countenance.

"Will you be busy tomorrow morning? If you’re free, please go to the printing-house and bring her books home. I’ve paid the charge. Here’s the receipt," Dang told me. He seemed to avoid her look in the picture.

The next morning, I arrived at his house. I intended to stay with him for a long while to chat, but I had the impression that he wanted to be alone. Perhaps he did not need my presence. I returned home at once. He just sat motionless on the veranda, looking blankly ahead without saying a word.

That evening Minh approached me again. In her smart dress, she greeted me with a broad smile.

"I’m told that you’ve taken my books home. I do wish to see my spiritual child," she said.

"Go to the printing-house with me tomorrow morning, will you? Maybe we’ll have to call a cab to carry them to your place," I suggested.

"Okay," she replied, showing me a notebook full of important addresses.

"Er... These are the names of people that I have to offer my work. I have already spent many days on end to make this lengthy list. You may have a look at it," she said.

"I don’t know what you mean," I replied.

"Hm... We’ll have to help each other, won’t we? First of all, you’ll have to write a preface for my work," she entreated me.

"But... but, I well... I know nothing about poetry," I stammered. "Anyhow, there are a lot of well-known figures who can do this superbly," I added.

"If so, don’t forget to introduce some of them to me some day, dear," Minh sighed.

I accompanied her to the gate.

"What about your love affair with Dang?" I blurted out.

"We’re just friends, like me and you!" she replied. Her face turned pale in the dim light of the sunset.

I flew into a rage. "That means that my friend’s affection has been tossed aside," I said to myself. Luckily for me, I managed to control myself. We promised to meet at the printing-house the next morning. Before leaving and saying good night, she looked back and blew a kiss to me.

After collecting her copies and loading them into the cab, I went to the headquarters of my editorial staff and was soon engrossed in piles of complaint letters regarding the housing problem. In the afternoon, after work, I pedalled my bicycle to Dang’s place. In the middle of the courtyard stood a black mass of ash. The door of his hut was under lock and bolt. With my intuition, I felt something foreboding. Sweeping away the ash with one of my feet, I found a few burnt fragments of his oil paintings.

"Hey mate, Dang sent you this note," a soft voice resounded behind me. I turned around. Dang’s landlord was standing in front of me, holding a letter in his hand. It read:

I’ve returned to my native home. The rent has been fully paid. All my debts have been settled. I’m taking a French leave for fear that you might hinder my decision. In this world, I’ve realized that you’re a single youth that treats me well. I wish you good health and success.

Truly yours,

Dang

I burst into tears. I felt as if him going home had been my unforgivable error.

"Dear Dang, what a mean guy I am. I’m always afraid of ruining false relationships," I confessed silently.

"Well, follow me to my house in order to take home the picture Dang left for you," he said to me sympathetically.

***

Later I was told that a consolation prize had been awarded to Minh’s poem collection and that she was preparing to edit another one. Time and again, she dropped in on me, for Tra had become fed up with her poetry club. Moreover, owing to the fact that my hands were always full of complaints, I had been unable to visit him. What’s more, he was not present at our wedding reception!

Our son was now three years old. He had a flair for painting, but Tra did not encourage him to practise it.

"That’s Miss Minh! That’s Miss Minh!" he often remarked naively, pointing at her picture on the wall.

By Le Anh Hoai/ Translated by Van Minh
VNS