Exclusively for the ‘Tales of the Veils’ website
“Thanks for the lunch Thu. We better get going.”
Yes, I know you can’t wait to get to Phu Xanh Fom. You start longing for Phu Xanh the moment you put your foot on the mainland, and as a true Phu Xanh woman you don’t like showing yourself to keep your sunglasses on and stay gloved in my flat while having lunch, and now that you don’t need access to your mouth you right away put on your khẩu trang again to almost fully cover your face. I love the Phu Xanh dress code as well, but when I’m in Rome I do as the Romans do. I have packed so if you clear the kitchen I can start dressing as well right away.”
With her voice now somewhat muffled by the khẩu trang Fom says “Yes, maybe this is the time for me to stay on Phu Xanh. Here I always chosen to live in small rented rooms I can leave with a short notice and I’ve never taken any jobs where I’m expected to stay for long, because deep in my heart I’m a Phu Xanh woman, and now I feel I’m close to having enough work experience for getting the job that together with the income of my husband can sustain a family. No, of course I would have told you if I had met the man in my life, but that won’t happen either before I live on Phu Xanh.”
After putting on socks, sneakers, full length gloves and jacket Thu says “I guess you are right about that. I would also have been without a husband if Phuoc and I didn’t find marriage would make us both feel good by living with one from Phu Xanh while studying here, and with a Phu Xanh husband I won’t have any trouble moving there when we find the time is right. I’m ready to leave as I won’t cover more than usual in here just because we are going to Phu Xanh today.”
Out on the pavement next to her scooter after having put on her khu trang and buckled her helmet Thu now muffled like Fom says “Although it’s a long ride I don’t intent to stop before the usual place halfway down the coastal slope for dressing the Phu Xanh way, and where we in addition can enjoy a clear view without sunglasses of our favourite island for a minute.”
Fom nods and Thu puts her bag on the scooter right behind where her feet would be and mounts it for Thu to straddle the saddle behind her with her bag in her lap, and then Thu starts.
It takes about ninety minutes to get out of the city and a little South out close to the coast. At a place on the highway out in the open with no buildings in sight they turn left down a small road with no official road sign, but to the left of the road is a wooden sign saying ‘Phu Xanh island,’ and to the right is an old rusty yellow sign saying ‘Military zone.’ Phu Xanh was a restricted area during the war although it still held a small number of ordinary people, but the restrictions were lifted long ago about ten years after the war ended. Then the military had already left, but some of the families of the island origin from military personnel staying for retirement or a civilian career. The signposting and that the island still shows as military zone on many maps lead to very few strangers taking the road, and the few who do are at the ferry told the lie it is a secret military facility requiring special permission to enter, for only relatives and invited people to visit the island, although it isn’t a small society with both a high school and being its own municipality.
Having stopped at the small gravel parking area halfway to the ferry Thu removes her helmet and khẩu trang before facing Fom to say “Ah, it was a long tiring ride, but now we can see our goal. There are many much better views along the coast but to someone from Phu Xanh this will always be special, but perhaps I better take a good look at you if you won’t come with us back to the city?”
Fom has removed her helmet and her sunglasses but still wears her khẩu trang to muffled say “I’m a little tired as well, but I feel good and safe by sitting close up against you big sister. I more and more miss living with someone I can hold close, and I have to admit I during the ride have been imagining you were the husband I long for. Me going to stay at Phu Xanh is also more a wish than reality. I haven’t made any agreements or arangements for staying for this to be like any previous visits at our parents, except that this time we are going to celebrate Hien of course.”
Thu turns her head to look at the island trying to spot the house of their parents. She is not sure it’s the right one she selects because it’s just one among many similar red tiled roofs at a distance of about two kilometres. When she faces Fom again she has already dressed and is putting on her khẩu trang to be almost ready to ride on. She has only admired the view during their short conversation, the sight making her want to set foot on Phu Xanh as soon as possible Thu thinks to make herself start changing while saying
“I understand you can’t wait Fom and I’ll be ready in a minute, but as I guess you have noticed leaving here in a couple of minutes just means waiting for the ferry at the landing.”
Thu’s reply is no longer her own voice but that of any Phu Xanh woman in public as she says “No ha m ove’e eg we a wai un’il inn.”
The public face covering of a Phu Xanh woman distorts the voice to a level where even the women themselves only understand if they know what to expect. It’s some time since Thu has heard this ‘language’ and in her head she translates Fom’s words to ‘Now that I’m covered right we can wait until dinner.’ She realises Fom has much more waited to be dressed as a Phu Xanh woman than setting foot on the island. She recalls she has said she wouldn’t mind living outside Phu Xanh if she could just live in a community following its dress code. She can’t dress like a Phu Xanh woman elsewhere because the Phu Xanh community doesn’t want any attention and questions about their appearance to avoid becoming a subject for social scientists or a goal for tourists seeking rare experiences, which both have spoiled some mountain tribes.
They slowly roll the half kilometer to the landing. The strait between Phu Xanh and the mainland is only about five hundred metres wide at the crossing. The size of Phu Xanh makes cars superflous except for transporting large loads so moving around is mostly done by walking or riding bikes or scooters for the small car ferry only to cross once each hour in each direction, but it is supplemented by a smaller barge that takes two-wheeled vehicles and sails whenever needed. The barge arrives five minutes after they reach the landing. Three more scooters are waiting; one with a couple in their twenties and another with two old teenage girls. The women are all fully covered.
Fifteen minutes later Thu pulls her scooter onto the landing of Phu Xanh, and six minutes later they stop in front of their parent’s house. Fom waits while Thu parks the scooter up against the end of the house before she rings the bell. With them being expected it is no surprise that both their parents are answering the door. Seeing them their father immediately turns his head around to shout into the house “Hien! Thu and Fom have arrived!” Before they enter Hien is there to greet them as well.
The women all hug before Thu and Fom remove their helmet, sunglasses and khẩu trang, and Thu her jacket.
Thu then seeing Fom, just like their mother, has her eyes covered beneath the hood makes her lift her sunglasses to her eyes while asking in the impersonal muffled slightly metallic voice Phu Xanh Woman have due to the cone mask “I have been away for so long customs have changed it seems?”
Her mother says in the same voice “Yes, it has been much too long Thu. I guess that adds to why you, and Fom, have taken two ordinary days off to be able to stay with us for four days in addition to helping Hien with her exam. So it’s less than six month since it became the norm to cover the eyes a little less indoors but in exchange have them covered always; and this also allows for wearing less dark sunglasses outdoors and removing them for a moment to get a clearer view.”
Fom follows up also sounding the same “I thought I had told you about this Thu, but I guess we mostly talk shop and when the subject is Phu Xanh it’s always gossip and marriage rumours.”
Their mother says “Our customs are voluntary and there is no fine for breaking them, and I think both father, Hien and I are glad we got this glimpse of your eyes even though it isn’t New Year. Come with me to borrow something although I don’t think any of my sunglasses are to your taste and latest fashion. Perhaps you can borrow sunglasses for outdoors from Fom.”
Fom says “You are welcome Thu, but despite I now wear inner eye covering I think all my sunglasses are darker than any of yours. If you find the combination of two sets of glasses too dark when going out you have to buy a pair that suits you. We don’t need to be two all day tomorrow execising Hien in business, and she has to have breaks as well.”
Mother says “Yes, this was your late afternoon break Hien. Back to the books. Father and I have decided you Thu and Fom should be allowed to relax after the trip tonight, also to allow for Hien to spend the evening getting to know the theory better before you two start questioning her. I hope you’ll give me a hand in the kitchen. But first Thu, your eyes.”
In a cupboard in the bedroom mother points out a couple of pairs of ordinary sunglasses with side bars bending around the ears for Thu to wear under her hood, as opposed to those to wear on top of the hood which has to have a strap going around the head instead of side bars. She also shows her some goggles. As all that shows in the eye openings of the hood is the glass itself the style or the type of glasses doesn’t show, but although goggles protect the eyes better from particles Thu chooses a pair of ordinary glasses that allows air flow to the eyes. She then enters the bathroom to be alone when uncovering her face.
At the beginning of dinner being the oldest daughter saves Thu from again making a mistake due to changing customs. She is seated next to her father and he is of course served first, and when the dishes then are passed around the table Thu is last to not quite be ready to eat when the others begin. This gives her time to discover the other women do not, as she has been used to, pull the cone mask covering mouth and nose down to hang around the neck to uncover the mouth for eating, but instead just pulls it out from the face with the left hand just enough for the fork in the right hand to enter the mouth. Thu simply silently copies the other women because although gender equality is far no one speaks at the table before the man heading the household has spoken.
The conversation opens with their father asking to Thu’s husband and what has happened in the city in general from their point of view since Fom’s last visit, and then their mother asks Thu as she always do, also over the phone, if they have decided to have children soon. During this Thu discovers that the conversation has a much better flow than she is used to because with the cone masks on when not directly filling the mouth the women are ready to speak almost instantly as opposed to before where, when having decided to speak, they first had to fit the mask over their mouth, as a Phu Xanh woman always obscures her voice just like she covers her skin. When the, seen from the parents, most pressing subjects have been covered Thu pats her cone mask and says “I like this new way of eating even more than the indoors eye covering.”
Mother answers “Yes, it seems so natural that you seeing it as new makes me wonder it’s less than six months since it became the norm, and why no one before had thought of that the mask on during eating would have other benefits than the mouth not being shown. But I think both the covering of the eyes indoors and keeping the mouth hidden while eating or drinking came up because the young Mr. Thinh married to a woman from the mainland, and she found it was strange we showed our eyes and mouth so much unnecessarily when doing about everything to be completely covered all waking hours. As no one could really argue aginst her what we do now quickly became the norm. I think from that we can learn that a new outside look on things can be a really good thing. And I’m sure that what you Thu and Fom have learned from studying and working on the mainland can help Hien get a better grade.”
Fom says “I hope we can help her mother, but it’s mainly up to her if she gets a good grade.”
Hien for the first time since their arrival speaks to say “I’m sure you and Thu is much better at explaining finance to me than our teacher, but Fom is right in the end it’s up to me, so I better get back to my books if I’m allowed to leave the table father.”
Their father says “Of course you are my dear, and I’m sure Thu and Fom are going to take over your usual clearing of the kitchen tonight.”
Hien just after having left her chair says “I’ll stop studying for tonight when tea is ready and go to bed soon after to be fresh early tomorrow. You won’t mind start working me over at my usual time for starting high school at eight thirty, wouldn’t you Thu and Fom?”
Fom nods while Thu says “I have considered this an extended weekend where I could sleep late! No, just kidding. Fom and I are here to help you and we are ready when you are. Besides by starting early we have time to go more into depth if we find some gaps in your knowledge.”
In the kitchen while clearing Thu asks her mother “I’m right assuming these new customs for covering means you haven’t seen any part except ponytails of Hien or any other woman of Phu Xanh between sixteen and sixty and they haven’t seen the slightest of you for almost six months and to continue like this until New Year?”
Mother answers “Yes, the rules for who to show to haven’t changed. If married you only show to your husband when alone with him in the bedroom and to your own children below six, and if not married you only show to your parents and your future husband on the day of engagement and to your parents again on the day of the wedding. To everybody else you only show the three days of New Year where no women on Phu Xanh cover their head or wear gloves and socks.”
Fom says “This constant covering of the eyes and never showing the mouth I think brings us closer to the first days of this custom during the war where, as I remember the story, some women were fully covered including sunglasses during nights as well and ate and drank under a large wrap to minimise getting radiation on the skin, and doing it during nights as well makes it clear it was not only the sun they did the utmost to avoid.”
Mother says “I think you are right and you remember history right, but still there are many, including me, who sleep hooded, gloved and with socks to only show eyes and mouth at night. Now it’s done because we are accustomed to always being fully covered, and to follow the customs of not showing to others, and very likely shock them, if more than one would need to leave their room coincidentially at the same time during the night.”
Fom immediately says “When here I always sleep covered like you as well mother, but it’s of course because I share room with Hien.”
Thu adds “I slept covered as well when sharing room with my sisters before marrying Phuoc, but I haven’t done so when visiting here with him. Perhaps I better do it when he is here for the weekend on the night between Saturday and Sunday with this new tightening of customs.”
Mother says “You can do as you please when with Phuoc Thu, but you have to stay covered the coming two nights because father and I have decided Fom is going to sleep with you instead of Hien to give her the chance to sleep as good as possible until her exam.”
Thu says “It’s a good decision mother, although it probably means Fom and I are going to argue half the night tomorrow over some answers to Hien’s tests where we don’t totally agree. Has it ever been settled if there were weapons with dangerous radiation on Phu Xanh while the Americans were here?”
No, the uncertainty still exists. But if there was women covering were successful and still is, because there has never been registered any birth defects and, probably because of less pollution out here, children here are on average more healthy. So you and Phuoc better move here and drop that contraception.”
Thu says “Perhaps when our friends start getting children for our main interests no longer to be the same. But it was a female scientist specialising in radiation who started the custom of full covering back then?”
Mother answers “That is a conspiracy theory to explain the dangerous radiation to my knowledge. The right story is she was an ordinary doctor working for the military, who due to her education of course socialised with the leading women of the island. They practised, as still widely done on the mainland, the old custom of covering with gloves, masks and hats when going out to avoid sun tanning because white skin has for centuries been very fashionable as a sign of being a fine woman not having to do hard outdoors work. It is said that one day while waiting for them to cover she told them that her studies had taught her that their way of covering was very effective for people actually spending most of the day out in the sun, but for them it meant little as they got much more sun indoors due to reflections than during the ten minutes they spend outdoors moving from one house to another half a dozen times a day.
Thu says “Thanks for recalling the beginning of this history for me mother. Then both them thinking of themselves as especially beautiful or especially ugly, that is about all women, didn’t like to stick out to make it customary only to uncover when it was really important, that is to small children and for sex. I guess the make-up industry gives their products for free to influential women or our customs would arise naturally all over the world.”
Half an hour later at tea the three daughters sit next to each other on one side of the table with their parents opposite for their father soon to say “I don’t need to travel to Grand Canyon or Taj Mahal, looking at my three healthy, intelligent and successful daughters at the same time is the best view in the world to me. I agree with your mother there shouldn’t be six months between seeing the three of you Thu.”
Hien says “Thanks for the confidence father but I haven’t graduated yet. There may be something about in the curriculum of business that I’ve totally misunderstood. Many well-educated politicians seems to have problems with especially the economy part.”
Fom says “What father means is that unless you can neither write or speak at the final exams you’ll get a grade sufficiently good for graduating, and what I know about your level in business you’ll get a top grade even without Thu and me testing you. Relax and don’t be nervous.”
Thu changes subject by facing her father and say “With your father being a fisherman father I’m confident your weather forecast is going to hold, so is the good weather going to last for Saturday?”
Father says “Yes it’s going to be even a little better I expect. The perfect weather for all of you women to parade in ao dai with no rain or clouds before the middle of next week, a little cooler and some light wind to make it more confortable to be fully covered and make the ao dais lift for us men to enjoy looking at you even more.”
Mother says “Are we going to wear ao dais of the same colour Thu and Fom, or are you going to keep it a secret until showing on Saturday morning?”
The three of them discuss the pros and cons of them wearing the same colour for a couple of minutes without any result for Saturday coming up. Hien doesn’t participate, perhaps because her colour is settled as she for the last time is going to wear the school uniform she is wearing now consisting a pink ao dai, with this colour on Phu Xanh being reserved for high school students.
A little into the silence following the discussion Hien awkwardly faces her father and says “With Thu and Fom going to test me I think I may have studied a little too intesively. At least I suddenly feel awfully tired. May I retire now father? Goodnight. Goodnight mother, goodni..”
Hien seems to be asleep before she is at rest tilted back in the seat with her head tilted forward.
Immediately mother says “She got a tea a little different. I think we couldn’t have her lying awake half the night going through the books over and over again in her head or worrying if she would fail her own and our expectations. Would you please help father carrying her to her room Thu and Fom?”
While helping carrying Hien Thu says “I now remember you drugged me the night before my final exam as well mother, and it helped, I got a good nights sleep and a good grade.”
In Hien’s room mother says “Just put her down, remove her sandals and let her sleep as she is. We have already chosen the three last and best pink ao dais she is going to wear for the one she wears now at most to be refitted for a new high school student.”
Coming back to the living room Thu’s remark make them all tell something they recall from Thu and Fom’s graduation.
Half an hour later Thu says she and Fom better retire as they need a little more sleep than usual after the ride to make mother say “As usual I have placed night clothes for you on the bed. It’s of course the double bed set up when you married Thu, but none of you will push the other out of bed I’m sure. Goodnight.”
Thu and Fom enter the guest room together to see a pair of goggles and a cone mask on top of the clothes for each to make Thu say “It’s going to be different to sleep masked, but at least the goggles are not any darker than those I was offered by mother for day wear, perhaps to be able to orientate if needing to leave the bed during the night without having to turn on so much light that the entire household would be awaken. I would like the bathroom first if you don’t mind.”
Coming back to the guest room some minutes later Thu is dressed for the night in all white cotton consisting full length stockings and gloves and a mid calf long plain night gown with elbow long sleeves in addition to a normal hood, the goggles and the cone mask. As Fom is about to go to the bathroom Thu says “Perhaps I should have had your pile. At least the gloves have rings attached at the wrists as for unmarried girls to enable their hands to be kept away from certain parts of the body.”
This makes Fom unfold one of her gloves to say “Mine are the same. It’s either some old gloves from when we were teenagers or it’s what mother use herself. I’ve heard from old schoolmates it is exciting for both part for the fully covered woman to be tied to the bed to be a powerless white object for the husband to use as he please.”
At this moment their mother to their surprise shows up to say “Your gloves are new and now and then I put on such a pair because Fom’s schoolmates are right, but right now you have got them more for the old use. Fom is unmarried and I feel she more and more longs for a man and how he can satisfy her body, and I’m afraid she can persuade you Thu to do to her some of what Phuoc does to please you, but she should experience such things directly from her husband, and if she can’t wait it has to be somewhere else than my house. Please lie down on your back and take your hands up to the head end both of you.”
Thu says while lying down “You are right mother, I love Fom too much to deny a request from her I can easily fulfil, and in this case enjoying it myself as well.”
The head end is made up of bars making it easy for their mother to tie their wrists. Then she says “Lift your head Fom. I have come to love our customs so much that deviating only a little from them for a short while would be wrong for you two to have to sleep with goggles even if they are superflous now that I blindfold you. I may relax on my measures tomorrow but this night all you’ll be able to do is rest. Say ‘goodnight’ to each other.”
When they both have said goodnight mother lifts at the mask of Fom to hold a gagging rod to her lips which she when sensing what is going to happen obidiently accepts. Then mother walks around the bed and gags and blindfolds Thu as well. Finally she produces a bottle, unscrews the cap and soaks the mask of Thu to again walk around the bed and soak the mask of Fom. They both just registers the sweet odor of ether before going unconscious.
While clearing after breakfast the doorbell sounds. Father has left for work, Hien is about to set up the living room and move her books there for her test and mother is not ready wearing rubber gloves for dishing so she asks Thu to answer the door and sends Fom after her recalling she knows much more people of Phu Xanh for the time being. Two female high school students are outside. One hands Thu a sheet of paper which she holds for Fom to read as well:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Pham
Thank you for accepting we can be present while Hien is tested by her older sisters.
Not wanting to take advantage of their kind hearts and spend their precious time on testing us we have decided to keep our outdoors clothing on and as such be less obtrusive and practically mute, which is why we address you with this note.
Kieu Giang and Vo Ngoc
Thu stretches her hand out towards the one having handed her the note and says “Welcome both of you. We are ready to begin in a few minutes I think. I’m Thu.”
As they shake hands the student bows and says her name which translated from the special ‘language’ of their double masking shows to be Vo. Then Thu greets Kieu, who says her name totally distorted as well, while Fom greets Vo. They are shown in to be met by Hien who shows a surprised reaction when handed the note. After reading she says “Hi Kieu and Vo, please come with me to greet mother. It’s generous of you to want nothing more than being audience, but with two testers I think you can get worked over a bit as well and you have to uncover at latest when we have a tea break mid morning anyway.”
Outside the kitchen Vo is handed the note for her and Kieu to present themselves to mother. After reading she faces Hien to say “This seems to me you have promised them a little more than ‘dropping by for a few minutes to have their most pressing doubts clarified by Thu and Fom.'”
Kieu quickly removes her khẩu trang to say “I’m sorry that you haven’t got the impression that we were invited for the entire day Mrs. Pham. I think the fault lies with my brother or father not having reached your husband with an invitation yet. You see my family is going to hold a graduation party for me on Saturday night with the usual people we associate with but also a few people special to this occasion such as the teacher of our class and the families of my closest friends Hien and Vo, and with Vo and me being allowed to come here today the family of Thu and Fom of course would have been invited even without me and Hien being friends. Please call my brother to have confirmed what I say.”
Mother dumbfounded takes the phone Kieu hands to her while pressing the call button, because the Giang family is the richest family on Phu Xanh, although it isn’t much in general terms, and as such among the leading families by for decades running its most important store selling and servicing scooters and bikes. So far the social gap to the Pham family has been too large for them to associate despite their daughters being close schoolmates. It is eveident mother is a little scared getting this prominent man on the line, who in reality already has taking over the family business for some years despite not having turned thirty yet, but as soon as she has said her name Huy Giang starts talking to say a lot of flattering words about Hien, the family in general and praising Thu and Fom for also helping the friends of Hien. Then he confirms the invitation and apologises for his father being busy with arrangements for the party. Mother says thank you a number of times and then surprisingly hands the phone to Thu.
After a couple of Yes’ and Thank you’s she tells Huy her husband is coming just before the graduation ceremony on Saturday and then after some more Thank you’s she turns off the phone while handing it to Kieu and say “You have a very kind and charming brother Kieu, and apparently he is informed about all scooters on Phu Xanh to tell me when we arrived with the barge yesterday and what model of scooter I have, and he did this to offer me a free service check. He will send one of his men here on Saturday morning while we attend the graduation ceremony, the time being set after I told him Phuoc arrives on scooter as well just before the ceremony for all vehicles at this house to get a check. With all this from your family I have to insist that you and Vo are tested individually as well for both of you to remove your outdoors head covering.”
The latter she says because Kieu meanwhile has put her khẩu trang back on, but her words makes Kieu face Vo who shakes her head points to the note and from there to Hien and the tea pot for everybody to be able to translate the distorted words she says as ‘We have to keep what we have set up for ourselves at least for some time, which we do by accepting Hien’s offer of us uncovering for tea.’
They go to the living room where the three students seat themselves next to each other with Hien in the middle and Thu and Fom on the other side of the table. Hien show them one of the text books has a number of test questions at the end of each chapter which Thu and Fom find is a good way to start. Hien is bombarded by Thu breaking her answer off with a new question as soon as she finds the answer is correct, and by Kieu and Vo having brought their books as well Fom is ready to take over with the next questions of the next chapter immediately. For more than an hour there is only silence when Hien has to think about what to answer. There is no pauses for her brain though because with the about one third of the questions where she can’t answer or her answer is wrong the correct answer comes immediately whether it is Thu or Fom as they both have a bachelor within this subject and to some extent use it in their daily professional life. Because of this it is clear, although their facial expressions are hidden, Hien is relieved when Fom again takes over to see Thu leave to ask for tea.
Mother has expected they had to stop soon and tea is served when they are through with the last question of this chapter. While Kieu and Vo removes their hats, khẩu trangs and sunglasses for three almost identically appearing young women to sit side by side mother seats herself at the end of the table to have tea with them, and while Thu pours the tea she says directed to Kieu “Thank you very much for the invitation Kieu. My husband phoned to tell me your father personally showed up at his office to invite our family and hand over a written invitation to immediately raise his status in the eyes of his colleagues.”
She turns to Thu to go on saying “Mr. Giang Senior especially pointed out that the invitation of course also includes Thuoc as the written invitation could be taken as immediate family only.”
This makes Thu face Kieu to say “Thank you on behalf of my husband Kieu. After this first hour I’m glad you and Vo have come and, although after having seen Hien being grilled you may now have regretted, are ready to take over for her to be able to relax a bit by only having to answer the questions in her own head. Without you we would just have to take longer and longer breaks with her softening more and more up as the day progressed. Are you ready to be questioned like Hien in five minutes?”
Kieu says “It made me sweat as well, but I will rather fall apart here today than at the exams tomorrow.”
Fom says “That is exactly the idea of what we ar doing now, but if you are a slow starter we can let Vo continue instead. What do you say Vo?”
Vo says “I’m ready if Kieu prefers to wait.”
The answers of Kieu and Vo are exactly what both Thu and Fom have expected. They have both watched the body language of the two girls while Hien was questioned to notice Kieu seemed unsure or unable to answer at approximately the same questions as Hien where Vo both seemed to have the answers faster than Hien and could have answered some of the questions where Hien was wrong or simply gave up for them to conclude she is the smarter of the trio.
Their academic skills also show when Fom to get their minds away from the testing asks Kieu and Vo for their plans after graduation. Kieu has applied for art school whereas Vo is going to college to become chemical engineer. Then Thu asks Vo about her sunglasses and where she bought them to let her know she would like something similar with less dark glasses having been away from Phu Xanh for too long to be up to the latest changes in customs. Vo answers, while producing both the pair she has just removed and a quite similar pair from her bag, “Please take and keep the pair you like best for testing me. I kind of like both pairs, but you liking them as well probably means they are out of fashion in the city for our age and I have to buy some new soon anyway, don’t you agree girls?”
Kieu and Hien agree they have to look for sunglasses next time coming to the mainland or checking the city fashion on the internet. Thu takes and puts on the pair Vo has just worn for mother jokingly to say that it makes her look five years younger and if she put on a pink ao dai she could go to the exams tomorrow claiming to be one of the girls and thus guaranteeing her a good result.
Vo says “Wearing a pink ao dai would make you appear as a high school student Mrs. Pham. Have you forgot it’s part of the graduation ceremony for women here to have the id-bangle locked around the right ankle cut?”
Mother says “To be honest I had forgot. It’s four years since Fom graduated and Hien’s ankle might very well have been constantly covered by her trousers when she didn’t wear stockings during New Year. I better get on with the house chores and you better get on preparing. I expect Kieu and Vo to have lunch here.”
Kieu and Vo says thank you, and then Kieu sounds a big sigh knowing her grilling is up.
She doesn’t do any worse than Hien though and that is a positive surprise to Thu and Fom as being the one questioned is much harder than listening and in your head trying to answer, but they also go slower with her allowing her more time for thinking and if her answer just starts taking the right direction completes it for her. After Kieu has answered one chapter from Thu and one from Fom they tell her she performed just like Hien and none of them has to worry passing, and then change to Vo. She is treated like Hien with no breaks but those due to her own hesitation, and as her answers come faster and she is able to answer more than eighty percent of the questions Hien and Kieu probably feel as it is themselves being grilled. While they cool down Thu says “That was at least a 9 to me, but I’m sure you all know where both yourself and the others are, and remember today is much more to confirm each of you that you know a lot than teaching you anything specific. I smell lunch is about ready.”
They all smell it’s a meal with soup in addition to the rice dishes, mother’s way to show she likes having her oldest daughters home and that there are guests as well. Of course it has to be mother to start the conversation, and an appropriate pause after the five young women all have praised her cooking she says “Regarding the party Kieu I’m a little worried if I’m expected to dance as I haven’t done this since my husband and I stopped doing it about ten years after our marriage.”
Kieu answers “Don’t worry Mrs. Pham, there will be some traditional dancing suitable for all ages, and even here it’s voluntary to participate. Besides there is going to be a separate room for the parent generation to enjoy the evening in I suppose a more calm atmosphere. My mother won’t dance either I assume.”
Mother says “Very reassuring Kieu, thank you, but not being used to such occasions I better discuss it with Mrs. Ngoc as well. Is your mother coming to congratulate you with your final exam tomorrow Vo?”
Vo answers “Yes she is Mrs. Pham, and as I have told her the schedule might move in either direction as much as fifteen minutes I think she is going to be there perhaps half an hour early, so if you come early as well I guess you two have to meet with Hien being right after me. Thu and Fom, it’s not to ask you to do me a favor, but since getting enrolled at college I’ve asked everyone coming from the city, do you have some contacts that might get me a student job during the first semester?”
Fom says “I both live and work very far from the college where you are going to stay, and accounting is far from chemical engineering, but if you can’t get a job relevant to your studies this early you are welcome to contact me.”
Thu says “Just as Fom I don’t think I’ll be able to help you within your field, but with your brains both Phuoc and I will recommend you to anybody. Let’s rest and eat for five minutes more. This food is so delicious it’s a shame we can’t just keep sitting here and enjoy it for much longer.”
Mother says “The food has just been made to give you power to be tested or test at full capacity. Don’t think about emptying the dishes, I’ll reuse most of it for dinner.”
A minute or so before the five minutes have passed Hien puts some more on her plate to immediately make Kieu and Vo do the same, and make Thu and Fom understand the girls like the break to be continued a while longer. Eventually they return to the coffee table where the testing is started easy by Thu saying “I want each of you to take a piece of cardboard, cut it in four and write the numbers form one to four on the same side of the pieces, because now we are going through some multible-choice questions like in your written test tomorrow, and when Fom or I have read a question loud you hold the card with the number you think is right backside up to the table to turn it when you all have answered.”
Making this lonely test into a sort of competition makes it fun, and although the questions are sufficiently difficult for the wiser Vo to be first most of the time Hien and Kieu can compete between the two of them, and now and then gamble to beat Vo. Besides with Thu and Fom to immediately say what is right and be able to explain further there are no doubts from previous questions disturbing the current question from the back of the mind.
Testing this way is so fun to the girls that it is ended by mother quietly bringing tea, and only this makes Thu look at the clock and then ask mother to stay as it is high time for a break and to stop the multible-choice testing.
After the first sips of tea mother asks Kieu “Last night Thu, Fom and I discussed if we should be wearing ao dais of the same colour to show we are family. It’s not applicable to your family, but some families do and I would be glad to know if it’s an unwritten rule to be followed when there are daughters above high school among the families you associate with?”
Kieu considers for a moment before answering “You are right some families wear identically coloured ao dais – among those are the Hangs, but I clearly recall there are others we associate with who don’t. But one thing that characterises the women of the most influent families of Phu Xanh, although it’s not a rule and you might not even have noticed, is that we all wear large hats and khẩu trangs placed for the eyes to be practically hidden and thus making sunglasses practically superflous, although we of course always wear them. Unmarried women and girls like me just do it to imitate our older married family members, who do it they say not to show what ‘the extra layer’ consists of, although nothing would show with a wider slit for the eyes and the kind of sunglasses they wear. But the secrecy of the xxx women of course means they will show to you covered for public, and if you like to appear the same as them it means you also have to wear large hats and khẩu trangs, and especially with the khẩu trang it better be one you feel comfortable in wearing for long.”
Fom asks “Of course I won’t ask you to reveal what the xx women’s extra covering consists of, but have you tried it yourself and perhaps you can say what you think of it without revealing anything?”
Kieu says “Yes I have tried it for an entire day not long ago. I think my mother allowed it because she wanted to remind me there are other things in life than school, further education and girl friends. I should also think of men and especially a boyfriend suitable to become husband, and one thing ‘the extra layer’ does is make you feel more sexy and think of men. It’s also warm and restrictive, and while most of the women really like that, for one it also means you are unable to do hard physical work. You have to have someone to clean and cook which means it’s only for better of families, so wearing it also signifies and always reminds you that you are a fortunate woman.”
Thu says “Does your parents want you to find a husband as soon as possible to settle here?”
Kieu answers “No, I’m not forced in any way. They won’t even stop me if I decide to settle with a husband on the mainland, but of course it’s not what they wish. It’s Huy who has some pressure on him. Him taking over the business has only partly solved carrying on the family, although it is an important and very well done part of course. But the family name can only go on if he gets a wife and they get a boy. That is what concerns my parents the most.”
Mother says “Of course it is, and with his charm, good manners and good business skills that will soon happen I’m sure. With no boys my husband and I had to drop such aspirations and worries many years ago, but fortunately my husband has a younger brother who has two boys, and with our three bright daughters I’m sure the family is going to climb even further socially than what Thu has already acheived by marrying Phuoc.”
Fom says “It’s up to you if you like to stay mother but I’ll change the subject back to tomorrow’s examination. During tea I have calculated the total results of the multible-choice tests with Vo having eighty nine percent right, Kieu seventy three and Hien seventy two. You have also learned statistics to know there is no reason for Hien to feel inferior; Kieu and Hien are equal, but most important all three of you are far above the sixty percent required to pass. This result and the just as fine result of the testing before lunch makes me certain that you are confident enough in the examination requirements to get the chance of getting one of the top grades by showing you know something about the subject that goes beyond the curriculum. You’ll be able to do that by Thu and I each telling you about one or two real life business cases as close to your curriculum as we can think of. Don’t hesitate to interrupt to ask a question, and there are no stupid questions. I’ll start with telling about what is in the accounting of a small business, which could be that of your family Kieu, but I’ll tell about where I work as I there know all the figures and details.”
It takes quite long because Fom gets many questions, and their quality show both her and Thu that the girls are well prepared, but also that taking the subject to real life makes it much more interesting to Hien and Kieu. And when Fom next tells a case about turning a work of handicraft into a s mall business it is nearly only Kieu who asks although there are just as many questions as with Fom’s case. With this success both Fom and Thu walk through one more case each a little more away from the subject and the world of the girls but they all listen concentrated and ask a number of good questions. Finally Thu says “I can smell we are late for helping mother with dinner, and if you Kieu and Vo are supposed to help as well you better get home right away. Oh, I forgot you have servants Kieu.”
Vo immidiately adds “And my parents have said I might even be late for dinner today, and I have been freed from most housework during exams.”
Kieu says “I often cook and clean to learn to be able to do on my own while studying, but learn from our cook instead from my mother. I forgot to tell the cook I would be here all day for testing so I might get scouldred when coming home if she hasn’t found out from mother. Thank you so much Thu and Fom, right now, as opposed to when I came, I feel confident it will go fine tomorrow so we can have a fine graduation ceremony and a great party on Saturday. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Vo continues “Thank you from me as well. Despite I thought I was well into the subject and the tests went well for me I also learned a lot. Both of you could be excellent teachers if wanting to change career path at some point. But most of all today has made me miss having older sisters like you.”
Kieu and Vo go and greet mother goodbye and once again thank her for lunch, then they put on hat sunglasses and khẩu trang for Thu and Fom now to notice that the face of Kieu is nothing more than a hat and a khẩu trang meeting, and then they leave.
Not long after father is home and they have dinner with him telling his own, and to mother already somewhat adorned version compared to what she got over the phone, of Mr. Giang Senior coming to his office to hand over the invitation; and of course he shows them the invitation.
Halfway between dinner and tea the phone unexpectedly rings and father answers to say things like ‘It was a pleasure to have your sister here Mr. Giang’ and later ‘I’m sure your sister has got it right, but of course you can have one of my daughters to confirm what you have been told. I’ll hand the phone to Thu. We are all looking so much forward to Saturday night, see you there.’
Thu gets the phone to listen for a little while and then say “It was actually my sister Fom who taught that case Mr. Giang. You better get her. Please wait a little while.”
Thu takes the phone down and holds a hand over it while facing Fom to say “Kieu has re-told the case from your work that resembles their own business to Huy Giang and now he wants to know if Kieu and him has got it right and there is something he can deduct in tax which he haven’t done so far. I think Kieu has informed him right and he can, but first it’s your case, and second, as it sounds to me, if he wants one of us to come and have a look at his accounting tomorrow it better be you as the one is probably going to get something from the shop for it and as I have already got our scooters checked it’s your turn.”
Fom nods and takes the phone to say “Fom speaking. My older sister says Kieu has informed you right, she has as good as graduated in business I can assure you. But …” They can again hear Huy fold out all his charm, and Fom who can hear the actual words and the full tone of his voice shows by her body movements that she is mesmerised and would like to meet him for any reason, but despite this she ends with the excuse that ‘it’s no bother to come to the shop as I have already promised to follow Hien to school.’
Over tea they just hear about the latest gossip of Phu Xanh as the teaching has tired Thu and Fom as well for them all again to go early to bed. Differently from yesterday Hien voluntarily takes a sleeping pill herself, and instead of mother tying up Thu and Fom they tie her up, and then father tie them up and put them instantly to sleep with ether.
For father it’s a normal workday and with Hien’s exams starting at nine as well they all have breakfast together, but a little earlier than usual for Hien to be at school in good time. Hien has a distance to school of just below one and a half kilometre and as most of the students, if not late, she walks such a distance not to stain or tear her ao dai, where most other use a scooter or bike. This makes Fom walk as well to the Giang shop to at least the first half of the way do as she has said herself accompany Hien to school. After just a few minutes of walk more students join them, some of which could be the classmates of Hien, but this Fom doesn’t find out as they all today walk by themselves without greeting, gesturing or uttering the muffled ‘language’ of the cone mask khẩu trang combination. Fom knows Hien as well has her mind on the exams right ahead and doesn’t communicate with her either. First when they reach the intersection where their ways part they both stop for Fom to give Hien a tight hug and a reassuring pat on her back.
Arriving at the Giang shop Fom overlooks the vehicles on display in front of the shop. Any of the scooters would be an improvement over her own second hand bought several years ago. As she passes the doorway it is clear she has been spotted because the shop assistant awaits her at the centre of the floor to immediately approach her asking “Miss Pham?” Fom nods for him to continue “The boss has instructed me to immediately take you to his office. Please follow me.”
While they walk out back Fom removes her hat, her sunglasses and her khẩu trang and put them in her bag. It is to Fom a handsome, not to say exceptionally good-looking, and well groomed man who jumps up from the desk to come and bow and shake hands the moment after the shop assistant has knocked the open door. Fom has seen him in the streets almost every time she has visited Phu Xanh but the beauty that radiate from his face right now she hasn’t noticed before. Perhaps because she has considered him unattainable due to the social gap, or perhaps because she hasn’t really listened to his charming voice before yesterday. While leading Fom to a chair facing the desk Huy has with a gesture ordered the shop assistant to stay while he with his pleasant sounding voice says “How nice of you to come here Miss Pham when your mother, sister and you should spend as much time together as possible now that you have the occasion. Please tell them I apoligise for taking some of your time together. Even with your excellent skills in accounting I’m sure it’s going to take a little time for you to get an overview over my small business so I think we have to have some refreshments while working. For my part accounting always make me sweat no matter the weather as it not the part of business I like the most to put it mildly, but of course you have a positive attitude. Besides today no matter how much we sweat here I’m sure at school our sisters are sweating more, no matter what you and your sister have done to help them through. Tea, coffee, cola or something else Miss Pham?”
To Fom the words flow from Huy like a fresh stream or a lovely tune which continues in her mind for some seconds before she realises it’s her to speak and she answers “I have just had tea for breakfast so a cola would be nice thank you. Please call me Fom Mr. Giang. You are right that our sisters are going to sweat today, but in reality they have nothing to worry about. The testing by Thu and I, we both agree, clearly showed that they both are going to pass both the written and the oral examination with a fine but not top grade. Do you have time to go to the school around two o’clock to congratulate them with passing the last subject and thus practically graduate Mr. Giang?”
After Fom has said cola Huy has gestured with the shop assistant to make him leave and now he answers Fom by saying “For me there is always something which needs to be done but of course I take the time to go and congratulate my only sister with her biggest achievement in life so far. With our sisters being close friends and you first helping Kieu and now me I think it’s time for you calling me Huy. To say the truth Fom I still often find it wrong being addressed Mr. Giang as I connect this title with my father, and I hope he has many years ahead of him being the person who represents the company and the family in official contexts as this is not me either, just as the accounting. I would rather be the one doing the interesting and complicated repairs and talking to the customers about their problems and needs if asking for a new vehicle. I think there is five or six years between us Fom, but I see myself as younger than my age and as such you might say we are of the same age.”
Fom says “Your father certainly looks to me to have many years ahead of him Mi.. – Huy. An affection for understanding and repairing mechanics is natural to all males I think, and even though there are some parts of your business that doesn’t interest you I think you should rather see yourself as fortunate to run a business which basically evolves around what you like the most. Excuse me Huy, now I patronised you like if you were a younger brother, probably because my visit here until now has been about bringing a positive view to Hien. Perhaps we better get to business.”
Huy says “No accounting until we have something to wash it down. There is nothing to excuse Fom. You are completely right, I could be selling timber or toilet articles or working in a mine. Are you happy doing accounting? – At least that is what you have to do in a minute as we now have the drinking.”
The shop assistant has returned with a bucket full of ice with a large bottle of coke in the middle, and in his other hand he carries a tray with two glasses and a selection of snacks and sweets. His arrival is registered by Fom but she is so preoccupied with talking to Huy that it doesn’t make her pause the conversation for her to directly after his words answer by saying “I don’t know if happy is the right word. I consider myself good at accounting, but on the other hand I don’t think I would miss it that much if I would be able to preoccupy myself full time with for one children or just housekeeping; especially if it would be here. What I miss the most is being a Phu Xanh woman. I love this place, its female clothing customs and being fully covered.”
Huy says while pouring their glasses “I feel the same. Phu Xanh is even more important than scooters. I once spend three days in the city to attend a car show, but although the vehicles were wonderful each afternoon when it closed I considered riding all the way to Phu Xanh to stay here for the night. I feel sorry for you staying in the city, but you have to have a stronger will than me to be able to endure it for years. You should stay here. You are the epitome of a Phu Xanh woman: An outside showing neat clothes only, and brains and guts within. On another day I would have suggested a toast for the Phu Xanh woman but today we better toast for success for our sisters.”
Huy leans over the table for just their two liftet glasses to separate their faces and make Fom feel she should never leave Phu Xanh or Huy as he says while touching glasses “To Hien and Kieu and may they positively surprise us all.”
On one hand Fom is glad her hood and mask doesn’t reveal her feelings for Huy to him, on the other hand she feels like tearing the cone mask off and lean forward to kiss him and thus reveal her feelings, but she keeps calm and just says what she is supposed to: “To Hien and Kieu!”
As they put their glasses down it seems to Fom as if their close contact has done something to Huy as well. He looks not only naturally handsome and happy and pleased to get a cheap overhaul of part of his business and very likely make profits from reduced tax, but the smile on his face has changed to show he simply enjoys their conversation and her company as well Fom thinks.
Next Huy gets up saying “You better take my chair to be able to use the computer. I hope the light is sufficient although your eye coverings are too dark for me to see anything behind.”
He has moved back from the table and stays there while Fom gets up and moves around it. Then, while she sits down and take a first look at the screen, he moves to the end of the table to switch their glasses and then refill them. As Fom after noticing that it’s a standard accounting programme for small businesses looks up at him he says “Do as you please, I trust you keep your professional secrecy, and besides I have nothing to hide with no direct competitors.”
Fom works for close to fifteen minutes to then face Huy and say “It is quite evident that this hasn’t been made by a professional accountant, but from what can be seen here everything seems to be in order. I’ve made a few edits which changes nothing but gives it a more clear and professional look. Of course a chartered accountant would go out in the stock to sample that what is entered here exists in reality in the number stated. Come here and look here at the expenses. Those that I have highlighted in yellow are tax deductable but only a part of them are shown in your tax balance sheet. – – I’ve highlighted those you have left out in – green for you to take a discussion about them with the tax authorities. The chance is not great you will get refund for previous years, but it’s worth a try as it is a considerable amount. But at least for this year and on, unless the rules are changed, you’ll be able to additionally deduct something in the order of one hundred scooter service checks I would say. But on behalf of mother, father, Thu and Phuoc thank you very much anyway as you couldn’t know at that time we would be able to return your favour like this.”
Fom ends her speech with taking a deep breath and then a large sip of cola, because since asking Huy to come and look it has felt so good feeling him standing right behind her that she had to take, hopefully unnoticed, pauses in her speech and keep facing the screen fearing she wouldn’t be able to resist putting her arms around Huy and hold him tight if fronting him.
‘Fortunately’ Huy steps back while saying “You are right I owe you a big favour, and let’s say you get a new scooter of your own choice if I get a tax refund anywhere near the figures you say. And I have to buy something extra for Kieu as well for telling me what you had taught her. It’s her and not me who could remember that some of my expenses, which you had told her were tax deductable, were not in my tax balance sheet because she helps with the accounting at stocktaking. If you would please print the sheets with expenses and your highlighting for me to take to the tax authorities and have in case I manage to undo the highlighting it’s the end of your overtime work here today on your day off.”
Fom after starting the printing slowly gets up while thinking about how she can prolong being with Huy, meanwhile she says “I certainly hope Kieu can get her oral examination onto the subject of accounting in small businesses because that is something she can relate to to bring her a top grade. I’m very flattered about your offer of a new scooter because the one I have is old and bought second hand, but you have to realise that accountants are not on a performance-related pay so I would be greedy if asking for more than the equivalent of one hour at overtime rate. No just kidding. I have just done something in return for my family being invited to your graduation party. See you at the school in some hours.”
Fom slowly starts opening her bag to put on her public covering, which to her her great joy Huy clearly doesn’t like and both his expression and his voice show some despair as he says “No, I can’t leave it at that. The invitation was something Kieu insisted on in return for good friendship during high school, but father was a bit reluctant until Kieu being invited to follow Hien’s testing. Really I should invite you and you alone for lunch, but I’ve already taking too much of your prescious time with your mother and sister.”
Finally this makes a bell ring in Fom’s mind to make her say “It’s awfully kind of you and it occurs to me it might actually be good to let mother and Thu have some time together just the two of them. If you don’t know I come here quite regularly, something like once a month on average I would say, but Thu has both a husband and many more friends in the city for her to have, at least in the eyes of my parents, let them down by not visiting for something like six months. So I think it would be good for my mother and Thu to have a lunch just the two of them to get their relationship back on track. I’ll call them right away not to have to say I leave again as the first thing when coming home. If I’m back here at the shop around half past noon we have sufficient time to go to a small restaurant and eat quietly if going from there directly to the school to congratulate Hien and Kieu.”
Huy says lightening up again “You can of course borrow a scooter, but is there any point in you going home to disturb the no doubt intimate morning your mother has wanted to have with your sister for so long for just an hour? You look great as you are and it is not today that we all dress up for graduation. I say this because we could spend the time until it’s time for lunch to stroll around and you helping me with selecting an extra present for Kieu. I have little insight in women’s fashion, or fashion at all for that matter, and you live in the city to advice me about what in the selection of our local clothing shop is acceptably fashionable or timeless.”
Fom says very happy but with her muffled voice her feelings are not sounding as strong as they are “I think you are right Kieu would get a better present if I adviced you. Where can I go to be alone while calling?”
Huy takes a couple of steps towards the door while saying “Just stay here. I’ll go and see to my men who now has to manage without me until long into the afternoon. Come to the shop when you are ready.”
Fom calls Thu’s cell phone to be able to start the conversation with some shop talk about Kieu being right and the Giang business being very similar to the case she presented, but when Thu answers by saying “Hello Fom, how many free scooter checks did you get to point out the unused tax allowance of the Giang business?” Fom bursts out “I could have got a new scooter if Huy can get a refund, but I rejected it to get something much better: Lunch with him alone. I’m in love Thu, and clearly Huy likes me as well.”
Thu says “He is very charming and an attractive match Fom. I suppose you call because the lunch invitation is for today?”
Fom says “Yes, none of us wanted to part when the accounting business was settled. I know I should have been with mother and you this morning, but it was you sending me here, and we’ll both be at the school around two o’clock to congratulate Hien and Kieu.”
Thu says “I’m happy you are up in the air Fom, but if you think for a moment you would realise that mother would go without food for an entire day or whatever it takes for you to meet a man, especially here on Phu Xanh, and even more so when it’s Huy Giang. I’ll get a good beer for our lunch and then I’ll toast with mother for a successful lunch for you and Huy. See you at the school.”
Thu is right, Fom says to herself while putting on her public covering, to their parents her finding a husband is nearly as important, perhaps even equally important, as Thu and Phuoc getting children, but at this visit it’s only their wishes for Thu which has been up because of her long absence. She places her khẩu trang high and pulls her hat down below her eyebrows to practically hide the sunglasses and thus appear as Kieu explained herself and all the women of the most influential families of Phu Xanh do.
Huy is standing at the counter talking to the shop assistant as there are no customers, but the moment he sees her he breaks of to come to her and lead her out into the street. The clothing shop is only a two minutes walk but at the pace he sets it’s going to take much longer. Fom every ten seconds turns her head to look at him, but as her expression is hidden he just looks around and greets many of those they meet. Some of them reacts late, clearly at first not having noticed who they have met because they don’t expect him to be with a young woman not wearing a pink ao dai; and most give them an extra glance. Halfway to the shop he turns his head to face her and say “I know I promised you a fine lunch but although we in a restaurant can talk privately just the two of us we are not really alone together like I want to be, and I feel you want as well, so I suggest we instead have a quick ready meal right after we leave the clothing shop and then we can go somewhere outside town, perhaps down to the old landing, to be really alone until heading for the school. Do you feel like me?”
Fom answers by leaning forward to momentarily let her khẩu trang touch Huy’s lips. He just notices this makes him blush before she faces forward while nodding and increasing her pace to normal walk speed.
As they soon after reaches the clothing store to look at the street display Huy says “With Kieu having worn her school ao dai most of the time for the past three years I think she is in need for almost anything for her wardrobe, but all I know is that my parents are going to give her a white jacket with matching long gloves and I am going to give her a new fashionable helmet.”
Fom nods and they enter the shop to immediately be met by a female shop assistant in a forest green hood, mask and long gloves and white shirt and trousers. Fom’s muffled distorted speech is rightly interpreted by the shop assistant as she would like to know what has been bought here for Kieu’s graduation. The shop assistant lists the white jacket with gloves, a pair of tight blue jeans and a light purple khẩu trang with dark purple flower pattern. Fom nods and then heads for the shirts, the jacket reminding her of how Thu dressed the day before yesterday when they rode here. Fom takes hold of a black shirt to make the shop assistant ask “A black shirt? – That is really a present Miss Giang can use Miss. First it’s an excellent match for the jacket her parents are giving her, and a match for many other jackets and trousers, secondly black is always fashionable, especially in the creative circles of the city where Miss Giang is to study. – I think I have two black shirts her size, – yes.”
Huy immediately points at one of them to say “I think this one is both the best looking and the best quality, but I guess it also means it’s the most expensive?”
The shop assistant says “You are absolutely right Mr. Giang, in all three aspects I have to say. You could have come here without the young lady to advice you.”
No, because it’s due to her that my sister gets this present. Besides I think I might want her advice much more often in the future. I take the best.”
The shop assistant says “Thank you Mr. Giang. Then perhaps the young lady should have a present as well?”
Huy says “You are absolutely right Miss, I might very well come back with her, but just the shirt for now please.”
As they leave the shop Huy asks “What kind of meal would you like?”
Fom says two muffled words to make Huy say it clearly and go on “Fresh fish. Of course living in the city fresh fish is what you miss the most. Let’s walk down to La Vong and have fried fish with noodles.”
In the company of a woman Huy goes to the back of the room where there is least sunlight. When he has ordered and Fom removed her hat, khẩu trang and sunglasses he says “Of course the shop assistant was wrong, I selected the right of the two shirts, but it was you who realised that the shop assistant would know about all the clothes bought for Kieu here and then that a black shirt would fit both her other presents and her coming studies. I know that creative people with a long education wear black though, but why?”
Fom says while they get their dishes “I don’t know, but with a black shirt Kieu can be sure to fit in and thus feel comfortable among older students and fully professionals. Are we the talk of the town in the days to come?”
Huy says “Without a doubt. Everything our family does in public becomes the subject of gossip and is often discussed among men as well. But Phu Xanh is so small that the interest in ordinary families is almost the same. I easily got the information that you and your sister had arrived on Wednesday, and I think many are aware of that the two of you have come from the city to celebrate Hien’s graduation. Even if your full covering gives you annonymity your name will be connected with me and our family at the school, and when our names are connected my men will no longer be silent about it was you coming to my office. Does it bother you?”
Fom says “All that matters to me right now is being with you Huy. Do you feel the same?”
Fom is thrilled when Huy drops his chopsticks and holds his hand across the table to take her gloved hand and squeeze it for a moment while start saying “More and more during our time together today. You exceed all my expectations. I would have addressed you anyway at the party tomorrow to get to know you better, but then Kieu told me about what you had taught her and fortunately it was you and not your sister who agreed to come and look at my accounting. You see I have been longing and thus searching for the right woman for me for some time. It isn’t easy when I want a Phu Xanh woman and I live here while all the women shrewd enough to fulfill my expectations leave the island to study just before they get really interested in steady relationships. You have kept coming back, and I have assumed you have much in common with Hien who Kieu regard so highly and where I have liked everything she has told me about her. I’m so happy you like me, and I can assure you there are no other candidates now; with those graduating tomorrow the age gap has become too wide I think.”
Halfway through Huy’s speech Fom has dumbfounded stopped eating. Now she leans over the table to say in a low voice filled with tears of joy “It’s your own generosity combined with luck which sent me instead of Thu to look at your accounting, because she expected you to give the one coming something from the shop for her trouble and I was the only one who had not already got a scooter check. Let’s finish the meal as quickly as possible and then go, no run, out to the old landing to hold hands.”
Huy makes a nod while taking his chosticks and start eating.
A few minutes later Fom covers her face like before hiding her sunglasses while Huy settles the bill. The old landing is a ten minutes walk but there is only five minutes back to the school. As long as there is people to watch them they just walk fast, but at the edge of town Fom slowly starts running to go faster and faster with Huy at her side letting her set the pace. Clearly she runs too fast for breathing through both the cone mask and the khẩu trang to drop down at the trunk of the first palm large enough to give shadow for two and have a sea view and put a hand up under the khẩu trang to tilt the cone mask and have a path from below for fresh air. Huy sits down close up against her and takes her other hand in his.
After some minutes she has regained her breath and takes her hand down for Huy to reach for that as well and thus force they are turned towards each other. Although holding hands feels good the position is awkward to for them after a few minutes taking the next step and embrace each other.
After long and without loosening their tight embrace Huy asks “May I kiss you?”
This makes Fom pull just sufficiently back to be able to turn her head to be directly face to face with Huy, but she doesn’t answer. His expression of excitement slowly fades, but just as it seems to Fom he is about to accept how far they have come today she turns and lifts her head for her chin to be at his ear and then with a hand she folds the khẩu trang sufficiently for it nearly not to influence her speech for her to say understandably and in a serious tone “I am happy and proud of being a Phu Xanh woman who only reveals her skin to others during New Year. If you accept being blindfolded we can kiss as it is what I want most myself as well. If you try to cheat with this in any way, now or in the future, it ends our relationship, or marriage if it comes to that, immediately and with no chance of us getting back together again. Do you agree?”
Huy answers in a serious tone as well “Dear Fom, I have just told you during our meal that one of the most important reasons that I like you is that you are a Phu Xanh woman, and what you have just said only confirms my assumption that you adhere to our customs at least as strongly as me and my family. I promise you I won’t ever try to lift or remove any piece of your clothing except when permitted by our customs, that is only if we get married in our bedroom at night. Please blindfold me.”
Fom relieved and convinced removes her khẩu trang, folds it along a horizontal line at the middle for the lower half of the outside to be the inside and then ties it on Huy to cover his eyes. Then she pulls her cone mask down to hang under her chin and lets her pouted lips meet Huy’s.
His lips reaction to sensing hers sends a shiver of pleasure through her body. Although she doesn’t cover her face where others don’t in the city she doesn’t have intimate contact with neither women nor men for her only normal skin to skin contact being handshakes thus this being a contact she only experiences during New Year, and then far from so intensive as it is kissing with a lover. There is nothing in her mind but the sensation of his touch, his skin, his lips and his tongue.
After none of them knows how long a natural pause comes up. Huy’s mind first come back to reality for him to break the spell for Fom by saying alarmed “The school!”
She quickly pulls her mask up and then reaches for her khẩu trang tied across Huy’s eyes. While she fits the khẩu trang on herself Huy looks at his phone to say “Oh no, it has just passed two o’clock. If they keep the schedule I have missed Kieu getting her last grade, but perhaps we can make when Hien gets hers.”
While speaking Huy has picked up the gift wrapped shirt for Kieu, Fom her bag and they have both started walking – almost running. Having fitted her khẩu trang it occurs to Fom that Huy said ‘we’ to indicate it means something to him to congratulate Hien as well. She looks at his face to see he is very happy despite very likely having missed congratulating his sister at the right moment, but also his chin and the area around his mouth is wet from saliva which she makes him aware of by wiping her gloved hand over his mouth while they keep moving. Without stopping he says “Do you have some tissue please?”
She nods and they stop to move up a long a house end wall as they are in town again. Fom can feel she is wet around her mouth as well to take a tissue up under her khẩu trang and cone mask to blindly clean as best she can but the saliva on her hood is probably going to leave stains.
While they enter the school grounds Fom realises they are going to be at least as interesting as the students, but there is no point in them entering separately as it probably already is all over town that Huy has been shopping and dining with a woman, her clothing described, and Thu most likely having told Kieu and those present to congratulate her that she is the woman with Huy.
Just before they turn into the corridor where the examinations take place Thu shows at the corner perhaps sent out to find them. Huy says “We took a walk on the beach and forgot time and got too far away. Has Kieu ..?”
Thu says “Yes, she got 8 thanks to telling about small business accounting. Hien is in now. They are a few minutes behind schedule for her to be out in about five minutes. I’ve brought your present Fom.”
Huy rushes down the corridor to congratulate Kieu while Fom removes her khẩu trang to say while removing her sunglasses and hat “Huy has been interested in getting to know me for long Thu. He would have used the party tomorrow to see if he liked me and we got along if things haven’t turned out as they did.”
Thu says “Yes, I came here before it was time for Kieu, and to divert her and Hien’s mind from the exam I told them about your call to make Kieu say that it had ocurred to her that Huy sometimes asking about her friends and especially Hien was his best way to learn about Fom. Your hood should be replaced. It looks to be stained by sweat and the chin is particularly bad. Have you been kissing?”
Fom says “Yes, we were totally absorbed by each other. That is why we forgot time. But he hasn’t seen me. We didn’t break the customs.”
Thu says “You are an independent adult woman Fom. I simply think it’s wonderful you are now beginning to learn how wonderful it is to be with a man and have someone you can share everything with. Go to the restroom, I’ll come there in a minute, mother always has an extra hood in her bag you know.”
In a fresh hood Fom only just manages to congratulate Kieu and gets thanks for selecting the shirt before Hien comes out from the examination. Her mood is very positive having been asked several of the questions from Thu and Fom’s testing. When their teacher comes out to say what she and the examiner have decided to her great joy she gets 8 just like Kieu.
Fom main, middle sister Thu older sister, married to Phuoc Hien graduate, little sister Pham family name Kieu Giang, Vo Ngoc classmates of Hien Huy Giang boyfriend, to be husband Phu Xanh, island on the coast of South Vietnam or in Mekong delta http://www.flickr.com/photos/dharmalex/ ; Fom family exams in business Hang – family where mother and daughters dress alike khẩu trang – gauze mask, surgical mask, muffler, comforter M17 gas mask
Copyright © 2013, Bo_Emp ; bo_emp ‘at’ yahoo ‘dot’ com
Thanks to Nye North for proof reading