The Abandoned Jar Of Jam

""There she was at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris on a warm, noisy day. All the passengers were eager to board their trains for the south of France. They had images of sun-drenched seaside villages, hot beaches crowded with animated holiday-goers and the enchanting scenery of spring, when all of nature reaches the peak of its brightness. Ha was elbowing her way through the stream of people queuing to buy a ticket to Lyon. From Lyon, she would go on to a small provincial town. She liked adventure, she loved unplanned journeys and she always tried to connect with the locals, even if those moments were short-lived. As a young businesswoman, Ha often took advantage of her foreign business trips to grab a backpack, board a train and roam to random places.

The TGV bullet train raced through the countryside like lightning, leaving the passengers dizzy when they pressed their faces to the window to watch the world go by. Ha glanced around, looking for some nice looking people to strike up a conversation with. The woman sitting next to her was in her seventies and fully engrossed in a thick novel. The two people sitting opposite her were a man and his wife, or possibly his mistress. They were close to her age, about thirty or so. They were sharing a baguette. The woman occasionally sniffed his cheek and pursed her lips for the man to kiss. The man tried to hide his discomfort and ignored her demands for attention by pretending to read the newspaper.
Ha smiled to herself. Her married life was not stormy, but it wasn''t particularly sweet either. She understood how the woman must be feeling and suddenly recognised that whether it was in the East or the West, women always wanted to be cared for, to be fondled and to be caressed by their husbands. And apparently the reverse was true; after enjoying lots of caresses at the beginning of the relationship, men soon get bored of their wife and lost interest in pleasing her over time.
"You''re not French, are you?" the old woman asked Ha as she put down her book.
"Oh, no." She was startled out of her daydreams for a moment, but quickly responded. "I''m Vietnamese. I''m here on business for a few days. I finished my work so I decided to head south for some sightseeing. Where do you live?"
"I live in a small village called Hauterives."
Ha nodded her head, but she had never heard of the village before. She wondered if she should pay it a visit. Ha wasn''t very impressed with big cities that were always full of tourists. She preferred tranquil areas that were remote from modern life. She intended to talk with the old woman again, but she had returned to her book. The eyes of the couple opposite her were half closed. The woman was leaning her head on the man''s shoulder. The man''s head was leaning against the window, his arms folded across his chest. Ha realised that her husband often showed her a similar cold attitude when they travelled together.
Ha had not planned on falling asleep, but the views outside were speeding by so fast that she became dizzy. She closed her eyes to relax. It wasn''t until the train was pulling into the station in Lyon that she woke up. The couple in front of her had disappeared, and she saw the old woman walking briskly to the door. As soon as the door was half open the old woman hopped off the train and disappeared as fast as a squirrel. So fast that Ha didn''t have enough time to catch up to her to say good-bye. Ha wondered if there was an old man waiting for her in the station. Possibly!
Ha walked slowly down the platform to an empty bench. Passengers were running to and fro to change trains. Lyon is a rather large hub for trains coming and going to locations all over the south of France. Ha was leafing through her guide book when a section introducing the village of Hauterives caught her eye. It looked like it was a small village, famous only for its "Palace of Postman Cheval". She remembered that the old woman said she lived in Hauterives so decided to make her way there!
On her way to the village, Ha wondered if she would see the old woman again. When she arrived she stepped up to a tiny hotel called the Sun Flower Inn. "I''ll take a bath first," she thought to herself. "I''ll go for a walk when the sun sets. It''s still very hot! It''s not the weekend so I''m sure the hotel won''t be full." But unfortunately there was no vacancy. It turned out Hauterives was not such a far-flung village after all. Visitors to the Palace had filled the entire hotel. "The Palace must be dreamily beautiful," Ha thought a bit angrily. "I''ll have to take the bus to the next village."
"Look! It''s you!" Ha heard a surprised voice behind her. "We meet again. I didn''t know you were coming to Hauterives."
"Oh, God!" Ha uttered with emotion. "I actually followed you here! I don''t know anyone in France."
"You must be love sick? You''re travelling aimlessly, aren''t you. Is the hotel fully occupied? Please, stay with me for a few days. It''s all right. Don''t worry," the old woman said with pity in her voice.
In such a quandary, Ha accepted the invitation immediately. The old woman lead the way.
"My name is Lucienne. I live alone but my house is very large. My son only visits for a few days at Christmas."

Lucienne''s house was tidy but rather lonely. There were no decorations to liven up the place except for a picture of Montmartre over the fire place. Ha was invited to stay in her son''s room, which was furnished simply with a single bed and a wash basin. Lucienne opened the door onto another room with lots of furniture. Its window looked down onto a sunflower garden.
"This is my husband''s room, but he doesn''t live here any more," Lucienne said in a choked voice. "He has been gone for ten years now."
"So...," Ha felt confused. Her words failed her. "Oh, it''s beautiful indeed!"
"It''s the most beautiful room! I always coddled him. My son always envied his father. What a pity!"
"Pity?" Ha did not know what she had meant; pity for whom, her son or her husband? "So did your husband pass away?"
"No, he is still alive, "Lucienne said sadly. "He''s gone. He left me for his mistress."
When she saw Ha''s confusion, Lucienne led Ha to the garden and told her story. Ha never thought Lucienne would tell the sad story of her husband''s infidelities, but all afternoon the words "my husband" were on Lucienne''s lips. "My husband" painted this picture of Montmartre; "My husband" loved Paris, he lives there now; "My husband" grew and loved these sunflowers; and so on. In the evening, as they ate vegetable soup, Lucienne''s eyes grew teary again. "My husband always said that nobody could make this soup as good as me. He left me after thirty years of marriage. Now he lives with his mistress. The soup was not good enough to keep him at home..."
Ha stayed in Hauterives for a week. She even changed her return ticket to Viet Nam to stay longer. The small sun-drenched village kept her captive. Lucienne took Ha on walks over the hills of fragrant lavender flowers and into the forest to pick wild fruit. On their walks, they saw herds of cows strolling back to their stables. She also visited the Palace of Postman Cheval. He was the architect who designed the structure, and visitors liked it and likened it to a palace, hence its name.
Lucienne made jam every night. She arranged an array of jars of apple, apricot and berry jams on the fire place. Ha wondered if the old woman would be able to eat them all. Lucienne told Ha stories about her unfaithful husband. She listened attentively without comment.
At noon on her last day in Hauterives, Ha decided to stay at home to sit on the rocking chair and listen to the birds sing. Lucienne sat with her on the veranda and peeled potatoes.
"Ha, are you happy with your husband?" Lucienne asked out of the blue.
"I don''t know, but I think I know how to accept the happiness that we do have."
"What interesting people the Vietnamese are!" Lucienne sighed deeply. "I am a peasant, so I think I''m a simple person, but I have thought a lot since my husband left me."
Ha kept silent as she had over the previous days as Lucienne began to spill her heardout again.
"Three years after my husband left me, I told myself ‘That''s enough!'' Well, now you can see, ten years have passed," Lucienne whispered. "I cannot forget. I know he does not deserve my love. In our thirty years together, he deceived me time and again and had a lot of affairs."
"I think you should have been happy when he left you. You know, in Viet Nam, when their husbands betray them, Vietnamese women always say ‘It''s over. I''m finished, I don''t owe him anything!'' They don''t feel sorry for losing such a husband!"
"But my problem is that I still love him," Lucienne said and burst into tears. "I''d rather live with an unfaithful husband than be abandoned by him."
Ha tried to keep calm. She wondered what she would do if she ever found herself in the same situation. You never know!
"I don''t want to be released from pain," Lucienne said as she wiped away her tears. "I don''t want to be an abandoned wife."
During their week together, Lucienne had taken the opportunity to open her heart to Ha. When it was time for her to leave, she went with Ha to the railway station.
"Have a good journey back to Viet Nam. Whenever you have business in Paris, please call me. I''ll go there to see you."
As the train slowly started to move away from the platform, Lucienne was among the crowd waving good-bye to passengers. Ha''s eyes welled up with tears. That poor, betrayed woman went to Paris every couple of months. She went to the small apartment her husband shared with his mistress during working hours and left jars of jam on the doorstep for them to find when they returned home from work.
The TVG raced back to Paris. Ha could not see anything outside. In her mind''s eyes, she could imagine Lucienne''s fire place and all of the jam jars. It was so lonely, so sad.
Translated by Manh Chuong

(Published in Vietnamnews: