Timeless Treasures by Issy Jinarmo
Jill, Narelle and Maureen share one of their creative collaborations, the story of a family torn apart by tragic secret.
The collaborators change colour to signify the change in author, Narelle begins in red, Jill continues in green and Maureen follows in orange.
Angela was left the real estate in her Uncle Frank’s Will. She had only visited the area as a small child and had little memory of it, except that Uncle Frank was a kindly man. It was a total surprise when she received the letter naming her the sole beneficiary of his will.
The ten acre property, 20 kilometres from Braidwood, wasn’t worth much, and certainly had gone to rack and ruin.
The cottage and surrounding sheds were old but the hundred year old hardwood frames still stood strong and proud. The rusted corrugated iron roofs and bark cladding hung precariously everywhere.
Based in Sydney, Angela was a school teacher, while her husband, Joe, was a royal national park ranger. They were both environmentalists, loved the bush and hoped to bring this property back to its former glory.
They cautiously entered via a door that was hanging by one hinge.
‘Look out!’ called Joe as he disturbed a family of field mice scuffling away from an old sofa.
A large wooden trunk in the small bedroom caught Angela’s eye.
She brushed decades of dust and dirt from the solid trunk. Joe jimmied opened the lid for her but his interest lay in the old tractors outside. Just as he started towards them, Angela gasped behind him.
‘It looks like an old wedding dress Joe! And boxes, I wonder what’s in them.’
Angela unfolded the wedding dress. It was beautiful, woven from intricate lace and pearls, an A-line bodice. So ‘60s, she thought. But I don’t think Uncle Frank ever married. I wonder who it could belong to?
Intrigued, she opened the largest of the boxes. It was full of old black and white photos. There were many of soldiers and army life, foreign landscapes, and then she noticed the faces of the people in the pictures’ backgrounds and realised she was looking at photos from war-torn Vietnam. She remembered her mother saying Frank was called up to go to Vietnam and came back ‘a changed man’.
She looked again at the wedding dress and this time noticed how small the waist was. Her thoughts raced and she wondered if Uncle Frank had fallen in love in Vietnam. She thought of her parents and knew he’d have met with opposition from them if he had planned to bring her back to live beside him in Australia.
She delved deeper into the box of photos and did indeed find several of him with a petite woman, her thick black hair swept off her delicate features. There was one of the woman by herself, on a densely foliaged mountain top at dusk. On the back was written, My love forever, Cam.
From the biggest box she turned to the smallest, a little leather bound square of red. When she opened it her heart leapt. There were two gold wedding rings, one large and the other, she could barely fit past the knuckle of her pinky finger.
‘Joe,’ she called, ‘Joe, come and look.’
‘Hang on, Love,’ he called from the dilapidated garage. ‘I’ve found an old car,’ he whistled as she heard the swish of a sheet unfurling. ‘It could be a 1960 MG!’
She could see now that there was a lot to her uncle she’d never known and she wished she’d made the effort. She remembered her mother’s description of him after he had returned from Vietnam. ‘That man, he’s become an old hermit who lives like a grub!’
‘There’s a story here,’ Angela whispered to herself, ‘and I’m going to find it, Uncle Frank. You need to help me here,’ she said to the ceiling, ‘we have to get to know each other, make up for lost time.’
She laughed at herself for talking to the air and she stood to open the curtains, watching the sunlight streaming through the window, landing on another box, a box with a papier mache black lid inlaid with a faded white feather, so faded she hadn’t noticed it before. She knelt as she picked it up to look more closely. As she opened it, her eyes widened in surprise. Inside was a white feather lying on a bed of tissue paper. There was a note.
Vietnam is visited by white storks, my love. This morning one visited and left a message. Cam.
‘Joe!’ Angela called. ‘Joe! I think Uncle Joe had a child!’
‘What?’ her busy husband’s head appeared through the doorway. ‘He can’t have. He was a hermit, remember?’
Angela lifted the tissue paper revealing a small, aged envelope, which she opened. Wiping his oily fingers with a rag Joe joined his wife.
‘Look, Joe, I was right! They had a child!’
‘Who had a child?’ Joe took the feather from her fingers and held it up to the light.
‘Frank and Cam!’
‘Listen to this… It is now our baby boy, Trong’s, 30th day of life celebrated in Sapa. He was born at the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi. Our family has offered sacrifices to our ancestors so they will care for our baby in his following life. We can now officially inform all relatives about a new family member.’
Angela passed Joe the note signed by Cam.
‘So what on earth has happened to…’ Joe re-read the note. ‘Trong?’ It wasn’t often Joe was lost for answers.
‘If Trong is Uncle Frank’s son, then this farm is his.’
Two days later her uncle’s solicitor, Martin Usher, listened incredulously to Angela’s story.
‘Well,’ he said wiping his brow, ‘I am amazed. I received no answer to my advertisement seeking other relatives. He never spoke of a son to me.’
‘We know his name is Trong. We’ve checked the word ‘Sapa’ from the note. It’s a small mountain town close to the Chinese border.’ Angela said.
‘We’ve decided we are going to Vietnam,’ Joe’s tone was serious.
Four days later, Angela and Joe, with directions and a map given to them by the hotel receptionist at the Dragon Villa in central Hanoi, set off for the hospital.
They walked through the bustling streets of the Old Quarter, taking in French and Chinese influenced architecture, the aromas of Vietnamese food, the colourful street traders and crowds of people gathered on roadsides. Their minds were in a whirl.
Bach Mai Hospital, bombed during the Vietnam War, and now reconstructed, was impressive. After three hours making numerous enquiries, hampered by the staff’s lack of time and their own lack of Vietnamese language, Angela and Joe found an elderly woman who spoke English eloquently, a translator in a life lived decades ago. Her name was Ha and her eyes lit up when they mentioned Sapa. She was leaving for her home the next day and offered to take them with her. Joe looked skyward, thanking the universe.
It was around 3pm when they arrived in Sapa. Ha pulled up outside the Paos Sapa Leisure Hotel. The view from their hotel over the mountains was breathtaking, and they sat silent and in awe for some time.
The next morning Angela and Joe walked to the local library. Much time was spent with assistance from an interpreter who searched available family records and newspaper articles but they had no luck. The next day they visited a family historian but still no luck. Weary and exhausted, they turned back to the hotel. Angela’s mobile rang on their trudge home.
A foreign but familiar voice greeted her.
‘Is that you, Ha?’
‘I have some news you may be interested in. I was relaying to my friend about you two and what you had traveled here for. I hope you don’t mind? When I mentioned the names Cam and Trong, my friend, Mei, became quite emotional. She has the information you need to know. We can go there now, if you like.'
It only took fifteen minutes to reach the village where Mei lived. It was high in the mountains and the air was moist and sweet. They tumbled out of Ha’s car quickly and were greeted by a hunched lady who stood out the front of a modest rong house. She nodded at them, but spoke no English.
Angela extended the note she had brought with her from her Uncle Frank’s chest. Mei’s eyes widened. She spoke in rushed bursts, then stopped, waiting for Ha to interpret. Bit by bit the story came through.
‘Mei is Cam’s younger sister. Cam was so sad when Frank was shipped out back to Australia, but arrangements were made for her to travel to Australia and marry him.’
‘Not long after, Cam found out she was pregnant and was not well enough to the travel. The wedding was to be delayed until Trong was born and strong enough for the trip.’ The old lady became choked up at the mention of Trong’s name, searching her pockets for a handkerchief.
‘Trong was nearly a year old. They had planned to be in Australia so Frank could share his first birthday with him.’ Angela saw Ha hesitate, looking at Mei, dabbing her eyes. ‘They were traveling to Hanoi airport,’ Ha swallowed. ‘Their taxi cab drove over a land mine.’ Ha laid a hand on Angela’s arm. The aged note fell from her fingers and fluttered to the stone ground. ‘I’m sorry.’