Sunday, 18 December 2011

Như An


Sometime, a face, a name that has long disappeared from my memory comes back, still fresh and vivid. On the MRT, I can't help associating faces I see with people I know or have known. 
I love to observe children. They bring me so much joy. Was I ever like them? What's going on in their mind? Do they parents hear them, understand them? Youth, children, agelessness. And I connected my thoughts to Như An, a distant cousin of mine I had known since childhood. She was the older sister of Mai An who was our game companion whenever we would meet during holidays. Như An being the eldest (only by a few years), she first saw us as uninteresting beings. She was more interested in reading magazines about royalties. Royalties fascinated her - much more than us, trivial things!
"Như An always acts like she's an adult", I would say to my parents.
But her aloofness didn't last long and she would soon join our games - not the star war space battles, though. A few years later, she was still the same, physically. 
"Như An is never going to grow" my mother told me. "She has a disease and will always keep the body of a 12 year old girl."
"Even when she's 20?" I asked. 20 seemed so remote to me. "Even when she's 30?". 30 was unthinkable.
My mother nodded with a resigned expression. 
"It's very difficult for the parents" she went on. 
She was a very bright and lively girl, and if anything grew it was her obsession with royalties - the British royalties, as well as the story of Grace Kelly becoming Princess of Monaco. She grieved when Grace Kelly died in her car accident, and she didn't miss a single detail of Charles and Diana's sumptuous wedding.
Once, as we were spending a week end in their three-storied flat in Nancy, she mused about inviting the royal family to their place. 
I vaguely understood that her father worked as a doctor for the Royal Family many years ago. But if I was none too much uninterested to ask for more details, I still accompanied her in her fantasy and elaborated a 'plan' with her. Where they would stay, what room, what they would eat, how we would call them... We would get more and more excited as we imagined what we would do with them.
"But I'm not so certain they will deign to come to 'Nancy City'..." she eventually said.
I grew from little boy to adolescent, she kept the same. We went on summer holiday together. I shared my love for opera with her and she enjoyed watching a whole performance of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. At 19, she looked like a young girl of 13. Only the twinkle in her eyes betrayed a certain maturity. Royalty was still much in the topics. When Princess Grace's second daughter Stéphanie tried her hand at being a pop singer, she of course bought the record. The edge of insouciance.
My last conversation with her was a couple of years later, during the Christmas season. We were spending some jolly time with them in Nancy. I was at the peak of my teenager angst, countless altercations with my parents, especially with my father.
After one of those heated fights, I took refuge in the TV room on the third floor. The lights on the Christmas tree were blinking; Như An was sitting on one of the armchairs. She saw I was upset. She asked why. I told her. Now I don't even know what the argument was about, but I remember her, sitting opposite me.
"You know, I also often fight with my dad... I understand" she said. "He's stubborn so he never listens. I can't talk to my mother either. I don't have the feeling anyone really understands what's going on inside..." 
She didn't say much more, but I appreciated her words. And it occurred to me that since she was supposed to stay a little girl, everyone assumed her mind would do so. Behind all the talks about royalty, I suddenly saw that she was trying to imagine her ideal of an ideal family, she being a princess. A beautiful one.  Did anyone have a clue?
A few years later, I was in my early twenties. As I came back from a tour, I saw a plastic bag with some CDs and records inside. 
"Oh, Như An and her family dropped by for a visit. She left that for you."
There were a handful of 7" singles, songs that she liked, songs which made the soundtrack of our happy holiday time (for the best or, more often, for the worst, remember Stéphanie...) and (unexpectedly) a CD of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.
There was no note. She knew I loved classical music. The CD is still on my shelves.
The last time I saw her was again on Christmas day. 10 years ago? 12? She didn't speak anymore. She had completely retreated in her inner, silent world. Still a young girl, with the difference that with all the medication she had to take, she now looked like an overblown balloon. She didn't join us for the meal and remained in her room the whole time of our visit. 
As the parents were having their adult conversation and talking about Mai An's upcoming wedding, I went to her room. She was lying motionless on her bed. Only her breathing betrayed that she was with us. And the twinkle in her eyes, although nothing was said. I sang a little song.
"I'm better here than outside", her eyes seemed to say. "I would like to go, but I have to stay... for them"
Did she convey that through her eyes or did I imagine it? But that intensity, and the softness in them. She seemed happy to see me.
Her father came into the room to check whether everything was fine. He was glad to see me with her.
"I would be so happy if you could convince her to go have a meal with you. Something, anything..." he said. Poor man...
I know she still lives (is that the right word?) with her parents in a more modest flat near Paris. Her sister got married. The elder brother so far is still a bachelor and still angry with his father. 
Như An would occasionally visit me in my dreams. Of course, in them, she would talk and laugh, yet still remain a little girl physically.


When saw her for the first time, I smiled, like the other kids from the music conservatory. Françoise spoke with a high pitched, nasal Minnie Mouse voice, dressed up in a fashion that would make one think of her as a crossbreed between Little Red Riding Hood and one of these archetypal vintage images of the typical family - she would be the daughter. Two long braids and a pair of thick glasses completed the picture. What else? She was also twice if not three times our age and was always accompanied by her mother, a quiet (resigned?) lady in her sixties. She had the body of a woman (albeit more the Leslie Caron type than the Jayne Mansfield type) but her brain was that of a girl of nine or ten. Françoise was always there whenever I would go to the conservatory to practice or attend a class. I don't know how long she had been studying music there. Years? I guess whether she progressed or not didn't matter, her social life was at the conservatory. She would sit with us at the choir sessions, was seen at recitals given by friends she knew. She was always jovial. Sadness never seemed to touch her. Only once did I see her thoughtful and nervous.
"I'm so scared about the exam result" she confided. We came to see Françoise as our mascot. She was one of the key figure of the conservatory. Everyone knew her or knew about her.
Now, more than twenty years later, I wonder what became of her. During the later years at the conservatory, her look matured as she got rid of her braids and sported a shorter hairstyle, which made her look like an old spinster trapped in childhood.  I don't suppose her mother is still alive.
Is she still studying music...? Who takes care of her?

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