(uit Rear Window and other Stories, Uitgeverij Flanor, 2002)
vertaald door Elizabeth Mollison
'How are you feeling now?' I had asked her and she had pulled such a woeful face that I knew it was up to me to do something. 'But this is such a pleasant hospital,' I had said. She had nodded and said: 'I've got a big scar here, do you want to see it?' So I saw the scar, the stitches crisscross along a straight line and the wound itself almost healed. Then why so dejected? 'Now I can never have a baby,' she said, and I exclaimed spontaneously: 'Well, that's a blessing! You never wanted children, did you?'
I am musing idly in the sun on my patio in the south of France, where the throat-clearing of the church bell tells me what time it is: the clonk comes one minute before the shattering stroke of twelve o'clock. On either side of my sagging chair a dog is sleeping. Why do I often have to think of terrible things when I am most at peace? Of Sylvia in that pleasant hospital and of my inept consolation? I hold a book open on my lap and greet the twins as they pass, calling out something about the weather to me. Eighteen years old they are, thin, and still spindly, although one of them no longer has to wear a brace to keep her back straight. Do they make me think of Sylvia, who is almost old enough to be their mother? Probably: one explanation for memory's caprices is as good as another.
The bell clangs drily and out of tune twelve times, which means it is ten to twelve. Last year the clockwork was running fifteen minutes late. Here in the village where you let your clothes fall apart to remind you of the fleetingness of everything, you learn to think in three dimensions. 'Haven't I often heard you say that you didn't want children?' I had said to Sylvia, 'that you weren't the type? And I honestly think I agree. You are much too self-absorbed. Poor children,' I had said. 'They'd have to creep about like mice all day because their mother was nursing her obsession with her own past!' 'What a thing to say!' she had said indignantly.
Of course Sylvia had been indignant. But it's all water under the bridge now, and when we see each other we talk about the news of the day, the origins of the world, the limitations of human understanding. Her sorrow had vanished almost as soon as the stitches. Had they given rise to it? Sylvia, you with your intense dislike of the snail's pace of family life, I can just imagine you at the feet of a snivelling son! Had the operation given you a desire you could afford now that it no longer entailed any risk for you?
It is easy to talk from the sidelines. All desires are genuine, however reprehensible. Next door the twins are opening the windows of their aunt's house, which is only occupied on weekends. Whatever they can do separately, they do together, those two. We have known them since their complicated birth in our village's annus mirabilis. Two sets of twins came into the world more or less simultaneously and how was that to be explained? The theories that did the rounds cannot bear the light of day.
While in the silence that has fallen after the bell's heartrending discord I am reflecting on how unfeminine their tall long bodies still are, a distant hum swells to a storm that reaches its peak on the corner of the street. The twins, now returning, wave their hands in despair: they know as well as I do that for the next few minutes we must suffer our lot in silence.
An inflated purple shirt whizzes by enveloping the torso of Jacques Richard, the sixteen-year old terror of the village, a pale, distorted face in ecstasy above the handle bars, son of the father who had made life hell for us when he himself was the son of a cantankerous mother, some twenty-three years ago. One of the dogs leaps up to chase after him, furious at having been disturbed in her sleep. The Richards, they are speed freaks, they drive pepped-up engines, they ask what we think of their ignition system. Sylvia, are you listening, at your safe distance?
Life is a matter of enduring things and breathing a sigh of relief until the next time. I hate that sixteen-year old boy and the entire village hates him with me. I hate the power that boy wields over us. The street still stinks of his gasoline and soon he'll be coming back again. They say that having children means sacrifice, but you get something for it in return and who are those bright lights who say so?
The biker is visiting his grandparents further down the street, the grandmother who oh so modestly interrupts our conversation whenever she walks to the mailbox, the cheerful grandfather who calls out to us: 'The wine is good if it is good wine!' We would be less bothered by their grandson if they themselves were not there, Sylvia, what a stroke of luck that you had to be cut open, for yourself, for those around you, what a stroke of luck, that perfectly straight incision that made an end to every indecision. Was that why you showed it so proudly, inviting a brief glimpse of a hidden treasure?
In the sun on the patio I am reading a book by Montherlant in which he writes: 'Parents are very proud of having produced a kid, and shout it from the housetops, but when it comes to raising it with a bit of intelligence, forget it.'
A married couple used to visit us regularly, a couple my parents referred to as 'the parakeets'. They were both small, and inseparable, as if they had been born under one umbrella, at home or in the street where they scurried along side by side and still had things to say to each other even after all those years. Mr. Bruininga, who had been a math teacher, was a rather strange looking diffident dwarf whose eyebrows beetled behind steel-rimmed glasses and who spoke so softly that his wife often stepped in to give form and content to his words. There was something endearing about them, my parents felt, diminutive as they were, seated opposite each other in our living room filled with heavy plush furniture. Could anyone imagine that a man like that could ever keep a class in order for one minute?
Mrs. Bruininga had very short white hair, which was revolutionary in those days, and her piercing bright blue eyes pinned you down and warned you that any question of hers demanded a well-rounded answer instead of the inarticulate evasiveness that satisfied the rest of the world. She listened hunched over, a tiny woman, a wrinkled head that kept watch, cocked slightly to one side just above the table.
The parakeets were friendly helpful folk who treated children like grown ups and were treated with caution in our town because they were exceptional: they had no children, and moreover, Mrs. Bruininga had a law degree and held the opinion that after the war far more women should go to college than in the past. 'And what about the children?' people said, 'aren't they going to suffer with parents like that?'
When anyone cast aspersions at the parakeets, they simply smiled. Mr. Bruininga was a keen walker and he read several books a week and his wife liked to talk about a college education. In the final year of the war, when to everyone's joy all the schools were closed and I had to keep off the streets, her inspiring words fired me with an enthusiasm for the law which would weather no storm, not even a shower, but that I was not to learn until later. Mrs. Bruininga brought along the books from which she had learned it all herself and if there was anything I did not understand I only had to ask. 'But I have one bad habit,' she told me in her restrained, precise voice, and she showed me the result of that habit. As she read, it was not an important word here or there, or a striking passage that she underlined, as any ordinary person might, but anything, woods and trees, every combination of letters, without a semblance of preference whatsoever, so that entire legal codes were thinly underlined in pencil in a childishly magnified and outsized morse code, to be used in emergencies. 'I hope it doesn't bother you,' Mrs. Bruininga said, 'otherwise you must erase it all.'
'How kind of her to lend you all those books,' my mother gushed, 'how very sweet of her!' But after a few weeks the dots and dashes became too much for me. However encouraging she had been, I secretly decided on another career. And my mother repeated that Mrs. Bruininga was so kind, so sweet so often, that my father was finally obliged to break his silence and show his colors. 'But don't you like her at all?' my mother had asked and the answer confounded her: 'I wouldn't give a penny for her!' It came as an honest piece of his mind, he squirmed in his creaking chair and refused to explain himself any further.
Once more we were up against the blind wall of an enigma. What had the parakeet done to deserve such a pecking? In the sun on my patio I think back to those faded birds in my faded home town and to the disgrace of the unconventional that did not fit on the page. A day, a year, a life, you had to be able to fill it in clearly, item by item, and tear it off along the dotted line.
It is after twelve; now everyone is at table, everyone who works, does not yet work, is past working. The twins, who were born ten years later than their stunning sister, ten years of no, no, no, never again and you had the right idea, no fuss and bother, you've been smart, children are the bane of your existence, my congratulations, no kidding...
If only they had heard forty years ago what she said, and coming from a grandmother, believe it or not. My home town would have been so appalled, it would have come apart at the seams, quaking with fear of the unknown. No children in those days, think of the black cloud of disgrace! An entire people smitten with the depravity of the free will!
My mother must have had some inkling as to why my father abominated the helpful parakeet so.
'They married fairly late,' she ventured.
'My good woman!'
'They did, you know! And I'm entitled to say so, aren't I?'
'And I think there is something else at the bottom of it,' my father growled in the ponderous tone he used when he sensed the approach of an undesirable train of thought.
'What is it then?' my mother asked in her unflinching foolishness and encouraged by her genuine affection for the parakeets.
'My good woman!' He rearranged his eternal newspaper with a crashing sound. It was one of those rare occasions when my mother ploughed on without immediately getting herself into a tangle, thus forcing my father to speak plainly: 'I think they have no children because they are two selfish people.'
'Ooh! But they were almost forty, weren't they?'
My father raised a hand above his paper as if to hit her on the head.
'If you please!' he said. 'Can we change the subject!' In the no man's land of morals only his word was law. How had I myself ever crept through the narrow gate into the light? The faintest allusion to the oldest prerequisite for having children made my father scrape his feet uneasily.
The war drew to a close and after the war I had to confess to Mrs. Bruininga that those books of hers bored the daylights out of me. 'Of course you shouldn't study law unless you feel an affinity for it,' she said and she poured me a cup of tea, so at ease in the presence of her reading husband that you felt, that's how it was supposed to be, right from the start, those two have found their way.
Yet in their very ease the parakeets continued to shock in the years to come. They were freethinkers unafraid of uttering their free thoughts without sinking through the ground with shame. And so it was that Mrs. Bruininga said one day as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world: 'If he should die before me, I'll make an end of it.'
'And I said to her, you mustn't say that and you mustn't do it either,' my mother reported agitatedly. 'How can anyone think such a thing,' she questioned, 'it's a sin to let such an idea even enter your head.'
After that she pestered my father less frequently with instances of the goodness of the diminutive couple. The parakeets were in their seventies, for me that was inconceivably old. Mr. Bruininga died and two days after his funeral his wife gassed herself in her kitchen, true to her infamous word. Her intelligence and her formidable memory were obliterated by the deed, which was as egotistical as the rejection of children in favor of the written word, and furthermore a sign of cowardice. In our town something resembling a deadly hush fell over her and her end.
As I sit day-dreaming over my book on my patio in the sun, my ears are ringing with an ode to the parakeets whose existence I had forgotten. It is to them that the world owes the right to speak freely. Plain and simple, with no regrets, no apologies, no spiritual life beyond the life of their own spirit, enviable modesty in the midst of so much hot air, don't you agree, Sylvia?
And you, Sylvia says, what about you? Let yourself go, bare your soul, be a parakeet yourself for a change!
But how can I be what I praise to the skies? 'Making children, then not knowing what to do with them,' I read in the book on my lap. Montherlant puts the thought into the head of his disagreeable character Costa. Not a nice
person, this Montherlant - so analytical, so lacking in warmth. My mind wanders to the grandmother of the twins and to the vehemence with which she cried: 'No, no, no, I can't abide children, I wish I'd never had them, nothing but misery and ingratitude!' For ten years she repeated this after the birth of her first grand-daughter, to whom she devoted her later life. 'And if another one arrives, it won't get a minute of my time,' she cried so that everyone could hear it. And then one day when there were no busybodies hanging round she handed us with a confidential and faintly embarrassed air a scholarly brochure on the influence of the position of the moon on fertility. 'You should read this,' she said, underlining each word with a nod.
We leafed through the book about the moon and appreciated its important recommendations and good advice. After midnight we looked up at the moon full of awe, but we had no longing for the miracle that the grandmother had in mind for us. What are the origins of such a shortcoming? One poses the question, even though the answer cannot be anything but a feeble stringing together of words.
We thanked the grandmother for the book and we let the moon run its course, for in the absence of a desire that overwhelms every reasonable consideration, a person should keep his cool.
Down the years we have become more and more attached to the family from whom we can so easily withdraw unnoticed: how often have I not conjured it up? One snap of my fingers and they gather round the table, young and old, they tell me their wildest stories, they are mature as time has matured them, they have missed out on their traumas, their birth, their childhood illnesses, their difficult youth. 'I am nothing,' Pessoa wrote, and: 'This said, I carry in me all the world's dreams...' How's that for togetherness?
The sun has moved westwards, work in the village has resumed again, I have waved goodbye to my offspring. Why does the very thought of the large family my father had wished for unnerve me so? (He had let that drop in an unguarded moment.)
'What really decided you?' a friend asked and rather than think of an answer I remember a poem called 'Growing Children', written for you, Sylvia:
So you scold them and spank them and send them to prayer meetings,
you lock them in at night early and put them to bed, still
they turn on you, waving beer bottles, flicking ashes, they scream
that you never let them have a life of their own,
and they run off with grease monkeys, or with hash house waitresses,
and one day they corner you and stab you with an ice pick
and as your life ebbs away you watch your blood stain your carpet...
How many times will that infernal bike roar by again today, unassailable in the absoluteness of its power? It is a question lives depend on.
Imagine having a sixteen-year old son, imagine the Sunday visit that middle-aged children pay to the caged caricatures of their begetters! In the sun on my patio I sit musing over Montherlant's malicious book and reflect that by now I carry in me all the mistakes that can ever be made, and that I am of an age at which more enterprising friends say to me: 'Now that the children are out of the house' etc., with that blend of relief and regret that has a long tradition behind it. Now that the children are out of the house...
My children have disappeared like snow in summer and I yawn a little for this is the time of day that makes you sleepy. I look at the sleeping dogs and think sleepily of the bright colors of a huge market somewhere in Central America where the children were stuck to their parents like their own limbs, children fast asleep on their mother's back, children at the breast, crawling and stumbling children of parents who sold fruit and vegetables, parents and children who were so wrapped up in each other that they reminded you once more of the parakeets, and I say to myself that that belongs to another world, another order, to the past, not to our day and age. Not to the city but to the countryside, and yet there are hordes of people who see themselves brilliantly at the head of the family in which they themselves would have wished to be born.
Undisturbed, I doze off in the sun to the drone of my thoughts, filled with admiration for the few who can do it because they somehow know how to, and thinking of Sylvia, her wound, the Act of Providence that cut the knot for her, and of the shining example of the parakeets who made it possible for me to say what I am saying now. Have I ever thanked them enough?
No of course not. The very small boy of my summer neighbors wakes me. He purses his lips in an effort to find the right position for the sentence he has in mind. He has just turned three and he points to each of the dogs lying asleep near my chair, panting and not moving, because they do not understand that it is the sun that is making them warmer than they want to be. 'Is that one nice,' he stammers, 'and that, that one, is he vicious?' 'No,' I say slowly and clearly, for he often asks it, 'that one there the dark one is nice, and the other one is nice too, but you should be careful with her, will you remember that?' He promises with a serious nod and the thought makes him twist his as yet unformed face in puzzlement. Then he points to the dogs again. 'That one,' he says, 'that one, is that one nice and that one, is that other one not so nice?'
'They are both nice.' I say.
The boy's name is Stephan and the village is amazed at how well he speaks. He uses difficult words like 'pretext' and 'undisciplined'. I am the latest news in his existence. 'And why,' he wants to know, 'why is that one...' He pauses for breath. 'And why is that one vicious?'
We think about it for a while together. Then I tell him truthfully that I do not know.