Authors: Tommy Wieringa
Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000
It was late June, a wall of green had thrown itself up around the institute.
âAnd,' Mrs. Hordijk, his secretary, asked, âwhat are your plans for the summer vacation?'
âFirst a week at Juan-les-Pins,' he said. âAnd after that, we'll see.'
âLovely, isn't it, to just travel around and see where you end up?'
He nodded, yes, it was lovely â something like that.
In the evenings, he wandered through his staff's deserted offices. He examined photos of their families, and read their memos and the comic strips and pearls of wisdom they had cut out of the newspaper and hung on the wall. If they had forgotten to turn off their computers, he helped himself to their e-mails. And while they lay snuggled up against their partners in their peaceful homes, he snuck through their existences and wove together the loose ends of their unremarkable lives. Sometimes, before going to sleep, he would go by the animals, past the ferrets lying together in a tangle and, on their roosts, the chickens that opened one sleepy, beady little eye when he said âGoodnight'. Returning to his office, he went to the cupboard where he kept his bedtime items: a sleeping bag, a self-inflating air mattress, and a down pillow from home. There, where the light came latest in the morning, in a corner under the windowsill, he made his bed. Above the little sink in the restroom, he brushed his teeth and trimmed his beard. On occasion, he showered under the emergency shower in a lab, because odours and signs of neglect might make people wonder.
In the hours that he lay awake, he returned to his early childhood, and remembered more and more of it all the time. At a certain point, in his mind's eye, his grandparents' orchard reappeared, bringing with it the sweet taste of sandhill plums and burgeoning, rust-dotted pears. It was a memory from the early 1960s, he calculated, before Route 59 had turned into the highway that put an end to the trees and the little farm itself and also â as his mother, for one, was firmly convinced â to his grandfather's life. Despondency, his father believed, didn't give one cancer, but his mother dipped into her ready supply of proverbs and adages, and pulled out this one: âNot everything that can be counted counts, Willy, and not everything that counts can be counted.'
And so Edward climbed up and down the ladder of his life, and understood as little of the parts as he did of the whole.
One night, he was rudely awakened from his dozing. The door of his office flew open, and the light clicked on. Edward sat up partway and squinted. In the doorway stood a security guard. He took a few steps into the office, his hand on his hip, feeling for the flashlight that was big enough to serve as a club. His gaze swept over the man in front of him, and his bulging carryall. âWho are you?' he said at last. âWhat are you doing here?'
Edward pulled his pass from his pants pocket and handed it to him. The guard looked back and forth between the magnetic card and the man who was sitting in front of him, sticking out of his sleeping bag like a butterfly that had wriggled its way only halfway out of its cocoon.
âI'm the boss here,' Edward said.
âMaybe you are,' the other said. âBut still, what are you doing here at this hour?' The collar of his shirt was too wide for him; his neck stuck out a bit helplessly.
âWorking overtime,' Edward said. âConsider this overtime. And now I'd like to go back to sleep again, if you don't mind.'
âI'm only doing my job, sir.'
Since when were security guards so quick to take umbrage? So
He lay back down again and said: âTomorrow's going to be a long day. Please turn off the light.'
A few seconds later, Edward heard the footsteps retreating down the corridor. Sleep came as noiselessly as a scythe through the tall grass.
That weekend, he thought he was going to die of boredom. Marjolein was not answering the phone. He took a long walk in the woods around the institute. Beneath the light-green awnings of beech there hung a vague smell of rotting. He missed Morris, but it wasn't time for that yet; he had to be patient. Another two weeks, for sure. Mid-July, that was his guess â by that time she would have seen the error of her ways. It couldn't take longer than that. That wasn't possible.
Early that evening, he tried Marjolein's number again. âHello?' she said, in a tone that sounded as though someone else had picked up the phone for her.
âIt's me,' he said.
âI can't talk right now,' she said hurriedly. âI'll call you later.'
âThat's fine, doll, sure,' he said, but she had already hung up.
He kicked the leg of his desk. Maybe her marine had come home. Where were the roadside explosive devices when you really needed them?
Sunday lay before him like a steep climb. He left the institute only to go to the supermarket. Because the one in Bilthoven was closed on Sundays, he had to drive into downtown Utrecht. The whole country smelled of suntan lotion; he snuck up and down the aisles like an illegal alien. He didn't want to run into any of his students. Merely a âhello' would betray his miserable state. He drove back to the institute and put a few bottles of beer in the fridge of the kitchenette down the hall. The cool of the woods came in through the open window; at night, he sometimes heard owls.
Another six hours or so, then he could go to sleep. He longed for a message from home; he was deeply disappointed that Ruth didn't call. Like an exile, he was carried by the hour further and further from home, across rivers and plains, to the edge of the world where the sun never set. The mute darkness of evening was hardest to take, and so, in order to have those hours behind him as quickly as possible, he waited till late to walk to The Wall of China. But the restaurant was crowded, and he didn't feel like sitting at a table by himself amid all the cheerful cackling. The staff was friendly and discreet, the boy at the takeout counter said something like âYou like much Chinese food, right?', but that was it. He drank a beer and flipped through a few back issues of
Car and Driver
. Carrying his dinner in a plastic bag, he walked back to the institute.
He ate fried rice and vegetables. His phone did not ring â as though he were dead to the world.
â¢ â¢ â¢
Monday morning. Voices in the hallway, doors opening and closing. He listened with relief to the sound of life returning.
âWell, good morning,' Mrs. Hordijk said. âYou're in bright and early.'
He peeked into the lab where Marjolein usually worked. She wasn't in yet.
At the end of that morning's departmental meeting, Gerson stuck his grey head around the corner and said: âGood morning, everyone. Don't let me interrupt you. Ed, when you're done, could I talk to you for a minute?'
âWe've already finished,' Edward said.
They crossed the hall to his office. Gerson put his nose in the air, sniffed, and said: âMan, what a smell. Are you starting a restaurant or something?'
He closed the door behind them and perched one buttock on the edge of the desk. âListen, Ed â¦'
Rolling his chair back from the desk, Edward looked up at him with an amused smile.
âHow are you getting along?' Gerson asked.
Edward crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair. âYou've never asked me that before.'
âI'm serious, Ed.'
The smile slid from his face. âWhy do you ask? Is there anything wrong?'
Gerson looked him over. âTwo things,' he said. âOr three, really. Your performance on the radio a while back, that wasn't very â¦ adept, to put it mildly. That's not the Ed I know.'
Edward coughed into his fist. Avoidance behaviour. âWhat can I say,' he said. âYou know, with Morris â¦ it's very difficult. He still sleeps poorly, we're up all night with him. Maybe I'm not very sharp at the moment, that's right, but he'll be six months old soon, then the worst of it should sort of be behind us, then â¦'
Talk, talk, keep talking. Cover everything with words, smother it.
âI suppose that's what's to blame.'
âAnd I hear that you've been sleeping in the office,' Gerson said, as though he hadn't been listening at all.
Don't flinch, don't give up.
âOh, that time,' he said.
âIt seems to me that you know that's not done. It gives people, how shall I put it, the wrong idea.' He looked around the office. âDo you mind my asking why you sleep here?'
Edward started, stopped, began anew. âI spend the night here sometimes, that's right. The rare occasion. When I've been working late. At home, it's â¦ I don't think you know what that's like, a child who cries all the time. Sleep deprivation is torture. So â¦ I know it's not exactly
, but Christ, under the circumstances â¦'
âAnd are things okay at home otherwise? With Ruth? With the two of you?'
Edward scratched his arm with a pen. A grimace. âUps and down, of course, but these are tough times with Morris and all, like I said â¦ But otherwise, fine, yes.'
âAre you sure? If there's a problem, I can take that into account. I can cut you a little slack.'
âThat's â¦ thanks, but it won't be necessary. Things are fine otherwise.'
âI don't want you sleeping here anymore, Ed. We can't have that.'
Edward nodded. He wished Gerson would wipe that look off his face. That surgical look. Were they done yet? Had he run through his little list? A wisp of rage spiralled up inside him. He was going to turn fifty next year, goddamn it; he didn't want to feel like this anymore. It was humiliating.
âOne more thing,' Gerson said guardedly. He tilted his head back slightly, and perused him the way one peruses the label on a bottle of wine. âI don't know â¦ but I want to put an end to all the talk. That girl in your department, Marjolein van Unen â¦'
His skin was an ill-fitting coat that tried to cover up shock and shame. The bastard, he'd saved the worst for last.
âI have â¦ let's say I have fairly strong indications that your relationship with her has not always been of a purely professional nature.' He ran a hand over his forehead. âI'd like to hear you say it's not true. Please, Ed, convince me. Otherwise we've got a problem.'
No hesitation. Straight for the jugular. The paratrooper in action.
Edward jabbed his arm with the tip of the pen, there where it itched. He squeezed off a little laugh. âWhere do you get that?'
His words flapped through the room on fleshy, cumbersome wings. Gerson took off his glasses and twiddled them between thumb and forefinger. Arrogant, tiresome, that's what they said about him, but he was almost always right, and that was the least bearable trait of all.
Edward's tongue was thick and dry in his mouth when he said: âGod, Jaap, you know how people in the department are always talking.'
He felt the urge to float out of there through the open window, like a bit of willow fluff.
âThis is serious, Ed. So I'm going to ask you one more time: did you go off bounds with that girl?'
The crossroads. Further denial was dishonourable, unmanly, and somehow this wasn't the day for an even greater defeat. He knew he was digging his own grave, but he began nodding, hesitantly at first and then with increasing conviction, defending the last bit of honour he possessed. And also affirming a triumph â her young skin on his, the secret between her legs â¦ âYes,' he said. âYes, Marjolein and I, we â¦ well, fill in the rest.'
Gerson's lips curled in a frown. His breathing was audible. âJesus, Ed, that's â¦ bad news. Bad news.'
Edward raised his hands and shrugged. What could he say?
âThe code of conduct â¦ You know how strict we are about that here.' He shook his head. âI can't do anything but â¦ treat this very seriously. I'm sorry.'
âI understand,' Edward said.
Gerson leaned forward, empathic now. âIt's not that I don't
, Ed, it's really not that. I'm human, too. But this kind of thing â¦ I can't just sweep it under the rug, you understand? The integrity of our department heads
to be above reproach â¦'
âDo what you have to do,' Edward said. He stood up and walked to the window. The seat of his trousers was sticking to his backside. His car was parked somewhere at the front of the lot. The sun was beating down on the roofs; the morning was clear and clean. If you felt like it, you could drive all the way to Vladivostok. On a morning like this, you could stand and look out over the Sea of Japan. Why did so few people do that, anyway?
Behind him, Gerson had risen to his feet. âIt's almost time for the summer break,' he said. âTake your family down to France, find a quiet spot, and relax for a few weeks.'
âAnd what if I don't want to do that?' Edward turned around. âI have research underway â I can't go away now.'
The little smile said it all. âIt's not a matter of wanting, Ed.'
Edward nodded resignedly. âThat's all I needed to know.'