Read A Beautiful Young Wife Online

Authors: Tommy Wieringa

Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000

A Beautiful Young Wife (4 page)

In 1999, he was appointed head of the Laboratory for Zoonoses and Environmental Microbiology, and was offered a named professorship, allowing him to deliver weekly lectures at the University of Utrecht on
The microbiological drivers for zoonosis emergence
.

His calling card said
PROF. DR. EDWARD LANDAUER
, but he still lived like a leaf blown by the wind. His life could just as easily have been taking place in Frankfurt or Singapore. There were women, encounters in semi-darkness, phrases at the café door that made the difference: ‘There are three things we can do: your place, my place, or each of us to their own place. You get to choose between the first two.'

He was proficient at it, but found himself no longer suited to that endless student's life. How he was to go about changing it, though, he had no idea.

One day, when a girl bicycled past the sidewalk café where he was having coffee, he realised what he was missing. Long after she had disappeared into the crowd, and the stab of desire had ebbed away, he also experienced something new: an acute sense of missing someone he didn't know yet, from far beyond the storms of infatuation and the perilous years of marriage, as though looking back out of old age at a love that had been broken off abruptly. It gave him a hint of the extent of his capacity for love. It was among the moments he would never forget. The image of the girl on her bicycle contained everything, like the
DNA
of the micro-organisms sent to him from all over the world, but was nevertheless immeasurably light, a gleaming bubble that floated silently through time and that he could summon up whenever and wherever he liked.

• • •

As soon as the opportunity arose, he took Ruth along to a medical ski conference in Aspen. The driver waiting for them at the airport held aloft a sign.
MR. & MRS. LANDAUER
. A little later, Ruth was standing at the window of their hotel room, looking out over the silent white mountains. Edward lay on the bed, his hands folded behind his head, happy as a gangster who has just covered his moll beneath a flurry of banknotes.

She turned. ‘Who's paying for all of this?'

‘GlaxoSmithKline,' he said.

She looked outside again. ‘We don't have a clue,' she said to the glass. ‘We really don't have a clue.'

In the morning, he attended lectures and mingled with old acquaintances. Speakers appeared wearing their ski outfits. The last speaker of the day already had his goggles pushed up on his forehead and said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to keep it brief, because of course you all want to get out on the slopes as quickly as possible …' Laughter came from a thousand throats.

Edward and Ruth brunched on waffles with maple syrup, blueberries, and poached eggs, and didn't take the chairlift up until far past noon. Neither of them could ski very well. His joints bothered him. After a few runs, in the chairlift again, she laid her head on his shoulder and said that something like this, this fantastic view, would have seemed impossible to her when she was little and growing up in Bozum, where mountain ranges sometimes appeared on the horizon — but those were landscapes of cloud that disappeared after a while, leaving you in that green vastness with only a steeple here and there.

Even back then, she told him that afternoon as they sat on the deck of the lodge with a valley view, the farmers had tended to keep their cows inside as much as possible, in the spring and summer, too — it was only the rare dairyman who put his cows out to pasture. They simply didn't care. But her vegetarianism, the decisive moment, only came after she had slept over at a girlfriend's house and heard the pigs being taken away in the middle of the night. Their screams as they were herded into the trucks were so unspeakably horrific that, that night, a deep awareness of the suffering of other species had been carved into her soul. An animal that screamed like that knew everything. It possessed a form of awareness of its fate, and experienced a fear, for which no comfort existed. She had understood that wordlessly. That night, a boundary between her and all other things living on this earth had been lifted, and once that happened there was no going back.

There was no distance between the little girl who felt sorrow at these things and the woman who related her memories to him in the snow.

Edward had heard the story before, with slight variations and additions, but he forgave her the repetition. He did his best to empathise with the life of the soul of a nine-year-old girl, but sometimes thought back with a twinge on things that had since vanished from his repertoire: the
scaloppine al limone
, and the lamb chops with a crust of breadcrumbs and parmesan, dishes with which he had impressed others.

A little more than two years ago, not long after they met, he had bought a few vegetarian cookbooks and adopted her dietary laws in the kitchen; she was resolute when it came to meat, but would eat shellfish by exception. One advantage was that, without even trying, he lost more than six kilos during their first six months together. The hope that he would lose even more weight turned out to be in vain, though; he continued to bob somewhere around 100 kilos, still a good eighteen kilos too much for a man his height.

Early on in her student days, Ruth had fixed macrobiotic meals in the common kitchen of a squat. When it turned out that she had no talent for cooking, though, she was quickly relegated to waiting on tables. A few times, they'd had friends from her old activist milieu over for dinner. Their vegetarianism had something barren and whiny about it, Edward thought, whereas hers seemed pure and noble.

By five that afternoon, they were back on the valley floor. Ruth went to the hotel, but he still had a few duties to perform. There was a poster session at the conference centre; snow still clinging to their shoes, gin-and-tonics in hand, the researchers strolled past the exhibits. Two young post-docs from his institute, the best of their batch, had arrived in Aspen the night before. The girl, unfortunately, was not very pretty; good looks always came in handy. Long ago, when he was still a teaching assistant, he had stood in front of a poster at the Amsterdam research institute with a hockey girl from Laren — flattered, but a bit offended for form's sake, she had said: ‘I've been offered three internships in the space of two hours!'

Later in the evening, he and the post-docs walked from the conference centre to the hotel. The session had gone well, a man from a pharmaceuticals company had been enthusiastic about their method of promoting the efficient mutation of viruses, and there had been interest in the neutralising antibodies that could wipe out a whole group of viruses at a swoop. It was the only research project in which Edward still took part. The virus he was dealing with had originated in factory farming. Minor outbreaks had been reported, and the damage had remained limited — a few dead animals, potentially infected stock eliminated. The ways of the
WHO
and the Food and Agriculture Organisation were quick and efficient. Doing research reminded him of his own Amsterdam years, but to his regret it never assumed quite the same urgency as before. Maybe he was simply no longer capable of such fire; maybe his heart was slowly guttering and dying.

They were on their second round by the time Ruth came down to the hotel bar. She was wearing a Norwegian sweater and shiny white trousers. He still didn't feel, he realised, like she was really his. It was as though he hadn't won her heart, but had acquired her by theft. Something about her aroused a hunger in him, and excitement. There were women who never lost that, that sense of something blossoming and healthy. As they grew older, their blonde hair only shifted a few tints and they became grey-blonde, like Linda Evans in
Dynasty
. No one in this little group, he realised then, would have any idea who Linda Evans was. Their youth had known other celebrities.

‘You should take a couple of lessons,' the male post-doc was telling Ruth. ‘If you can't do it right away, you just pick yourself up and brush yourself off.'

‘Literally, yes,' his female colleague said.

Edward didn't like seeing her with people her own age. It only exposed what had taken place in the time they'd been together: she had not made him younger, but because of him she had become older. In the company of her peers she took on her true age, light and sparkling, while he remained behind on his island in the distant future, grumbling through his whiskers.

• • •

Edward Landauer did not think back on his younger years very often, but he did hold a few vivid memories of the outings he'd made as a boy around his village. He had wandered down wooded lanes and across heaths, across the army shooting range and through the vast woods behind it. It was a landscape he remembered as being empty, as though there had been almost no other people, a world that seemed to have disappeared afterwards; a ship, sunken soundlessly on the horizon.

Occasionally he would come across a concrete carcass bin and open it with a yearning he didn't understand. The metal lids always had a counterweight, and stayed upright once you had opened them. He saw calves, lambs, and piglets, sometimes still enveloped in the placenta, and on rare occasions a foal — a Noah's Ark of the dead. He got lost in the pelagic void of their soft eyes. Maggots crawled from their mouths and anuses. Shivering with pleasure, he looked at the swellings and deformities, but sometimes the young animals were perfect and whole, and one couldn't see what they had died of. Something inside them had killed these perfect animals. A structural defect.

From time to time, whenever a highly pathogenic virus was haunting the stalls, he would think back on the carcass bins of yore — during an emergency session of the Food & Commodities Authority, for example, when he recommended the culling of livestock. Within a few days, thirty-five million chickens spread over ten square kilometres could vanish like that. The numbers staggered his imagination. A shed full of chicks, a rolling surface of teeming life; where the farmer walked, the sea parted. In sheds free of the virus, he had seen how farmers plucked sick and enfeebled birds from among the others and killed them with a pinch to the back of the neck. The whacking of the skull against the wooden shoe was just to be sure. They tossed them into buckets full of other dead chicks. Their arms had made that movement countless times before; they almost never missed. When the chicks became a bit larger, the farmer would pull a wheelbarrow behind him through the shed.

No one shed a tear for the chickens. When it came to pigs and cows, though, things were different. The apocalyptic images of men in white suits using a hydraulic claw to load dead heifers and sows into trucks were printed indelibly in people's minds.

Following an outbreak of an avian flu virus, all the chickens were gassed, and badly paid and sketchily briefed students or asylum-seekers came in afterwards to clean up the sheds. The Rendac trucks had replaced the carcass bins. Death had vanished from the landscape, the way living animals had also quietly disappeared from it — they lived in increasingly great numbers in increasingly large stall complexes, and the speed with which they grew was stunning.

He couldn't avoid talking to Ruth about it at times, and when he did he withdrew behind the facts. Most of the epidemics, he said, began in Asia, because of the frequent contact there between humans and animals. There, one found ducks and chickens piled up at open-air markets. The chain of infection was easy to trace back. Ducks were often the carriers of viruses transmitted by their congeners in the wild, and they in turn infected the chickens. The Asian markets were crowded — little wonder that it was precisely there that the avian flu virus first hopped to humans. Along with the increasing urbanisation, and a billion instances of global travel each year, and you could see how a pandemic could get rolling within a matter of days. That was why chickens had to be bred under controlled conditions. Every step they took outside the shed was a risk, for the birds and for humans. Don't forget, he went on, that the Spanish Flu wiped out about 2 per cent of all mankind — for us, that would mean about three or four funerals each month.

Her objection was ironclad. If that's the way the world was, she said, then it shouldn't be. Capitalism and expansion were what had made it so ugly, and sometimes Ruth could not sleep at night, thinking that he was serving the interests of big industry.

He didn't like what he saw, he would reply. It was not beautiful and it was not good, but aesthetics and morality were not a part of his job. He only combatted the diseases that came from the world the way it was, in order to prevent worse.

‘And what about the animals' pain?' she asked.

The naiveté of the question bowled him over.

He said: ‘Humans are animals, too.'

‘Pain is bad,' she said. ‘You shouldn't do anything that increases the amount of pain in the world.'

While he was still trying to figure out whether a fight was brewing here, she said: ‘Do you actually know what pain is? Real pain? I don't think you do, otherwise you couldn't walk through a stall like that without feeling anything.'

‘So in order to understand the chicken's pain, you have to have experienced it yourself? What do you think the pain of a chicken is like?'

His question was meant to be sardonic without sounding sardonic. But when he thought back on the poultry sheds he had visited, fear and confusion were indeed fairly accurate descriptions of the state in which the chickens found themselves.

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