Authors: Tommy Wieringa
Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000
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There were portents: as he was reading a lab journal, Marjolein van Unen, an analyst who he found vaguely attractive, said: âBefore long, your arms will be too short for that.' Whenever he came in, she would take off her white lab coat; the T-shirts she wore were low-cut. His father-in-law's prophecy kept him from seeing an optician â he was forty-five now, so the prediction had proven accurate down to the very year. Ruth thought it was ridiculous, the way he kept bumping up the font on the screens of his phone and laptop, so she bought him a pair of oval reading glasses, the same frames that Schubert and MÃ¶rike had worn on the tips of their noses. The letters leapt up at him from the page, and he couldn't figure out why he had put up for so long with the haziness across the words.
Sometimes, while introducing a cotton swab with virus material into a ferret's throat, he remembered what Ruth had asked him:
Do you actually know what pain is?
How could you know whether your receptors were sensitive or insensitive to that? It was not a category that could be quantified. Pain could not be measured. It was an incomprehensible scientific omission, when he stopped to think about it. At lunchtime, he looked around the canteen and saw himself amid all the epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists, a realist among the realists, all of them hired to maintain the status quo. Did they know what pain was? Could they bridge the gap between their own pain and the pain of the animals they worked with? He looked at the tray on which he'd assembled his lunch: a glass of milk and a gravy-roll sandwich (two times bovine pain), a banana (
pain?), and a fricandeau sandwich. Pork fricandeau, he assumed. At one of the tables, he saw two analysts from his department.
âHello, Hester. Hello, Marjolein,' he said. âDo you mind if I sit with you while I eat my pig-pain sandwich?'
âProfessor Dr. Landauer,' Marjolein van Unen said.
He caught the mockery. It was precisely her lack of blatant beauty that excited him. She had something available about her, like some of the girls in his native village of whom people said that they went along with everyone, back behind the church.
Twice a week, he went to the gym. For a while he had gone running in the park, but he couldn't stand the looks of the joggers who crossed his path. He was startled by the men who caught up with and passed him â their malicious snorting, the sweat pouring down their faces. You'd have goddamn thought they were coming to rob you.
In the gym, he saw the commercial broadcasts on TV screens suspended from the ceiling, and heard the inane pop songs blaring from the speakers. A silent procession of TV cooks and equities analysts marched across the screens, and newsreaders with their wan smiles. Only when a superior body entered his field of vision did he look up: the girl in calf-length leggings and her gorgeous buttocks, the black boy doing his stretching exercises with a studied nonchalance. The sight of a beautiful body shattered any positive thoughts he might have had about his own person; he tugged at the weights, feeling puny and worthless; in fact, all he wanted to do was to go home.
In the car, Edward comforted himself with the thought that, unlike the narcissistic homos with their gym-buffed bodies who he had seen go to pieces during his years in Amsterdam, he was still alive. But he knew how feeble this internal defence was, how meagre the consolation he derived from the fact that âat least everything still works'.
Gone was his old sense of disassociation upon coming home. Ruth had attached herself to the house and made it theirs. The hallway and the downstairs bathroom had been painted in what she called âCaribbean colours'. The bathroom windowsill was full of shells she'd collected from North Sea beaches; little piles of sand fell out of them.
âHow can you live like this?' she'd said the first time she went home with him. She hardly listened to his objection that the chaise longue and the wood-and-leather stool were
She stood in front of his bookcase for a while, head tilted to one side, then said: âHave you actually read all these books?'
âAnd remembered them,' he said.
His scanty household goods were gradually subsumed by the flood of things and doo-dads she brought in. She had her own study upstairs, where she finally completed her thesis, not out of any inspiration but from a sense of duty implanted in her by earlier generations. When she had started furnishing the room it had contained nothing â not one moving box or saggy chair. There was a possibility that he had actually been in that room once before, he figured, on the day the agent had shown him around the house. But, as he commented in reply to her amazement, there had never been a reason to go in there after that.
âBluebeard's chamber,' she said, âwith nothing in it.'
In the meantime she had started working four days a week for a foundation that studied the financial behaviour of households, and she served as advisor to the Ministry of Social Affairs concerning the financial-economic situation of vulnerable groups. Once, they had both been on TV on the same evening, with her talking about hidden poverty among the elderly, and Edward discussing the threat of bio-terrorism. âPar for the course,' she said. âYou on the commercial channel, and me on national public TV.'
Their trip to Aspen had revealed to her the closely knit interests of science and industry, and even though he tried to explain to her that things had to be that way, that otherwise all kinds of fundamental research could never be funded â his professorial chair, in fact, was also sponsored by Danone and GlaxoSmithKline â it did nothing to lessen her disgust. âI believe you, it's not that,' she said. âBut it shouldn't be that way. It's not right. How can you be objective about that? What do they make anyway, pills?'
âPills, all kinds of things.'
âYou can't tell me that they're not expecting something in return for a vacation to the States like that.'
âIt's been that way forever in the exact sciences,' he said. âThe researcher motivated by pure intellectual curiosity, standing with his back to the world, is a thing of the past. That's how it's been for a long time.'
âBut that still doesn't answer my question.' She kicked off her shoes, which had something ominous about it under the circumstances.
âIt's probably all very complex,' he said, âbut at the very start of the process, it's really quite simple. We try to solve problems, so that the doctor won't have to throw up his hands when you're bitten by a tick or when you've had unsafe sex in the Gambia.' He reached out to her. âBut now that I mention it, speaking of unsafe sex â¦'
âWe're having a conversation, goddamn it.'
She had slipped into a polemical mood; he knew she would now defend her standpoint to beyond the borders of the reasonable.
âWhat do you want me to say?' he said. âThat I'm a pawn of the industry? Well, I'm not. Is there any danger of becoming one? Yes, there is. I know guys who push the limits, who even step over the boundaries at times, but that doesn't mean you can relegate everyone and everything to the same scrap heap, that â'
âAs far as I could tell, everyone was at that conference. Everyone. Eating, drinking, skiing, a little networking and then back to eating, drinking, skiing â¦'
âWhich is to say?'
âThat you let yourself be pampered, too, like everyone else â¦ the chauffeur, the welcome cocktail, the room â¦'
âMaybe what's bothering you is that you enjoyed it so much,' he said.
Ruth got up and went to the kitchen. He picked up his glass and went after her. She was staring out the window at the darkened garden. A lock of hair hung down over her face. âYou know,' she said, âthat was the first time I'd experienced something like that. I had no idea how seductive it could be. It was really very nice â the food, the good wine, the mountains. I let myself be lulled to sleep. But now I understand how things like that work.' She turned her head to look at him. âIt was the last time I'll go along. I hope you realise that.'
Her anger had made way for something else, something resigned, but now the rage welled up in him. âThat's â¦ uh â¦' He nodded, his eyes closed. The trips, the hotels with their wainscoting and mirrored walls, that was part of how he saw the life they were going to have together. Now it had made him a suspect. She saw the tightness around his jaw, she waited for the outburst, but when he opened his eyes the rage had worked its way out of his expression. Slowly, he said: âYour neo-Marxist friends will be proud of you. But I am â¦ not amused.'
That was it. He went no further. He climbed the stairs, leaving her behind in the kitchen, a woman unappeased; she poured herself the last sip of wine left in the bottle.
She had seen him keep himself in check; he couldn't hide the fact that he didn't dare to do otherwise. He couldn't remember ever letting himself go in an argument. He controlled himself, which took a greater effort than any battle waged.
If the arguments became more embittered and destroyed their love, he thought, Ruth could easily start anew. She was successful and attractive and still only thirty-one. She still had a few lives left; she could still have children.
He had let his last birthday pass him by â he hadn't even answered the phone. They went out to dinner together at the restaurant in the park. He was pleased with the watch she'd given him â an Omega with a white dial, a beautiful present, even though it looked, she said, a bit thin on his wrist. Later, when he'd already had a good bit to drink and had mumbled âforty-
' a few times in disbelief, she said she hoped he wouldn't take it wrong, her present. It was meant to remind him of the time they had left, not the time that had already passed.
Around midnight, when she came into the room and lay down beside him, he awoke from a light sleep. They lay in the dark, listening to each other's breathing.
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Friso Walta, Ruth's younger brother, is the kind of man all the Natashas of this world call âdarling'; he has the emaciated face of a visionary poet, and the manners of a man born in a three-piece suit. They run their fingers through his blond beard and caress his hair in his sleep. He once herded sheep in Australia and played music in the streets of Lima, but that life came to an end. The woman with whom he fell in love turned out be an even bigger egomaniac than he was: she left a letter behind on the table and abandoned him with their child in the projects of south-east Amsterdam.
The little boy's name is Hunter, after the American cult writer; he was conceived on a beach in Bali and born in a hospital in Honfleur. He is almost four, but can barely pronounce his father's name, because the muscles of his mouth are too feeble. On rare occasions, one can make out a word amid his babbling: âOop' when he has a dirty nappy, âdwink botta' when he's thirsty. His father plays the guitar and sings âOh baby, baby, it's a wild world' until tears come to his eyes. The child suffers from chronic diarrhoea because the only food in the house is powdered milk. One afternoon, they take the subway to the centre of Amsterdam, and a shocked Surinamese woman says: âThat child is way too white, man! You need to put it in the sun!'
On the sidewalk along Rokin, Friso sings Cat Stevens songs. Passers-by toss coins into his hat, and he smiles meekly. His voice is high, a bit nasal. The child sleeps in its wagon.
When Hunter is five, he goes to school. The teacher reports his language deficiency to Child Welfare. In her report she writes that he has the developmental level of a three-year-old. He prefers crawling on the floor to walking, and has had no inoculations because his father feels that he has âthe right to go through the childhood illnesses'. Threatened with having the child placed in a foster home, Friso agrees to allow family and parenting support â twice a week, a woman comes by to play with the child and do language games with him; when she is around, the boy sometimes awakes from his lethargy. On Wednesday afternoons, another woman comes to teach Friso some of the rudiments of parenting. Hunter loses some of his pallor and is now able to form simple sentences such as âHunter wants banana', âDaddy is dumb', and âHere comes the seal'. The social workers report that supervision remains necessary, but that the âfather appears capable of understanding the instructions and carrying them out'. From now on, the home help will visit once every three months, which comes down to an average of only two moments of contact a year: missed appointments are not rescheduled, but simply cancelled.
So Hunter Walta grows up, a pale, unsure child, under the care of a father who adheres to a form of world-withdrawal that comes down to neglecting himself and his child.
One morning the bells rings, and Ruth opens the door. âMy beautiful sister,' the man in the doorway says. She lets him in, not knowing quite what to say. He has a child with him, hiding behind his legs. She squats down and says: âAnd you, little man, you must be Hunter?'
At the kitchen table, she asks him why he's come. âMum gave me your address,' he says. She looks at the boy. There's something wrong with him, but she can't quite figure out what. He is sucking hard on his pacifier.
âAnd the gentlemen of the house,' Friso asks, âwhere is he?'
âEdward works,' she says.