Read A Beautiful Young Wife Online

Authors: Tommy Wieringa

Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000

A Beautiful Young Wife (6 page)

‘That has to happen, too.' He looks around, with the look of a burglar. ‘Nice house, ma'am. And a playground around the corner. Everything in readiness for a child.'

Somewhere in his youth she lost him. He has elected to be a stranger in her life, in everyone's life.

He wants to leave the child with her for a week; he needs to arrange something in Montreux, but he doesn't say what.

That evening, she tells Edward: ‘He was gone before I even realised it.'

‘Hit-and-run tactics.'

They look at the child asleep on the couch, beneath a quilt. His blond Walta hair hangs down over his face; he is breathing through his mouth. ‘He's a cute kid,' Ruth says.

‘And his mother, where is she?'

‘She's French, I believe. Mum said she left Hunter with him. I could always take him up to Friesland …'

‘But?'

‘He's my nephew. I don't know him at all. I could take a couple of days off …'

And so they end up with a child, for a week. Edward can't stop worrying that her brother won't show up at all, that he'll leave them stuck with the child. ‘Ep' is what the boy calls him. He takes him to the playground in Wilhelmina Park a few times. ‘Ep, uppy-daisy!' Hunter refuses to climb the ladder on the slide on his own; Edward swings him up onto the platform, and Hunter shrieks as he slides down. In terms of motor skills, he's far behind the other, much younger children. He waggles around between the playground equipment on his fat little legs, never losing sight of Edward. Generally speaking he is withdrawn, but he occasionally throws little tantrums in which he takes shovels and spades away from other kids. The children are called Sophie or Olivier, they have learned that violence is reprehensible, and so they submit passively and with forbearance, victims of their parents' strategy. Edward silently eggs the boy on; a few moments later, he returns the toys himself.

Ruth comes over to meet them. She's wearing an orange woollen shawl — it's one of those summers that just won't show up. Above the treetops hangs a motionless grey sky: igneous rock.

She has never thought of herself as a
mother
; in fact, she is still living in a long, drawn-out girlishness, but lately, when her hands are busy and her thoughts roll around aimlessly, she sometimes sees a child in front of her. It has no face — it consists only of light, soft material, the essence of the childlike. They are daydreams, but sometimes the images crowd forward in her consciousness and become
thoughts
, their specific gravity increases. Edward sits down beside her on the bench, she sees drops of sweat along his hairline. He smiles, ‘What do you think, shall we make one of these, too?', and at that moment she is so desperately in love with him that tears come to her eyes.

There is another thought inside her that barely owns up to words: with a child, her relationship with this introverted man will gain more meaning — the dynamics of
Dritte im Bunde
, the third in a chord. The prospect of being with him all her life, without someone else to disturb the peace, makes her feel trapped. They will gradually become covered in ice crystals, tiny white spangles in his beard and on her face, around her eyes and her mouth, and slowly harden into a friendly pose; in a frozen state, waiting for the end.

He throws his arm around her shoulders and pulls her into the lee of his body. Hunter looks at them, afraid of losing Edward's attention, then goes and sits alone on the seesaw.

That evening, with the boy asleep in the bed they bought for him at IKEA, she suddenly says: ‘Ed, maybe I do want a child.'

He is silent for a moment, then says: ‘That's what I was afraid of.'

She examines his face, but sees that he is well disposed and not cynical. She comes over and stands in front of him, kneels like a slave before her master, and slips her hand into his. ‘Could I ask what else you're thinking?' she asks, half solemnly.

He gives a little nod upstairs, where Hunter is sleeping. ‘Is it because of him?'

She shrugs.

‘I think,' he says then, ‘that we should just do it … Our lives, everything, it's all going to change, but … I mean, the whole world has children, so why can't we?' And, a little later: ‘What'll we have, a boy or a girl?'

Refilling his glass, he thinks about the effect of alcohol on the quality of his sperm — about that, and the dwindling desire for sex that he's experienced lately, which he blames on drinking.

• • •

They marry in the spring of 2005, in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. A gentle rain had fallen earlier that morning, but the clouds above the ocean have now been driven away. The chapel is in the fields above the village, and a small group of guests has assembled in the wooden pews. Of the important people, only Friso and Hunter are missing. Ruth had called her brother a few times the night before, but he hadn't answered.

‘Maybe he'll just show up later on,' she says. ‘Hey, hello, here I am …'

Edward lays a hand on her cheek and caresses away the sad turn of her mouth.

The priest is an icy ascetic. He stands atop the tomb of a mediaeval hermit called Walaric, who is honoured here as Saint Valery. A holy man, miracles happen at his grave. Ceremoniously and resolutely, the priest pronounces his blessing over the marriage.

The sun is at its zenith. Grains of rice gleam in the light. ‘I didn't understand a word of it, but it was lovely,' Edward's father-in-law says. They drink champagne, and walk down to the
source de la fidélité
that flows from the bottom of the hill beneath the church — a dark spring, closed off with iron grillwork. The priest has the key, but he has already climbed into his Peugeot and driven off down the narrow dirt road. Edward and Ruth pose beneath the word
FIDES
chiselled in the stone above the gateway, toss coins through the grillwork into the black water behind, and kiss again. Everyone cheers and claps.

Tipsy and happy, they walk through the fields back to the village. The estuary at the bottom of the hill is drained; the mud flats glisten in the sunlight.

In the mirror of the men's room in the restaurant on the quay, he glances at himself. With his beard streaked with grey and the two top buttons of his snowy-white shirt unbuttoned, he looks like a Greek singer.

On the tables are silver platters full of shellfish on ice, an image of plenty. Edward looks over at his wife, how she cracks open a crab leg and picks out the meat. Just this once, she says, because she doesn't know how to say ‘sustainably caught' in French. He wishes his mother could have shared in his happiness. Almost across from him is his father, his hair white and frothy, his new girlfriend at his side. Will he ever again be as happy as he was with his mother, Edward wonders. Is a human truly, fully equipped to love only once, as he once read somewhere, or does one get another chance? Is life that generous? He admits the sweet pain of the thought of a life without her, and can't imagine that his cup would ever run so full again.

He drinks cool, light-green wine, Ruth whispers in his ear that she loves him, and that later, when they're alone —

There we leave them, in the midst of their happiness, at the mouth of the river that rises forth two hundred and fifty kilometres inland.

• • •

When Ruth just didn't get pregnant, they went in for a fertility test. Edward jerked off in a hospital room equipped with well-thumbed smut and a silent movie from the prehistory of pornography bouncing across the screen. He closed his eyes and thought about Marjolein van Unen and her breasts, her skin glistening with youth, as she popped the snaps on her lab coat, one by one. She leant back on her stool, her back against the fume cupboard, and let him go in …

The receptionist jotted down his particulars on a label, which she then stuck to the pot, so that his seed would not be taken for that of the North African who sat beside him, expressionless as a piece of fruit. A little later they passed each other again, driving at a snail's pace across the parking lot: the North African in a weathered Fiat, he in his Volkswagen Touareg. His sperm may have been as worthless as an immigrant's, but his car was a cut above.

Only 35 per cent of his cells were viable, the gynaecologist told him a few weeks later, ‘more or less the percentage you'd expect from a truck driver'. The bulletin board behind the doctor's back was hung with birth announcements. Joy, joy. He told Edward about his research, which focused on exceptionally fertile men. ‘If you want to find out what makes Porsches so good,' he said, ‘then you need to study Porsches, not Trabants.' They left the office only after the gynaecologist had told them about the future they could expect: a route that would lead them in ascending degrees of despair past the wonders of modern assisted-reproductive technology. There was intrauterine insemination, in-vitro fertilisation, and if even that didn't work there was always
ICSI
— intracytoplasmic sperm injection — in which the liveliest sperm cells were fished out from among all the dead material and injected into the plasma of the egg cell. Two fertilised egg cells were then put back into the uterus, which accounted for the preponderance of twins born after this treatment. In the parking garage, she ran her index finger over his crotch and said: ‘A
Trabant
, honey-pie?'

Dutifulness crept into their sex life. They made love with awkward bodies, Ruth keeping track of when they had to. Abstaining from alcohol on weekdays made him so grumpy that she would shout: ‘Well then, open a bottle of wine, for Christ's sake!'

In the evening, as they stood together before the bathroom mirror, he saw a young woman and an old man. At fifty, every man has the face he deserves, Orwell had said, but Edward was convinced that that moment had already arrived on the cusp of his forty-eighth birthday. There were days when it looked as though he had never wiped the sleep from his eyes.

He and Ruth, he noted, had slid gradually into a tragic vortex of age. She had adapted to fit his years, rather than his personality. Yes, that's how it had gone: she became older because of him, and he got even older than he was because of her. When naked in front of her, he was careful not to bend down from the waist, for then his belly and breasts seemed to separate from his frame and dangle in shapeless pleats; he would squat instead to pick up the cap of the toothpaste tube. He tried not to groan aloud when he did so.

Perhaps this, he thought, was his pain, the pain the Buddha had called the principal source of suffering: the acute awareness of disintegration. With a wife his own age it would have been different, he suspected; they would have grown old together in dignity, and closed their eyes discreetly to each other's decline.

Ruth and he would not grow old together. He already
had
grown old and, if the general demographic precepts held true, he would not become old enough to see her do so. What he would have given to be able to return to the very beginning, before things like this began to torment him so. The triumph he'd felt at that evening's conquest! But now, six years later, he knew it was a victory that could never be secured. What had started as a triumph was now an unequal battle.

Each morning he took a handful of pills, the benefits of which had been proven only barely or not at all. He was vaguely ashamed of his unreasoned belief that seaweed, ginseng, and royal jelly could provide him with youth and strength, but placed this in perspective by recalling how Herman Wigboldus had asked him to wipe his feet on the patch of lawn before his house.

Otherwise he was as unlike his old mentor as he was unlike Jaap Gerson; forceful personages both, who felt that happiness was their just desert. They dropped on life like paratroopers and took it by force. God, such nonchalant power, Edward thought — power he knew he could imitate, but did not actually possess. He could seduce a woman with its intimation, but not convince her in the long run.

Ruth had been in the shower for a long time, a sign that she was getting ready to have sex with him. He wondered whether he was capable of summoning up the requisite lust. Maybe if he licked her first.

She rubbed a peephole in the steamy shower door and pressed her nose against it. He planted a kiss on it. ‘I'll be there in a minute,' she said from beneath the hissing spray. He lay in bed, toying with his organ in the hope of instilling a little life into it beforehand.

He remembered well what it was like to get a hard-on just by pointing at it, as opposed to the result of focused efforts that Ruth had once described as ‘hardish'.

‘The only head start I have on you,' he once told his students, ‘is that I know what it's like to be you, while you haven't the faintest idea what it's like to be me. That's our only advantage, otherwise the world is furnished to accommodate you people. We may hold the buying power, but you possess the far more valuable capital of the future, whatever that may turn out to be.'

When Ruth slid in beside him a little later and whispered ‘Sorry, love, you're on duty again', he cursed the fact, and not for the first time, that one could grow accustomed to a beauty even as exceptional as hers. Everything became humdrum, and what was habituation if not death's gate? Her beauty didn't lead inevitably to randiness; on the contrary, someone like Marjolein van Unen excited him with undeniably more urgency than his own wife, who was a thousand times prettier. And with that girl in mind — the finger he slid up her butthole — he was able to live up to his obligations.

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