Read A Beautiful Young Wife Online

Authors: Tommy Wieringa

Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000

A Beautiful Young Wife (9 page)

A reporter announces that hundreds of passengers at Schiphol Airport are refusing to submit to forced isolation. Groups of men are attempting to break out.

‘But what about their luggage?' Edward says. No one laughs.

Many of the passengers are ill. Fighting has broken out. In the hospitals, too, people are refusing to be confined.

‘And well they might,' Edward says. He explains the meaning of R
0
, the basic reproduction number, the measure of the virus's reach. Within ten days, millions of people can become infected.

‘So?'

‘During the outbreak of hog cholera, we culled ten million pigs; during the foot-and-mouth crisis, more than a hundred thousand. Neither of those diseases is dangerous to humans, but H7N7 — which appeared in 2003 — was. Thirty-five million chickens had to be disposed of during that outbreak. So what I'm talking about now is requisite measures: you have to have the guts to take them. An ethicist might say that you're not allowed to take even one life in order to save hundreds of others, but we're here to make decisions, aren't we?'

The moderator repeats the figure, thirty-five million. His dumbfoundedness is real.

‘Gassed, all of them,' Edward said. ‘I think … you have to dare to take unpopular measures in order to keep worse from happening.'

‘Are you saying … gas
people
?' the moderator says.

Edward has his hands on the table in front of him, straddling the mike. ‘They're incurably ill. Sources of infection.'

A silence descends.

‘I mean —' He realises his mistake; the unguarded moment. The blood rushes to his head. He recalls the stories about Gerson's parental home in Hilversum, close to the studio, where the blinds are always closed. Jaap
grew up in a blacked-out house.
Sperrzeit
, around the clock. Light was life, light was joy. On the Polish plain, the light had been extinguished.

‘The words “unpleasant” and “necessary” have been mentioned a few times already …' The moderator tries to get things going again.

The heat in his armpits, in his crotch, is unbearable. He is sweating. At the edge of the abyss, the discussion resumes. There are more than two hours left to go.

When he comes home, Ruth says: ‘Christ, Ed, had you been drinking or something?'

• • •

He was drawn to her, like water to the lowest point. He let himself go, finally; he wasn't a man made for digging in his heels. Her young skin on his, the ecstasy — he approached happiness for the first time, this was as close as he could get. She reminded him of a cat one saw slipping out of the headlights into the tall grass along the road. He felt good with her. He understood why. He could explain it; it was glorious in its simplicity. It was about the fault in the fabric of his existence, of his marriage. The ongoing affront that was his age. The creaking and the cracking of his knees. The grooves that appeared in his face without warning, and how even his brain was
slipping
. The taint of old age. That was how he understood his marriage, as a tragic lack of balance. One that could not be fixed. Not by them. For that, a third person was needed. A child, this girl. To forge a triangle. That restored the balance. It levelled the scales. It worked. For now.

He awoke with a start — their feet were lying in sunlight.
Goddamn it, oh shit
. He pulled on his clothes. ‘Your T-shirt's on backwards,' she said. Her legs were spread obscenely on the sheet. Details could be one's downfall.

‘We've got a problem,' Ruth said at dinner. He kept the fright under his skin. She had not noticed a thing. Since Morris had arrived, she barely seemed to see him. They slid past each other, supple as young joints.

It was about her brother, Friso. He had been evicted.

‘And what are you supposed to do about that?' Edward said.

‘That's what I was just about to tell you, if you'll let me.'

The story was fairly complicated, like so many from the seamy side of life. Friso was about to be relieved of his parental authority — he'd received a summons from the juvenile-court magistrate. Child Welfare had given him one last chance, which would be blown if they found out that the housing association had kicked him out of his apartment.

‘Where is he now?' Edward asked.

A sound came from the baby intercom — they froze. They looked at each other, but the thing remained silent.

‘He's gone with Hunter to a friend's house,' Ruth said quietly, as though Morris might hear them right through the ceiling. ‘He's an alcoholic, so they can't stay there. Friso can get a new place, he says, but not until September.' She looked around the room. ‘Here … it wouldn't be possible. Not with Morris, I mean, and with you …'

‘With me?'

Again that vague smile, like a hunger striker's, as though she had taken leave of the things of the world. ‘He doesn't have any money,' she said. ‘Not a penny. It wouldn't be right if we didn't help him.'

‘Why? Hunter might actually be better off somewhere else.'

‘He's so attached to Friso, and Friso to him. He's already lost his mother. If he lost his father, too … Friso is a stable factor, despite all his mucking around.'

Edward figured it would be difficult to find a rental on such short notice, especially since it was only for a couple of months. What about a campground, he asked? It was the season for that — they could view it as a long vacation.

Ruth hesitated. Maybe there were cottages you could rent, she suggested; some campgrounds had those.

Chalets
, the girl at the reception desk of the campground close to the highway told him the next morning — they rented chalets for seventy-two euros and fifty cents a night. His lips moved in silent repetition of the sum.

‘It's the high season,' the girl said.

‘It's the end of May,' Edward said.

She shrugged and turned back to her mobile phone.

‘Ma'am?'

She looked up.

‘And what if it was for three months?'

‘Then you'd have to talk to Mr. Wildschut about that.'

Taped to the window were sheets of paper with the campground rules on them. They spoke of bitter intolerance. Leaving the office, he crossed the campground in search of the manager. A few pop-up tents had been set up here and there. He found the manager scolding a group of tourists who had made a mess around theirs.
Czechs
, he thought, judging from the flag sewed to one of the backpacks on the ground. The manager was wearing shorts; he had authoritarian calves — the calves of a drill sergeant. He raged on in a mixture of English and German, the Czechs staring up at him in fear. Maybe he reminded them of what their parents had told them about the terrors of the regime.

‘Eastern Europeans,' he said to Edward a little later. ‘They rub their shit on the walls, those people. They're swine, that's what they are.'

Untermenschen
.
He means
Untermenschen
, Edward thought. It was clear to him that he was dealing with a Nazi here, a camping-Nazi behind barbed wire and a barrier gate. He explained why he'd come.

‘And who are these gentlemen you're talking about, if I may ask?'

‘My nephew and his father, my brother-in-law.'

‘Between houses, you say.'

It was unpleasant to have to talk to him about such things. The man led him to the chalets. Stopping in front of them, he planted his feet widely. What they were looking at were four wooden garden houses, set a little ways apart. Edward walked up and looked into one of them. Along the walls were two sets of bunk beds, with a narrow pathway between.

‘Seventy-two fifty, for this?' Edward asked.

‘Plus tourist tax.'

‘How much is that?'

‘Four times one-thirty-five a night.'

‘But there are only two people.'

‘Four beds, so you pay for four people. Otherwise I get into trouble with the tax department.'

Laughing a bit dazedly, Edward said: ‘So three months comes down to …'

‘Six and a half thousand euros. Plus tourist tax.'

Edward looked up at the crowns of the poplars rustling in the wind. The trees marked the border of the campground. ‘The houses are standing empty,' he said after a while.

‘They won't be for long.' From the phone holster on his belt came the sound of an electronic
Radetzky March
. He took the call, and after a few seconds he said: ‘I'll be right there.' He stuck the phone back in its holster. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?'

‘I'll take it, for half that,' Edward said. ‘As far as I can see, no one's staying in them, and something is always better than nothing, you've got to figure that.'

‘Five thousand,' the manager said.

In the end, they agreed on four thousand euros, plus tourist tax.

Goddamned Utrecht,
Edward thought a little later as he turned into the underpass beneath the highway. He felt he had been screwed, but at the same time he was willing to agree to anything in order not to have Friso and Hunter in the house. A malignant mycelium, black as ink, stretched out across time and space, connecting the campground manager and the former Dutch National Socialist Movement headquarters on Utrecht's Maliebaan, where the
Sicherheitsdienst
and SS had once been housed. Utrecht was a breeding ground for men like that. Edward's working day had yet to begin, but he felt exhausted already.

After work, he drove to Amsterdam to pick up Hunter and his father from an address on the south-east side of town. The house stank of rotting garbage and overflowing ashtrays; father and son had been sleeping on bare mattresses. They loaded three big shopping bags and a guitar into the car. ‘What about the rest?' Edward asked. Friso grinned. ‘It's all still inside. Sealed and repossessed, right? I can't even get into my own house.'

He owed six months' back rent; the gas and electricity had been cut off that winter. Hunter sat in the backseat and looked out at the landscape of grass and utility masts along the road. He scratched a flaky red ring on his chin. Edward felt sorry for him. ‘There are lots of other kids at the campground,' he said over his shoulder. ‘And there's a playground.'

The boy's smile looked like Ruth's. In the mirror, Edward saw that a little blood vessel had burst in the corner of his right eye.

‘Well, well,' Friso said as he looked around the garden house.

‘It was the best we could get on such short notice,' Edward said irritatedly. ‘Have you got any money?'

‘No, man, nothing. They're holding back my welfare checks, too, y'understand?'

Edward gave him two hundred euros.

‘You know where there's a supermarket?' Friso asked.

The campground had a store, Edward told him. But later, when they saw how expensive it was, he drove the two of them to a bigger one in the city. Darkness was already falling by the time they got back to the chalet with bags full of groceries. The next day, Edward said, he would come by with a butane-gas stove and some kitchen utensils. ‘And chairs,' Friso said. ‘And a table would make things easier, too.' Hunter sat reading a
Donald Duck
in the dying light.

• • •

The next evening, Edward came to the campground with Ruth and Morris. She had baked a quiche. Hunter couldn't keep his eyes off Morris. Once he had a new place, Friso said in reply to their questions, no one could put a thing on him. He would go into a program of debt restructuring, a precondition to getting his welfare payments rolling again. A new school had been found for Hunter. Ruth draped a shawl over her shoulders. ‘Don't pet him so hard, Hunter,' she said, ‘he's still so little.' When Edward went to take Morris over from her, she shook her head and said that he had just calmed down.

Edward wanted to go home, her brother disgusted him; a shitheel like that could never assume responsibility for a child. He would tell her later that evening, but first they sat outside in the twilight and listened as Friso, legs crossed, played a song on the little porch at the front of the cottage. Something by Leonard Cohen, Edward thought. It must have been a big hit for him around the campfire on some Asian beach. The girls probably thought he was
sensitive
, and gave themselves to him easily. It pleased Edward to think that an existence like that could end on a campground beside the A27 motorway, like Job among the ashes. All he was lacking was a certain … yes, humility. The look in those cold, goatish eyes of his was always so unmoved.

The song was over. ‘That was quite lovely,' Friso said. He raised his plastic cup of wine. ‘Despise the man of means, but drain his glasses.' Edward could not help feeling that he was the man of means whose glass was being drained by this freeloader.

*

That evening, as he was about to get into bed, Ruth said: ‘Sweetheart, maybe it's not so cozy, but I think it would be better if you went upstairs. It seems to me that Morris gets very restless around you. I think it would be nicer for him if you slept upstairs.'

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