Authors: Tommy Wieringa
ALSO BY TOMMY WIERINGA
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright © 2009 by Tommy Wieringa
English translation copyright © 2011 by Sam Garrett
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First published in Dutch in 2007 as Caesarion
by De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, Netherlands
First published in English in 2011
by Portobello Books, London, UK
Printed in the United States of America
a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
12 13 14 15 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For C, lucky number
‘And who,’ I said, ‘was his father, and who his mother?’
At Norwich Airport I rented a Ford Focus, the only automatic they had.
‘Have you ever hired a car with us before, Mr. Unger?’
She had the watery beauty of many women in these parts, the same lank blonde hair. I wasn’t to be found in the system; she copied my passport and license and slid them back to me across the counter.
‘And the key of course. Won’t get far without that.’
She reminded me of the girl I’d seen once by Bunyan’s Walk, after I’d heard something and left the path – on the mulchy forest floor I saw her, she was riding a motionless old man. He had his pants down around his knees and was looking up at her in glassy fear, at her big white breasts bouncing up and down, her glowing red face. The ferns had rolled their tongues out.
I took the key from her. Gleaming ivory were her nails.
I had left Holland because of the message delivered to me that morning.
‘A telegram,’ the receptionist at the Pulitzer Hotel said. ‘For you.’
Warren passed away.
Funeral Monday 2 March.
As I was packing my bags later on, I thought about how Catherine must have invoked God and all his angels in her efforts to convince the postal worker to actually send a telegram. In her world, the announcement of the death of a loved one did not take place over the phone. Warren himself would have disapproved of that as well, amiably but firmly. Back when we were still neighbors, when I would call them because I was too lazy to walk the short distance to their house, they always answered only after many rings and in a sort of quandary, as though they thought:
what is that strange thing ring-ringing in the hall?
The bronze urn with my mother’s ashes, which I’ve been carrying around for a few months, I put in a plastic bag. I wrapped two sweaters around it before stuffing it in the suitcase.
The Ford smelled of new.
, the sticker on the dashboard warned. I left Norwich and drove to Suffolk. The cozy feeling of hollowed roadways, the tall hedgerows on either side. I missed the turnoff; Alburgh was badly marked. Little in the way of street lamps in this corner of the world. Just before reaching the built-up area of Alburgh, I turned. Back on Flint Road, a rubbly road full of potholes. In the cold light of the headlamps I saw slow, sick rabbits. Fountains of muddy water sprayed from beneath my tires. This road served to link together those few houses still remaining on Kings Ness.
Glorious heights on which we’d made our stand to the bitter end!
A dull smack in the rear wheel well. Coup de grâce for a myxomatose rabbit.
I stopped before number 17. The porch door stuck; I took off my shoes and put them in the darkened vestibule. Then I knocked softly and opened the door. A flood of light, women at a kitchen table. Catherine was sitting at the head; the others were her Irish daughters by her first marriage. All four of them.
‘Boy,’ she said. ‘There you are, finally.’
She rose to her feet like a nail being levered straight, and wrapped her arms around me as if I were a lost son. My nose in her fragrant crown, I stood there, stared at by her hulking daughters.
‘Catherine . . .’
‘It’s all right, boy, it’s all right.’
I shuffled in stocking feet across the linoleum, around the circle of daughters, shaking hands, expressing my condolences on the loss of their stepfather. Someone handed me a glass of whisky.
‘Glenfiddich,’ one of them said, ‘the only thing I could get at the duty-free.’
They watched as I drank. I had always kept my distance from them, in the old days, when they would come over from Ireland to visit. They would hurt me when no-one was looking, pinch me or pin me to the ground and tickle me till I started crying. I may have been only the boy next door, but the fact that Catherine seemed to draw no distinction between me and her own children made them jealous and unpredictable. They lived with their claws extended.
Occasionally one of them would bow her head and blow her sorrow into a tissue. Through the window I could see the little lights of Alburgh. Catherine smiled at me.
‘Warren asked for you at the end. He wondered whether you were going to come. It was hard to reach you, boy. Promise me you’ll never disappear like that again.’
I was touched to know that he had thought of me on his deathbed.
It was the kind of thing one had to deserve. I wasn’t sure I did.
‘Your mother,’ Catherine said. ‘It must have been terrible for you. I got your card.’
‘I had to let you know,’ I stated.
‘How long ago was it?’
‘May. Almost a year already.’
‘So young,’ she said. ‘Far too young.’
The daughters stared. I wondered whether they had already reproduced, helped to swell the ranks of blunt objects in the world. Two of them had their heads together, mumbling in that guttural Gaelic of theirs. Another one filled the glasses.
‘This is a heathen land,’ Catherine said. ‘They wanted to keep Warren at the funeral home. We were only allowed to see him by appointment. Then they arranged him for us. But we keep our loved ones with us, at home, till the very last day. And then we play music and drink.’
A flurry of disgust crossed her face.
‘So cold, the English, so cold.’
‘Heathens,’ a daughter said.
Catherine produced a hypodermic and a vial from a drawer in the table and prepared a shot of insulin. One of her daughters stood up. Catherine lifted her sweater a bit and pointed to where the shot should go.
‘All those years Warren kept track of my blood sugar levels in a notebook. You could see every little fluctuation. Now I have to learn how to do everything. Like a child.’
‘You’ll learn,’ one of her daughters said. ‘We’ll help you.’
‘Do you want to see Warren?’ Catherine asked me.
I shook my head.
‘Tomorrow morning,’ I said. ‘When I’ve prepared myself for it.’ The dry rasp of the metal cap screwed off the bottle. The single malt seared my gullet, and from my numb mouth there now tumbled questions about the cliff, its inhabitants, the damage caused by winter storms. The erosion that never stopped.
At the end of the Alburgh pier, where the Belle Steamers full of London holidaymakers once tied up, two fishermen were leaning over the balustrade. They each had two lines in the water. Below them the leaden gray waves washed around the pilings; the sea was cold as a corpse.
From here you could clearly see Warren Feldman’s titanic accomplishment, and how those efforts had already been almost obliterated by the sea. Over a length of about one kilometer he’d thrown up a wall of turf, earth and clay – the wall was four meters high and stood out darkly against the yellow sand of the much higher cliff against which it leaned at Kings Ness. A primitive bulwark against erosion. Since time began the land here had been eaten away by the sea, during storms, when the North Sea threw its clenched fury at the cliffs of eastern England. Far away, at the extreme northern end of Kings Ness, stood the home of John and Emma Ambrose. All the house needed was a wee push to be drawn into the abyss.
My mother and I had known the falling feeling that went with living on the edge. The inhabitants of the medieval town of Castrum had known it too, the water had driven them further west all the time. Now the sea flows where the city once lay, Castrum no longer exists, her name sounds like Atlantis. She was lost to the North Sea, which gobbled her up storm after storm, bite by bite. The western edge of the vanished town had snuggled all the way to Kings Ness. You could say that we, the people of Kings Ness, are the final inhabitants of Castrum, the last of the Atlanteans. Our house too, on that night long ago, became a part of the ruinous street plan of Castrum which stretches some three miles eastward out onto the seabed, and is visited only by divers and sea creatures.
The teashop at the entrance to the pier was open, the bookmaker’s and souvenir shops closed and, according to a note on the door, remaining that way until Saturday, 21 March.
On the parking lot at the pier the beach cabins were in winter storage. An introspective ghost town. In May, when the storms were past, they were arranged in a long, colorful ribbon along Alburgh beach.
I went down a flight of steps in the concrete seawall to the beach, where the tide was making its advances. Along the narrow strip between cliff and sea I walked to the northern end of Kings Ness. The cliff here was brittle and sandy, not like the chalky walls of Sussex. There was wind erosion as well – on summer days with a brisk east wind, tons of sand and pebbles would sometimes stream down onto the beach. The sand martins that built their nests just below the edge damaged the cliff that bit more.
The seawall had not been worked on for some time; huge chunks had been bitten from it. The layer of cloud above the sea opened up, a sinkhole in the gray dome of the heavens; the sparkles on the waves far offshore made it look as though silver dolphins were breaking the surface there. Suddenly I knew how I had once believed in phantom ships of light that plied the horizon, and the old, shell-encrusted sea god who rose up off the coast. Overpowered by the memory I stood there and saw how the hole in the clouds closed again, how everything was reduced to the gray of a spring that would not come.
This was where our house has stood, ten meters above sea level. I could tell by the broken pipes sticking from the cliff up there, the mains that had provided us with gas, water and light. Rusty pipes: antiaircraft guns, trained on an empty sea.
I headed on. The bed of pebbles creaked beneath my feet. Anyone bothering to walk for hours with head bent, staring at the beach, could find here million-year-old amber from northern European forests.
The Ambrose family’s fence was still dangling from two posts. One gentle push of a foot and the whole thing would come tumbling down. Somewhere up on the cliff was a dog that barked hoarsely and without stopping.
I had reached the end of the seawall, where the hill of Kings Ness ran down and sank a little further into a labyrinthine landscape of creeks and swaying reeds, a place where only thatch cutters and barking Chinese water deer found their way. I climbed the hill, back in the direction of Alburgh. Long ago, someone had planted a post here with a sign on it:
UNSTABLE CLIFF. DANGER OF COLLAPSE
. Upon the cliff itself I experienced the spaciousness of sky and water, here the world crumbled and disappeared into the waves without a trace. Higher up, Terry Mud’s caravan still stood, a few meters from the edge. You could move right into it, at least if you could tolerate the hot-pink velour curtains, the enormous floral armchairs, the imitation wood paneling and the mordant dieffenbachia in the window. The whole caravan could have been embedded in a Perspex cube, like Damien Hirst’s shark, and saved as a time capsule for future generations: looking through the windows, they would be able to see the 1970s. At a single glance they could take in the style and the mentality of those years, and thank their lucky stars that they were gone for good.
I walked past the Ambrose house. A woman in a turquoise bathrobe was leaning over the fence, calling her dog.
Behind her, in the doorway, stood a stark-naked girl. Her face bore the signs of Down’s syndrome. She stood there pale and shivering, her watery eyes followed me in vacant curiosity. She had a prominent pubic mound. I didn’t recognize the woman in the bathrobe, she couldn’t have been Emma Ambrose. Caught by surprise, she greeted me with a scowl.
I turned up the way to Warren and Catherine’s house, along the same potholed road I had taken the night before. There were flattened rabbits everywhere. The road surface was a worn blanket of steamrolled rabbit fur. In the distance, a rifle cracked. A cock pheasant flew cackling into the bushes.
You could tell the sick rabbits in the field by their listlessness. The disease caused the animals’ eyes to swell, they developed lumps, went blind and died a slow, painful death. A weasel undulated along the side of the road, diving into the brown ferns and brambles for protection when he noticed me.
In dreary fields, crows hopped through the soaked corn stubble. Amid the hills to the west the occasional old, truncated steeple stuck out here and there above stands of oak. The crows and the steeples, as well as the rabbit plague at my feet – the Middle Ages had never ended here.
Catherine was hanging out the washing behind the house, I could see her through the kitchen window. Black garments flapped in the sea breeze. I walked out through the pantry. She took a clothes-peg from between her lips and clamped a sock onto the line. She brushed a few locks of hair from her face.
‘Only a couple of weeks ago I washed and ironed his good shirt for Mrs. Hendricks’ funeral.’
The cold was seeping up through my socks. In Warren, Catherine had lost the love of her life. I knew the story of how they had met, Warren was the one who had told me, it was very romantic. It made your heart writhe just to think about it. We went inside, Catherine said it was time for her shot. She opened the drawer and took out the little case containing her arsenal against roller-coasting blood sugar levels.
‘I don’t understand his system completely,’ she said as she opened the little notebook containing his insulin schedule. ‘What are these red and green squares? Even my illness is in his hands. Even that. Help me, would you?’
She handed me the needle and pulled up her sweater. I saw the old, white skin and shuddered in spite of myself.
‘Where do you want it?’
She pointed to a spot close to her spleen, an island of pinpricks. The needle was pointed straight at the skin, Catherine clucked soothingly. The tip jabbed through the resistance of epidermis and slid into the subcutaneous layer of fat. The shiver passed down to my scrotum, it was an unbearable intimacy. I pressed the plunger all the way down and withdrew the needle.
‘Let’s go now,’ she said.
Warren’s study, the war room in his struggle against the politicians and the bureaucracy. Before we went in, Catherine asked if I’d be willing to play something at the funeral service on Monday.