Mathijs Deen – Among People
Chapter I: The Agreement
Jan places a personal ad: ‘Farmer’s son seeks wife. Lives alone. 80 ha.’ When he sees it in the Saturday paper it strikes him as odd that he wrote ‘farmer’s son’ and not simply man, farmer, or agriculturalist. Still, it’s there and responses are coming in. A week later he receives four letters. He reads them slowly, walking home against the wind, and before he reaches the farmyard he’s rejected three of them. When he gets to the fourth (‘I know how it is. Phone me. Wil.’) he hesitates. Jan wonders what she could mean by ‘it’. She couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to be a farmer’s son. So it can only refer to living alone, or 80 ha.
Jan calls her. She’s just as brief on the phone as in her letter. Firm, too. He was meaning to ask what she meant by ‘it’, but the conversation is over before he knows what’s happening. And when they’re sitting at a table in the station restaurant the next day, Jan’s attention is focused more on the waiter who pretends not to have seen him beckon than on the woman across from him that he doesn’t dare look at.
‘I’ve a feeling neither of us wants to be here,’ she says after a while. ‘Just take me back to your house. You live by the sea, don’t you?’
Jan needs to give that some thought, too.
She doesn’t want to go inside until she’s looked from the top of the dyke. They stand side by side for a bit, staring across the water. Then she says, ‘You know what it is with the Netherlands? There’s sea everywhere, but are only a few houses where you can look out over it. There’s always a dyke in front, or dunes. You can’t see the water from your house either, I suppose?’ Jan turns and looks at the huge blind roof of the farmhouse. ‘No,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe you can.’
‘Do you like the sea?’
Irritated now, Jan sticks his hands in his pockets. ‘I’m not sure what to say to you,’ he says. ‘Just come inside with me and I’ll make something to drink. Or would you like something to eat? I’ve got more than enough.’
Once indoors a petulance grows in Jan that he can barely keep under control. Wil would like to drink something and a bowl of soup would be fine. So Jan heads for the freezer. But halfway between kitchen and barn he stops like a fractious mule. After a brief internal consultation he goes back to the kitchen. ‘Out of soup,’ he says.
It’s quite a while before the ice breaks. They sit in the bare living room, with the sofa, the chair, the low table and the TV. On the empty walls you can see the places that were occupied by the calendar, the clock, the painted scenes of fields of flowering potatoes and the photographs of the forefathers, until his parents took them away to their new house. Now, packed into boxes and transported back, they lie waiting in the barn until Jan can decide what he wants to do with all those things.
‘Just look here, Jan,’ Wil says. ‘You should have a clear understanding of my starting point.’ She gazes around the room for a moment and takes a deep breath. ‘Up to now I haven’t been able to find what I want in love. I’ve been disappointed many times. I don’t want it to happen to me again. Do you understand that, Jan?’
Jan makes no effort to understand. The contrariness in his head has driven out the initial shyness and now he’s sitting bolt upright on the sofa, looking fixedly at the young woman across from him and asking himself whether he might be capable of desiring her. He searches her face for something he’d want to stroke, kiss or if need be hit. But Wil has a face like a defensive rampart, with hair pulled up, a mouth full of incomprehensible words, narrowed eyes and a hard, thrusting nose. Jan stares and stares, thinking: What does she look like, dammit?
‘What did you mean by “it”?’ he says.
‘What do you mean by what did you mean by “it”?’
‘In your letter. I know how it is, you wrote.’
Wil thinks for a moment. ‘Can I see the house?’ she asks.
Jan goes ahead of Wil, through the farmhouse. They spend a long time in the cellar, where vegetable preserves are lined up in rows under the vaulted ceiling. She asks how they were preserved and how long ago, how old the tiles on the floor are and other things to which Jan doesn’t immediately know the answer. The stripped rooms upstairs don’t interest her, but the large hall and the attic do. She makes sure Jan doesn’t miss out even the remotest corner of the enormous farm, so that with her he returns to places he hasn’t been to since he was small. On rickety staircases and in narrow passageways, where out of sheer necessity they come close to having bodily contact, he tries to feel her body heat and inhale her odour. But there’s nothing except for a cool draught and eddies of odourless air as if, rather than a woman having passed by, a window has been opened. With his eyes, Jan gropes her clothes, which hide everything he is thinking about. She’s wearing a scarf round her neck, a long, undisturbed woollen cardigan that hangs to her thighs, stout trousers and lace-up shoes. In his silent search for sensuality he comes upon only pleats, seams and stitching.
Twilight has fallen by the time they finally walk into the barn. While Jan issues short statements about the sorting machines and the tractor, she stands with her head thrown back, looking up.
‘What a huge roof. And how high,’ she interrupts him. ‘Can you see the sea from the roof?’
Jan thinks for a moment. He tries to remember the last time the thatch was replaced. He got up onto the ridgeline then. ‘I believe you can,’ he says. ‘But I’m not certain. What is it with you and the sea?’
‘You live next to it, and you’re unmoved by it?’
‘Water and mud.’
‘Then you miss half the world,’ says Wil. ‘An entire horizon with infinity, right next to your house. You need only go and stand on the dyke and your world becomes twice as big.’
It’s as if Jan is getting to see something of Wil after all. Something inside her has sprung open and now she’s looking directly at Jan. Go on about the sea, he thinks. ‘Eighty hectares is plenty big enough. Do you know what it’s like, eighty hectares?’
‘Oh really? Why did you place the advert then? Because you were so busy, I suppose.’
Now, for the first time, Jan has begun to want to do something with Wil, to pull that damn scarf off her neck for instance, or, or, or something…
A little later they’re up on the dyke again (Wil’s idea) and as night falls it becomes clear that there’s a lighthouse on the horizon.
‘Which island is that?’ asks Wil.
Jan names an island and says he doesn’t know for sure. Wil turns around. She prods Jan. ‘Look.’ She points to the wooden board at the top of the hipped end of the roof. ‘Notice that the light from the lighthouse sweeps across the roof? If you had a window at the top there, you could look out across the sea from inside, couldn’t you? Every night the lighthouse would shine in the curtains.’
‘Someone sleeps there already,’ Jan says. ‘At the top, that’s called an “owl board”.’
‘An owl sleeps in daytime, we at night,’ says Wil.
Jan and Wil drive into town. Before the last train leaves they have something to eat in the station restaurant. ‘That was it then,’ says Jan. ‘Train in fifteen minutes.’ He stretches his leg under the table and touches her knee. He looks at her face.
‘I have a proposal,’ she says.
Wil looks at her watch, gets out her diary, rummages in her bag for a pen and says, ‘I propose that we do it three times…’ She leafs through her diary.
‘What?’ says Jan. But she’s still looking in her diary. ‘Do what?’
‘It,’ she says. ‘You know. Are there days that are absolutely impossible for you?’
Jan says nothing and looks at her darkly.
‘Look Jan, I’ve been disappointed quite a few times and love has never brought me what I wanted from it. So maybe I wanted the wrong thing. And now I don’t feel like dawdling and silliness any longer. Three times, Jan, first my way, the second time your way and then we’ll see. Okay?’
Jan looks and says nothing.
‘Understand what I mean? Three times means on three different occasions, on three different days. Just so you don’t misunderstand me… Come on, the train’s about to leave.’
Jan sits motionless, looking at Wil, and then he says, ‘Let down your hair.’
A little jolt runs through her, as if she’s startled. She recovers quickly and points to her watch.
‘First your hair,’ Jan insists.
‘Okay,’ she says and she sighs. She fumbles a bit and then the raised hair hesitantly abandons its style. Jan nods.
‘Alright then,’ he says.
Chapter 2: Wil’s Way
Wil’s proposal to Jan to do it three times – first her way, then his way and finally in a way yet to be determined – did not come out of thin air. She spent a lot of time thinking about it. For the last few months she’s given everything a great deal of thought, unlike in the past, when she avoided all difficult thoughts. So much has changed; so much, thank God, is over and done.
Wil has had more than the average share of bad luck. When she thinks back to her childhood she sees herself in her bedroom, lying in bed looking at the curtains. It’s late in the evening, she’s seven and she’s frightened. She whispers that she’s invisible, and when she gets up and tip-toes along the landing to the stairs and then goes very slowly down seven steps, she tries to move silently, so that no one can hear where she is or what she’s doing. On each stair she stops, counts slowly to seven or names all the girls in her class as slowly as possible, or all the animals she knows. After seven steps she sits and listens to the argument below. She knows roughly what they’re going to say, or what they’re going to shout. She whispers it along with them, until she hears her mother stride out of the living room, pull the door to her own room shut and turn the key in the lock. Then she waits for the slam of the front door, her father starting his car, the silence that descends and the cold draught that pours from above down the stairs to the bottom, past her back and her legs. Because the cold lives upstairs where her room is, and she is the queen of the cold, her bed is of snow. Down below the argument has ceased, everything has gone silent, there’s nobody any longer, it’s dark. And she sits and waits.
When daylight finally breaks over her memory, she sees the empty kitchen in the early morning, the sandwich she makes herself to take to school, the door she pulls shut softly to avoid disturbing anyone.
Or the bay window where she’s hidden behind the curtain with her knees drawn up, trying to breathe against the pane without fogging it. She also sees the garden in the endless summer holiday, where she splints broken flowers with satay sticks or catches bumble bees, puts them in jam jars, and takes them to her room to speak to them softly and stroke them with her fingertips.
Of course there were also the moments, now so irretrievably past, when they were together, the three of them, father, mother and she, and when she walked across the room with an evasive but smiling amiability, silently laid the table, placed the knives and forks soundlessly on the table top and looked from a distance at nothing happening, at them both sitting reading and thank god no one saying anything. Boredom is good, she thought. Boredom is quiet.
In her room there was a poster of a mountain on a headland in the sea, eternal snow on the peak. It was a photo of a sleeping volcano, in the high north, in Iceland. Deep inside, she knew, was a glowing core, a smouldering pilot light down in the earth. But the mountain was sleeping, the mountain didn’t stir, everything was under control, everything was quiet. The water around it was clear and very cold.
In her dealings with friends, teachers, shopkeepers and later those few boys outside of school hours she maintained that same friendly distance and silence. Gradually that turned against her, when it became clear that friends of both sexes were simply taking advantage of her tendency to anticipate problems and circumvent arguments. During her documentation training she didn’t complete her own assignment only but at least as many for those friends, who suddenly had all kinds of other things to do, or were just unashamedly lazy. All that extra work routinely received better marks than work she submitted under her own name.
When events were organized, she took on more of the work than others, but her own parties were only very sparsely attended. When she got a paid job, she settled for a tiny desk in a busy room and work that was below her level of capability but far too much. There were a few boys, who left her.
She did what she was asked to do, with a smile but with typing errors. Even a year and a half ago when the doctor, after she lost her job and went to him with persistent skin problems, sent her to a psychologist rather than a dermatologist, she did as she was instructed. She got a new job in the small ads department of the newspaper. Once a week, on her free afternoon, she went to her therapist, to find out why things always turned against her and why she wasn’t happy.
It was because she had a pattern, it seemed.
The therapist made light of it. He even rubbed his hands and said they were going to work on it together. ‘I’ll give you clear tasks to do,’ he said. ‘A new one every week. And every week we’re going to see how it went. Whether you succeeded.’
‘Shall I write down what you tell me?’ she asked.
‘Very good,’ he praised. ‘Just say if you want to write something down.’ He leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment. ‘Never do anything because someone else wants you to do it,’ he began. ‘Do things because that’s what you want yourself. And if you don’t know what you want to do, wait until you do know. Work out what your own wishes and desires are, and then work out whether they really are your own wishes and desires. Don’t get flustered. Never allow anyone to force you to reach a verdict before you’re sure of your ground. As long as you show dependency, other people will take advantage. If you don’t know what you want or how you want to do something, take your time. Avoid situations in which you’re vulnerable or can be manipulated.’
He paused and watched her write. ‘Did you get that?’ he asked.
For a year she cycled out of town every Friday, through the quiet of the suburbs, along watersides with willows and country houses, to a farmhouse where, sometimes alone with the therapist, sometimes with fellow sufferers, she discussed her life. She hoed the vegetable plot, fed the three hobby cows, cleaned out the chicken coop and on quiet days warded off the therapist’s occasional advances with a smile.
‘I’m here for me and me alone,’ she said.
‘Very good,’ he praised.
Slowly she discovered a different way of being; certainly not happy but nevertheless, well, wiser, or as she put it herself, ‘With self-knowledge and achievable goals.’ The boredom, which as her therapy went on she had learned to recognize as a repository for old loneliness, disappointment and sadness, hardened into an anger that refused to budge.
‘That anger, that’s your dog,’ the therapist told her. ‘You’ve got it on a short leash, everyone feels that. Including me.’ He laughed. ‘It’s your strength.’
On the way back especially, cycling home to her flat in the city past a decor of meadows, wet ditches and pollarded willows, the insight grew in her that if she didn’t want to be, she need never be the victim again. She took a stand against the chill of her childhood with a vision of a house by the sea, like the sleeping volcano on the poster, far from everyone who wanted to take advantage of her, with an empty horizon, an uncomplicated man who could be handled, and the rest of the time her hands free to read, to work in the garden, and plenty of opportunity to have a good think before acting.
When she typed out Jan’s personal ad and saw his address, she consulted a map of the Netherlands, reported sick and travelled the next day by train and bus to the north. It was a walk of more than an hour from the last bus stop. She walked until she could see the farmhouse from the road, in the distance, at the bottom of the dyke. All around her were deep drainage ditches, straight as arrows, and ploughed land all the way to the horizon. A fire of hope and expectation flared in her. She walked past the drive and a kilometre further on she headed straight across the field, to the dyke. She walked along the dyke, behind the farmhouse. It was fiercely cold and the farmhouse looked warm but uninviting. A sudden hailstorm that had blasted over the dyke against that high roof had left a layer of ice on its crest. Tears actually came to her eyes. ‘This is it, here it is,’ she said to herself. She tried at first to block it, but then she started to run. ‘Let it come,’ she said. And then she shouted it out for blazing joy. She had found her destination. She knew it for sure.
Translated by Liz Waters