Peter Buwalda – Bonita Avenue
When Joni Sigerius took him along to her parents’ converted farmhouse on a Sunday afternoon in 1996 to be officially introduced, her father gave him a handshake that seemed on the firm side. ‘You took that photo,’ the man said. Or was it a question?
Siem Sigerius was a thickset fellow with dark body hair and a pair of ears that caught your attention immediately; they were puckered, as if deep-fried, and because Aaron used to do judo himself he knew they were cauliflower ears. You got them from sleeves of coarse cotton repeatedly scraping across them, by having them crumpled between hard bodies and rough mats. Blood and puss accumulated between the cartilage and the baby-soft skin. If you did nothing about it you were left with hardened swellings and lumps. On Aaron’s own head sat two perfectly ordinary, immaculate, peachy ears; cauliflower ears were reserved for champions, for monomaniac guys who rolled across the tatami night after night. You had to earn a clenched ear; man-years went into it. No doubt Joni’s father wore them as badges of honour, as proof of his zeal and his masculinity. Back in the days when Aaron used to find himself facing earmarked creatures like that during tournaments, fear would clutch at his heart. To him a cauliflower ear rounding the horizon was bad news. As a competitive judoka he’d been useless. To hide how impressed he felt, he replied: ‘I take photos non-stop.’
Sigerius’ ears moved for a second. His frizzling cropped hair sat like felt on his flat, broad head. Although he went about in suits, or in corduroy trousers and Ralph Lauren polo shirts, the outfit of the employer, the parvenu, to judge by those ears and that buffalo body you wouldn’t rank him as someone who presided over a university, let alone believe he was regarded as the greatest Dutch mathematician since Luitzen Brouwer. You’d expect to find a man of his physique in construction, or on the motorway at night in a fluorescent vest with a cauldron of tar. ‘You know perfectly well which photo I mean,’ he said.
Joni, Joni’s sister Janis, his wife Tineke, everyone in the spacious sitting room knew which photo Sigerius meant. It was the one published in large format about a year before in the magazine put out by Tubantia, the small campus university in the woods between Hengelo and Enschede of which Sigerius was chancellor. It showed him standing on the banks of the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, naked apart from a tie, legs wide apart, with his bare feet in the muddy, trampled grass, his genitals clearly visible beneath his discreetly bulging fifty-something belly. The photo was picked up by practically all the national newspapers in the days that followed, from NRC to De Telegraaf, eventually even by Bild and a Greek daily.
‘I suspect I do,’ Aaron admitted, asking himself whether Joni had told her father of the connection or whether Sigerius had simply recognized him as the tall, bald photographer from the Tubantia Weekly who buzzed around the chancellor like a horsefly with an SLR whenever he spoke in public. He found the latter possibility more flattering, just as everyone on the campus would feel flattered to have caught the attention of the charismatic man who was now crushing his hand.
Siem Sigerius had been the glowing focal point of Tubantia University ever since he took office in 1993, a hot sun around which eight thousand students and hard-working academics described their calm ellipses, both astonished and grateful it was their campus he was warming and not the Dutch parliament, where he’d declined a ministerial post, or one of the US ivy league universities that were courting him. He’d first seen Joni’s father on television, light years before when he still lived with his parents in Venlo. The August after his school leaving exams, something got into him and his brother that made them fanatical viewers of Summer Visitors, a television programme in which celebrities choose their favourite clips, and during one of those exhausting, studious Sunday evenings a mathematical judo player sat across from presenter Peter van Ingen, or perhaps a judo-playing mathematician, a man in any case who interspersed his chosen excerpts of Wim Ruska, restless jazz, Tokyo 1964 and comedian André van Duin with documentaries about prime numbers and Fermat’s last theorem. He remembered a short film in which a voluble physicist managed to make even dyed-in-the-wool humanities students like him and his brother feel they understood a bit about quantum mechanics. (‘Richard Feynman,’ Sigerius said later. ‘We’d only just buried him.’) The man himself rubbed his stubbly jaws and talked about computers, about the universe, about Maurits Escher, as if it was a waste of time ever to talk about anything else. He turned out to have competed against judo greats including Geesink and Ruska, but he was a Summer Visitor mainly because he’d been awarded a Fields Medal, which Van Ingen referred to as the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
Sigerius had since emerged as the nation’s pet scientist. After a busy day on campus their chancellor would often make guest appearances on current affairs shows or Barend & Van Dorp, programmes where he provided scientific commentary on the news, brilliantly intelligent yet with a remarkably common touch, and not a word of Greek. As the photographer for the Weekly, Aaron had stood directly in front of Sigerius when he took possession of the management wing, and what his camera saw, everyone saw: this was the man Tubantia needed. Simply by being who he was, Sigerius had rescued their backwoods university in sleepy Twente from its provincial timidity. In his inaugural speech he promised to make Tubantia the strongest research university in the Netherlands, a phrase quoted on that night’s main TV news. He was a magnet to the media; as soon as anyone anywhere let drop the word ‘university’, those cauliflower ears would appear on screen, and their chancellor, on behalf of their university, would declare his opinion on the competitiveness of Dutch research institutes, on girls and technology, on the future of the internet or whatever else it might happen to be. With the same ease, Sigerius lured top international scholars. Perhaps it was a pity the Fields Medal wasn’t a real Nobel Prize – of course that was a pity, but his aura of mathematical genius enchanted investors in the pure sciences, innumerate parliamentarians with knowledge-base portfolios, telecoms giants and chip manufacturers who came to set up their labs near the campus and perhaps even schoolchildren, since they too knew Sigerius’ stubbly face from television; don’t forget about the golden spawn, every year the little creeps had to be enticed out here to Hicksville – how do you appeal to the kids, how do you bewitch them?
The pied piper of Tubantia, bollock naked. He said: ‘Good work,’ and released Aaron’s hand.
The photo had been taken one Sunday afternoon in Houten, straight after the Varsity boat race, the deeply traditional student rowing regatta in which all Dutch universities took part. Blaauwbroek, editor-in-chief of the Weekly, had told Aaron he could swear something was about to happen: the Tubantia boat had an olympic skiffer on board, as well as a lad who was going to Atlanta with the Dutch Eight. Even so, it was remarkable that a university chancellor would sacrifice his day off to have himself driven to the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal in a coach full of hard-drinking frat lads. During the unimportant events Aaron kept half an eye on Sigerius, standing between the bar and the wooden stands on the damp summer-meadow grass, happy to be surrounded by a ratpack of professional students, the Siem-sayers, the classic type that did everything possible to monopolize the chancellor. Sigerius seemed in his element among them. He’d tempted them out of their townhouses, they’d swarmed to the campus, hankering after student jobs at the management office or the information service, flaunting their invitations to Sigerius’ annual barbecue in the farmhouse garden. Aaron felt jealous. Was the man playacting or did he really feel so content?
Blaauwbroek’s prediction came true: it was a historic Sunday afternoon for Tubantia; for the first time in the race’s hundred-and-twelve-year history an Old Four from Enschede won. Aaron was standing on the windy staging when joy erupted around him in an explosion of throaty cheers and a crunching of plastic beer glasses, and because fraternity members only ever do the customary things, the fanatical hardcore of the young men at the waterside tore off its clothes to swim to the boat. That was the moment when the chancellor caught his eye, and what he did was far from customary. With a ferocious gesture, Sigerius flung his half-full beer glass into the grass and crossed the quagmire to the water. Aaron had already climbed down from the stands and twisting his lens he followed the chancellor as he took off his suit, grinning, and then removed everything else, his shirt, his socks, his underpants – except for that tie, a rowing tie, since naturally he’d agreed to wear one of those association ties; he was an honorary member at any premises with a liquor license – and just before he sprinted to the canal to dive in with the boys, Aaron called out his name, ‘Sigerius!’ and shot him from about four meters away, full-length.
Joni’s dad was right, it was good work, whichever way you looked it was a fantastic photo. It had momentum, the man filling the frame was standing on the balls of his feet, swinging his arms in the air, and although his upper body already seemed on its way to the glistening strip of water in the background he was looking into the lens with an open-mouthed shout and furious eyes. The afternoon sun cast a sharp, oblique light, the composition seemed carefully contrived: Sigerius’ outstretched left hand more or less pointed to the rowing boat on the canal in the distance, the way it would in a stylized sports photo, and Greek-Olympic resonances rang out – but that was all photographers’ bullshit, it was plain enough why the dailies just had to have that picture. Even before leaving Houten he’d spent fifteen minutes sparring with a PR girl from Tubantia University who insisted his photo needed to go to the Information Office for approval, which of course was not going to happen. Quite the opposite. Next morning he was received by the editors as if he was Robert Capa. Of course I’ll publish the photo, Blaauwbroek roared; it’s going to the printers’ in an armoured car, and if necessary I’ll go there and lie down on the press next to it.
Since then the naked chancellor had popped up all over the place: enlarged above the bar in the rowers’ canteen, on the T-shirts of a debating society in town, on a poster announcing a big summer party on campus. Aaron saw it on toilet doors in student apartments and by coincidence or not Sigerius increasingly became the subject of wild speculation: in the clubs on the Oude Markt, at parties in campus flats. The university chancellor was said to have travelled through the Soviet Union and China and on to Japan with Ruska, smashing up Russian eating houses on the way; after his great mathematical breakthrough he’d supposedly been given electric shocks in an American funny farm; there were said to be children from an earlier marriage who’d come to no good. You only had to take a closer look at that photograph and the incongruity slid right off the paper into your lap. Everyone could see that what Sigerius’ ears announced continued, intensified, under the neat two-piece suits, usually in boring navy blue, sometimes pale grey or pinstriped; the body so improperly revealed looked shockingly tough and sinewy, hard, indestructible, ‘dry’ to use a sporting term. You had to have an opinion about that body, and indeed about the conspicuous tattoos on the left breast. Adorning Sigerius’ heart, in cheap, dark-blue seaman’s ink, were two Japanese characters that Aaron knew meant ‘judo’. The branding had a disconcerting effect; tattoos weren’t just relatively rare in 1995, they were downright vulgar, yet for all that they chimed perfectly with Sigerius’ physicality, the ape-man who liked to balance on the back legs of his chair at works-council meetings until he had to grab the edge of the table, who loosened his shoulders like a trapeze artist during coffee breaks, looking around as if he wanted to punch out the people he was talking to even before the session resumed – dark keyholes they were, through which the campus caught glimpses of a discontinued Sigerius, a thug, a gang boss who’d kicked off his boy’s-own career with two European judo titles, a hoodlum whose pinnacle of success ought to have been the Munich Olympics.
In interviews students read that their chancellor had been in with a chance of a medal in 1972 just like Ruska, until fate struck less than a month before the Games. Sigerius, crossing the Biltstraat in Utrecht for a custard bun, with the soft custard taste already in his mouth, was knocked down by a scooter that sliced across his shin with its steel running-board: snap, goodbye top sporting career. What no journalist, no student, no scientist could get enough of was the theory that but for that uneaten custard bun the true miracle of Sigerius’ rise and rise would never have come about. The Miracle of the Antonius Matthaeuslaan, he called it himself, after the street in Utrecht where he’d lain for eight months with plaster up to his groin on a bed in a small upstairs apartment. In that dark winter after the 1972 Games, Joni’s father, crippled and broken, fished a lost set of Dutch Mathematical Olympiad questions out of a box full of copies of Panorama and Libelle, a booklet containing unusually difficult problems for unusually talented high-school students, and began out of boredom to dabble at the sums with a pencil in the margins. By the next morning he was done.
What exactly happened in those twenty-four hours, exactly which French windows opened in Sigerius’ traumatized sportsman’s head, could only be guessed at; the fact is that within three years he acquired a first class degree from the mathematics faculty at Utrecht University, then went on to gain a doctorate with alarming brilliance and in the early 1980s moved with his family to Berkeley, California. There he once again rose to Olympian heights. The Ramanujan of Tuinwijk caused a breakthrough in knot theory, a branch of mathematics that seeks to determine how many different ways there are of tying a knot in a piece of string – there was no shorter or simpler way to summarize his work – for which he was awarded the 1986 Field Medal at the four-yearly congress of the International Mathematical Union.
All this flashed through Aaron’s head when he recognized the woman facing him. Despite her metamorphosis he knew immediately who she was. In the seat diagonally across from his own, next to a girl in a brick-red suit from some High Street chain, sat Joni’s mother. A stroboscopic white light of horror blinded him, and that light could only be the combined optical power of roughly those memories.
He’d woken with a start from a dreamless doze and although he was still in the express train to Brussels – they were now beyond Luik – his circumstances had changed drastically in the half hour he’d been asleep. The carriage was now crammed full; the Sunday evening light falling through the compartment window seemed leaden. It was Belgian light, refracted and muddied by the rolling landscape. Tineke Sigerius, he noted in the split second that he looked at her, was leaning her head against the window and staring absently at the receding low hills and steepled villages of Wallonia. His initial reflex was to flee, to get away, but the escape route was packed with passengers – it would be practically impossible to get up and walk to the other end of the train. His body was behaving as if storming up a steep hill in a panic. He sat like that for several minutes, sweating, breathing rapidly, urging himself to stay calm, awaiting the confrontation.
Nothing happened. Whenever a bump in the track or an unexpected noise jolted Tineke Sigerius away from her view, he felt her eyes glide over his restless body without stopping. She was pretending not to know him. She too was in a trap, he realized; she didn’t want this either. She must have come to sit across from him by accident, happy enough to have found a seat in the crowded Sunday evening train, and discovered him only after huddling into her corner. She must have been relieved he was asleep, that at least, since it meant she could catch her breath and think of a strategy. She must have got on in Luik, which surprised him more than the fact that she was on her way to Brussels. What was Tineke Sigerius doing in Luik? He hadn’t seen or spoken to her in eight years; any number of things could have changed in her life in that time. Maybe she and Sigerius had left Enschede, maybe Sigerius had become a European Commissioner and they now lived in Belgium? The coincidence seemed stupefying and malign. Perhaps they’d separated and she lived there alone? She was sure to have a different son-in-law by now, a rich and successful one. Stewing in self-pity he fantasized that Tineke was on her way not to Brussels but to Paris, to the city of her grandchildren, where Joni had lived and worked for years (her American adventure couldn’t have lasted more than a year or two, he felt) and was running a family along with some broad-faced dolt with black slicked-back hair and platinum cufflinks; he imagined him opening their varnished front door, spreading his arms to welcome his mother-in-law on the granite porch steps.
Or was he mistaken? He glanced at the window in the hope that his conscience was playing tricks on him. No, there sat Joni’s mother. But how thin she was. She seemed to have halved. Around her improbably slim hips sat a pair of brown slacks with a stylish stripe; she was wearing a tailored jacket over a cream-coloured blouse and on her feet were boots with slim, elegant heels that the Tineke Sigerius of eight years ago would have hammered right through the chassis of the carriage. Her shoulder-length hair, greying not unbecomingly, was held in a studied chignon above that remarkably shrunken face, which radiated something most people would label vigorous, independent and probably even likeable but about which he’d had his suspicions even when she was still his prospective mother-in-law: false, or simply short-tempered. Now she was showing her true colours, since along with the fat the last remnants of her softness had evaporated, seemingly for good. Although she’d gained in femininity, the result was undermined by an excess of flabby skin around her cheeks and chin, by the baggy pink-painted eyelids that drooped disappointedly over her lashes. She looked spiteful.
Sigeriuses weren’t supposed to sit in Belgian trains; they ought to be at home in the province of Twente where he’d left them eight years before. He’d beaten a retreat to avoid exactly this sort of encounter. It wasn’t for the sake of the good cuisine that he’d moved to Linkebeek, a hamlet less than five kilometres south of Brussels, where a person, or so he’d thought until a few minutes ago, could start again with a fresh slate as inconspicuously as in Asunción or Montevideo. He’d imagined himself safe and unobserved; Linkebeek was a village with more trees than residents – everything set down there higgledy-piggledy by human hand was hidden from sight by rustling, snapping, knocking timber.
He surreptitiously switched his attention to Tineke’s hands. They were lying in her lap, oddly fine and bony, with emphatic joints. How many tables, how many chairs, how many cupboards would those hands have produced by now? This woman made furniture in a workshop behind the converted farmhouse, at least she did in those days, designer-style interior pieces that commanded considerable prices and ended up in villas, offices and canalside houses all over the Netherlands. One hand was now grabbing each of the fingers of the other in turn and tugging them – grimly, he assumed.
They’d never got along, he and this woman. Never hit it off. He thought back to one time when he and Joni spent a night at the farmhouse and as so often he’d lain awake for hours, aching for Sigerius’ wine cellar, before finally getting out of the narrow guest bed and creeping down the open staircase, along the cool hall to the large sitting room. From the kitchen he took a practiced route down the creaking cellar steps and removed one of Sigerius’ home-made wines from the wrought-iron rack, already planning to uncork the thing on the draining board and drink as much of it as he could in wild gulps in the hope it would knock him out. But when he climbed back up the cellar steps he heard footfall nearby and had to duck back below the floor. Someone was coming into the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards. On tiptoe he peered over the rim and what he saw was shocking and abhorrent. He found himself facing a repulsive back, a cliff face of the kind you see in nature films about South Africa or the Arizona plains, except that this was a massif made of flesh. It was Tineke. He counted six deeply pleated rolls of fat between her armpits and her backside, and halfway down hung a kind of orange awning that you couldn’t with the best will in the world call a pair of panties.
Joni’s mother tore the flap off a carton and poured the contents into her wide-open mouth. Half swished past her chin onto the tiles in a torrent of chocolate sprinkles. She emptied the packet, drained it empty, then squeezed it flat and thrust it deep into the bin. He was startled by the fleshy thud with which she dropped to her knees. She stuck the spilled sprinkles to her fingertips and palms with spit. He’d forgotten about taking cover, and as she sat licking her hands she suddenly turned her head ninety degrees to look at him. ‘Hi,’ he said when they’d both recovered from the initial fright. ‘I was thirsty.’ She didn’t answer. She might at least have said ‘I was hungry’, but instead she worked her way to her feet and blundered silently out of the kitchen. He waited in the hall until he heard her bedroom door shut before he too went back to bed.
And now? What could they possibly say to each other now? The train was too full for a scene, he persuaded himself, and so he imagined how a more restrained version might go. How are you doing these days, Aaron? God, how little appetite he had for that question. He’d rather spend the rest of the journey on the roof of the intercity than give an honest answer. He was returning from a weekend with his parents in Venlo, a monthly exercise performed on doctors’ orders, the way he did everything on doctors’ orders. It was a real horror to have to admit he was ill, terrible to be reliant on neuroleptics and antidepressives. How do you tell someone you’re a certified lunatic? How could he tell this woman he was insane? Tineke, I am what the doctor ordered.
After the debacle in Enschede he’d worked as a photographer for quality newspapers in Brussels for a while, but when a second severe bout of psychosis in the winter of 2002 almost proved fatal, he and his medical assessors felt enough was enough. Since then he’d driven a VW combi-van fitted out as a photo studio between primary schools in Brussels, Beersel, Ukkel and Waterloo, taking passport and class photographs. For each group picture he used a light box to draw a chart with numbered silhouettes. On a website for supplementary orders, which he maintained meticulously, fathers and mothers and grannies and granddads could tick boxes for all kinds of formats, frames and captions. The rest of his time, the hours, days, weeks, months in which his contemporaries procreated, acquired top positions, perhaps even stormed citadels, he just loafed about, climbing the mossy steps to the village square in office hours like a rich retiree, buying a paper in a bookshop suitably named Once Upon A Time, fetching his medication from the chemist’s shop opposite the centuries-old plane tree. Sometimes he ate saté in the bistro at the top of the square before wandering back with his imaginary Zimmer frame to the crest of the hill, to the spacious, unmortgaged house that swallowed him up.
His doctors said he was a patient who ‘recognized and acknowledged’ his condition, which meant he took his capsules of his own volition and was therefore able to live independently. But that was as good as it got. He lived an utterly unambitious existence. Avoidance had become his motivation in life, the avoidance of excitement, avoidance of stress, avoidance of motivation itself.
He looked at his knees. What would it be like to give the low-down about his own misery right here, in a packed compartment? In detail, concentratedly, without mincing his words, a monologue on the subject of fear in the grip of psychosis? A lecture, a short story, an epic poem about the immeasurable, irrational, primal fear he’d endured. The commuters were hanging side to side on their straps; no one would be able to walk away. If he made enough of an effort, if he became endowed with the gift of the word, who could say, maybe the fear he described would infect his listeners, first Tineke and the girl in her too-tight suit and then everyone in the compartments and corridors. Every one of them would die the death. His fear would become everybody’s fear. Raging panic as if the semtex in his top storey had detonated.
With Sigerius he hit it off just fine. In the winter of 1995 he teamed up with an attractive, wilful, ravishing girl called Joni, and this Joni turned out to be a full-blood Sigerius. Two months later, to his own amazement, he found himself sitting drinking tea with the guy and his family. And the most improbable thing happened: the man at whom the whole campus made affectionate passes, the man he’d admired on telly as a school-leaver in Venlo – that very man stuck out a calloused judo hand towards him. He grasped it with eager astonishment. They became friends, and he avoided examining too closely why.
One Saturday a month at least, Joni and he ate at the renovated farmhouse on the edge of the campus, a whitewashed, ground-up conversion so desirable that passers-by spontaneously slid ‘if you ever move’ notes under the dark-green front door. Although he playfully disparaged the way Joni pined for her parents (‘Don’t immediately go ringing daddy,’ he’d said when they had to fix a short circuit in the suddenly pitch dark, deserted student house on De Heurne) he’d always looked forward to those visits. As Joni and he cycled to the farmhouse, the centre of Enschede was transformed under their wheels into the Drienerlose Forest, which in turn merged imperceptibly into the campus, the background to their relationship for four years. On those Saturdays Tubantia seemed heavily pregnant. The humming meadows looked grassier than on weekdays; in his memory the woodland paths sloped and they cycled through a hilly landscape smelling of pollen where it seemed logical that the lakes were lakes. The glistening water had collected at the lowest points, just as hundreds of academics and thousands of students had streamed in to shine at this particular place. You could hear their brains softly crackling, the fields and trees and verges seemed charged with static from the billions of bits and bytes that flew across the campus network beneath their feet. Late in the evening, as they cycled home, a prehistoric darkness reigned and the dim hills became gentle valleys, the lawns and woods were armies before sleeping faculty buildings, applied Mathematics lay like a brontosaurus in its lake, while the tyrannosaurus rex of Technical Physics stretched high above the crowns of the tallest trees, its sleeping head between jagged stars.
Sometimes they stayed overnight at the farmhouse and in the morning they ate warm croissants with marmalade and drank large glasses of orange juice that Sigerius pressed for them after his forty lengths of breaststroke in the campus pool, in the background the Bill Evans Trio, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck – gentle Sunday-morning jazz that, he said, smeared salve on their morning moods. ‘Well anyway turn your salve down a bit,’ Joni complained, but Sigerius ignored her. He stuck up an index finger, squeezed one eye shut and barked, his mouth full: ‘Listen!’ His wife and two daughters said nothing, obediently stopped chewing and concentrated so they could get done with a thing they didn’t find at all interesting, released only after ten seconds or so by Sigerius saying something like: ‘Magnificent how Scott LaFaro plays around Evans. You hear that? Around him. Yes, now, that, that meandering bass – listen.’
‘Dad, I hate jazz,’ Janis would say then, or Joni, or both of them.
‘This! Unbelievable. It’s foreground and background at the same time, accommodating and virtuoso. I can’t turn that down. Sacrilege.’
At such moments Aaron was the one – and there lay the basis of their alliance, the simple fact that he was a boy not a girl, although there are masses of boys who say jazz gets on their nerves, who’d gladly be shot of all jazz – who said how terrible it was that Scott LaFaro had driven his car into a tree, and that after that dramatic loss in 1961, Bill Evans had never again found a bassist of comparable quality, although Chuck Israels had of course come close, certainly on How My Heart Sings! Even before he’d finished filling them in, another heart had started singing, the heart of this man who divided the world into jazz-lovers and the benighted and who’d said several times before, in company too, that he’d never met anyone younger than him who knew so much about jazz, thereby sticking a feather in Aaron’s arse that he not only cheerfully left in place but from time to time, when no one was looking, preened.
Those Saturday evenings usually began in the conservatory, then still brand new – since the knock-though of the year before it ran on into the kitchen with its free-standing range where Tineke prepared simple but tasty pasta meals after which, still locked in a lacklustre or perhaps vigorous debate, they moved to a sitting room once intended for visiting gentry, Tineke behind them carrying a tray on which lay wedges of buttered raisin bread and coffee cups that threatened to slide off, where Joni folded out cupboard doors that hid the supposedly unimportant television and Sigerius kept his word by not answering his mobile for an hour. On evenings when Janis (usually straight after Frasier, having watched the ending with her coat already on) left with friends for the bars on the Grote Markt and Tineke and Joni decided around ten to watch a Saturday night film, Sigerius would ask: ‘A spot of music?’ and he wouldn’t say no but yes and they’d disappear like two schoolboys with a bottle of whisky to the ‘music room’ on the ground floor that housed two dark-red chesterfields, a pricey NAD amplifier and a CD player, a Thorens record deck and two man-high B&W speakers mounted on stalks and pieces of NASA foam rubber that Sigerius had managed to rustle up from somewhere in Technical Physics, and there in between framed photos of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans they listened to democratically selected records with bilateral veto rights, original American LPs that Sigerius kept in tall narrow cupboards of waxed beech, designed and made by his wife.
Boys’ stuff, just like their judo. In the farmhouse hall hung a blown-up photo of five men with solid, naked torsos dragging a tree-trunk up a hill: Geesink, Ruska, Gouweleeuw and Snijders, Sigerius told him, and second from the left, with the taut chest muscles and the short dark curls around a flat face – that was him. The national judo team in training for a world championship. It must have been sixty-five or sixty-six. Geesink, participating national coach, had sent his selection into the forests near Marseille; according to Sigerius he was a tyrant, but whenever they had to drag tree-trunks up a hill he was first in line. At the top, with everyone on his last gasp, Geesink would grip one end of the trunk and pump it ten times or so, trembling, then pull the clothes off his steaming body and jump into a mountain lake. ‘If we passed him a bottle of water he’d say no because it was a shame to spoil his thirst,’ said Sigerius, who quickly discovered that Aaron had practiced judo until he was nineteen and when he realized he’d actually been a black belt, inspired him to take it up again, first as a member of a seniors group he taught on the campus on Thursday evenings and then, after six months, when Aaron had got his ‘old feeling’ back as it’s called, Sigerius asked him whether he’d like to go in for a joint dan exam.
Judo is an oddly intimate sport. For at least two years Sigerius and he lay in each other’s arms on the judo mat several times a week, intensive, concentrated hours in which they had the gym to themselves. They barely spoke. They’d given themselves a year to polish their throws and their groundwork, Sigerius for his fourth dan, he for his second. They ended every training session with those fiercely fanatical contests that came back to him time and again in his dreams even now, and after every session he crept into bed with Joni, apple of Sigerius’ eye, brought up with all the care in the world, sometimes in the guest room at the farmhouse, and then Aaron would notice that from a distance Joni smelled like her father, perhaps because of the washing powder Tineke bought, he couldn’t say. As he mingled their pheromones – he was a messenger of bodily odours, a bumblebee moving between two bodies of the same make – he felt his strange happiness double during that cautious screw after training, their suppressed moans in Sigerius’ guest bed, his hand sometimes firmly across Joni’s warm mouth so as not to wake his unreal friend on the floor below.
They rolled through Leuven. Tineke had closed her eyes, pretending to be asleep so they need no longer exist for each other. He admired her cool-bloodedness. Since November 2000, the year when everything blew up, he hadn’t seen either of the Sigeriuses. Nonetheless, they persistently floated across his unconscious; he still dreamed of Enschede at the drop of a hat, and those were usually nightmares.
It was beginning to get dark. The light was purple, silvery at the edges of the wispy clouds, and he could see his bald head reflected in the window. He felt himself grow calmer and more sombre. A small village unfurled along a canal and a slender moon had risen mystifyingly early. Soon would come the musty darkness of Linkebeek that he had to walk through to his empty house. The deadness waiting for him, the high cold rooms he’d longed for even while he was still in Venlo. He thanked his lucky stars that it was Tineke sitting there ignoring him and not Sigerius himself.
He’d never completely relaxed about it. He could freeze in Sigerius’ presence, literally, in the sense of dramatically turning to stone. His jaws would clench themselves tight and an almost unbearable physical tension build up and spread via the vertebrae of his neck through his entire body. For hours, like a statue of himself, he would fight against total blockage, desperately continuing to talk, praying his voice would keep working. If Sigerius had pushed him over at a moment like that he’d have smashed like a Chinese vase.
He experienced their friendship as magical – before coming to the campus to study photography he’d failed his exams, utterly failed as a student of Dutch in Utrecht; his own student city had rejected him yet here he’d waltzed straight into the inner chamber of the academic heart? – but was also a lie. He presented himself as better than he was. It had started even with the jazz. One Sunday in the farmhouse, not so very long after that first meeting, they were slurping hot coffee from cups with narrow handles. Sigerius, absently, his mind on other things, stood up and walked over to a hypermodern steel cupboard that turned out to contain a record player. He put on an LP. Jazz. Even before he sat back down next to his wife on the long old-rose sofa, Aaron recognized the music. He waited a moment to make sure, but he was right: the theme, the rounded, slightly coquettish piano-playing – this was Sonny Clark, and the LP was called Cool Struttin’. He could visualize the classic Blue Note sleeve with a pair of women’s legs walking along (he thought) a New York sidewalk. Over the heads of Joni and Tineke he said: ‘Good record, Cool Struttin’.’
Sigerius, with a startling morning beard it would have taken Aaron a week to cultivate, opened his brown eyes wide. ‘Cool Struttin’ is fantastic record,’ he said, his voice sharper, higher, as if a piano tuner had been at work. ‘You know it, then. Cool Struttin’ is far and away Clark Terry’s best LP.’
Clark Terry? Sigerius was mistaken, Aaron realized that at once; he was confusing Sonny Clark with Clark Terry. What a funny mistake. He decided not to rub it in. It wasn’t tactful to give his new girlfriend’s father a rap over the knuckles like a fluttering schoolmaster, but neither could he feign ignorance, he was too proud for that. ‘True,’ he said. ‘This was Sonny Clark’s best band, with a civilized Philly Joe Jones on drums. Not thrashing away at those cymbals like a hooligan for once.’
Eyes like dessert plates, then suddenly squeezed shut: ‘Terry. This is Clark Terry.’
‘This is Sonny Clark on piano,’ Aaron said, more decisively than necessary. ‘Terry is a trumpet player.’
‘Are you sure about that?’ said Joni.
Sigerius jumped up, edged past his wife and, feet tapping on the flagstones, walked to the eccentric steel cupboard that Aaron later realized Tineke had made. He pulled out the sleeve, looked briefly at the front and the back, set it upright next to the record player again and closed the cupboard. He walked back tauntingly slowly to the sofa and sat down.
‘You’re right. Of course you’re right. I saw Terry once, for God’s sake, in the Kurhaus. And later in Boston. Ladies, I’ll have to watch what I say from now on.’
Which was exactly what Aaron did for the remaining fifteen minutes; Sigerius never found out that he didn’t in fact know very much about jazz, that the Sonny Clark record had been a fluke. He knew Cool Struttin’ so well because of that pair of legs; he’d bought the record at a Queen’s Day market one year, attracted by the cover, which he’d fixed to his wardrobe door with four bits of sticky tape and left there for several years, the vinyl itself gathering dust on his turntable. He quite liked jazz, but if he was honest his heart lay with pop music.
But he wasn’t honest. Now that Sigerius had proclaimed him a jazz expert, a man with a boundless encyclopaedic knowledge and on his own territory at that, a kindred spirit, he set to work like a mad thing. Before the week was out he’d let a nervous boy in a black turtleneck sweater at Broekhuis Bookshop talk him into buying the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, a 1,500-page jazz bible which the turtleneck said included not only the entire history of jazz but a handy system of star ratings to separate the wheat from the chaff. At a discount bookstore across the street from Broekhuis he bought a biography of Miles Davis, a Jazz for Dummies and a book called Billie and the President. He’d been carrying the business card of a retired dentist from Boekelo around in his wallet for several years, a silver-grey man in red trousers who stood behind him one day in the campus music library and noticed he was taking out a Bud Powell record. The man told him he had eight hundred original jazz LPs at home, American pressings, thick jet-black vinyl, stiff cardboard sleeves: ‘You can have them for a guilder apiece.’ Aaron almost hit the ceiling tiles with a surge of effervescent desire. ‘Just call me,’ the man said, and he did exactly that the same evening, and went on calling him, at first twice a week, later twice a month – short, polite, hurried conversations in which the man kept saying he was too busy, or about to leave for the States, or sick, or starting to get sick, ‘call me again shortly,’ but ‘shortly’ became an increasing obstacle, their exchanges took on a grumpy tone, until Aaron lost faith. Stick your records up your shrivelled old arse. But now he took the plunge and cycled all the way to Boekelo. On the far side of the village he rang the bell at a flat in a block for the elderly that matched the address on the tattered business card. A Turkish woman answered the door.
So he ransacked the music library and when Joni wasn’t with him he studied jazz history as if he’d been asked to direct that summer’s North Sea Jazz Festival. He browsed the entries for individual artists with intense concentration, first the big names who’d been allocated the most pages, the Parkers, the Ellingtons, the Monks, the Coltranes, the Davises, then the other greats of the golden fifties: Fitzgerald, Evans, Rollins, Jazz Messengers, Powell, Gillespie, Getz. He played their records, noted biographical details in an exercise book, imprinted labels on his memory: Blue Note, Riverside, Impulse!, Verve, Prestige. It was like his old literature studies, except that the fucking De Kapellekensbaan took you three weeks while Giant Steps took thirty-seven minutes and three seconds. Books had filled the first half of his 1990s, monomaniac reading, evening after evening, in bus shelters and waiting rooms, through sleepless nights, as he ticked off titles, keelhauled oeuvres: five years of forced labour to make up for his failure in Utrecht. This time he had the whole thing off pat in the space of five weeks, after which he knew he was no longer skating on thin ice. Another five weeks and he was standing next to Sigerius in De Tor listening to the Piet Noordijk Quartet, sipping whisky and relying on a synthetic aptitude for jazz.
Deception? Certainly. But everyone in that farmhouse lied. It was a family of undercover wrestlers. Although he knew it was a feeble excuse, he told himself everyone in the place had their secrets – Sigerius, Tineke, Joni, like him they were all keeping quiet about something. How long had he been unaware that Janis and Joni weren’t actually Sigerius’ daughters? Ages. They’d have preferred it to stay that way too. They never spoke about their true family relationships. Sometimes he had the feeling they’d forgotten what they were.
It was at least a year before Joni told him, during a weekend in the forests of Drenthe, that her ‘biological parents’ had divorced when she was five. Even more than the news itself, the fact that it had taken her so long to volunteer something as relatively ordinary as divorced parents astounded him, but because she unburdened herself fairly seriously and by her standards gloomily, he didn’t let it show. They were sitting in a holiday home of painted timber, off the beaten track some twenty kilometres from Assen, and the romanticism of seclusion and a wood-burning stove helped to make her more communicative. During one of their chilly winter woodland walks she made him guess which of them was her ‘real’ parent. Just have a stab: Siem or Tineke? That’s a good one, he said, but in truth he didn’t find it hard. Sigerius, naturally.
‘Why do you think that?’
‘It’s just what I think. I’m guessing. You don’t really look much like him, but you don’t look much like your mother either. Sporty types, both of you. Built that way, too.’
The truth was that they didn’t look like each other at all. Sigerius was dark, with eyes like tepid coffee, a gypsy look, shady almost. And a growth of beard to make an evolutionary biologist drool. Joni was light and blonde, a butterfly, with a face so smooth and symmetrical it was impossible Sigerius had anything to do with it, yet he detected a common denominator in their powerful determination; father and daughter had the same coercive industriousness, doubting and dallying galled them, they couldn’t comprehend throwing in the towel, especially when they saw it in someone else – such as him. Just like Sigerius, Joni was smart and tough and enterprising. Perhaps it was in the genes.
‘So because I’m not fat you think Siem’s my real father?’
Actually he hadn’t ever thought about that, he realized, having had so little reason to suspect anything. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘No… the way you behave with each other too. You and Siem are hand in glove, that’s obvious within ten minutes. Janis is a mummy’s girl. You take after your father.’
‘But Janis and I really are sisters, so that doesn’t mean anything.’
‘Go on, tell me, then.’
‘So you think Siem?’
‘Yes. That’s what I think, yes.’
‘Wrong!’ She roared with laughter, kicked the dead beech branches and the last rotting remains of fallen leaves as if the seriousness of her confession had evaporated on the spot because he’d backed the wrong horse. She didn’t say it, but from her strange excitement he concluded she was pleased he’d guessed Sigerius, he even suspected she’d have liked to leave him with his delusion. He had to admit to himself that he felt disappointed, let down that no genes came into it, but of course that in turn was something he didn’t say. Perhaps they were thinking the same thing, because even before they got back to the damp bungalow Joni’s relaxed mood had swung into something quiet that he’d never seen in her before.
While he silently warmed chocolate milk on the two-burner stove and she sat on the moth-eaten sofa watching the skating, an old copy of Panorama in her lap, he thought about the natural ease with which she and her sister called Sigerius ‘daddy’. With teasing or admiring smiles they said ‘daddy’ to him, when they were trying to get something done they cajoled him by whispering in his ear ‘is that alright, daddykins?’ and they complained with a protracted ‘dahad’ whenever he did something that annoyed them. When he asked her about that she told him, with a certain pride, that it had been that way from day one; from the day in 1979 when Siem Sigerius and Tineke Elsink, without frills, without wedding clothes, without a Rolls or a Bentley, without a party, were married at the town hall in Utrecht, she’d called her stepfather ‘daddy’. She was six, Janis three. From that wedding day onwards Joni called herself Joni Sigerius. Her real surname, Baars, a word she revealed to him only with reluctance, she’d buried in concrete and sunk in the River Vecht.
Later she showed him ochre-brown polaroids of an incredibly small Joni with two pigtails sticking out of her silver-blonde head, a girl who looked surprisingly ordinary, an almost ugly girl of six sticking out her tongue, or hanging from the leg of a youthful Sigerius – her new father, who’d grown an uncouth beard. Her mother, still strikingly slim, not thin the way she was now but slim, in a sober dark-green trouser suit, a snotty-nosed Janis in her arms, wore sturdy brown sunglasses in those photos because an eye doctor had scraped herpes from her left eyeball with a scalpel the week before.
To cut a long story short, mother and daughters followed their new leader to America, to Berkeley, where he was appointed assistant professor at the Department of Mathematics. Neither there nor on any subsequent campus did Joni Sigerius talk unprompted about her biological father. Aaron had to press her to let him have the man’s first name. ‘Theun.’ ‘Theun,’ he repeated. ‘Theun Baars. Okay. So what did he do?’ Her real father had been a sales representative for an importer of tobacco products; below the family name on their front door it had said ‘smokers’ requisites’ and behind two little doors in the tall dresser lay cartons of cigarettes arranged by brand, which Baars would get hold of by dubious means and pass on, duty-free, to kippered types who came to place their husky orders in the living room at all sorts of hours, but usually at times when Joni was already in bed. Often her father wasn’t home before nine, having dined on meatballs or jägerschnitzel in reps’ pubs and transport cafés. At weekends too she rarely saw him, come to that, she said. He’d be rehearsing or performing with his band, a not entirely unsuccessful blues band in which he sang and played guitar.
‘Blues? Did he make records?’
‘How should I know? I think so, yes.’
(Blues?! He’d have loved to race straight to his house on De Vluchtestraat and scour his three editions of Oor’s Pop Encyclopaedia for Theun Baars. A blues band. Jesus – now she told him. And sure enough, the next day, in his oldest Pop Encyclopaedia, under the heading of ‘Nether-Blues’, he came upon a three-part entry about Baars and his band: Mojo Mama, ‘blues-rock group with lead singer and guitarist Theun Baars around whom a local cult status briefly grew up’; once ‘Utrecht’s answer to Cuby + Blizzards’; made ‘three LPs of varying quality’; was ‘mainly famous for his live act’. When he read that he imagined Tineke as a groupie. Joni’s mother, roughly the weight she must be now, hair scattered with flowers, platform heels, backstage in the lap of the great Theun.)
Although uncles at birthdays enjoyed saying that at least Theun wouldn’t be nipping out for cigarettes, he disappeared from their lives like a runaway cat well before his divorce from the heavily pregnant Tineke. The man had never slept in the same house as far as Joni could remember, which couldn’t possibly be true of course, but still.
‘Don’t you ever think about him?’
‘Never. Only during conversations like this. It’s only when someone asks me whether I ever think about my real father that I think about my real father.’
The times when he asked her about the reasons behind that little mantra, when he asked ‘so why don’t you ever think about Theun Baars?’, when they were both sitting in his De Vluchtstraat apartment watching Without Trace, for example, she assured him it wasn’t out of resentment, or revenge for anything she held against him, nor had she ‘repressed’ him, no, her biological father had simply disappeared from her life without leaving any impression and that was that.
It wasn’t until the Sunday of their Drenthe weekend, rather late really for such an obvious question, that he asked her whether Sigerius had been married before too. ‘Yes,’ she said dryly. They’d just worked their uninspired way through a museum about megalithic tombs and were cycling abreast along a cycle track parallel to a B-road. He squeezed the hub brakes of his rented bicycle. ‘Why didn’t you say that in the first place? Why do you tell me so little?’
‘I’m telling you now, aren’t I?’ she shouted as she rode on ahead. ‘He has a son.’
‘What did you say?’
‘That he has a son.’ Without dismounting she turned in a wobbly semi-circle and cycled towards him. ‘A son called Wilbert. Wilbert Sigerius.’
‘So you have a stepbrother?’
‘If that’s what you want to call him. We never see him. He leads his own life. Like we do.’
He bombarded her with questions but she couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him much about this Wilbert, even though when she was small she’d been the girl downstairs to him for about four years. (‘Girl downstairs?’ he said. ‘Explain. Come on.’) She told him a complicated story that it took him a while to understand properly. In the early seventies the two families had lived on the Antonius Matthaeuslaan in Utrecht, Sigerius with his first wife, a certain Margriet, and their little boy Wilbert, all three of them at the Antonius Matthaeuslaan number 59 bis, meaning upstairs. Below them, at number 59, were Tineke with Theun and Joni; Janis hadn’t been born yet.
She remembered rows between Sigerius and Margriet above their heads, squabbles she could make out word for word as she sat at the long bar with Tineke eating yoghurt with sugar, along with Wilbert’s ominous bellowing and hysterical, thunderous stamping, and Margriet’s shrill weepy voice. After a few years their neighbourliness turned into a classic divorce drama: Siem and Tineke, upstairs and downstairs neighbours, fell in love and were even caught red-handed by Wilbert’s mother, the aforementioned Margriet, although Joni didn’t know the details.
‘Adulterous swine,’ said Aaron.
Later, after the divorce, Wilbert had come to stay just once, she thought. When Sigerius took them with him to America, even that ended. Before the whole set-up burst apart, that noisy boy upstairs regularly used to waltz through their ground-floor apartment to the paved back yard, treading on strawberry plants, toppling flowerpots. He smelled of sweet soap.
In the photo album from that period Aaron saw a strapping raven-haired goblin, with far-apart inky eyes like his father and unpleasantly full lips, bold as brass even to look at. It was only later he heard he’d been the terror of the neighbourhood, a boy who could easily intimidate even the bigger children, forcing them to eat toads he’d caught. He made petrol bombs, siphoning fuel from parked cars, and peed in the letter boxes of flats for the elderly. He bullied the daughter of people up the road into stealing money from her mother’s purse. The only real-life memory Joni had of any of this was of a warm evening on which Wilbert and an accomplice from the same street, no doubt having walked in through the open front door to their downstairs apartment on the off chance, were suddenly standing in her bedroom. They’d each hauled an enormous green rubber boot with them, probably wellingtons belonging to Sigerius who was then simply their upstairs neighbour, which they’d filled to the brim with sandpit sand. The boys jabbed a yellow PVC tube between the rails of her bed, made her cry, and as soon as she opened her three-year-old mouth they poured the sand over her face. The grainy taste, how the sand wormed its way into her throat like a fist, clammy, cool, dark in her nose and eyes – she nearly choked, she said.
On the parallel track a goods train hurtled past. Tineke opened her eyes in shock and stared at him for two deafening seconds. In Venlo he’d taken Oxazepam, but he could tell that the straightjacket around his heart muscle needed tightening again. There were all kinds of things to be seen in those serrated blue irises: disapproval, contempt, disappointment. Arrogance. With a shiver she folded the lapels of her jacket over each other and closed her eyes again. He collected saliva in his cheeks and wriggled his wallet out of his hip pocket. His gaze fixed on Tineke’s closed eyes, he extracted a strip of Oxazepam and pressed two pills out of the silver. The girl in the red suit watched. It was the first time she’d deigned to look at him and she even stopped chewing for a moment. She was wearing black lip liner around her mouth: vulgar, old-fashioned. ‘Black belt in blowjobs,’ Joni once said, and that was ten years ago. He put the pills in his mouth and steered them towards his stomach with the gobbet of spit.
Not long after Joni’s revelations he was sitting with Sigerius at the corner of the long bar in the Sports Centre canteen, both of them pink from their hot shower after another Thursday evening session, he with a glass of beer and a cigarette, Sigerius on tonic because he had work yet to do. Joni’s father was wearing his casual outfit: an immaculate baby-blue lambswool sweater over a shirt, pressed corduroy trousers with his calves bulging under them, his broad feet in loafers on the supports of the stool, where his corpulent leather sports bag leaned like a lazy animal. Every three minutes Sigerius stuck up a hand to a passer-by. Aaron felt the slight unease of being with the chancellor in a public space.
The canteen was wide and 1980s-drab and it reminded him of the Pac-Man maze; between shoulder-high walls of aerated concrete, where tall tough fig-leaf palms got inadequate light, were two pool tables and one football table. The low, flannelled seating areas were empty at this late hour. Chlorine fumes from the indoor pool had combined somewhere in the belly of the complex with the scent of assorted appetizers and the linoleum floor. They discussed their judo session, talked a little about the university, about the student council that was a thorn in Sigerius’ side – this is off the record, he announced every other minute. For several weeks Aaron had skirted the subject, but now he said: ‘Siem, by the way, do you know I’d absolutely no idea you had a son?’
Sigerius was in the middle of a sip of tonic. He put his glass down on the bar, wiped his mouth and said nothing for a few seconds. ‘Well then,’ he said. ‘So she’s told you. That was bound to happen.’
‘I was astonished, I really was. I hadn’t a clue.’
‘Are you shocked?’
‘A bit. A bit. I wasn’t expecting it, of course. You’re such a happy family. It’s not what you expect.’
‘I can imagine. Very well, in fact. Dammit, it’s quite something after all.’
Aaron was struck by the dejected tone Sigerius had adopted, so he chose his words carefully. ‘Still,’ he replied. ‘A thing like that could happen to anyone. You only have to look at the statistics. It happens all the time, in fact.’
Sigerius rasped his hand over his stubbly chin, then inhaled deeply and let the air slowly stream out through his nose. ‘That’s nice of you,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think it’s true.’
‘Divorce?’ asked Aaron, surprised.
‘Divorce?!’ Sigerius looked at him, his mouth set in a grimace. His ears moved in surprise, but his eyes suddenly looked deathly tired. He’d aged on the spot. Grinning, he plucked a hair from the sleeve of his sweater and watched it drop to the lino. Then he stared ahead as if weighing a dilemma.
‘Aaron,’ he said. ‘I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about, but I’m talking about manslaughter. About a brutal murder that the law insists we call manslaughter. That bastard did a man in. He’s been inside for four years now. You didn’t know that?’
It was about eleven at night; the beanpole of a student behind the bar was some ten metres away in rolled-up shirtsleeves rinsing glasses and apart from two whispering tracksuits at one of the pool tables the canteen was deserted. The short silence he’d had to let fall was a thing, a heavy object. A murderer? Blushing, he said: ‘Siem, you’re making this up. You’re joking.’
But Sigerius wasn’t joking. Straining to remain laconic in the face of the facts of his life, Sigerius spoke about his only offspring, a young man now of about Aaron’s age. Nothing to write home about. A life of transgression, drug abuse, relapse. The same little Wilbert of whose existence Joni had informed him with astonishing neutrality emerged in Sigerius’ version as a criminal who’d twisted his way into misery like a corkscrew. One weekday in 1993 Wilbert Sigerius hit rock bottom, killing a man of fifty-two. ‘The Netherlands is a great country,’ said Sigerius. ‘If you’re a bad lot, we have a wide professional circle of friends ready and waiting for you. Anyone who doesn’t have the balls to make something of his life but does have a criminal record – we give him a wonderful subsidized job.’
He sounded surprisingly bitter, a good deal more right-wing than usual; this was clearly a close-to-the-bone affair, an issue for which he threw his social-democratic principles overboard. He was glad Sigerius wasn’t looking at him, out of embarrassment perhaps, since it gave him a chance to let his emotions burn themselves out, which often worked best; he was in the grip of a strange excitement, consisting partly of elation, of gratitude at being confided in, and partly of unease at this sudden intimacy. It felt as if they were dancing together across the canteen.
‘They gave him a pair of overalls and a modest wage, so he had a place to clock on every morning with a lunchbox. After trouble and yet more trouble, which we’re not going to talk about now, he was allowed to try again. What more could anyone want? At Hoogovens, no less. An excellent firm, where tens of thousands of steelworkers have earned an honest living for a century and more. An opportunity, you’d think. At the slightest provocation the lad picks up a sledgehammer and with fifteen whacks he hammers his foreman, a man in line for a company gold watch, as flat as a farthing. I was in the public gallery when the prosecutor described what various witnesses saw, what happens to a person when you hit him with a four-kilo metal hammer.’
Sigerius moistened his moustache by stretching his lower lip over it, then pressed it flat with his thumb and forefinger. Aaron didn’t know what to say. This was no longer a confession. A fate was being shared with him. He’d thought he knew a thing or two about Sigerius, imagined he knew what had preoccupied the man – whom he hugely admired despite frantic attempts to resist – at every stage, thought he knew which channels of success his life moved along, what the essentials of it were, and now he discovered he knew nothing. (A feeling of ignorance, he thought later, which he’d have done well to get used to right away, since it would dog him throughout him time in Enschede. He never knew anything.)
‘Eight years,’ Sigerius said loudly. The bar-boy was a lot closer now, starting to scrub the grills. ‘The prosecution wanted ten plus compulsory psychiatric treatment, but in the Pieter Baan he performed well for once,’ and here he lowered his voice: ‘Fully accountable for his actions. My son isn’t stupid by any means.’
As if it were a heart stimulant, he put the tonic to his lips and tossed back the dregs. He placed the empty glass softly and with great precision on the wide cherry-wood bar.
The train slowed and the Brussels suburbs slid into view, the passengers in the corridor leaning their heads to peer at grey, haphazard urbanization. Tineke, who had opened her eyes again, took a mirror and lipstick out of a red leather handbag, painted her wrinkled mouth crimson with a practiced hand, put the set away and stared with a frown at a spot between Aaron and the man next to him.
Wilbert Sigerius. He’d never met the guy and after all these years he no longer felt any fascination, but he realized that everything he’d learned about her stepson during his Enschede years must have been at least as unpleasant for Tineke as for Siem. She’d introduced two healthy daughters, girls they’d joined forces to give a more than devoted, not to say exquisite upbringing, so that Joni and Janis, each in her own way, had grown into cheerful, stable, on occasions infuriatingly rational adults. In return, Sigerius had lumbered her with that scumbag.
The train slid into Brussels Central and juddered to a halt. The crowd in the gangway moved slowly to the doors, which were still closed: a hushed wait, a creed of isolation in a hundred silent heads. Tineke made no move to get up. He’d do better to stay in his seat until Brussels South, although there was a train to Linkebeek from Central too. The girl took her chewing gum out of her black-rimmed mouth and reached across Tineke’s lap to the steel waste bin. Then she stood up, scraping her left knee, and joined the now faster flowing line of disembarkees. Joni’s mother had got up too and was pulling a trolley case down from the baggage rack, her back turned to him. From behind, with those narrow, jagged hips, he’d never have recognized her.
On impulse he decided to get out, without knowing exactly why. Did he have to let this complete coincidence dissolve into nothingness? If he simply sat there, their meeting would never even exist. The stony platform air bit at his lungs. In her wake, keeping five paces between them, he walked up the marble staircase to the station foyer. Without really wanting to, he followed Tineke, who carried her travel bag up with hasty little steps. In the sombre brown-marble hall she tilted the tartan contrivance onto its rear wheels and dragged it, rattling, into the hustle and bustle. Just short of the main exit she took a mobile phone from the pocket of her deep-red woollen jacket, pressed a number and began to talk. He watched her step out into Brussels; she was gone, and again he hesitated.
Instead of turning round and walking to his platform, instead of not living, he ran after her, into the outside air. He scanned the dusk of an artificially-lit city. She wasn’t in the crowd at the intersection where the Grote Markt of Brussels lay waiting. He walked to the edge of the sloping pavement, glancing in all directions. There she went, she’d turned right, onto the Putterij; quickening his pace he closed the dark twenty-metre gap and before he knew it he was laying his hand on the thick fabric of her coat. She stopped and turned round, looking surprised, shocked. Her carefully made-up skin lay like crumpled paper around her cheekbones and jaws.
‘Tineke,’ he mumbled. ‘I…’
‘Pardon?’ she said, sounding friendly.
‘Tineke,’ he said, more forcefully this time. ‘I don’t know whether this is a smart idea…’
It was only now that she really looked at him. He could see her focusing. She stuck out a hand that touched his arm for a second, as if she wanted to deploy one extra sense. ‘Were you sitting across from me, just…?’ Her expression changed again and she raised her sagging eyelids as far as she could, her mouth forming an astonished dark-red O.
‘Aaron!’ she said. ‘Now I recognize you. You’re Aaron Bever. But my dear, what…’ She let go of the handle of her bag. The thing toppled upright. She took a step towards him, seized his shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks. Over her scrawny shoulders he watched a car stop at the curb, a dark-blue BMW sports car that flashed its headlights twice. She glanced round and raised a hand. When she looked at him again she said: ‘We’re in a hurry. I have to get in. But my dear, I didn’t recognize you at all. You’ve… changed. It’s so long since I was in Enschede…’ She held his forearm, looked straight at him. ‘Ah, my dear,’ she said. ‘How are you doing… So lousy, the way it all went…’
He was too overwhelmed to utter a word. At any moment the car door might swing open and Sigerius walk towards them. He gasped for air. He felt dizzy. Nothing else occurred to him, so he stammered: ‘Tineke, tell me, how is Siem doing? Is he there?’ He pointed stupidly at the steaming car.
She let go of him as suddenly as she’d taken hold. She took a step back. Her face slammed shut like a lead door.
‘What did you say?’ she demanded fiercely. ‘Trying to wind me up?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘What do you mean?’ He felt his eyes grow wet.
‘You lout,’ she said. ‘What do you want from me? What are you doing here? Why are you following me?’
The car door opened and a small man of about forty-five got out, his wavy black hair and trim beard gleaming in the lamplight. They looked at each other. The man who was alarmingly, aggressively not Sigerius smiled politely. A car swerved out of the way, honking. Behind the BMW a minibus turned on its hazard lights.
Tineke felt for the handle of the door on the passenger’s side.
‘You don’t know?’ she said. ‘You really don’t know, do you?’ She laughed uneasily, her face a skinny grimace of disbelief. ‘Siem’s dead.’ She was shouting to be heard over the traffic. ‘Dead for eight years now. We buried him in early 2001. Or do you just want to hurt me?’
‘No,’ he said.
Then she got in.
Translation by Liz Waters