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Authors: Tommy Wieringa

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A Beautiful Young Wife

A BEAUTIFUL YOUNG WIFE

Tommy Wieringa was born in 1967, and grew up partly in the Netherlands and partly in the tropics. He began his writing career with travel stories and journalism, and is the author of five other novels. His fiction has been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Oxford/Weidenfeld Prize, and has won Holland's Libris Literature Prize.

Sam Garrett has translated some forty novels and works of non-fiction. He has won prizes and appeared on shortlists for some of the world's most prestigious literary awards, and is the only translator to have twice won the British Society of Authors' Vondel Prize for Dutch-English translation.

For my brothers in arms: who else?

Scribe Publications
18–20 Edward St, Brunswick, Victoria 3056, Australia
2 John Street, London, WC1N 2ES, United Kingdom

Originally published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij as
Een Mooie Jonge Vrouw
2014

First published in English by Scribe 2016

Copyright © Tommy Wieringa 2016
Translation © Sam Garrett 2016

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Dutch Foundation for Literature.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publishers of this book.

9781925228410 (UK hardback)
9781925321180 (Australian paperback)
9781925307276 (e-book)

CiP records for this title are available from the British Library and the National Library of Australia

scribepublications.com.au
scribepublications.co.uk

It's a pastime with which men and women entertain each other at dinner — couples who don't yet know each other well. The question is: ‘How did you two meet, anyway?'

They look at each other. She says: ‘You tell it. You're better at that.'

He starts in. ‘Long ago, in a far-distant land …'

‘That's not true! It was downtown Utrecht, seven years ago.'

‘Okay, forget the fairytale.' He seems a bit disappointed. ‘Utrecht, seven years ago. I'm sitting at this sidewalk café, and a girl comes bicycling down the street. She's not allowed to be riding a bike there at all, but this is the girl who's allowed to do anything — the girl to whom policemen show leniency, just this once, and who brings all traffic to a standstill.'

‘You're exaggerating, sweetheart. And I was twenty-seven by then. Or twenty-eight.'

‘She's riding a mountain bike, bent over a little, with her butt up in the air. I can't tell it without that detail, the butt that started everything. She rolled past me, down that crowded street, with her blonde hair and that butt …'

‘All right already.'

‘You wanted
me
to tell it, right?'

The other man at the table sits up straight. ‘I want to hear about it, too. About that butt.'

‘Lou! Control yourself,' his wife says.

‘I saw her disappear into the crowd and I thought:
How am I ever going to find her again?
You know what that's like, Lou, you know what I'm talking about. That you feel like running after her and shouting:
Who are you? I can't live without you! Marry me, here, right now!

‘Hmm …' Lou says.

‘Anyway, a few weeks later I was at the Willem I, and there she was again, at the pool table. That feeling, like it was in the cards: I found her again … without even looking. This is how it's supposed to be. She was playing pool with a girlfriend. With that butt again, like this … sticking up in the air …'

‘Ed, please.'

‘I went over to her and asked her name. I didn't want to let her get away again. She told me, sure, her name, but not where she lived. She wouldn't do that.'

‘You were drunk.'

‘But you told him your name, just like that?!' the other woman says.

‘Why not?'

‘A complete stranger?'

‘I thought he was cute. Old, but cute.'

‘
Old, but cute
…' Edward feigns a pain that is real.

‘Older than I was. Are you happy now?'

‘Fourteen years …'

‘Plus one.'

‘You want me to finish the story, or not?'

How he'd asked the barman for the phonebook, flipped through it, then tore out a page and took it over to her. She was lining up a shot in the corner pocket when he asked: ‘Is this you?' He held the page beneath the lamp over the pool table and pointed to a name. She had looked Edward up and down in amusement. ‘Could be,' she said.

‘That's good, Ruth Walta. That's great. Thank you very much. I'm going to send you an invitation.'

‘I'll wait and see,' she said. ‘And what did you say your name was again?'

‘Edward,' he said happily. ‘Edward Landauer.'

‘Hats off, Ed,' Lou says. ‘That was a great move, that bit with the phonebook. That's real chutzpah.' He picks up the bottle and surveys the glasses. He tops up only Edward's glass.

‘An act of desperation,' Edward says. ‘I really didn't know what I would do without her. Imagine: a few minutes before all this happened, the world was still full of women, but now there was only her.' He smiles at his wife; his lips are purple. ‘As though you have precisely one chance — fuck that one up, and the gates slam shut and the miracle will never repeat itself.' His forehead gleams; with his hands, he conducts the words above the tabletop.

‘Didn't you find it a little scary, Ruth?' the other woman asks.

‘It's so funny that you'd think that. It's nice to be overwhelmed a little, isn't it? A man who knows what he wants, who goes for the mark and all that, that's what we want, isn't it?'

‘Yes, maybe it is …' She gets up. ‘Lou, could you clear the table? And please, keep your knives and forks.'

In the kitchen, she slips on the oven gloves. That afternoon, in a shop selling Turkish and Surinamese specialties, she had picked up a bundle of okra and examined it. ‘Keep both feet on the ground, Claudia,' Lou had said.

‘But they're vegetarians! What am I supposed to do?'

What she did was potatoes au gratin, with vegetables from the grill.

Back at the table, Lou asks: ‘Ruth, you noticed that he was older. But what about you, Ed? Did you see that she was younger?'

‘No talking until I come back, you guys!' says a voice from the kitchen.

Edward closes his eyes for a moment — the girl holding the cue, the cigarette smoke rising and falling beneath the lamp above the table. He had always been powerless in the face of beauty. Dumbstruck. The solar disc between the horns of that faultless little Apis bull long ago in a museum in Damascus — someone had made that, dizzyingly long ago, hands like his had cast the bronze so perfectly. Gradually it had started dawning on him that beauty, too, could inflict pain, beauty above all; the way it could cut with light.

He opens his eyes. His beautiful young wife. ‘No,' he says, ‘not right away.'

‘You didn't?'

‘All I saw was … beauty, really. With no age attached.' He raises his glass.

She places her hand on his. ‘Sweetheart …'

The hostess comes in, carrying a casserole. ‘You were going to clear the dishes.'

‘Right away,' Lou says.

She goes back to the kitchen and returns. No one offers to help.

‘Delicious, Claudia,' Edward says a little later, raising his glass to her.

‘Yes, honey, you got it just right,' Lou says.

‘It was
made
right.'

‘That's what I said.' He winks at Edward.

‘And how did the rest of it go?' Claudia asks. ‘Your getting to know each other?'

• • •

The evening after he came up and talked to her in the café, she typed his name into the search box. She saw pictures of him at international gatherings — he was apparently some bigwig in virology. He was taller than the rest, and she thought a beard looked good on him. A few days later, there was an invitation in the mailbox, for an outing with the boat. That same day, she responded with a postcard.

He rowed. She sat on the little bench at the back of the boat. There was almost no current. Gradually, the fields turned to woods — old, tall trees, individuals with names of their own. As they went gliding between round, mossy banks, mansions shimmered behind the greenery. Private property, no mooring. He thought about the families with their mysterious names; they had not held up, their backs broken by the weight of all the possessions and history. The chronicles stood written in mould on the damp walls. Great lawyers and statesmen had stepped forward from their ranks, men who had shaped the nation and passed it along in good shape to the next generation. That permanency, that was over and done with. Their great-grandchildren had become bankers and writers, their lives dedicated only to themselves.

The greenery folded closed above their heads, the crowns shot with arrows of prismatic light. He rowed soundlessly. Where the oars disappeared into the water, there arose silky purls of black and silver. He had his shirtsleeves rolled up. She thought his arms were nice.

They slid back into daylight. On the shore, they spread a blanket and lifted their faces to the late sun. Behind them was a cherry orchard, covered in green netting. He unpacked the basket and she asked: ‘Did you make all this yourself?' — little sandwiches, a salad, the dressing kept separate. ‘I love purslane,' he said. ‘It tastes the way earth smells.'

When they had eaten a bit, she said, ‘Come on, let's go and buy some cherries.'

She was wearing a white-cotton dress, and her legs were tanned. At the entrance to the orchard, a woman in an apron was sitting in a little shelter. Edward bought half a kilo of cherries. They were crisp and sweet; the spring had been warm and dry. They walked back to the river, and spat the pits as far away as they could.

They drank wine and talked about her sociology study that wasn't going well, and about the trips he took, the conferences he attended. He looked at her. Did she realise that she was drinking a bone-dry Apremont, perfect for an occasion like this? She scratched her leg. White furrows appeared beneath her nails.

As darkness starts to fall, he is the first to climb into the boat. He reaches out to her. She seizes his hand, and takes a giant step. He rows back, the current stronger than he'd thought. In the darkness beneath the trees, he wants to stay right in midstream and correct as little as possible; it needs to be perfect.

‘Wait a minute,' she says after a while. She leans forward and places her hand on his. He stops rowing. ‘Hear that?' she whispers. ‘So quiet … Not even a bird.' Only the drops falling from the oars. Just before they touch the bank, he brings the left oar alongside and lets it rest in the water. Standing up, she says: ‘Permission to go ashore?' They clamber up onto the bank, and he ties the boat. She disappears between the tall, smooth trunks, her white hair fluorescent and enticing. A creature that brings misfortune to those who follow her song, deeper and deeper into the woods.

The English country garden belongs to the mansion further along, tucked away amid the trees. The windows are darkened; there is no sign of life. He'll buy it for her and look at it from a distance each day, by nightfall — an illuminated beehive. That's where he will live and make children with this glorious woman, one child for each room.

She excites him incredibly, but he doesn't want to ruin it by being too greedy, by revealing his desperate longing. More than ever, he realises now, being in love connects him with the boy he once was, with the first time, his mouth dry and his heart pounding, the first time of all first times that followed. He had never married and had never been with one woman for long; he had always remained a collector of first times. Now he is forty-two and knows for a fact that everything has gone the way it's gone only in order to bring him to this girl.

She laughs as she reappears among the trees, a light-footed, heathen goddess. ‘This is such a wonderful place,' she says. She speaks rather softly, as though the trees and the grass might hear. When she stands on tiptoe and kisses him, he has the confusing feeling that she went into the woods to consult with others of her kind — nymphs like her, gathered around the black, reflecting pool.

They lie on the humid bed of grass and moss, and make love slowly, with the timidity of bodies not yet fully acquainted.
So soon, so soon,
a voice inside him says. Her willingness makes him dizzy with happiness, gives him a thrill at the back of his throat at the sight of her young body, a dash of light on the forest floor. Haste, hunger, creeps into his movements. He forgets all he knows; hurried as a boy, he licks her belly, her salty sex, in abandon, as though he has drunk too much. Later, when he drives into her and leans on his arms, she writhes beneath him. He thrusts into her, she laughs, and says, ‘I wondered when you'd get there.' Her experience surprises him; he had forgotten that people her age already know everything.

Their bodies are covered by the green half-light. Sweat grows cold, semen contracting on skin. She lies on her side, in the shelter of his arm, his hand resting on her buttocks. ‘Too bad you don't smoke,' she says.

‘I've been told,' he says, ‘that artists feel like they're further along than their predecessors. That they look at their work and think they've outstripped history. A feeling of … liberation. And triumph.'

‘Why do you say that?'

He grins. ‘Liberation and triumph.'

She's silent for a moment. ‘You mean, like now?'

‘Now.'

‘Such a nice guy,' she says. And, a little later: ‘And what about the next part?'

‘What part's that?'

‘The part where it never gets any better than this?'

They row in darkness, back to the boat rental, to the pastures and wooded banks. And far away, against the horizon, are the black buildings of the university, tossed down amid the fields without moderation or plan. A part of his life takes place there. Behind them stand the towers of the academic hospital, made of pulsing light, like a casino in the desert — win some, lose some. They slide under a chain, and tie up at a dock near the office; the shutters have been lowered and padlocked. You can buy candy and soft drinks there; hanging on the wall is a map of the area's waterways.

• • •

This happened in a café at the park's edge. The barman put down a glass in front of her and said: ‘From the gentleman over there.' He nodded towards the far side of the bar. Edward took the glass and emptied it in one go. A few times, in the first years they were together, a drink would suddenly be set down before her. Edward would knock back Kahlúa and Blue Curaçao, his eyes fixed on the motionless figures across the bar. It could have been a saloon in Tombstone, 1885: she was the only pretty woman around, and men would lay down their lives for her. He was prepared for the fact that he could be struck down at any moment.

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