Authors: Tommy Wieringa
Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000
He knew that special beauty drew other admirers, too, a mobilisation of passion, men with a sporadically aggressive need to be seen by her. To let her know: you're mistaken, it's not him, it's me,
She was used to it. There were men who acted like that, just as there were men who behaved with exaggerated courtliness.
Her beauty had not deformed her, he thought, not like other women he'd known. Intelligent, stunning women, but intelligence and beauty in one and the same creature seemed to cause a deep inner disunity. It always took a while to see it, but after that you could never not see it again. Literature loved to portray such women as tragic heroines but, when he read about them, what he wished them most of all was a stringent regime of psycho-pharmaceuticals. In real life, he remained enthralled as long as they were able to hide their split nature. They were above-average in everything â in company no one was livelier, and in bed they were sensational, the world was their stage. But one by one they slipped out of character, sooner or later; the entrÃ©e of the tragic.
Ruth Walta seemed the lucky exception. He discovered no hidden chambers.
She said: âI think I don't have all that many issues â¦'
âWomen have issues.'
âAnd you don't?'
She shrugged. âThe usual female things, but otherwise nothing mysterious, I don't think. I hope that's not too boring for you?'
She had only a few girlfriends, and he considered that a good sign. Girlfriends sooner or later turned into a conspiracy â he remembered how they would go to the ladies' room together, their secret domain; after they came back, his position always felt compromised.
During their first summer together, she invited Henri and Diederik to their house: two friends she had met during her freshman year at college.
âYou have a lovely place here, Mr. Landauer,' Henri said.
Edward grimaced. âPlease, call me Edward.'
Ruth came into the kitchen for an ashtray. He couldn't find one. In the doorway she turned, a saucer in her hand. âCan I help with anything?'
âI'm almost done. Just go out and entertain them.'
From the garden, their voices sounded like those of passing cyclists. Had she done it with one of them? If so, then it must have been with Diederik. He had a broad, shapeless mouth, but the body of a water polo player. He had given Edward a powerful handshake. That's what it was all about, how you enfolded the other person's hand in yours; some handshakes were in equilibrium, but you also had those where your hand landed awkwardly in the other's, so you could apply no counter-pressure. There was no undoing it, you couldn't withdraw your hand and start all over again; you were under the other's sway. The boy's strong hand had taken him unawares.
He arranged scallops on a bed of chard, and took the plates to the dining room.
Ruth and Henri were outside, cocooned in the late-evening light. Wine and cigarettes and her sunglasses were on the table. Diederik was standing away from them, a bottle of beer in hand. What was he seeing? Peat-moss paths between the borders, pergolas of rose and passion flower. Edward stood between the sliding doors to the garden. He removed his apron and said: âDinner's ready.'
âLet's eat outside,' Ruth said. âIt's lovely here.'
âIt's going to get colder soon.'
âWe won't be that long,' Ruth said. She stood up. Edward went inside, taking the plates from the table.
âWait, Mr. Landauer, let me help,' Henri said.
Behind Ruth and Diederik, the sun went down. Diederik stuck a whole scallop in his mouth.
He doesn't even chew
, Edward thought. It could just as well have been a hamburger, for all he cared. He probably would have enjoyed that more.
Henri had tickets for a dance party. He'd ordered a few extra, so they could both go along if they liked. âFantastic,' Ruth said, but Edward shook his head. He remembered the parties of the 1980s, how everything went on and on, and how morning came with a mouth full of grit. He wasn't familiar with the music and drugs that were prevalent these days. That life had passed away; now he went to cafÃ©s, places where you could hear each other speak.
Henri asked about his job. âOf course I know who you are, Mr. Landauer, but â'
âPlease, call me Edward.'
âI saw you on the news once,' the boy said, âbut I don't really know exactly what you do.'
Edward told him about his virus research. He had just come back from a World Health Organisation mission to Hong Kong. All the poultry had been culled; the sky had turned black.
âCouldn't you be infected yourself now? How does that work?' Diederik asked.
âH5N1 doesn't transmit to humans,' Edward said. âBut influenza viruses mutate like lightning. So, who knows, at this very moment, somewhere in my lungs â¦'
He longed to be alone with her. The boys were an intrusion. Through their eyes, he saw what the two of them were: a young woman with a much older man, a forty-two-year-old man of whom they asked, âAre you still planning to have children?'
And Ruth, does she want children?
Edward wondered. The subject had never come up. They'd been together for such a short time.
â¢ â¢ â¢
One day in late January, they drove across the big Zuyderzee causeway to a place in Friesland called Bozum, and pulled up by a newly built house at the edge of the village. Her father's silver Mercedes was in the carport. The back of the house faced onto pastureland that was vacant and glistening. This was where she had grown up. A life without major breakage â prosperity and the influx of information had burgeoned steadily here, just like everywhere else, but life had retained its pastoral quality.
They were standing on the sun porch. He saw a spire in the distance â a vanishing point between the soft grey of the sky and the monotony of the grassland below.
âLook, a hare,' Edward said.
âPlenty of those around here,' said her father, from where he was sitting behind him.
He was a contractor â he had built the house himself. He took a cigarette from the dice cup on the table, ticked the filter against his thumbnail a few times, and lit it with a flame he cupped in his hand. A man acquainted with wind and rain. Edward remembered how, on a few occasions, his grandfather had offered him a cigarette from a cup like that. He was proud then that the old man had viewed him as the kind of fellow who smoked.
Her father leaned forward in his easy chair, elbows resting on his thighs, his head hunched down a bit between his shoulders; a labourer during his break.
They drank coffee from fragile porcelain cups. âDo you use milk?' the mother asked. His coffee went white from the dash of condensed.
[hazelnut and aniseed biscuits],' the mother said. âEver had them before?'
Try as she might, the echo of Frisian rang from every word. He shook his head, his mouth full of cookie.
Later, Ruth and her mother disappeared upstairs to sort things out â what could be disposed of, what could not.
Edward looked at the photos on the dresser: Ruth as a child, a creature woven of light and gold filigree; riding a horse, petting the powerful neck of a bull in some farmyard; smiling into the camera with big, strong teeth, her little brother on her back.
Her father came and stood beside him, a bottle of aged gin and two glasses in his hand. âThe old clock on the wall has almost reached five. You do drink now, don't you?' He poured for both of them. â
, that's what we say around these parts. Do you know what that means?'
âCheers, I guess?'
,' Edward said.
They drank. Her father tapped his index finger against one of the photos. âDo you know who that is?'
Edward looked. âRuth?'
âNo, this fella here.'
Edward moved his face up closer, trying to look as though he might know something about cattle. âNo idea,' he said at last.
âSunny Boy. Still a young one then, not nearly the champion he became a few years later. But what a power he had in that body already â¦ A million offspring, no less.'
A pair of champions, the bull and the girl. The animal was awesome, but Edward couldn't stop looking at Ruth. She was barely twelve, thirteen. Even back then, he would have desired her desperately.
âAnd what plans do you have, if you don't mind my asking?' her father said with a force that made it seem as though he'd been holding back till then. He was shorter than Edward, but with the immovability of a wrestler. He had broad, strong fingers with cracks that had never come completely clean.
âPlans?' Edward said.
âWith Ruth. You're a bit older, if I'm correct.'
Edward wondered about the connection between the question concerning his plans and the stud bull her father had just pointed out to him. âThere's a few years' difference, yes,' he said. âIt's not ideal, but â¦ I regret that I had to turn forty before meeting her â¦'
âForty-two, that's what she said.'
A hot glow spread up towards his ears.
âYou could have had a family of your own already.'
Edward stood up straight. âI could have. But I didn't.'
âYou know that she's been married before?'
âYou didn't know that?'
His alarm-red thought: the secret chamber â¦ he had found it. âNo,' Edward said, âno, I didn't know that.'
âIt was right after she moved away from home.'
They were making a fool of him, the father and the daughter. They were laughing, laughing.
âI asked her whether she had a good reason for getting married. Love, she said. That's not an answer, I said. He was a good boy, for sure, but he had never done an honest day's work in his life. She'd never been so in love before, she said. When she came back from America, she showed us the ring. It was a surprise â¦'
âA surprise. Indeed.'
âWe puzzled over it and puzzled over it, but never did understand why she had to go and do that.' He sighed. âShe never has let anyone tell her what to do.' He tipped the second glass into his mouth and said, his lips wet: âYou and me are ten years apart. You're more like my own generation. I had hoped that she would take care of me someday, but the way things look now, it'll be your wheelchair she's pushing. Is that what you want, to have my daughter be your nurse?'
âIt's â¦ it's maybe a little too early to think about that yet.'
âOh, is that what you figure? Listen, let me tell your fortune for you, right down to the year. Ten years from now, some doctor will have already stuck his finger up you twice, to check your prostate. That hurts. You'll already have been on one of those bicycles to measure your heart functions, after you felt that tingling spread down to your fingers. And the plumbing's getting a bit rusty, too. To read the little information leaflet, you're going to need your glasses. But where did you leave the damn things?'
Edward smiled. Her father was a humourist, he was sure of that now.
âThere,' he said. He pointed at Edward's forehead.
Edward didn't get it.
âThere they are, on your forehead!'
Edward ran his hand through his hair. âWhat?'
âYour glasses! Your reading glasses!'
âI still get along fine without them,' Edward said, when the other man was finished laughing.
âTalk to me again in three years' time.'
âOh, we will indeed.' He slapped him on the shoulder.
After supper, he and Ruth took a walk around the village. At the edge of Bozum, in the dark, was the church. âIt's really old,' Ruth said, her eyes fixed on the building. âI don't even know exactly how old.'
The gate was open. They walked along a gravel path between the headstones.
âYour father shouldn't have been the one to tell me,' he said bluntly.
They stopped, little stones gnashing beneath their soles. She didn't know what he meant.
âAbout your having been married,' he said.
âOh no, not â¦'
He ground little potholes with his heels. âIt was painful.'
âI was meaning to tell you myself.'
The clock at the top of the tower struck the half hour.
âIt was no big deal, really. We went to Las Vegas â he'd been wearing cowboy boots since he was thirteen, for the day when he would drive into Vegas in a Chevrolet. Then we saw one of those little chapels â¦ Well, that was it, really.'
He shoved his hands into his pockets and walked on.