The Bike Ride

To celebrate Litro #113: Double Dutch, we held a Dutch-themed short story competition. Rebecca Cordingly was the winner.

I am the only person I know who has never been to Amsterdam.

“I don’t want to smoke marijuana,” I say on arrival as if it is an obligatory practice. Angus, a friend from university, blinks at my misguided impression of the Dutch city in which he now lives. My visions – streets of sprawling students pulling “whities” outside coffee shops whilst bunking off school trips to Anne Frank’s house – could not be more erroneous.

“Bikes have right of way here,” he yells, having plonked me on one of the ghastly contraptions. Mine appears to have been made for a man who is six foot tall, so I stand on my tip toes, my head growing hot with anxiety. I wonder if it is really true that one never forgets how to ride a bike even if the last time I rode one was so long ago it doesn’t even feature in my memory. Angus rides off gaily into the traffic in front of us, telling me, “Pay no attention to cars, they have to mind you!”

It soon becomes clear that Amsterdammers are not surprised by moronic tourist-cyclists with no road-sense or coordination. They roll their eyes mildly as I crash in and out of tram routes like an inept skier on a black run. In a city where everyone bikes and nothing surprises, there is a shrug of weary acceptance towards the gaping, wide-eyed Brit. To brake on a Dutch bike, I learn that one must peddle backwards – a skill that proves useful for stopping but not so great for setting off again. I find I can’t unstick my pedals. This is eventually solved by a kamikaze launch technique, which means that I just narrowly avoid killing anything and anyone in my path.

It is a bustling, sunny Saturday in May and the city is far more beautiful and less intimidating than my preconceived notions had allowed me to imagine. Amsterdam has the elegance of Paris but the laid-back quality of a less conceited European city.

We have been cycling for ten minutes when Angus suggests a ‘Dutch lunch.’

“I don’t want a roll-mop,” I say, eyeing the road-side stall he is approaching.

“You’re not having a roll-mop.”

Raw herring, the National dish, is served to me by a business-like (though not unfriendly) woman of robust build. It comes in a white roll with raw onions and gherkins and looks like an unrolled up roll-mop. The ‘nieuwe’ herring comes in from the beginning of May when a festival heralds the arrival of the shoals. It is extremely popular apparently.

Unfortunately my eyes can’t get my stomach to ignore the concept that Angus is trying to get me to eat a slimy, cold, grey, uncooked eel-like thing that smells of raw onions. Angus finishes his, shrugs and eats mine, wandering off through an impromptu flower and flea market. I am told that if I attempt to speak Dutch, I will be spoken to in English.”It’s pointless trying,” he says. “Your Dutch will never match their English.” All the same, I attempt a “Dank-oo” when handed my purchase in the All Year Round Christmas Shop, enjoying the warping of my own language to fit another. The woman serving smiles and says, ‘Thanks.’

“Look up all the time or you’ll miss everything.”

Back on our bikes this is true but hazardous advice so I ignore it and keep my eye-level horizontal. Continental-style cafés adorn street corners with tasteful outside seats of woven wicker.

“Cafes,” Angus explains, “are different to coffee shops.”

I nod meaningfully, peering into establishments where you can buy a joint over the counter. Occasionally I catch a blast of the scent as we go past but generally the city air has a soft, clear smell, with sporadic wafts of toasted sugar emanating from the stands selling caramelised nuts.

In the museum district I wander in awe through the Van Gogh Museum drop-jawed at how close I stand to his legendary masterpieces. The exhibition is extensive and the story of a life unfolds before my eyes, colouring in in vivid colour a plot I know only the outline of. We emerge hours later, the texture of passionate brushstrokes in oil quietening my mind.

The queues are too great to visit Anne Frank’s house today but the surrounding area is exquisite. Trees line canals and pretty pavements run down either side. Straight rows of houses face each other across the canal. Four to six storeys high the houses are tall and narrow, pressed together like dominos in a pack. Angus informs me that the long windows of these houses hark back to a Calvinist past where the house – like the soul – was to have nothing to hide.

We stop for more refreshment, this time with some food that doesn’t scare me. From my café seat on the riverbank with a glass of Rosé in one hand and some strong ‘auld’ cheese in the other I can at last look up to observe the roof-tops. Each one is different. Like pinnacles in a crown some are triangular, some flame-shaped, but all look one-dimensional as if each slim house were sporting an elaborate headdress.

Redeeming my poor show at lunch I choose a typically Dutch supper of ham, new potatoes, butter and white asparagus – a simple dish that makes me happy. Which is a good thing because we are about to set off for our final destination – the one I am most apprehensive about.

“Don’t be such a wuss,” Angus says, paying the bill and standing decisively. “You can’t come to Amsterdam and not see the Red Light District.”

It is surprisingly underwhelming. Girls in luminous bikinis, many of them chatting into their mobiles, stand in shop windows looking bored – snaking into life with a curve of the hips and a widening of their eyes only when a punter peers in. Gormless groups of English stags goad each other like teenagers and run away, giggling.

“He’ll come back later, ” Angus remarks of a young man whose shyness doesn’t quite cover his evident curiosity, “when he’s had enough to drink.”

Pubs on every corner are full of tourists drinking in what might appropriately be called ‘Dutch Courage’. Many of the shop windows are empty already, their contents bought or borrowed for the hour.

We head back to our bikes away from the bustle of the night, quietened but lacking the sense of horror I had imagined I would feel. There is an air of laidback unshockability to this city, a sense of dignity and self-possession that welcomes without needing to try too hard to impress. Much like, perhaps, the Dutch themselves.




Litro #113: Double Dutch

Cover design by Luke Bright

Table of Contents

February 2012

Short Stories

Judy Darley — “Girls in Windows
Chika Unigwe — “Saving Agu’s Wife
Sanneke van Hassel — “Army Boots”
Milla van der Have — “Before the Flood

Poetry

Ramsey Nasr — “I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together)

Two prose poems by Nyk de Vries
Translated by David Colmer
“Progress”
“Hamster”

Art
Alex Vannini — “Sunset

Listings
Alex James




Litro #113: Double Dutch — Editor’s Letter

Welcome to the first in Litro‘s World Series of issues in translation: the lekker Dutch issue. Once again, we step into the breach to bring you a great selection of contemporary stories and poetry from the Netherlands.

Much has been made recently of the struggles some of the great Dutch writers have had in reaching a wider audience because of the general lack of translated Dutch literature during the post-war era. It’s only recently that much modern Dutch fiction has been available in English; we ourselves published a Dutch issue in 2010, bringing to Londoners stories from the likes of Cees Nooteboom, perhaps the greatest living Dutch writer. We also translated for you the opening of Louis Couperus’s great novel Eline Vere, and featured some of the Netherlands’ current crop of great contemporary writers, including Tessa de Loo, Otto de Kat and Abdelkader Benali.

In our second Dutch issue we continue where we left off, bringing a flash of orange into a dull English February. We have poetry from Holland’s National Poet and Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr, as well as a piece of biblical flash fiction from up and coming poet Nyk de Vries, translated by David Colmer, whose translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin won him the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Celebrated Nigerian-Flemish writer Chika Unigwe brings us a beautiful and poignant tale from Nigeria of sex, religion, gender and relationships. Handpicked writers can be found on our online website, where we will also feature the winner of our special Dutch-themed short story competition, who has bagged the top prize of a vintage Dutchie bicycle. (Read Rebecca Cordingly’s winning story, The Bike Ride.)

This special Dutch issue and the upcoming Olympics have also inspired us to host a free Dutch sports and literature festival, Double Dutch, all day on February 28 at The Serpentine Bar and Kitchen in Hyde Park. So don’t fear the winter greys, we have plenty of colour to send your way! We hope you enjoy this issue, and that you’ll come and say hello at our festival, and most of all, that you’ll continue to read and love Litro.




Judy Darley — Girls in Windows

I first noticed the boy in Vondelpark. It was our second day in Amsterdam and I still felt I’d yet to see the heart of the city, feel its pulse against my own.

You’d chosen our hotel with such care, situated in the Museumplein district far from the scrambling mass of coffee shops and girls in windows. I did my best to hide my disappointment at being so far from what I felt to be the true life of Amsterdam, following you through the spacious rooms of the Van Gogh Museum, edging surreptitiously closer to the masterpieces to sniff their oil paint-scented exhalations.

[private]The park warmed me inside and out in a way the gallery failed to; something to do with the way it didn’t try, but just was. We ambled along the paths, pausing to hear the skin-shivering strains of a violin echoing beneath a bridge. You grasped my hand, your sense of timing as out as ever, pulling me abruptly from my reverie.

Deeper into the park, we walked through a fragrant avenue where white flowers starred hedges of waxy green leaves. “What a wonderful smell!” I exclaimed. “It reminds me of something …”

As always, you were ready with an answer, sniffing hard then declaring: “Honey.”

I breathed in, catching a note of something richer, almost buttery. Honey wasn’t right – it was caramel that caught in my throat. But despite everything, I wanted to be kind to you on our anniversary, so I just smiled.

We reached a lake surrounded by sunbathing tourists and locals, bikes lounging in the grass like heat-hungry metallic lizards. You bought us ice creams to eat as we strolled, wet in the way Dutch ice cream always seems to be, as though the process of melting began long before it was scooped from the freezer onto its cone. Small birds shot overhead from tree to tree, silhouetted against the brightness with occasional flickers of colour showing through.

“Parrots?” I asked disbelievingly. You thumbed through the guidebook, finding no answer between its pages.

Our meandering took us back to the bridge, but the violinist had gone, replaced by a group of kids in their late teens, early twenties, each bearing a handwritten sign offering free hugs. You pulled me closer, proclaiming: “We have all the free hugs we need!”

I pulled away, laughing and pretending I was just joking, and the boy saw his chance, opening his arms.

This was why I’d come to Amsterdam, wasn’t it? Not to be hugged by strangers exactly, but to open myself up, experience something new. His warmth enveloped me, along with a faint smell of perspiration that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. I was aware of the slight stickiness still on my lips from the ice cream, of the boy’s blood pulsing against my back where he held me. He moved his own lips to my ear and whispered:

“Those birds you were watching? You’re right, they are parrots.” Then he broke away, moved back, grinning.


The restaurant you chose was oppressively extravagant: a different wine served in a different glass with each small, exquisitely-presented course. Flavoured foam adorned many of the dishes, that fluffy declaration of cutting-edge cuisine.

The boy only reappeared as you scraped up the last morsel of your dessert, leaning in to light the candle while you smacked your lips. The flame leapt and caught, reflected in his eyes as he gazed at me.

“Coffee?”

You didn’t recognise him, nodding benignly. “What do you fancy, Liddy? Liqueur coffees are nice, aren’t they, if they do those, or something frothy?”

I shook my head. “Black, decaf, please.” In nine years of marriage I’ve never taken my coffee any other way than black and decaf.

He brought our coffees swiftly, placing your cappuccino before you, then carefully setting down mine: a shallow white cup with a small trail of starry flowers adorning the saucer.

“Some caramel for your coffee,” he said too softly for you to hear.

The boy danced in my mind as I waited for sleep that night. Had he been following us all day? But why? We were no different to any other tourists. I certainly wasn’t. Middle height, mid-thirties, so very ordinary. Why would a youth like that want to stalk a woman like me?

Or perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps he just happened to think like me, see the world the way I did.

Why did that seem the more unnerving of the two?


The next morning we made our way to Prinsengracht, Princes’ Canal. I rolled the name of it around my mouth and stared though doorways and down steps into galleries and painting studios. Between a café serving pastries fragranced with vanilla and a shop overflowing with flowers, I saw a small, enticing studio with a ‘To Let’ sign in the window.

You hurried me on, eager to reach the promised intrigue of the Houseboat Museum. For me the narrow spaces of the vessel brought to mind that wet and disappointing canal holiday on the Norfolk Broads, when the biggest highlight was the crazed swan trying to fight its reflection in the side of our craft.

You seemed more fascinated by what was happening outside the museum’s small windows anyway, to the extent that you bashed your head on a low-lying beam. The pitiful contortions of your face compelled me to suggest we retreat to the pub the boat was moored alongside.

I chose one of the tables outside, beyond which a clutch of statues stood like characters from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, frozen by the wrath of an ice queen. When the boy emerged from between them like a deer from a forest it was as though I’d been expecting him.

“Hello,” he said, beaming. “I’m Tomas.”

“Lydia,” I introduced myself, glad you were still at the bar. I hated that you called me Liddy, as though it’s my job to prevent things escaping, keep things in.

He sat opposite me, cocking his head towards the Houseboat Museum. “The Anne Frank House would interest you more.”

I frowned, uncertain. “Isn’t it just terribly depressing?”

“No, not depressing. Sad, yes, but also uplifting.”

I glanced into the pub where I could see you chatting to a blonde woman who seemed familiar somehow.

“The way those people made a life for themselves in such circumstances, that’s beautiful, I think.” Tomas leaned forwards intently. “In one area you can see up into the attic where Anne would sit with Peter and they could see outside, to the air and the birds and the branches of a chestnut tree. That, that’s beautiful.”

The light in his eyes drew me to reach forward and touch his face. He smiled as I did so and I felt confused. What was I doing, touching the face of a young stranger? His chin was smooth, like he’d barely begun shaving, and I withdrew my hand as fast as if it had been burnt.

Then he stood and a burst of panic rose in my chest. “Will I see you again?”

He nodded, still smiling. “If you can get away this evening, I will meet you at the National Monument in Dam Square around 6pm.”


We queued outside the Anne Frank House for more than an hour, you pretending not to be over-hot and irritated, me swathed in thoughts of the boy and the clear, quenching light in his eyes.

The crowd meant we trailed through each room one footstep at a time, with a slowness that forced me to take in our surroundings in great deal. Tomas was right, it wasn’t depressing at all. In her bedroom, Anne’s pictures were still pasted to the walls, reminding me of my own teenage bedroom, the pictures I’d blu-tacked to those walls.

And when I stood below the opening to the attic, I found myself imagining Anne and Peter sitting up there close enough together to feel the heat from one another’s bodies, only somehow in my mind Anne was me and Peter was Tomas. I felt a connection I hadn’t expected at all, and for the first time comprehended the true, human fear of that war.

“What shall we do tonight?” you asked as we left the museum. “Shall we try one of those restaurants on Prinsengracht, or somewhere near to our hotel?”

I thought hard, seeking an appropriate lie. “I want to do some shopping first. Let’s eat in the hotel. I’ll be back by 8.”

Was I mistaken or was that a flash of pleasure igniting your eyes? What could you be anticipating – room service and a night of passion? I turned away to hide my revulsion.

The lingerie I’d bought in preparation for this trip still lay tissue-wrapped and pristine at the bottom of my suitcase. I wondered if I could return it when we got back home, or whether I should just leave it in the hotel, stuffed into a drawer with the hairdryer and tea-making facilities.

I had the sense this wasn’t the first time you’d been unfaithful, but it was the first time you’d confessed, grasping my hand so suddenly during the easyJet flight that initially I thought you’d been taken ill. You wept as you told me, but I remained stony cold, unable to feel anything beyond a stomach-chilling humiliation.

Why, why there, why then? Why on our way to our romantic anniversary weekend away? I snatched my hand away from yours and vowed to get through these three days, experience as much of Amsterdam as I could, and then leave you.


Waiting in Dam Square, I ran my fingers over the smooth stone of the National Monument, feeling the tiny pocks worn by wind and rain. That’s how I felt about the long years of our marriage, minutely eroded by the many instances of mistrust and resentment carried by me in reaction to the unsophisticated lies and even less sophisticated affairs carried out by you. Only my fear of the unknown has kept me by your side.

Perhaps you read that in my body language, in my growing desire to see beyond the enclosure of our cul-de-sac. Perhaps that’s what moved you to confess this particular fleeting affair – a realisation of game over – as though your belated honesty could restore your tattered honour.

Yet, as I spotted Tomas crossing the bustling square towards me, saw his smile catch and light, the thrill leaping in my blood reminded me of what I once felt for you, and haven’t for so long.

The boy held a twisted cone in each hand, laden with fat, moist chips swirled with mayonnaise.

“Dutch speciality,” he said, handing one hot parcel to me. We ate them, grinning at each other, and I felt again the eerie sense of him knowing me better than any stranger should.

“Tell me about your art,” he said. I saw his eyes flicker to my fingertips, to the faint smudge of vermillion marking the nailbeds, and a sudden fizz of clarity struck.

“No, I want to hear about you,” I said slowly, holding my smile in place. “Tell me about yourself, your own interests – what drives you.”

He looked momentarily alarmed, then conflicted, deciding, I suppose, whether to continue the façade or not.

“I won’t be cross,” I murmured, and he slumped ever so slightly. Game over.

For a long while we sat in silence, and my smile turned inwards. The fantasy romance was dead, but self-respect buzzed inside me. I was stronger than you, stronger than this boy even.

“We didn’t mean any harm,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t have chosen you if I didn’t think you were capable of …”

“Why me though? Out of all the tourists you must have seen that day?”

“Because …” He looked embarrassed. “You seemed to dislike the man you were with. I guessed you would be happy for any excuse to be away from him.”

Tomas explained how he spotted us, followed us through the park that afternoon, before returning to his girlfriend and the handful of students they’d recruited as control groups. You and I, we were their test subjects, chosen to assess a hypothesis of the most reductive kind: men respond to visual stimulus, women to emotive.

“Anyone could have told you that.” I crumpled my empty paper cone scornfully.

“We all assume that to be true, but has it ever been proven?” he asked. “My girlfriend is the quintessential beauty – you may not have noticed her that day, but your husband certainly did. My role was to demonstrate how I understand you, how well I listen, how intuitive I am to your needs.”

“How did you know I would respond to the Anne Frank House?” I asked, kicking my heels against the stone of the monument. The bicycles balanced in their racks nearby resembled both a cage, fencing us in, and a means of escape.

“I didn’t, not for sure. But I know you are interested in people more than objects, that you feel things deeply.”

I liked to hear that, and was flattered momentarily. Gritting my teeth I reminded myself he was probably merely showing me what he’d guessed I’d like to be shown.

Thanking the boy politely for his time and attention I climbed down from the monument and strolled across the square in the opposite direction to the bicycle racks, not to return to Museumplein, where you, no doubt, were enjoying the time and attention of the blonde girlfriend, but towards Prinsengracht.

Just before I reached the studio-to-let that I’d noticed the day before, a movement behind a window caught my eye. A tall, young, exotic woman in lacy underwear gently swayed behind the glass, singing a song I could not hear. She saw me staring, and smiled, and I smiled back, thinking to myself that often the cages that confine us are the ones we create ourselves.[/private]

Judy Darley is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who draws inspiration from all aspects of life, but particularly travel. She’s had short stories published by a number of literary magazines, websites and anthologies, including Quality Fiction Magazine, The View From Here, Gemini Magazine and Crab Lines Off The Pier, as well as in the forthcoming Riptide, volume 7. She has also had short stories highly commended in the 2010 and 2011 Frome Festival Short Story Competition. Judy tweets at twitter.com/essentialwriter.

 




Chika Unigwe — Saving Agu’s Wife

“So Yaradua goes to Israel on an official trip. He gets sick there and dies. His entourage is told, ‘Well, you’ve got two options. Your president was a Muslim and so must be buried quickly. We can bury him here at no cost to you since he was our guest, or you can take his corpse home but that would cost a lot. Thousands and thousands of dollars.’ Yaradua’s men beg for a few hours to think about it. Five hours later they come back to the Israelis. ‘Well?’ the Israeli president asks. The head of the entourage clears his throat and says, ‘Your offer is very generous but we’ll turn it down. Thing is we all know the story of the famous someone, the son of a carpenter, who was buried here and who rose after three days. We don’t want to take that risk!'”

[private]The laughter that filters in from the kitchen distracts her for a moment and she shakes a lot more salt than she intends to into the simmering pot. A raised voice says over the laughter, “That’s not right. Muslims are not buried. They are cremated. For their sins, they are burnt. You’ve not told that story well.” The voice is loud in the way people are when they are drunk, but the words are not slurred, so she is sure whoever it is is not drunk, which surprises her, the amount of beer they have been drinking. She can’t say whose voice it is. All the men sound alike. That’s what this place has done to them, she thinks. It has made their voices the same, almost as if they were clones of each other. Their stories are not that different either. They have all escaped from something: religious riots, poverty, deadend lives, and are hoping to resurrect now. But the resurrection is a farce. The promise this place holds out never materializes. Some have, like her, university degrees, but those degrees mean nothing here. The men hold down jobs picking strawberries and harvesting chicken gizzards. They will do anything but clean. “That’s a woman’s job,” Agu said once when they saw a vacancy for a cleaning job at a time when neither of them had work. It would emasculate him to do that, and how could she have thought he would apply?

“Why do you want to spoil a good joke?” another voice asks. She recognises this voice. It is his. Her husband’s. Agu’s. Perhaps he sounds distinct because she has known him the longest. He has a beautiful voice. No. He had a beautiful voice. Deep. Like Barry White’s. Meant for serenading (and indeed he had done a bit of singing) but having been through what they have, it has developed a jarring roughness. These days, he always sounds angry. And really who could blame him? But she has suffered too. He must not forget that. She has suffered as much as he has. Come to think of it, they all have. Every one of them in that overcrowded sitting room with its mismatched chairs and wooden crates that serve as side tables; every one of them drinking out of the jam jars she washes out has suffered. No one can claim a monopoly on suffering. Certainly not Agu. But suffering is not without its lessons. Here she has learned thrift. Not the thriftiness of her mother back home in Nigeria, who bargains for palm oil until she gets a good price and then boasts of it, or recycles paper bags until they disintegrate, and laughs about that, but the thriftiness of the marginalised, the dispossessed. The sort of thriftiness impossible to laugh about or boast of. Hers is the thriftiness of those who stick to their sort, those who laugh so that they do not have to cry, and pretend it is normal to drink cheap beer out of washed-out jam jars.

Why do they have to be so loud? she wonders, not for the first time today. Everything feels wrong here. Especially the laughter, which is too expansive for the narrow apartment. It must crack the walls and seep into the other apartments and then they would have trouble. Neighbours complaining of raucous voices. “Disturbing the peace,” the policeman had said when he came to their doorstep some months ago. How insulted she had felt. Humiliated. Yet she had to smile at the young man, promise they would keep the noise down. Grovelling. She does not want to think about it. And all this talk about Muslims and Christians and burials. The jokes do not amuse her. It feels blatantly inappropriate after what they have been through to laugh at jokes about death. Have they not seen enough of it? The kitchen is hot and she wishes there was a window she could open. It is so hot she feels she is being slowly steamed like the moi moi she has cooking on the other, bigger burner. Moi moi in aluminium foil. The taste won’t be quite right, she knows, but there is nowhere one can get banana leaves (or are they plantain leaves?) to steam the bean cake in.

The men are laughing at another joke. She wonders what this new joke is about as she heaves out the bag of powdered pounded yam from the cupboard under the sink. At the beginning, she was unable to eat it, firm in her belief that the powder was not yam, could not possibly be yam, but a combination of chemicals not fit for human consumption. One of the wives, older in the experience of living abroad (and therefore older in the necessary experience of substituting one thing for another), had laughed and told her, “You’ll get used to a lot of things soon. This pounded yam included.” Now she does not even notice that it does not taste like the real pounded yam of back home: fresh yam, sliced and cooked, then emptied into a mortar and pounded to a stretchy, firm mound, perfect for rolling into balls and dunking into soup. She can no longer recall when she stopped noticing the taste. Or stopped noticing that the perfectly yellow bananas she bought here from the supermarket lacked the sweet, rich taste of the spotted bananas of her homeland. Or that her days had become one monotonous cycle of waking, cooking, and cleaning (not just her house but other people’s, young white couples who left sanitary towels and condoms exposed in the dust bins she had to empty, and twice a week an architect’s office close to the train station).

Her life has come to this. Her years of study have come to this, her degree in banking and finance from the University of Nigeria and five years’ experience working in a bank in Jos, going to her job in power suits and climbing steadily up the ladder. It does no good to think like this, she chides herself, finally dipping her spoon to taste the soup. Hmm, not bad. She had feared that it would be too salty. She stirs in spinach from a can and lowers the fire of the burner. Soon, the men will start asking for their food. She is the woman and must provide for all of them. It’s her duty. Her new job.

She lifts the pot with the moi moi off the burner and almost drops it for the heat.

Wiping sweat off her forehead, she makes a mental note to warm some stew for those who might prefer stew to soup. This too is her duty: to anticipate the needs of Agu and his friends. She remembers a story she and Agu listened to once on the BBC. A man comes home tired and hungry from work. He asks the wife for food, but there is no food at home, there’s a famine, and so not wanting to see her husband hungry, she cuts off a breast and feeds it to him. The next day the same thing happens. And while she’s clearing the table, the husband asks why her shirt is all bloody. She tells him what she’s done and he says, “Great! Now we have to start on the children!” Agu laughed and said, “What a silly tale.” But she did not laugh.

It was not always like this. Not when they were back home, she climbing the corporate ladder in her coordinated power suits. Then he respected her job, her need to rest after work. Weekends were spent in bed, talking about colleagues and dreams and whether or not to go Saturday-night dancing, and should they start having babies? They had young maids, cousins of cousins, to help with the cleaning and cooking. It was a different life and she misses it. She and Agu were equals then. Now he tells her he wants babies. They should have children. Maybe four. A sensible, even number. And where would they put the babies? In the one small cupboard they have in the bedroom? Of course she doesn’t ask him this question out loud. Their apartment has one bedroom, one small bathroom, and an even smaller kitchen, like a toy house. The hallway is narrow and will not hold a baby pram. Where will their children play? Where will they run around and learn to walk?

When she and Agu go to bed in the small bedroom, he holds her tight and empties himself in her. She does not always want to, but she does not resist when he starts making love to her. “Are you on the Pill?” he asks. And each time she says, “No.” The only response he wants to hear. The room is not big enough, the space is too limited, for any other answer.

She ladles soup into a huge bowl, careful not to be stingy with the gizzards (special discount from Emmanuel who works in an abattoir) and stock fish (special discount from John who helps out at the Oriental Shop). It helps to have friends in useful places, she thinks, now dishing out the too-white pounded yam into a wide platter edged in a pattern of trellis (bought secondhand from the Web). Even here where it no longer matters, where it should not matter, they still keep away from Ali and Abdul, who are Nigerians, as they are, but of the wrong religion. “The Muslims,” Agu would say when asked. “I keep away from the Muslims.” As if the Muslims were a highly contagious disease.

“But you can’t blame Ali and Abdul for what happened in Jos,” she would answer,  trying to convince him to return their friendship, their hellos, in hopes of eliciting more than a tart response. “You work in the same factory.”

“I can’t forget.” He lost more than a job in the riots. He lost his faith in his country. “And that’s a huge loss,” he would always say. He spent his days reweighing the value of everything gone. Agu had a supermarket. On a street full of supermarkets, it was a testimony to his business acumen that his supermarket stood out above the rest. He said it was all down to strategic planning. It wasn’t anything he had picked up while studying for his accounting degree (although it helped to have a degree in accounting), it was just that he knew how to place his products so that they caught the eye. The male deodorants with the chocolate bars so that a man who came in with his girlfriend for some chocolate was confronted with the deodorant he might need. At Id ul Fitri, he rewarded his Muslim customers with parcels of ram’s meat dripping blood in clear plastic bags, for which they thanked him effusively. Yet when the riots started, that did not save him. Did not save his shop. The name marked him out as a southerner. Agu and Sons (there were no sons, but surely those would come?). His supermarket was razed, and Agu lost everything in one night. All his investment. His will to strive.

There was no question of his wife continuing in her job at the bank. She was marked too.

They cleared their bank account to buy a passage out. No choice. The man who helped them out had only one country he could get them into. Belgium. “They don’t even speak English there,” she said, wondering what she would do in a country where the languages she knew did not matter. But for Agu it was enough that the place was far away from Nigeria. “I don’t care if they speak cat-language. I need to get out of here,” he said.

She does not want to think of the corpses she saw the day after the riot. Nor does she want to think of the trouble it took to get them here. Or of the lies they had to tell, the new identities they had to wear. Their passports say they are from Liberia – should she die, the authorities would probably contact the Liberian embassy.

She lifts the moi moi from the pot and places them in a round dish, a present from one of her employers, a lonely woman who tells her often, “No one gets my toilets as clean as you do. You are a treasure.” She knows how to scrub toilet bowls until they gleam. Nothing escapes her attention. She is dedicated. That was how her boss in Nigeria described her too. And now how easily she has transferred that original dedication to toilet bowls and wooden floors. How she has adapted to this life she could not have imagined.

She puts the food in a tray, and carefully balancing it in her hands carries it out to the sitting room, where the men are now playing a game of WHOT. The sight of the cards makes her homesick. For a moment her eyes mist and she has to hurry to drop the tray and retreat before they see her like this, but the men hardly look up from their game. When she re-enters with plates and spoons, all four drop their cards as if on cue and Emmanuel (small, slight, with the fan-shaped ears of an elephant) says, “At last. Smells delicious, nwunye anyi.” Nwunye anyi, our wife. That is what she has become. “Wife” to whichever guest her husband invites home: cooking, cleaning. But sometimes when she sleeps, she still sees herself at the counter in the bank discussing the current economic crisis with colleagues.

Her mother suggested that they move in with her while they looked for new jobs. Agu refused. “I am a broken man,” Agu told her. “I cannot begin to pick up my pieces here.” But she would have liked to stay back, to try to find a job in another bank in the east. It would have been easy to find something, she had experience after all, but what sort of wife would she have been if she put her career before her husband? And who was to say she could not make a career in the new country? Agu had a plan: he would work in Belgium just long enough to regain everything he’d lost in the North, and then they could move back. Did she not want to see the world? Had she never looked with envy at those returnees who came back at Christmas with foreign accents and wearing the latest fashion? Well, she had, she could not deny it. “Here is your chance to be one of them. Be the one to be envied. Be the one to come back from abroad.”

Now they no longer talk about their work. Agu’s in the bread factory, transferring hot loaves from one machine to the other (at least that is what she thinks he does, she is not entirely sure), and she no longer talks of vacuuming floors and wiping windows in light tones as if it did not matter.

The words they do not say fill the distance they keep from each other except when there are faults to be found. And some days there are those: when the food is not ready on time, or the house is not tidy enough, or her voice is not wifely enough, and then Agu unleashes his frustrations on her. He uses his hand to thump sense into her. In this way, he has also changed. Afterward he cries and says he is sorry but a man works all night in a bread factory and it changes him.

She thinks, I too have found my way, as she fingers the Pill – several of them, small and pink – in the pocket of her denim pants.[/private]

Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian-born author who writes in English and Dutch. Her debut novel, De Feniks, was published in 2005 by Meulenhoff and Manteau (of Amsterdam and Antwerp) and was shortlisted for the Vrouw en Kultuur Award for female writers. She is also the author of two children’s books published by Macmillan London. Her latest novel is On Black Sisters Street (Jonathan Cape, UK 2009; Random House NY, 2011).

 




Sanneke van Hassel — Army Boots

The first time it got me in its grip was on a Sunday afternoon in the tram. I’d got in at the Koningsplein. About three o’clock. I’d pushed my way through the crowds in the Leidsestraat. It was months since I’d been in a shopping street and the heavily laden fellow humans trudging next to me seemed like members of a different tribe.

[private]That morning I’d been to a coffee-concert given by a few of my ex-colleagues. I’d taken an early train. John was still asleep, I left a note for him and crept out of the house. It was a decorous concert. The quartet had played Haydn and Mozart, nothing by the modern masters that used to feature in our repertoire.

I decided to make my way back to the station on foot. Walking was good in my condition. As I crossed the canals I couldn’t get Eine kleine Nachtmusik out of my head. After less than a kilometre my steps became more cautious. Cramp stabbed at my lower back. A small group of people was standing at the tram stop. Within ten minutes I could be at the Central Station. I took my place in the waiting herd.

Unfortunately I was wrong. We waited and waited. The one small bench at the stop was occupied by a monster of a man. For a fraction of a second he glanced round. His look so fierce that I too remained standing, belly towards the tram tracks.

He was small of stature. Army boots, long-unwashed jeans, a khaki-coloured jumper. Hint of ginger hair, shaved to stubble. Hairs on his wrists and hands. Hands made to ball up into fists. Fists of squatters’ pamphlets, black-and-white posters on demonstrations. Bear paws.

I stroked my belly, rehearsed the gesture, reminded myself something was in there, a life. I’d pulled my skirt up high, it was of that elastic fabric they make tracksuits from. Ever since I found out, I’d been wearing gym shoes and clothes that clung to me like pyjamas. At night I felt it moving, scraping the wall of my abdomen. I pressed at the swelling, encountered something hard, something round.

Slowly the man turned his head, his eyes crept across the ground towards me. I quickly looked ahead at the tram tracks. Would he have noticed? Would he be imagining what it looked like, the naked creature in me? The tumbling in my belly, the amniotic fluid that sloshed with the steps I took? His body had been through a lot, to judge by the scar above his eye, a slab of skin gouged out there, the gash on his chin. Would it arouse jealousy, this two-person body in which life was preparing to separate itself?

His eyes burned. I turned towards the teenage girls. Like pole dancers they hung around the timetable. Bags in all sizes. Inside: the latest of the latest. Anything out of fashion went straight in the bin. At their age I wore big T-shirts, with wide sleeves and shoulder pads. Oversized and unisex. Twenty years ago the belly would have stayed invisible a long time. Now no one thought anything of naked skin, underwear stuck out from under tops, poked up over trouser-bands.

I stroked the belly that had robbed me of all lust and watched an old woman pull her shopping trolley over the tram tracks. Behind her a poster of a plunging neckline. In my bag was a book about a painter who observes his own aging process. Once a week his half-sister puts him in the bath. She washes his sex. He no longer cares what he’s wearing, lets his beard grow, never leaves the house. The past three months I too had visited the toilet many times a day. Short pees, minor ailments, taking a long time to tie my shoelaces. Often I felt like an animal. One that had stopped bothering to lick its fur.

A girl adjusted two, three patent leather belts. Another pulled a glitter tanga from her bag. When it came down to it, would the man’s thoughts turn to me or to those girls with their pallid faces, those calves? I was carrying life inside me. I was a symbol of fertility. Even though, from the moment I heard, something in me had had a sense that it was dying. That it had been lost. Something like youth, freedom, the possession of a body.

The man’s eyes had returned to the pavement. He yawned. Did he sleep last night? What was he after this Sunday afternoon in the city centre? Where would he get out? At the bar, the coffee shop? Would he produce a ticket from his trouser pocket, fold it carefully along the lines and stamp it? Drops of sweat shone on his neck. It wasn’t warm that day, a chill in the air, grey start to a Dutch autumn. Was that alcohol he was perspiring?

The nagging pain in my back got worse. I looked at my feet. Stand firmly on two legs, spread the weight. And then, at last, the rinkling of a tram. The man got up and pocketed a cigarette he’d just finished rolling. I stepped into the tram behind him. The stink of his unwashed clothes. Slap my hand to my mouth. It was chock-full. People didn’t stand up for me. I clung tightly to a pole, one step above him.

He looked out of the window. Cyclists, acacias in the wind, the first yellow leaf. In the bookshop was a poster with pale-blue lettering and roses, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, new novel by a brilliant young woman, I’d read in the paper. Calamity physics. The tram lurched. I tilted forwards, swayed. Khaki jumper, withered leaves in my nostrils. Humus. I grabbed a seat to steady me. Blinking my eyes. His fists landed in my stomach. I fell forwards, arms across my lower body. The boots stamped at my shins, kicked me over. An abandoned terrain. Impacts to the belly, contusions, bruises, then something burst open. Blood streamed through my fingers. I lay curled up between the tram tracks. An embryo rolled at my feet, naked newborn rat.

With a thumping heart I took one step backwards. Unruffled, the man stared straight ahead. I stroked the belly: we have survived this. His fingers flexed and then let go. And again. I took a breath.

One of my ex-colleagues had asked how it was going. ‘Taking a short time out,’ I’d said. There was no need to tell her that for two weeks I hadn’t touched my violin. She told me how they’d been forced to change the repertoire. String quartets were everywhere these days. Like a virus they travelled through the land of churches, castles and old council chambers. In such places there was no call for the repertoire of Berg or Schnittke, with the occasional exception, smuggled in between lighter, more digestible pieces. She’d resigned herself to that, she said, she had to eat.

I remembered rehearsing Schnittke in an empty school, the second string quartet. Fear of death and lust for life. Anger. No resignation, in spite of the orthodox church music he based it on. The piece demanded all my attention. I longed for that, for things that demanded all my attention.

At a bend the tram tilted to one side. People screamed, grabbed hold of shoulders, poles, seats. The man stood on steady legs, captain of his body. I wouldn’t have a chance if he hurled me to the floor of the tram.

‘The Dam, Dam Square.’ He squeezed towards the exit, shoved the door flaps open and jumped down, into the crowd. On the steps up to the supermarket vagrants sat with drink and dogs. To their left was an Irish pub, further on a coffee shop. Here he did business, amid tourists and hucksters.

Suddenly he was right in front of me, on the other side of the window, fifty centimetres lower. Hands on hips. His green eyes nailed me to the tram floor. She-creature in steel cage. He grinned, I stared back. Slowly the tram jolted into motion. The next hour and a half, the whole way home, I kept looking over my shoulder.

Since then I’m no longer safe.

Take Sunday. I cycle onto the Van Brienenoord Bridge, going flat out to make it up the slope. A truck skids across the concrete ramp between carriageway and cycle lane and knocks me down. Or last Thursday, late in the evening. I come out of the metro. On the far side of the square dark boys in white baseball caps are waiting for me. And yesterday evening, in the supermarket, a man with three fingers in plaster wants money from me. I put my basket down and run outside.

At night I dream I’m giving birth to animals, a chicken with all its feathers forces its way out of my belly, a blood-smeared calf tears me open, a sheep in winter coat slithers onto the kitchen floor, head first. Out of its belly come skinny lambs not strong enough to live. The bleating is deafening.

When darkness comes, I avoid the street. In Amsterdam I don’t take public transport any more. John says that there are demonstrably more accidents caused by kitchen steps than out of doors, that most assaults take place in the home, that in thirty years criminality has barely increased.

‘It’s just that more crimes get reported,’ he says.

I tell him I want a car of my own. ‘It’ll be a lot more convenient soon, with a child and all that stuff you have to carry with you.’

I turn round and walk upstairs. The baby room is almost ready. I’m holding a musical box that I bought today. It has frogs on it. For the baby, as it goes to sleep.[/private]

Sanneke van Hassel studied theatre arts and cultural history. Her debut collection of short stories IJsregen (Ice Rain), published in 2005, was nominated for several literary awards. In 2006 she wrote about every day life in Sarajevo after a three-week stay: Pieces of Sarajevo. In 2007 she published her second collection of short stories titled Witte veder (White Feather). For this book she won the BNG Literary Award. She is currently working on a third collection, Ezels (Donkeys), which will be out in February 2012, and—together with Flemish writer Annelies Verbeke—on an anthology of short stories from all over the world: Naar de stad (To the City) for April 2012. She lives and works in Rotterdam.

 




Milla van der Have — Before the Flood

Of course it wasn’t just Holland. Granny Oudewater knew better than that. She’d encounter them anywhere. Those sideways glances. The offhand remarks. They’d do it in any country. Probably.

[private]Then again, she lived here. It happened here. Here, they bumped into her at the supermarket, when she was blocking yet another aisle, immune to the unholy hurry that seemed to posses anyone else. Here, they casually cut in line. And here people thought of her singularity, her not fitting in, as something close to a criminal offence.


That morning another letter of complaint had arrived, standing out amidst the endless stream of brochures and leaflets for toys.  As always, it focused on her inability to take care of herself. On the smell, that apparently bothered her neighbours. Granny shrugged and buried the letter in the leftover papers meant to serve as kitty litter. Despite their sensitive nasal faculties, she was sure that when she died the neighbours would only discover it after weeks, if not months. That much they cared. Plus, as far as she was concerned, people with such a horrible taste in music weren’t allowed any complaints. At all. Just then, another one of them cranked up the volume. Within minutes, the numerous pictures framed on her walls would be trembling to the all-devouring bass.

Unfortunately, this time, she would have to deal with them, now that they threatened to get a social worker involved. She knew how that would go. The woman would take a quick look around and still manage to produce a voluminous report. She’d give special attention not only to Granny’s collection of aquariums, without fish these days, but serving as large drinking bowls for Ottawa, her cat, but also to the frames, especially to the default images of happy families and playing kids still in it. She’d look Granny up and down and would end up putting her away as some freak, better off in a retirement home, where she could be supervised. Well, Granny Oudewater wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

The city of Bergen op Zoom lay quiet when Granny ventured out, dressed warm and well against the outside world. For a moment, the brightness caught her off guard, but soon she steeled herself against the vastness of the open air. Carefully, steadying herself against walls, lantern posts and whatever else came along, she shuffled on. She had forgotten the pleasure of feeling light, real daylight, on the skin and sure enough, a smile broke through. In the distance, clear voices sounded, children in the throes of games. As she remembered, she had always been fond of children. The ones in the pictures, at least.

They were playing. A group of five, six boys ran around in an old playground, attacking the see-saw and the slide at will. She settled down on a nearby bench, against the backdrop of their little world. It was hard to tell anything from them. They were children, coming together and falling apart at a moment’s notice, both serious and unconcerned, running this way and that. One of them was a little black boy. He climbed and pushed and yelled as much as the rest of them, going unnoticed between them. For now, Granny knew. Different didn’t last in Holland.

A sudden wind tore open the sky and the children finally took notice of her. ‘What are you looking at, schele!’ one of them yelled. He called the other boys to attention. ‘Look at her! What a freak!’ They gathered around, a small band of hostility. ‘Brillenjood! Brillenjood!’ they jeered, pointing at her thick glasses. ‘That’s an awful thing to say!’ Granny tried, while the kids danced around her in an attempt to drag her off her bench. ‘Shut up, old fart!’ the leader said. ‘Ugh, she smells funny,’ another one called out. ‘Like garbage!’ The leader stepped in, taking on an experienced face. ‘No, she’s that lady my mum talks about. The one that reeks of fish!’ ‘Eeeww!’ the others chimed. ‘Go away!’ the boy commanded. Granny Oudewater sighed and got up slowly. So it came down to this.

The rest of her walk took quite a while and when she finally reached the water, the sky had turned an autumnal Dutch blue. If it weren’t for a few persistent tufts of grass, sky and river, when you looked a certain way, were one, joined in a magnificent grey.

She remembered this place well. A lifetime ago, she had spent many a happy hour here with a certain Canadian sailor. Of course, back then she still belonged. But other than that, little had changed. Cormorants still hunched over the water; lovers still hid in the reeds.

Little did she know back then that what happened here, by the water, would happen always as her mind kept groping back to those last days of summer. Come fall, the Canadian had had to leave and they, her parents, wouldn’t let her go with him. She’d pondered escapes, revenge, but in the end, like the rest of her life, it had come to nothing. There had been suitors, but no proposals. Jobs, not a career. A house, but never a home. A fish out of water, his leaving had quenched the life right out of her. So it was only right to return here. She had, in fact, never left.

It was also the only place where no one bothered with her. If people came by at all, they saw an old lady on a bench by the waterside, contemplating things past, and they wouldn’t give her a second thought. They’d pass quickly, with their troubles and noise, their rudeness and opinions. The churches of Bergen op Zoom were only shapes against the edge of the world. Other than that, she was alone. The way she liked it.

The wind rose and so did Granny Oudewater. She looked out over the river. In the distance, a last boat moored. They predicted evil weather. She edged towards the water, the wind tugging at her clothes as if it meant to push her back. But Granny, used to a lifetime of opposition, thought nothing of it. She took the pins out of her hair and, an offering, held them up for the wind to swipe away. She shook her hair. It was a long time since she had loosened it and it reached down almost to her waist. She had been beautiful once.

Next up, the glasses. Those she didn’t need either. She hesitated a bit over her wallet, not because of the money, but because of the pictures in it. Even if it were default, she had grown to care for her little model sons and daughters, come to think of them as, well, family. In the end, she took out the only real picture: Ottawa’s colourful bulk, asleep on a stack of fresh laundry, without a care in the world.

Time faded. The shore retreated and still she waded further and further, until there was no more ground, only grey. The water was cold, but not as much as she’d expected. Ages ago, in her Canadian days, it had been cool and soothing and even if it was already the first of November now, it was still a bit like that, nice and forthcoming.

She remembered skinny-dipping, making love in the heat of summer. His arms were strong, strong and muscular, and he smelled of sea. He could hold her so tightly it took her breath. And he would whisper to her, words she didn’t understand, words perhaps that made no sense at all.

It tugged, the water. Like coming home.

Up in the distance, a bell tower chimed. Her lips moved, like in prayer, as she went in deeper and deeper. All around her, the waters rose and swelled.

Glossary

Schele – Dutch name calling, meaning ‘someone who squints’.

Brillejood – Dutch name calling, used by children mainly, for someone who wears glasses.

Lekker – Dutch word for tasty[/private]

Milla van der Have wrote her first poem at 16, during a physics class. She has been writing ever since. Milla lives and works in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Milla's work has been published in Loch Raven Review, The Wilderness House Literary Review, Midwest Literary Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, Full of Crow Quarterly, and Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure. See millavanderhave.blogspot.com.




Ramsey Nasr — I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together)

 

and this is my poem, come on in

don’t be afraid, ignore the echo

let us begin in emptiness

welcome to my crater of light

 

once we gathered, you and I, remember

revived by the cool gleam of a rummer

our shadows like finest crystal

our fame as glancing as the light that falls

on a letter read by a woman becalmed

 

we were gold dusted

pale, almost translucent with love

lowering our eyes before each other

 

and we loved to do penance

if someone asked how we were

we answered truthfully

ashamed to our boots, sir

firmly convinced

that we ourselves had scourged

our very own lord

and crucified him personally

the certainty of the apocalypse

was branded on our retinas

 

what happened in the few short centuries

we looked the other way?

 

I hoped to show you a fatherland

formal, pure and with sustained metaphors

moulding a poem about us, but when I began

I had to look on while one nation

spontaneously wiped out the other

like two irreconcilable republics

 

how did we move so fast from humble to rude

from a glimmer to an omnipresent shrieking crew?

how could careful caterpillars give rise to this hummer tribe?

 

they say: because god disappeared – our father

had decided to make himself even more invisible

to see if it was possible, no, it wasn’t

and god was gone

and in this still-life with absentee

the astonished netherlands now stood

mouths full of mortality

full of frivolity and highly regarded death wish

 

all their vanity had been revealed as vanity

the gleam of them, the dust they embraced

the palace of mirrors people once took for eternity

had been declared unfit for habitation

the frost crackled on their souls

 

and out of that gap we were born

kevin, ramsey, dunya, dagmar, roman and charity

appearing as if by magic

bungee-jumping, with inflatable orange hammers

screaming and screeching and anti-depressive

or gang-banged in silence for a breezer

a big welcome to the nether regions

 

yes, that’s what you get, this is what’s left

when you ram the guilt out of our bodies

we fill the hole with gleaming emptiness

 

between psalm singing and pill popping

between gold and bling

I found a country where everything must go

 

this land is the revenge of the forefathers

like an iconoclastic fury they rage on in us

but it exists – like the connection between

burkas and kids’ padded bikinis exists

between buttermilk and binge drinking:

concave and convex our centuries slide together

 

cancelling each other out is our strength

our nature strives for emptiness

like a cyclops longs for depth

 

you see, I wanted to show you a fatherland

not this desert of infinite freedom

but this is where we live

and how beautiful it would be

if someone one day like a second-hand deity

could build a country rhyme by rhyme

for this nation that misses its nation

 

here of all places, in the open pit of our heart

we can achieve something great

a poem’s a start

 

Ramsey Nasr was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In addition to being a prize-winning author of poetry, essays, dramas, he is also a gifted film and theatre actor.

In 2009, Ramsey Nasr was voted Poet Laureate of the Netherlands. In 2000, he was the winner of the Hugues C. Pernath Prize. In 2006 Ramsey Nasr was awarded the honorary Journalist for Peace prize by the Humanistisch Vredesberaad (Dutch Humanistic Peace Council).

On January 28 2009, Ramsey Nasr was voted Dutch poet laureate for a term of four years, partly on the basis of the above poem. The title refers to Spleen, a famous poem by the Dutch poet Godfried Bomans. It goes something like this: “I sit here in the window box / to watch the boring weather. / I wish I was two little dogs, / then I could play together.”

 




Two prose poems by Nyk de Vries

 

Progress

A small group was passing through the street with Bibles in their hands. My father was standing next to me, grinning. He said, “Those people still believe in God.” He probably stopped to think about what he’d just said. The word “still” implied progress. “Those people still believe in God.” It suggested levels of increasing insight. My father sniffed and mumbled, “We still believe in progress.” Silently we watched the slight figures until the small group had disappeared around the corner. Then I looked to the side and behind me. There was no one there.

 

Hamster

It had slowly grown dark. I stood up and saw yellow taxis driving past. Outside I hailed one and took it to the south district where I had a date with someone I knew from high school. We went into a bar, told each other the latest news and drank beer and wine. A renewed romance was in the air, but it just went on and on. Around eleven we were startled by a shuddering hamster that rolled over the floor and died on the spot. I’d seen it coming. When you chat for too long, something dies.

 

Nyk de Vries was born in Friesland, a province in the northern part of the Netherlands. He is a writer and a musician. Since 2000 he has written two novels and a collection of flash fiction, Motorman & 39 andere prozagedichten (Motorman & 39 other prose poems). He is currently working on a new collection and an album, the CD version of his Motorman collection. Nyk de Vries lives and works in Amsterdam.

David Colmer is an Australian writer and translator who lives in Amsterdam. He has won several prizes for his translations of Dutch literature, including the 2009 NSW Premier’s Translation Prize for his body of work and the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Twin, with author Gerbrand Bakker. His most recent book-length translation is Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates, published by Portobello in London.




Alex Vannini — Sunset




Listings: Feb 2012

February: it's not just the season where we remember lost loves and new ones, but a chance to embrace a whole array of fantastic literary-inspired events, from Gothic dinners to getting lost in a pleasure garden. From festivals run by children to a new exhibition where all innocence is lost by one of the most controversial artists of all time.

Tropical Extravaganza Festival, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 4 February – 4 March 2012

Celebrate all things bright, beautiful and tropical at the Tropical Extravaganza Festival, where exotic orchids, tropical flowers and foliage displays will dominate the Princess of Wales Conservatory. The theme for this year’s festival is Forces of Nature, and how plants and fungi interact with the four forces of nature – earth, fire, wind, and water. Throughout the festival, there will be volunteer guides in the conservatory who will be on hand to answer questions on the displays and Kew’s global work.

The Barbican, 16 – 18 February 2012

In the first half of 2012, two of the Barbican’s International Associate ensembles come to the Centre for residencies: the New York Philharmonic’s first residency takes place in February 2012, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam’s first residency follows in April-May 2012. These residencies involve symphonic and chamber music concerts, family events, new commissions, and educational and outreach work. They also allow the Barbican to take the music programme directly to communities in East London.

Ongoing, She Stoops to Conquer @ The Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX. 7:30pm daily. Tickets from £5

One of the great, generous-hearted and ingenious comedies of the English language, Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer offers a celebration of chaos, courtship and the dysfunctional family. A brilliant new production of a classic play. For more information, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/68378/productions/she-stoops-to-conquer.

10th February, Dickens’ London: Bermondsey in Dickensian Literature @ Woolfson & Tay Bookshop & Gallery, Cafe, Gallery 12 Bermondsey Square, London SE1 3UN. 7pm. Tickets £5

Dickens was drawn to the character of London itself, all aspects of the capital from the coaching inns of his early years to the taverns and watermen of the Thames. Peter Clark has written a new book based on Dickens’’obsession with space and place. Focusing on five walks through central London, Clark illuminates the settings of Dickens’s greatest works, his life, his journalism and his fiction at the Woolfson and Tay Bookshop, a vibrant venue which has been shortlisted for Best Independent Bookshop of the Year. To book, visit woolfsonandtay.com/peterclark or ring 0207 407 9316.

10th February onwards, Drawings @ Paradise Row Gallery, 74a Newman Street, London W1T 3DB. 7pm-9pm daily. Free

Drawings is a group show based on the idea of drawing, drafting and illustrating stories. The show includes works on paper, moving image, photographic prints and light works by Diann Bauer, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Shezad Dawood, Margarita Gluzberg, Kirk Palmer, Guillaume Paris, Barry Reigate and Douglas White. For further information on the exhibition, visit paradiserow.com/exhibitions/67/overview.

Pleasure Garden Ball, Museum of London, 14 February 2012

Make a date for this night of dancing, drinking and decadence as the Museum of London recreates Georgian London’s quintessential pastime – dancing the night away in the pleasure garden – with a flirty Valentine’s twist. Learn to dance with an 18th-century girl band, hear saucy poetry by Write Queer London, discover fashion dandy-style, and design and wear your own alluring masquerade mask.

Imagine, Southbank Centre, 11 – 26 February 2012

With over 50 ticketed and free events over two weeks, including concerts, plays, comedy and appearances by many of the UK’s finest children’s authors, it will be the biggest Imagine festival yet. For six days, between 13 – 19 February, children take over the running of Southbank Centre, from managing the cloakroom to selling programmes and making sure shows start on time. Festival themes include a celebration of Roald Dahl and an exploration of children in care in literature. Imagine truly takes over every corner of Southbank Centre, from the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of The Jungle Book in the Royal Festival Hall and an audience with the legendary Jacqueline Wilson to intimate, one-on-one performances of The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

16th February, Kate Williams in Conversation with Suzie Feay @ The Gallery at Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB. 6:30pm-7:30pm. Tickets are free, but need to be reserved by emailing [email protected]

Historian Kate Williams, author of England’s Mistress and Becoming Queenapplies her expertise in the Victorian era to her scintillating first novel, The Pleasures of Men. Kate will be in conversation with Suzi Feay, literary journalist and blogger, as they discuss the challenges of turning from fact to fiction and the enduring literary appeal of the slums, smogs and scoundrels of 19th century London. For details visit foyles.co.uk.

Fancy Dress Carnival, Bavarian Beerhouse, 18 February 2012

To bring the carnival spirit to London, Bavarian Beerhouse is organising a traditional carnival fancy dress party, featuring imaginative outfits, a DJ, dancing and a general atmosphere of boisterous fun. Fancy dress is a big part of the carnival in Cologne – every year, the city parade attracts millions of guests who celebrate and dance in the streets. In true Carnival spirit, guests at the Bavarian Beerhouse will be encouraged to dress as outrageously as possible for the night. Whether you’re a pirate, a cowboy or a little devil, all fancy dress will be welcome.

Picasso and Modern British Art, Tate Britain, 15 February – 15 July 2012

In February 2012 Tate Britain will stage the first exhibition to explore Pablo Picasso’s lifelong connections with Britain. The exhibition will examine Picasso’s evolving critical reputation here and British artists’ responses to his work. The exhibition will explore Picasso’s rise in Britain as a figure of both controversy and celebrity, tracing the ways in which his work was exhibited and collected here during his lifetime, and demonstrating that the British engagement with Picasso and his art was much deeper and more varied than generally has been appreciated.

23rd February, Literary Supper with Simon Callow: Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World  @ St Pancras Grand Brasserie, Upper Concourse, St Pancras International Station, London N1C 4QL. 6:30pm-10pm. Tickets are £40, including a three-course meal and a welcome drink

In association with the Museum of London, this is Foyles’ first literary supper of 2012. As London celebrates the Dickens bicentenary, beloved actor, director and writer Simon Callow will discuss his biography of the literary legend. In discussion with the Museum of London’s curator Alex Werner, Callow will look at Dickens’ life through the lens of the theatre, reflecting on the importance of the stage for such a master storyteller. To reserve for this event please call 0207 870 9900 or email [email protected]. For more information visit foyles.co.uk.

25th February, Dickens Day @ Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB. 10:30am-5pm. Tickets £10, concessions £8

A host of celebrated writers including Deborah Moggach, David Kynaston, Sarah Wise, Alex Werner, Sarah Phelps (who wrote the recent BBC screenplay for Great Expectations) and Michael Rosen will discuss all things Dickens in honour of the centenary of the great man’s birth. The day will also include an ‘I Never Knew That About Dickens’ quiz, hosted by Christopher Winn, and all ticket holders will receive a goody bag with a free Vintage Classics book. For more information, visit foyles.co.uk.

28th February, Double Dutch Festival @ The Serpentine Bar and Kitchen, Hyde Park 10:30am-6pm and The Kensington Gore Hotel, 6pm onwards. Free

In partnership with the Dutch Embassy, Litro presents the first event in our 2012 Litro Live! Season, a free day & evening festival in celebration of the Netherlands and the impact it has on the world through literature, sports and the arts. Guest speakers include David Winner (journalist and author of Brilliant Orange), Simon Kuper of the Financial Times, Ramsy Nasr, award winning writer Abdelkader Benali, novelist Sanneke van Hassel, award winning Flemish writer Chika Unigwe and writer and comedian Ben Moor. For more information, visit litro.co.uk.

14th – 18th March, Rozalie Hirs at StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival

StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival (14-18 March 2012),  ), famous for celebrating poetry in all its forms, welcomes Dutch poet and composer Rozalie Hirs her music has been described by one critic as having “a hint of hard-hitting Dutch Minimalism”. Over 60 poets will be taking StAnza, including Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Christopher Reid, Matthew Hollis, Lavinia Greenlaw, Michael Symmons Roberts, Joe Dunthorne, plus poets from the USA, Macedonia, Sweden, Poland, South Africa and Palestine. Tickets are now on sale. For programme and booking details visit our website.

Compiled by Alex James and Robin Stevens




Extract from Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

The dining room, doing service as a dressing room, was a hive of activity. Before a cheval glass stood Frédérique van Erlevoort, her hair loose and flowing, looking very pale under a light dusting of rice powder, her eyebrows darkened with a single brushstroke of black.

“Do hurry up, Paul! We shall never be ready in time!” she fretted, glancing at the clock.

[private]Kneeling before her was Paul van Raat, his fingers flying as he draped a long, gauzy veil of gold and crimson about her waist, making the fabric billow over her pink underskirt; her bare shoulders and arms were snowy white with powder and all ashimmer with doubled and twisted necklaces and chains.

“Oh, there’s such a draught! Do keep that door shut, Dien,” grumbled Paul as the old housemaid departed with an armful of dresses. The open door offered a glimpse of the guests proceeding along the potted palms and aralias on their way from the hall to the large reception suite, the men in evening dress and the ladies in light-coloured apparel, all peering into the dining room as they passed by.

There was much merriment behind the scenes, with only Frédérique retaining some form of composure, as befitted the majesty of her role as a queen of antiquity.

“Please be quick, Paul,” she pleaded. “It’s gone half-past eight already!”

“Yes, yes, Freddie, don’t worry, you’re almost done!” he responded, deftly pinning some jewels among the gauzy folds of her drapery.

“Ready?” asked Marie and Lili Verstraeten as they emerged from the room where the stage had been set—a mysterious elevation that was barely distinguishable in the dim light.

“Ready!” answered Paul. “And now let’s all calm down!” he pursued, raising his voice commandingly.

He had good reason to admonish them, for the youngsters acting as wardrobe assistants—three boys and five girls—were cavorting about the cluttered room, laughing, shrieking and causing the utmost disorder, while Lili struggled in vain to wrest a golden cardboard lyre from the hands of the twelve year-old son of the house, and the two rowdy cousins set about climbing a large white cross, which was already teetering under their onslaught.

“Come down from that cross, Jan and Karel! Give me that lyre at once, other Jan!” roared Paul. “Do take them in hand, Marie. And now—Bet and Dien, come over here, will you? Bet, you hold the lamp, and you, Dien, stand beside the sliding door. Everybody else out of the way! There won’t be enough room, so some people will have to go out into the garden and watch through the window. They’ll have a splendid view from there. Come along Freddie, careful now, here’s your train.”

“You’ve forgotten my crown.”

“I’ll put it on your head when you’ve taken up your pose.

Come on now.”

The three banished maids scurried away, the boys crouched down in a corner where they would be invisible to the audience, and Paul helped Freddie to ascend the stage.

Marie, who like Lili was not yet in costume, spoke through the closed window to the fireman outside, wrapped in his greatcoat, waiting to set off the Bengal lights in the snowy garden. A large reflector stood beside him like a pallid, lustreless sun.

“First white, then green, then red!” instructed Marie, and the fireman nodded.

The room was dark but for the lamp held aloft by Bet, while Dien stood by the door to the now deserted dressing room.

“Careful, Freddie, careful!” cautioned Paul.

Frédérique arranged herself carefully among the cushions on the couch whereupon Paul adjusted her draperies, necklaces, hair and diadem, tucking in a flower here and there.

“Is this all right?” she asked with a tremor in her voice, taking up her well-rehearsed pose.

“You look ravishing. Come along Marie and Lili, your turn now!”

Lili threw herself on the floor and Marie reclined against the couch with her head at Frédérique’s feet. Paul quickly draped both girls in brightly coloured shawls and veils, and wound strings of beads around their arms and in their hair.

“Now Marie and Lili, you must look distraught! A bit more writhing with the arms, Lili! More anguish, much more anguish! Freddie, we want more despair from you—keep your eyes on the ceiling and turn down your mouth a bit more.”

“Like this?”

Marie dissolved into giggles.

“Yes, that’s better! Do keep still, Marie, are you ready?”

“Ready,” said Marie.

Paul continued to add finishing touches, readjusting a fold here, a flower there, doubtful whether all was perfect.

“Come, let’s get started,” said Lili, who lay in a most awkward position.

“Bet, take the lamp away, and then you and Dien come over here and stand on either side of the sliding doors!”

Finally they all found themselves in total darkness, their hearts pounding. Paul rapped on the window, then ran to join the boys in the corner.

After a slow, sputtering start, the Bengal light flared up against the reflector; the sliding doors parted grandly, and a dazzling white blaze lit up the tableau.

A hush descended on the reception suite and conservatory as the smiling guests pressed forwards, blinded by the burst of colour and light. Gentlemen stepped aside to make room for a pair of laughing girls, and young people at the back stood up on chairs for a better view.

La Mort de Cléopâtre,” Betsy van Raat read out to Madame van Erlevoort, who had passed her the programme.

Cries of “Wonderful! Magnifique!” sounded on all sides.

In the white glow of the Bengal light, ancient Egypt came to life. Beyond the sumptuous draperies there were glimpses of an oasis, blue sky, some pyramids and a grove of palm trees, while on a couch borne by sphinxes reclined a waning Cleopatra with cascading tresses, an adder coiled round her arm and two slave girls prostrate with grief at her feet. Thus, before the gaze of a modern soirée, the poetry of antiquity was evoked by a lavish vision of oriental splendour lasting only a few seconds.

“That’s Freddie! As pretty as a picture,” said Betsy, pointing out the dying queen to Madame van Erlevoort, who was so nonplussed by all this opulence that it took her a moment to recognise the lovely motionless maiden as her own daughter.

“And there is Marie, and the other one, oh, that’s Lili! You’d never know, would you? What splendid costumes; they went to so much trouble! You see that drapery of Lili’s, the violet with silver? I lent them that.”

“How do they do it?” murmured the old lady.

The light flickered and guttered down; the doors slid shut.

“Lovely, Aunt, just lovely!” Betsy exclaimed to the hostess, Madame Verstraeten, as she passed by.

Twice more the dream was reprised, first in a flood of seagreen, then in fiery red. Freddie, with her adder, lay perfectly immobile; only Lili could not help twitching in her contorted pose. Paul watched from the side, beaming—all was going well.

“How can Freddie keep so still? And it’s all so lavish and yet not overdone! Just like that painting by Makart!” said Betsy, opening her feather fan.

“Your honourable daughter must be exceedingly world-weary, dear lady!” drawled young de Woude van Bergh, bending towards Madame van Erlevoort, Freddie’s mama.

Written by Louis Couperus and translated by Ina Rilke.[/private]

Louis Couperus was born in the Hague in 1863. His first novel Ecstasy was published in 1892, followed by Psyche in 1898 and Inevitable in 1900—all available from Pushkin Press. A renowned raconteur and commentator, Couperus continued to write until his death in 1923.

Ina Rilke was born in Mozambique and grew up in Portugal, speaking Dutch, English and Portuguese. For the past twenty years she has concentrated on literary translation from Dutch and French into English, for which she has won the Vondel Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Flemish Culture Prize.




The Attraction by D. Hooijer

Because I’m unemployed I go to the funfair. I’ve no choice but to keep myself moving, otherwise I’ll be in an even worse state. And don’t amble; the soles of the feet slapping the asphalt, the doctor said. Just stamp a bit as you walk.

[private]The funfair is harder to take these days. There used to be the soft colours, now they’re garish and fluorescent. Fortunately you can screw your eyes shut. You can’t get away from the noise or the stench of kebab. The girls have got prettier though.

I go and try a few shots at a stall that has one of those girls. She says as little as possible and her face is expressionless. Her father or boss is standing talking with a group of men a short distance away but he looks around regularly to check she’s still doing it right (still watching intently enough).

In the tall display case I’ve spotted a stuffed animal. There are a good five other animals exactly the same, but he’s got something about him, something sceptical, something sharp. I think he’ll be good for me to talk to. At first I shoot so wide of the mark that I have to look at the barrel of the gun. Yes, the barrel’s bent. I don’t let on, I always behave myself, especially at funfairs. I shoot again and again to get used to the deflection and from then on I’m bang on target.

I win a little white pottery negro, then the same figurine only black. Blacker even than I am.

‘Don’t I get a first prize, all bull’s-eyes?’ I ask the girl.

‘Not up to me, it works electronically.’

For the next three bull’s-eyes she gives me a little plastic squirrel with spray-on fur. I’ve got ten euro left. I suspect her of trying to wind me up and that makes me mad. I get her to promise she won’t give away the wolfish bear. That one! I point to the fifth in the row. Her nod’s more superior than reassuring. I go to withdraw some cash.

Again a good stamping walk to the cash machine. Get a move on. The same firm tread. Next I’ll run. Dammit I feel as if something heavy has gone from my head.

At first I want to empty my account but then I remember I need to get by for two weeks yet and I don’t have any beer or potatoes at home. I draw two hundred euro and run back to the shooting gallery with the pretty girl. Of all the pretty girls she’s the ugliest and of all the ugly ones she’d be the prettiest. Which makes her average. She does have lovely wet purple lips; all right true, as if she’s dead, but she’s alive and she calls me love and looks coldly at me. Shame she won’t give me the animal. Do I have to show what I’m made of first? How, exactly? What am I made of? Let’s think. I’m nice, and not lazy but not thoroughly nice and not thoroughly lazy. You could say I’m average too.

This time I’m given a straight gun, when I was used to the bent one, so I have to get my eye in again. Then for a full fifteen minutes I shoot everything in sight. To be more precise I shoot two yellow bears that don’t make me happy, then three of those squirrels and a beautiful rabbit, except that I don’t like it. People stop and watch because I put all the animals down at my feet. Each time I first ask for the wolf.

‘Just give the lad that Alsatian,’ a man calls out.

‘No. Why? It’s electronic.’

‘Bullshit, you only have to unhook it.’

More people gather round. I shoot and shoot; my blood’s boiling. Even if I have to go back for the rest of my dole money, even if I have to take out a loan, I’ll shoot my way right through that furry troop to get at the wolf. He looks smarter and smarter. He looks as if he was expecting this, the bloody battle to free him. My hands start to shake.

‘I’ve got to cool off a bit. Don’t give him away, alright?’

I hand back the gun. Now don’t go saying otherwise you’ll shoot her or someone will call the police. I get into trouble quickly because of my black blackness, blacker than those coffee-brown and choco-milk types. You can bet I live frugally to make ends meet and why things are always coming into my life all the same, a woman or a party and now this, beats me.

I’m incapable of ambling. I think ambling looks spineless in blacks. So I walk erect, taking my time, to the ferris wheel, where I get into a gondola with all my new cuddly toys in a big plastic bag. The wheel jolts upwards, higher and higher. When I get to the top it speeds up a bit. I actually have vertigo but today I’m so furious I don’t notice it much. I believe you should deal with an obsession in the same way as your ordinary plans. I believe obsessions have their reasons.

I can see the shooting gallery down below. It’s starting to get dark; the sky’s still grey with patches of blue but the lights are going on in the city. I see four Honda motorcycles approaching. The noise doesn’t reach me, because all the music comes together up here.

Then I’m rotated away from the view and on the next turn upwards I notice they’ve unscrewed their saddles and are putting them in a bag. The wheel rotates me away again and the next time round I see them stepping into fluorescent clogs. Pink and purple fluorescent clogs. They race off towards the bumper cars in them. Could they be farmers? Shall I ask them later if they have a job for me? A job in a distant province. I start to sing for a moment, but suddenly the wheel goes viciously fast. I grab a pole and hold tight for the rest of the ride. On the ground I look first at my money; at home there aren’t enough potatoes and beer, but food isn’t important. No, you won’t get rid of me till I’ve won the wolf. He likes me, I could tell from his embroidered muzzle. When I put this cuddly toy in my room everyone will understand it’s not just any old cuddly toy but a creature to talk to. Or rather, since his mouth is sewn shut, I’ll do the talking and he’ll think.

I quickly walk back and yes, he’s waiting for me with that angry understanding face. I promise him I’ll shoot right through the whole woolly flock till the stall’s empty, till he’s the only one left. Then she’ll have to give him to me.

I take my trusty gun and shoot my ‘three bull’s-eyes’. And the girl gives me the wolf. She doesn’t say anything and still there’s no hint of a smile. Is she keen to get rid of me? Her boss or father is sitting at the next stall with a big plate of pancakes. Could that be it? I can’t work out why I’m given him otherwise, why now and not before.[/private]

Written by D. Hooijer and translated by Liz Waters.

Born in 1939, D. Hooijer started out writing poetry. In 2001 she released her debut collection of stories, Kruik en Kling, followed by a second collection three years later, Zuidwester Meningen, which was nominated for the Anna Bijns Prize. Her most recent collection, Sleur is een roofdier, won the Libris Prize 2008. The jury said: "The author has opened all registers of storytelling. These nine unusual, fascinating stories offer no certainties, no closure or clarity.” She also recently published Catwalk, her first novel.

Liz Waters translates literary fiction and quality nonfiction from Dutch into English. Her recent translations include The Rebels' Hour by Lieve Joris and War Games by Linda Polman.




The Sweet Factory Girls by Tessa de Loo

The sun tries its hardest to break through the low-hanging mist.  We are moving through the prettiest part of our route:  the heath, dotted with fantastic pines and beeches that glimmer silvery white through the fog.

[private]I would gladly step out into that mysterious world.  In my poor, city-girl imagination, I envisage the gradual clearing of the mist and re-emergence of the sun.  In my mind’s eye, I can see the forest animals awaken and stretch themselves lazily.

I can’t remember the last time I was in the woods.  All I can recall is the city park, which has too little that’s natural and too much that’s manmade:  gravel paths, mown grass, neatly planted flowerbeds, geometric streams littered with orange peels and decaying half-eaten sandwiches, patrolled by well-trained ducks and crawling with pensioners, actually nothing more than a graveyard except no headstones, the corpses out in the open, sitting on the green park benches, twittering, scattering crumbs to the birds.

Maybe none of us has had enough sleep over the weekend. Like overfed housecats on velvet cushions, we gaze drowsily out the window.  Cora sucks on a bonbon for a long time, apparently not realising what she’s doing.

When the compartment door is suddenly thrown open, we are shocked out of our lethargy.  A young, gleamingly polished conductor — new to us but equipped with all the tools of his trade — steps into our car.

“All tickets, please,” he says, his voice stiff and formal.

He examines us impatiently from behind wire-rimmed eyeglasses, as if it surprises him that we’re not sitting on the edge of our seats with our tickets at the ready.  As slowly as possible, searching distractedly in handbags and coat pockets, we locate and present our monthly passes.  With the precision of a schoolmaster, he studies the small print on each pass.

“This is expired,” he says, and glares at me through the glittering lenses of his spectacles.  “You should have renewed it this morning.”

“Oh,” I say, and my hands fly automatically to my cheeks, “I completely forgot.”

“Nothing to worry about,” says Cora good-naturedly.  “It happens to all of us.  You’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

“Then you’ll need a round-trip ticket today,” says the conductor.

“What do you mean, a round-trip ticket?” asks Cora suspiciously.

“For today,” he says again.  He’s irritated; this is taking too long.  Cora stares at him, speechless.  I flush with the realisation that I have no money on me.

“You’re funny,” Cora laughs.  “I haven’t heard that one before.”

With furrowed brow and unpleasantly tight lips, he looks her up and down.  He seems to want to will her away, to wish he was looking at something else — his girlfriend, perhaps, who always has her ticket with her, who at this hour of the morning is still in her frilly pink bed, dreaming of him and of the everything-first-class trips they’ll someday take at someone else’s expense.

“We’ve been riding this route for years,” cries Cora, insulted.  “The railway’s made a fortune off of us, but you can’t excuse one honest mistake?”

The conductor pulls out his ticket book and begins to scribble.

Cora turns red.  “What’s your problem?  We were riding this train before you were born!”

He ignores her and tears a ticket from his pad.  As he offers it to me, Cora’s pudgy hand snatches it from his fingers.

“Jesus!”  She leans towards Trix.  “Look at this:  the bastard’s charging her a fine.”

And then, as I sit there like a fool with my empty wallet open in my hand, Cora gives him a withering look and takes action in the same cool and detached way a queen of the olden days whose patience had reached its limit would turn away from an accused subject and wave an imperious hand at his bailiff and order “Lock him up!” or “Off with his head!” and then instantly forget all about it and move on to other matters.

She stands up brusquely and — the yellow buttons on her purple dress jiggling with every movement — she gets right in his face and snatches his eyeglasses from his nose.

“No,” she says.

As if his very soul has been stolen from him, the conductor blinks helplessly and chews on his lower lip.

“Give those back,” he says hoarsely, and grabs for them, but Cora holds them high above her head and out of his reach.  “Give me my glasses!”

Cora laughs at him, her sweetest laugh, little stars twinkling in her eyes.

Mama, mama, the bear is loose, I think.  A strange and delectable excitement courses through me.  I feel like something irreversible has been set in motion, and none of us will ever be the same again.

“You’ll get your glasses back when you rip up that ticket,” says Cora.  “Not till then.”

He stares at her, confused by the sudden shift in power.  He holds tightly to the leather pouch around his waist with one hand and to his cap with the other, as if to reassure himself of his position.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says sternly.

“Fine, then.”  With a deep sigh, Cora hands the glasses to Trix, who is sitting in the corner by the window.  As if they’ve talked it over at length and agreed how to play out the scene, Trix does exactly what Cora must want her to do:  she opens the window and thrusts the eyeglasses outside into the misty air, her graceful posture emphasising the soft curve of her waist and hip.  With her lovely smile, she looks just like the women in the ads, leaning seductively against the hood of a Mercedes to lure businessmen into buying it.

“Don’t!” cries the conductor, panicked. “Give them back!”

“I’ve told you what we’re willing to trade for them,” Cora says calmly, as if she’s refusing to haggle with a merchant at the market.

Cornered, he looks around the compartment furiously and then fearfully at the window, where the expensive lenses precisely suited to the weakness of his eyes are in danger of being dropped and shattered.

“I’m going to report you at the next station,” he cries.

“Hear that, girls?  He’s going to report us!”

With an ease as if she was merely lifting it from a hatstand, Cora plucks the cap from his head and sets it jauntily atop her own dyed black hair.  She turns her head and laughs at us over her shoulder.  Without his cap, the conductor seems weak, fragile, his silken blond curls at the nape of his neck.

“You know you have beautiful blue eyes?” asks Cora.

He swallows with difficulty, as if he’s got a plum pit stuck in his throat, and grabs clumsily for his cap, but Cora is faster than he is and hands it off to Lien.  “Don’t you think he has beautiful blue eyes?”  One by one, we line up beside her and gaze at him with the same fanatical admiration we would give to a James Dean film, which makes him even more nervous.  He obviously can’t stand the hysteria of women who would swarm past the security guards and bodyguards onto the stage to touch an Elvis Presley; he feels solidarity not with Elvis, but with the rent-a-cops, the men in the caps and uniforms.

“Now give me your little pouch,” says Cora.  He stares at her, astounded.  No one has ever dared talk to him like this.  Speechless, he shakes his head.

“Come on,” says Cora.  “Otherwise, you know what’ll happen to your glasses.”

With supple movements of her wrist, Trix sways the spectacles back and forth in the mist.

Something has erupted in Cora, a power that is stronger than any possible opposition, like a river in monsoon season swelling beyond its banks and ripping trees out of the ground and washing them out to sea.

“Let’s go, sonny, give mamma your toy.”

Beaten, he unhooks the pouch from around his waist.  Without even glancing at it, Cora passes it over to Lien, who stashes it in the corner behind her worn shopping bag, her knitting needles sticking up like the antennas on a portable radio.

“So,” says Cora, “have you changed your mind?”

They face each other expectantly, Cora a full head taller than him.  How did she get so tall, I think, and so strong?

At that moment, it seems that a peace treaty is in the offing, as if his next words will be:  “You’re right, what am I so worried about?  It doesn’t make any difference to me.  Let’s just forget the whole thing.”

But suddenly he shoves Cora out of his way and lunges towards Trix, falling onto her with his full weight.  His attention is riveted to his eyeglasses — his hands scrabble for them, and it’s a wonder that Trix doesn’t drop them out of pure shock.

Just for an instant, Cora seems to have been taken out of the game:  she stands there, dazed, like a fat woman who’s lost her little dog.  Oh, my, he was just here a second ago!

But then she throws herself onto Trix’s attacker, grabs the collar of his conductor’s jacket and yanks him off her.  His eyes bug out and he growls, thirsty for blood.  He’s like a dog, pulled off his worst enemy in the heat of the battle.

Trix brushes strands of hair off her face and smoothes her dress.  She doesn’t seem the least bit disturbed.  No, she’s like a young girl after making whoopee with her boyfriend, crawling out of the bushes with a flushed face and a sparkle in her eyes.

Outside the window, a UFO flies by:  Lien has thrown the conductor’s cap from the compartment like a Frisbee.

His legs trapped, his arms flailing, the young man tries to free himself.  Cora grabs his wrists and forces them behind his back.

“Get his legs,” she hisses.  Trix and Lien each fasten onto one leg and force it down.  My heart pounds in my throat.  I have no experience of violence.  At home, our disagreements are cool and dispassionate — our wars are always civil.

“Let’s take off that cute little jacket,” says Cora.  Because each of us ought to have a hand in the taming of the beast, her eyes turn now to me.  With trembling hands, I pull on the coarse fabric of the sleeve.  It’s no easy task, relieving a struggling man of his jacket.  If he would just play along, I think, it’d be so much easier.  I can tell from Cora’s expression that it takes all of her strength to hold him down.  He’s fighting to escape like a wounded tiger and his eyes are filled with hate.

“Now the tie,” says Cora, calm as a surgeon asking a nurse for a scalpel.  I bend over him obediently and we gaze straight into each other’s eyes.  I have his tie in one hand as if I’m about to strangle him.

What do I know about people?  Nothing.  There are a few, like my father, about whom I’ve been forced to think deeply.  But I can see the fear in this man’s huge blue pupils, darting this way and that like frightened fish in the deep blue sea.  I think his fear runs even deeper than his hatred, which itself helps to keep him from drowning.  An inappropriate gulf of pity washes over me and confuses me.  I quickly untie his tie.

“Well,” asks Cora, in a tone that says she no longer anticipates any response, “what do you say, boy?”

He says nothing.  He just lies there, absolutely still.  Is he plotting some unexpected move?

We watch him, waiting.  And then his body tenses, and he swivels his head and spits right in Cora’s face.

Cora smiles and wipes away the spittle with her purple sleeve.  “Shirt,” she says.

My father has the exact same cufflinks.  I fumble them loose.  When I have the first sleeve halfway free, the conductor makes a sudden wrenching motion and the fabric rips, like a rabbit ripping its own skin as it struggles to release itself from a hunter’s trap.  His chest is pale, his chest hair thin and blond.

I lean back.

“Pants.”  Cora seems impatient.  “We’ll show him he’s just an ordinary little boy, nothing special.”

“Take away a man’s uniform,” says Trix, “and there’s not much left.”

Uniforms.  They’re so, so German.  Marching around in perfectly synchronised columns, black leather boots stamping the ground, each with one hand angled skyward in a salute, chanting their battle hymns — I’ve seen it in so many films, read it in so many books, heard it from so many survivors who saw it in the flesh.  What are we doing, I think.  It’s too late to stop, though — we’ve unleashed something that is stronger than ourselves.

As I undo his belt, I can see Ruud in the dim light of the furniture store, standing by the side of the bed, undoing his belt with self-assured movements, and I’m spread out on the soft bed filled with surprise and disgust at my blind obedience.  It puzzles me:  why do I keep on doing things I don’t want to do?

It’s not easy for Lien and Trix to get his glossy black shoes off him, but they manage.  I almost have to rip off a leg to remove his trousers.  Just like a boxer waits for his opponent to drop his guard so he can attack, the conductor picks his moment and lets fly with a well-aimed hick.  Trix goes sprawling and clutches her face in both hands.

“You’re going to regret this,” he gasps.

Why her, I think.  Why Trix — hasn’t she taken enough punishment already? But his bare foot hasn’t really done much damage and she recovers quickly.  Without any further interruption, I unpants him.

And that seems to break him.  His upper body lies limp in Cora’s lap.  They could pose for a deposition from the cross, with Cora as the grieving Mary and the conductor as the martyred Christ, except for the light-blue boxers he wears instead of a loincloth.

If I ever get married, I think, I’m going to buy boxers just like those for my husband.

Now what?  Is there really any doubt?  We exchange questioning glances across the conductor’s body.

“Let’s finish it,” says Trix.  She shakes back her mane of hair from her eyes.

“Go ahead.”  She nods at me.

I stand beside him.  I’ve never seen anyone brought down so low.

He looks like we’re about to toss him out the window or, worse, as if he’d prefer that fate to the one we have planned for him.

What is it we want?  Is it revenge, to completely debase him?  Or do we simply need a new kind of excitement to get us out of our daily rut?

I can’t move.  If only I was a mechanical toy with a key in my back, so they could wind me up and I could do what was expected of me.  Three pairs of eyes urge me on, one pair begs for leniency.  Is this now the touchstone of our friendship?  Do I have to prove myself worthy of being “one of the girls”?

“I’ll do it,” says Trix.

She sits up.  Ashamed and relieved, I move out of the way.  Let her take over, it’s better that way. I can see it in the seductive smile that flickers across her lips.

In one last burst of anger, he roars, “Stay away from me!  Goddammit, leave me alone!”

Then, reduced to desperation, he assumes a foetal position on the ground.  I can feel his leg muscles straining.  Trix resolutely grabs his boxers with both hands and pulls them down to his ankles.

He turns away, his humiliation complete.  A shaft of sunlight breaks through the mist and illuminates the compartment, enveloping the conductor’s body in a warm glow.

We are silent, and the rattle of the train’s wheels over the rails seems to swell.

Cora, a peaceful matron, examines his naked body thoughtfully.  All thoughts of vengeance seem to have left her.  Her hold on his arms loosens and he hangs against her like the prodigal son returned to his mother’s lap.

Lien strokes his leg absently, scrunching up her nose to reseat her glasses, an unconscious tic we’ve seen many times before.

Trix’s usually bored expression is gone, replaced by one of lively interest.  She blushes with excitement, her nostrils flare and her eyes gleam.  I’ve never seen her so beautiful.  She holds the light-blue boxers in her hand like a religious icon.

The sun is warm on my back.  I feel the tension drain out of me, the way it feels after a heavy storm has passed.  I wouldn’t mind if the train kept on forever.

As majestic as an ancient priestess, Trix leans over and kisses his chest.  He shivers, the leg in my hand jumps as if it has a mind of its own.  Slowly, carefully, Trix’s lips trace their way from his chest to his stomach, her long blond hair accompanying their descent.  From his belly, she describes an arc along his hip to his thigh, tickling the fine hairs which catch the sunlight.

No one says a word.  It is as if we are witnessing some secret ritual — and, wonder of wonders, his body reacts to her touch and salutes her.  As if in a trance, Trix runs her lips along the inside of his thigh.  A groan escapes him, accompanied by a violent shaking of his chest and shoulders, and the mood that has swept us all away is broken.

Trix sits up, and her lust gives way to astonishment as she sees him sobbing in Cora’s lap, trying to hide his face in the folds of her purple dress.  Cora, the all-forgiving and understanding mother, strokes his hair tenderly.  Dismayed by the effect of her caresses, Trix plucks nervously at the boxers she still clutches in her hand.

The train begins to slow.

I only know what’s been happening in our compartment.  Of all the yawning and coughing, the silent glances and gossipy exchanges, the irritations and dreams in the rest of the train, I can only guess.  In principle, the conductor is the only person aboard who remains completely neutral, as he makes his rounds from car to car.

Not this conductor, though.  This one hasn’t finished his rounds.  As we approach the station, he regains his awareness of his surroundings.  Exhausted, he rises from the floor and, unsteady on his feet, slides open the compartment door.

“Wait,” says Cora, “your clothes.”

We gather his things together.  He doesn’t seem to pay any attention.  We no longer exist for him.  He staggers out into the corridor, Cora tottering along behind him, us in her wake.

“Get dressed,” she says.  “You can’t let them see you like this.”

We wrap his pants, socks, shirt, tie, glasses and leather pouch in his jacket, tie the sleeves together and press the bundle into his arms.  He gazes at us blankly, as if he’s just been handed an orphaned child in a blanket.

Thank goodness there’s no one else in the corridor.  We hustle back into our compartment  — this isn’t our stop.  Our excited bodies huddle close against each other as we press our noses to the window and watch the conductor leave the train.

Quite a few passengers are waiting on the platform.  They step aside for the naked traveller.

He strides forward through the crowd with the little bundle of clothing held to his chest, staring solemnly before him as if he is carrying his first-born son to the baptismal font.[/private]

Written by Tessa de Loo and translated by Josh Pachter.

"The Sweet Factory Girls" was part of Tessa de Loo’s literary debut in 1983. Haus Publishing will publish her travel adventure, Pig in a Palace, in which she retraces Byron’s journeys in Albania. She lives in south Portugal and Paris and is one of the most successful writers in the Dutch language.

Josh Pachter is an American professor who lived and taught in Europe and the Middle East from 1976 until 1991. More than 70 of his short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the US and internationally, and his translations of fiction by Dutch crime writers appear regularly in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. In the '80s, he edited the popular Top Crime, Top Science Fiction and Top Fantasy anthologies.




April auf dem Lande by Cees Nooteboom

 

 

It was summer and winter.

The water by the river,

how it rose.

Mist between the hills.

In the valley the expensive villas,

shuttered, white and pink.

Fox and owl

hidden out of sight,

a work day for herons and mice.

And the man who loved women lonely,

not thinking about the birds.

Dew or rain

on the serrated leaves,

the call of a train

from the depths.

How many, he thought,

how many spokes in the wheel

of a single

day.

 

 

Written by Cees Nooteboom and translated by David Colmer.

Cees Nooteboom (born in 1933) debuted in 1955 with the novel Philip en de anderen (Philip and the Others) and has since written novels, poetry, short stories and travelogues. He has earned numerous awards, including the Aristeion European Prize for Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story, 1991), which marked his international breakthrough. In 2004 he was awarded the P.C. Hooft Prize for his entire oeuvre. The jury’s report stated that with regard to its power of expression, scope and originality, Cees Nooteboom’s prose is "of the best produced in the Netherlands in the last fifty years".

David Colmer translates Dutch literature in a range of genres.  He has twice won the David Reid Poetry Translation Prize, most recently for his translation of Gerritt Achterberg's poem "The Poet as a Cow". His translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s novel The Twin (Archipelago, 2010) was awarded the Dublin IMPAC prize.




Extract from Man on the Move by Otto de Kat

The Alcantara was moored side by side with the Oranje, but he was still a continent away. Seven months had passed since the liberation. The American jeeps had rolled into Japan like phantoms from a world beyond apprehension.

[private]They had been swept up, kidnapped out of their measly, calcified lives. Their survival instincts rudely breached. He had grasped the edge of the jeep as he had the raft at sea. Disbelief more than joy. With a mettle born of desperation they had driven out of the camp, the bandit island, the doomed empire, heads bowed. With their heads bowed, for God’s sake.

The night in Suez revived the flow of memories. The last months had passed as though under narcosis. It rolled by him, a caravan of events, parade after parade, with women and parties and recklessness. His photograph had been in Life, taken at the moment he went ashore at Manila.

The photographer shouted something that made him look up. In the background the aircraft carrier on which the Americans had spirited them away from Japan. Around him the surging crowd.

“You’re the first ones!” the man had said, as though it had been some sort of competition.

Looking at the picture, he could never believe it was him. The crew-cut hair, the gaunt face, his ashen skin. In his own eyes he could read the irrecoverable years. His was one of many pictures in the magazine, photographers in action everywhere. The latest fashions in New York, an article about a banker, an interview with a film star, a shower of diversions for the reader. Life goes on, frontlines shift, the world is a news machine. He would turn the pages of the magazine, to see his own face appear among so many others. On the same photograph was the girl who would spontaneously kiss him a few seconds later, and with whom he had wandered through the city for days. He had told this complete stranger about his years in the camps. She listened like no-one had before. Perhaps not even his mother. He talked, he forced himself to account for those terrible, all-devouring years. He was accountable because he was alive and because so many others were not.

He struggled with the words, afraid of driving her away, terrified of tumbling into the abyss that he himself had summoned. He toppled from one memory to the next. The fever of telling made him almost literally ill. His emotions, suppressed for so long, could barely survive someone who merely listened. She heard him, asked nothing, held him tight. They roamed Rizal Avenue together, endless hours in cafés and restaurants.

They danced, were taken in tow by other POWs, and only slept when morning was well underway. An ebb and flow of stories and an unthinking submersion in liberation parties. Manila was both the drunken binge and the detoxification. The nightmare might have been over, but there was still no dream. Time and again he came back to the river, the yellowish-brown one. Like a dirty, slow adder slithering through the jungle, shaping the course of his thoughts. He tried to find images the woman beside him would understand. There were so many gaps in his memory, he was ashamed of how little he remembered, or wanted to remember. The senseless fight to the finish, the floggings, the executions. He did not touch upon his bond with Guus; he avoided the loss. There were moments, with the girl so close, when his estrangement disappeared. She made him feel that he could take hold of his life once more, belong again some day. The unforgettable nights in Manila, the suspension of time, the wild dancing that broke like a storm over the mountains. Of course it could not last. She would go back to England, and he would be shipped through to Batavia and on. When he walked her to her ship he said nothing, could only look at her. The green of her eyes. After everything he had told her, he simply stood there, speechless.

Their parting kindled a sorrow without tears. He had turned around, aware once more of the loneliness he had contracted somewhere, recognizing it. There was something fathomless inside him, a void, an echo, the sound of a motorcycle turning around.[/private]

Written by Otto de Kat and translated by Sam Garrett.

Otto de Kat is the pen name of a Dutch publisher. His prize-winning previous work is published in Holland, Germany and France. Man on the Move is published by Maclehose Press.

Sam Garrett is the translator of Tim Krabbé, and won the Vondel Prize in 2003 for Krabbé’s The Rider.




Meg by Sanneke van Hassel

As she drives onto the bridge, the bumper rod snaps and whips up onto the hood. She wonders whether it will break off. It’s completely bent. Yesterday evening, after the crash, she sped away as quickly as possible, ignoring the looks the Moroccan neighbors were giving her. She just jotted down the dented Seat’s number plate, promised to ring.

[private]She’s heading for Katendrecht now, through the two-legged tower of the bridge. Yesterday it snowed all day and the leaden air muffled the noise and color of the city.  This morning the sky is streaked with blue, the river’s shimmering, the rod’s rattling against metal.

She drives past warehouses and across a disused railway track. The land is flat, bleak and exposed. In days gone by things used to happen here. In days gone by whores and students and sailors used to parade along the Kaap until the early hours of the morning. In days gone by people told stories in bars about days gone by, there were legendary figures, cafés which “Since 1874” had served drinks until deep in the night. Now the quayside has been left to waste; there are plans develop the area, but no one knows when or for whom. The houses near Deli Square have already been renovated with laminate boarding, and in the distance, at the tip of the quay, a crane is rotating to the sound of piles being pounded into the ground. The terrain is covered white. Snow in February­—who would have thought? The dwarf daffodil in the pot by the door has already sprouted two centimeters.

She turns into the garage. Three Turkish men are standing at the entrance chatting, white clouds escaping from their mouths. As soon as they spot her bumper hanging off, they laugh. She yanks on the handbrake and climbs out. In the garage there at least ten guys at work. A mix of faces and ages, identical blue overalls.

A man in a thigh-length leather jacket shakes her hand. The boss, she supposes. He peers at her inquisitively through his metal-rimmed specs.

“How may we help you madam?”

“I need a new bumper. And the indicator and the headlight are broken too—just the outside, just the glass.”

“We can solve everything for you.” He inspects the front of her car and tugs at the bumper rod. It drops down another couple of centimeters.

She asks for a bumper from the scrapheap. A friend of hers has advised her to; she repeats his very words.

“Come with me.” She follows him into the back office. A desk with a jaundiced computer on it; behind it shelves piled high with papers; on the right a calendar from 1989.  The windows overlook the work floor, the ramp, young guys sprawled in and under cars.

“I ring the scrap yard for you. Please sit down.”

She sits down on a swivel chair, rolls into the desks, regains her balance.

“Good morning. It’s Katendrecht garage here. I’d like a bumper for a Volvo. A Volvo 340.” He jots down “sixty euros” on a beer mat then makes another call about the lamps. Above his head, hanging on the wall, there’s a photo of a Turkish prime minister. Next to it a child’s collage of Black Pete. On a shelve underneath it, a blue and yellow Prince Carnival hat, standing out from between the manuals and light-duty garage tools.

“I’m sure I know you from somewhere…” He presses the telephone to his ear, a contemplative look in his eye. How old would he be? A little older than she is. Stained teeth. From all that smoking, or sugar? Don’t the Turkish drink strong sugary coffee all day long?

“I live in the east of the city.”

“The east. I know someone there.”

“That where Bosland is, the Turkish garage I normally go to.”

“Madam, the other garages have heard of me, but I have not heard of them.” He waits for the man at the other end of the line to dig out some scrap from the heap. He observes her closely, mumbling, “I know you, I know you.” Negotiations with the scrap yard follow, in Turkish. He hangs up. “I know where I know you from: that film with Meg Ryan. You know Meg Ryan? You look like her.”

Holes in her winter coat, mascaraless eyes. She smiles, feeling the color rush to her cheeks.

“Have you heard of Meg Ryan, the actress?”

She nods.

“My God,” he says, “you know, that film where she has a family and drinks, like she experienced it herself. I like action films, but this one was very good too.”

She remembers the film, and that Meg Ryan’s hair remained perfectly in place despite her ordeals.

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-three.” And transparent, she thinks, to those x-ray eyes he’s looking through me with, exposing the ugly bits.

“Same as me.” His eyes glide down her neck, down below her blouse.

“How much will it cost?” Her question sounds abrupt.

“For you it’ll be… better switch on the calculator up top…” He points to his head, feigning deep thought. “A hundred euros in total.”

“Not bad.” She instantly regrets having said this.

“There’s no one cheaper than us.” His eyes sparkle. “… and I love Meg Ryan.”

He holds her gaze for a second, then gives the thumbs-up sign to a man who’s driving into the garage. The Volvo will be ready on Wednesday. He writes down her phone number on a beer mat. And under the number, in big fat letters, “MEG”.

She walks past the warehouses and on to the metro station. Sun on snow, slush on the road. Doors slide open and car dealers from neighboring garages strike up conversations on the sidewalk.

 

The next morning, while she’s replying to her emails, the telephone rings.

“Mrs Meg?”

She clicks the wrong icon, deleting a message from a potential client.

“Hello. You speak with Katendrecht garage. I had to ring another scrap yard. The first one didn’t have the bumper. It’s gonna cost a bit more.”

The next morning a friend drops her off at the garage. The blue overalls are huddled over an open hood, deep in discussion, cigarettes drooping from their mouths. Above their heads, a sign: No Smoking.

“Hello.” She makes a beeline for the back office.

He stands up to shake hands. “Meg,” he says, squeezing her hand a fraction longer than normal—who will let go first?

He escorts her out of the office and points to the Volvo, which is still on the ramp. “It’s fixed and I don’t want to see it again. There’s a Jerry can in the trunk with a gallon of gas in it. Any more problems, put the can on the front seat, take a match to it and make sure you get away quick.” He smiles. “Coffee?”

“Yes please.” She’ll miss the meeting with her client in Ommoord.

“Milk? Sugar?” he asks.

“Both, and a drop of coolant.”

A boy—probably an apprentice—looks at them indifferently as he walks off with a pile of plastic cups.

She blushes at her bad joke.

“Come with me.”

She follows him into his office, the eyes of the garage on her back. He gestures towards the swivel chair and lights a cigarette.

“Mrs Meg.” He exhales. “How many Oscars did West Side Story win?”

“I’m only familiar with Bernstein’s opera.”

“The film was first,” he replies authoritatively. “How many Oscars did it win?”

She hazards a guess: “eleven”.

“Six. Six Oscars.”

“You’ve seen a lot of films, right?”

“And who is the leading lady in West Side Story?”

“Not the mezzosoprano Kiri te Kanawa with her implausible yet dramatic version of the street girl?”

“It ends in -Wood.”

“Natalie Wood.”

“Well done, sweetie.” He leans back. “I have my own video collection. I don’t hang out in bars. I go from home to work, from work to home. I stay home every evening, for my sons. My eldest, he’s thirteen now. Dangerous age, Miss Meg. My God, he knows what he wants, and how to get it.”

She makes a mental note: kids, a thirteen-year-old son.

“Stubborn, is he?”

“Yes, very strong-willed. You have to keep an eye on them, all the time. But it’s going well. Work, sleep, time with the family, it’s all I do.  But that’s what my wife and I decided.”

A wife he makes decisions with.

A big Surinamer guy ambles in, moustache like a Walrus’s. Wants an MOT for his Mercedes by this afternoon. Can’t be parted from his snot-green colossus for a second.

The boss rattles on, unperturbed. “Women love all sorts of cars. Their shape, their contours, their details. But they’re messy, women. Their cars—always filthy. Men are obsessed with their cars. Once they’ve chosen a make, they can’t live a day without it. They’d do anything for their car. Sometimes they want the impossible.” He takes another drag of his cigarette, his eyes fixed on the work floor.  Three boys are attempting to give a BMW a new lease of life but it’s doubtful whether it will ever start again.

“I prefer MOTs to mending starters. Carrying out tests, that’s what I love. Much better than trying to solve impossible problems.”

Last month her car wouldn’t start. The mechanic at Bosland garage replaced the battery, cleaned the spark plugs, adjusted the valves and installed a new rotor. When he’d done all he could the boy said: “Do you need me to explain how to start it?” His name was Senna and he had offered her a cigarette.

“But my God, Meg. There’s more to this job that testing. We have to be honest about everything, have a written record of everything. Just last month we had three spot-checks.” He fishes out a file from a desk draw. A list of dates, times and numbers. With a ballpoint pen he crosses off all the appointments which turned out to be spot-checks by MOT inspectors. “They want to catch me, but they can’t. I rang them: three spot-checks in one month—you call that normal?”

A young Turkish guy strolls in and inspects himself in a broken piece of mirror propped up on a bookshelf. He smoothes his hair back over his head, blushing as soon as he senses her watching him.

“No more hair gel.”

“You won’t have any hair left in a few years,” the boss retorts. “All those chemicals.”

The apprentice enters with the coffee.

“Ladies first.” He places a plastic cup in front of her. There goes her second appointment.

“I’ve got to get back to work.”

“What is your work?”

“I have my own advertising agency. I think up advertising campaigns for young entrepreneurs.”

“A lot of my clients are artists too,” he replies. “Many musicians. Pay next time.  Always short of cash, musicians.”

She nods. Her worst debtor is a young guitar duo who consulted her about copy for a brochure.

“St Job’s taxis, you know them?” he continues.

Rotterdam’s largest taxi company. She remembers them from the days she used to go out at night.

“They come here too. Always problems, worn-out cars. Always want them mended quick and cheap. They’re often tired, taxi drivers, like they’ve got permanent jet-lag. Taxi driver, not a job for my sons. The oldest wants to be one though. He thinks, this is freedom.” He allows for a pause. “More coffee?”

Another cup is placed before her.

After the second cup she begins to tremble. She needs to stand up, grab her bag, leave. Or stay and become an assistant mechanic, make coffee for everyone, sweep the floor everyday, change the oil.

They only accept cash. A hundred and thirty euro—welcome discount, he winks. Clasping his hand again, its warm, soft palm. She doesn’t dare look him in the eye. Even the boy who has run out of gel makes a point of turning the other way.

A few minutes later he drives her car off the ramp. When she climbs in she can feel the boss staring at her.  Just ride off and turn the radio on. “Oh, I wanna dance with somebody,” wails Whitney Houston. She sings along.

 

A week later, the telephone rings. It’s Wednesday and she has finally settled down to writing the promotion plan for those architects. She’s advising them to acquire customers via the web. Visitors to the website will be seduced into entering their personal details: name, address, age, profession, whether they rent or own their own home. The architects will then be able to use this information, in combination with socio-demographic data derived from their clients postcodes, to come up with a tailor-made offer which will reach their clients inboxes the very next day. “Ring now and benefit from our exclusive …” Two months later, a brief reminder. “Did you know that even a minor renovation can greatly increase the value of your house?” followed by an invitation to discuss their clients’ personal home dreams. No strings attached, of course.

“Anne speaking.” She hasn’t recognized the number.

“Oh sorry.” His voice. “I have rung the wrong number. This is Katendrecht garage.” She racks her brains for a joke, something about American films, her car—how’s your wife, your son, had another spot check? …

“Goodbye.” Half an hour later she’s staring straight ahead, fiddling with the papers on her desk. Then she turns off her computer and sets off for the supermarket. A friend is coming to dinner, with her new boyfriend.  Apparently he’s very nice. Tubfish casserole, bossanova remix. Back to work tomorrow, bash out the promotion plan, post the invoice and leave. A weekend away, perhaps.

 

A month later, 18 miles northeast of Rotterdam, there’s a smell of burning rubber. Dragging brakes is her new flame’s diagnosis. For the last three Saturday nights they have been inseparable; during the week he’s too busy. He does a lot of sport. The following Monday she sets off at the crack of dawn for Katendrecht, having put on some lipstick, and a skirt. She jumps the traffic lights and forgets to change gear at the bend. How is she going to explain to her friends that she’s having affair with a Turkish garage owner who’s got a wife and a couple of kids.

It’s quiet in the garage. She walks into the office, wobbly at the knees. Three boys are sitting there, having a smoke.  Two Turks, and a Rasta who’s staring at her from under his colossal crochet beret. The boss is nowhere to be seen. Clumsily she tries to explains the problem whilst scanning the room for clues he may have left behind—his jacket’s not draped over the chair, his computer’s not on.

The youngest boy takes the car for a test drive. Before he’s back a white Renault pulls up into the drive, horn honking loudly. The boss climbs out, arms spread. Big grin.

‘My God,’ he shouts. She giggles like a thirteen-year-old. He’s wearing the leather jacket, his bare feet in boat shoes.

The boys jump up and set to work

“It was crazy yesterday… What would you like to drink?”

He orders one of boys to bring her a soda.

“I’ve made a mistake,” he confesses in her ear. “I’ve made a mistake. I do it each time. Your car, it failed the MOT, but I let it go.”

She’s probably got a very silly expression on her face because he’s adopting the tone of someone addressing a child. “But I passed it…”

The car is driven up onto the ramp. An apprentice is running through the problems with the boss. Her right front brake has jammed. She’ll need new brake pads and a change of oil.

“Old car,” he says. “The brake oil overheats.” She commits the words, this new language he’s teaching her, to memory.

As soon as the boy has left, he continues. “I do it each time. Last week:  two spot checks and guess what? Lucky both times…With the Mercedes all I did was solder the front wheel on, give it a lick of paint.”

She finds herself thinking about a friend who’s writing a book on female trafficking. The criminals she interviewed were all delighted to talk. Night after night she sat in cafes with them, writing up their stories. All she had to do was to nod and smile.

“How’s your work?”

“A bit quiet at the moment. It’s the recession, budgets don’t stretch to marketing.”

“Pity, I don’t need you either. Everyone’s heard of me. I keep my prices down.” Next come the stories about musicians who don’t pay up, St Job’s Taxis, his sons, his own personal video collection. She smiles and nods, smiles and nods. The boy has finished. She pays. “Special price for a friend,” he says. Cars are driving into the garage, one after the other.

“Any problems, you know where to find us,” he says again. “What’s your name actually?”

“Anne,” she says.

The telephone rings. He picks it up, rattles on. “The cops, yeah they were here but didn’t manage to find anything. Again not.  Solved as always.” He piles on his acts of heroism in the MOT world, taking his time about it. Meanwhile he looks at her as if to say I can’t do anything about it either.

She does her best to smile. Anything’s better than appearing disappointed.

While on the phone he offers her the back of his hand, lubricant smeared all over his fingers. She shakes it. It’s like a dog’s paw covered in black hair right up to the knuckles. He looks at her again, a twinkle in his eyes. He resumes his conversation, at full throttle.

For a moment she hovers at the doorstep, then turns to drive the car out of the garage herself.  Under the plane trees she goes, under the newly-budded leaves. At the point where Katendrecht turns into South Rotterdam, a row of old houses has been demolished. There are plans to develop the area. She accelerates. Her brakes still drag.[/private]

Written by Sanneke van Hassel and translated by Imogen Cohen.

Sanneke van Hassel was born in 1971 in Rotterdam. Her debut collection of short stories IJsregen (Ice Rain), published in 2005, was nominated for several literary awards. Her stories, regularly published in literary magazines Tirade, Passionate and Bunker Hill, have been included in anthologies of contemporary Dutch fiction. In 2006 she wrote Pieces of Sarajevo about everyday life in Sarajevo, following a three-week stay there. Her second collection of stories, Witte veder (White Feather), won the BNG Literary Award in 2007. Van Hassel lives in Rotterdam.

Imogen Cohen teaches translation, creative writing and linguistics at the University of Amsterdam. She now works as a literary translator in association with the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature. She lives in Amsterdam.




I drank until I was simple enough to be loved by Tsead Bruinja

I drank until I was simple enough to be loved. I let myself be loved. the earth tore open beneath my feet. I drank until I was simple enough to be loved. the drink started a fire in my throat and halted my thoughts. I drank until I was simple enough to be loved. she rang and I shivered. she fought for what I squandered. son to the thought. father to the prayer. viper coiling round the legs of the grand iron bed. kaleidoscope of grainy pictures. I smoked until I was calm enough to stay. the earth tore open. she rang and I shivered. we fought for what I squandered. the son to the thought. the father to the prayer. a viper coiling round the legs of the grand iron bed. I smoked until I was calm enough to be loved.

the man at the other end screaming down the line has no patience for the dialling tone. she doesn’t answer. the man at the other end screaming down the line is standing on a plain. for him a field of flowers. in the middle of a meadow two lovers lying down without a phone. on the left side of the meadow there’s a plain. on the right side a woman in a phone booth waiting for a call. a wire runs from the phone booth. in the middle of a meadow two lovers lying down without a phone. a thick white wire above them. when the woman answers the phone the birds fly away. they’re making off with the flowers the man screams. he waits doesn’t wait for the dialling tone. he waits for the birds. then.

he drags a child through the sand. that jams. that jumps up. make yourself scarce. make yourself change species. that you die out. he drags a child through the sand. that stalls.

rings under her eyes. fast forward. candles on the cake. fast forward. rings under her eyes. her child runs wild. gets angry. control your anger. delay. fast forward. fast forward to the plain. two lovers lying in a meadow. without a phone. without a view of the phone booth. without a view of the plain. the beach tore open beneath my feet. the child fell. she rang and I shivered. the flowers vanished from the dunes. I smoked until I was calm enough to see the lovers in the meadow laugh. drank until I was quiet enough to be loved.

Written by Tsead Brunija and translated by Willem Groenewegen.

Tsead Bruinja writes both in Frisian and Dutch. He was born in 1974. In 2008, he published his fifth collection of Frisian poetry, Angel / Sting. He has also published three Dutch poetry collections. Translations of his work have appeared in magazines including Atlas (India/UK), Action Poétique (France), Mantis (USA) and Mentor (Slovenia). In 2008 he was nominated to become the Netherlands’ next Poet Laureate.

Willem Groenewegen (born 1971) is a bilingual Dutch and English poet and literary translator. He made his debut translating poetry with English translations of nine of K Michel’s poems for the anthology In a Different Light (Seren, 2001). During the ’90s his English poetry was published in various pamphlets in Britain. His Dutch work has appeared in magazines and anthologies, though he is better known here for his translations of Dutch poets into English.




May the Sun Shine Tomorrow by Abdelkader Benali

Like Malik’s parents, the Spanish Lady and her husband had been refugees. Refugees with a small “r,” an “r” that tried to make itself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Their story wasn’t exactly grand either, and when urged to tell it, they looked positively embarrassed. They began to stutter so much that nobody ever made them finish the story. Beneath it lay a deep dark secret they didn’t want anyone to know. He remembered the words of the Spanish Lady: “We were all orphaned by the Civil War. We all had to fend for ourselves. There was no need to shout it from the rooftops.”

[private]This more or less fit in with what Malik’s parents had always told him: “People everywhere are sometimes forced to flee for their lives. We weren’t the only ones.” Years ago, long before the refugee question had become a burning issue with an even greater news value than floods and famines, Malik’s father had seen a group of refugees on the eight o’clock news and had pointed out, with brutal honesty, which ones he thought were going to make it. Apparently he had an eye for that kind of thing.

The Spanish Lady had amassed a fortune in her host country, just as Malik’s parents had. They’d made the most of their opportunities and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. No one had ever thought that Malik’s father would one day be so rich that he’d never again have to worry about money. This was the same man who’d been welcomed to Holland by a clergyman who’d thrust a pair of underpants into his hands and then assigned him to a hastily built barracks. “You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot,” his father always said, “and not get discouraged when times are tough. Remember, you can always get a bowl of soup from the Salvation Army.” It was his father’s mantra, and it sounded good, the way he said it. His father had saved the underpants. “They’re a sacred relic,” he said. “One whiff of those underpants and I’m reminded of my first few weeks in this country. The same feeling of despair comes over me. And that’s good, because it gives me energy.”

Malik’s parents had arrived here with only two plastic bags, which contained their entire belongings. Holland had thrown open its borders to people whose voices had been silenced in other parts of the world, to people who longed for freedom and came to this country or to similarly welcoming countries to lick their wounds. They wanted to live their lives in peaceful surroundings, in places such as Ommoord, Poggibonsi, Sint-Niklaas or Aarhus. Holland was the oasis Malik’s parents had been longing for.

“We made the right choice,” his father concluded soon after his arrival. “We’ll get along fine in this country.”

“The toilets are dirty,” his mother said.

“Dirty toilets, clean kitchens—isn’t that how the saying goes?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

His father had felt at home right from the start. Before long his parents moved into a rented apartment in a working-class neighborhood. His father had promptly paid a visit to City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce and the Red Cross: to City Hall to register as a new resident, to the Chamber of Commerce to request a registration number for his future business and to the Red Cross to get a list of the most frequently occurring accidents and viruses in the Netherlands. He came home and told his wife that she should never stand on a ladder, since ladder-related incidents accounted for 80% of all home accidents. He visited the local churches, tasted the soup at the Salvation Army (“because you never know when you might need it”) and took his wife in to taste it too (“this has got to be rock bottom”).

Melissa Ben had wanted to go to Switzerland because it had mountains, chocolate and neutrality. Switzerland was a country that didn’t belong to anything, much as she and her husband no longer belonged anywhere either. That was how she looked at things. She had a strictly dualistic view of the world. People were either rooted or uprooted, secure or adrift, starry-eyed or down-to-earth. To Melissa, there was nothing in between.

In the eyes of Roxander Ben, however, his adopted country could do no wrong. While Holland was admittedly infected with the revolutionary spirit of the times, it never seemed to progress beyond the flower-power stage. Soon after his arrival, the whole country suddenly seemed to go searching for its identity, only to find a ready set of hippie credos, hippie gurus and hippie manifestos. Not even this could shake his father’s faith. Holland in the 1970s was a land of peace and harmony, where opportunity knocked on every door and the soup was rich and creamy.

The difference between Malik’s mother and father was never more apparent than in the way they dealt with strangers. One evening his father came home with a woman he’d bumped into on the sidewalk. They’d struck up a conversation, and he’d decided to introduce her to his wife. The moment Melissa Ben caught sight of her husband, fumbling with his keys outside the door, she hid behind the drapes, terrified of the unexpected stranger who was about to enter her private domain: an apartment without decent drapes, without books, without memories, without anything you could point to and say, “Look, that’s ours. That’s who we are.” A home, in fact, without the slightest bit of hominess.

The last thing she wanted was to be confronted with the hussy in tight jeans who was standing on her threshold. A woman who was bound to think she was ridiculous in her strange caftan. A woman who would look down on her and start flirting openly with her husband because she knew she could get away with it. Besides, the apartment still reeked of the spicy dish she’d prepared for her husband’s supper. Melissa Ben hated to cook.

Roxander stepped inside and called her name, but she didn’t answer.

“My wife is shy,” he announced to the sophisticated creature at his side. It was a blatant lie, but lying was second nature to him. He promised over and over again to tell the truth, yet when push came to shove, he always lied. He liked to joke about it: “Truth brings the world closer to you. Lying brings you closer to the world.”

Don’t make things worse than they already are, she thought. Don’t drag my name through the mud in front of strangers! But he did make things worse. He loved making things worse. He invited the Dutch woman to sit down and told her that his wife would be back soon, without saying where she’d gone, but implying that she’d just slipped out for a moment.

“Unfortunately, all I can offer you to drink is tea,” he said.

“I’d love some tea!” the woman cooed.

Melissa—still behind the drapes—balled her fists. What a suck-up, she thought.


 

Roxander offered the woman some of Melissa’s homemade cookies. His guest seemed to feel completely at ease. She had a soft, inquisitive voice. She thought the tea was delicious, the cookies even more so.

“If that woman had been the least bit sensitive,” Melissa said to Malik years later, “she never would have sat down.” As it was, his mother had been made to feel ridiculous.

“There’s something I’d like to show you,” Malik’s father said to his guest. He trotted off and came back with a roll of toilet paper. “In my country,” he said, “we don’t have toilet paper. It’s such a wonderful invention, and yet it’s so wasteful! Incredible, isn’t it? Imagine inventing a fantastic product like this that costs next to nothing to produce, yet commands a price that verges on the hysterical. Just think of all the trees!”

The woman laughed. “So what did you wipe your heinie with?”

“Your ‘heinie’? What’s that?”

“Your rear end.”

He laughed. “With a sharp pebble or a sheet of newspaper. Preferably yesterday’s paper, but it depended on the news. A good-sized pebble is the best. A little poking and prodding never hurt anyone. ” The two of them laughed.

He’s definitely making things worse, Melissa thought. It’s getting worse by the minute. Now he’s dragged my country’s reputation through the mud, and all to please a woman.

The visitor told Roxander that she was impressed by the Regime of No Color—the regime that ruled the country from which he and Melissa had fled.

“There isn’t an ounce of truth in what you’ve been told,” Roxander said. “The Regime of No Color has destroyed my country. Look at me. What’s a strong, healthy man like me doing here? I didn’t leave my country because I hated it.”

“Maybe you left because you wanted to tell the story of your country.”

“Boy, have you got your head in the clouds! My country doesn’t have a story to tell. All it has is poverty and despair. Our TV broadcasts the same crap day after day.”

“You must be exaggerating.”

“Me, exaggerate? Who’s the one who’s exaggerating—the person who calls a spade a spade or the person who admires the emperor’s new clothes?”

“You’ve picked up our language pretty fast.”

Malik’s father realized that talking to this woman had been a mistake. “An animal doesn’t abandon its territory without reason. The territory itself must have changed in some way, wouldn’t you agree? For example, the animal no longer feels safe, or isn’t able to find enough to eat. Anyway, I can tell you why this animal,” he said, pointing to himself, “left its territory. I was chased out of it, because I was a spy who refused to give his prized possession to the wolves.”


“So this is where you’ve been.”

Those were the first words Roxander Ben uttered to his wife when he found her behind the drapes. Two hazel eyes, anxious but hostile, stared back at him. “I see you’ve been playing hide-and-seek,” he said. “We waited for you all evening.”

She looked at him. “You don’t have a clue, do you?” she said. She strode over to the table, snatched up the roll of toilet paper and waved it angrily in his face.

“You can put that back in the cupboard,” he said. “Show-and-tell is over. You missed all the fun. She was impressed, she had a good laugh, and she was confused. Just like I wanted her to be.”

“I didn’t miss a single word. You came waltzing in here with a strange woman. You made our country seem ridiculous by claiming we didn’t have toilet paper, and you made it sound as if we escaped from hell. What on earth will she think of us?”

“I’ve got a plan. But in order for us to carry it out, you’ll have to put on those high heels I bought you last week.”

“The red ones? What for?”

“We’re going to make a baby. Who else can we tell the story of our lives to except our own child?”

“You want us to do it now . . . this instant?”

“No, when the clock strikes hickory, dickory, dock. I’m going to take a shower, and after I’ve dried myself off, we can get started. It’ll be this century’s greatest project. It’ll be the best baby ever. We’ll show the regime that we haven’t been beat!”

If Roxander Ben hadn’t added that last sentence, in which he turned the birth of their child into an act of resistance against the regime, Melissa Ben would no doubt have slapped him or cursed him or even bitten off his ear. But she was prepared to do anything to defy the regime. So she put on her red high heels.

Melissa missed her homeland too much to settle easily into a new country. She had specialized in the geology and morphology of mountains. Her country was located in the middle of a high mountain range, and she’d written her master’s thesis on the transitional zone between mid-sized and high mountains. Holland didn’t have a single mountain, but that didn’t stop her from thinking up research projects that she’d give her eyeteeth to implement. Dutch geologists invariably ended up working for the oil industry, and one of the oil companies did in fact have an opening for a geologist. They were anxious to hire her, because they were looking for someone to do field work in the country ruled by the Regime of No Color. They promised to give her a Dutch passport so she could go in and out of the country without getting into trouble with the authorities. The oil companies worked hand in glove with the regime. Melissa rejected the offer. The very thought of it made her blood boil.

Roxander begged her to reconsider. “Once the oil starts to flow, we’ll be swimming in the stuff. In money, I mean.”

“I don’t want to be swimming in money, not at my country’s expense.”

“Oil is oil,” he said. “Nobody asks where the gasoline comes from when they fill their tank. We can use that money to send our child to a good school, to put decent clothes on its back. Can’t you set aside your principles for once? We’re poor. We can’t afford to have principles.”

“You’re such a bastard,” she said. “You’re asking me to sacrifice everything I ever stood for.”

“I may be a bastard, but at least I’m an honest one,” he said. “I’m not going to sugar-coat this for you. The next few years are going to be tough. If you don’t take that job, someone else will. I don’t intend to be made a laughing stock forever. The only thing you need to sacrifice is your inability to face reality.”

“You smooth-talking bastard! There’s nothing left of the ideals you used to spout so often. Peace. Truth. Justice. They don’t mean a thing to you anymore.”

Roxander grabbed his wife by the throat. “I don’t ever want to hear those words again,” he said. “I’ve had it up to here with words like that. Those words have been our downfall. Words are indestructible. They never change. People do. Our entire country went chasing after a few simple words, and look what it got us: corruption, manipulation, mutual distrust and a pack of lies.”

For weeks Melissa was besieged with phone calls from the oil company. “The answer is no,” she said. And again: “The answer is no!” They raised the salary. “The answer is no.” They threw in bonuses, added more vacation days, upped her chances of promotion. “The answer is no.” Roxander could have strangled her. Instead he watched as Melissa destroyed their one chance to live a life of relative ease.

“The answer is no!”[/private]

Written by Abdelkader Benali and translated by Susan Massotty.

Born in Morocco in 1975, Abdelkader Benali has lived in the Netherlands since 1979. He has written two successful plays and his reportage from Lebanon has been serialised in The Drawbridge. He has published three novellas, and the book Marathon Runner, of which De Volkskrant said: "Benali can run really well and write incredibly beautifully. This slender book is so full of exciting ideas and sharp observations, existential doubt and great triumph that Benali's words will stay with both runner and non-runner for a long time."

Susan Massotty is a literary translator whose translations include novels by Cees Nooteboom and Margriet De Moor, as well as The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Massotty won the 2007 Vondel Prize for translation from the Dutch or Flemish for My Father's Notebook by Kader Abdolah.