Love for Intellectuals

(c) P.M. Kroonenberg

(c) P.M. Kroonenberg

We speak in code. We generalise, but we are talking about ourselves. Men means ‘our men’. People means ‘me in particular’. Our wishes for our future and the way we see our lives now are encoded in the latest book that seemed so true, or our new theory on love. That is how we talk.

“All relationships have problems that can’t be solved,” you say. “You just need to find a way of living with them.”

“I think people are always searching for grace,” I say.

We sip our peppermint tea, which makes you feel so healthy, our cranberry juice to ward off cystitis.

In the coffee bar where you spent every afternoon of your youth – or was it beside that fruit stall selling nothing but lychees? – the curtain is rent and your eyes wide with fear tell me about you and him. I have seen you speechless with love and helpless with misery. I put an awkward arm through yours. I have theories, lots of theories. But they are really about me.

I want to write your life in curves and flourishes and give it a happy ending. Instead, I buy you a chocolate croissant and we hope for the best.

For Ellie

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A Quiet Night Out

2009_09_18_P1755RietOchtendrood

(c) P.M. Kroonenberg

Detective Inspector Kay loved stake-outs. Those long, quiet nights sitting in his squad car, eating Ben & Jerry’s. Usually the most exciting thing that happened was a dog barking or a suspicious car pulling up outside the house in question. This night was shaping up to be another good one. He’d brought his dinner (chicken and chips, no ketchup) and he had a couple of tubs of Cherry Garcia in his ice box on the back seat for after.

Staring out over the black water, gently lapping at the sides of the canal, a sudden movement caught his eye. Kay sat up straighter, slowly chewing his chips, his eyes now trained on the curve of the canal, partly hidden from view by an overhanging willow tree. Yes, there is was again. It was a light – a lantern probably. Slowly, the barge he had been waiting for but not expecting slid out from under the willow tree, heading for the lock.

“Blast,” Kay muttered. That was the end of his quiet evening in the car. He should radio for backup now, get other cars in, then there would be floodlights, shouting, gun-waving, the arrest, the paper work. The detective cast a regretful glance over his shoulder at the icebox. No Ben & Jerry’s tonight.

His hand hovered over the radio for a moment. Then he turned around instead, reached inside the ice box and grabbed a tub of ice cream. As quietly as he could, he opened the car door and took up position by the side of the canal. He could see the barge and his mark clearly now by the light of the moon. Kay took aim and with a mighty throw launched the tub at the man in the barge. It hit him square in the forehead and he dropped into the water like a sack of potatoes.

Detective Inspector Kay dusted himself off and watched approvingly as the barge drifted off course and ran aground in the reeds. It would keep till morning. He got back into his car and reached for his second tub of Cherry Garcia. As he tucked in with great relish, he decided it had been worth the sacrifice.

Detonate

Detonate

I think she was about to set off a bomb.

I was watching her through the peep holes that I had cut into the two a’s in ‘Daily Mail’. Don’t give me that look, that’s official MI5 endorsed spy craft. Anyway, she was looking all casual, as if she was just another student earning a few extra pounds propping up a sign to some place that sold some stuff. But I could see from the intensity with which she considered her phone that she was not just checking for messages or looking up train times. I could see her thumb tremble, hovering over the OK button. She was completely immersed in a moment, a decision.

Time stretched unbearably.

My leg was starting to itch. My elbows hurt.

Then she looked up, her eyes sharp.

I lowered my guard and my paper, my mouth shaping a silent ‘No!’ as her thumb finally made its choice.

Click here to see the prompt for this story.

One last time

“This just isn’t what I signed up for.”

There is a long pause.

“Well,” Sietske hesitates. “What did you sign up for?”

A long sigh threads its way down the phone line. Bastiaan grips his hair, painfully, perhaps hoping this will wake up his brain. And his calling. But there is nothing.

“I don’t know. I can’t say. Not right now.”

Another silence.

“I’m sorry, Bas. I wish I had something helpful to say. I feel responsible.”

“That’s just ridiculous. I’m sorry, but it is.” His tone is sharp, impatient.

“If it weren’t for me,” she soldiers on, “you wouldn’t be stuck in that God-forsaken hole.”

“Yes, it’s all your fault, you siren, you temptress. Luring me, unwilling, into your bed.” They each smile, unseen by the other, in their living rooms.

After another long pause, Sietske suggests hanging up or saying something meaningful. “KPN is making a lot of money out of us for very little.”

“Come and stay,” Bastiaan blurts out.

“Do you really think-“

“Come and stay,” he repeats roughly. “Please. I need a bit of light. A bit of happiness. Come and lighten my mood.”

She succumbs. It feels so familiar. Their relationship is built on we-shouldn’t and perhaps-we’d-better-not and one-last-time-then. They plan another last time, a very last time. They make no notes in their diaries but they won’t forget. They hang up, feeling both elated and heavy at heart.

Marching Band

“Fenna, you can’t.” It was the skirt. Fenna had only got as far as three steps down the stairs before being sent back up to change into her trousers. “I don’t care what you wear when you go out with your friends – I mean, I do, but you know – this is the marching band. People will see.”

“You mean the neighbours. The neighbours will see. And think you’re a bad mother. And then what will happen?” The ice cold analysis of the fifteen year old mind.

“You’re too clever by half. Just do as I say and change into your nice, neat trousers.” Liesbeth dashed a stray curl out of her eyes and quickly turned off the gas under a pan of potatoes. Dinner was late. And probably not very nice. And she wished her daughter had more sense of decorum than brains, instead of the other way round.

When Fenna reappeared, five minutes later, her outfit could only be described as ironic. Liesbeth didn’t know anyone else who could be sarcastic and compliant at the same time, but Fenna had managed it. She was impeccably dressed, in a white shirt and black trousers, her Schutterij sash neatly ironed and arranged exactly as it should over her left shoulder, her badge polished, her hair in a neat bun, pins holding back any wayward strands. She was not wearing any make up and her shoes were neatly polished. Her flute was tucked under her arm.

“I’m ready to go,” Fenna announced calmly.

“Well, let’s have dinner first. Where’s your brother?”

“Probably getting beaten up on his way home,” Fenna mused as she took her seat at the table. “You might want to see to the pork chops. They’re curling at the edges.”

Liesbeth bit her lip and launched the chops onto three plates, where they bounced and skidded in an unappetizing way. She was beyond caring. They only had about five minutes to eat it now anyway. As she ladled mealy potatoes and an amorphous mush of carrots and peas onto the plates, the front door opened. It was Sjoerd, preceded by his tuba.

“I can’t play.” his muffled voice came from behind the instrument.

“What was that? Speak up, boy!” his sister jeered.

“I can’t play!” Sjoerd wailed, dropping the tuba on the couch and revealing a muddy, tear-streaked face, a swollen lip, a black eye and worst of all – a missing tooth.

Liesbeth rushed to his side and swept him into her arms, muttering expletives and reassurances alternately. Sjoerd sobbed in heart-breaking abandon, only managing to reveal between wet snorts and snuffles the name of his assailant, which did not surprise either of the two women. It was Maikel, of course.

Finally, Sjoerd calmed down a little and announced: “I’ve still got it.” It was said a little proudly, as if this made everything better.

“You’ve still got what, squirt?” Fenna asked.

Sjoerd dipped his hand in his trouser pocked and fished out a handkerchief. He unfolded it carefully and held it out for his mother and sister to see. In it was a small, ivory, bloody tooth.

They all stared at it, mesmerised, while dinner became increasingly inedible on the table. In the churchyard, the marching band waited in vain for its flute and tuba players to appear.

Theekransje

Daar gaat de deurbel weer. Hannie loopt naar de deur, theepot nog in de hand.

“Elise, fijn dat je er bent!” De dames zoenen de lucht aan weerszijde van elkaars hoofd.  “Ik kan even niet helpen met je jas, zoals je ziet.” Hannie maakt een verontschuldigend gebaar met de theepot.

“Ik red het wel hoor,” zegt Elise. Haar jas gaat aan een hanger, haar tas op de gang, maar niet voordat ze haar leesbril eruit heeft gevist en een mapje met foto’s.

“Zijn dat de kleinkinderen?” vraagt Hannie, niet overlopend van enthousiasme. Elise’s kleinkinderen zijn altijd de beste in de klas, rennen het hardst, spelen piano, viool, blokfluit en hebben volgend jaar waarschijnlijk hun wondermiddel tegen kanker af. En inderdaad, Elise begint ook nu weer een litanie over hun meest recente triomfen.

Hannie zucht diep en leidt Elise de woonkamer in, waar ze de andere dames kan vervelen met haar foto’s en verhalen. Ze zet Elise naast An, die luistert ook nooit naar een ander. De twee dames beginnen ongestoord tegen elkaar aan te praten, over twee verschillende onderwerpen, zonder zich aan elkaar te storen. Hannie kan met een gerust hart terug naar de keuken om de vlaai in stukken te snijden. Ze maakt die altijd zelf, op zaterdagmiddag. Hannies veelgeprezen vlaai is beroemd in het dorp, en het recept is een strict familiegeheim.

“Als ik dood ben, dan mag je ‘m hebben,” zegt ze altijd als iemand erom vraagt.

Het is bedoelt als grap, maar het zou haar toch niets verbazen als de dames van de Hervormde kerk de dag na de begrafenis op de stoep zouden staan om Willem om het recept te vragen. Deze week is het kersenvlaai, en het is weer een goeie. Het is toch altijd weer een bijzonder moment als ze de voorkamer binnenloopt met het dienblad en de moede, oude ogen van de dames van het dorp oplichten. De vlaai van Hannie, daar komen ze voor, meer nog dan de gezelligheid. Ook nu weer gaan ze wat rechter op zitten, om over de rand van het dienblad te kunnen kijken.

“Oh, het is weer een goeie hoor,” zegt Jet.

Hannie glimt en zet de vlaai voorzichtig neer op de koffietafel. An schiet behulpzaam toe om bordjes uit te delen. Hannie geeft Elise een stuk, met een zachter hart nu er een stuk taart tussen hen zit, en achter Elise ziet ze door het raam hoe Hans en Bep voorbij schuifelen. Arm in arm, weggedoken in hun jassen, sjaals om en handschoenen aan. Hannie ziet dat ze zacht met elkaar praten, terwijl ze de gladde stoep in de gaten blijven houden. Bep kijkt even op, Hannies huis in, en hun ogen ontmoeten elkaar. Bep: rode neus van de kou, haar keurige permanent zo goed en zo kwaad als het kan beschermd door een sjaaltje. Hannie: een bordje met een stuk kersenvlaai in de hand, temidden van het wekelijkse theekransje. Bep was niet uitgenodigd. Ze is nooit uitgenodigd. De dames van het dorp zijn veel te beschaafd om het te zeggen, maar zestig jaar later denken ze het nog steeds: moffenhoer.

Elise trekt voorzichtig het bordje – dat toch voor haar bedoelt was! – uit Hannies handen. De vlaai ziet er weer lekker uit vandaag.

Schaatsen

De wekkerradio rukt Mariska uit een verontrustende droom. Wat er precies in gebeurde is ze al vergeten zodra ze de radio wat zachter zet, maar het gevoel dat er iets mis is blijft hangen. Ze schiet snel haar kleren van gisteren aan, doet de gordijnen open – en ontdekt dat de wereld in de nacht totaal veranderd is.

Buiten is alles bevroren. De dauw op het gras, de schuttingen, de daken. De sloten tussen de akkers verderop, buiten het dorp. Een plaatje. Stil en geheimzinnig. Het dorp laat niks los. De enige beweging is een kauw die opvliegt uit een boom, misschien geschrokken van een van de vele katten in Oosterwaarden. Mariska realiseert zich nu dat ze haar adem inhoudt.

Het wordt een schaatsdag vandaag.

Ze trekt haar kleren weer uit en zoekt een warme trui, kniekousen, extra sokken, een spijkerbroek. De nasmaak van de droom vervaagt en Mariska begint zich te verheugen op een ongewoonlijke dag op het ijs met haar klas. De Schutterij is vast al erwtensoep aan het maken en warme chocolademelk. Beneden zet ze koffie en gaat dan weer naar boven, naar de tweede slaapkamer.

De kamer staat vol met nog steeds niet uitgepakte dozen. Dit zou eigenlijk Riks studeerkamer worden, maar ze weet niet of dat ooit nog gaat gebeuren. Als ze het over samenwonen wil hebben verandert hij snel van onderwerp, of hij zegt geërgerd dat dit nu niet een goed moment is om het te bespreken, of erger: hij zegt dat het een goed idee is in principe, alsof dit de eerste keer is dat ze het voorstelt en hij er nog niet echt over nagedacht had. Mariska schudt de gedachte van zich af en begint dozen open te trekken op zoek naar haar schaatsen.