Authors: Jonathan Reeder
Tags: #BIO026000, #FAM014000
Miriam was convinced that the delivery men had left the safety bolts in the drum on purpose. âYou always over-tip, that's why. Then they mess with you.'
It was approaching five-thirty. My hand was gradually becoming disjointed by Miriam's constant squeezing. Her beautiful, smooth forehead, which seldom perspired, was now beaded with sweat. âThis can't be just a stomach ache,' I said.
âI'll ring the midwife just to be on the safe side,' Miriam said. She wasn't due for another three-and-a-half weeks. The midwife had her explain in detail what exactly she felt. The call was brief. âShe's on her way. I might have to go to the hospital already.'
âMinchen, your overnight bag â¦ The folder says you have to have a bag packed and ready. We don't have one.'
âThat's just like you,' she moaned, âto start whinging about an overnight bag at a time like this. I've got other things on my mind, you know.'
The stabs worsened. The midwife arrived, her face still lined with sleep, just after six. She put a rubber glove on her right hand and asked me to wait outside. I suppose I could have packed a small travel bag in the meantime, but just stood there inert in the hallway.
âNow, honey,' I overheard, âyou're dilating already.'
So they were contractions after all, and they were getting stronger. I helped Miriam into her bathrobe. âIt's more painful than I expected,' she said.
The midwife's Fiat Panda was double-parked downstairs in front of the house. Heavily pregnant, Miriam looked too big for the compact car, but she just fitted. With the midwife at the wheel and us in back, the Panda was more than full.
âHelp, my claustrophobia's playing up,' Miriam panted hotly in my ear.
The midwife turned left onto De Lairessestraat, where morning traffic, even this early, was already nervously picking up. The Fiat proceeded with little jerks â leaps, really â and Miriam whimpered.
âJust get me to the
,' she whispered.
The van had a lot less traffic trouble now than the Fiat did back then. Morning rush-hour was usually not yet over at ten to ten, but this was Sunday. We drove past a tidily laid-out business park, out of which rose the terraced buildings of the Academic Medical Centre. Somewhere inside, amid the labyrinth of overlit corridors, masked surgeons were operating on Tonio.
If he was still alive.
Twenty-two years ago, just like now, Miriam sat to my left on the back seat of the Panda. Then, too, I hugged her tight, pressed her close to me, so that I felt every contraction pulse through my own body â well, on the surface, anyway, because I couldn't really
the pain. Miriam occasionally gave my sleeve a tug to indicate that I should loosen my grip, which did not absorb the contractions.
Twice earlier, I had experienced similar mortal fear in a tiny Fiat. The first time occurred in the winter of '77, when Maria-Pia Canaponi, a young Florentine, drove me and a friend from the hilltop town of Fiesole down to Florence, hidden in the misty and shadowy depths of the Arno valley. As I recalled over the years, she didn't so much as drive as allow the car to simply fall downhill, even though the wheels did touch the ground here and there on a hairpin curve, but more like the soles of a mountaineer's boots graze the side of a cliff as he rappels down a rock face.
The other death-defying Fiat, also somewhere in the mid-seventies, bored its way through the hellish Parisian morning traffic. At the wheel was a local woman, her hat crumpled by the city's night life. She was trying to impress me (in back) and her girlfriend up front by ignoring red lights or, at the very least, by blindly changing lanes with her brim pulled down over her eyes. Arriving at her house in a suburb of Paris, sheer terror and heart palpitations made it impossible for me to perform up to snuff.
But now the claustrophobic tin can was jostling an unborn life. The midwife manoeuvred her car down the Cornelis Krusemanstraat towards the Harlemmercircuit â and that is where I must have lost track of where we were, distracted as I was by Miriam's birthing pains. I wasn't paying attention, and Miriam even less, so neither of us noticed that the midwife had turned right onto the Amstelveenseweg towards the Zeilstraat instead of taking the roundabout to the other leg of the Amstelveenseweg that led to the
Yes, I do recall my impatience at the open drawbridge over the Schinkel, raised like an unbreachable rampart, but it still did not occur to me that our rolling maternity bed was heading the wrong way. Miriam herself realised the mistake only when we reached the hospital. Once inside, the midwife and I helped her into a wheelchair. As we wheeled her through the foyer towards the lift, Miriam whimpered: âThis isn't the
â¦ I was supposed to deliver at the
âOh, sorry, hon, sorry â¦ sorry,' cried the midwife. âMy fault entirely. I must have looked at the wrong form this morning â¦ Oh, how awful. Well, there's no turning back now.'
She had taken us to Slotervaart Hospital.
The two police officers turned us over to a small group of nurses in a reception area at the top of a short set of stairs. I can't remember which of the four or five of them handed me Tonio's wallet. The grey billfold with snap fastener lay heavily in my hand: its change pocket was laden with coins. I imagined that it still retained some of his body heat â from his thigh, his buttocks, or his breast, wherever he had it at the moment of â¦
Stuck to the back of the wallet was a self-adhesive, computer-printed sticker bearing his name, a few series of digits and today's date (how new and nearby everything was). In our absence, they were already busy transforming him into a series of numbers.
The two officers took their leave with a handshake, and wished us â
' â courage, strength. I took the opportunity to study their uniforms one last time. Once this was all behind us and we knew how long Tonio's recovery would take, I could â no matter how shaken and depressed â return to my writing table and resume work on the police novel. I had pinned up a photo of a female police chief in standard uniform. Now I had been given extra information regarding how a rank-and-file policewoman looked in warm weather.
The policeman handed me a card from the Serious Traffic Accident Unit on the James Wattstraat, where I could request a more complete report on the collision. I had only to ask for the staff member whose name he'd written in with a ballpoint pen.
The officers raised a hand as they descended the stairs, heading towards the revolving door and their van, parked in the sun. Miriam and I followed the nurses to the Intensive Care Unit (Intensive Care, which was different than the Emergency Room. Ambulance, ER, ICU, OR: Tonio's body had made a speedy series of promotions.) On the way, one of them apologised for the fact that we had been informed so late.
âHis wallet was full of cards, but we couldn't come up with an address right away for â¦ for his parents. At moments like that, a life-threatening situation, we have other priorities. Saving a life always comes first.'
. A doctor was waiting for us at the junction of two corridors. We were told that Tonio had been on the operating table for âhours' (it was approaching ten o'clock) and was still in a critical condition.
âThe traumatologist will be out shortly to give you an update.'
I gathered we were now in the ICU. A young nurse, blonde and blue-eyed and as fresh as the morning, led us to a small waiting room and offered us coffee.
âJust some water,' said Miriam, who had already sidled against me on the three-seat sofa.
âCoffee for me, please,' I said.
The nurse left the room, leaving the door open. Above the doorway was a large kitchen clock: ten past ten.
âUgh, no coffee,' Miriam said. âIt reminds me of when â¦'
She reached for her forehead and cried, sputtering slightly. She didn't need to finish her sentence. I knew she was referring to that June morning in '88, when we mistakenly ended up at the Slotervaart maternity ward, and Miriam had gone into hysterics over my coffee breath.
I opened Tonio's wallet. The billfold section contained nothing but a five-euro note. The coins, all told, probably added up to a sizeable amount.
A year earlier, in August, after the premiere of
Het leven uit een dag
, I had studied his bar behaviour during the reception at De Kring. Tonio and Marianne had retired to a dark corner somewhere alongside the dance floor where the crew were swinging to the house music, and whenever he went to fetch drinks for himself or the girl, he paid with a banknote and jammed the change into the pocket of his wallet (the very one I was now holding in my hands). Those slight tendencies towards disorderliness: I lamented them all the more because I exhibited them myself at his age, and long thereafter, and still had not managed to overcome them all. Continually confronted, in matters both minor and significant, with our similarities, I was forced to imagine myself as a twenty-one-year-old. It worried me. Not for myself, but for him.
âIf Tonio really is so much like me,' I said to my brother, who sat next to me at the bar in De Kring, âthen he's got an uphill battle ahead of him.'
Frans, who knew me in my early twenties and even lived with me for a while, sputtered out a feeble denial just to be polite.
There were plenty of cards and passes, complete with address, in the pockets of Tonio's wallet, so I suspected that there had indeed been more urgent matters than tracking down his parents.
âHere's an ID card from the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Gasthuis,' I said to Miriam. âWhat would he have been doing there?'
âJaw surgeon,' she said with a shrug of revulsion. âWisdom teeth.'
The nurse came in with a tray, and arranged the Thermos cans, cups and glasses on the table. âThe traumatologist will be in to see you shortly,' she said as she was leaving. âIf you need anything, just check the corridor, one of us will be there.'
Since being roused from bed, I had hardly spoken, except with Miriam, but every time I opened my mouth, first to the police officers and now to the nursing staff, I was painfully aware of the heavy odour of garlic on my breath. I didn't smell it myself, but seeing as we hadn't had breakfast yet I knew it rose straight from my gut. (This morning, when I went downstairs, the kitchen door on the first floor was open. Spread out on the bread board were four rolls, sliced and waiting to be buttered. Oranges alongside the juice squeezer. A still-life in the wake of bad tidings.)
What time had the policeman said Tonio's accident occurred that morning? Around 4:30? The flood of saliva brought about by the garlic overkill had woken me at about a quarter past four. No, don't go there: I wasn't about to start seeing premonitions and signs in everything. An upset stomach as a warning of Tonio's impending disaster? And what was I supposed to do with this cryptic message delivered by peptic Morse code?
Once again I couldn't help but notice the parallels with the circumstances of Tonio's birth. Then, too, stomach cramps that turned out to be contractions had taken us by such surprise that we skipped breakfast. The previous evening, we'd eaten Surinamese food from Albina, a takeaway restaurant on the Albert Cuypstraat. I had ordered a portion of their dangerously spicy fashon sausage, which I only ate if I knew I had no social obligations for the next three days, because the dish transformed your mouth into an unwashed arsehole. And so I arrived at the Slotervaart maternity ward on the morning of 15 June 1988 with a contaminated mouth, augmented by an empty stomach. I dared not open my mouth for fear of endangering the delivery with my toxic fumes.
I don't know where the additional information came from, but meanwhile the exact time of the accident was established as 4.40 a.m. Four weeks before the longest day: was it already light by that time, or still dark, or midway? When daylight savings time kicked in, we set the clocks an hour ahead, which meant that for the next seven months the sun would rise an hour later. I seemed to remember that in the old days, before daylight savings time was introduced, it was already broad daylight when the Nijmegen nightclub Diogenes emptied out at four-thirty or five o'clock at this time of year. All right, we're talking about weekend hours. On weekdays Diogenes closed at 3.45, and in late May it was still pretty much dark.
I couldn't be totally sure. I decided to set the alarm clock for 4:30 the next day so I could check the sky at twenty to five.
But if it turned out to be still dark at that time, it would automatically raise the next question: did Tonio have lights on his bike, or at least those little clip-on lamps on his clothes?
I wasn't at my post this morning. No late-night revelry behind me, no hangover to sleep off, but I did just lie in bed, no denying that. Even waking up to a saliva flood and churning stomach presented me with no other thought than: once it's passed, try to get another hour of sleep â¦ work to do â¦
I should have been
, on the Stadhouderskade, to restrain my recklessly cycling son, steer him out of harm's way. There was no one in the room to accuse me of anything, but I hardly needed a pointed finger to feel guilty, to
I was guilty. I sat next to Miriam shuddering and sweating with guilt for what I had carelessly let happen that morning.