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Authors: Jonathan Reeder

Tags: #BIO026000, #FAM014000

Tonio (12 page)

BOOK: Tonio
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‘I'm going back to the OR,' said Dr G. ‘You'll be kept informed of any developments, naturally. I'll stop by again before I go home.'

It was absurd that we had been brought here but couldn't see Tonio. An entire team of masked experts bent over his opened-up insides, and inserted tubes, tampons, scalpels, forceps, clamps. But maybe what he needed most was Miriam and me, simply to hold his hand.

Today, for the first time in a long while, I did not associate the
AMC
with champagne. From 2005 to 2007 I was administered my magic pill at the Endoscopy unit of the Stomach, Intestine, and Liver wing, under the watchful eye of Professor Lisbeth. As the study also included taking detailed notes of changes in the professional life of the guinea pigs, I had faithfully reported that my new novel was finished, and promised I would do my best to keep the alcoholic festivities to a minimum. At my next appointment, after being weighed and jabbed, I sat hooked to a blood pressure monitor when the door opened and in came Professor Lisbeth with a tray. Not with medical instruments, but a wine cooler holding a bottle of bubbly and three champagne flutes. It was the first time I ever heard the pop of a champagne cork in a hospital, followed by the effervescence of the wine and the clinking of glasses.

‘To your new book!' Lisbeth was still wearing her white coat, but that only made it more festive. Her assistant, Ellen, had just tapped a quarter of a litre of my blood into a tube, so I could certainly use a pick-me-up. The impromptu reception was touching, and only there in the examination room did it hit home that the job was truly finished. The glistening eyes of the women told me that for them, too, this sort of thing only happened once in a blue moon.

12

Tonio's arrival put paid to a longstanding dilemma that procreation had finally undone, but my fear of losing the child was in no way diminished. My breathless efforts would now be dedicated to piloting my son safely through all the predicaments and perils of the world.

We got postnatal assistance far too late after the birth, and I had the impression that in order to make the girl feel not entirely unneeded, Miriam gave her little jobs that she could already handle herself. The aide continually came into my room to ask about my work. It was her way of flirting with men who she presumed had been shortchanged, physically speaking, during their wife's pregnancy. She took a broad view of her duties.

It was 26 June 1988. Now that the girl was in the house to assist Miriam and help look after the baby, I could nip out to the Dutch national football team's ticker-tape parade. They had just won the UEFA championship in a 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union.

The canal district, which had centrifugally grown from the Middle Ages till the Golden Age, had that day turned into a centripetal force. The orange or red-white-blue clad crowds hastened, as though riding a strong tailwind, in the direction of the city centre. So as not to feel like a complete football-crazed idiot, I let as many fans as possible pass, ambling with the air of a man out on an aimless stroll. I'd have liked to be wheeling Tonio triumphantly in front of me, but Miriam forbade it. She was already wary of pushy crowds. The thought of a trampled baby buggy was utterly intolerable.

An aunt of mine who had emigrated to Australia once spent two months back in Eindhoven in the late fifties, partly in order to take part in an old-fashioned Carnival celebration. She had dressed up like a Mexican, complete with an umbrella-sized sombrero, and tinted her face light brown with the wetted chicory-root coffee substitute that even fifteen years after the war my family of unfortunates still used as a taste enhancer. I don't know if the mocha-faced fans who passed me on all sides had adhered to this recipe of face painting, but the rasta wigs left no doubt as to the message: they were Ruud Gullit.

A somewhat whiter company, cloaked in smocks pieced together from the Dutch flag, carried a banner. The text, in tar-like block letters, mockingly referred to the 1981 anti-nuke protests and to the previous day's football victory over the Soviets:
NO MORE RUSSIANS IN OUR BACKYARD
, and in smaller letters:
THEY'VE BEEN SENT TO SIBERIA
.

I had followed most of the UEFA ‘88 matches with Tonio on my lap, enjoying a sense of wellbeing I had never experienced before. Now, I was walking toward the city centre nakedly empty-handed. When I was five or six, I used to carry our cat around for a good hour at a time. Once the beast had freed itself from my grip, his weight, fur and the rocking motion lingered in my arms, like a tingling, as though I was still tangibly carrying the invisible creature. I had the feeling it was the same thing now with the baby. I had carried Tonio through the room. I knelt down with him in my arms next to the speaker to listen to the oboe solo. Now, his imprint tingled in my empty arms — minus the warmth.

A twinge of treason: I had abandoned the nest. Mother and child had been left to the devices of an unreliable maternity aide.

At Museumplein, some 120,000 frenzied fans were waiting to hail the conquering heroes. How did they manage to get here from the canal bridges so quickly? Or had the crowd been standing here all this time, elbowing one another for the choice spots? Budging to the front, canalside, might cost the idolator a wet set of clothes, but here at Museumplein one was willing to lay one's life on the line to kiss the hem of the nation's garment. But the willingly parted lips were cracked by the sharp riot fences up front, near the stage.

It wasn't entirely clear whether the fire hoses were meant to keep the approaching throng at bay, or to offer some cooling relief to those who were in danger of getting squashed against the fence. Anyone who fainted was passed overhead like a crowd surfer to safer quarters.

Television images of Heizel Stadium a few years earlier flashed before my eyes. Get me out of here. I had already left the nest unattended for too long. There, the Concertgebouw, beyond that and I was nearly home.

13

‘Shouldn't we call Jim?' I asked Miriam. ‘The poor kid won't have the faintest idea why Tonio didn't come home.'

We were sitting in the ICU courtyard in the sun.

‘I don't know,' Miriam said. ‘
If
he sleeps, it's around now.'

‘Sleeping disorder or no, Jim still has to hear what happened to Tonio.'

‘I'll call his mother.'

Mobile phone in hand, Miriam walked to the middle of the small paved courtyard. A few moments later, I saw her hunched forward, talking into the phone. With her free hand, she continually wiped tears from her face. The Whit Sunday sun hung motionless and unmoved above the building complex, and dried her fingers.

‘Jim's parents'll go to their flat to tell him in person. You know what, I'm going to call Hinde. See if she'll come here, with Frans.'

Miriam phoned her sister. I could not make out what she was saying as she walked along the concrete planters.

‘She's getting a taxi now.'

‘And she'll pick up Frans on the way?'

‘He's in Spain. With Mariska and the baby. They'll fly back tomorrow.'

(After Hinde left her house on the Vondelpark, her appearance on the Overtoom, where she planned to hail a cab, caused a minor sensation among friends. Having quit smoking years earlier, she now stood early on Sunday morning with a long filter cigarette in her mouth, gesticulating like a nighthawk at passing taxis. Just then, our friend Nelleke drove by, on her way to deliver our mutual friends Allard and Annelie to Schiphol. There wasn't time to stop and enquire after Hinde's secret new life, as they were already late and the flight to Hong Kong was not going to wait.)

14

I was so delighted with Tonio's arrival that I did my utmost to include him in my good cheer right from the start. Music was part of that. I squatted with the two- or three-week-old infant in front of one of my stereo speakers, which screeched out Bach's oboe concerto. The volume was turned up high, but the little fellow didn't seem to mind. He had just been fed, and I shouldered him until a sourish burp erupted on my neck. If Bach's slow movements helped Chinese women during delivery, then they would also be good for a baby's digestion. Tonio wore a satisfied expression, a smile appeared to form on his relaxed little face.

The ritual of crouching together next to the speaker while gently rocking the baby accommodated a wide range of music. When my thigh muscles started to quiver, I would straighten up and dance across the room with him in my arms. At times, he almost floated in mid-air, the tiny body supported by and balancing on my fingertips alone. If the music (a menuet, for instance) suggested it, I would swing Tonio from side to side as wide as my arms would reach. And then up above my head … back down, nice and low … make a dip … and then swoop back up …

I danced as though under a spell (and I might have drunk some wine at dinner, too). I assumed the baby was just as content being flung about in my arms as he was resting on my thighs in front of the speaker. Until once, in my ecstasy, I did not close my eyes, and looked straight at Tonio's face. With every upward scoop, his expression was transformed into a chubby little mask of fear, complete with downward-curling mouth and wide-open eyes. God knows how often he'd worn that expression of terror without my noticing.

I immediately quit swinging and swaying and held the little boy gently against me. ‘Oh, how stupid of me, my sweet Tonio, to fling you around like that … Sorry, sorry.'

He did not cry, and his face had pretty much reverted to its relieved post-feeding look. It would be months before I dared dance with him again, and from then on I held him timorously tight. I would not soon shake the memory of that scrunched-up, agonised little head. I never told Miriam, and nearly brought it up now, in the courtyard of the ICU.

‘Minchen, I just thought of something … a snippet from the past …'

‘As long as it's not about Tonio,' she said. ‘Not now, I can't handle it.'

‘Yeah … never mind. Another time.'

It was difficult to hang onto that memory, because I suddenly saw Tonio's agonised
adult
face appear on the shady side of the courtyard. It had the same look as the infant in the summer of '88: the trembling around the eyes and mouth, the reddening cheeks, the expression of a boy in his death throes. Only this time he did not sail toward the ceiling in my arms, but was flung, together with his bike, over the front end of an unexpected oncoming vehicle and, further on, lurched across the roof of the car.

CHAPTER FOUR

The schoolhouse

1

‘Let's go back to the waiting room,' I said to Miriam. ‘Hinde will never find us here.'

The walled courtyard was making us more and more claustrophobic, but that cubby-hole, where the air was heavy with old coffee (forever associated with Tonio's birth) was no better. Hinde had not yet arrived. The clock above the door showed half past twelve.

2

During Tonio's first year, I did a good job of maintaining a stable day-to-day existence, dedicating life and work to my small family. Alarmingly, however, the managers of Huize Oldenhoeck, the brothers Warners (or, as we called them, The Warner Brothers of the Amsterdam School), contrary to their promise not to unload the apartment building designed by their uncle, had turned it over to a management company. From then on, every vacant flat was drastically renovated, stripped of every ornament that referred back to the original 1924 Amsterdam School interior, and then let to a new resident at three times the original price — preferably a member of the
corps diplomatique
stationed around Museumplein, because those folks paid no attention to the price and never stayed longer than a year, after which the rent could be hiked up once again for the next consul general or his right-hand man.

The high turnover rate in Huize Oldenhoeck meant there were always a couple of flats being renovated at any given time. In the lift or the stairwell (from which they hadn't yet ripped out the dark purple marble), I encountered, more often than not, a grey-dusted man dressed in a denim suit and cowboy hat: the project supervisor and, I found out later, one of the new managers.

‘I'd never buy a second-hand car from him' is often used to describe an untrustworthy person. Well, I wouldn't take any car from this dungareed cowboy, not even if he paid me. Although younger than me, he had those deep grooves between his nostrils and the corners of his mouth that gave him the expression of a sad wolf; he could look at you as sympathetic and guilt-ridden as you please, his head cocked slightly to one side like a dog trying to figure out what his owner is saying. If I complained about the construction noise, explaining that I worked at home, he cringed with servility. The man had a guilty conscience, and took full advantage of it. He offered me fawning, hand-wringing apologies, promising to keep the inconvenience to a minimum. But, of course, nothing changed, except that the cowboy honed in on my Achilles heel. I imagine, in retrospect, how, as soon as I was out of sight he went from grovelling to gloating: he had figured out how to drive the Van der Heijdens from their flat, probably the most desirable in the entire building. Just step up the construction noise.

Yielding in turn to my own guilty conscience, I rented a room on the Kloveniersburgwal, a few doors down from where Miriam and I had been so happy in '84 and '85, so I could work in peace. I convinced myself (and Miriam) that this was a good a way to keep myself on track. Every morning I took tram 16 there, but the only thing I achieved was an overwhelming restlessness. Wielding scissors, glue and sheets of A3-sized construction paper, I fashioned a comprehensive montage of my notes for the new novel as they had accumulated over the last three years — including cardboard beer mats, which from the side gave the metre-and-a-half high document a decidedly wavy form. I kidded myself into believing that I could, on the basis of this rough but strictly ordered material, transfer a definitive version directly to the typewriter.

BOOK: Tonio
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