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Authors: Jonathan Reeder

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Tonio (14 page)

BOOK: Tonio
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Kiki and Lily often showed up at the schoolhouse early in the morning, while we were still eating breakfast, to ooh and aah in admiration as Tonio's mother pushed dice of Laughing Cow soft cheese into his mouth. Soon enough the girls were allowed to unwrap the foil themselves and feed Tonio the bite-sized cheese cubes. His eyes sparkled, his drool became milky from the white cheese. All we had to do was watch out he didn't get overfed.

Sometimes the sisters brought their little brother Robin with them, who never spoke and always wore an angry little pout. After breakfast, Tonio resumed his walking lessons behind the stroller under the tutelage of Lily and Kiki. He was now between thirteen and fourteen months old.

In my recollection, I see Robin leaning up against the outside of the schoolhouse, one foot up against the wall. Surly and haughty, he watches the movements of the toddler, who enjoys his sisters' full attention. I sit at the picnic table under the apple tree, pretending to be absorbed in yesterday's already yellowed newspaper, but I cannot take my eyes off the scene before me. Tonio has the tendency to push a bit faster than the wheels can furrow through the rough grass, so that he leans back slightly and easily falls over. He's got the hand-grips firmly in his fists, above his head, so that as he topples over backwards he pulls the pushchair on top of himself.

‘Oof.' The girls rush to prop him back up. At Tonio's eye level is a shopping net, strung onto the frame by an elastic cord, with tissues and extra Pampers. Every time he falls over backwards, the nylon netting falls over Tonio's face, like a loosely woven veil, and he doesn't like it much. Not much time for crying, though: practice makes perfect. His dismay is limited to a brief whine while his fingers tug at the butterfly net. Kiki and Lily leap to the rescue. Lily takes advantage of the situation by scooping Tonio up and nuzzling him. He tries to wriggle away: there's work to be done.

Robin's stance hovers between childish contempt (pff, he can't even walk) and an equally childish jealousy (my sisters don't give me the time of day, but they're all over that clumsy sprog). He, Robin, is not only good at walking, fast and slow, but he can creep, jump and climb, too. ‘Robin's problem is,' says Kiki superciliously, imitating her mother, ‘that he has no concept of danger.'

Tonio is back up on his feet, and screeches as he pushes the stroller. Again he's learned something new: he wrenches and jerks the stroller over a stubborn tuft of grass and walks on. The girls follow him with arms extended, prepared to catch him should he fall.

I am worried about the fearsomely large wasps here; they fly close to the ground, as though they're too heavy for their wispy wings. They look savage, and I imagine their stinger dripping with poison. I have already chopped one in half with a breakfast knife; it was pestering Tonio and I thought I was giving it a quick, painless death. Horrified, I saw how both halves stayed alive: the front half propped itself up on its wings, the back half — call it the weapon-wielding half — wobbled off, carrying the defeated stinger with the remaining legs.

‘If you want, Robin,' I say in an attempt to include the boy in the adventure, ‘you can keep an eye on those big wasps to see they don't fly near Tonio and your sisters. They're much scarier than the ones we've got back home.'

Robin doesn't answer. When I glance up from the paper a while later, Tonio and his entourage have already reached the other side of the yard. Robin is nowhere to be seen.

8

Four nurses filed from the corridor through the open glass doors into the courtyard. Two men and two women. They each carried a full cafeteria tray. Lunchtime. After blinking for a moment into the bright sunlight, they opt unanimously for a table in the sun.

‘Life goes on, of course,' Hinde said. ‘No matter
what's
happening inside.'

The nurses occupied a table some distance from us, but as it was otherwise so quiet in the courtyard I could clearly pick up snippets of their conversation. They spent some time quoting large sums in euros, the estimate ranging from two-and-a-half to three million.

‘Say there's ten thousand staff, including partners,' said one of the men. ‘That still comes out to 250 to 300 per person.'

‘But for that amount you get Marco Borsato's cute bum,' one of the female nurses said.

‘Don't forget Karin Bloemen's cute bum,' said the other man. ‘And they call it a cold buffet.'

‘
And
the Mart Visser catwalk,' said the second woman.

‘I still think it's weird,' the first man continued. ‘It's always cutbacks, cutbacks, cutbacks. And then they go and rent a whole convention centre for ten thousand of us.'

‘Jesus, Jan, you really are a killjoy,' said the Marco Borsato's-bum woman. ‘It's the
AMC
's twenty-fifth anniversary. Can't they throw a proper party for once? I've been here for twelve years and till now it's been a dry house.'

9

Twice since Tonio was very young (one and almost three years old), I have been pursued by obsessive visions concerning his safety.

Once, during that summer of '89, when we rented the schoolhouse in Marsalès, I took him out on the bicycle. I placed him in the child seat up front for what was perhaps the most wonderful and intimate day I had ever spent with him. Our destination was Biron Castle, but first we took a spin around the country roads, hardly bothered by any traffic. Tonio was getting on to 14 months, and his still-golden-blond curls fluttered right under my nose. I only had to tip my head down slightly in order to feel and smell his warm crown. Coasting downhill, a light breeze wafted through his hair. Only as noon approached did I put on his little white cap with the wavy edges, tying the lace under his chin, to keep him from getting sunstroke.

Earlier that summer, I had taught him the words ‘cow' by pointing at the black-coated cattle, as always adorned with large yellow plastic earrings, on the grassy slopes. Until now, no cows had shown themselves along our route. We cycled through the fields, which were scattered with large rolled-up bales of hay, either as refuse or harvest by-product. Occasionally, Tonio would point a wet finger at one of the rolls, calling out with a thin voice, more sound than word: ‘owww … owww!'

Back in Amsterdam, I read a harrowing newspaper article about exactly the kind of child-seat we had used for Tonio in France. Designed for the flat Dutch landscape, it was attached to the handlebars by two U-shaped steel brackets, and was kept in place by its own weight. But on a steep downhill gradient, it had been shown, the seat could easily lurch out of place and hurl its infant passenger into the air. There was a particularly high rate of such accidents that summer in France, a traditional destination for Dutch cycling families.

To cycle from our schoolhouse in Marsalès to the lake, one had to go down quite a steep incline — Miriam, if she had Tonio with her, would always get off and walk, not because of the child's seat but because she didn't trust her own braking. That summer day, for our outing to the Château de Biron, I felt confident taking Tonio down that hill in his kiddie seat. I rode Miriam's bike. It was new, the rubber brake blocks were not yet worn. Still, as we whizzed down the hill, I felt a kind of tugging below that I didn't quite have under control. Tonio, confidently delivered into my care, was delighted with the speed and cooed ecstatically with outstretched arms.

I was relieved to reach the bottom, where the road levelled off along the lake. Nothing serious had happened, but after reading the article about the child seats I couldn't shake the image of Tonio being flung through the air. I played and replayed his fall, down to the minutest detail: how his body rolled alongside the bike, his golden locks smeared with blood and guts. The thought could creep up on me in the middle of the day, without any apparent reason, while I was working or telling a completely unrelated anecdote in the café. (‘Well? And then? Now that it's finally getting interesting, the cat's got your tongue.') The obsessive visions had not ebbed in the ensuing twenty years. Since this morning it's been playing up continually, more intrusively than before, as though my irresponsibility back then ultimately contributed to Tonio's accident.

10

The blonde nurse returned, this time unhurriedly, greeting her colleagues as she passed them. They were busy collecting the remains of their lunch on the trays.

‘Can I get you something to eat?' she asked, looking from me to Miriam and Hinde. ‘They'll be busy with him for some time yet …'

‘Shall we share a cheese sandwich?' I suggested to Miriam. ‘I don't think I can stomach much more than that.'

Miriam said nothing, only shook her head, looking down at the ground in front of her feet.

‘I'll bring a little of everything,' the nurse said. ‘How about some milk?'

I nodded. The week before I had read somewhere that a glass of milk takes the edge off garlic breath. On her way back to the corridor, the nurse stopped to exchange a word with her colleagues, before walking ahead of them toward the glass doors.

11

The other obsessive thought had to do with the Makelaarsbrug over the Oudezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam. It must have been springtime, perhaps closer to summer, because the ducks in the canal weren't constantly surrounded by their brood. The remaining ducklings were already partly grown. I had taken Tonio out of his stroller and walked with him onto the pedestrian footbridge. Brilliant sunlight from a sparklingly blue sky.

‘Look, Tonio, the duckies.'

Just then, a mother duck swam with her young from under the bridge into the lacy shadows a tree cast over the water. I sat Tonio on the bridge railing. Under his weight a bit of air hissed from his fresh nappy. I held him tight, leaning him forward a bit to give him a good view of the ducks. He pointed, and babbled, and drooled.

‘Big Italian eyes.'

A man's voice, suddenly close by. I got a fright, like when the sudden appearance of another person can startle you in the solitary intimacy of a room. It paralysed me just for a moment, but long enough for my knees to wobble and my arm to relax. I almost let Tonio's little body slip out of my grasp. I wrestled him from the railing and held him weakly against my body. Next to me, the smiling, long-time-no-see face of a colleague. The man touched Tonio's curls and said: ‘Those eyes. He looks just like …'

He mentioned the name of an actor from the movie
Moonstruck
, and continued on his way. I remember standing there rigidly for quite some time, with Tonio squirming in my arms. He wanted back on the railing. What could have happened flashed through my mind. You're startled, the child slips out of your arms. A splash among the ducklings. The father rushing down the stairs of the bridge … jumping into the canal, desperately feeling around the place where the little boy went under …

This obsessive image, too, stuck with me for the next twenty years. It could rear its head at any moment, not only at hazardous moments in Tonio's life. The vision, ironically enough, sometimes offered salvation in the partly inflated nappy, which, like Donald Duck's backside, bobbed up to the water's surface like a life vest.

CHAPTER FIVE

In love against

Krikkrak Locksmiths: 24-hour service, repair and replacement locks. Specialised in master keys, broken teeth, night bolts, key copy, etc. No call-out fee. Complimentary key ring.

From
Yellow Pages
1992 (Amsterdam and vicinity)

1

I was still living in the Duivelseiland neighbourhood, but it appeared that my marriage's nosedive had come to a halt.

The madness of the annual Book Week was behind us. Now that I increasingly kept to myself in my work flat, still living out of my father's East Indies suitcase, it was Miriam who more often took the initiative. She would leave a message on my answering machine, only if to express her disgust at the crooning ‘
Hello, how are you …?
' of the Electric Light Orchestra, which served as the intro to my own brief spoken instruction: ‘After Mister Beep'. (A pun on a character from
A Room with a View
, a film Miriam and I had seen in better days — a reference I hoped would not elude her. Once pushed into a corner, one never passes up the chance to drop a hint, however subtle.)

Newsworthy matters aside: she occasionally invited me out for a drink in one of our former hangouts. She'd bring me a small gift, a CD or a bound writing book, and was so sweet to me that the onlookers — well aware of the extent of our crisis — prematurely concluded that we had made up. Once, with our glasses still as good as full, she tugged me away from the table: ‘Come on.'

I could barely keep up with her, such was her tempo, over two bridges, left, right, until reaching Leidsegracht 22, where she seduced me on the living-room sofa (and not in bed). I was simply being forced to fulfil the marital duty from which I thought I'd been honourably discharged some weeks earlier. Afterwards, she was in a hurry to fetch Tonio from the crèche. I wasn't allowed to join her. Not a chance. I thought I savvied what was going on: now that she had so unexpectedly let herself go, she could at least use Tonio as leverage. I asked Miriam how things stood with us. ‘You know … between you and me.'

BOOK: Tonio
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