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Authors: Jonathan Reeder

Tags: #BIO026000, #FAM014000

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BOOK: Tonio
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When I looked back as I walked along the sidewalk past the school, she was half bent over her bike, pulling the chain lock through the spokes. The front of the too-wide coat — really no more than a coal sack, just as black and just as shapeless — hung all the way to the ground. The chubbiness — well all right, that wasn't her strong point, but she was definitely pretty. But that shabby old rag really had to go. She slighted herself with it — and, by extension, me, although she was far from being
H&NE
yet.

All the more vexing was that I didn't see her again for the next few months. So like it or not, I was forced to picture her in that filthy raincoat.

9

The Utrechtsebrug. As mucky and murky as the water could look under low cloud cover, in today's morning sunshine the Amstel River glistened as though silver-plated. The brilliant sunlight bleached the surrounding colours, bathing everything in the same milky blue.

The bridge was always the last landmark on the way home from vacations in the south. Tonio used to start talking about it as soon as we left Lugano or the Dordogne: on the other side of the Amstel, a man-sized K'Nex Ferris wheel was waiting for him to complete its construction. For me, the Utrechtsebrug symbolised the imminent reunion with my stationery shop up on the third floor. So for hundreds of kilometres we could all look forward, each in his own way, to this gateway to the city.

For Miriam, the bridge meant an end to many hours of concentrated driving. She never really had an outspoken opinion about post-vacation life. Yes, being home, nothing beat that.

On the front seat of the van, the two police officers focused on the exact route to the
AMC
— as though they couldn't have done it blindfolded. The woman reminded her colleague that he just had to keep an eye out for the hospital exit, which wouldn't be signposted for a while yet. They were young, fresh from the academy. Having to concentrate on the traffic came in handy: this way they didn't have to worry about us.

Between their seat and ours was an empty middle row whose back regretfully did not offer us complete invisibility. With both arms around Miriam, I kept a stranglehold on her. I made half-hearted hushing noises, but did not know what to say to her. That everything would be all right? What right did I have?

In a critical condition
. I was incessantly, feverishly analysing that phrase. Since Miriam had frantically shouted those four words, and the policeman had repeated them with professional calm, their meaning swung back and forth. At one moment they announced the inevitable, the next moment they took on something reassuring. Recently on the news a casualty was said to be in a critical condition. Two days later the papers reported the injuries to be no longer life-threatening.

‘Our Tonio,' Miriam murmured. ‘It might already be too late.'

‘No, Minchen, you mustn't think that.'

Critical was critical, and nothing else. Critical did not mean: dead. Not even: as good as dead. Critical meant: alive (as long as not proved to the contrary). Critical was something you had to get through.

Miriam sniffed, but it was not hysterical crying. ‘We're too late, I can
feel
it.'

‘I forbid you to talk like that.'

10

H&NE
: Her and No-one Else. All right, now that I had chosen this woman (this girl), I'd have to put my money where my mouth is. Make nice things for her: folding paper boxes filled with images and anecdotes, but I would also have to open real, existing worlds for her. The hedges surrounding the ivy-clad house. The chicken wire of the champagne cork. The salt edge around the pink sirloin.

The boom gate of paradise.

When I learnt from her parents that they had considered naming their second daughter ‘Minchen' after her German grandmother, I tried it out on her, at first teasingly. Too often, perhaps, because at a certain point I couldn't shake it off my tongue. She has remained Minchen to this day.

Meanwhile … something was not right, something that could well backfire one day. Too young. Just turned twenty. She hadn't, to put it officially, had time to sow her wild oats. One day she would realise that she'd spent her youth with
only
me
… and that there were some secret things she had never been able to make the most of …

I couldn't just put the brakes on the restless life I'd been leading for all these years. Amsterdam meant loafing around, sleeping in, accomplishing little. The discomfort of travelling spurred me to labour. I wrote in night trains, in the cubbyhole of an illegal hostel, on draughty train platforms, seated between two pallets jam-packed with chicks: an uncommon late-evening serenade.

In January 1980, I took a train to Naples, and from there a boat to Ischia. Arriving back at Amsterdam Central Station in February, I made the acquaintance of the paralysis that would overwhelm Miriam after a long absence (a repeat of the farewell-paralysis of a month earlier). It could have something to do with the fear of abandonment that permanently plagued her family, compliments of recent European history.

In late March of that year, I left for Calabria. Starting in the toe of Italy's boot, I travelled northwards along the coast, investigating every village until I found a enchantingly tiled hotel room in Positano, on the Amalfi coast. I thought:
This is the place
. Every telephone call to Miriam cost me ten thousand lire.

‘Minchen, I'll come get you at the end of May. Then we'll stay here for another month.'

Was it only about working in seclusion? Or did I, even then, want to view my happiness from time to time from a distance, preferably through reversed binoculars? Whatever the case, it later became a routine.

When I think back on myself in those days … Always busy with those massive manuscripts. All for her. The conceit and vanity did not end with the written and printed word. The young writer wanted to live better
per book
. He undertook a long march through the architecture of desirable locations, to the palazzo, the country estate, the Spanish castle. I pulled out all the stops for her, but apparently did something wrong. I went over the top. It flustered her, like the child who sees an oversized stuffed bear emerge from the wrapping paper.

With her around, I could do anything. Miriam was a muse down to the smallest domestic detail. Without her contribution we would have never had a better house. She was a master key that opened all doors.

She saw to it that I finished what I started, just by being there. (More than that wasn't necessary.) But having a child — that was out of the question. I could plead and pray as much as I wanted.

‘I'm still young, aren't I? How about letting me finish my degree first?'

Although the doctors couldn't find anything, I felt sick and exhausted and, like Mozart on his deathbed, ‘the taste of death was on my tongue'. Transferring life into a child gradually become an obsession. Sure, she commiserated, but even if I were to drop dead at her feet, she would not give in.

11

In the spring of 1982, strolling through Vondelpark, we occasionally came upon a young woman I knew by sight, and who apparently recognised me as well. She was pushing a pram and quite emphatically greeted me, not Miriam. Her name eluded me, but I concluded that I must have known her from my student days in Nijmegen. Maybe we had lived in the same block of student housing. It was the baby carriage that did it for me. At one of these chance meetings, seated next to Miriam on a park bench, I saw how the nameless acquaintance bent lovingly over the baby, which was hidden from our view, and stuck her hand under the canopy to rearrange something. I can't rule out that she had intentionally stopped in front of our bench to strike up a conversation that didn't materialise. She nodded at me, smiling, and went on her way, clearly on cloud nine.

Once the woman was out of earshot, it all spilled out: what a wrung-out dishrag I felt the past year-and-a-half, much worse than I had dared admit up until now, and how an unbearable physical urge to become a father was growing in me. Despite my debilitating fatigue, the belief had arisen that a child would rejuvenate me.

‘If that's really how you feel,' said Miriam, ‘then it's the worst possible reason to become a father.'

I knew that. But I kept at it — until a year later, again in the spring, my health began to improve, and the dips into hellish exhaustion became ever more infrequent. After turning in a manuscript at the publisher on 1 September, I cycled past my house, towards the Amstel. I followed the river all the way to Ouderkerk, kept cycling, and allowed myself to stray into uncharted territory, somewhere where woods meets meadow. Suddenly I realised: I'm better. There wasn't even a trace of the old tiredness in me.

Still, it wasn't until 1987, four years later, that I dared to pester Miriam again with what is called ‘wants children' in newspaper personals.

My yearning for progeny was as powerful as my fear of it. This was the kind of dilemma that makes for a good film or novel. My wanting a child was paralysingly on par with the fear of losing it.

12

In early May '87, with summer in sight, I left for the Provence to work out a new idea for a novel (
Advocaat van de Hanen
). I still had the need to ‘view my happiness from a distance' occasionally, but did make a deal with Miriam that she would join me a month later.

On the train to Paris, I read a newspaper advertisement for a country house near Aix-en-Provence, available for rent during the summer months. I phoned the number immediately upon arriving in Paris. The woman who answered the phone turned out to be Dutch: Anneke, married to a French singer who specialised in Provençal folksong. Yes, I could rent part of the house. I took an option for June and July, and promised to ring her once I had arrived in the south.

After a few days in Paris, I took the
TGV
to Arles. Miriam and I had been there the year before. One day, I escaped the blistering heat, taking refuge in the refreshingly cool and quiet old library in the centre of town. There, and nowhere else, would I spend the coming months transforming the documentation I'd dragged with me into a first version of the book.

Every morning, I walked from my hotel at the foot of the amphitheatre to the library on the main square. I worked. I observed my happiness from a distance. I looked forward to Miriam's arrival.

In mid-May, I took the train via Aix to Marseille, where Anneke came to fetch me by car. The blonde woman in the light-blue pantsuit was young. Ten years earlier, still a teenager, she had met her folk singer, twenty years her senior, at the Avignon Festival, where he was performing his Provençal songs. By now they had two young sons.

Their house, Villa Tagora, was situated in what was called the ‘green zone', but which, under the southern springtime sun, had already lost much of its colour, and looked dusty, almost arid. The grounds surrounding Villa Tagora were overgrown, with tunnels formed by intertwining
thornbush, like rolls of rusty barbed wire. But it also smelt vividly of lavender — a purple field full of white butterflies. The cicadas added to the silence just the sound that went with this heat. The two mouse-grey cats that stalked through the long grass would distract Miriam from the weeds. I paid Anneke the deposit for the apartment annex, which consisted of two rooms and a bathroom that also housed the fridge and gas cooker. June and July were guaranteed, but just to be on the safe side I took out an option for August as well.

At the end of May, I went to Paris to meet up with Miriam. Gare du Nord. She stepped out of the drab train wearing a summer dress I did not recognise. A surge of infatuation — so that's what studying your own happiness from a distance was good for. First to the hotel, then lunch on the steamy sidewalk of the Boulevard St. Germain, just outside the shadow of the awning.

Two days later, the
TGV
to Arles. At the beginning of June we settled into Villa Tagora. Blissful weeks largely spent in the shade of the neglected garden. Talking, thinking. Reading, writing. When the afternoons became too sultry, we would retire to the bedroom for some languid love-making, ending in a siesta. The blue bedsheets, apparently not very colourfast, became batiked by all the sour sweat we produced in that heat.

13

‘Penny for your thoughts,' Miriam said one of those afternoons, when I propped myself on one elbow in preparation to jack myself up to a vertical position.

‘Oh, nothing, just a little mind game. Tomorrow we'll probably lie here like this again. Enjoy the tingling while it lasts. But just imagine a world in which a person was only allowed to perform this … mating act, as they call it in the nature films … just once. No second chance. That one time, it would have to embody everything. Love, tenderness. A whole human life in one discharge … Because of its intensity, weaker specimens wouldn't stand a chance of survival. May I speak to the man of the house? No, I'm sorry, he can't come to the telephone. You see, it's like this … sir ejaculated yesterday, and is now confined to his bed for the next fortnight at least.'

‘Don't forget fertilisation,' said Miriam. ‘That's also got to be bang on that one time, otherwise the poor little species will die out in no time.'

I made a note of this mad notion, and then promptly forgot it. Coming across the sheet of paper later, I saw that the entire conversation had been summarised thus: ‘one-day world, one-day people.'

BOOK: Tonio
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