Bart Chabot – Daddy’s Hand
Spring came early that year; so early that spring itself could barely keep up. I was on my way back from meeting an old friend, walking to my car, which I had parked at the end of the afternoon in front of the Peace Palace. The streets fit me like the fingers on a glove.
Across from the French embassy, I saw a moped coming towards me. The kind of moped I knew from my younger years: not a Puch with chopper handlebars, like the one I’d owned myself for a spell, but a low-rider: a Kreidler, Zündapp or Berini.
The mopedist looked at me: that is to say, the helmet turned in my direction. Then the driver laid off the gas, braked and pulled up to the curb. A Kreidler.
The helmet came off and I saw that the driver was a woman.
“Bart?” she said. “Are you Bart Chabot?”
She was wearing white sneakers. Beneath her leather jacket she had on a pair of white trousers. Was she some kind of nurse, Florence Nightingale in the flesh?
She put the moped up on its stand. This was going to take a while.
“Sorry for bothering you,” she said.
I said it was no problem, I was used to being approached by complete strangers. What could I do for her?
“You know,” she said. “It’s none of my business, and I’m not supposed to get involved, it has nothing to do with me…”
“But?” I said.
“I just came from your father.”
It was getting close to nine; there was almost no traffic, except for a city bus that drove by, virtually empty.
“I just bathed him, your father, and put him in bed.”
“That’s lovely,” I said. “I appreciate it very much, ma’am…”
“My name’s Nicolette.” She held out her hand.
“…you taking care of my father,” I said, shaking her hand.
How long had it been, I asked myself, since I’d seen my father or talked to him? Twenty years? Twenty-two?
The same went for my mother. I hadn’t been in contact with my parents for at least twenty years. You’d almost think something had gone wrong between us.
“I understand,” Nicolette said, “that you don’t feel like talking to them anymore, either of them. You must have a good reason for that, I don’t doubt that, but…”
From high above the rooftops came a familiar cawing that I hadn’t heard all winter: the seagulls had returned.
“How is he doing?” I asked.
“Badly,” Nicolette said. “To be perfectly frank. Very badly. Your father is senile, so senile that he’s been admitted to the locked ward at the nursing home. Didn’t you know that? Oh, I feel so bad for him. He’s not as far gone as the others. Your father insists on dressing neatly when he’s in his chair… even though, all around him… He’s surrounded by old people who can’t control their bowels, while your father… When we dress him in the morning, he always wants to wear a suitcoat, and a cravat. He doesn’t care about the necktie anymore, but… Decorum. He just sits there all day in his Sunday best, while beside him and all around him…”
It didn’t take much imagination to see my father sitting in his wheelchair, listing to one side, with decay and decline raging all around him.
“He talks about you often, all the time. You have a sister too, right? Every time, he starts in about you. ‘I have a son, Bart..’
‘Yes, we know, Mr. Chabot, you told us that.’
‘We know all about it, Mr. Chabot, about your son. We’ve heard that. But right now we’re here to give you a bath.’”
The sky over the rooftops looked bluer than blue; wrap it and you could put it up for sale, as is.
“Then he pulls out his wallet, the poor man. He keeps two clippings in there, both of them about you. He unfolds them and reads them aloud to us, he’s been doing that for years. That’s no problem, really; we just get on with our work while he’s reading. We don’t even hear it anymore.
“He’s pulled out those clipping and folded them back up again so often, they’re almost falling apart.”
Nicolette looked at the helmet she was holding, and at the moped.
“Your mother tells me you’re not in contact anymore. Listen, I don’t know what happened between you: like I said, I’m sure you’ve got your reasons, but… It’s so pitiful, the way he sits there like that. If you ask me, he doesn’t have a whole lot longer to live. Think about it. You’d be doing him such a favor if you came by. It would do him so much good to see you again, you have no idea. That’s all I wanted to say.”
I thanked her for everything and said again that I really appreciated all she was doing for my father.
Nicolette zipped up her leather jacket and lifted her helmet.
“Well, all the best. We’ll see. Nice talking to you.”
She started the Kreidler and rode off, down Laan van Meerdervoort.
Maybe, I mused as I walked on, I should let bygones be bygones and go to visit him. A feud could continue to the grave, but it didn’t have to be fought out into or even past that. Besides, the nursing home was just around the corner from my house, within walking distance. The distance wouldn’t be the problem.
All right, I told myself, I’ll go visit him one of these days, Nicolette could count on that, then we’d see how it went.
But before I covered that distance, I had to finish my new book. The deadline was looming. No matter what, that book just had to be finished. After that, I’d have more time on my hands.
First the book. Then my father. That was the order I’d do it in; not the other way around.
When I climbed in, it was as though the car sensed there was something going on. I didn’t have to pull the door shut; it closed almost by itself.
I thought about my father, who had worked his way up from nothing to the position of consul, in Vancouver and Chicago, something he was very proud of; and I thought about how he was wiling away his days right now. I thought about him longer than I had for years; so long that it grew dark before I realized it. I had to head back home, before someone in the family called to find out where I was hanging out.
I started the car and was about to pull away from the curb.
No lights were on behind the windows of the Peace Palace.
“It’s okay, Bril,” I told our dog, who – old and gray – only left his kennel to eat or be let out, but who was staring at me now. Was there something wrong with Master?
I was home alone, and looked up again from the newspaper spread out in front of me on the kitchen table. What did this dog want from me, anyway? I’d made myself clear enough, hadn’t I?
“It’s okay, Bril,” I said again. Bril sighed and laid his head on his front paws, but kept staring at me, there was no fooling him. We understood each other perfectly, the dog and me.
That I was reading the personals was pure coincidence: rarely if ever did I turn to the obituaries. Once you started reading those you were on the wrong side of the borderline.
Well, coincidence… Why was I reading these announcements anyway?
One of our sons, Maurits, had a classmate, Philip, a boy from our neighborhood. Philip’s mother and I often used to walk our children home from school together; until Odille had to turn right and I went left. After high school too, our kids kept in touch, so we knew that Philip was going to university in Groningen.
Great was our shock when Maurits came back from the playing fields on a Sunday afternoon. “Have you heard already?”
No, Yolanda and I said, what would we have heard about?
“Philip came back from vacation yesterday with a bunch of guys from the club. When they got to The Hague, his friends wanted to go on to Groningen. Philip was tired from the long drive and went to bed. He was going to follow them today, by train.”
“But something stopped him,” I said.
“That’s putting it mildly, Dad,” Maurits said. “Yesterday, around five, Odille went to the bottom of the stairs to call him down for a drink. He didn’t answer. She goes upstairs, knocks on his door, no answer, she goes in. He was lying there asleep, she thought. If only that had been true. Odille went over to him… She didn’t panic, she used to be a nurse, but she called the ambulance right away. They got there fast, and so did the police. Too late. Philip died in his sleep. They’re still trying to figure out what caused it.”
The kitchen fell quiet. He and Philip weren’t just classmates, they’d been on the same soccer team for years.
“I’m going upstairs,” Maurits said, “to my room. Oh, before I forget… the funeral’s on Saturday.”
We listened to Maurits’ foosteps moving slowly up the stairs.
“It’s five-thirty,” I said. “What would you like to drink?”
Philip’s death announcement came in the mail that morning: the card was leaning against the peppermill on the kitchen table, and I read what I already knew and put it back carefully so it wouldn’t slip away.
Would Odille and Ruud place an obituary for their son? Not unlikely. In the NRC , it seemed to me: Ruud was a successful businessman. And when would the obituary be run: yesterday, today, tomorrow?
I put aside De Volkskrant, picked up NRC, opened it and flipped through to the obituary columns.
The first three were about Philip’s untimely death. I read the texts, also the ones from his roommates and the fraternity Philip had belonged to, and I read them again. My hand was moving to turn the page when my eyes glanced off the top of the page. “Chabot,” I read, and “Gé,” with the relevant dates underneath. It didn’t take me long to figure out who this was about.
My father was dead.
It was because of Philip’s death that I found about it. That was nice of Philip, but he could have saved himself the trouble.
My father, when he was alive and well, had been awarded the “Order of Merit of the Italian Republic”, I read. And: “Officer in the Order of the Oak Crown” in Luxemburg. That was news to me. Never knew my father had anything to do with Italy or Luxemburg, or they with him. And what was Luxemburg’s Order of the Oak Crown all about? It was almost enough to make a body curious.
Bril was snoring: until Yolanda and the kids came home, I had only myself to turn to.
I had lost a lot of friends, friends dearer to me than my father; but still, it was my father. I felt like getting up to make coffee or, better yet, to pour myself a glass of wine, but I couldn’t get away from my chair, it stuck to me and wouldn’t let go.
I stared at the paper without reading the ad, and then at the garden and the houses across the way. There was laundry hanging from one of the balconies there, flapping in the wind. They would bring it back inside before dark.
National Geographic, which he’d given me a subscription to when he was still living in Chicago, still came in the mail even two decades later: the final thread that bound us. I appreciated his gesture: the magazine itself I always passed right along to our four sons, who were pleased to clip photos out of it for their essays at school. My father and I may have had irreconcilable differences, but he did not cut the umbilical a second time.
So it hadn’t happened, going to see him, and it wasn’t going to happen anymore either. That chance was gone.
I felt no rage at what he had once done to me: the past was too far past for that. What had happened, happened: nothing could be undone or erased.
Otherwise, no special feelings came up.
When my father died, I hadn’t finished my book yet. That novel would appear only months later.
Six months after he died, National Geographic stopped coming in the mail, with no explanation; as though the magazine had been disbanded from one day to the next. To my surprise, the boys never asked about it.
I didn’t miss the magazine, just as I had never missed my father for a moment.
One night I put all the back volumes in boxes out on the curb, where they were taken away the next morning by a vehicle from the department of sanitation.
Right before my father was to come home from the office and we would sit down to dinner, I ran away from home. Not that I had any idea what to do or where to go. I was nine and hoped that some sort of solution would reveal itself all by itself. Anything was better than home. I crossed Theresiastraat and a little further along went left down Koningin Marialaan.
When I rounded the corner onto Bezuidenhoutseweg, I saw my father coming towards me. I didn’t know where to turn.
My father’s appearance and, coming closer, the look in his eye frightened me so badly that I stood nailed to the ground. Would he take me apart limb by limb right here on the spot, leaving the sidewalk covered in torn-off arms and legs? I figured he was up to it. The risk of being caught in the act by someone looking out a window was the only thing that could keep him from tearing me to pieces.
“And now you come with me, you,” he hissed. “We’ll talk about this when we get home.”
At home I was sent to my room right away, without dinner.
“I’ll come up in a bit,” my father said. “So we can have our little talk.”
My sister stared straight ahead to keep from being distracted in any way, at a neutral spot on the wall, and at the Siemens radio console that she’s never paid much attention to before; she could more or less guess the consequences of my aborted breakout.
My bedroom door flew open and my father stepped in. I did not piss in my pants. If you turned off your brains as much as possible, the circuits and the wiring, almost nothing could touch you.
“Have I made myself sufficiently clear?” my father said when he was finished with me. “Or do I have to be even clearer with you, to make sure it gets through that thick skull of yours? I’d be pleased to, you know. Wouldn’t want you to be left with any further questions. It’s up to you.”
He was just about to close the bedroom door behind him, when he reconsidered and turned around.
“Do you think you can still sit?” he said “Yeah? Too bad.”
That night I crept out of bed, so as not to wake my sister, and went to look at the night sky. The stars were not far away, they were actually close by, and much realer than a lot of what happened and went on around me.
I would do that more often, climb out of bed at night and look at the stars.
Sometimes they came so close that, if you opened the window, you could reach out and touch them. But I had the feeling the stars weren’t waiting around to be touched by me, to be sullied by my fingers.
After a few weeks the stars had become not so much neighbors as friends, and I believed they felt the same way too. You could reckon on them blindly. As long as a cloudy sky didn’t throw a wrench in the works, they came to light each night and took all the time in the world for you.
After I ran away from home, my father stopped calling me by my first name, simply referring to me as “ignoramus”, “numbskull” and “total imbecile”, or merely pointing at me and saying: “That, there”; as though in fact I wasn’t there at all.
I didn’t belong in the company of humans. I wished that I could dig a deep tunnel under the ground, like the Vietcong, that the American troops would never find.
But I was not a member of the Vietcong.
“Oh,” I heard my sister say to a girlfriend on the phone one afternoon, when our parents were on fall vacation and had dropped us with our grandmother in Scheveningen, “I hope they die in a crash. I lie awake at night and pray that their VW will fly out of a curve, right into a tree. Then I’d finally be rid of them. ‘Dear God,’ I pray, ‘make it happen, a fatal accident, please, please, please.”
So it wasn’t just me.
“Gé,” my mother said to my father one Sunday afternoon, “isn’t it about time you taught the boy to ride a bike? It’s quiet outside now, during the week you come home from work and you’re tired, you keep putting it off. His bike’s been in the shed for I don’t know how long, but ride it himself, not a chance. What a waste: you know how much that bike cost. Can I leave that up to you, to teach him how? Then I’ll go do something about the laundry.”
The bike had been my birthday present, back in September, but that was months ago. Winter had always been the wrong time to learn. “No,” my father said whenever my mother started in about it, “it’s too cold for the boy.” But now spring was on its way.
Reluctantly, my father put aside the newspaper and rose up out of his Sunday easy chair.
“Move it, you,” he commanded.
I followed him into the hall excitedly. It was finally going to happen: I was going to learn to ride a bike. Later, once I knew how, I could cycle all over the city, with no help from anyone, and I could go everywhere, to anywhere-my-heart-desired. Babe in Dreamland that I was. Everything was a struggle, so learning how to ride was too.
We went out back, to the shed, and pulled out our bikes. Mine glistened even more sparklingly than I remembered from the morning I got it.
“Both hands on the handlebars,” my father said, “and climb on.” He was already seated. Copying him, I swung my right leg over the crossbar. But the cranks were in the wrong place, my right foot shot off the pedal and my left foot left the ground, a moment of imbalance, then I fell over on one side, bike and all. It made a smack, but not loud enough for my mother to suspect anything was wrong and come out onto the back balcony. My father mumbled something I couldn’t hear and got off his bike to help me up. It took me a while to make it clear that the cranks needed adjusting. Or that the saddle needed to be lowered. He opened the door of the shed again with a sigh and went looking for a pair of pliers and a screwdriver. There went his free Sunday afternoon. And we didn’t have all that much time left for My First Bike Lesson: Mass at the church on Bezuidenhoutseweg started at five, and my mother insisted that we eat dinner beforehand, otherwise her “evening was shot”, and it was her free Sunday too, after all.
We didn’t get far: no farther than Eerste van den Boschstraat. Cycling was one thing, but braking and coming to a halt was another. I didn’t have that technique down pat, and for the second time I went crashing to the ground. My father peered around embarrassedly – had any of the neighbors seen the luckless fall? – as though he were the one who had crashed his bike.
“That was fast, you two,” my mother said. “So, how did it go?”
“A complete mess,” my father said. “He just couldn’t do it.” He shook his head at so much idiocy. “What else would you expect?” he added, more to himself than to my mother.
“You were gone for less than hour, Gé,” my mother said. “Are you sure you gave it enough of a chance?”
“Teach him to ride a bike? A complete waste of time. He’s too dumb, even for that.”
My mother said nothing; the afternoon was going swimmingly.
“He can’t do a damn thing, the jerk,” I heard my father bluster. “That kid is nothing but trouble. It’s enough to make anybody fly off the handle. He’s a complete waste.”
Without deigning to glance at me, he walked back to the living room. He could get along without my presence for a while.
My mother looked at me as though she’d given up on believing in me anymore.
“How do you do it?” she said. “Is it really that difficult? Couldn’t you try just once not to ruin everything? Well you’ve done it again this time, you’ve got your father livid. Is it really too much for you to do something normal for once, is it too much to ask to even just go for a little ride on the bike? What am I supposed to do with you, for god sake? “
In my mind, I gave myself a guilty look. To be honest, I had no idea what they were supposed to do with me. Go on like this for a bit and the whole Sunday afternoon was blasted to high heaven. Better to make myself invisible, by going to my room.
“You know what, Gé?” my mother shouted from the kitchen. “Why don’t you pour me a glass of sherry?”
“You?” said my father after yet another run-in. “The place where they bury you when you die, the grass will never grow there again.”
That wasn’t all my father wanted to get off his chest.
“Your mother and I still regret the day you were born, you know that?”
He looked at me in disgust, as though I were some unrecognizable thing they’d dredged up out of a nearby ditch and that he was supposed to identify, but that had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with him.
“We never should have brought you into the world, your mother and I. I just wish I could wipe it out, your birth. I wish I could turn back the clock.”
It was as though, years and years later, the hell of the English bombardment was still smoldering in the house.
I was starting to feel cold, very cold.
Translated by Sam Garrett