Martijn Simons – Heidelberg
GERMAN EIFEL, SPRING 2001
He knew all the narrow paths in this neck of the woods, every hazardous stone and protruding root. He knew where to push it and where to let the mountain bike roll, where you had to pedal for your life and where it came down to steering skill – and guts. He knew the feel of spattering mud in the corner of your eye and on your lips, the taste, like iron, but he could just as effortlessly summon up the feeling of making a mistake and being launched over the handlebars, briefly weightless, before smashing into the hard earth.
Once he had broken his collarbone that way. A couple of years back, aged thirteen. It had already been twilight when he went out on his own, but he’d needed to get out of that cabin. Not that there was really anything wrong, he just felt that way sometimes. The need to leave everything and everyone behind now, now. So he grabbed his bike from under the eaves at the side of the house. Helmet clipped on. In a low gear he pedalled out of the yard, turned right, about a hundred metres on the tarmac then right again, into the woods. He could start an ascent almost straight away. He couldn’t see the path well. With his glasses on, it looked like it was virtually night, but it had rained that afternoon and the ground was really soggy in places, so he kept them on. He felt the mud spatters like tiny needles against his calves. At the top of the hill he held still a moment, wiped his glasses clean on the inside of his shirt, took a sip of water from his drinking bottle. He felt calmer than when he’d set off. It helped. Cycling helped, although he wasn’t exactly sure what with. And on he went. A stretch of false flat, lots of bends, awkward terrain. Then a longer stretch, properly downhill, he shook each leg out one by one, in a moment he’d need to climb some more, but not yet. Nice bends, not sharp, you could pedal along if you wanted, but you could also freewheel. You didn’t even need to pay attention. And then he was flying through the air. He could still recall the moment when his front wheel hit the sharp stone. The denting of the tyre, the forward energy of the mountain bike with nowhere to go, he himself flying through the air, like a ragdoll. And the landing. He broke his fall with his shoulder, feeling the pain immediately. In the hospital they said they couldn’t put a collarbone in plaster. As if he didn’t know that. He was given a blue sling and a prescription for painkillers. In the car on the way back his father taught him the Latin for collarbone: clavicula. A word that sounded like an adventure in a distant foreign country.
Sometimes, even years later, when he lay in bed, he tried to replay the accident in his head. Not to do it differently, or to avoid the stone, but to experience that wonderful feeling of sudden weightlessness over again.
How long had they been coming to the area? At least ten years. Cas could still remember the first time they’d spent a holiday at the cabin. Ruben was just a baby. He and Micha had slept in the bunk bed on the ground floor. In the evenings they could hear their parents talking on the other side of the wooden partitioning wall, onto which a faded poster of Cologne Cathedral was fastened with drawing pins. Ruben slept in a travel cot in another room, upstairs, with their father and mother. When they woke in the mornings and the house was still quiet, he and Micha crept on their socks over the tiles to the kitchen to pick sweets out of the tin and eat them in bed. He always dived under the cover. Right above their head people were still sleeping and he thought they might hear their chomping.
The cabin was a 1.5-storey log hut with an open fire. It was hidden away in the woods off an untarmacked track, a side lane off a side lane off the main road between Gerolstein and Büdesheim. They never went to Büdesheim, but he knew the roadmap, which he always had on his lap when sitting in the back of the car until a couple of years ago. A brainwave of his father’s, to stop him asking every few miles where they were and how long until they got there. He had a map, a compass and one of those little wheels with numbers and the ANWB automobile association logo on it so you could work out the distance on the map by following the roads as precisely as possible. The first stretch, from Woerden to the border, it was a piece of cake, as that was simply a straight line southeast. But once in Germany his parents often liked to leave the motorway and drive through the thick forests. They would play The Beatles and ABBA and his mother would sing along while handing out Fruitellas and liquorice to those on the back seat without turning to look at them.
Cas always sat in the back on the left, behind the driver. That way he could look over their shoulder and keep an eye on the car’s speed. Beside him sat Ruben, who didn’t hear anything because he had his headphones on and was playing Zelda or Donkey Kong on his Game Boy. The second Ruben’s knee touched Cas’s, he was given a shove.
On the other side of Ruben sat Micha, staring out of the window. Micha never did anything in the car, he didn’t read comic strips or do word searches, he just stared out the window. Sometimes it seemed to Cas as if he were completely absent, he was so quiet.
They went there every year. He had no idea why they went to the Eifel in particular, it seemed a fairly random choice, which it probably was. The May holiday was the perfect time for the Eifel. Right temperature, everything in bloom and still quiet in the woods. All you had to do was stay still long enough without making a noise and once in a while you’d catch sight of a deer between the trees and sooner or later you’d be sure to hear a woodpecker hammering away at a tree trunk.
He was now sixteen and this was to be his last time with them at the cabin. He’d grown out of it, was already in the fifth year at school and it was time he made his own plans. Last summer friends of his had already been allowed to go to Croatia or Crete for a week. And him? After lengthy negotiations he’d managed to swing a Teen Tour train pass this year – three days by rail around the Netherlands, three days. With two friends. They didn’t have a plan yet, it was another couple of months away, but they had their parents’ consent. In exchange, he was going with them to the Eifel one last time. One last time barbecuing in the garden, playing rounds of Rummikub with Ruben, who couldn’t face losing him, like his father in fact. One last time swimming in the lake, the cold water and the slippery pebbles on the bottom. One last time hiring mountain bikes at the shop behind the station. He and Micha and Ruben next to each other on the wooden bench in a corner of the shop, while the owner set their saddles and handlebars to the right height. Then a test round of the car park – always the same stretch. Their father standing a little way away, next to the station, looking at… at the station, at the tracks and a train rolling in from Cologne or Trier. The satisfied look on his father’s face when he had seen something that pleased him, even if he’d probably seen it a hundred times before. Then cycling home, his father in the car some distance behind, like a kind of team leader. The rest of the week was on a farewell tour. One last week hurtling along the forest paths.
Cas skidded to a halt. Micha was riding right behind him and had to swerve to avoid crashing into him, a manoeuvre that he nimbly accomplished. Over his shoulder Cas saw that Ruben had only just started the ascent. That was no good, a couple of kicks of the pedals and you were up, but for a ten-year-old it was apparently quite a task. He’d have preferred it if Ruben had gone with their parents, but the little one particularly wanted to join his brothers. ‘As long as there’s no whining,’ Micha had snarled at him, his face close to Ruben’s.
It was warm, he was sweating under his helmet. Cas swung his leg over his saddle and planted his mountain bike against a pine tree. He looked at Micha, who followed his example and sat down on the ground.
‘How much time do we have left?’ asked Micha.
‘Enough,’ said Cas. He shook off his Eastpak rucksack and sat down on the verge beside the path.
In the distance they saw Ruben toiling in the dry earth. His helmet was loose, so that it kept dropping over his forehead and he kept having to take his hand off the handlebar to push it back into place.
‘What a loser,’ said Micha. Cas spat on the ground.
‘You guys have to wait for me,’ Ruben complained when he was finally up. He was panting a little. Cas wondered how far they could go before they saw the first tears.
‘You have to push on through,’ said Micha.
‘You were the one who so wanted to come with us,’ said Cas. ‘Then you have to be able to take it and not keep on whining the whole time.’
‘I’m not. Really I’m not.’
‘I told you it wasn’t for little children.’ Micha looked at him.
‘Maybe we’d better leave him here.’ Cas turned to Ruben. ‘Why don’t we leave you here, and pick you up in a bit. There’s still water in your drinking bottle, right? It’s not like you’ll die.’
‘No.’ Ruben began to moan. ‘No, Cas, don’t be stupid, I want to come too.’
‘Then don’t act like a baby. And sort your helmet out. It looks ridiculous.’
Ruben looked at the tips of his shoes, as if he were wondering about something. There was a smear of mud on his left cheek, just slightly darker than the freckles around his nose. Then he began to fiddle with the clasp of his helmet. ‘Why are we stopping here anyway?’
‘Could you help me out here, Micha? How long have you been working at Leopold now?’
The headmaster was a tall man with a fixed smile on his thin lips, which made his entire face look like it was under tension, as if the skin were drawn back by invisible elastic bands. A friendly but humourless face. The kind of director who does well with the trustees, Micha had always assumed when he heard the man give a speech at the beginning of the school year or during the Christmas party. Not a great writer or orator. More one for meetings. Always in an ironed shirt and clean shoes. He came from the Zeeland islands, he’d once heard him mention. He’d never say no to a drinks invitation, but always left on time. Didn’t smoke, never had done. Never drank excessively – the very thought. Always welcomed new initiatives at school, but seldom initiated anything himself. His aim was self-preservation.
Micha examined the man opposite him and it occurred to him that he would probably never have come across a character like that outside school and would certainly never have got into conversation with one – another advantage of this job. Colleagues. Who knew when his observations of this man would come in handy? Since he had read in his twenties in Philip Roth’s work that anything could be material, no that ‘everything is material’, he had more or less embraced that quote as his motto and would beat himself over the head with it when he felt his resolve weakening. A writer’s resolve couldn’t be allowed to weaken. A writer was always at work. And this one too. Even during the three days a week in which he earned his writing time by standing in front of the class.
‘Three years, four?’ The headmaster folded his hands together, leaned forward and rested them on the desk, where a box of tissues lay beside his screen. He bent forward slightly. ‘Micha?’
He could tell the man was attempting to catch his eye, but he looked past him, through the window, at the sycamore behind him in the schoolyard. The school building was a former seminary that had ceased operations in the 1950s. Or rather, it had been converted. Into Leopold School. That tree had stood there in those days too, of course, the embodiment of arrogant life force.
‘Two years,’ he said. He grabbed a mug of coffee from the table and took a sip. Then he looked at his boss again.
‘And before that?’
‘Five years or so in Amsterdam. Also at a grammar school. I guess you could say it’s kind of what I do.’
‘And writing, of course.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And writing.’
‘Is that going smoothly?’
‘Ach.’ Micha tried to come across as nonchalant. ‘Some days are better than others. Same as with any work.’ What was this, a repeat of his job application?
He still remembered one of his future colleagues asking what he’d do if his new book became ‘a bestseller’, whether he would resign. He’d pontificated about the perfect balance between solitary writing and dynamic teaching, being in the midst of society, the value of a Dutch literature teacher, the chance to really get children into reading. So no, at most he might reduce his hours, he’d bleated cheerfully. Resigning wouldn’t be on the cards. But who was he kidding? Let’s be honest, he’d be out of there as soon as he could. Except, he’d always thought he’d want to leave on his own terms.
‘And if I’m not mistaken …’ The headmaster leant back a little again, rubbing his forearm with his hand. ‘… didn’t you move here after your divorce?’
The image of Rosalie Winterson loomed – in his classroom, either slumped over or overly alert, teasingly challenging, or parading through the corridor with the arrogant gaze of a mannequin, clop-clop she paced the tiles, everyone had to know she and her followers were approaching. How many times had Rosalie walked past the sycamore? And how many times had she actually seen that tree? Really seen it. Slowed her pace a moment, or even stood still to raise her head, look up and glimpse a bit of the sky between the rustling branches. Was it odd that he was reminded of his own secondary school days? Of the endless afternoons he’d spent on benches, smoking pot, staring into the distance, at water, grass, trees? Cycling home so slowly he almost fell over – the taste of a vanilla milkshake from the cafeteria? He could recall those things in an instant. Those were the associations that occurred to him, that’s how his head worked. A sunbeam through a canopy of leaves and he was no longer sitting in the headmaster’s office, but in his childhood bedroom, sixteen years old, stoned, a brother in each of the other bedrooms and a mother downstairs to take out all your frustrations on.
‘Let’s stick to business,’ Micha replied, immediately realising how ridiculous that sounded coming out of his mouth. On the other hand, he had nothing more to lose. There were at least thirty witnesses, and even if there weren’t, that kid was the living proof of his so-called misdemeanour. Micha’s signature was written on his face. He had to tell ‘his side of the story’, even if really there was only one side of this story: the ugly side. However he worded it, it remained ugly.
‘Business,’ the headmaster nodded. ‘Right. In that case…’ The headmaster attempted to thin down his smile still further. ‘Then tell me precisely what happened on the bus yesterday. For heaven’s sake! The craziest stories are flying around.’ He bent forward again and raised his index finger. ‘Micha, boy, I want to hear it from you.’
Translation by Anna Asbury