Peter Buwalda – Otmar’s Sons
What psychiatrists charge a pound of flesh to call a Vatersuche doesn’t apply to him; Dolf isn’t looking for anything and hasn’t lost anything either when a man suddenly sets foot in their flat on Gerestraat, a man whom, even though Dolf is already ten years old, he will be calling “Papa” within the year. The man’s name is Otmar Smit, he’s the conductor of his mother’s choir at the little music school in Blerick. A short, stocky figure who smokes Belindas in an ivory holder and has such broad feet that you could nail a pair of horseshoes to the bottoms of his chestnut-brown, woven leather slip-ons.
“Your feet are round, sir,” Dolf blurts out the next time Otmar shows up in their hastily vacuumed living room. The man replies that there is no need for Dolf to call him “sir”, and asks whether he knows that Willem van Hanegem and Luciano Pavarotti have round feet too. Then in a flash he reaches out and snags Dolf’s hand in his, glares at him like the god of thunder from beneath his bristly brows and says “squeeze, come on, squeeze it, hard”, whereupon Dolf starts squeezing the man’s dry palm, first with one hand, then with both. Otmar winks at Dolf’s mother, who is wearing her party best, and with the other hand tucked casually in his pocket asks whether, once her son is done squeezing, there is anything he can do to help in the kitchen, peel something, drain a pan of potatoes or something.
For what is probably the first time, Dolf feels what fatherliness means, although though he never uses words like that. Waxing and waning months they are in which Dolf’s senses are fuddled by the presence of this friendly, interested man with his red or green trousers and his posh fishbone jacket with suede patches at the elbows; Otmar’s jovial vitality, his forceful optimism, exude a force Dolf didn’t see coming. Until then he had been alone with his mother, a rather bleak and introverted start to a boy’s life, he realizes resignedly. Even without a father, without enough money to join a sports club, without camping holidays in France, he’s been content. He and his mother form a binity, as though somewhere in the seclusion of their flat, beneath the worn floor mats, or behind the wallpaper on which the felt-tip runes of his toddlerhood can be seen, an umbilical cord runs still.
At Klimop Elementary, his fatherlessness does not necessarily work against him. He uses it to cultivate fear among the bullies and repeaters in his class, they think the empty spot in his life has made him harder, and tougher. Some girls want to comfort him when they hear, behind his back, that his father lit out, skedaddled even before he was born. They invite him to their birthday parties as the only boy, where their mothers go all soft with an unspoken pity that he notices quite well and silently takes as his due.
But then comes Otmar Smit from Venlo. Whenever the man picks up Dolf’s mother for the new James Bond or a cabaret performance at the Maaspoort theater, he always brings him something, usually a model that’s dead on target, the right plane, the right scale, the right world war. One time he spends an entire Sunday afternoon in the flat, at the dining room table covered in newspaper, showing Dolf how to paint a Vickers biplane. The paint comes in charming mini-tins that Otmar buys at a shop in Venlo, the existence of which his mother is completely ignorant. They carry on grave conversations about which glue is the best, from a tube or from a tin, and about the planes themselves, whether the fixed machine gun on the straggly Vickers used a synchronization gear to fire through the arc of its propeller, whether the Sopwith Camel hanging from fishing line above Dolf’s desk was actually a bit maneuverable – issues that require a father, he realizes.
Without a doubt, his mother has had suitors before. The man who sells butter waffles on the market always cuts the top waffle in her bag in the form of a heart. The music teacher, a man with a glass eye, asks him to tell his mother he said hello. Stray fathers in the schoolyard joke with her, which surprises Dolf, because she’s not really all that friendly. But she is different from other mothers. For starters, she has a weird name, Ulrike Eulenpesch, “why are you people called Owl Piss,” a boy at school asks, and Dolf punches him immediately – but she also talks weird, like Prince Claus von Amsberg’s pretty little sister, Otmar says. From German mail-order companies she orders floral silk blouses and slacks with a waistband, with which she wears open shoes with gold straps, even when it rains. Sitting in the classroom, he sees her from the corner of his eye, walking into the schoolyard, she has an ash blond hairdo she keeps piled up with great clouds of hairspray. “Scheisse, how can the Elnett already be finished?!” she shouts from the bathroom, and that very same afternoon they take the bus to Venlo, across the Maas Bridge, and walk hand-in-hand down Vleesstraat to Nolens Square, to buy new bronze aerosols at Die 2 Brüder van Venlo, and coffee and cigarettes and hard buns while they’re at it; that’s what his mother likes, along with gold and “trained singing”. While she’s putting clean sheets on the beds, she sings German arias. “Your mother sang with the operetta in Wuppertal,” Otmar says whenever Dolf talks back to her, “so go a little easy on her.”
He does what he can. Even though, back when it was just the two of them, he had never thought of his mother in that way, as someone you had to go a little easy on; her character doesn’t lend itself to pity, she’s a woman who, when she’s sad, gets angry or else starts cleaning the house. The only other women who resemble her are the ones he sees in the Schwarzkopf shampoo commercials on German TV, but those women live in big houses and act cheerful all the time.
“When’s Otmar coming over again?” he asks when he gets tired of waiting. As soon as the gnome-like man shows up, Dolf drags him over the electric organ they got from Grandpa Ludwig, which Otmar calls a Steinway with earmuffs. He pulls out the headphone jack, cracks his knuckles, and then something impressive comes flowing from the dusty speaker at his feet, a rushing brook of notes that Dolf doesn’t think is so much pretty as it is good, or clever, however you put that. “Liszt, Ferenc. I could show you a Liszt of all the music jokes I know…but to be Franck, I don’t think you could Handel them,” Otmar says, or “Ludwig van Beethoven. You know why he had trouble finding a piano instructor? Because his teacher was Haydn…” Corny jokes, when he thinks back on it now, but they made his mother laugh, a tinkling laugh, which was a special event in itself. Because of Otmar he realizes that she actually used to be grouchy all the time, “don’t go making me griesgrämig, Junge”, she warns him, usually too late. But maybe “bitter” is a better word for it, like the black chocolate she flushes down the toilet, cursing, whenever she gets it as a gift from “people who want to make me all fat, Liebling”.
Dolf understands her chagrin somehow; what’s more, he suffers from the same thing. Playing at a friend’s after school, the house smelling of cauliflower and bratwurst, when a father comes up the garden path, he becomes imbued with a sadness bordering on rage, not so much out of jealousy, but because a man like that who puts down his briefcase and kisses his wife reminds him that somewhere there is someone walking around who is leaving him and his mother in the lurch. At their house, it’s Ulrike herself who comes home knackered at day’s end, aged years after a day in the florist’s greenhouse where “love’s destiny has sentenced me to hard labor, Liebling”, her T-shirt caked with necrotic fluid from the gerbera stalks she’s clipped all day in the tropical heat – “kriechender, they make your mother crawl down on her knees”. Often without so much as a hello kiss, she retreats to their shower cubicle with the curtain that’s so short she has to wring out a soaking-wet towel every time she’s done, and only comes out forty-five minutes later, redolent of Elnett, strikingly well-renovated, to sit down at the kitchen table with the change from her purse scattered around her like scrap metal and draw up a shopping list.
Around the flat on Gerestraat, his name is mud, the man Dolf never dares to ask about. A complicated taboo rests on his “begetter”, as his mother calls him. On the one hand she doesn’t want anyone to talk about him, on the other she talks about him constantly, a monopoly she imposes on a past Dolf doesn’t quite share. It’s always the same four or five stories she tells, incidents or character faults that make it clear that his “begetter” was an unpleasant person – “a big mistake your mother made, Junge”. A man who told Grandpa Ludwig he couldn’t communicate with him because he had no education; a man you could talk into being bedridden in five minutes, windows and curtains shut tight, thermometer under his tongue, just by saying that he looked a little peaked. Who, even though he was only an army conscript, had his pockets stuffed with cash and took her every week to the Chinese restaurant on Pepijnstraat, but when they dropped in to see his parents in Eindhoven once he’d told them he was strapped and let them force on him an envelope with two hundred guilders in it, which he then crowed about all the way home. Who had such smelly feet that Ulrike picked up the army socks he’d tossed around the flat with a plastic sandwich bag over her hand, which she then turned inside-out with a knot and hung over the edge of the laundry basket.
As a child, of course, it was that plastic sandwich bag that he found remarkable; now, at thirty-four, what strikes him is the relentless efficiency of Ulrike’s carpet-bombing, how she wrote off the man with a deadly cocktail of characterizations; imagine being begot by a cry-baby with no backbone or sense of honor, by a haute snob who turns and lights out on those smelly feet of his.
No wonder then that Dolf could identify so well with Alain, the boy from the trailer court who became his best friend in the last year at Klimop Elementary. They sat at the back of the class, off to one side, and were inseparable. They often collapsed in a fit of giggles, too often to Mr. Hendricks’ liking, but that ended immediately when Alain’s father got a surge of current through his body while doing temp work at Pope, the cable-works down by the tracks. Zap, more than four hundred volts right into his nervous system, his new friend told him one morning, equal to two wall plugs at once. Sirens screaming, they had taken his father to intensive care right away, and he would have to stay there for weeks.
This left Alan, who was scrawny and despite his black clogs fast as greased lightning, easily exhausted and in “need of help with some things”, as he himself put it, and Dolf agreed with him. He understood, he was pleased to do chores for his friend. “It’s because you don’t have a father,” Alain explained, “that you know how I feel and so we’re best friends.”
Even though Alain didn’t grow quickly, he had a moustache, or at least the shadow of one, which lent him great status in the class. He carried a stiletto too, and was a real cheeky-monkey: if he deemed it necessary, Dolf’s new friend would do a number on anyone, even the teachers. It was an honor to sit beside Alain, whose cousins were “known” to the police, which Dolf passed along to his mother as “acquaintances”, Ulrike agreeing that that meant they were “sort of like friends”.
Alain himself worked like a dog, he explained to him, around the house that is, and Dolf thought that was pretty special. Alain did all the grocery shopping, he said, and cooked the food because the situation meant his mother had taken a job cleaning classrooms. And so Dolf stopped walking to school, taking Ulrike’s old bike instead, because now he had to leave early and bike first in the other direction, out to Vossener, to pick up Alain at the trailer court, which was all the way past the swimming pool.
If Dolf ever got himself into hot water, his friend assured him – real hot water, he meant – then Alain’s cousins were there to back him up. Knowing that made Dolf feel good, in those early days. Maybe Alain and his cousins filled the unconscious vacuum he had begun to sense at home; on Geresstraat, no ever talked about chopped Mercedes sedans or the family’s honor, and his friend, who was a year and a half older than him (but, strangely enough, had no birthday) also gave Dolf more good advice in the course of a day than his mother did in a year.
After a couple of weeks, Alain expected Dolf to make sandwiches for him in the morning, so that he, as he explained, had enough time to prepare school lunches for his little sisters. Unfortunately, Dolf had only one lunchbox and you couldn’t go one smashing sandwiches into it endlessly, especially not if they were made with ginger snaps, which Alain soon required each day. “My mother doesn’t have the money for all those ginger snaps,” Dolf said, to which Alain replied that then he should complain about that; his mother, from the looks of her fur coat, had money aplenty.
“Hey listen,” Dolf said, “I don’t have a father either,” a reply that made his friend angry, really furious. “Either?” he screamed. “Either?! My father isn’t even dead, shitcake, your own father isn’t even dead yet – so what are you whining about? Your father could even come back someday, at least if your mother wasn’t such a slut.”
Alain kicked him hard in the balls, he was insulted, and all Dolf could do was fall onto his friend’s shoulders, his eyes watering. They rolled wrestling across the schoolyard, until Alain pulled his stiletto and laid it flat against Dolf’s throat – the same gypsy blade of his father’s that they had used during fall break, on the construction site out in Klingerberg, to seal their vow as blood brothers.
As Dolf, shaking and covered in abrasions, brought his friend home afterwards on the bike, Alain ordered him to hand over the Fokker triplane he had received for his birthday, to make things right again, he explained.
The memory of it makes Ludwig cough. He peers out the side window of the empty taxi, without taking in anything of the surroundings. He’s feeling melancholy – he’s had too much time to think about Blerick – but at the same time impatient. For a good ten minutes now he’s been sitting here, waiting for an American who’s also going to Yuzhno-Sahalinsk Airport. Jeesus, the guy is so slow. Ludwig sent the cabbie into the Sakhalin Energy office building to see what was taking him, but that was five minutes ago already. He tries not to let it irritate him. When he leans forward a bit, his chin resting between the backs of the driver’s and the passenger seat, he can see the clock on the front of a church, one of those Russian Orthodox things with a gilded onion-dome on the top. Almost four-thirty. Don’t be in such a rush, jerk. Two more minutes, he promises himself, and I’ll go looking for another taxi. I climb out and then I get in a different one.
In the meantime, he’s dreading the flight, he hates flying, a boarding pass is a reverse lottery scratch-off ticket. The absurd acceleration, the surreality of leaving the ground, the cracking and shivering – despite the hundreds of model planes he glued together as a boy, it scares him to death. And he has to fly so often. Shell, as though it were some subtly concocted punishment, sends him out across all the world’s continents and oceans, often in patched-up planes with a propeller here or there, or else in an imitation Soviet-Boeing. So just quit, those are the words with which Juliette regularly vents her compassion. On the rare occasions that they fly together, measly little distances to destinations they choose in order to freshen up their relationship, Corfu, Vienna, Prague too not so long ago, during takeoff and landing he squeezes the fine bones in her hand to mush. “So call in sick for once, why don’t you?” she said when he told her that the leg between Moscow and Yuzhno-Sakhalink was the world’s longest domestic flight. In fact, she simply can’t believe that he dares to fly without her, and so he must do it in the company of someone else – of a woman with whom he leads a double life.
Still, he has to admit that Juliette is right: for someone with flight phobia, he does have a weird job. Always those long, nerve-wracking trips for a couple of meetings, and that’s been going on for the last – he counts off on the fingers inside his mittens – five years; ever since 2008, he’s been visiting Shell underbosses in his role as traveling salesman in self-generated earthquakes, forcing his 4d-seismic surveys down their throats. The “4d”, as the people in his department back in Rijswijk call it, is a pricey technology used to measure oilfields with seismic shockwaves. I’m the company radiologist, he says at cocktail parties. Every once in a while, we need to take a few X-rays. You have to keep plugging away at it, but if you do you know exactly how much oil’s left, where the stuff is hiding, whether there have been any cave-ins. The operation is time-consuming, complicated, slow. It involves boats with mile-long pontoons that have dynamite-filled underwater cannons attached to them. The investments, admittedly, are fairly steep, count on fifty million, that’s the prospect he holds up to the local CEOs. He means eighty million.
He himself counts, of course, on unwillingness and skepticism, this would be the wrong job for anyone who expects a bunch of flowers and a thank-you card. The men whose job it is to fill the barrels hate his guts – especially here on Sakhalin. Everywhere he puts his foot in the door, whether it’s Norway, Brunei or the Gulf of Mexico, there are concomitant environmental problems, but Sakhalin is a story unto itself. Endangered baleen whales swim around the drilling platforms, the Western gray whale, an animal that mates precisely here in the Sea of Okhotsk, the very same square kilometers where Sakhalin Energy needs to be. That’s the way whales are: anti-fossil fuel, left-wing, militant. There’s still a total of seventy-eight of them left – “endangered” is putting things mildly, eradicated to the point of extinction is more like it. ngos with names like Friends of the Ocean and Sakhalin’s Black Tears litigate against every submarine fart Big Oil blows. And then along comes Ludwig Smit from Rijswijk, with his dynamite. Good afternoon, I’m here to blow up the nursery.
It looks like evening out there, so cloudy. He glances up at the church clock again; the two minutes are up – but he doesn’t act. He rarely does. In fact, he’s not suited for the work he does, he’s too hesitant, too worried about getting into an argument. He storms in like an elephant and tramples the yearly figures, an in-house pest, pissing around where he’s not wanted and mumbling “’’scuse me” before he even gets in the door. Ach, Junge, Ulrike would say, you inherited it from that man, he always ran away too as soon as the going got tough.”
For a long time, he didn’t know the name. She called the man “Aitch”, and so did he. A strange name, but strange names you can get used to, even when they belong to strange men. It took time for him to finally figure out that Aitch’s surname was “Tromp”, and that “Aitch” was his first initial. His mother meant the capital letter “H”, in the same way people speak of “C” to refer to cancer, she explained in the blunt way that sometimes made him wonder whether on the inside she in any way resembled her dolled-up exterior, which was chic and ladylike. Besides, that C for cancer, that was a euphemism – his mother’s H was anything but, it was a vindictive measure, all she was willing to invest in his begetter, whose name was simply Hans and with whom his mother had fallen in love during a sleety Carnival weekend in Venlo. There, on the street called the Parade, the man had been slipping and sliding around with a few of his army buddies, wearing his uniform for a costume, which made Dolf smile, but which his mother said was perfectly typical of Aitch’s laxness. They met for drinks a couple of times at the Paerdskoel, after which they kept up a serious relationship for the next eighteen months. Or at least, that’s what she’d thought. Soon after his mother discovered that she was already four months’ pregnant, Aitch was discharged from the Blerick barracks down by the Meuse and took off, out of her life as well.
“Die Platte putzen.”
Otmar: “Your mother means he scrammed.” It was a warm, windless Saturday afternoon on their balcony, Dolf slouched on Ulrike’s lap with his bare toes just touching the lukewarm concrete. Otmar had brought sausage rolls.
“I don’t know, Junge. Wasn’t up to it anymore, I figured then.”
“But you two were having a baby, right?”
“I was having a baby. Nicht er. Your begetter only inseminated me, then he lit out. No, that wasn’t so wonderful.”
“So didn’t he want to be a father?”
“Apparently not, no.” To Otmar: “That man always left before the gospel. That causes accidents.” A few days later, Dolf looked up “to leave before the gospel” in Otmar’s dictionary of proverbs and expressions; something about withdrawing prior to ejaculation – that made no sense to him either.
“But what did he do then?”
“He had a kurrikulare engagement” – that was all his mother knew. What it came down to was that Aitch, in order to complete his interrupted engineering study, went to do a work placement with the oil company, the nam, “ganz in Assen”, so the two turtledoves could see each other only at the weekend. The sudden start of the sudden ending, said Ulrike, who had counted off the weekdays, pregnant, in the flat on Geresstraat.
“And then?” he asked with his mouth full.
“Then nothing. After a while he stopped coming.” When she called Assen, Aitch didn’t answer the phone. “He just dropped us, like a hot potato, Liebling. You too, even though you were still in my belly.”
“Well, hold on,” Otmar soothed, winking at Dolf. Otmar had come by this afternoon specially for him, to celebrate the results of his placement test, or at least that was the idea; Dolf’s score was so miserable – there was, according to the results, not the slightest chance of him doing a college-prep program – that the gathering felt more like a funeral wake. His mother wasn’t disappointed, she was angry, she said that this way he would never go to medical school. “I never expected,” she said, “that you’d turn out to be an underachiever.”
What he simply didn’t tell them was that Alain’s father was facing a major operation. His heart kept failing almost all the time, every beat counted, Alain had explained. His father had been lying flat-out in the trailer for months already. The electricity had chewed holes in his heart, he said, you could light a Christmas tree for a whole week with all the current that had crackled through it. It was leaking blood and air, so that Alain had been almost unable to prepare for the placement test, as he was sure Dolf could imagine. That’s why the two of them had to go to vocational school together; it would be ridiculous to let some prep school ruin their blood-tie.
Dolf agreed, although he also wouldn’t have minded being freed at a single swoop from his best friend, at some school far away in Venlo, for example, without a vocational branch – but during the placement test Alain had kept nudging him, poking him in the shoulder and slapping the back of his head, winking at him placatingly, baring his nubbly teeth in a grin, so that Dolf, in order not to annoy his friend, had simply made a mess of it.
“Now you come along with me,” Otmar said. His mother put a dish of reheated sausage rolls on the table. From the plastic bag he’d brought with him, Otmar produced a gift-wrapped box – the paper was from Geerlings, Dolf saw right away. The weirdest thought flashed through his mind. If only it’s not a model, he thought.
It was a model though, a really good one in fact, the right scale and the right world war, of course, but what’s more, the very best plane Dolf could have hoped for, a Sopwith Baby, you could only get them in England; for as long as he’s known Otmar, they’ve been talking about it. It was a seaplane, a double-decker with big pontoons on the landing gear, so the pilots could land on water. Twenty-eight kilos of bombs. It looked like a vulture wearing mukluks.
“What are you crying for?” Otmar asked.
“Don’t you like it, buddy? Open it up, we’ll build it together, the two of us. I’m ready to go!”
“Tomorrow,” he sobbed.
“Tomorrow,” Otmar said, winking at Ulrike. “Tomorrow…” He took his cigarette holder out of his mouth. “All right. What time do we meet up?”
Dolf looked at the edge of the table hiding his bare feet, he tried not to cry but his shoulders heaved.
“Or will this one,” Otmar said, “also be gone tomorrow, like the last two?” Dolf’s shoulder shook uncontrollably, and the man laid his hand on it, rubbed it.
“Scallywag,” he said.
Translated by Sam Garrett