Peter Terrin – Patricia
I closed the front door behind me. Exactly as I always do, with a sharp little tug to make sure. I walked down the path at a measured pace and unlocked the car from the usual distance. If the neighbours’ son was in his room across the street, nothing would strike him as odd. Everything sounded as it otherwise sounded. I started the car, fastened my seat belt and drove off.
It was a late afternoon, white clouds against a blue sky. The long street curved gently past the suburban villas, at the crossroads the traffic lights were green. I changed gear and accelerated, the road ahead was clear. It was as if the lights had waited, stayed green that little bit longer, held the gate open for me. They had seen what had happened and they were on my side.
I dared not look at the houses, avoided the gaze of people on the pavement. I kept to the speed limit, keen not to be caught on camera. Two junctions gave me right of way, then a red light loomed. My chest tightened at the thought of having to stop, but as the lights came closer I spotted a green arrow pointing left. I heard the tick of my indicator and the car eased round the bend as if of its own accord, though I knew the neighbourhood I was entering. A part of town shunned by everyone in our circle of friends, close by and yet practically another country.
The streets narrowed, grew busier. What I saw chimed with the image that occurred to me when David, at the end of another dinner party, poured the brandy and the men settled back in their chairs to bemoan a city that was going to the dogs. The shops with their clutter spilling onto the pavement. The decaying frontage of the nineteenth-century houses, rusted balustrades, rotting doors. The grime. The pent-up aggression. All I had to do was keep driving and I would wind up somewhere else; this neighbourhood did not go on forever. What came next? I pictured the map of the city, homed in on its western fringes. The motorways, they came next, the abandoned district dwarfed by viaducts, where not so long ago I had organised an event in an empty furniture store. There or thereabouts I could find my way onto the ring road, then take the motorway heading west. Alone in my car, I nodded. Hit the motorway and there would be nothing to hold me back.
I swiftly negotiated the obstacles in my path – dawdling figures dressed in robes, vans with back doors flung wide, cars double-parked. Half a mile on I recognised the broad sweep of the furniture store’s windows, displaying nothing, merely reflecting. I recalled the canapés the hostess had selected for the reception, seven types in all, the espuma of smoked trout had been a resounding success. I turned onto a slip road. The commuters leaving town at the end of the working day were in a hurry, seemed jittery, braked late, but by some miracle the traffic continued to flow. At the first sign for a service station on the westbound lane I relaxed. I felt my weight sink into the seat and I breathed deeply in and out. A second sign came and went. I’ve gone mad, I thought. I slowed down, took the next exit and came to a halt by the roadside, behind a truck with a Bulgarian number plate. I was exhausted. As if I had run all the way to this place.
I stared at the colourful tarpaulin stretched across the back of the trailer. A young woman smiled down at me, barely twenty, braless in a snow-white top. A basket of carrots, leeks and tomatoes hung from her arm, in her other hand she held a cucumber. David detested cucumber. An aversion he stated every chance he got. It seemed to be a point of pride with him. His voice in my head. I am a man who eats everything. There is nothing I won’t eat. Except cucumber. Whenever I eat cucumber, I become ill. And he would smile and give an exaggerated shrug, at a loss to explain this phenomenon to his dumbstruck dinner guests.
Perhaps he thought no one would expect such a quirk from a man so rational. Perhaps he hoped people would think him a touch eccentric.
I got out of the car and walked over to the grass and the trees, away from the rush of the motorway. I stood at the furthest picnic table. The earth around the benches was bare and cracked. Behind a barbed wire fence, the giant shadows of a wind turbine slashed across a field. I followed the rotation of a blade, tried to gauge the speed of the point, its impact on a human head.
I turned back towards the service station. Two truckers in stained vests were standing by a trailer, smoking. The tarp was stripped back, there was a large puddle of water at their feet. I could smoke a cigarette here, buy a pack at the shop. I still had time for a smoke, perhaps that’s what I should do. A symbolic act. Louis loved bath time, he would not notice my disappearance right away. I saw him blowing holes in the foam, playing with the plastic tat he was gradually growing out of – a watering can, a turtle. Or lying back, ears just below the surface, listening to that other world as he fiddled with his little willy. For Louis, my absence from the bathroom was simply explained: I had gone downstairs to my computer. If Mummy was not in the bathroom, she was downstairs working. As always. And when he shouted ‘Mummy’ she would come.
I’ve gone mad, I whispered.
It took another few seconds, then panic seized me. For two seconds, three, I stood there motionless by the picnic table, a step beyond the border of my life, looking in.
I ran to the car. I had to get back as quickly as I could.
Three miles I drove, further west, and still the exit would not come. It was impossible not to think of Louis, a boy of five alone in that house, of everything that could go wrong. Electricity. Wet feet on stone steps. His fascination for our Japanese knives, strictly off limits. He could walk out the door and vanish.
Traffic was backed up at the exit. I gave myself a stern talking to, there was no use crying. When I had crossed the bridge and rejoined the motorway at last, I felt better. I put my foot down and chased the other cars from the outside lane. Everything would be all right. I was nearing the city, I saw the tops of the first high-rise blocks, glanced at the dashboard clock. The bathwater would be cold by now. Louis had already called out to me. He was calling me, I could hear him. The boy standing naked at the top of the stairs, bathwater dripping on the floor. Fetch a towel, I thought, willing him to obey. Stay where you are.
If I’d had my phone, I could have called someone. But Christ, how was I supposed to explain this, who could I have turned to? I do not know. And so I drove, faster. I switched off the radio and concentrated on the cars in front of me, on the slightest change that hinted at a manoeuvre. I took everything in, even the blind walls and forklift trucks that slipped sidelong through my field of vision. The houses that lined a parallel street. The slabs of worn concrete around a football pitch. I thought of my dead phone in the bathroom and swore out loud.
I thought of Mr Dierickx from the bank, a tall man with cold hands. The way he said Astrid, as if he owned me. With some clients you knew from the start: this is going to be an assault course. Either they had an incurable lack of trust or too much time on their hands. Despite watertight arrangements made at countless meetings and tastings, they continued to meddle in the preparations for the coming festivities. Morning, noon and night they called, every thought that popped to the surface had them reaching for the phone. As a rule, I had the patience to hear them out, though I could have answered them in seconds and cut the conversation stone dead.
My employers, an ambitious bunch of friends who called themselves The Boys, hailed me as a diplomat, a dove of peace. They saw my patience as extraordinary. Whenever it was called for, I was brought in to be the friendly face of the company. Not only was I able to shelve my emotions with clients and personnel alike, but I also outdid other event managers when it came to solving the problems that inevitably arise just as the celebrations are about to get underway. When stress levels soar, they maintained, Astrid keeps her cool, maintains her focus.
At times I believed what they said about me.
David, too, never missed a chance to praise my patience and my commitment. Now and again he would buy me an item of jewellery, usually something with a pearl, oblivious to the fact that his words made me feel like an employee. His latest gift had been an expensive notebook and a travel fountain pen, designed to mark the 100th birthday of an American writer, an Astrid; even her surname, I seem to recall, began with an H, like mine. David was not one for domestic staff. He had trouble trusting strangers in his own home, with his own son. He simply couldn’t, he said. Sorry. Only Simonne, the little old woman who had cleaned his mother’s house since before he was born, was allowed in one morning a week to ‘freshen up the place’. This left the rest of the housekeeping to me, a consequence that went unspoken.
At last I reached the point where the motorway met the ring road, and swerved abruptly into the exit lane. Almost home.
Mr Dierickx would have called one of the Boys by now. I had spoken to him on the phone less than an hour before and could still hear the resentment in his voice, as if a reproachful cluck was the only sound that scrawny gullet of his could produce. I listened, tried to calm him, and promised to call the city chambers immediately, the venue where, in four hours’ time, the celebrations to mark the bank’s jubilee were due to kick off. For days on end he had spoken emphatically about the jubilee, never once called it a party, and each time the word was said with a blend of insult and indoctrination, lest I forget that this was not one of my piddling everyday assignments. I continued to listen politely to Mr Dierickx’s litany, the term ‘breach of contract’ passed his lips, a claim for damages was hinted at. He had called just as I was picking up Louis from his after-school playgroup. I talked and explained and hunted for my son’s shoes in the muddled heap by the coat stand. At home I ran a bath for Louis and, sitting on his little plastic step, I soothed Mr Dierickx, that heartless man, cold as a reptile, and Louis was wild as ever after his hour at the playgroup. As I was talking, a second call came in. I saw that it was Johan, our long-serving logistics guy who nevertheless insisted on calling me with the least little problem. It was no doubt concerning the tables for the reception, tables Mr Dierickx was insisting had failed to materialise. I picked up quickly, explained I was on the other line, asked him to wait two minutes, heard the beginnings of a protest and switched straight back to Mr Dierickx. Louis climbed into the bath, kicked at the foam but his foot caught the water. Wet flecks spattered and slid down the window. And when he sat down, he rocked from side to side and his body sent water sloshing over the edge and onto the floor. In a reflex, my hand shot towards his head and only at the last moment was I able to soften the blow to a smack. I swore, loudly, directly into the phone. Louis was startled, had never heard me swear before, had never been smacked before and, quickly recognising I was startled too, he took his crying to another level, louder, accusatory. I asked for a moment, Mr Dierickx fulminating as I put down the phone and pulled a towel from the rail to throw over the sopping parquet, while my son’s cries became a kind of shouting. The towel brushed against my phone on the surround of the bath. It seemed as if I could still intervene. For one moment, there seemed to be time to stop the phone falling into the water. But there wasn’t.
The foam obscured my view, my arm plunged up to the elbow in bathwater. It took too long. I fished the phone out just in time to see the words Mr Dierickx snuffed from the screen. An instant of grey, then sudden black. Louis stopped crying, flopped onto his front and gazed at his reflection in the curve of the tap. My phone was dead. I wondered how all this must have sounded to Mr Dierickx, pictured bathwater dribbling out of his phone at the other end of the line, saw the horror on his face.
I put down the phone and looked out at the magnolia by the window. Two black birds were chasing each other, flitting from branch to branch. It dawned on me that I was no longer contactable. Mr Dierickx, his jubilee, Johan and the reception tables, the Boys in their big Audis, the clients clamouring for their estimates, David at his law firm. I had, in a sense, vanished from the face of the earth. I felt calm and watched the black birds for a while until eventually, one by one, they flew away. Then I went downstairs and left the house.
Translated by David Doherty