Ronald Giphart – Time Enough
Half a mile further, Jonas Valentijn and Berend Moorman met in the kitchen of a girls’ dorm on the Kromme Nieuwegracht. They were not acquainted, but that was only a matter of logistics: they’d simply never crossed paths. Berend sat smoking; Jonas, his stomach rumbling, came into the kitchen to see if there was any grub to be had.
‘Hey, man,’ he said, addressing him as though they were old friends.
Berend’s reply was not overly jovial. ‘Hey’.
An outsider might have assumed they had been out on the town together the previous night. Two guys in what looked like a deserted girls’ dormitory. Berend motioned that there would be a package of bread somewhere amid the dirty pans, plates and glasses strewn over the counter.
‘How first about I bum one of those off you,’ Jonas said. A cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, Berend tossed him his pack of Marlboros. Jonas took a lighter from the table and sucked the flame into a ciggy, then exhaled with theatrical relish. Berend asked if he was the actor he had heard screaming on the roof that night.
‘Sounds like something I might’ve done,’ Jonas said. ‘Sorry.’
Bear waved it off.
There was a short silence, during which Jonas rifled through a few cupboards in search of some breakfast.
‘My grandma’s senile,’ he said, his back to Berend. ‘Whenever I go visit her, she looks at me and says, “So which one do you belong to?” Then I say my father’s name. If she’s having a good day she knows who that is, otherwise she asks: “And which one does he belong to?”’
Berend smiled and raised his eyebrows.
‘What I mean is: which one do you belong to? Here, in this house?’
Jonas nodded. He had passed her on the stairs.
Bear continued: ‘Until this morning, anyway. We broke up.’
Bear stubbed out his cigarette in the overfull ashtray. ‘The flame was extinguished before it was ignited.’
‘Did she say that?’
‘She wanted to give it another try, but I didn’t see the point. We diplomatically decided that we made the decision together.’
‘She left the house in a state of distress,’ Jonas said with the unemotional tone of a news anchor. And then, in his normal voice: ‘I saw her storm down the stairs.’
‘Yeah, that was her.’
Again, a brief silence.
‘So do you feel like shit?’ Jonas asked. ‘To be honest, you look like you feel like shit.’
Bear said nothing. He was touched by the remark of this guy he didn’t know, and Jonas, for his part, was moved by the silent suffering in the eyes of this hulk sitting there smoking on a shabby kitchen chair in even shabbier kitchen. They had no idea that this question and Berend’s look at that moment forged something that would be unbreakable for thirty years.
‘Let’s go have a drink,’ said Jonas.
In the late 1970s Flip Broeder—a not insignificant supporting actor in the story of our brewery—had begun four different university majors and did not finish a single one. Ten years later he was still registered as a student, with the intention of remaining so until his death. Nowadays new students were subject to a rule that stipulated a maximum number of years they were allowed to wander around the university, but in Flip’s day you could stay as long as you liked. He was fond of the sobriquet ‘Eternal Student’, even though he had not opened a textbook in years and had almost forgotten which was his last major—at least, he pretended to, when he played on it.
Flip’s regular study hall had been café De Nagel, a place where it was cool in the summer and cozily warm when the furies of winter ravaged solitary souls. He felt at home there, so when the neighborhood bar fell on hard times during the recession of the early 80s and was unexpectedly put up for sale, he worried that his beloved refuge would soon become the umpteenth employment bureau. Friends, family and his parents chipped in, and he managed to scrape together the fifteen thousand guilders needed to take over the bar’s contents, goodwill and name. He installed his then-girlfriend Mathilde behind the bar, which was a stroke of genius, because with her at the beer tap, De Nagel flourished.
Flip apparently had the knack: within a year he purchased, on a whim, a second bar, and two years later a third and a fourth. He had no long-term plans, did not subscribe to a ‘café concept’; his motivation was purely to rescue local pubs from extinction, because these were much more than just places that served alcohol. His only rule was that bar personnel should be the type that patrons could fall in love with. His philosophy was: ‘Everybody should have a secret crush on a bartender or barmaid. Always good for business.’ Mathilde’s leaving him a few years later for a man who had fallen for her at De Nagel was, he called (through his tears) a ‘commercial setback’.
In 1988 Flip bought an ancient fabric shop on the Oudegracht after the city council had given him a full liquor license for the premises. The local government was keen to revitalize the downtown area, and Flip was only too happy to oblige. It was the first time he started a business from scratch, and here, too, he had the gift of foresight. He called his café De Sidonia, an homage to the 93-year-old proprietress of the sewing shop that had previously occupied the building. When the still-robust three-time widow saw the bar emerge on the spot where she had spent nearly sixty years selling ribbons, fabric swatches and zippers, she blurted out: ‘I’ll be damned, I should’ve thought of this myself. All that stupid yarn.’
Flip invited her to officiate at the opening, and the old lady stayed perched on a barstool until closing time. Guru Houckama, the last of our as-yet-unformed group, was tending bar. Their age difference was twenty-three years, but this did not keep Miss Sidonia from heartily flirting with the young bartender. She took his strange first name for granted. He was actually called Gregor. When they were children, his elder brother Raymond had bastardized it to ‘Guru’, and the nickname stuck. Young Gregor looked it up in the dictionary and the meaning satisfied him. In high school he would use it as a pen name for his columns in the school newspaper, and when he went to study philosophy in Utrecht, the name went with him. There were people who did not know what his real name was.
Café De Sidonia became a magnet for admirers of the bar staff and their hangers-on. Compared to café De Nagel—where the interior looked as though it for years had been marinated in blunted desires and drowned heartache—De Sidonia was a sight snappier. Flip had single-handedly installed a five-meter-long aquarium under the bar, which sent sparkles of light through the café all evening long. The goldfish did not seem to mind that above their heads, people drank, smoked and shouted; rarely did one float to the surface belly-up.
Even though he had built the joint himself, it wasn’t a place Flip frequented. The clientele was too young, to studentish, too alternative. When the bar became a permanent student hangout, he turned over the management to Gregor so he could focus on his other cafés. Guru was not happy with this responsibility, but a healthy pay raise and a growing disenchantment with his studies tipped the balance in favor of the bar. His father disagreed, and challenged his son: ‘Do you want to be a bartender who once studied philosophy, or a philosopher who once tended bar?’ It was a question Gregor should have given some serious thought, but he did not have the time. He made an intuitive decision and became a professional beer-tapper.
On the Friday that the Oudegracht—thanks to the Yugoslavian criminal Düran Stojanović—would be entirely drained, Guru’s shift started at eight in the morning. The bar opened early for students, workgroups, women shoppers, nightshifters not yet ready to hit the sack, and city workers who, despite the early hour, felt like a shot of jenever. Because of the canal drainage works, De Sidonia was busier than usual during the day, since the bar had a good view of the medieval trench as it gradually emptied. In the afternoon a group of archaeologists took over the bar, using it as their base of operations to divvy up the tasks. It gave the place a pleasant bustle, and Gregor was not bothered by the mud the researchers dragged in on their boots, muck that had been lying at the bottom of the canal for a thousand years.
Jonas, who the previous night had sat at the bar with a bevy of hoarse female students until after closing time, came in around mid-afternoon with a large fellow that Gregor had seen in De Sidonia often enough, but who did not really belong to the regular crowd. There were between fifty and a hundred regulars who came to De Sidonia, maybe not every day, but at least once a week. Some of them studied the same thing, some had the same part-time job, some lived in the same neighborhood, some had the same dealer, but for most of them, the bar itself was their common ground. Students, locals, former students or those still leading the student life.
Evenings followed a certain playbook: during the day the patrons were either installed in a classroom, lay in bed, or worked in a shop or office; in the course of the day they made their way to De Sidonia, where they talked, lounged, drank, ate, smoked pot (outside), and mostly eyed the place. Then various small groups would form, people would get chatting, stories were told or got made up on the spot; sometimes someone was looking for a fight, but mostly for friendship, lust, and love. Without any stage directions, De Sidonia was a nightly setting for anecdotes, running gags that sometimes went on for months, a web of characters and intrigues. The evenings were linked together like a garland; new evenings, never-ending evenings. At De Sidonia there was an addictive camaraderie and predictable unpredictability: the regulars knew something memorable would always happen, but never quite what. And the next night all over again.
On Friday evening, October 20, 1989 we stood outside, on the bridge close to the bar, in groups of varying makeup, looking at the drained canal and the people around it. The mood was agreeable, there were girls there too, every so often a tray of beer got brought out and the sounds of the city reverberated softly against the canal walls. But as the evening progressed, the temperature dropped. The warmth of the De Sidonia’s crowd beckoned, while others along the canal shoved off for somewhere else. Something kept us together, until we were left with the six of us.
Jonas the actor.
Lucien the body-slicer.
Mike the draft dodger.
Berend the bear.
The last (for now) Cola.
A guru named Gregor.
Why it was that night and not another, why that troupe and not six arbitrary others: the chance that it could have turned out completely differently was infinitely greater than that our ‘sextumvirate’ would be created that night—our accidental sextet, the unspoken, unplanned and apparently random group that was as yet hardly a group.
We stood together and drank beer, and, later, swigs of jenever from a bottle Gregor brought out from De Sidonia. We watched as nighthawks—despite the prohibition from patrolling policemen—clambered down the Oudegracht wall into the mud to dredge through what had been inaccessible for ten centuries. That evening in October went down in our personal history as ‘the night of the canal bed’. Our friendship began with the stinking, centuries-old muck of thousands of fellow city folk and ancestors.
Thirty years later, the world rushes past. Past! Past! We have stopped at the enormous Medenbach rest area along a German highway and are parked fraternally close together in a deserted corner of a huge parking lot, looking at the asphalt and listening to the Doppler effect, the high-pitched screech of oncoming traffic versus the lower-pitched grumble as it recedes into the distance. How’s that for a metaphor: the future screeches, the past grumbles. It is the first muggy spring day of the year, which, according to Jonas, is quite a contrast with our impending malheur. The word ‘malheur’ appears in his most recent play, so now he regularly uses it himself.
Our destination is Lessebach, about a hundred kilometers further; this parking lot is the regular foraging spot in the woods. Lucien has brought elaborate sandwiches, and just to be on the safe side he picked up some greasy German snacks at the gas station further up. In the old days we’d have travelled together, but now, for the first time, we’re each in our own car. Back in the day, we would cram into our rickety van: Berend at the wheel, a stream of whisky that went from mouth to mouth, Cola buried in a collection of poetry, Mike and Berend debating countless subjects, Jonas with a guitar in his lap and Lucien in back on a mattress, catching up on sleep after a mattressless night shift.
At the beginning of our friendship there was, of course, a kind of exchangeability. It is a romantic idea to think that friendship has nothing to do with age or background, but in the real world, people become friends because they are of a similar ilk, are about the same age, and live close by. We satisfied these three criteria. As time goes by, we have become less similar.
These days, travelling together was impossible to arrange, which must too be undoubtedly symbolic. Dammit, our beer brewery—according to Het Financieele Dagblad ‘the biggest microbrewery or smallest megabrewery in the Netherlands’—hasn’t even been wrenched out of our hands yet, and everything has changed. Berend is the only one who drove directly from Utrecht today; Lucien started in Groningen (where he—because not everything changes—had spent all night in an operating room in the university medical center), Jonas had a tryout in Antwerp last night and stayed overnight in the theater company’s guest house, and Cola made the biggest detour: the day before yesterday he drove to the Alsace so that his father could put his signature on powers of attorney and contracts this morning, and give Cola got two magnums of Bourgogne for the coming weekend. He triumphantly set the oversized cardboard box on a Raststätte picnic table.
‘Present from the old man,’ he said. ‘They were in his wine cellar, with ten thousand other bottles. He’s worried we’ll get thirsty.’
The rest of us nod and whistle. Jonas takes one of the bottles and holds up the label to Lucien, who’s got more know-how than he in such matters. Lucien inspects the label and nods.
‘Shall we open one?’ says Jonas, and he goes over to his car to fetch a corkscrew. He shouts across the parking lot: ‘We have to drink something, after all…’
‘I dunno,’ Lucien says. ‘I’ve hardly slept. If I start boozing now, I’ll end up in a hospital myself.’
Chewing on a piece of French bread, Berend asks Lucien: ‘Isn’t this the place where you once…?’
Bear knows the answer, but asks anyway. Cola and Jonas chuckle.
Once, twenty-two years ago. The first time we drove to Cola’s family’s hunting ground must have been in ’97, right? We could have been in the cabin four hours earlier if one of us—let’s say Lucien—hadn’t screwed up. We only found out when were a few kilometers from this very same rest area and the van started shaking and stalling. Then, too, the Mercerdeses tore past you at 180 kph. There was a plenty wrong with our van, so it didn’t surprise us that it broke down along the way. On the shoulder of the road we tried in vain to coax our jalopy back to life, and eventually we managed to call in German roadside assistance via one of those emergency roadside call boxes. An hour later a heavy-set man showed up, and within twenty seconds he had the problem sussed out. ‘Haben Sie vielleicht Benzin statt Diesel getankt?’
This became our stock phrase. For decades we would say Did you perhaps fill up with gas instead of diesel? to one another when anything went wrong. Years later after the incident, we brewed a fifty-liter keg of beer for Lucien’s fortieth birthday and called it ‘Benzin im Diesel’.
When Lucien realized he had filled up with the wrong fuel, an electric shock raced through his torso, a tingling in his fingers, a dizziness in his head. Benzin im Dieselmotor. This was the kind of blunder that could cost us hundreds of guilders, and we were already in dire straits because we had had to scrape together fifty thousand.
That night—it was during his residency—Lucien was on duty at the hospital emergency room. A man had come in with an extreme form of hay fever—a drag for the patient, but not life-threatening. The duty specialist did not think it necessary to go to the hospital in the middle of the night, and Lucian, as duty intern, left the treatment over to his assistant, who collected medicine from the night pharmacy that did more harm than good, sending the patient into anaphylactic shock and even requiring reanimation. Lucien got read the riot act, even though technically the incident wasn’t his responsibility. So when, some eight hours later, his friends took him to task because of the fuel mix-up, something in him snapped. And it wasn’t just the patient or that damned gasoline, but also some long-brewing hassles with our beer business. Angry and full of self-recrimination, Lucien disappeared into the woods.
After a quarter of an hour, we went looking for him. He sat leaning against a fallen tree, lethargically smoking a cigarette.
‘You okay, man?’ Cola asked.
‘I let a guy die last night,’ Lucien muttered. ‘Well… almost.’
Cola sat down next to him while the others walked back to the Straßenrand Mechaniker. He took a cigarette out of Lucien’s pack, although he had officially quit, what with a baby on the way.
‘You shouldn’t have insisted on becoming a doctor.’
‘And now we’re stuck in der Mitte von fuckin’ Nirgendwo because of me.’
That later became a standard expression, too. In der Mitte von fuckin’ Nirgendwo.
Cola told him the mechanic was pumping out the tank. It was an old engine, which made the repairs a good deal easier. The mechanic said it would all work out. Lucien shrugged his shoulders.
‘And we’re going bankrupt,’ he said, and then fell silent.
‘Okay, that was a bit of an exaggeration, too,’ Lucien says. ‘We were on the threshold of our brewery’s big breakthrough.’
By now, the mistakenly fueled diesel has become one of our classic stories. In recent years a modest portion of our history together has been recorded in interviews, television items and magazine features. The story is always the same: six friends started up a small beer brewery which grew into a large one. Perhaps that is the essence of our friendship. One question that keeps getting asked is: did you start a brewery together because you were friends, or are you friends because of the brewery? That was a legitimate question, but one that even after thirty years we’re really not able to answer. And after next week, the question will be superfluous.
When, a few years after we set up our basement brewery, we had to submit our first financial year-end report to the tax people, we asked a poet we knew from the café to compose a ‘group portrait in words’ about us, a poem we could place on the front cover. Actually this was a sneaky way of sliding some money his way without him realizing it. It was the first time anyone had written about us. Later, we had his words painted in calligraphy on the walls of our second brewery, in an industrial zone outside Utrecht:
but not yet
Did I ever tell you what I thought, the first time
I saw you? I thought: everything’ll vanish, you and me
and this café, our children that we don’t even have yet,
a trail of mirror images through time, the stars
above, the shine of the sky in the canal
but now all is here and full and busy and fine and warm.
We know this city, it’s a light-trap,
We know who lay sleeping behind a hundred windows
when we went. We save their faces,
names but they didn’t belong to you or to me because we
still had to find each other. This all disappeared
one day, but not yet. Is what I thought.
Since then, verses by this promising young poet—now the father of three children and winner of various literary prizes—have adorned the cover of every one of our company’s annual reports. Everyone wants his or her life to be part of a bigger story, of a plan, divine or not, that gives meaning to everything and makes life worth living. That was and is true for our sextumvirate. We are programmed—in Mike’s words—‘to see everything that happens around us in relation to ourselves, and to regard our vicissitudes as a centripetal force around which the universe turns, no matter how absurd and arrogant that notion is.’
The story of our six-man enterprise is absolutely not a heroic epos, although at times one has been made of us. In fact, our story—which appealed to some in the outside world, especially when we achieved some success, and even more when we almost fell flat on our face, only to clamber back out of the smoldering mess—is nothing more than an arbitrary sum total of thousands of small and, in the context of eternity, trivial events and anecdotes of six pretty normal men, each of whom is a hue in our group portrait, the story that has formed us these thirty years.
‘There’s one thing I don’t want,’ Cola says: ‘for this to be a road trip like in one of those buddy-buddy movies, where hard knocks force old friends to reassess their friendship and suddenly come to profound realizations.’
‘We’re not going to reassess anything,’ Lucien says. ‘It’s just a weekend of R&R. No hassles. No profound realizations. Drink a little, hike a little, smoke a little weed, sell the business.’
‘So what do we toast to?’ Jonas asks, once he’s managed to pry open one of the magnums. He has got out the plastic beer glasses with our brewery’s logo and starts filling them with the expensive Bourgogne.
‘To the end!’ says Berend, raising his glass.
To the end. But not yet.
– Translation by Jonathan Reeder