Sanneke van Hassel – Common Ground
A muddy field in the middle of the city
Waking her up before the sun disappears.
Landa lays out everything next to the changing mat: the winter romper suit, the hat, the sheep’s wool mittens. Wrap up Cato well and then quickly into the fresh air after her nap, before it’s time for the next feed. She is lying motionless under the stretched sheet; the fabric owl on the edge of her cot as big as her head. Every time before bedtime, at least five times a day, Landa pulls the string; its wings spread and calming tinkling resounds.
She carefully lifts her sleeping child. Not a moan, not a squeak. Her eyes open momentarily, then close again. Holding Cato close, she walks over to the glazed façade wall. Down below tram no. 7 glides past towards the Goudsingel, then onwards, towards the Zaagmolen Bridge, towards her mother who hardly ever gets out of her chair. She will visit her in a few weeks’ time. When it’s less cold. When she is better at manoeuvring the stroller. When Cato sleeps less.
Landa holds her to the window. Like a silver snake the tram slithers through the cars stopping in front of and pulling away from the many traffic lights towards the roundabout. She never tires from it, this spectacle of cars and lorries, rattling trams and flocks of cyclists meeting each other and going their separate ways again.
Cato screws up her eyes. Wake up, little girl. Seven floors below us is the world; everything moves or stirs, on the road, on the cycle lanes on either side, on the wide, empty pavements. The sun is lighting up the tower blocks and the tall trees on the other side, but the sky is still wan. Maybe it’s too cold to go outside after all. Icy draughts creep through the corridors and penetrate the house as soon as she opens the front door.
Their last trip as a threesome was to Leon’s parents, at the end of January. Cato was barely a month old and there was a frost. His parents thought they were too old to go and see their first grandchild in such a busy city. What would happen if you got stuck in a traffic jam or were not able to find a parking spot? Just to be on the safe side, Landa had taken everything with her: toys, extra clothes, a bib, a pack of nappies, the bottle with supplementary feed. Once they got to the bungalow in Zoetermeer, Cato did not want to sleep. As her mother-in-law piled advice upon advice, she felt her breast becoming increasingly heavy. She fed Cato, who hardly drank, in Leon’s boyhood room, while ten-year olds stared at her blithely from the school photo on the notice board. Home, is all Landa had been thinking, home. To the flat she and Leon had been living in for eighteen months: Domus Aurea, the Golden House. When they were viewing it, Leon had looked the name up on his phone. The gold-painted flat turned out to be named after Emperor Nero’s palace of entertainment. Leon read how, after the great fire of Rome, the emperor built his Domus Aurea on the scorched earth, where he partied and gave banquets whilst looking out onto a large enclosed garden full of domestic and wild animals.
Her lookout: a stream of traffic and tower blocks. A little to the left a concrete office block rises into the sky. Row upon row of square windows with dark mirror glass. Shell left the building more than ten years ago, the estate agent told them. There were all sorts of plans for it.
To this day, the high-rise has stood empty. The muddy patch directly opposite was given a use: a cheap structure now houses the Smallenburg homeless shelter, with next to it a rather scruffy community garden. When they has just moved here, Landa believed the piece of land was going to be a green space. In the estate agent’s prospectus a few brushstrokes had given an artist’s impression of the area. ‘This part of the city is very much on the up.’ The drawing showed the Shell building gleaming in the sun. On the ground-floor was a café with, in front, painted in green water colours, a garden with globe-clipped shrubs and grass-filled beds. A man in a suit and a woman on high heels could be seen walking on the path meandering through this parkland. It had reminded Landa of London. In between the skyscrapers in the City she had once spotted a small green with rose bushes and trees. Birds were singing, bankers were eating a sandwich while nannies pushed strollers and infants from a nursery school played in a sandpit.
The first few months they were living in Domus, a dog would poo on the patch, and that was it. Until one day a few lorries arrived with Portakabins. Without any warning, this ugly complex had been swiftly erected, and became the home of a shelter for addicts and the homeless.
Landa straightens her shoulders. Her neck is stiff and her arms muscles are burning. At birth, Cato already weighed more than nine pounds and picking her up is a form of weight-lifting.
‘Having this child means I don’t need to go to the gym for now,’ she texted her friends who asked her when she would rejoin them for a run. All kinds of messages flashed by on her phone: invitations to a Ladies Run, the kilometres they covered, their times. They are in a different phase, run three times a week, wear tight jeans, drink white wine and sleep in, their children watching a film or on PlayStation.
On the opposite side of the street two men are talking. From above, they look like dolls; she could lift them up and move them. She grabs the binoculars from the windowsill. The person on the left is Friso Wouters, Smallenburg’s director. With his unctuous voice and sickly smile he nips every discussion at management committee meetings in the bud. Next to him stands an elderly man, who also attends at times, but never really says anything. Virtually every day he works in the garden, dragging a wheelie bin full of tools along the paths.
This evening, when her letter is on the agenda, Wouters will definitely be there. On behalf of Domus she has already asked him quite a few questions. About the design of the site; people hanging around on the local benches; litter – in the summer an empty syringe was found – and the lack of security. The mood at the management committee has been lacklustre recently. Everyone thinks it’s all fine, even Sjors from Easyworld Car Hire does not seem mind his shabby view. The members of the management committee have given up. But she has not.
Cato smacks her hungry, caterpillar lips. She will give her another drink so that she will not get hungry outside. Taking a seat in the armchair in the nursery she moves her dress to the side and opens her bra. Cato drinks slowly and thoughtfully.
Briefly, she shuts her eyes. The deep fatigue that renders all her plans idle.
After a while she rises, changes Cato’s nappy and squeezes her into the woollen romper suit. She restrains tiny arms and legs, prises a little hand from a sleeve and puts her in the stroller.
‘I just need to get my purse,’ she says while gazing deeply into Cato’s eyes. Babies understand more than you think. Even in the womb they recognise their mother’s voice, hear when she is tense or angry.
When she returns Cato looks dejected. Might she be too warm, does she have cramps, is she too tightly strapped in? She rests her hand on her little forehead and checks the straps. This unremitting doubt. Maybe because she is so often on her own, or because caring is an invisible activity. Her interior design clients at least answered back. They responded to her proposals. A lighting plan, design for a bathroom or walk-in wardrobe; after while she would wrap it up, thank you very much, time for the next project. Until she was made redundant in August, less than a week after she had announced she was pregnant.
The work she does now has no end. It consists of countless routine actions, which repeat themselves along a messy cycle. Feeding, wiping away sick, changing nappies, laying Cato down for a sleep, folding rompers, replacing the teat, making sure you get something to drink yourself, feeding.
The treachery of motherhood. It was not until Cato was born that all the women in her environment told her. Work is relaxation for me now, her friend Cleo said. You don’t around up to anything, Annemiek whispered; until Hidde was five she had not finished a book. According to her mother-in-law she should stick to a tight schedule, Cato would get used to it and it would be Landa’s salvation.
Her own mother remained silent. She nodded at her two-week old granddaughter and continued crocheting potholders. Since her father’s death she had hardly spoken, and yet Landa had hoped she would say something. How to set about things, or how proud she was of Jolanda. ‘Landa’ is something that her mother had never been able to bring herself to say, however often she had pointed out that she thought the name suited her better. The day she came to show Cato they drank coffee, ate shortbread and watched TV. Once, her mother’s hand moved towards the travel cot. To give the blue whale hanging from the hood a little push.
Landa releases the brake on the stroller and walks through the corridor. In the lift she hears a plaintive sound. Is Cato lying at too much of an angle? At the weekend they had taken off the carrycot because Leon thought Cato was getting bored in it. When she pulls the knob on the side the seat shoots up. She has to hang onto it with her entire weight to bring it down again.
The entrance hall smells of lavender. The Residents’ Association has installed an atomizer. As a board member during her maternity leave she had ordered a plaque for next to the lift, brass with engraved letters: No cycling here. We greet each other. We keep the corridors clean. We do not make any noise. Once a year we organise a party. Most people do not live in Domus for long and agreements have to be clear. Except for the party, which does not seem to be happening. Maybe she should take it on.
The letterbox contains a pink and white striped parcel for Cato and a pizza leaflet. On top of looking after Cato they often do not get around to cooking and order a takeaway instead. Leon likes mezze, Lebanese snacks. It is derived from maz maz which means ‘tasting’ in Arabic. They used to go out for dinner a lot; now they watch TV surrounded by a mountain of plastic trays. When she is alone, she orders from Just Eat. Within half an hour a young lad stands on her doorstep clutching a box of spare ribs. One time she had invited him in. He declined politely, but his smile and the doubt in his eyes had done her a world of good.
She throws the parcel and the leaflet in the pushchair and pauses for a few seconds in front of the glass doors. She can still go back, to the soft carpet, the sofa, the play mat, the warmth. She presses the button and pushes the stroller through the sliding doors into the outside world.
Translation by Suzanne Heukensfeldt Jansen