Thomas Heerma van Voss – Stern
‘Shall we start?’
Hugo Stern has been holding the ball for at least a minute now. He looks round, at Bram, at the children in the bowling lanes next to him, at the blonde woman at the counter. Then, without another word, he throws. Little calms him the way this movement does. Especially at the precise instant his hand releases the ball, Stern feels invincible. For a moment everything is in balance, ordered, exactly the way it should be.
Bang. Three pins topple.
‘Just a minute.’ Rubbing his hands together, Stern steps up to the rack and takes a new ball. He throws it as hard as he can. Again that impalpable control, but this time not followed by a clap of release.
The ball ends up in the gutter.
Stern feels a hand on his back. Behind him is Bram, shoulders drooped, face weary. Stern bends down a little to be level with him. ‘What’s up?’
As he asks the question, he looks straight into Bram’s dark brown eyes, which he vainly hopes look like his.
‘I don’t want to.’
‘Bowl. Shall we go?’
‘Huh? But we’ve only just arrived. You haven’t even thrown yet.’
‘I know, but I don’t want to. Not today.’
The balls Stern just threw are rolling back, ready for the next player.
‘What do you mean, not today? Are you feeling unwell again?’
‘No, I’d tell you if I was. I just don’t feel like it.’
‘But we come to The Pin nearly every week. It’s our tradition.’ Stern tries hard to sound understanding, but he hears offence in his voice, indignation perhaps.
‘Dad, please. I just don’t want to anymore.’
There have been enough signs over the past month, Stern realises. Once Bram didn’t want to come bowling because he had to study for his final exams, another time because he wasn’t feeling well. Stern had gone on his own. But when he returned two hours later, he’d found Bram at his computer, chatting on Facebook or playing a game. There had been no sign of nausea or exam nerves. ‘Everything okay here?’ Stern asked, to which Bram answered, ‘mwah’ or ‘not bad’.
He looks at the two balls beside him. It’s as if they’re begging to be used. Stern can’t resist, picks up the first one and hurls it with all his strength.
Bang, six pins down.
Bram sits down on the bench beside the lane. He takes out his iPhone. Since he bought it last summer, Bram and his mobile have been inseparable. He’s forever taking out the compact black gadget and quickly typing all kinds of messages. Sometimes Stern gets the impression his son communicates more with his smart phone than with his mouth.
Other fathers would intervene at this point. They’d say, ‘Put that phone away, we’re out together.’ Not Stern, though. Several months before when the school director asked him to go and see him, he stayed calm, and he won’t be thrown now. Merel has been calling him ‘preoccupied’ lately or, when she’s having a bad day, ‘not involved’. ‘What do you mean, not involved?’ he asked her the other day. ‘What makes you think that? I always take part in everything, I’m always here for you.’ She’d been silent for a long time before eventually saying, ‘Well, you’re not involved in the right way.’
Stern looks at the shiny wooden lane, flexes his fingers to pick up a new ball. But then he forces himself to sit down next to Bram.
The blue-red bowling shoes they were given when they entered are taken off in silence.
Shoes in hand, they walk towards the exit. Monotonous 1980s disco music plays in the background, interrupted every once in a while by the comforting sounds of rolling balls or falling pins.
At the counter they have to wait for the assistant. She’s behind the bar serving glasses of lemonade and dishes of sausages to a group of children. Stern watches contentedly. Then he notices Bram softly squeezing his fingers, searchingly, like a baby touching a grown-up’s hand for the first time. ‘Dad, I need to tell you something.’ He whispers the words. ‘I’ve got a girlfriend, kind of. I’m going to see her later on.’
Kind of. They imply a lot, those words, although Stern doesn’t know what exactly. Who knows, their relationship could be about sex, or it could be purely platonic. For a moment he thinks, maybe the girl finds Bram unattractive, doesn’t like his looks.
‘Can I help you?’ says the assistant, looking at Stern. Not seductively, girls her age stopped doing that years ago, but in a friendly manner, the way you treat regular customers.
‘We’re already done for tonight, Claire,’ he says. ‘We’ll be back next week.’
She takes the bowling shoes and disinfects them with a spray, although they’ve hardly been used. Next she puts Stern’s leather shoes on the counter, beside Bram’s shabby sneakers.
They take the lift to the ground floor.
‘What’s her name?’ Stern asks halfway.
The disco music fading away, they can only hear a distant base.
‘Shay-la?’ Stern repeats. ‘Funny name.’
‘Unusual, at any rate.’
‘She’s white, if that’s what you mean.’
The lift doors open, it’s dark outside. Ten minutes, they haven’t been any longer. Stern tries to read Bram’s face, but it is inscrutable. Stern asks no more questions.
He’s horrified by fathers waiting in the playground of The Rainbow talking about their ‘daddy day’, as if one day can compensate for the rest of the week, as if being a father is a profession, practised at set times. Show a bit of interest, tell a joke, prepare a sandwich and whoopee, job’s done. Stern knows better than that. He’s always been there for his son, but if Bram doesn’t feel like talking, that’s fine too. After all, he’s not much of a talker. Besides, it’s the quiet ones who have it in them to surprise everyone, with a novel, a film, a scientific discovery, whatever. Bram might be a successful psychiatrist someday, or judge. Or what about a career as a mathematician? Until then, Stern will keep his distance. No teen likes pushy parents.
There was a photograph of the director and his two teenage sons in the office. The three of them sitting on a beach in bright sunshine, arms enthusiastically around each other’s shoulders. No matter how often Stern entered that room, he could never bring himself to look at it for more than a few seconds, or he’d be overcome by extreme nausea, something between jealousy and disgust.
The last time he was there was seven months ago. The director had been waiting for him in the corridor at the end of a comfortable Thursday – the children were listening, working hard – and the director said, ‘May I have a moment, Hugo?’ At once, Stern started worrying. The director was the kind who believes that having power is reason enough for using it. Hired less than three years before, he had already made more changes than all his predecessors put together. The well-functioning gymnasium had been revamped, the school library relocated without reason and several young student teachers hired, while valued part-timers had been callously fired.
‘So,’ the director said, once in his office. ‘How are things? Everything going smoothly in class?’
Stern nodded, but didn’t answer. He looked tensely at the young, jolly face opposite him.
‘Hugo, let’s be honest. This’ll be the kind of conversation we don’t like having here. But as director, I have certain responsibilities. So please take a seat.’
Stern sat down. On the desk in front of him he saw a pile of unopened mail – more cards and envelopes than he himself had had in months.
‘Look, as a school we need to make certain choices. We must do what seems best in the long term. After all, The Rainbow is just like a company.’ What followed was a detailed account. The director kept saying ‘we’ when he clearly meant ‘I’, but apart from that, Stern missed nearly everything else. He heard two words only, early retirement. Stern had only the vaguest idea about the term’s implications but he did know it was important.
He thought of his class, class two, of all class twos he’d taught in the past. There had been several dozen of them, every time a new set of seven- and eight-year olds. He had prepared them all for class three, got them ready for the future. But he had never envisaged a future that included early retirement. This kind of future had never been part of his preparations; it had never occurred to him.
‘I understand that this must come as a shock,’ the director said. ‘Let it sink in. But you’re easily the – how shall we put this – the most experienced teacher on our staff. The only old-school one, actually. You don’t really fit in anymore. You must have noticed this yourself. The idea is to cut back slowly. By the end of May, a new teacher will take over. And rest assured, you’ll keep your pay.’
The director smiled – again that exasperatingly smug grin as if life were one big party, a joke Stern never managed to grasp. ‘We need to think of the future, of course,’ he said.
Stern pushed back his chair a little. Was he expected to say something now? Launch a counter-attack? He didn’t even know what to attack. It seemed wiser to take some distance, try to make sense of the situation before reacting. He left the office with his back to the family photograph. But he changed his mind at the door. ‘What about the sports days?’ he asked. ‘Can I continue organising those?’
‘We’ll sort that out internally, don’t worry.’ A glance at his MacBook, and the director got out of his chair, too. ‘This has come as a bit of a surprise to you, hasn’t it? I understand. This sort of thing is always unexpected. But sometimes change is best for both parties, Hugo. You know that, don’t you? The Rainbow needs to keep evolving.’
But why, Stern wanted to ask, why, of all people, let me go? And more importantly, where to? Where the hell to?
He didn’t say that. He kept a grip, as he had always done at school. It was only several days later, when the memory of the conversation had faded into the background, that he had the courage to tell anyone. He called a former neighbour, now a successful lawyer, whose firm sent the Sterns a Christmas card every year. Stern always threw it out unread, but he did remember the name.
‘They can’t do this to me,’ he said over the phone. ‘I have a permanent contract, they can’t just fire me, can they?’
The lawyer, who clearly couldn’t remember Stern, promised to look into it. Four long weeks passed before he finally rang back. ‘Your legal position is good,’ the lawyer said, ‘but you need to make a choice. Part on good terms now, or teach for another two years knowing they want to get rid of you. Whatever I do for you, it’ll be an unworkable situation. They don’t want you anymore, Hugo. It happens quite often nowadays, companies wanting to rejuvenate drastically. But the offer they’ve made you is very attractive financially, so I would accept it. And not think about it too much until the time comes.’
Which is what he did. It took a great deal of effort, but he managed to do it. Apart from Bram and Merel, he told no one about his early retirement. He didn’t know whether his colleagues were aware of the situation – they never talked about it. And although he kept hearing the soft echo of the term early retirement every time he entered his classroom, he breathed not a word about his impending departure to his pupils either. The last few months shouldn’t be dominated by endings, this class needed to be just as carefree as the previous ones.
In the afternoon, at the end of his class, he gathered his pupils. They sat around him in a circle. ‘I need to tell you something. Something bad, but you ought to know. The Rainbow and I will be parting ways shortly.’ He took a deep breath. ‘It seems I am no longer needed.’
The children looked at him in confusion, unable to grasp what he meant but realising it was serious. In order to reassure them, Stern handed out hand-filled bags of sweets. The children took them gratefully. As soon as they saw the sweets, they seemed to forget Stern’s farewell. Strangely enough, seeing so much joy, Stern felt better too.
Then the school bell rang and the children trooped out. From the window he saw them being picked up by their parents, exaggeratedly happy fathers and mothers embracing their darlings and smoothly swinging them up on to the backs of their bicycles. Stern suppressed the urge to call after his pupils, some last lesson for life, a catchphrase they would always remember.
When they had left, he tidied his classroom. He wiped the tables with a cloth, threw a few trampled sweets into the bin, straightened the chairs and finally put his teaching materials in four supermarket bags. Everything he saw, he took: pens, pencils, rubbers, rulers, notebooks, a calculator, a pencil case. And the files he had kept since his first day at work, of course.
Stern was busy for nearly an hour and a half. He kept going until nothing left in his classroom would remind them of him. He erased his tracks.
The window is closed, the lights are on. Inside, Merel sits at the table with a print-out of her new novel in front of her. Stern watches her from the Heinzestraat pavement. Large bright blue eyes, no make-up or lipstick. He has a vivid memory of seeing her face for the first time, twenty-nine years before at a wine tasting where they drank themselves silly. He‘d felt instantly drawn to her. The way she looked, her sense of humour, her wit, he liked everything about her. Three weeks later he knew I want to share the rest of my life with this woman, have a family with her. Less than a year later, she was pregnant.
He walks towards her down the narrow corridor. He wants to give her a kiss or ask how her work is going, a reflex that’s part of family life. However, as soon as he enters the room, his eyes are drawn to a paper on the table, a green and red leaflet with the price list of a pizza place. Bram it says, handwritten at the top. Stern can’t keep his eyes off it. Like when he sees a stain on the clean table top, an irregularity he needs to correct. But this he can’t just wipe off. This stain has been put there deliberately.
‘What’s that leaflet with Bram’s name on it doing here?’ Before Merel can answer him, he continues, ‘Did you write this? I tidied the kitchen yesterday, but I didn’t see it then. I’ve never even heard of this pizza place.’
‘We’re going there tomorrow.’
‘What? We? But… we usually go to other restaurants. I have a whole list of places we haven’t been to yet.’ Stern swallows. First the bowling, now this. It’s almost as if Bram and Merel have planned it this way – now that Stern is no longer allowed to teach, they’re testing him. He looks at the four bags he brought from school this afternoon, in the corner of the room. For a minute he considers telling Merel about his last day at work, about the pupils who have to manage without him from now on, or the bowling just now. But he can’t think of anything suitable to say.
‘You knew, right?’ Merel doesn’t try to hide her impatience. She never used to talk to him like this. And they used to have much more to say to each other, especially in bed at night, when they’d tell each other all about their day at work. Nowadays, she spends half of her time at her flat in Castricum. And one morning nearly three years ago, she moved to the guest room on the second floor. Just like that. She never explained why and he never dared to ask.
‘Did you hear me? Bram has been wanting to go to this pizzeria for weeks. You haven’t forgotten already, have you?’
‘Of course not, of course not,’ Stern says quickly. He needs to remain calm. If his family wants to go to this pizza place, he’ll join them, no problem. ‘Besides, Bram has a girlfriend. He told me of his own accord. Shirley, Shayla, something like that.’
‘I know. Sit down, sweetheart. Have something to eat, relax. I’m working on my last chapter now, but shall we go for a coffee tomorrow morning, in between jobs?’ She stops after the last phrase. She seems to realise how painful her proposal really is. In between jobs. She can only squeeze her husband in between jobs, as a break during work. Like needing to walk a dog once in a while.
‘That’s okay. I’ll manage. Anyway, I’ve an appointment with Dr. Janovitz in the morning. I’m going upstairs now, if you don’t mind.’
All is quiet for a moment. Stern wants to tell her not to worry, that he’s someone who can keep calm, particularly when things are difficult. But instead he picks up the four supermarket bags and walks out of the room.
His bookcase hasn’t changed in years. A few old photo albums, various text books, a row of novels whose contents he has long forgotten. Stern puts them all in a cardboard removal box, which he slides under his bed. With a cloth he cleans the shelves of the bookcase.
Then he takes a look at the four bags he hauled away with him. He takes out only the files. There are twenty-one in total, one for each school year. Big, dark files he updated at home, but once finished, ended up in his classroom. There, they stood in an orderly row behind his desk. If he ran out of things to say to his pupils, which was rare, he’d take one out and turn the pages until he had something to say again.
He put them in chronological order. He can’t help but feel proud now that he’s handling them one by one. All those notes, all that information about the hundreds of children he made worldly-wise.
The previous school year a woman colleague had turned up unannounced in his classroom. ‘Files?’ she’d asked straight out. ‘Who keeps files nowadays? I keep all my information on a USB stick. Files are from another era. Ha ha.’ Stern listened politely, he even smiled after a while. But from then on he avoided that colleague, never talked to her again.
Standing in front of his bookcase, he’s thinking of her for the first time in ages. If she were here, she’d be bound to realise how wrong she’d been. Twenty-one big, identical files, all of them together outside school for the first time, and they still haven’t lost their effectiveness. Their progression, weaknesses, difficulties – Stern can find all his pupils’ important information. 3 April 1994. Johan needs to really start working on his long division. If he doesn’t, I foresee problems for the future. And: 29 January 2005. Barbara is developing very well. She makes a good impression particularly with dictations. There are several pages full of such notes for every child, each accompanied by practical data such as passport photographs and addresses – Stern had to be able to make everyone out at a glance. No matter how many years he had been teaching, he could never lose track. If he didn’t do his work precisely, he couldn’t expect his pupils to do so either.
Twice he checks whether his files are in the right order. Then he takes one out and begins leafing through it enthusiastically.
Translated by Susan Ridder