M.M. Schoenmakers – Gilles Speksneijder’s Flight
Early in the evening, surrounded by boxes of all sizes and Christmas decorations set out on the table and floor, he felt a shout pry itself loose from somewhere deep inside him and work its way upwards. And as his pride and joy, a reindeer head he’d made himself – sawed from plywood and fully dismountable – slid from his fingers and his right arm pointed at the floor next to the dresser, Gilles Speksneijder parted his lips.
Maybe he couldn’t compete with the vacuum cleaner, which was filling every corner of the living room with its irritating roar, or maybe his throat was sore or he didn’t have enough air, in any case, his shout faltered as it emerged.
‘There!’ he squeaked. He held his arm outstretched, his index finger pointing at the skirting board, right under the painting of a horse pulling a barge along the banks of the canal.
Madelief looked up, her face and neck glistening with sweat. Her foot felt for the knob of the vacuum cleaner.
It was a miracle he’d spotted it, it looked so tiny and lost, pressed against the skirting board, as the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner darted busily back and forth less than a metre away.
‘Where?’, Madelief asked, more focused on the things that still needed to be wrapped up and put away: glass baubles and Christmas apples and little birds for in the tree, and the cardboard Christmas crib she’d coloured in three or four years ago, and the candles and the pinecone wreaths and her wicker basket with knitted Easter chicks, which also appeared on the table at Christmas, and all the other decorations.
Speksneijder dived down beside the dresser, into the lukewarm cloud left by the vacuum cleaner. He picked the thing up and placed it in his hand. ‘What is it?’ he asked, posing the question first to himself. He took off his glasses and peered at it closely. ‘It looks like a tiny mushroom,’ he murmured.
‘I can’t hear you,’ Madelief said.
He heaved himself to his feet, put his glasses back on and walked past the Christmas tree to the standing lamp with the pig’s bladder shade.
He beckoned to her.
‘I haven’t finished yet,’ she protested, ‘and it’s nearly nine.’ She looked at him as he stood there under the light of the lamp, his finger stirring in the bowl of his hand.
‘It’ll only take a sec…’ he said.
She approached him reluctantly, squinting against the light falling from the tilted-up lampshade.
‘Here…’ he said. His find protruded from his fingers like a tiny worm.
‘I can’t see anything.’ She pointed at the floor. ‘Mind you don’t step on the lamp.’
Shifting his feet slightly, he grasped Madelief’s right hand, unfolded it and placed the object on her palm. ‘Careful,’ he said.
Madelief looked at it without the slightest interest. Why was he getting so worked up about something so small?
‘Can you see it?’ he asked, as he plucked the thing from her hand with exaggerated precision.
‘No,’ she said. Perhaps I don’t want to see anything, she thought.
While Madelief slept beside him, he lay wide awake and tense. Images of the little mushroom’s delicately spiralling grooves, its domed head, slightly worn down on one side, and the thin, almost invisible slot designed for the screwdriver floated in his mind’s eye.
As other, darker images loomed up behind them, he grew faint with fear. Of course the little screw had come from a kitchen appliance, perhaps hadn’t been properly attached in the factory, had shaken loose, fallen on the floor and been kicked, by Madelief’s shuffling feet, to the living room.
And now, concealed in some kitchen appliance or other, a screw-less, orphaned hole was menacing their tranquilly slumbering happiness. A loosened cover plate, a severed wire, the spark of a short circuit, a cable catching fire: something small that led to something big.
‘Take a seat.’
Speksneijder was not at all reassured by the smile of Koert Schoonhoven, a colleague who’d recently been appointed General Relocation Coordinator. Schoonhoven sat down too, placing himself at the head of the six-person table. The walls were papered with charts, as yet largely blank, though three had already filled up with timelines and focus points, as well as fat and thin arrows signalling the hierarchy of the relocation process.
‘Great that you could come so soon.’ Schoonhoven was from the eastern Netherlands, but the the pallor of his skin and blondness of his hair meant he was often taken for a Frisian. The curtains were closed; the light in the room came from the fluorescent ceiling lamps.
‘I gather it’s urgent,’ Speksneijder said, otherwise clueless as to why he’d been summoned.
Schoonhoven nodded and launched into a breathless monologue about the various stages of the upcoming move: design, demolition, renovation, furnishing and relocation. ‘I desperately need assistance,’ he concluded.
Speksneijder had grown increasingly uneasy as technical terms and fixed time frames rained down on him. It frightened him that he’d been the one Schoonhoven had thought of. ‘But I don’t know anything about demolition or renovation,’ he said, ‘or about relocation.’
‘The relocation has been outsourced to a removal firm,’ Schoonhoven explained, ‘so that’s one worry less.’ He looked at Speksneijder with a serious expression. ‘I need your help with the planning: are we still on target or are we falling behind on deadlines, have we sent out all the letters and reports, who do we need to call?’ He tugged at the fingers of his writing hand, making the knuckles crack. ‘And on top of that the architect – despite his pretty stiff quote – has assumed that we’ll keep the records of the construction meetings.’
Speksneijder blinked in shock.
‘Of course, we’ll be doing this together,’ Schoonhoven tried to reassure him, ‘you’ll draw up the records and I’ll correct them…no one need know. Come here a sec.’
Speksneijder slid across the seats of two chairs, ultimately positioning himself on the third. A small pile of documents waited on the table.
‘Here’s an outline of the project and a statement of our mandate’, Schoonhoven said, as he shoved a sheet of paper under Speksneijder’s nose.
Gilles quickly scanned the document: modern office – carpark, ground floor, two and a half stories – three lifts, two stairwells – functional design – light and spacious.
The second sheet gave the timeframe. Schoonhoven pressed an almost nail-less finger on the spot where the timeline started. ‘We should already be here, but we’re only here…’
A period of seven months had been allocated for the reconstruction work, summer holidays included. Completion was due at the end of November and the building was to be furnished in mid-December. The actual move would take place between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
‘Logistical design?’ Speksneijder had seen the term flash past.
‘The place where the offices will be,’ Schoonhoven explained. ‘It’s about how we can all fit in together optimally.’
Speksneijder felt the weight of new terms and tight deadlines pressing on his brain, the tyrannical language of management made him shiver. ‘I don’t think I’m up to this,’ he said. He drew his untouched notebook towards him, the chill of a sweat-drenched shirt spreading across his back.
For a moment Schoonhoven was silent, but then he banged the table with both hands. ‘Jesus, Speksneijder! Have you any idea what’s at stake here?’
Speksneijder racked his brains for an answer. ‘We’ve already booked our summer holiday.’
Schoonhoven waved his hand airily. ‘No problem…’
‘And my wife has to be okay with this,’ he said.
That same evening, when the table had been cleared and the sash window pushed up a notch to let in some fresh air, Gilles and Madelief weighed up the vague, uncertain pros of Schoonhoven’s offer against the equally vague, uncertain cons.
‘How well do you know this Schoonhoven guy?’
‘He says hello when he sees me.’
‘So do the neighbours. He’s got plenty of people to choose from, why would he choose you?
Madelief had other misgivings too. Someone would have to take over his current role: suppose they worked better and faster, and were young and therefore cheaper into the bargain? Would they want him back again? And, she suddenly wondered, what if Schoonhoven needed him as a scapegoat to blame for mistakes or delays?
Speksneijder sat on the edge of his chair. He felt the spring breeze caress his back and tried to think of a counter-argument, but Madelief cut him off.
‘You’ve always taken a back seat before, why change now?’
This time the curtains in Schoonhoven’s office were open, the sheets of paper on the wall drooped under the weight of notes scrawled boldly in fat marker pen. A planning board had appeared, as yet virgin white, apart from a few lines where someone had tested the coloured markers.
‘You’ve both given it a good think?’
‘We feel it’s better if I don’t do it,’ Speksneijder said.
The dust motes darting around in the sunlight bothered him.
‘Bloody hell!’ Schoonmaker threw his arms in the air theatrically, then let his gaze wander over Speksneijder’s terror-stricken face. ‘Are you scared?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘I’d be scared too, if I were in your shoes. Why do you think I picked you – there are plenty of others to choose from, right?’
Speksneijder nodded in full agreement. That was exactly what Madelief had argued.
‘I chose you because if you say yes now, you could start tomorrow,’ Schoonhoven said.
Speksneijder was stunned into silence. Was that it? Was that the only reason? He took a sip of coffee and peered at Schoonhoven’s pale-yellow, thinning hair.
Someone ran down the adjoining corridor, an ambulance siren wailed from the street. Schoonhoven waited till the sound died away. ‘How long have you held this role now?’
‘About twelve years,’ Speksneijder answered. Spoken aloud, it sounded horribly long. The next questions – how old was he, had his office career been sufficiently rewarding, how much was he clearing, anyway? – confused him.
‘Your salary…’ said Schoonhoven.
Speksneijder mentioned a round sum.
‘Net, I hope?’ Schoonhoven drew himself up and snapped his fingers nonchalantly. ‘Look, I don’t like saying this… ‘
Speksneijder braced himself.
‘…but you’ve got a weak profile in this firm and that could be dangerous when they compare everybody’s profiles, which they’ll be doing soon, this year in fact.’
He flinched under Madelief’s questioning gaze: he had so much to tell and so much to conceal. He flopped into his favourite armchair and gave an account of his conversation with Schoonhoven. Schoonhoven had managed to talk him round, he began, and on top of that he’d been made a better offer. As assistant relocation coordinator he’d be excellently placed to buff up his profile, right there in the front row, holding the reins with Schoonhoven, consulting with the architect, the contractor and the installers, and attending all the crucial management meetings in his capacity as observer.
‘I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into,’ she said.
Translated by jane Hedley-Prole