Tommy Wieringa – The Blessed Rita
For my father, mushy eater
And for marinus
– FIRST –
Paul Krüzen spat on his hands, seized the handle and raised the ax over his head. The log on the chopping block burst, but didn’t cleave. Birds that sought evening shelter in the trees fled into the dusk. Furiously twittering blackbirds shot through the undergrowth. Paul Krüzen brought the ax down again, again and again, until the chunk of oak parted. Then it got easier. The pieces flew. Woodchips everywhere, spots of light on the forest soil. Let the ax do the work, his father had taught him long ago, but what he liked was to put some power into it.
A few pale stars appeared in the sky. Deep below that, in the clearing in the woods, the demon swung his ax. He made it crack like a whip. Blocks tumbled through the air. The beeches all around, strong and smooth as a young man’s arms, shivered beneath the blows.
This was his life, he put wood on the block and he split it. His shirt stuck to his body. Jabs of pain in his lower back. Each blow found its mark. He had been doing this so long, all with measured, controlled haste. He had to sweat, it had to hurt.
He swiped his armpits with roll-on and put on a clean checkered shirt. “I’m off,” he told his father, who was reading in his chair beneath the lamp.
The evening was chilly, with a whiff of celery above the grass. The car window open, he drove to the village. Three jarring speedbumps marked the road. Speed ramps and traffic circles were a mark of progress, of a jacked-up pace of living that had to be slowed, even in Mariënveen, where the clodhoppers had a tendency to get themselves killed at the weekend. Once every couple of years Paul Krüzen would sit straight up in bed, wakened by the impact, the sirens and the whine of chainsaws a little later, the play of phantom light on the oaks along the curve. The next morning, he would see that yet another chunk had been ripped from the bark. In recent years, the bereaved sometimes placed flowers and photographs beside the tree.
Paul pulled up in front of Hedwiges Geerdink’s place. He rang the bell and went back to wait in the car, the door open. He had no thoughts at all. Early June, the last light on the western horizon. A little later, Hedwiges slid in beside him. “Good evening, one and all,” his friend said in his high voice. Hedwiges had two voices in him: his high squeaky voice or his low, hoarse, chesty one. Anyone hearing it for the first time immediately saw him split in two: the high Hedwiges and the low Hedwiges. Baker Hedwig, as they called him in the village. Petey Peep.
Paul pulled his legs in, closed the car door and drove into the village.
At Shu Dynasty, formerly the Kottink Bar & Party Center, Laurens Steggink and a stranger were at the billiard table.
“Gents,” Steggink greeted them.
Paul took a seat at the butt end of the bar, in the pine-paneled niche. He liked to have his back covered, like a cowboy, so he could see everyone come in. Hedwiges slid onto the barstool beside him. The radio was stuck somewhere halfway between channels, waves of static brought them Die Sonne geht unter in Texas.
Mama Shu said “hai Paul” and “hai Hedwig”, and set a bottle of Grolsch in front of Paul and a glass of cola for Hedwiges. The pirate station thanked cafeterias, contractors, sawmills and wrecking yards for their support. Paul knew where the studio was, in a shed back of Tien Ellenweg; the booming bass could sometimes be heard for kilometers around.
Steggink bent down and eyed along his cue. He took his time. He was good. Learned to play billiards in the army, during the long, empty hours in the tactical unit bar in Seedorf.
Paul Krüzen, Hedwiges Geerdink and Laurens Steggink had all been in the same class at school.
He and Steggink had one day built an underground hut in the woods. There were going to sleep there. They roasted frozen minced-meat hot dogs over a smoky fire and rolled out their sleeping bags, but when it got dark Paul balked at spending a night in the burrow amid the spiders and pill bugs, and cycled home. Steggink remained in the woods alone. He wasn’t afraid of the dark.
The friendship had faded; Paul had developed a growing dislike for his pranks and stories, as well as for the greasy pigtail that hung over his collar. At Theo Abbink’s twenty-third birthday party, Steggink had taken three kittens that belong to Abbink’s girlfriend, wrung their necks and tossed them into the field. His defense: he was drunk, and he hated cats.
The silence between them had lasted about twenty years.
When he heard one day that Steggink had been convicted for having a weed plantation in the barn belonging to his fiancée’s parents, and of fraudulent practices on a classified advertising site, it came as no surprise. Not to Paul, not to anyone, really. They had all seen it coming. Laurens Steggink didn’t have a biography, he had a rap sheet. His ex was still scared shitless of him.
When he got out, he moved his business activities across the border. In what used to be a printing plant at a pathetic industrial estate outside Stattau, he ran a brothel with girls from all over the world. His long frame perched on a bar stool, he watched over Club Pacha with a soft drink in front of him and his cell phone glued to his ear. Nothing escaped him. But today was Monday, and on Monday the club was closed.
Paul sometimes crossed the border in the hope of finding one of his favorites, profligate Thong from Bangkok or, even better, motherly Rita from Quezon. Anyone who didn’t believe in the existence of love that you could buy knew nothing of their fervent hearts.
The ball thumped dully against the cushion of the long rail, nicked the yellow ball and smacked straight into the red. A fine sound, Paul thought, the tick of a skillful shot delivered with power and confidence.
Steggink took two more shots before missing. The other man moved into position, his face appeared under the lamp. Pale eyes, a Pole no doubt, the stooped torso heavy from lard and pig’s trotters. They showed up in Paul’s yard on occasion, the Mareks and Wozzecks, they were never much of a good deal. But you had to be ready for the exceptions. Like the dealer from Wroclaw, who had showed him a wonder: a trunk full of Russian summer uniforms from the Great War, the medals still pinned to them.
The Pole took his shot. The balls skipped across the felt.
Skittishly, the Hennies entered and sat beside each other at the bar. They bent over their new cell phone, the light from the screen casting a blue glow over their faces. After a few minutes, the female Hennie looked up and asked: “And your father, Paul?”
Paul Krüzen held up his hand and made a so-so gesture. What use was there in telling them about how, every day, he had to disinfect the wound on his father’s shin that simply wouldn’t heal? Before long they would have to go back to the hospital to have it checked.
For forty-nine years now they had been in each other’s lives, his father and he. One day, not far from now, he would remain behind, alone in the Saxon farmhouse on Muldershoek, where he would retreat into strangeness and conversations with himself.
The billiards clock buzzed. Steggink took a fifty-cent piece from the pile on top of it and dropped it into the slot.
The Hennies went back to their new Sony Xperia. The myriad ways one could spend one’s benefit check. At home, their kiddies were already in bed. You could ask yourself whether people like them should be allowed to reproduce, but the calamity had already taken place; beyond the watchful eye of some government agency or other, they had multiplied their misfortune twice over.
Soon, with the arrival of Theo Abbink and Alfons Oliemuller, the band of loners was complete. Ashtrays were laid out. The smoking ban had not yet made it to this part of the country. Before reaching Mariënveen, the law lost much of its force and luster.
When the little mountain of coins atop the billiard clock had dwindled away, Steggink and the stranger dismantled their cues like hitmen and slid the halves back into their soft cases.
The bar was now full, down to the very last stool. Alfons Oliemuller looked over the shoulder of the male Hennie and said: “You need 4G for that. In Kloosterzand they’ve got 4G, here there isn’t any.” And on the conversation rolled, about the flexibility of the new iPhone and the factory defect in the housing of the Galaxy Note. Talk died, however, when Steggink jammed his sinewy arm like a sword into the group. They all fell silent, dumbfounded, as though he had laid a handful of winning cards on the table.
“What’s that supposed to be?” Oliemuller asked.
“What do you think?” Steggink said.
Oliemuller took the smartphone from his hand and turned it over. “Gresso,” he read out loud.
“Made in Russki,” Steggink stated. He grinned at the unknown Pole.
The object lay glistening obscenely in Oliemuller’s hand. They all stared at it, the same way they had all stared at Steggink’s Ferrari the first time he pulled up in front of the bar. Like serfs along a sandy road seeing an automobile go chuffing by for the first time. If he had honked the horn they would have fallen to their knees and genuflected.
Steggink’s blood-red Ferrari Testarossa, his sun chariot – no one should have it so good. And especially not an equal, a boy from Zouavenstraat who they had seen fall and get back onto his feet, fall and get back onto his feet, all the way to where he was now.
“Bit of a wee screen, y’ask me,” said Oliemuller at last.
“Sapphire,” Steggink said. “And the case, that’s gold and African ebony, the case is.”
“Shi-it,” Abbink breathed.
At the far end of the bar, Paul Krüzen raised the bottle of Grolsch to his lips without taking his eyes off them. His index finger smelled of rotting onion.
“Only one like it in the world,” Steggink said smugly.
“But what ‘bout that screen?’ said Oliemuller.
Steggink stuck out his chin. “What ‘bout it?”
“Well,” Oliemuller said hesitantly, “it’s not that big or nothin’.”
“That’s what they call design,” Steggink scowled. “By an Italian fellow you never even heard of.”
No one spoke for a bit. On the radio, the pirate dealt out greetings.
“That that Italian fella is into wee screens like tha’,” the male Hennie sniggered amazedly. And Theo Abbink chirped: “Does it come with a magnifying glass, Laurens?”
The group burst out laughing, and so recovered their damaged self-esteem.
In the nineteenth century, their forefathers had become small property holders. A patch of land, a cow and a farmhouse. Back when the prices were still good, the last two generations had sold everything their ancestors had culled so painstakingly, and went off to live in the new housing tracts. And so they had become dispossessed farmers once again, peering into each other’s livings with greedy little eyes, closely comparing their own prosperity with that of their neighbors.
Ming, the Shu’s grown-up daughter, shuffled around behind the bar on flip-flops and spoke openhearted, broken English with the stranger. From snatches of their conversation, Paul Krüzen made out that the man was Russian and not a Pole. He grunted in disapproval. Russians, he had no use for them, not here and not at the all-in resorts in Thailand or the Philippines either, where he and Hedwiges Geerdink spent a few weeks each year.
Mama Shu swiped at the screen of her cell phone. A thousand thin threads attached her to a distant land. Her body was here, but her thoughts were in a sooty megalopolis in southwestern China. She knew about an attack in Chengdu sooner than a car accident down the street.
The Russian, who had started off keeping his mouth shut, had now begun shouting “hey-ya Mutti!’” ever-louder, every time he wanted a beer. When he smacked the male Hennie on the shoulder and yelled : “Za hollandskyo-russkyo druzbu!” everyone knew they were going to witness a case of Slavic public drunkenness in Shu Dynasty that evening, and that it would end with the entire Shu family coming out from behind the swinging kitchen doors to wrestle the big Russian out the door.
Paul Krüzen braced himself. You didn’t want to miss anything, but at the same time you wanted to stay out of it. Beside him at the bar, Hedwiges was whining about the RTV East broadcast from which he had gleaned the term “shrinkage region”. A good term, Hedwiges thought, a perfect description of the pace at which the clientele of his little grocery shop was declining. “They’re all dyin’ on me,” he said. “Last week it was Ullie.”
“Ullie?” Paul said, in spite of himself.
“Tonnie’s Ullie. Burial’s on Wednesday. The way things are going, there won’t be no one left.”
“But you’ve made your millions already, Hedwig!’ the female Hennie said suddenly, in a louder voice.
Hedwiges blinked as though someone had snatched his glasses. Did he actually shave, Paul wondered suddenly? He couldn’t recall him doing that during their vacations. Maybe he had no beard growth at all. His cheeks were as smooth and pale as wax.
“Wha’s that, Hedwig,” said Laurens Steggink, elbows on the bar and his beer bottle clenched in his big hands, “are you’n millionaire?”
Hedwiges’ chin jutted out in a rare fit of stubbornness, he straightened his back. He crowed: “You bet I’m a millionaire!” He nodded, sniffed loudly and said in his high voice: “Easy. And what about it?”
The barely perceptible blip in time. With nervous chuckling, life began again. It could be true, Baker Hedwig being a millionaire, they all knew the stories about tight-fisted farmers who turned out to be filthy rich after they were dead. Hedwiges Geerdink fit the profile. Always a tight hand on his purse, come to think of it – he would spend three euros when Paul spent thirty. He always ordered half a portion of babi pangang or nasi goreng, but stole the chicken from Paul’s plate.
Steggink raised his shoulders. “Well, that’s fine, id nit?” He looked around. “Good old Hedwig, or am I wrong?”
“Dumb,” Paul said quietly.
“But if it’s true, I’m not going to lie about it, now am I?” Hedwiges said shrilly.
Paul shook his head. Stay small, he’d told him that often enough before, always look smaller and dumber than the others. To have nothing and be capable of nothing, that’s what they knew, they can live with that. But it wasn’t that kind of evening for Hedwiges Johannes Geerdink, who felt like sloughing off his puny, pale hide and enjoying the doubt he had sown. Hedwiges the mill-ion-aire, oh yeah!
Paul could tell by the way he raised his glass to his lips and tried to drink like a man. Somewhere inside him lay a hidden reserve of testosterone, and he had tapped into it now. Of course, Hedwiges had plenty of money, but he lived like a church mouse, always afraid he would lose it all and die in penury. That was why he already acted like he had nothing, not a red cent.
He had bought ground, Paul knew, a little here and there, and back behind De Steenkoele even a few hectares for the new housing estate. Land was worth a fortune, and Hedwiges had an unknown quantity of it, scraped together cent-by-cent since 1911 by selling bushels of buckwheat and beans in the grocery shop on Bunderweg.
And now everyone knew about it.
Sample translation by Sam Garrett