Quite a few people have already died. Former friends, teachers, colleagues, family members. But I never know how much it’s going to affect me. When I heard my primary school teacher had died, I was overcome by a grief more powerful than I had thought possible. My shoulders tensed, my throat tightened. And to think I hadn’t seen the woman since I was twelve years old. Upon the death of an old friend, on the other hand, I waited in vain for grief to hit me, but all I felt was disbelief. It simply couldn’t be true. He was the kind of man who’d live a long, good, healthy, happy life, have lots of children and be an upbeat dad. He was destined for that, I was sure of it. And where was he now? What was he doing? Even after the funeral I couldn’t shake off the feeling that it was all some kind of mistake. It made me realise I didn’t actually know anything; not about him, not about the last years of his life, not about where he was now. Not about bereavement and how to cope with it. Not about death. Civilisation is – how old now? – and still we know nothing about death. We focus on life, not the infinite mist that follows it. Or we think about the days that could have lain ahead, the conversation never held, the reconciliation, the encouragement, a friendly tease. Irrelevant as that one missed conversation becomes in the hereafter, it’s the kind of thing that triggers our sense of loss. The things that could have been. Three verbs. Could. Have. Been.
“Masje’s movements, her gaze, had a natural quality that reminded me more of a cat than a Homo sapiens.” Stifling a laugh, Aysun takes a deep breath. “She turned heads in the street. Women’s as well as men’s… She didn’t notice, I liked that about her.” She coughs. “When did we first meet? Must be at least twenty years ago. I might as well tell you now that I had a crush on her at first. It took me a long time to realise I couldn’t really rely on her. You never knew what mood she’d be in. She didn’t call me on my birthday. She didn’t come to my final exam performance. She wasn’t there for me. But…”
“No, wait. Sorry… I’ll start again.”
She hasn’t yet said anything she hasn’t told me before—that I’m a cat, always going my own way. Aysun is more preoccupied by her performance than by the story. Pity. Daniel did a better job just now. Maybe Aysun is keeping her real insights for when I’m actually dead. Dead—a word that’s almost the same when reversed, but which stands for the most irreversible thing of all. I remember a time before anyone I knew had died. As a child, I felt vaguely drawn to people in mourning; the unconcealed blubbering, the legitimate despondency, the dark looks from under furrowed brows. That was life in its purest form, on the verge of disappearance. I wasn’t to know that my mother would disappear shortly afterwards. And that I would hardly feel a thing. But then she had only stepped out for a moment, she’d be back soon.
My calf muscle is starting to cramp, I’m doing my best to lie still.
What could have gone through Tom’s mind when he was lying here? The realisation of mortality? The metaphysical relevance of this game? Or was he thinking of the lecture he’s giving tomorrow, of his favourite student, or maybe the ones who complain about his woolly language? There isn’t much that gives Tom sleepless nights, but he can toss and turn for hours fretting about what his students think of him.
He didn’t want to do it at first. “We’re adults…” he began. “We’re parents; just because we’re drunk doesn’t mean we have to…” He couldn’t finish his sentence. We burst out laughing. For a moment, parenthood seemed like just another game. He said it was macabre to pretend one of us had crossed over to the other side. We talked him into it, promising we’d emphasize all the good things in the speeches. Just like people do at real funerals.
Even then he insisted on being the first corpse. Maybe it was his way of keeping a distance, underneath the blanket on the floor, until he could get used to the idea. Daniel said a few words. “Tom is generous with his intelligence,” he said. “Tom feels an urge to enrich others.”
“Masje and I only really got to know each other during our year in New York,” Aysun begins again. “Masje pushed the boundaries, flitting from one night club to the next, always on the dance floor… She was a social butterfly. We studied Comparative Literature. Read poetry to each other. Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg… whom, incidentally, we saw perform in a church on Broadway, his young lover sitting next to him. I can still hear his recital, from new work as well as Howl: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”
Aysun is good at imitating Ginsberg’s mesmerising rhythm and intonation.
“But back in Amsterdam, something happened. She changed her ways. She applied herself, enrolled in medicine and microbiology so she could contribute to the health of mankind and the world. She felt she had wasted her time, picking up idiots in clubs. I was surprised by her new-found idealism, her choice of a profession in which she would hardly see anyone, and of a steady job at the lab… I sometimes think it was motivated purely by the wish to have a clear-cut answer to the question ‘What do you do?’”
She’s right, my choice did stem from a desire for clarity. Some people need religion to hold on to, I need microbiology. And I wanted to do something that was real, concentrate on things that actually exist outside of the imagination.
“She said she didn’t want to be part of the ‘circus of inflated egos,’ as she called the literary world. From then on, she wanted to focus on the smallest of the small: microscopic organisms that nevertheless determine our survival.”
When I close my eyes I’m on a raft that tips backwards with every wave.
I must have nodded off. I breathe out and open my eyes. Lamplight filters through the woollen fabric.
“Masje was uninhibited, she had the soul of a child…”
Are the others as drunk as I am? I shouldn’t have had those last two glasses. Dunk bunk drunk.
“What exactly do you mean, though, by the soul of a child?” Daniel interrupts her. “Surely you don’t believe in the soul, or in something like reincarnation?”
I want to bring my hand to my nose, but corpses don’t scratch their noses. I move my toes. The cramp in my calf muscle is getting worse. Wiggling my toes very slightly, I wonder how much can I move without anyone noticing. My insides are moving all the time: oxygen whizzes in and out of my lungs, my stomach bubbles, works, rumbles, my heart pumps, my bowels slave away, my bladder fills up. I stretch my fingers. My right arm, in its sling, is resting on my belly.
“I’m genuinely interested in what you mean by a child’s soul—or any kind of soul, come to think of it. Didn’t souls become obsolete when Freud discovered the subconscious?”
“Daniel!” Aysun stamps her foot. “I’m making a speech here!”
“Do you have an answer to that? You’re our philosopher,” he asks, turning to Tom. Daniel is hard on Aysun. They could have been siblings. They give each other no quarter, but as soon as a third person criticises one of them, they present a united front.
“A soul…” Tom murmurs.
“Ladies and gentlemen, The Soul!” Daniel roars.
Soul. Soul. Seal. Wax seals, seals on the beach. I probably look like a washed-up seal myself, an elongated lump lying under a blanket. The zeppelin was seal-shaped, too. I remember seeing it glide peacefully over the rooftops. Oscar sat on the back of my bike, clutching my waist with his little arms. “Mum!” he called out. “Is that a zeppelin?”
Bulky and elegant, the light-blue and orange aircraft was hovering high above the houses.
“Cool! This is the first time I’ve seen a zeppelin!” he squealed, his voice high-pitched with excitement.
“Let’s follow it,” I suggested. I cycled past the street we usually turn onto and the next one, which would also have led to Oscar’s school. As long as the zeppelin was in sight, I went straight after it.
At the junction I turned left onto a broad street with a separate bicycle lane. I peered up past the houses but the zeppelin had disappeared.
“Let’s go back to where we first saw it.”
“Okay,” I said, and was about to turn the bike around when I spied flashes of blue and orange in between two chimneys.
“There it is!” I lurched the bike back onto the bicycle path, feeling like Oscar’s ally. At that moment, I wasn’t his mother, not thirty years his senior—our pursuit of the benignly floating zeppelin made us equals.
A beep. A scream. A scooter crashing against my front wheel. Then everything went black.
Lying on my back, I heard Oscar’s thin voice—“Mummy, Mummy.” I tried to look around me but my head seemed stuck and I couldn’t see. I was sure my eyes were open, yet everything around me was black. Oscar, I thought. If only Oscar is all right. My god, my god raced through my mind.
“Mummy…” he said in a peeping voice.
“Are you hurt?”
“No-hoo,” he cried. “You’re bleeding, Mum.”
Good. Oscar was okay. It wasn’t serious, then.
“We’ll put a plaster on it.” I tried to sound reassuring, but I still couldn’t see a thing. I was beginning to suspect that I’d gone blind, that I’d never see again. That was my fate. Suddenly, all I wanted was for the children to be grown up, so I’d no longer be responsible for their lives. If I had just been blinded, I’d be even less capable of looking after them.
“You flew to the ground,” Oscar said.
Why couldn’t I see? I felt something trickle down my chin and jaw. Blood. Bacteria find you in no time, the lousy pathogenic tramps. I pictured the war that was being waged in the wound, the commensal bacteria trying to prevent the attackers from entering, defending the gate, pulling up the drawbridge, fighting them and pushing them back with all their might and will. Not a free will, perhaps, but a will nonetheless—an impulse, a power of self-preservation that made these tiny organisms fight for my benefit as well as their own.
I wanted to reassure Oscar, make him feel safe, take away his worries, but I couldn’t do anything. This was excusable given I was lying on the road, but I was aware that the feeling was similar to the sense of powerlessness that came over me quite regularly: the realisation of being responsible for my sons, two living beings who needed me. I had to show them the way, no matter how lost I felt. Why does everything always seem so complicated to me? Simple things, like waking the children in the morning, interrupting their blissful childish sleep, deciding what to have for supper. Should I prepare a child-friendly meal or cook what I feel like eating? Should I make them clear their plates? No, not that—I won’t force them. The resistance the boys can put up is more than I can handle. Why can’t I simply say, “Clear your plate?” Why do I feel like a stranger at my own kitchen table? Lost in a strange city with a suitcase full of strange things, sharing a meal with people I don’t know?
“Sorry, madam, sorry… Oh, fokking hell, sorry…” the boy whined in a thick Amsterdam accent. I heard other voices. People talking all at the same time.
Seen from space, the accident would look very similar to a small infection somewhere in the body, the wrong kind of bacteria in a pimple. A minor malfunction, nothing more. Some people think bacteria are just beings with no will of their own that can be eliminated with the right antibiotics, but even the “divide-and-multiply” system leaves room for doubt. Doubt about which direction to take, to grow or not to grow, to divide or to remain one, to be or not to be. Hamlet. He may well have been the first modern man. His fate is not tragic because he’s destined to avenge his father, but because he has doubts; he could have been a hero if it hadn’t been for those doubts. I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Drawing up my legs one by one, I stared into the dark, watery void. My legs were there. Oscar’s little hand was in mine. He was unhurt. My panic subsided. Something had happened that was beyond my control. Something had happened to me that I hadn’t wanted. The thought of not being responsible filled me with a sense of calm. It meant I was free to surrender to it. To just lie there without shame. How many times had I longed to just give up? To lie in bed doing nothing. Not get up, not make breakfast, not take the kids to school. No work, no meetings, no nursery, no school, no meals, no searching looks from lab technicians or from children, no bedtime story, no TV, no Internet. To just stop. Simply stop. To be or not to be. Just lie there. On my back. As flat as a smear of blood on a microscope slide. And ignore everything that tries to call me to order—the alarm, the phone, Tom’s voice.
Not that I wanted to die. On the contrary, I wanted to live.
“Madam, should I call 999?”
The boy kept repeating that he thought I was turning left.
“Mummy.” Oscar’s voice sounded frightened. He was ashamed of his mother lying in the street like that. Sometimes his shame irritates me. He’s ashamed if I kneel down to tie my shoelaces. Or ask a shop-assistant a question.
He’s almost eight. I sometimes observe him and try to reconstruct what I must have been like at his age. What had I been thinking when I climbed on the chair to reach the cough syrup my father had put in the cupboard? I put the bottle to my mouth and took a large gulp. It tasted good. Eight. I had turned eight a few days before my mother disappeared. Eight, the year of great change. Watching Oscar and others his age, I try to understand why I had chosen not to believe my mother was gone.
The boy with the scooter drowned out everyone else. Panicking. I felt sorry for him.
The siren of a police car.
I opened my eyes. The blackness had changed into a dark purple glow, from which recognisable shapes emerged. Roofs. Trees. Cars. People.
“Can you sit up?”
“I see everything in blue and purple.”
“Am I blue, too?” A man’s voice.
There have been some good years in my life. Others seemed good at the time, but with hindsight I now realise I wasn’t happy. The time I’m living in now is…
“Mum, do what the policeman says.”
I tried to sit up, but my arm wouldn’t move.
The blue and purple surged around me, looking like a digital rendering of a nocturnal city. I should learn to appreciate music more, get into classical music. No more Internet, no Facebook, no chatting. A visual impairment can be a blessing.
Someone started stretching and bending my arm. It was terribly painful.
An orange patch appeared out of the gloom, getting brighter and brighter orange. Oscar’s satchel.
A red car. A blue one. A white one. The ambulance. An officer. One by one, objects loomed up out of the dark: white cornices, a tree. A perfect tree. Sturdy brown trunk, confident, thin, flexible branches. Blue triangles in between the delicately calligraphed twigs and bright-green leaves, fitting perfectly. Black, forked limbs. Quivering leaves. Sunlight penetrating pale green.
I wanted to shake my head.
This is Amsterdam, I thought. This is Amsterdam, and this is my life. With Oscar, Bobby and Tom. I felt deliriously happy.
With the officer’s help, I managed to get to my feet. Just as we were about to get into the ambulance, I looked up—there was the zeppelin, floating directly overhead, like an eye watching over us.
“It’s like a balloon. A giant child’s balloon,” Oscar said. He was spot-on.
“The soul; well, it depends on what you mean by soul…” Tom’s voice breaks the silence.
“That’s what I’m asking.”
“Let Tom speak.” Susan sounds irritated. I’d almost forgotten she’s there too. Our bubbly, leggy neighbour from down the road. Ginger hair piled high, freckles and a wide mouth. She always greets me with a broad smile when I’m taking the kids to school, smiling like someone who’s just won a medal at the Olympics, or the lottery. That kind of smile. It’s impossible, yet there it is, every morning.
“The subconscious is something we can examine—we can explore our subconscious mind by observing our habits and thought patterns—but the soul is intangible.” Tom.
“The soul is like the wind…” Aysun
“Yes, like the wind. Beautifully put.”
“The wind, breath, spirit, spirits… breath, which comes to you and will leave you again one day.”
“True enough, breath is at the beginning of everything. God gave Adam the breath of life, he breathed a soul into him,” Tom adds. “The word soul is actually a religious term. When your body dies, your soul travels on to heaven, purgatory or hell, or to some other place, depending on your belief. But the subconscious plays no part in death. That’s an important difference.”
I can hear Bobby calling.
“Have you ever wondered whether there could have been a god if he had not created mankind? A perfectly intact world full of plants and animals, but no humans?” Daniel’s voice is getting louder. “No pollution, just unadulterated nature. Flora, fauna… And a paunchy god floating around it feeling pleased with himself.”
I can picture the look in Daniel’s eyes; fanatical, carried away by his imagination.
“We’re digressing.” Susan sighs.
“Yes, but this is what it’s all about: the fact we’re here, that we’re humans. What makes us live? Where does life come from? That energy, that which animates things, is what I call the soul. It’s not really personal; on the contrary, it transcends personality,” Tom goes on.
“I think I can hear one of the kids,” Susan says.
“Masje, Bobby’s calling!” Tom’s voice sounds startled, as if he’s just been caught.
I don’t answer.
Aysun laughs. “Masje is a very convincing corpse.”
I don’t need to look to see what’s happening. I can see Susan turning to Tom. Him getting up. I hear him walk up the stairs. Bobby asks why Mum isn’t coming up. Well, we’re playing a game taking turns to lie under a blanket. It’s her turn now. She’s pretending to be dead and Aysun is giving a speech. Would he say that?
Susan and Aysun are whispering.
“I wanted a boy, anyway. I’d hate to have to be a role model,” Aysun says. “Me, a role model! Phew!… I’m soooo sophisticated!”
“Just going to the loo.” Susan doesn’t know how to handle Aysun, she thinks she’s a hysteric. I hear her climb the stairs. There’s a loo downstairs, but she wants to meet Tom in the hall. Let her tits brush against his arm in passing.
Daniel is clattering around, topping up the wine glasses. It’s his turn after mine. Practical. Honest. Strong sense of irony. What else can I say about him? I can talk about how we met. “Do you have a dog?” he asked. We were in the Oudemanhuispoort building’s canteen. I shook my head. “You?” “No, I was just making conversation,” he said.
I liked him. Tom hung about him with a sheepish grin. Aysun wasn’t around yet. I was more attracted to Daniel than to Tom—we only fell in love years later, by which time Daniel’s opportunism, his bluntness and pessimism had started to irritate me. He’d been charming as a student, sharp-witted and daringly boisterous. He had no fear, or any of Tom’s politeness. Tom is civilised. Just like his father, who always covered the bill with his hand when he invited us out to dinner, so we wouldn’t see how much the meal had cost. Putting a price on things was vulgar. Tom laughed about his parents. Now he’s exactly the same. But that’s all about Tom—what can I say about Daniel? That he’s always been one of us?
I could point out his insecurity, which he continually tries to drown out, or how his rigid attitude to life frustrates him at every turn. We’ve all made concessions, but he’s suffered from them the most. He wanted to be a journalist. It seemed to go well at first, but whenever he was asked to write something for a newspaper or magazine, he ridiculed the assignment, calling it a cliché. His arrogant behaviour actually masked a fear of failure. In the meantime, he followed his father’s advice and studied for a degree in architecture, working as a plumber on the side.
No, I know what I’ll say. I’ll talk about how he was racked with guilt after refusing to give a homeless man any money. Days later, he went to look for the man and offered to make some coffee for him. The tramp sat in the kitchen while Daniel made sandwiches. That story struck a chord with me. Aysun was shocked, afraid he’d make a habit of it, but I thought it was touching. Yes, that’s what I’ll say. Good, that’s sorted, then.
“Actually, I do understand what you mean by a child’s soul,” Tom says, bounding down the stairs.
“A child’s soul… Ha!” Daniel shouts. “Yes, Laurel and Hardy had a child’s soul—one for the both of them, half a child’s soul each!” He roars with laughter.
“No, it has nothing to do with childishness,” Aysun says.
“If you must use celebrity examples… um… Marilyn Monroe comes to mind, or maybe…”
“Of course, Napoleon and Hitler very probably had children’s souls, too.”
“Don’t be silly.”
Daniel’s remark makes me laugh.
“If anyone, then Gandhi,” Aysun says. “His complete lack of cynicism, his trust in the goodness of humanity…”
“You’re right. Masje is like that,” Tom says. “She has a certain… unprejudiced quality…”
A child’s soul, in other words. What a strange idea, that my soul could have an age that isn’t linked to my own.
“It can lead to thoughtless, impulsive behaviour, too, though. That’s the downside.” Tom.
“Masje was incapable of pretence…” Aysun tries to pick up the thread. “When I confessed my love to her, she said ‘How nice!’ and went off to get another drink.”
Funny that she thinks I can’t be insincere. Maybe because she’s always that little bit less sincere. That’s it. Aysun often feigns enthusiasm and sympathy, especially to people she doesn’t know well. My insincerity is subtler, and therefore more plausible. And more false.
“… In dealing with others, Masje had a gift of…”
The strangest thing is that the day will come when we really will be making speeches at each other’s funeral. Which one of us will die first? According to statistics, it should be one of the men, but who can tell? Perhaps I’ll be the first one to die.
My phone rings. It’s on a chair, quite close to me. Someone is pacing the room.
The jingling stops, then starts again.
“Surely you’re not going to answer it?” Susan.
“Just check who it is.” Aysun.
“It’s your aunt.” Tom.
My aunt? She’s the last person who’d call me after midnight.
“Let it ring.”
“Next time we’ll play poker!” Daniel shouts. “That’s all about psychology, too.”
“Let her go on.” Susan. “I’m finding this interesting.”
The doorbell rings.
“Who can it be at this hour?”
A buzz of voices, footsteps.
“You’re afraid I’ll drink all your wine,” Daniel says under his breath.
“Not at all.” Aysun.
“Yes you are. You’re afraid I’ll drink your wine.”
“Why would I be? There’s plenty more wine.”
“I just took a sip from your glass and you snatched it away from me. You think, he’ll empty my glass in two gulps.”
“That’s true, you always gulp it down. This is just a drop to you, but to me it’s an almost full glass.”
“You see?” Daniel sounds triumphant. “You’re afraid I’ll drink all your wine.”
I pull the blanket from my face.
Tom comes in.
“It’s your father.”