Ik heb dit verhaal op de middelbare school leren kennen en het is me sterk bijgebleven. Ik koos het ook omdat je het geheel zelf kan interpreteren. Er staat geen exacte beschrijving over waar de twee hoofdpersonen zich bevinden, het kan op een kinderboerderij zijn, maar ook in een dierentuin zelf. Hetzelfde als met de vrouw die uiteindelijk niet de kat meeneemt, omdat ze weet dat de man toch alleen maar zal blijven zeuren.
Bachelor student Literature & Society, Vrije Universiteit
Even though he was well over forty, he still liked to make the car skid. Humming, he gave a tug to the wheel and the tyres slipped towards the frozen ditch. “Watch this,” he said with some emphasis. The car slid into the verge. In the ditch the ice was reddish brown at the water’s edge. His girlfriend screamed and grabbed tight to her seat. With a flourish he threw the wheel round so that they ended up back on the slippery tarmac. Everywhere was ice and snow. They’d had three weeks of wintry weather, and it was making a child out of everyone.
At the end of the lane was a parking area. The P sign stuck crookedly out of the ground and there were no cars to be seen. Muddy tyre tracks were frozen and crusted with snow. In the field next to the car park stood ten or so donkeys, their heads at an angle, staring at the approaching vehicle.
Before the car came to a standstill, she was already tugging at the door. In vain. Yesterday morning he’d driven his daughter Micky to school and the childproof lock was still on. “Wait a moment, girl.” He calmly pulled on his leather gloves and got out. He narrowed his eyes and peered past the donkeys, towards the horizon: the light blue of the sky, the white landscape bright in the sun. Icicles dripped from the fence. There had been a hard frost the previous night. The little house he’d rented had a wood-burning stove. He was uncommonly pleased about that.
“You going to let me out?” The glass muffled her voice. She banged on the car window with her hand. For a second it occurred to him he could leave her sitting there, forever shouting, pounding the window as he slowly walked away. But he hadn’t got to that point yet; he was mild, considerate. He walked round the front of the car and opened the door.
She went straight to the fence. The donkeys looked at her with disdain. One stuck its round muzzle forwards and opened its mouth, baring square teeth. When she tried to stroke it, it snapped at her glove.
“Look, how cute,” she said.
“He reckons you’re tasty.”
“Maybe they don’t get enough to eat.” She wiped the snow from the grass and began holding out tufts of grass to the donkeys.
How bored those animals look, he thought. Their coats were drab, their eyes watering nonstop. Wisps of fur were caught on the fence. All in all it was a miserable, unappetizing spectacle. But she was making such enthusiastic noises that it seemed best not to say anything.
He slithered over the frozen mud and opened the car boot. Leaning on the bumper, he pulled on his walking boots. In the car park were a broken chair and a plastic tractor without wheels. If the rest of the farm was as shabby as this then they’d better go back. But he felt like a cup of coffee, and it would no doubt be impossible to get her away from her mangy friends that quickly. She was still standing at the fence stroking donkey noses.
He went on ahead. In a large pen with bushes and ponds a flock of geese was padding about. Out of their beaks came snake-like tongues; they hissed and extended their necks. He briefly stuck out his tongue at them, then two pigs in a corner caught his eye, one dark and one light. They were both lying on a bed of turf, two fat commas slotted together.
Her footsteps. In white gumboots, coat raised a little, she came up behind him. She walked on the toes of her boots and pulled a face. Where the path passed the pen it was covered in donkey dung. This must be the regular route the donkeys took to the barn.
He waited. There was a notice attached to the fence. Donkeys were originally from Africa, he read. They had tremendous stamina. The advantage of domesticated donkeys over horses was that they were smaller, better able to withstand extreme conditions and easier to handle. Their reputation for obstinacy had to do with their caution and intelligence. Once you gained a donkey’s trust, it made for pleasant and rewarding company.
She came to stand next to him and wiped the dung from her boots with a handful of hay. In silence they stepped into the farmyard, an expanse of poured concrete. At one edge was a large barn with tarred planks nailed to it. ‘Information centre’ said the sign by the door, and that this project had been set up with the support of the European Regional Development Fund. Less than an hour and a half out of Amsterdam and you were already regional. Opening the door, he imagined Europe as a giant patchwork quilt, every patch laying claim to something.
The high space stank of used chip fat. The walls were lined with timber. Rusty tools had been wedged between long screws: a spade, a horse bridle. They hung stiffly side by side, too high for anyone ever to take them down and use them again.
A door opened. “Hello.” A girl of about nine came in, riding boots on broomstick legs. She disappeared again immediately through a door on the other side, which she left open, giving him sight of a stainless steel counter and a big deep fryer. It should be possible to get a cup of coffee made somewhere in there.
His girlfriend had crouched down to stroke a kitten. There was snot around its eyes and it was showing signs of malnutrition. When she picked it up it thrashed about wildly. “Ow!” she said, letting go. The creature fled between the table legs.
The girl was back, holding a notepad.
“Two coffees, c’est tout,” he said.
Again she went into the kitchen and came straight back out. “We’ve got a litter of kittens outside,” she said. “Do you want to see them?”
His girlfriend jumped up and followed her.
Another girl, he judged her to be in her mid-twenties, came out of the kitchen holding a tray with two cups of coffee. Her face was brown with foundation and she was wearing a tight, low-cut T-shirt. Her breasts were full, with a deep cleavage. She put the tray down in front of him. He wanted to pull her onto his lap, to smell her sweat. She turned round. Big ass in tight jeans. How he would press his lower body against her. How she would go completely wild.
He tore open a sachet. A trickle of milk powder slid into his coffee. He stirred and drank, staring at the grease stains on the table top.
A current of cold air came towards him. In the doorway was his girlfriend, her eyes shining. She was holding a kitten to her chest. Black with a white bib this time.
“Just look. What a cutie,” she said. The animal squeaked.
“They can have all sorts of diseases,” he said. “Infections. Worms.”
“What do you know about it?” She gave him a fierce look. It suited her, far better than the one she got when she no longer cared what he said. That had been happening a lot lately. Her eyes would go dull and she’d look away.
“If you take that animal home, I’m not coming to sleep with you any more,” he said.
“Micky would really like it. A pet’s good for a child. It’d teach her about caring for others.”
He said nothing. If you wanted a conversation to stop, you were best off keeping your mouth firmly shut and waiting for things to work themselves out.
The kitten wriggled between her fingers and jumped onto the tiles. The way of the fleeing cats. His girlfriend looked disappointed. He slid her coffee over to her. “Here,” he said. “Enjoy it. You won’t get one like this in town these days.”
The little girl came with the bill. Her naughty big sister didn’t put in any further appearance; she was no doubt in a room with some farm boy, letting him do whatever he liked to her.
“Thank you, sir.” The girl smiled, revealing her crooked teeth. Would she look like her older sister a few years from now? He’d have to come here again, in about ten years’ time. If the place hadn’t gone bankrupt by then. Although maybe in summer busloads of donkey-huggers and small children came here to pester the animals.
He gave a two-euro tip and waited for his girlfriend to comment on the excessively generous gesture. But she’d stuck her head down between the table legs and was making cajoling noises.
“Shall we have another quick look around and then get going?” he asked.
A little later they walked across the empty farmyard. In a corner was a deflated bouncy castle, beyond it a plastic donkey on a spring. She was capable of going to sit on it, he thought, but it was alright, she’d restrained herself. She went into an outbuilding and quickly came out again with the first kitten to escape her, the tabby one with the drooping eyelids.
“There you are, you little imp. You mustn’t run off like that. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.” She pressed the animal to her, whispering, as they walked past pens of all shapes and sizes. There were chickens, long-haired guinea pigs and giant rabbits. Arrows had been stuck on the gates. It wasn’t clear what they led to. It was as if someone had started out in high spirits intending to provide signage, then chucked it in from one day to the next. Perhaps when the European subsidy ran out? In each pen one or two uncut white loaves lay in the mud, some with a few broken hunks beside them.
Suddenly he was eye-to-eye with a strange animal, its face leveled with his own. He took a step backwards. The creature had a woolly coat and big dark-brown eyes, round as marbles. They looked at each other. The animal didn’t blink. Was it a llama? Weren’t there llamas that could spit a really long way?
To be on the safe side he went back to the guinea pigs. His girlfriend was standing in front of their pen, wrapping the kitten in her shawl.
“Shall we go?” he asked.
She nodded vaguely and completed the making of a sling out of her shawl, which she’d already knotted at her neck.
“Then it’s time to say goodbye,” he said.
She squeezed the kitten to her and smiled at him in a way she hadn’t done all day.
He thought of the advantages to be gained from encouraging her to keep the cat, how tractable she’d be, how as soon as they were inside the house and had put it in a box by the fire, she’d nestle up to the animal, then hug him, her warm breath at his ear, how everything would come naturally again.
To his surprise she took the kitten out of the shawl and put it down. It looked around in a daze before limping away.
“If you really want to take him, I’m not stopping you,” he said.
She looked straight ahead and said, “I know how that goes. As soon as he’s a bit bigger he’ll stop paying me any attention. All he’ll care about is that I give him his food on time and tickle him behind the ears every so often; and it won’t even matter whether it’s my hands doing the tickling. I’ll just be a flesh-and-blood scratching post, something to rub up against, nothing more. And that’s without even mentioning your contribution. Every time you call round to see me, I’ll have to listen to you telling me that no one should keep animals in the city, that he stinks, or whatever.”
She shook her red curls. Last night’s wine had left lines in her face, her skin was crumpled and there were grey shadows under her eyes.
He put his arm around her. “The rest of the day you can look after me,” he said.
She didn’t reply.
The tick of a slowly thawing icicle. The gaze of the llama in the corner; those big eyes that were always dark inside.
“Girl, you’re almost forty,” he said. “We’re free to do anything: weekends away, sailing.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket. “If you like, I’ll book a weekend in Rome right now. A city full of cats. In the Colosseum, on the Forum – they come crawling out of the ruins all over the place.”
She looked at him. “I know I’m almost forty,” she said softly. Then she turned round and walked off, towards the car park.
He put his phone back in his pocket. The little girl was waving from behind the glass of the barn door. He briefly raised his hand. Then he looked across at the white gumboots again, which were rapidly getting further away. There wasn’t much he could do but go after her.
“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” ran through his head. He whistled it quietly. The white clouds coming out of his mouth evaporated in the freezing cold. When he got to the car park, the sun had gone.
Sanneke van Hassel
translation by Liz Waters
This story appeared in Van Hassel’s short story collection Ezels (De Bezige Bij, 2012)
Sanneke van Hassel (the Netherlands, 1971) won the BNG Nieuwe Literatuurprijs for her first two short story collections IJsregen (2005) and Witte Veder (2007). After her first novel Nest (2010), she wrote the short story collection Ezels (Donkeys, 2012), from which the title story is translated for Expanded Field. In the same year, Naar de stad was published, an international anthology of modern short stories she made together with Annelies Verbeke. In Van Hassel’s short story collection Hier blijf ik (2014) and novel Stille grond (2017), the city of Rotterdam, where she lives, plays an important role. Her new short story collection Nederzettingen will appear later this year.