Once Tineke had dropped him off at Enschede station, as soon as the strain of the college’s anniversary week slid off him, he started fretting about what he had seen. All the way to Schiphol Airport he’d asked himself questions, absurd questions (were they the same size? were they the same age? the same build?), after which he reprimanded himself (it just can’t be, it’s too much of a coincidence, this is what psychiatrists mean by paranoia), checked in relatively calmly, and without slipping into outrageous fantasies browsed through the bestsellers in the bookshop display, only to catch himself posing even more absurd questions while boarding (is she capable of this? is this in her? in her genes?) — a steady tidal motion, panic and calm, panic and calm, that had possessed him for the past three days.
Tubantia’s fortieth anniversary celebration had gone as these kind of public events usually did: it washed over him, it was as though he had dreamt the past few days; and just like in a dream, there was no opportunity to look either forward or back. Pampering four honorary doctorates and their spouses; re-writing, rehearsing and reciting his keynote speech on nanotechnology, hardly the meatiest of subjects; breakfasts, lunches and dinners with his guests, the endless chitchat, that tedious blather, good god, he might just drop dead in the middle of his speech. It was Thursday afternoon, during the closing reception, when things started coming undone. After he’d draped the Tubantia regalia onto his four honourees at the Jacobuskerk, the whole circus moved to the Enschede Theatre. He, Tineke and the four honorary doctorates and their spouses mounted the raised black-velvet platform in the foyer, ready to be fêted by the hundreds of schmoozing guests who snatched glasses of wine and fancy hors d’oeuvres from silver platters, or took their place straight away in the discouragingly long reception line. He must have stood there for three hours, shaking hands, exchanging witty repartee, the long garland of patience reflected in his patent leather shoes.
About an hour into the handshaking he spotted Wijn. Menno Wijn, his ex-brother-in-law and former sparring partner, towering head and shoulders above the hundreds of students and almost exclusively toga-clad professors, inconspicuous at first, clearly ill at ease, glancing around awkwardly with a mineral water in his fist, almost, it seemed, on the verge of leaving. When he looked again five minutes later, Wijn was standing in the queue like a clay golem. “Psst, look, two o’clock,” he whispered to Tineke. Her chubby hands released the arm of a professor’s wife and she turned towards him. “To the left,” he said. Mildly amused, she scanned the queue and froze. “Well, I’ll be goddamned.” She lifted her shoulders and shook her freshly coiffed hair that smelled of cigarettes and pine needles.
Wijn had the expression of someone sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. Before he had arrived, the foyer was the picture of diversity, so many different faces, so many nationalities, but since noticing his ex-brother-in-law Sigerius realized that every academic looked like every other academic. Back when he and Wijn were in their twenties, he had a rough but rosy face and a ready laugh, preferably and most boisterously at someone else’s mistakes, until those mistakes started to close in on him. Those mistake-making others were his sister Margriet and his nephew Wilbert, but most of all him, Siem Sigerius, traitor, the cause of Margriet’s undoing. According to Wijn. What on earth was he doing here? He hadn’t been invited, he must have read about the reception somewhere. Had he come all the way from Culemborg for this?
While Sigerius planted kisses on powdered cheeks and endured flattering small talk, he could feel the brother of his late ex-wife gaining ground. Vengeance and venom filled the foyer like fumes. It was twenty-five years ago, damn it. In the first few months after the divorce, his old pal just ignored him, but once Margriet and Wilbert had moved into the attic of Wijn’s sports school in Culemborg, things turned bitter. Hostile. For years, Margriet let her stable but angry brother do her dirty work for her: sis needed money, sis had to go to the liquor store. And for Wijn – by that time landlord, lawyer and foster parent all rolled into one – what was one more nasty telephone call? Sigerius was already in America with Tineke and the girls when, right around Wilbert’s birthday, an envelope arrived with a greeting card – “congratulations on your son’s birthday” – accompanied by a typed sheet of expense claims: bills from the glazier, fines, medical expenses, sessions with the juvenile psychologist, you name it, and at the bottom, the bank account number of Menno Wijn Martial Arts Academy. It was the prelude to a few phone calls per year, collect calls of course, fault-finding tirades in which Wijn, in his crude redneck lingo, filled him in on what that “punk” had gotten up to now, which school he’d been kicked out of and why, about the pulverized liquorice cough drops the “fuckwad” sold as hash, how Menno had to throw out the “scum” that came round to the house for payback, about the brawls at the carnival, the shoplifting – so when you coming back to Holland, Pop? Menno was down on that whole America thing. But when Sigerius himself phoned, Wijn gave him the cold shoulder, let the deserter know in no uncertain terms that he had no business with them, and via lengthy monologues rubbed it in that Wilbert had settled in just fine with his dutiful uncle. “He ain’t a bad kid, you know, all of a sudden he got twenty-four canaries up in the attic. Loves ‘m, y’know. Gerbils too, hamsters, it’s a regler zoo up there.”
He always just let it go. Of course he was worried. You’re here now, Tineke would say. We are in California. Menno only quit haranguing him after Margriet died. After that there was only the occasional telephone conversation, Menno grousing about his role as Wilbert’s guardian, he as the disillusioned father trying to get out of his alimony obligations. Businesslike exchanges, the enmity of the past electrically dormant on the phone line.
Here he comes. His ex-brother-in-law, backlit by the glare cutting in through the tall front windows of the theatre, climbed the broad steps to the podium and stopped in front of him. You’d almost expect to see him holding a UPS clipboard, or wonder whose chauffeur he was, what was this guy doing coming after his boss? Straight as an arrow, arms dangling alongside his bony body, his weight on the balls of his feet, just like he used to take his place on the mat: here I am, just try me. No handshake.
“Menno,” said Sigerius.
Wijn pulled in his chin. “Doin’ all right for yourself, I see,” he said with the exact same tacky accent they spoke back on their old stomping grounds, Wijk C, forty years ago. “I was passing by. I’ve come to tell you your son’s free.”
Sigerius cleared his throat. “What?”
“Reduced sentence. On accounta good behaviour. He’s already out.”
At times, language could have a physical effect on him, like ice cold water being dumped on his head from several metres above. “Oh no,” he muttered. “Now that is news. Bad news.”
Wijn picked at a penny-sized scab on his cheek, no doubt the remnants of a blister he’d got himself scraping across a judo mat, a self-conscious gesture that made him look, for a brief moment, like his dead sister. His middle finger was missing its nail. A blind finger.
“Just thought I’d let you know. And tell you that I wash my hands of ‘m.”
“He was supposed to be locked up until 2002.” Tineke said that. She stood glowering at Wijn with eyes like barrels of a pistol, but he ignored her, just like he’d been ignoring her for the past twenty-five years.
“Where’s he going to live?” Sigerius asked.
“Dunno. Don’t give a shit.”
Then they stood there looking at each other in silence, the rector and the gym coach. Two middle-aged men who used to stand in the shower room together, three times a week, year after year, after having mixed their sweat on dojos all over the west coast of Holland. It hadn’t been of any use. Suddenly, without provocation, Wijn raised his hand and jabbed Sigerius on the forehead with that nasty mole-finger of his.
“Dog,” he snarled.
Before Sigerius could realize he mustn’t respond, before he realized he was not in the position to hoist the man up high and crosswise by his polyester collar, hurl him back down and, growling, yank him back up again – strangle him on the spot, as big and nasty as he was – Wijn walked off. Without looking further at anyone, he shambled in his cheap, ill-fitting suit past the row of laureates and stepped off the podium with a hollow thud.
From Bonita Avenue (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2010)
By Peter Buwalda
Translated by Jonathan Reeder
First published in The Low Countries, 2013