Extract from ‘The Friendship’

On the first day of school I saw her again, and a little while later we found ourselves in the same room. From the moment we crossed the threshold of the classroom our fate was sealed. It turned out just as I thought it would.
I’m used to things happening that way.
For years this would be the cornerstone of my experience: as soon as I was outside my parents’ house, anything that I really wanted to happen would turn out that way. If something didn’t turn out the way I wanted it, it meant that I hadn’t wanted it enough.

Outside things go right or wrong.
Outside I play and have fun.
Not inside.

Inside I was powerless. Indoors I was at the mercy of a bewildering blend of security and fear, trust and betrayal, agitation and calm, care and neglect, cruelty and compassion, goodness and madness. Inside I ate and slept.
Inside I’m happy or unhappy.
Powerlessness, dependence and defencelessness will always be bound up in my mind with love and happiness, always. Breaking that bond is unthinkable.
Every day when I leave the house, my stomach aches from love. On the way to school the pain lessens with every step and by the time I reach the playground it’s gone.
Except now, on the very day I first find myself in the same class as Ara Callenbach, now my stomach is still hard and that touch of nausea hasn’t disappeared.
It will be years before I learn to listen to the wisdom of my body, telling me with stubborn loyalty that it’s there, trying repeatedly to tell me something that might be of use to me, if only I could understand.
But I didn’t understand it, not yet. It was quite an effort for me to connect myself to my own flesh and blood. I was stone-deaf to the messages of my skin, heart and brain, of my liver, intestines and kidneys, and of those moaning, nagging female organs of mine.

The classroom was crammed full of desks and chairs. The fifth form of primary school was small, there were only twelve of us, but in the sixth there were all of twenty girls. I had eyes only for Ara Callenbach and ignored the calls of classmates asking me to sit next to them. I pretended not to hear anyone.
The fifth form was supposed to sit on the left side of the room, the sixth form on the right.
That is the hierarchy of the clock. Since we started imagining time as something that moves from left to right, more things go with the clock than just early and late, things like high and low, more and less, past and present. Everyone obeys this as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Nothing’s natural to me.
I often practise thinking against the clock.
Ara Callenbach headed for the last desk in the third row and I followed her automatically. She had a noisy way of walking. She stamped her feet forcefully on the ground and had to push all the desks slightly to the side to make room for herself. The other girls looked at her, enraged, but I was proud of the racket she made.
It was unseemly.
The third row was the row that divided and connected the fifth and sixth forms. I took my place at the desk next to hers. She didn’t deign to look at me. I think she also took it for granted that I would sit there.
Not the teacher, though.
She had never been my teacher before, but because she was the head-mistress she knew everything about all the children at school. She’d been there for less than five minutes and had surveyed the class without saying anything when she beckoned to me.
‘I think it would be better if you and Mies switched places,’ she said.
Mies was sitting almost at the front.

From The Friendship (De vriendschap, 1995)
By Connie Palmen
Translated by Diane L. Webb

First published in The Low Countries, 1997