‘I’ve been invited to a conference,’ he told her after they’d sat down to eat. ‘Again?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean — again?’ Her reaction irritated him. ‘I hardly ever get invited to conferences.’
‘But you’ve just been to one!’ She sounded indignant. ‘All you ever do these days is go to conferences! You’re just like Beerta.’
He forced himself to stay calm. ‘That was three years ago.’
‘Anyway that has nothing to do with it. This is a completely different sort of conference.’
‘What sort of conference is it then?’
‘This is a celebratory conference.’
‘A celebratory conference?’ Her voice was shrill with indignation. ‘But surely you don’t have to go? What is it anyway, a celebratory conference?’
‘The Belgian Commission is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary.’
‘And you have to go to that? Surely that’s got nothing to do with you? Don’t tell me you take such nonsense seriously! When your office celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary you didn’t give a celebratory conference, did you?’
‘No,’ he admitted.
‘Well then! Why on earth should you go to theirs now? Let someone else go! Some idiot who actually enjoys such nonsense.’
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘You’ll think about it?’ She had stopped eating and was now looking at him furiously. ‘Why do you have to think about it, for God’s sake?’
He lowered his eyes to avoid her furious gaze and painstakingly tried to cut a bite of meat. ‘In the first place because Beerta thinks I should go, and in the second place because I can’t think of any reason not to.’
‘No reason?’ She clenched her fist next to her plate and leaned forwards as though she was going to fly at him.
‘If I don’t go, I’ll never know whether it’s because I think it’s nonsense or because I’m afraid,’ he said, doing his utmost to control himself.
‘So you have to give it a try first? You have to go to it before you can decide whether or not it’s nonsense? It’s not enough if I tell you it is?’
‘If I refuse to go I want to know why,’ he said, sitting up straight and looking at her angrily. ‘If I refuse to go because I’m scared, then I’ll just get more and more scared! If I refuse because it’s nonsense, then it’s nonsense!’
She was shocked into silence for a second but recovered at once. ‘And if I tell you that it’s nonsense?’
‘That’s not enough.’
‘Not enough?’ Her voice rose again in anger.
‘No, that’s not enough,’ he repeated, infuriated. ‘And I’m the one who decides whether or not it’s enough! It’s my job, not yours!’
She was silent for a moment.
‘When is this conference?’ she asked.
‘At the beginning of September,’ he said diffidently.
‘Then you can’t go. That’s when we’re going on holiday.’
‘We can go on holiday afterwards.’
‘You don’t mean you’re going to put off your holiday for a lousy conference?’
He didn’t answer, turning his attention instead to his food.
‘Answer me,’ she said threateningly. ‘You’re not going to put off your holiday for a lousy conference, are you?’
‘I won’t have to put it off,’ he said, controlling his temper. ‘The conference finishes on the fourteenth, so we can leave on the fourteenth!’
‘Leave on the fourteenth? How can you possibly leave on the fourteenth if the conference doesn’t finish till the fourteenth?’
‘Because the conference is in Brussels.’
‘And what about me? You expect me to bring our rucksacks to Brussels by myself? I wouldn’t dream of it! How could you think such a thing?’
He stared tensely at the plate in front of him. ‘I was going to suggest that you come along to the conference.’
‘Me?’ she said indignantly. ‘You think / should go to that conference? I wouldn’t dream of it. Imagine me taking part in such nonsense!’
‘You’re invited too.’
‘Me, invited?’ She laughed. ‘Well, then they don’t know me yet, do they? Just imagine! Tagging along as the wife of that scholar chap, I suppose? And having to talk to all those jerks! You didn’t really think I’d go, did you? You didn’t really think I’d do it? You know me by now, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I know you,’ he said with forced restraint.
‘Well!’ she said angrily. ‘Don’t say such idiotic things then!’
From Mr Beerta (Meneer Beerta. Het Bureau I, 1996)
By J.J. Voskuil
Translated by Diane L. Webb
‘You weren’t here yesterday afternoon,’ said Balk, coming into the room.
‘No, I was at the library,’ said Maarten by way of apology. He was immediately annoyed with himself for having said it, but it had slipped out before he could think. ‘One of the applicants was a man you’d really get along with,’ he continued, paying no attention to what Maarten had said, ‘a good bloke. I wanted to send him along to you. I told him to come back tomorrow. Will you be here tomorrow?’
‘Yes, but I don’t have an opening for him.’
‘That doesn’t matter. If you can use him, then there’s an opening for him! You’re the only one here who doesn’t have a documentalist, and this chap is exactly what you need. Wait a minute, I’ll get you his letter.’ He walked resolutely out of the room.
Maarten looked out at the garden, but without seeing anything. He felt threatened by Balk’s proposal, which had caught him off guard, especially because he couldn’t think of any reason to argue. He thought it unlikely that Balk would be able to choose someone he could get along with, but he saw that he wouldn’t be able to convince Balk of this without starting an argument, and he was afraid of arguments. This insight made him instantly unhappy. Again the door opened. Balk marched in and put the letter down in front of him with a forceful gesture. ‘Here you are. Tomorrow morning at ten o’clock. The man lives in Rozenburg, but he says that’s not a problem. After you’ve seen him, bring him to me and we can discuss the practical details.’ He turned around and was out of the room before Maarten could answer.
Maarten read the letter with reluctance. The man’s name was Jan Boerakker, twenty-nine years old, living in Rozenburg and doing administrative work at a Shell laboratory. He possessed a Librarianship Diploma C, a wife, and two children, and wanted to apply for the job of librarian. The letter was written in a child-like, spidery scrawl which Maarten found off-putting. Depressed, he got up, took the letter, and walked through the second office to the back room. His entire staff was there: Heidi Bruul, whose name was now Heidi Muller, the Misses Schot-van Heusden and Boomsma-Varkevisser, who had taken the places of Kees Stoutjesdijk and Ad Muller as his student-assistants, and Bart. He greeted Heidi and Bart by their Christian names and the other two by their surnames and sat down across from Bart on the other side of his desk.
‘An applicant’s coming round tomorrow,’ he pushed the letter over the desk towards Bart.
Bart read the letter, his eyebrows raised in surprise, with the paper close to his glasses, because even with glasses he had difficulty reading. ‘Surely this to replace De Gruiter?’ he said, looking up.
‘No, he’s coming to us. It’s Balk’s idea.’
‘I should like to have been told about this beforehand.’
‘Me too, but Balk made the decision, he thinks this man would suit us.’
‘But we don’t have an opening, do we?’
‘He’s made one for us.’
‘That’s very nice of Mr Balk, but I really don’t think I would have accepted it.’
‘I can’t think of any reason not to. Shall we see him together?’
‘I’ll have to think about it first,’ said Bart, put out.
An hour later he came to say that he didn’t want to be present at the interview because he didn’t want to share the responsibility for a decision he hadn’t been told about first.
From Dirty Hands (Vuile Handen. Het Bureau II, 1996)
By J.J. Voskuil
Translated by Diane L. Webb
It was quiet by the canal. A Sunday morning, early. They walked slowly under the trees in the direction of Brouwersgracht. The wind rustled for a moment in the leaves above their heads and then died down again. Their feet ambled over the cobblestones. Grass was growing here and there between the stones at the edge of the water. Where cars had been parked there were dark oily spots. He looked up at the white cornices gleaming in the sunshine. A couple of doves were sitting up there on one of the ledges. They rounded the corner and walked down Brouwersgracht. A man with a little dog was walking towards them. He waited by a tree while his dog lifted its leg. The dog kicked up the earth with its hind paws, then, when the man started walking again, quickly ran after him. On the bridge over Prinsengracht they lingered for a while, looking at the houseboats, which were reflected in the placid water, so motionless that there was almost no difference between the boat above and the boat below. They descended from the bridge to the North Church and sat down on one of the benches. He took the newspaper he’d been carrying and opened it halfway, gave the supplement to Nicolien, and put his half of the paper on his lap, though he didn’t read it. He stared drowsily ahead, his eyes half closed against the sunlight. A couple of churchgoers walked past. He followed them with his eyes while they crossed the square and disappeared around the corner. Coming from the other direction was a man with a beard, a child, a dog, and a pregnant wife. They sat down on another bench. The man got up again, took the child over to the slide, lifted him up and let him slide down. After repeating this a couple of times, he brought the child back, took a plastic bag, and went over to the sandbox. While he collected all the rubbish from the sandbox, putting it in the plastic bag, his dog jumped in and began digging a hole enthusiastically. The child was put in the hole and the man and woman watched from the bench as he swung a little shovel around. In the church the organ had started to play. The muted sounds filtered through to the square and evaporated in the silence. The congregation started to sing: Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide; When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me. He listened, moved. When the hymn was over he needed a minute to get his emotions under control. ‘Shall we move on then?’ he asked, sounding a bit choked up.
From The A.P. Beerta Institute (Het A.P. Beerta Instituut. Het Bureau IV, 1998)
By J.J. Voskuil
Translated by Diane L. Webb
All extracts first published in The Low Countries, 1999