Hands over my ears
‘Can I have another vodka and orange?’ asked Carla.
‘No,’ I said.
‘I’m off home then.’
‘Fine.’ ‘Are you coming?’
‘Maybe. I haven’t finished my whisky and coke.’
‘OK, I’ll wait.’ She waited while I took my time.
‘I thumped someone tonight,’ I said as I drank, ‘for no reason, just some passer-by. Bang, fist in the face. Then I was off.’
‘Yes,’ she said, staring straight ahead in a daze, not understanding a word I’d said, ‘I feel the same sometimes, especially when I’m alone.’ She was already preparing for our intimate moment, unaware it was going to be a flop, at least on my side; she didn’t know I would try to offend her, hurt her; that I would treat her like dirt and the next time we met would greet her with a ‘Hi there, how are you doing, how’s things?’ and leave it at that. My glass was empty.
‘Let’s go,’ I said.
We left. Outside there was still a slight commotion resulting from the routine collision between the two cars. Carla was nosy (wanted to look under the blanket and see who it was, that sort of thing), but I said we had to get moving.
I checked to see if some bastard (who I’d get even with some other time) had bent my mirrors, scratched my petrol tank, or snapped off the accelerator pedal. No, everything was fine.
‘Hey,’ said Carla, ‘it’s the motorbike from that photo in the paper!’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but listen, I’ve only got one helmet. So you’ll have to do without. If the cops catch us you’ll pay the fine, OK?’ She gave me a worried, almost anxious look.
‘OK,’ she said. If she’d had any sense, she’d have told me then and there: ‘Leave me alone. I’ll go home by myself. Beat it.’ But horny women and sense just don’t go together, and even before I’d started up she was on the pillion. ‘Nice,’ she said.
‘Where do you live?’ I asked. She told me her address. It was a bloody long way on the bike, almost on the other side of town. I took it slowly, being fairly pissed.
‘Won’t it go any faster?’ the bitch asked.
‘Of course it will,’ I said. But I’m almost out of petrol so it’s best to go as slow as possible.’
‘That’s true,’ she said. Oh yes? I wondered, is it true? Best go as slowly as you can when you’re almost out of petrol? And how come a bitch like her knows, and I don’t? Who gives a fuck?
‘This city,’ I said suddenly, without taking my eyes off the road, ‘seems peaceful at first sight…’
‘What?’ yelled Carla.
‘Nothing,’ I roared, and went on: … it’s like an orphanage, an old folks’ home, a mortuary — compared with psychiatric hospitals and abattoirs like Paris, or New York, or Antwerp. But that’s just an illusion. Here too all kinds of incomprehensible things happen behind walls, in houses, above and below ground. Here too there are meetings of fascist groups. Here too children are sexually abused by their fathers, here too women are beaten up by their useless drunken husbands for no explicit reason, here too victims hang in cellars tied to sandbags shitting themselves, here too students and old people, mental defectives and addicts and ordinary pigeons and god knows who else die, of loneliness, or grief, or pent-up fury, or hopeless longing, or gas fumes. Or just of some disease. Here too it’s seething with wounds oozing pus, backs torn open, badly set fractures, chronically runny noses, decaying glands, exploding hearts, wrecked livers, shrivelling kidneys, fermenting brains… Is this the street?’ ‘Is this the street?’ I repeated loudly. We were nearly there, I thought. ‘I said, is this the street?!’ I screamed.
‘Next on the right!’ shouted Carla.
Number seventeen was quite a big house and not too run-down for this mostly deprived area. Who paid the damn rent? Mummy or Daddy I expect, but that was their problem. (Even if it was Santa Claus who paid the damn rent.)
‘What were you going on about on the way here?’ asked Carla. We got off.
‘I asked what you were going on about on the way here.’
‘I was singing a couple of songs,’ I said. She opened the door.
‘Quiet,’ she said, ‘my neighbours are asleep. I’m on the second floor.’ And I thought she had the whole place to herself.
I followed her upstairs. The house smelled of unshaved women’s armpits and men who seldom changed their underpants. Carla opened the door of her room, and we went in. She switched on a dim light. It was an unpleasant room, crammed with all kinds of clutter that I would have thrown out long ago, or rather wouldn’t have carted up here in the first place. On the wall there was a lousy, dated Jim Morrison poster, a stupid painting, an advert for a Lou Reed gig at Vorst Nationaal and a notice board with thousands of photos pinned to it, doubtless mainly of Carla herself (bloody summer snaps).
I sat down in a really expensive chair, designed by the Ghent seating guru Rafaël Verzeeveren. ‘How did you come by a Verzeeveren chair like this?’ I asked.
‘I was given it,’ she said, ‘I sometimes baby-sit for Rafaël.’
‘Christ, has he got kids?’ I said. ‘You know, I can’t stand people who call themselves artists and still have kids.’ She looked at me in surprise.
‘What have the two things got to do with each other? Picasso had kids too.’
‘Do you call Picasso an artist?’ I said menacingly.
‘Uh… I don’t know…’ said Carla, ‘perhaps not, no…’ She walked about awkwardly. Shifting ashtrays, moving her coat, and so on.
‘Do you want a drink?’ she asked. I was about to ask if she had any whisky, but bitches like her never have any whisky, and anyway I was drunk enough already, so I said: ‘I’ll just have a glass of tap water.’ She rushed to her kitchenette like a madwoman to fetch me a glass of water.
‘There you are,’ she said. She was panting restlessly — she wanted sex. I was sorry for her (but not very).
‘Is something wrong?’ I asked. She dithered, hesitated, then could contain herself no longer and yelled: ‘I’m getting horny! I want to go to bed with you!’ There, she’d got it off her chest.
‘Not so loud,’ I said, ‘think of the neighbours.’
‘But I want to go to bed with you. I want to be fucked.’ She tore her clothes off. I lit a cigarette. Her clothes were nothing special. Boutique stuff. Pink lingerie, but not sexy. Peasant-style shorts and a peasant style blouse, as far as I could tell. Designer socks. In short, she could have done better. When she was naked and stood before me trembling fit to burst, I said: ‘Let’s take it nice and easy. Lie down on the bed.’
I drank some of the water. Hard. That’s what you get in these parts of town: the water pipes are virtually never de-scaled. The council’s reasoning is: ‘Let the poor, the underprivileged and the lousy foreigners absorb plenty of calcium, it’ll give them good strong bones and make them sturdier, which in the long run will actually save the health service money.’ No, there are no flies on the town council.
The girl tossed about feverishly on the bed, rubbing her breasts back and forth over the fairly grubby sheets.
‘Now what?’ she asked, eagerly and already aroused and sweating, ‘when are you coming?’
‘I want you to masturbate first,’ I said. She moaned with excitement. Just hearing the word ‘masturbate’ made her moan.
‘Does it excite you when I masturbate?’ she asked. Saliva was running over her lips and down her chin.
‘Start slowly,’ I said, ‘and then speed up.’ She had already started. She had two fingers of one hand in her cunt and with her other she squeezed her breasts and nipples. After a while she began biting the sheets and making noises like a sheep with compulsive bleating syndrome. She should be climaxing in less than a minute, I estimated. I finished the hard water (doesn’t taste too bad actually), stubbed out my cigarette and just before the screaming started, I said: ‘My God, you’re ugly.’ I got up and left, hands over my ears.
From Ex-Lover (Ex-minnaar, 1993)
By Herman Brusselmans
Translated by Paul Vincent
There’s no way God exists
If I simply didn’t turn up in the morning, thought Louis, no one would notice.
For a moment he was very taken with the idea and was already making plans for the next day.
There’s no point, he reflected immediately afterwards, there’s nowhere for me to go. This is a place like any other. Running away is not an option. I’m doing a life sentence. When I’m eighty I may suddenly be happy. I’ll have four years of happiness ahead of me. That’s plenty of time.
He ate a fourth sandwich and read the paper.
That soon bored him to tears.
He dropped by to see the photocopying girl. It was a good idea. He could see her stretching, an endearing morning gesture, especially in young girls — and so he spotted the tufts under her arms.
She did not use the appliance known as Ladyshave, thought Louis. I prefer naked female armpits, but this is nice too. It must be a turn-on in bed.
He walked around.
Although I’m reflecting on certain sexual situations, he said to himself, I’m still not getting an erection. That’s a plus point. It must be terrible getting an erection the moment you have erotic thoughts. Not only is there a considerable risk that others will see it, there’s also the danger of being terrified you’ve lost control. Constant fear of erection must be deeply tragic. Women don’t have this fear. And if they do, that’s even more tragic.
Louis tapped the ash from his cigarette onto the floor of the library, despite the presence of several ashtrays.
He was still strolling along the book-filled shelves.
This early morning isn’t too bad, he admitted, I’ve known worse. The loneliness is bearable, not one book title is giving me a panic attack and at present I have no physical ailments. No one is knocking ominously at the door, outside the rain is nice and summery and this week is going to be warm and pleasant. I’m thinking of beads of sweat running from under armpits and across breasts, and still I’m getting no embarrassing, pointless erection. I’m just walking about a bit, smoking a really nice cigarette and there are no major threats. I’m a happy man.
Louis felt a longing for music welling up. He still hadn’t brought in a portable radio. Mains radios were out, they cost the government money.
So, very briefly, he hummed a tune to himself, the refrain of a song called ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’.
Louis’ humming wasn’t a patch on the original. He sat down.
‘What do I do now?’ he said. These, he knew, were the difficult moments.
You’ve been going along nicely for a while, but suddenly things change. Like suddenly falling into an abyss.
If I wanted to… thought Louis, I could write a book about it. He sniggered.
Write a book… he continued, a book about my work and ideas. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read it. Perhaps it’s already been written and has been somewhere on these shelves for years gathering mildew.
He banished all thoughts of books and looked around, lazily smoking.
My predecessor in this building died, he thought. Cancer. It was a woman. It’s a crying shame that women get cancer too. It’s supposed to be a male thing. But women get it too.
He thought of a girl he’d known, at school.
She had leukaemia. Lovely young girl’s breasts, thought Louis, and long, slender legs… There’s no way God exists…
There was a knock.
At last, thought Louis. It’s like the blindfolded man who senses the firing squad is there and when he hears a bang knows the bullets are on their way. At last, thinks the man. ‘Yes,’ he said calmly.
It was a guided tour for new members of staff.
The guide, someone from Personnel, seemed quite new to the job himself. At any rate he was very nervous and told the fifteen or so recruits they were now in the staff recreational library.
‘That’s right,’ said Louis, assuming a grotesquely cheerful mask. I must look ghastly, he thought, but no one seems to notice. The guide is a bundle of nerves, why should I be?
Although he had a horror of crowds, Louis felt no fear. ‘Come in,’ he said, ‘it’s not private, whatever it says on the door. You should never trust notices on doors.’
They stared at him.
They’re being subjected to gobbledygook, thought Louis, and on their first day at work.
‘Do come in,’ he repeated, ‘come closer. This is the recreational library. I’m in charge of it. I’m the librarian, Tinner’s the name.’
The thought flashed through his mind: I expect they’ll think I’m really important.
Meanwhile he’d had a good look at them all, sorted them out in his mind, and so addressed his absurd explanation to a young woman, enigmatically beautiful, despite a scar above her left eyebrow.
Like Nadia, he thought, a fall in the skating rink. The ghosts keep coming back.
‘The idea is,’ he held forth, ‘for you to avail yourself of the opportunity to borrow books, especially books to help you relax. This library is an integral part of the Social Services that the department you have just joined are committed to provide.’ Bullshit, he thought, and ungrammatical. Yet some of them were listening intently.
The girl with the scar looked extremely uninterested. Just like Nadia too, thought Louis. Perhaps she is Nadia. He looked at her closely, but no, it wasn’t Nadia. This woman was mixed-race, Nadia was white.
Strange, skin colours, thought Louis.
He’d once longed to be black, singing along with the cotton-pickers. It was one longing of his that had never been realised. ‘Any questions?’ he asked.
‘If there are any questions…’ stammered the guide.
What a drip, thought Louis. He’s somebody’s child, though. I no longer wish to have this person in my sight, nor any of the others.
The group finally left the library.
No one had asked a question, though one young man had seemed to have a momentary impulse.
Of course, Louis had thought, he wants to ask where the toilet is. He urgently needs a loo before he shits himself. He’s all nerves. He’d imagined his first day at work would be completely different. But he pulls himself together, recalling the slogan Be Thankful You’ve Got a Job at All. These days, he reflected later, it’s one’s duty to be happy about having a job. Anyone who finds work must yodel and jump for joy, after the fathomless misery of unemployment. It’s ridiculous. Man was not made to work. Man was made to die.
From The Man Who Found a Job (De man die werk vond, 2004)
By Herman Brusselmans
Translated by Paul Vincent
First published in The Low Countries, 2006