Prima la Musica
Gerrit had been drinking and he walked home along the canal, singing loudly. First he sang, with a catch in his throat, a hit song that had been playing in the bar and was still sounding in his ears, then a children’s song that always made him feel sad though he didn’t know why, then a tear-jerker about two sailors, and by the time he entered the alley, it was Figaro’s opening aria from The Barber of Seville that reverberated between the walls of a warehouse and a former girls’ orphanage.
From the other end of the alley a woman was coming towards him. The only available light came through the cracks of a rollshade that covered the window of a flowershop, but it was enough to see that she wore an old-fashioned coat with a hood and that she was hiding her hands in her sleeves as though she felt cold. Convinced that she was going to ask him for money, Gerrit checked his pockets.
‘Too bad,’ he said when she had come closer, ‘I’m clean out. I don’t even have enough to pay for a small glass of beer.’
‘I don’t need money,’ the woman said. ‘But it’s very kind of you to offer it.’ She hesitated for a moment and then asked: ‘You like to sing?’
‘Oh yes,’ Gerrit said. ‘But I’m absolutely no good at it. That’s why I only sing when I’ve had a few. My father was a piano tuner, and many’s the time, when I was a kid, that I lay under a piano, listening to the music being played on it and the songs being sung to the music. Oh, how I’d like to sing the stars down from the sky, that must be the most marvelous thing there is.’ And he looked at the sky high above the alley and sang, belting it out in a way that once upon a time would have awakened all the orphans most unpleasantly from their sleep: ‘Bravo, bravissimo! A te fortuna non mancherà!’
The woman did not let on that she knew how dreadful it sounded. She produced a small bottle from her sleeve and gave it to him, saying: ‘A single drop, and you’ll have a golden voice all day long.’
Gerrit laughed and said: ‘Just one drop, while I’ve been drinking big glasses of beer to cheer me up?’
‘It’s enough for your entire life,’ the woman said, ‘but be careful not to waste it.’ And she put her hands back in her sleeves and disappeared in the dark alley. Continuing his drunken medley of songs, Gerrit weaved his unsteady way home. The next morning, as he picked his clothes up off the floor and the bottle slid out of his pants pocket, he remembered the nocturnal meeting. It can’t have happened, he thought. One of my friends must have put the bottle in my pocket, and I dreamed the rest.
‘Whatever,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I’ll have a drop. Who knows, maybe it’ll lubricate my poor dry throat.’
The fluid in the bottle was odour- and colourless, and when he let a drop slide over his tongue it seemed to be tasteless as well. His throat was just as dry as before, and his thirst was so great that he guzzled straight from the tap until he was gasping for breath. He did not look forward to his job in the big, crammed kitchen, the cook’s pants he had to wear, the plastic-wrapped foodstuffs floating in boiling hot water, the odours that escaped when the bags were cut open. His stomach protested and he said: ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have drunk so much last night!’
He then looked around in surprise. Who had said that? Whose was that melodious voice?
‘Was that me? Was that, is that my voice?’
And once again the gorgeous full baritone filled his room.
For the first time in his life Gerrit had the feeling that his chest was swelling and was actually a sound box. But his room was too small for all the sounds that were welling up within him, and he opened his window and let them take flight, clear and exceptionally beautiful: ‘Deh, vieni alla fenestra …’
After this serenade he sang an exuberant aria. People stopped to listen, they applauded, they asked for more.
‘Come on down,’ shouted a man who had been a stagehand with the local opera company for the last thirty years. ‘Come, and I’ll guarantee you a bright future.’
That same afternoon Gerrit sang for the musical director, the artistic director, and the business manager; and that same week he stood in for Giovanni Terracini, who had broken an ankle while singing in Tosca, and Friedrich Bruno von Knabe, who had come down with hay fever just before the opening performance of Die Meistersinger.
It did not take long before he was in demand everywhere – Bayreuth, Milan, New York. People spent the night outside box offices and offered scalpers huge sums of money so they could be enchanted by his voice. Rigoletto. Otello. Falstaff. But also Bluebeard’s Castle, Wozzeck, L’Orfeo and La Damnation de Faust, in which his performance as Mephistopheles was so overpowering that the audience wanted to sell him their souls en masse.
Even greater was the effect of his voice when he sang the title role in Don Giovanni. People almost fainted with delight, and when one evening he drank not one but several drops from the bottle, numerous women in the hall jumped to their feet, eager to throw themselves into the abyss with him.
One triumph followed another, and Gerrit couldn’t get enough of it. But as his star rose, in so far as it could still rise, the bottom of the bottle came in sight, and one day he anxiously added a bit of water to the last drop.
Right in the middle of Capriccio his voice broke.
The newspapers reported that the demi-god had been brought low by a sudden throat infection, but when Gerrit woke up the following morning in his king-size hotel bed, he knew he had to return to his home town and would never enjoy the celebrity life again.
He started drinking, night after night. And one November evening, as a biting wind blew through the alley next to the girls’ orphanage, the woman in the hooded coat came towards him for a second time.
‘Oh,’ he said, sobbing, ‘I’ll never sing again. So if you want to give me a bottle, please just make it beer. Or something stronger, something stronger would be okay, too.’
‘You’ve been too greedy,’ she said. But she was not insensitive to his tears, took another small bottle from her sleeve and said: ‘This is for eternity. But you’re going to need patience, and you’re going to have to work hard.’ The next morning Gerrit unscrewed the top of the bottle and saw that it contained ink, pure, black India ink. He dipped his pen in it and began to write. He wrote about love and death, heaven and hell, poverty and riches, desire and drunkenness, about his childhood and his father, the piano tuner. And the people who read his stories said: ‘Everything comes alive before your eyes. And it’s beautifully written as well. I’ll be damned if it isn’t true, but sometimes it’s just like the words are singing to you.’
Translated by Michiel Horn
Two Versions of Proceedings
For Herman Franke
As he locked his bike, his front wheel swung and touched hers. There was something intimate about it, would she notice? Don’t get too close, she had said. Not too close: how did you judge the distance?
This street was quiet. The only noise was from a few houses along where there were building works, a whine as if iron or a hard type of stone were being ground. Once he was inside, in his own stairwell, not even this could be heard. He blinked momentarily at the dark and retrieved the paper and advertising brochures from the mat. He took the first steps cautiously, as if in a game without amusement: do I want to go upstairs? Yes, I do. No, I don’t.
Had she heard him come home? Yes, she’d heard. No, she hadn’t realised yet. She worked half days, but perhaps she wasn’t home yet. She might be at a friend’s. Or in town. Recently she had started visiting her sister again, the sister who liked hearing things were going badly. He hadn’t looked to see whether the car was there.
He stopped and it was as if he could hear his rapid heartbeat bouncing off the walls. He wondered whether his father had ever been in such doubt when he got home. Across the pavement between the playing children, past the box and hydrangeas in the front garden. A staircase was not the only thing that made footsteps heavier.
He could turn back. No. Yes. No, he wanted to go upstairs. Whatever she said, whatever she did.
Perhaps she had gone, really gone.
He climbed two more steps, closed his eyes and saw much more. An unaddressed envelope on his keyboard. Against the black pen tidy. In front of the books in one of the middle sections of his bookshelf. On a pile of books in the living room. On the table, in the place where his plate usually stood. Against the teapot. On the floor, right behind the sliding door, where their flat began.
The paper almost slipped out of his hands, one of the advertising brochures fell. He read:
For all your odd jobs: PERFECTO
Three more steps in the dark.
The door slid open and there she was with her flaming hair in an ambush of light.
Angry. Even as a child she had wondered why a single word could carry such weight. You look really angry. When someone said that, though she was just lost in thought or in a pleasant state of blankness, anger automatically came rushing along. Is something wrong? And she would make ‘something’ up. You look tired. And she would let her shoulders droop, and try to hide her face.
She had seen him cycle off this morning. He had a train to catch. Where to? A place she thought was in Brabant, but turned out to be in Noord-Holland. As soon as he was out of sight, she had called in sick. Sick. Another command, but she didn’t give into it, she just had swollen eyes. Lie. A word to run away from. She didn’t run away. She went back to bed, fell asleep and was woken up by the sun on her face. She went round the flat, looked at the objects he loved and those they both loved or had acquired out of necessity. The oblong table could have been round, the floor not careful grey but red, or would that have made their rows fiercer? A question generated other questions, questions that tired you out. She took a small book out of his bookcase and sat down in his chair, leaning on the arms with her elbows. She leafed through the book. She read: ‘One day soon he would reach her hiding place’ and shivered. A line further on caught her eye: ‘Even her pubic hair was orange.’ And then: ‘He had left a nice painting behind.’
She heard him locking his bike and went to the window. She saw him bend forward and pull his bike wheel clear of hers. Leave it, she wanted to call out to him when he bent over again. The wheel would not budge and after the fourth attempt he gave up.
It took him a long time to get upstairs. Had he turned back? Had he gone away again? She slide the gleaming white door open. She forgot everything she had wanted to say, and she did not hunt for words. ‘I’m glad,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you’re back.’
By Mensje Van Keulen
Translated by Paul Vincent
First published in The Low Countries, 2013