For the first time in her life, Elisabeth runs into her daughter unexpectedly. She comes out of the pharmacist’s on the Overtoom, is about to cross over to the tram stop when she sees her daughter riding along the other side of the street. Her daughter sees her too. Elisabeth stops walking. Her daughter stops pedaling, but doesn’t yet brake. The entire expanse of the Overtoom separates them: two bike paths, two lanes of traffic and a double tramline. Elisabeth realizes at once that she has to tell her daughter that she is dying, and smiles like a person about to tell a joke.
She often struggles with what to say to her daughter, but now she really does have something. A split second later it occurs to her that you can’t convey something like that with too much enthusiasm and perhaps not here either. Meanwhile, she crosses the Overtoom and thinks of the way her doctor keeps asking her: “Are you telling people?” and how nice it would be to be able to give the right answer at her next appointment. She crosses between two cars. Her daughter brakes and gets off her bike. Elisabeth clutches tightly the plastic bag from the pharmacy containing morphine strips and cough medicine. The bag is proof of her illness, as though her words alone wouldn’t be enough; the bag is also her excuse. Because she hadn’t really wanted to say it, here, so inappropriately on the street, but the bag has given her away. Hadn’t it? Yes? And now Elisabeth is crossing the Overtoom so suddenly, right behind a tram, because it isn’t right, her child on one side of the street and she on the other. It isn’t right to run into one’s daughter unexpectedly.
The daughter used to be there all the time, and later, when she wasn’t, Elisabeth would have dropped her off somewhere. Later still, there were visiting arrangements and in recent years not much at all, but in any case, the birthdays remained. Things had always been clear and she’d got used to not thinking about the daughter when the daughter wasn’t there. She existed at pre-arranged times. But now there she was on her bike, when they didn’t have an appointment and it was wrong and had to be resolved, changed, amalgamated, and she still had a tramline to cross, just behind a taxi that toots its horn and causes her coat to whip up. Her daughter pulls her bike up onto the pavement. The final lane is empty.
Elisabeth notices at once that her daughter has gained weight again and blurts out, “Have you had your hair cut again?” Because she’s terrified her daughter can read that last thought about gaining weight. Elisabeth likes to talk about their hairstyles. They have the same hairdresser.
“No,” her daughter says.
“Different color then?”
“But you still go to the same hairdresser?”
“Me too,” Elisabeth says.
Her daughter nods. It begins to drizzle.
“Where are you going?” is too nosy, so this: “I thought you lived on the other side of town.”
“I have to move out soon, the landlord’s given me notice.”
“Oh,” Elisabeth says, “I didn’t know.”
“How could you have known?”
“I . . . I don’t know.”
“I only just found out myself.”
“No, then I couldn’t have known.” The rain becomes heavier.
“We’re getting wet,” Elisabeth says.
Her daughter immediately starts to get back on her bike and says, “I’ll call you, OK?”
“My little monster,” Elisabeth says. Her father had always called her that. He still did. It sounded funny when he said it. Her daughter gapes at her. Then her lips move. Go away, she says, silently. Elisabeth isn’t supposed to hear and she respects that; her stomach hurt. But she hasn’t heard it. Her daughter’s short hair lies flat and wet against her skull. Elisabeth thinks of towels, she wants to dry her daughter, but her daughter turns away from her, one foot already on the pedal.
So Elisabeth is forced to say, “I’ve got some news.” Done it. Her daughter turns back to her.
“What is it?”
“Sorry,” she says, “I’m going about this the wrong way, it’s not good.”
“What is it?”
“But I don’t want you to take it badly.” She slowly lifts up the plastic bag from the pharmacy. She holds the bag aloft using both hands, its logo clearly visible.
“You might be wondering: why isn’t she at work?”
Her daughter ignores the bag.
“I’ve just come from the pharmacy.”
“It’s the doctor. He said it.” She lets the bag drop.
“What did the doctor say?”
“That I need to tell people.”
“That I might die. But we don’t know when, you know. It might be months.”
“From the cancer.”
“It’s an umbrella term for a lot of different illnesses actually. It’s just that it sounds so horrible.”
”What have you got then?”
“Oh, it’s all a bit technical.”
“It started in my kidneys but . . .”
“Must have been years ago.”
“No. How long have you known?”
Elisabeth thinks of the hairdresser, the first person she told. She goes every other month and her new appointment is for next week, in which case it has to be more than . . .
“How long, Mom?”
“We’ll get soaked if we keep on standing here like this.”
“I’m working it out.”
“Well, not months.”
“Christ.” Her daughter looks angry.
“I shouldn’t have told you, should I?”
“But . . . are they treating you?”
“Not at the moment, no.”
“Are they going to treat you?”
“If they can think of something.”
“And can they?”
“Not at the moment.”
“. . . and so?”
“Sorry,” Elisabeth says, “I shouldn’t have told you like this. We’re getting drenched.” The bag is now hidden behind her back.
“So you . . . might . . . but not definitely?”
“You’re not likely to live a long time with something like this.”
“Let’s talk on the phone, shall we?”
And then Elisabeth crosses back over the Overtoom as quickly as she can. She slips and falls on the first tramline, but scrambles up again. As fast as she wanted to go to her daughter, this is how fast, no faster, that she wants to get away from her. The trams ring their bells and Elisabeth remembers the way her daughter had painted her room.
“I just start to paint when I feel like it,” she had explained, “I don’t put on old clothes, I don’t tape up anything, because if I thought of all the preparation, I’d stop wanting to do it. I just start, and then it takes me just as long to clean up the mess and get all the paint spots off as the painting itself.”
This was exactly what Elisabeth had just done. She had just started, at the wrong time, at the wrong place, in the wrong clothes. She had done it in a single go and now she would have to clean up the mess and hope that the result was better than before she’d started the job.
She walks to the tram stop without looking back and thinks about her hairdresser; her conversations with him never go wrong. The words she and her hairdresser exchange tinkle like loose change: fast, short melodies.
“The trouble I’ve been having . . .”
“That pain in my back, you know . . .”
“Yes, you said.”
“Turned out to be cancer.”
“Riddled with it.”
“I saw it with my own eyes. On the scans.”
“Now they’re seeing if they can stop it.”
“And can they?”
“Don’t tell the girl. You know—that you knew it first.”
“She doesn’t know yet?”
“I don’t see her that often.”
“No more than you do.”
“She needs another coloring session.”
“She dyes it?”
There aren’t any words that are inappropriate at the hairdresser’s. While he dries her hair, they speak loudly. She can shout out words above the racket that in other places would need to be whispered.
Then the hairdresser hollers, “That woman upstairs isn’t doing too well!”
Elisabeth asks, “What’s the matter with her?”
The hairdresser says, “Stroke, I think.”
Elisabeth: “Talking funny, is she?”
The hairdresser turns off the dryer and does an impression.
Sometimes a customer will be sitting there waiting, a man reading a newspaper. Of course the hairdresser knows he can hear everything, but the hairdresser doesn’t give a damn. The hairdresser doesn’t talk to customers who aren’t in the chair. Elisabeth is bothered by their silent witness. One of those who always seems to be there. One of those who pretends not to notice but whose very existence makes things inappropriate.
On the evening she knows her mother is going to die, she is on her own and eats Caramac and Toffee Cups in bed. These are the sweets she eats when he’s not looking because she’d rather conceal her childish taste. She knows he is going to leave her. He can no longer bear her contentment. He has never had to pursue her. She was simply there one day and he could have her. For a while things went well, he had just got divorced and for a time liked things that were unambiguous. A year of that was enough though.
But now there’s a sick mother; that sort of thing excites him. It’ll keep him occupied for a while. She won’t die that fast. Perhaps during this time they’ll be able to salvage something. Coco doesn’t know how, she just knows that there’s still time and that’s the main thing.
In two days’ time they’re going out for dinner with her father and stepmother. Coco pictures herself telling them. She’s already looking forward to it.
She hears Hans asking, “What exactly is it that you’re looking forward to?” But this time she doesn’t feel like answering.
The drinks have already been ordered. Coco’s father and stepmother (who prefers to be called Miriam) are sitting holding the large menu cards. Hans has put his menu down, his fingers on two different dishes. He wants the chow mein with prawns, but with sole and another sauce.
Coco suddenly thinks it’s odd to wait until the appetizers with her news. She has already waited until Wednesday, until they are here, until they have taken off their coats, until they have sat down, but now she’s got this far, the perfect timing seems banal.
“I think I’ll have the Ti Pan sole,” her father says.
“Mom’s ill,” Coco says.
“Ill?” Miriam asks. “Have you seen her?”
“Bumped into her on the Overtoom.”
“What has she got then?” her father asks.
“Serious,” Coco says. “I mean she’s seriously ill.”
Her father and stepmother put down their menus.
“Child, what is it?” Miriam asks.
“What kind of cancer?” her father asks.
“Kidney, I think. Is that possible?”
Miriam says, “Gosh sweetie, and you’re only telling us now? When did you hear?”
“Why didn’t you call us?”
“I’m telling you now, aren’t I?”
“Is she going to die?” her father asks.
“I think so,” Coco says. Hans is sitting silently next to her like a new initiate patiently waiting for his turn to speak.
“Does she say that?”
“Not in so many words, but they aren’t treating her anymore.”
“And you’ve been carrying that around since Monday?” Miriam says. ‘”Why didn’t you call?” The waitress approaches. Miriam puts up her hand, like a traffic policewoman stopping a car. The waitress immediately slows down.
“Could you give us just a moment,” Miriam whispers.
“Shall we give the Indonesian rice table a go?” Coco asks. “Seems like a nice idea to all have the rice table for once.”
“Of course, sweetie,” Miriam says.
“Fine,” her father says. Everyone is looking at Hans now.
“Actually, I was really looking forward to that sauce I had last time, but with the sole—it seemed like such a good combination.”
“We don’t have to . . .”
“Let’s just have the rice table,” Miriam says.
“It’s for two or for four people,” her father reads out.
“What nonsense,” Hans says, “if you can make a rice table for two, you can also make it for three.” He puts up his hand.
The waitress comes to their table.
“We’d like a rice table for three people . . . and . . .”
“Rice table is for two or for four people.”
“Then we’d like one and a half rice tables.”
“It’s only possible for two or four people.”
Coco says, “We’ll take it for four, it’ll get eaten.”
“No, this is nonsense,” Hans says. “Chinese is always too much.”
“We’ll take the portion for two,” Coco says.
Hans gives the waitress a stern look and asks, “but why can’t you make a three-person rice table?”
The young waitress blushes and repeats, “It’s only possible for two or for four.”
“But you do understand that this is nonsense,” Hans says, “you can just adjust the quantities, can’t you? I completely understand that you don’t want to do a rice table for one, but three is different. You just make a two-person portion a bit bigger, don’t you?”
The waitress says, “I’ll go and ask.”
“Is this really necessary?” Coco asks.
“She’s talking nonsense,” Hans says, “isn’t she?”
“Yes,” says Miriam, who can’t stop smiling, “of course it should be possible for three people.”
An older waitress comes to their table.
“You’d like the rice table?”
“Yes,” says Hans, “We’d like the rice table for three people.”
“I’ll ask the chef what he can do.” The waitress goes to take the menus.
“And then I’d like,” Hans says, “the chow mein, number 35, but with the sole, and the oyster sauce from number 42. Is that possible?”
“Of course, chow mein 35 with sole and oyster sauce.”
After the waitress has walked away with the menus, Hans leans back, grinning.
“See, you only have to ask.”
Her father has been playing with the beer coasters all this time, he’s built a house with them. The young waitress approaches with the drinks and a basket of prawn crackers. Her father quickly spreads the beer coasters out across the table. The waitress silently places the drinks on them.
“Lovely, thank you,” Miriam says, still smiling. The girl nods and walks away.
Then Coco leans back, too, looks at the spotless pink tablecloth and feels the same fresh sense of delight that she’s been feeling since Monday morning. This time there’s not only the dinner ahead, but the conversation, too. It is as though her mother, the topic of conversation, is lying barely touched in the middle of the clean pink tablecloth. Elisabeth de Wit—wonderful conversation material even without an approaching demise—will remain in this company’s thoughts all evening. The glasses are filled, the knives sharpened. Coco smiles and gazes ahead contentedly, looking forward to a conversation whose course she already knows, but which never fails to entertain her. Whatever course the stories take, stories in which she herself has a role to play, she is the youngest, she is the child, she is innocence. Yes, this is what contentment feels like.
From Dorst (Breda: De Geus, 2012). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2014 by Michele Huchison. All rights reserved.