The telephone was beige. Or an insipid office kind of brown. Square, both the receiver and the body, and the keys too—all right angles, a relic from the eighties. He still had it in the garage, on a metal rack, next to an old computer screen in the same color. Every time he parked the car, he saw it in the final glow of the headlights, and when his wife, Veerle, filled the last cardboard box and didn’t hesitate to lay claim to the sleek cordless telephone, he thought, for the sake of easy life that he could get by with this one for now, a corded telephone, with a crackle in the speaker, as if it was picking up cosmic interference, short sharp messages from an icy corner of the universe.
After she had verified that she had Mr. Frederik Malfait on the line, the name of the woman who had called him disappeared in one of those bursts of static and when the magnetic rustling settled she was already talking about the advantages of the Independent Health Service and asking if he’d already been informed about it. “Hello?”
He said he was in a hurry, then reluctantly agreed that she could call him back some other time. She did it the very next day, toward evening. This time she didn’t give her name; she introduced herself as the person he had asked to call back and said that she would like to take just five minutes of his time to inform him about the advantages of the Independent Health Service.
He looked over his shoulder at Gilles, his daughter, who showed her annoyance by opening her eyes wider, a warning that he shouldn’t start a conversation now when she had just summoned him to the dining table to tell him some news. The same annoyance that had finally led his wife to leave not just him, but—under the pretext of a career—even the country in which he had aroused her unbridled irritation.
It turned out that Gilles had applied for a job, an advertising agency in the center of town. She had made it to the last round, with three other candidates. She told him the story from start to finish while playing with her teaspoon; she had slender hands, so beautiful they could bring tears to his eyes. They stayed sitting there for quite a while. He congratulated her several times, but neither her story nor his faith in a positive outcome seemed to cheer her. The next morning at breakfast it was no better. They were sitting in exactly the same positions as ten or so hours beforehand. It had been at least ten years, Sunday breakfast together like this: she insisted. As if she was his wife. His boiled egg was perfect, the sunlight shining on the white tablecloth was festive, and now and then, because her dressing gown was short and made of satin, he caught a glimpse of the soft charms that would one day, soon perhaps, daze an intelligent young man with admiration and force him down onto his knees to press his cheek against her warm belly.
He heard the ferocity in his voice when he said he wasn’t interested, and peered out through the window, as if he was in a movie and somewhere outside, in the neighbor’s parklike garden, the woman from the call center was about to emerge from the shadow of a beech. It was true that he’d told her three times that he was busy and she could call him back some other time. It was true that she’d been patient. It was all true. But he just wasn’t interested in the advantages of the Independent Health Service. That, too, was true. Her phoning him four times with the greatest patience couldn’t change that. After a brief silence, she said that he could at least have the politeness to let her finish. He said that would only waste her time as well as his. He said she should call someone else. He said, “Good-bye,” and hung up.
When she called him back that same minute, she asked if she had the honor and pleasure of speaking to Mr. Frederik Malfait and then, without waiting for his answer, imperturbably rattled off the sentences she used in every telephone conversation, in the order she was meant to speak them. Someone, it occurred to him, had one day been paid a fortune to write this spiel down, one word at a time, constructing a story that someone else then approved as commercially viable and which was now, today, through this woman, being drip-fed into his head by means of an old, square telephone. It was a bright winter’s day. Under the window a finch took a beakful of snow, because the water was all frozen.
In the background he could hear other women, equally involved in telephone conversations. The voice he had been allocated sounded more mature than usual for this kind of conversation. She definitely wasn’t young anymore. Not old, but not young. Gently, without making a sound, as if that might stop her noticing, he laid the receiver back in its cradle.
The telephone still had a real bell, and its ring was so shrill it was impossible to ignore. It was like an alarm. Years ago, in countless living rooms during what was, after all, the Cold War, it must have terrified people. With a speed that matched the slowness with which he had just hung up, he snatched up the phone. With her voice trembling with rage, the woman asked to speak to Frederik Malfait, despite knowing full well who she had on the line. He told her that his idea of politeness did not entirely correspond to her own. He said that she should call a woman sometime. Then she could babble on to her heart’s content. He did not have time, Frederik Malfait did not have time. He said he hoped she’d choke on her advantages of the Independent Health Service. He said “have a nice day,” and hung up.
At his desk, in the comfort of the sheepskin draped over his armchair, he felt a smile on his face. Relieved from his body weight, his legs began to tremble and a warm blush glowed around his eyes. He listened for the sound of the ringing downstairs and the longer the silence lasted, the sweeter the taste of victory. He had made his presence felt. For once he hadn’t let himself be pushed into a corner. A hearty curse thundered out of his mouth. He wished the woman hadn’t been a stranger, but Veerle.
Night fell early and the neighborhood traffic started to pick up with local residents in four-wheel drives with their children. Every time the characteristic sound of the massive tires reached him, he thought of the woman from the call center heading home on a crowded bus. In her cold apartment, she ran the bath and washed her little son. Every now and then she walked into the bedroom for two or three glugs of wine. She swears at the light switch, which is broken again, bangs on the wall and yells while her son stares into the motionless bathwater, from which all of the foam has disappeared.
Just after midnight the alarm sounded. Dazed, with his penis dancing against his thighs, he hurried downstairs. He didn’t get a chance to say a word. She called him an arrogant bastard. She wasn’t going to let herself be humiliated by the likes of him. She knew where he lived. If the coward dared, he could repeat what he’d said tomorrow: to her face. Twelve noon at the Falstaff.
He stood there for minutes as if turned to stone. Since installing the phone, no one had called him, no one except this woman. He questioned whether he hadn’t just dreamed it and awoken now, in the middle of the nightmare. He felt the lukewarm radiator against his knees, a groove in the parquet under his big toe. He couldn’t hear a thing. He couldn’t remember ever having heard of an Independent Health Service before.
Upstairs, with the quilt pulled up under his trembling chin, he thought about what exactly she’d said. Had she threatened him? She “knew where he lived.” Or was that to avoid any confusion about which Falstaff she was referring to; there was one five minutes’ walk from his house, a brasserie . . . If only he could have apologized, if only he had a number to call her to tell her that it was all a misunderstanding, that she had completely the wrong impression of him, that she had just happened to get caught in the crossfire between him and his ex-wife, a conflict he had always avoided because he didn’t like arguments, he hated arguments . . . He had no choice. What if her burly brother showed up at Gilles’s place, at her loft . . . Two hours later Frederik Malfait finally dozed off, as restless as the night before a plane trip.
It had snowed again in the night, a fluffy layer on a hard, frozen base. The sidewalk, the roads: all smoothed over and treacherous. Thinking twice before each step, his face largely hidden behind a scarf, confident that, after he had explained it all, the woman would no longer feel insulted or humiliated. She would understand and agree that his apologies, his sincere apologies, were actually unnecessary. After all, in a sense they were both in the same boat. They had both wanted to stand up for themselves for once. Unfortunately he’d turned on the wrong person.
In front of the Falstaff was a bus stop. Four women sheltering between their hunched shoulders from the cold. One of them was a little further away from the gutter and not looking to the left every three seconds like the others. She was slim, even in thick winter clothes, and her skin was as white as porcelain. She looked refined, yet inconsolable. He had no right to assume that a woman in her late thirties who was obliged to support herself with telemarketing couldn’t be intelligent or beautiful. She had simply had a run of bad luck. In a flash he saw his own life, the places where it could have gone wrong and the terrible consequences. The woman looked across the street at him and he looked back. It was her, beyond a doubt. He crossed the road, keeping his eyes fixed on her clear eyes, plumbing her gaze, and heard beeping, followed by a silence in which something came sliding toward him, fast, and by the time he’d realized what was happening—I’m going to die—the delivery van whizzed past in front of his feet, mounted the pavement, and hurled the four women up in the air like dolls.
Of the uproar that followed, he would only remember the face of the male nurse next to the stretcher they had strapped the woman to, asking him to let her go now, telling him, “You can come with us.”
It had been dark for hours. The deserted waiting room was filled with the mind-numbing buzz of the drink machine. There was a figure in the doorway, a small nurse with kind features. The operation had been a success, the doctor would explain it all shortly. She said that his wife had been moved to intensive care. She’s not my wife, said Frederik Malfait, from the depths of his slumber, we’re not married. The nurse gave an understanding smile, “That doesn’t matter. Shall we?” She turned, showing him her large underpants in the process, whiter than the white of her uniform, like a hand extended to him so they wouldn’t lose each other in the corridors.
Lying punctured on top of the sheet, the woman’s arms were as pale as her face and remarkably free of freckles—he sat down beside her bed and looked at her. She was asleep, or in a coma. Her head heavily bandaged; her legs in plaster up to her groin. The expansive array of monitors at the end of the bed emitted calm, regular noises, a composition that was soon influencing the rhythm of his heart. On her mouth, held slightly open by a tube, he saw traces of lipstick. On her lashes, tiny crumbs of mascara. She had made herself up to meet him.
For more than a quarter of an hour, Frederik Malfait stayed by her side, fascinated by her face but without a single sensible thought in his head. Then he touched her hand briefly, before walking past the window behind which the nurses were consulting each other and leaving the intensive care unit.
His house was cold and dark and quiet. He made his way to the living room in his coat, to the side table, switched on the lamp and slid the table carefully over toward him. Kneeling, without touching anything else, he followed the cable from the old telephone to the wall with his eyes and studied the wall socket. The plug was fully inserted. Just to be on the safe side he pulled it out and plugged it back in again. He put his ear to the receiver and after just a couple of seconds heard a cloud of iron filings swirling through it.
He turned on the TV. The woman on the operating table was not pregnant. An off-screen voice warned that what was about to follow was not suitable for the fainthearted. The abscess in her abdominal cavity was larger than a basketball. The surgeon stood there with it in his hands, grey, filled to bursting, trapped in a wide-mesh net of blood vessels. So big and entangled that it was impossible to detach the abscess without a risk of it rupturing and pouring litres of infected pus into her intestines. Almost whispering, another surgeon said that they would need to open up her back. As strange as it seemed to Frederik Malfait, the word “back” changed his general sense of uneasiness into retching nausea. In the days that followed he tried to distract himself in his library, in his work—with little success. What had started with “back” continued with “orchid,” “bucket” and “elephant.” Random words, unconnected, that turned out to possess an unsuspected and mysterious ability to throw him completely out of kilter.
The small nurse eyed the flowers he was holding solemnly in front of him as if they were a burning candle. She had recognized him through the window in the remote-controlled swinging door to the intensive care unit and had come up to him. She told him that his wife had been transferred after three days. She was stable and out of danger. The nurse would walk him to her room. He was stunned to hear her call her “his wife” again, but the prospect of finally being able to face up to the woman and her family members and admit his guilt prevented him from thinking it through and just a few minutes later the nurse opened a door for him, waved him into a room and said, as compassionately as possible, “Don’t lose heart.”
The woman was lying in bed with her eyes closed. There were no visitors. He hadn’t even put down the flowers before he was joined by a woman who mumbled her name but announced her position, psychologist, with clear authority. She shook his hand and suggested they sit down. They stared at the motionless patient from the bedside chairs. “We have to wait,” the psychologist said. “But she’s doing fine. When she’s ready, she’ll come to.” Frederik Malfait noticed that he was shaking his head. “In these circumstances, you’re understandably distraught,” she said. “Perhaps it would help if you got some support from your family, if you came to the hospital together. You can’t leave them in the dark. Perhaps it would be easier for you if you came to visit together . . .” There’s nobody, he thought. There aren’t any loved ones. Nobody has come to visit. It’s six days and apparently she hasn’t even been reported missing. She’s completely alone . . . “Just one thing,” the psychologist said. “It’s important that we know her first name. Just so we can talk to her, make contact. Do you understand? We’ll do the rest later, when you’re ready.” The psychologist looked at him patiently. When he felt her hand on his shoulder, he said on an impulse, “Veerle.” Pleased with the result she’d achieved, the psychologist repeated the patient’s name.
The next day he returned to the hospital. He found the idea of a member of staff feeling sorry for her being so alone unbearable. He didn’t want anyone pitying the woman for being married to a weakling. A man who shirked his duty or was too cowardly to face reality. This woman deserved better and he was determined not to be misjudged again. His christening her Veerle was a little unfortunate, but practical too, as it was a name he wouldn’t forget.
He spent the whole afternoon at her bedside. Alone with her, he studied her face, trying to work out what it was about it that had drawn him blindly across the road. She had the face of a doll. It was unnaturally perfect and white—he felt her hand to see if it was still warm.
Frederik Malfait brought flowers with him, extravagant bouquets. He didn’t budge from her side, typing a little on his laptop, looking out of the window at the clouds, laying his hand on hers. He pulled up an eyelid to discover the color of her iris. When the psychologist dropped by, he simply maintained his silence. Because his resolve to be there when the woman woke was set in concrete. He would immediately show his remorse, it was all his fault. He would promise to be there for her as long as she wanted. She would soon see that he wasn’t the kind of person she’d taken him for on the telephone, he wasn’t the likes of him. Maybe she wouldn’t remember any of it, and then he’d have to tell her about her job, about the advantages of the Independent Health Service. At first she’d think he was mad, but gradually she’d come round. Perhaps they would continue to see each other. He stared into the icy glare and saw a sun-drenched garden party, him holding a glass and telling a stranger the story of how they’d met, while they both looked at his wife a few steps away, at the curve of her bare back.
On the third day Frederik Malfait pressed his lips to her forehead. He was nervous about it, though he had no reason to be. The ambulance driver, the nurse, the psychologist, none of them had doubted their belonging together. If they spotted him they would only see an expression of marital tenderness. On the fourth day he kissed her lips, without waking her . . . Toward the end of visiting hours, when the footsteps had died down in the corridors and the nurses had gathered round a table to eat their sandwiches, he carefully lifted the sheet and looked at her dark pubic hair, a vertical strip approximately one inch wide, rising up from her vulva, soon to be erased by the rampant stubble left and right. With tears in his eyes, he moved the back of his index finger over the hairy stripe, as if stroking a helpless animal.
Gilles’s car was parked in front of the house. When he opened the front door, he couldn’t hear a thing. He found his daughter in the living room, in the armchair next to the side table. She’d obviously been crying, her smile of greeting was a god-awful grimace. She said, “I got a phone call today.” Frederik Malfait stopped short and waited for her next words, for the impact of the news. But Gilles threw her arms around his neck and through the lamentation and sobbing he concluded that she’d got the advertising job—in Madrid, just two hours’ flight away, she’d come home every second weekend, she promised, Sunday breakfast, she was so sorry. Had he heard her? She shook him by the shoulders, why wasn’t he saying anything? She hugged him. Spain. Just two hours.
Over her shoulder he could see the telephone. The way it was arranged, the notepad, the ballpoint, the light of the lamp, the coiled black cord looping down off the table: everything exactly as it had been the evening Veerle took off with the cordless phone and he’d installed this one, beige and angular. It was the kind of shot directors use at both the start and end of a film, without a single viewer really believing they’re seeing exactly the same thing after everything that’s happened in the meantime.
“Voor de lieve vrede” © Peter Terrin. By arrangement with De Bezige Bij. Translation © 2014 by David Colmer. All rights reserved.