Even when she looked in a mirror she had a smile on her face these days; when she went down the stairs there was practically a skip in her step, and now and again, a tune would come humming out of her. What you’ve given up hoping for counts twice as much, Kathleen had discovered.
After her divorce, there’d been Emiel. He had Crohn’s disease. It hadn’t been officially diagnosed but he assumed he had it, given the unreliability of his bowels. He didn’t dare go to restaurants, the cinema was tricky, too, since he worried about having to run out halfway through, and he only reluctantly visited friends of hers. To be honest, what he liked most was to simply stay home, and even though she loved going out, she was prepared to accept this. If she were him, she’d have actually gone to see a specialist to get a proper diagnosis, but for some reason or other, Emiel kept refusing to go and who was she not to respect other people’s fears? But the fact he could barely talk about anything other than his bowel movements and his diet, and the way he assumed life had only been invented to torture him, well, after a while it began to weigh on her own joie de vivre.
Then came Barry. He only took a bath once a week like he’d learned as a child. His beard came down to his chest and always smelled at least a bit of old dishwater. He liked to crack jokes and was insulted if she didn’t laugh at them, and he never picked up when she called, not even that one time when it had been an emergency and she’d rung four times in a row. The very first time they had sex, he slapped her hard across the face; he couldn’t come without doing that.
Later she found Franz with a z, that’s how he wrote it, even though it wasn’t like that in his passport. He couldn’t tolerate her not reading and enjoying the same books, picking out the same films, enjoying the same Leonard Cohen tracks on repeat, admiring the same actors, or when she didn’t like Thai and Japanese food as much as he did, particularly that one dish with the little octopuses, when she wasn’t bothered by the lady next door with the ugly dog in the same way or that TV presenter with the big head and funny lips. Even when they watched TV together, he’d turn to her every time he found something funny, as though he couldn’t laugh unless she did too, as though he could only exist if she were part of him. But Kathleen played along. She thought affably that it would serve to expand her world, and she discovered that keeping her opinions to herself wasn’t half as difficult as she’d initially thought. At the end of the day, there was something wrong with everybody. But then he took up Nordic walking.
The only thing Sylvain could talk about was his ex-wife, to whom he’d return immediately if she’d have him back, he declared, holding Kathleen in his arms. He was only telling her this because he wanted to be honest with Kathleen.
And Wilfried never looked her in the eye. When he talked to her, his eyes consistently searched for a spot high on the wall behind her. He was exceptionally clever, but only interested in technology in fact, which he could talk to her about for hours using scientific terms, which he did. He never hugged her, only kissed her during sex, and as a form of greeting, he’d pinch one of her upper arms twice, his way of showing affection, she presumed. If anyone did that now, so many years later, she’d get a sick feeling in her stomach, like when you’ve eaten too much chocolate.
And then finally, there was Mick. They were crazy about each other but he had five children with three different women and all five of them had one thing in common: they hated her, and after a while it proved fatal to their relationship.
Apart from one, they’d all been the ones to leave her. Each time, more than a parting, it was like an assault on her laboriously gathered-together belief in what she was capable of. Love had kicked her in the stomach. After Mick, Kathleen resolved to become a happy single. She never would have succeeded.
But all of a sudden Dries popped up; she met him at a girlfriend’s party. She’d lost her coat and he helped her look for it. Afterward, he pinched a bottle of whisky from the bar cabinet and they disappeared into the night together. They sat on a park bench until five in the morning. They’d laughed at the stupidest things, confessed to everything they were ashamed of, talked about dreams and various forms of regret, discovered how much affinity they had.
When they were too tired to find the right words and were sitting just staring into the water, they saw a quacking duck with her offspring. Then they noticed that one duckling was getting separated from the rest, and at that instant, he spontaneously waded into the water up to his waist to reunite the bird with the flock. Before she had got home in the early morning, he’d already texted her to ask whether he could cook for her that evening, and he turned out to be a good cook, too.
Dries was the man who made her look differently at everything she thought she’d already seen. He continuously helped her escape from all kinds of self-loathing. He worshipped her between thin sheets with eager tenderness—coercive, warm, close. He didn’t ask her for anything, but as time went by, he dared take more and more of what she was so happy to give him. He made her weak and happy, often both at the same time; he made her think about the essential, he pushed her on. He was the man Kathleen had stopped believing existed, who then turned out to exist after all. They made plans for a wild journey after she had breathlessly sat listening to his stories about his adventures in places that appealed to the imagination.
Kathleen kept on waiting for the day he turned out to be a serial killer, or that he was leading a double life and had a wife, three children, and a guinea pig in another city, or that he was dying of a creeping hereditary illness that would cruelly tear them apart, but they’d known each other for five months and four days now and still nothing had come to light. If there was any justice in life, the two of them would stay together for the rest of time, a girlfriend had claimed recently. Kathleen hadn’t said anything to the contrary.
She stood before the mirror in a dress she had paid a little too much for and hoped Dries would like it. She opted for the shoes with the serious heels he found sexy and applied her perfume in seven different places. He’d be arriving in a minute to pick her up for a dinner at his boss’s house. He hadn’t been working for the company for long and she could tell he was nervous about it. She didn’t have to go if she didn’t feel like it, he didn’t know if she’d find it much fun with his colleagues who were duller than dishwater, but she’d insisted. She put on lipstick and the necklace he’d given her the week before and then her coat in preparation.
Outside, it seemed like the rain would never stop. In the glow of the street lamp, all that water reminded her of windblown dust in the brightest sunlight—it was pretty. In the olden days, she’d feel glum whenever she woke up and heard rain drumming against the windowpanes. When she heard his car approach, she hurried out to the drive. Even though the last time had been yesterday, she was delighted to see him again. Nothing was lovelier than to continually be reunited with the other.
Kathleen was worried her dress wasn’t appropriate. The aperitif was brought into the “lounge,” as Dries’s boss called it, a square room with lots of glass, looking out over an enormous garden filled with old trees. The voluptuous sofa seemed endless too, it could easily accommodate eight. Kathleen turned down all the appetizers because she was afraid to stain the pale gray fabric. Dries tried his very best and wasn’t completely sure it was enough, she could see that. It moved her because she hadn’t yet seen him like this, he was more of the tough, leave-everything-to-me type.
To her left at the table there was a guy called John. He was wearing a loud red tie and smelled of Camembert. He reminded her of Franz with the z, yet she still attempted a conversation.
They were served Bouchot mussels in a saffron sauce as an appetizer, and even though mussels were the only things Kathleen really didn’t like, especially since she’d had a bad one that time, with all the consequences, she wanted to give it a go so as not to insult anyone, and actually they were quite tasty. When the hired waiter came to take the plates, Dries cracked a joke that made the entire table laugh and made her glow with pride. It was all going to be fine.
“Where’s the bathroom please?” Kathleen asked Dries’s boss after the main course.
“You can use the upstairs one, the guest bathroom has just been painted and it’s not completely dry. Most inconvenient, tradesmen never finish on time. Go upstairs, along the corridor, the bathroom’s the second door on the left.”
Kathleen hoisted her handbag over her shoulder and climbed the spiral staircase. The house looked as if nobody lived in it, even though they had two young children. She tiptoed cautiously along the corridor. Just to be sure, Kathleen knocked and waited a while.
The bathroom was about the same size as her bedroom, it had a walk-in shower with smoked glass and a two-person Jacuzzi. Kathleen lifted up the toilet lid and even though she wasn’t looking, she saw it. She didn’t think she’d ever seen such a big one before. Not that she’d made any comparative studies, in general Kathleen didn’t look at the contents of toilet bowls, but in this case it didn’t take much to notice the colossus. The way it was lying there: challenging, commanding, unavoidable, it seemed more like something that had come from a bear, or a different kind of mammal that ate much more than any person would ever be capable of.
She immediately began to perspire. She wished she could simply change stalls, like in a bar. Go back downstairs without doing her business, that’s what she’d do, her need to pee had already disappeared at the sight of the filled toilet. But then she realized that her table companions had explicitly seen her disappear to the bathroom, whoever used the toilet after her would think she’d left it there boorishly. It might even be Dries, he had a small bladder, she’d already noticed that.
Kathleen flushed, the water came pouring down with appropriate enthusiasm, but remained high for a while before sinking to halfway down the toilet bowl. To her disgust, she watched it all with fascination. After an initial pause, some movement appeared in the water, thank god, a gentle kind of bubbling, as though it was trying with all its might and main to carry away the number two. The bubbling became churning and finally the water disappeared, though it left the turd unmercifully behind.
The cistern refilled. She wondered whether it was worth trying again. Next time the water might stay as high as it had been permanently. But what else should she do? She crossed her fingers, pressed the larger of the two buttons emphatically and, just like she was convinced she’d win whenever she bought lottery scratch cards, she became convinced that this second attempt would be successful. She heard the frothing, sucking sound of water that wanted to return to the sea. But the stubborn brown-black whopper remained behind in all its glory.
The sight of it was becoming more and more unbearable. She looked around the bathroom hesitantly, searching for something that could save her. A toilet brush was mounted to the wall in a stainless steel holder. Theoretically it offered opportunities, but if she set to work with it, there would be questions about who had desecrated for all eternity this design piece, which was almost as bad. She saw two cups next to the sink but shuddered at the mere thought. And then her gaze fell on the tiny bucket and spade next to the three rubber ducks on the edge of the Jacuzzi. They must belong to the boss’s cute toddler she’d seen pictures of. For a while, she stared from the bucket and spade to the bin, before dismissing it as the dumbest idea ever. Of course there was another option, but the thought of it made her gag.
In faint despair, she flushed just one last time. The toilet made slurping and churning sounds, it sounded almost hopeful, Kathleen thought, and at that moment someone knocked on the door. Kathleen’s heart missed a beat.
“Occupied.” It sounded hoarse.
She stood there as quiet as a mouse. Fiddling at the door.
“Occupied!” Bellowing now.
“Oh, sorry,” someone shouted back.
It was Dries’s boss’s wife! If Kathleen had had to guess which of the company wanted to use the toilet now, she’d have been her very last choice.
Kathleen waited for the liberating sound of high heels on the move, but heard nothing. Dries’s boss’s wife was just standing there waiting her turn. Not entirely incomprehensible. How long had Kathleen been in the bathroom by now? It must be ten minutes, perhaps even fifteen, which of course would only confirm suspicions that Kathleen was the producer of this mega-turd. She gave it another glance, and no, the fellow hadn’t smoothly slipped away in the few seconds. Something had to happen now. The unthinkable, if necessary.
She always carried a strong plastic bag in her handbag, saving the planet was in the details. Almost sick with disgust, she pulled the bag around her left hand, took the spade in her right hand, stood over the toilet, her face turned away so that she could only just see what she was doing, and aimed first one and then the second half of the turd into the bag. Kathleen spun the bag around and around to contain its unwanted bounty and then folded the ends around it. Filled with revulsion, she checked whether it was secure. She heard Dries’s boss’s wife cough on the other side of the door. It was hard to tell whether it was a coincidental cough, or one that meant “I’m-standing-here-waiting-for-god’s-sake-hurry-up.”
Kathleen flushed one last time, holding the spade under the running water before putting it back in the bucket, ostensibly clean. This was by no means ideal, but ideal wasn’t exactly the code word this evening. After placing the package in her handbag and washing her hands, she came out bearing a deadpan expression.
She could hardly believe what she had done, but she walked back into the room wearing her most innocent smile. Anything for her Dries.
It was hard not to be distracted. Afterward she’d be sleeping over at Dries’s and she had to get rid of her unwanted bounty. Now and then, she tugged her large handbag a little closer to her and sniffed, just to make sure, but for now she didn’t have to worry about that. During the dessert, she studied the other guests, the million-dollar question was which of them had produced the specimen. While they were eating, no one had left the table, and she hadn’t paid any attention to who had left the room while they were having the aperitif in the lounge, she’d only had eyes for Dries. Intuitively she wanted to eliminate all of the women, but that one there with the red hair and swimmer’s shoulders looked like she was capable of plenty. John was her other most likely contender.
In the meantime, she tried not to wonder what the others in general, and Dries’s boss’s wife in particular, had thought of her unhealthily long absence just now. The more the evening progressed, the more her need to pee grew, since she hadn’t been able to go in the depths of her misery. Yet she refused to return to the place of doom, who knew what she might find in the toilet next.
They drove home and Dries was happy with how the evening had gone. “Everyone loved you, you know, when you went to the loo, three different people told me how nice they thought you.”
The look in Dries’s eyes as he said this was something that could keep Kathleen afloat for a week. She was sitting with her bag on her lap and trying to cleverly disguise her discomfort. She had to make sure they planned in a pit stop so that she could dump the plastic bag.
“Could we stop off at a convenience store? I need to buy tampons, I forgot and I might need them early tomorrow morning. Sorry, so stupid of me,” she laughed.
“No problem, love, there’s one just a bit further up, I think.”
Dries parked the car, unfortunately right in front of the shop, but inside there were often bins for ice-cream wrappers and so on. Don’t panic, she thought, it’ll be fine.
She had her hand on the door handle.
“Be right back.”
“I’ll come with you. I feel like something unsophisticated after that much too healthy fruit pudding they just gave us, don’t you?”
Her smile was incriminating. She wanted to say that she’d pick up something, but he’d already slammed the door.
The rain clattered down so hard it was ricocheting off the street. Dries opened the car door for her, held his long raincoat over both of their heads, and they sprinted into the shop. Once they were inside, he leaned over the freezer compartment to study the ice creams. Kathleen walked to the rack with toiletries as she looked for a bin, which of course wasn’t there. Bloody hell. Kathleen had to get rid of the bag whatever it took. If necessary, in any place she could leave it without being noticed: this was an emergency. She’d apologize to the shop owner in her mind, hopefully he wouldn’t open the bag before he threw it away. Kathleen spotted quite a large space behind the shampoo and the bubble bath, that might be an option. She heard the shop door tinkle, oh no, another person to potentially witness what she was up to.
“Everybody on the ground, now!” Two men in balaclavas stood there looking at them, each holding a handgun pointing at them and the shop owner. One of them locked the door.
The other shouted for a second time, “Now!”
Their movements were jumpy, their bodies gangly and thin, they looked more like boys than men, boys that stood there dripping like wet dogs. Kathleen heard Dries panting behind her. She knelt down and then quickly leaned over because her bottom sticking up right in Dries’s face can’t have been that attractive. She turned around and saw that Dries was lying flat on the ground with his face turned away from the assailants, and thus also from her. The floor was wet and covered in the slimy tracks of all the shoes that had come in and out all evening; she hung about halfway down, supporting herself on her underarms. The compromising handbag lay beside her.
The man at the counter just stayed where he was, his hands in the air. Maybe he didn’t think “everybody” meant him or maybe he didn’t speak Dutch, or he was just terrified, who could tell. The smaller of the two men threw a bag onto the counter. He waved his gun in front of the man’s face and then gestured at the cash register with the barrel. The manager immediately began putting all the banknotes into the bag, a sad spectator of his own losses, which he immediately accepted. His resigned calm contrasted sharply with the nervousness of the robbers, two hungry tigers in an undersized cage.
The smaller one wagged the barrel of his gun up and down in front of the shop owner’s eyes from time to time, as though he were showing the man the right moves. Kathleen wondered for an instant whether there might be a discreet alarm button somewhere to alert the police. But one of the strip-lights was broken, the woodwork on the door and window frames was desperately in need of a coat of paint, and the dust bunnies under the racks betrayed the absence of a paid cleaner. There wasn’t going to be any sophisticated alarm system here.
Since the two boys just carried on staring, the man now started pouring coins into the bag. The guys muttered something.
“More,” the taller one cried to the manager.
He shook his head. “All there is,” he replied.
He pointed at his till, lifted up the tray to show there was nothing hidden underneath it. Then he held his hands above his head again.
The smaller man pushed the man against the cabinet behind him, his right arm shoved up under the man’s chin.
“Where’ve you hidden the rest?”
“Nothing, no,” his voice sounded shaky now.
Kathleen tried to look back again, in search of Dries.
“Don’t move,” the taller one roared at her.
The smaller one flung open cabinets, throwing things around. The other seemed annoyed, he whistled between his teeth, paced to the door yet again, turned around, and then Kathleen saw it happen: he slipped on the wet floor and fell mercilessly with one leg stretched out, the back of his head hitting the tiles. He swore.
“Jeez,” the small one roared.
Karma, Kathleen thought. The other helped him to his feet, while keeping his gun pointed at the manager, as though he was capable of shooting without looking.
“We gotta get outta here, man!”
Kathleen wished she could feel Dries, if only a finger on her leg; she discreetly shunted one foot backward, he’d surely notice, cautiously trying to catch a glimpse of him in the corner of her eye.
When she looked up again, she saw the smaller man’s boots in front of her nose.
“You too, give us everything.”
He threw the bag on the floor.
“C’mon, man, this is taking too long,” the taller one spluttered again.
He rubbed the back of his head, it looked stupid with the balaclava between his hand and the skin.
“Money, jewelry, phone.”
His nervous boots lingered.
“C’mon,” the other snapped in agitation.
Kathleen gestured whether she might sit. He nodded. She fumbled nervously at her handbag, but all she could feel was the plastic bag. She had to put everything she could find on the floor as quickly as possible so that he wouldn’t look in her purse. What would Dries think? How would romance be possible ever again if this came to light?
By now, the robber had Dries’s wallet, telephone, and watch. But she didn’t find what she was looking for. She hadn’t come out tonight without her wallet had she? She found a hair tie, two paper handkerchiefs in their wrapping, nose spray, a lipstick, her diary, some small change, an individually packed intimate hygiene wipe, and that dark secret of hers, but no money.
“We’ve got to go now, man,” the other man shouted as though it was the only thing he could say.
“I forgot my wallet. Take this.”
Kathleen took her phone from her coat pocket and shoved it at his feet. She undid her necklace, even though Dries had given it to her, and handed in her earrings and her bracelet which had barely cost anything, anything to avoid them asking for her handbag.
“What do you mean, forgot?”
“We’ve just been out to dinner at someone’s house, I didn’t need any money.”
“What about paying here, how were you gonna do that? In kind was it?”
He fumbled behind the button of her blouse with one finger and pulled the fabric forward. Kathleen cursed herself for not doing up her coat. He studied her décolleté with a grin, she could smell his sweat, Kathleen brusquely pulled one shoulder back and clamped her handbag beneath her arms.
“Give me that bag, you bitch.”
Anything but the bag. The thief moved his head still closer, Kathleen held her breath. The coldness of those two eyes surrounded by so much black wool.
“Sorry, I really don’t have anything . . .” Her voice shook.
All of a sudden, she saw him move back and then strike out with the butt of the gun. A crack against her temple, a crunch. Kathleen fell and felt a boot stamp into her stomach, and again.
“C’mon, man, that bag and away, dammit!”
The little one stamped again, her kidneys now. Pain shot down her back. She tried to protect her face with her hands, still keeping hold of her bag. Suddenly the manager launched himself at the thief. The taller one came closer, pointing his shaking weapon. The two men wrestled on the floor, Kathleen tried to get up, stamped at the smaller one’s back with the heel of her shoe but in no time he was on top of the shop owner. He punched him full in the face. A dull crack. The tall one pulled the other one by his shoulder. “Stop it, you fool, c’mon.”
The little one didn’t seem to hear anything, kicked the man in the head, who screamed as though he was being beaten to death. Then he began to kick his stomach, and again, and again, and again until the man vomited.
“Idiot,” the tall one fumbled for the bag and pulled the smaller one forcefully by the shoulder, “C’mon, you rookie.”
The beanpole walked toward the door, the other storming after him. The door tinkled and then a hazy silence.
Kathleen crawled painfully to her feet. She touched her forehead: wet, blood. She was a little dizzy but made her way to the man. “Sir?” His eyes were shut. “Sir, are you all right, sir?” Kathleen didn’t know why she thought he might react to English, perhaps he’d spoken with an accent just now. She gently shook his shoulder, his face looked terrible and his vomit was a strange russet color. His chest was rising and falling, at least there was that.
She got up. What now? Panic was having all naturalness fly out of you. “Dries?” Where was he now? “Dries?!” She had to get help, find a phone. “Drie-hies?” She went to the door that led to the back of the shop. There was an old-fashioned telephone. Someone answered at once, Kathleen told her story, but she didn’t know the name of the street. “Dries?” Again no reaction. Finally she spotted an envelope lying near the phone; she dictated the address; she was afraid help would arrive too late thanks to her dithering.
She didn’t see him sitting there hidden between the shelf of preserves and the wall until she went back into the shop. “Dries?” He didn’t respond or look at her. It wasn’t until she reached him that she saw that the crotch and inside legs of his beige trousers were darker than the rest.
Kathleen looked at him, the way he was lying there, neck and head buckled to the stretcher, the stranger who had saved her. It was too soon to tell, further examinations were necessary, the paramedics said. They gave her a compress which she had to hold pressed to her head. She could go with them to get her wound stitched and her head looked at, but they’d have to leave at once. “I’ll just check.”
Kathleen went over to Dries, she’d never longed for him more. He was in the back of the shop on a stool, a blanket wrapped around his middle. He stared at the ground, his face pale, a hand clutching his forehead. “Shall we go in the ambulance? Or just me and you come later? Or shall we drive to the hospital? You can drive, can’t you?”
Dries didn’t reply.
“I have to let them know, they’re waiting.”
When he still didn’t respond, she told the ambulance personnel, “I’ll stay here, thanks.”
Dries sat there as though he could no longer carry his own weight. The two people who usually had such good conversation remained silent. He didn’t ask how she was, she wondered how to help him but didn’t have any bright ideas. Her head pounded. He was disgusted by her, of course, she hadn’t wanted to give them her stupid handbag and it was her fault that brave man had been beaten. Maybe she should just confess everything. But a story about shit? Kathleen sat down next to him. She cleared her throat but that was all. She got up again and looked for a key so that they could lock the door behind them.
When she returned, Dries was in exactly in the same position, his shoulders drawn and cramped.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Dries growled, “Yes, having the time of my life.”
This type of cynicism wasn’t like him.
“I should have given them my bag, it was just . . .”
He didn’t look at her and she lost the courage to finish the sentence. He pulled the blanket further over himself.
“I’m glad that they didn’t turn on you, at least.” She used her softest voice.
She laid a hand against his cheek, he pulled his head away. Kathleen waited a while, hoping he would say something. She wanted to kiss him but didn’t know if she’d be able to cope if he drew back. “Shall we go? We’re not going to feel any better if we stay here, are we?”
“Go on, I’m coming.”
“You’ve got the car keys, haven’t you?”
He made no move to hand them over to her.
Kathleen stared outside shakily, at the patchy light, the out-of-focus world. Rain splashed angrily against the windows, a black and white cat raced past. The emptiness of the street unsettled her. Kathleen thought about the manager, his arms in the air, his howls, she thought about Dries and his turned-away gaze, about the repulsive poop in her bag, and she felt a tear linger in the corner of her eye.
“Don’t forget your handbag.”
Kathleen didn’t know whether the bitter undertone was really there or was just a figment of her imagination.
She struggled to lock the door and after some fumbling, dropped the keys into the letterbox. There was a trashcan a few feet down the street, finally free of that burden, she thought as she pushed the bag through the hole.
Kathleen sat next to him in the car.
“Oops, I’m making everything wet.”
She was aiming for airiness to pave the way for a conversation.
Dries carefully draped the blanket over his trousers and started the car.
“Yeah, course, if you’re going to go wandering up and down the street.”
Kathleen didn’t know what to say. She heard the turn signal, his hands gliding along the leather steering wheel. Then he pulled at the blanket for the thousandth time. She tried to breathe through her mouth.
The windshield wipers swept back and forth on their fastest setting. She looked at the road but the only thing she could see was Dries’s face, refusing to look at her, and the broken face of the man in the night shop. She got a cramp in her arm from holding the compress and swapped hands. If she let herself go, her teeth would chatter. The cold seemed to crawl into her, a companion that was there to stay.
Once he’d freshened up, it would all be better. They’d drive to the hospital for her head, and he’d hold her hand, and she’d say she’d tell him the whole story later and then he’d understand, and they’d find out how the shop owner was doing and hear he’d soon be back to his old self, wouldn’t be long, and they’d hug because they were so happy for him and just in general, together, and they’d chatter away as usual on their way to his or her house, it wouldn’t matter, they’d say. And they’d be reunited again as they had been continuously for the past five months. That’s how it would go, later, once he’d freshened up, she was sure. Somewhat sure.
“Wat niet meer wordt verwacht telt dubbel had zij ontdekt” © Griet op den Beeck. First published in Gij nu (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2016). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2016 by Michele Hutchison. All rights reserved.