Translated by P.C. Evans
The skeleton was lying in the corona of the streetlight. It was lying right at his feet. The skeleton of a primordial salamander, or some similar creature, which had crawled up out of the earth, especially for him, to attack him and stab him with its poisonous dart; but it was now dead and dry, and couldn’t do anything at all but frighten him.
It only occurred to him when he was walking across the middle of the bridge that it could have been the gnawed-off backbone of a fish, but he could scarcely believe it.
He paused for some time at the corner, where the tram rails curved away from the bridge and ran along parallel to the river, and looked off in both directions three times. Pay no heed to these women, he thought. They were forever standing up against the houses, sometimes two together, sometimes on their own. The first said: ‘Hey, handsome,’ the second: ‘Hi, feller, wait for a second,’ the third and fourth turned to each other and started whispering.
Of course, they were gossiping about him. They saw him every day; they hated him because he never returned their greetings. ‘He thinks he’s too good for us.’ ‘He’s frightened.’ ‘He’s clearly sick, that feller.’ ‘He must have picked something up in Russia. Why doesn’t he ever go anywhere with anyone, that feller?’ Cleever could swear they were saying all this about him.
He leaned over in front of the door to the old house, where he lived in the attic, struck a match and inspected the lock. He couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but it was possible that Gorraay had chosen this sort of lock deliberately so that you couldn’t tell it from the old one. When the match burnt out he looked around to check that the whores hadn’t moved any closer to see what he was up to. But they were standing where they had been the whole time, their cigarettes burning, picking their feet up one at a time.
He stuck his hand in his trouser pocket and rummaged for his keys. More than a month ago Gorraay had threatened to change the lock on the front door so that Cleever and the other tenants (when there still were some) could only get in by ringing the bell. They couldn’t get in after ten. As to the question: ‘Why?’ Gorraay answered: ‘They could let in anyone they want, I like to keep track of who’s coming into my house. They might steal the fittings or burn the whole place down. In my last house they even pinched the carpet off the stairs.’
Cleever held the keys in his hand; he chose one of a pale amalgam from eight yale keys and stuck it in the lock with a pounding heart. The door opened easily. Not yet, Cleever thought, it’s still the same lock, and catching his breath he turned the switch on in the hall. But the stair lights didn’t come on. Groping along the wall with the back of his hand, he moved through the long passage of this terribly dilapidated house, over cracks and loose marble tiles, which wobbled with a clicking sound to every step because they’d been undermined by rats; but he wasn’t able to make any sense of their words this evening.
He climbed four flights; the handrails hung so loosely in the walls that they might drop out at the slightest touch. The evening was already far advanced; even on the top floor no light penetrated through the windowpanes, which were pasted over with glassine. Now that it’s so dark, he thought, the winding stair might close like a folding fan – but that didn’t occur.
He walked into his room in the attic and screwed the light bulb in the ceiling tight. He barely had to stretch to manage it. There was no light here either. Gorraay’s taken out the fuses! Gorraay does such terrible things. God damn him, he thought, and tramped back downstairs. Gorraay lived on the first floor.
Cleever knocked on the living room door, and on the hatch in the door to the room that served as an office, in the wild hope that it would open, even though there was no trace of light to be seen around the edges of the frame. In fact, the doors were locked. He knew the electric meter was in the office. He kicked the panels in a rage, after which he felt so drained that he climbed back upstairs to the second floor, where it was only in the rear room that somebody else lived, a cheery advertising artist, who Cleever avoided as much as possible.
The third floor had been completely cleared. Movers had knocked on his door almost every day in the early morning while Cleever was still lying in bed, asking if they could hang a block and tackle from the hook outside the window.
The advertising artist wasn’t home either. That’s the reason, Cleever thought to himself, he only dares to do this because I’m alone; he’s left and turned off the electricity, because he knows I can’t start anything on my own.
He climbed the creaking stairs once more, pondered for a while in the passage to the attic, then locked his room and went back downstairs.
Paying no heed to the whores, deaf to their voices (though they hadn’t actually spoken to him) he walked along the waterside to the Munt. A passing tram screened him off for a second. In the distance he heard the roar of the traffic and felt happy to have a reason to visit his uncle, who he hadn’t spoken to for a long time.
It was pretty quiet when he reached the Munt Tower. At the tram stop there were lots of people who’d clearly been waiting for so long that their conversations had all but petered out. Cleever went and sat on the chain that separated the traffic island from the roadway and rocked back and forth impatiently.
It wasn’t because of impatience, however, that a few moments later he crossed to the gateway under the tower, desperately deciding to travel the whole way to his uncle’s house on foot. It was because when he was sitting by all the people waiting he suddenly picked out a couple of sentences from the relative silence (there were no cars passing at that moment, and even in the distance there were no on-coming headlights to be seen). They were as clear as if the people had meant the words for him. He heard a woman say: ‘They think an awful lot of themselves, but when they come up against someone who’s really handy, they don’t start a thing.’
A man replied: ‘That’s what you think. I reckon they’ll get him before he knows what’s hit him.’
He turned up his collar in fear. – The streetlights were still burning, but the darkness had gathered around Cleever with horrifying speed, as though he was wreathed in a colossal, palpable cloud of smoke. He almost stumbled in the fibrous scraps, his feet tangling up in them, still he ran on, his shoulders hunched, as though he wanted his collar to envelop his head like a spherical case. Every eye of every person was loosing arrows at his back; every person he passed stopped to watch him go. Most of them started following him, but they couldn’t catch up with him; their footsteps struck on his soul like the hammers in a piano. But they couldn’t catch up with him, no, or at least they wouldn’t get hold of him before he knew what had hit him. That man couldn’t have been talking about anyone but him! Suddenly, it was clear, his pursuers weren’t only on this pavement, but on the opposite side of the road as well, all their eyes fixed straight ahead, seemingly as indifferent as if he meant less to them than any other random pedestrian. They concealed themselves behind the pillars of the Carlton Hotel. They weren’t just behind him, they were alongside him, even far out in front. At a given moment they’d all stop dead, and staring straight at him, they’d come for him, as though in radiotelephonic contact. He’d be able to stare each of them in the eye simultaneously, he’d be one colossal cylindrical eye, like a glowing advertising pillar, and they’d cast fistfuls of glittering needles into his retina.
How long will it take before everyone starts talking about me, I won’t be able to find a sanctuary anywhere, he thought, after he’d turned into a quiet street.
This street was dark and deserted, primarily because a large number of the houses had been demolished during the occupation. It was only from a milk factory in full operation that a powerful sodium light beamed. He’d almost escaped: there was no more than one pursuer still on his heels and keeping an even pace with him. Suddenly Cleever stopped dead and wheeled around. He couldn’t see anyone, but what did that prove, when there were so many doorways, and the pursuer could easily slip sideways onto a piece of waste ground out of sight. ‘Is anybody there?’ he cried out. He didn’t want to be followed as far as his uncle’s house, which they could surround with no difficulty.
But there was no reply, his strange question was drowned out by the rattling of crates of empties being unloaded from delivery-vans with their bonnets sticking out of the factory.
Cleever continued his journey, his elbows clenched firmly to his side. Steam rose from the pavement outside the factory as he passed. A machine hissed: ‘SS, SS, SS, SS, SS.’ But that he was used to. It was what motorbikes always said when their engines started, meat frying in a pan, rain pipes dripping, cars splashing through puddles.
When he finally rang the doorbell at his uncle’s house (in a new street that was so clean he could smell the trees) he felt he was nearly safe, especially when he read the familiar nameplate beside the door:
Not sure of your affairs; things aren’t going as they ought and you don’t know why? Turn to my uncle! He’ll spy out your wife in the arms of your chauffeur, your partner sharing a drink with your most vicious competitor; your son reading paperbacks when he should be doing his homework; your secretary copying out your private correspondence, your accountant with his fingers in the till.
He’ll furnish you with copies of letters that might earn you a fortune. Attention, good gentlemen of the press! My uncle’s the one to see if you want to feast your eyes on the details of the most secret treaty provisos in white on black; he’ll photograph that sub-editor you’ve always mistrusted in conclave with his communist cell. For all those tricky cases, turn to my uncle; for that compromising photo that’ll prove the breakthrough!
But the maid who opened the door noticed no hint of relief in the face of the man who stood in front of her. She didn’t know Cleever and he frightened her. His eyes stared straight ahead, but she had the feeling that he was looking past her on both sides. His head was almost chinless with a wonderful high, protruding forehead, which almost merged without transition into his pale hair, and seemed as if it had been carved from ivory like the handle of a walking stick.
‘Is Mr. Cleever at home?’ he asked, ‘I’m his nephew.’
‘Mr. Cleever is in conference at the moment,’ she answered, ‘but you can wait if you wish.’
She led him to a spacious side-room where there were so many chairs that there was really only room left for a small table strewn with weeklies. The chairs were of various types and after trying out a few he sat in the most comfortable armchair and abandoned himself to a warm sensual feeling of security.
He’d been extremely fond of this uncle from the earliest age. Cleever hadn’t had any friends as a boy. When his parents were fed up with him they’d send him off to his uncle’s. He also often went of his own volition. When he’d got a little bigger he was allowed to help with developing, printing and enlarging, which was all done in the cellar where the laboratory was located. Still later (he was then twenty-four and nobody bothered with him very much) he asked his uncle to take him into the business and train him up in the profession. But the uncle had refused, saying (not without compassion in his voice) that he was too nervy and thus unsuited to the work, which demanded meticulousness, calm and even cold-bloodedness.
Since then he had seen less of his uncle, and shortly afterwards the war had broken out. But he’d never been able to break free of this uncle entirely, and even now he allowed him to judge his actions, albeit largely in his mind.
The fact that he was now in a room that formed part of his favourite uncle’s house made him feel like a hunted fugitive, who had fled into a church where nobody could hurt him. He unbuttoned his coat and his hand rummaged through the magazines on the table. Even that day’s evening paper was there.
– Well, he hadn’t set eyes on a newspaper in months. He did subscribe to one, but when he’d climbed down all the flights of stairs in the evening to look around to see if his paper was lying in the passage (as there was no letter box) he never found a thing. It was the same with his post; without exception any letter that may have been sent to him disappeared. This was Gorraay’s doing. Complaining didn’t help. And anyway he didn’t dare complain, he didn’t even dare to let the man see him.
Cleever studied the front page of the newspaper with concentration, but he was so badly informed about events in the world that the reports meant as little to him as pages torn out of novels at random.
Still he carried on and opened the paper, maybe only to prove to himself how at ease he felt here, and then his eye settled on the centre of the left-hand column on the third page and filled with emotion. For there was his own portrait! That was him! Those were his own sad eyes, his cruel, dejected mouth – a hundred thousand people have seen my face this evening! –
Written beneath the photo was: C.D. van Maanen. One of the many aliases he had used.
He read the caption:
The chief of the Political Investigation Department in Nijmegen is appealing for information about Cornelis Dirk van Maanen, born in Nijmegen on July 13th 1916. In 1941 Van Maanen served with the Waffen-SS and left for the Eastern Front. Shortly after the liberation he was arrested and taken to the internment camp in Vaals, from which he managed to escape in January 1946. Description: height 1.80 metres, blue eyes, straight blond hair. Because of shellshock he can only speak with a whisper.
Cleever still had the newspaper in his hands when the maid came in again. He nodded in response to her question as to whether he would follow her and casually folded the paper. But when she turned around he quickly folded the paper in two again and slid it into his inside pocket. The maid took his raincoat and pointed to the room where he could find his uncle.
The uncle was sitting alone behind a well-laid table decked with bowls and dishes. He was filling his plate as Cleever entered.
‘So Arnold,’ the uncle said, without standing, ‘take a seat. It’s been a long time. How are you?
Without shaking his hand Cleever walked over and sat beside the open hearth, where a lamp glowed beneath chunks of deep-red coloured glass, as it was nearly summer.
‘Actually, I’ve come to ask,’ he whispered, ‘if you could do me a favour, if you could give me some advice. The question is actually…’
‘What are you trying to say boy?’ the uncle asked, ‘I can barely understand you, your voice is so throaty. How did you manage to get such a bad cold in this mild weather?’
‘It’s a left-over from the war,’ Arnold whispered.
‘Good God,’ the uncle said and stuck a morsel in his mouth.
He was a very fat man; where his arms and legs were attached to his body it was almost wider than his trunk. His face and hands were composed of the same white child-like flesh, which one could surmise his entire body was composed of, so that you had the impression that he hadn’t been nursed on mother’s milk as a baby but on mother’s cream.
‘Uncle,’ Cleever whispered, ‘something awful is happening, I’m being driven out of my house. There’s a new landlord and he’s evicted all the tenants. He wants to evict me too. But I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.’
The uncle sliced his meat with a clicking sound. ‘He can’t evict you,’ he said, ‘it’s against the law, because of the housing shortage. Out of the question.’ ‘But if he does,’ Cleever responded.
‘Then you call the police immediately,’ the uncle said, ‘as soon as he lays a finger on your furniture or sets foot over the threshold without your permission. Make sure that there are two witnesses present. No sir!’
‘How do I find two witnesses,’ Cleever whispered.
But his answer seemed to get lost. At that moment the uncle had his fingers in his mouth. Because of his corpulence he only sucked his meat without swallowing it and then he laid it on the edge of his plate.
‘How are things with Anna?’ uncle asked, your girl’s name’s Anna, isn’t it? Is it still on with Anna?’
‘Yes,’ said Arnold, ‘It’s still on with Anna.’
‘Have you got a job at the moment? Or rather, what do you do actually?’
‘I haven’t got a job,’ Arnold answered, ‘I can’t work, not with that bastard in the house. If I were to go out on the streets, he’d sneak into my room and steal everything.’
‘Then you’ll have to have a good lock fitted on your door.’
‘I’ve done that. I’ve had seven safety locks fitted on my door, but even if I lock all seven, he still gets in.
He tears a plank out of the wall and puts it back again just before I get home so that I can’t tell. – How can I work like that? If I came home from the office in the evening he’d have emptied out my whole room. Whatever he couldn’t use himself he’d chuck on the street and the passers-by would take the lot. I wouldn’t be able to get a single thing back.’
His whispering voice hissed through the whole room; he couldn’t conceive that he’d ever spoken normally.
‘There’re enough jobs around,’ the uncle said, ‘look for something you can do at home. Rent a typewriter.’
Cleever shook his head. ‘That wouldn’t work either,’ he whispered, ‘the man won’t give me a moment’s peace and in the evening he turns off the electricity.’
‘Then you’ll have to be sensible,’ his uncle said, ‘and look for another room. You can’t live like that.’
‘I can’t find another room,’ Arnold whispered, ‘this place is cheap. I don’t have any money. All landlords are demanding extortionate rents because of the housing shortage. The view is really lovely. I want to stay there, we could get married there. There’s a little cubby-hole behind my room that I use for storage at the moment. It faces on to the outside wall at the back and it has a large window I can open. We could cook and live in the front. The view’s lovely. If that man hadn’t come, I’d be happy. I never had a problem with Mrs. Bolder. She ended up marrying her lover though, and he had his own house. So she sold hers off to that Gorraay. He claims he needs the whole house for his factory.’
‘Nonsense,’ said the uncle, ‘I have the greatest trouble keeping hold of my studio. A house can’t be converted into a factory. That’s the law as well, because of the housing shortage. Converting a house into a factory is a reduction of living space, and that’s prohibited.’
‘He isn’t really doing it for the factory,’ Cleever whispered.
‘What’s he doing it for then?’ the uncle asked, ‘tell me everything.’
‘He’s doing it so that he can have the house renovated and take in wealthy tenants who can pay more than people like me. I haven’t got any money, otherwise I’d have left a long time ago. I want to get married, but I haven’t got any money and I don’t have the opportunity to earn any. We could live in the front. Behind my room there’s a little cubby-hole. Anna could cook there.’
‘Very charming indeed,’ the uncle said and stood up, his hands resting on the table for support. His legs were so fat that he barely bent them when he walked, it was as though he was an automaton.
‘Uncle,’ Arnold whispered, who had also stood up, ‘you could help me.’ They walked towards each other.
‘Uncle,’ he whispered, ‘you could take a compromising photo of him, you could install an automatic camera above my door and take an incontestable photo of what he does when I’m not there.’
The uncle lit a cigarette and blew out the smoke, his face suggested that he hadn’t needed it. ‘Arnold,’ he answered, ‘I’ve had the whole business up to here. For months. As you know, my firm is organised internationally. Even during the war we managed to maintain our position. To give you a little example. Did you have a look around in the waiting room? No? There’s a photo there where you can see our ex-Prime Minister the honourable De Geer blowing dandelion clocks at the German ambassador’s residence in Lisbon. Blowing dandelion clocks! And that’s it! And do you know who they called as the expert witness at De Geer’s trial?
Me? No sir! Damn the whole business!’
But he nevertheless promised to help Arnold.
When Cleever was walking back along the Amstel, he could tell by the lit attic window in the distance that there must be someone in his room. He started running without thinking of what the whores might say; they were still standing up against the houses. As he ran he picked the front-door key from the eight on the ring and didn’t allow himself time to check if the hall light worked before rushing up the stairs. If he were quick enough Gorraay would have no chance of escape, and he’d catch him as he was rifling through everything in his room!
He tried the handle of the door to his room. It was locked. ‘Open, open!’ he whispered. Nothing; but the floorboard he was standing on began to groan. He opened all seven locks patiently. There was nobody inside. The light couldn’t fill the emptiness.
He stood on the threshold thinking. Then he saw something lying on the ground, a letter, it could have been slid under the door, but it seemed more likely that someone had placed it there! He took a step forwards and picked it up. It was a notification that an official document had been delivered that afternoon, that he hadn’t been at home and he could collect it at the town hall upon submission of this notification, on workdays from 9-15 (Saturdays till 12.30), room 152, counter 1.
He laid the letter on the table at the foot of his bed, locked the seven safety locks and started to undress. He was certain that he would never go and pick up this official document. He wouldn’t show himself on the streets as long as it was remotely possible that people might recognise his picture from the paper. So that’s why they’d been talking about him at the tram stop! What would Gorraay do? Probably not much. He’d already known for some time that he was housing an SS man on the run, but he hadn’t turned him in to the police right away because he was in no position to throw stones himself. That’s why he’d concocted the whole story of the surrogate factory, that’s why he’d driven out all the other tenants. Just so that he could get rid of him on the quiet. No, he wasn’t any more worried about Gorraay now than usual. – He crossed to the sink, drank a little water and studied his face in the mirror as he re-filled the glass.
He can see me, but he can’t come to me, he thought, he can’t help me, even if he does do everything the same as me. It would be wonderful if there were two of us. Then I’d be twice as strong.
They might catch me now. If they did, everything would be over. But if there were two of us, there’d still be one left. They’d think they’d caught me and not realise that I was still free.
If I go to the town hall to pick up that document, there’ll be undercover police waiting for me. That document is nothing but my death warrant. I’ll be standing there reading it as they come for me with their pistols drawn saying: You do realise what’s happening, don’t you?
The water was streaming over the brim of the glass now. Finally, he turned the tap off tightly so that it wouldn’t drip and put the glass on the table. He stretched out on the bed with the newspaper and studied the photograph for several minutes. I wasn’t afraid of anyone back then, even when I had a regiment of Bolsheviks in my machine gun sights. I never ran. You can read the whole tragedy of the heroism of the Germans in my face. – But he’d have to go to sleep again sometime, and so filled with reluctance he got up and unscrewed the light bulb in the ceiling. He rolled onto his side, pulled the blankets up over his head, curled up as tightly as possible and shut his eyes. It started almost immediately. It just came over him; a universe that he could see like nobody else. He couldn’t smell it, taste it, feel it or hear it. But what entered his consciousness at eye-level did really exist, though the way he perceived it you couldn’t call seeing. He became aware of it in some way. It was made up of vague ideas, snakelike masses coiling around each other, grey, repellent and glistening, or sometimes hideous, greasy dull-white surfaces. He couldn’t make any sense of it. It disappeared when he opened his eyes, and returned when he closed them again in sleep.
And then someone said: ‘That rotten bastard. Haven’t they caught him yet? Does a skunk like that get to run free forever while so many innocent people have to endure a miserable existence in prison?’ As always the voice came from the little cubby-hole that he’d told his uncle about. After hearing these words a violent dispute began. But however much he cocked his ears he couldn’t make out what the milling crowd was discussing. The cubby-hole was separated from the room by a wall of planks. He’d pushed his bed right up against it, so that he could always hear what they were saying about him. He was lying on his back now with his eyes wide open. Dim rays of light rippled over the ceiling; streetlight mirroring off the waters of the Amstel. There were no curtains in the windows.
For a moment it was quiet. And then a woman’s voice spoke: ‘In Russia he bound little children together by their feet naked and hung them upside-down in snow-filled trees.’
The voice vanished again into the incoherent murmur. He clenched his fists. It’s nothing, he thought, there’s no one there. He’d already searched in vain so many times for where the voices might be coming from.
‘And that’s not all,’ somebody said, ‘he once drove thirty barefoot women from village to village when it was twenty below, after he’d set their houses alight. Oh, that villain.’
‘Bastard, criminal, tyrant, prole’ the others muttered.
‘There’s no place for people like him in the Netherlands any more,’ the man said in earnest, ‘There’s no place for him, not in the whole world.’
Gorraay’s doing this, Cleever thought, Gorraay’s installed a mouthpiece that leads into the cubby-hole. I’ll find the speaker; I’ll plug it up and finally I’ll have some peace.
He stood on the bed and screwed the light bulb in the ceiling tight again. Then he walked across the room and out into the passage with his keys in his hand. He placed his feet with great care, for there was no carpet, and the old floorboards were rough with splinters. He unlocked the door to the cubby-hole, turned on the light, looked around and listened. He could hear nothing but a toilet re-filling somewhere far below in the house. He could also make out soft dance music from the café at the rear of the house. Nothing else. He wanted to search. But where was he to start? He touched the glassine-covered window. In the cubby-hole there was only a full coalscuttle and some old burlap sacks and piles of papers on the floor. Where was he supposed to start searching? Creatures might lunge at him as he was disturbing their rest when he moved the junk. He’d got up for nothing again. He already knew that. The cold piercing his pyjamas made him feel drowsy. A few tears trickled over his eyelashes. Why isn’t Anna here, he thought, everyone deserts me. No one wants to watch out for me.
He stood motionless like this for a few minutes. The water downstairs in the house was no longer running. He could only hear the dance music pumping like the engine of a great ship.
He turned off the light and crept back to bed again.
In the morning he was woken by knocking. He sat bolt upright in bed. It was broad daylight in his room. He could hear a single moped riding along the canal.
‘Who’s there?’ he whispered as loudly as he could. Someone knocked again and then the door started to open slowly; after getting up three times in vain he’d no longer locked the door, so that he could go and look as quickly as possible if the murmuring in the cubby-hole were to get too intense.
Cleever sank back onto the bed and pulled up the bedclothes. The advertising artist from the second floor popped his head inside the door.
‘Am I disturbing’ he asked, ‘I just wanted to hang a block and tackle outside the window. I’ve had enough of laying my job on the line. Luckily, I’ve found something else. You can’t do a thing in this house if you’re being pestered day in, day out. I’m not waiting for the storm to break.’ Cleever nodded and half closed his eyes. The advertising artist came into the room with the block and tackle in his hand, opened the window and stepped out into the guttering.
Someone called him by his first name from the street. He was too poor to pay movers, so he was doing it all on his own with the help of a friend. ‘We’ll be finished in a quarter of an hour,’ he said as he left.
Cleever could see the pulley turning on the hook. It whined as the rope ran through it, squealing like a bird of ill omen.
After the advertising artist had come and taken it away again, he remained lying on his bed for another hour. It gradually grew warmer in the room, even though the sun didn’t shine through the window. The air no longer circulated.
When a tram passed by the mattress in his bed shuddered and the water on his table rocked back and forth in the glass. He heard the heavy thump of ships’ engines, far away, down on the Amstel. The first tour boat sailed past. The guide always held a megaphone to his mouth in front of his house and cried: ‘This is the Blauwbrug. The Blue Bridge.’
Carts rattled along the side of the canal with men calling out behind them. Nobody was talking about him. Still he felt that if he were to get up a disaster would occur. He was no longer sleepy, on the contrary, it seemed as if he were more awake than usual. He glanced up at the attic. This house had a peaked roof. Beneath it the little room was partitioned off by grey-painted planks, so that there must be a tent-like space between the flat ceiling and the apex of the roof. When his uncle’s assistants came he’d ask them if they could install an automatic camera there too, to keep an eye on what was going on his room.
While he was considering this he noticed that the planks in the ceiling sagged towards the middle. Who knows what might be up above them, who knows what was hidden beneath the roof-tiles!
He decided to get up after all so that he could investigate.
He looked out of the window, which the advertising artist had left open, over to the houses on the other side and the boats on the water as he chewed on a sandwich. Then his eye settled on something disgusting. It lay close by, in the guttering. A dollop of excrement so big that it could only have been left by a human; the mass lay right below his window. – A sign that they’re keeping an eye on me, he thought; they even squat on the roof and pry in through the windows. I’m encircled on all sides. How am I supposed to defend myself? – With a tremendous exertion (for he wasn’t a coward) he managed to overcome the hypnosis that this had instilled and turn around and collect his thoughts. I’ll explore the space above the ceiling, he decided, take a look what’s underneath the roof, Anna’ll be here later; she doesn’t need to know, but I’ll have to be finished before she gets here.
He got dressed as quickly as if he were trying to catch a train, took a chair, and shoved it into the passage next to his room. He climbed up on it and groped around with his hands in the dark above the ceiling. Downstairs he could hear people talking and walking through the passages. He meant to spring off the chair as quickly as possible if he heard a stair creak and to act as if he were doing nothing out of the ordinary.
He could feel centimetres of extremely fine dust, which had perhaps disintegrated over the course of centuries into ever-smaller particles. It clung around his fingers in clumps. He couldn’t see anything. The first thing he got hold of was a rusty bicycle frame, and then a chunk of marble from a sink. It was so heavy that he could only move it by tugging and pushing it and he almost fell when he lowered it into the passage. After that he rested for a few moments, sitting on his chair. His hands were so filthy that he couldn’t wipe his face. I haven’t done much with my life, he thought, except dig in darkness and dust. He felt as dejected as if he were turning to stone.
But he got up again and when there was nothing else within his reach he crawled right in above the ceiling; it creaked terribly as he moved around. Everywhere there were little pinpoints of light between the roof-tiles. He found a couple of dilapidated bicycle tyres, a rusty weighing scales, a thick pile of never-distributed illegal newspapers, (hundreds of identically mimeographed pages of the same issue) and then a large antique wash-tub made of heavy red copper, clearly hidden here during the occupation. And, when he’d penetrated to the extreme corner of the tent-like space he found a package wrapped in paper. It was heavy and made him inquisitive. He crawled back to the passage, let himself drop down and took it into his room. Thick rolls of dust fell from him to the floor. The package was elongated, but as he removed more paper it became triangular. His heart beat faster as the package grew smaller and relatively heavier and he could feel that he’d be left with a pistol in his hands. It was a carefully greased, very fine automatic pistol! He was saved, he was safe, he was no longer defenceless. – He peered around, listening that there was nobody coming, and that there were no eyes spying on him.
Then he looked directly into the face of a hairy, ape-like man, who was lying in the guttering and looking in through the window. The man must have been watching him for some time, quite still, and scheming how he could spring through the window in one leap and fall on him like a predator.
Cleever didn’t move a foot, but waved the pistol and whispered: ‘You’d better forget it, you can see I’m armed. You’re not getting in.’
The creature recoiled backwards. He could hear its nails scraping on the tiles and then it disappeared over the flat roof of the house next door.
Cleever sighed deeply and said: ‘I’m no longer going to let myself be distracted by insignificant stooges from a former life. I’m going to take my own course, like history itself.’ He hid the revolver away, half undressed and washed carefully, after he’d tidied up the passage and brought the chair inside. He was just about finished when he heard someone whistling a tune down on the street loudly, a tune that Anna often hummed.
He leaned out of the window.
Anna looked up at him from the waterside.
‘I can’t get in!’ she cried.
‘Did you forget your keys?’ he wanted to call down, but he merely whispered. He took his own keys out of his pocket and waved them, but she approached the house and cried: ‘No, no, I don’t need them. There’s a new lock on the door. I rang, but they won’t let me in.’
Cleever went to the hall to open the door. It seemed that even the rope tied to the lock had been removed. He had to go down all four flights. But because he was no longer alone a sort of happiness rose in him the lower he got. The baritone whistle of a boat sang out the word ‘oasis’.
He opened the door. ‘Lohengrin, little Lohengrin,’ Anna murmured. They hugged each other in the passage downstairs.
‘Why are you whispering so oddly?’ she asked, ‘is there something wrong with your voice?’
He shook his head and smiled without answering. As if she’d never noticed the strangeness of his voice before! She always forgets everything!
Then they studied the new lock for a few moments. It must have been fitted that morning. Never, Cleever would never ask for the key, unless it was with the pistol in his hand, because he was armed now.
Upstairs, he led her to the window and without explanation pointed to the excrement in the guttering. But Anna merely said: ‘Now who would be mad enough to let a dog out onto the roof,’ and looked out of the side window at the flat roof of the house next door, where a colossal St. Bernard was scratching around among the chimneys. It was an old animal. Its hind legs were half lame and a strip of flannel was wound around its lower body, fastened by two safety pins.
Cleever didn’t say anything in response, but took out the note that he’d found the previous evening when he opened his door. He didn’t say what he was afraid of. He wrote a note of proxy on the back and asked her if she’d go and pick up the document at the town hall. He also told her to get in a stock of as much bread and other provisions as she could. Because he wouldn’t be going out on the streets for the time being. She could surely guess why? Naturally, she must have seen his picture in the papers the previous evening?
‘I haven’t seen a paper,’ Anna answered. He got up to look for the newspaper, but couldn’t find it. ‘You realise that everyone’s going to recognise me; everybody on the street is talking about me. I’ll never be able to leave this room again.’ She comforted him by saying that people forget so quickly, that they didn’t look at photos in the paper very carefully, yes, once she’d even met a celebrity who was often in the paper, but she hadn’t even recognised him, a girlfriend had had to point him out. And Arnold mustn’t give up hope of someday escaping to South America either. – Then she left him to go and do the errands he’d asked her to.
As soon as he was alone he pulled out the pistol again and removed the clip. There were eight gleaming cartridges inside. Everything was complete. What was an SS man without a weapon? – But Anna worried him. How come she asked him why he was whispering? Had she ever known him to do anything else? She only mentioned it because her attention had been drawn to this flaw by the paper yesterday evening! She’d lied about not seeing the paper! She was up to something! Maybe she was even planning to deceive him! Maybe she was going to betray him!
But he wouldn’t let on he knew, he’d let everything crystallise and then strike. He had the power to take his revenge on everyone now.
People sometimes speak of the ‘factory of the state’. But really the state bears very little resemblance to a factory.
If the directors of a factory were to decide to begin producing cars instead of locomotives, then they wouldn’t carry on manufacturing steam boilers.
The state, on the other hand, is very much like nature. The question is, whether a state can ever be more rational than nature. A penguin develops wings even though it has no reason to explore the skies beneath which it lives. The state manufactures similar products.
Although a law had been enacted stating that tenants weren’t allowed to be evicted from their lodgings because of the housing shortage, the document that Anna brought back was nevertheless a bailiff’s order notifying Cleever that he had to vacate his room and hand over the keys and appurtenances to the landlord before the end of the following month.
And although it was prohibited to ‘withdraw habitable accommodation’, buttresses were nevertheless set against the front of the house and Gorraay began converting it into a surrogate factory, while the servants of the state from the police wandered by with their hands folded behind their backs.
Anna talked to Cleever about consulting a solicitor, but he replied: ‘What can the justiciary do for me? They’ll come in a van and take me away to an internment camp.’
She thought about his answer for three days and then in her inexperience considered:
a) The authorities are aware of Arnold’s existence. A bailiff has addressed the order to Arnold
b) Arnold Cleever isn’t his real name. I don’t even know his real name and I’m not allowed to ask.
That’s why I call him Lohengrin. But the authorities don’t know his real name either, because
they’ve sent a sealed letter, not a van full of military policemen.
c) If the term of the eviction has already elapsed, Gorraay’ll kick Arnold out onto the street and
there’s nothing he can do about it.
She realised that because Gorraay hadn’t carried out his threat so far, and had made a show of wanting to take a legal course, this meant that he didn’t know Arnold was an SS man on the run. But this same complication also meant that she didn’t dare talk to anyone else about the case, not even her father. Nonetheless, when she was in an entirely different part of the city, and passed a house where the nameplate indicated there was a solicitor living, she rang the bell.
She was left alone with a fashion magazine for half an hour, after which she was led to the solicitor’s office and she started to tell her story, which the jurist interrupted:
‘Can I see the papers?’ He put his hand on a telephone that was ringing loudly to calm it down a little.
I don’t have any papers,’ she answered (in her story she’d implied that she was talking about her own room) ‘and what papers do you mean actually?’ The telephone rang again.
‘I mean the bailiff’s notice, the rental contract, the receipts, the moving permit, etc. I can’t do anything without papers.’ He took the telephone off the hook.
Having returned the next day with ‘papers’, the solicitor told her that she and her fiancé didn’t have a thing to worry about. They should keep all papers sent to them and the first thing that she should do when they received a summons was to come to him. Then he’d apply to the court for a two-month deferment. This was never withheld. If the counterparty still hadn’t had enough, he’d take legal action; there was no question of Cleever being evicted from his room.
Anna went back to the house on the Amstel immediately and informed Arnold of the steps she’d taken. But he began to rage; then his furious outburst gave way to a wooden silence. He sat down on a chair, bent forwards and didn’t stir again. ‘Are you angry?’ Anna asked, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong…’ On the contrary, I did the best that anyone might have, she wanted to add, but she kept silent, filled the cooking stove with petrol, because there was always a large can of it in the corner (and nothing had yet come of using the cubby-hole as a kitchen), and she started to prepare his food.
She was with him every day now, almost from the first tram to the last. Cleever didn’t even get out of bed any more to eat. He let her hand him his tea; she fed him with a spoon.
Anna was often extremely happy. When Arnold had told her he was an escaped SS man, about a month after they’d met, she’d only been shocked for a moment, even though her loyalties had been with the other side during the war.
Yes, she’d even carried out a number of extremely dangerous assignments for the resistance. But the war was over now and she didn’t have a man. No man had ever really looked at her before. She had a premonition: if I broke up with Arnold, I’d never get another man. The resistance had meant everything to her, but it hadn’t provided her with a man, not even a Canadian after the liberation. And that when she was prepared to be dragged along behind a car for street after street through mud and dust just to be with a man for an hour.
Meanwhile the conversion continued. The front door was open day and night because of the bricklaying they were doing in the basement. There were cables, pipes and splinters in the passages, and they were hacking up the marble, and there were butts of plaster bubbling softly on the stairs, which frightened Anna whenever she climbed them. Beside the front door there was a rattling cement mixer. Every day you could hear ceilings and rubble crashing down; hods of bricks and new bathtubs were hauled inside. She never came to visit Arnold without getting her skirt dirty, and her shoulders were snowed under with dust. The smell of paint and wet plaster penetrated to the top of the house, as far as Cleever’s room; the calamitous conversion puffed its breath out ahead of itself.
Cleever hadn’t been out on the streets in all this time. The Compro-Photo Company hadn’t yet sent anybody round and Cleever hadn’t heard a thing from his uncle. He stayed home; he hardly even looked outside any more and he never opened the window.
He took a breath of fresh air at night when he wandered around the eaves, entirely alone; the St. Bernard next door wasn’t there then. He often shooed the dog away from his window; if he were to come across it at night he’d certainly try to dash it to the street below, because he was afraid of being betrayed.
When he walked across the roof he could see inside the attics of the other houses, if there was a light on, and sometimes he did his best to make out what was going on, but they were too far away for him to see anything of significance.
And he thought he was being spied on from the pitch-black facades of rooms where there was no light shining. They have a long-range telescope trained on my window and they relieve each other in shifts. He didn’t have a telescope, he’d never be able to find out how efficiently they were spying on him if he couldn’t make out what they were doing.
After keeping an eye on a window for a quarter of an hour or more, he’d take a few more steps. He listened at the chimneys, lashed up with rusty wire, as though he were Santa Claus. He leant over the edge of the façade and looked at the waters of the Amstel, which rippled continually, and at the Blue Bridge, with its lamps mounted on little sculpted boats.
Inside the lamps the bulbs were like glowing tears, which would never fall; nothing drove along the canal-side, nobody passed; the paving, composed of bumpy cobbles, filled him with dread as if it were some inextricable problem.
He’d sit in the guttering on watch for hours, but he never met one of the devils that tormented him, and the only thing he heard was the caterwauling of harmonicas from the bars on the Wagenstraat. If only I had a friend, he thought, when sleepiness had finally forced him back inside, a friend who could keep watch on the roof. But he’d already passed the age that men can still make friends; and he hadn’t managed to hold on to any of those from the SS or even anyone with similar troubles who could perhaps be of assistance to him.
As a child his favourite book had been Robinson Crusoe. But around the time that Friday made his appearance he had closed the book and started over. In so doing he never managed to get as far as Sunday.
Anna moved around the breakfast table to where the parrots Ajo and Inquam were caged on stools in the corner of the room, and gave them stale crusts of bread, which they gripped with their claws before letting them drop, not even having gnawed on them.
Ajo could say ‘Heil Hitler’, which he’d been taught fifteen years earlier, when people still thought it was funny that the German chancellor’s followers said Heil Hitler instead of Good Morning.
Inquam couldn’t even squawk, so Anna’s good-hearted father called him Tacitus.
The radio played dully, as if the mist outside were interfering with reception.
‘Father,’ Anna called, ‘are you ready? I’ve got to go, I’ve still got an awful lot to do.’
‘I’ve got to go as well, I’ve got a lot on too,’ her father replied, as he came in, in his waistcoat, drying his hands. ‘But before I do, I just want to say something to you. I see so little of you, and I haven’t been able to find a better moment. It’s not that you didn’t come home for the third time in a row the night before last. You know that I let you go your own way.’ He tossed the towel over a chair and put his jacket on. ‘You’ve got a heart of petrol,’ he said with a smile.
‘Well, tell me then?’ Anna said.
And while he took a small scissors out of his waistcoat pocket he said ‘It’s just that I want to warn you, kind of. Quite by chance, I had a chat with Mr. Wester about Cleever. It turns out that he knows him rather well, from an early age. He was actually Cleever’s teacher at school.’
‘No father, no father,’ Anna said, ‘it won’t make any difference. I can’t help it. What Arnold did was a mistake. He’d gotten to the end of his tether. But it’s been so long now since the Germans were beaten. People must have long forgotten about the war and I can’t give him up.’
‘Oh, I don’t want to say anything unkind about Arnold,’ her father answered, ‘I’ve only seen him once. And as far as I can remember I never said a word to him, Ajo just said “Heil Hitler”, that was all.’
He glanced at the clock in haste, ‘I really should have left already.’ He picked at his nails with the scissors. He still had young hands and they quickly became dirty.
‘Mr. Wester told me that Cleever was already a very odd boy at school. Unsociable. Never bothered with anyone. The only thing he ever did in his spare time at home was fretwork. Sometimes he brought lamps and letter racks in with him that he’d made, and people laughed at him. During the war, in May ’40, Wester was a reserve-captain and Cleever served in his company. They were stationed in South Limburg and one day they got the order to take to their heels before they’d even seen a German. Cleever never got over it. After the mobilisation, Wester looked him up regularly. Wester kept in touch with all of the men in his company for the entire occupation, but particularly with Cleever, because, in a nutshell, how should I put this, he felt sorry for him. – Well, now I really have to go. Walk me as far as my tram.’
‘Father,’ Anna asked in the hall, ‘how was Mr. Wester able to do that? Where was Arnold all this time?’
‘Cleever was in a bedsit somewhere, which he never left all day.’ They were on the street now.
‘So, you think that’s odd, eh?’ he asked hopefully, believing that Cleever’s eccentric behaviour would disturb Anna as much as it had him, and that this would influence her love, which could never amount to anything. ‘In the very same bedsit for the entire occupation, without reading a book, without doing anything. Five days after the liberation Wester went there to look him up. Cleever caused a row and they never saw each other again.’
At the tram stop Anna’s father tacked some more vague opinions onto this story; she should take special care not to build too much on someone whose behaviour was so odd, he could cite many examples of women who’d been unhappy because of their husband’s mental illness. ‘And listen Anna, maybe you’ll want to have children someday, and imagine if the children are also…’ He walked along with the tram, which had driven on further than he’d expected. The deck was full, and people pressed him inside, but he was still able to stick his arm out and wave to her for a little while.
Anna was so pleased and consumed by this revelation that she let the next tram pass, which she really ought to have taken. Arnold wasn’t an SS man on the run! Arnold was just a bit sick, but she’d go and see a doctor, if he wouldn’t go himself. And the doctor would get him straightened out, just as the solicitor would make sure that Arnold was never evicted from his room. In impatience she began to walk through the mist. As well as the usual potatoes and bread, she bought jars of expensive asparagus, black-market chocolate and finally two bunches of flowers. The workmen on the stairs and in the passages stopped what they were doing and watched her as she passed. She trailed a scent of happiness behind her.
But she had to wait ten minutes before Arnold finally opened the door. He was in his pyjamas, didn’t hug her, didn’t even whisper at her, but immediately turned around and crept back into bed, and closed his eyes. ‘Sweetheart,’ she said, ‘sweetheart, did I wake you?’ She put her bag down, laid out everything she’d bought on his table, and filled empty jam-jars with water for the flowers under the tap.
“Sweetheart, wouldn’t you like to have some breakfast?’ she asked.
Cleever turned his back on her.
She lit the petrol stove to boil an egg and cut some sandwiches. Outside the ships’ hearts beat louder than ever, as if the water was extremely obstinate that day. From inside the house the sound of heavy hammers on stone rang out.
‘Arnold,’ she called, ‘take a look, everything’s ready. You shouldn’t sleep so long.’
Then he turned around, sat up and placed his feet on the floor in front of the bed. His pyjama bottoms had ridden up above his knees, his hair was pasted to his cheeks. ‘Anna’, he whispered, ‘do you have the ration cards – did you pick up the ration cards?’
The war had been over less than three years. Foodstuff was still scarce and for the most part could only be gotten with coupons, which were topped up every six weeks and which had to be picked up at a bureau, upon production of an identity card, which was called the ‘registration card’. Anna now remembered that she’d promised to pick up his coupons that morning, which she’d already forgotten twice. Now it had slipped her mind again because of her happiness at the miraculous discovery she’d made, but she didn’t dare tell him.
He’d be angry, even if she kept quiet about the reason why she hadn’t picked up the coupons again. He’d get himself in a state because she’d already forgotten the same thing three times. That’s why she made up an excuse: ‘I went there, but the official said he couldn’t give me the coupons today. I think there was some problem. They couldn’t give me the coupons.’
‘How should I know. I don’t understand that sort of thing.’ It was the very absurdity of her lie that made her hope he’d believe it, that his critical faculties might be bewildered by the utterly unexpected. But he asked: ‘Let me see my registration card.’
She began rummaging in her purse, among letters and old tram tickets, but discovered only that her purse was missing! Arnold realised that her search was coming to nothing and whispered: ‘Don’t spare me, I know, they’ve kept the registration card. To starve me out.’
‘Oh, no, Arnold.’ She answered, honestly shocked, ‘I was fibbing. I was so afraid that you’d get angry. I didn’t even go to the food office, I forgot to. And I must have left the registration card in my purse in a shop along with everything else. The last shop I went into, because I paid everywhere I went. Now which shop was I in last? Oh yes, the butcher’s in the Vijzelstraat, right by the Munt.
I’m going to get my purse right away, right away.’
But the blinds had already been drawn at the butcher’s because it was Monday afternoon and all of the butchers are closed then.
‘I’m sorry Arnold,’ she said when she got back, ‘but the shop was already shut because it’s Monday.’
‘Lies,’ he whispered, ‘just pathetic lies.’
He asked nothing more and lay down on the bed again. ‘What’s the matter with you now? Why are you behaving so strangely?’ she asked, ‘I’ll go to the butcher’s tomorrow morning at nine. They’ll give me my purse back and I’ll pick up your coupons right away. What are you so worried about?’ He pulled the blankets up over himself and didn’t answer. He lay still for more than an hour. Every twenty minutes the tour boat passed by and the guide told the whole story of the Blue Bridge through his megaphone. Even with the windows closed you could still hear him perfectly.
Anna pretended to be reading a book, but she was thinking about how she could start to cure Arnold of his madness.
Around five he suddenly got up, shaved, and started putting on his clothes. He even put on a tie, as if he were intending to go for a walk. ‘Anna’, he whispered. She jumped out of her chair and flung herself around his neck. After she’d kissed him she wanted to look into his eyes, but she had the feeling that his glance glided past her temples on either side of her head. ‘It’s clear now, isn’t it,’ he whispered, ‘they’ve blocked my registration card. They know exactly who A. Cleever is. Maybe they’ll even have come and taken me prisoner by this evening.’
She gave him a gentle shove and said: ‘Where do you come up with all this…You’re not an escaped prisoner. You’ve never even been to Russia! You spent the entire war in a bedsit in Holland. Don’t you remember! Everything you’ve always claimed simply isn’t true. You made it all up, Arnold, nothing more.’
He recoiled to the farthest corner of the room, beneath the sloping roof, where he stooped over, staring at Anna.
‘Are you deaf, can’t you hear a thing,’ he whispered softly.
‘Arnold, sweetheart, what are you saying?’ she asked. But he only shook his head briefly and closed his lips.
She was deaf! She couldn’t hear the throng telling him night and day what he was! He was alone! A thick curtain of soft, repellent, muffling wads descended between him and Anna, the last person he had left. He was wreathed in fibrous smoke, dust and thick clouds of lint.
‘Where did you put the newspaper?’ Anna asked, ‘the newspaper with the picture in.’ She couldn’t leave it like this, and anyway she was right.
While he stood there motionless she searched for the paper. She raised herself up on her toes, she crawled across the floor. Finally, she pulled the paper out from behind the bed. It was already open at the picture of C.D. van Maanen. She stood by the washstand and held the paper alongside the mirror with the photo folded outwards. ‘Arnold,’ she said, ‘come here. Look in the mirror and compare. It’s not you at all. It’s someone else. Maybe he’s already been caught and nobody wants to do a thing to you!’ – But he didn’t respond with a word, a look, or a movement. He never even came and stood in front of the mirror.
It was deep into the afternoon and Anna started to broil some meat, sensing that it would be best to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. The fat in the pan hissed. Blue steam swirled in vague rings beneath the ceiling.
Cleever was back in bed. He could see her busy with the meat, he could see her bending over and walking back and forth. Maybe she isn’t deaf, he thought, she’s just always acted as if she is, and she’s only kept coming back meaning to betray me. Every day she climbs up and down the stairs. Gorraay’s offered her money. Maybe she’s even been out with him in the evenings. When he sees her on the stairs he takes her by her arm and leads her into his office, he gives her liqueur and she sits on his knee. They’ve talked about the best way of getting rid of me; that’s when she came up with the idea of telling the food department that my registration card’s a forgery.
The police haven’t come for me yet. The police have time. The prisons and camps are always full. They have time! If I don’t get my coupons, I’ll have to give myself up because of hunger, they hope.
– He rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. The hissing of the fat merged with the ringing in his ears. He had such an awful headache; it seemed as if his brains were being wrung out by rough hands.
Then he beckoned Anna. She left the fork stuck in the meat and walked over to him. He drew her down and caressed her. She forgot everything. She didn’t dare say anything more to him. He picked at the clasps of her clothes, he wasn’t satisfied until she’d completely undressed herself, until she’d even taken off her shoes and stockings. She lay down beside him on the bed smiling and tried to embrace him again. But he propped himself up on his elbow and looked at her without touching her. Then he slung his legs off the bed and took her by the hand. ‘Come with me,’ he whispered.
Anna was so happy that he was no longer angry with her that she followed him, ready to do anything. She trailed after him in her bare feet over the rough floorboards towards the door, – over the splinters in the passage, which was now darker than the twilight. He held the door to the cubby-hole open for her, shoved her in, and then closed it behind her. ‘Now,’ he whispered as loudly as he could, keeping his head pressed to the panelling, ‘now you can listen better. Now you’ll hear it, now you’re right up close.’
But she said: ‘Oh Arnold, what good does this do you. Don’t be so silly. The meat’ll burn. Keep an eye on the meat. It’s really very nice meat!’
She could hear the pan hissing clearly behind the wooden wall that separated the cubby-hole from the room. After a while the smell of burnt fat oozed through the gaps between the planks. The air grew turbid with blue steam. She made a lame effort to get out of the cubby-hole, but the door had been locked on the outside with a catch. She called to Arnold over and over. ‘Arnold, come on, this isn’t funny any more, really. Why does the dinner have to be ruined. I do have a good sense of humour, Arnold, but this is starting to annoy me.’
The only way she could tell that he still existed was because the pan’s hissing eventually died away.
“Arnold,’ she called out after about an hour, ‘Arnold, won’t you let me out? How else will you eat?…’
‘Arnold,’ she started up again, ‘what good does it do you locking me up here. I haven’t done anything. What’s the sense of it?
She was still there in the evening. She’d turned up the light. But nobody could see her through the window, which was pasted over with coloured glassine. Nonetheless, she felt uncomfortable in her complete nakedness, though she wasn’t cold. She didn’t even have a clip in her hair.
She’d grown very tired because she’d been walking back and forth the whole time, bending down, listening at the door, listening at the wooden wall that separated this cubby-hole from Arnold’s room. She could hear nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing of Arnold, nothing from the whole house. That’s why she didn’t dare call out any more. Gorraay’d hear her, he’d investigate what was going on and if he found her like this, he’d have another reason to force Arnold out. As far as the law was concerned, he couldn’t evict him from his room, not even for non-payment, the solicitor had explained that. But nobody has to tolerate this sort of nonsense in his house.
She had no idea how she was supposed to rest, where she was meant to sit amid all this junk: the old papers, the burlap sacks; the filthy coal scuttle was too high. Finally she stacked some neatly folded papers into a pile and used that as a chair. She rubbed her hands over her legs and body continually to feel less undressed, but it was of very little help.
‘Arnold!’ she pleaded again, as softly as possible now, her mouth right up against a crack in the wall, ‘Arnold, at least tell me what time it is.’ But he didn’t answer this either. The boats on the Amstel no longer sailed now, or at least you couldn’t hear them from here. For a moment she imagined that Arnold had left, gone down the stairs and out into the streets; he’d thrown himself under a tram or dived into the water, or turned himself in at a police station, where they’d transport him to a lunatic asylum after confirming that he bore no relation to the escaped SS man C.D. van Maanen. – And she could end up stuck here, maybe for days. Why didn’t she cry for help. ‘Arnold,’ she said softly. She thought she heard a chair scrape. The jazz band in the dance hall behind the house began to play. Then she had an idea. She turned the light out.
But no light shone through the cracks in the wall from Arnold’s room. But what did that prove? He’d unscrewed the bulb and was lying back in bed. Maybe he was already asleep, yes, that’s what she hoped. When he woke up he’d have calmed down and he’d set her free. She wanted to turn the light on again, but it didn’t work. Gorraay’s bound to have taken out the fuses again. She groped for her chair of old papers and sat down, with her head on her knees and her arms wrapped so far around them that her hands rested on her shoulder blades. She tried to listen to the music coming from the dance hall, but she could barely make out any melody. She began to get cold beneath the arms. Downstairs in the house a telephone rang. Not for very long, three times. So there was somebody home. The third ring was shorter than the other two.
‘Arnold,’ she murmured so softly that she could scarcely hear it herself, ‘Arnold, are you asleep? If not, go and say that the fuses have gone!’ She didn’t expect a reply. The stack of papers was harder to sit on than wood.
When the light suddenly turned on again – she didn’t know when because she was asleep – she could hear someone moving around in Arnold’s room and then a little later the door opened and he reached a milk bottle full of water around the corner. Anna said nothing, asked nothing. She’d gradually become so incensed with Arnold’s behaviour that she no longer wanted to beg him to let her go; he had to do it on his own. The noise from his room continued. She strained her ears to make out if she could hear him whispering, if only to himself.
It must have been night by now and she was starting to feel really cold. She spread out the burlap sacks to make a sort of bed. They were terribly filthy sacks, which had once held potatoes and coal. The dust that rose from them made her sneeze as she touched them, but still she turned the light out and wrapped herself up. The light that was now shining from Arnold’s room sliced up the entire cubby-hole. – So he wasn’t asleep, but she couldn’t hear him walking or sighing. Then she heard several footsteps grow alarmingly louder on the roof. Heels drilled into gravel. The sound grated through her, into the marrow of her spine. She flung her body up in despair. She thought: he’s looking for the highest place to throw himself off. Shouldn’t I shout something? But if I do he’ll know he’ll lose the room for sure, and then he’ll definitely jump. She couldn’t do anything but sob softly. Her whole face grew wet. Why did he have to make her so unhappy, by imagining he was something he really wasn’t? No one would stop him going out on the streets and looking for another room. All of the other tenants in this house had managed to find another room. Why not Arnold?
In the morning he tossed a piece of bread inside. ‘Arnold, Arnold,’ she said, ‘even if you won’t let me out, you can still come and sit with me for a while. It’s me, Anna, I won’t do anything…let me go Arnold. I’ve got to get your registration card from the butcher’s.’ But by then he’d already shut the door again.
The mist and the cold of the previous day had been driven out by a temperature that was too high for this time of the season. The sun was on the windowpane. She crawled out from under the burlap sacks with aching limbs. Her whole body was as black as a miner’s neck. She rubbed her hands all over it, she tapped herself lightly with the tips of her fingers, as one would flick cigarette ash from a table, but it didn’t help. The dirt formed rolls in her palms, without her getting any cleaner. There was nothing she could use to wipe herself off; even the old papers and newspapers felt grainy with dust.
Sitting back on her improvised chair, she studied her body, which she now felt to be uglier than usual, her thin bandy legs, her breasts of unequal size. She pondered for a moment: because of this body, which has no right to anything, I’m stuck here. If she’d only been born a Catholic, she’d certainly have gone into a convent and everything would have been settled for good.
It grew so stuffy in the cubby-hole that she decided to pull down the window. She didn’t have the least idea what there might be to see behind it. At first she tried opening it a little, because she didn’t want to display herself completely naked. – But there was no more to be seen with the window open than closed.
It faced out onto a very narrow, triangular light shaft. She could safely pull it the whole way down, because the windows of the house at the back had been blocked up with red bricks. The third side was a grey wall.
She leant her head and shoulders out of the window and felt the sun on her crown. The sparrows and starlings sang; it seemed like a typical summer morning. In the courtyard, formed by the bottom of the shaft, there was an oblong trough full of plaster, with a fluid surface like yoghurt. The workmen hadn’t arrived yet, so nobody would see her if they looked up as they were coming to pick up the plaster.
On the flat roof next door, which protruded beyond the façade, she could hear the grinding of gravel. Then the enormous St. Bernard appeared at the edge of the guttering. It looked at her impassively with its big, blood-shot eyes, which displayed the humanity of an orang-utan. Saliva hung from its mouth like old cobwebs. The decrepit creature stank so badly that it wasn’t allowed indoors, and had been driven out on to the roof, because it was too infirm for the street and would quickly be run over. Anna waved at it with her bare arms, but she thought it might bark and betray her, so she yanked her head back in again, leaving the window open a little. She crossed to the door carefully, because the floor had been torn open by the house’s subsidence and then sealed with a piece of tin sheeting with sharp edges, which curled up near the nails. Then she drank some of the tepid water and scooped up the bread. But she wasn’t really hungry, so she dropped it down again and went and sat among the rags that she’d slept under. There was no sound from Arnold’s room. She’d seen the sleeve of a jacket around the arm that had thrust the bread inside. He’d definitely not gone to bed, but he’d stayed on the roof all night, hesitating about jumping. She was so thankful that he hadn’t jumped! He needed to sleep now, so she wouldn’t disturb him by talking, calling out to him, or begging. He needed to sleep now. Sleep would calm him down; maybe then his mind would clear on its own and he’d let her go, amazed at what he’d done. – To occupy her mind with something else for a while she started reading the old newspapers.
Downstairs in the house the hubbub of the conversion resumed. She heard the boats coughing far away on the river. He mustn’t wake, Arnold, he has to sleep.
When it was perhaps deep into the afternoon, she heard his bedsprings grating loudly. ‘Arnold, sweetheart, are you awake?’ she said. The springs continued to grate, she imagined that she could hear him whispering too, though she couldn’t understand the words. ‘Arnold, I have to go and do the shopping now,’ she said, ‘I have to get your dinner ready. Aren’t you hungry? I’ll pick up something really nice for you. There can’t be anything left in the house. Tell me what you’d like. Don’t you want me to make you a nice dinner? – Come on, Arnold, fetch me my clothes.’
The mattress continued to squeak for a few minutes and then it grew deathly quiet in Arnold’s room.
Can’t I get out of here on my own? Anna thought. She looked at the ceiling, the window and the little window high up in the sidewall, through which some sunlight entered. Although the window was much too small, much smaller than the girth of a body, she at least wanted to try something and so she shoved the heavy coalscuttle under it. The coalscuttle left a black square of anthracite dust where it had been standing.
She climbed on top of it and looked through the window, which provided light to a W.C. behind it, and hadn’t been used for a long time. The walls of the W.C. had collapsed, so that the interior wall, which the window was located in, had been transformed into the outside wall, and you could see over the roofs and pipes of lower houses and over bare gravel courtyards, which were so poorly raked that the loose sandy earth showed through like blotches of sickness. She saw the sun gleaming on the reinforced glass roof of the dance hall, which had been extended into one of these courtyards. There were two girls sunbathing on a wide, wooden balcony. They had big straw hats on their heads, and further, only petite white woollen panties and plaid handkerchiefs over their chests. I’m more naked than they are, Anna thought, but they’ve got the sun and I haven’t, I’ve just got the heat.
The sweat formed a crackleware pattern in the dirt on her body.
They’re free and they’re beautiful, Anna thought, they’re brown and glistening with oil. – She looked at them for a full half an hour.
When she’d got down off the scuttle, she heard the cooking stove gurgling in Arnold’s room. He hadn't taken any notice of what she’d said.
‘Listen for once Arnold,’ she called, ‘do your best and use your brains for a second, concentrate and think.’
She waited for a moment.
‘Arnold,’ she continued, ‘you’re not an SS man, really you’re not. Your registration card hasn’t been blocked. I haven’t even been to the food department. If you don’t believe me, if you don’t let me go, then go and pick up my purse from the butcher’s yourself. You’re not an SS man. Nobody’s after you for anything. Gorraay can’t even evict you from this room. It’s true really. You already know about that solicitor. If Gorraay takes legal action he’s going to lose. We can stay here. We can get married. Arnold! It’ll be so nice living here. Oh Arnold, what’s wrong with you, just listen to me!’
In the evening, when it was completely dark outside, she tried a different tack, which she hoped would finally turn out to be the effective one.
‘Arnold, sweetheart,’ she fawned, ‘I’ve been a bad Anna, haven’t I? Anna been bad, very, very bad. But Anna be sweet again now, very, very sweet.’ She couldn’t hold back her tears.
‘Arnold dearest’, she said, come and let bad Anna out again. Anna never be bad again. Always be sweet. Arnold be good to Anna now, yes? Arnold not be angry with bad Anna any more?’
But in his room it remained as quiet as if he’d flown out through the window.
She didn’t even hear his footsteps on the roof that night.
On the second day, she guessed it was still early, he brought two milk bottles full of water and a pan of cold boiled peas. Naturally, there was no more bread. Maybe out of hunger he’d finally come upon the idea of letting her go, she hoped. She wasn’t hungry and didn’t even feel weak, although she’d eaten hardly any of the bread and had left the peas undisturbed.
It had started to stink terribly in the room, because she didn’t dare throw anything out of the window. It would’ve landed in the trough of pristine yoghurt; the workmen would ask themselves where it came from and go and look. It didn’t bother her if she was found like this: filthy and completely naked, but they must never be given a pretext to do anything unjust to Arnold.
The noise in the house grew louder through the course of the morning. The brickies and carpenters were now working in the room directly below her. She could hear the hacking, hammering and demolition. The ceiling fell as rubble. She lay on her stomach on the floor and looked through a crack. There was already light peeping through! Soon the men would be able to see her when they were up on their stepladders ripping down the ceiling. As soon as she realised this, she sprang up and covered the floor meticulously with a thick layer of newspapers.
She didn’t dare call out to Arnold any more. They’d be able to hear her downstairs. They’d be able to understand every word she said.
Anna now considered: What will happen if he wants to keep me here permanently? My father’ll be worried. He’s already worried now, I’m sure of that. I’ve never been away from home for this long without letting him know. Even when I slept here for a couple of nights I always went back home during the day. – No, it wouldn’t be very much longer before he came to get her.
But by the third day he still hadn’t come. She did hear two men coming up the stairs in the morning though, and knock on Arnold’s door.
Cleever opened it immediately. It was Gorraay with a short engineer.
‘We’re coming in for a sec,’ Gorraay said. He was smoking a fat cigar. They walked inside. The engineer tapped his finger on the greasy cap perched on the back of his head. Cleever didn’t say a word.
‘Look,’ Gorraay said, ‘this floor’s got to go of course. We’ll have to put in new joists.’ He stamped on the floor.
The engineer nodded. His one eye was so squinty that you could only see the white of it and the pupil was lodged in the corner like a piece of dirt.
They crossed to the window. As he was passing Gorraay knocked over one of the jam-jars, which was still holding Anna’s flowers.
‘The roof’s rotten,’ Gorraay said, and he kicked the sloping planks. You could hear a couple of tiles fall and shatter into pieces.
Gorraay looked around with his hands in his pockets. He shifted his cigar from the left to the right corner of his mouth with the tip of his tongue. Then he raised his arms and pushed the ceiling up a full ten centimetres. Dust and strips of hard putty rained through the whole room. ‘It’s all got to be ripped down,’ Gorraay said.
‘It’s a heap,’ said the engineer.
Cleever had been standing stock still the whole time next to the table. The water from the jam-jar dripped onto his trousers. Then Gorraay came towards him and said: ‘Listen now friend, when’re you going to be buggering off. We’ve got to have this place. We’re putting a lift in. The motor’s got to be installed up here in the attic. We can’t carry on working without the lift. That’s got to be done first. Every month you stay costs me a pretty penny. What good is that to you?
Cleever didn’t reply. The scent of Gorraay’s cigar competed with that of the brillcream that made his head shine. He started talking again and cajoling for an answer. But Cleever said nothing; only the hundredweights of sleep in his eyes weighed on him.
‘Goddammit,’ Gorraay said. He bared the canines in his jaw, which held the cigar motionless as he spoke.
‘Shithead,’ said Gorraay, ‘you ain’t going to. You’re too nuts to answer. That’s fine.’ He turned around and walked to the door. The engineer followed him. An aluminium gauge swung in the back pocket of his overalls.
‘What do you think,’ Gorraay yelled from the passage, ‘that this’ll get you any bloody where? As far as I’m concerned you can go round every housing office in the city. Go and stand in the queue for a year, asshole! If they send ten inspectors, I’ll still chuck you out. What do you think…by the time those characters have checked up, another war’ll have broken out.’
He tapped his cigar ash onto the floor. But Cleever said nothing.
Anna had heard everything, she only had to say one word and she would have been free, but she didn’t make a sound.
That afternoon Cleever sat with her for an hour. They lay pressed up against each other among the rags and burlap sacks. There was a pungent scent of old, dry wood. He kissed her on her shoulder and on her side. ‘Arnold, sweetheart,’ she said. But he didn’t utter one word.
He was completely dressed. But his tie was undone, he hadn’t shaved in all these days and his hair was uncombed. He must have slept in his clothes all these days too.
‘Sweetheart,’ she said, ‘sweetie, there’s nothing the matter. That man’s only trying to frighten you. We’ll stay here, together. Nobody’ll hurt you.’ His head twitched slightly on her shoulder, but he said nothing. ‘We’ll decorate everything beautifully,’ she said, ‘the kitchen will be here. It won’t smell as much in the room then.’ It seemed as if he couldn’t care less. She felt like a caterpillar, caught by some little boy in a jam-jar full of dead leaves.
She tried not to coax another word or sign from him, but when he made ready to leave, she stood up as well, intending to leave the cubby-hole with him as if nothing had happened. – But he turned around, jabbed her in the chest and shut the door with a crash.
‘Oh, oh,’ she cried; her fists hammered on the panelling and on the wall.
In despair she pulled the window down as far as possible and leant out. She hung her whole torso out. But there was no one there to see her. The windows opposite had been bricked up and the workmen downstairs had gone home. Even the trough of plaster was gone.
Her cheeks turned very cold because the wind brushed over her tears. She felt goose pimples rising on her breasts and shoulders.
The old St. Bernard tottered to the edge of the protruding flat roof and stood staring at her with its sad eyes, which were bigger than human eyes.
‘Doggie,’ Anna said.
It lowered its head and wagged its tail.
‘Pretty doggie,’ she called, ‘come here…’
It didn’t bark.
She saw its tail slowly wagging back and forth above its hindquarters, which were wrapped in filthy flannel. If she stretched out her arm as far as possible she couldn’t even touch it with her fingertips.
On the morning of the fourth day she heard men climbing the stairs again.
Cleever heard them too; he walked out of his room and into the passage to look.
It was Gorraay with two flunkies. One flunkie was carrying a rolled up rope over his shoulder, the other had a solid pulley in his hand, made from a bicycle wheel.
The footsteps of all three struck in unison on the stairs.
Gorraay was walking in front. He shook his head in quasi-geniality, saying: ‘So little feller, here you are, we can sort this out sharpish then. If I tell someone to sod off and they don’t sod off, then they’re in for an eye-opener! Your whole shebang’s getting chucked out on the street. Is tha’ plain enough for yer! Maybe you can understand that!’
Cleever had retreated along the passage. But just as Gorraay was about to set his foot on the final stair, he moved forwards quickly, drew the pistol from his pocket and shot him point blank in the chest.
The flunkies turned and stormed away. One dropped the pulley, but he picked it up again at the bottom of the stairs. There was running downstairs and everywhere the sound of doors being slammed shut.
Gorraay’s head bent back. Slowly he slumped against the wall and then suddenly folded double and tumbled downstairs.
‘Arnold, Arnold, what’s happening, are you dead? Answer me!’ Anna screamed, ‘let me out! Arnold, Arnold…’ She struck the door with her fists, maybe with the whole of her forearms.
Cleever stood still for a moment. As always he was ringed by voices. They were all crying at him, all chattering about him, even Anna had been talking this whole time, but she never answered what he asked, she couldn’t understand his whispering. They all hated him. Tight throngs teemed around him, but no one lifted a finger to help.
‘Help,’ Anna cried, ‘I’m in here, here! Help! He’s dead! Help, he’s shot himself!’
He turned around and strode back into his room. He fired five shots at the wall that separated it from the cubby-hole. White splinters sprang from the holes that the bullets bored into the wood.
Anna kept on screaming.
He fired his last bullet at the cooking stove’s petrol tank. Fire spurted from it in lashes. Everything started to burn. The room filled with sweet, black smoke.
Cleever crossed to the window and climbed out into the guttering. He took hold of the hook outside the window with his right hand. He made a solemn gesture with his left as if to draw aside the smoke like a curtain, so that his uncle’s photographers, who had surely arrived by now, and were lined up in a row along the waterside, could see him through their cameras.
‘There was nothing else I could do,’ he whispered and let himself drop, his head pointing downwards, as parachutists dive out of planes.
Anna was still screaming. Only the enormous St. Bernard heard it. The sickly animal dragged itself to the front of its roof, let itself glide down into the guttering and finally climbed in through the window that it had always been driven from.
Cleever lay face down, half across the tram rails. His jacket had ridden up over his head. The tram that roared from the bridge just as he fell managed to stop a metre away.
The first to arrive on the scene of the accident were the whores. They’d taken up their posts in front of their doors early in the morning.
Two policemen, alerted by Gorraay’s flunkies, appeared around the corner, but they didn’t quicken their pace.
The tour boat chugged by. The guide raised his megaphone to his mouth and cried out: ‘This is the Blauwbrug. The Blue Bridge.’
All of the tourists craned their necks to where he was pointing. The helmsman turned the wheel with one hand and pulled a lever with the other. The motor held its breath.
The white boat shifted through the darkness beneath the bridge on its own momentum.
Amsterdam May-June ‘48