One evening, after weeks of something like forty jars of vitamins and dozens of liters of strawberry juice, the Bird asks: "Would you mind if I got married?"
In that marrying, Beck sees his enemy's final victory. They were man and wife already, without having to get married.
"Why?" he asks. "Why get married? It's been fine, it will keep being fine for years."
"Not to you," she says, "to someone else."
Someone else, two words that pretty much sum up their relationship. It had cost him so much effort to learn to live with his wife that, after he had, he couldn't live with anyone else. Not that he didn't think about it, often in fact, but it seemed to be out of the question. He'd used up the facility to live with anyone for longer than a three-week vacation. Looking at him objectively, you'd have to conclude that he couldn't live with himself either.
"Does it matter?"
"Yes, I suppose it does, yes. When you're talking about getting married, it matters."
"I thought you wanted to share me with everyone."
"Sharing isn't getting married. Sharing is, to be precise, something very different from getting married. You don't get married every day, and you've never been married before. You actually had all kinds of objections to it, if I remember rightly. Except for the occasional urge, but okay, we all have our urges. So I'm extremely curious to hear who you're going to marry, very curious indeed."
His old sarcasm has started coming back again, but that sarcasm no longer has to protect him against the threat of third parties. Normally, what's threatening about someone else is that there's one person too many. When you hear: "There's someone else," that usually means: "You have to go." What binds him to his wife goes beyond the sexual, the emotional, the jealous, the fear of being one too many. It's more as if the Bird and he belong to a secret organization, so secret that neither of them knows the organization's objectives, or even whether that organization really exists. They provide each other with the illusion that, through each other, they are linked to the rest of mankind, that they are not finished with each other yet, and never will be finished with each other, the way believers think God isn't yet finished with mankind.
On one occasion they had planned to get married. Abroad. At her request, he'd rushed off to buy her a bridal gown and was just about to bring it to her when she called off the wedding. He would have loved to marry. Back then, someone else was no threat to him either. And now, when it turns out that that someone else can actually only be death, the only thing that surprises him is that are still other candidates in the running.
"An Algerian. Why?"
"Why not a Turk, or a Russian, or a German? You can marry Germans too."
"He's seeking asylum, he's run out of possible appeals, Algeria is supposed to be a safe country. But it isn't for him. If he marries me, he's still got a chance. Most of it's already been arranged. I was just wondering whether you would be my witness."
"That's all you were wondering?"
"Isn't it enough for you that you're dying?"
"Enough, what do you mean? How could that be enough?"
"Nothing is ever enough for you," Beck shouts. "You can't even die like other people. Asylum seekers have to get into the picture, too. What did I do to deserve this?"
"I didn't think you'd find it such a catastrophe."
"Catastrophe isn't the word. I don't think it's a catastrophe. Not if you wanted to marry ten of them, all at the same time. I think it's madness. That's what I think it is."
"I can be useful to him. I thought you'd think that was nice. That I can still be of use to someone."
"I don't think it's nice at all, I think it's anything but nice. What do you mean, of use to someone? Since when do you suddenly have to be useful? If you want to know the truth, I think it's completely insane. Where did you meet this Algerian, anyway? What's his name?"
"Raf," she says, "Raffie, that's what he calls himself."
The sarcasm he'd sworn off takes hold of him. "Raffie. From Algeria. Wonderful. What am I supposed to say? What do want me to say?"
"Well, 'congratulations', for example?"
"Congratulations? Fuck is what I say, fuck, fuck, fuck."
"You used to be more eloquent."
Beck wants to say something back, but he's too tired, the rage has flowed out of him and with the rage the need to appear flippant. He sits on the floor in front of his wife and holds her legs. "Don't go away," he says, "don't leave me here alone."
"I'm not going to leave you here alone, not if you take me to the town hall tomorrow at eleven."
"Tomorrow? Why did you wait so long to tell me?"
"I know you, don't I? I knew how you'd react."
The next morning at ten they start the journey to the town hall. Beck is wearing a suit; he is a witness after all. He's helped his wife put on her prettiest dress. The dress he bought for another wedding, but which was never used.
All night he sat on the edge of the bed, and later he crawled under the bed, amid the dusty boxes with fax machines, typewriters, answering machines. He lay there, beside a few bags of clothing and books no one wants to read anymore. He didn't turn to God, God has never meant much to Beck, but to those other dead of his. Using his most irresistible voice, he begged them for strength, for himself and for his wife.
That morning that clouds are low.
"Mist," the Bird says, "it will burn off later." Beck has draped a blanket over his wife's lap. She's wearing lipstick. Apparently this wedding falls under the heading "special occasions." He's put a woollen cap on her head. It's been a few days since he showed up at the translation agency. He's ill. No one comes to check up on him, no one asks: are you feeling better? No one seems to miss him.
"This is madness," he says as he pushes her along. "This is sick, this is so incredibly sick. There are no words to describe it. How could someone come up with an idea like this? That's what I want to know."
"I've already told you, it can be useful to him, a marriage like this. I can be of use to him."
"I'm telling you right now that I want nothing to do with this Algerian. If he tries to get chummy with me, I'll tell him: 'Fine and dandy, but it's my wife you're married to, not me. So just leave me out of it.'"
He wants to turn around, he wants to undo everything, that's what the police report said: "Suspect says he wanted to undo everything." But he keeps pushing her along. When they stop at a traffic light, he comes and stands beside her, holds her hand and squeezes it lightly. In the bag dangling from the wheelchair are two bottles of homemade strawberry juice-fortified, of course, with all kinds of vitamin preparations-and plastic cups and drinking straws. He's still fighting, but he's afraid he's going to lose. He has her drink a little strawberry juice.
"Drink up, Little Bird," he says. "Please, drink something."
"Enough," he says. "We have to cross now." He wipes her lips with the cloth which he carries, just like the juice, everywhere these days. The strawberry juice sloshes in its bottles.
Beck feels like throwing himself on the ground and shouting: "No. No. No," until the world listens to him. But he holds himself in check.
He has no choice, he pushes the Bird faster and faster in the direction of an Algerian unknown to him.
The civil servant is wearing trousers a few sizes too small. His socks are highly visible. Beck shakes his hand. There's some brief confusion about who is marrying whom, but the civil servant seems to be a man who has decided to no longer be amazed by anything, and who punctuates that decision now with adamant gestures.
"Coffee?" the civil servant asks.
Beck says he would like coffee, but the Bird has to think about it for a long time, too long for Beck's liking. He sees the civil servant thinking: it can't be such a tough decision, can it? Then she says: "Just make it strawberry juice."
Beck isn't sure whether she really wants it, or whether she's just saying it to make him-source of innumerable liters of strawberry and other fruit juices-happy. But that's not important. Beck likes pleasing people, especially his wife. He thinks of himself as a man who knows what other people need, and once such a need is satisfied-there are, of course, needs too great for him to satisfy-then there remains the polite silence or dinner table patter. From the bag dangling on the wheelchair, Beck produces the juice, a cup and a straw.
The civil servant watches courteously as the Bird drinks, and tells lighthearted, almost humorous anecdotes about his life as a civil servant, ending with the words: "Maybe I should write it all down, but I don't have the time. Oh well, maybe once I've retired."
"Yes," Beck says, "that would be a good idea," and he wipes the Bird's lips, but she pulls the napkin out of his hand and does it herself. She looks like a baby, with eyes that seem to take in everything for the first time. There's a picture of her, she's a few months old, sitting beside a stuffed animal, her eyes open wide. She looks earnest in that one. It's Beck's favorite photo, he likes to look at it while he's pacing the house. That pacing is a vestige from the days when he used to write. When you're translating instruction manuals, there's no need to pace.
"The groom will arrive any minute," the civil servant says, looking confidently at his watch. He knows that grooms always arrive; sometimes they arrive too late, he has some nice anecdotes about that, but not showing up at all is something fairly rare.
Beck wipes off the straw and puts everything back in the bag, except for the napkin, which remains lying on the Bird's lap. The civil servant accompanies Beck's activities with humorous comment. Humor, that's a thing Beck has sworn off as well. To him, it seemed like some gas that sucked all the life out of people. Organized laughter especially, comedies, witty speeches, comic writers who read aloud from their own work. Beck used to be funny too, Beck used to be a clown.
"Do you share a home?" the civil servant asks the bride and her witness.
"Yes," the Bird says, "we live together."
Beck looks at his shoes, neatly polished for the occasion. He doesn't want to burden others with the way he lives, which-due to circumstances-has turned out a bit less conventional than intended. But the civil servant is not burdened, the civil servant says: "That's handy. I live close to my in-laws as well. If anything happens to my mother-in-law, we can be there within two minutes."
How long did it take me to get to the Bird? Beck wonders. Like every person, he has memories, lots in fact, but he doesn't bother to summon them up. Beck's memories are nightmares, enemies of the little happiness that is now growing littler all the time, that's crumbling before his eyes. He lives live a man who has obliterated himself.
"Someone's knocking," says Beck's wife, who has good ears.
"Ah," the civil servant says, "that must be him." He gets up and goes to the door. There was no emotion in the way he said it, he was stating a fact.
Strangely enough, the civil servant walks as though the next step may be his last. He drags himself along. Beck props his wife up in her chair. He doesn't know whether it's weakness that keeps her from sitting upright, or whether she just doesn't feel like making the effort. But now that she's about to be united with her lawful spouse, she mustn't slouch in her chair, Beck feels. She should sit proudly, not bowed or beaten, but ready for battle. Whatever battle that might be.
When he's finished with the Bird, Beck finds himself face-to-face with his wife's bridegroom. He doesn't look like what Beck had imagined by an asylum seeker.
Standing in front of him is a young man in his twenties with slightly long, brown, curly hair, and that young man lays a jovial hand on Beck's shoulder and says, in reasonably coherent German: "Nice that we meet at last."
"At last, well . . ." For Beck, there's nothing "at last" about this meeting, as far as Beck's concerned he could happily have lived to be eighty without ever running into this man. The civil servant tries to save the day by clapping his hands like a kindergarten teacher and shouting: "The party is almost complete." The asylum seeker is springy, his movements, his hair, even his voice. She's getting married to a monkey, Beck thinks. He sees the asylum seeker bend down over his wife, and turns away discreetly. He doesn't know what may have taken place between these two in the past, he doesn't know what may still be taking place. What he knows is enough, a few facts.
"I quit smoking," the civil servant says, "ten years ago, but there are moments when I truly long for a cigarette."
Beck looks at the civil servant's socks, then says: "You should write it all down, after you retire. Writing is precisely the thing to do once you're retired."
Beck decides that the time for protocol has arrived. He holds out his hand to the man who is about to become the Bird's official husband and says: "Beck, Christian Beck, pleased to meet you." For an asylum seeker, the man is well-dressed; at least his pants aren't a few sizes too small, Beck notes contentedly. His jacket is a little worn at the elbows, but otherwise well-tended.
The asylum seeker bares his teeth, grins. A couple of his teeth are missing, a couple of teeth are badly awry, but Beck cannot deny that, by conventional standards, this is a handsome man. A man women love, maybe men too, not white, but attractive. Just the thing for Beck's wife. To seek out an asylum seeker, and then to take the youngest, most handsome one in the bargain. In these aesthetic times, of course, those are the ones with the best chances of survival.
"I think it's very kind of you to have come," the man says.
"Yes," Beck replies, "it was."
The Bird whispers something and Beck puts his ear to her lips to hear what it is.
"He's strong," she says.
"That's good," Beck says. "He can pick you up." He himself can't pick her up. He doesn't have to: if any picking up needs to be done, the nurses are there to do it.
Beck nods amiably at the strong asylum seeker, then sets his wife up a little straighter in her chair.
The civil servant clears his throat, as though an important announcement is on its way, but all he comes up with is: "Now just one more witness, then we can start." In the distance, church bells are ringing. Beck wants it to be over as soon as possible, the sooner the better, but he's still standing beside the man who is going to marry his wife, and he doesn't know what to do with his hands. Moments like these are not very pleasant, but pleasantness is not a trait he expects from life. Memories arise, they seem to come from his stomach, like acid, but he pushes them back.
To while away the time, Beck asks: "So, how long have you been seeking asylum?"
The young man lays his hand on the shoulder of his bride-to-be.
Beck is a man without opinions. Opinions about others are a waste of time, he believes, nothing but stalling. Opinions about your own life too, in fact. Elevator music to go with circumstances you can seldom, maybe even never, control.
"Seven or eight years," the man says. "I don't know exactly. It could be a bit more, too."
Beck sees asylum-seeking as a profession. His grandparents did it, his own parents did too; by chance, long ago now, he chose a different profession, but that choice proved a fatal one. Perhaps one should choose the profession for which one is best suited by nature.
The civil servant has overheard the conversation and comes a little closer to them now. "Ah," he says, "so you're an asylum seeker. I've read a lot and heard a lot about that. But this is the first time I've actually met one. In a small town like ours, you almost never run into them. Is it difficult?"
"You have to put a lot of effort into it," says Beck's wife's husband-to-be, after a brief silence. "And keep your eyes open."
He smells of paint, Beck thinks, as though he'd still been whitewashing a ceiling somewhere just an hour ago. Maybe the asylum seeker is a house-painter in his spare time.
"That goes for normal people too, these days," says the civil servant. "We all have to keep our eyes wide open." The civil servant gives them all a penetrating stare. It looks like he's trying to prove that nothing escapes his gaze.
Beck had girlfriends, back when he was still pursuing his own happiness. Even when he was already living with the Bird; maybe even especially when he was already living with the Bird. Dozens of girlfriends, they came and went. Sometimes it would last a week, sometimes a month, sometimes a year. On the surface, those romances were always very passionate and intense. Beck enjoyed being infatuated, it went well with the happiness he systematically sought. Wherever it was, there Beck was also.
Some of those girlfriends had wanted to marry him, others had only wanted to live together, yet others to live together and have children, preferably more than three. Beck wanted nothing, really, only to be happy, but such details he kept to himself.
"You are hoping to establish residence in Göttingen?" the civil servant asks.
"Göttingen is good," the asylum seeker says. "Beautiful city, old houses." Then he falls silent. Apparently he's a man of few words.
"Yes, I feel at home here myself," the civil servant is forced to continue, "although I wasn't born here. But we are used to foreigners, thanks to the university."
Beck observes his wife, sees how tired and weakened she is; then he looks at his wife's husband-to-be, who still has a hand on her shoulder. It's a gesture that betrays more intimacy than that of a pro-forma marriage. More intimacy than the trick that the Bird had hoped, before she died, to play on this world she has learned to despise: marrying an asylum seeker.
Beck is slightly amused by the intimacy between his wife and this young man, it reminds him of everything he has lost. But there is little that doesn't remind him of that.
For some time now he has been aware that his wife needs others for her own happiness. He suppressed that awareness, until he no longer could. For a long time he thought: I'm enough for her, even if she's not enough for me.
Who in the world he could possibly make happy, if not his own wife, he has no idea.
"Did you have a good trip?" the civil servant asks.
The asylum seeker looks at him blankly. The civil servant, who seems even more wary of silences than before, simply rattles on.
"I've been to Mexico twice myself. No further than that, unfortunately, New Zealand has been on my list for years, but the flight alone . . . And my two daughters aren't interested in faraway places. But I take it that someone like you has seen a lot of the world, you've probably been places where your run-of-the-mill tourist never comes. Yes, that tickles my curiosity."
Whores had been part of Beck's infatuations as well. Whenever he fell in love, he'd go to the whores right away, to water down the happiness.
Beck's wife sits up. "He used to be in a gang," she says.
She sounds hoarse, as though she's been singing too much.
"Used to," the asylum seeker says. "Not anymore. Not for a long time." He smiles, rolls up his sleeve and shows them a tattoo.
Beck peers at it, but can't tell what the tattoo is supposed to represent. "Splendid," he says. "Impressive."
Even without the infatuations, there had always been something in need of watering down. Beck had done that with love, the pursuit of his own happiness, imperfect as it may have been. For him, nothing was too good for that happiness. When it came to happiness, expense was no object.
"A gang," the civil servant said. "I suppose I come from a different world. But I've read a great deal about it. Apparently it's just like a village, some sociologist said that. With village elders and all. I thought that was fascinating. How some things are always the same, even in a gang."
"He's a very good fighter," the Bird says.
The proximity of death has bolstered her conviction that proclaiming her own truth can heal her fellow humans.
Beck would rather see her leave this civil servant unhealed. But if it pleases her, why not?
"We also laughed a lot together," the asylum seeker says. He nods pensively, his thoughts seem to wander. In his mind's eye he probably sees fights, the way Beck sees women, whores and electric screwdrivers. That's how Beck sees life when he looks back on it: as happiness missed. He's not angered or aggrieved by that missed happiness, he's of too practical a bent for that. Besides, that's the only definition of "maturity" that appeals to him at this particular season: learning to live with your losses. Beck has learned to be a good loser; he is, he figures, made for defeat, from head to toe.
"That comes as a pleasant surprise," the civil servant says. "That gang members laugh too. The book I read gave you the impression that there wasn't much of that going on, that the young people who belonged to those gangs were actually extremely serious."
"I fought for money," the asylum seeker says slowly and dreamily, his hand still resting on the Bird's shoulder.
Some people fuck for money, others fight for money. But living, that's one thing they never do for money. Beck had never met anyone who said: "Give me five hundred bucks and I'll live another day." They did that for free, they were even willing to pay for it themselves.
Although Beck likes pleasing his wife-it's what he lives for-he still feels that it would be better to spare the civil servant the undoubtedly colorful life of this asylum seeker. That is why he leans over to his wife's husband-to-be and asks: "Don't take this wrong, but could it be that you smell of paint?"
The asylum seeker sniffs the back of his hand. "It could be," he says, "I fix up houses."
Beck squats down beside his wife and hugs her, he squeezes her legs and says: "You're getting married, Bird. Come on, stay with it, you're getting married in a minute." He has the feeling that she's sinking away into a state of partial sleep, a daydream from which it will not be easy to shake her awake.
Far away, as though from some adjoining room, the civil servant mumbles: "Fixing up houses, that's all we needed."
"I think you two would get along well," the Bird says. "You could learn a lot from each other. In fact, you're a lot alike, you both have this thing with aggression."
Beck looks up at the asylum seeker, who nods at him charitably. Along the lines of: take it easy, we'll have you whipped into shape before you know it. This is madness, Beck thinks, my wife is mad, I'm mad, the asylum seeker is mad, my life has gone one hundred percent mad. But then he rejects that thought. Once you've put aside your own happiness, the categories change, you stop asking yourself what's the use, what's in it for you; instead, you let it roll over you, you live for a goal greater than your own happiness, and in that way almost every question receives an answer, every situation takes on meaning: for you, for you, once and for always for you. He calls it resignation, but his wife has something against that term, she thinks it's too negative. "Letting go," Beck has often said, "that's resignation, you submit to the power of coincidence. There is no reason, there is no connection."
The asylum seeker's witness comes in without knocking. It's a woman, an indeterminate someone, in fact. Beck can't even make out her name. She's brought cake with her, almond cake in silver paper, and she passes it around. Very thoughtful of her, but Beck would rather have lived through all of this without the almond cake.
"Are you also a," the civil servant begins to ask, but then stops himself, coughs quickly and says: "You're not from around here either, I take it?"
The Bird nibbles on her piece of cake, but stops after a few bites. The last few weeks she's been nauseous, as though she's pregnant. Beck brushes the crumbs from her lap and puts them on the table. He tries to wipe her mouth, but she yanks the napkin out of his hands.
"Let's get started," the civil servant says. "We all have other things to do today."
Beck is now brushing the almost-invisible crumbs from his wife's lap. Superfluous, perfectly superfluous. In the dedication with which he carries out his superfluous actions each day, therein lies his dignity.
The ceremony is short, but reasonably pleasant. The civil servant smiles a few times. To Beck's amazement, there are even rings. As it turns out, they came from a vending machine.
In less than fifteen minutes they're back outside. The female witness passes around some more almond cake, which Beck, mostly out of politeness, eats standing on the sidewalk. Then she has to leave. She's in a hurry. Even in the midst of good-byes, he still can't make out her name. He watches her go, a wad of silver paper in his hand.
"Perhaps you'd like to come with us for a cup of tea?" Beck says to the asylum seeker. "Then you can see where we live."
"I'd like that," the asylum seeker says, "but I can't stay long."
Beck pushes the wheelchair, the asylum seeker walks beside it. Every once in a while, when he stops for a light, Beck leans down and puts his nose close to his wife's neck, to smell her. More than his wife, what he smells is the hospital.
When they get to their house, Beck helps his wife out of the wheelchair. They have to climb two sets of stairs. She can barely make it.
"I'll carry her," the asylum seeker says. He takes Beck's wife on his back, she holds on tight, and Beck folds up the wheelchair.
"Will you be all right?" Beck asks, just to be sure.
"Yes," his wife says, "I will, I'll be just fine." She has her arms clamped around the asylum seeker's neck with all her might.
Beck thinks it's a comic, perhaps even moving sight, although for a moment there he's afraid they're going to fall. It reminds him of something, the way his wife hangs there, but he can't figure out what. Before they start the climb, he pinches her gently and amiably on the buttock. They climb the two sets of stairs, the asylum seeker with Beck's wife, Beck himself with her wheelchair.
A few minutes later they're sitting in the living room; only Beck remains standing.
(Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 2003)