I was about to tell you of the first time that my stories were published, about how it came to pass and about my “birth” as a writer. But more than that, I would like to tell you about the water, the source from which these stories arise. These last few years especially, it seems that the more I think up and imagine, the tighter a certain reality grips me by the arm, and it’s as if the faces I thought I saw in the pattern of the wallpaper as a child, faces that vanished when I put on my glasses or tugged the cord to turn on the light, sometimes linger instead of vanishing and invite me to “come nearer, come nearer.” And as I draw closer, whispered stories rise up, curtains are pulled aside, events are exposed; they seem to have no meaning, no purpose, yet there they are.
Today is the first of September, and in the hail of events that collides with our world the following incident has taken place in my family, our family, in which I am number eleven, the one who writes, who talks to the outside world. It’s an incident that, in order to be explained and fully understood, would need to become a novel or novella, not a story. But the question is: who would read such a novel? And what are the chances that, as a story, it would stand out and burn bright? So, more than a written account of the first time my stories were published, this is a study of the elements that sting and itch and can be used to create a world, and of the elements that sting and itch and are no use at all. My nephew is dying. My nephew is thirty-six, the same age as my youngest sister. They used to play together. He is my eldest half-sister’s second child.
This is confusing and I see now that I need to give you a brief sketch of the family, so that you, reader, will be in a position to understand the setting and the circumstances. Well, let me try. It is shortly after the war. There is a man, my father. He is married and he has five children. There is a woman, my mother. She is married and she has two daughters. One is called Toddie, the other Sill. They are pretty girls. One day they will be my elder sisters. They don’t know that yet, and I have yet to be born, so I don’t have a say. I am waiting. Anyway, my father is living with his first wife, but he can’t stop lusting after other women, and one day he sees my mother. My mother is married to his wife’s cousin. She is ten years younger than him and she is beautiful. She has dark hair and dark eyebrows and a strange scar on her left leg, as if a dog bit her there, and she is on my father’s mind. A whole bunch of things happen in the meantime, but I won’t trouble you with them, not here, not now. Eventually they get together. My father divorces his wife. That is to say his father-in-law—whose company he worked for—disowns him and throws him out, and now he is thirty-seven, a father of five, with no job, out on the street and everyone knows about the affair. My mother is thrown out on the street too, and Toddie and Sill, her two daughters, with her.
They stay together. They live together. The real soap opera starts when my father’s first wife runs away to Vienna with a violinist and leaves the children behind with my father. Now they have a whole pack of kids to take care of. They have my father’s five children, one still a baby, my mother’s two daughters, and another one on the way. They live in an old apartment above a shop. They have no money. Their first child is born, their first together, that is. He is mentally handicapped. He wouldn’t have been if the stupid nurses hadn’t held his head with the forceps too long, but that’s what they did, and at first his head is pear-shaped and then it stays like that for a while and he’s short of oxygen and then he becomes the person he’ll end up being. They have another one. That one is OK. They have yet another one. That one turns out really well. Then it gets flattened by a car in the street where they live, and there is mourning. Then, only eight months later, I am finally born. My name is Ninon. I am number eleven. After me come Sasha and Lime, who is the youngest and the same age as my nephew. That is the setting.
Now my nephew is dying. Sill’s second son. He’s in the hospital because his brain isn’t working. The story behind all this is connected to the story of my sister, who is eighteen years older than I am. Life was tough, you know, and the family has no money and the two daughters are pretty, but one more than the other. It’s a story of jealousy. It’s tricky, I can already see that there’s too much explaining to do. Let’s get back to the facts. My nephew is dying. He is five foot ten and weighs one hundred pounds. He is so skinny that he can no longer walk. He had a stroke. He had a stroke because of thrombosis. He had thrombosis because he was in bed. He was in bed because he was depressed and didn’t want to walk anymore and didn’t want to eat anymore. He lived in the house with his mother, my half-sister Sill. My sister is sixty. The nephew is thirty-six, the same age as my youngest sister. The nephew was married but the marriage didn’t work out. His wife is not the nicest of women. She’s very big and very tough and no one wants to get on her bad side. My nephew is not a clever man. He wasn’t a clever child either. My sister had him when she was twenty-four. She was pregnant at the same time as my mother, who was expecting my youngest sister. My sister got married because the other sister, Toddie, got married and she was jealous and wanted a party too. She married a man whose feelings don’t run deep. These things happen. She had two sons with this man, my nephews. I don’t know them all that well, though I can remember part of their childhood because it took place in the living room of our house. You see, although the sisters were married by then, they carried on visiting the house and my mother; they hadn’t really grown up. They come every morning and stay all day. They sit at the table while the children crawl around or sit tied to their strollers or cribs. They don’t pay much attention. They can’t really be bothered. They sit at the table, smoking nonstop. They talk about life and what will happen when life finally begins. I remember all this clearly. They hate their husbands and they can’t stand the neighbors. They like things that are made of gold and they like clothes. They get the mail-order catalogs and they go through them. My sister Toddie likes the things on page twelve. On page twelve there is a gold-plated necklace and bracelet. My mother says it’s too cheap to be real gold. My sister says she still thinks it’s real gold. They can’t understand the description or the small print that explains what the necklace and bracelet are actually made of. My sister Toddie gets the necklace and the bracelet. She wears them next time she comes to our house and says her husband bought them for her. The other sister says it’s not true, that she must have ordered them from the catalog and that it’s all a lie. They get into a fight. My sister Toddie says Sill doesn’t take good care of her children, that Sill’s youngest has a raw, chapped behind because she leaves him sitting in his diaper. My sister Sill says it’s not true and even if it was, that it’s her business. She says she takes wonderful, excellent care of him. My mother says it’s a hell of a job, children, and that you should think twice before you have them, and that it’s something she would definitely think twice about. She says they’ve made their bed and they’d best lie in it. My sister Toddie says there’s something wrong with Sill’s youngest, that he looks odd, that he’s got this strange look in his eyes and that she should take him to the doctor, that maybe there’s something wrong with the child. My sister Sill says there’s nothing at all wrong with him and that she takes wonderful, excellent care of him. My sister Toddie has two daughters. My sister Toddie dresses her girls up and brushes their hair. My sister Sill would have loved to have two girls, two girls to play with, because she can’t dress the boys up the way Toddie dresses up the girls, and that really bugs her. My sister Toddie’s girls are really cute little tots. My sister Sill’s boys drool. They still wet the bed. One of them is three and won’t use the potty. The other one seems to like sitting in his own shit. He seems to think it’s nice and warm and he never complains, although his behind is chapped and sore when she finally changes him. My mother smokes and says it’s a hell of a job, children. It was a hell of a job for her and now it’s a hell of a job for them. The nephew that liked sitting in his own shit is the nephew that’s now in hospital about to die. He has false teeth. His face is as smooth as a baby’s, I saw it for myself, I was there yesterday. He was taken to the hospital after he fell. He fell out of bed and my sixty-year-old sister heard a thud. After half an hour she goes upstairs because it’s so quiet. My nephew, her son, has never been a big talker but now it’s quiet as can be up there. He’s slumped to one side, hanging half in, half out of the bed. His eyes look weird. His mouth is crooked. She calls the doctor. Seven whole months my nephew was in that bed in that house. He was upstairs and he didn’t walk. He didn’t eat. My sister tells us she’s happy to have her child back at home after his divorce and that she takes excellent, wonderful care of him. We don’t visit her because my sister keeps herself to herself; she likes her privacy. She’s been divorced from her husband a long time. Twenty-five years she was married to him and finally she’d had enough and got herself a divorce. My sister has never had a job. She helps clean people’s houses. Shortly after my first book was published—I am now a woman of the world—she comes and cleans my house. She comes and cleans my toilet, my bedroom, my kitchen, and I pay her. We talk about family life. She tells the story of my father and mother, who are very strict. Of my father, who is a staunch Catholic. Of my mother, who is always absorbed in herself. We sit down, sip coffee, and discuss all the members of the family. Her two sons have left home. One is about to be married. That’s the nephew who is now on his deathbed. My sister says she’s lonely and wouldn’t mind having a man around. She says she doesn’t understand how Toddie always has men who buy her things and she has no one. Every month she gets two hundred guilders for her cleaning work. She is a slender woman with long black hair that she dyes “Raven Black.” From behind, my sister looks like a young woman. From the front, her face reveals her real age. She can’t stand her nose because she has her father’s nose and it’s a big one. Toddie has a pert little nose and a younger-looking face. Her body is in better shape too. Every time my sister leaves my house, the whole place smells of cigarettes.
The sister gets a little house and the son who is about to get married marries. He isn’t clever, wasn’t able to learn a trade, and he works in a warehouse. My mother says it doesn’t make any difference whether you go on learning or not because everyone’s the same. The son marries his wife and they have a child. The wife beats the nephew because she finds out he’s not clever. She’s not too smart herself, so it took her a while to figure that one out. She starts having an affair and files for divorce. The son has nowhere to go and can’t work because he’s feeling all fucked up. His father has a girlfriend. She has dyed blonde hair, wears red tops and high heels, and because they want to be on their own so they can fuck, the father doesn’t have much time. He changes his phone number to get rid of his son. So the son goes back to my sister, who lives alone in her little house. She has white furniture and white curtains. She likes the color gold. On the wall she has a painting of the smashed-up brother before he got smashed up. He’s sitting on the rug we all played on, my youngest sister, the nephews, my sister Toddie’s daughters, and me. The rug didn’t look that colorful when we played on it. Anyway, back to the story. No, back to the ingredients of the story. The son knocks on the mother’s door. She lets him in. They agree that he can stay with her. He gets the room upstairs and a bed. We don’t see him because my sister keeps herself to herself and is very fond of her privacy. The son doesn’t feel well. He stays in bed, comes down with a cold, or maybe it’s flu. When he recovers, he stays in the room upstairs. The curtains are closed. Sometimes my mother comes to visit but the nephew-son-grandson stays upstairs. She says it’s a sorry state of affairs that the boy can’t walk. When we ask what the doctor has to say, my mother says that we all know what doctors are like and how they like to keep you waiting. She says it’s all in his mind. We crack all kinds of jokes about the nephew. We say that what he needs is a good kick in the ass, that lazy good-for-nothing who won’t get out of bed. My sister doesn’t talk to anyone. He stays up there for seven months in a darkened room, with the curtains drawn. My sister takes excellent, wonderful care of him. She tells my mother she’s feeling tired.
Then comes a thud and the nephew-son is taken to hospital. He weighs one hundred pounds and is five foot ten. The brother says it was an unhealthy situation. That the mother brought him a slice of bread every morning covered in plastic wrap. That three hours later if he hadn’t eaten it, she took the slice of bread back downstairs and waited. That later on she took the slice of bread back up again and then she brought it back down again. My nephew lost forty-five pounds lying on a bed. He can’t take a shit and he can’t get up to pee. My sister says she’s up and down all day with towels and buckets. She says he’s not allowed to see his three-year-old son and that’s what killed him. She says that if he survives and ends up an invalid, she’ll bring him home and take excellent, wonderful care of him. My mother says she’s crushed, that the news has destroyed her. That he’s a sweet boy, a bag of bones that anyone would want to bring home and take wonderful, excellent care of. I don’t have any memories of my nephew except that as a baby, he sat on the rug. We don’t like the nephew because . . . well, we just don’t like him much. At the hospital they say his brain has started bleeding again and that there’s no chance of recovery. My mother can’t sleep. “Oh, why do such terrible things happen?’ she moans. “Is there no end to the misery in our lives?” My sister is very weak, very thin. Her hair is dyed “Raven Black.” She smokes outside the hospital. My sister Toddie, healthy and well-rounded, comes to visit with her daughters. The daughters look like they’ve walked straight out of a candy shop, sweet as marshmallows. They all go in and gather round the bed and cry. My sister Toddie says to our mother, who is eighty, “This isn’t right. You should’ve been the first to go.” They talk about the nephew’s funeral. The nephew’s breathing is labored. The skin of his right arm is cold. I have no other memory of him than as a baby that doesn’t mind sitting in his own shit. My first story was entitled “Shit.” But that’s another story with another background.
Anyway, if you want to know how my first story got published, this is the source from which the stories arise. New things happen and I am the letter writer. I am their portal to the outside world. I would like to use my imagination and I like the color gold. Some stories I make up and others gnaw their way out from inside. I can’t talk about anything else right now, and I can’t slice it all up and rework it until it’s excellent and wonderful. The hospital is big and spacious. My sister lost her way yesterday. She nearly walked into the wrong room but after hunting around for a bit, we found the room with the nephew in it. Today I feel sad and I don’t know why. Because I never loved my nephew and I’m not crazy about my sister either.
"Verkloot" © Manon Uphoff. By arrangement with De Bezige Bij. Translation © 2014 by David Doherty. All rights reserved.