When I wake those damned blackbirds are there again. They cover my whole balcony in shit. There are two of them, but usually only the male shows himself and the female stays next door. White Feather I call her, after the light patch on her wing. For days on end I sit near the window; she hardly ever lands on the balcony rail. I get dressed and make tea. Pickwick brand, nice and dark. “Daniel, you shouldn’t leave the bag in so long.” When Nel’s here I try to remember. I sit at the breakfast table for over an hour, the travel itinerary in a plastic folder in front of me. Dambulla, World’s End, Colombo. She took off from Schiphol at six-thirty this morning. I don’t open the folder. Four pages is an eternity. I fetch my writing pad from the sideboard. I’d like to write to her but I can’t get anything down on paper. “There’s a big difference between wanting to do something and being able to do it,” she says.
After bridge they drop me off at home. The geraniums look splendid. I feel like giving Nel a quick call to tell her. My daughter in Prinsenbeek is far too busy, I don’t bother her with things like that. She’s in a different phase. In late autumn I put the pelargoniums, that's what they're called in Latin, in the attic to overwinter. I’ve had them for fifteen years. In April I plant them in fresh soil in the window boxes. Every day I deadhead them. That’s just about all they need, geraniums.
Today I’ve known Nel exactly two years, five months and twenty-eight days. People don’t celebrate that kind of thing, but I celebrate every day of knowing her. According to the itinerary she has a rest day now in Negombo. “Relax on an endless beach. You can spend the day sunbathing and swimming in the sea.” What does she want with an endless beach? With that old skin. She’s an awfully pretty girl still, though, don’t get me wrong. There’s a fish market too, in Negombo. She’d do better to go there and eat some fried fish. When she comes round on Saturdays I always fetch two portions of haddock. Don’t go thinking she’s thinking of you now. Get outside, you old fool! Do some shopping. Buy some gumdrops at De Bas, for her to take to her granddaughters.
Every Sunday Nel makes a plan for the coming week. I’m not allowed to ring until after eight or she won’t get it done. Monday nights she has choir, Tuesdays she looks after her son’s daughters. The first day we can get together is Wednesday, as long as none of her friends has a birthday, or has just died. Thursdays are possible too, but once a month she has her reading club on a Thursday evening. Fridays she volunteers at the home and in the afternoon she has her piano lesson. If she’s got any energy left she takes the bus. The stop is right near my house. If she’s not there between five past four and four fifteen I know she’s not coming.
Last night I dreamed of a big rock in the shape of a lion’s head. I walked along a narrow path and found myself below its stone ear. Suddenly the animal opened its jaws. In its mouth were tourists with rucksacks and light-blue cotton trousers.
At breakfast I’m startled all over again: two eyes stick up above the crowns of the trees. The lion-rock is in a photo in the itinerary, at the bottom of page one. She was up there yesterday. If she managed the climb, that is; it says “via steep steps.” I’m still pretty nimble myself. I try not to strain my legs, but she, with that hip . . . I’ve no doubt she went clambering on till she was grinding her teeth with the pain.
She called me at last. About time too. “I couldn’t call any sooner,” she said. “My dear girl,” was all I could manage. Nothing about blackbirds, or bridge, or how the warm spell is lasting. “Daniel, I’ll keep it short, we’ll see each other again in no time.” “Bye, my sweet girl.” I just stood there, holding the phone. Nobody likes a killjoy. I put the receiver back on the hook and sat at the table. The damp patch on the dining-room curtains is shaped like the island of Sri Lanka.
My daughter from Prinsenbeek came by. She didn’t have much time. She parked the stroller on the balcony. I kept seeing those little arms reach for the flowers. I get no fun out of it. At that age they don’t recognize you. My daughter brought some tomato soup from a packet. She says it’s fresher. She’d already had her dinner. After the soup we drank coffee and watched the news. My eyes shut but I wasn’t asleep. I saw big green fingers of palm leaves and Nel’s face. The strange thing was, I didn’t really see her face. I opened my eyes and looked at the photo on the sideboard, the one where we’re standing with the travel group in front of a bed of tulips. They’re red tulips with white edging, a new variety called Kung Fu. The photographer made a joke. Would the old folks all like to get into kung fu poses? No one laughed. The weather was bad that day. Nel is more raincoat than face, a red rain hat.
In the photo I’m standing a bit off to one side, with a look of “my time will come.” Since my wife died I haven’t been much of a joiner.
“God, it’s as if you’re alone here,” she said. It was the first time she’d been with the group.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“But you know all those people, don’t you? Why not go and have a chat with them.”
“No, that’s not my style.”
At last the bus came, an hour late. It had been stuck in traffic after one of the floats in the Floral Procession capsized on the A44. We got on and sat next to each other. She looked out the window, wrapped up in her thoughts, and I looked at her. Back in Rotterdam I helped her down from the bus. Suddenly I put my arm around her. “Oh, no, I mustn’t do that, people don’t like it.”
“Daniel,” she said, “I like it sometimes, an arm round me like that.”
“Can I do it again, then?”
“Fine by me, yes.”
Before she left she kept the whole weekend free. We talked all evening as always. “I’ve brought you a copy of the route we’ll be taking. So you can follow it, with or without a map of the country. And here’s a list of practical information, like the flight times, so you can look up when I’ll get there, when I’ll be back and so forth.” She took a bottle of Beerenburg out of her bag. “Whenever one of my friends had a baby it used to mean ten days lying in, and each day she’d open a little parcel, with a rattle perhaps, or a bib. I can’t give you anything like that, so for you I’ve thought of something else, Daniel, dear. I know you like a drop, so I’ve measured out fourteen glasses and tipped them into the bottle through a funnel. By the time it’s empty I’ll be back.”
When it got dark we slowly went upstairs and lay down close together in bed. We don’t get up to too many hijinks in bed. Our conversations are over then though. Unless you count the arms we put round each other. We don’t say a word. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes of silence, just your arm around that little head for a while.
“Where are we going with this, Daniel?”
“We’ll see, girl.”
The home help has just left. Jolanda she was called this time, a sturdy Dutch lass. I’ve had mostly Surinamese ladies recently, jolly but a bit bossy. Jolanda cleaned the windows and did the bathroom. Then she sat facing me and filled out a list of how long she’d spent at each house. She didn’t want any coffee.
“The daughter she’s gone on this tour with, I don’t even know her,” I said.
Jolanda nodded and carried on writing.
“They went to see the ruins yesterday. In the old royal city, or what’s left of it. I dare say it’s hot there.”
“As long as she puts something on her head,” said Jolanda.
Other than that one call, I haven’t heard anything from her. It’s probably expensive, but I told her I’d pay, so somehow I don’t understand it. Maybe I ought to have given her some money. Although what kind of currency do they have? Here, it tells you at the bottom of the page: rupees. The schedule’s too full, that must be it. Never more than two nights at one place.
That damn blackbird hasn’t been back. He must have a nest somewhere. I wonder if he’s with White Feather or whether he has another. If I hang up a nesting box, they might do it on my balcony. The year before I met Nel, when Loes had been dead for four years, there was a starlings’ nest under the roof tiles. I never saw them, but what a terrible screeching those creatures make. They kept me awake all night. Cheeky buggers they are, shitting, quarrelling, two nests a year, and with different partners. It was nice and lively though.
When I wake up we’ll be more than halfway.
Today she’s in Kandy, one of the most interesting cities of the cultural triangle. There’s a holy tooth, served up by pilgrims in white robes with lotus flowers. Tourist nonsense, if you ask me, but still, as long as she enjoys it. You mustn’t think for anyone else. Although I sometimes find that’s the most difficult thing. Look after each other. It’s your duty if you care about someone, to stand by him or her to the final moment. But you can never ask it of them.
Last night I got a call. I nearly choked on my brown beans. I was sure it was her because she knows I’m always home then for dinner. She’s having a great time, so what more do you want? Sun every day and friendly people who do everything for you. The locals don’t bother you as much as people say, and you can easily walk down the street.
I said, “I love you.”
“Oh, my sweet,” she replied. She’d seen orchids, in the wild.
Somehow I feel she’s at a boundary. This far and no further. The silly thing is, I’ve always been one of those people who likes to be on their own. My wife sometimes had to put me straight. “Hello, earth to Daniel,” she used to say. Being alone is terrible now. My hobbies only give my hands something to do. “It’s what you make of it that counts,” Nel says, but that’s when I’ve been over to see her or we’re on our way back from an outing with the travel group, after a wonderful day. I open the door here in the evening and then, goddammit.
“You shouldn’t say ‘goddammit.’ You should turn on the light and say, ‘What a glorious day I’ve had.’”
“Visit to the elephant orphanage in Katugastota. Fifty motherless elephants live here.” An elephant is an elephant, whether it’s walking across the desert with its herd or sitting in a cage. For years I had a season ticket to Blijdorp Zoo but since the renovation it feels too big for me. I don’t need to go on a Tropical Safari, or take a dive in the Oceanium. A cage is safer and you can get closer to the animals. I remember my father used to take peanuts along. “For the monkeys,” he said, but nothing was nicer than putting a nut in your hand and feeling that warm trunk on your palm. Nel said it really was the last time she’d call, but she’ll write to me every day.
Jolanda the home help says I should be more active. As if she’s so active herself with that fat behind. After next week she won’t be coming again. “I’ve got better things to do than wash bottoms for the rest of my life.”
Four nights ago I had a fall. I went to fetch a glass of water from the bathroom and slipped and hit my head on the edge of the sink. I lay there floundering on the tiles like a fish, terrible pain from my waist to my knee. I dragged myself to the bedroom and pulled the phone down from the bedside table. They had to call an ambulance. Woke the lady next door for the key. My hip was dislocated and I had a bump on my head. X-rays, the whole song and dance. Luckily nothing was broken and there was no need for surgery. The specialist arranged for a general anaesthetic and worked the hip back into the socket. They kept me in for three nights and now I’m at home with Yvonne, a nurse, barely twenty. I can’t move my leg and I get shooting pains right down to my toes. “It needs time,” Yvonne says. Suits me, I’ve got more than enough of that, although now and then it seems as if it’s run out, and I’m sick to the back teeth of it. Sometimes I hobble to the toilet on crutches and the rest of the time I lie by the window. Once I thought I saw White Feather flying, a twig in her beak, but it happened so quickly it may have been one of the others.
Baking hot. I don’t wind up the awnings any more. They give the furniture an orange glow. My daughter from Prinsenbeek rang to say that she can’t come this week. The baby has chicken pox. Covered in spots, and in this heat. A tingle in my leg. At three I drink the last of the Beerenburg. Nel still has to go to a high plateau for two days, then there’s a day in the metropolitan city of Colombo, to buy souvenirs. From there they get a transfer to the airport, “for your return journey or your flight to your next destination.” Oh please, no.
She came straight here from the airport. It was still early. I was leaning on my crutches watering the geraniums as best I could with the coffee pot. The watering can’s still too heavy. It took me a few minutes to get to the door. There she stood, with a bag full of wooden carvings and hand-painted textiles. We hugged each other.
“Peg-leg. We’re going to make up for lost time,” she said. “Promise.”
I’d cooked the endive the night before, her favorite.
“Tastes good, Daniel my sweet.”
“Do you have enough there, young lady?”
She ate it all up, and then came the stories. No need for me to remember everything, she said, as she’d written it all down. For a while we lay on the bed the health service set up for me in the living room. Yvonne had put clean sheets on and I’d got her to buy eggs for breakfast. After barely an hour Nel suddenly wanted to go home. It wasn’t even nine o’clock.
“A taxi costs seventeen euros,” I said.
“I need a wash and my house is a mess.”
I couldn’t face watching the taxi drive away for the second time this month, so I didn’t wave.
I tug at the curtain. I can’t get it properly closed. A beam of light falls across the blanket on the bed. On the coffee table is an elephant of dark gleaming wood. “Elephants are very social animals,” Nel tells me. It’s as if he’s got lost.
“Sleep well, Daniel,” I whisper and turn out the light. The pain in my leg has flared up; it seems to be getting worse. I lie on my back waiting for sleep to come. That blackbird’s here again. With his song he announces the coming of dark.
"Witte veder" © Sanneke van Hassel. By arrangement with De Bezige Bij. Translation © 2014 Liz Waters. All rights reserved.