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Postcards from no mans l.., p.29
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       Postcards From No Man's Land, p.29

           Aidan Chambers
 

  Jacob said, ‘Love is not finite.’

  ‘Right. Yes. Love is not finite. It is not that we each have a limited supply of it that we can only give to one person at a time. Or that we have one kind of love that can only be given to one person in the whole of our lives. It’s a ridiculous thing to think so. I love Ton. I sleep with him when we both want it. Or when one of us needs it, even if the other doesn’t want it then. I love Simone—’

  ‘Simone?’ Jacob said.

  ‘She was here the other morning when you left. She called out to you. She lives two streets away. Ton and Simone know each other. They were friends before I met them. We’ve talked about it. Ton never sleeps with women. That’s the way he is. Simone only sleeps with me. That’s the way she is. I sleep with them both. That’s the way I am. They both want to sleep with me. That’s how we are. That’s how we want it. If we didn’t, or if any one of us didn’t, then, okay, that’s it. All the stuff about gender. Male, female, queer, bi, feminist, new man, whatever—it’s meaningless. As out of date as marriage for ever. I’m tired of hearing about it. We’re beyond that now.’

  ‘You are, maybe,’ Jacob said. ‘Not all of us, though. Not most of us probably. Not where I come from anyway.’

  ‘No, well, nothing ever changes completely all at once, does it. That’s why revolutions always fail. You can’t do anything big with people all at once. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay with the ones who belong to the old ways. Nothing would ever change if people did that. And me, like I say, I’m tired of discussing it. Let people go on the way they want to in the old way if they can’t live up to the new way. But I’m not going to be stopped. I’m not going to be held back. I’m not going to live the kind of lie that keeps the old system going.’

  Jacob said, ‘I dunno. Doesn’t seem to me to be as clear cut as you make out.’

  ‘Yes it is,’ Daan said. ‘I love who I love. I sleep with who I love if we both want it. Nothing to do with male or female. Nothing is secret. If it ends between us, it ends. That’s life. The pain is part of it. Without it, we’d be dead. All that really matters to me is the people I love. How we live together. How we keep each other alive.’

  Daan sat back in his seat and rapped the table with his knuckles.

  ‘There,’ he said, grinning. ‘Over. Finished. Ice cream now. Yes?’

  There was silence round the table until Jacob said, ‘Just because you say so.’

  Daan stood up. ‘We agreed. Tonight, enough.’

  Jacob didn’t move. Ton had watched him closely throughout Daan’s diatribe. Now he reached out and gave Jacob’s arm a consoling rub.

  Jacob said, ‘I see what Tessel meant on Sunday.’

  Daan said, ‘What did she say?’

  ‘Something about hoping I was all right, staying here with you. Something about your way of life, but she didn’t explain.’

  Daan chuckled. ‘She’s afraid I’ll corrupt you. She’s not, let’s say, comfortable with the way I live.’

  Jacob looked up at Daan with a grin. ‘And will you?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Corrupt me?’

  Daan pulled a sour face and, making for the kitchen, said, ‘I hate missionaries.’

  Three kinds of ice cream: vanilla, lemon, chocolate. And a bowl of cherries to pick from. More wine.

  ‘If you love Ton so much,’ Jacob said, refusing to give up, ‘and you love Simone so much, and they love you, why don’t you all live together?’

  Daan went on eating his ice cream and gave Ton a weary look.

  ‘Because we like to have our own places to go to,’ Ton said. ‘We like to be independent.’

  ‘And so,’ Daan said with heavy tolerance, ‘when we see each other, it’s always fresh. Never gets dull.’

  ‘We’re each other’s guests every time. If we don’t want to meet we don’t meet.’

  ‘So we never—how d’you put it?—vinden die ander vanzelfsprekend.’

  ‘Granted,’ Ton said, ‘take each other for granted.’

  ‘Right. We never take each other for granted.’

  ‘We’re there for each other. But we only meet when we want to. Except in emergencies.’

  ‘Anyway,’ Daan said, ‘Ton’s place is too small for more than one. This is still Geertrui’s. Simone is a loner, she never wants to be with anyone for long. One day, we might change.’

  ‘Why not? We’re young.’

  ‘But right now we like it the way it is.’

  ‘Good,’ Ton said, ‘don’t you think?’

  ‘Brilliant,’ Jacob said, meaning it, aware that he envied them.

  ‘You should come and join us,’ Ton said, laughing.

  ‘Maybe I will,’ Jacob said, and felt himself blushing because his tone gave away that he wished it.

  One of those sudden silences intruded, an angel walking by, the old folk used to say.

  Daan got up and went to the bathroom. Ton finished off the ice cream, his third helping. Jacob brooded.

  It was as if what he had heard had started the insides of his body shifting about, not his organs, not his heart and stomach and liver, not his offal, but the parts of his inner self that inhabited his body. It was as if his self were a sort of three-dimensional jigsaw made of pliable bits which could be combined in to a number of different beings, different Jacobs, rather than just one. Now the bits were moving around, shaping a self who startled him. Not because this newly forming self was a stranger. Just the opposite. He had caught glimpses of him more and more often since he was about fifteen. A he that had been the leading actor, Jacob’s other self, in day-time imaginings and night-time dreams, playing out inside his head secret wishes and unspoken desires. What was startling was that now this other he was revealing himself completely, like someone stepping out of dark shadow in to bright light.

  But as usual, he, the Jacob sitting at the table, couldn’t think what it meant. Except that it felt serious. He needed time on his own to work it out. Whatever, it was mixed up with what he had learned from Geertrui’s story, and what he had felt, when he left her that day. And there was Ton and there was Hille. He just had not had enough time to take everything in. And he would have to leave for (he had trouble even thinking the word) home on Thursday. If only he had time to sort it out. Here.

  Daan came back to the table and poured more wine.

  ‘I’ve been thinking,’ Jacob said, though he was thinking it only as he spoke, ‘I’d like to stay on till, well, after Monday …’ He couldn’t bring himself to say ‘Geertrui’s death’. ‘I’d like to be here then. And for the funeral.’

  ‘No,’ Daan said.

  Before he could stop himself, Jacob said, ‘Why not?’ He heard the voice of a petulant kid.

  ‘You would not be welcome.’

  ‘Oh, thanks!’

  ‘It’s nothing to do with you.’

  ‘Nothing—! After what’s happened? How can you say that!’

  ‘It’s not allowed. It’s all arranged. It’s to be private.’

  ‘So I’m the public?’

  ‘We don’t want it.’

  ‘We? Who’s we?’

  ‘Geertrui. Tessel. Me.’

  ‘How d’you know? Have you asked them?’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘No you don’t. I’ll ask them myself. I want to be here. I should be here. Geertrui will want me to be here. I’ve a right—’

  Daan stood up. The table shook.

  Ton, pushing his chair back, said, ‘Daan!’ and spoke rapid Dutch.

  There was a sharp exchange. Which ended with Daan striding out of the room. His footsteps cascaded down the stairs.

  Jacob was sweating and trembling. Too shaken to stand. And too embarrassed by himself to look at Ton.

  When the static had settled Ton began clearing the table and preparing to wash up.

  Jacob knew he should help, but a heaviness came on him, as if his body had been pumped full of air the weight of stone.

  ‘Come for a walk,’ Ton sai
d.

  Jacob couldn’t move.

  ‘There’s a place I want to show you. Not a tourist place. And not far. You could scream and no one would hear you. Or whistle in the wind. You know how to do that, don’t you, Jacques? Just put your lips together and blow.’

  Which produced a smile. He knew Ton was quoting something, couldn’t remember or didn’t know what, but it was funny anyway.

  He stood, felt queasy, held the table for a moment while he found his balance, then followed Ton out of the room.

  It was late dusk and a bright three-quarter moon dodging scattered clouds. A brisk light breeze sharpened the senses.

  Ton led Jacob to the railway station, and through the long central concourse under the platforms with its shops and milling crowds, and out on to a road that ran along the river. The little ferry that shuttled people across to the housing estates on the other side was just leaving.

  Ton turned left. Past workaday iron-hulled boats, small tugs perhaps, moored at short piers. Beyond, a stretch that looked unused, abandoned, a few unattractive boxy buildings, scrub grass growing through broken concrete.

  The road swung away from the railway, following the line of the river. Cars slurred by now and then. The street lights seemed to make the road even gloomier. No one else was walking.

  Twenty minutes. The strip of land between road and river bulged. Edged with a high chain-link fence. From which hung a battered sign, Verboden toegang, needing no translation. Near the sign a gap had been forced by cutting links and folding back the loose flap of galvanised lace to make a hole big enough to stoop through. In the gloaming it was hard to see anything on the other side except humpy ground and wilderness bushes. Illegal entrance to the garden of Limbo.

  Ton did not pause but bent down and shuffled through. A swirl of dust sent up by a passing car scarfed Jacob’s face and in to his mouth. Mud’s thirsty sister. As he went through the gap his sleeve caught on a ragged end of wire.

  Ton took his hand. They made their way across the little wilderness and down an incline, careful where they put their feet. At the bottom, the remains of a wall about a metre wide stretched out in to the river. And, Jacob could see, it was one side of an oblong, forming an enclosure perhaps the size of two tennis courts. There was water inside, like a swimming pool, out of which here and there poked five or six stumps of decayed concrete.

  ‘Where are we?’

  ‘It’s called Stenenhoofd. Stonehead.’

  ‘What was it? Some kind of building?’

  ‘A warehouse, I think. In the old days when ships would unload here.’

  ‘It sticks right out in to the river.’

  ‘Dare you go to the end? The wall isn’t very wide.’

  ‘I’d like to.’

  Jacob stepped on to the catwalk through the water. The river was a metre or two below to his left. The further out from the bank they went, the stronger the breeze, reaching them now in an unhindered blow. He looked down once, almost lost his balance. His feet tingled. Knew then to keep his head and eyes up. Across the broad expanse of dark water were lights in buildings on the other side. They seemed a world away but could not have been more than half a mile.

  He stopped on the farthest corner. Ahead, the river widened so much it might have been the sea. And he on the prow of a ship cutting its way through wind and water.

  Ton took his arm in a nervous grasp. ‘I’d never have done this on my own!’

  ‘Scared?’ Jacob said, not taking his eyes from the expanse.

  ‘A bit. Aren’t you?’

  Allowing the impulse, Jacob put his arm round Ton’s shoulders.

  ‘It’s terrific. Like a ship at sea.’

  ‘Thought you’d like it.’

  Night now. But the moon lighting them. Its image slipping and sliding on the water.

  Ton’s arm came round Jacob’s waist and held him tight. They snuggled to each other against the brisk air.

  ‘Bracing,’ Jacob said.

  A small sturdy cabin cruiser ghosted by, its navigation lights marking its passage. A little bit of red port left in the bottom of the bottle.

  ‘Woudn’t it be wonderful to have a boat like that?’

  ‘One day we shall. And sail the IJsselmeer. You and me together. Why not?’

  ‘Okay. You’re on. What would we call it?’

  ‘Titus,’ Ton said without hesitation. ‘What about that? A boat called Titus.’

  Jacob laughed.

  As if a door had been closed, the breeze suddenly fell to nothing. They were becalmed.

  ‘Want to sit?’ Ton said.

  They released each other and sat with their legs dangling over the river, and were listening to the new silence for a time before Ton said, ‘Don’t be upset with Daan. There’s been a lot of stress over Geertrui. Family arguments. He feels it more than he likes to show. He’s suffering a lot. And it’s getting harder the nearer the day comes.’

  Jacob said with regret, not complaint, ‘I only said I’d like to stay on.’

  ‘It was more than that. He’s jealous. A bit.’

  ‘Jealous?’

  ‘Of you.’

  ‘Of me! Why of me?’

  ‘He and Geertrui are very close. He’s devoted to her. He’d do anything for her, I think. Now you come along. She wrote her memoir for you. Daan spent hours helping with it. She had told him about your grandfather. But she didn’t write it down for him like she has for you.’

  ‘So he resents me?’

  ‘Not resents, no. He likes you. Wouldn’t have let you stay with him if he didn’t. But that makes it worse. He’s very competitive. Tries to pretend he’s not. But he is.’

  ‘Well, I’m not the competitive kind and I’m not competing with him for anything.’

  ‘He knows that. He would have been with Geertrui tonight, but he decided to stay with you. You knew that, did you?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘He was worried about you.’

  ‘Worried?’

  ‘After reading Geertrui’s memoir. He thought it had upset you.’

  ‘It did.’

  ‘He didn’t want you to be alone.’

  ‘Did he tell you that?’

  ‘When he called. I said I would look after you, but he wanted to. He asked me to come round because he thought I might help.’ Ton nudged Jacob with an elbow. ‘He knows I fancy you!’

  ‘So why did he get so angry and stomp out the way he did?’

  ‘Daan has a temper. If he’s upset and lets go, he can be violent. I’ve only seen it once. Very frightening. He doesn’t like that about himself. Hates violence. If he feels it coming on, he goes. Leaves the situation till he’s calmed down. Simone knows how to handle him when he’s like that. He’ll have gone to her.’

  ‘So he wasn’t really angry with me?’

  ‘Not with you. With himself. Daan is the most generous person I know.’

  Jacob took in a deep breath. There was a faint smell of engine oil coming off the water that made his nose run.

  He sniffed and said, ‘You’re telling me something, aren’t you?’

  Ton hooked his arm through Jacob’s and said, ‘I want to see you again. I want to know you. And I want you to know me. Whatever way you want it to be. There’s something between us. I don’t have to tell you that. Be nice to find out what it is, wouldn’t it? But now isn’t the time. Daan is going to need everything Simone and I can give him in the next few weeks. I’ve known people who had relatives and friends who were helped with their deaths. It’s very hard. They suffered afterwards. More than before, sometimes. Being as close to Geertrui as he is, it’s going to be really bad for Daan. I just know it. He’ll be wrecked. I really don’t know how it will be. Come back when it’s over and Daan has had time to recover. If you still want to. It’ll be good for us all then. You’ll give us a fresh start.’

  Jacob stared at the moonlit river. He was glad the darkness veiled them. And that he wasn’t looking in to Ton’s face but at the slip and slide of the wat
er.

  After a while Ton said, ‘Let’s remember. Here. How it looks tonight. And come and see it again next time … Begin from where we left off …’ He let go of Jacob’s arm and turned to face him. ‘Yes?’

  ‘Yes,’ Jacob said with difficulty. He wasn’t so sure now that it was the smell of oil that was making his nose run. ‘But … There’s … just so much. I’m not sure I’m—I dunno—strong enough. Brave enough. Not like you and Daan.’

  Ton gave a little huffing laugh. ‘Bravery, it isn’t! It’s just how we believe life should be. Not for everyone. But for us. And people who think like us. We’re learning how to live it while we live it. What else is worth doing?’

  ‘After the last few days, I feel I’ve just been blindly following my nose till now.’

  ‘Well, it’s a nose worth following,’ Ton said. Then added, serious again, ‘One of the reasons I love Daan so much is that we think things together we never would have thought by ourselves. Or with anyone else. And for us, the sex is part of how it happens.’

  ‘I know,’ Jacob said. ‘About the thinking, I mean. It was like that for me when he took me to the Rijksmuseum the other day.’

  ‘He’s obsessed with Rembrandt. I think he’d like to be the world expert.’

  ‘What about Simone? What does she do?’

  ‘An art student. She’s obsessed too.’

  ‘What with?’

  ‘Her art. And with Daan. She has a project going. She’s drawing and photographing him in every pose you can think of. All nudes. She plans to do one thousand and eighty pictures.’

  ‘Why that number?’

  ‘A full circle is three hundred and sixty degrees?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘But that’s for a flat surface. One dimension. Simone says she wants to do Daan in three dimensions, and from every degree. So that makes three hundred and sixty times three, which is one thousand and eighty drawings. And the same number of photos.’

  Jacob laughed. ‘What an idea! Has anyone ever done such a thing before?’

  ‘Not that I know of.’

  ‘It’ll take years.’

  ‘Two, she says. She’s into the second year. When they’re finished, she’s going to exhibit them, and then she’s going to start on twenty-six oil paintings based on the drawings she likes the best.’

 
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