Bonita Avenue


That Sunday afternoon in 1996, when Aaron let Joni Sigerius cajole him into going along to her parents’ converted farmhouse in order to be officially introduced, her father offered him a handshake so firm that it hurt. “You took that photo,” the man said. Or was it a question?
    Siem Sigerius was a stocky, dark-haired fellow with a pair of ears that grabbed your attention; they were lumpy, they looked deep-fried, and Aaron’s judo past told him they were cauliflower ears. You got them from chafing against coarse cotton sleeves, from letting the flaps get scrunched up between hard bodies and rough mats; blood and pus built up between the cartilage and the baby-soft skin. Not doing anything about it meant being stuck with hardened, swollen lumps for good. Aaron had a pair of perfectly normal, unblemished, peachy-soft ears; cauliflower ears were reserved for champions, for the monomaniacs who scraped themselves across a tatami night after night. You had to earn ears like that, man-years had gone into it. There was no doubt in his mind that Joni’s father wore them as a badge of honour, as proof of hard work and manliness. Aaron used to dread coming face to face with a similarly earmarked beast at a tournament; a cauliflower ear on the horizon was bad news, as a competitive judoka he was useless. To cover up the fact that he felt put on the spot, he replied: “I take photos all the time.”
    Sigerius’s ears quivered. His cropped, frizzy hair lay like felt against his broad, flat head. Despite his wardrobe—suits or corduroy trousers and Ralph Lauren polo shirts, the garb of the employer, the arrivé—you’d never take him, judging from the ears and that buffalo body, for someone who ran a university, let alone believe he was the Netherlands’ greatest mathematician since Luitzen Brouwer. More likely you’d picture a man with his physique at a construction site, or on a freeway at night in a fluorescent vest, trudging behind a tar-spreader. “You know full well which photo,” he said.
    Joni, her sister Janis, his wife Tineke, all of them in the spacious living room knew which photo he meant. It had been printed full-page about a year earlier in the newspaper serving Tubantia University, the small college whose campus was tucked into the woods between Enschede and Hengelo, and where Sigerius was rector magnificus. He was standing on the bank of the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, wearing nothing but a necktie, spread-legged in the muddy, trampled grass, his genitals clearly visible under his cautiously rounded fifty-plus belly. The next day the photo had found its way into nearly every national newspaper, from the NRC to De Telegraaf, and ultimately even to the German Bild and a Greek daily.
    “I have a hunch,” Aaron conceded, wondering whether Joni had tipped off her father, or if Sigerius simply recognized him: the tall, bald photographer from the Tubantia Weekly who buzzed around the rector during public appearances like a horsefly with a single-lens reflex. The latter option, he thought, was more flattering, just as anyone on campus would feel flattered to be recognized by the charismatic man who at this very moment was crushing his hand to a pulp.
    Simon Sigerius was, since his appointment in 1993, the Helios of Tubantia University, a blazing sun around which 8,000 students and hard-working academics orbited in calm little ellipses, surprised yet grateful that he would bathe their campus, of all places, in his warmth, and not the Binnenhof in The Hague, where he had turned down a plum government post, or one of the big American universities which vied for his favour. The first time Aaron had seen Joni’s father was on television several years earlier, when he was still living with his folks in Venlo. The August following his final exams, something possessed him and his brother to become fanatical Zomergasten viewers, and one of those exhilarating, reflective Sunday evening marathon interviews was with a mathematical judoka—or was it a judo-practising mathematician—anyway, a man whose “ideal TV evening” selection alternated video fragments of judo star Wim Ruska, edgy jazz, the Tokyo 1964 Olympics and a Dutch comedian with documentaries about prime numbers and Fermat’s Last Theorem. Aaron recalled a clip where a talkative physicist succeeded in giving sworn alphas like him and his brother the impression that they actually understood something of quantum mechanics. (“Richard Feynman,” Sigerius said later. “We’d just buried him.”) The man himself rubbed his stubbly jaw and talked about computers, about the universe, about M.C. Escher, as though to talk about anything else was a complete waste of time. Turns out he also judoed against Geesink and Ruska, but owed this television appearance mainly to the fact that he’d been awarded a Fields Medal, a distinction the host called the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
    Since then Sigerius had grown into the national poster-boy scientist. Their rector would regularly, after a full workday on campus, pull up a seat on the evening news or a talk show and offer scientific commentary on current affairs, dazzlingly intelligent yet at the same time remarkably folksy, never a word of gibberish. As photographer for the Weekly Aaron was front and centre when Sigerius set up shop in the university’s administrative wing, and what his camera saw, everybody saw: this was exactly the man Tubantia needed. Just by being himself, Sigerius had liberated this overlooked and underrated university from its Twents timidity and persecution complex. In his inaugural address he vowed to turn Tubantia into the Netherlands’ premier research institute, a phrase that was broadcast that same day on the national news. He was a media magnet: no sooner had somebody uttered the word “university” than the cauliflower ears appeared on air, and their rector gave, on behalf of their university, his opinion on the competitive position of Dutch research schools, on girls’ technical ability, on the future of Internet, you name it. Sigerius just as effortlessly attracted top international scholars. Maybe it was a pity that the Fields Medal wasn’t a genuine Nobel Prize, of course that was a pity, but his aura of mathematical genius still mesmerized investors in pure science, dyscalculaic MPs with education portfolios, communications giants and chip manufacturers whose labs sprang up around the university. And perhaps even schoolkids, they too recognized Sigerius’s stubbly mug from TV; don’t forget the precious progeny, each year the little brats had to be lured to that godforsaken hick town in Twente, how do you entice them, how do you hook them?
    The pied piper of Tubantia, bare-assed in the daily papers. “Nice work,” he said, and released Aaron’s hand.
    He’d taken the photo on a Sunday afternoon in Houten, just after they had finished rowing the Varsity, the traditional student regatta between boats from various universities. Blaauwbroek, the editor-in-chief of the Weekly, had assured Aaron that something special was on the cards: the Tubantia boat had an Olympic skipper on board as well as an oarsman with the Holland 8 Atlanta crew. Still, it was unusual for a university rector to sacrifice his free day to join a busload of boozing fratboys all the way to the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. During the minor events he observed Sigerius out of the corner of his eye; the man stood on the soggy washland grass between the bar and the wooden bleachers, surrounded by a rat pack of hard-core Siemsayers, fawning undergrads who went out of their way to claim the rector as their own. Sigerius appeared to take pleasure in these boys’ company. He had sucked them out of their urban brownstones, they came swarming to the campus, hankering after a part-time job at the policy office or with public relations, flattering themselves on being invited to Sigerius’s annual barbecue at his farmhouse. Aaron felt a pang of jealousy. Was the guy acting or genuinely enjoying himself?
    Blaauwbroek’s instinct was right: it was a historic Sunday afternoon for Tubantia. An “Oude Vier” from Enschede won the race for the first time in its 112-year history. Aaron was standing on the windy bleachers when the crowd around him roared, an explosion of hoarse cheers mixing with the crackle of plastic beer glasses. And because fratboys can always be counted on to do the predictable, the gang of fanatics down at the water’s edge tore off their clothes and swam, stark naked, out to the boat—and at that moment he caught sight of the rector, who did the unpredictable: Sigerius flung his half-filled beer tumbler into the grass and crossed the mudbank towards the water—Aaron had already clambered down from the bleachers, his camera lens followed the grinning rector as he removed his suit—everything came off, his shirt, his socks, his underwear, all except the necktie, a rowing tie, of course he’d let them foist a team tie on him, he was an honorary member of every club with a beer tap—and just before he broke into a sprint towards the canal to dive in after them, Aaron shouted his name, “Sigerius!”, and snapped a photo of him from about four metres away, in all his glory.
    Joni’s dad was right, it was nice work, it was in all respects a fantastic photo. There was speed: his subject, filling the frame, stood on the balls of his feet, threw his arms into the air, and while his torso appeared to already be heading for the glistening strip of water in the background, his bellowing mouth and furious eyes looked straight at the lens. The late-afternoon sun floodlit his naked body, the composition seemed meticulously arranged: Sigerius’s outstretched left hand pointed more or less in the direction of the boat off in the canal; like a stylized sporting photograph, it resonated with a Greek-Olympian buzz. But this was all photographer blahblah—why the newspapers scrambled to have it was obvious. Even before Aaron left Houten he spent a quarter of an hour squabbling with a PR girl from Tubantia University, who insisted the photo had to be run by her department for approval, which of course would never be granted. On the contrary, the next morning the editors treated him like he was Robert Capa. “You bet I’m going to print that photo,” snorted Blaauwbroek. “It’s going to the printer’s in an armoured car, and I’ll guard the presses with my life if need be.”
    Since then the naked rector surfaced everywhere, blown up above the bar in the rowing club canteen, on a local debating society’s T-shirts, on a poster announcing a massive summer festival on campus. Aaron saw him taped to dormitory bathroom doors. And, coincidence or no, Sigerius was increasingly the subject of wild speculation, in the fraternities on the Oude Markt, at parties in the campus housing. The rector was said to have travelled with Ruska through the Soviet Union and China en route to Japan, trashing Russian eateries on the way; he was purported to have been given electro-shock treatment in an American madhouse after his big mathematical breakthrough; there were allegedly children from an earlier marriage who had come to no good. You only had to take a better look at the photo, and all doubt melted off the paper onto your lap. It was as plain as day that everything Sigerius’s ears stood for just intensified as his body disappeared into an impeccable two-piece suit, mostly monotonous dark blue, sometimes light-grey pinstripe; the body, so crudely exposed, appeared surprisingly tough and sinewy, hard, unbreakable—“dry”, to express it in sports terms. It was difficult not to have an opinion about that body, or about the clearly visible tattoos on the left side of his chest, over Sigerius’s heart: Aaron recognized the inscription, in cheap, dark-blue sailor’s ink, the pair of Japanese characters—“judo”. It evoked conflicting reactions: in 1995, not only were tattoos relatively rare, they were downright tacky. But at the same time it tallied entirely with Sigerius’s physicality, the apeman who would tip back his chair during meetings, balancing on the back legs until he had to grab the edge of the table, who rolled his shoulders loose like a trapeze artist during the coffee breaks, looking around to see if there was anyone who needed a thrashing before the meeting reconvened—murky keyholes through which the campus could catch a glimpse of another, discarded Sigerius, a thug, a he-man whose dream career had begun with two European judo titles, a fighter for whom the Munich Olympics should have been the highlight of his life.
    In interviews they read that their rector was, like Ruska, tipped for a medal in 1972, but that a month before the Games, fate intervened: hungry for a custard donut, Sigerius crossed the Biltstraat in Utrecht, and just as the soft, creamy custard made contact with his mouth he was sideswiped by a motor scooter, whose metal footboard drove straight through his shin: crack, goodbye athletic career. What no journalist, no student, no scientist could get enough of was the idea that without that uneaten donut, the real miracle of Sigerius’s career would never have taken place. The Miracle of the Antonius Matthaeuslaan, as he himself called it, after the street in Utrecht where for eight months he was confined to a bed in a tiny upstairs apartment, encased up to his groin in plaster. In the dark winter following the ‘72 Olympics, as Joni’s father, bruised and broken, lay thumbing through a cardboard box of back issues of waiting-room magazines, he came across a stray exam booklet from the Dutch Mathematics Olympiad—a pamphlet full of uncommonly difficult problems for uncommonly brainy high-school students—and out of sheer boredom started scribbling sums in the margins. The next morning he was finished.
    Exactly what happened in those twenty-four hours, which doors were flung open in Sigerius’s traumatized athlete’s head, is anybody’s guess, but the fact was that within three years he had graduated summa cum laude from the Utrecht Mathematics Department, produced an alarmingly brilliant doctoral dissertation and in the early ‘80s moved with his family to Berkeley, California. And there, at long last, reached his Olympian peak. The Ramanujan of Utrecht forced a breakthrough in the “knot theory”, a branch of mathematics that attempts to understand the number of ways in which a piece of rope can be tied—there is no conciser, simpler definition of his work—which earned him the Fields Medal in 1986 at the quadrennial congress of the International Mathematics Union.

All this shot through Aaron’s mind when he recognized the woman sitting diagonally across from him. Despite her metamorphosis he knew straight away who she was. There, next to a gum-chewing girl in the crimson uniform of some or other chain store, sat Joni’s mother. He was blinded by a stroboscopic shock of white light.
    He had been jolted out of a dreamless doze, and although he was still sitting in the express train to Brussels—they’d already passed Liège—his situation had altered drastically in the half-hour he’d been sleeping. The carriage was now jam-packed, the evening light that shone through the windows appeared heavy, leaden, it was Belgian light, refracted and made turbid by the undulating landscape. Tineke Sigerius, he saw in a glance, leant with her temple against the window and stared absently at the receding Walloon hills and single-steepled villages. His first reflex was to bolt, make a run for it, but his escape route was blocked by standing passengers—so to get up and move to the other end of the compartment was virtually impossible. His body acted as though it were racing up a steep slope in blind panic. He sat like this for several minutes, sweating, hyperventilating, exhorting himself to calm down, in anticipation of the confrontation.
    Nothing happened. Whenever a bump or unexpected noise jerked Tineke Sigerius away from her vista, he felt her eyes glide over his jittery body without stopping. She pretended not to see him. They were in the same boat, he realized, she didn’t want this any more than he did. Happenstance had forced her to sit across from him, she was glad to have a seat in the over-full Sunday evening train, and only once she’d settled in did she recognize him. She must have been relieved to see that he was sleeping, a lucky break that allowed her to catch her breath and devise a strategy. She had boarded in Liège, which surprised him more than that she was heading for Brussels. What was Tineke Sigerius doing in Liège? He hadn’t seen or spoken to her for eight years, of course plenty could have changed since then. Maybe she and Sigerius had left Enschede, maybe Sigerius was a European commissioner by now and they had moved to Belgium. This coincidence struck him as overwhelmingly unfair. Perhaps they had split up and she was living here alone? Of course she’d have another son-in-law by now, a rich, successful one. Wallowing in self-pity, he fantasized that Tineke was not on her way to Brussels after all, but to Paris, the city of her grandchildren, where Joni now lived and worked (her American adventure can only have lasted a couple of years, he guessed) and ran a family together with some or other French moron, a guy with a fat face, greased-back black hair and platinum cufflinks, he could just see him opening their lacquered front door, his welcoming arms spread out for his mother-in-law on the granite doorstep.
    Or was he mistaken? He glanced briefly in her direction in the hope that his conscience was playing tricks on him. No, that was Joni’s mother all right. But look how skinny she’d got, it was like she’d been halved; her surrealistically narrow hips were wrapped in brown slacks with a neat pinstripe, she wore a tailored jacket and under it a cream-coloured blouse, on her feet were boots with thin, elegant heels that on the old Tineke Sigerius would have bored straight through the chassis of the train carriage. Her half-long hair was greying, not unflatteringly, and lay in a studied knot on her weirdly buckled head, which radiated something most people would call decisive, independent and even sympathetic, rather than what he suspected even back when she was still his mother-in-law: ill-tempered, or downright nasty. And now it dawned on him: along with all that fat, the last bit of kindness had been boiled off, apparently for good. Although she had gained a certain femininity, the effect was undermined by an excess of loose skin around her cheeks and chin, by her baggy, pink-smeared eyelids that hung dejectedly over her lashes. She looked, in a word, bitchy.
    Sigeriuses do not belong in Belgian trains, Sigeriuses belong at home in Twente, where he left them nearly eight years ago. It was exactly to avoid this kind of encounter that he had skipped town. It wasn’t the cuisine that had drawn him to Linkebeek, a hole in the wall just south of Brussels where, he’d thought until five minutes ago, a person could start afresh as inconspicuously as in Asunción or Montevideo. He had imagined himself sheltered and unseen, Linkebeek was a village where the trees outnumbered the inhabitants, every lopsided thing that human hands had built was concealed from view by rustling, crackling, snapping wood.
    He stole a glance at Tineke’s hands. They lay in her lap, strangely fine and bony, emphatically segmented. How many tables, how many chairs, how many chests had those hands produced by now? Joni’s mother made furniture in a workshop behind the farmhouse, she did back than anyway, designer-ish and pricey interior furnishings that found their way into villas, offices and stately canal houses across the Netherlands. Now, the one hand took hold of a finger on the other, one after the other, and gave it a little—bitter, he presumed—tug.
    They had never hit it off, he and this woman. It didn’t click. He thought back to the first time he and Joni slept at her parents’ house; he, as usual, lay awake for hours on end, yearning desperately for Sigerius’s wine cellar, and finally crept out of the narrow guest bed and down the open staircase, through the cool front hall and into the living room. From the kitchen he descended—routinely, he knew the way—the creaking cellar stairs and removed one of Sigerius’s self-tapped bottles from the cast-iron rack, determined to uncork it at the kitchen counter and guzzle as much of it as possible in the hope that it would knock him out. But on his way back up the stairs he heard footsteps in the living room and had to duck back into the opening. Someone entering the kitchen, cupboards being opened and shut. Standing on his tiptoes, he peered over the edge, and what he saw was shocking and repulsive: he looked out onto a hideous back, a mountainside like you saw in nature films about South Africa or the Arizona prairies, but this was a mountain of flesh. It was Tineke. He counted six deeply pleated rolls of fat between her armpits and her backside, on which, halfway down, hung a sort of orange awning, which even with the best will in the world you couldn’t call a “panty”.
    Joni’s mother tore open a cardboard packet and poured its contents into her gaping mouth, half of it skittered off in all directions, chocolate sprinkles rained across the floor tiles. Once the package was empty she wrung it out, squashed it flat and shoved it deep into the trash can. He recoiled at the fleshy thud as she fell to her knees. She gathered up the spilt sprinkles with spit on her fingertips and palms. By then he had forgotten his cover, and as she sat there licking off her fingers she suddenly swung her head a quarter-turn and looked at him. “Hey,” he said, once they had both got over the initial shock. “I was thirsty.” She did not answer, she could at least have said, “I was hungry”; instead she hoisted herself up and stumbled out of the kitchen without a word, and only after he heard her bedroom door close down the hall did he return to his own bed.
    And now? What could they possibly say to each other now? The train was too full, he reassured himself, for a scene, and he therefore tried to imagine how a controlled variant might proceed. So, Aaron, how are you these days? God, now that was one question he did not relish. He would rather continue his journey on the roof of the intercity than give an honest answer. He’d just spent the weekend at his parents’ in Venlo—doctor’s orders, just as everything he did was on doctor’s orders. It was awful to have to admit he was sick, that he was tethered to neuroleptics and antidepressants. How do you tell someone you’re a five-star basket case? How was he to tell this woman he was insane? That’s me, Tineke: nothing but doctor’s orders.
    After the debacle in Enschede he worked briefly as a photographer for the better Brussels newspapers, but after a second severe psychosis in the winter of 2002 nearly did him in, he and his mental health counsellors decided to call it quits. Since then he drove around in a VW van refitted as a photo studio, taking individual and class pictures of primary-school children in Brussels and its surroundings. He would trace a numbered silhouette of each group photo on a lightbox. On his meticulously maintained website, fathers and mothers and grannies and grandpas could order reprints by clicking on a variety of formats, frames and captions. The rest of his time—the hours, days, weeks, months that other men his age spent breeding, chasing careers or maybe even raising idealistic hell somewhere—he just loafed about like some retired geezer, shuffling up the mossy steps to the town square, buying a newspaper in a second-hand bookshop appropriately called Once Upon a Time, picking up his meds in the pharmacy across from the ancient sycamore. Sometimes he snacked on a satay in the bistro at the end of the square, and then shambled back to the ridge, scuffing behind an imaginary Zimmer frame, and allowed himself to be swallowed up by his oversized, mortgage-free house.
    According to his doctors he was a patient who “identified and acknowledged” his own condition, which meant he took his capsules voluntarily and thus was capable of living on his own. But that was about it. He led an entirely aimless existence. His motivation in life was avoidance: avoid stimulation, avoid excitement, avoid motivation itself.
    He looked at his knees. What if he were to spill the beans, right here in this chock-full train compartment? A detailed, concentrated, no-holds-barred monologue on his misery, on psychosis-induced fears? A lecture, a short story, an epic poem on the immeasurable, irrational terror he had endured. The commuters hung cheek by jowl on their ceiling straps, no one could get away. If he really put his mind to it, if he were to wax eloquent, who knows, maybe the fear he described would spark over to his listeners, first to Tineke and the girl in the too-tight outfit, and then to everyone in the seats and aisles. And they would all be scared to death. His fear became everyone’s fear. Frenzied panic, as though the semtex in his noggin had gone “boom”.

It clicked fine between him and Sigerius. In the winter of 1995 he had latched onto an intelligent, headstrong, beautiful girl named Joni, and this Joni turned out to be a full-blood Sigerius. Two months later, to his amazement, there he was paying a house call to this guy and his family. And then the thoroughly improbable happened: the man whom the entire campus sucked up to, the man whom he, the Venlo dropout, gawked at on the TV, that man extended him a calloused judo hand. And he accepted that hand, eagerly but also surprised. They became friends, and he took care not to wonder all too often why.
    Once a month, on a Saturday, he and Joni went to dinner in the refurbished farmhouse on the edge of the campus, a completely renovated white-stuccoed residence so utterly desirable that passers-by slid “if-you-ever-decide-to-sell” notes through the letter slot in the dark-green front door. Although he teased Joni about her clingy attachment to her parents (“Now don’t just call Daddy,” he said when a blown fuse suddenly left her student flat pitch-black and deserted), he always enjoyed those visits. As they cycled out to the farmhouse, downtown Enschede would melt into the Drienerlo woods, which in turn flowed seamlessly into the campus, the backdrop for their four-year relationship. On those Saturdays, Tubantia seemed heavily pregnant. The humming meadows looked grassier than on weekdays, in his memory the wooded paths rolled gently, they cycled through an undulating landscape that smelt of pollen and where the ponds were self-evidently ponds. The shimmering water had collected at the lowest parts, just as hundreds of scholars and thousands of students had flowed precisely here in order to shine. You could hear their brains rustling, the fields and the trees and the berm seemed statically charged by the billions of bits and bytes that zoomed through the campus network under their feet. And when they returned home late in the evening, a prehistoric darkness enveloped the route, the gentle hills had become shallow dells, the greens and woods lairs for slumbering academic buildings. Applied Mathematics lay like a brontosaurus in its lake, the tyrannosaurus rex of Technical Physics stretched up to the highest treetops, its slumbering head amongst the stipple of stars.
    Sometimes they’d spend the night, and the next morning they ate warm croissants with marmalade and drank jumbo glasses of fresh orange juice Sigerius squeezed for them after doing his forty laps of breast stroke in the campus pool, with the music of the Bill Evans Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck in the background, easy-listening Saturday jazz, which, he said, worked like salve on their morning moodiness. “Can you turn the salve down a little?” Joni complained, but Sigerius ignored her. With a raised index finger and one eye shut, he would call out: “Listen!” His wife and two daughters fell silent, dutifully stopped chewing and concentrated, just to indulge him in something that bored them, and after about ten seconds Sigerius released them with words like: “Beautiful, how Scott LaFaro plays around Evans. Hear that? Around him. Yeah, now!, this, that meandering bass, listen.”
    “Dad, I hate jazz,” said Janis, or Joni, or both.
    “This! Unreal. It’s up front and in the background at the same time, backup and virtuosic. I cannot turn this down. No way.”
    At moments like this, Aaron was the one—and this was the basis for their bond, the simple fact that he was a boy, and not a girl, although there are also certain breeds of boy that get the creeps from jazz, for whom jazz is a complete waste of time—who remarked how tragic it was that Scott LaFaro smashed himself up in a car crash, and that Bill Evans, after that dramatic loss in 1961, never found another bassist of that calibre, although Chuck Israels of course did come close, certainly on How My Heart Sings! And before he’d finished with his input, another heart sang: that of his father-in-law, who divided the world into jazz lovers and ignoramuses, and who had often announced, even in company, that he’d never met a young person so clued-up on jazz as Aaron, a feather in his cap that he not only left there but, now and then, when no one was looking, stroked.
    The Saturday evenings usually began in the sunroom, which was then spanking-new and, since the wall was broken out a year earlier, ran directly into the kitchen with its cooking island where Tineke prepared simple but tasty meals, after which they retired, arguing or joking, to the old living room, and Tineke followed, carrying a tray of buttered krentewegge and jittering coffee cups, and Joni opened the cabinet doors concealing the so-called unimportant television, and Sigerius kept up his end of the bargain by not answering his cell phone for an hour. The times when Janis went off to meet friends at a café downtown (usually right after Frasier, watching the end with her coat already on) and Tineke and Joni decided at around ten to watch a Saturday evening film, and Sigerius would ask: “How ‘bout some tunes?” and he would not say no but yes, and they would disappear like a pair of schoolboys with a bottle of whiskey to the “music room”, a space on the ground floor fitted out with two dark-red Chesterfields, an expensive NAD amplifier and CD-player, a Thorens turntable and two man-sized B&W speakers on spikes and bits of NASA foam rubber that Sigerius had wangled from Technical Physics; and there, seated amongst framed photos of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, they listened to democratically chosen records (with bilateral veto power), original American LPs that Sigerius kept in tall, narrow, waxed beechwood cabinets designed and built by his wife.
    Boys’ stuff, just like that judo of theirs. In the farmhouse entrance hung a blown-up photo of five hulking, bare-chested men dragging a tree trunk up a hill: Geesink, Ruska, Gouweleeuw and Snijders, and there, second from the left, with the tensed pecs and cropped dark curls above the flat face, was Sigerius himself. The Dutch national judo team in training for a World Championship, it must have been ‘65 or ‘66. Geesink, coach as well as team-mate, sent his line-up into the woods near Marseilles; according to Sigerius he was a slave-driver, but when tree trunks had to be dragged uphill, he was out in front. Up on top, while the others lay gasping for breath, Geesink grabbed the trunk at one end and, palpitating, shoved it out in front of him ten or so times, tore the clothes off his steaming body and jumped in a mountain creek. “If we offered him a water bottle, he refused, thought it was a waste of his thirst,” said Sigerius, who soon discovered that Aaron had practised judo until he was nineteen; and when he learnt that he was even a black belt, Sigerius coaxed him into taking it up again, first in the senior group he coached on Thursday evenings at the campus athletic centre, and when Aaron had regained, as they say, his old “feeling”, Sigerius asked if he felt like going for a dan exam together.
    Judo is a strangely intimate sport. A couple of times a week for a good two years, he and Sigerius rolled around the judo mat in each other’s arms. Intensive, concentrated hours with the gym entirely to themselves. Talk was kept to a bare minimum. They gave themselves one year to hone their throwing and grappling techniques, Sigerius going for his fourth dan, he for his second. Each training session closed with the savage bouts he often thought back on, even now. And after each session he climbed into bed, occasionally in her parents’ guest room, next to Joni, Sigerius’s painstakingly raised daughter, the apple of his eye, and then Aaron noticed that Joni smelt vaguely like her father—maybe it was the washing powder Tineke used, he couldn’t say. And while he mixed pheromones—he was a messenger of bodily scents, a bumblebee that travelled between two bodies of the same make—he felt that his strange happiness was doubled in their careful lovemaking after the training sessions, their muted groans in Sigerius’s guest bed, his hand sometimes firmly over Joni’s warm mouth to keep her from waking his surreal friend a floor below.

The train rolled through Leuven. Tineke had closed her eyes, she pretended to sleep so that they would not have to acknowledge the other’s existence. He admired her cold-bloodedness. He hadn’t seen a single Sigerius since late in 2000, the year the shit hit the fan. Nevertheless they roamed stubbornly through his subconscious, he still had recurring dreams—nightmares mostly—of Enschede.
    Twilight was falling, the sky was purple, silvery on the edge of the wispy clouds. He caught the reflection of his own bald head in the window. He felt himself become calmer, and sombre. A village unfurled itself alongside a canal, a wafery moon hung curiously early in the sky. Soon he would walk home through the mouldy dusk of Linkebeek. The deadness that awaited him, the cold, high-ceilinged rooms he had longed for back in Venlo. He thanked his lucky stars that it was Tineke who sat there ignoring him, and not Sigerius himself.
    It had never been completely relaxed. In Sigerius’s company he could freeze up, literally, becoming dramatically paralysed: his jaws clamped shut, bringing about a barely controllable tension that spread from his neck vertebrae and his shoulders throughout his entire body. He was, for hours on end, a statue of himself fighting against total paralysis, desperately talking all the while, praying his voice would continue to function. If Sigerius were to give him a push during one of these moments, he’d have fallen over and smashed to bits like a Chinese vase.
    He experienced their friendship as magical—before he’d come to the campus to take up photography, he had flunked hopelessly out of the Dutch programme in Utrecht, was chucked out on his ear, and here he had wormed his way into the inner sanctum of the academic heart, just like that—but mendacious as well. He made out to be more than he was. It all started with the jazz. One Sunday at the farmhouse, not so long after their first meeting, they slurped hot coffee from narrow-handled mugs. Sigerius, distant, his mind on other matters, got up and went over to a hyper-modern metal cabinet housing a record player and put on an LP. Jazz. Even before he’d sat back down on the long, pale-pink sofa next to his wife, Aaron recognized the music. He waited a bit just to be sure, but he was right: the theme, the round, slightly coquettish piano-playing, this was Sonny Clark, and the LP was called Cool Struttin’. He could see the classic Blue Note jacket before him, a pair of women’s legs strolling over (he presumed) a New York City sidewalk. Over Joni’s and Tineke’s heads he said: “Nice album, Cool Struttin’.”
    Sigerius, with his amazing morning stubble (it would take Aaron a whole week to cultivate such a shadow), opened his brown eyes wide. “Cool Struttin’ is a great album,” he said, his voice more strident, higher, as though a piano tuner had taken a wrench to it. “So you know it. Cool Struttin’ is by far Clark Terry’s best LP.”
    Clark Terry? Aaron got it at once: Sigerius was mistaken, he was confusing Sonny Clark with Clark Terry, an amusing gaffe, but he decided not to rub it in. It was hardly tactful to swoop in like a schoolmarm and rap your new father-in-law on the knuckles, but to just play dumb, no, he was too proud for that. “I’m with ya,” he said, “this was Sonny Clark’s best band, Philly Joe Jones, for once, holding back on the drums. Not going at the cymbals like a hooligan.”
    Eyes like saucers, briefly, then suddenly shut. “Terry. It’s Clark Terry.”
    “This is Sonny Clark on piano,” Aaron said, more decisively than necessary. “Terry’s a trumpet player.”
    “You sure about that?” Joni asked.
    Sigerius bolted up off the sofa and slid past his wife, his heels ticking as he marched over to the novel metal cabinet which, he learnt later, Tineke had made herself. He pulled out the record jacket, glanced at both the front and back cover, propped it up next to the turntable and closed the cabinet. He returned, painfully slowly, to the sofa and sat back down.
    “You’re right. Of course you’re right. And damn, I even saw that Terry in the Kurhaus. And in Boston too, later. Ladies, I’m going to have to watch my words from now on.”
    That is precisely what Aaron did for the remaining quarter of an hour; Sigerius didn’t catch on that his knowledge of jazz was wafer-thin after all, that the Sonny Clark album was pure luck. He knew Cool Struttin’ so well because of that pair of legs, he’d picked up the album at a flea market because of the jacket, it spent a few years taped to the door of his wardrobe, the vinyl disc collecting dust on the turntable. Sure, he liked jazz, but to be honest, his heart lay with blues and rock ’n’ roll.
    But honesty was not his speciality. Now that Sigerius had promoted him to jazz expert, to someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge on, of all things, his own turf, to a kindred spirit, he had to put his nose to the grindstone. That same week he let a nervous guy in a black turtleneck at Broekhuis bookshop talk him into the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, a 1,500-page jazz bible that, according to the turtleneck, not only contained the entire history of jazz, but separated the wheat from the chaff with a handy system of stars. Across from Broekhuis, at the discount book warehouse, he bought a biography of Miles Davis, a Jazz for Dummies and a book called Billie and the President. In his wallet he still had the business card of a retired dentist in Boekelo, a silver-grey man in red trousers who stood behind him one day at the campus record library and saw him check out a Bud Powell record. The man told him he had 800 original jazz LPs at home—American pressing, thick, pitch-black vinyl, sturdy cardboard jackets—“you can have them for a guilder apiece”, at which Aaron nearly hit the ceiling tiles with fermented craving. “Give me a call,” the man said, and he did just that, the very same evening, and he kept on calling him, twice a week at first, then twice a month, brief, hasty exchanges in which the man was always too busy, or he was about to leave for the States, or he was ill, or was about to be; “call me again soon”, but “soon” gradually became more of an obstacle, a testiness crept into the exchanges—until Aaron stopped believing him. Stick your LPs up your retired old ass. But now he decided to take the plunge and cycled out to Boekelo, on the other side of town. He rang the bell at a seniors’ apartment that corresponded to the address on the tattered card. A Turkish man answered the door.
    So he plundered the record library and, when Joni wasn’t with him, studied jazz history as if he had to programme the North Sea Festival that summer. He perused the artist entries, concentrating first on the big shots who got the most pages—the Parkers, the Ellingtons, the Monks, the Coltranes, the Davises—and after that, the rest of the ‘50s jazz greats: Fitzgerald, Evans, Rollins, Jazz Messengers, Powell, Gillespie, Getz. He listened to all their records, jotted down biographical particulars in a notebook, etched it all in his memory, Blue Note, Riverside, Impulse!, Verve, Prestige. It was like his former studies, only that fucking Kapellekensbaan had taken him three weeks and Giant Steps just thirty-seven minutes and three seconds. Books had dominated the first half of his 1990s, he read like a maniac, entire evenings, at bus stops and in waiting rooms, when he lay awake at night: tallying titles, keelhauling oeuvres, five years of forced labour to recoup his humiliating comedown in Utrecht—now it was “mission accomplished” in just five weeks. Then he knew it was safe to go back in the water. Another five weeks later, he stood next to Sigerius in De Tor listening to the Piet Noordijk Quartet, sipping whiskey and putting his faith in a silicone-implant jazz knack.

A snow job? Sure it was. But they all lied there in that farmhouse. It was a family of prevaricators. Although he knew this was a lame excuse, he told himself that all of them had secrets—Sigerius, Tineke, Joni, him, they all had something they kept under wraps. How long had he not known that Janis and Joni weren’t Sigerius’s real daughters? Long. And they’d have kept him in the dark forever if they could. Never a word about the actual family make-up. Sometimes he had the impression that they’d forgotten it themselves.
    It was at least a year before Joni told him, during a weekend in the woods in Drenthe, that her “procreators” divorced when she was five. More than the news itself, he was surprised that she waited so long to bring up something as relatively ordinary as divorced parents, but she was so dead serious about it, uncharacteristically earnest, that he didn’t let on. They were staying in a secluded clapboard cabin about twenty kilometres south of Assen, and the cloying romanticism of remoteness and a wood-burning stove apparently gave her that little extra incentive to share. During a crisp winter walk in the woods she challenged him to guess which of her parents was the “real” one: Come on, Siem or Tineke? Good question, he said, but in fact it was a piece of cake. Sigerius, of course.
    “Why d’you think that?”
    “Just because. It’s a wild guess. You don’t look much like him, but not like your mother either. You’re both athletic. Athletically built too.”
    In truth, they didn’t look at all alike. Sigerius was dark and swarthy, had eyes like cold coffee, he looked like a gypsy, almost sinister. His beard growth would make an evolutionary biologist’s mouth water. Joni, on the other hand, was fair and blonde, butterflyish, had a face so smooth and symmetrical that Sigerius couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with it. And yet he detected a common denominator: their drive. Father and daughter possessed the same bold go-gettiveness, couldn’t tolerate dallying or doubt, could not abide sitting on the sidelines, especially when someone else—he, for instance—did just that. Joni, like Sigerius, was smart and tough and decisive. Maybe it was genetic.
    “So you think Siem is my real father because I’m not fat.”
    He’d never really given it any thought, he realized, there had been no reason to. “Yeah,” he said. “No… Also the way you interact. You and Siem are in cahoots, you can see that within ten minutes. Janis is a mama’s girl. You’re more like your father.”
    “But Janis and I are blood sisters. So there goes your theory.”
    “Just tell me then.”
    “So you think it’s Siem?”
    “Yeah. That’s what I think, yeah.”
    “Wrong,” she sang, laughing. She kicked some dead branches and rotting remains of fallen leaves, as though the gravity of her disclosure evaporated at once because he’d been off the mark. She didn’t say so, but her odd excitement told him she was glad he’d guessed Sigerius; he even suspected she would just as soon have left his illusion intact. And he had to admit feeling a bit disappointed—it was a pity there were no genes at play—but of course he didn’t let on either. Maybe Joni felt the same way, because even before they had returned to the clammy cabin her high spirits had dissipated into an inwardness he had not seen in her before.
    While he silently warmed up chocolate milk on the two-burner stove and she sat on the moth-eaten sofa with an old issue of Panorama on her lap, leafing through an article on skating, he thought about the natural easiness with which she and her sister called Sigerius “Dad”. They said “Dad” with a teasing or admiring smile, wheedled him with “ple-e-e-e-ease Daddy” in his ear when they wanted something, groaned “Da-haaaad” when he irritated them. When he asked her about it, she said with a certain pride that it had been like that since day one; from the day in 1979 when Siem Sigerius and Tineke Profijt married at city hall in Utrecht—without hoopla, without tuxedo, without Rolls or Bentley, without a reception—they had addressed their stepfather as “Dad”. She was six, Janis was three. From that day on, Joni called herself Joni Sigerius. Her real surname, Beers, a word that she only grudgingly revealed, had been encased in cement and dropped to the bottom of the Vecht River.
    Later, back in her student flat, she showed him ochre-brown Polaroid photos of an implausibly tiny Joni, her head sprouting two intensely blonde ponytails, a surprisingly ordinary-looking little girl, an almost homely six-year-old, sticking out her tongue as she hung on the leg of a youthful Sigerius—the leg of her new father, who had let his beard grow wild. Her mother, still trim, not skinny like now, but just trim, in a sober dark-green pants suit, the snot-nosed Janis cradled in her arm, wore large brown sunglasses in all the photos because an ophthalmologist had scraped a cold sore from her left eyeball a week earlier.
    To make short work of their past, mother and daughters accompanied their new chieftain to America, to Berkeley, where Sigerius had been appointed assistant professor in the Mathematics Department. Not there, nor at any subsequent campus, did Joni Sigerius raise the matter of her biological father herself. Aaron had to press her just to learn the man’s first name. “Theun.” “Theun,” he repeated. “Theun Beers. OK. And what did he do?” Her real father was a travelling salesman in tobacco articles, the nameplate on their front door said “smoking accessories” and behind two small doors in the tall china cupboard were cartons of cigarettes, arranged by brand, that Beers had acquired surreptitiously and sold duty-free to smoke-logged characters who appeared in their living room at all hours, usually after Joni’s bedtime, to place their gravelly voiced orders. Her father often only got home after nine, he ate his meatballs and schnitzels in salesmen’s cafés and roadside diners. Even at the weekend they seldom saw him, she said, because then he rehearsed or performed with his band, a not entirely unsuccessful blues band where he sang and played guitar.
    “Blues? Did he make any records?”
    “How should I know? I think so, yeah.”
    (Blues?—he would have given anything to race off to his house on the Vluchtestraat to pore through his three editions of Oor’s Pop Encyclopaedia in search of Theun Beers. A blues band, Jesus, now she tells him. And sure enough, the next day he found, in his oldest encyclopaedia, under the heading “Netherblues”, a three-line piece about Beers and his band: Mojo Mama, “blues-rock formation with lead singer and guitarist Theun Beers, who enjoyed a brief cult status”; once “Utrecht’s answer to Cuby + Blizzards”, cut “three LPs of varying quality”, was “famous primarily for its live act”. When he read this he pictured Tineke as a groupie, Joni’s mother, at about the weight she had today, flower-power hat, platform shoes, sitting backstage on big Theun’s lap.)
    Although uncles at birthday parties liked to joke that Theun never had to say, “I’m going to go get some smokes… don’t wait up”, he had vamoosed long before the divorce, leaving a heavily pregnant Tineke and a toddler behind. She could never remember him even sleeping in the same house, which of course couldn’t have been true, but never mind.
    “Do you ever think about him?”
    “Never. Only during this kind of conversation. Only if somebody asks if I ever think about my real father do I think about my real father.”
    The times he pressed her on that mantra of hers, if he asked “but why don’t you ever think about Theun Beers?”, for instance when they were at his place watching Long Lost Family on TV, she assured him that it was not out of pique, or out of vengeance or some kind of reproach, and no, she hadn’t “suppressed” him; the fact was that her begetter had simply disappeared out of her life without leaving a single impression behind, and that was that.
    On the last day of their weekend in Drenthe, rather late actually, it was such an obvious question, he asked if Sigerius had also been married before. “Yeah,” she said drily. They had just giggled their way through a dolmen museum and were cycling side by side along a bike path parallel to a provincial road. He slammed on the brakes of his rental bike. “Why didn’t you say so earlier? Why don’t you ever tell me stuff?”
    “I’m telling you now, aren’t I?” she shouted, without stopping. “And he’s got a son too.”
    “Say what?”
    “He’s got a son.” Without getting off, she did a wobbly 180-degree turn and rode back to him. “A son named Wilbert. Wilbert Sigerius.”
    “So you and Janis have a stepbrother?”
    “If you want to call it that. We never see him, he leads his own life. Just like us.”
    He bombarded her with questions, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him much about this Wilbert, except that in her youngest days she had been his downstairs neighbour. (“Downstairs neighbour?” he cried. “OK, explain.”) She told him a complicated story that took him a while to get straight. In the early ‘70s the two families had lived on the Antonius Matthaeuslaan in Utrecht, Sigerius with his first wife, a certain Margriet, and their little boy, that’ll have been Wilbert, at number 59B, the upstairs apartment. Below, at 59A, lived Tineke with this Theun and their two young daughters.
    She remembered the fights between Sigerius and Margriet above their heads, altercations they could literally follow word for word as they sat at the kitchen counter, she and Tineke, with Janis in her high chair, eating sweetened yogurt, just as she recalled Wilbert’s menacing tirades, frenzied, thundering stomping, Margriet’s histrionics. Within a few years, that neighbourliness culminated in the classical three-way marital drama: Tineke and Siem, she downstairs and he upstairs, fell in love and were caught in the act by Wilbert’s mother, that Margriet woman, although Joni wasn’t privy to the details.
    “Adulterous swine,” said Aaron.
    Prior to the marital meltdown, the racket-making ruffian from upstairs would often traipse through their house to the paved courtyard out back, trampling strawberry plants and knocking over pots. He smelt of sweet soap. After the divorce, Wilbert came to stay with them just once, she seemed to recall. When Sigerius took them with him to America, that was the end of that.
    In the photo album from that period Aaron spotted an overgrown gnome with jet-black hair, the same widely spaced, inky eyes as his father and unpleasantly full lips, insolent as hell, you could just see it. Only later did Joni tell him that he had been the neighbourhood bully, a boy who easily terrorized even the older children. Forced them to eat toads he’d caught. Fabricated small bombs with petrol he had siphoned out of parked cars, peed through old people’s mail slots. Coerced the daughter of people up the road into stealing money from her mother’s wallet. Joni’s only first-hand memory of Wilbert’s antics concerned one warm evening when he showed up with one of his cohorts, having found the downstairs front door open, and suddenly stood there in her bedroom. They each carried an enormous green rubber boot, probably Sigerius’s rain boots (when he was still just the upstairs neighbour), that they’d filled to the brim with sandbox sand. The boys poked a yellow PVC pipe between the bars of her bed, goaded her into crying, and when her three-year-old mouth went wide open, they dumped the sand over her face. The grainy taste, how the sand found its way into her throat like a fist, clammy, cool and dark in her eyes and nose. She nearly choked, she said.

A freight train rumbled along the parallel tracks. Startled, Tineke opened her eyes, and for two deafening seconds she stared at him. In Venlo he had taken his oxazepam, but he could feel that the straitjacket around his heart muscles needed an extra tug. So much was evident in those serrated blue irises: condemnation, contempt, disappointment. Arrogance. With a shudder she folded down the collar of her jacket and closed her eyes again. He collected saliva in his cheeks and wriggled his wallet out of his back pocket. Focusing on Tineke’s closed eyes, he slid out a strip of oxazepam and pushed two tablets through the foil. The girl in the red shop uniform watched him, it was the first time she deigned to look at him, she stopped chewing momentarily. A thin line had been traced around her lips with black make-up pencil, vulgar, dated, “a black-belt blowjob”, Joni used to call it. He put the pills in his mouth and sent them, riding on the gob of spit, off to his stomach.
    Not long after Joni’s unbosoming, he and Sigerius were sitting at the corner of the long bar in the athletic centre’s canteen, both of them slightly woozy from the hot shower following their usual Thursday evening training, he with a mug of beer and a cigarette, Sigerius on the tonic water as he still had work to do. His father-in-law was casually dressed: a pristine baby-blue lambswool sweater over a button-down shirt, calves bulging inside ironed corduroy trousers, his wide, loafered feet resting on the bar stool, against which his corpulent leather gym bag leant like an indolent beast. Every few minutes Sigerius raised his hand to greet a passer-by. Aaron felt the slight awkwardness of being in the company of the rector in public.
    The canteen was large and 1980s-bleak and reminded him of the Pac-Man playing surface, half-wall cement block partitions that prevented the potted plants from getting enough light, foosball and two pool tables. The low-rise flannel-upholstered seating units were empty at this late hour, chlorine fumes from the indoor swimming pool somewhere in the belly of the sports complex mixed with the odour of deep-fried bar snacks and the linoleum floor. They recapped their training session, chatted about the university, about the Student Union, which was a thorn in Sigerius’s side, this is off the record, he kept saying. Aaron had been beating around the bush for a few weeks, but now he said: “By the way, Siem, d’you know, I had absolutely no idea you have a son.”
    Sigerius was in the middle of a gulp of tonic water. He set his glass down on the bar, wiped his mouth and after a few seconds’ silence said: “Well, well. So she told you. Couldn’t keep it under wraps forever.”
    “I was really surprised. I had no idea.”
    “Are you shocked?”
    “A bit. A bit. It’s kind of unexpected, of course. You’re all such a happy family. I’d never have guessed.”
    “I completely understand. I really do. It’s no joke either.”
    Aaron, struck by Sigerius’s grave tone of voice, chose his words carefully. “Now yeah...” he replied, “these things happen. Statistically speaking. Every day, in fact.”
    Sigerius rasped his hand over his stubbly chin, he took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. “That’s kind of you,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s true.”
    “Divorce isn’t common?” Aaron asked, surprised.
    “Divorce?” Sigerius grimaced at him, his ears trembled with surprise, but his eyes suddenly went tired, he aged on the spot. Grinning, he plucked a loose hair from his sleeve and let it flutter to the floor. Then he stared straight ahead, as though he were weighing something up.
    “Aaron,” he said, “I’m not sure what you’re getting at, but I’m talking about manslaughter. About a brutal murder that the lawmakers oblige us to call manslaughter. The bastard killed a man. He’s been locked up for four years already. You didn’t know that part, did you?”
    It was nearly eleven at night. About ten metres away the beanstalk behind the bar stood rinsing glasses, his shirtsleeves rolled up; with the exception of two sweatsuited chinwaggers at the pool table, the canteen was empty. Everything they said reached into the pores of the cement blocks. The brief silence he was forced to drop was a thing, a heavy object. A murderer? Blushing, he said: “Siem, you’re joking. Please tell me you’re making this up.”
    “I wish I were.” In a forced attempt to remain offhand in the face of certain details of his life, Sigerius told him about his one and only offspring, a guy about Aaron’s age. Nothing to write home about. A life of misdemeanours, drug abuse, relapses. The very same Wilbertje whom Joni had so dispassionately described became in Sigerius’s version a criminal who had twisted himself like a corkscrew into a life of wretchedness. One weekday in 1993 Wilbert Sigerius hit rock-bottom by beating a fifty-two-year-old man to death. “The Netherlands is a wonderful country,” said Sigerius. “If you’re determined to be a bad egg, there’s a great big professional circle of friends ready to help you. Whoever doesn’t have the balls to just get out and work, but does have a criminal record, is given a nice subsidized job.”
    He sounded unexpectedly bitter, and a damn sight more conservative than usual—this was clearly a way-too-close-to-home scenario, an issue that made him heave his liberal principles overboard. Aaron was glad Sigerius did not look at him, perhaps out of shame, so he could let his own emotions cool off, that usually worked best; he was overcome by a strange exhilaration that consisted partly of delight, grateful to be taken into another’s confidence, and partly of discomfort with this sudden intimacy. It felt as though they were dancing across the canteen together.
    “They gave him a pair of overalls and a decent salary, so he had somewhere to show up in the morning with his lunchbox. After grief followed by even more grief that we won’t go into right now, he was given the chance to start over again—what more could a person want? At the Hoogovens steelworks, of all places. An excellent company, tens of thousands of Dutch men and women have earned an honest living there for the past 100 years. A sporting chance, you’d say. But the first spat he gets into, the kid picks up a sledgehammer and beats his direct superior, a foreman looking forward to a gold watch from the head office, flat as a pancake. I sat in the public gallery when the prosecutor described what various witnesses had seen. What happens to a person when you bash them with a four-kilo sledgehammer.”
    Sigerius wet his moustache by pulling his lower lip over it, pressing it flat with his thumb and index finger. Aaron did not know what to say. This was no run-of-the-mill disclosure. It was a fucking bombshell. He thought he knew a thing or two about Sigerius, he thought he understood what this man, whom he looked up to despite desperately trying not to, had dealt with his entire life, understood the ranks of success his life had manoeuvred along, the essentials of that life, and now he discovered he knew absolutely nothing. (That sensation of ignorance, he realized later, was something he should have just got used to: it was the story of his life in Enschede. He never knew anything.)
    “Eight years,” Sigerius said loudly; the bartender, quite a bit closer to them now, was scrubbing the draining racks. “The prosecutors demanded ten plus mandatory psychiatric treatment. But he impressed them at the psychiatric observation clinic… yeah, there, he did well,” and here he lowered his voice, “entirely compos mentis. My son is not at all stupid.”
    As though it were a stiff drink rather than tonic water, he put the glass to his lips and drained it. He set the empty glass down with gentle precision on the broad cherrywood bar.

The train slowed down, the suburbs of Brussels slid into view, the passengers standing in the aisle peered out, craning their necks at the grey, haphazard urban sprawl. Tineke, who had reopened her eyes, brought a small mirror and dark-red lipstick out of a red-leather handbag, painted her wrinkled mouth with a steady hand, repacked the accessories and stared, scowling, at a point just between Aaron and the man next to him.
    Wilbert Sigerius. He had never met the fellow, after all these years the fascination had long since faded. Still, it occurred to him that everything he had found out about her stepson over the course of his Enschede years must have been just as awful for Tineke as for Sigerius. She had contributed two healthy daughters, girls to whom they had given a wholeheartedly devoted, not to mention an indulgent and privileged, upbringing; Joni and Janis had both grown into outgoing, stable, at times maddeningly rational adults. Sigerius, on the other hand, had saddled her with that viper.
    The train trundled into Brussels Central Station and shuddered to a halt. The crowd in the aisle moved slowly towards the still-shut doors: waiting quietly for salvation, 100a hundred silent heads in isolated prayer. Tineke didn’t budge. He could just as easily stay in the train until Brussels South, although there was a train to Linkebeek from Central as well. The girl removed her chewing gum from her black-lined mouth and reached across Tineke’s lap towards the metal rubbish bin. Then she stood up, brushed against his left knee and joined the current of disembarking passengers. Now Joni’s mother stood up too and, her back to him, removed a tartan roller suitcase from the luggage rack. Seen from behind, with those slender, pointy hips, he would never have recognized her.
    He impulsively decided to get off, he wasn’t sure exactly why. Should he let this complete coincidence simply evaporate into nothing? All he had to do was stay put, and the meeting wouldn’t even have taken place. His heart pounding, he left the train, the stony smell of the platform filled his lungs. Almost against his will he pursued Tineke, maintaining a five-step distance, as she trotted up the stairs towards the central hall. Once in the light-brown marble open space, she set the valise down on its back wheels and dragged it into the bustle. Just inside the main entrance she took a mobile phone from the pocket of her maroon wool overcoat, punched in a number, and started to talk. He saw her step into Brussels, gone, and again he hesitated.
    Instead of returning to his platform, instead of not living, he ran after her, into the open air. He scanned the shadows cast by the street lamps. She was not part of the throng at the intersection leading to Brussels’ Grote Markt. He walked to the edge of the sloping sidewalk and looked around. There she was, she had turned right onto the Putterij; quickening his pace, he closed the dark gap of twenty metres, and before he knew what he was doing he placed his hand on the heavy fabric of her coat. She stood still and turned around. She looked surprised, startled. Her meticulously made-up skin covered her jaws and cheekbones like wrinkled paper.
    “Tineke,” he mumbled, “I...”
    “I beg your pardon?” she asked kindly.
    “Tineke,” he said, more forcefully this time, “I don’t know if this is the best...”
    This time she really looked at him, he could see she focused. She stuck out a hand that briefly touched his arm, as though that extra tactile assistance might help. “Weren’t you sitting across from me just now in the tr—?” Her face changed again, she raised her droopy eyelids as far up as possible, her mouth became an astonished, scarlet “O”.
    “Aaron!” she cried, “of course! Aaron Bever. But my boy, what...” She let go of the handgrip on her suitcase, it toppled over. She took a step towards him, grasped his shoulders and gave him two kisses. Over her fragile shoulders he saw a car pull up to the curb, a sporty dark-blue BMW that flashed its headlights twice. She turned and waved. When she looked back at him, she said: “We’re in a hurry. I have to be going. But Aaron, I absolutely didn’t recognize you. You’ve... changed. Enschede was so long ago...” She clutched his lower arm, looked straight at him. “Oh dear...” she said, “but how are you... things turned out so badly...”
    He was too flabbergasted to reply. Any moment the door of the BMW could swing open and Sigerius would come walking their way. He gasped for breath, felt dizzy. Since he could think of nothing else to say, he stammered: “Say, Tineke, how’s Siem? Is that him?” He gestured feebly at the impatient car.
    She let go, just as abruptly as she had grasped him. She took a step back, her face slammed shut like a lead door.
    “What?” she spat. “You must be joking.”
    “No,” he said. “Why?” He felt his eyes go watery.
    “You rotten kid,” she said. “What do you want from me? What are you doing here? Are you stalking me?”
    The car door opened. A small man of about forty-five got out, his wavy black hair and trimmed beard glistening under the street lights. They looked at each other. The man, who in an unnerving, aggressive way was not Sigerius, smiled politely. Another car swerved around them, honking, and behind the BMW a minibus switched on its flashers.
    Tineke reached for the handle of the passenger door.
    “You don’t know?” she said. “You really don’t know, do you?” She laughed awkwardly, her face a scrawny grimace of disbelief. “Siem is dead.” She shouted so as not to be drowned out by the traffic din. “We buried him in 2001. Seven years ago. Or are you just taking a dig at me?”
    “No,” he said.
    Then she got in.

© Jonathan Reeder 2014