The evenings, p.1
The Evenings, p.1Gerard Reve
A Winter’s Tale
Translated from the Dutch
by Sam Garrett
About the Publisher
IT WAS STILL DARK, in the early morning hours of the twenty-second of December 1946, on the second floor of the house at Schilderskade 66 in our town, when the hero of this story, Frits van Egters, awoke. He looked at the luminous dial of his watch, hanging on its nail. “A quarter to six,” he mumbled, “it’s still night.” He rubbed his face. “What a horrible dream,” he thought. “What was it again?” Gradually it came back to him. He had dreamt that the living room was full of visitors. “It’s going to be a glorious weekend,” someone said. At that same moment a man in a bowler hat walked in. No one paid him any heed and no one greeted him, but Frits eyed him closely. Suddenly the visitor fell to the floor with a thud.
“Was that it?” he thought. “What happened after that? Nothing, I believe.” He fell asleep again. The dream went on where it had stopped. His bowler pressed down over his face, the man was now lying in a black coffin that had been placed on a low table in one corner of the room. “I don’t recognize that table,” Frits thought. “Did we borrow it from someone?” Then, peering into the coffin, he said loudly: “We’ll be stuck with this till Monday, in any event.” “I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” said a bald, red-faced man with spectacles. “Would you care to wager that I can arrange the funeral for this afternoon at two?”
Frits awoke once more. It was twenty minutes past six. “I’ve had enough sleep,” he said to himself, “that’s why I woke up so early. I still have more than an hour to go.”
He dozed off eventually, and entered the living room for the third time. There was no one there. He walked over to the coffin, looked into it and thought: “He’s dead, and starting to rot.” Suddenly the cadaver was covered in all kinds of carpenter’s tools, piled to the coffin’s rim: hammers, drills, saws, spirit levels, planes, pliers and little bags of nails. All that stuck out was the dead man’s right hand.
“There’s no one here,” he thought, “not a soul in the house; what am I going to do? Music, that always helps.” He leaned across the coffin to turn on the radio, but at that same moment saw the hand, bluish now and with long white nails, begin to stir. He recoiled in fear. “I mustn’t move,” he thought, “otherwise it will happen.” The hand sank back down.
Later he awoke, feeling anxious. “Ten to seven,” he mumbled, peering at the watch. “I always have such horrible dreams.” He rolled over and fell asleep again.
Parting a pair of thick green curtains, he entered the living room. The visitors had returned. The man with the red face came up to him, smiled and said: “It didn’t work out. It will have to be Monday morning, at ten. We can put the box in the study till then.” “Study?” Frits thought. “What study? Do we have a study? He means the side room, of course.” Six men lifted the coffin to their shoulders. He himself walked out in front, to open the door for them. “The key’s still in the lock,” he thought, “good thing, too.”
The coffin was extremely heavy; the bearers moved slowly, with measured strides. Suddenly he saw that the bottom of the box was beginning to sag and swell. “It’s going to burst,” he thought, “that’s hideous. The corpse is still intact on the outside, but inside it’s a thin, yellow mush. It will splatter all over the floor.”
By the time they were halfway down the hall, the bottom was sagging so badly that it had begun to crack. Slowly, out of that crack, appeared the same hand from which he had recoiled. Gradually the whole arm followed. The fingers groped about, then crept towards the throat of one of the bearers. “If I scream, the whole thing will fall to the floor,” Frits thought. He watched as the bottom sagged further and further and the hand drew closer and closer to the bearer’s throat. “There’s nothing I can do,” he thought. “I can’t do a thing.”
He awakened for the fourth time, and sat up in bed. It was seven thirty-five. The bedroom was cold. He sat there for five minutes, then stood up and, turning on the light, saw the windowpanes covered in flowers of frost. He shivered as he made his way to the toilet.
“I should start going out for a little walk in the evening, before bed,” he thought while washing himself at the kitchen sink. “It would make me sleep more soundly.” The soap slipped through his fingers, and he spent quite some time feeling around for it in the shadowy space beneath the counter. “We’re off to a roaring start,” he mumbled.
“But today’s Sunday,” he realized suddenly, “what a piece of luck.” Then he added to himself: “I’m up far too early, how stupid of me. But no, for once my day won’t be ruined by lying around till eleven.” While drying his face he started to hum, then went into his room, dressed, and combed his hair in the little mirror that hung beside the door, above one corner of the bed. “It’s ridiculously early,” he thought. “I can’t go in yet. The sliding doors are still open.”
He sat down at his little desk, picked up a white marble rabbit about the size of a matchbox and tapped it softly against the arm of the chair. Then he put it on top of the pile of papers from whence it came. Standing up with a shiver, he returned to the kitchen, opened the bread bin and took out two soft white rolls, the first of which he stuffed into his mouth in a few bites. The second he held clenched in his teeth as he went into the hallway for his coat.
“A brisk, invigorating walk in the morning air,” he murmured. As he crossed the landing and passed the downstairs neighbours’ door, a dog yapped. He pulled the street door closed behind him quietly and followed the frozen canal to the river, which was covered along both banks with a dark layer of ice. There was not much wind. The sun had barely risen, but the street lights were already out. The gutters of the houses were lined with rows of gulls. After kneading the last of his roll into a little ball, he tossed it onto the ice and scores of birds descended. The first gull that picked at it missed. The piece of bread slid, fell into a little hole in the ice and sank before another bird could peck at it.
Church bells rang once. “An early start, this will be a day well spent,” he thought, turning right along the riverbank. “It’s cold and early and no one’s out yet, but I am.”
Crossing the big bridge, he skirted the southern railway station and walked back beneath the viaduct. “It’s wonderful, taking a walk so early in the morning,” he said to himself. “You’ve been outside, you feel chipper and your spirits are high. This will be no wasted and profitless Sunday.”
As he came into the hallway again, the kettle was singing on the stove. In the living room he found his mother setting the table for breakfast. “You’re up bright and early,” he said. “Your father is in one of his moods,” she replied. “He wanted to get up early and make a day of it.” Frits looked at her closely. Her face was without expression.
His father came in from the kitchen in his vest and trousers; the braces dangled to the floor. His face was still wet.
“Good morning, Father,” Frits said. To speak these words, he felt as if he first had to clear his windpipe of a stone, which now fell at his feet. “Good morning, my boy,” his father replied. They sat down at the table.
“I must not let my attention flag,” he thought, “I must observe closely.” From the moment his father began to eat, he kept his eyes on him. “He chews without a sound,” he thought, “but the mouth opens and shuts each time.”
His mother poured tea. She slurped softly as she drank. His father raised the cup only halfway to his mouth, then stretched his neck, puckered his lips and drank loudly. “Have you had a look at the fire, dearest?” his father asked. “Yes,” Frits’s mother replied, “it’s sputtering away.”
When they were done his father went to the bedroom to finish dressing, then returned, book in hand, and sank into a chair by the fire with a deep sigh. Frits watched him as he sat down. “Why such an enormous sigh?” he thought. “Why act as though you’re a pair of bellows?” He looked at the head of black hair, combed back and drab in spots, the thick lips curled in a tired smile, and the brown hands with their short, thick fingers which, after some tentative fumbling, slowly turned a page.
Frits himself sat on the divan, close to the window. He leaned over to turn on the radio and dialled through the programmes. “Bach, a sonata,” he murmured, clasping his hands behind his head as he leaned back and listened. His father was sucking at his pipe, blowing out slow, thin jets of blue smoke.
“Frits,” his mother called from the kitchen, “what did you do with the attic keys?” “I never had them,” he said as she came into the room. “Who did, then?” she asked. “Not me, that’s for sure,” he said. “Weren’t you the one who fetched coal yesterday?” she continued. “It was you, wasn’t it?” “No,” he said, “not me. You probably went upstairs and left them lying on the table.” He got up and went into the kitchen. His mother followed. “Are you sure they’re not on the sill?” he asked, lifting the curtain and groping along the length of the windowsill.
“You’re the one who had them,” his mother said. “If you don’t bring them back, the fire will go out. You had the keys yesterday, you were the last one to fetch coal.”
He looked at her: the thin face, the grey hair, the slight growth of hair around mouth and chin, the arms that never stopped moving. “Help us,” he thought. “The voice is too loud; whither lieth succour?” His father came into the kitchen in stockinged feet. He was holding the book in one hand, his index finger stuck between the pages. “What is it now?” he asked. “Calm down, you two.” “Don’t you get yourself in a state,” Frits’s mother said. “Who’s the one making noise here?” “All that harping and carping,” his father said, “what on earth is it good for?” He turned around and disappeared into the hall, his head bowed.
“Go and see whether the key is still in the door,” his mother said. Frits climbed the stairs to the storage rooms that lined the attic floor, looked at the lock and saw the key, one of two on a little wire ring. He opened the door and picked up a paper sack of anthracite. Downstairs in the kitchen he tossed the keys onto the windowsill with a jingle. “I suppose now you didn’t bring any coal down with you,” said his mother, who had just come in from the living room. “Yes, in fact I did,” he said. “Here’s a whole sack full.” “That’s not the way you do it,” she said. “You have to empty the sack into the scuttle first, upstairs. Otherwise I get all that dust in here.”
As they came into the living room his father leaned over to the radio, which was playing a fugue for violin and harpsichord, and turned it off. “All that nagging,” he said, “can’t we have a little peace and quiet for once?” He dropped into his chair with a faint sigh, opened the book and read on. Frits looked at the clock on the mantel. It was twenty minutes past ten. “The morning rushes by,” he thought. “But on any other Sunday I’d still be in bed, so little time’s been wasted.” He went to his bedroom, pulled one book after another from the shelf, flipped through them and put them back where they belonged. “It’s too cold in here,” he mumbled. Returning to the living room he took a newspaper from the rack and sat down by the window. Outside he saw passers-by walking quickly, their faces stern and tense. The sky was a solid grey, with a dirty, yellow tint to it. From the divan he could see the street. In the two hours that he sat there, paper in hand, without reading a word, there passed in various directions: four soldiers; two women, each with a pram; a young couple, the husband carrying a child; a boy with a girl on the back of his bicycle; and a group of children herded along by two gentlemen. He watched as the neighbour tried to lure his dog, which was refusing to enter the house, with coaxing and with threats. “I just sit here and sit here and don’t do a thing,” he thought. “The day’s half over.” It was a quarter past twelve.
His parents put on their coats. “Be sure to answer the bell if it rings,” his mother said. “We’re going out for a little stroll.” She looked out of the window as she spoke. “We’ll have to be quick about it, though: you’d almost think it was going to snow. Come, Father, hurry up. See you in a little while. And don’t forget to lock the door behind you if you go out.”
“Lock the door behind you if you go out,” Frits echoed to himself a few times. As soon as his parents had picked their way down the stairs and he heard the street door close behind them, he turned on the radio. The announcer was reading the time: twelve twenty-four. Taking an oval, nickel-plated tobacco box from his pocket, Frits rolled a cigarette and ran through the luminescent scale of frequencies without finding anything to his liking. He turned off the set, walked down the hall to the side room, where papers and open books were strewn across the writing table, opened a wooden tobacco box and transferred a pinch to his own, which he slid into his pocket.
On his way to the living room he paused before the big mirror in the hall, twisted his mouth to the left and to the right, then lifted the upper lip and pulled down the lower, rolling them inside out. After that he viewed his face from the side, fetched the circular shaving mirror from the kitchen, held it up beside him and used both mirrors to examine his head from above, from behind, and then in full profile. Turning off the light in the hall, he opened the door to the side room. “As seen by daylight,” he said quietly. After having examined his head from every angle once more, he combed his hair and turned the light back on. “Let us assess the effect created by daylight in combination with an incandescent lamp,” he said to himself. “Very like a giant turnip,” he said out loud then, “yet with telltale signs of sagacity.”
He sighed, hung the shaving mirror back on its peg beside the kitchen window and went to the living room. It was almost one o’clock. He sat down on the divan. “We’re more than halfway,” he thought, “the afternoon started an hour ago. Valuable time, time irretrievable, have I squandered.” He turned on the radio, but even before it had warmed up he turned it off again, stood up, opened the sliding doors and entered the back room. Pushing aside the floor-length curtains, he pressed his face against the window. His forehead left a greasy spot on the pane. He pressed it to the glass once more and looked down.
In the garden of the house to the right, a little corgi dog was performing its duty beneath a rhododendron. Three coats were hanging out to dry on the line. On the concrete walkway of the house immediately below theirs, a white-haired man was chopping blocks of wood. Occasionally, a blow of the hatchet would cause a piece to catapult through the air.
Frits set his canines in the glazing bar between the panes, touched his tongue to the glass, then turned and walked to the kitchen. There he took a handful of kindling from a paper bag in the corner, laid the pieces of wood on the kitchen table and opened the window soundlessly. Immediately after each blow of the hatchet, he tossed a piece of kindling far off into the garden, at various spots: on the gravel, onto the ornamental rocks, or against the plank fence: forcefully each time, with considerable noise. After retrieving the fourth piece of kindling, the man stopped and studied the wood quizzically. Frits threw one more piece, as far to the left of the walkway as he could, closed the window and sighed. “The empty hours,” he murmured, turning away.
As he entered the hallway he heard his parents on the stairs. “Have you been eating sweets again?” his mother asked as she
“Shall we have a bite to eat?” his mother asked. “What will it be, coffee or tea?” “Makes no difference to me,” his father said. “It’s so cold out,” she went on, “there’s a real Middenweg wind blowing.” “East wind, you mean east wind,” Frits said. “Please don’t use terms unfamiliar to the un initiated.” “What would you two like?” she asked again. “Tea or coffee? There’s still some coffee left.” “Tea, make it tea,” Frits said. “Coffee,” his father said at almost the same instant. “I’ll just make coffee, then. All right, Frits?” she decided. “You’ll have some anyway, won’t you?” “I’ll take mine with only hot water, no milk,” Frits said. “No,” she said, “I’ll be serving no black coffee in this house.”
By then she had set the table and cut the bread. “Who’d like a pickled herring?” she asked. “No, please, no,” Frits said. “And you, Father?” “Uh, no, I don’t really feel like it,” his father replied. “They’ve been lying on that plate in the kitchen for three days,” Frits said to himself, “they’ve turned green. Even the chopped onions have gone brown.”
“Then I suppose I’ll just have to throw away the fish again,” she said. “And you two will start whining about why I never buy pickled herring. So I’ll buy them and then they’ll just lie there, and the long and the short of it is that they’ll wind up in the bin again.”
“All right, bring them on,” Frits said. They sat down at the table. “It’s a wonder to behold,” his father said, “how poorly they clean fish these days.” “That’s right,” his mother said, “they know you’ll buy it anyway.” “Do you have a clean knife for me?” Frits asked after he had cut his herring into pieces and eaten it. “I’d like some jam.” “If it’s a clean knife you want, get one yourself,” his mother replied. “The day is two-thirds finished,” he thought, “and now I’ll have a filthy taste in my mouth for the rest of the afternoon.”
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