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Without Mercy

What Jem Used to Say

"Dad!" said Jem. "Come on, be serious now. How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Eleven?" his father said. "Really, son, I can't see a thing."

Jem walked around behind him and gave the knot in the blindfold another firm tug, for good measure. His bare feet slapped over the kitchen floor. There was the fizz of a soft drink being opened. The clatter of something being poured into a glass.

It was Sunday morning, seven o'clock. Even with a blindfold on, you could tell that outside the garden was in full bloom and that the sunlight was already winking off the rims of the child's bike that had been flung down on the ground next to an overturned bucket and a tennis ball. It was the height of summer. There was that singular silence that exists only when most adults are still asleep. Soon the talking, the analyzing and the arranging would start up again, decisions would be arrived at, matters that couldn't wait would be tackled, plans made, tasks assigned. But not just yet.

Two glasses were slammed down on the table with a thud. Phinus turned his face to where he guessed Jem was standing and asked, "Do you remember which you put in which glass?"

"Yep, the Coke's in Bert and the Pepsi's in Ernie."

"OK, I'm ready." He stretched out his right hand.

But quick as a flash, Jem's fingers closed around his father's wrist. "Wait. What are we betting? The swimming pool, this afternoon?"


"Yeah, and not just a quick dip. You've got to do ten laps, all the way up and all the way back. Or you'll never learn, and then one day you'll drown."

"Jemmie, in our family we're not in the habit of falling into canals. Besides, your mother passed her life-saving test."

"Mom could never get you to the side safely."

"She certainly could."

Jem let the subject go. "Go on then, taste!"

Phinus reached for the glasses and for a short, disorienting moment, his hands hovered in the void. Then they found the edge of the table and clung to it as if to the side of the pool. Sunday morning, ten past seven-and suddenly he'd been struck by a disconcerting insight into the natural order of things: Jem would lose him someday; Jem would, it went without saying, outlive him, as well as Franka. Where, and from whom, could you request enough time to raise a child safely into adulthood? And just when did children become adults? When they'd no longer fashion a set of false teeth out of a piece of orange peel, or when they ...

"You don't dare!" cried Jem.

"I'm concentrating."

Jem shrieked with laughter. "I'm going to count to three-ee ..."

Sunday morning, twelve minutes past seven. Phinus picked up a glass. The bubbles fizzed against his nose. He put down the glass, picked up the other one. This other one had a lot more bubbles. Listless bubbles. Insipid bubbles. They were a little flabby too.

Next to him Jem was puffing with excitement.

Warming to the exercise, he took alternating sips from the two glasses. Sweeter? Less sweet? The difference in taste was marginal. The difference lay largely in the carbonation. "Ha!" he said. "You want to know something?" He sat up straighter. "This bubble is the pithiest. Explosive yet also compact, a bubble with personality, distinguished and well defined, someone's put a little thought into this. Whereas this one"-he found the other glass-"is much duller, a washed-out fuddy-duddy bubble without any sex appeal. Jem, my boy, I'll stake my all on it: the first is Coke and the second is Pepsi."

"Ooh! You peeked!" Jem threw himself on him, fists pummeling.

Phinus, good-naturedly, let himself be punched as he pulled the blindfold down. "It's Bert! I won!"

From behind him came Franka's sleepy voice. "Well, well, guys. What have you been up to?"

"Just a game," Phinus said, turning around.

She was standing in the kitchen doorway, blinking, in an old shirt of his that reached halfway down her thighs. Their eyes met, and she smiled briefly. "So, did Phinus make mincemeat out of you?" she asked Jem.

"Your turn, Mom! You have to guess which one has the fuddy-duddy bubble, Pepsi or Coke. Shut your eyes."

"Piece of cake." Phinus stood up and planted a kiss on her tousled hair. Then he walked to the fridge and took out eggs, bacon and butter. He put a frying pan on the burner and began cutting oranges in half, whistling under his breath.

"What's a fuddy-duddy bubble?" asked Franka.

"One that isn't sexy!" yelled Jem.

"Very good," said Phinus with satisfaction. The ability to make distinctions, that was what life was all about. He swiftly squeezed the oranges. He turned the last piece of orange rind inside out, then picked up a knife, grinning to himself.

"Not sexy?" said Franka. She had sat down at the table across from Jem. They were bathed in wide bands of dusty sunlight pouring in through the seldom-washed windows. "And what then, according to you, O expert of mine, is sexy? A naked bottom?"

Solemnly, Jem said, "Nah, when their hair goes like this." His hand made a sinuous motion.

"Yes, that is nice."

Phinus hovered behind them wearing his orange-pith teeth, ready to send them into gales of laughter.

Franka asked, "And what do you suppose they'd think was sexy about you?" Then she glanced over her shoulder. "Have you got the hiccups, Phinus? Do you want a sip of Coke?"

It must have been the red Coca-Cola truck that just went by. The slightest provocation is enough, the most innocent sight, the most everyday subject. The world has turned into a minefield: memories are waiting in ambush everywhere, ready to jump out. His hands are clenched around the steering wheel.

"What a sigh," says Franka, next to him. She touches his knee. "Do you want me to take over?"

"No, not at all." He glances in his rearview mirror. There isn't much traffic.

"Let's make a quick stop at the café on the Afsluitdijk."

He puts his hand on top of hers and gives it a squeeze.

They drive past the sluices. Miles and miles of dike stretch out before them across the sea, the sea that gives and takes, as various ballads remind us. It is Friday afternoon. It's nearly Easter.

It's so windy in the parking lot that they each have to struggle to get their doors open. Phinus takes Franka by the arm as they mount the slippery steps up to the café. Her flimsy raincoat whips around her legs, his hair is standing on end: in the glass door's reflection they look like any other windblown couple.

Inside, every wall-even the wall above the glass case displaying almond cakes, sausage rolls and bottled chocolate milk-is hung with framed black-and-white photos showing whiskered men in oilskins heroically subduing the elements. A NATION THAT'S ALIVE BUILDS ITS OWN FUTURE. They have made a habit of stopping here on weekend trips to the islands of Terschelling or Vlieland, both on the way out and on the way home, here at this tacky coffee shop that's hardly any bigger than a shoe box, to look at these pictures, at the steadfast dredgers and stern builders, men who were able to tell their children, "I have taught the seas to behave, I have connected two distant shores, I have opened up remote provinces and made possible the reclamation of new land. I have created order out of chaos."

Franka has sat down at a little table by the window, beyond which the IJsselmeer sparkles in the springtime sun.

Carrying a tray, Phinus hurries past the potato and fish salads, the wrapped sandwiches and the sign WARM SLICED HAM ON A ROLL WITH SAUCE. He orders a cappuccino and an espresso.

"What kind of sauce do you think they serve with the ham?" he asks as he puts the coffee down in front of Franka.

"Mustard, don't you think?" She sounds tired.

"In that case it would say mustard."

"Why, are you hungry?"

"No, are you? Perhaps they mean-"

She leans forward. Mildly amused, she suggests, affably, "Why don't you ask?" She has let her chin sink onto her hands.

He looks at the bright red welts at her fingertips. What if one day she ends up devouring every nail? Will she just go on nibbling indefatigably, night after sleepless night, first her fingers, then on to the little bones in her hands? Will she keep on gnawing, from her wrists up to her elbows, then her shoulders, until she can no longer feel her empty arms, simply because she no longer has any arms at all?

She gets up. "Just going to the ladies' room." Her eyes are trapped by his, and she raises her eyebrows. "What are you looking at me like that for?"

"I was just suddenly thinking how much I love you."

She laughs. "So big, yet such a softie."

As she turns around, she tugs the skirt of her yellow suit straight. She has clearly done her best for this outing: no sweat suit, no baggy sweater. Somewhere in the far reaches of her consciousness or her clothes closet, she came upon this outfit and thought: Phinus likes the way I look in this.

The skirt pulls a little around her backside. She's gained some weight, a good sign. Now all she has to do is find a way to get to sleep.

He himself has always been a healthy sleeper. He is out like a light as soon as he sees his pillow. For him, no hours of wavering over the choice of Lorazepam, Dalmadorm (15 mg or 30 mg?) or a double whiskey ("What was it I took yesterday, Phinus?"). Insomniacs claim there's a world of difference between lying awake at one in the morning and at five in the morning, between not being able to fall asleep and not being able to stay asleep, between the effects of hot milk and herbal tea. Insomniacs turn on the TV in the middle of the night, or they peer listlessly at the moon, the stars and the planets. They'll read a report that needs to be read anyway. They poke at the cold ashes in the fireplace. They wait for deliverance, sometimes with resignation, sometimes in despair. They are acquainted with an aspect of life of which sleepers know nothing. They know the night, those eight hours out of the twenty-four-hour day that are so lonely, terrifying and maddening, hours during which all the little teeth of blame and shame ratchet together so finely that human beings have been specially designed to evade it. After sixteen hours of activity, your heart rate slows, your body temperature drops, you clench your teeth to bite back a yawn, your thinking begins to get a little foggy. Not long now before your consciousness gives you the slip and you find yourself shuffling safely off to the land of Nod in your slippers, as it were.

But not Franka, not anymore. She hasn't been able to sleep a wink for six months. She is utterly worn out. She says she sometimes sees stars before her eyes. She is hardly Franka Vermeer anymore; she is mainly an exhausted mass of cells, sinew and protein hankering for unconsciousness. And yet she doesn't dare close her eyes because as soon as she surrenders to sleep, she is right back in the morgue, in that terrible night without end.

At the Harlingen exit, he is suddenly beset by doubt. Maybe he should have rented a cottage on Terschelling, after all. Then they could have ridden their bikes over to Oosterend, as always, and scavenged for mussels on the mudflats. But he'd wanted a place without memories this time, that was the point. Something quite different, for once, from what they always used to do.

"Weren't we supposed to get off here?" Franka asks, twisting round to peer at the sign for the ferry.


She leans back again.

"You'll never guess where we're heading. It begins with an A."

She sends him an indulgent look over the top of her sunglasses. "Or perhaps we could play I Spy with My Little Eye. Or recite the names of the seven dwarfs. Except that you're the only one who knows them. Remember how you always used to-"

"Mmm," he agrees quickly. His collar suddenly feels as if it's sticking to his neck. "Take out the map for me, will you? I have to pick up the N355 at some point."

She unfolds the map and studies it. "Oh, it's not for a while yet. Is that where we're going?"

"No, I'm not telling you another thing. It's a surprise." Surreptitiously he pats the little Alliance Gastronomique guidebook in his breast pocket. An inn in a rural hamlet of Groningen province, it sounds modest enough. But what about that seven-course dinner laid on for them the night of arrival, which is part of the deal? Franka will be feeling all the world's have-nots staring at her in reproach with every bite. It may not be too late to work something out with the kitchen. Three courses maximum. My wife isn't such a big eater, you see.

"Hey! Watch out! Phinus! Stay in your lane!"

He slams on the brakes. The car swerves, the tires squeal. A whirlwind of color and noise tears past, narrowly missing them.

For a brief moment it's quiet. Then she says, in a voice that's shrill with shock, "If it had been me at the wheel, we'd have had it."

The adrenaline rush makes him exultant. "Fortunately your husband possesses excellent reflexes. It was nothing, Franka."

"He was driving on the wrong side of the road! Isn't that what they call a ghost driver?"

Tsohg, he thinks backward automatically, it was a revird tsohg. It sounds to him like the name of a wind instrument of some long- extinct race, an ancient instrument that touched human lips when humans still had tails and evil had not yet come into the world. The tsohg was renowned for its pure tone. Anyone who'd ever heard the tsohg expertly played would know the differences between tears of joy, tears of regret and tears of grief.

"It was just some crazy idiot," he says. "Another hour, and we'll be there. Close your eyes, love. A little nap will do you good."

Over the comfortable bed in which Phinus Vermeer wakes up every morning, the bed in which he reads the magazines and the weekend newspaper sections on Sunday mornings and in which, in happier times, he and Franka made love countless times, hangs a reproduction of a neoclassical painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Young virgins in pleated gowns dance gracefully across a marble floor, their long hair flowing. Some play the flute or shake a tambourine.

It's a picture that, every day as he opens his eyes, confirms his view of man's most fundamental impulses. Recreation and play are basic needs of all ages and all generations, for all ranks and stations in life, as long, that is, as the bare necessities of survival are met. At Jumbo Inc., in his toast to the New Year, he always likes to make reference to homo ludens. Deep down, all man really wants, Phinus will declare, is to play.

("My father," Jem used to say, "spends his whole day at work playing Chutes and Ladders or dominoes, and he gets paid for it too.")

The fact that at the present time, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, homo ludens is pursuing increasingly passive forms of recreation hasn't made any impression on Phinus. He maintains his absolute belief in man's playful and irrepressibly curious nature. Not long ago he introduced, with considerable success, a new line of board games for adults called After Dinner Games. This was meant to plant the idea in people's heads that evenings were for games, and, rather than sprawling in front of the TV to watch some mindless quiz show, they might stay convivially seated at the table with a Jumbo Inc. board game.

Franka found the whole thing hopelessly old-fashioned and patronizing. After a long, difficult day, her idea of relaxation is to lie on the couch watching a B movie, a generous bowl of popcorn within reach, and not some game that urges you to guess why a woodpecker never gets a headache, or how come sea water is salty. Franka has reached the age of thirty-eight without knowing the answers to such questions, and she finds that even to this day, she has no desire whatsoever to test her knowledge off a plastic card, thereby gaining the right to move her piece up one square, thanks very much.

It has always amused him to be married to someone who couldn't care less about triple word scores or missing a turn, who has never in her life spit on a die in order to coax a six out of it, someone who couldn't tell you the difference between a bishop and a castle and who has never sprained her thumb trying to solve Rubik's Cube, that miracle of puzzle perfection-millions of possibilities, just a single correct solution ... The genius of the design alone, with its cheerful Mondrian colors, and Christ, the nearly inaudible clicking of the ball bearings inside the twenty-seven little cubes! But it's the one- dimensional jigsaw puzzle only for Franka, after that she draws the line. Of Phinus's entire, prodigious assortment of games, the jigsaw puzzle is the only one that appeals to Franka. It calms her, she says. It's so deliciously mindless.


That's Franka all over. Where out of politeness others may occasionally laugh-uproariously, in his case-at jokes they don't find particularly funny, she will remain deadpan, frowning. When she does laugh, it is sincere; otherwise, she simply refuses to crack a smile. He doesn't know anyone else who is so imperturbably herself. He has a wife of spirit and substance. And she likes to do jigsaw puzzles.

As soon as the new puzzle catalogue comes out, she underlines her preferences and gives him her list. More often than not, he'll fetch the boxes out of the warehouse in person. It gives him a thrill to know that his laconic, independent Franka is hoping he'll come home with a special care package of puzzles for her. When he gets home, he gets a kick out of suggesting, "Why don't I start dinner early tonight?"

She comes and sits with him in the kitchen. She pours two drinks and inquires casually, "Are we doing anything special tonight?"

"Wait, I've got to keep an eye on the sauce."

She waits, even though she knows that he can whip up a superb sauce with his eyes closed or bake a perfect cake with just a snap of his fingers. She waits, and plays along.

He sprinkles some snippets of fresh herbs over the sauce. He brandishes the pepper mill, a pinch of this and a dash of that, and a dollop of butter to finish it off. Homo curans, as it were. "How does it smell?"

"Wonderful. Of course, for me, your casseroles and your potpies are really what it's all about," she says, poker-faced.

"What, nothing else?"

But Franka doesn't give anything away. She refills the glasses. She can read him like an open book or, better yet, like the instructions for Stratego or Touché, concealed inside the cardboard lid, in the tiniest letters imaginable, printed in the grayest gray.

The kitchen where Phinus prepares his delicacies is located in an old house in Amsterdam. They bought it when Jem had just turned seven and they had come to consider themselves, after an extended probation period, a tight-knit family. The house is neither charmingly nor distinctively old; it's old largely in the sense of leaks and lack of amenities.

They began by ripping out the prehistoric bathroom. They had a new water heater put in; they called in plasterers, plumbers, tile layers, countertop installers and electricians. They worked their way from one floor to the next. They argued and collapsed in fits of laughter. They were a good team. Not every marriage is able to withstand a renovation, the endless decisions required, the mess, the inconvenience and the constant torment of radios blaring at full blast. Phinus was chief foamer-at-the-mouth, Franka was chief what-can-you-do shrugger. Thus did they tackle the job, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder.

The only thing was that Jem started being troubled by nightmares at around this time. He'd regularly wake up screaming. Franka said it was because his bed kept being moved around, first here, then there; he'd settle down of his own accord as soon as the house was done. "Children get upset by change, they're such little conservatives."

Getting up in the middle of the night from sheets crunchy with grit, Phinus thought of the crocodiles that used to lie in wait under his bed when he was a child. A crocodile was a serious problem. In the hall, where not a single light switch worked, he remembered how in those days he had tried to transform the monster into a camel, that silly, near-mythological beast that had to buckle all its joints in order to let a person climb on its back. As an added bonus, a camel would not fit under your bed.

Jem was seated on top of the covers, his knees pulled up to his chest. He had bags of exhaustion under his eyes.

"Let's see here," said Phinus. He bent down. His long arms thrashed around under the bed. "Not a crocodile anywhere! All clear!"

Jem looked at him blankly. Finally he said, with some pity, "Of course there's no crocodile. But it's still spooky in here."

"Ghosts, you mean?" His feet were freezing, he should have put his slippers on. "In here? Where, then?"

"Everywhere. Wherever you look."

"Even if you look at it this way?" He lifted Jem up off the bed and hoisted him up on his shoulder.

"Yes," came the dejected answer from on high.

"Well, I never. And what about this way?" Seizing Jem by his pajama top, he let him topple down forward over his chest and grabbed him by the ankles. The boy gave a shout of surprise. "Now, what do you see from this angle?"

"I see everything upside down!"

Phinus flung him onto the bed. "Precisely!" he said, out of breath. "That's what's known as looking at the situation from the other side, in other words, turning things around. And if you turn a ghost around, what do you get? Think about it. G-h-o-s-t, only back to front?"

Jem sat up. "Tsohg," he declared, frowning with the effort.

"Tsohg?" said Phinus. "Never even heard of it. If you ask me, there's no such thing as a tsohg."

Jem began to laugh, uncertainly. "But Dad ..."

"Problem solved," said Phinus. "Let's go back to sleep, shall we? And if you really can't get to sleep, well,"-he lowered his voice-"just think about the friendly lemac, who pads on gleaming little hooves through the desert to see if anyone anywhere needs his help."

"Lemac?" said Jem. He crawled under the covers.

"Yes," whispered Phinus. "If you're scared, there's always a lemac watching out for you."

"What does it look like?" asked Jem, his eyelids drooping shut.

"They have the softest lips. Animals are our friends. Don't ever forget that, all right?" He tucked the covers in. But it was already too late for a kiss: Jem was asleep, he was well on his way to a dream no one would ever know about.

The final result of the remodeling-when all the money was used up-wasn't an unqualified success. Yet Franka-it's so typical of her!-loves the house in spite of its shortcomings, perhaps precisely because of everything that isn't perfect about it. He himself has to work a little harder to see it that way. It's difficult for him to ignore the broken tiles in the hall or to restrain himself from having a couple of ugly water pipes boxed in. On occasion he'll still sketch out an idea on the back of an envelope. But the thought of everything turned upside down all over again, the prospect of grit and plaster dust, holds him back.

("My father," Jem used to say, "whenever he spots a mess anywhere, rants and raves just like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers." His adolescent's voice would break. "It cracks me up, man!")

Luckily, thanks to some colorful touches and a deft arrangement of the cheerfully eclectic furnishings, it is possible to distract a visitor's attention from the deficiencies. The guests aren't going to go peeking at what's behind the faade, especially if there is homemade sushi on the menu.

Oh, the guests! Their talk and laughter still reverberate in the high-ceilinged rooms. What a lot there used to be to celebrate! Good report cards, anniversaries, the arrival of the new herring catch-Franka and Phinus liked to turn anything into a party. Over a table littered with bottles and dishes they'd exchange satisfied looks, united in their collaborative success.

There are no parties or dinners nowadays. That era is over. Yet the house is still teeming with people, thanks to the constant comings and goings of Franka's protégés. Drug addicts and school dropouts, illiterates, sullen girls without any future and swaggering hoodlums with too much of a past: the kids who fill the registers of the social work agencies. Sometimes he'll find them seated at his own dining table when he comes home: pathetic losers to whom he can never simply announce, "This is my house, so do me a favor and get lost." At the strangest hours of the day there'll be glassy-eyed zombies wandering around the place, the kind you can't have a normal conversation with. In his own house he can't leave a ring or a watch lying around without some juvenile delinquent getting itchy fingers. There are full ashtrays everywhere stinking up the place. And at night the phone will ring, or there'll be a cop at the door because one of the problem children has managed to get him or herself into trouble again.

He used to be so proud of Franka's professional commitment, her total devotion, her uncompromising principles. He doesn't understand why, of late, her admirable abilities, as well as her pathetic clientele, should inspire in him a certain repugnance. But then he understands so very little anymore, about anything at all.

Excerpted from Without Mercy © Copyright 2004 by Renate Dorrestein. Reprinted with permission by Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.

Without Mercy
by by Renate Dorrestein

  • Mass Market Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0142004553
  • ISBN-13: 9780142004555