Ik ben Java Tan, caissière bij Albert Heijn. Niemand ziet mij zitten. Al die honderden klanten die dag na dag langskomen hebben nauwelijks oog voor mij, en dat terwijl ik altijd glimlach. Zelf heb ik namelijk een hekel aan zure types die met één haal van de scharnierende houten arm je koekjes en je humeur aan diggelen rammen.
Ik ben Java Tan, caissière bij Albert Heijn. Niemand ziet mij zitten. Al die honderden klanten die dag na dag langskomen hebben nauwelijks oog voor mij, en dat terwijl ik altijd glimlach. Zelf heb ik namelijk een hekel aan zure types die met één haal van de scharnierende houten arm je koekjes en je humeur aan diggelen rammen. Daarom nam ik me voor nooit zo te worden. Nu ik hier zit weet ik dat geen enkele caissière zo wil worden. KK noemen wij dat: KassaKip. Het staat ook voor Klant-en-Klaar, een wet waaraan sommigen van ons ten prooi vallen.
Met louter blauwe klanten zouden we denk ik een heel eind komen. Blauw, voor de duidelijkheid, staat voor een prettige klant, een klant die bij ons past en daarom onze huiskleur krijgt toegewezen.
Gele klanten zijn onaardig of moeilijk of beide, en kunnen zich van tijd tot tijd zo misdragen dat je het liefst heel hard wilt krijsen en krabben. Op de ergste dagen, als er rode klanten in de winkel zijn, trek ik in gedachten een dubbelloops jachtgeweer onder de kassa vandaan en zeg ik, heel cool: ‘Bonuskaart, Air Miles, spaarzegels én superdieren of ik schiet.’ Helaas kun je dat soort dingen tegenwoordig niet hardop zeggen. Voor je het weet is er een gek die denkt: gaan we doen! Bovendien heb ik een andere, betere manier: ik zet mijn gezicht bewust op vriendelijk. De meeste klanten reageren daar goed op en het mooie is dat ik er ook binnenin aardiger van wordt. Wanneer de mond glimlacht, glimlacht het hart, zegt mijn vader.
Story: Walking Dream
Born in Amsterdam, 1955, Anneloes Timmerije is the author of several works of nonfiction , two highly acclaimed collections of short stories and a novel. She lives and works in Den Haag and in France and is currently working on a novel with Charles den Tex.
Publisher De Geus
Oude Vest 9
4811 HR Breda
Sander van Vlerken firstname.lastname@example.org
Promotion and publicity
Monique van Beek email@example.com
Stichting Schrijvers School Samenleving
Huddestraat 7, 1018 HB Amsterdam
T 020 6 23 49 23
The dog lay in a hollow in the dunes not far from our house and his name was Saint Paul, Illinois. That was written with large felt tip marker letters on the inside of his collar. The chain that held him reached to about half a meter from the edge of a little pool. He was black, bony and almost insane with thirst. When I released the clip on his chain he dropped himself into the water.
‘We should report this’, my father said.
I asked him if he had lost his mind.
That was all I needed to make him leave the subject alone, because my father is not really interested in animal welfare. Neither is my mother. They do try to show their interest in me and that is why we play family in the weekend. That means we do fun things and then we evaluate and analyse.
The three of us thank God for Mondays.
The day we found the dog was supposed to be Catching Up Day. My mother has an urge to catch up every few weeks, that may have something to do with hormones. On Catching Up Days we first do an activity; we go for a walk, ride a bicycle or visit a museum and then my mother asks questions. I think one can’t actually do an activity, but I don’t go into that. All their friends and colleagues talk that way, so there must be a reason for it. When the activity is done my father says: ‘Time for a treat.’
That’s meant to be a joke – a nice old-fashioned expression – except he does not know how to make one due to no sense of humour. My mother is the only one who laughs. Which is sort of sweet.
They are not stingy; I’ll give them that. They always let me chose whatever I want when we go to an inn, another one of those words my father likes to use. Complete with all the explanation about the old days and carriages and fresh horses. Every time. When I tell him that most things tend to stick after the first time, he answers that you cannot recognise a lesson until later in life. I usually chose pancakes or French fries. Sometimes I can coax them into a Burger King. A little while ago my mother told me that it was a fascinating way for her to meet my peer group.
And I have no shortage of clothes or shoes. They can afford it, because my mother’s family is loaded. They don’t care about fashion themselves, but they let me indulge myself any way I please. That’s reasonably good of them. Except of course it’s no use, because I look hopeless.
‘Tell me about Merla.’
That is one of her favourite kick off questions on Catching Up Day. I tell about Merla and then we get to Bar and Shana, my two other friends. I tell her how they are doing, how their parents are doing – my mother finds these things important to know. A little while ago I told how Merla’s parents are going through a divorce and that a judge has ruled that her farther can no longer come anywhere near their house. Ever since my mother insists I keep her up to date on what she calls a ‘tragedy for that family’. Sometimes I feel her hand on my hair while I am telling. Last she even held me close.
I don’t have any girl friends, but my parents don’t know that. When my mother thought I needed professional help to learn how to ‘bond’ I made them up, right then and there, with all their family things. As time went by I managed to convince her that my generation doesn’t really visit. That visiting is more something for people her age. She thinks we see each other at school and that we text and chat continuously de rest of the time.
‘He looks like Clarence’, my father said two days later.
I had just formally asked for permission to adopt the dog. My parents appreciate that kind of behaviour. They look at each other with a knowing glance that says: that’s one thing we did right. So there is every reason not to be to extravagant with the gesture, but in this case it seemed to be well spent.
Clarence is the Jamaican greengrocer my mother likes to go to, because she thinks his shop is colourful. She buys black-eyed peas there and Caribbean chilli peppers to put in the vegetable drawer in the bottom of the fridge. As soon as they start to produce grey fluffy growth she goes out to buy fresh ones. Clarence has lips that smile, just like Saint Paul. So it was an apt description, I have to say.
Therefore I said: ‘Good one, Pete.’ To which my father started moving his arm for a high five and I pretended not to notice.
I could re-christen him, of course, I thought. His given name was more than a mouth full and Clarence had a cheerful ring to it. Anyway, I had more than enough time to think about that. First he had to regain his strength. To get his digestive system working again I gave him little bits to eat a few times a day. He could have as much water as he wanted, and he wanted plenty. Every fifteen minutes he hauled his large body off the old sleeping bag we had folded into a bed in the room to his water bowl in the kitchen. He lapped at the water, looked around, lapped some more and trudged back.
He drank for fear he would be deprived of water again.
I know things like that, even though my school career is hopeless.
We had a fight, except my mother never calls it that. She thinks having a fight is not productive – a waste of energy. That is why she says we have a difference of opinion when we are screaming at each other. That is to say, when I am screaming and my father is screaming and she remains reasonable all the way through.
We had a fight, that same week, because my parents wanted to reopen discussions on the point my father made earlier: go to the police or at least to the RSPCA. I told them how I think about it. How foolish it would be to do that, because I would run the risk of loosing Saint Paul. Before you know it someone might prove that it was never his intention to leave the dog there.
That I even have to explain.
Once again my father was inclined to give in to my point of view. He thought I defended my position with reasonable arguments. ‘That shows good common sense’, he said. Pete never fails to commend me when I use the few brains I have.
‘Don’t you think so, Eve?’ my father asked.
A nod or a friendly glance is all she ever manages to concur with his observations. Such is their division of roles when dealing with their disappointment.
I am that disappointment.
I am the living proof that apples sometimes roll miles away from the tree, because I have no resemblance to those I have sprang from. The blonde, slim Eve and Pete – that’s how they like me to call them – are stuck with a black haired plump child. At close inspection I bear more resemblance to Saint Paul than to my own family. My mother consolingly talks about the beautiful woman that will one day emerge from my baby fat, but in her eyes I see the fading belief in her own proposition. To be honest, I have never been left wanting for love or attention. Nevertheless I often feel like a cuckoo in the nest.
If only I had been smart, then may be we could have developed some kind of rapport. When I still believed in God I used to pray, before going to bed, for a little more IQ. Years later I received His answer through the principal: lower general secondary education providing I did my homework under intensive supervision.
Back to Saint Paul, because this story is about him. It took him about four weeks to regain his strength and to get used to his new surroundings. He slept a lot, ate the well-balanced meals he was given and licked my hands when I petted his muzzle. He became a healthy dog, but not a remarkable cheerful one. If he had been human, you might say he was lost in his own thoughts. During our walks he would trot a few yards ahead and then stop to see if I was coming. As soon as he thought I had approached sufficiently, he would continue on his way, stoically.
All that changed one Thursday morning.
It was Ascension Day so there was no school. My father slept in and my mother was in her study preparing lectures. Saint Paul and I sneaked outside. Without parental guidance we were not allowed into the dunes, so we went to the park. It was Sunday quiet. As to this day I do not know why, but on the empty green I turned a somersault. Gymnastics is one of the few subjects in which I get decent grades, to everybody’s surprise I might add. Fat and agile does not seem an appropriate combination. I can jump into a split, like that, except that I never do it in public, because with my sausagy legs it looks ridiculous. I love moving, and it is just my bad luck that it doesn’t show. Still, I will rarely roll about on the damp morning grass, but that Thursday I did. About a second later my dog dropped down beside me and did the exact same thing, except he did it lengthwise. In one flowing movement he was back on his feet and grinned at me, just like Clarence the greengrocer does when he greets his first customer of the day. I turned another somersault and again he followed suit. He didn’t know what to make of a cartwheel, but when I bent over to retie one of my soggy shoelaces, he jumped right over my back.
‘He looks like a circus dog’, a voice said.
Behind me stood an elderly man with a little cap. His belly protruded from underneath his windbreaker. He reminded me of Andrew, the caretaker of our school.
‘Who taught him those tricks?’ he asked.
‘I did’, I said, because that was what I wanted to believe.
Saint Paul walked up to the man and greeted him like an old friend; he lowered himself on his legs, pushed his nose into his hand, squeaking softly, and wagged his tail so energetically that his hindquarters swung back and forth in the same motion. I was surprised, because usually he keeps his distance with strangers, so I told the man. I should have asked if they knew each other, but I didn’t dare. Don’t ask me why. The man said lots of animals responded to him that way, and that was all the explanation I needed. I did want to know how come, but the man had already moved on. He turned his head once, raised his hand and disappeared behind the trees. Saint Paul looked in the direction where the man had walked, his nose in the air, as if he wanted to smell the man’s scent once more. When I whistled he didn’t respond. And now I can admit that I was jealous, then. A few seconds later he abruptly turned around and came back home walking right beside me as if the whole encounter had been erased from his memory.
Our house is a funny place for a dog. Compared to the houses of children in my grade it is very large, that is true. And we have a garden. Since Saint Paul has moved in with us we use the rear garden gate. That way we don’t have to use the pavement when going to the park. My parents are outspoken opponents of dog doings on the pavement – an unacceptable pollution of public space, as they say.
Especially my mother tends to get very nervous when things are not where they are supposed to be. Even all the books and papers she and my father lug to their institutes and back every day have their own order. Saint Paul instinctively understood that he disrupted that order and he dragged his old sleeping bag up the stairs to my room. That too happened on Ascension Day, right after we had returned from our walk. It was as if he finally really moved in with me.
Towards the end of the afternoon we were all sitting languidly in the garden, in front of the sunroom, and that was when I showed my parents what I had discovered.
‘That is one lucky dog, you having found him’, my mother said.
I thought that was very nice.
I’m going to skip a bit here, because nothing much happened in the weeks that followed. Except that I enrolled in an animal care course and that my request to move into a bedsit was chewed to the bone during every meal.
I spent most of my time upstairs, supposedly studying for my exams and keeping in virtual contact with my virtual girl friends, also supposedly. In case my mother had an urge to bring me tea and cookies my computer was permanently logged in on a chat box and I had surrounded myself with books and study material so that it looked like I was busy. I was quite pleased with that. Meanwhile I studied my dog and I saw that the man in the park had been right: Saint Paul must have been a circus dog. All I had to do was move my little finger and he came and stood beside me. If I crossed my legs and moved my foot up and down three times, he jumped three times, all his paws off the ground at the same time. If I moved my foot to and fro he would bark, until I stopped.
To create the illusion of a magical bond between a dog and his human friend he had learned to respond to minute, almost invisible commands. ‘Ladies and Gentleman, tonight in your theatre!’ Saint Paul taught me what he had been taught, patiently and with devotion. Every time I made a movement he knew, he responded enthusiastically, showing me the matching trick. Sometimes he would lose himself and start chasing his tail, barking like mad and when he did he was suddenly just like any ordinary dog having a crazy break.
But he was not an ordinary dog and his former owner had not been an ordinary man. Even I could understand that whoever educated him was not the one who left him behind in the dunes. He would not have had such a gentle nature if he had been trained with an iron fist.
That was when I silently admitted that my father was right after all: I had to find Saint Paul’s rightful owner. I probably knew it before then, may be even before that Ascension Day, but you often resist the voices in your head that scream they are right. And all of a sudden you cease to resist and you just know. My father calls that internalisation, which I think is just about the same as understanding.
So I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t do anything. Which is pretty horrible.
It may be that I was punished for that. That is what I think when depression hits and all I want to do is die, even though statements by witnesses show time and again that it was just an accident. Whatever, it didn’t take a minute. I was riding my bicycle to school and then I woke up in a hospital bed. In between lay ten days that hang in my memory like a dark moment. The doctor said I was kept in an artificial coma, to keep me from pain. My mother told me that Saint Paul had become restless as soon as I had closed the door behind me, until, without visible cause, he had thrown his head in the air and had started howling – inconsolable, like a child that has lost his mother in a department store. Looking back she reckons that must have been the very moment my front wheel got stuck in a crack in the road and the passing car had no way of avoiding me.
A year has gone by since then and my chances at recovery, if ever I had any, have been reduced to zero. The doctor makes no secret of it, at my request. I have learned to operate my computer with a little stick in my mouth, which is connected to some sort of contraption on my head by means of a brace. Equipped like that I managed to pass the last part of my exams, which makes me fully qualified useless.
After a specialized training Saint Paul is now a dedicated support dog and still doesn’t seem to miss the applause. He lives with me in the sunroom, which my father had had modified to fit the needs of a modern handicapped person while I was in hospital. The old sleeping bag has a prominent place next to my bed. My mother has bought a couple of colourful folding chairs for my friends, in case they come to visit. They stand in a corner, idle. She wasn’t surprised when I told her, but she cried.
I am not looking for pity; that much should be clear. If I have learned anything in my first, motionless year it has to be that a sorrow shared is not a sorrow halved, but doubled. I can still see them shuffling by my bed: aunts and uncles I had never seen before, classmates who had never really looked at me until then. Pitiers, wearing masks of shocked faces in a carnival parade for an audience of one.
My father regularly tells me I have to learn to give my sorrow a place. I find that too easy, because the only place I have these days is filled to bursting. My bed and I take up the best part of the sunroom. I have a side table for the most important supplies to get me through the day. Easy to reach for my parents, who take turns caring for me, assisted by a nurse. The other side of my bed is Saint Paul’s domain. Alongside his sleeping bag there is a narrow track, so he has some space to walk up and down and to bark at cats when they venture too close to the windows.
In here there is no room left for sorrow, and I am glad there isn’t because that is not what I want to talk about. The only reason I mention my changed circumstances is that they are important for what followed.
It was a regular day, except for one omen, but you don’t usually see them until you look back. Waking up was different. For the first time in months I floated into the morning on a carpet of ignorance. Who I was and how I was dawned on me in careful wisps. Since a couple of days I was no longer on painkillers and sleeping pills, that was why. This is how you wake up from a sleeping pill: one moment you don’t exist and the next moment you know you exist because of the oxygen pump.
It was support morning. One of the homecare nurses had washed me and fed me. She had sung a song from way back: Loving you is easy cause you’re beautiful. It made me laugh, the day before I had told her how I had lucked out because finally my body was beautifully slim. All my baby fat had disappeared, along with most of my muscles. To be honest I prefer to be washed by homecare. Since my accident my mother has switched to shorter working hours. The days she cares for me I seem worse. Not that she ever lets on about what she thinks or feels, quite the contrary. She does her best to make everything appear normal. May be that is why I am confronted with how abnormal we have all become, because of me.
Later that morning the e-mail beep sounded. Saint Paul wagged the tip of his tail to share my joy at contact with the outside world. Before I could open the mail the nurse walked into the sunroom. Just the person I needed.
‘Freezer’, I said, meaning ‘cold’.
She put an extra blanket over me and turned the control panel for bed, light, TV and computer back until it hovered directly below my chin. She poured me tea in a mug with a bent straw and opened the curtains a little further so I had a clear view of the garden.
I said that the tea tasted like tarmac, but instead of ‘tarmac’ the word ‘street’ came out of my mouth.
Since the accident many things have become distinctly foul. Coke tastes like cold dishcloth, liquorice like mouldy bread and chocolate has no taste at all. That last one is a real bummer.
‘Everything okay?’ she asked after she had replaced the tea with apple juice. She made to leave for the kitchen.
I nodded. I can do that.
Just after she had left the room I went hot all over. Even before I could ask Saint Paul appeared next to the bed. Dogs sense these things, his trainer had told me. I indicated the top blanket and made a remove-gesture with the little finger of my left hand. He took a corner of the cover between he jaws and slowly reversed until I moved my right index finger to tell him it was okay. While he pushed his snout under my hand so I could pet him, I felt a welcoming cool descend over me.
I am probably the only seventeen year old with hot flashes. The doctor says I have fifty percent chance that it will pass, just as the aphasia. On thebedriddensociety.com and friendlyvegetables.org, websites for paraplegics and other lame ducks, I had asked for experiences. So far I had only received a couple of equally lame responses, like Hello Hot Shot and Mighty Miss Menopause. According to my father my writing is much better now than it was before the accident. Lucky me. My so-called contacts are now real as well.
I opened the mail and read that the domain name hothouse-plant.com was still available, much to my delight. With my operating stick I worked my way through the registration menu, filled in my credit card number (my father gave me one so I can buy things on the internet) and clicked Send.
It was my mother’s idea to write the story of Saint Paul. I have to say that the thought of having something to do cheered me up immediately. It even made my father happy and he said he would have someone at the institute make it into a nice little book we could give to family and friends.
He meant well, I’m sure, and that is why I didn’t let on. Instead I suggested I open my own web site, so the story could reach many more people. I think he was proud of me then, because he had that kind of look.
The only other remarkable thing that day was the virus mail I received. Normally a virus mail is not worth mentioning, a couple will always manage to find their way through the filter, but this one made me sit up – in a manner of speaking. This mail was one in the series of ‘You have bad breath’, ‘I know your password’ and ‘It is too late’. This one only had three words, followed by an exclamation mark: ‘You selfish bitch!’
After dinner my father joined me in the sunroom and lit a small cigar. I like the smell of his panatelas. Smoke spiralled out through the window where Saint Paul lay panting after their walk. I asked him to tell me about outside. The actual words I produced made little sense, but he had no trouble understanding what I meant.
My father’s voice took me outside, through the front door, down two steps, over the brick walk and under the big lime tree. I could hear the garden gate squeak in its hinges. To the right the neighbour’s children had drawn hopscotch squares on the pavement in blue and white chalk. A little further down, in the shopping street, Clarence rolled down the marquee. In front of the coffee shop bicycles and mopeds crowded the sidewalk, inside I could hear the voices of my former classmates. On the door of the video shop was a hand written sign: “No registration, no film.” On the sports field at the end of the street a six-year-old boy scored the first goal of his life, on the next field hockey girls ran and turned, brandishing their sticks.
Outside is what I miss most.
‘Do you want a sleeping pill?’ my father asked.
I shook my head.
My eyes closed I heard him switch off the lights, all of them but one, and close the doors to the garden. The silence didn’t last long, I heard their voices, muffled and irritated. My mother’s angry footsteps on the stairs. I forced them out of my hearing and felt Saint Paul’s warm breath on my cheek. Then I dreamed I could walk.
Apparently that is quite normal for people in my situation. Such dreams occur irregularly, sometimes without cause, but often after the physiotherapist has been here. He massages my languid limbs en runs tiny electric currents through my muscles to prevent them from dying off. And it is just as if afterwards the brain thinks: oh, we can do this again. Sends me out into the world on my own legs. In my dreams I never go anywhere, I just put one foot in front of the other and progress. When I look down I see fat legs, alas.
But that night I did go somewhere, and that was new. At first I didn’t know where I was. I did recognize certain things, the façade of the gym for example, but the adjoining buildings were different. When I continued I found my bicycle chained to a lamppost. I know it was mine because I had wrapped the handlebar and carrier with red and blue tape. At the time I thought that was cool. My walking improved with every step, I could even make large paces with my hands in my pockets. But the people around me cast their eyes down when the saw me, because they knew I was fooling them. And that’s how I knew it wasn’t real. I didn’t care; I crossed the street and stepped directly onto the field in the centre of the park. You can do that in dreams. Saint Paul was there too, running circles around me.
I did a somersault, just to see if I could do one in my sleep. And I could. Right next to me my dog imitated the move. I crouched; he jumped over me. I moved my foot; he barked. I made him perform every trick he knew, because we were finally together again, playing in the park, and because the message in the virus mail kept pounding in my brain. It was true; I was a selfish bitch. Saint Paul was condemned to a life at my paralysed side. A single walk with my father, at the end of the day, was the only joy he had.
‘Haven’t seen you for a while’, a voice said.
Behind me stood the man with the cap. His belly still protruded from under his windbreaker.
‘I’ve been away’, I said.
The man leaned forward to greet Saint Paul, who did his utmost to make clear how glad he was to see him again.
I asked the man what I hadn’t dared ask him a year ago: ‘Do you know each other?’
He didn’t answer me. Instead he asked me my name.
I told him and asked him his.
‘You can call me anything you want’, he said.
In the following twenty-four hours two things happened, three really, if I count my mother’s noisy greeting that broke my dream. Soon after that I discovered that the only active muscle in my right hand had stopped functioning. And I received a letter. In that order.
It was mother morning. She washed me, conscientiously and with deep concentration. She did not sing. After the massage she helped me with my exercises, as she always did. Saint Paul knew he had the morning to himself during this ritual. Nobody had ever needed to tell him that. My mother had opened the French windows in the sunroom and while she worked my limbs one by one I saw him chase a fat toad down the garden. My throat choked seeing him in his lonely game. I decided to ask my mother to find him a friend who could take him walking. And just when I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that before I discovered that my right hand had lost its last movement.
‘Don’t panic’, my mother said and she grabbed the phone to call the doctor.
I screamed as hard as I could, I threw my head left to right, with my left hand I tried to knock the control panel out of its stand. I couldn’t and I screamed again. Saint Paul came running in barking his watch-out-danger-bark; my mother took the phone and walked out of the sunroom, her free hand covering her other ear and I screamed and screamed until the alarm on the oxygen pump began to wail, because I almost choked.
The doctor came, with the physiotherapist. They sat, bent over my hand covered with electrodes. They pushed buttons, lights lit up and went out again. They spoke doctor talk with each other and normal words with me.
‘You know how it is, missy, ’ the doctor said after about half an hour, ‘I can’t be certain about anything.
No one had ever called me missy; he did so from the very first time we met. I took to it straight away.
‘But you should know that this is probably irreversible.’
He confirmed what I already knew – it felt irreversible, because I couldn’t feel anymore.
‘How long before I suffocate?’ I asked. And for once it came out faultlessly.
‘I won’t let you suffocate’, he said.
That was a word I would like to make him keep, so I asked him to give me his word of honour. It sounded like: ‘War lord?’
The letter arrived in the afternoon. My mother had given it to Saint Paul and he deposited it, complete with slime residue, on my stomach. The top had been opened for me and using my one hand, also a pretty useless one come to think of it, it took me almost ten minutes to pry the letter out of the envelope.
These days I try to want as little as possible, because in my condition wanting nearly always leads to disappointment. But I have to admit I felt like crying then – if only I could have.
I read, and two minutes later I had a completely different wish. I wished I had been born thirty years earlier, in an age without computers.
The man who had trained Saint Paul to be a support dog wrote me that he had had him checked by a vet before the training (I knew that already). That was standard procedure because support dogs have to be super fit for the job they have to do (knew that, too). He had been scanned to see if he was chipped and he was (did not know that). His registration number was there in the data bank, together with the rest of his data.
I really didn’t need to read anymore to know what would follow. But I did, and Saint Paul, who seemed to feel what I felt, put his front paws on the bed and laid his head on my stomach.
It was pure coincidence, the trainer wrote, that he had logged on to the web site of the RSPCA. One of the dogs he had trained had run away. That never happened; at least this was the first time it had happened to him. He did not find the dog he was looking for, but he found mine, thanks to the search engine. And he found his rightful owner.
That evening the three of us had dinner together in the sunroom. We do that twice a week, as a kind of after accident variation on Catching Up Day. My father makes pizza or something else that is easy to eat holding your plate in your lap. He and my mother tell me about their day, their work and about what they have been doing. I listen. The rest of the week my parents eat in the kitchen, I have asked them to. That way I don’t have to see how they can hardly bear to look at me. And I can’t taste anything anyway, so I prefer to wolf my food down, as fast as I can, and get back to watching television or chatting. It was simply bad luck that that day happened to be Eat Day.
‘I feel really bad for you’, my father said, convinced that my pale face had to do with the loss of my right hand.
My mother tried to distract me and asked if it was a nice letter, the one that I had received.
Trying to speak was the last thing I felt like doing, so I took the operation stick in my mouth en wrote the answer. ‘The Support Dog Bulletin.’
I had to keep as close to the truth as I could, because I knew they had seen the logo of the organisation on the envelope when they opened it for me.
That evening I wasn’t able to hear a word they were saying, the sentences in the letter screeched in my ears. I made up an excuse.
‘Of course you are tired’, they said. ‘You get some sleep. See you tomorrow.’
After my parents had withdrawn to the living room I switched off the lights in the sunroom, using the control panel. Except the bedside light. I called my dog, lifting my chin and turning my head slightly to the right: the come-real-close signal. Saint Paul jumped on the bed and squeezed and turned until he had stretched his long body next to mine. He put his head on my chest and blew his breath down my neck.
One of the things I have learned this past year is that forgetting is the best way to fight set backs. I forget that there was a time when words rolled out of my mouth just the way I meant them to; I forget that just after the accident I could wiggle the toes of my left foot, I forget that only yesterday I could move the index finger of my right hand. I forget I once was a real human being.
But I cannot forget Saint Paul, because without him I don’t exist. That’s why I cried. And for the first time since the accident I was furious at the driver of the car who had ripped apart my nervous system, really furious, because crying without tears hurts like hell.
The next morning my mother left after hurried greeting. She slammed the door. My father came in for a chat. Dark lines beneath his eyes.
I raised my eyebrows. He understood the question.
‘Sometimes she has difficulty accepting changes,’ he said.
With that he meant to say that she had pictured a very different life.
‘My fault,’ I typed on the screen.
‘No,’ he said and squeezed my right shoulder. I didn’t feel a thing.
‘Lazy Sunday afternoon,’ the homecare nurse sang.
I opened my eyes and saw it was almost twelve.
‘You whistle in your sleep,’ she said.
‘Really?’ I asked. It came out all distorted, not because my brain got the words mixed up, but because my throat was screwed shut after a bad dream.
‘Yes really,’ she said. ‘Saint Paul came running out of the garden.’
‘But I can’t whistle anymore,’ I said, and I gave her a demonstration to convince her and myself.
‘In your sleep you can,’ she said and she pulled back the covers to help me out of my pyjama’s.
I had a dream walk. Saint Paul and I were in the park; I couldn’t remember how we got there. We did our tricks and then I threw some sticks, which he fetched for me depositing them at my feet, barking for me to throw again. In the park of my dreams it was always quiet and deserted, like on Sunday mornings. Which was a pity, because I couldn’t show anyone that I was walking. At the same time it was a thrill to have the whole park to ourselves. I could run and scream as much as I wanted without anyone taking notice. So I did. My craziness infected Saint Paul, he barked as loudly as he could and chased his tail. These days he only does that in my dreams.
I decided it was time for a new trick. Saint Paul paid keen attention. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and went to work. He eagerly followed my every gesture, and step-by-step I reduced my signs until they were hardly visible if you weren’t paying attention. Dreams have no time and so I cannot say how long we had practised before I sat down on the grass, exhausted by the effort. My dog trotted off a little way, sniffing between the reeds along the brook, and while I was watching him I discovered that the park had changed. All the paths followed the same route they had always done, and the green was still there in the same spot, but the plants were different. There were trees and flowers I had never seen before. The grass was unusual, too, thick and with a bluish hue. I took off my shoes and stood up. I realised that I could not remember when I had last felt grass tickle between my toes.
‘You come here all the time, don’t you?’ I heard.
I did not need to turn around to know whose voice that was: the man with the cap and the little potbelly. I had become used to him appearing unexpectedly.
‘Hi Andrew,’ I said. I had decided to call him that and he didn’t seem to mind. We shook hands, because that had become our habit.
‘You have lost weight,’ he said.
I looked down and saw skinny legs. It is hard to observe yourself without a mirror, but it did indeed seem that I was in my post accident body.
‘Walking is good for me,’ I said, just to say something, I didn’t have any real explanation. We talked some more, Saint Paul in between us, alternately poking his nose in his hand and mine.
‘Do you know what those are called?’ I asked. I pointed at the flowers swaying gently in the wind along the edge of the green. They had long dark green stems covered in white fur, and lip shaped flowers, so red they hurt the eyes, protruded from glossy leaves.
‘I don’t know their official name, but I call them girls lips,’ he said. ‘Do you like flowers?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said and that was the truth. I had never thought about it.
After we had said goodbye it happened. Saint Paul did not come with me; he went with him. He didn’t respond to my voice, no matter how hard I called. I whistled and whistled, nothing happened. Until Andrew disappeared from my sight. Not that the foliage hid him from my field of vision, he just disappeared. Pop. Only then did Saint Paul return to me.
‘Are you sure you want to remove StoryCountyCouncilAug28?’
I hesitated, moved the arrow to ‘Yes’. I was tempted, I really was. Leave nothing behind, suddenly seemed kind of tough to me. Strong. Just in time I realized how childish it was, may be even mean. So I clicked ‘No’.
The story I had typed these past weeks, letter by letter, the stupid little stick in my mouth, was not to disappear into the bowels of my computer. That would have been a waste of all the work, and what is more, nobody would have been able to read about Saint Paul, and that was what the story was for. I wrote, with some diffidence, how I ended up in this bed, because only then did I find out how special my dog really was. I wrote about the dreams, too, even though I never told my parents about them. It felt good to have something that could not be seen, washed, massaged or electro shocked. When I decided the time had come, the entire Internet community would be able to read about it. I noticed how the idea excited me. That kind of feeling I could still feel.
If I had kept at it for a few more days, it would have been finished. But what is a good ending to a story like this? The operating stick had left my lower lip feeling raw. I typed some more and ten minutes later hothouse-plant.com was ready to be launched with a single click.
The nurse hid the letter under the mattress, as I had asked her. She played at keeping a secret and mumbled something about a mysterious love. I laughed, to be polite, and afterwards I let the hours evaporate in emptiness, just like the hothouse plant I am. Thoughts came and went, like classmates from my old school – not one was worth remembering. I just looked, at my dog.
Of course it came out, much quicker than I had expected. The next evening my parents came into the sunroom, their faces sombre. Saint Paul’s real owner had just called.
‘He didn’t sound too bad’, my father said hastily. ‘I’m sure we can change his mind once he is here.’
‘When?’ I asked.
‘Day after tomorrow, after dinner’, my mother said.
My father asked if he could read the letter. I gestured with my head, indicating the mattress. He pulled it out and started to read, and suddenly I hated myself for not having said anything.
‘Morrow’, I said. I meant to say ‘sorry’.
‘Day after’, my mother said. It did not come across as the reassurance she wanted it to be.
Saint Paul is far away. His paws move in short spastic bursts – he is dreaming. I fight my sleep and in the faint light of my night lamp I watch his haunches move. Sleep is gaining ground.
The park is covered with a thick layer of snow. The trees have shed their leaves. Surprisingly there are flowers, calyxes reaching out above the white blanket. I see soft yellow ones, round, large as dinner plates, and purple plumes thin as gossamer, and I recognize the girl’s lips. They seem to move in speech, but that may be my imagination.
Andrew is there, a few yards ahead. I can’t see where he came from, as his shoes leave no trace in the snow. He stops and waves. Saint Paul is already on his way over, his long paws slipping. I take a little longer, having to raise my feet high with each step. As soon as Andrew extends his hand Saint Paul starts to whine, softly.
‘Can you hear? He wants you to stay’, he says. ‘Just like me.’
Saint Paul is now yapping like a lap dog, as if to say: come on, come on!
‘It is so lonely here’, I say.
‘Here’, Andrew answers, ‘it is however you want it to be.’
As I turn to look around, I am not lying, summer has returned to the park. I hear birds singing, leaves rustling in the wind – not a snowflake to be seen anywhere. And it is not deserted, it is Sunday afternoon; people strolling around, children playing and dogs chasing sticks and balls. Across the green I even spot an inn where they serve pancakes.
I call Saint Paul. He comes to stand next to me, his nose in my hand. With my left index finger I point to my throat and I purse my lips. My dog has not forgotten the last trick I taught him. He clamps the tube between his teeth, carefully so as not to hurt me. I blink my eyes, twice. He pulls.
You can hardly hear the oxygen pump alarm out here. Saint Paul does of course; he has been trained to hear it. But Andrew only needs one word to calm him down. I take the operating stick in my mouth for the last time and release our story to the world.
We stay here, to dream of living. But no one needs to know.
Translation: Charles den Tex