As a child I loved to fantasise about being a cucumber. In the evenings I would lie with my arms against my body under my dinosaur duvet, sometimes straight as a candle, sometimes with my legs slightly bent, and try for just a moment to take on the form of my favourite vegetable. I’m a cucumber, a cucumber, a cucumber, I would whisper aloud to my eight-year-old self, until it occurred to me that cucumbers cannot whisper. From then on, I would repeat my mantra in my head, until I realised that cucumbers cannot think either. But by that time I had usually fallen into a sweet, deep sleep. Nota bene: this was at a time when mindfulness didn’t yet exist and meditation was still something so exotic that just the idea of it was enough to send most people into a wild panic.
I lived with my parents and my brother Carl in a Vinex-wijk, an enormous housing development on the outskirts of a medium-large town in the Dutch provinces. The houses on our street were made of white bricks held together with light grey cement. Most of the residents had painted their window frames blue, red or yellow, primary colours which looked lurid against the white stone. There were a lot of children living in the development and thus an imposed speed limit of thirty kilometres an hour. Family cars moved through the streets like heavy animals towards school and work, grazing bisons in flatlands of straight pavements and basketball courts. Only in the evenings would you sometimes hear a car pull up fast. And now and then a scooter.
With their holiday money the people on our street would usually buy a new parasol or pressure washer – or a holiday of course. Most of our neighbours would staycation like us, going camping on the North Sea coast or to a holiday park in the Veluwe, but occasionally, at the end of August, a suntanned family would ride back into the street, having pitched up for three weeks in a Spanish field with a caravan and a small marquee. They would be treated with increased respect at the neighbourhood barbecue that was held every year in the first weekend of September.
My room wasn’t big, just eight square metres, but it was mine. In it was a bed, a tiny dark green dresser and an IKEA desk. Because I was in love with P., a boy from my class, I had carved his name into the desk (on the back, so that no one would ever see). When I was really small I insisted that my room be decorated with rainbow spotted wallpaper that made me feel as though I was surrounded by an endless stream of falling confetti. Later, pulling strips of said paper off the walls became its own bedtime ritual (along with fantasising about being a cucumber).
Trying to imagine how it is to be an object – a vegetable, a cucumber, something that grows but does not feel – has to be one of the most extreme tests of our empathic abilities. Mostly we understand empathy as feeling what the other feels, but to embody something that has no feelings means that you must genuinely feel nothing. And not in the sense of being relieved not to be plagued momentarily by the everyday emotions, but in the sense that to feel something – anything at all – has become an impossibility.
People often say that the moment a child notices that parts of him or her are changing is the moment at which the child develops a sense of personal identity, but for me this same realisation occurred when I became aware that I would never really change, that I could never become anyone or anything else. This is when I first subjected myself to a critical review, because she who cannot become anyone else must understand herself as fully as possible. It might be said that this type of navel-gazing is simply an expression of narcissism, but it could equally be one of modesty; you are, after all, the only subject about which you can hope to have complete authority; to assert an objective statement about anything or anyone else is fallacious, an act of vanity.
The results of my analysis, written up in a little exercise book, read as follows:
Ida, 8 years old
Will be a professor or a headmaster
Two big birth marks on left hip and left shoulder
One big scar on right arm (barbed wire)
Brother: Carl, 12 years old
Hobbies: reading and drawing
Hero: Donald Duck
Favourite vegetable: cucumber
Today, meanwhile, an identical piece of research would look like this:
Black hair, first greys
Will never be a professor or a headmaster (at least not anytime soon)
Is, however, a climate scientist
Is unemployed (but whatever)
Large birth marks on left hip and shoulder plus small freckles all over body
One tattoo (side of ribcage)
One large scar on right arm (barbed wire), one large scar on left knee, plus a few smaller ones
Hero: Naomi Klein
Favourite vegetable: broccoli
‘Is it starting?’ I ask.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘It should have started fifteen minutes ago.’
‘Maybe someone fainted back there.’
‘Or had a heart attack.’
‘Wait, I think the lights are going down.’
I met the woman in the seat next to me a week ago at our mutual friend Steven’s birthday. Steven is known to his friends as the guy who borrows money and never gives it back, or else gives it back in the form of something you never asked for. It was while he was leading me to his bedroom to check out an antique badminton set (he owed me 80 euros at the time) that I caught my first glimpse of her. She was stood next to the kitchen door, completely alone, but not in a sad way: a small, attractive woman in dungarees, one hand on her hip. She looked me straight in the eyes. It took a moment before I noticed Steven was pulling my sleeve and shouting my name above the music.
For the rest of the evening I was painfully aware of her presence in the room. Fortunately, this sense of awareness reduced in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol I consumed, so that, after an hour or two, I finally had the courage to speak to her. She introduced herself as Robin. She was thirty-two, hadn’t lived in Amsterdam all that long and had written her doctoral thesis on the Italian author Giacomo Leopardi. After an anecdote about his doomed love life (‘The love of his life turned him down because he stank!’) I asked her, with the help of a sad little story about my own terrible love life (‘but as far as I know I don’t stink’), out on a date.
And so now here we are, sitting next to each other in this enormous theatre whose lights have indeed just started to dim. Every now and then our legs touch, and the theatrical adaptation of Michel Houllebecq’s The Elementary Particles is about to begin. As the last of the light goes we pretend to study the flyers we were handed at the door on the way in. Soon there will be an afternoon of Asian film in one of the smaller theatres, I read. I take a too-big sip of beer and start coughing.
The curtain goes up and loud house music starts to play. A middle-aged man walks slowly onto the stage and shouts something to the woman following him at a distance of 10 metres or so. She has the same short black hair as Robin. I blink a few times as a white spotlight appears from somewhere.
Occasionally I’m able to follow the dialogues and monologues of the actors, but to be honest I find my thoughts drifting, especially after the break. I can’t get the article I read about atomic bombs that afternoon out of my head. A flash, they say. A flash, and then, if you’re lucky, a crack, like thunder, but most people don’t get to hear it. A few weeks ago I finished my Earth Science degree, and this morning I picked up my certificate from the departmental secretary. I can once again decide for myself what to become engrossed in, and, in one way or another, I appear to have chosen to become engrossed for the first time in the subject of nuclear weapons.
The actors take their last deep bow. Robin touches my hand and asks me what I thought of the performance.
Of course, in the theatre you probably wouldn’t even see the flash, though we can’t be completely certain – the atomic flash can be up to a thousand times brighter than that given off by lightning, and, who knows, one of the exit doors might have been left open a crack?
‘Brilliant,’ I say. ‘Absolutely brilliant. I found that actor with the long hair very affecting.’
I smile at the cloakroom girl as I hand her my stub. The codename of the aeroplane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima was Dimples. Outside, Robin and I say goodbye to each other at our bikes. I promise her I’ll call soon. She bends towards me and kisses me quickly on the mouth.
Once home I open up Teletekst to see if there’s been any ‘big news’. When something’s big news on Teletekst it usually occupies the whole upper half of the screen, or else the title of the piece will appear in all caps. Big news can be anything really, though if you’re hearing about it for the first time via Teletekst it probably doesn’t relate to anything urgent in your immediate environment. Tonight the most important news items are a meeting about the national terms of employment (always reported as being at some kind of perpetual impasse) and a fire in the centre of Zwolle. I exit Teletekst and find myself in the middle of a football cup match replay in which one of the players is being given a red card for a poorly executed tackle. His teammates are visibly furious until, against all expectations, they go on to make the winning goal. The scoring striker takes off his shirt in a moment of wild joy, a move that will unfortunately also guarantee him a card from the referee.
Along with hunger, thirst and the desire to have sex, the undisturbed rhythm of sports broadcasts is one of the most reliable things known to man: whatever happens, it will continue. If next Tuesday evening an atomic bomb should fall on China, you can be sure that all the teams would still turn up to take part in the European Championship the following weekend, black armbands on show.
I started off as a student in Political Science, and when I became interested in climate change it was primarily via an engaging political-philosophical question: how to reconcile a fact like the rising of the Earth’s temperature, the reversal of which requires a long-term solution, with the short-term perspective shared by almost all politicians? Even if everyone in the world were to simultaneously agree that something must be done to combat global warming, no one would put themselves forward as the first or only national government to sustain the loss of profit that inevitably accompanies earnest attempts to heal the environment. A real prisoner’s dilemma, began each and every lecture I attended on the subject.
After a while, the theoretical texts we read began to my make my stomach turn. The solutions proposed on paper by political scientists sounded great, but in practice, well, in practice there was nothing practical about them at all. I asked myself what impact the meters and meters of paper produced each year by the faculty on the subject were having on our politicians, concluded that the answer was ‘none’ and decided to transfer to a discipline that would hopefully be more in touch with reality. In the final year of my bachelor’s degree I signed up for a minor in Future Planet Studies and followed this with an intermediate year in which I caught up in Physics and Chemistry before at last being admitted to the master’s in Earth Science. Instead of policy I would now preoccupy myself with that which determined policy: data.
At the beginning of this new course of study I came across Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a book that indeed changed everything for me. Research shows that the extent to which people believe in climate change is contingent on the kinds of solutions offered, writes Klein. It’s for this reason that conservative liberals will fully subscribe to our ability to influence the environment when the proposal is one to build more nuclear power stations, while the idea that carbon emissions are reduceable by our switching to wind or sun energy only causes them to express scepticism. In many instances, then, while data might influence policy, policymakers have often influenced the data in the first instance.
After our first date, me and Robin start seeing each other regularly, often sleeping over throughout the week. As she becomes more and more busy with her PhD, I have, for the first time in a long time, not all that much to do. I clean the house for hours out of sheer boredom; I even begin to iron my socks and underwear. At the same time, however, my final undergraduate research project has been received with enthusiasm by my supervisor. The subject, the influence of shale gas mining on the quality of dikes in certain regions in the north of the Netherlands, is, according to him, very topical.
In an interview with the university newspaper I explain that there are many businesses with high CO2 emissions who still receive financial support from the government – oil companies and organic industrial farms, for example. More than 5000 billion dollars are supplied in the form of subsidies to fossil fuel producers worldwide each year. Simultaneous to this, many green enterprises are forced to reckon with deregulated industries that may suddenly decide to affix enormous importance to the rules when it suits them. That this reality contradicts the neoliberal principle ‘the market does its work’ is not something you hear about.
Alongside the interview is an enormous picture of my head, a photo about which my friends regularly tease me because of the way I’m looking so seriously at the camera.
‘My little intellectual,’ says Robin as she carefully cuts out the pages and pins them to her noticeboard. I plan to spend the rest of my life with her, only I don’t dare say so just yet.
 While they may emit very little CO2, nuclear power stations release a whole load of nuclear waste into the surrounding landscape – this is impossible to get rid of.
Image © Tim Vrtiska
This is an excerpt from The Opposite of a Person by Lieke Marsman and translated from the Dutch by Sophie Collins, out with Daunt Books.