The love song of a clandestine guardian angel
Ten minutes ago Winnie was still thinking the world should simply end. This morning she had a fight with someone I don’t know. I expect it’s one of those clever dicks trying to claw their way up the ladder at that rubbish advertising company that has taken her on as a temp. The spat wasn’t serious, but believe me, less significant incidents have been known to send Winnie into a broody spin over corruption, mortal sin, violent revolution, environmental disaster and total annihilation. Winnie is one of those people who at the first little setback console themselves with the thought that everything on earth will inevitably come to a crashing end. But it’s the height of summer, luckily, and she’s walking down the street in a T-shirt (white) and jeans (skinny, ripped at the knee), and the sun, which is, after all, blameless, makes her skin glow, so it’s no surprise that Winnie is already thinking of other, more appealing things: a glass of beer, a shady terrace, a filter cigarette.
If you really want to know: I was once in love with Winnie. Once. Now I just love her the way, on a day when I’m ready to face whatever I have to face, I also love the sun. It was one of the few things we had in common, Winnie and I: we loved the sun. On summer days in the village where she and I used to live together in my rundown garden shack, half the inhabitants would rush off to the beach to scorch themselves in the sun alongside the tourists. On those days we would ride our bikes along the quiet streets, exhilarated. Winnie perked up when there was less traffic, with all the cars parked at the seaside blinking in the sun. Winnie despised cars, and especially their drivers, but as soon as they were out of sight and the hatred inside her ebbed, she became receptive to the love I was always so keen to smother her in.
On those pure, quiet days she would sing improvised ditties as we pedalled past the camping and the restored pancake house, to where it was even quieter, the dunes, which were only accessible from the bicycle path, to observe the seagull colony. If Winnie was happy and relaxed, I was too, and was prepared to slap at flies all day long as we lay stretched out on the sand drifts in the middle of the dunes, the middle of nowhere, and savoured on each other’s lips the aftertaste of the vanilla ice cream we’d just had at the wooden coffee house, next to the sheep pen that had no sheep in it but tons of shiny bikes locked with the kind of flimsy AA padlock you haven’t seen in the city for years because anyone can smash them open with a single well-aimed kick. At night we’d eat spaghetti and get a bit tight on the wine from the supermarket, and before going to sleep in our shack I’d apply aftersun to her back and shoulders, because not a summer’s day went by when the sun we so worshipped didn’t manage to set Winnie’s shoulders on fire.
She was twenty-four, I was three years younger, and of all the things I didn’t know then, the thing I knew least of all was that there was no point getting jealous about her past. After she came to live with me, Robert would sometimes phone her. He was the bloke Winnie had lived with for two and a half years in a student flat in Diemen. They’d been in the habit of bashing each other over the head with various chipped pots and pans before making up with a hot passion that even now, retroactively, I wish I could have prohibited. I believe most of their friends and acquaintances called them ‘the perfect couple’, an empty phrase people like to employ to describe a popular, attractive pair. In truth they weren’t at all well suited. In spite of her thoughts about the world ending, Winnie has what in chick-lit is known as a ‘sunny disposition’. As for Robert: his temperament doesn’t let in even a flicker of sunshine. Cheerfulness and optimism are déclassé in his book; good moods are for chumps. That contrast wasn’t particularly good for their relationship. Whatever Robert was against, Winnie was for, so that they often lost sight of the fact that they actually agreed on just about everything. Where Winnie was for starting a student protest action, Robert was against the neo-feudal administration of the academic overlords. Winnie was for radical reforms and the further democratization of South Africa, Robert was against the clandestine terror operations conducted by the white state apparatus still in power at the time. Winnie was for abortion and euthanasia, Robert against the evangelical Broadcasting company and the Dutch Christian fundamentalism it advocated, which was proving a more stubborn holdout than anyone had thought possible.
So they were on the same page on everything, which is always a great plus. Yet to Robert, Winnie’s optimistic attitude was nauseatingly chirpy and upbeat, whereas what really annoyed the hell out of Winnie was Robert’s dogmatic negativity, which had intrigued her when she first got to know him, but which she later found smug and extremely unsexy. When the world showed its positive side, Winnie just couldn’t persuade Robert to rejoice about it; and whenever anything went wrong, even in the most godforsaken corner of the earth – and of course there was always some disaster happening somewhere – Robert couldn’t seem to make her see that it had been bound to happen. If one day the world did actually end, Winnie would have a full-scale panic attack and Robert would be proved right. Come on, be honest, which would you rather have: authentic, heart-stopping fear, or the glib, smug knowledge you were right?
I met Robert just once. It was at one of those parties that some officials, but mostly our less exalted fellow citizens, tend to find outrageous. In the halogen-lit recesses of a second-floor flat on one of Amsterdam’s central canals, once a squat but long since renovated, some Arabic-looking boys were suavely, I’d almost say flamboyantly, snogging other Arab-looking types. Nobody knew whose party it was, but the guests were the sort that aren’t fussed about who exactly invited whom. So that’s where I ran into Robert, who Winnie had told me was ‘in spite of everything’ ‘quite inspiring, really’ and besides that, just ‘good-looking’.
Robert wasn’t really supposed to be there either. Let’s just say there are parties you’re not invited to, but still somehow wind up at, if you get my drift. The only thing Robert and I had in common then was that we both felt a bit awkward about being there, and our discomfort may have been noticeable – although for different reasons. Robert, as a blatant heterosexual, probably felt out of place in that almost intimidatingly trendy company; for my part, I just felt too unattractive to be there – when it comes to insecurity and inhibition, I am a flagrant pansexual. A hired funk band was playing too loudly for me to hear Robert say anything ‘inspiring’, but no one at the party would have denied he was ‘good-looking’, although I was happy to see two gross ginger-coloured warts sprouting in his neck. The warts were as big and round as shirt buttons, and you could somehow tell he often scratched at them. Our exchange must have lasted no more than five minutes, tops. Shouting to be heard over the music, he asked me how Winnie was. I answered truthfully (yelling back) that she liked the life in my village, where there was nothing much to do but go for walks, go out for coffee, hang around and count the clouds. Robert stared at me and his face took on a waxen expression. He was practising looking inscrutable, which was probably supposed to disguise profound disdain. He must have thought (and probably still thinks) that he ‘formed’ Winnie, ‘educated’ her, ‘raised her consciousness’ – I don’t know how exactly he would describe his influence on her, but the fact that Winnie, in the time she lived in that student flat with him, had turned from a ditzy adolescent into someone who could make your jaw drop at the things she said, the things she did and (to be fair) the way she looked was something Robert probably ascribed to his own, indubitably lengthy, list of talents and attributes.
At the risk of being accused of being spiteful (which, believe me, I am not – not really), I think I have every right to despise Robert, his personality, the two button-warts on his neck and every minute Winnie ever spent in his company. The more bastards you get to know, the more it seems that you ought to have the right to deprive them of any happy memories.
I met Winnie about a month after she’d left Robert. It was in a Chinese restaurant behind Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. She was on the phone – talking to her parents, she told me later. I was eating rice and beans, and when at some point she discovered that her linen handbag had been nicked – wallet, cash cards and all – I gave her money for the payphone and the food she’d ordered, and went with her to the Warmoesstraat police station to report the theft. Two weeks later she moved into my shack, to live the way I was living. And so we contentedly observed all the ways nothing in the North Holland dunes ever changed, and twice a week went swimming in the sea, spring, summer and autumn, always after eight at night, taking no notice of rain, cold or other people, and whenever we weren’t outside, we’d be indoors watching B-movies on the telly with the patience I’d taught her to have, the patience of angels, or reading hefty yellow-edged American paperbacks about rootless geniuses who, if they weren’t lolling about somewhere sucking on a joint or opium pipe, were always walking in the rain or waiting in airports for couriers or accomplices or loved ones that never showed up.
Winnie and I, we lived on fresh air, because it was always extremely draughty in the social services office with the one desk where I had to present myself once every three months to fill in forms specially designed to put you off. Once, when she had been staring at me for a long time with throat-constricting intensity, I literally felt it in my bones: all the flesh of my body tensed up, seemed to contract, ready to dissolve and expose my skeleton for Winnie to chisel her love into. I wouldn’t have minded, actually: she a teenager with a knife and I a piece of tree bark into which she solemnly carved a wobbly little heart. Without her knowing it, she was drilling her way into my very marrow, I would dizzily tell myself. Who can blame me for being happy with her, and having my innards, my sinews, muscles and joints demanding their share of that happiness?
After eighteen months and twelve days, Winnie decided that neither the fresh air nor I lived up to her dreams or expectations. She went back to the city, where instead of spiralling into drugs, fundamentalism, fornication or Robert, she finished her art history studies in one intense but perfunctory spurt, and, notwithstanding a lackadaisical attitude, produced a rather brilliant thesis on Mark Rothko and Zen Buddhism. Shortly after graduating she got a job at that crummy ad agency and a small council flat near the Tropics Museum, to which, once every five or six weeks or so, she would lure some punk kid she had picked up in a smoky disco (after Robert they all had to be younger) to share her bed for the night, never longer, involving one or two condoms in the night and three or four croissants in the morning – they were always big eaters, those boys, and unlike her girlfriends’ reports, the boys always went at it for an inordinately long time, not the eating, of course, but the fucking, as if they were keen to break all kinds of personal records so that they could brag about it later to their mates. In short, Winnie lived the life most of the people around her were living: dull, uninspiring and mundane, without even a speck of selfless devotion or unconditional love. Winnie was wasting her splendour; it was hard for me not to miss her.
In the initial weeks of her return to the city, I had to train myself to deal with being alone once more. With the help of alcohol and self-taught meditation, I focused my mind on her life, which was playing out some fifty kilometres south of me. The fact that she was getting on with that life quite openly, without any noticeable trace of the past we’d shared, astonished me at first. But after a month or so, I discovered how alarmingly easy it was for me to feel almost literally transported into her presence. I didn’t even have to close my eyes, drink myself into a stupor or with orphic absorption hum myself into a trance in order to behold her in my mind’s eye: I was so close to her that after half a year of this I was aware of all her comings and goings, what she was thinking and what she was feeling. Without ever having to leave the house, and without her having even the slightest inkling, she had never left me; I was with her more than ever before. That is how I became Winnie’s clandestine, outcast and utterly powerless guardian angel.
I decided the sensible thing was to accept this new role and be satisfied with it. However, I was often anything but sensible, and therefore felt terribly unfulfilled— because although I was closer to her than ever, it was impossible to make contact: she remained deaf and blind to my compassionate presence. If I touched her, it was the wine (or the one-night-stand city-boy who’d wound up in her bed); if I spoke to her, it was the trees (or her boss, at lunch); if I smiled at her, it was whatever she fancied was going on with the wind and those trees. She was like the sea, into which I could bellow as loud as I liked what I wanted, over and over, without any effect. My despair, my desire and my besotted love began to fade, the nature of my love changed, I was starting to love her like the sea – or, as I mentioned before, like the sun, which, like a pet, so generously lets you adore it, and which I couldn’t blame for anything either, not even for the existence of clouds.
Winnie and the sun. Even on a sunny day like today, for instance, she won’t think of the traffic-free afternoons in the village, when we used to . . . right, I already told you about that. And yet in the end it is the sun that draws Winnie and me together, for as she’s walking down the street, having nearly forgotten all about this morning’s spat and her consequent brooding about the end of the world, we are both feeling the stinging yet balmy caress of the same sun on our skin, I in my garden, hunched a bit awkwardly over some flowering Poor Man’s orchid and at the same time invisible, but none the less tenacious, at her side; and she, Winnie, in Leiden Square, walking towards the American hotel – because the thought of an outdoor terrace, a beer and cigarette hasn’t left her.
Look, just a few more steps, and Winnie is taking a seat on the terrace across from two apple-tart-eating ladies who are thinking about the gossip they’re about to exchange. And as she sits down and smiles at the waiter and smiles at the ladies and smiles at a boy with a trendy pair of sunglasses perched on the tip of his nose riding by on his bicycle, she hasn’t the foggiest – is completely oblivious of the fact – that Robert, whom I just saw buying two tickets for tonight’s show at the Cinerama box office on Marnix Street, and who very shortly, in less than three minutes, in the space of time it would take to warn Winnie – if only I could – to get out of there, to go home or, I don’t care, to go to the park; oblivious of the fact that in less than, now, two minutes, Robert will have spotted her; the shock settles in quick, cool waves in Robert’s stomach, upon which he rallies with characteristic speed, plucks up his courage – scratches the warts, perhaps? – realizes with relief that Winnie hasn’t noticed him yet, has time to rehearse some clichéd pickup line and decides to feign surprise as he walks up to her and utters the prepared text: ‘Jesus, Winnie, it is you! How the hell are you . . . ?’
What can I say is happening, about to happen? Of course Winnie waves her hand and Robert sits down next to her. Of course they immediately start talking ‘as if they never lost touch’. Of course he’s flirting suavely and she’s gaily (and nauseatingly, so fucking nauseatingly) flashing her expensively whitened teeth as she laughs, hahaha, as she laughs at his little jokes . . . forgotten are the knockdown, drag-out fights of the past, forgotten is the snooty tone of voice in which he used to lecture her, forgotten the dreary fucking in the early morning when her thoughts were elsewhere and she was dry as a bone and the only thing he was after was to come, to come . . . There are no awkward silences; neither one has to search for words. Robert tells her about his world travels, about his mother who (lowered voice, lowered eyes) was ill and is now dead (‘oh no,’ says Winnie, sincerely) and about how good he is at keeping up with international developments in computer science; Winnie tells him about Mark Rothko and about Zen, about raves and the income gap, about cool restaurants in the Jordaan, about the housing shortage and the job market and about me. They’re talking about me and Robert says something like, I once met him, at some dreadful party, he didn’t seem your type at all, he was so quiet and droopy and was he good in bed I bet he wasn’t good in bed . . . Winnie orders two beers and answers, grinning – ah, forgive me for turning away for a moment, for inspecting my little garden, for burying my nose in the Poor Man’s Orchid and stuffing my index fingers in my ears; for toppling headlong into the flowerbed, coming up with a forehead smudged with soil, a twig between my teeth, a flower in my hair I’m not here I’m with Winnie in the dunes I am the girl-ocean called Winnie . . . What can I say is happening?
Well. What’s happening doesn’t surprise them at all, really, me even less. I’m hovering over their café table like an invisible, impotent third wheel and have a clear view of, for example, Robert’s hands (flat on the table top, not a dirty fingernail in sight), of Winnie’s eyelashes (mascaraed), eyelids (eye-shadowed) and cheeks (kiss on the cheek, from me, from the wind). And whether I now focus my attention on a hand gesture of hers, a glance, a charming little laugh, or a slight frown meaning ‘I’m listening to you attentively’, it all points to what Robert and Winnie (and I) both (all three), already know yet at the same time are carefully leaving unspoken . . .
Don’t call me a voyeur; if the two of them were reunited by happenstance, it is my fate to have to watch it happen. I can’t help it. I may have secured for myself a place close to her, but how do I rid myself of her, of the irresistible look of her, of Robert’s seduction tricks, which she seems to be so gladly tolerating? When I close my eyes I am immediately aware of every little thought that flashes through Winnie’s brain, and believe me, at this moment I would rather have Winnie’s exterior in my mind’s eye than what’s going on inside her head. No matter which way I turn, or make myself think about mice in the house, about soggy overcooked rice, or the dentist’s laser drill, I am incapable of not knowing what Winnie is doing, seeing, saying, thinking or wishing. And so I have to witness Robert settling the bill, the two of them trailing (not yet in complete lockstep) towards the tram stop, the Line 2 tram jangling to a halt, the two of them scoring a seat, teasing each other (Winnie’s dreamy throat-laugh continually pealing out) and how everything, every interaction, gesture or topic of conversation (and corresponding hesitations) is but the prefatory scrimmage to the event no mortal will be astonished to see coming: a striking sexual encounter, as I once saw it formulated in one of my yellow-edged American paperbacks.
Will anyone be surprised if I choose to give as brief an account as possible from this point on? Any elaboration would give me – seeing that I am already deep into American terminology here – the blues, as defined by some potbellied crooner: the blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad.
So: there’s a restaurant, haphazardly chosen by them upon getting off the tram at the Koningsplein stop. There’s a menu (wannabe haute cuisine) and there’s a wine (Bourgogne Pinot, 1990 – well, well, R., laddie, aren’t you the big spender?). Before the main course is served, there’s Robert’s hurried phone call, at the back of the restaurant: ‘Alice, let’s go see that film tomorrow night, shall we? I bumped into some mates downtown, yes, I know, sorry, sorry . . . Yeah, yeah, you’re a doll, bye, love, bye, Alice. Kiss kiss.’ There’s brandy with the coffee, and a right moment for one of them (Winnie) to confess to the other she’s ‘a wee bit tipsy’. Throaty laugh. There’s a short stroll to Rembrandt Square, there’s unvoiced speculation as to whose place . . . There’s Café Schiller, where Winnie artfully manages to dodge several people she vaguely knows. There’s a last glass in an all-night café down the street. There’s . . . But perhaps it’s best if I tell myself it’s all an elaborate hoax, that it’s just television, the fortieth repeat of an episode from some American series, and that I’m a detective and I’ve been assigned to tail Suspect A (Winnie S., of Amsterdam), who at this very moment, hesitantly, is responding to the proposal of Suspect B (Robert What’s-his-name, also of Amsterdam) who’s wondering if . . . if maybe . . . Ah. No? Uh . . . well, then a hotel? Ok? Good?
Pension The Three Princes on Dam Street, a shabby dosshouse with junkies decoratively draped in adjoining doorways and giant grey rubbish bags, most likely tossed down from three floors above, nestled against the broken streetlights. Suspect B, flushed, stands at the desk to pay in advance. Both suspects take the stairs without exchanging a word, and upon reaching the fourth floor thread their way along the corridor. Suspect B breaks the – now nevertheless tense – silence with some inconsequential mumble about a dried-up ficus tree in an alcove. Suspects enter designated hotel room. Place of delict carries the number 406. Both suspects inspect hotel room. Suspect B smiles and closes door. Suspect A silently curses stubborn lump in throat. Suspect B takes initiative in commitment of crime. Warm hands under Suspect A’s white T-shirt. Muttered sweet nothings. Surprisingly uneasy sigh from Suspect A, who whispers wouldn’t it be better if . . . or, isn’t this crazy . . . Suspect B prevails over Suspect A by snuggling his head against her shoulder with a guileless but unequivocally pleading look in his eye; Suspect B is making himself small, helpless – in the trade we call this the ‘little-boy tactic’. Suspect A responds to the look by stroking his hair, nestling her hand in his neck. Suspect B tightens his grip on her. Suspects undress themselves and each other.
It is 03.16 hours when the crime is committed on the bed that was changed that morning by an underpaid Dominican cleaner. A few details to note: the bedsprings sag, one of the two bedside lamps is broken, and the tap over the rusty sink drip-drip-dips – didn’t I tell you this was television? Most important detail: neither suspect makes a sound; the offence takes place in complete silence. This last has no – I repeat no – religious significance, it is merely the silence of pleasure alloyed with fear. After changing position three times, it is Suspect B who at 03.41 hours breaks the silence and with short, rather nasal bursts of breath announces his orgasm. As for Suspect A: the crime fails to bring about the culminating physical explosion in her. (Stop lying, arsehole, you’re neglecting to mention the shrill, high-pitched sob you heard just now; and didn’t you see her back arching, the way she started glowing all over, or the pinkish flush welling up in her neck and along her shoulder blades? Did this ever happen to her when she was still yours, all the blood in her body bottling up beneath the surface, turning her skin red?)
I happen to know that many detectives train themselves to put on what they call ‘a steely expression’, and that they possess the same cold efficiency also encountered in politicians, TV presenters and certain local dignitaries. All in all I don’t think I acquitted myself very well in my brief stint as detective. May I please be taken off the case? May I please be excused? May I please be allowed to leave the Room 406 battle scene? Won’t some almighty supreme being, I don’t care which one, please return me to my own grotty little garden and make me be like everyone else on this earth – unaware, uninformed, oblivious? And could someone please tell me to whom and where to apply for membership in the Society for the Advancement of the End of the World? Those who would deprive me of the right to have such unfriendly thoughts or feelings can just go find themselves a self-made guardian angel of a more tolerant stripe. To those who decide to stick with me, I’ll confess that I was extremely gratified to know that Robert was feeling depressed and rather sad just now, consistent with post-coital law, and that, faithful to that same law, he fell asleep without putting up the least resistance . . . I mean, I don’t blame Winnie for leaving him sprawled on that pathetic three-quarter bed; nor for collecting her clothes and boots in the dark, splashing a handful of water on her forehead at the sink and sneaking out of there.
Granted, as he lay there fast asleep Winnie did kiss him goodbye, she did kiss the corners of his mouth and – ever so gently – his left hand, which she then cautiously picked up and moved to his chest, so that our friend Robert now lies there like an operetta singer, eyes closed, clutching his heart. Now she’s even writing her phone number on a paper hankie she’s fished out of the back pocket of her jeans, and leaving it . . . on the pillow, or should she leave it on his clothes? Unable to decide, she stands there, paper and pen in hand, before slipping the tissue, folded and all, into one of his shoes, the right one. Love filters right down to the toes, did you know that?
In the lift she reads what is scratched into the four walls: that Howard loves Jeanette and Chris loves Ineke; that Ajax is forever and God is a football team and even that ‘good old Killroy was here’. Behind the desk stand a young man and a no-longer-so-very-young woman Winnie hadn’t seen earlier that night. Neither deigns her a glance, since they assume Winnie is one of the hordes of semi-desirable lady guests who by reason of their profession come and go at dubious times of the night, ordered from an escort bureau by some randy hotel guest in a fit of boredom, preferably a married man from the sticks whose wife has temporarily kicked him out. But anyone paying the least bit of attention will notice, as I do, that Winnie is making her way to the exit with a skittishness that does not accord with what in the circles of those same married men is known as ‘a young lady of easy virtue’. Hastily, and with suppressed-panic stealth, she slips out of the hotel. It is long past midnight, the sun set so long ago that you’d almost forget it exists; less than a kilometre from my shack the oily, ink-black north Sea has for hours been the land’s fearsome bogeyman, and I, I am like the night whose presence not even Winnie can ward off. She finds herself gazing at the tacky, outdated neon signs over the storefronts, at the waiting-room-yellow street lighting in front of the hotel. And Winnie pretends to herself that there’s no rubbish piled against that streetlight over there and that the shivering drug addicts in the dark doorways aren’t junkies at all but sentinels disguised in rags; courtly, true-blue depressives with whom she might, perhaps, share her suddenly awoken angst.
On the Dam the night-time traffic whooshes by; only a couple of taxis are required to revive Winnie’s car phobia. The aversion is so strong that all other feelings and emotions are clean forgotten. And as Winnie’s hatred of cars and drivers raises its ugly head even at this late hour, and she wishes a fatal traffic accident on every single cab driver in Amsterdam, an equally unpleasant dream-wish pops into my own head, one I’m rather ashamed of, granted, but which would be a convenient way to release me from my increasingly unbearable guardian-angelship.
Because if Winnie does indeed harbour such intense and heart-stopping hatred for anything with an engine and four wheels, then surely there ought to be a stressed-out taxi driver somewhere, or some reckless undergrad with a brand-new driving licence in a shiny new Fiat, who could run her over, preferably with a fatal outcome? Couldn’t some double-seeing, blotto intellectual come chugging along in a Lada and mistake the Rokin’s zebra crossing for a poorly marked acceleration lane? Isn’t there some other miscreant out there with his foot on the gas who could notice Winnie just a fraction too late, so that she’s tossed in the air, hurled to the ground, crushed, maimed, mutilated? Is it really so despicable of me to conjure up a tragedy, to daydream about the ambulance, her parents’ despair, the brief paragraph in the paper, the obituaries, and finally the low-budget but lovingly produced docudrama about ‘Winnie the accident victim’, shown six months after her death on the hippest commercial TV channel? Is it, in short, so criminal of me here to confess that a fatal accident would come as a welcome relief? I mean, if the only thing that compares to my all-seeing gaze glued onto Winnie is a continual living death that’s driving me insane, can’t I be allowed, just this once, to indulge in the thought of Winnie in a deadly accident – my only possible salvation? Can’t Winnie and I be allowed to part, to be divorced from each other, I stone-dead in my stone-dead little garden, my nose buried in the crematorium-pink Poor Man’s Orchid, and she simply gone, wiped off the face of the earth?
Allow me my brief rhapsodizing about her death. Allow me my morbid flirtation, allow me to wallow in my own shittiness, allow me my garden melodrama. If I’m making myself look clownish, pathetic, despicable, aren’t I also proving myself harmless? Because in reality of course the cars stop in time – one by one, all in a tidy row. Wherever Winnie goes, she invites respect. Cars spontaneously bow before her. One vehicle reverently flashes its headlights at her, short–long–short, an SOS serving as an improvised headlamp aubade. Save Our Souls, Mistress Winnie . . . And as in her glorious oblivion she crosses the street longing for a cup of camomile tea, the newspaper and then a good sleep, even the morning brume appears to be moved. The way you can tell is that suddenly everything and everyone in the city is shrouded in mist, except Winnie. Winnie is striding purposely through the town, straight through the light and straight through my heart, and never before have I felt this certain that there is an innocence in all that she does, thinks, doesn’t do or doesn’t think, an innocence she will never lose. It must be the innocence of the world.
Joost Zwagerman’s ‘Winnie and the innocence of the world’, translated by Hester Velmans, is included in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, published in September 2016.
Photograph © Valeria Boltneva