Jaap van der Schaaf was born in Amsterdam in 1990 and lives in London. “Terschelling” is a redacted chapter taken from the debut novel he is currently writing. This is his first publication.
August is the only month Terschelling sees a crowd. As the farmers’ sons gathered on the mainland gaze across the shallow mudflats of the North Sea stretched before them, the tides rise. Saltwater-covered banks shift places. And every low tide a brand new landscape of dark, wet mountain sand emerges from the waves as seagulls encircle the small puddles left in its recesses. An unruly sea marks her territory with dark brown waves. Each retreating wave leaving a thick, white foam-ridged line on the shore. Children wade through the seaweed bashed ashore by force. Some hold nets in the waves for agile, needle-sized silver fishes to slip through glistening. Others dip their heads underwater to see nothing but a dull, wet brown stinging their eyes.
The sun was clearly visible when they stepped out of the train and onto the platform in Harlingen harbour. The pier the platform was built upon stretched out into the water and was buffeted by a crisp, unobstructed seashore wind. A visitor centre, betraying it used to be a lighthouse, was set atop the other pier neatly encircling the small harbour. Dainty, triangular flags were fluttering atop the masts of galleys. Dotting the harbour’s many moorings, they bobbed along to the waves, rising and falling in congruence with the rhythm of the sea, as though directing the orchestra of seagulls screeching above.
The ferry itself was tiny. Inside it looked more a bus than a boat. Two rows of seats, one aisle. Its footing unsteady. Rocking perilously to what seemed on shore to be a calm sea. Annelies strode across the bus-like boat towards a window seat in a faded, yellow plastic. Tijmen sat down beside her. Behind them, Yiannis sat down next to Sophie. Emma sat down next to Sylvia. Bob next to Noah. Jochem next to Gerda.
At some point Tijmen and Annelies had started calling out each other’s names in languid vowels. It was unclear to either of them exactly when this had occurred or who had started it, but Tijmen was drawn-out to “Tijmuhuuun” and Annelies stretched thin to “Aaahanneliies.” They had co-opted this particular long-voweled Frysian accent from a kids TV series they both loved, Saai. It featured two girls in wellies who would sit atop a fence bordering an empty meadow. The impetus for every episode was their boredom, and each started with the simple, languidly phrased, “I’m boohoooored.” Neither Tijmen nor Annelies came from this particular region in the northernmost part of the Netherlands, but here they were, now, right there in the thick of it. On a ferry towards the topmost edge of Frysia. Stepping off that train Tijmen and Annelies had set foot inside the parody that had struck a defining cord with the both of them. They were there in the land of the accent that had lingered. The one they had co-opted. Reenacted. Over and over. Right there in the land of the languid vowels that had got stuck. Dodging freshly shifted sandbanks as the ferry zigzagged towards the thin strip of island.
They were bored.
Annelies had dozed off, her cheek pressed against the window Tijmen stared out of. He would have heard the squeals of seagulls up above were it not for the roaring engine’s humming rumble. He stared out at the water, focusing his gaze on the horizon until the line separating sea from sky blurred white. Feigning sleep he too had disappeared, if only briefly. Hidden behind yellow, faded plastic seats.
Cupped by a great mound of dunes, the harbour was poised on the southwesternmost tip of the island. The busboat rocked slightly less perilously on this shore, and the waves nudged the boat gently as Bob was helping Noah out of his seat. This delicate balancing act was part of their daily routine. A pas de deux of tender boys. Noah would stick out his left arm. Thin and tensed muscles holding aloft a limp wrist. Bob would cup Noah’s armpit in his elbow-crease and gently hold Noah’s outstretched wrist in the palm of his hand. Then, lift off. Always clunky. Unsteadily upwards. A butt and a gut swaying on knee hinges. Hip joints creaking a rusted excavator screech. Till Noah would find his balance, stood steady. These movements were so ingrained, so everyday that neither of them had to say a word. Their muscles had memorised the minutiae of each movement. Tendon outstretched meant cue the music. Limp wrists aloft meant they commenced the dance. Sweat-stained pit in elbow-crease. Hand to wrist. Straight hoist up. Crescendo.
Standing upright, searching for his balance, Noah’s right hand suddenly flailed perilously. Tijmen quick to grab Noah’s right pit, joined their dance of musks in elbow-creases. Hand palms to limp wrists. The unsteady dance now of not two but three tender boys. Danger avoided, brushed off, joked under. Noah helping them clear the air of any tension. “One too many mimosas, am I right ladies…” he joked in his best Carrie Bradshaw impression as the two girls gawking at him quickly turned around, red-faced. Bob grinned.
They had gotten used to his stand-up comedy routine. Jokes were the cane he used to beat reality with when she threatened to come a little too close. Impressions were his way of keeping her at just the right distance. The reality that, besides the thin arms and bad balance, he had fragile ankles and one leg that was significantly shorter than the other, forcing him to wear steel reinforced boots. One platformed, thick-soled, one not. So that each morning his legs, more tendon than muscle, were stuffed in boots so heavy he lacked the strength to fully lift them. Making each step a herculean effort.
Noah slowly lifted his leg, tugging at it from his hip. Then he tilted his weight entirely on his other leg and used the resulting weight-shifting momentum to thrust the lifted leg forward. Step by step. Slowly, patiently, Bob holding Noah’s left pit in his elbow-crease and Tijmen cupping Noah’s right, the three of them waddled off the busboat. All pit musks and limp wrists. Wading through.
The first out into the open, Sylvia was unsure whether or not to help Noah get down the flight of stairs leading from the boat down to the shore. Unfamiliar with the particulars, Sylvia didn’t. She was instead dragging her trolly across an empty parking lot when she spotted a big, blue flag stating its wares in bold, white font: FIETSEN. Without talking to the others, she upped her pace and made a beeline straight for the blue-flagged bike shop. Sylvia arrived amidst a scurry of other tourists trying to secure their holiday vehicles of choice. There wasn’t much to choose from. It was either ladies’ or gents’ bikes. A distinction which had always puzzled her. Lost in thoughts she pulled her hood over it. It had started to drizzle.
As the others caught up with her, Bob asked for a bike for Noah. “So what you want is an adult-sized tricycle?” the blue-flagged bike shop owner had repeated in disbelief when Bob explained his query further. “No, sorry,” he said, he did not have any such thing for rent. He had one of those kids’ bikes with side wheels, but it was pink and tiny and Noah would surely break it by shear body weight alone. “No offense.” The only solution he could think of was a tandem. This he told the group while pointing at a two-wheeled, double-saddled bike for two. Soldered in tandem, ridden as one, this solution was discussed even though they had no choice. There was in fact no other option. It was either getting on that tandem, or getting back on the boat.
It took two people to get Noah on the bike. Bob sat up front keeping the bike steady and upright whilst a second person had Noah cupped under their arm. Noah used his own arms to lift his leg up and onto the low, swooping frame. This leg lifted on the bike frame he then used as a lever to hoist himself up creaking and onto his seat. And whilst one person held onto the bike’s sides, Bob slowly took off. Terrified. Bob’s balance. Noah’s balance. Bob’s crash. Noah’s bones protruding from his flesh.
The thin-stripped geography of Terschelling made setting off easy. Since the harbour was poised on the westernmost tip of the island, there was clearly but one direction to go. East. They cycled past rows of wooden piers breaching out from the harbour like a branch, jagged and empty. Past the rusted remains of what used to be a shipyard. Past yet another and another bike shop flag boldly stating its wares. They cycled until they reached a thin path out from the main town and into the dunes, where the great mound of harbour-cupping sand was held in place by grass dune hills rising up around them, slowly obscuring the houses from view.
Sylvia was dragging her pastel blue, two-wheel trolly along behind her. Emma was dragging hers. Their wheels rattled on the asphalt. Their laughter loudly bursting out on top and over it. Yiannis was trying to both carry his own luggage on his back as well as drag Noah’s trolly behind him. He was hurling curses at Noah knowing that he had brought at least ten heavyweight, hardcover books with him, having boasted on the train that he had “…some nonfiction works to read up on.” Noah and Bob were cycling unsteadily in front of Yiannis. They couldn’t hear his cursing. The wind swept Yiannis’s words up and back over his head, scrambled. For as the cycle lane made a sharp turn towards the left, they had found their way face-first into the wind’s deafening path. This flat stretch of land was buffeted by a relentless beating. Sweeping in from across the Baltic Sea, this wind blew icy hymns into the dune grasses, ensnaring their razor-sharp edges, sounding a chorus of high-pitched whistles, waving green-white blades along the coast, singing icy, dune grass hymns onto the shore.
Gerda knew where they were going. Though she had memorised the route, Gerda had put a printout of the directions in her backpack just in case. Their home for the week was called Roodkapje. She had booked the house because it had ticked all the boxes. It slept ten people. Tick. The deposit wasn’t too extortionate. Tick. Nobody at this particular house had asked for her age. Tick. This she did by default. Methodical listmaking. Gerda had cabinets full of words, ideas, notions, and theories filed away. Endless corridors of drawers she had been steadily filling full of them over the past six years at St. Ignatius Gymnasium. As far as she was concerned, everything could be explained. Nothing was unintelligible. And if at first it was unintelligible, the studied unintelligible was not so any more. The unknown was through filing transformed. Every single thing in this world could through logic be made explicable. History, language. Tick, tick. Philosophy, maths. Tick, tick. Happiness, love. Tick, tick.
The thing Gerda couldn’t logic her way out of though was their age. She could do the maths. As could anyone. Surely if a group of ten, rowdy eighteen-year-olds was to show up with bags full of bottles of booze, the owners would turn right around, shut the door, and they’d be stranded, homeless, and very far away from home. So she had made sure to cycle upfront and create as much distance between herself and the pack as possible without raising any suspicions. Less people meant less rowdiness. Less people meant more control for her. Meant a possible positive outcome.
They were cycling along a road called Hoofdweg. This main road connected the harbour to the other villages on the island. The flat green stretched before them was dotted by the occasional farm. Far-reaching views of grass were obstructed only by wind breaking rows of trees. To the left of them cars were driving by at eighty kilometres-per-hour. Theirs was a cycle path that just about fitted three bikes cycling abreast. Two if another bike crossed their paths going the other way. So they cycled in clumps of two, of three, fully submerged in conversation. In flows of words that hadn’t stopped since they had gotten on the train at Amsterdam Central Station. Occasionally broken, split apart by a down the Hoofdweg cycling bike, but always regrouped. Always coagulated back together again. Always going back down this ever-flowing river of talk, again.
It wasn’t long before Gerda had got her way and the group had split. Jochem and Gerda up front, followed shortly thereafter by Annelies and Tijmen. Those who lagged behind had disappeared from their view behind a row of trees. Bob and Noah’s tandem moving at a snail’s pace in this wind. Bob gushing with sweat. Noah tensed out back. Emma, Sylvia, and Sophie cycling three in a row, trailing lazily behind them, followed by a cursing Yiannis.
After the town of Landerum would follow Formerum, and there, Gerda knew, would be their home for the week. First exit left off of Hoofdweg, down past Terschelling’s only windmill left standing. Down past the cafe equipped with a mini-golf course conveniently situated right next to the only windmill left standing. Down past the farmer’s sons building igloos out of beer crates. All along a tree-flanked, cobblestoned little lane scurrying in between the fields at the backs of farms. Until they hit, neatly tucked away behind a row of trees, Roodkapje.
The four of them all showcased the most polite, buttoned-up versions of themselves to appease the lady who was giving them a tour of the house. They nodded with exaggerated interest when she told them about the stove button that didn’t work. They hummed “but of course” in full accordance when she reminded them about the neighbours next door and keeping noise levels to a minimum. They clasped their hands behind their backs and pretended to listen to her showing them the correct way to sort the rubbish. Until finally she showed them where they would be sleeping for the week, and she had their undivided attention. For they were checking this room off against the previous one. Assessing which would be theirs for the week. Tijmen making eye contact with Annelies. Deliberating through eyebrow contractions which bedroom was best. Deciding their single- or double-bedded fates for the week.
Downstairs there were two bedrooms. Upstairs there were four more tucked under the sloping, orange-tiled roof. Each room was decorated with a name plaque written in white, swirling italics. Jochem dropped his suitcase onto a single bed in the upstairs room that swirls called ‘Opkaemer’. Written in the Frysian, languid-voweled dialect. Next door to his was ‘Schiethuis’. Gerda pointed at it wondering, “Does that say the ‘Shithouse’?” Uncertain, but convenient they both thought. They were planning to get shitfaced.
That night they had all admired the stars. Lying down in the grass, Gerda had coined the term star bathing. “As in sunbathing,” she had explained, “but we’re basking in the rays of stars instead.” This had sparked their imaginations and it hadn’t been long before Gerda and Sylvia emerged in their bikinis ready for some midnight tanning. Which eventually resulted in Yiannis, who was wearing swimming shorts, being stripped of his t-shirt and reluctantly being forced to join in too. Their pale white flesh luminescent in the dark. Their flailing limbs lit by the UV-rays emanating from the kitchen window. Though it had started with the three of them lying down in the cold, wet blades of grass, trying hard to see stars through a cloudy sky, eventually both girls ended up posing for an impromptu photoshoot that Sylvia was directing herself. It involved a wad of cash and various drunken acrobatics.
When, grass-coated and shivering, Sylvia and Gerda ran back into the house, they bolted straight for the bathroom. Yiannis, who had given up on the endeavour way before the two of them did, had been seated in the living room, watching telly and waiting for his hot bath to fill up. So when he spotted the girls running into the bathroom, he was forced to follow suit. He explained to them that this was his bath, he was cold and that was their fault, and the least they could do was wait until he had had his bath, and that when he was done the bathroom would be theirs. They hadn’t waited. Photographic evidence showed them all three, squeezed into one tub, Sophie in a grey marled sweatshirt posing in front of them, the peace sign she threw partly obscuring the tequila bottle perched on a ledge moments before it fell in.
When quiet had finally fallen over the house, in the safety of darkness Tijmen would tell Annelies he “… had always liked guys.” This hadn’t been part of the script he had been staging for months. It had simply happened. It was the bed and her and the closeness that were the nudge that had made him come out to his mother two months earlier. A nudge his subconscious had remembered. A nudge that prompted this sudden crossing, when the two scenes were temporarily laid over one another. This dark bed, that dark lie-down. The crossings echoing across time.
“So now you tell me?” Annelies asked teasingly after he fell silent.
“I guess, I just…” he answered.
“I know,” she said. “I guess I kind of always have.”
For they had been through this years previously, when Annelies had called him to ask him if he loved her. Straightforward and unflinching. She had a tendency to do this. To reach out from the folds of her shyness with a piercing honesty. A whip cracked across the vast expanse of her awkwardness. And whenever she did reach out, he tried to answer in kind.
Frank honesty though had been lying bare, in a more quiet place.
A place, especially at that time, they had only tentatively visited themselves. What little experiences they had lived through had, up till that point, been half-hearted ones. And even in those rare moments they did cross over into that more quiet place where frank honesty laid bare, they had stepped in the already trodden sand of the movies and books their teachers had had them live through. Their own lived through emotions having felt like mere imitations of those big-eyed feelings they had seen on screen before. Pale and distant intimations of those read about in library books. Hungering for frank honesty, they had stuck their heads underwater and opened their eyes only to see a dark brown, stinging sea. They lacked the language to fully see them.
Their innermost thoughts were dull and brown and muddled.
. . .
The next morning, they were greeted by a crisp, clear sun. All evidence of yesterday’s grey drizzle scorched away. Clouds long gone. The fact that the back garden was fenced in by a thick row of trees meant the wind couldn’t reach them there, nor did prying eyes. They laid sprawled in the grass on a patchwork of towels. Yiannis was immersed in a book written by his about-to-be-professor down at York University. Sylvia was listening to a meticulously collated disco playlist on her iPod whilst flicking topless through a gossip magazine, tanning her strapless back. Tijmen was reading a novel he had brought with him, and Gerda was reading one she had found lying around the house. Annelies was pouring people fresh mugs of coffee. Emma and Sophie were scrambling eggs, wafts of which breezed through the wide-open kitchen doors and window. Jochem was carrying a plate full of freshly scrambled ones into the garden, having just woken up. He joked to Bob, already sitting at the picnic bench, that this was the life, “boobs, eggs, and sunshine,” and sat down next to him. Noah and his iPod docked into a small speaker set were sitting away from the rest in the shade the house provided. He was reading about the Privatization of Ambivalence whilst listening to Nico singing quietly. Her voice haunting in amongst them, unnoticed.
Crisping gently in that late morning sun they looked almost happy.
They had forgotten, if only momentarily, the wounds they shared. There in that crisp, still patch of grass, they felt the inimitable sense of release hung suspended in midsummer air. There, sprawled out flat, they felt a release so strong it sounded out any pains aching underneath. There, they were freed from the wounds that bound them. Felt the scarring less acutely. Gone was the gash they had nursed in those high school corridors. If only for a moment.
They were basking in the sun.
. . .
Curtains of rain drew half-closed across the night. The girls had just gone out. Annelies in a yellow raincoat. Sylvia in her shortest dress. All in heels. All in full face. The boys had stayed in. They drank beers in bad imitations of their uncles at birthday parties. Posing on the couch, they slumped. And telling crude jokes, they took a note from Noah’s book and beat reality with a stick. For whatever confidence they lacked was easily patched up with some crude jokes. And just in case humour would not suffice, they were also perfecting their apathy. But until this two-pronged fence of faux confidence was strong enough, they were staying in. Unfenced, they weren’t quite ready yet for all tomorrow’s parties.
The girls were though. They were ready all right. They had laughed at the stupid babies on the couch. They weren’t staying in. They wanted to live life bold and dance all night till the morning light. They wanted to live wild, New York, Sex and the City lifestyle lives. They wanted to live the kind of grown-up lives that needed hours of preparations. Each layer of nail polish was them taking a bold, new step into adulthood. Each straightened lock of hair and curled eyelash ushering in their new, fully fledged, grown-up lives.
A little over a week ago Gerda had sent them all an email opening with the following sentence: “First of all, we won’t be bored. There’s discotheque The Stoep!” Though this was clearly typed to be read ironically, here the girls were, honouring that proclamation. They were going to The Stoep. They wouldn’t be bored. They were living their lives in full. They were living their full-faced lives.
Tijmen wished they weren’t. Bob had switched the channel to Sexcetera. Tonight’s program featured a small independent movie festival in New York showcasing pornography as art. One of the art-porno subjects was a man with a diaper fetish. In him they had found themselves an easy target for scorn. The tiny telly was pointed at jeeringly. Noah laughed a garish laugh. Jochem scolded. Jochem visibly relished in his scolding. They drank beers, pointed and laughed in unison. United in their freak scolding relish. And Tijmen couldn’t help but join the dots, “…if that man is a freak? And I am a freak…” So he receded further in the recesses of his brown, murky water. Banks shifted. He was not coming out. Most definitely not. Decidedly not. The time wasn’t quite right. Plus he wasn’t quite ready. He would zigzag on. So he too pointed. He too scolded. He too relished in the scolding. He too drank his beer, pointed and laughed.
Meanwhile midnight was cooling down the island. And as the rain hitting the green, flat stretches of Terschelling turned from pitter patter to a thunderstorm, the girls’ full-faced lives were washed off. In mere minutes their faces were returned back to their acne-ridden truths. Their paint-stripped faces returning to Roodkapje within an hour of setting out. Their bare legs buffeted by Baltic winds, they were red with cold. Their faces streaked. Their deceptions slowly running away from them. Defiant in their defeat though, the girls carried their wet bones straight to their respective rooms, most up, hung their clothes to dry, and came back down into the living room in bikinis. One bathroom and five, frozen girls had resulted in a compromise straight from a lazy porn producer’s mind. They would all shower together. Though not in the nude, but in their bikinis. Well not all in full bikinis. Not quite.
This midnight state of half-nakedness was a much welcomed albeit recent development. Thrilling though it was, it was no longer an entirely novel idea. A precedent had been set. This was a thing they did now. It was thus that Sylvia, in order to get some added stares, had decided to take off her bikini top. It worked like a charm. To the sound of drunken, uncle-like clamouring, the girls walked past the living room. The boys eagerly followed the parade, only to watch the bathroom door fall shut. They were now standing in the long, unlit corridor running along the unnecessarily wide bathroom. The door was locked. Some banged on it, others on the walls. The girls were screaming. They had all drunk themselves brazen. Jochem had drunk most. Was most brazen. He led the pack. And hence he was the first to get hit. For when the sound of metal on metal signalled the lock being unlocked and they all fell silent, Jochem had outstretched his hand to slowly open up the door. The vivid imagery of what had been happening inside that room painted on his retina. Hungrily seeking to confirm reality was just alike, only to be confronted by Sylvia standing widespread and bare-breasted, brandishing a shower head, shouting “NOW!!” And as Gerda turned on the tap and Jochem stumbled backwards against the brick wall, arms raised in surrender, he got a cold shower antidote, trying desperately to scramble for cover.
This quickly turned into a game of cat and mouse, in which occasionally the door was flung open, and Sylvia sprayed them with the hose, after which, the door was rapidly closed shut again. And opened and closed shut again. Over and over again. The boys slowly piecing together fragments of what was happening inside. Supplanting missing bits with wild imaginations. Tijmen saw a glimpse of four girls squeezed into the one tub and informed the others. Their glazing eyes steamed up. And whilst yet again the door opened and, hosed down, they quickly closed it shut again, bathroom conversations bursted out in tatters. Her bare legs swinging out of the bathwater, they heard Annelies shout out a friendly but exasperated “Stop hogging the Baaahailiieys!” This had enraged Yiannis, shouting, “Let. Me. In,” whilst pushing Jochem aside. “I was looking for that bottle! Don’t tell me there’s nothing left.” Yiannis banged on the door. “That cost me twenty-three euros and forty-nine cents!” he shouted till again the door opened, and he got pushed inside by Jochem and Bob. Door shut. Yiannis was now banging on the other side. Screaming bloody murder. Whilst Sylvia threw her wet and naked body onto his fully clothed back. The bathtub shouting, “get HIM!” Sylvia humping. Yiannis shouting, “Help. Me!” His muffled screams hardly audible over the bathtub full of screams. Jochem and Bob’s retinas flaring up. Fantasies in overload. Imaginary figments enacted, taking over and supplanting whatever version of reality it had shown.
. . .
Annelies and Yiannis were cooking a monstrous amount of pasta. Sophie was cutting onions at the dinner table wearing goggles, Emma was seated next to her peeling the tomato skins of a briefly blanched batch. The rest had grabbed a cold beer from the fridge and were gathered in the living room on the three, dark green leather sofa cushions contained within thick, teak frames. Gerda proposed they play this board game she had found in a cupboard. Slowly showing the box containing the game to the room, building tension, she dramatically exclaimed, “The Loooooveboat.” Jochem and Yiannis groaned, she had made them play this game yesterday morning. It was a board game where every roll of the dice was followed by a painfully intimate question about one’s love life. They had vowed to never play it again. Gerda though, was quick to stifle their protests. She proposed a change of rules. “We won’t use the board, nor need dice. I will just read a Loveboat question out loud and every single person in the room will have to answer. Truthfully.” That way she would get maximum spread of information in the least amount of time. That way she could get one question answered by nine people at once. Information, efficiency. Tick and tick. Starting with Emma and Sophie at the dinner table, she fired exceedingly intimate questions at the lot of them. Encircling all their love lives. Methodically. Clockwise.
Tijmen played along until he found himself agonising over the most banal Loveboat question. “Are you a boob or a butt man?” In response Emma had shouted “Boobs!” but Gerda had ignored her. “This is a question for the men only,” she had repeated, looking encouragingly at Jochem. Sylvia had sided with Emma, “Why can’t women vote on this?” Gerda had repeated the question, emphasising the word man. “Are you a boob or a butt man?” Sylvia had shrugged her shoulders, making eye contact with Emma, rolling her eyes at such a petty insistence on semantics. Meanwhile, the men all gave their expert opinions on the matter. Each exceedingly well-informed answer ranged from Bob’s, “I can’t choose, I guess I’m greedy,” to picking either side of the boob or butt man equation, groping either option in mid-air to drive the point home as clearly as possible. Meanwhile, Tijmen’s brain was spinning out of its sockets. The last in line, he was contemplating which answer to give. Frantically trying to figure out how he should phrase his preference to make it ring truer. Calculating which groping gesture would make them believe his lies once over. Trying to keep his surface reflective and brown and muddy.
He had spent the better part of the past five years biting his tongue. Had poured so much energy in feigning this lip curled facade. This only ever showing of his surfaces. Forever zigzagging. Always only reflections. That the wave of truth he then uttered had been a gradually building one. Bellowing deep below the surface. Roaring hungry to crack. And there was some form of divine wisdom, surely, in the telling banality of the question, “Are you a boob or a butt man?” Something in the sheer, mind-numbingly grim, double-pronged options of straight life, boobs or butts, butts or boobs, that told him enough was enough. And as he spoke, his words shook through the group with the relentless force of a dark brown North Sea wave. Words that made them see him unmuddled. And in that moment, whilst the Loveboat rocked, they were all reeling and unsteady and wholly unable to find their balance.
. . .
Tijmen could hear excited voices hum through the wall. They were getting ready to go out. They were full-faced and readying to dance again. He was separated from them by a thin partition wall and the long, unlit corridor. He was not coming with. Their reaction had been so staggeringly jubilant, so positively overjoyed he was forced to follow suit. Their acceptance of him had meant he was forced to equally fully embrace himself. But, having pushed his innermost insides away from himself for so long, he did not know how. They might have felt relief, finally seeing him for him. He in turn felt terror. If this was who he was, how come he did not know anything about this self? How come he wasn’t even able to answer the simplest questions about it?
In their excitement all had burst out in speech simultaneously. Sylvia shouting, “I knew it!” Emma, “didn’t I fucking tell you guys?” Jochem was dumbstruck. Annelies stuck her head out of the kitchen, still holding a large, lilac knife and smiled a nodding smile. Gerda was quick to realise that her question wasn’t relevant in this particular case. Now that Tijmen clearly was neither a boob nor a butt man. And whilst she reconsidered the relevance of the question, she wondered out loud, “I guess you are a butt man then, right?” In unison all eyes swivelled around in their sockets and looked at Gerda. Then craning necks and raised eyebrows looked at Tijmen. He did not know the answer. He had genuinely never thought of that.
The girls’ plan to go out had been rekindled, but now with the exciting buzz of finding Tijmen a man. “What do you mean you’ve never even kissed a guy?” exclaimed Emma when she had prodded Tijmen to share some more steamy Loveboat secrets. They were all prodding him. The game had lost its egalitarian momentum. Instead of one question being asked and answered by all, now all asked every question they could think of and all asked only him. The prodding flood of interest had overwhelmed Tijmen. Their questions relentless. The house too small.
They would figure out soon enough that he hadn’t just gone to the toilet, Tijmen thought. All night now he had been most full and frontal in everybody’s mind and this was precisely why he was in hiding. There’s no way he was going back out there. That’s where they were. With their ambush of questions laid in waiting. He had looked into the long, unlit corridor, and instead of turning back to face the crowd, had walked into the darkness of his downstairs bedroom at the other end.
There were two unmade single beds wedged into the small room. A knee-high, wooden skirting board made of cream-panelled wood circled the tiled floor. Centred above each bed was a little reading lamp. Attached to the wall and drooping down they were cream too, as were the wooden beams spanning the ceiling. A small closet was set into the wall on his right side. It was obstructed by two suitcases, folded open. A curious blue light shone on the tiles right in front of him. And as he followed the light up past the cream, circling skirting boards, up past the white, crunchy, sharp plaster walls he noticed the curtains. A small window was obscured by thick, light-obstructing curtains. The moon seeped in only by the solid curtains’ curves. In between the waving folds of fabric and the windowsill were the moonlight slits that showed Tijmen his escape route. He flung open the curtains, then the window, then flung himself out.
It took awhile but they eventually found him. Sitting outside. Alone. In the dark. On the picnic bench. It was Annelies who had gently opened the bedroom door, spotted the open window, and said his name out loud. “Tijmen?” He had wanted to answer in their long, drawn out, languid vowels, “Aaahann?” But a wave had been all he could muster.
Shy and feeling silly, he told them he wasn’t crying, but “…I don’t want to go out. I can’t. I won’t and I cannot. It’s just… I’m not…” Emma putting her arm around him, nudged him back towards the lights of Roodkapje. “What do you want to do?” she tried at first, then after a brief silence telling him “whatever you want to do…” Meanwhile, on his left, Sylvia had taken to the stage he had vacated. She was spouting in his ear of her own lesbianisms, wildly gesturing its particulars, and then when that didn’t get her an adequate response, she told anyone listening that she spoke fluent Swedish. She had had enough of Tijmen stealing all the limelight. As did he.
Walking back towards the lights of the house, he looked up and saw the others all gathered in the doorway. He halted, his legs frightfully frozen. In turn, Emma had known he wanted to get out of there and asked him. He nodded. She nudged him on his bike and told the shadows in the doorway that they were going for a ride. Annelies, Sophie, Sylvia, and Yiannis followed. All six of them in silence. They were going for a fresh pelting of Baltic air. Two turns to the left and they were in the dunes. First a strip of thin, toothpick trees. Then the wind. They lazily let their bikes fall into sand as their wheels stranded in the mound of it. Without a sound. The wind singing eerie sea grass hymns.
The mound of dune sand was cupped like a crater. Tijmen laid himself down in it towards the brim. Up top, looking directly at the moon. The other five laid down beside him. Also looking up at that exact same moon. Now obstructed, then not. Clouds drifting by in droves. It was busy with them up there. Yet they were only visible when obscuring the moon. Only visible in contrast.
Tijmen was the first to speak. He still had not used the coming out monologue he had prepared. The one he had modelled after the manyfold Academy Award acceptance speeches he had been watching on YouTube. The soliloquy that was lying dormant, that was still pent up in his shyness, fully formed and dying to lash out from the folds of it. For Tijmen had often pictured himself graciously accepting an Academy Award. And that night he was. In his own way. Channeling his inner Meryl Streep, gushing, shock eyed and teary, he thanked them for their unwavering support. Then he pictured himself turning to the camera and addressing her. Only her.
And said, “But most of all, I’d like to thank my Mum. I thank her for shrugging when I showed her that which was secret in me. I thank her for shrugging when no one else would.” His voice catching in his throat as he said, “Her indifference truly was my salvation.”
This truth was voiced too cryptic for the others to know exactly what he meant by it, but they needn’t ask. For he proceeded to tell them how his mother in her selfless grace and piercing wisdom had sat down on his bed without turning on the lights. “Without flicking a switch,” he said, making the gesture in the midnight air. This gentle nudge of preserved darkness was so monumental he argued that, where he was concerned, it should have been carved into marble. This unlit nudge should have been woven into cloth and displayed in some palace opened to the public. Lying yet again on his back in total darkness, he stated how in that darkness she had truly seen him. Stated how as he revealed the tender deep from within the muddy brown of him, she had seen him. Had managed to pierce his deep dark brown. And how, as he paired the words I and love and men, she did not flinch. She did not gasp. She did not leave but a pause or a gap of regret.
She merely shrugged.
And of course she had hugged him close and told him she loved him regardless of whom he loved. Of course she had done all those things a mother’s love professes her to do, but that monumental shrug was all his. And his alone. A shrug devoid of cliché. Devoid of melodrama. Full of generous, selfless love. A shrug of truth self-evident in its simplicity. And in its tenderness.
This all too familiar shoulder muscle contraction would maybe not have seemed that significant to most. But this shrug was precisely the thing she had been trying to instill in him. That shrug was the bullheaded, blue-haired rebel spirit she had laid down whilst she raised him in her womb. In that shrug she had said it all. That shrug said, “Fuck’m! Fuck’m all.” And it was the exact lack of spectacle with which she shrugged that stirred within him a Sondheim orchestrated crescendo of deviance. An orchestra that until then he had not been able to hear play. An orchestra she had shrugged ablaze. “Don’t let your life be swept under the conceits of others,” she shrugged. Shrugging ashore a truth that bore down upon him with the relentless force of a dark brown North Sea wave. A shrug that had left a permanent, white foam-ridged line on his shore.
His monologue prompted theirs. The six of them spoke for hours, their stories circling in and out of one another. Annelies spoke of the time she had called Tijmen to profess her love for him. She spoke of how Gerda had told her not to, but how Yiannis had said he would have done the same. Yiannis spoke of the misfortunes of being Tijmen’s friend. Of girls falling for Tijmen. Yiannis falling for them. Emma spoke tentatively of her crush on Sophie. Of how she struggled to separate these two types of loves of lust. Sylvia spoke of the gay man she had once loved, the one who had “… stuck it up the wrong hole! NO warning!” Emma spoke of her lesbian grandmother. Sophie of the time Tijmen had almost told her. She spoke of the long, midnight bike ride they had taken well over a year ago, when, a little drunk and blown brazen by the wind, Tijmen had told Sophie of the girl he’d slept with. How he had kissed her. On the lips, on the nape of her neck, breasts, clit. Then how he had looked at his limp dick in fear. Sophie hadn’t told a single soul, she told them. She had taken this secret shame of his and kept it safe. Emma attested to this. And Emma spoke of the group shaming maths class, which now, years later, Tijmen was still able to recall in painstaking detail. The number pi hung atop the walls on 124 colourful A4s. Their faces clearly hiding the whisper and scurry of a secret, when Emma had asked him outright, “We were talking about it just now, and I said, well, he’s sitting right there, you know. So, why don’t we just ask him? I mean, like instead of speculating about it, instead of gossiping, you know…” That maths class was etched brick for brick into his skull. And right now, as the six of them cried invariably, if only a little, it got etched in afresh. Tinted differently now. Emma smiled encouragingly afresh. They cried more tears then sobs. And laughed tears too. Whilst the clouds obscured the moon from sight, they were dripping both types of tears unseen into the crater mound. And the unseen moon. And them smiling.
. . .
The unspoken midnight divide hadn’t gone unnoticed. Especially when the next morning the midnight stargazers hadn’t stopped talking about how special it had been. All morning it had been their self-revelatory topic of conversation. And, when cycling to the beach they passed the supposed midnight crater mound, Emma had screamed, “This is it! You guys, look. This must have been where we cried. I’m certain it was here. Look, those are our bike trails. Look guys, look!” As the others had had their faces pushed in the fact of it.
At the beach, Jochem had locked his bike to Emma’s because she asked. Emma had smeared suntan lotion on Jochem’s back because he asked. But a dispassionate friendliness hung aloft between them. Their smiles were dead-eyed, mouth curl smiles. All were fake. In the six months since they had broken up, this had been their newfound performative pleasantness. A strange, deferred intimacy. Nice and amicable, but a hollowed out kind of pleasant.
A storm had gathered.
Less than half an hour ago, Jochem had gazed up at it. Standing in the sea, feet firmly planted in the sand, he had been wiping sea from his brows. Staring out into the solitude where seashores merge with the deep, dark black of storms, he had stood still, looking at the waste of water in front of him. He watched it expand and contract. Had felt the weight hurl towards him. And all of him had wanted to stay there and be in it had he not heard Yiannis’s voice call from behind him, muffled as though the sound was coming from another room. The deep sigh of the waves had clung at his sides as he turned round to see the beach. To see them all far off in the distance, in miniature, hastily throwing found objects in the nearest bags they could grab hold of. Wildly beating sandy towels before they scurried off into the dunes.
Being the last ones out of the sea, Jochem and Yiannis had found their stuff on a small pile. They had each grabbed their own towels. Sunglasses and flip-flops in hand, Yiannis had thrown on his faded button-up shirt unbuttoned. And hurriedly they had joined the rest. Yiannis ran ahead, up into the mound of dune grasses where Gerda was standing impatiently at the top gesturing for him to do so. Yiannis’s bike was locked to Gerda’s. Jochem was about to run up too when he was confronted with Bob and Noah. Buffeted by seashore winds, the two of them were struggling uphill. Jochem, remembering that he had promised that morning to alleviate Bob from his tandem duties, intended to keep that promise and decided to help the tender two over the dunes, wading slowly along the stretch of asphalt neatly folded in between the mounds of dune.
When the three of them, sanded down and panting from exertion, eventually made it to the bikes, only Sophie and Emma were waiting for them. Jochem quickly undid the lock that was attaching his bike to Emma’s whilst Sophie and Emma stared at the sky behind him. Neither of them seeing much else but the seashore’s deep dark. It had risen up into the sky and over the dunes and was suspended, perched dark at the tip of a wave. The Baltic wind was howling. Any moment now the sky wave would break. Any moment now, and they would be crushed in its scrummage.
His swim shorts were still partially wet in places so Jochem felt himself slip unsteadily as he sat down on the vinyl bike seat. His towel draped around his shoulder was definitely an inconvenience. Also, he’d soon find out, were his flip-flops. Still though he didn’t consider for a second if actually he could. Do this. Nor did the others.
Jochem was preoccupied with placing his anger for everyone leaving firmly onto the only two who had been forced to stick around. After unlocking her bike, he had made sure Emma waited for the tandem to take off. She didn’t want to upset him. Not any further than his love for her had already done. And so she stuck around awkwardly. Sophie standing by her side. All eyes still firmly fixed on the seashore’s deep dark perching up above.
The first hundred meters had been choppy. Jochem and Noah had almost fallen over twice. Twice Emma had squealed in fear. But every single time they had been steadied right back up again by Bob’s sturdy hands holding on. “You aren’t too far from Roodkapje,” he caught himself saying out loud. Jochem knew this to be true, but had to keep reaffirming it to himself. This was the mantra that would make this cycle possible. “You aren’t too far from Roodkapje,” he kept repeating. “Close enough,” on a loop. In the hopes that talking to himself in second person would help him calm himself down. Help him focus. As other bikes sped past them down the bicycle path, fleeing for cover, it wasn’t too long before there was no one left on the beach to overtake them. No one left to see them wobble down this stretch of road. No audience to see Jochem’s boxy shoulders perilously sway in and out of balance, but for Bob. His breath held behind them and Emma’s and Sophie’s panting, backs turned towards them, cycling far ahead.
Halfway down to their final destination they passed through a small town. It consisted of a block of new build flats, a row of old farmhouses and a red postbox. Here cars had to slow down. There were bumps and signs and cobblestones to prevent speeding through. This town was the brief respite lent to them before the road curved right back onto the Hoofdweg and into the flat, green stretch. Only a few hundred meters out on the main road was where the storm finally relented. Where amidst the flatness it decidedly crashed its wave upon their shores. And where they were crushed in its scrummage.
Screaming, Emma and Sophie stood up on their pedals and took off without so much as a glance his way. Jochem shouted anger at their backs, but they didn’t hear it. The wind swept his words up and crumpled them into a ball. And the storm raged as he bellowed, cursing their backs. Thunder rolling across the earth as he rumbled. His knee hitting the asphalt as he cursed them. Still bellowing unheard anger as his head hit the grass lining the road. Cursing until the crash-induced adrenaline rush shut him up.
Jochem’s knee was bleeding. Feeling around in the soaking green grass patch for his glasses, he didn’t notice the blood. By then he was too wet to feel it. Noah’s face too had fallen in the grass ditch. His steel reinforced boots had protected the leg that had gotten caught underneath the bike’s frame. Bob had jumped up off his own bike and sped to lift theirs. The full weight of their tandem was pressing down heavy on the both of them. Bob groaned and managed to lift the bike frame only slightly, but enough to help Jochem crawl out from under it. Stuck between apology and violent rage, he stood there quietly trembling the adrenaline-induced aftershocks. Together they lifted Noah on his feet. And when Bob had established that no bones were protruding from any of Noah’s fleshy parts, he made the executive decision to cycle this bloody novelty bike himself for whatever remained of the rest of the journey. Jochem helped them take off. The rain crashing down in waves around them. The anger stirring up Jochem’s guts.
His arms might have looked as frail and thin as Noah’s, but Jochem’s rage was not. Those safe inside Roodkapje’s walls first heard metal ring against the bricks of it, driveway pebbles clattering loudly above the sound of rain. Next, their outstretched ears were buffeted by the storm gushing in through the living room door he had violently yanked open. The swung open door banged against the side of the house as Jochem’s rage screamed their names. “Emmaaaa!! Sophiiiie?!” Everyone in the room freezing silent. He didn’t see either, but heard a squeal upstairs and then a door shut close. His anger sped him up there. Finding their bedroom empty, he violently threw open all the others, then tried the upstairs toilet and found it bolted shut.
“Jochem?” Emma’s voice tried tentatively in the brief silence that fell over Jochem’s anger.
“How…” he muttered almost imperceptibly. Then, more forcefully, “How could you leave, me… us… there!”
“I don’t. It was just…” Emma scrambled to explain.
But before she could finish her sentence, Jochem looked down and saw his leg soaked red. “I’m fucking bleeding, fuck!” he shouted, and then, catching steam, directed back at Emma and Sophie, “we fell in the goddamned ditch! And you two fuuuuc…” his anger clogging up his throat. Then quietly, silent tears inflaming his rage, “You didn’t even look…”
Choking up on those last words he banged a fist on the door. His mute rage pounded into the italic swirls decorating the door. He banged whilst Sophie held onto the doorknob on the other side of his anger. He banged and banged his knees to buckle. Banged those italics until his forehead rested on them. His fists banging unseen tears into its white Frysian swirls. Emma holding onto the lock, pleading. He banged the door till his knees scraped the coarse jute carpet. Banged that door until, in the safety of anger’s disguise, he cried. Till silent tears streamed down his stormswept face. He banged and cried an anger that rung truest. Reverberating their double-pronged rejection into his skull.
The smell of this rejection had lingered and carved out a hollow deep in the folds of them. Brown and muddled. Roodkapje reeked of it. It lingered deep into the night. Deep into the drunken stupor, Jochem drew over himself. It lingered all throughout the next morning, till long after they had gone back home. And as summer frayed at the hem of that last day, a button-up shirt sweltered unbuttoned in an open field, as the body of them healed anger like bruises, as the muddled brown anchored itself into the dry dunes, deep down into the island’s core.
The smell lingered. •