The history of how Karl and Saskia got to know each other is an all-or-nothing tale, a history that has become snowed under even though they’ve only known each other for four years. It seems to be an eternity ago that Saskia was accused of drug smuggling, as a form of welcome to Winnipeg – a small city in the icy, thirty-below-zero heart of Canada, a place nobody would go in winter except to help shift Winnipeg’s exceptionally pure cocaine through to the rest of North America. Or to write. At the invitation of an arts centre, Saskia travelled to the snowy-white molehill. She was going to stay at an artist’s house there. Juli let her go, of course; Juli always lets her go when she’s got to write. She’s always been in holy awe of it. Unlike the customs officers at the airport. With rubber gloves they probed for anal evidence of her alleged author status. Finally released at three in the morning, she hobbled into the arrivals hall and her old, overfull suitcase picked that moment to burst at the seams and scatter the contents over the cold tiles – knickers, tampons, ripped-open packets of instant sachets of tomato soup with cheesy croutons for emergencies. Crawling around like an insect, she collected her belongings together. She looked up and saw some dickhead grinning down at her. One of those lesbian-hating homos who are too pretty to lend a helping hand, a step worse than the macho guys who spontaneously offer instructions when you’re parking. The kind of prideful jerk who thinks he’s a cut above the rest of the world. Said dickhead made no move to help, leaving her to fume instead. And what she hadn’t even dared contemplate turned out to be true: the dickhead was the artist whose house she’d be staying in for a month.
Karl was a dickhead. Afterwards, he explained that her hackles were raised so aggressively, her body language screaming ‘leave me alone’ so loudly that he didn’t even dare to help.
All or nothing. He could do it. Her hard shell of ice broke immediately thanks to the man who, without a word, draped a woollen blanket over her shoulders and gave her a cup of ginger tea. Because she herself was numb but too tired to sleep, he gave her a tour of his strange Gothic house at four in the morning. He’d made a lot of changes to it himself. Twenty stuffed and mounted deer heads stared at her; preparation for an installation in the Whitney. He told her about the sect that had lived here, fundamentalists who believed they could exclude all negative external influences and kept their children imprisoned here. Under the wooden floor in the living room, Karl had found a drawing. Big painted letters on it said, ‘We will be a happy family forever’. In the bright colours of this gaudy and cheerful slogan, he saw a cry for help from children who were locked up to keep them pure. He would use it in one of his works. In one room you could still see how children’s fingers had scratched the wallpaper off and how they had filled in the patterns with stick drawings.
The blond, muscular man with a trimmed beard, toned body, blue eyes and not much of a chin was ever so hospitable, an artist without a mobile phone, a food snob without a food blog, an eager beaver who made his own filo pastry, who tried out all his best ingredients and recipes on her (all organic and local and wholesome), who offered her pricey shampoo made from melted fats mixed with lavender he had plucked himself, who didn’t have a single plastic bag in his home (let alone that horror of horrors, aluminium foil) and who was able to keep her amused at all times with his inexhaustible knowledge, sarcasm and hugs. He took her to his studio, where installations rose up that were as lavish as Paul McCarth’s and that looked her straight in the eye with intense ferocity.
Karl had taken Saskia on board so quickly that it seemed as if they had known each other for years. He confided everything to her: his recent relationship breakup, lots of screwing around, his exaggerated suspicion of his friends at times, his love for his mother and his isolated youth on a hippie island. That childhood was a bit weird, he said; he could build wooden houses at the age of ten but had never seen candyfloss.
‘I was a freak.’
‘I was the freak on the other side of the hedge.’
Oh yes, they were both well crazy. Or conversely, maybe they were the only ones sane enough to see the madness.
Karl told her what a culture shock it had been when he arrived in the city. An islander who was totally maladjusted. In his perception, the big city was a cacophonous laboratory full of tubes and structures, where they were trying to bring a single monster to life with exhaust fumes and radio frequencies, a monster that was perhaps made up of thousands of swarming people. He could hear every penny drop in the cash registers and felt as if the noise coming at him from all sides of the metro would make him explode. He only knew the din of nature, which penetrates deep inside you through your pores rather than screeching into your ears.
They met at a moment when both their lives were totally overpowered by love. He had just broken up with his film director boyfriend and was still wiping his nose on handkerchiefs that had the latter’s name embroidered on them. She had just discovered the shining, euphoric depth of a rock-solid love that was only improving the longer it lasted.
Over endless cups of tea (with added unsolicited whisky and a lump of butter), Saskia talked about Juli and her boundless energy, about their friends and their radio careers and musical ambitions and training in psychology and their urban allotments, about the deal she had made with Juli seven years ago that had turned out so well. Saskia would like to spend her whole life writing and Juli wanted children sooner or later. They would respect each other’s wishes. It had been one-way traffic so far. Juli let Saskia roam the world, collecting stories. Juli had no trouble with that.
For nights on end, Karl and Saskia told each other their multifaceted stories of love and loss. That was where they forged their bond, where they spoke scornfully about their families. Karl told hilarious anecdotes about his eldest brother, the hippie who still lived on the island of Portes and whose wife had had a vision of the place where all her chakras would achieve perfection. That transpired to be the most deserted and spookiest spot on the island, deep in the woods. So that’s where they’d now built a nice, cosy house. Mad as hatters, those two. Karl also told her about the loneliness on the island. How he could tell that Saskia understood something of it. And about how they, with their new and delicate bond, should protect each other’s loneliness. There are areas where everyone is alone, and you need to respect that in each other. Areas where you say, that’s mine and mine alone, and you’ll steer clear of it if you respect me. Saskia thought it was wonderful. She’s got her own cellar full of dark secrets, with her shame keeping the lid on it tightly closed.
By Saskia de Coster
Translated by Mike Wilkinson
Extract from NACHTOUDERS (‘NIGHT PARENTS’)
Published by Das Mag (2019)
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Saskia de Coster is a prolific novelist whose work has been translated into some ten languages. Her family
chronicle We and Me became a bestseller on its release in 2013 and was nominated for several Dutch-language book awards. In 2016, it became the first of her novels to be translated into English. Her most recent novel Nachtouders (‘Night Parents’), an ode to love and nonbiological parenthood, was published in 2019.
Mike Wilkinson is a British translator and editor who has been a resident in the Netherlands for over thirty years. As well as a linguist, he is a keen musician and has been in a number of blues and rock bands. He also writes novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Clare.