When the doorbell rang at half past two in the morning, she’d thought Jem must have forgotten his key. She had stumbled groggily down the stairs as she shrugged on her dressing gown. He’d be standing outside the door grinning sheepishly, with Sanne, for whose sake he had left his baseball cap at home. To have to rouse your mother from her bed was a pretty bad blunder.
Two police officers stood on the threshold.
“Oh heavens,” said Franka automatically: her entire roster of juvenile clients flashed through her head. Now who was in trouble? She put on a professional expression, patted her hair and said, flipping through her files in her mind, “What can I do for you?”
She nodded impatiently, wide-awake now. Phinus always hated it when they were woken up in the middle of the night.
“May we come in for a second?”
She walked ahead of them to the living room, hoping they would lower their voices. She turned on the light. She gestured to the chairs around the dining table.
The men remained standing. “Is your husband home?” asked the taller of the two.
“Yes,” said Franka, “he’s sleeping, so perhaps we could keep our voices down.” She pulled out a chair, sat down and mechanically started moving some things around on the overflowing table. A newspaper, a coffee mug, a library book about dinosaurs that belonged to Jem.
“You had better go wake him up.”
She felt the urge to laugh. Phinus would rather... why should Phinus... Then her stomach did a somersault. “Jem? It isn’t Jem, is it?”
There was from the outset an invisible script, with a clear division of roles. Franka was the Mother. Phinus was designated as the Spouse. Jem, the Victim. An important supporting role was reserved for Sanne (the Witness). It was just like a game of Cluedo, except that it was real.
The Mother and the Spouse first had to identify the Victim. The Victim had been shot through the head, three times at close range. There was nothing left of the eyes that used to look out at the world full of interest and trust, he was now someone without a smile on his lips.
The Mother said, frantically: “It isn’t him, is it Phinus, it isn’t him, it’s only someone wearing his clothes.”
“Right, they could have been stolen!” said the Spouse. “He was mugged in an alleyway by a junkie or something...” His voice died away. His shoulders were shaking.
“Look!” said the Mother. “He’s got gel in his hair! Gel! That can’t be Jem!” She grabbed at a lock of hair on the side of the bloody blob, she licked her fingers and mumbled, “Gel! That’s made from bones! Our Jem would never...” She jerked her head around, towards the watching, set faces. “Our Jem would never...”
The Spouse, standing in the corner, was shaking his head, stupefied.
After that they were both given a cup of coffee.
They signed forms.
They were taken from the hospital to the police station. There they sat on identical orange bucket seats in a neon-lit space that was pretty much identical to the first, waiting for more business to be conducted behind their backs. They held each other’s hands and let go again. They began sentences which they never finished, while in their thoughts they frantically tried to reconstruct the Victim’s face, to piece it back together out of the pulpy mush they’d just been shown, to fashion a face with a name and a history out of it once more, but then they’d find themselves unable to catch their breath. The Mother desperately dreamed up one rescue scenario after another, all completely futile by now. For instance, she thought, If only I’d been wearing my track suit tonight. That’s the kind of outfit that will notify fate that you’re alert, that you’re on your toes, that in an emergency you won’t let a second go to waste! Why oh why didn’t I wear my track suit? She said, elbowing the Spouse in the ribs, “Why didn’t I wear my track suit?”
The Spouse was sitting slumped over in his orange bucket. Instead of answering, he repeated for the twentieth time, “Have I understood correctly? Have I understood correctly that he was trying to intervene, when that crazy nut suddenly started shooting?”
The Mother was silent. She bit her nails. What else had she been remiss in or neglectful of tonight? In what thousands of other ways was she responsible for the Victim’s death?
A policewoman brought them another cup of coffee, in corrugated disposable cups. She told them that the interrogation of the Witness was completed. Perhaps the Mother and the Spouse would like to have a word with her as well? The policewoman looked at them questioningly. She was small and slim, but there was also something tough about her. Not a woman who’d allow her child to be shot dead just like that. You could tell she’d be the type to throw herself bodily in front of any approaching danger. Like some kind of Superwoman. The bullets would bounce off her chest.
“Yes! Yes! Of course we want to have a word with her!” Distraught and dishevelled, the Spouse got to his feet.
“Who?” asked the Mother.
“That... that little slut! Who just stood there, while...”
Superwoman seemed to swell a little. She said in a warning tone, “The girl is extremely upset. I won’t let you speak with her if you can’t be reasonable.”
The Mother said, “Actually, I wouldn’t mind a hot dog first.” The reasonableness of this request gave her some modest satisfaction.
“With mustard?” asked Superwoman. “On a roll?”
“With chips,” decided the Mother. Really, she’d never been so hungry in all her life.
“Bon appétit,” said Superwoman. With a flourish she drew a plate out of the air, heaped with hot dogs and chips, and handed it to the Mother.
The Spouse knocked it out of her hand. “Say something! Don’t you want to talk to that Sanne girl too?”
“Sanne?” She blinked. “Yes, yes of course.”
“Sanne’s father is also here,” said Superwoman stiffly to the Spouse. “I advise you to keep your calm.”
A door was flung open.
Already she had her arms open wide. But instead of Jem, the bare room held only the girl in whose company he had gone to meet his unhappy fate. Her father was standing behind her with his hands resting on her shoulders, a small, portly man, his face twisted with shock. He opened his mouth and closed it again. Then he looked down at his feet.
The Mother sat down on the first chair within reach, equally incapable of speech. The Spouse remained standing. Superwoman settled herself on a stool by the door. Her attitude implied, I hear nothing, I see nothing, I say nothing. But her eyes were wary.
Somebody had wrapped a blanket around the Witness. Her red hair was plastered to her skull. Her cheeks showed pink traces of tears. Her fingers plucked at the hem of her dress, and from time to time she shivered so vehemently that her whole body shook.
Looking at her, the Mother suddenly felt herself grow incredibly clear-headed, as if her consciousness were straining to make room for the realization that this little face must have been the very last thing her son had seen before he lost his life. It filled her with a monstrous, spitting envy. “Is that his blood?” she asked, nodding at the tracks on her cheeks. What she was thinking was, If so, it’s my blood.
The Witness turned her gaze on her, dull and skittish at once. “It sprayed all over the place,” she said, nearly inaudibly. “We were dancing, and then...” She began to cry.
“She’s only fifteen,” muttered the girl’s father. “How is she ever going to get over this?”
“There is Victims’ Support,” said the Mother on auto-pilot. She had used that line so often that she could recite the telephone number for you with her eyes closed.
“Sure, for the living,” snarled the Spouse.
The girl’s father said hastily, “We are so terribly sorry for your loss. What a tragedy. I simply don’t know what to say. I...”
“Why didn’t you stop him?” the Spouse interrupted him in a tight voice. “Why didn’t you do something?”
“Surely you don’t mean that! Sanne can’t help it if...”
“Oh no? Jem wasn’t the type of kid who plays the hero! He let her egg him on!”
The Witness cringed. “Someone suddenly started shooting,” she stuttered. “Just like that. The music was so loud, nobody noticed, and you couldn’t see very well either, the light show, the crush. We didn’t know anything was up at first, but all of a sudden he was standing next to us, like this.” She raised her arm in the air and pulled an imaginary trigger.
“So he was shooting at the ceiling?” asked the Spouse. “At the ceiling? Not at people?”
“Yes, in the air, and Jem said something to him, Jem said something, I couldn’t hear what he said, and next thing I knew...” She burst into tears again.
“...Jem got it between the eyes?”
“But what did Jem say?” the Mother cried. She clenched her hands together.
“I couldn’t hear it!”
Superwoman got up from her stool. Calmly she said, “The music was loud. You know how it is, in a club.”
“No we don’t know!” said the Spouse. “Godalmighty! And what’s the story, anyway, don’t they check for weapons, at the door?
“There’s no anticipating an event like this one, Mr. Vermeer.”
“No, you’d rather be handing out parking tickets, wouldn’t you!”
Superwoman sent the Mother a meaningful glance: If your husband keeps this up, we’ll have to end this conversation.
But she was barking up the wrong tree in appealing to the Mother. As far as she was concerned, every word the Spouse uttered was true, relevant and carefully chosen. She grabbed his sleeve. He was her champion. She felt his hand slide around hers, as feverish as a glowing ember. Strengthened by this, she said, “Something like this doesn’t just happen out of the blue, surely? You can see it coming, can’t you?”
The Witness jumped up so abruptly that the blanket fell from her shoulders and her bloodstained dress was revealed. “We were just dancing, nothing was going on, nobody was fighting or anything, it was...”
“But then pray tell,” said the Mother, “why was it so impoprtant to drag Jem to a club?”
“I propose,” said Superwoman, getting to her feet, “that we leave it at that.”
“He asked me!” screamed the Witness, her head jutting forward.
Her father, behind her, grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close. “We’re going. Come on darling, we’re going home.”
The hatred that welled up in the Mother was so intense that she felt her hair and nails shrivel up: her arms would remain empty, she would be going home without a child.
The Spouse shouted, “You’ll be hearing from our lawyer!”
Superwoman shut the door behind the Witness and her father. Her eyes were fixed on the floor. “Do you have any more questions?”
The Mother couldn’t think of anything to say for a long time.
The Spouse finally remarked, as if a completely new thought had just occurred to him, “And the culprit? You have caught the culprit, haven’t you?”
“We are looking for him now. Dozens of witnesses saw him. He got away in all the confusion, but rest assured: we will have him in custody within the next twenty-four hours.”
The Spouse kicked at a chair.
“You may get want to get some counselling, from Social Services,” said Superwoman. “And would you like to be driven home, or would you rather make your own way?”
“We’ll walk,” said the Mother, snatching at a last hope, that by leaving this place, she might cancel out everything that had happened.
They walked back through the labyrinth. It was quieter in the corridors than before, as if all the people behind the closed doors fell silent as they passed by. There wasn’t any sound of voices or footsteps. A young officer sat dozing behind the counter in the front hall.
Outside it was even quieter. The trams and cars had long stopped running. The Spouse said, “It’s safest in town after four a.m. That’s what Jem told me.”n
The Mother asked herself how her son had known that, and what other notions he’d had which she would now never get to hear about. She took a deep breath to ward off a dizzy spell. You could smell the approaching autumn, the very first season that would now have to manage without Jem, without his hollowed-out pumpkins, his pockets filled with chestnuts, his mushroom obsession. How were the trees supposed to know it was time to let go of their leaves, now that he wasn’t there with his red cheeks to rake them up? How would the hedgehogs know it was time to hibernate?
Behind her she heard the Spouse keening softly to himself. But she had no room for his grief, she was crammed up to here with her own. She rushed on blindly. She was trying as hard as she could to walk away from this terrible moment, to leave it behind, but it was wrapped around her ankle like a stubborn piece of elastic and she was dragging it along, all the way home, where Jem’s baseball cap hung on the coat-rack, next to his Salty Dog jacket with the broken zipper which she had promised to replace weeks ago.
And from that moment on, the minutes stopped being minutes, they lasted for centuries, and because of that an hour now covered a time span that was longer than the entire history of the world. The only thing you could concentrate on was getting through the seconds, those tedious, sluggish moments which time doled out once every so many years. Once you had completed one second, you’d start grimly on the next. The hands of the clock were the bars of your prison cell. They gave you no chance to escape. The things that were unbearable would therefore remain so forever, for how could time heal anything, if time itself was sabotaging the whole affair?
Franka’s women friends came and paid their respects with their casseroles. With strained faces they too waded through the syrupy sea of senseless time, while seeing to the countless futile transactions that life does, after all, insist on. Pooling their strength, they just about kept the world turning.
The Spouse meanwhile was on a mission of his own. He threw himself into the hunt for the gunman. He went to the club, he interrogated the staff, he posted himself at the door and until late at night he waylaid everyone trying to enter with the question, had they been present at the shooting? He took down names and phone numbers and spent hours at the police station, where he raged at the detectives.
“It gives him something to do,” said the friends indulgently. “Just let him be.”
She, however, thought he ought to have something else to do. He ought to be with her and do his mourning here, at home, with her, at the very bottom of stagnant time. He ought to be helping her keep the memory of Jem alive. Jem, whose undamaged face she was having a hard time recollecting. Who or what the perpetrator was, left her as cold as Siberia. Knowing wouldn’t revoke Jem’s death, no matter what.