Bachelor Seeks Lodgings
An excerpt translated by Donald Gardner
He had arrived at a canal. In front of where he was standing was an imposing mansion.
‘It’s a boarding house. It has to be one. It definitely isn’t offices; otherwise there’d be a big nameplate. It’s as good as certain that ordinary individuals don’t live there. Families no longer move into canal-side houses — they are far too expensive and they are also awkward to live in. It’s almost certainly a boarding house.’
He hesitated a moment, then rang the bell.
‘It’ll get me nowhere, but at least I’m doing something. It’ll improve my mood.’
A woman walked past, high heels and dyed blonde hair. She openly stared at him and after she’d passed, she turned round and looked at him again.
‘I feel as if I’ve been caught doing something. She’s just a young woman passing by. She can’t possibly know why I’m standing here. Even if I made an effort to explain to her, she wouldn’t understand. But I’m still behaving as though I’ve been caught at something, as though someone who knows everything about me had spotted me standing here and said, “So, there you are again.” I didn’t even have the courage to wait till the door was opened. I walked resolutely away, as though I wanted to prove I had an aim in mind and that there was nothing to feel embarrassed about. But while I was walking I felt someone’s eyes boring into my back. It made me unsure of myself, so that I wanted to run away and escape. It’ll be the same tomorrow and if I go on like this I’ll never succeed.’
By now the sun had now gone down completely. Just as he was walking along a busy shopping street in the city centre, the street lights lit up.
It was cold and rain was falling when Heer van Dongen left his office at five o’clock. It was busy in the city and he had to push past other people. It was slow going and he sometimes had to wait a long time before he could cross a side street, what with the torrent of cars and bikes pouring by. At last he reached a newsstand where he bought some papers. He deposited a guilder and scooped up the coins that the young woman gave him in change. He took the papers and concealed them nervously under his coat. Now he was in a street that was less busy. He walked faster with short rapid steps. Every evening he ate in a little restaurant, which was where he was now heading. The food was not all that good, but it was cheap.
When he entered the restaurant owner greeted him politely, almost obsequiously. There was no sign of staff. The owner was cook, manager and waiter all in one. Heer van Dongen went to the corner table where he always sat and reached automatically for the bill of fare although he knew by heart what was on the menu. After he’d ordered, he spread one of the newspapers out on the table, with the front page facing upward. He pretended to be absorbed in the news, but he wasn’t taking in the content of the printed matter.
Once the manager had gone to the kitchen, he was alone in the little dining room. He opened the newspaper quickly to the small ads page and scanned it rapidly till he came to the column of ‘rooms to let’. He started reading slowly, taking in the details of each advertisement. In no time he’d found one. He fished a notebook and pencil out of his pocket and jotted down the address. At that moment the manager returned, a small tray balanced on his fingertips. Heer van Dongen hastily closed the paper again. The manager had seen the front page and made a remark about a news item that leaped from the page with a big headline. Once he’d had left him alone again, he stuffed the paper under his coat and started eating.
The boarding house, the address of which he’d jotted down, was situated in a quiet street in a suburb. He walked there quickly, in a hurry, like everything he did that evening. He’d only eaten a small portion of his meal in the restaurant. Once he reached the street he began to walk more slowly. He paused a moment when he arrived at the right number. A couple was walking behind him. He went on a few steps until they had passed. Yet another person showed up.
‘You’d think a street in a suburb like this would be more peaceful.’
At last the street was empty. A woman opened the door. She was young, dark-haired and rather well-built. He told her he’d come for the room. He spoke awkwardly. His voice was uncertain. She invited him in. It was a one-storey flat and they had to walk down a long corridor to get to the staircase. After they had climbed the stairs he felt uneasy.
‘It’s not so suitable here after all. But maybe it’ll be alright. I’d like it to be different. But I believe the woman is very good-natured.’
They were upstairs. ‘It’s this room.’ She’d opened the door and turned the light on. It was a large room, well-furnished and with plenty of light. The window looked out on a square. There were a lot of lamps suspended from cables swaying to and fro in the wind. ‘You get a good view,’ she said. The rent was lower than that of the room he was living in. The woman asked the usual questions — whether he had a steady job, where she could get references about him, etc. He answered her and, while he still had trouble finding his words, his voice sounded firmer than it did downstairs by the front door.
‘You won’t be having many problems with me.’ He thought, ‘What’s the point of trotting out this story when I’m not going to be living here anyway?’
‘I’m not demanding. I’m happy if I have a room where I can get some peace. I’ve been living in lodgings for ages.’
‘I like to give people what they need,’ the woman said. ‘A man who is a lodger also has a right to some home comforts. You don’t need to sit in your room the whole evening. You can come and join us in the living room. My husband loves a bit of company.
He felt a growing sense of disappointment.
‘But I don’t want to be any trouble for you,’ he repeated.
‘What’s the point of going on talking; I’m just wasting my time here. The evening’s almost over and I’ll definitely not find anything now.’
It was coming up to nine o’clock and it would take him a good half an hour to get back to the city centre. There was no point looking for something else in this neighbourhood. He’d just be wasting his time.
‘But I can still go on looking somewhere else this evening, if I take the tram back to the city.’
He knew a couple of houses on canals, popular boarding houses where lodgers came and went. Nobody stayed in them long. In the summer they were exploited as hotels.
The landlady went on listing the benefits that came with renting the room. There was a fitted washbasin, a wireless and when it was cold she could lend him a paraffin heater. Everything in the house was spick and span. Every week he’d get clean sheets. He’d have warm blankets and she didn’t mean any cast-off stuff. He could see that for himself.
‘She knows that I’m not going to rent her room. Why does she go on like that?’
‘I’ll think about it.’
The woman started telling him over again what a pleasure it was to live in her house. The previous lodger had lived there eight years and had only left because he was getting married.
‘I’ll have to see. I need to think about it. I can’t decide now. I’ll write to you.’
As they went downstairs the woman asked him to make up his mind soon. She couldn’t keep the room for him, if other people showed up.
He was outside now.
‘I must catch the tram. It’s already almost half past nine. After ten o’clock you can’t show up anywhere.’
The tram took fifteen minutes to get him back to the city. He was nervous and excited. His head was on fire. He had a temperature. It was quiet on the canal he’d got out at and he wasn’t sure where he needed to be. He’d find out though. There was a café with a band playing. The curtains were open, a lot of light penetrated outside, illuminating part of the pavement. He looked inside. It was full to bursting. Behind the window was a notice saying, ‘For upstairs rooms, please ring.’
‘I can try here.’
He rang the bell. The door was opened by a man in shirtsleeves and braces. He wanted to walk away, but the man had already asked him what he wanted. He couldn’t think of anything that would justify him closing the door behind him straightway. The other man had come downstairs. They stood silently opposite each other, for a few seconds. Then the man called upstairs, ‘Client for you’.
He winked at him and said, ‘nothing shy about her, you’ll be surprised.’
‘He thinks I’m here for the seamy side of life.’
The woman was waiting at the top of the stairwell. He followed the man up. Her hair was dyed blonde and she was old and rather blowsy.
She opened the door to a room.
‘Go in,’ the man said.
It was a large room with plenty of cushions and a couple of divans. Everything was upholstered in velvet. Obscene pictures on the walls. In front of the window a copper cage with a cockatoo. The man didn’t go into the room. The woman had sat down on the divan. She was dressed garishly in a red silk dress that left significant parts of her body exposed. He stood in the middle of the room, next to a table. His hands got in the way. It was as if they had grown much larger and heavier. He wanted to stuff them in his jacket pockets or to plant them on his hips in order to look self-assured, but he couldn’t move.
‘Won’t you have something to drink?’
He shook his head, but the woman took no notice. She got a bottle and two glasses from a cupboard. He drank a couple of glasses. It was a sweet liqueur with an unpleasant taste. After they’d been sitting for a quarter of an hour — the woman had made the usual advances — she said, ‘I don’t think we’ll get anywhere like this. I’m used to odd behaviour, but I’ve never come across someone like you before. You haven’t even taken off your coat; we can’t go on like this.’
She went and stood behind him and put her arms round his neck.
‘Don’t you want to do it, young fellow?’
And angry because he didn’t answer, ‘Nobody’s keeping you here, you know.’
He stayed silent and didn’t move.
‘I should have it in me to tell her everything. Maybe she’d understand me, or else she’ll get her bloke to throw me down the stairs.’
‘It can’t be done.’
‘What can’t? You could chat with me a little, couldn’t you? Not be so stand-offish. Other men sometimes tell me whole stories.’
He got up and buttoned up his coat again. His fingers were trembling.
‘I only came for the room. I’ll have to go.’
The woman started laughing, loud and hysterically.
He put a rijksdaalder on the table.
‘You keep it,’ she said with difficulty still gasping with laughter. ‘You’ve had a harder time than me. And don’t show your face here again.’
He went downstairs. It was noisy below. Drunks shouting, the moan of a trumpet poorly played, the tinkling of glasses and the thud of people dancing on the floor.
‘That’s how other people enjoy themselves.’
Once back on the canal bank, he heard a church bell ring.
‘It must be about half-past ten.’
There were still plenty of people on the banks.
‘I can’t go on looking any more this evening. It’s too late. I could go to a café, but I’m too restless for that. I wouldn’t be capable of staying indoors longer than five minutes.’
He walked to the end of the canal, slowly. There were more red-light houses. Girls were sitting in the windows calling him. He fled, almost running. He turned down a street and adjusted his pace again. He walked back home with quick short steps.
It was raining when he left the office the following evening. He’d had a busy day and felt depressed. A couple of documents had been mislaid — they weren’t all that important, but he’d had to put up with a ticking-off from his boss. It was a great relief when the big hand on the clock reached five.
‘It’s ridiculous that I’m still doing this work. It doesn’t get me anywhere.’
He pushed his way nervously through the crowds.
‘I won’t eat this evening; otherwise the same thing will happen as yesterday.’ He bought a couple of sandwiches in an eating-house. It wasn’t crowded inside. A man and a woman were sitting in a corner bickering in subdued voices. They had sandwiches and coffee in front of them, but they left everything untouched. They were too involved in their quarrel to have an eye for anything else.
The woman at the counter had a disagreeable expression. He gave her his order and speculated on how old she was. She was no longer young, that was certain, but he couldn’t guess how many years were hidden behind her powder and makeup. She passed him a plate with two sandwiches. Her fingernails were painted red and very long. When he started eating she stared at him peevishly. ‘They don’t make any special effort for me. Not even when I’m spending money.’
He tried to strike up a conversation with her, but the woman kept him at a distance with vague answers. If another woman was working here as well, they’d laugh about me together after I’d left. They’d make sure I noticed it. They’d nudge each other and make remarks that were ambiguous enough that one couldn’t object to them, but still blunt enough to hurt you.’ But she was on her own now, so her opinion of him as he left was all in her eyes.
He felt awkward heading for the door when he wanted to leave the establishment; he walked stiffly, bumped a couple of times into chairs that were in his way and caught his coat on the door knob. He turned round and smiled shyly at the woman. She ignored him. He was glad to be back on the street again.
‘I can start looking now.’
His plan was to go to the same canal as he’d been the previous evening. There were more houses there. Normal boarding houses too.
‘In the end I’m bound to find something.’
He stopped in front of the house that he thought suitable for his purposes.
‘It’s still too early. People like that are sitting down to dinner at this time.
He walked the whole length of the canal. Ten minutes had now passed. He was able to verify that by a clock tower in front of him at the end of the canal. He turned off the canal and began to walk up and down a small alley. There were a few small eating-houses. The area was very messy. Children were playing on the street. A handcart had tipped over, its boxes and packages scattered over the cobbles. A man was quarrelling with a lanky youth, whom he suspected of being the perpetrator.
He returned to the canal. It still wasn’t much later, but he couldn’t bear to wait any longer. He stopped in front of the house and was about to ring the bell. At that moment the door of the next-door house opened and a man came out. So he walked on a bit. The man went off in the opposite direction. He didn’t like to return immediately. ‘It looks so strange seeing someone walking and suddenly turning round and walking in the opposite direction without any obvious reason.’ It would draw attention to himself.
A little further on there was a urinal, so he entered it. After that he could return to the house. The woman who opened the door was small and thin. Her figure complemented her mean expression. It emphasized it. He did the talking, but with a stammer. Uttering a word and then retracting it each time. Whether she had a room free. That he had heard tell of it. That her house had a good reputation and that that was why he was keen to live there. That he’d do his best to be a good lodger. That he could pay at once, if need be two months in advance. Then she’d know who she was dealing with and that she’d be worse off having him stay. That the contract for his former room was soon ending, but that he was still willing to wait till a time that suited her. If she didn’t have something free straightway, but would get something in a little while, he was prepared to stay in a hotel till it was available. He didn’t mind waiting till it suited her. Money was no object. He preferred to pay more for a good address. He’d do his best to be a good lodger. She wouldn’t have any trouble with him. He was also not someone to invite all sorts of people to his room. He kept himself very much to himself.
He tried to make his voice sound modest, to the point of being servile. But he spoke with great urgency, sometimes even passion, once he had embarked on his tirade. The woman must have had the impression that he was asking her a favour. She had watched him in silence as he was speaking. After he had finished, she said, ‘They may well be true, sir, all the things you’re telling me, but I don’t have a room free. And what had you expected to pay, for that matter? I don’t have a room free. Only a very small room, but I use that myself. I’m not so keen to let go of it. Also it’s downstairs. I only let the upstairs rooms, and I’ve nothing free there.’
‘Can’t I have it?’ he asked. ‘It matters a lot to me. I’m very keen to have a good address. I’ve learned a lot in recent years. You won’t have any problems with me. You can get references for me everywhere. I’m used to living in lodgings. I’ve learned not to be a nuisance.
‘I’ll show you the room,’ the woman said. I told you it’s small, but it’s in a good state. I don’t let it cheap because it gives me a lot of extra work and I lose my freedom’.
The woman went ahead of him down the corridor to the kitchen which was open. She opened the door of the room next to it. It was tiny, not much larger than a cell. It was a sort of study, but it had no windows, so no daylight could enter. He’d have to have the light switched on all the time.
‘You can’t keep the light on the whole day.’ the woman said. ‘It is too expensive. Then I’d have no control over the bills. I turn the meter off during the day; otherwise they will be sitting upstairs with their electric fires on.’
The room was poorly furnished. What would have pleased him in another rented room was a small painting on the cupboard. It was a still life from the Hague School. Not by a well-known master, but very competently painted. He doubted whether the painter would have been happy about it ending up here. Otherwise there was not much to see in the room. There was a small table and a chair and some rugs on the floor. A hideous little figurine and a couple of cracked vases were presumably intended to brighten up the general appearance.
‘I’m not at home in the daytime, so I don’t need any light. I have a full-time job.’
‘That’s all right then,’ the woman replied. She told him what the rent was; it was shamelessly high but he was happy that everything had gone so smoothly.
She’d also insisted that he had his meals with her.
‘I’ve always done that. It doesn’t pay to let rooms without board as well,’ she said.
It was Tuesday. They agreed that he’d move in on Saturday. Now that everything had been arranged, he felt like running out on to the street and shouting for joy.
‘It’s wonderful that I’ve ended up here. I couldn’t have done better anywhere else,’ he thought.
There were a few people standing on the pavement when he left the house. They looked at him. He felt so uncomfortable that he didn’t know in which direction to go.
He had four days to arrange everything. He had to give notice about leaving his current lodgings. He couldn’t think up any reason that sounded convincing. Finally he thought of something. A story so awkward and transparent that the landlady just shrugged her shoulders.
‘You must do what you think best,’ she said.
The hours in his office passed slowly.
‘I could just as well hand in my notice.’
In the evening he walked along the streets until he was completely worn out.
‘I should make sure I’m so tired that I don’t start thinking about things when I get back home, but go to sleep at once. That’s the only way of sticking it out.’
He often walked past the house where he’d rented the room. It was possible that the door would open and the woman would see him. He was afraid this might happen. He thought, ‘I have to be careful that she doesn’t see me.’
In fact she did see him. He tried to dash into a doorway but it was too late. She’d seen him already, as well as his attempt to hide himself. She greeted him vaguely, a little aloof. Then she walked on without paying any further heed to him. She didn’t even turn round.
He’d asked for Saturday morning off from his office. He wanted to be free for the move.
‘Something like that is best done in the morning.’
He didn’t have many possessions. He had to walk twice to move everything. First of all, a suitcase with his clothes. Then he brought his books in the same suitcase. He had taken all his clothes to a laundry. There shouldn’t be anything about him that people might comment on. Everything well cared-for and clean.
‘That’s something that women set plenty of store by.’
By the evening he was installed in his new lodgings. The room was dark, even with the light switched on. It gave off a feeble dirty light that didn’t even reach the corners of the room. Only in the middle of the room was the lighting adequate.
‘Make the most of it,’ the woman said. ‘The lavatory is in the corridor under the stairs. There is a light. Mind your step.’
The next day, Sunday, he stayed at home the whole day. He lay on the bed with his eyes closed. In the morning the woman had called him for breakfast. It was sober with a slice of sausage, a cup of tea (not all that hot) and four thinly spread slices of bread. After breakfast he went and lay on his bed again and fell asleep. In the afternoon the woman called him again for lunch.
The meals were served on the first floor. A large room had been furnished there as a dining room. He was the only lodger there. The woman stood at the counter arranging the crockery. He tried to strike up a conversation with her, but she would have none of it.
‘I don’t have the time. I’d also prefer you not to stay sitting here.’
And when he did get up to go: ‘Would you take your dirty plates downstairs? The kitchen is next to your room anyway.’
He went back to bed but was unable to fall asleep again. It was daytime, so the light couldn’t be switched on. It was completely dark in the room. No light penetrated, not even through a crack under the door.
‘The corridor is just as dark. The house has definitely been designed to keep out light.’
The woman knocked on his door, holding a packet of sandwiches.
‘It’s for this evening. The other gentlemen are usually not here on Sunday. I like to go out myself sometimes. Do you stay at home every Sunday? There must be something you could do, I’d think. You ought to go out of the city, or go to the cinema or something like that.’
He realized that she found it a nuisance having him at home the whole of Sunday.
He was alone again.
‘The light really should be on; it’s five o’clock.’
He’d turned the switch on earlier in the afternoon.
‘If she turns the meter on, the light will go on too.’
She must have forgotten the meter. It remained dark for another couple of hours. It was about nine when the light came on. In the meantime he had fallen asleep. He woke with a headache and a pain between his shoulder blades. He stared at the light till his eyes welled with tears. The shadows of the furniture and the walls combined in a strange way. It was as if more there was more than one source of light. He couldn’t see as far as the corners of the room; the light was too dim.
‘I’m powerless to do anything about it. If it stays like this, I’ll just doze off.’
He hid his head under the pillow, but with it tilted at an angle, so that he could still see the room with one eye. He opened and closed it alternately.
‘I should still make an effort. That will give me an excuse later on.’
He had almost fallen asleep again. He heard a tap on the door; it opened before he had time to call out.
‘Have you been at home the whole evening?’
He felt uncomfortable. The top buttons of his pyjamas were missing. He pulled the blankets up over his shoulders. He tried looking past her. There was a light shining in the kitchen that lit up the corridor.
He thought, ‘For the first few weeks, I should go out on Sundays.’
He said, ‘I wasn’t feeling well today.’ But next Sunday he also stayed at home. The days passed just like the first Sunday. Breakfast was the same. It was even served on the same plate. He had his own cutlery.
‘It’s as if I was ill. Maybe she even changes the washing-up water to do my plate.’
In the afternoon it was the hot meal. The packet of sandwiches for the evening was now set down next to his plate.
He had felt very calm the past week. Or else the world had become infinitely larger and its organic structure had been altered. The canals seemed wider, the houses higher. Sometimes, when he stood at some distance from a house with brightly lit rooms and the curtains open so he could see inside and see people together, sometimes even a woman walking a couple of paces and then stooping as though she was arranging something, although he couldn’t exactly make out what it was she was doing, he felt like falling forward onto the ground and banging his head on the cobbles till he could no longer move.
The week passed without incident in the office.
‘Something has been noticed. I’ve been able to prove a part of myself. It’s no longer a matter of waiting for something, while you doubt whether it will ever happen. Some things have become unimportant now. Actually I’ve already taken a decision. My work is no longer an issue. That’s why it goes well. I’m no longer panicky because I’m afraid of making mistakes. He got compliments from his boss a number of times for the way he carried out his tasks.
He had got used to the room and could find everything in the dark now. He no longer stumbled over the spot in the floor where it was uneven due to it having been repaired. It had been done very clumsily. There was a thick square piece of wood nailed over a spot where there must have been a hole. A nail had not been hammered right into the plank and he had torn his foot open on it. The wallpaper with its pattern of big flowers was dreadfully old-fashioned, even for a house on a canal. In some places it was torn so that the white plaster of the wall was exposed. The plaster was dirty. The rising damp had led to it being covered with mildew in places. Pink and green. He’d felt it with his fingers. It was thick and soft. The damp also meant that the wallpaper had bulged out so that it had come loose from the wall here and there. This gave you the feeling that the walls themselves were made of paper and that you could punch through them with your fist and make a hole.
There were bedbugs. When he first saw one, he thought it was a little beetle, or a ladybird that had strayed here and had lost its colour due to the dark. After his first night he was still unwilling to admit that they were bedbugs, but now this was as commonplace a fact as everything else in the room. He’d caught one and peeled it with his fingernails. It had fibrous pads. As if there were tiny wings in it that hadn’t developed fully. At night the creatures kept him awake. Once he had fallen asleep, they were no longer a nuisance. But if he wasn’t yet asleep, but in a sort of doze where his thoughts were uncontrollable and chaotic as in a dream, he sometimes started when he was bitten. A shudder went through his body then and gathered in his shoulders which shot up with the pressure. Then he had to force himself to be lucid and open his eyes, get out of bed and sometimes even go down the corridor to the lavatory, where he washed himself till he picked up the courage to go and lie down again.
‘Then at least I’ll know that nothing has happened except that I’ve been bitten by a bug. You can get used to it. Just close your eyes and go back to sleep. If you’re so wide awake, it will be hours before you can get back to sleep again.’
But he didn’t get used to it. Every time he felt a bite he had to get out of bed and leave the room.
It was Sunday night. He couldn’t sleep.
‘It’s strange that she believed everything I told her without question. I behaved as though I was totally dependent on her. That I couldn’t find anywhere else. But she had no reason to believe that. There are thousands of rooms in the city that are better than hers. She should have been suspicious, as most people would be if they are offered an unexpected windfall. She knows what’s going on. She isn’t making any special effort to secure her profit by being particularly attentive to me. She understands that she doesn’t need to do this. She lets me stay in her house, but her attitude is hostile. And yet all she understands is that I need her, but she doesn’t know why. She sees me as I wanted her to see me. As a dog that’s been kicked and is looking for shelter, no matter what it costs.’
He saw little of the other lodgers in the house. ‘They are respectable gentlemen with the best of their lives behind them. People like that give her the least trouble.’
The next day, Monday morning, he didn’t get up. He’d woken up at his normal hour. He’d felt worn-out and empty and he had a headache.
‘I must get up now. Just one more minute. If I persist now, I’ll have an excuse for later. That’s madness. I’m not going to go on. But I’m not sure; maybe I will still carry on the way I used to. If I burn my boats … Yes, I’ll soon get up, just a couple of minutes. It doesn’t matter after all. I can come in a bit late, I can apologize for that. I’m always punctual. Maybe I am ill. You never know. I’ll get up at once… I’ll get going soon, just a minute.’
But his reluctance was too great and he fell asleep again. An hour later the woman woke him and asked him why he wasn’t in his office. He explained that he was ill, and asked her to phone and tell his employer. He then fell asleep again. He only woke up late in the afternoon. He no longer had a headache but he felt listless. The smell of his own sweat upset him.
‘I should lie down on a tiled floor, naked under a hot shower and slowly wash myself all over till there is nothing of it left.’
The doctor had arrived and was examining him now. He was a tall, gaunt man with a pale face and thick black-rimmed spectacles.
‘I can’t find anything unusual. As far as I can see, you are as healthy as a man can be.’
He spoke in a warm protective voice. His doctor’s tone, creating a good atmosphere, making it easier for his patient to trust him. But very self-assured and speaking from a completely different world. There have been such great advances in science. Ordinary people have no idea.
‘No, you’re not particularly ill, at least not as far as I can tell.’
So the doctor admitted that he too was not omniscient and left the possibility open of being mistaken. This was a matter of habit, of modesty. The past twenty years he hadn’t made a single mistake.
‘If you go on lying here, you’ll certainly become ill.’
He hadn’t left his stock of good advice at home either.
‘This isn’t a proper place for people to live in.’
He pressed his knuckles against the wall.
‘It’s not hygienic here either.’
He wrote a prescription. Also out of habit. So as not to disappoint the patient.
‘Back to the office tomorrow.’
After the doctor had gone Heer van Dongen got up, dressed and went outside. It was cold. There was a frost. The little puddles on the street were frozen over, but there wasn’t yet any ice on the canals. He handed in the prescription the doctor had written at the chemist’s.
‘It will be delivered this evening,’ the young woman said.
‘Don’t put yourself to any trouble. I’ll come and pick it up myself. Or if it’s inconvenient, I’ll come tomorrow.
When he had reached the door he turned round.
‘She’s laughing. But then it is a dreary job having to stand like that the whole day. She needs to have something to amuse her from time to time.’
He had difficulty opening the door. When he got home to eat — he was always on his own in the dining room, she’d organized it so that he almost never saw the other lodgers — she went up to him and asked if he wanted to go out that evening. That wasn’t so odd. He’d been in his room every evening the first week. Then she went into his room and said that she needed to clean it. She hadn’t got round to it in the daytime. He knew it was a fib to get him to go out. She wanted him out of the way. As much as possible. She didn’t do anything to his room. Perhaps that meant she had more time for cleaning the rooms upstairs, where more was expected of her. His room was filthy. It wasn’t just that she hadn’t cleaned it for a few weeks. It was filth that had grown over a period of years and which had become embedded between the wallpaper and the wall, on the floor, on the ceiling and which also had the effect of contaminating the air. Whenever she asked him to go outdoors, he’d always done so, very meekly. He then stayed outside for a few hours, but he didn’t go far from the house. He just walked up and down along the canals until the prostitutes calling after him and people laughing behind his back drove him crazy. A couple of the evenings had been exceptionally fine. Once he left the city. It wasn’t all that far. He’d crossed the canal in a boat. It was already dark when he reached the other side. He walked along a cinder path between the meadows. He had felt happy and liberated.
On returning home in the evening after one of these walks, the light in his room didn’t go on. It didn’t do so even after he’d turned the switch a couple of times. He stayed there in the dark and didn’t complain. When he came back from the office the next evening, it lit up as usual. He went out for another walk that evening. When he got back it didn’t go on again. Until he discovered that she’d unscrewed the bulb. He screwed it back tight, but then he turned the light off again.
‘If that’s what she wants, I’ll leave it like that.’
For more information about Jan Arends or Bachelor Seeks Lodgings, please visit the Lebowski Agency website.
Jan Arends (1925–1974) was raised in a Catholic care home and went on to lead a turbulent life, stumbling from one short-lived job to the next. All the while he wrote poems and stories that focused on his battles with officialdom and the medical establishment. He committed suicide in 1974, days before the publication of his final collection of poems Lunchpauzegedichten (Lunch Break Poems). He soon became a cult figure whose work has since been rediscovered by generation after generation. Keefman has achieved classic status and is now in its eleventh edition.