Kim van Kooten
An excerpt of 3 chapters, translated by Thijs and Arjaan van Nimwegen
It can’t get any better
His real name is Ludovicus, but Mom still calls him Dicky-doo. He wants me to call him Dad, but I keep forgetting. I think he’s more of an Uncle Mister. This morning in the car we had a Real Conversation. That’s what he called it: a Real, Serious Conversation. I felt grown-up, because it’s pretty special having someone to talk to. And that’s what he said, that he could really talk with me. He also said I’m smart. He was sitting behind the wheel of the black car, smoking a cigarette. I was sitting beside him, in Mom’s seat. I could hardly breathe because of the cigarette smoke but also because I was feeling so big and special. “You’re a very special kid, Puck,” he told me, fastening my safety belt, “special and smart.”
He couldn’t manage to fasten the belt properly, and we sat squeezed in tight for a while. I was playing with the power window button.
“Don’t touch the buttons. And if you see any police, you should duck.”
The police live right across the road from us, but they’re hardly ever around. Uncle Mister says it’s because there are almost no blacks living in Zwijndrecht. That’s why it’s so nice and quiet around here. When the belt was finally fastened, he breathed down my neck and said: “I don’t think many dads let their kids sit in the front, do they?”
“No,” I said.
“Lucky you,” he said.
I looked at the side of his big old head and thought: Yup. Mom and me are lucky. We’re very lucky. Before, we were living in a tiny little house, and Mom and me were cutting other people’s hair all day long. She didn’t have any money for silver clothes or blue eyeshadow. I didn’t have a dad or a bike. Now we’re living in a brown palace with shiny floors everywhere and Chinese vases. I’m not allowed to climb on them but I am allowed to yell into them, just not when Uncle Mister is taking a nap. We have a china set with a floral print and gold around the rims, and Mom adds new plates and dishes every week. Mom has a fur coat, a cleaning lady, and three pairs of diamond earrings. I have my own room, with secret closets. And a bed with a pink blanket and posters of baby horses on my wall.
“You know where we’re going?” he asked.
“To the toy store,” I said.
“And do you know why we’re going to the toy store?”
“For the Playmobil knights.”
“Exactly,” he said, “ ’cause you need ‘em.”
I wasn’t sure if that was actually true. But I really did want them. Wanting something and needing something, is that the same thing? I already had the Indians. So those I didn’t need anymore.
“Yeah,” I said. “I need those knights.”
We drove out of the village. We had to go to another town, Uncle Mister explained. Because Playmobil hasn’t been around for too long, and you can’t just buy it anywhere. I nodded.
Then Uncle Mister suddenly said a whole bunch of stuff at once. He never does that. But that’s why it was called a Real Conversation, I guess.
“Listen up, Puck,” he said. “I’m really happy that you and your mother are living with me now. Really happy. You do know that, don’t you?”
“I’m especially happy that you’re around now. Your mom and me are quite different. But you and me, we’re alike. And that’s because we have our birthdays on the same day, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think so too.” And because I noticed he used the word ‘happy’ a lot, I added, “I’m real happy we’re not living in Rotterdam anymore.”
“I can imagine,” he said. “And also I can imagine you don’t ever want to go back. Because you were living in a slum, of course.”
I didn’t know what a slum was, but I said, “Yes.”
“You didn’t have anything there, right?”
“No money, no nice clothes, no vacations, never any presents…”
“Nope,” I said.
“I guess that was no fun?”
“No, definitely not.”
“But now you two have everything.”
“Yeah,” I said, “it can’t get any better.”
Outside the grassy fields and cows were flashing by. The air was gloomy and grey. The right type of weather to split up the inheritance, that’s what Granny Crooswijk would say.
“Want me to tell you something else? But you have to look me in the eyes.”
I looked him in the eyes.
“I want you and me to be friends, Puck. That’s the most important thing for me. We’re thick as thieves. And that’s why you two can stay. Because we’re so happy together. If you hadn’t been such a sweet kid, I would have sent both of you packing after one day. Will you remember that?”
“Think you’ll always stay sweet, Puck?”
I nodded again.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, Uncle Mister,” I said.
“Don’t call me Uncle Mister anymore,” he said. “Why don’t you call me Dad? Don’t you know I’d like that a lot more?”
I didn’t know what to say. He’s just not a dad. He’s a mister. He’s the boss. With his grey suit and his old guy’s head, his glasses, and his giant earlobes.
“It’s because I already have a dad,” I said.
Uncle Mister looked surprised. Maybe he doesn’t know, I thought. Maybe my mom forgot to tell him. I just hoped he wouldn’t be sad about it, but he had to know.
“That’s why I don’t call you Dad,” I said, “because otherwise, when my father returns, I’ll have two dads, and things might get confused.”
Uncle Mister was smoking and shaking his head no.
“You don’t have a father anymore,” he said.
“Yes I do,” I said, “he’s with the circus.”
“He went and joined the circus in Gouda,” I said. “That’s what Grandma says.”
We were waiting at a red light for a while. Uncle Mister kept on smoking and scowling. He doesn’t care much for Granny Crooswijk. He hasn’t met her yet, and he’d like to keep it that way. He doesn’t feel like seeing Aunt Hannie and Uncle Joop either. Aunt Hannie is my mother’s sister. She lives in Ommoord with Uncle Joop and their three children. Good for them, says Uncle Mister. I don’t really think they’re doing well over there, because they never have any money and Ommoord sounds scary. Like a moor. Granny Crooswijk’s already called us seventeen times asking when she will finally get to have a look at our new house, but Mom keeps saying she’s too busy for visitors. Way too busy. “Too busy shopping,” she adds quickly, after hanging up the phone, “ha ha ha.”
When the light turned green Uncle Mister asked me: “You know what that means? Went and joined the circus?”
I see a picture of my young, handsome dad. He’s walking behind a marching band. The music sounds cheerful and my dad isn’t playing any instrument, but he’s marching like a soldier and clapping his hands to the beat. Way in the distance is the Gouda circus tent, and they’re all happily walking towards it.
“It means nobody can find him,” says Uncle Mister.
He could see from my expression that I still didn’t understand what he meant, so he said, “Went and joined the circus means he left and he doesn’t want to be found. Your dad didn’t want to be your dad anymore.”
“Because he didn’t think you were sweet enough.”
Mom never told me anything about that.
“So the chances of you ever seeing your dad again are zilch.”
I was playing with my coat zipper, while he kept on talking.
“It’s a fact — do you know what a fact is, Puck, it’s something that’s certain — it’s a fact that your dad doesn’t care for you at all. So it’s better for you to forget all about him. Remembering him won’t get you anywhere. Look at me, Puck, goddammit, I’m talking to you.” I looked him in the eyes.
“What I keep trying to tell you,” he said, “is that I do think you’re sweet. That’s why I’d like to be your dad. So I can take care of you two.”
He stubbed out his cigarette, put his hand on top of my head and kept on driving single-handed. It felt safe, that big hand on my hair.
“Will you and Mom get married too?” I asked.
I know my mom really wants to. For the past few weeks she’s been tearing pictures of bridal dresses out of magazines and putting them next to his breakfast plate on the brown table. He never looks at them.
“Will you always stay sweet?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“No, Puck. Not yes, please. Who am I?”
I had to think for a bit.
“Who am I?” he asked again.
Then I got what he meant.
“Yes, Dad,” I said.
He nodded at me and said: “There. That was a real grown-up conversation, Puck. We understand each other.”
He parked the car and turned off the engine. Then he bent over me to unfasten the safety belt. He was being very clumsy. He grabbed the safety belt with one hand, and his other hand slipped into my pants. A woman with a small dog was standing on the sidewalk. She was smiling at me. I smiled back at her.
“There’s a lady with a little dog,” I said.
He pulled his hand away. Right away it was much easier to unfasten the safety belt. When we got out shortly after that, he put his arm around me. We walked over to the toy store together, and he bought all the figurines from the knight series at once. He paid in cash. The store guy smiled at me.
“You’re lucky, having a grandpa like that,” he said.
“I’m her father,” Uncle Mister said.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the store guy said, flustered. Uncle Mister winked at me. I nodded back at him, because I still couldn’t wink but I did want him to know we were thick as thieves.
Yeah, I thought, I am lucky. If this is my dad, we’ll be safe and posh and I will get all the Playmobil I want for the rest of my life. He’ll take care of us. I want it, and I need it.
Something in the way he moves
In the weeks before the wedding, Mom is more cheerful than I’ve ever seen her. Singing love songs, rubbing herself with Spray Tan every morning. She wants to talk about the Big Day all the time, especially with Dad, but he does not respond. My mother doesn’t care and just talks on. About her dress, about the cake, and about the music. There will be no guests, just me. At first Mom thought this a damper on the party, but as Dad said she had a choice between a wedding his way or no wedding at all, she chose a wedding Dad’s way after all.
“You know what your problem is,” she says over and over now, “in fact you’re awfully jealous. You just want to keep me all for yourself. And of course you don’t want other men around flirting with your bride.” When Mom says things like that, Dad looks in his paper or at his food.
Then finally the Big Day arrives. Early in the morning Mom and I are sitting at her dressing table beautifying ourselves. We’ve already put on our dresses and shoes. Hot curlers in my hair. They have been pushed very tightly against my head, and the hot metal burns my skin. I watch Mom’s index finger rubbing blue eyeshadow on her eyelids. Then she starts backcombing her hair, making it rise very high. She squirts hairspray all around, straight in my face as well.
My mother has been rubbing too long with the brown ointment; her body has turned orange. “Look, Puck, I look like a bloody Papuan,” she says. “Thank god the rest of me is so pretty.”
On the big bed lay Dad’s suit. It’s almost invisible because it’s just as white as the sheets. Dad doesn’t want special clothes; he just wants to go in his own brown business suit, as Mom knows perfectly well. It bothered her, though, and yesterday she suddenly said out loud to herself, “I’d rather die than let him go in his everyday rags,” and then we made a quick trip to Rotterdam and back. There we found this suit in a special men’s shop. It’s from Italy and made by Gianni Bulotti. The pocket square is already in the breast pocket, and it has matching white patent leather shoes as well. Mom just hopes the whole thing doesn’t fit too tightly, for of course Dad did not try anything on. This morning he just went to work, and he will come and pick us up at ten thirty.
Mom gets busier as the hours pass. She digs into her box of clip earrings with both hands. For herself she chooses clips with shiny stones and pearls, and for me clips with just pearls. They’re heavy. My heart is beating in my ears. The curlers are removed, and when I look in the mirror my curly head startles me, but my mother says, “Yes” and clips on a white bow. I close my eyes just in time for the spray can. She goes on spraying my curls until they are rock solid. In the meantime she goes over everything one last time; “You’ll carry the rose petal basket, Puck.”
“When will you start sprinkling the petals?”
“At the end.”
“Why are you coughing all the time?”
“It’s the spray can.”
“The tape recorder. Where’s the tape recorder?”
“Is the right tape in it?”
“You know when to push play?”
“And to push stop?”
“And side B is for the end, when we have received the blessing.”
“And then I’ll do the rose petals.”
“You’re a smart kid.”
Then I hear Dad’s car. Mom looks at her watch, saying it’s not a minute too soon. She grabs her little bridal bouquet and strikes a pose in the center of the bedroom, one hand on her hip and one naked, orange leg fully stretched out. Just like a model. When Dad enters he just says, “Everybody ready?”
“Can’t you see?” Mom says, a bit pissed off.
But Dad doesn’t see anything, not even the suit waiting for him. Mom points at it, saying he should get dressed quickly, but Dad says “Nonsense” and walks out of the room.
“What’s the idea?” Mom shouts after him.
“I’m in the car,” he shouts back.
“I’ll be damned,” Mom says. “Just my luck.”
I take the tape recorder and my rose petal basket and I follow Dad. As I approach the car he is sitting behind the wheel smoking, but when he sees me he quickly steps out to open the door for me.
“What’s all that, for Christ’s sake?” he asks.
“Just so,” I say, because I know Mom wants it to be a surprise.
“Why, you’re looking pretty, you know,” he says.
“Shall we drive off just like that?” It makes him grin. I am grinning along — he likes that. Then Dad gets behind the wheel again and resumes smoking. A few minutes later Mom comes running out of the house in her high heels. In one hand she has a cigarette, and the bridal bouquet is in the other one, so getting into the car is a hassle, more so as the dress trails for quite a long way at the back. It keeps getting stuck in the door. Mom says Yvonne’s Bridal Shop ought to provide dresses with user instructions and is now trying to climb backwards into the car.
“Do I have to lend a hand?” Dad asks after some time.
“You don’t have to but you could,” Mom gasps.
Dad does not move, looking through the windshield. When Mom is finally inside, she says “Fish in a barrel,” and we are ready to leave.
At the town hall Dad gets out first. He opens the door for me while Mom tries to wriggle out of the front. Finally on the curb she says she has to cherish her moment, and she starts waving to all the people biking along.
I have never been in a town hall. It smells like toilet freshener, and our footsteps echo. In the middle of the hallway there’s a woman with an apron and a floor mop, who directs us to the reception desk. There we see a lonely gentleman with little hair and broken glasses, who directs us the other way. After a while we find a small room where the registrar is already waiting for us. There are rows of chairs, and Mom installs me in the first row, with my rose petals and the tape recorder. In the meantime Dad is talking to the registrar. I look at the tape recorder and try to recall what exactly was the difference between the button with the square and the one with the triangle. As soon as Mom nods for yes, I’ll push the… the triangle, yes that’s it. And when she shakes for no, I’ll push the square. Yes for triangle, no for square, yes triangle, no square, yes trian…
“Why do we need witnesses?” Mom shouts.
Angrily she looks at Dad. Dad is looking at the registrar, who says he cannot help it.
“Can’t we do without?” Dad asks.
“No,” the registrar says. “Two people have to sign.”
“Brillant!” Mom says. Then she points at me. “What about her? Couldn’t she sign?”
“The witnesses need to be of age,” the registrar says. “She’s a child.”
Dad is looking at his watch. Mom’s eyes are like a doll’s, the way they’re opened wide. Then she runs out of the room. “Stay there!” she yells over her shoulder. Dad sits next to me, head in his hands. The registrar keeps standing there. We can hear Mom crossing the town hall’s corridors in her high heels, shouting unintelligible things. Then silence. The registrar starts whistling softly but stops immediately when Dad gives him a look. Nearly counting to three hundred before mom returns. She brings along the woman with the floor mop and the man from the desk. “There,” Mom says. “Two witnesses, thankyouverymuch. Just sit over there.”
The cleaning lady and the man sit next to me.
“Will it take long?” the cleaning lady asks. “I still have to mop the entire hall.”
“You will be out in a jiffy,” Mom says. “Dicky-doo, give these people some cash.”
Dad gives the cleaning lady and the desk man twenty-five guilders each. They seem pretty pleased. The registrar clears his throat and asks if we are finally ready to start.
“Please,” Dad says.
“No,” Mom shouts. “We still have to enter.”
“We’re here already,” Dad says.
Mom says, this way the whole shebang has no class whatsoever and as she is almost in tears, Dad quickly says, “Okay, okay” and allows Mom to drag him out into the hallway. After one second they re-enter. Dad is walking faster than Mom, so Mom pulls his arm to slow him down. Meanwhile she keeps nodding fiercely to me. I nod back to her; it’s going awfully well. Then Mom shouts, “Triangle! Triangle!” and swiftly I push the triangle. That very moment Shirley Bassey starts singing: “Something in the way he moves.”
Mom is looking amorously at Dad and angrily at the cleaning lady, as she has been fingering the buttons and has turned the music down.
When Dad and Mom reach the registrar, they sit down, backs to the audience. The back of Mom’s head shakes for no, and thank god now I get her meaning immediately. When Shirley Bassey has quit singing the registrar starts a long and boring talk, all the better because now I have time to turn the tape over and rewind it. Dad has an awful lot of long Christian names. When they get to the rings, Dad asks me to join them. Mom gets a very fine ring full of glittery stones, and I get a ring as well, with a little pearl plus one glittery stone. “Well,” Dad says to me, “now we are married too.” I don’t know what to answer, so I say: “Nice,” and I sit down again.
When the cleaning lady and the desk man have signed, Mom starts nodding again. I push the triangle on the recorder. Now we hear “Sugar baby love” by The Rubettes and Dad and Mom walk out of the room together. I stay behind with the registrar, the cleaning lady, and the desk gentleman.
“Well,” says the cleaning lady, wiping her eyes, “that was a moving performance. I am really struck.”
“Money doesn’t count,” I say.
“You can turn off the music,” the registrar says.
The desk man points at the rose petals and says, “If you still have to sprinkle those, you’d better start now.”
The four of us walk out into the hallway, where Dad and Mom are waiting. I throw some rose petals towards them, and then Mom runs to the car to fetch her camera. When she returns, the cleaning lady takes a picture of Dad and Mom, and as a thank-you Mom throws the bridal bouquet to the cleaning lady. The cleaning lady says, “Thanks. I’ve been married for twenty years, but you never know.”
Dad dropped us off at home and immediately drove back to work.
“It was beautiful, it really was, Mom,” I say.
She does not say anything back. She takes me to the bedroom where she starts brushing the curls from my hair. It hurts and my eyes are tearing.
When I have said “Ouch” too often, she takes a pair of scissors. Without a word she starts cutting my hair off. She doesn’t even tell me to sit still. She is cutting so wildly I fear she will cut off an ear. When all my hair is on the floor, she says, “He’s even much older than he said he was.”
I keep quiet. My mother gets her cigarettes. Her hand with the lighter waves around; she’s likely to set her dress ablaze.
“Careful, Mom,” I say.
“Careful with the lighter.”
My mother smokes her cigarette in seven drags. Then she says, “He’s the same fucking age as Granny Crooswijk.” After that she lies down on the bed. I don’t know if I’m allowed to leave, so I sit there until she’s asleep. I don’t dare to pick up my hair. I look in the mirror and wonder if it’s ugly, short hair.
Fainting is not uncommon for me, but six months ago Karen Carpenter died, and because she too was very thin and fell over a lot, my mother thinks I’m suffering from something similar. So Dad sent us to the doctor. Granny Crooswijk went with us. She has sleeping problems and no insurance. When she heard we have to see the doctor for me, she scrambled to go along.
It’s 4 PM so Mom has already finished several glasses of rosé. When Dr Van der Wiel pokes his bespectacled head around the waiting room door, I see him frown at first, pulling in his chin. Then he says, ”Splendid. The entire family. Who’s first?”
“We’re here for Puck,” Mom says. “But as we’re here, you might just as well take a look at Granny Crooswijk too.” My mother points her thumb to her left.
Dr Van der Wiel glances at my grandma. She lifts her index finger and says, “Yes, hello, Crooswijk reporting.”
In the office there are only two chairs for the three of us. “No problem,” Mom says. “I’ll stand. My legs are still young.”
But Dr Van der Wiel notices she’s a bit wobbly and goes to find an extra stool in Reception. When he returns, he sits behind his desk, gives me a thorough look and says, “Well, Puck. Long time no see.”
“That’s right,” I say.
“How are things?”
“We think she’s got Karen Carpenter’s Disease,” Mom says.
“Whose disease?” the doctor says.
“She doesn’t eat,” Mom says.
“During the war we yearned for food,” Granny Crooswijk says. “But for the record, let’s start with me, because my bus leaves in twenty minutes.”
Dr Van der Wiel looks at my mother, who is fidgeting with a loose thread on her new pullover. Then he looks at me. I smile and shrug. He looks at Granny Crooswijk and asks, “What are your complaints?”
“My complaints? I sure as hell choke to death forty times a night. That’s my complaint.”
I think it’s clever of Dr Van der Wiel to know immediately what’s wrong with Granny Crooswijk. She has apnea. Every night her breathing stops for ten seconds or even longer.
“You’re a scream, I saw that right away,” Grandma says. “Question is: what to do about it?”
“There are several options,” the doctor says. “For a start you could try losing weight. If you would lose some weight you’d feel better overall.”
“If, if,” Granny Crooswijk says. “If ifs and ands were pots and pans, the world would be a kitchen.”
“Do you smoke?”
“Barely,” Grandma coughs.
“Do you drink?”
“I’m not a boozer, if that’s what you mean,” Grandma says. “Just a drop sometimes. When it’s fivish.”
“I take it you sleep on your back?”
“Just like Dolly Parton.”
“You could consider sewing a tennis ball into your nightgown,” the doctor says. “On the backside.”
At this Grandma pauses for a moment. Then she says, “Come again?”
“A tennis ball. Or a couple of bottle caps. Then you won’t sleep on your back anymore.”
“You’d better tell me a fairy tale,” Grandma says.
“I’m serious,” Van der Wiel says. “And apnea is a serious issue. A good night’s rest is vital. Without rest one gets cranky; it’s physically unhealthy. Moreover, one performs less well on an intellectual level.”
I think this last part impresses Granny Crooswijk the most.
“Well, give me a tennis ball then,” she says.
The doctor says she can buy them in a sports shop.
Grandma extends her hand to my half asleep mother. After she has received five guilders, Grandma gives the doctor a nod and says she hopes he has not made a fool of her. Then she has to hurry for the bus.
Dr Van der Wiel turns to me again.
“How about you?” he takes off. “How do you sleep?”
“Fine,” I say.
Unless Dad comes to wake me up. Which is almost every night now.
“How old are you?”
“Eleven,” my mother replies. “Twelve,” I say.
“Whatever,” Mom mumbles.
“Are you in secondary school already?” the doctor inquires. “After summer break,” I say.
Dr Van der Wiel crosses his arms and leans slightly forward.
“How’s your appetite?” he asks me.
“Fine,” I say.
I don’t eat anything. I’m too tired to eat.
“So why are you so thin?”
“It’s just… I’m not too fond of it.”
“No, not particularly.”
“Yeah, but I’m a pretty good cook,” Mom says.
Mom is the worst cook in the western hemisphere. Dad said so himself. Dr Van der Wiel asks my mom to wait in the waiting room for a bit. She can get a nice cup of coffee. Mom thinks that’s neat. She gets up and staggers out of the office.
“What do you consider yourself?” Dr Van der Wiel wants to know. I think that’s an odd question.
“Do you consider yourself thin, normal, or fat.”
“Thin, I guess.”
Dad also thinks I’m thin. But still pretty, unfortunately. Shall I mention that to Dr Van der Wiel? Mom is not around anyway.
“Do you have breakfast every day?”
I get up at six. Then I walk to the kitchen, scatter some breadcrumbs and chocolate sprinkles on a breakfast plate and dip my knife into the butter. When they come in, it looks like I’ve already eaten.
I make my own sandwiches for the school lunch.
“Do you ever spit out your lunch?”
I throw it in the trash at school.
Dr Van der Wiel folds his hands under his chin and looks at me. I look back at him, amiably. He seems kind. Shall I ask him if it’s normal?
“When you look around in the classroom, do you think other girls are thinner than you?”
“No,” I say. “I think I’m the thinnest one.”
“Do you think that’s pretty?”
But I’m glad I don’t have breasts yet. Dad would want to fondle them all day long.
“Are you happy you’re… Maybe you like having control over something?”
“I don’t control anything.”
I don’t really mind my light-headedness. It’s like floating.
“But you do control whether you eat or not.”
I’m so tired, all of a sudden.
“I do eat, you know.”
“But not a lot. Not enough.”
I sigh. My eyelids are heavy.
“Want me to tell you something?”
I try to look him in the eyes.
“Puck, what’s with the strange gaze?”
It’s because I have to spread my eyes open wide so as not to fall asleep.
“Seems like you need your summer vacation. Am I right?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Are you taking the caravan to France again?”
“And what will you do in France?”
“Bit of swimming? Bit of reading? What do you do?”
“Stuff with Dad, mostly.”
“So what do you together, you and your dad?”
“Other fun things?”
“No fun? Well, I’ll be.” He takes off his glasses and wipes them clean on his sleeve. There’s a persistent greasy stain on the glass. “Filth,” he mumbles.
Behind Dr Van der Wiel is a poster showing the human body. On the left there’s a naked man, on the right a naked woman. The doctor lifts his glasses up to the light. The stain is gone.
“There,” he says, putting his glasses back on. “I know exactly what you’re going to do this summer, Puck.”
I look him in the eyes.
“Have a rest, don’t think about school, have some good meals and some good fun. Right?”
“Lovely,” I say.
“Will you give my regards to your dad? Tell him we’re also taking the camper this year. To Czechoslovakia.”
“I’ll pass it on.”
“And I’d like to see you again after the holidays. Tan and a bit chubbier.”
“So long,” I say. I get up and shake his hand firmly, just as Dad taught me. Mom is sleeping in the waiting room, legs wide apart, so I go over to the receptionist and make an appointment for after the summer holidays.
For more information about Kim van Kooten and Dearest, please visit the Lebowski Agency website.
Kim van Kooten (1974) is an actress and a writer. She has starred in dozens of films and TV series, among them Phileine zegt sorry (awarded Best Actress of the year), Hollands Hoop and Onder het hart. She wrote the screenplays for Blind Date (awarded Best Film of the year), Met Grote Blijdschap (awarded Best Scenario of the year) and the box office hits Alles is liefde and Alles is familie.
Pauline Barendregt (1969) is design director and owner of Studio Button, a Strategic Design Company, based in Amsterdam. She is a former head of design at Mac & Maggie and for ten years was the head of design at G-Star RAW. Pauline is also a lecturer in branded design at the ArteZ Fashion Institute, Arnhem.
I hope people will stop looking away
An interview with Kim van Kooten and Pauline Barendregt
Kim van Kooten’s first novel is about the childhood of a friend of hers, Pauline Barendregt. “There are no towels around, so Uncle Mister uses his hands to rub her dry.”
By Jessica van Geel/NRC Handelsblad
It is Puck’s birthday. She has turned five and she is waiting with her mother for a black shiny car. They are standing on the sidewalk in a poor neighborhood in Rotterdam. Next to them are their suitcases. Her mother has responded to a personal ad: “Gentleman (not impecunious) looking for domestic assistant.” And now this gentleman is coming to pick them up. In Zwijndrecht, in the man’s stately villa, Puck is drowned in presents. Her mother, of limited mental capabilities, gets her magazines and a bottle of rosé a day. The man — whom she calls Uncle Mister and, later on, Dad — is a paedophile. Puck is abused from day one.
Thus commences Dearest, Kim van Kooten’s debut novel, published last Friday.
Van Kooten, an actress we know from Zusje, Onder het hart, and Hollands Hoop. Van Kooten, scriptwriter of Alles is Liefde and Alles is Familie to name just a few movies.
The abuse starts as soon as page 16 of Dearest, but if you’re expecting it to be a serious victim story, it’s not. Or rather, it is. But it’s also a very humorous book. It’s filled with horror and hilarity, an almost taboo combination. Kim van Kooten places the reader inside Puck’s head — from age 5 to 13 — and Puck is funny, occasionally even a riot. Furthermore, Van Kooten manages to describe the sexual abuse in a subtle way — sometimes in a single suggestion –thanks to her lovingly light style. Not to mention minor characters such as Granny Crooswijk with her gravelly smoker’s voice and her Rotterdam slang. All set against the backdrop of the eighties — though pretty uplifting in hindsight — with their mohair sweaters and sequins, monchichi-plushies, and the children’s TV show J.J. De Bom.
The abuse often takes place in the bathroom. There are no towels around, so Uncle Mister uses his hands to rub Puck dry. “Hair washing is on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” Van Kooten writes. Later on, Puck’s mother is forced into taking two evening classes, folklore painting and salt-free cuisine. “That makes for four nights every week of Dad and me home alone. Plus an additional three hair washings a week. A total of seven nights a week exactly. Dad’s lucky number.”
“Let’s be frank. This book is about me,” Pauline Barendregt said during the book presentation last Monday. Barendregt is a friend of Kim’s — they met at their children’s school — and the Puck character is based on her life story. And this grown-up Puck, Barendregt, now runs her own agency helping fashion brands develop their design strategies after being head of design for G-star for several years. Pauline Barendregt doesn’t hide from her past. Her picture is on the cover of the book, and she’s present during all the interviews with Kim van Kooten.
Why did you decide to take part in the publicity campaign?
Barendregt: “I didn’t want to be an anonymous source, hidden out of sight. As a child I was ashamed of it, but as an adult I’m not. I did not do anything wrong, I had just been dealt a bad hand. And I’m proud of everything I endeavoured to do in my life. Like this book. You see, talking about it is a taboo. Even with friends I avoided the subject when they asked about my childhood. But that meant keeping it at a distance, though to many children it’s not distant. I think it’s good to talk about it.”
One night Van Kooten and Barendregt were sitting in the garden together. Van Kooten had just finished writing the script of Alles is Familie and she was exhausted. Van Kooten: “‘Wouldn’t you like to write something else, a novel for example?’ Pauline asked. I surely did want to, but I didn’t have a story. ‘Well, I might have something for you,’ she said.” Van Kooten and Barendregt set up a ‘work meeting’ and Barendregt told her story.
Van Kooten: “It was a bizarre agreement. We cried and laughed like crazy at that kitchen table. But Pauline told me right away I should decide if I could turn it into a novel. I asked for some time to think it over, but I already knew: this was a book.”
Over the last three and a half years, Van Kooten and Barendregt saw each other very regularly. And Barendregt emailed recollections, anecdotes, pictures, and music for Van Kooten to use as she saw fit. As soon as Van Kooten finished another section, she mailed it to Barendregt, preceded by a text message saying ‘You’ve got mail,’ so as not to startle her.
Why did you specifically want Kim van Kooten to write the story?
Barendregt: “I only thought of that after that evening in the garden. From the time I was seventeen, I had planned to write the story of my childhood, but I didn’t want it to be a sob story bound to end up on the shelf with the self-help books. I’m a designer, I wanted it to be a nice book. A book with humor in it, able to reach a large audience. I imagined Kim would be able to do all that.”
Van Kooten: “It’s turned into something very personal for me as well. Of course I plunged into Pauline’s soul, but I put a lot of myself into Puck, though I can’t exactly pinpoint it. It’s all so intertwined. I always put a bit of myself into every character — it’s the same when writing a script. When people like my work, I guess it’s for that reason: because I make it all personal. I take everything into account; minor characters I construct as if they’re main characters. But this novel was even more personal. A script is interpreted by a director, the actors, the art director; but this time it’s my words that are in bookstores.’
As an actress you immerse yourself in other people’s worlds, and it’s the same in this book. Why?
Van Kooten: “My own life doesn’t trigger me. Other people’s stories inspire me. I enjoy crying over a book or a movie, for instance, because it touches something deep inside. But you don’t have to analyze it — you’re busy watching that movie, after all. These are the nicest moments for crying. When a feeling gets very personal, it loses its charm. That is what I want to do: turn a private feeling into anybody’s feeling.’
On the cover it says, “After reading Dearest you don’t want to abandon Puck,” but in fact you don’t want to abandon Puck while reading, and that’s why you read the book in one go. Because nobody else cares for her.
Barendregt: “For me,that was the main reason for creating this book. Knowing as a reader that things like this are happening here and now, that paedophiles don’t just exist abroad or hide in the bushes. Once, I calculated that in my own street — one of these busy Amsterdam streets — there must be two children going through something similar at this very moment. I hope that people, having read this book, won’t look away anymore when they suspect something is amiss.”
Van Kooten: “Therefore the familiar setting of the eighties is so important. Jerney Kaagman’s blue outfit, André van Duin’s jokes. But while you were dancing to Duran Duran, this was happening as well. Where were you?”
Nobody in this book takes action. And it takes frustratingly long before Puck dares to speak out.
Barendregt: “A child is not judgmental. He or she doesn’t have a frame of reference. She’s not angry with her mom for not interfering. She is not angry with the teacher who doesn’t acknowledge her signs. As a child you don’t even understand that Uncle Mister’s deeds are really wrong. His deeds may feel annoying, but clipping your nails is annoying too, and so is cleaning up your room. But there’s always this inner voice saying: this is inappropriate. But you quickly push that thought away.”
Van Kooten: “Abuse is very hard to detect, and it’s even more difficult to report. Therefore I can sort of understand the indifferent teacher and shop assistant. She too has a lousy husband at home, and a cat shitting all over the place, and a senile mother. Everybody is dealing with their own lives and there’s not much room for anything else.”
Barendregt: “And yet. I hope that after reading this book, a little window opens up in your mind. You realize it could happen. But this book has not been written out of spite. I don’t want to be a fearmonger. And I also don’t want people throwing rocks through alleged paedophiles’ windows — that doesn’t help any child. Uncle Mister has died, and I haven’t been in touch with my mother for twenty years now, nor do I want to be. I’m happy with the life I have made for myself.”