At 20 one can still blithely ignore the lure of blazing summer days. And thus, on that sunny Saturday-afternoon in July , I found myself, deprived of any direct sunlight, lazing the day away in a ground floor flat somewhere in an Antwerp suburb. Lounging about in bed, reading Agatha Christie and with on the background the radio playing again & again the Belgian Eurosong winner of that year : “j’aime j’aime la vie”.
I had arrived there at 7 AM , with a girl I had befriended only a few hours before in a shady nightclub. Amidst the smoke & noise & general drunken bawdiness we had bonded at the counter over lines of tormented poetry we had been scribbling on stained beermats. Scribbling instead of reciting had been in order because of the thumping music, which forced my newly found friend to switch off her hearing aid if she wasn’t to be tormented with unbearably screeching sounds.
At closing time of the night club, we had left together, blinking at the bright morning light, and headed for the tram stop where decent early rising citizens were already gathering. She had asked whether I liked chicken and coca cola for breakfast, assuring me she still had plenty in supply at her place. So, instead of taking a lonely train back home after my night out (I lived in Louvain at the time, some 60 km from Antwerp) I joined her on a local tram, enjoying the rattling ride through early morning streets where I had never been before.
While seated at our 7AM meal of cold chicken and coke, she had happily explained she had to go to work in a store at 10 AM, but that I was very welcome to stay at her place until her return later in the afternoon. This capacity of hers to live through an entire weekend, fuelled only by chicken and coca-cola, ice-cold showers and the shortest of naps, never ceased to amaze me and surely contributed to my admiring fondness of her. Ah yes, she did seem to have so much surer a grasp of the good life than I had, but then, after all, she was already 25!
So there I was, lounging about on that summer Saturday, quite content with life, though slightly dazed for lack of sleep , waiting for her to return. I started exploring discreetly my surroundings, browsing books (lots of suspense novels, but also geography), looking at the photos placed on cupboards. Photos of friends, family and of herself at different ages. Funny how different she could look , depending on the haircut at the time of the snapshot , now brash & tomboyish with a short crew cut, then again sweet & girly with longer hair.
Having got bored with Agatha Christie and with “j’aime la vie” on the radio, I did venture outside the flat for a short while, looking for a store to replenish the coca cola reserves. Clutching the key she had entrusted to me, I strolled through unknown streets, dazzled by the white summer glare . But soon I took refuge again in the cozy semi-darkness of her flat, where the only light came in through French doors which opened to a small walled court.
Wanting to make myself useful I had done the dishes and was just clumsily vacuuming when with a start I heard the front door opening. She seemed happy to still find me there, laughing at my zealous, though rather incompetent, dash at household tasks. That night we did not go out again, but instead stayed in, drinking coke and talking, talking, talking the hours away.
She told how it had taken years before her incipient deafness had been recognized as such. As a child she had long lived in her own bubble, quite puzzled by the world and the people around her, who in their turn were puzzled by her strange ways, thinking she had autistic tendencies before at last discovering that hearing troubles were at the root of her isolation. In a very matter- of- fact tone she explained how she had learned to navigate the world with its speech and its myriads of sounds, using a combination of lip-reading and hearing-aids of ever increasing strength to match an ever declining hearing ability.
She was very attached though to the sounds that she did capture – I remember how she always got all excited when catching the far-off drone of a plane, she would interrupt whatever she was doing and run out into the little court, scouring the sky for a glimpse of that plane. And on her night-table she had a huge black ghetto-blaster alongside piles of Mike Oldfield music-cassettes. “Tubular Bells” – that was the music apparently best tuned to the reach of her hearing aid.
And all through our talking, she also listened intently to me, not ever getting impatient with me, not even when, as the night wore on, I got lost in over-cerebral ruminations about life, philosophy , Bach and the universe. She explained that she loved watching my face and eyes while I went on like that, thus gauging my genuine love of all I talked about rather than being concerned with the increasingly abstruse quality of my ranting. Which was really a very sweet thing of her to say to the naive -ponderous person I was (and still am).
Oh, we sure saw a lot of each other that summer! Broadening the roaming circle of our nightly escapades also to other cities and other dubious venues. We would for instance take the last train to Ghent together, spending the night there, a night full of encounters with other youthful nighthawks. And sometimes extending our night-city-trip into the day. I remember us walking about bleary-eyed In Ghent, on a Sunday morning in August, only barely escaping arrest by a overzealous policeman when doing something foolish with a national flag we had been prying loose. Sometimes we would be lounging about until the afternoon, basking in the sun on crowded terraces, fending off exhaustion with an extra dose of greasy fries.
In September I went for a 3-week holiday in Portugal with friend. So contact was broken for almost a month, though never was she nearer to me than when I was watching a small boy playing alone on a pier in some port-city in Portugal. It was not just his blond crew-cut that reminded me of her, but also the intense concentration of this little boy, his passionate self-absorption in his lone playing - very much, I think, like the lonely kid she had been.
And then came the new academic year in Louvain with its much dreaded stress of both a hostile curriculum (economy) and a set of particularly intimidating bourgeois fellow-students. In the meanwhile, she, having broken her leg (I can’t for the life of me recall how and when) went to stay with her parents for a while.
So circumstances didn’t facilitate our communications, it moreover still being the era of slow letters, with their unnerving tendency to fatefully cross each other. Thus it happened that, once upon a very cold weekend in late November, I went to Antwerp only to find she wasn’t home.
Still having her key, I let myself in. The flat was cold, a half-empty thermos and a coffee-cup trailed on the table. How strange it was to be alone again in her flat, full of traces of her habits which I had come to know so well. I stayed there for the night, laying awake most of the time - partly because of the cold ( not knowing how to light the gas radiator) and partly because I was so alert to any noises, vaguely hoping to hear her coming in after all.
The next morning I left a note on the table and took the tram to the center of Antwerp to have breakfast in a riverside-café.
Drinking cup after cup of coffee I watched the gray foggy river, with a boat slowly sailing by, accompanied by screeching seagulls. Peering into that gray expanse, wondering about a blank future, I could not know that many years later I would be shocked by someone saying with a shrug about a withered friendship ” oh well, people come and go”.
And still less could I know that, even more years later, I myself would have come to terms with this coming and going of people, not out of cynicism, but because I would have learned that at least in our memory these transient human relations enjoy some relative permanence.