Monday 15 October 2018

Another ALS column piece from 1986 - 'Freddy H'

benefit of the doubt (columns from 1986)

freddy h.

On 8 September 1943, one day before I started Class One at Willemspark School, my mother taught me how to tie the laces of my shoes. My father – some time later – taught me that disbelief is the first step towards philosophy. My younger sister brought her friends home with her from school, and I, if it so happened, fell in love with them. This is what people call a protected environment.
Lying in bed in the evenings, I used to read books about boys who had been left in the lurch by their parents and had to go out and steal. They only had one comrade, a faithful mongrel who, when things had gone wrong, was not allowed to accompany him to the orphanage. This sometimes caused me to weep.
Much later, when I had considerably wiser about how things fitted together, I lived for quite some time in the Oudezijds Achterburgwal precinct, among people who mostly did not come from a protected environment. In was during that period that I first met Freddy H.
He had keen, peering eyes with which he saw everything; he had of course been brought up in an orphanage and had seen many prisons from the inside for offences you wouldn’t even get a mini ticking-off for. I dared to do everything I didn’t, without that making his inner life inaccessible to me. He was a jack of all trades, a survivor, a recycling expert. Long before Gertrude Stein, he already knew where you could get hold of second-hand roses, so to speak. Through his eyes I saw for the first time what we leave behind us, set aside, renew for no reason.
Because we made the same sort of relocation, I still see him. And nothing has changed, he knows of Dutch roof-tile rejects that are still quite ok, he knows of a small junk dealer that can dispose of cooker hoods and tram casings for next to nothing, he can fetch flintstones free of charge and he knows where there’s a batch of timber lying in a remote plot of woodland. I say. ‘But that must belong to somebody.’ ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘me. I got it from Mr Lodeweghes, who at last wants to clean up his patch of woodland.’ Mr Lodeweghes is a mysterious friend of his, who can claim to own half of the Netherlands as his personal property.
We go out there. It’s not easy nowadays to get the Massey Ferguson to engage in conversation (here I would like to make use of the occasion to demonstrate my love of and respect for the cliché. Clichés are the loveliest forms of language that exist. All of us feel this, and that is why they have become clichés. Imagine an aphasic engine block in deep meditation. You come along with your conjuring human hand. He resists, but in vain, you get him to speak, you cause him to engage in conversation, he converses. An engine that converses.), because the starter is a bit dodgy. When I join two copper-coloured protuberances, as indicated by a certified mechanic – I use a hefty screwdriver for this operation – the starter gives some signs of life and deep in the bowels of the mechanism a wound-up, rumbling sound is heard. After this, I quickly have to perform an ordinary start – for this thirty-five-year-old tractor that is in itself a exceptional act – and then he keeps running for the most part. He converses.
We drive through rolling countryside, between the villages of L. and B., it is France, but without the language and all that hassle at the border. It is autumn, the maize has been ensilaged and lies in winter storage. I occasionally read that a writer calls the sky soft blue; he is right, it really does exist, it is soft blue. In a recently harvested field an old woman is collected corn cobs, there is an iron basket next to her. Farther off, a boy and a dog. The woman is holding a cob in her hand and greets us. Freddy H., who is standing up on the trailer, bawls out a return greeting above the racket of the engine: ‘Stuff it up your cunt!’
He gives her a friendly smile as he says this, the woman smiles in return. What a nice man. She hasn’t made out what he said, that’s at least something, but I feel it’s impolite even so. Why then do I have to laugh at this? Perhaps because my mother, along with the laces, said that I must never use any dirty words at school. Freddy H. doesn’t observe any such agreements. He does whatever he wants to.
A little while later I hear him bawling once more – for me to stop. He jumps down, clambers over the barbed wire into a meadow. He walks through the tall grass, straight towards a spot where there is nothing to be seen. A dead duck lies there. He gives it to me – a present. He is generous. I want nothing to do the duck. ‘Botulism,’ I said. ‘No, mate, are you off your chump, it’s been winged. He pushes breast feathers aside and uncovers the shot wounds. At the same time, he reels off a sophisticated recipe, for he is also a gourmet and a cook. (I can only boil an egg.) He doesn’t insist all that long and takes the duck home with him.
The next day he tells me exactly how he has got the duck ready and gives me the details of the special Tuscan compote that he has prepared. The wine comes from a cask that he has got from Lodeweghes. He reads disbelief on my face, but doesn’t know that this is the first step towards philosophy.

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