Read an Excerpt
The last day of Waldemar Leverkuhn’s life could hardly have begun any better.
After a windy night of nonstop rain, mild autumn sunshine was now creeping in through the kitchen window. From the balcony overlooking the courtyard he could hear the characteristic soft cooing of lovelorn pigeons, and the fading echo of his wife’s footsteps on the stairs as she set off for the market. The Neuwe Blatt was spread out on the table in front of him, and he had just laced his morning coffee with a couple of drops of gin when Wauters rang.
“We won,” Wauters said.
“Won?” said Leverkuhn.
“Christ yes, we won!” said Wauters. “They said so on the radio.”
“On the radio?”
“Fuck me if we haven’t won twenty thousand! Five each—and not a day too soon!”
“The lottery, yes. What else? What did I tell you? There was something special in the air when I bought the ticket. My God, yes! Mrs. Milkerson in the corner shop sort of coaxed it out! As if she really was picking out the right one. Two, five, five. One, six, five, five! It was the fives that won it for us, of course. I’ve had a feeling this was going to happen all week!”
“How much did you say?”
“Twenty thousand, for God’s sake! Five each. I’ll have to ring the others. Let’s get together at Freddy’s this evening—dammit, a party in Capernaum is called for!”
“Five thousand . . .?” said Leverkuhn, but Wauters had already hung up.
He remained standing for a while with the receiver in his hand, feeling dizzy. Five thousand guilders? He blinked carefully a few times, and when his eyes started to focus again they turned automatically to look at the wedding photograph on the bureau. The one in the gold frame. They settled gradually on Marie-Louise’s round, milk-fresh face. Her dimples and corkscrew curls. A warm wind in her hair. Glitter in her eyes.
That was then, he thought. She was a stunner in those days. Nineteen forty-eight. As tasty as a cream cake! He took out his handkerchief and blew his nose. Scratched himself a little tentatively in the crotch. It was different nowadays . . . but that’s the way it is with women . . . early blossoming, childbirth, breast-feeding, weight gain . . . reluctance. It was sort of in the nature of things. Different with men, so very different.
He sighed and went out of the bedroom. Continued his train of thought, even though he didn’t really want to. That seemed to happen often nowadays. Men, oh yes, they were still up for it much longer, that was the big difference . . . that damned big difference. Mind you, it evened itself out toward the end. Now, well into the autumn of his life, he rarely got the urge anymore, it had to be admitted. That applied to both of them.
But what else could you expect? Seventy-two and sixty-nine. He’d heard about people who could keep going for longer than that, but as far as he was concerned it was probably all over and done with, he’d just have to make the best of it.
There was the odd little twitch now and then, though, which he preferred to do without. A vague reminder of days long past, no more than a memory, a sad recollection.
But that’s the way it was. A little twitch that he could have done without. He flopped down over the kitchen table again. Five thousand! My God! He tried to think. Five thousand guilders! But it was hard to pin down those butterflies fluttering in his stomach. What the hell could he do with that amount of money?
A car? Hardly. It would probably be enough for a pretty decent secondhand model, and he had a driver’s license; but it was ten years since he’d sat at the wheel, and he hadn’t had any pressing desire to get out and see the world for a long time now.
Nor did he prefer an expensive vacation. It was like Palinski used to say: he’d seen most things and more besides.
A better television set?
No point. The one they had was only a couple of years old, and in any case, he used it only as something to sit in front of and fall asleep.
A new suit?
For his own funeral? No, the first thing to stick its head over the parapet inside his mind was that there was nothing he really needed. Which no doubt said a lot about what a miserable old grump he’d become. Couldn’t even work out how to spend his own money any longer. Couldn’t be bothered. What a joke!
Leverkuhn slid the newspaper to one side and poured himself another cup of coffee with a dash of gin.
That was surely something he could allow himself? Another cup? He listened to the pigeons as he sipped his coffee. Maybe that was how he should deal with the situation? Allow himself a few things? Buy an extra round or two at Freddy’s. More expensive wines. A decent bite to eat at Keefer’s or Kraus.
Why not? Live a bit of the good life for a year or two.
Now the phone rang again. Palinski, of course.
“Dammit, a party in Capernaum is called for tonight!”
The very same words as Wauters. How odd that he wasn’t even capable of thinking up his own swearwords. After his opening remark he roared with laughter on the phone for half a minute, then fi nished off by yelling something about how the wine would be flowing at Freddy’s.
“. . . half past six! White shirt and new tie, you old devil!”
And he hung up. Leverkuhn observed his newlywed wife again for a while, then returned to the kitchen. Drank up the rest of the coffee and belched. Then smiled.
He smiled at last. After all, five thousand was five thousand.
Bonger, Wauters, Leverkuhn, and Palinski.
They were a long-standing, ancient quartet. He had known Bonger and Palinski since he was a boy. Since they were at school together at the Magdeburgska, and the wartime winters in the cellars on Zuiderslaan and Merdwick. They had drifted apart for a few decades in the middle of their lives, naturally, but their paths had crossed once again in their late middle age.
Wauters had joined them later, much later. One of the lone gents who hung out at Freddy’s, Herr Wauters. Moved there from Hamburg and Frigge and God only knows where else. He had never been married (the only one of the quartet who had managed to avoid that, he liked to point out—although he now shared the bachelor state with both Bonger and Palinski)—and he was probably the loneliest old man you could possibly imagine. Or at least, that’s what Bonger used to confi de in them, strictly between friends of course. It was Bonger who had gotten to know him fi rst, and introduced him into their circle. A bit of a gambler as well, this Wauters, if you could believe the rumors he spread somewhat discriminately about himself, that is. But now he restricted himself to the soccer pools and the lottery. The horses nowadays were nothing but drugged-up donkeys, he used to maintain with a sigh, and the jockeys were all greedy pricks. And as for cards? Well, if you’d lost nearly twelve hundred on a full house, huh, let’s face it—it was about bloody time you took things easy in your old age!
According to Benjamin Wauters.
Bonger, Wauters, Leverkuhn, and Palinski.
The other evening Palinski had worked out that their combined age came to 292, and so if they could hang on for another couple of years, they could look forward to celebrating their three hundredth anniversary at the turn of the century. Christ Almighty, that wasn’t something to be sneered at!
Palinski had patted Fröken Gautiers’s generously proportioned bum and informed her of that fact as well, but Fröken Gautiers had merely snorted and stated that she would have guessed four hundred.
But in reality these round figures had no significance at all, because this Saturday was the last day of Waldemar Leverkuhn’s life. As already said.
Marie-Louise arrived with the bags of groceries just as he was on his way out.
“Where are you going?”
“To buy a tie.” There was a clicking noise from her false teeth, twice, as always happened when she was irritated by something. Tick, tock.
“Why are you going to buy a tie? You already have fifty.”
“I’ve grown tired of them.”
She shook her head and pushed her way past him with the bags. The smell of kidney floated into his nostrils.
“You don’t need to cook a meal tonight.”
“Eh? What do you mean by that?”
“I’m eating out.”
She put the bags on the table.
“I’ve bought some kidney.”
“So I’ve noticed.”
“Why have you suddenly decided to eat out? I thought we were going to have an early meal—I’m going to Emmeline’s this evening, and you’re supposed to be going—”
“To Freddy’s, yes. But I’m going to have a bite to eat out as well. You can put it in the freezer. The kidney, that is.”
She screwed up her eyes and stared at him.
“Has something happened?”
He buttoned up his overcoat.
“Not that I know of. Like what?”
“Have you taken your medicine?”
He didn’t reply.
“Put a scarf on. It’s windy out there.”
He shrugged and went out.
Five thousand, he thought. I could spend a few nights in a hotel.
Wauters and Palinski were also wearing new ties, but not Bonger.
Bonger never wore a tie, had probably never owned one in his life, but at least his shirt was fairly clean. His wife had died eight years ago, and nowadays it was a matter of getting by as best he could—with regard to shirts and everything else.
Wauters had reserved a table in the restaurant area, and they started with champagne and caviar as recommended by Palinski, apart from Bonger, who declined the caviar and ordered lobster tails in a sauternes sauce.
“What’s got into you old devils this evening?” Fröken Gautiers wondered incredulously. “Don’t tell me you’ve sold your prostates to some research institute.”
But she took their orders without more ado, and when Palinski patted her bottom as usual she almost forgot to fend off his rheumatic hand.
“Your very good health, my friends!” proposed Wauters at regular intervals.
“Let the party in Capernaum commence!” Palinski urged at even more regular intervals.
For Christ’s sake, I’m sick and fed up with these idiots, Leverkuhn thought.
By about eleven Wauters had told them eight or nine times how he had bought the lottery ticket. Palinski had begun to sing “Oh, those sinful days of youth” about as frequently, breaking off after a line and a half because he couldn’t remember the words. Bonger’s stomach had started acting up. For his part, Waldemar Leverkuhn established that he was probably even more drunk than he’d been at the Oktoberfest in Grünwald fifteen years ago. Or was it sixteen?
Whatever, it was about time to head home.
If only he could find his shoes, that is. He’d been sitting in his stockinged feet for the last half hour or so. He had realized this, somewhat to his surprise, when he had made his way to the bathroom to pee; but no matter how much he fished around for them under the table with his feet, he didn’t get a bite.
This was a damned nuisance. He could smell that Bonger’s stomach had spoken once more, and when Palinski started singing yet again, he realized that his search needed to be more systematic.
He coughed by way of creating a diversion, then ducked down discreetly, but unfortunately caught the edge of the tablecloth as he collapsed onto the floor. The chaos that ensued made him reluctant to leave his temporary exile under the table. Especially as he could see no sign of his shoes.
“Leave me alone, damn you!” he growled threateningly. “Fuck off and leave me in peace!”
He rolled over onto his back and pulled down the rest of the tablecloth and all the glasses and crockery. From the surrounding tables came a mixed chorus of roars of masculine laughter and horrified feminine shrieks. Wauters and Palinski offered well-meaning advice, and Bongers weighed in with another stink bomb.
Then Fröken Gautiers and Herr Van der Valk and Freddy himself made an appearance; and ten minutes later Waldemar Leverkuhn was standing on the sidewalk outside, in the rain, complete with both overcoat and shoes. Palinski and Wauters went off in a taxi, and Bonger asked right away if Leverkuhn might like to share one with him.
Most certainly not, you bloody skunk! Leverkuhn thought; and he must have said so as well because Bonger’s fist hovered threateningly under his nose for a worrying second: but then both the hand and its owner set off along Langgracht.
Touchy as usual, Leverkuhn thought as he started walking in more or less the same direction. The rain was getting heavier. But it didn’t worry him, not in the least. Despite being drunk, he felt on top of the world and could walk in a more or less straight line. It was only when he turned onto the slope leading to the Wagner Bridge that he slipped and fell over. Two women who happened to be passing, probably whores from the Zwille, helped him to his feet and made sure he was on steadier ground in Zuyderstraat.
The rest of the walk home was no problem, and he reached his apartment just as the clock in the Keymer church struck a quarter to twelve.
But his wife wasn’t at home yet. Waldemar Leverkuhn closed the door without locking it, left his shoes, overcoat, and jacket in the hall, and crept into bed.
Two minutes later he was asleep on his back with his mouth wide open; and when a little later his rasping snores were silenced by a carving knife stabbing twenty-eight times through his neck and torso, it is not clear if he knew anything about it.