As usual Blister woke up very early. The weather forecast on the telly had predicted
a luminous sky, but the chilliness of the previous day was still there, making
him shiver under the blankets. Of the new day merely a faint grey line was visible
along the pole of the heavy curtains.
He felt old and sick and it appeared
to him he had just managed to stay alive during the night. His bones, especially
his loins, were aching. The pain worked like an alarm. By dawn it grew so violent
it started ringing.
Not until the afternoon he began to feel a bit better.
"I don't feel very well today, Jacinte," he said, looking sideways at the
pillow on which the head of his wife had been resting for nearly fifty years.
Over two years ago she had passed away in her sleep. That very morning she had
not reacted to his usual complaints and since then he had grown familiar to getting
no answers from her. Besides, Jacinte never had been very talkative and in fact,
when you turned to God, He didn't answer either.
A painful thought passed
his blurred mind. Today he couldn't go out for his usual walk. His daughter Rose
had arranged that the brothers would arrive with their car at about eleven to
take him to one of the aged persons' bungalows.
Moaning he looked around
in the scantily furnished room where the light was still dull and grey. Besides
the double bedstead there were just a chair with his clothes on it and a cardboard
box with rubbish the dustlorry presently would collect.
He put his thin legs
outside of the bed. In stead of the soft rug he felt the splintery roughness of
the boarded floor. He cursed and for some time didn't move, sitting on the edge
of the bed, his head leaning on his folded hands.
"That's what they call
democracy, dear," he said and spat on the floor. "We've got to move, mind you."
The previous year the Senate had passed the Act of Aged Persons (AAP). One
of the vehemently disputed articles said that aged persons requiring help, after
having been examined by a geriatrist, even against their will could be removed
to a home consigned for that purpose. There they would receive all care including
medical attendance. So a few months earlier Blister was ejected as medically unfit
for ordinary life and sentenced to a lifelong attendance by others.
your heart," the geriatrist had coldly declared, an irritably smooth-skinned young
man who could have been his grandson. "And your legs show all phenomena of arteriosclerosis.
Quite possible that within half a year you won't be able tot walk anymore." And
that was that.
"You know, Jacinte," Blister mumbled, "for the last few days
I've been wondering if you really want to go to that damned bungalow. You've seen
for yourself what kind of room we'll get there, just a furnished loo all shiny
Just now he realised that for a good while he had been hearing thundering
sounds far away. They seemed to advance and sounded more like a continuous series
of explosions than like a thunderstorm in summer.
"Do your hear? Must be
one of those manoeuvres because of that Chinese menace they're talking about all
Suddenly - just above his head - a great many jetfighters skimmed
the roofs, tearing the sky apart en roaring like mad. A window next-door was flung
open and he heard a shrill voice shouting something, apparently to neighbours
at the other side of the street. Everyone was awake now. Dogs were barking, doors
were opened, radio- and television reporters vomited their ominous news between
the houses and seconds later the backyards were buzzing and bustling with life.
The piercing cry of a child went up from below like a blow-pipe, seeming to anticipate
the heavy explosion that followed.
"Must see what's on, Jacinte." Blister
grabbed his slippers from under the bed, put them on his blue-veined feet and
stumbled over to the curtains. The soft grey haze of the summer morning made the
old, high-pitched houses seem unreal. Above the roofs the sky was blazing now
and again and all porches and windows showed white motionless faces, getting sharp
contours by each flash.
"Must be something wrong," he muttered. "Pity they've
removed our telly set and radio. We don't know what's going on now. Maybe there's
a war going on. Alright my dear, I'll get dressed."
Muttering and mumbling
he went through the ritual of washing, shaving and dressing, the daily pursuits
which exhausted him so badly that he had to rest for a while before putting the
kettle on for his morning-coffee. He sat breathing heavily on one of the left
over kitchen chairs to relax. In the backyards the talking went on and on - war,
war, war - and by fits and starts the nervous voices of the reporters were audible
with in the background unremitting thundering noises, remembering him of blankets
once being beaten by him and his wife.
"Imagine dear, the two of us having
to face another war! At our age! Yes dear, did I smile? Did I?" Blister's face
expressed mystery as he turned the tap, pouring water into the kettle. "Coffee
first, than I'll tell you."
To tease Jacinte he went slower than usual through
all he had to do. Not until the steaming cup of coffee was standing before him
on the unpainted deal table and only after having a first sip he turned round.
"You know Jacinte, it's like this..."
A loud clanking at the front door prevented
him from telling what is was like.
"Dear me! Why doesn't he give the bell
a ring, I'd say. We've got a bell." Blister got to his feet and crossing the hall,
which looked rather bare and dusty without floor-covering, shuffled to the front
"Rose?" Surprise in his grating voice. "What are you here for so early?
Yesterday you said..."
She was awfully nervous and looked as if she had slept
with all her clothes on. Her uncombed hair curled wildly around her white gleaming
face. "The bell, it isn't working!"
"Gone west, to China I suppose," he said
"Oh Dad!" She put her arms around him and with her head on his shoulders
sobbed her heart out. "Dad! It's war! The Chinese... Terrible. Around the corner
houses aflame. And Janek... he has been called up. It came trough the telly. He...
Gently he disengaged her arms and took his daughter by the elbow.
"Come on in, baby, come on in. Yes, I heard something. Just came out of bed. Thundering
noises. Thought they were training..."
In the kitchen she flopped down on
a chair. "Training? Did you really think it was training?" With a cloak-and-daggery
touch she lifted both her thick arms towards the scaling ceiling. "Didn't I tell
you, Dad? You're too old to live on your own. You're not of this world anymore.
Didn't you hear the explosions, the planes, those horrifying bangs? Ohhh, Oh Janek...
Her head banged down on the table and made the cup which he had put
there jingling on its saucer.
Blister's old stained hand stroked her broad
back and with a weary smile he looked down on her. Poor old Rose. If anyone had
grown old it was Rose. That strange fat woman, was she really the little girl
he remembered to have seen tripping into the room with her first ballet suit on?
He had been able to span her waist with his thumbs and middle fingers then.
"Everything will be alright again, Rose, believe me," he said gently, but the
tears were running into his throat because Rose would never be alright again,
small and delicate as she once had been.
"Everything all right? You don't
know what you're talking about, Dad! Those Chinese, millions of them are dropping
from the sky, just like clouds of grasshoppers." She sat up, pulled a large hanky
out of her tasteless dress and started rubbing her patchy face.
coffee Rose, drink your coffee babe. It's getting cold."
She stared over
his right shoulder, probably at some theatre of war, and casually put the gruff
white cup at her mouth. "They should come at eleven, shouldn't they, the brothers,"
"Yes, at eleven," he assented. "I hope they'll come. You never
Rose straightened, breathed a deep sigh which made her weighty
bosom heave. "I'll call them again, Dad. Don't worry... Oh..." She slammed her
hand over her face and started crying again.
He thought himself cruel, looking
so silently at her without a word of comfort. In fact he resented all of her,
the quivering mouth, the twitching of her face, her square body without any curve
between upper part and hips.
"You've got to go Rose, you've got to go home
dear if you want to give them a ring." He pushed her gently out of the kitchen
and willingly she let him guide her to the front door. Gathering himself he kissed
her on the wet cheek and waved her goodbye until she disappeared, wobbling round
"That was our Rose, Jacinte, can you imagine?" he mumbled passing
their bed on his way back to the kitchen. "But they won't come at eleven dear,
definitely not. We'll stay here, the two of us, won't we?"
He muddled along
through the house to inspect the furniture. "Not much, but we can manage I suppose."
He counted on his fingers to show her. "A bedstead, a table to eat at, three ordinary
chairs, some knifes, spoons, forks, just enough plates and cups. Must be careful
not to drop anything! But no telly and that's a pity really. Otherwise we could
have watched the war. Now I've got to get out for it."
He rubbed his bony
hands. "Yes, I'm alright. I feel better than in months. I'm off dear. Won't be
At the front door he watched with quiet amusement the people in the
street. They didn't look at each other but stared stone-eyed at the direction
where the flat scorched countryside began. Finally one of them saw him and nodded
Doddering he filled his pipe and went carefully down the three
stairs of the doorstep, putting one foot down, seeking support for his cane on
the next stair and then putting the other one down. Foot by foot he shuffled beyond
the men and women towards the main road. One of the women shouted: "Grandpa, did
you hear the news?"
A weary smile creased his cheeks and he shook his head
as if to say: Dear oh dear, isn't it hard having to face another war at my age.
Along the main road there were the inquisitive, the brave ones and the sensation
mongers. They all watched the West where the horizon continually was marked by
fierce flashes and now and again flaming objects were curving towards the earth.
"Where do you go, grandpa?" he heard a man's voice shouting. "Come back!
It's too dangerous!"
Blister turned round and staggering on his feet he pointed
with his cane at the horizon as if that gesture explained everything.
senile, man!" shouted the same man. "They're coming this way!"
he muttered and once more pointed at the horizon. If only they wouldn't come after
He knew precisely where to go, to the canal which had been used for
irrigation in his youth. Since many years there was no water in it and he was
convinced that the Chinese would march both along the main road and the dry concrete
bed. They were as sneaky as the Vietcong he had been fighting long ago. He let
himself down on the bank of the dry canal and refilled his pipe.
time the reward for his patience and insight came along. Not very far off a machinegun
started sputtering and above the bed a tenuous smoke was rising, riddled with
red flashes. As the shooting grew to a full orchestra and the shell fire and bombing-attacks
made the earth shake on which he sat and filled the air with screeching noises,
he was breathing a bit faster. Barely at a distance of some hundred yards dingy
fountains of sand and stones began to darken the frail sunlight.
out of the cloud of dust and smoke emerged some jeep with two or three countryman
in it, tearing along the concrete bed. More cars of all different kinds of shape
and size followed, manned by besmeared, exhausted soldiers, looking back in terror
and searching the slopes on both sides. On top speed some tanks came rolling along,
roaring and rumbling, making Blister's pipe rattling between his false teeth.
None of them seemed to notice him.
There was a gap of ten minutes or
more. The smoke lifted slowly and the sun began to shine a shade brighter than
before. So the flat strange vehicle was already visible when it was still a long
way off. It was nearly eleven now, he saw on his wrist.
Hardly ten yards
from the place where Blister was sitting the vehicle stopped and the Chinese jumped
out. The first minute they didn't see him and he could observe them at ease. Small
men they were with flat faces doing silently and efficiently what they had to
do. The driver parked his car in an inlet of the bank as two others - there were
four of them - were looking for cover at the other side of the canal. The tallest,
probably an officer, climbed the slope at Blister's side, his field glasses ready,
and suddenly became aware of the old man.
Laboriously Blister scrambled to
his feet and before he had managed to straighten he was surrounded. They produced
strange sounds and gesticulated in a puzzling way.
Blister nodded with a
smile and began to shake hands. He had to grab them really. "Chinese good," he
said, "Chinese very good. Bravo!"
They smiled back and again they shook hands.
The officer unbuckled one of his bags, grabbed a colourless packet of cigarettes
out of it and offered him one.
"Thank you." Blister shook his head, showed
his pipe and smiled again.
Once more they started gesticulating, pointing
at the sky. "Bang, bang!" One of them dropped himself in the yellow grass and
simulated with a flat hand a plane skimming his helmet.
"Yes, yes." He got
the idea, pointed at himself and then in the direction of his home. "Chinese good,"
he said again. "May I go now?"
They waved him away.
Barely half an hour
later he was back in the built-up area. Cars with Chinese soldiers patrolled along
the streets, chasing everyone into their houses. They shouted at him as well,
commanding him with loud strange voices.
He nodded smilingly, raising his
cane into the air by way of salute.
Eventually at home he crawled into his
bed, exhausted by the firm walk, his limbs trembling vigorously. With a smile
around his lips he fell asleep.
"You like it, Jacinte, still being in our
own house?" he said the following morning. "We owe that to those Chinese, don't
we? By the way, do you happen to know where I left my comb? Oh yes, indeed, on
He tried to get his sparing hairs into fashion. "For years
I hadn't such a good laugh as yesterday I think," he said to the mirror that twitched
his face in a grotesque way every time he moved. "Nice boys, very nice boys they
were." And then louder: "They even offered me a cigarette, Jacinte!"
didn't complain about the Chinese occupation. His needs were limited - a bit of
tobacco, three slices of bread and a well-sized bowl of soup a day. Oh yes, and
coffee of course.
When the people were allowed to go outside again there
had been a run on the supermarkets and at last they hadn't left a grain of rice
for the mice.
Rose appeared to be very useful now. With her mighty elbows
she had digged into the ribs of meticulously dressed gentlemen, had pushed ladies
aside and even saleswomen who had tried to tell her they'd run out of everything.
So she had managed to get hold of a considerable stock and she let him share in
a generous way: tobacco for a month and coffee ditto.
"Dad," she said on
the third day of the occupation, I've talked to those brothers, remember? Well,
it's altogether out of the question for them to fetch you or to bring back your
things from the bungalow. The Chines have requested all cars, they said. Do you
"Yes, yes Rose, sure. What a mess Rose. What have I got left
after all." He counted on his fingers to show her: "One bedstead, a table, two
rickety chairs. Compare that with the well-furnished rooms I would get there!"
Once you'll get there, ad," she tried to comfort him. "Janek also did return,
didn't he? And without having to shoot or something. So..."
"Once," he muttered.
"Dad," she said on the tenth day of the occupation, "I've got a surprise
for you. No, I won't tell you. Tomorrow you'll see. No don't try, you won't guess."
When she had gone Blister started grumbling at himself. Rose might have told
if he had pressed the point. What could it be? Let me see. The twenty-five-something
year's celebration of their marriage. No, that was some years ago. The date he
didn't remember. Horrible it had been! A dinner of at least seven or eight courses
she had forced down his throat till he went sick.
"Jacinte!" he suddenly
shouted panic-stricken. "She won't offer me that mezzanine room again, will she?
She can't make me move into her house can she? Imagine that! Me with her and that
flabby Janek of her in one house. Nothing I detest more."
Restless he began
to shuffle around in the nearly empty house, putting the one burnt-out pipe in
places after the other. "My God, blessed you are with a daughter like Rose."
That evening he smoked far to much and when he went tot the bedroom Blister felt
more miserable than he had been in months. He tossed and tumbled about in his
double, keeping Jacinte awake for hours at a stretch, hammering on the same subject,
over and over again. "Jacinte, what could it be. Jacinte, what do you think, tell
me." And eventually: "For God's sake, say something you bitch!"
years he had behaved like a lamb, had never scowled or snarled at her. And all
of a sudden... He was ashamed of himself, turned over on his other side and softly
and with little squeaky sounds began to cry till he dozed off. Next morning he
woke up with a nasty taste in his mouth and his loins hurt more badly than ever.
The surprise! It flashed upon him.
"You don't think they can force me to
do something I don't want, do you Jacinte? If they say: the mezzanine room, I'll
tell them: sorry, not for me that blasted mezzanine room. Fortunately we live
in a free country since the Chinese have arrived, where old people like us may
decide what they do with themselves, ah!"
He sat on the edge of his bed,
his bare feet shuffling over the rough boards and he had to admit it now felt
more satisfying than the rug that used to be there.
At ten o'clock - washed,
shaved and dressed - he smoked his first pipe and after some time there was a
loud rattling at the front door. "Well, here we are," Rose said excitedly and
followed by two tall men in dainty grey uniforms she loped past him into the hall.
"There they are, the brothers. How's that?"
Frightened Blister watched the
car at the kerb and still puzzled he followed them into the kitchen. "What do
you mean, Rose?"
She smiled mysteriously and with a twinkle in her eyes casted
a glance at the men, standing like statues at either side of the kitchen table.
"Those Chinese are not so bad after all. They have provided they will uphold unabridged,
I say unabridged, all our laws for the time being. Which means, Dad, everything
will go on as usual, and you, Dad, today the brothers will ride you to one of
those splendid bungalows. They've got their cars back, a bit blistered (she laughed
as she said it) but functioning."
"That's great, Rose," he muttered, his
lips trembling. "I think it's wonderful and eh... these things and all, the bed,
the chairs, will they take them too?"
"Oh no, Dad, everything is brand-new
there. All that rubbish you may leave behind."
"I... I..." Shyly he glanced
at the two men standing motionless near the table. "I'd like to look around a
"Of course, Dad, and take your time."
Foot by foot he
shuffled across the nearly empty rooms, seeing all things through a mist of tears
he tried to force back. The bed on which he had slept for fifty years of which
forty years with Jacinte twitched strangely.
"Jacinte," he whispered, hardly
moving his lips, his voice barely audible, "coming with me, dear?"
the blankets at her side of the bed moving gently as she turned her back on him
and for the first time since she had died he heard her whisper ever so softly:
"I'm sorry for you, Blister, but I'd rather stay here. I'd die in that bungalow..."
And Blister turned round and docilely let them lead him to the car outside.