He poured himself another glass of red wine, spilling some,
swore and wiped the wine off with the sleeve of his jacket, which
wasn’t like him at all. He was usually very tidy, but it didn’t
matter now whether there were stains on his grey jacket, or on
the oak table. His life, their life, was ruined anyway. He might
just as well ram a concrete wall at full speed and relieve
everyone of his superfluous presence in this world. Somehow
he had always known that it would end like this, that one day
he would lose everything. But he had taken the risk.
He tried to remember who he was before she had come
charging into his life. He couldn’t remember. Some sort of
lonely, hard-working zombie, living thriftily and frugally and
at the same time searching for something. Until the girl with
the blond ponytail had floated into his shop, swept him off his
feet with her charm, dazzled him with her passion and within
a month had moved in with him. The girl who had once
crawled onto his lap, frightened and in tears, whom he
wanted to protect, to give everything to and who finally consented
to be his, to be the mother of his children, now wanted to
take away all he owned.
His eyelids were heavy, so heavy that he needed all his
strength to keep them open, but he had no wish to go to bed,
even though he was terribly tired. He didn’t want to sleep alone
yet again, in the dusty attic, lying awake, longing for her
warm body. His limbs glowed with weariness, but he would
stay sitting here, at the kitchen table, smoking and drinking,
until he had worked out what to do next. He couldn’t live
without the boys. The idea of waking and getting up without
their cheerful hubbub, seeing their sleepy, happy faces at breakfast,
without feeling their young bodies on his lap now and
then, scared him so much he could scarcely breathe. There
would be no point to anything, he would go gradually to
pieces and eventually lose his mind, he was sure of it.
He nodded off, started awake, and again it dawned on him
what lay ahead. It was a nightmare, and he simply couldn’t
believe it was happening to him after all he’d had to swallow.
He got up unsteadily, but his legs were limp as spaghetti, and
he slipped and fell, striking his head against the sharp corner
of the table. He was obviously drunk. He felt warm blood
trickling down his cheek. Death had him in its sights, but he
wasn’t afraid, at least not as afraid as he was of the life that
awaited him. The throbbing pain in his head was pleasant,
comforting even, compared with the pain in his heart. His
eyelids closed, and he wanted to lie down, sleep and never
wake up. But surely he couldn’t make it that easy for her?
Didn’t she deserve to pay for all she had done to him, to suffer
until she longed for the end just as he did now? Wincing with
the pain in his heavy heart, he felt a failure and lonelier than
ever. Why couldn’t they just go away together, disappear? In
his head the image loomed up of an azure sea, fine, snowwhite
sand and a shabby wooden boat onto which the boys were
clambering nimbly with their gleaming, dark brown bodies,
before jumping off again in delight. He heard them calling his
name. That’s how it had been, not long ago, on the beach in
Thailand. And that’s how it should be: his family, together to
the bitter end. He smelled the fire. The boys roared with laughter.
He poked the blocks of wood again with a stick. The flames
flared up, he breathed in and savoured the smell of burning
wood. This was happiness, true happiness and that’s how it
should be forever.
It was the middle of the night when Michel shook me
awake gently and mumbled drowsily that the phone
was ringing. I groaned, burrowed further into the pillow,
hoping the ringing would stop, until it slowly
dawned on me that a ringing telephone in the middle
of the night generally means something terrible has
happened. I turned on my bedside light and looked at
the alarm. It was three o’clock. The ringing stopped,
and Michel said we might as well go back to sleep. It
was probably some idiot, wrong number or something.
At that very moment the telephone rang again. The
sound seemed louder and more piercing: like a siren.
My mother-in-law’s heart had given out. My sister had
lost her baby. I got hurriedly out of bed, slipped into
my dressing gown and ran downstairs, followed by a
naked Michel. I found the angrily ringing phone on the
sofa. My heart was pounding. I picked up the receiver,
looking at Michel, who folded his arms protectively
around his naked body.
At the other end of the line I heard shouting and lots
of noise. A man called out “Patricia!” in a panicky
voice. I heard footsteps and panting: the high-pitched,
subdued wheeze of someone gasping for breath and
then a low, whispering voice.
“Karen! Sorry to wake you up . . .”
“Patricia? What’s going on?”
“. . . It’s awful. You’ve got to come. Evert and
Babette’s house is on fire . . . We’ve got to save what we
can . . . Everyone’s coming over here. I’ve called them
all . . .”
“Oh God . . .” Michel took my hand and looked
questioningly at me.
“Evert and Babette . . . the boys . . . how are they?”
“Luuk and Beau are unhurt. Babette’s injured . . .
They’re still looking for Evert . . .”
It felt as though everything had frozen: time, my
blood, my heart. Michel began asking in a panic what
was happening, and where, where on earth, we had to
“There’s a fire at Evert and Babette’s . . .”
He swore. I saw our youngest daughter Sophie sitting
on the stairs with her thumb in her mouth, observing
“We’ve got to go, everyone’s there. To see if we can
do anything . . .”
In the distance I heard sirens wailing. I realized I
had already heard them in my dream.
I ran upstairs to dress, and then back down again
because I realized we couldn’t leave the children
behind by themselves but couldn’t really take them
with us either. I rang Ineke, our neighbour, who said
she had also been woken up by the sirens and yes, she
would happily come and watch over the children. With
the receiver in my hand I ran through the living room
and opened the curtains. I could smell the fire and
could see an orange glow in the distance beyond the
We threw on our clothes, watched by Sophie and
Annabelle, who bombarded us with questions: why
were we going to the fire, why couldn’t they come too,
were all Luuk and Beau’s toys burnt, where would they
would live now and were they dead? My thoughts
were so absorbed by what we were probably going to
encounter that I could only react curtly to their questions.
Sophie began to cry.
“I’m frightened!” she sobbed. “You two are going to
be killed in the fire too! You’ve got to stay here!”
I kissed her head, wiped the tears from her eyes and
said that I wanted to help my friends, and that if all of
us did our best, we might be able to save some of Luuk
and Beau’s toys.
Ineke was standing at the foot of the stairs in her pink
slippers. She had thrown a trench-coat over her
pyjamas. I hurried over to her, with two still weeping
girls trailing behind me, gave her a kiss and grabbed
my coat from the coat hook. Her grey hair stood on
end and her watery blue eyes looked worried. “Everyone’s
out in the street,” she said. “It’s really a huge
She put her arms round the girls.
“Off you go, I’ll sort things out here,” she said,
before asking with feigned cheerfulness why these two
little girls weren’t in their beds. Michel and I put our
coats on, slammed the door behind us and leaped
onto our bikes. Outside there was a thin dusting of
snow. A crescent moon shone from a clear sky, and if
we hadn’t been on our way to the scene of something
dreadful, we would probably have told each other what
a wonderful night it was.
Head-high flames were leaping out of the thatched
roof, and the outside walls, once plastered in white,
were now scorched pitch black. Thick, dark grey
clouds of smoke were billowing from the windows and
the roof. Neighbours were running about, carrying
their crying children, yelling to each other, while
others, holding their breath and red-eyed, were watching
the fire that was eagerly devouring the detached
house. The street had been cordoned off, and firemen
were running to and fro, unrolling hoses and entering
the smoking house with breathing apparatus. Water
roared through the hoses, but the flames seemed
stronger, as if being constantly refuelled.
A week ago we had celebrated the seventh birthday
of their son Beau in this house. We sat round the open
fire drinking red wine with a wonderful bouquet, while
the children rampaged through the house. Now the
fire was consuming everything that Evert and Babette
had built up together.
We squeezed our way through the spectators, looking
for familiar faces. We wanted to help, though we
realized at once that there was nothing we could do. A
policeman came over and asked us to make way for the
wailing ambulance that was following him at a crawl.
Everyone fell back. Michel took hold of my numb
hand, and we watched the flashing light disappear
round the corner. The fire had spread so fast it was a
miracle there were any survivors, certainly at this
unearthly hour, we heard people whispering around
us. No one could tell exactly what had happened. Only
Evert was still in the house.
Again we were pushed aside by yelling policemen, and
a second ambulance roared past. Patricia came running
after it, her dark red curls straggling down her
slightly sooty face. When she saw us, she stopped. The
corners of her mouth trembled with stress, and her
eyes darted in all directions, like those of an animal at
bay. She kissed me quickly, and I caught a whiff of
sulphur. She gestured with her head in the direction of
her black Range Rover, which was parked carelessly
among the trees.
“I’m going to the hospital with them, Babette and
the boys are in those ambulances . . . The rest are over
there.” Panting, she pointed at a police van, where a
group of shattered-looking people stood together.
“There’s nothing more to be done, my loves . . . We
can only hope and pray they can rescue Evert . . .”
At the mention of his name she faltered. She knew it
was highly unlikely he would get out of the burning
house alive: it was taking far too long.
We pushed our way through the throng towards our
friends, who were staring at the fire in disbelief. When
Angela saw me, she spread her arms and began crying.
We hugged, and I felt her hot tears on my cheeks. “Oh
God, Karen, this is so awful! So appalling . . .”
Simon broke down in Michel’s arms and started
swearing, his voice breaking with emotion.
“It’s so fucking unfair! What a god-awful mess! Fuck!
He came round to see me only yesterday . . .”
He clung to Michel’s shoulder’s, digging his fingers
into his jacket.
“And now . . . he’s dead! He must be! He can’t
possibly survive that. He’s dead! My friend is dead!”
I looked over Angela’s shoulder and saw Hanneke
sitting against a tree in a daze, taking short drags on
her cigarette. She seemed to be in shock. I freed myself
from Angela and went over to her. At that moment we
heard yelling. I turned and saw everyone racing back,
ducking down and screaming. The burning roof collapsed.
I looked back at Hanneke, who had put her
arm round her head and was rocking gently to and fro.
Firemen raced past, shouting to each other that none
of their team was in the house, followed by four
policemen carrying a long, grey bag. Angela squeezed
my arm. I felt my stomach turning and became so
giddy I thought I was going to faint. The bag was carried
carefully into the ambulance. It drove slowly off, this
time without screaming sirens.
Day was slowly dawning by the time the fire brigade
finally brought the fire under control while we, chilled
and drenched with the water from the hoses, sought
refuge in the kitchen of Simon and Patricia, who
lived round the corner from Evert and Babette. Their
neighbour, a plump, elderly lady, made coffee. Thom,
Thies and Thieu, Simon and Patricia’s three sons, sat
huddled together on the sofa in their pyjamas.
“They didn’t want to go to bed,” whispered the
neighbour. “They wanted to wait here for their
Mummy and Daddy. So I let them.”
We listened in silence to the cheery bubbling of the
coffeemaker and the clatter of cups, spoons and saucers.
The tense silence in which no one dared look at
anyone else made me nervous, and I got up to help.
Simon looked most distraught of all. He didn’t seem to
be aware of his three sons, who were staring at him
anxiously and with their eyes full of questions. Michel
took a cigarette from a packet lying on the table and lit
up. He inhaled deeply and then exhaled the smoke
angrily, as if trying to blow away the image etched on
our retinas. My hands were trembling as I served the
cups of coffee. We were all trying in our own way to get
a grip on the situation.
The sound of sighing, sniffing and slurping became
almost intolerable. Fortunately Simon broke the
“Why haven’t we heard from Patricia? Why doesn’t
she give us a call? Would someone ring her? We have to
know how Babette is . . . and the boys . . .”
We fell silent again, turned to our cups of coffee and
lit up cigarettes, though most of us hadn’t smoked for
years. Simon got up, went to the fridge and took out
a bottle of vodka and six chilled glasses, which he
deposited on the table with a dull thud. He poured the
vodka into the glasses. Michel rested his elbows on the
table and hid his face in his hands. I asked Simon
gently if Evert’s mother had been told yet. He nodded
and said that she was probably at the hospital too.
We heard the front door open. Angela sprang to her
feet and went into the hall. We all held our breath and
avoided eye contact.
The wailing of Evert’s mother went right through me.
Her anguished cries came from deep inside and
sounded exactly as I had always thought utter despair
would. I emptied my glass in one, in the hope that the
fiery liquid would protect me against the grief welling
up. Simon refilled my glass without looking at me.
Patricia came into the kitchen and opened her
mouth to say something, raised her hands in the air and
could only shake her head, while the tears ran down
her cheeks. Evert had not survived the fire. Babette was
still unconscious but stable. Luuk and Beau were
doing fine, but they were being kept in overnight for
observation. She gestured towards the hall, where the
animal howling of Evert’s mother still rang out.
“I couldn’t leave her there all by herself . . . He’s her
only son . . .”
Simon put his arms round his wife and pushed her
gently onto a chair. The neighbour said she didn’t feel
well and ran out of the kitchen. I took over her job and
made sure the coffeemaker kept bubbling, that my
hands were busy, that I didn’t succumb to helplessness
and break down. I was afraid that otherwise I would
flee this grief-filled house. I was a powerless onlooker,
an intruder in the tragedy that had struck this family,
an outsider. But flight wasn’t an option: we were
friends. One of us had become homeless and a widow
in a single night. Our place was here and nowhere else.
‘One minute you have everything and the next nothing
at all,’ someone murmured. All we could come out
with were clichés like these. But we did not want to go
to our own homes yet. We were putting off the confrontation
with the outside world for as long as possible.
There seemed to be no way of talking to other
people about this. Outside we heard children going to
school, everyday sounds that suddenly seemed terribly
far away. We were still drinking vodka, and when the
cigarettes ran out we smoked Simon’s cigars.
He poured himself another glass of red wine, spilling some,