Thijs de Boer
THE CORRIDORS IN this building begin again even before they’ve ended. They’re circles.
This building used to be a care home for the senile elderly. And the corridors run in circles because some of those old folk had the uncontrollable compulsion to walk. Nurses call it walking urge.
The corridors run in circles because none of the nurses wanted to stand at the end of a corridor all the time to explain to all those old people that this is the end.
You can’t go any further. This is the end.
There is no more.
The corridors run in circles so that those old people could walk around and around until they died.
In this building they ask you: ‘Can you fall asleep on your back?’
They ask you: ‘Do you often see something out of the corner of your eye that later turns out not to be there?’
This building used to be one of the best places in the country to bring your senile father or mother. But the home went bankrupt, because no one wanted to pay so much money for the people who brought them into this world.
And now we sleep here.
Sometimes a midget runs round and round the corridors shouting: ‘Look, the dwarf’s running! Look, the dwarf’s running! Look at his funny little arms and legs! Look at how they move! Look at how they move!’
This is before he’s given a shot.
Almost all the light switches in the building don’t work. Almost all the lights in the building are switched on and off remotely. The old, non-working light switches, standing out white everywhere against the brightly coloured walls, are a constant reminder of the fact that we can’t take care of ourselves. That we can’t decide for ourselves. Can’t think for ourselves.
I’ve heard people say that in your dreams you can never have any control over the light. And that if you want to know for sure whether or not you’re dreaming, you have to try turning the light off or on.
Here, during the day, we never know for sure.
The only light we’re allowed to control for ourselves is the light by the bed. Which we’re allowed to switch off ourselves before going to sleep. The only moment in the day when we know for sure that we’re not dreaming is just before we fall asleep. And I don’t know who I say it to or why, but every evening when I turn out the light I softly say aloud goodnight.
In this building they ask you: ‘Do you sometimes rub your eyes hard for the beautiful colours and shapes you’re going to see?’
You’re permitted to hang up posters. To make your room more personal. Less empty. You’re even encouraged to bring your own blankets and pillows. So that we’ll feel at home. But I only use the things they give me here and the walls of my room are bare. Even after all this time I still see the present as something temporary.
They ask you: ‘Do you often think someone’s calling your name?’
They ask you: ‘Do you think heaven is made of wood and stone?’
In this building you’ve got what they call the ‘hummers’. These are the people who hum all day. These are the people who hear voices in their heads. People who hear voices often – when they hear the voices – tighten their vocal cords. As if they’re using their vocal cords. Even though they aren’t.
The humming is meant to prevent this tightening and it’s supposed to keep the voices away.
Making noise so you don’t hear the voices.
Sometimes, when a hummer goes quiet for a while, Mira likes to start him off again.
Mira’s my only friend here.
And she says that if you ask them something about their childhood, then they’ll spend at least another two days humming.
Mira has tried to commit suicide three times. She came here after the third. Because of one of those suicide attempts she now has strange shoes to help her walk. She jumped off the roof of a building that was three floors high. It was a cry for help, she said.
Three floors is a cry for help.
She says: ‘You can’t take anyone really seriously until at least five floors up.’
In this building they told me that what I did wasn’t normal. And then they put me in here with all these crazies. But after everything that had happened, could I really have done anything else? Wasn’t it simply the only normal, the only human response?
Mira says we’ll both go to hell for what we’ve done.
In this building they ask you: ‘Do you often think someone’s there with you watching everything you do?’
Every day, at around noon, a dog comes by. He sits and waits at the sliding door until security lets him in. No one knows who the owner is. When he’s let in he walks to the day room and goes and sits on the carpet by the sofas. There he sits for a couple of hours, looking around. And after that he goes away again.
If you try to give him something to eat, he won’t take it unless it’s in your left hand. He never eats from your right hand. His boss probably trained him like that to prevent people from spoiling him too much. But I’m left-handed. I can give him whatever I like.
They say it’s better that we’re here.
And then they ask you: ‘Are you still able to cry?’
Sometimes when I’m bored I walk in circles around the corridors, just like those old folks used to do. And it’s a great feeling. As if you’re liberating yourself from denial.
But most days it’s just a matter of waiting, for the day to end.
In this building they ask you: ‘Would you now, in the same situation, do the same thing?’ And I don’t lie, I say ‘yes’ every time. And then I stay here.
Mira always tells me the stories she’s going to tell her doctor. Things she makes up to keep him busy.
Yesterday in the day room Mira said to me: ‘Doctor, I had a dream about a chess grand master. This chess player was so talented he was able to think more moves ahead than any other chess player. So far ahead that before he made his first move he already knew he was going to lose. The best chess player in the world, and he’ll never touch a chess piece again.’
She said: ‘Doctor, what do you think it means?’
She said: ‘Doctor, I often find myself thinking about the dead tree that stood outside my bedroom window when I was a child. The dead tree was completely overgrown with ivy, and the ivy was blossoming. Because of the ivy the tree looked green. The tree looked alive.
She said: ‘Doctor, what do you think it means?’
Sometimes I’m afraid that if I start humming, Mira will go away.
They ask you: ‘Do you often dream about hospitals?’
They ask you: ‘Are you afraid of getting better?’
Last week I was allowed into the village without anyone with me. I sat on a kerb on the square and a man came and sat next to me. He looked like he was living on the street. And he smelled like it too.
And he said without looking at me: ‘Stop brushing your teeth.’
He said: ‘It’s the fluoride. That’s how they get you.’
I looked at him and said nothing. His legs were trembling. He said they first used fluoride in the labour camps of old Soviet Russia. He said they’d discovered that if they gave the prisoners water with fluoride in it, they stopped causing the guards any kind of trouble and you could do literally anything with them.
He said: ‘The fluoride made them accept their fate.’
After that I stood up and said: ‘Thank you.’
And that evening I brushed my teeth three times and each time I swallowed the toothpaste.
In this building they often ask you: ‘Why are you here?’
When I’m allowed to leave here, I want to go to 85 degrees latitude north or south. And then travel westwards at a little under 145 kilometres an hour. That’s the speed you need to go to compensate for the earth’s rotation. To make time stand still. I don’t want to travel back in time. I just want to stand still.
Walking in circles to stop time.
Of course you can also go to the exact north pole. Where you just stand still and turn on your axis in twenty-four hours. But I think the stopping of time does deserve some kind of effort.
In this building all the walls are brightly coloured and everything you can touch has a texture. It was for the senile elderly. Bright colours, things to feel. It was to stimulate them. This building is made to jog old people’s brains awake.
This building is made for remembering.
And here I am, among all these crazies. And the only thing we all have in common is that we want to forget.
Translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters
Story is © Copyright Thijs de Boer, 2010.
Translation is © Copyright Liz Waters, 2011.
‘Walking Urge’ was originally published in the Dutch as ‘Loopdrang’, in the collection Vogels die vlees eten (Birds That Eat Meat)
Publisher: Nieuw Amsterdam
Publication year: 2010
ISBN 13: 9789046808566