The Consul General's Wife - first scenes
Nikki is picked up by the chauffeur. She gets into in the back of the car. They race through the night, down four lane carriageways, six lane carriage ways, over viaducts, past row upon row of high-rise blocks. They’re not the square shaped buildings she’s used to, they’re curved and cracked; painted in that creamy-yellow South American colour. The tropical rainforest lurks, poking its head between the cracks. Lianas, palm trees. A church every so often.
The chauffeur tells her his name is Lauro. They don’t stop once, not even for a red light. When she opens her window, Lauro presses a button, closes it again.
“Perigoso,” he says, then yawns.
The blocks of flats get grander, tidier. Nikki feels like a parcel, a special delivery to the most beautiful building of all. Two brown-tinted glass doors swing open. The porter gives Lauro a Brazilian thumbs up, looks nervously left, then right and shuts the doors sharply after her. She wonders what will happen to her luggage, but she’s too tired to care and supposes it will be sorted out. It’s surprising how quickly you get used to being waited on. The flight took much longer than it should have done, with all sorts of delays. She should have drunk beer instead of cheap aeroplane wine.
Another porter - or is it the same one - presses the button in the lift that will take her to the top floor: c for cobertura; the roof.
The lift doors open onto a hallway with a marble floor. A spotlight comes on, illuminating a picture of Queen Beatrix. The marble tiles stretch as far as a living room, which must be at least a hundred and fifty square metres in size.
The Consul General. He is sitting on a white couch; right in the very middle. Nikki thinks he looks a bit like an ornament no-one could find the right home for. Behind him, outside the window, she can see the mystical Lagoa, and on the other side of the water, Ipanema, with its high rise blocks. The lights of the city merge with the water, warming the sky above. It reminds her of the huge poster of Lake Geneva in her doctor’s waiting room. The conservative, stately way that the living room is furnished doesn’t fit with the retro kitsch of the background.
As soon as the Consul General sees her, he stands up, does up the button of his dark blue suit jacket, straightens his tie and offers her his hand, in welcome. A small nod. She is suddenly very aware of the stains on her jeans, that her hair needs washing, that she didn’t put on any mascara.
It’s three in the morning. She hopes that he’s just come back from a reception.
“You didn’t wait up for me, did you?” she asks.
“It’s the least I could do, for one of Folkert’s daughters. And I couldn’t get to sleep, anyway. My goodness, little Nikki… Nikkinha, that’s what they’d say here. Do you speak any Portuguese?”
She answers on auto-pilot, managing to hide her embarrassment.
“My Spanish is better,” she says.
“I knew your aunt. You look just like her. Did you know that? How are your parents?”
And so on.
All customary respects paid.
Except that it’s the middle of the night. And his wife is ill.
Maybe that’s why he’s stayed up. To tell her this. He points in the direction of the long, dark corridor. Somewhere at the end of it, is his wife. When he walks towards the corridor, she knows she’s expected to follow him, although she doesn’t want to. Yet another light comes on, all of its own accord. She can have the guest room next to his wife’s.
“I’m sorry if it’s a nuisance, but you’ll have to use the bathroom further down the hall.”
Before Nikki can ask why his wife is sleeping on the other side of the flat to him, he tells her.
“It was her idea. It’s quieter here, away from the hustle and bustle. I can see why she prefers it.”
“How awful. How long has she been ill?”
“Weeks. A couple of months, in fact.”
Nikki doesn’t dare ask anything else, but she doesn’t need to because, once again, he is all too willing to fill in the gaps.
“Leandra has myalgic encephalomyelitis.”
Nikki shakes her head in sympathy. She doesn’t actually know what myalgic encephalomyelitis is, but an illness with a name like that must be serious. She feels overwhelmed. This wasn’t the Rio she’d been expecting. She could have been at the Copacabana by now, drinking herself stupid on caipirinhas.
“It’s generally known as ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’.” He draws quotation marks in the air.
Just three nights, she says to herself. Then she can leave for the room she’s rented in Santa Teresa. Her father insisted she come here for a few days first, to get used to Rio, from a safe place.
“How awful,” she says, again.
“It is rather tragic, yes. Mainly for her, of course. She likes to call it a ‘situation’. She thinks that her body can read her brain’s thought patterns, and will, so to speak, re-programme accordingly.”
He leads her back to the living room.
“You must be hungry. My housekeeper and cook, Mercy, is the boss in that department. She made some pasta for you. At least, I think she did.”
They stand there in the kitchen, ill at ease. It’s as if he’s never been in there before and has no idea where the food Mercy’s prepared might be. Nikki notices how clean the kitchen is. There’s nothing on the draining board, apart from a spoon and fork, wrapped in a damask napkin. Silver. She’s doesn’t dare tell him that she’s a vegetarian, not after all the trouble that’s been gone to.
“How nice of her,” she says. He nods, but doesn’t move. It takes him a few seconds to go and open the fridge door. Covered in cling film, there’s a plate of pasta, parmesan sprinkled on top.
“I suppose it needs warming up,” he says, looking doubtfully at the microwave.
She grabs her chance. “You know, I’ll have it tomorrow. I ate on the plane and what with the time difference…”
He doesn’t even let her get to the end of her sentence.
“Excellent,” he says and pushes the plate back where it came from.
He gestures towards the door with a sweep of his arm. Ladies first. As she moves past him, he says something. She’s not sure if he’s talking to her, or whether he’s just thinking out loud. “Chronic is such a negative word, isn’t it?”
The next morning, Melchior Steenbergen was still feeling piqued. That he’d happened to tell the girl he had an open bottle of Chablis waiting, didn’t mean she was supposed to say ‘yes’ to his offer of a drink. All he’d wanted to do, was make her feel welcome. Now, on top of it all, he had a headache. He was a fool. People of Nikki’s age just didn’t understand what was the done thing. Such gestures didn’t go unnoticed, though, especially with people like Nikki’s father who worked at the ministry, as well as being a friend.
It was time to go and pay his wife a visit, which put him in an even worse mood. Since Leandra had moved to the guest room, he’d gone to see her every morning, without fail. The alarm clock would go off, he’d get up, slip on his dressing gown and make his way down the corridors, to her sick bed; each morning he hoped a good night’s sleep would have brought her back to normal, returned her to her old, active, sensual self. But these days, Leandra never managed got out of bed before he arrived. It was the sickly smell of her illness that greeted him in the mornings, not her. He felt that it was a good thing they slept apart, then at least she didn’t have to stand on ceremony for his sake.
“Good morning, darling. How are you feeling today?” he asked.
The answer was always the same.
“A little better, I think.”
As she spoke, Leandra would rub her finger along her lip; a sign she was lying. It was one of the less pleasant habits that had come to light during her illness. He’d got to know her better in the couple of months she’d been sick, than in the whole two years they’d been married.
Usually, Melchior didn’t take a shower until after he’d woken Leandra. This morning, he decided to do it the other way round. Today, he was the one who hadn’t had any sleep. For Leandra, the worst thing about her illness, was that she was tired and yet, she couldn’t sleep. If Melchior was entirely honest about it, the logic of this escaped him. He had never had trouble getting to sleep. That night, though, for the measly two hours left him, he’d lain wide awake, brooding. Nikki’s plane had been awfully late. He must ask, tactfully, whether this happened frequently with the KLM flight. The company had been allocated a landing slot deep in the night, as it was. If the flight was getting pushed to the back of the queue when the weather was bad, or when there were other delays, the managing director of KLM would not be happy to hear it. Convincing him that a direct flight between Schiphol and Rio was necessary, hadn’t been easy.
Perhaps he should organise a lunch, to get all the parties involved together. He felt this was always the best way to iron out any problems, to get everyone working as a team. Not that he really felt like it. His time in Rio was almost over. And now his wife was ill, entertaining wasn’t as much fun as it had been before. He found it particularly hard to cope with all the questions. They might be well-meant, but they were quite inappropriate. How was she feeling? Had she tried this doctor, or that doctor? The one the friend of a brother had seen. Haptonomy had cured him, so maybe that would help? It wasn’t that Melchior didn’t appreciate the advice, what bothered him was the fanatical way in which people tried to give it to him. He had the feeling that they expected something from him in return and he hated the idea of being in anyone’s debt.
He turned on the shower. The water was the colour of rust. Again. Somewhere in the building a pipe, or valve had sprung a leak. Rio had thrust itself up from the bare earth with such youthful exuberance, and by day, it sparkled. But however good it looked, it was an illusion. The foundations weren’t solid; everything fell apart. Lately, Melchior had been having this kind of insight. One of the few advantages of getting older.
“Mercy!” he shouted. He didn’t have to shout hard. After eighteen years, they were so used to each other, she heard him immediately. She also knew not to walk straight in, so that he felt free to wander around with no clothes on.
He had never forgotten the look on her face the first time they met. Mercy had been working for a man from Lebanon, in Accra. Her boss was a bachelor, with a crew cut and shiny, pale skin. With no woman in his life, Mercy had been obliged to do all that had, presumably, been done by his mother before. Spoil him, put him on a pedestal, cook him the most complex Lebanese dishes in existence, despite being in Ghana. The moment Melchior had crossed the threshold, he’d felt like he was in Beirut. There was nothing African about the interior of the house; apart from Mercy.
She’d suppressed a giggle when she opened the door for Melchior. It was his key ring she was laughing at. It had a green frog on it; a promotional gift, from Heineken. That she had tried to hide her smile by looking down at the ground was telling. She was scared. Melchior tried to break the ice, by giving her the key ring. He’d got lots of them, he told her. She stuffed it, hastily, under her apron, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Melchior had been impressed by Mercy’s cooking. He even left the table to go and compliment her on it. One look at Mercy had been enough. She was sitting on two bags of rice, because there wasn’t a chair in the kitchen. She was talking to the frog, just like a toddler, completely caught up in a fantasy world. She made it jump, roll over, fall down. She spoke in a number of different voices, all of them incomprehensible. There was something demonic about it. As soon as she saw Melchior, she leapt up. This time, she didn’t look at the floor, she looked straight at him, with a piercing stare he’d never forget. Her look told him that her life was already over; before it had even started. How old was she then? Eighteen?
On the spur of the moment, he’d told her he desperately needed someone to help with his housework. If she was interested, she shouldn’t worry, he’d sort it out with her boss. If her answer was ‘yes’, after he’d returned to the table, she should come and fill his glass with water. Then he would know.
It hadn’t been that difficult to convince her boss. He wanted to export palm oil to Holland, and he could use Melchior’s help. Melchior took Mercy with him that night.
It had been a clever move. The story, that had grown more intricate with the years, of how he’d rescued poor half-starved Mercy from the claws of the brute from Lebanon, went down well at parties. Melchior had given Mercy a better life. He used it as an example of why he’d become a diplomat. These were the values Holland stood for. When people had praised his compassion, he’d shrugged his shoulders, and said, “It’s a simple matter of noblesse oblige.”
“Yes, sir?” Mercy’s voice came from the other side of the door.
“The water’s gone brown.” He made a point of laughing, because he shouldn’t really be making a fuss about something so trivial. He’d got enough more important things on his plate.
“Yes, sir. I’ll get Eduardo to fix it today.”
After all these years, it still made him feel good when Mercy took the initiative. In general servants were trained not to think for themselves, but he had one who could. And because he was less practical than she was - he didn’t like dealing with trivialities - they made a good team.
“Where would I be without you?” he said. He could feel her pride well up; the warmth of her blushes shone right through the door. It wasn’t difficult to make someone else feel good about themselves. He enjoyed doing it, even if he knew his primary motivation was to make people work harder for him.
While he let the tap run, he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. Unlike the building he lived in, which was much younger than he was, he seemed to keep functioning without much maintenance. No creaking joints, no leaks. He’d certainly outdone his father, the resistance hero, in this. His father had died of a heart attack at forty-five. Shortly before his death, he’d written his memoirs. They were about his time in the resistance, and how he’d been given the post of ambassador to Indonesia, as a reward. The book was published posthumously. Melchior had had no idea that his father had been writing a book. He read it in one go, unable to put it down, terrified that his darkest suspicions would be confirmed. And they were: in his father’s whole life story, there was only one sentence relating to him. “I had always planned to send my son (age 8) to boarding school.”
That was precisely what his father had done. From the age of eight, Melchior’s upbringing had been entrusted to the priests at Canisius College in Nijmegen. Looking back, he was glad. He had been able to shape to his character himself, because his father hadn’t been around. At Canisius they had, at least, appreciated his feel for the poetry in life. His father was no intellectual. Not that Melchior considered himself to be one, but he was well read. Thanks to Canisius.
He had three copies of his father’s book. He took them with him every time he moved house. Melchior always put a copy on the coffee table. It was easier to give in than to resist.
Melchior cleaned his teeth. His skin did sag slightly, but he had good chest muscles and biceps. Until he was forty, he’d run a lot, which had kept his legs slim and shapely. He’d never had to work much at keeping his upper body in shape, the broad shoulders were a gift of the genes. And a good layer of fat suited such sturdy shoulders. He’d had his chest hair lasered off as soon as the first grey hairs sprouted. It hadn’t been a wise move. The wrinkles on his chest were easier to see than they would have been otherwise. It was a good thing he’d never got a tattoo.
Was he imagining it, or was his skin sticky? He’d had a shower before he went to bed.
“Mercy, the water wasn’t already brown yesterday, was it?”
“I don’t think so.” This usually meant ‘yes’, but she didn’t want to disappoint him.
He stuck his nose under his arm. It didn’t smell. His stomach rumbled. He’d drunk a glass of tap water last night, to flush away the alcohol. Not the end of the world, it might even mean he’d manage to get rid of the copious lunch he’d eaten yesterday with the chairman of the Bank of Brazil’s Cultural Centre, in one trip to the toilet.
“You know what, Mercy? I was thinking about organising a luncheon.”
He could never tell from her voice, whether she thought he was asking too much. But recently, one of her eyes had become lazy, a sign that she was tired. He shouldn’t push her too hard.
“Never mind,” he said, suddenly remembering his friend, the widow Rachel Steenstra’s, fazenda. She’d said it was lonely up there in Teresópolis. “I think it’s Rachel’s turn to organise something, don’t you?”
He didn’t wait for Mercy’s reply. Since he hadn’t been able to talk things over with Leandra, he thought out loud.
“I mean, why should we always have to organise this sort of thing? It’s so hot at the moment, it should be nice and cool up there. You could come, too.”
Images of a pleasant lunch with business friends, on a cool veranda in the mountains of Teresópolis flickered through his head. He deserved to get away, once in a while. The thought made him look forward to the days ahead.
“Yes, sir. It would be nice. I’ll make something.”
“Oh, no. You don’t need to do that. Well, maybe just a dessert. That layer cake you make, you know, something simple like that.”
He turned the tap off. “Oh, and Mercy?”
“I’m really late, could you check on Miss Leandra for me this morning and see if she needs anything?” He spoke in the same light tone he had used to talk about the lunch. No need to make an issue of it, nothing wrong.
“Yes, sir.” She still sounded cheerful, but her words came out a bit faster than before. She knew him only too well.
“Don’t forget to tell her Nikki has arrived. I’m sure Miss Leandra will want to meet her.”
It couldn’t be so hard to come and say ‘hello’, show a bit of interest, he thought. Leandra’s always being in the guest room, shut up behind closed doors, was embarrassing. It certainly couldn’t be healthy.