Alert! Earlier this week, Richard de Nooy attended the launch of a nifty little collection of stories and poems, Zeeën van tijd (Oceans of Time), published by the Amsterdam Public Library (OBA) as part of the city’s SAIL 2010 festivities. (SAIL is a five-yearly event that sees sailing ships from around the world converging on the Dutch capital.)
Guus Bauer, compiler of the anthology, and his partner David de Poel of XX Uitgevers regularly publish collections of poems and stories marking important milestones and events in Amsterdam. Zeeën van tijd is available free of charge at all public libraries in Amsterdam.
Here is de Nooy’s contribution to the booklet, “And the hippo?” – which he gave BOOK SA readers a sneak preview of in February.
* * * * * * * *
And the hippo?
by Richard de Nooy
“In the swimming pool. Between those two trees. There was a green puddle in the deep end. She loved it. Her tail was like a tiny propeller. It spun like crazy when her bowels moved. There were splatter patterns all over the walls – light green, muddy yellow, deep brown – as if she was painting her own jungle. A calm, cool and friendly creature, but quite useless. A couple of laps around the ring with Mr. Mombassa on her back – but that was it.”
The girl with the ginger beard stared out over the dunes. The long grass bent in gentle rows under the wind. Her head was tilted to one side, as if she was studying a painting. Bright shards of emerald shone between her copper lashes. She smiled and stroked the air, her fingers playing with the grass.
“Was this his room?”
“His view. He breathed fire. At least, that was his dream. He’d never performed. He practiced indoors because he didn’t like the cold and wind. A shivering giant. Black as coal. Burnt to a cinder when the curtains caught fire. At least, that’s what we suspect. He always locked the door. Didn’t want anyone stealing his tricks. They came running with the skeleton key and fire hose, but you can’t beat sixty bottles of spirits exploding simultaneously. You could smell the fumes in the corridor. He always looked a little too happy. Droopy lids, glazed eyes, liquorice pupils. My father met him at the market in Mombassa. He had Coquette in a bathtub that stood in a wooden cage on a wagon. He had dragged the whole contraption into town from the hinterland. My father was hooked on the hippo straight away, but Mr. Mombassa couldn’t bear to part with his pet, so they came on board together.”
The girl with the ginger beard stroked her nose and drew it out into a snout, then spread her fingers wide to form a gaping maw.
“And he rode the hippo?”
“She followed him round the ring at first. Later, he would hop on her back. His feet dragged on the ground. That made people happy. They came from far and wide. We put on extra morning shows in summer. But peopel didn’t only come to see ‘The Hutu and his Hippo’. There were other wonders to behold.”
“A girl with a beard?”
“That’s how we got in. My father was a civil servant but he had always dreamed of joining the circus. When my beard appeared, my father leapt at the opportunity. We were received with open arms. The previous director had run off with the petty cash. My father took on the challenge with verve, on condition that he could be ringmaster. Sadly, he suffered from stage fright. But he soon learned the medicinal joys of absinthe from Chantal of the Moulin Rouge, who performed with two terriers and a Shetland pony. Some whispered that her act was born as erotic entertainment and that the Big Top offered refuge from her past. Whatever the case had been, she was a sweet woman and I featured in her act. I rode on Button’s back in a shimmering tutu, while Nix and Nada bounced, barked and balanced around us like dervishes. But Chantal was the shining centre of attention, with her show-stopping looks and ooh-la-la outfits. But her soul was sold to the Green Dragon and she sucked my father along in her fall.”
The girl kissed two fingers and let them tumble like earthbound lovers from her beard, grappling in macabre embrace.
“A tragic end to a lifelong dream.”
“No, not the end. There’s more. I once performed with Don Carlo, whose act was as dangerous as it was simple. It involved his son Pietro and the lions Mangiare and Mascelle, who were released into the ring with empty stomachs. Don Carlo would then lower his son into the cage, upside-down at the end of a rope. Live bait for the lions. But Don Carlo was a strong and agile angler. He had trained the lions with vanilla essence, which he sprayed into the cage while they were eating. A drop behind each of Pietro’s ears was enough to let the lions know that this dangling boy was the meal they had missed. I stood in for Pietro once when he had flu. A breathtaking experience.”
The girl stroked the pale skin at her throat. As her hand slid chinwards, the flattened hairs leapt up, eager to reform her copper beard.
“Anything else? Clowns?”
“No. My father left the Nameless Ones behind on the Azores. But there was a group of Korean acrobats who were Chinese in the air, wore orange outfits and were known as The Flying Mandarins. After the interval they became Japanese, wore red-and-white outfits and were called The Kamikazes. To complete their transformation they were joined by an uncle who looked like a Sumo wrestler. He was unfit for the trapeze, of course, but could carry the entire family on his shoulders like a swaying pillar. A truly remarkable achievement, because Koreans aren’t particularly fond of the Japanese and Chinese. But my father only discovered this later. Too late, as usual.”
“He was also wrong about Georghi, the Rumanian knife thrower, who claimed to be on the run from the Securitate. He only performed once. In Brindisi, where the Mediterranean had ended his flight. He had borrowed Laszlo’s beloved Petrushka. A bad idea, mainly because Georghi was specialised in hitting his target, rather than missing by an inch. Petrushka was standing sideways up against the golden board with red flame trimming that also served as our dinner table. Georghi’s first knife took out both her eyes. The blade passed right through the bridge of her nose. The audience was ecstatic – even when the blood began to seep through Petrushka’s blindfold and Laszlo ran into the ring swinging the heavy peg hammer. It was not until the orchestra abandoned their instruments and leapt into the ring to help Petrushka and save Georghi that the audience began to panic. But not everyone ran for the exit. Some saw how Laszlo chased Georghi up into the highest ropes, like a bear chasing a squirrel. They also saw how Lazslo fell to the ground. And when he and Petrushka were taken off by the ambulance, some people still sat watching as if the show had finally reached the climax they had longed to see.”
“A tragic end.”
“Some good came of it. Petrushka went on to star as a blind clairvoyant. We too were amazed by her ability to find objects among the audience. She could also tell from a distance what people had eaten. Chips, popcorn and pizza proved popular all over the world. And she saved many marriages and lives because she could judge true love by the tone of someone’s voice. Regardless of the spoken language, she could tell how much truth there was in the words ‘I love my husband’ or ‘I love my wife’. Often she gave the thumbs down. But this seldom led to trouble, because true love has always been in short supply.
“He was paralysed from the waist down, but he went on to perform a wheelchair act with Ben Ziggie, the Persian contortionist, who also ran on wheels. A strong-man act with lots of lifts and twists overhead, both with and without the wheelchair. But the audience weren’t thrilled. Probably because it looked too easy, what with both of them doing their tricks sitting down.”
“How did Ben Ziggie get his wheels?”
“An extraordinary convergence of coincidences. It all began with Herr Blitzkrieg, The Living Cannonball from Koblenz. He worked with Frau Feuer, with whom he had a marriage of convenience. She pulled the trigger, sold sweets during the interval and turned a blind eye to her husband’s obvious preference for male company. He was very friendly with Mr. Mombassa and was the only one who was allowed to witness his fireworks up close. He was inconsolable when Mr. Mombassa died. Sat sobbing in the mud with Coquette and tried to fill the hole in his soul with food and drink. He grew fatter and fatter, much to the rage of Frau Feuer, who never missed an opportunity to publicly humiliate her husband. But she also had a monkey up her sleeve. And that monkey’s name was Ben Ziggie.”
“Yes indeed. Herr Blitzkrieg’s lycra suit stretched to fit, but the same could not be said of his cannon. He was adamant that Ben Ziggie should replace him until he had lost enough weight to be reloaded. Frau Feuer tried to veto this, of course, saying that the Koreans made better cannon fodder. But Ben Ziggie was quite keen on the idea. In fact, he was delighted and was apparently unaware that vengeance is a master of disguise. Despite Herr Blitzkrieg’s best efforts and instructions, the cannon was incorrectly adjusted. And so Ben Ziggie was blasted full force into the canvas high overhead. Fortunately, he fell among the audience in the grandstand, breaking all his fingers and shattering both legs. Several members of the audience were also injured. When the last ambulance left, the police closed us down and impounded all our vehicles. Our circus had found its final destination.”
“Thanks goodness no one was killed.”
“That was still to come. Herr Blitzkrieg was found the next day with a Sicilian smile from ear to ear. The Persian dagger lay beside him on the bloody pillow. Frau Feuer disappeared together with Coquette. Their footprints led side-by-side into the sea. We found her clothes scattered along the waterline.
“Yes. But there are tragedies that are greater still. For every story we concoct, countless histories go untold, all true. But people prefer to hear lies slapped together with string and cellotape, spit and polish. As long as they ring true. Look, there they go again!”
The girl with the ginger beard pointed at the beach. Her eyes glistened. Together we watched Frau Feuer, rotund and naked, leading the hippo through the waves in the moonlight. The shallows seemed to stretch forever until they disappeared from view. And when I turned, the bearded girl had also vanished, as suddenly as she had come. The wind roared ferociously over the balcony, as if it craved the sweet scent of vanilla that hung in the air.