by Guido Eekhaut
Two months after the old man had moved into the
house next to hers, early in autumn, Mathilda no longer wondered why
he looked familiar. She suddenly knew: he was the astronaut
who, twenty years earlier, had returned to earth after being the first
human ever to travel beyond Neptune. Nothing was to be found beyond
Neptune, except for yet another planet, a dead and cold one, so the
astronaut had returned to his own world.
Mathilda had seen, like everyone, the pictures in
the papers, those from before he left: a broad-shouldered, massive man
with clear eyes – and the other pictures, from after his return. He
had looked different, as if another human being had returned, visibly
shrunken, with deep-set and suspicious eyes, hardly a word spoken,
hardly a gesture of recognition for those friends he had left behind.
After that he had disappeared from public scrutiny. Mathilda was
certain the neighbour was that former astronaut.
During those two months she had not spoken to him
once, although he had been present all too obviously – in the
garden, on the veranda, behind the windows, while driving away or
arriving in his old Volvo. Present, but still much at a
distance. She had not been spying on him. Not really. She had been
aware of his presence, behind the hedge or behind the windows of
“Jesus,” Caroline said, landing her glass of
lemonade on the little table. “The astronaut? Are you sure? The only
astronaut who ever …”
Mathilda nodded, reserved. Had she been wrong to
inform her sister?
“Carl Broderick,” Caroline continued, thoughtful
and elated at the same time. “The hero of our younger years. I had a
poster of him in my room. You remember that poster? Maybe I still have
it. Where can it be? No, I’m afraid I threw it away.”
As usual, Mathilda felt annoyed by Caroline’s
inability to separate trivialities from the essential.
“You don’t remember that poster? I got it during
those first expeditions to Mars, five or six years before the trip to
… He used to commandeer that expedition.”
“No,” Mathilda said.
“It was in my room for ages. Up until when
“Returned?” Mathilda took a sip from her lemonade.
The ice cubes tinkled against the glass.
“Yes. On his trip to … what was the name of that
“Yes, right. Neptune. When he came back he had
changed so much. I got rid of the poster. But I didn’t throw it away,
I’m sure. Couldn’t. Nostalgia. And also …”
“Yes,” Mathilda said.
“And now he lives next door.”
“I don’t see him that often.”
“You haven’t spoken to him?”
“Not a word.”
“Strange. Your neighbour. They wrote that mankind
is not suited for travel in space. Not that far at least.”
“Neptune is not far. It’s a planet in our
own solar system. Beyond, space is infinite. That’s far.”
The sun, still giving off some warmth, had reached
the row of trees on the other side of the meadow. Mathilda was
grateful for the warmth and for the westerly orientation of the patio
of her house, from which she could not only look out over the meadow
but also keep an eye on her neighbour’s house.
“Infinite,” Caroline whispered, as if dreaming
about that elusive quality of the universe, combined with the distance
from her former spacetraveling idol.
Mathilda’s thoughts were on the terrible state the
space program was in, the lost dreams of mankind. For a long time now
she had refused to think about it. What she remembered was an exciting
time, the adventure of a small group of men and women, immense and
powerful machines, live broadcasts on television. What she remembered
was the music and the drugs, the casual love, the certainty that all
dreams would come true and that this would happen in the very near
future. A visionary age it had been, in which the image of the future
shone as any good evening star. A streamlined, scientifically correct
future where man would take his fate into his own hands, and take from
the universe and from nature what he considered rightfully his.
“You do consider visiting him,” Caroline
proposed, cheerfully. As if assuming she would certainly be
“To do what exactly? Play the part of the
all-too-perfect housewife who, two months overdue, welcomes the new
neighbour? A forty-year old teeny-bopper showing up with a cake and a
bottle of wine? No way.”
“Come on,” Caroline hushed.
“He is … strange, Caroline,” warned Mathilda.
“All by himself in that big house. Remember, twenty years ago, the way
he looked at his return, how we were all shocked, and how fast he
disappeared from public scrutiny?”
“People have not forgotten him,” Caroline said,
mainly following her own train of thoughts.
“The younger generation does not even know his
name. No one has gone to Neptune any more. Only automated craft.”
But as far as Caroline was concerned the man was a
celebrity, in whose glory – even if it belonged to the past – she
could bask. If ever she got the chance of meeting him, which she could
only do through her sister. A sister disinclined to follow suit.
Meanwhile the sun had taken leave of the day, the
long shadows of the row of trees had dissolved in the dusk. A chill
breeze already announced the coming winter, short but stern in this
part of the country. Chilly, Mathilda thought. Perhaps that’s what
keeping people from going into space. The absolute barren region where
survival is a combination of coincidence and the total sum of human
The man who lived next to her knew why mankind
stayed out of space, she assumed. He was probably one of the few who
knew why mankind had been set upon by that single most terrible fate:
to have lost the capacity to dream.
“When you visit him, I want to come along,”
Caroline said, solely concerned about the most banal aspects of life.
And so Mathilda knew that a visit, however against
her intentions, would be unavoidable.
A couple of days later she met him in the local
supermarket where she was looking for some bottles of Californian
white wine – although she knew she would have to console herself with
the more expensive French, as she always did. He – Carl Broderick, she
thought, I must remember to use his name properly – pushed his cart in
which – she quickly glanced – there were only the most healthy of
foodstuffs: fruit and vegetables, grains and nuts, fruit juice and red
wine. He had passed her by before she noticed him. The second time she
was more alert. He walked past the toiletries and she followed him, as
inconspicuous as possible, which wasn’t easy in the almost deserted
supermarket. At the spirits she crossed his path, as by coincidence,
looked at him and said, “Mister Broderick, isn’t it? We are
neighbours. How are you today?” And felt totally ridiculous, a
He looked at her, only slightly
surprised that anybody should recognize or address him. “Really?” he
said, not unfriendly, even with some irony, as if expecting to be
spoken to by any over-aged teenager of teen mother or any sort of
former admirer, but altogether not regretful that he was recognized
although this was precisely what he had been trying to avoid.
All this she saw in that one word, that
one glance. “I live in the house next to yours. Didn’t have the
occasion to welcome you in our little community.” No, she would not
call him famous, because he would not allow for that.
“Very kind of you,” he said, and to her
surprise he seemed to mean it. “I prefer to be on my own, but I do
appreciate your welcome.”
So now, she thought, he has scored
twice. He has answered me politely but at the same time he has given
me to understand that I am hardly welcome in his house. “Some of us,”
she said, “still remember what you meant to us.” She simply had
to say it, even if it sounded improper and utterly possessive. Even if
it sounded as if he had played in a rock band and she bought all his
records and went to all his gigs.
He eyed the content of her cart – less
healthy stuff than his, she realised – and said, “All that was a
quarter of a century ago. You must have been very young then.”
She felt herself melt more than a bit.
Did he do it on purpose? Did he really want to charm her? “It was
twenty years ago, and I wasn’t even a teenager then.”
“You have been living here for a long
“Three years, after my husband died.”
“Oh,” he said in an almost neutral way.
“Sorry to hear that. Did he have anything to do with the space
“No, he worked in tourism. Why?”
“Because you are interested in space
travel and all that. So I thought …”
“It was more a matter of space
travellers than of technology.”
“Ah, yes, the astronauts. There was a
time when the people in the programme where more important than the
technology. All that lies in the past, as you probably know.”
“I regret that,” she said.
“Oh, you know, there are a lot of
people who regret that. I … well, I’m a little in a hurry. We will be
seeing more of each other, being neighbours and all that.”
“Of course,” she said, and while he
walked on she wondered if that was some sort of invitation.
“An invitation,” Caroline said. “Of course it was.
Why did you not pay him a visit? Well, I mean, not the same evening,
but after a day or two?”
They sat in the drawing room, by the
fireplace, while outside the wind played with the growing collection
of brown and yellowed leaves. It was a week and a half after the
meeting, and invitation or not, Mathilda hadn’t done anything with it.
She had been reading and had looked at some taped movies, but had not
been occupied in any sensible way. Just that same day she had returned
to the supermarket, but Broderick hadn’t been there.
“It wasn’t really an invitation,” she
said. “It was, well, a formal and polite phrase, something you say to
your neighbours, while at the same time implying that you want to keep
your distance.” She frowned and looked into the fire. “He wasn’t
impolite or unfriendly or anything, but he didn’t seem to have a need
“You really don’t understand, Mathilda.
He has been alone for too long. He hasn’t been used to company. And
that big house. Those twenty years … God only knows what he has had to
“Precisely the reason why I do not
intend to drop in on him like that. It seems improper, absolutely
improper. He has a right to privacy.”
“Well, now, privacy,” Caroline said.
“Yes Caroline, that right he has. He
has earned it.”
“He’s probably lonesome. He sure won’t
mind if two women from next-door pay him a visit.”
“Well, you know how fond I was of him.”
“When you were a snotty brat of
“You have never been overly romantic,
Mathilda. Always with you head in those books …”
The evening sky coloured a bizarre sort
of dark green, while inside the house the furniture, books and faces
reflected the intense red from the fireplace. Earlier that day
Mathilda had noticed a flock of geese heading south, always the best
indication for the change of season. She hadn’t seen her neighbour for
a couple of days. All the time his Volvo had remained on the driveway,
seemingly without having been used.
“Romantic,” she said. “I’m sure you
ignore the true meaning of the word. You associate it with sundown
over a lake, horses and garlands, true knightly love and …”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes,” Mathilda said. “Unfortunately I
“You can’t go alone. You can’t do this
“Should I make an appointment?”
“I’m here till the day after tomorrow.
What if we went there tomorrow evening?”
“Maybe he’s ill,” Mathilda said, more
to herself than to her sister.
“Why do you say that?”
Mathilda looked up. “I haven’t seen him
for some days. And that car is always at the same spot.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t think anything. Just that
somebody who is alone all the time may need some help.”
“A visit then. Two old maidens. Two
“Certainly not,” Mathilda said. And she
The following afternoon Mathilda fell totally
foolish with her homemade cake and a bottle of red wine from the
supermarket – Californian, against better knowledge, even if Caroline
thought it utterly unsuspected to buy Californian, so very
patriotic. Caroline had wanted to add flowers, but Mathilda had
forbidden it. Suddenly she found herself at her neighbours’ door. It
was Caroline who rang, taking the lead and the initiative, as she
would probably be doing the talking as well.
The man who opened did not resemble
Carl Broderick at first, but a younger man who might have been his
son, maybe a relative, maybe even the young Carl Broderick from before
the trip to Neptune. It was an illusion, Mathilda knew, because it was
him after all. But she had hesitated for a moment. Not so Caroline.
Caroline hadn’t hesitated at all. Hadn’t even noticed. “Mister
Broderick,” she cheerfully said, as if she was twelve and trying to
sell self-made wafers to finance summer camp. “Mister Broderick, we –
my sister and I – live next-door and we felt it time to welcome you in
our little community.” Caroline did not live in that community at all.
She lived one hundred and fifty miles away in a middle-sized town, and
she knew nobody of the community she was so generous of providing with
her membership. That was Caroline. Little inventions like that didn’t
matter to her and could not come in the way of the larger project.
Somewhere in the trees some stubborn
birds cheered the chilly weather that accompanied fall, ready as they
were to enter winter and maybe to die. Behind Broderick the house was
dark, but for a distant window. Mathilda braced herself against the
smell of tobacco, roasted meat, alcohol and socks worn too long – the
sort of smell she associated with houses or apartments of men living
alone. She was surprised not to smell anything. Or not really so:
there was something fresh in the air, like flowers, and sultry at the
same time, as if these flowers had stood too long in water. The birds
shut up and flew away. Broderick stepped back and said: “Please come
in, ladies. You know I will be apologetic about the mess, a man living
alone, but you do understand, don’t you?”
They entered the house, which Mathilda
knew only fragmentary, from what she had seen from her own house:
parts of hallways, corridors, rooms. Broderick accepted the wine and
the cake. “I put on coffee, or do you prefer tea, and we can trie that
cake of yours at once.”
Caroline glanced knowingly at
her sister and raised her eyebrows for a moment.
“Personally I think the sitting room at
the westerly side of the house to be the most pleasant,” said
Broderick. “Shall we sit there? That way we can enjoy the sun a little
more. You know where to find the sitting room, don’t you?” And he
disappeared through a door, leaving the two women alone.
Caroline gestured vaguely. Let’s go.
Mathilda followed her. They knew where the western sitting-room
was, because the house was more or less the same as Mathilda’s. No
coincidence in these parts of the country, since they had al been
build by the same company, during the first two decades of the
The century of space travel, Mathilda
And a small voice in her head said:
ask him how it was over there, beyond
She ignored the little voice.
The sitting-room contained four large
couches of dark brown leather that proved surprisingly soft and
subtle, a sideboard and two bookcases with glass doors, a secretaire
and a chair and some floor lamps. She admired the cosiness of
the room. Not what she had expected.
“Well?” Caroline said, cheerfully. As
if she had designed the room, as if she had invented it.
Mathilda was spared a reaction when
Broderick entered, carrying a tray with cups, a coffeepot and the
sliced cake on a plate. “Sit down, please,” he said. “I hardly see any
visitors. Usually I have the house to myself.”
Nothing out of the ordinary, Mathilda
thought. A single late-middle-aged man who has the time and the means
to care for his house and its interior, but who has neither friends
nor relatives. And who has not lost his social gifts. She looked at
him. Really looked at him, while he offered coffee to Caroline (she
accepted gracefully, girlishly, seducingly, but uncertain of her
role), and she saw someone she did not recognise from those last
pictures, that showed a deadly tired man, marked by the long journey
and by Neptune and by what was beyond it. The official stories – there
had been no other – spoke of the bewildering influence of deep space
on the human psyche, on the mind, on the physical constitution and
health. Then, after a slow process of negative coverage and cautionary
scientific reports, the door to manned space travel had been closed,
and in the two last decades the solar system had only been explored by
unmanned craft with vague mission statements, for which there was
hardly any public interest. Mankind seemed to have done with its dream
of space exploration. The once popular TV-series of twenty year hence
in which the deep future of space-faring mankind had been cheered,
where never rebroadcast.
Nothing out of the ordinary, Mathilda
thought, except that people of her generation, who had known the dream
about space during their youth, had reached middle age by now,
realising that the dreams had become a forgotten territory.
Nothing out of the ordinary, except
that mankind seemed to have forgotten its collective dreams.
“Black?” Broderick enquired.
Mathilda looked up. “Beg your pardon?”
“Do you want your coffee black?” he
repeated. He waited on her, the perfect host, with coffee and a sugar
“Coffee and sugar,” she said.
Caroline kept an eye on her – no: she
kept an eye on both Broderick and Mathilda at the same time. Mathilda
knew that look. “How long do you live here?” Broderick asked. Close up
Mathilda saw his age: wrinkles, fragile and thin hair, and spots on
his face. But his hands were those of a younger man, and his teeth
“Three years,” Mathilda said.
He didn’t ask Caroline the same
question, and she seemed unhappy about the lack of interest, even if
it saved her from telling a lie. “Three years. Time enough to get
settled,” he said.
“Exactly, although I don’t know that
many people in the village yet.”
He sat down on the coach between them.
“What do you do in life?” he asked, addressing Mathilda.
“I used to work for a publisher of art
books,” she said. “But now I am no longer employed. Since my husband
“I do want to get busy again, though. I
don’t know what yet.”
Broderick looked over at Caroline,
startling her. “And you?”
“I am … an interior decorator. I have
my own agency.”
“You may appreciate these houses then,”
he said. “Maybe you have some customers in the local community?”
“Some,” Caroline said, vaguely.
“Excellent.” Until then he had kept the
initiative. He brought his palms together in a praying fashion and
slightly inclined his head. “It is very cold over there,” he said. “An
absolute cold. You won’t find temperatures that low anywhere on
earth. Only in laboratories, and even then …”
Caroline glanced at Mathilda,
“There’s no sound. In the universe
sound is a deviation. All that we know is a deviation from the cosmic
“In space?” Mathilda inquired.
Broderick looked at her. “Yes,
certainly, in space. Wasn’t that what you wanted to know? How space
is? How cold and silent it is? That’s what they all want to know.”
“It all so long ago. That’s not why we
are here. We only want to welcome you.”
“It is not long ago. It happened
yesterday. We recognize time only because we have the clocks, a sun,
the moon, tides and seasons. Out there time does not exist.” He
did not sound gloomy or excited; on the contrary, he talked as if
about the weather or the oncoming winter.
“We only want you to feel at home
here,” Caroline said. Mathilda recognised a hint of panic and fear in
her voice, because she had lost the initiative and the control over
the situation. Cosmic norms went way beyond her comprehension.
“Each winter has these couple of days
of absolute silence,” he said. “Usually at the beginning of January,
when there’s an absolute calm in the air and in the movements of the
trees. Nature seems frozen, for always. Any possible natural sound
seems frozen. At that time I think of space beyond Neptune. Every
winter again, for twenty years now.”
“What is there beyond Neptune?”
“You should not have asked that,” Mathilda said.
“I just wanted to know,” said Caroline,
“what it was all about. They wanted to travel beyond Neptune to find
out if people could live there. To find out if that sort of travel was
possible. And what was beyond Neptune.”
“Pluto,” Mathilda said sourly. They
were in their beds in separate rooms, but had kept the doors to the
corridor open so that they could talk, a habit since childhood. As
children they had been telling each other cruel tales, ghostly tales,
until their mother put an end to it. “Pluto, the ninth planet. No
human has ever been there. Neptune is far enough for mankind.”
Broderick had looked at Caroline for a
few moments after she had asked the question, until even she felt
uncomfortable. “Neptune,” he had said, “is a gas giant, and completely
uninhabitable. Maybe on its moons. Triton, that one is large enough.
Beyond that, that’s where real space begins.”
“He meant,” Mathilda said, “that the
space programme has been largely symbolic.”
“Is that why they only send machines
Mathilda was cold, even under the
blanket. She looked outside, to the stars. The same stars Broderick
the astronaut must have seen from his craft.
Beyond Neptune there were even more
stars. Beyond that everything was infinite in any direction. Beyond
Neptune, beyond Pluto, beyond the rim of the solar system.
“What does it mean, that the space
programme was largely symbolic?”
“What were you thinking of, twenty
years ago, twenty-five years ago, when you saw the pictures of the
“Yes,” Mathilda said, “that too, but
“That they were pioneers.”
“They gave us hope.”
“Hope. That’s what I wanted to hear.
The whole space programme had to do with giving hope. That mankind
could go to the stars. That we would not be eternally prisoner of this
“Yes,” Caroline said.
“But with machines …”
“Yes,” Caroline said.
When they had taken their leave of
Broderick, after coffee and conversation, as they had stood in the
dark hall of the house, shaking hands, Mathilda had heard a soft
noise, one that she couldn’t place. It had been an unimportant kind of
noise, something very casual. It had sounded like a short cough, a
stubborn cough, somewhere from the back of the corridor, where she had
noticed stairs going up to the landing of the first floor.
Something had stood there, in the shadows, and had observed them.
Caroline hadn’t noticed, and Mathilda wasn’t going to mention it
afterward, but Broderick hadn’t been alone in the house.
After Caroline had left, not very happy with the
way the visit had come to pass, Mathilda brooded for couple of days on
what was being said. And then there had been the silent witness. Which
she may have imagined. The longer she thought about it the more
uncertain she became about the noise, the cough, the existence of that
She went to the supermarket, but didn’t
see Broderick. There was light on in his house, and for a while the
Volvo left the driveway, soon to be returned. One evening she saw a
shadow passing by one of the windows, then light was dimmed on the
ground floor, but she didn’t get to see Broderick. He seemed more
elusive than ever.
On one occasion she thought she heard a
sound coming from the house, a sound she could not place. Maybe it was
an animal. A week went by, and each day she looked for an excuse to
visit her neighbour again, but she couldn’t find one.
Things went a little different than she
had expected. He came to see her. He had a scratch in his cheek, which
looked recent. When he rang she was making tea. “It is not my habit,”
he said, “to impose on people, without warning.”
“Not at all,” she said. And meant it.
She and Caroline had done the same.
He glanced back at his own house. “It
is difficult to … keep a distance from it,” he said. He sounded
gloomy. He started a gesture as to touch the scratch, but didn’t
“I’m making tea,” she said, conscious
of the absolute banality of the remark. But here he was, at her front
door, and he hadn’t come that far to be told off.
“Tea,” he said. “By all means.”
He chose the armchair that Mathilda
preferred, looking over the garden and the large bookcase.
“Why the large house?” she inquired,
pouring tea. “Sugar, milk?”
“Neither, thank you. The house?
Compensation, I presume.”
“While behind the walls of your
spacecraft the universe is infinite in all directions, it is also
immensely inhospitable. Meanwhile you live in extremely cramped
“Is that why people have ceased to go
to space? Because it’s inhospitable?”
He looked in his tea. She suddenly
remembered how he had refused, in returning to earth, to answer any
questions from reporters. He caught her eye now, surprised. Maybe he
hadn’t even heard the question. “Nice tea,” he said. “Do you stock
“Oh,” she said. “No, I don’t.”
He had shifted his attention to the
garden now. Then he eyed the books. “On the contrary,” he said. She
wasn’t sure he had answered her question. She drank from her tea and
kept looking at him. He was younger than could be expected. He must
have been about seventy, but that wasn’t obvious, neither on his face
nor in his agility.
He regarded her again. “Why don’t you
pay me a visit again? One of the next days. I have tried my hand at
cooking for some time now, experimentally, old cookbooks. You know the
sort: exotic dishes, bizarre ingredients. Time to share them with
someone. Someone who accepts not to be too overly critical, but can
appreciate unusual combinations.”
It was a long speech, for him.
“Gladly,” she said.
He stood up, suddenly enjoyed. “Day
“Certainly,” she said. She didn’t have
to look in her diary.
She wore a dress that wasn’t suited for the season
and had not been worn for at least half a dozen years. When he opened
the front door she caught the exciting smell of exotic seasoning. He
wore grey woollen slacks, a blue shirt and matching tie. On earlier
occasions he had worn more casual clothing. Now he looked like he was
intent on accompanying her to a restaurant. “Thai,” he said. “But not
entirely the real stuff. Some Malay mixed in, I’m afraid.” He closed
the door behind her. The corridor was brighter than she remembered.
Three paintings on the walls, reminding her of Turner.
He gestured broadly and showed her into
a room, at the front of the house, where she hadn’t been before. A
table was set for two. Candles, silver cutlery, cotton napkins,
flowers. Not bad for someone who had been living as a recluse for
He helped her with the chair. “I play
two roles tonight, and they are in each other’s way.”
“Cook and dinner companion. The cook is
supposed to be minding the kitchen, where there is no one to help him
out. The dinner companion is supposed to keep you occupied with
spiritual conversation and remarkable anecdotes, and break, so to
speak, the bread. Simultaneity will become a problem.”
“It’s all right, really,” she said,
duly impressed. “Do you often have visitors?”
“No,” he said, and disappeared into the
next room. Returning at once with the soup, which tasted sour and
bitter at the same time, but a new sort of sour and bitter Mathilda
had never before experienced. “What sort of books?” he inquired.
She looked up.
“You said you used to work for a
publisher of art books.”
“Oh, yes. Mostly paintings from the
seventeenth and eighteenth century. And architecture of the same
period. We did a book on John Soane an another on Charles Cameron.”
“Mmmm,” he said. “Cameron? Wasn’t that
the Scottish architect who left for the court of Catherine the Great
of Russia in 1779 to become her royal architect, even if he hadn’t
build anything and had only written a book on Roman bathhouses?”
“Exactly. You seem to know a great deal
about the subject.”
“A combination of lots of spare time,”
he said, “and no interest whatsoever for modern things. Most of what
has been build during the last century can easily be discarded.”
“Probably so,” she said. “And what
about technology? Do you think that way about the technology of the
past century as well?”
He leaned back. His glance disappeared
somewhere behind her. “Technology,” he said. “Much of what has been
build during the past century can be missed.”
“Among other things.”
“Do you regret it?”
“Do I regret what?”
“Having been in space.”
He didn’t answer.
“Many people envy you that. Certainly
He rose. “Starters,” he said, and
disappeared again in the kitchen. A few moments later he returned with
two small glass plates, containing pale lumps in a yellow sauce. “A
curry – nothing Thai about that – with some secret ingredients.”
She complimented him on the choice and
admired at the same time the easy with which he had avoided the
difficult subject. “I understand it must be difficult for you,” she
said, after eating. “Even more since you fulfilled an … exemplary
“As astronaut. You went into space, for
all of us. As a pioneer. For our dreams.”
“For your dreams?”
“Because mankind wanted to spread out
over the universe.”
“That was mankind’s dream?”
“It was …”
He didn’t let her finish. “Was that
mankind’s dream? To spread it’s seed over the cosmos? To spread it’s
progeny between the stars. To spread its maliciousness and violence
over the …” He pressed his lips together, angry. “Mankind did not
deserve that. Never will.”
He took a deep breath. “Please excuse
me. Sometime I forget why I am here. You are my guest.” He rose, took
the plates away. “Next chapter in the culinary adventure.”
He left the perplexed Mathilda behind
and disappeared again in the kitchen. She didn’t know what she had
said wrong, and if she had. Wasn’t she allowed to speak about the
past, about the dreams?
She wanted to apologise. Everything
went so well, until there was some sort of misunderstanding. She rose.
She should apologise. Hesitantly she walked towards the kitchen door.
She would have to go inside. Maybe he didn’t like to be disturbed. She
touched the handle, ready to open the door as quietly as possible.
From inside she heard a voice. It
wasn’t Broderick’s. Another voice, somewhat hoarse, somewhat …
The door flung open. Broderick stood in
front of her, carrying a plate in each hand. Over his shoulder she
noticed a figure, a movement, and then nothing.
“I am sorry,” she said.
“Please be seated,” he said.
They ate in silence. The kitchen door
was closed again. The main course was chicken in a spiced sauce, with
vegetables and nuts, and rice.
“You are not alone,” she said.
“My … amanuensis,” he said, not looking at her but
at his food.
They continued in silence. After a couple of bites
Mathilda said, “it’s truly delicious. Have you found all that in old
“I am apprentice-sorcerer and guinea
pig at the same time.”
“I did not want to hurt you.”
“As long as you clean out your plate
you do not hurt me.”
“I mean: about space.”
“I know what you meant.”
“Why don’t people deserve to …”
“Is that your dream as well? To travel
to the stars? It’s an insane dream. It’s way over the head of
“Yes. It’s not a matter of technology
or financing. Both are but temporary problems. One-day mankind will
have all the energy it needs and all the technical means. Nuclear
fission, nanotechnology. Another half century and we’re there. A
century at the most. Technology is not the problem.”
“What is, then?”
He looked at his food. “When I returned
He shook his head. “Morality,” he said.
“Ethics. Whatever you call it. We don’t deserve it. Our place
is not out there, because we don’t deserve it.”
“Who decides about that? Who decides if
and when we deserve it?”
He folded his hands together over his
plate. Exactly the gesture I deserve, she thought. I may expect to
hear the name of God mentioned. But Broderick remained silent.
“Whose morality,” she urged. “Whose
“I know what you are going to say. We
only achieve progress because of our violent nature. War stimulates
technical and scientific research.”
She shook her head. “That’s not the
He rose. “There is still desert to
This time she remained seated.
Amanuensis, she thought. What did that mean? She had seen no other
inhabitant around the house all that time. But she remembered the
coughing sound in the dark corridor earlier.
Desert combined ice cream, nuts again
(but another kind), sour fruit and cinnamon. Strange, but not
unsavoury. Afterwards he brought coffee. By twelve they had exhausted
the lot of save, trivial subjects – books on art, the local
supermarket, other neighbours, the weather – and she finally got up.
“You have not lied about your culinary capacities,” she said. “On the
contrary, you were very modest.”
“Isolation has its merits,” he said.
Later, in bed, she had to think that
one over. She had a strange feeling he had not spoken about himself,
but maybe about humankind in general.
That night she had a most vivid dream. She was
alarmed by a sound outside, a soft but persistent sound. She had
risen, put on the robe, pushed the curtains away and looked out.
The figure fled from the house, heading
for the hedge. She thought of a cat at first, but this animal was
larger and more powerful than a cat. It slid over the hedge, as if it
had no weight of its own. She caught a glimpse of a big furry tail and
powerful hind legs.
For a moment she lost sight of the
animal. Then she saw it climbing the wall of Broderick’s house, legs
spread, almost like a monkey, defying gravity. Without hesitation it
glided through an open window on the first floor.
She waited a while. Nothing more
happened. Should she call the police? Should she alarm her neighbour?
She should do something. He may have been in danger, with that animal
loose in his house.
But then Broderick appeared at the same
window, closing it hurriedly. A pet? She would talk to him about it.
When she woke, amongst the shadows in her almost
dark room, she tried to revive the fragments of that dream, and she
noticed the half open curtain and her robe casually left on the floor
where he hadn’t been when she went to sleep. She realised it hadn’t
been a dream.
At breakfast she knew she would have to
talk to him about it. An amanuensis, a pet. Pretext enough for another
visit. But then she heard the engine of the Volvo and the sound of
tires on the gravel. The conversation would have to wait.
She rose from the breakfast table and
looked out her window. He had again opened his window, where she had
seen the creature disappear that night.
Suddenly a face appeared behind the
window. A strange, flat face, like a paper mask. Two holes for eyes,
nostrils, a narrow mouth. Not a human face. A pet. Almost human. And
then it was gone again. But it had looked at her intentionally.
By seven he was back again, as was the dusk. She
stood on the porch and waved at him. He came in her direction,
stopping at the fence behind her driveway. “What about another
dinner?” he asked. “Let’s say tonight?”
She didn’t want him to know how unsure
she was, concerning strange inhabitants of his house, which he kept
hidden so deliberately. “Why not,” she smiled, too forcefully. He
noticed, but let it pass. “Give me an hour.”
He rang, less than an hour later, in a
fine dark suit and tie, with some flowers that could not possibly have
come from his garden. He escorted her to his front door, and let her
in. She was surprised to see the hallway and corridor lit by a
collection of candles. “That’s the way it should be in this house,” he
They sat in the same room as before.
She expected to see the amanuensis present, but he refused to attend.
“I think I saw your pet tonight,” she said, after the soup (small
shrimps and other sea-creatures).
He was surprised. “Pet? I don’t keep a
“Oh? It looked like a large cat or
something. It climbed through your window on your first floor, the
window that was open. Which you closed afterward. I supposed you knew
about the intruder. Maybe I better had called the police. It may still
be in your house.”
He gestured. “It is all right.”
“Maybe it is dangerous …”
“Not at all,” he said. “It is all
right.” He got up, took the plates away and went into the kitchen.
Almost at once he returned with starters.
“That’s fast,” she said. “Do you get
help from your … amanuensis? Is he the one who cooks dinner?”
He clearly wanted to avoid the subject.
But she didn’t. She was getting fed up with his secrecy. But then
again it was his right. Who was she to meddle with his life?
He seemed to notice her confusion and
laid his hand on hers. “It is difficult to explain,” he said, “but it
is really no problem. An old recluse and his ghosts, that is all there
is to it. He has to deal with them himself.”
“Ghosts,” she said.
“How is starters?”
“Unusual but very tasty.” She had
recognized tofu and chickpeas, and something like potato chips, and a
layer of cheese. Exiting, and filling. “Can I use your toilet while
you prepare the main course?”
He hesitated only for an instant, but
she didn’t miss it. “In the hall, the door next to the stairs.” He
rose again. “Are you sure you can …”
“I’m a big girl,” she joked, feeling
She closed the door of the sitting-room
behind her, opened the one next to the stairs, which led into the
toilet, listened to noises from the kitchen, closed the toilet door
again, and started to climb the stairs, hoping that no sound she or
the stairs would make could be heard in the kitchen.
She knew how to orient herself on the
first floor. She could easily locate the room were the animal had
entered the house. Where she had seen the face. She touched the
doorknob. There was no real reason for doing this, except that she was
curious. And she opened the door.
It was as if it had been waiting for
her, in the leather couch, its hands folded on its lap, the mask
turned slightly upward and looking at her, holes where there should
have been eyes, a slit where there should have been a mouth.
She had expected something, but not
Broderick, behind her, put his hand on
her shoulder and said something, but she didn’t hear what it was.
Her hands were still shaking when she lifted the
coffee cup. Desert remained untouched, as was the main dish. She
wanted to say to him that she was sorry, but that would be ridiculous.
What should she be sorry about? She put down the cup. “Amanuensis,”
He sat on a chair at the other side of
the table, leaning back, one arm over the back of the chair. He had
poured himself a brandy, had offered her one as well, but she had
“When I returned,” he said, “I wasn’t
alone anymore. The quarantine team would not mention anything, but I
knew, I knew better than they. I haven’t been alone since.” He toyed
with the glass. “It’s not what I found beyond Neptune, but what
found me. For centuries we wondered if we are alone. Now we
“Did it .. come in your ship?”
He smiled. It was like an apology and
she thought: he doesn’t look seventy at all. “It’s not that easy. The
amanuensis does not always take the same form. Whatever the quarantine
team saw – or thought it saw – was maybe a virus, of a growth.
I knew what it was. My amanuensis. Who made it clear to me – to us
– that mankind has no place in space. No right to a place in the
universe. My conscience. Call it my conscience. Whatever it is, it
waits for anybody who travels beyond Neptune, where space is hostile.
Hostile. That’s not the right way to put it. Maybe the
contrary. Too indulgent. As a child you have to pass rites of
passage first, in order to belong. But in our case … Maybe our
sins have been too great.”
Her coffee was getting cold.
“And you have all these questions about
our dreams,” he continued. “The dreams of mankind.”
“That were the dreams we had twenty
“Dreams. We thought there would be no
rules, other then nature’s laws.”
“And what happened then?”
“You know what happened.”
“The whole space programme was killed
because of …”
“Imagine the power of a single
individual. A sort of envoy. Who made up the rules. Imagine the power.
And the arguments.”
The both remained silent. She
remembered the face that was like a caricature of a human face, a
catlike creature climbing a wall, a human figure leaving the kitchen
in a hurry.
“And he still is here?”
He grinned, at last. But is was not
more than a grin. “The relation is like … I don’t know. As if you get
attached to a well-meaning but preachy older member of your family. An
old aunt. Something like that.”
She put down her cup.
“Want more coffee?”
She shook her head.
“I wanted to keep it away from you. But
finally I don’t know if that was what I really wanted.”
She looked at him. “He doesn’t want to
“Back? To where? He is here, he
is there, it is all the same to him. There is no here or
there to him.”
“I think I have to leave now,” she
He rose. “You understand you cannot
talk about this …”
“Yes,” she said.
“Maybe I will not stay for long in this
“Oh,” she said. And then: “You don’t
have to move because of me. Because I know. You don’t have to leave. I
won’t talk about it. With no-one.”
They stood outside, on the porch. The
night was quiet, a chill in the air. She looked up at the stars. Over
the other side of the pasture, above some trees, hung a full moon.
“No,” he said, “I think I will stay for a while.”
© Guido Eekhaut