Waking Up

The background was black with a few strokes of indigo, randomly brushed in so it seemed, or were they the first attempts of a budding Chinese calligrapher? Then there was a noise. I couldn’t bring the sound home. But the sound took shape: in the dark distance, wasn’t I seeing the contours of a mountain appear? Pattering footsteps approached. They seemed to be those of some kind of animal that was invading my domain. Before I could brace myself, it jumped on my bed. I uttered a cry and bolted upright. The animal shrank back, took on the guise of a five-year-old boy.
Without further discussion they roughly pulled him outside.
It stood beside my bed, looked at me in bewilderment, and asked, “Daddy, can the TV be turned on now?”
“Sure, kiddo.”
My small son had rapidly collected himself, already seemed to have forgotten my fearful reaction as his cartoon heroes flew across the TV screen. Had he honestly forgotten?
Things that really make an impression on somebody usually require a delayed response. Perhaps I had seen my father scared by me that way once, but forgotten about it because the ex-marine had the ability to roll out of bed in a flash, to then jump to his feet and assume a catlike fighting stance. You’d rather see your father ready to fight than scared, somehow.
In particular, I remember this: “What do you want?”
Toneless question, threatening nevertheless. A provocative smirk glimmers in my father’s eyes. The Indo, tormented by memories of war, does not see his son. He sees a Japanese soldier or an Indonesian freedom fighter there in front of him. Rattling little hammers on typewriter arms leave a trail of printed letters across his frowning forehead: Who are you and what do you want in my room?

There was no television set at home, it was during the fifties, and I was just as old as my little boy is now. There was a coconut mat in the hallway that hurt my feet. I had sensitive feet, wasn’t used to walking barefoot like my father was in the country he had fled six years earlier right after the war. There was the kitchen with its yellow tiles and small Formica table, in the crystal ashtray lay cigarette butts with my Dutch mother’s half-moon lipstick prints on them. It was cold. What was I doing in my parents’ bedroom?
My father didn’t want me there and chased me away by assigning me the task of stirring up the coal stove.
I hurried to the living room. The stove stood on bowed legs in front of the mantelpiece framed by dirty yellow bathroom tiles. I pulled the drawer holding the hot ashes out of the black cast-iron monstrosity which bore the brand name Etna, the name of an Italian volcano. In the kitchen, I tipped the ashes into the metal garbage bucket. Out of the hallway closet I loaded a sack of coal onto my shoulder, although I heard my mother complaining to my father that these kinds of chores were nothing for little boys.
I opened the door to the stove and in its depths saw the glowing remains of the coals that had made it through the night. Small black diamonds conserved in the rictus of a hell. I ripped up newspapers, made wads, tossed them into the maw of the stove, and lay kindling on top. Lugging the sack over, I let the egg-shaped pieces of coal roll into the fire. I watched the black smoke that developed, waited until the stove began to roar, and closed the door.
Forty years later with a simple motion I adjust the thermostat on the wall to turn up the central heating in my apartment. I place a child’s breakfast in front of my little boy on a small table beside the couch and go back to bed. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep another hour for a better start to the day. Without a scare, without recollections of my father and what all is lurking there.

In the future, my little boy will not wake me up like that again. Not that I told him not to. He has come up with all kinds of strategies himself. He’ll take out his first wooden toy train and walk through the apartment with it, the way he did when he was two. One of its wheels rubs and makes a squeaking sound. It’s a sound that I know and that shouldn’t frighten me. On occasion, he’ll sit on the couch and softly start singing the familiar songs he has learned at school, waiting for me to come turn on the TV for him. Sometimes I catch him peeking around the corner of my open bedroom door, quiet so as not to scare me.
My bedroom door is always wide open. My father’s was always half-open. After he was left to himself, separated from his wife and children, he had put a daybed in the living room. For his Indisch siesta, I thought, but later I suspected that he slept there at night as well.
A daybed in the living room can be a friend to frightened people. Bedrooms can be serious enemies, no matter how hard you try to make them cozy. They do, you think, happen to hide the memory of your most terrifying nightmares. A daybed in the living room is surrounded by the familiar elements of your days: the television, the sound system, your books, somewhere a scarf left lying around by somebody who visited you, your small son has left his little train in the middle of the room.
I don’t have a living room like that. When my little boy is at his mother’s again after the weekend, I bring all his things back to his room. In order not to stifle the memory of his presence, I leave the door to his room wide open. My living room is as empty as possible, nothing is allowed to disturb me when I’m sitting at my desk. Green linoleum, black blinds; a cell with a hint of Japanese austerity. The sight of a daybed would hopelessly paralyze me.
My bedroom has the same emptiness. I sleep on a Japanese futon. There is one white chipboard closet, nothing more. The room is separated from the living room by folding doors. By leaving them open, I am in a certain sense sleeping in an extension of the living room. Not that it helps. Why else would my little boy give me such a turn?
Your little boy’s one overnight a week is a break in your reclusive writer’s existence. By the time his presence seems natural, he already has to leave again. By the time you have reconciled with the day, night is coming on.

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Copyright © 2001, Alfred Birney. Original title: Wakker worden. From Yournael van Cyberney, a collection of prose. Haarlem: Knipscheer Publishers, 2001. Translation by Wanda Boeke. No reproducing allowed in any form without written permission from both the author and translator.