Hassnae

Bouazza

Bifi

Translated by Michael Blass

 

My old village lies between two dykes. On one side is the Merwede Canal and on the other, the River Linge. Back in the days when it still used to get really cold, the two waterways would freeze, and my brothers and I would go skating on them. We would nearly always come home crying from the cold, and go quietly snivelling to revive ourselves next to a cosy radiator. Those freezing winters are a thing of the past, but the view of the canal and the dyke from my parents' house is unchanged: the field bordered by a small ditch, in which our ball would often land and have to be fished out, beyond the ditch the slope up to the dyke with a long row of tall trees, and then the canal, where in summer young people go swimming.

 

If on the other side of the village you follow the winding dyke, you can go down the slope on the right into the village, which is walled in, as it were, by the two dykes that lie above it. On the corner, on top of the dyke, stands the former village hall. As a child, on Queen's Day we used to go and sing songs for the mayor and other people who would sing along self-importantly. I didn't know all the words by heart and I could barely see the other people, I was so small as a young girl. The song I hated most was called Piet Hein. 'Piet Hein, his deeds be great.' I couldn't understand a word of it and I didn't like it.

 

By the village hall you can go down into the centre, where the shops are. There used to be no more than a butcher's, a little local supermarket, a filling station and a chemist's, but the number of small shops has now grown. Further along, on the Vlietskade, where there's also an industrial area, there's sort of an outlet, of the kind there used to be before the word became commonly used in the Netherlands. It's a large store selling both furniture and clothes, which has a sale twice a year. People used to go to the sale in droves and shop themselves silly, buying all sorts of musty second-hand clothes. At the time, the village was predominantly white, as it is now. So there was a lot of talk about all those "foreigners" filling their shopping bags.

 

One day, years later - I must have been about 20 - I was walking from the centre of the village to my parents' flat. When I was about to cross over to the pavement, following a winding yet direct route home, I suddenly had to stop for a car that was evidently in a hurry. When I arrived at my parents' block of flats, at the door downstairs I came across the neighbour, whom we called Bifi. A Bifi is a kind of dry sausage sold in a vacuum pack. We nicknamed our neighbour Bifi because his brother had the same nickname at school; the brother always ate Bifi sausages. Seeing as we didn't know his real name and my brothers thought it was appropriate, from then on, to us he went through life as a Bifi.

 

Bifi sausages aren't just dry, they're also slightly wrinkled and no-one really likes them. Bifi the neighbour always wore those jeans you don't normally find in the shops any more; they're dark blue, tight, and make you bulge at the crotch. Above them he always wore a shirt or t-shirt which he tucked just a little too tightly into jeans that were pulled up just a little too high. And below the jeans, white trainers. He had a light-brown moustache and walked with his legs a bit straight so he bounced with every step. His back bent forwards so it looked as if he was going to lose his balance and fall on his face at any moment. He always looked very grumpy, his brows hung low over his face and nothing seemed to come from his mouth but mumbling. In short, Bifi was an extremely unattractive man with exceptionally few social skills; I was the only person in our family he said hello to. The other members of the family got a sulky scowl from him at most.

 

He would often stand alone, peering out from the balcony, and no doubt thinking about a woman. Somehow, women just didn't manage to find their way to his door; his desire, his longing, his total desperation was written all over his face. I also sometimes stood on my parents' balcony, and if I saw him, I couldn't help imagining what it would have been like if he'd ever got his hands on a woman: he would have wanted to make up for all the lost time in the first weekend. And she'd have run off screaming.

 

One day I saw him standing happily on the balcony with a woman in his arms. She lived diagonally opposite the flats, in a corner house on the same street. She was standing with her back to him and he had his arms round her waist. They were standing still in the balcony door. I was still young, in my early teens, and I couldn't hide my fascination. I secretly watched from behind the curtain at the balcony door and wondered how far they'd got in the relationship.

 

When one of her sisters got married, Bifi set himself up as the house photographer. Like a true paparazzo, he jumped back and forth over the bushes taking snaps of the bride when the bridegroom came to collect her. Seeing him like that, you could only conclude that he'd been completely absorbed into the family. Bifi had found his home and future wife.

 

But a few weeks later and it was all over; his girlfriend had disappeared, and as before he stood alone on the balcony. The smile was gone, the loneliness had returned. This loneliness manifested itself in a strange way: when the Dutch football team won the championship, all evening I heard him cheering and screaming like a maniac. The whole evening. He ran through the house, punched the air and jumped up and down on the sofa - at least, that's what I imagined. It was as if he'd recorded the film and kept playing it back over and over again to feel the same thrill.

 

That day, the day I was walking home from the supermarket, he turned out to have been the man who'd nearly knocked me over. At the flat he spoke to me for the first time in all those years: "Sorry, I nearly knocked you over." "Oh, it doesn't matter," I answered, thinking "I'd rather that than you touched me." A few days later, I was walking along the gallery past his flat to ours. It was a summer's day and he was standing outside his door. As I walked by, I heard him say, "I'm in love with you." "Good for you," I snapped, walked home, opened and shut the door and collapsed into hysterical laughter.

 

Wolf whistle

 

It was a long time before I realised that Bifi was always standing at the kitchen window when I walked past, and it took a while longer before I realised that the sound I was hearing was coming from his mouth. Every day when I walked home from the bus, he was standing on the balcony. When I walked along the gallery shortly afterwards, he would suddenly turn out to be standing at the kitchen window. I would always walk past impassively, but look out of the corner of my eye so he wouldn't notice, and see him standing there, with his hands together, and in the worst case with his hands out of sight, and I didn't dare think what might be going on as I walked past.

 

Next to his kitchen window was the door, and next to that was the window of one of the rooms in his flat. The room wasn't in use; he only had his living room and one bedroom very sparsely furnished; the rest of the house was empty. The window of that room became the altar of his love: first there was a teddy bear in the window, but soon the bear acquired companions to greet me as I went out and arrived home. Before long the window was full of all sorts of cuddly toys; the velvet banana on a sucker evoked all kinds of frightening associations. A light-brown teddy with a pink heart on its chest and the words 'I love you', with the word love replaced by a red heart, acted as spokesman for the cuddly legion; it was up to him to deliver the message, as if the message were not already clear enough.

 

"Dear neighbour, as you may already have noticed, I like you, and I think you like me too." Thus began the first letter from my Bifi admirer. Probably disappointed with the achievements of his cuddly army, he decided to take matters into his own hands and send me a letter; "To the girl next door" it said on the envelope, with my address below. He had taken the trouble of sending the letter by post, so the postman immediately became aware of the situation. The postman was a man who was always cheerful and made an art of delivering letters. On arriving at a letterbox, he would look at the letters, sort them, cast a final glance over them, and with a nod of approval, tap the pile against the letterbox and push the letters through. The "To-the-girl-next-door" letter must have got the same treatment, but I imagine that with this particular letter he would have stood still for a fraction longer, and put it in the letterbox with a sigh of sympathy. Often if I ran into him on his round, he would give me a look of understanding. The postman and I shared a secret; no-one else in the village found out what was brewing on Den Uyl Avenue.

 

"I'm sorry but I don't like you and I don't want any contact with you." With this brief note, stripped of any empathy, I hoped to bring the neighbour to his senses and have his cuddly army retreat. However, it took two years, a refused bunch of flowers, and four returned letters before it got through to Bifi that his love campaign had no chance of success. One by one, the teddies were taken away until the altar became a normal window again. Lonely, everyday life descended on him once more. Bifi spent his days alone; his only visitors were his family, who lived further along in the same building. Both his brother and his mother had a flat there.

 

One evening the bell rang. It was late, almost eleven, but still I opened the door. An evidently inebriated Bifi had been drinking to pluck up courage; after all this time, the moment had finally come for us to talk to each other properly. "Oh, well, that's it then, just good friends," was his laconic reply to my resolute rejection. This was his final attempt, and it was the last I heard of him.

 

Many years later I ran into the postman, who told me that after a while, Bifi had become withdrawn. He lived like a hermit, and when his mother had heard nothing from him for a while, she decided to call on him herself. She found him surrounded by empty beer cans. He was unshaven and stinking of filth and urine. She asked him what was the matter and all he could say was that things were fine the way they were, nothing mattered anymore anyway. His mother, who often called on us with a collection box, made him have a shower and a shave, and had him move in with her. Since then Bifi has lived with his mother, and is at least in the proximity of a woman, even if it is the woman who gave birth to him.

 

When I go back to my parents' village, I sometimes see him passing by. Bifi now often wears sunglasses in public. Whether the sun is shining or not, the sunglasses stay on. He's also grown a lot older: his hair is grey, he's shaved off his moustache, but he still has a rather discontented pout. He often cycles through the village. He used to work at the local concrete factory and mixed with other people, but now he just sits at home at his mother's, or cycles round the village. He's got rid of the car he used to have in his heyday. As a little girl, in the summer I often used to stand on the balcony watching the passers-by. I would see Bifi walk to his red Ford Fiesta and like a Duke of Hazard start the car and immediately drive away, in one fluid movement. But the car has gone, and with it all the motion and momentum in his life seem to have disappeared.

 

Sometimes I see a woman who might be well suited to him, but how could I tell him? How would I go about starting that conversation? "Hey Bifi, uh, my old neighbour, I saw a woman the other day and I thought..." How would he feel if I spoke to him? Would all the pain and humiliation come back to the surface? Because it was humiliating. I was so inaccessible to him that he made himself even more unattractive by following me or waiting for me late in the evening. Often I didn't dare walk past for fear he would pull me into his house. He really scared me. But he did it in an attempt to reach me.

 

Downstairs in the storeroom for example, he often used to watch me fixing my bicycle tyre. At the time, my bike used to get a puncture every day, and every day he would stand in the doorway of his storeroom watching; he didn't even take the trouble to do it discreetly. He would stand with half his body inside the storeroom and the other half outside, just behind the doorway, the way you sometimes see in cartoons. No matter how curtly I responded, however much I ignored him, he kept it up, until there was nothing left to keep up.

 

Bifi.

 

One Saturday afternoon I'm in the next town doing some shopping, when I come face to face with him. It was 12 years before that he last stood at my door. In a flash, all kinds of thoughts run through my head. Should I say something about our past, or should I just let it go? Should I say hello to him, will he say hello to me, or will he look the other way?

 

For the first time in years I see him close up. He's still wearing jeans pulled up too tight, which make his crotch bulge. The dark blue has been replaced by blue grey. His white polo shirt with blue stripes is tucked tightly into his trousers. The white trainers are now accented with a bright yellow stripe. His hair is a little greasy, he has deep lines in his face and dull blue eyes. The shine has gone. The desire to carry on, the feeling that something good might still happen, it's all gone. In front of me stands a man for whom every day is the same. He has no friends, no-one to love.

 

Just as I'm considering whether to say hello, he walks straight past me. He glances at me, but seems not to recognise me at all. I watch him go and feel a deep sadness come over me. At the back, the jeans come up even higher, he isn't wearing a belt, and he's walking down the shopping street with a bag from a cheap clothes store in his left hand, and in his free hand a Hema smoked sausage. At the window of Halfords he stops and takes a bite. Apparently it's Hema sausages that Bifi likes.

 

When I get home I find my mother in the living room, sitting cross-legged on the sofa with a needle and thread in her hands. "Do you know who I just bumped into in town? Bifi. Do you actually know what his real name is?" My mother hasn't a clue. All these years we've never used any other name but Bifi. I decide the time has come for a revaluation of the man, and resolve from now on to call him by his own name. But what is his name actually? My mother suggests sifting through the letters I got from him, because they must have his name in, but I sent them all back at the time. If only I'd thought. My brother - he must know what he's called, because he was in the same class as Bifi's brother, the real Bifi in fact. "Something beginning with B," my brother answers. "Betton." Yes that's it, Betton, with a double T, that's his surname. And then I suddenly remember his first name: Stijn. Bifi turns out to be a Stijn. Stijn Betton. I resolve next time to greet him by his first name. "Hello Stijn." I'll have to practice, or by mistake I'll call him Bifi.

   

© Hassnae Bouazza, 2013