FACING BRUSSELS II – Coming and going, impossible to keep track

Little red man. Little green man. He is obsessed with them, at least when she isn’t home. She goes to the shop, there and back: that’s four little men. To the bank: just two. To her girlfriend’s: that’s ten. He peers out of the window at the people waiting by the bus stop. His wrinkled hands tremble. In his thoughts, he is with her, amidst the unpredictability of the little man: green before you know it and red even faster.

I see her across the road. She looks up and hesitates. She momentarily waves her walking stick in the air, and shuffles over the asphalt. Two steps of white. Two not. Concentrated, she looks at the ground and heaves herself forwards. She hasn’t realised the little man has turned red until a discotheque on wheels approaches.

The little men are boss of the zebras. They, too, are newcomers to Brussels. There were many rats, a decent number of cats and dogs, a hamster here and there and a few goldfish that had survived the trip from the fair back home. But no zebras.

Oh, I suppose the same goes for many things. For metro lines, skyscrapers, road rage, MP3 players, non-European languages and people, internet cafés and ironing centres. So much has come, you can’t keep track. And even more has gone.

The Brussels of her youth became the Brussels of Europe. Appropriated. Holes appeared in the city, construction sites that swallowed up whole houses and the lives that used to inhabit them. And the things that have come in their place make no sense to her.

The past is gone, packed up, out of reach. No little men or zebras lead there. That’s the way it is. First the lives disappear, then the memories.

They can’t complain, she constantly tells him. But it doesn’t help. Coming and going have become a nigh impossible negotiation. In his steadily shrinking world, there is not an inch of space. No room for new words or things, or even the names of things and loves gone by. Everything shrinks, his stature as much as his future. Between the table, the sofa and the bed, he sails. His world has been reduced to just a few square metres.

Only on Saturdays and Wednesday afternoons do they leave the house together. The taxi driver rings the bell at half past twelve without fail and they make their way to Chez Madeleine. To the past, that is, and a few familiar rituals.

They greet the regular guests with a kiss, one by one. Even before they’ve finished their lap of honour, the dry martinis and the man’s favourite snacks are on the table. Then come the dishes of the day, the glasses of white wine, two each, and to finish: coffee and cake. On Wednesdays, they play a round of cards with old friends, on Saturdays she dances with men more steady on their feet than her husband.

At around five o’clock, the taxi brings the tipsy couple back home. That ought to keep us going, she says in parting with the driver, who helps her husband out of the car.

They can’t complain. Certainly not on Madeleine days and no more during the week. She says it a bit too often for his liking. She wants things he can’t do. He can rattle on a bit about his hip and his memories, about the little men, the price of things in euro and the growing insecurity on the streets.

Things don’t get better. Sometimes it’s as if the tear-off calendar of his life has reached its last few crumpled pages but continues to hang precariously from its hook.

Everything passes, she says with a sigh. Comes and goes. But they are happy with every day they are given. Those with and without martinis. Those with each other.