Tuesday 18 November 2008

Perfect snapshot

Everything is perfect: the spring sunshine, the peaceful park, the juicy fruit, the checked picnic cloth and the friendly family that's on it. It's the first warm day of the year and everything is perfect, at least, to an outsider. Daisy, my girl, is playing with her toenails. It's the first time she's wearing nail polish, and she's delighted with it. Gary, her dad, is chafing cheese and looks concentrated and careless, happier than I've seen him in days. He's wearing a tie-dyed shirt and tattered jeans, very sixties. And me, I'm taking the aluminium foil of my home baked shortbreads, smiling at the sun like a proud mom. Everything is perfect, to an outsider.
Except for the outsider himself. At first I didn't pay much attention to him, he was just somebody that went for a stroll in the Oosterpark on a sunny afternoon. But when he passed by for the third time I caught his eye and grew suspicious. He noticed and sat down on a bench just out of earshot. To provoke me.
'Mommy, can I have a cookie?' Daisy asks.
'Of course, my dear,' I say. I reach for the picnic basket and get out another box of Tupperware. 'Would you like one with cranberries or with chocolate?' I ask, holding the box out to her.
'I want one of those!' she says, pointing her little finger at the shortbreads I just spread out on a plastic plate.
'You know they're not sweet, do you, darling,' I say. 'They're with cheddar and mustard.'
'I want one!'
'Okay,' I say, and hand her a paper napkin. 'Which one would you like?'
I purposely turn my back towards him, pretending not to pay attention to him. I have to act normal. He might not be certain yet I'm the one. If I act suspicious, that would give me away. And I don't want Gary or Daisy to know there's something wrong. As long as we're in the park, we're safe. I'm not Theo van Gogh: we're at the same side of the Oosterpark, but I'm not going to get stabbed or shot here. That's not how this chap works. Professionals tend not to draw attention to themselves. If they get the opportunity, they will make you disappear for good. Leaving your family wondering whether you got fed up with them and finally left for Haiti, like you've been planning ever since they can remember, or are in hiding and not able to inform them. As long as we're in the park, I can observe him and try to find out what he's after.
It occurs to me he might not be who I think he is. Lots of men go out on their own. Especially when the weather is as lovely as today. All sorts of men, ill-shaved men in expensive leather jackets too. And most of them like to watch other people. Not so many of them actually sit down to check out a young family, but still, their motives could be many. Perhaps he recently got divorced and misses his own daughter. He could be a junk waiting for the right moment to nick my purse. He could be a kidnapper. Either way, I don't like the looks of him.
I glance at Gary. He hasn't noticed the peeping Tom, he's still handling the cheese.
'You don't have to chafe it all,' I remark.
'But I like cheese,' he says, 'and so does Daisy.'
I cross my legs and tuck the flowery silk of my dress between them. 'Would you like a spot of tea?' I offer, reaching for the Thermos. From the corner of my eye I see he's still there.
'I'd love some.'
The cups are on the other side of the plaid. I now regret having offered tea. Shifting again will make me look way too restless. But I've got no choice, changing my mind will look even less natural. Boy, it's been four years since I left the business, and already I've lost my touch. I move over to the other side of the blanket and see him lighting a cigarette. Bad news. He's smoking Salem, the Russian brand everyone in the agency used to smoke. It was our brand and we recognised each other by it. How did he find me?
'Hey, Mrs. Fussypants, are you going to give me that tea, or are you just going to sit there looking pretty?' Gary tries to make me laugh.
Shit, I think while handing him the plastic cup, I really need to focus.
'You know what would make this perfect?' Gary asks while putting down the cheese.
'What?' I ask, wiping crumbs of shortbread from Daisy's soft cheeks. She tries to get away from my hand and rolls on her back, giggling.
'A spliff.' He leans back on his elbows and gives me a cheeky look. I don't like the thought of Gary getting stoned with this creep at our backs. But this might be my best chance to separate him from my family.
'Have you got grass on you?' I ask.
'Nope,' he says. I can hardly hide my relief.
'I like the sound of it, though, I think it might help me relax.'
'My thoughts exactly. You don't seem like a happy bunny.'
Gosh, I think, if even Gary can tell I'm restless, I must be a neon billboard to this guy.
'You know what,' I say, as if I just thought of something brilliant, 'there's a coffeeshop just down the road. If you watch Daisy, I'll go get us a prepared joint.' I jump up and wave my dress to make sure to be seen.
At times like this I do regret my past. When I was sixteen I found out I couldn't have children, and I decided not to conform to a world meant for people that could. I started with some petty crime, but I was too intelligent to get caught, so I soon got in touch with the serious branch. I did several freelance jobs before someone offered me my first Salem.
'No thanks, I don't smoke,' I said.
'Oh yes, you do,' my trainer said, 'when you're on a job, you smoke Salem.' And that was it. The fags came for free, so I didn't object. In this scene nobody cares about their health. Most professionals don't live long enough to enjoy the pleasures of long cancer, anyway. By the time I reached twenty-four, however, the smell suddenly repelled me and I decided to quit. I testified in court against my trainer, in exchange for a new identity in another country. I picked The Netherlands, because I liked their Queen and liberal drug policy. Soon I met Gary, a painter. We fell in love, he taught me the Dutch language and asked me to marry him when we were high on acid. The next day I said yes and told him I wanted to adopt a child. I expected him to chicken out, but he amazed me by embracing the idea. That's when I realised I love him. But you know what they say: once a smoker...
When I reach the fence I look back and blow a kiss at Daisy. The leather jacket got my message and is following me. Gary jumps up and pretends to catch the kiss I blew at them. He makes my girl laugh. I've got no right to complain if this is the last I get to see of them: everything is perfect.
I walk down the Linneausstraat – it's two-way traffic and fairly busy – until I've got the Tweede Oosterparkstraat at my right hand. This is the corner where Theo van Gogh got shot and stabbed, in that order, but I've got something else in mind for my follower. Not bothering to hide my nerves any more, I look around. He's still approaching me. I wait for the right moment, then I suddenly start running. In a reflex the leather jacket follows me. I cross the road right in front of a large bus. My dress flutters up and distracts the driver of the taxi that's coming from the right. Because of the bus my follower doesn't see the taxi. Before I reach the pavement I hear his body thumb on the hood.

When I get back to the park, Daisy and Gary ate all of the shortbread and cheese and most of the fruit. I don't mind, I'm too happy to see them again. And because of the adrenaline I'm not really hungry, anyway.
'Look what I've got,' I say, and hug Daisy while passing Gary the joint.
'The mere thought of it makes you feel better already, doesn't it,' he says. Boy, he's so endearing. We smile at each other like teenagers that just fell in love. On my lap Daisy starts playing with her toenails again. I watch Gary squint his eyes when he lights the spliff. Everything is perfect again. For now.
I realise this creep might be the first of many. My past might be catching up with me. But for now, everything is perfect. Gary leans back on his elbows and hands me the joint.
He deserved it, I think while inhaling, and I'm not even sure whether I mean the Salem-smoker or the reckless taxi driver.

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