Meg by Sanneke van Hassel

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As she drives onto the bridge, the bumper rod snaps and whips up onto the hood. She wonders whether it will break off. It’s completely bent. Yesterday evening, after the crash, she sped away as quickly as possible, ignoring the looks the Moroccan neighbors were giving her. She just jotted down the dented Seat’s number plate, promised to ring.

[private]She’s heading for Katendrecht now, through the two-legged tower of the bridge. Yesterday it snowed all day and the leaden air muffled the noise and color of the city.  This morning the sky is streaked with blue, the river’s shimmering, the rod’s rattling against metal.

She drives past warehouses and across a disused railway track. The land is flat, bleak and exposed. In days gone by things used to happen here. In days gone by whores and students and sailors used to parade along the Kaap until the early hours of the morning. In days gone by people told stories in bars about days gone by, there were legendary figures, cafés which “Since 1874” had served drinks until deep in the night. Now the quayside has been left to waste; there are plans develop the area, but no one knows when or for whom. The houses near Deli Square have already been renovated with laminate boarding, and in the distance, at the tip of the quay, a crane is rotating to the sound of piles being pounded into the ground. The terrain is covered white. Snow in February­—who would have thought? The dwarf daffodil in the pot by the door has already sprouted two centimeters.

She turns into the garage. Three Turkish men are standing at the entrance chatting, white clouds escaping from their mouths. As soon as they spot her bumper hanging off, they laugh. She yanks on the handbrake and climbs out. In the garage there at least ten guys at work. A mix of faces and ages, identical blue overalls.

A man in a thigh-length leather jacket shakes her hand. The boss, she supposes. He peers at her inquisitively through his metal-rimmed specs.

“How may we help you madam?”

“I need a new bumper. And the indicator and the headlight are broken too—just the outside, just the glass.”

“We can solve everything for you.” He inspects the front of her car and tugs at the bumper rod. It drops down another couple of centimeters.

She asks for a bumper from the scrapheap. A friend of hers has advised her to; she repeats his very words.

“Come with me.” She follows him into the back office. A desk with a jaundiced computer on it; behind it shelves piled high with papers; on the right a calendar from 1989.  The windows overlook the work floor, the ramp, young guys sprawled in and under cars.

“I ring the scrap yard for you. Please sit down.”

She sits down on a swivel chair, rolls into the desks, regains her balance.

“Good morning. It’s Katendrecht garage here. I’d like a bumper for a Volvo. A Volvo 340.” He jots down “sixty euros” on a beer mat then makes another call about the lamps. Above his head, hanging on the wall, there’s a photo of a Turkish prime minister. Next to it a child’s collage of Black Pete. On a shelve underneath it, a blue and yellow Prince Carnival hat, standing out from between the manuals and light-duty garage tools.

“I’m sure I know you from somewhere…” He presses the telephone to his ear, a contemplative look in his eye. How old would he be? A little older than she is. Stained teeth. From all that smoking, or sugar? Don’t the Turkish drink strong sugary coffee all day long?

“I live in the east of the city.”

“The east. I know someone there.”

“That where Bosland is, the Turkish garage I normally go to.”

“Madam, the other garages have heard of me, but I have not heard of them.” He waits for the man at the other end of the line to dig out some scrap from the heap. He observes her closely, mumbling, “I know you, I know you.” Negotiations with the scrap yard follow, in Turkish. He hangs up. “I know where I know you from: that film with Meg Ryan. You know Meg Ryan? You look like her.”

Holes in her winter coat, mascaraless eyes. She smiles, feeling the color rush to her cheeks.

“Have you heard of Meg Ryan, the actress?”

She nods.

“My God,” he says, “you know, that film where she has a family and drinks, like she experienced it herself. I like action films, but this one was very good too.”

She remembers the film, and that Meg Ryan’s hair remained perfectly in place despite her ordeals.

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-three.” And transparent, she thinks, to those x-ray eyes he’s looking through me with, exposing the ugly bits.

“Same as me.” His eyes glide down her neck, down below her blouse.

“How much will it cost?” Her question sounds abrupt.

“For you it’ll be… better switch on the calculator up top…” He points to his head, feigning deep thought. “A hundred euros in total.”

“Not bad.” She instantly regrets having said this.

“There’s no one cheaper than us.” His eyes sparkle. “… and I love Meg Ryan.”

He holds her gaze for a second, then gives the thumbs-up sign to a man who’s driving into the garage. The Volvo will be ready on Wednesday. He writes down her phone number on a beer mat. And under the number, in big fat letters, “MEG”.

She walks past the warehouses and on to the metro station. Sun on snow, slush on the road. Doors slide open and car dealers from neighboring garages strike up conversations on the sidewalk.

 

The next morning, while she’s replying to her emails, the telephone rings.

“Mrs Meg?”

She clicks the wrong icon, deleting a message from a potential client.

“Hello. You speak with Katendrecht garage. I had to ring another scrap yard. The first one didn’t have the bumper. It’s gonna cost a bit more.”

The next morning a friend drops her off at the garage. The blue overalls are huddled over an open hood, deep in discussion, cigarettes drooping from their mouths. Above their heads, a sign: No Smoking.

“Hello.” She makes a beeline for the back office.

He stands up to shake hands. “Meg,” he says, squeezing her hand a fraction longer than normal—who will let go first?

He escorts her out of the office and points to the Volvo, which is still on the ramp. “It’s fixed and I don’t want to see it again. There’s a Jerry can in the trunk with a gallon of gas in it. Any more problems, put the can on the front seat, take a match to it and make sure you get away quick.” He smiles. “Coffee?”

“Yes please.” She’ll miss the meeting with her client in Ommoord.

“Milk? Sugar?” he asks.

“Both, and a drop of coolant.”

A boy—probably an apprentice—looks at them indifferently as he walks off with a pile of plastic cups.

She blushes at her bad joke.

“Come with me.”

She follows him into his office, the eyes of the garage on her back. He gestures towards the swivel chair and lights a cigarette.

“Mrs Meg.” He exhales. “How many Oscars did West Side Story win?”

“I’m only familiar with Bernstein’s opera.”

“The film was first,” he replies authoritatively. “How many Oscars did it win?”

She hazards a guess: “eleven”.

“Six. Six Oscars.”

“You’ve seen a lot of films, right?”

“And who is the leading lady in West Side Story?”

“Not the mezzosoprano Kiri te Kanawa with her implausible yet dramatic version of the street girl?”

“It ends in -Wood.”

“Natalie Wood.”

“Well done, sweetie.” He leans back. “I have my own video collection. I don’t hang out in bars. I go from home to work, from work to home. I stay home every evening, for my sons. My eldest, he’s thirteen now. Dangerous age, Miss Meg. My God, he knows what he wants, and how to get it.”

She makes a mental note: kids, a thirteen-year-old son.

“Stubborn, is he?”

“Yes, very strong-willed. You have to keep an eye on them, all the time. But it’s going well. Work, sleep, time with the family, it’s all I do.  But that’s what my wife and I decided.”

A wife he makes decisions with.

A big Surinamer guy ambles in, moustache like a Walrus’s. Wants an MOT for his Mercedes by this afternoon. Can’t be parted from his snot-green colossus for a second.

The boss rattles on, unperturbed. “Women love all sorts of cars. Their shape, their contours, their details. But they’re messy, women. Their cars—always filthy. Men are obsessed with their cars. Once they’ve chosen a make, they can’t live a day without it. They’d do anything for their car. Sometimes they want the impossible.” He takes another drag of his cigarette, his eyes fixed on the work floor.  Three boys are attempting to give a BMW a new lease of life but it’s doubtful whether it will ever start again.

“I prefer MOTs to mending starters. Carrying out tests, that’s what I love. Much better than trying to solve impossible problems.”

Last month her car wouldn’t start. The mechanic at Bosland garage replaced the battery, cleaned the spark plugs, adjusted the valves and installed a new rotor. When he’d done all he could the boy said: “Do you need me to explain how to start it?” His name was Senna and he had offered her a cigarette.

“But my God, Meg. There’s more to this job that testing. We have to be honest about everything, have a written record of everything. Just last month we had three spot-checks.” He fishes out a file from a desk draw. A list of dates, times and numbers. With a ballpoint pen he crosses off all the appointments which turned out to be spot-checks by MOT inspectors. “They want to catch me, but they can’t. I rang them: three spot-checks in one month—you call that normal?”

A young Turkish guy strolls in and inspects himself in a broken piece of mirror propped up on a bookshelf. He smoothes his hair back over his head, blushing as soon as he senses her watching him.

“No more hair gel.”

“You won’t have any hair left in a few years,” the boss retorts. “All those chemicals.”

The apprentice enters with the coffee.

“Ladies first.” He places a plastic cup in front of her. There goes her second appointment.

“I’ve got to get back to work.”

“What is your work?”

“I have my own advertising agency. I think up advertising campaigns for young entrepreneurs.”

“A lot of my clients are artists too,” he replies. “Many musicians. Pay next time.  Always short of cash, musicians.”

She nods. Her worst debtor is a young guitar duo who consulted her about copy for a brochure.

“St Job’s taxis, you know them?” he continues.

Rotterdam’s largest taxi company. She remembers them from the days she used to go out at night.

“They come here too. Always problems, worn-out cars. Always want them mended quick and cheap. They’re often tired, taxi drivers, like they’ve got permanent jet-lag. Taxi driver, not a job for my sons. The oldest wants to be one though. He thinks, this is freedom.” He allows for a pause. “More coffee?”

Another cup is placed before her.

After the second cup she begins to tremble. She needs to stand up, grab her bag, leave. Or stay and become an assistant mechanic, make coffee for everyone, sweep the floor everyday, change the oil.

They only accept cash. A hundred and thirty euro—welcome discount, he winks. Clasping his hand again, its warm, soft palm. She doesn’t dare look him in the eye. Even the boy who has run out of gel makes a point of turning the other way.

A few minutes later he drives her car off the ramp. When she climbs in she can feel the boss staring at her.  Just ride off and turn the radio on. “Oh, I wanna dance with somebody,” wails Whitney Houston. She sings along.

 

A week later, the telephone rings. It’s Wednesday and she has finally settled down to writing the promotion plan for those architects. She’s advising them to acquire customers via the web. Visitors to the website will be seduced into entering their personal details: name, address, age, profession, whether they rent or own their own home. The architects will then be able to use this information, in combination with socio-demographic data derived from their clients postcodes, to come up with a tailor-made offer which will reach their clients inboxes the very next day. “Ring now and benefit from our exclusive …” Two months later, a brief reminder. “Did you know that even a minor renovation can greatly increase the value of your house?” followed by an invitation to discuss their clients’ personal home dreams. No strings attached, of course.

“Anne speaking.” She hasn’t recognized the number.

“Oh sorry.” His voice. “I have rung the wrong number. This is Katendrecht garage.” She racks her brains for a joke, something about American films, her car—how’s your wife, your son, had another spot check? …

“Goodbye.” Half an hour later she’s staring straight ahead, fiddling with the papers on her desk. Then she turns off her computer and sets off for the supermarket. A friend is coming to dinner, with her new boyfriend.  Apparently he’s very nice. Tubfish casserole, bossanova remix. Back to work tomorrow, bash out the promotion plan, post the invoice and leave. A weekend away, perhaps.

 

A month later, 18 miles northeast of Rotterdam, there’s a smell of burning rubber. Dragging brakes is her new flame’s diagnosis. For the last three Saturday nights they have been inseparable; during the week he’s too busy. He does a lot of sport. The following Monday she sets off at the crack of dawn for Katendrecht, having put on some lipstick, and a skirt. She jumps the traffic lights and forgets to change gear at the bend. How is she going to explain to her friends that she’s having affair with a Turkish garage owner who’s got a wife and a couple of kids.

It’s quiet in the garage. She walks into the office, wobbly at the knees. Three boys are sitting there, having a smoke.  Two Turks, and a Rasta who’s staring at her from under his colossal crochet beret. The boss is nowhere to be seen. Clumsily she tries to explains the problem whilst scanning the room for clues he may have left behind—his jacket’s not draped over the chair, his computer’s not on.

The youngest boy takes the car for a test drive. Before he’s back a white Renault pulls up into the drive, horn honking loudly. The boss climbs out, arms spread. Big grin.

‘My God,’ he shouts. She giggles like a thirteen-year-old. He’s wearing the leather jacket, his bare feet in boat shoes.

The boys jump up and set to work

“It was crazy yesterday… What would you like to drink?”

He orders one of boys to bring her a soda.

“I’ve made a mistake,” he confesses in her ear. “I’ve made a mistake. I do it each time. Your car, it failed the MOT, but I let it go.”

She’s probably got a very silly expression on her face because he’s adopting the tone of someone addressing a child. “But I passed it…”

The car is driven up onto the ramp. An apprentice is running through the problems with the boss. Her right front brake has jammed. She’ll need new brake pads and a change of oil.

“Old car,” he says. “The brake oil overheats.” She commits the words, this new language he’s teaching her, to memory.

As soon as the boy has left, he continues. “I do it each time. Last week:  two spot checks and guess what? Lucky both times…With the Mercedes all I did was solder the front wheel on, give it a lick of paint.”

She finds herself thinking about a friend who’s writing a book on female trafficking. The criminals she interviewed were all delighted to talk. Night after night she sat in cafes with them, writing up their stories. All she had to do was to nod and smile.

“How’s your work?”

“A bit quiet at the moment. It’s the recession, budgets don’t stretch to marketing.”

“Pity, I don’t need you either. Everyone’s heard of me. I keep my prices down.” Next come the stories about musicians who don’t pay up, St Job’s Taxis, his sons, his own personal video collection. She smiles and nods, smiles and nods. The boy has finished. She pays. “Special price for a friend,” he says. Cars are driving into the garage, one after the other.

“Any problems, you know where to find us,” he says again. “What’s your name actually?”

“Anne,” she says.

The telephone rings. He picks it up, rattles on. “The cops, yeah they were here but didn’t manage to find anything. Again not.  Solved as always.” He piles on his acts of heroism in the MOT world, taking his time about it. Meanwhile he looks at her as if to say I can’t do anything about it either.

She does her best to smile. Anything’s better than appearing disappointed.

While on the phone he offers her the back of his hand, lubricant smeared all over his fingers. She shakes it. It’s like a dog’s paw covered in black hair right up to the knuckles. He looks at her again, a twinkle in his eyes. He resumes his conversation, at full throttle.

For a moment she hovers at the doorstep, then turns to drive the car out of the garage herself.  Under the plane trees she goes, under the newly-budded leaves. At the point where Katendrecht turns into South Rotterdam, a row of old houses has been demolished. There are plans to develop the area. She accelerates. Her brakes still drag.[/private]

Written by Sanneke van Hassel and translated by Imogen Cohen.

Sanneke van Hassel was born in 1971 in Rotterdam. Her debut collection of short stories IJsregen (Ice Rain), published in 2005, was nominated for several literary awards. Her stories, regularly published in literary magazines Tirade, Passionate and Bunker Hill, have been included in anthologies of contemporary Dutch fiction. In 2006 she wrote Pieces of Sarajevo about everyday life in Sarajevo, following a three-week stay there. Her second collection of stories, Witte veder (White Feather), won the BNG Literary Award in 2007. Van Hassel lives in Rotterdam.

Imogen Cohen teaches translation, creative writing and linguistics at the University of Amsterdam. She now works as a literary translator in association with the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature. She lives in Amsterdam.

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