Een mooi groot stuk over de roman Tonio, de persoon Tonio, foto’s van Tonio en gemaakt door Tonio en citaten uit de requiemroman.
First person: Focus on the mystery girl
After the sudden loss of his photography student son Tonio in a road accident, Adri van der Heijden became obsessed with piecing together his final days – and the significance of the unknown model in Tonio’s last photo shoot
Never have I called out his name more often than in the scant four months since he died. If I add ‘at the top of my voice’, I am referring to my inner voice, which is infinitely louder and more far-reaching than anything my vocal cords are capable of. There’s no sign of it from the outside. Sometimes I’m ashamed of myself compared to my wife Miriam, who, unlike me, is able to surrender completely to the natural force of a sudden fit of sobbing. ‘Even though you don’t see the tears, I am crying with you,’ I once explained to her. ‘For me this grief is like internal bleeding. It trickles away, or gushes, on the inside.’
When we got home at around five o’clock on the Thursday before he died, Tonio was packing up his cameras in a large plastic bag. The girl had just left. A whiff of cigarette smoke hung in the house.
‘Any luck?’ I asked.
‘We’ll see,’ he said.
One styrofoam reflector was leaning up against the side of our small arbour that enclosed a wooden loveseat. I settled down on the veranda with the evening paper. A little while later, Tonio placed two square photos on the table in front of me.
A self-portrait by Tonio, taken just months before he died
‘Remember, they’re just Polaroids. I always take a couple to test the light.’
They were in black and white. A girl of Tonio’s age, with shoulder-length hair and a pleasant face that looked too sweet-natured for the aloof business of modelling. She had put herself in a somewhat too deliberately winsome pose, framed by the arbour.
‘Pretty girl,’ I said, ‘but a professional model… I don’t know.’
‘She’s at college. It’s just a side job. She asked me to go with her to Paradiso on Saturday night,’ he said with bashful pride. ‘Some kind of Italian blockbuster night with hits from the 80s.’
On the morning after his death, I ascended the stairs to my workroom and opened the doors to the balcony. It promised to be just as fine an early summer day as the day before. The unperturbed hard blue sky. Early yesterday morning, Tonio might have seen a hint of colour fade into the sky. This was all the summer he would see this year, this life.
I leaned over the balcony railing and looked down into the garden. Here, judging from the test snapshots, Tonio had photographed the unknown girl. They were to have gone together to the Paradiso on the Saturday evening. According to the police, no one was with him at the time of the accident. Had he said goodnight to her just before? Was she even aware of his fate? We didn’t have her name. Perhaps we could find a number or a message from her on Tonio’s phone.
Wandering aimlessly through the house, I kept coming across, in the strangest places, these snow-white sheets of styrofoam that Tonio had used as reflector screens. It still bothered me that he brought them up from the basement without bothering to put them back. Being irritated with him, for as long as it lasted, kept him temporarily alive.
I feel him sitting next to me. I feel him standing before me. I feel the warmth of his breath on my neck. But mostly I feel him in me, as though I were a pregnant woman. In the spring of 1994, he and Miriam came down to Angoulème in Southwest France, where I had gone a few weeks earlier to work on a story. Tonio was five, nearly six. The doors of the train opened and he hurled himself straight from the top step into my arms. Without so much as grazing the platform tiles with the top of his shoe, he was suddenly dangling from my shoulders, laughing, kissing. I can call to mind, any time of the day or night, the affectionate force of his grip. I shall feel Tonio in my flesh for as long as I have living nerves.
Miriam carried Tonio’s phone with her everywhere. It became something of an obsession. ‘It’s that girl, I’ve got the feeling she’s still in the dark. Nobody in Tonio’s circle of friends knew her.’ She left the mobile on the bed when she went to shower and although she had turned up the volume she still missed the call. No caller ID. I found Miriam sitting on the edge of the bed, listening anxiously to the voicemail message. ‘She didn’t leave her name.’ Miriam handed me the phone. ‘But it’s got to be her. Listen.’
‘Tried Facebook but your page is quiet. I was wondering how the photos turned out. If they’re no good I’m sorrier for you than for me. It was a nice afternoon anyway. Hope to hear from you soon.’
If we were to map out Tonio’s last hours and days in detail, we were certain to bump into her sooner or later. ‘The funeral is on Friday and we still haven’t contacted her. I wish she’d ring again,’ said Miriam. ‘Let’s just let it run its course,’ I said. ‘If there was something between them, then she’s bound to make herself known again.’ But there was that excruciating doubt. Did I have to go looking for her? What was the point of reconstructing Tonio’s final days? No, I could better devote my time to the letters I was sending out. I had laid the photos I was planning to enclose (Tonio as Oscar Wilde) in a small stack, face down on my writing table. This way I could slide a photo into each envelope without looking him in the eye. Despite this precautionary measure, he was inevitably present in my workroom.
Jim, his flatmate, offered to look through Tonio’s room for the prints and track down the girl via a Facebook message. Miriam reminded me of my initial reservations. ‘Yesterday you wanted to just let it be. Say we find out they had something together…or could have… Do we want to torture ourselves for the rest of our lives with…what? A love affair for Tonio? The mother of our grandchildren. I don’t know if I want to have those thoughts.’
‘Miriam, I remember how he was when he showed me those snapshots…his grin. He said she’d invited him to Paradiso. That’s not something he’d tell me otherwise. Of course he wanted us to meet her.’
‘I think it’s only going to cause us more pain.’
‘And what if I think we shouldn’t steer clear of that pain?’
A self-portrait, 2007
I continually scan the course of Tonio’s life in search of individual moments that might be stretched or shortened just enough so that years later Tonio’s bike and the unknown vehicle would have just grazed each other.
Before his accident, I had always been surprised when people, visited by fate, insisted on questioning it over and over again. Instead of accepting the irrevocable, they became whining children who kept asking questions that had already been answered. Now I understood. I longed for every detail of what had happened to Tonio since his departure from our house when I had last seen and spoken to him… since his departure from life three days later.
By laying out all the facts, right down to the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle, it was as though Tonio might be retrieved – even if not alive and well. Maybe tidying up all the open-ended questions would give us a sense of solace, would round off the story of his brief life. I could rebuild his nearly 22 years from photographs, impressions and memories, but not this final stage.
Thanks to the digital efforts of Jim, the Paradiso girl suddenly had a name – Jenny – and an email address. Tonio could no longer introduce her to his parents. Now we would have to make contact with her, invite her round, and hand her the photos he had promised her. As though the summer had resurged just for the occasion, it was that kind of day, bathed in swirling September light, when we finally made Jenny’s acquaintance. I offered her a chair but she stood for a moment with her hand on the railing, looking into the garden and at the place where Tonio had photographed her. Even when she finally sat down at the table, she regularly cast oblique, almost furtive glances at the small arbour with the white bench. We sat slightly awkwardly opposite each other.
‘Were you nervous about coming over?’
‘Yeah, a bit. But at the same time no.’
Was it my despair that so wanted to see that this Jenny was – would have been – a match for Tonio? (Verb tenses too played their game of life and death.) Across from me sat a frail girl with a delicate face, whose expression altered continually under a painful nervousness. She cast another quick look at the wooden loveseat up against the pink-stuccoed wall. She was exactly the kind of girl I would have wanted when I was 20, to defend, cherish, caress.
Relief: Miriam arrived with the tray of drinks. We raised our glasses. ‘To our absent friend, then,’ Miriam said.
Tonio as a toddler at his grandparents’ house in 1990
‘It was so weird standing on your doorstep,’ Jenny said. ‘For a moment everything seemed the same as back in May – except of course Tonio wouldn’t answer the door. In May he was wearing a really smart shirt, something with red stripes, and that broad smile of his.’
‘His favourite shirt,’ said Miriam. ‘He pretty much forced me to wash and iron it. Not what you’d really call work clothes. He must have had a good reason to wear it. Now he’s got it on in…’ She shook her head smiling, without finishing her sentence, as though pointing out that Tonio had been buried in that shirt might detract from the compliment he had paid Jenny by wearing it for the photo session.
Now was the moment to ask her about Tonio – how they’d met, how the photo shoot went, why the date at the Paradiso didn’t happen. Jenny could impart one of two possible truths, neither of which I wanted to hear. First truth: Jenny had chosen Tonio as the photographer for her portfolio, making the session no more than a business transaction. Second truth: an unspoken mutual attraction had taken the form of a lengthy photo shoot, whence a budding romance had unfolded or was about to unfold.
Truth number one meant that Tonio had to say farewell to life without the promise of one last romance, which gave his death an inhospitable starkness.
Truth number two would always torment us with the thought of ‘what might have been’.
‘I think we pretty much hit all of the rooms in the house,’ Jenny said. ‘Tonio even photographed me on the roof.’ She turned her head towards the arbour again, this time less surreptitiously. ‘We even had time to sit in the sun on that bench. Tonio brought some iced tea. Nice and cold, straight from the freezer. He said he hoped the beautiful weather would hold all summer long – he kept repeating it. It was so nice sitting there, face to the sun, eyes shut.
And Tonio saying: “I really hope it stays like this.”’
We went upstairs into the living room and Jenny sat down (without prior knowledge) in Tonio’s regular spot. I realised I now had to broach the subject of Paradiso: the date that didn’t happen.
‘Oh that.’ Jenny flicked her hand in a dismissive, somewhat embarrassed, gesture. ‘I’m still not sure why that fell through. We chatted on Facebook and I told him I’d rather go to a quiet café where you can at least hear each other. We didn’t argue or anything. It’s just that we didn’t see eye to eye on where to spend Saturday night. So we just left it and decided we’d get back in touch after the weekend. Also to talk about the photos. Then I didn’t hear anything. Tonio didn’t answer his phone. I had a funny feeling about it. My mother was in Morocco for the week so I was home alone and I was sick, couldn’t keep anything down. When she got back she saw the state I was in and went straight to Google. She found a site where someone had put pictures of him, and an obituary. Then we knew for sure.’
Tonio with his parents Adri and Miriam in 1997
She did not cry but when I looked more closely I could see her lower eyelashes glisten. She sucked down the last of her drink and stood up. ‘I’ve overstayed my welcome. I really should be going.’
‘But you haven’t seen the photos yet?’ said Miriam.
‘Can it wait till next time? Right now it would be too much for me.’ She took a few steps and hesitantly turned to us: ‘Would you mind if… I’d really like to go up to Tonio’s room.’
We heard her gentle treads as she went up the stairs to the second floor – and then silence. No creaking footsteps on the parquet floor overhead as we were accustomed to. Just a very present silence. She stayed up there a long time. We were thinking the same thing. Please go, so that we can unleash our tears. A glimpse at a budding romance was the most awful thing, precisely because there would never, for all eternity, be the chance of seeing it through.
Jenny hugged Miriam and then me when she came to say goodbye. ‘Could you find the light switch?’ I asked, just to break the silence.
‘Oh I didn’t go in the room.’ She sounded startled as though she thought I suspected her of desecration. ‘The door was open. I stood at the threshold for a long time. To say goodbye.’
And as she turned to go she said, ‘You know, I really believe that the dead leave a kind of energy behind for us.’
Sometimes I want to hold him tightly. The thought usually hits me when I’m in bed reading and just happen to lay my book aside. Come, Tonio, I say soundlessly, climb under the blankets. I’ll keep you warm. Your body is unresisting, limp but not cold. It is the Tonio who lay on the asphalt after the collision, half a day before his death. The occupants of the red Suzuki Swift are standing outside the car and do not dare go and look at the body that’s been chucked some way further up. The police and ambulance sirens are not yet audible. It is right then that I pick him up and carry him to my bed and pull back the blanket.
Come. Come lie close to me. I’ll keep you warm. They’re coming. They’ll be here soon to make you better.
This is an edited extract from Tonio: A Requiem Memoir by award-winning Dutch author Adri van der Heijden, published by Scribe Publications, price £20. To order a copy for £15 (a 25 per cent discount) until 20 December, go to you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0808 272 0808. Free p&p on orders over £12
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