Things That Happen
I don't know —
she looks sixteen
or so, but it's so hard to guess the age of girls, so I am careful and assume she's fourteen, to be on the safe side. Or younger. As long as there is a margin of safety.
“Yes,” she says, “I'm Daphne.”
“Your mother asked me to give you some help with your French lessons. My name is John. ”
“Well, John,” she says in an overly grown-up
way, “I really don't
know if I need any tutoring.”
insisted and was even willing to pay me a little extra if I took the job.
I need the money. You can't get by with writing books, not today. And her family lives in a nice neighborhood. They probably
have plenty of money to afford them
a private teacher.
“Let's try it,” I say. “Then we'll see where this
She opens the
front door completely. “Well, come on in then.” It sounds
resigned. She doesn't quite like the idea, but is willing to try.
The house is
typical upper middle class: a ten year old, white villa (fiscal sins have to be blotted out by all that whiteness), there are no
more than twenty books in what passes for the library (all relevant books, so none of mine), and the only real color is of
a huge bouquet of flowers in a glass vase on the coffee table.
“My mother's lover,” she explains when she sees I've noticed the bouquet. Daphne, maybe just twelve, but not fourteen. Very short jeans shorts, muscular but pale calves and thighs, a
yellow T-shirt (just a little too tight, small breasts), dark blond hair,
bright eyes, no make-up.
So her mother has
a lover? And where does her father fit anywhere in the picture? Is he
perhaps no longer
around? Dead, or are her parents divorced?
coffee for us and there are even chocolade chips cookies, so I
don't have to complain about not being treated properly. We are all alone in the house, and around us the world seems
to have fallen silent. I
wonder about the
situation, and about her mother admitting an unknown man into the house, alone
with her definitely underage daughter.
Anyway, here we
are, dedicating ourselves to the French language, of
which she seems to know the basics all too well. We sit at the
large table downstairs in the living room (which is a good idea, because I
prefer not to venture into her bedroom). Her
textbooks are more worn than I
expected. She uses an Atoma notebook for her exercises. I let irregular verbs start their satanic dance. Language often defies
logic, and each language does so in its own,
particular way. Students are often left with no other
option than memorization. And discipline, actually. Precisely the sort of thing I myself need in my profession as a writer.
Still the work is hard, as
French has never been an easy language to learn for a foreigner. Such
irregularities, such nuances. And we haven’t even started with the spoken version
I notice how
peaceful the house and the surrounding garden are. There is no
movement outside, except for swaying tree branches. They have something
hypnotic about them.
A large white cat
is slowly walking through the living room. So there’s at least one other resident in the house. Daphne ignores her.
“Do you have more examples for me?” she inquires. She means
And then, without any
logical transition: “Last week the next door neighbor was
She makes it sound
so trite, as if it were an everyday occurrence. A neighbor has been murdered. Why? And what was the
motive? And was the murderer found? Can’t remember having read
about this case. Not many murders happen over here, I’m sure. At least an echo
would have reached me.
“The police doesn’t seem to have a clue,” she says. The
subject hardly interests her. Still, she brings it up, so she wants to
tell me something.
But for the time being we leave the dead
neighbor to his own devices in favor of French grammar. She is
making steady progress. Now and then she seems distracted by something in the
garden, although I don't see anything there. Her parents are clearly adepts of
the wild, French garden. A horror to some people, who need
their garden to be kept under human control. Personally I don’t care either
way. I live in a flat
and don't need a garden. I don't even have houseplants. If I want
nature, I will find a park or a forest.
After little over
an hour I close the books again. She is making progress, but there is still a
long way to go. When will I introduce her to Proust or Gracq? Certainly not in the near future. Within a couple of years perhaps. Proust, I suspect, will be forever out of her reach.
When I leave, the
white cat shows up next to her. Together they stand on the porch
and watch me while I walk down
the street towards my car.
I only know her mother from our conversation over the
phone. We have
never met in person. She pays me cash in an envelope, which almost
mysteriously ends up in my letterbox. The instructions are clear: I teach
Daphne twice a week, for a total
of eight weeks. After that,
the girl is back on her own.
It's hard for me
to understand what Daphne is telling me. Was the neighbor murdered, or
did he just die? Did he die, or did he disappear? The situation isn't
clear to me at all. It’s as if Daphne
herself is not a master of her own language.
We are getting
along well with French. It takes effort, but she is
willing to work hard.
The house and
garden remain incredibly quiet. It’s as if Daphne lives
here on her own, with just the nameless cat as company. Large white flowers of
a kind unknown to me grow in the garden. I am no expert on flowers, so I have
no idea what they are. I didn’t notice them a week earlier. Remarkable how fast
they seem to be growing. And they all face the house, as if observing it.
The white cat appears again, moving almost imperceptibly from one room
“Has your neighbor been found already?” I ask, in between
“No. He did not return. And he's not the only one,” says Daphne.
Not the only one? What does that mean?
“The neighbor on the other side has also left,”
she says, almost carelessly. “She’s been missing for a
Left? It's a strange choice of words. “Are you saying
she's dead too? Was she murdered?”
Daphne purses her
lips. “All kinds of
claims are made.” And leaves it at that.
“But if she's dead, or murdered, or if she just left, wouldn’t
the neighbors know about that?”
“People don't know anything, John,” she says,
and suddenly she sounds tired. I check my watch. Our time is up. It doesn't look
like I'm going to unravel the neighbor's riddle today.
The following days I look for items on the
news feeds. There is nothing. There is no mention of Daphne's dead, murdered
disappeared neighbors. I know what it is: she's bored, she wants to impress me,
she is trying to give meaning to her life
with improbable fantasies. She's merely an adolescent
with too much imagination. An imagination that may require too much of her, as
pale and delicate as she already is. She imagines
dead people and then has to share those stories with me. I have to tell her
this has to stop. That she only torments herself and gains nothing.
But I don’t bring up the subject during our next session. Neither does she mention new dramatic events. She focuses on the
lessons. She seems to be
losing weight, and I urge her to eat some biscuits with the coffee. This is
the least I can do for her.
Her knowledge of
the French language is progressing steadily. In the
garden I see more and more of those white flowers. The white cat sneaks through
the house but never seems to leave. Every week an envelope with
money ends up in my letterbox.
Sometimes I want an omelet for breakfast, sometimes a plain boiled egg, with a slice of bread and some butter. I am a
man of simple
habits. I still haven’t found out the name of Daphne'
s cat. Sometimes I have the impression that she already mentioned the
name of the animal —
but I can’t remember
it. The cat as such remains
In the street a
black van with two men in the front seats passes by. They stop at a house down the road and walk in. Apparently
they have a key. Maybe they live there. When I leave, the van has gone.
Nor do I know the
name of those white flowers. Daphne might be able to help me with that, but I'm
not asking. She tells me that a young man disappeared two houses over.
Or maybe he's
dead. Again, his fate is unclear, as far as Daphne is concerned. People are
disappearing, something is clearly wrong. I could ask
around the neighborhood about what happened to those people, but whenever
I arrive here, there’s nobody around.
Daphne is wrong:
everyone is dead or gone. The whole neighborhood.
you have any birds in the garden?” She has successfully completed
her exercises. Soon
enough the French language will have few secrets for her.
I glance at the garden, at
the overwhelming white
“It's not really a garden,” Daphne says.
I could ask her what it is,
if not a garden — but the world is already too
complex, and I feel I’d better avoid being too intrusive. It’s not my garden,
The cat meows at me,
defiantly. It will not allow too much curiosity from me.
have any idea why all those people are vanishing?”
they are no longer needed,” she says, without passion,
as if it were obvious. No longer needed.
“There are another
eight billion left on the planet,” she says.
She has merely made a simple calculation. Eight billion people,
given a dozen or so. These won’t be missed. Not in the grander scale of
What if soon the
entire street disappeared — all of the residents? What happens then?
Someone somewhere must be getting
suspicious. There will be police involved, and a judicial
investigation will follow. The newspapers will have a field day. There is a weird mystery going on, and newspapers love that.
“When can I talk to your parents?”
She frowns at me. “Why do you want to talk to my parents?”
“Because they pay me for teaching you, and so maybe they want to know if you're making progress.”
“Maybe they don't care if I make any progress.” It sounds as if she doesn’t care either, and again this does not match her
“I am sure, Daphne,” I sternly say, “that they are very
concerned about you.
Otherwise, they wouldn't bother to hire me.”
“It's just money,” she says. “It doesn't matter to them.”
“You didn't have to work for it,” I say, and
sounds uselessly reproachful. The cat is watching me from a distance.
The cat, which is exactly the same color as those abundant flowers outside. “They want you to succeed in life. That is the
concern of parents.”
But what do I know?
I have no children myself.
Sometimes I have the impression that my function
in this house is not to teach Daphne French. However, the true meaning
of my presence escapes me. Does she need
company during her parents' long absences? Do they need someone to check up on her,
for a couple of times a week, in
their prolonged absence?
None of this makes any
All this time the
vase with flowers has been on the coffee table. I suspect that they are not
always the same flowers, but that new ones occasionally take their place,
because they always look fresh. What did Daphne say that first time? That the
flowers come from her mother's lover?
A lover. That is
interesting. Invisible parents, invisible neighbors, and an equally invisible
lover. But they all undoubtedly play a role somewhere
in the background.
Maybe I should be more critical of what Daphne is telling me. Every word
might be a lie. Every utterance a fantasy.
I try to find the
number that called me, her mother's number, to sort out the details and make
arrangements. A beautiful voice, someone who got straight to the point, who
didn't need frills. I want to call her again, to find out more
about Daphne and about the family situation, their absence, and what is
required of me. However, the number has vanished from my phone’s memory. That's
strange. That is also unusual. But there we are. I can’t phone her.
We are near the end of our collaboration. “I can teach you a
lot more, but you can get started with this,” I tell her. This is the last session. Her mother hasn’t called me.
So this will be goodbye, for Daphne
Strangely enough, I still didn't find out how old she really is.
“There is still a lot to learn,” she says.
Today again when I
arrived I noticed how deserted the whole street is. Even the neighboring
streets were totally devoid of life. No
cars, no pedestrians. However, Daphne no longer reports disappearances or
murders. The phenomenon has become self-evident.
In the garden, the
white flowers have whipped out almost all other plants. They are parasites, that much is clear. They take up all the
space, and the rest of the plants and flowers wither away.
“So you won't come
back,” she says.
The cat looks at
me, expectantly. Have no idea
it expects of me.
“Unless your parents want to,” I say.
She looks towards
the garden for a moment, as if someone
were standing there. I follow her gaze, but the garden is empty. There is
nobody. The whole house is empty, except for us and the cat.
“You will be back soon,” she promises.
Nothing more is being said
between us, not even when she holds the door open for me. I step outside and into my car, and drive off.
As before, the
streets are deserted. A quiet and deserted neighborhood. Would not want to live here.
I drive on and
reach the Central Business District. That too is deserted. No
vehicles, no pedestrians. It is the busiest time of the day, when most
commuters return home. But there is no one to be seen.
I stop the car in
the middle of an intersection and get out.
The whole city
seems evacuated. It is utterly silent. No sound can be heard.
Large clusters of
white flowers crawl up the facade of apartment buildings.
Eekhaut is a prolific writer of crime and suspense novels,
fantastic and speculative fiction and books for young adults. He came to genre
literature after discovering the work of Jack Vance at age fifteen, and that of
Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Disch
and many others.