Translator’s note by David Colmer.
Gustaaf Peek’s Dover focuses on Tony, an illegal immigrant from Indonesia who works in a Chinese restaurant in Rotterdam. One day his boss, Mr Chow, orders him to drive a group of newly arrived immigrants to a number of destinations around the country. Tony hasn’t driven for years and doesn’t know his way around the Netherlands at all.
In the second town he couldn’t find a parking space. He’d found the right street, but there were cars wedged in on both sides. Tony drove round and round waiting for someone to leave. He felt cold and clammy and realised it was a long time since he’d had anything to eat or drink. He ran out of patience and stopped right in front of the building. He jumped out, rushed up to the door, rang the bell. Nothing happened, so he banged on the door. Back to the van. Key in the lock, doors open – a car stopped behind him – he slammed them shut. The driver, a man, made a show of looking at his watch. The door of the house opened. A woman, drying her hands on what looked like a tea towel. Tony waited for some kind of signal. The woman said something he didn’t understand, but just stood there, the tea towel in her hands. Tony opened the doors and saw startled faces.
– Everything OK. Who’s next? Go, go!
Another three stood up, holding their bin bags, and got out. The car behind started hooting. Tony kept his back to it. The woman said something, the men answered. Doors shut. The clutch slipped, the van lurched, but didn’t stall. Two left. Rotterdam. Home.
He’d been driving non-stop for almost five hours. The old man and the fat guy would probably have done it faster. He was starting to feel faint. Five hours without food or drink. No breaks. Bladder about to burst. His city was close now. He had to get to the centre. Thuds from the back. He looked over his shoulder and saw fingers pressed against the window. A flushed face made Tony jump. Suddenly the man threw up against the glass. Tony’s hands stumbled over the wheel and the van swerved. Tony looked back at the road and regained control. A quick glance over his shoulder. The retching man’s face against the vomit-smeared window, the other man stretched out on the floor. He had to stop. Three hundred metres further on: clattering flags, garish signs advertising petrol and fast food. Tony took the exit.
The petrol station had a car park. Tony looked for a quiet spot in a row closer to the grass. He couldn’t make his mind up, he was running out of spaces. A car with the boot open, a father, stretching with his hands in the small of his back, a woman, two children. Tony slammed on the brakes, stopping behind the family. He ran to the back, opened the doors. The human stench had been smothered by the reek of exhaust fumes. Tony pulled the first man out and dragged him to the grass. He was still breathing. Behind him Tony heard the other man getting out of the van.
– You OK?
It was the father he had seen.
– What’s that smell? What’s up with him? He doesn’t look too good.
Tony tugged at the sick man’s shirt, buttons fleeing his panic.
– Everything OK. No problem. My friend, too much drink. Dumb.
Laugh it off. Stupid friend. Ha ha ha. Tony knew what it looked like. The sweat on his face, the sick men. All too different.
– Everything OK. Wake up soon. Always like this.
– John? John!
A woman some way off. The mother.
– Are you coming? The kids are ready.
The father looked hard at Tony.
– Always same. Wait till girlfriend see.
– Are you going to take all day?
Tony fanned the unconscious man’s face with his hands, laughing.
– I’m coming!
The father walked off. Tony grabbed the man by the shoulders and shook him.
– Wake up, wake up!
The man was breathing, but wouldn’t come round. Tony sensed someone standing next to him. He was shoved aside and stood up to let the other kneel in his place. One word kept coming back. The man’s name, Tony guessed. Cars were driving past. He tried to block the two of them from view. The man on the ground coughed twice – the other one looked up and nodded – Tony helped carry him to the van.
– I’ll leave the back open.
The doors would bang, but the men needed the fresh air and he knew they’d stay put. He got into his seat and looked over his shoulder. They were both sitting with their backs against the sides of the van. Tony turned the key, gave way to a lorry. Dizziness and Mr Chow’s face. He was almost home.
In the second excerpt, Mr Chow has sent Tony to the UK to work in a restaurant he owns in London. Tony is making the crossing in the back of a lorry and is headed for Dover.
Like everyone else in the container Tony shouted and hit the unhearing walls. He felt strangely free. Shielded by darkness, he could vent his anger. His fists hammered the invisible barrier until they were hot and numb. Realising nobody could hear him, he shouted names only he knew, the secret words he would never dare unveil in the light. He couldn’t keep it up for long, it felt like his screams were strangling him. He coughed and pulled back his shoulders to make room for his lungs, but it was as if his insides were sticking together.
He had to give up. He scraped his nails over the places he had branded on the invisible wall. Suddenly he remembered he wasn’t alone. He could no longer hear people crying out, but beneath the loud drone of the ship, echoes of breathless moans. His path was blocked. Instinctively he held his arms in front of his body, he had to kneel, scrabble forward, shove legs away from him, everyone else seemed to be lying down, he felt backs, arms, shoulders, the shock of skin, edges of faces, he groped towards the emptiness beyond them. He needed to get away.
As soon as he felt alone, he sank down, but whatever position he adopted, his breath faded, he heard himself suffocating. The heat of his clothes was smothering him. He tore open his wet shirt, kicked off his shoes, stretched himself out, desperate, as if trying to breathe through his skin. It didn’t help. The noises he was making were also coming from all around him. He made himself small again.
There was something wrong with his head. He kept nodding off. Arms around his knees, he struggled to stay awake. His head was too light, it felt hollow. His fingertips were tingling. He had to lie down. Legs drawn up, he made a space for himself. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Group translation from the BCLT summer school, 2012
Produced by Anna Asbury, Remi Adike, Peggy Birch, Vivien Doornekamp-Glass, Antoinette Fawcett, Brendan Monaghan and Alex Valente.
Group leader: David Colmer.
In the presence of and in consultation with the author.
With thanks to the Dutch Foundation for Literature for their support.