An extract from Shocked Earth by Saskia Goldschmidt, translated from Dutch by UEA alumna Antoinette Fawcett and published by Saraband in May 2021; the original novel, Schokland, was published by Cossee in 2018.
The sky is grey and dull. The vague contours of the old brick factory and its dilapidated chimney loom up indistinctly from the mist. A mute swan is flying eastwards, low across the land, its wings beating powerfully, as if it has a specific aim in mind. The barrier tapes, placed across the meadowland to stop armies of geese gobbling up the grass, hang down like forgotten bunting after a rained-off party. On the grey pool in the distance a few ducks are bobbing. Although all the little birds are warbling nineteen to the dozen, as if they’re trying to get spring going, the land seems to be holding its breath and the prevailing mood is one of dejection. A goose is standing stock-still, glued to the reedy border. Its greyish-white breast stands out against the bronze plumes. It seems to be sulking. A second goose wheels in a large circle across the reedbeds, then hastily vanishes. A crow caws loudly and aggressively. The finches provide the background rhythm.
Behind Femke is the farm for which she has such wonderful plans – plans that on a day like today speak only of brash over-confidence. Yesterday the organic farming advisor came to visit and toured the farm with her. She produced all the papers and gave him the data about the extent of their land holdings, the dimensions of the shippon and the byres, and the milk cell count. Trijn and Zwier sat there saying nothing at all, but let her explain everything, as if this wasn’t their business too. They only answered if he addressed them directly, a little like reluctant teenagers having to say something in class for the teacher.
The man decided that in its present state the farm could definitely convert to organic farming: the cow-housing is big enough and they have more than enough hectares of land. But he did strongly advise them to sort out their milk marketing and warned them that in the first years their income would drop because of lower grass and milk yields. Moreover, it would be a year and a half before they’d get organic prices. She knew that, of course, but when it was said aloud like that, and she saw her mother and grandfather nodding without making any comments, she felt really downhearted. Should she go ahead with her plans at all, now that Zwier is having to hang around on the phone for hours to report the enormous new crack in the wall? And it’ll be days before he manages to get hold of someone, who’ll simply promise to send yet another expert, the umpteenth perfectly dressed man who will come and assess the damage, who’ll nod, take photos and make notes before getting into his lease-car and pronouncing the infamous sentence: ‘You’ll hear from us.’
On the other hand, she wants nothing more fervently than to put all her energy into a farming business that will work with nature instead of against it. That’s how Danielle puts it, because as nature goes her own sweet way the best thing is to make sure that you’re on her side. It would be a farm that doesn’t use feed concentrates or antibiotics, a word that actually means anti-life. There by the sea dyke she saw with envy how a young woman, just a couple of years older than herself, was running the kind of farm she dreamed of.
They could wait until an agreement is reached about compensation and reinforcing the farmhouse, until the kitchen has been rebuilt and the woodburning stove, with its little mica panes, has a fire in it again. One day. But will that day ever come?
Trijn drives the van into the farmyard. She’s been on a big shopping trip at the supermarket. Femke goes across to help her unload it. Trijn flings the back doors of the van open and hands her a crate. They stow away the shopping without saying a word. As Femke is placing things in the fridge, she comes across a small packet of vegetarian mince.
She goes to the headquarters and starts making coffee. Trijn comes in, and then Zwier, with a pen and memo block in his hands.
‘Aha,’ Trijn says, ‘you’re seeing to the admin again.’
He mutters something.
‘People in the village are saying that it’s all over for Fokko. His farm’s going to be demolished.’
‘How come?’ Zwier sounds surprised.
‘Quake damage. But you know that, don’t you?’
‘But Fokko’s farmhouse has a foundation made from those big medieval bricks. They will rebuild it, won’t they?’
Trijn shakes her head. ‘They’ve bought him out.’
‘He’s not allowed to say. He had to sign a confidentiality clause. But they’re saying it isn’t enough for him to pay off his mortgage.’
‘Disgraceful,’ Zwier grumbles.
Femke looks from one to the other, at their tight expressions. She heard once that the miners in the south of the Netherlands would take a canary into the mine with them. If it was lying on its back, claws in the air, they knew they had to move like the clappers to get back above ground. She pictures Fokko and his Wide World as their region’s canary. And sees that Schokland could very well be next.
Trijn says he must have brought it on himself. They all know what an awkward so-and-so he is.
‘He’s no friend of mine,’ Zwier says, ‘but that farm is even older than ours. From 1849, if I’m not mistaken. It’s a real beauty of a farm, and it should be restored. That farm belongs here, like the clay they built it on.’
Trijn shrugs her shoulders.
‘Things haven’t got that far yet,’ she says. ‘There’ll be a solution.’ And then, completely unexpectedly, she says to Femke: ‘Shall we just take a look together to see what alfalfa costs? Perhaps for a small piece of land to start with? To see how it goes?’
Femke looks at her in amazement, and then a smile breaks through and she leaps up.
‘Hallelujah!’ Zwier says. ‘So we’ll go bust after all. Well, I’ll just light myself another fag.’ And he rummages around for his tobacco pouch.
Trijn is hosing down the farmyard. The sharp stench of cow shit announces the spring. They’re now allowed to suck the slurry from the overfull slurry stores again and inject it into the bare land. It’s impossible to escape the smell, it penetrates every pore. The washing has to be kept indoors, the doors and windows must be kept shut, and the offcomers who have bought up the farms of bankrupt farmers turn up their noses and spray whole can-loads of air freshener all around. The stench of shit reminds Trijn that she’s here, trapped in a life that city folk can so easily manage to avoid. For them, the change of the seasons simply means the difference between drinking in a lounge bar or on a terrace in the sun.
There’s a dull droning sound. At the head of the concrete track a column is approaching: metal machines moving slowly forward on caterpillar tracks, like an army of extra-terrestrial monsters. The one in front is a giant grabber, with steel teeth set on an articulated metal neck. Behind that there’s a tractor with a drill, like the sting of a giant wasp, and the last colossus is a blue truck with a hydraulic crane and a big orange skip at the back. Slowly and tauntingly the Panzer division of the demolition team comes towards Schokland, with orange lights flashing on the mammoth creatures, fierce flickers warning them that their daily routine will be disrupted.
Zwier comes running from the shippon and asks: ‘What the bloody hell is happening now?’ He narrows his eyes.
Trijn asks nervously: ‘They’re not coming for us, surely?’
Zwier spent hours on the phone last week trying to inform someone about the new cracks.
‘I asked them to come and take a look, and to shore things up.’ And then: ‘I’ll shoot them off our farm.’ His small dark eyes are spitting fire and his cheeks are bright red. He puts his hands on his hips, as if that stance can make him firm enough to resist their superior force. Trijn crosses her arms. A fragile front-line against an enemy of steel.
Then they see the column turn left, onto Fokko’s lonning. They give a simultaneous sigh of relief. Zwier lights his stubbed-out fag, takes an angry puff, then looks up at Trijn, who towers a full head above him.
‘And you said it wouldn’t get as far as this? That there’d be a solution?’
‘Oh, as if it’s my fault.’
‘Come on,’ he says, heading for his little pickup. ‘Where’s the lass?’
For once Trijn knows the answer: Femke is on the land with the contractor.
They drive to the Wide World in Zwier’s vehicle. He parks at the edge of the farmyard and steps out. Trijn slowly follows him. The orange lights are still flashing. The spacious yard is in chaos, filled with demolition machines and a pile of metal fencing, the trappings of forbidden access, retired now and shoved carelessly aside. A man in overalls is guiding the truck into a corner.
The vehicle reverses, its shrill alarm blaring out as if it’s trying to warn the last mice and martens to take to their heels.
The man gives a stop-signal and raises his thumb. The vehicle halts. The electronic shrieking stops. The driver starts the hydraulic crane and, guided by the arm-waving of the man in work clothes, the skip is hoisted on rattling chains from the vehicle and set down beside the barn.
The other demolition apparatus is lined up by the side of the house, like ranks of soldiers waiting for the signal to attack. The big steel-toothed maw is wide open.
The centuries-old cloister bricks and the carefully painted barge-boards, the dark green owl board, the dark red floor tiles in the kitchen with their worn-out pathways along which, year after year, generations of women shuffled back and forth, the old tiled chimneypiece, the wooden floorboards that Fokko had repaired and varnished, the green shutters he’d so carefully restored, the wide window seats where he liked to sit on a cushion and gaze out of the window, and the stone front-door steps, where for more than a hundred and fifty years brides were carried in and the dead were carried out, are all on the point of being destroyed.
Fokko’s black Mercedes van is parked by the house, remnants of bright-red lettering on its side that once formed the words THE WIDE WORLD. Its doors are open, his household goods are bulging out, and scattered on the gravel around it are all the things that won’t fit in: a chair, a half-torn box filled with pans, a crate of LPs, a couple of bin bags stuffed with linen. Fokko is sitting on the tail-end of the van, leaning on his elbows, a bottle in his hands.
Zwier walks towards him at the same time as the overalls-man, who is gesturing at Fokko and shouting that he and his van and his trash have to leave, that they can’t make a start on the job with him here.
Fokko whimpers when he sees them, points at the over-stuffed van and the junk beside it, and then at his house. He bursts into sobs. Zwier claps him on the back: ‘Me lad, me lad.’
Fokko looks old and dishevelled. His face is dark and drawn. There’s stubble on his cheeks. His ponytail, a limp grey string, hangs down to his back. His eyes are half shut.
The overalls-man approaches and asks if they’re family.
‘I’m the neighbour,’ Zwier answers, ‘and who are you?’
The man says that they’ve got to get on with the job. They need space to do it and this gent was supposed to have been gone already.
‘Don’t you have one little scrap of feeling in you?’ Zwier asks, while the guys from the other machines come closer: the heavy gang, a bunch of muscled thugs.
‘It’s not nice for the gent,’ the man says, and swallows, ‘but agreements have been made. Mr What’s-his-name-here has signed a contract, he’s cashed his compensation, and now it’s time for him to stick to his side of the bargain. He wasn’t meant to be here today at all.’
‘And where’s he supposed to go, then?’
‘That’s not our problem, sir. We’re the demolition men. Perhaps he could ask the council for help. Or the Salvation Army?’
The man shrugs his shoulders while his mates wait there in silence, their arms folded.
Zwier asks Trijn to get Femke to bring their van along, so they can load up the last boxes and refuse sacks.
‘And where are they supposed to go?’ Trijn asks.
‘We’ll see about that later,’ he says, ‘but he’s got to leave.’ And then he yells out at the top of his voice: ‘Bloody frigging bloody hell.’
‘Sir,’ says the man in overalls, ‘I can’t do anything about this either. Let’s try to be a little civilised about it.’
‘If we were all a little civilised about it, then you lot wouldn’t be here,’ Zwier says, and for the first time Fokko raises his head and gives a little grin.
Femke arrives and they load all Fokko’s remaining household stuff into the van. He himself does nothing at all, just swigs from his bottle every now and then.
‘Where’s this stuff supposed to go then, Fokko?’ Trijn asks again. He shakes his head, shrugging his shoulders.
‘Come on,’ Zwier says, ‘we’ll take it all back home with us. He shouldn’t drive, Trijntje. You drive his van. I’ll take him back with me.’
Zwier and his pickup are at the front, then Femke, then Trijn. The overalls-man guides them out of the farmyard, as if they’re actually waiting for him to direct them. But the pickup stops at the edge of the farm lane, and their whole little column stops with it. Zwier and Fokko get out. ‘He just wants a last look.’
As they lean against the back of Fokko’s van, they see the roof being drilled right through and the shark’s maw gobbling up pieces of roofing. The roof cracks, the beams break like bird bones, the insulation material turns to dust and plunges down, the engine roars and drones and thunders and rages and crackles and crunches: destruction makes a hellish din. Fokko wails. Femke stares. Trijn purses her lips. Zwier’s cheeks go red.
And high above this apocalyptic scene, where a hundred and fifty years of history is being guzzled down, bite after bite after bite, a buzzard is circling, mewing, lamenting.
‘Come on,’ Zwier says, ‘this is too awful to watch.’ He wipes his tears away with the back of his hand and takes Fokko by the arm, who lets himself be led away like a rag doll. They get into the vehicles and drive back to Schokland in a small funeral procession.
Femke makes up the bed in what used to be the farmhand’s room, between the old byre and the farmhouse. Trijn repeats several times that it’s not their problem if Fokko doesn’t have a house anymore. Till Zwier says: ‘Now hold your tongue. We’re not going to let a neighbour sleep on the street.’
‘He’s a boozer,’ Trijn says firmly.
‘He’ll stay with us till there’s a solution.’
And that means the discussion is over, for the time being.