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FICTION: Losing face on reality TV

The surgeon sliced with his scalpel through the skin of Sven's face. Before the operation, Sven had not realised that plastic surgery involved so much blood and sweat – he'd assumed it was, well, just cosmetic.

Phantom friends

Sven pushed the stop button midway through his 22 minutes of shame. He could not bear to watch a moment longer. The memory, caught forever in all its ugliness and pain on DVD, had earlier been broadcast for the whole world to see – particularly the world that mattered to Sven.

Shrugging his narrow shoulders, ons Svenneke, our Svenneke, got up to fetch a beer from the fridge. Although Belgians are reputed to be beer gastronomes, Sven was never much of a drinker – particularly during the week. But ever since the operation, he'd found that a Duvel after work sated the demons in his mind and soothed his frayed nerves.

Peggy, who was wallowing like a pretty tub of lard in the kitchen, looked up at him, her pink face showing signs of concern as if she, too, was missing Tanja. As he turned back to the living room, she slouched off, her coiled tail sagging, lacking its usual spring.

After the first satisfying sip, a vague expression of concern crossed his brow. Beer had been the undoing of his Uncle Tom – led astray by the Duvel, Sven had thought on certain occasions. Now that Tanja had walked out on him, he was terrified of sliding down that same slippery slope.

Sven was a borderline man from a borderline place. He was born and had lived most of his life in Voeren. Fouron, as it is known in French, has an incidental claim to fame: the community of 4,000 sits astride the country's Dutch-French language fault line and once, in the 1980s, a shaky coalition government fell through the Voeren crack. The village is also home to the cheapest real estate in Flanders.

Although privacy is next to sacred in this part of the world, being a private man in a place as small as Voeren was not easy – no matter how hard you try to blend into the woodwork, you are still noticeable.

Sven was not exactly unsociable but his slightly awkward architecture and clumsy physique had conditioned him to shun the spotlight at parties and social gatherings – he did not even like to attract too much attention at his local, his stamcafé, as they call it in Dutch.

Sadly, after his televised polish, his mass metamorphosis, he was even more visible against the grain in Sint Pieters/Voeren. But he had been prepared to risk it for his Tanja. In fact, it seemed that his few flirtations with recklessness had mostly been on her account.

He hit the play button again and the DVD screensaver gave way to an operating theatre. A plain-looking young man was lying on the bed dressed in hospital overalls. His face was still fresh and familiar in Sven's mind but it was fading slowly into the dusk of the half-remembered but never forgotten.

As Sven stared into the television screen, he was painfully aware that this was his own visage. And, though he was extremely self-conscious of his new appearance, it had taken on a strange normalness and his old look was slowly becoming that of a relative stranger, an estranged brother.

That sibling from which he had become alienated was about to have his features cut up and butchered and mutilated and disfigured – all thanks to the miracle of reality TV. “No,” Sven found himself whimpering.

“You're a bit handsome to be here, aren't you?” the obnoxious plastic surgeon joked. The nurses giggled. Despite the anaesthetic, Sven grew even more nervous, mumbling a vague apology for not being ugly enough. He wished the hospital would be hit by a blackout or that he could knock out the operating lights.

It was true: Sven was far from ugly. He also wasn't handsome. He had quite a few attractive features – warm eyes, good jaw line – but they all fitted together poorly, as if he was a sloppy composite. Using descriptive geometry, he'd been able to convince himself years ago that he lacked natural grace and symmetry.

Although he possessed the mathematician's contempt for numerology, he couldn't resist seeing how close his face was to the golden ratio, the divine proportion. He argued that, if it was good enough for Da Vinci and other greats of western art, it was good enough for his purposes. For a face to be divinely proportioned f (phi) should equal something approaching 1.6180339887 – Sven's puny 1.1122 was more Picasso than Da Vinci, he concluded.

So, as with so much else, Sven was a borderline case. He never drew admiring looks in the street. Women rarely flirted with him. But no one looked at him with pity or revulsion.

It had taken quite some work convincing the producers of his case. It shouldn't have been, he pondered philosophically. Ancient Indian surgeons used plastic surgery to heal noseless adulterers, while the Pharaohs used it to repair battle wounds. And Sven desperately wanted to find a cure for Tanja's infidelity and his battle-scarred soul.

Although the programme's theme music seemed to imply that everyone was beautiful, no matter how they looked on the surface, what it really aimed for was mass voyeurism – and they couldn't do that with Mr or Ms Average. What they needed was telegenic ugliness.

After his ordeal, Sven reflected that Marilyn Manson's Beautiful people would make a more appropriate theme tune. “The horrible people, the horrible people,” Manson would hiss as the line up of gum disease, flab, and parchment skin flashed across the screen, “It's as anatomic as the size of your steeple.” And your dome, Sven added. Envy, jealousy, rivalry, hate, the power of the system to create inadequacy and then to offer the promise of replacing it with perfection.

Sven should've known better, he realised with regret, especially given that he was a specialist in economic justice. But what could he do in the face of his own overpowering childhood dream – and the lure of the dream peddlers – of rising above the twins of apathy and antipathy that he had grown up with on the wings of a blazing rebirth as a creature of blinding light? Or, like the biblical Joseph's dream, he wished his family would bow before him in adoration and respect.

“Don't bother to resist, I'll beat you. It's not your fault that you're always wrong. The weak are there to justify the strong,” Manson roared.

Sven finally managed to sway the programme's makers with his human-interest angle. Suckers for a bit of marketable romance, they were hooked on the idea that he was willing to undergo this transformation – despite not being ugly – just to save his relationship, to re-win Tanja's love.

Wanting to get as close as possible to the golden ratio, Sven spent several sleepless nights plotting and re-plotting the dimensions of his face as he perfected the drawings he'd started at school. Finally, he managed to reach 1.4673. He also downloaded a PhotoShop add-on from the internet to test out his hypothesis.

Art was never Sven's strong suit and, as a schoolboy, he exhibited an almost artistic talent for finding ways out of producing drawings or paintings in class. One day, his art teacher – a good-humoured, if terribly outmodish, chap with large rubbery lips and artless-seeming stubby fingers that looked like they'd been sat on by an elephant – introduced the golden rule.

The algebra immediately appealed to Sven and he set about experimenting geometrically with the angles of his face to see how close he could get to the magic number. But until now this had been an abstract exercise and he had never actually considered physically remodelling his features.

He handed in his detailed plans – with to the millimetre adjustments to his nose, lips and cheeks – to the programme's bemused makers. His geometrical obsession and the drama that was to unfold between him and Tanja led the director to go more high-brow, so to speak, and he named the episode Sven's divine comedy.

“Once the anaesthetic kicks in,” the commentator announced breathlessly, “Sven will embark on an eight-week transformation to regain the heart of his beloved Tanja who, though she thinks she has concealed it well, has been cheating on him with an ex-workmate. But Sven is determined to reinvent their relationship.

“Little does Tanja realise just how much Sven is willing to change to please her. She thinks he is away at a conference in Delhi and a lecture tour of south Asia. He is, in fact, holed up in an exclusive beauty clinic and spa.”

Little did she realise, indeed! And little did she appreciate it when she learnt that Sven had confessed to hundreds of thousands of viewers about her illicit relationship without even confronting her first.

Shortly before she received the news, Tanja had just supervised her first birth. The mother was a first-timer, too. The labour was long and torturous and, in the end, it was the classic choice between mother and child. The sweet, little baby breathed its first and last breaths seconds after it entered the world.

Arme koe – poor cow,” Tanja said wearily to herself outside the barn. “Having to live with the knowledge that her child had died in her place.” Tanja was certain that she saw the cow's big eyes swim in a film of tears as she lay, spent, on the hay, looking over at the still body of her calf.

Having only recently graduated, Tanja was junior vet at Dr Wolfgang's practice. She felt a little distraught that her first birth should have ended so disastrously. Her kneelocks gave out and she felt a heavy weight drag her down towards the damp grass. She sat there, her head hanging over her chest, her rusty autumnal hair, dishevelled and mucky, veiling her eyes, as she broke down and wept.

Her tears were partly due to her inexperience. But they were mainly in empathy. You see Tanja was pretty certain – after she had missed her second period in a row and three pregnancy tests had turned out positive – that she had a new life floating around in her womb.

She was also pretty sure – but not certain – that Sven was the father. She hadn't screwed Charlie around the time she probably became pregnant and she always made him use a condom. With Sven, they never used a sheath and she'd forgotten to take her pill a few nights before Sven went off on his business trip to India.

She had told Charlie that she could never see him again and she was preparing to break the good news to Sven when he returned from abroad – which would not be long now. No sooner had she wiped away the tears and was beginning to think excitedly about the look on Sven's face when he found out, when, surreally, a television crew materialised out of the grey and came dashing towards her like a herd of overexcited bulls.

Dazed, she learnt about Sven's supposed gift to her, his rebirth after eight weeks in an exclusive womb. She was asked frank and intrusive questions about how she felt and whether she would end her affair now that her boyfriend had demonstrated, with his extreme makeover, his extreme love for her. Shocked, she told them unequivocally that they were “perverted vultures” and demanded they leave her alone. “If you broadcast this, I'm going to sue you.”

“Why do you think I didn't tell you about my affair?” she screamed at Sven when they were reunited, privately, in their house. “Why do you think I snuck around and met Charlie in far-flung places? It's not because I enjoy intrigue or playing hide-and-seek – it was because I didn't want anyone to know, Sven. Now everyone will think I betrayed poor, dependable Sven.”

Sven felt it was rich that she'd turned the tables on him when it was she who had committed the original sin. “Hang on, let's not forget who cheated on who here.”

“Well, you betrayed me, too. Is my reputation not worth anything to you?” she said, fighting away the tears. “My dad will probably be mad at me for putting you through all this.”

Regaining her composure: “Sven, did you think that a few cosmetic changes would heal our relationship? Let's face it, darling, your face wasn't the problem. You push me too far away, that's the trouble – we've stopped integrating. If I've learnt anything from studying anatomy it is that your skin is only the packaging you come in – I love you for what you are, not for your box.”

All through her monologue, Tanja had not been able to look Sven in the face. Now she looked up. His new features gave her the sensation that she was talking to a stranger whom she somehow knew – which she realised was the aptest description of her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. She had decided that she was not going to tell him about their child – he wasn't mature enough to be a father.

In an attempt to make amends, Sven cooked them dinner and tried to make the place more romantic. After they'd eaten, with Coldplay playing in the background, they found themselves in the middle of the living room, dancing, even though Coldplay left her feeling cold, holding each other tightly, as candlelight penetrated the darkness surrounding their minds.

“Where do I go to fall from grace?” a question that found resonance in Sven's mind. “Now, when you work it out I'm worse than you.” How true, he agreed.

“When you work out where to draw the line.” Too obsessed with redrawing the lines of his features, he'd overstepped the mark. He realised now that he should've drawn the line at physical change – what he'd actually needed to sort out was inside him.

But the mess, the imperfection that was his form could not just be written off, he countered. His body, his corpus adumbro, cast its shadow on how people saw him and on his personality. Is there anyone in the world whose physical appearance does not have some influence on their character, he wondered? But we have to transcend the physical, deal with our assets as best we can. No matter how good or bad you look, it can be a burden if you view it from the wrong perspective, he told himself. 

The welled up emotion led them to the bedroom where they made intense love. Intoxicated by grief, there was something consummate – a strange completeness – about their love-making. Their bodies were keenly attuned to one another's every touch, every need, every sigh. It was as if they did not want it to end. It was as if they wanted to climb inside each other. They held on as though they were afraid that, if they let go, the gravity in the room would fail and the other would levitate away, never to return.

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Skin therapy

In the morning, Sven woke to find a crumpled pillow beside him. Tanja had been reduced to a single rusty redish-brown hair and the faint scent of the perfume he was so hooked on when it reacted with her skin.

But her aura was still so strong that it was almost as though she was still in the room, despite the absence of a body. Hanging gently over the bed was the musky smell of their recombined essences and, on the bed sheet, sat the dried stain of their unison. Would this milky blotch be the last symbol of their togetherness, Sven wondered? He prayed not.

After marking some lines with a felt-tip pen, the surgeon sliced with his scalpel through the skin of Sven's face. Before the operation, Sven had not realised that plastic surgery involved so much blood and sweat – he'd assumed it was, well, just cosmetic. He heard the surgeon's hacksaw cut through the bone of his nose to straighten it and make it smaller. The doctor also used permanent makeup and some silicon to pucker up Sven's thin – and slightly harsh – lips.

While his face was still bandaged and sore from the surgery, Sven recalled, the programme's producers handed him over to a personal fitness trainer called David. Although he possessed the proportions of his renaissance namesake, this David was known as the Michelangelo of the fitness world – he turned spindly wimps into sinewy imps  – who loathed the Goliath-like stature of the Schwarzeneggers of this world. His task was to chisel a hunk of man out of the unhewn block of Sven's scrawny physique.

Sven's build was not the V shape preferred by body sculptors but it was a sort of I shape. He had not only been short changed in the shoulders department, his creator had also deemed to burden him with an oversized head, slightly bowed knees and larger-than-life feet.

David was a bit of a slave driver in the gym. He ignored Sven's breathless complaints that he could hardly breathe through his recently re-engineered nose. “You want to look good for your woman, don't you?” he would ask as he punched in another half an hour on the treadmill's timer.

For the first couple of weeks, Sven spent five to six hours a day in the gym at the secluded Renaissance spa in the original town of Spa. His gruelling workout included weights for each muscle group – most of which he had only a passing acquaintance with – especially his arms, shoulders and back. Around him, fat cats ran or cycled on the spot, journeying down the long road to Slimburg.

Sven was always bemused by the way the physical had been so squeezed out of our jobs and leisure that – like some strange chemical or elixir – it had become isolated in its own right by an alchemist who had decided to extract the labour from work. People no longer moved to make a living, get somewhere or play a . Instead, they sat immobile while they drove to the gym, and ran flat out on the treadmill to get nowhere in particular.

After his workouts, Sven went to bed with a numb face and aching nose, sore muscles and stiff joints. But he was usually so exhausted that he slipped into a semi-comatose snoring stupor.

After a fortnight, the deadly David decided that he wasn't getting results fast enough out of his charge. One morning, he informed Sven: “I'm going to put you on special supplements to help your progress along.”

“Supplements?” Sven echoed. “Do you mean doping?”

“Let's not start using loaded words. I'm just going to give you some amino acids, vitamins, proteins – just wholesome ingredients taken from nature, but refined a little to give them some extra kick. Besides, it'll only be for a short while,” Dave exhaled in disbelief.

Sven spent the next six weeks swallowing pills with colours that struck him as anything but natural. Like a monstrous reincarnation of Sven's physical education teacher at school, David pushed him to his physical and psychological limits every day.

“If you want to be kissed by the gods, you have to spend more time in the temple,” Michelangelo began before breaking the news that Sven would have to spend a minimum of eight hours per day in the gym. At the end of the ordeal, Sven had built up a fair bit of muscle bulk but his bow-knees refused to straighten completely.

The producers, trying to show themselves in a responsible light, provided Sven with professional emotional and psychological support. This came in the form of allowing him to attend one session of a plastic surgery support group named ‘Under your skin'. The group was mediated by Dr Seiko Suzuki, a Japanese psychiatrist who had built up a cultish following among plastic surgery patients.

Her mobile clinic was currently anchored in Brussels. Sven was joined at the group meeting by a hodgepodge collection of rich nobility, high-flying Eurocrats and entrepreneurs. A synthetically handsome man in his late thirties looked like a clever Taiwanese clone of a Hollywood star whose identity eluded Sven.

“Now that I no longer resemble a nerd, they inform me that fashionably nerdy is ‘in',” he mimes quotation marks. “It's ever so slightly peeving,” he complained in a voice that had lost little of its nerdy roots. “Why can't they stick to a standard protocol?”

A woman with bleached blond hair, smooth but leathery tanned skin and a slight grimace sat tensely at the edge of the group. Constantly checking her mobile phone for messages from her dealer, the poor woman kept getting up every 7.5 minutes on the dot to go to the bathroom and powder her nose. A trailing spouse by trade, the stress of her profession led her to suffer from a tragic string of physical and psychiatric conditions induced by an overly rich diet of wealth and not enough mental exercise.

Although she may have once been quite attractive, no one would ever be able to tell. Her many illnesses had turned her into something of a monstrosity. She was something of an addiction junky – she collected addictions and obsessive compulsions compulsively. In addition to the regular addictions to tobacco, alcohol and cocaine, she'd notched up more exotic varieties, such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) which meant she was hooked on plastic surgery.

Despite almost liposuctioning her husband's fortune away, she just couldn't resist picking up a spring or summer nose, her bosom rose and fell with her mood, and she just had to get the hippest hips in town. “Look, guys, I want you to help me brainstorm. I need some new ideas for my chin.”

Dr Suzuki threw her a withering glance: “I thought we agreed. No more messing around for a year.”

“Sorry, Doctor,” she quivered.

Sven's eye moved across the room until they reached a young woman with a silent, brooding beauty that struck Sven as being too individual, too natural to have been redrawn by a surgeon's scalpel. Her face had the lines and blemishes of the real – she had genuine leather, or perhaps real hide, stamped all over her. He wondered what she was doing there: “She surely can't want plastic surgery,” he thought to himself.

She sat silently throughout the whole meeting and by the end of the gathering curiosity was holding a sharp blade to his throat. He managed to overcome his natural reserve and asked one of the other patients about her situation.

“Ahh, Adèle. Poor girl,” the nervous woman with the two facelifts remarked. “I understand she was raped and she can't stand to look at herself anymore. She's afraid of walking out of the house and she wants to make herself repulsive so that no one will want to touch her again. The doctor is trying to talk her out of it.” All the talk had held her routine up and, feeling uneasy, she now dashed off to the bathroom.

The session didn't do much to prepare Sven for the outside world but seeing Adèle and hearing about her story had shaken something inside him, made him realise that beauty was a double-edged sword.

At the end of his ‘makeover', Sven hoped that he'd achieved a sufficiently passable symmetry to impress Tanja enough to keep her. What he'd failed to register was that Tanja never shared his obsession with his mortal form and its profound lack of divinity.

In fact, given all the attention her beauty drew, his normality pleased her. Besides, she'd first been attracted by his intellectual prowess.

For about the thousandth time since her departure, he reflected morbidly on the paradox that it was his biggest bid to hold on to her that had ultimately caused her to slip through his fingers. And he kicked himself for his idiocy.

For some reason, Tanja always seemed to inspire the reckless in a man who rarely risked public forays of the romantic persuasion.  Before they got together three years earlier, Tanja had been Voeren's most beautiful and sought-after woman – the most eligible bachelors from near and far had all tried to ensnare her. Ever savvy and devious, the local chapter of the Vlaams Blok had even tried to recruit her as a canvasser. Despite all this attention – and this is a point that Sven was never entirely able to grasp – Tanja's heartstrings latched on to him.

During the annual village kermis and animal market, there had been a tombola to raise money for disabled children. Sven had bought a dozen tickets in the hope of winning the first prize of dinner with that year's Miss Limburg, or Dr Limburg, as Sven liked to refer to her. He had always been disappointed that she hadn't decided to study human medicine.

“What a waste for humanity,” he thought once as she glided past him with her leather satchel.

 Tanja had entered the contest following a half-drunken bet with her dad. It was an experience she never wanted to repeat and she had chosen to disappear from the limelight following her victory, refusing to go on to the national competition.

“I felt like a prize bitch being paraded before the judges at a dog show, daddy,” she complained to her pig-farmer father. “I could feel some of them undressing me with their eyes, mentally measuring my pedigree. There were a couple of real creeps there who promised some girls their vote in return for a private showing and a chance to sample the goods. At least, they were removed before the final vote.”

All the prizes in that year's charity draw had, in fact, been provided by Tanja's clan. Josef Henderickx, her father, had pledged an adorable pet piglet for second prize, while her uncle Hermann provided the third prize of dinner for two at his restaurant.

Unusually, perhaps, for a Flemish farmer, Josef was a dedicated socialist. The similarity of his name to that of Jimi Hendrix and the summer of love he'd spent with Tanja's late mother led Josef to a lifelong passion for the master's music – some of his friends even called him Jimi.

Josef was an easy-going tolerant kind of man. But his forbearance was severely tested when it came to pigs. Driven by his penchant for social justice, he felt that we condescending humans looked down too scornfully on those noble creatures. It was his pet mission in life to set the record straight.

He critiqued everything from fairytales to religion and satire to demonstrate to all who would listen that pigkind was unfairly and constantly stigmatised. “Don't call me pig-headed,” he'd once boomed at Tanja, when she complained that he harped on too much about the subject.

In the story of the three little pigs, owing to apparent piggish stupidity, the wolf gets away with two-thirds of the pork. Even Orwell's Animal Farm portrayed them as devious sub-humans who, ousting the farmer, became tyrants in his place. “It's only a political allegory,” a drinking buddy at the local union bar told him.

Orwell's fable galled Josef for other reasons. As a young man aspiring to forge a just and egalitarian world he'd become a communist agitator and he didn't believe that he would walk and talk like the bourgeois elite he so passionately wanted to oust, even if he was a pig farmer. As he got older, he realised equality was a dream and social justice became his quest.

“So, why didn't Orwell get the cows to take over?” he asked. “Is it because of their doughy-eyed good looks or the sacred motherly status their milk gives them? Well, the Egyptians had that cow-headed Hathor. Did they have a pig god, I ask you?”

Indeed, the nearest swines ever get to the heavenly is when people refer dismissively to flying pigs. Whereas Hathor – a select member of the House of Horus – was the original mother goddess, one of the oldest in the Egyptian pantheon. She was the bringer of love and joy.

The lucky cow not only had male and female priests serving her, but she also presided over the funkiest cult in all of Ancient Egypt – singers and musicians turned their talents to her service and joined her priesthood, creating all kinds of cool new rituals and some infectious grooves to boot. If Prince were an Ancient Egyptian, he would have probably found his religious awakening with her.

“The real problem is that pigs resemble us too much. They're too close for evolutionary comfort,” he was fond of saying.

The Jewish and Islamic religious prohibition of pig meat also puzzled him. “Why are you Muslims so set against pork, Mo?” he quizzed Mohamed, the Moroccan, St-Pieters' only resident Muslim.

“In the days when the rule was set down, pigs were disease-ridden animals in sweltering Arabia,” Mo explained. “Besides, every culture has its forbidden fruit. Why don't we eat dogs or cats, for instance?”

“Now that they're safe, will you eat pork?”

“Heavens no,” Mohamed said in alarm as a barely concealed look of revulsion crossed his friendly face. Both men broke out in a fit of laughter. Mo was a livestock shifter and he transported Belgian farmyard animals, pigs included, across the length and breadth of northern . He would regularly make long-haul runs with a school of swine merrily and rudely – to his Muslim ears – snorting and squealing in the back.

“So, tell me, Mo,” Josef said, not for the first time, his blue eyes blazing, “how does it feel to be a pig chauffeur?”

“Well, I've got to bring home the bacon somehow,” he laughed. “Since I was laid off from the coal mine 15 years ago, this job has put clothes on my kids' backs and food in their stomachs, and given them a university education. I'm grateful to each and every pig I've limousined around.”

A date with Miss Piggy

It was Mo who had driven the prize piglet to the fair that morning. Sven won the baby pig and lost the date, much to his chagrin. After the prize-giving ceremony, he surprised himself when he approached Tanja on the bustling village square, the piglet in somewhat reluctant tow.

Her gemstone eyes twinkled and glittered green in the late afternoon sky, he noticed appreciatively. And, as the crescent of a smile waxed across her face, the sun, as if in an eclipse, was overshadowed by the sombre veil of her hair.

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Opportunely, Sven's trance was rudely broken by the grunting swine he'd been lumbered with. “Tom de Wolf gets to have dinner with you, I get a date with a pig,” he almost snorted.

“I'm sure you and Miss Piggy will have a great time together,” Tanja opined unhelpfully. “And the good thing is she won't mind if you live in a pig sty.”

“Actually, I was hoping that Miss Piggy would morph into you and you'd join me for dinner some evening.”

“Well, if you kiss her, she might do just that,” Tanja challenged, waving an imaginary wand. To the astonishment of everyone around, he bent down and placed a kiss on the perplexed piglet's head, who then grunted in apparent disapproval. Tanja opened her purse and handed him her card: “Call me,” she said before meandering like a gentle stream through the crowd, with pleasant waves rippling through her thin summer dress.

Ever since his tour de force, Sven was never entirely able to grasp what it was that had drawn Tanja to him. “Chemistry was never my strong suit at school,” she'd joked once when he'd asked her to explain what she saw in plain old him. “But when I met you, you just set off the right reactions.”

But, for our Sven, Tanja's answer wasn't entirely satisfactory. And, over the years, the question grew and, with it, the doubt. Love is like faith – you need to believe in it wholeheartedly. It is also like art – abstract, sublime, intangible. Too many “whys” pierce the beautiful vision.

Why him over all the other men she could have had was not a question she could answer easily. You cannot make objective the subjective.

Perhaps it was the mathematician in him, or may be it was the emotional vacuum in which he had been raised, or his disquiet at the beauty deficit caused by his belief that most people thought he didn't deserve her. In any case, Tanja's failure, in Sven's eyes, to articulate her intangible feelings soon caused an invisible and subtle barrier to grow between them. Although he tried to keep it under wraps, it sometimes manifested itself in defensive jealousy or coldness.

Rebuffed and shut off from his inner self, Tanja began to feel rejected and a little unloved. She could not fully comprehend why Sven was keeping her at bay. Whenever she tried to pierce his shell or melt his defences, he refused to be drawn – he would not confide his innermost feelings to her.

Sven tapped into the years of practice he'd received at bottling in his emotions in the cold no-boys-land in which he had grown up, caught between the devout piety of his Catholic mother and the pious discipline of his police sergeant father. Both of his parents dedicated their lives and beings to serving a higher authority, forgetting that their son also needed their attention.

From an early age, only “weighty matters” could be brought up in his parents' company – the burden of which was sometimes too much for his narrow shoulders to bear as they shook tearfully in his bedroom late at night. Personal feeling and emotions, uncertainties, doubts, ambiguities, were not matters worthy of their haughty ears.

Girl troubles were also off the agenda. Even on the rare occasions when he plucked up the courage to have a man-to-man with his dad, all he got was the old man's uncomfortable stuttering – a voice robbed of its normal authority.

Sven's father got his kicks out of being a larger-than-life figure of strength and reliability, a pillar of law and order holding up their small community. His mother was so full of unconditional – and, Sven thought, unrequited – love for the Lord and his Son that her own children and husband had to crowd together in some dusty antechamber of her heart. Not that this bothered his father whose camaraderie with his fellow officers took pride of place amongst his sentiments.

Sven could not remember a time when his parents had slept in the same bedroom and he wondered when the last time they had had was. In fact, he sometimes wondered how they'd had him – did they do it the conventional way, was it an early experiment in IVF, or was his mother in the virgin birth business? Not that he was ever made to feel like a godsend.

As a boy, he always sensed that his parents viewed him as a consolation prize they had settled for following the flight of his older brother and sister. A year before Sven was born, Bruno, at the age of 18, decided to rebel against their father. Although he often dreamed about slapping some fatherly sense into the village sergeant, the man was still his father and he could never bring himself to raise a hand against him, even when the old man asked him, “Where's the girly boy going, tonight?” Fighting back tears of frustration, he could not understand how his earrings could elicit such derision from his own father, despite the fact that he was over 190 cm tall.

One night, on his way to pick up his girlfriend to go to a gig, he was stopped by a young police officer who wanted to check his licence. “I take it you're going to Man-2-Man to join all your pretty boyfriends,” the policeman said, letting his wrist flop mockingly, as he scanned Bruno's dyed fringe, jewellery and leather trousers. Already close to the edge, Bruno leapt at his father, his tormentor, knocking him to the ground. Swinging rapid-fire punches at the man, he yelled repeatedly: “The only man I'll be fucking tonight is you.”

Their father was first in line to reprimand Bruno for putting the young policeman in hospital, despite his son's protestations that the cop was a “fascist in uniform”. He was beside himself that his then only son had thrown away a future career in the police force with his recklessness. Not that Bruno would have ever joined the police, even if his father had spent years “building him up physically and mentally for the job”.

“What have I done to deserve this,” he lamented to his wife as she moved her fingers expertly from one rosary bead to the next, drawing comfort from the soulful repetition of a silent prayer. “I spent my life serving and upholding the law in the streets, and I raise a lout and a criminal under my own roof.”

In court, his father, the fine upstanding citizen – the cold stone pillar of the community – that he was, pleaded with the judge to give his son the maximum penalty. The judge, who had been willing to show leniency in deference to a respected officer of the law and in recognition that this was Bruno's first offence, faltered and handed down an 18-month sentence.

Once Bruno was released from prison, he came to get his stuff and never set foot again in his parents' house. Deciding he needed to get as far away from their madhouse as possible, he sought asylum, shortly after Sven's birth, in the , where he worked as a French teacher for 13 years. In the lead up to the 1994 genocide, he went to Rwanda to help in the humanitarian effort. He received a stray bullet in the chest for his efforts.

The whole of Voeren turned out for his funeral and the king and prime minister honoured him posthumously. While his mother wept for days in remorse, his father's ice-pick composure held and he refused to grieve. “At last, he did something honourable for a change,” was the best he could manage.

His sister, Anne, who had been very close to Bruno, never managed to forgive her parents for driving her older brother away, although she was proud of what he had been doing in Africa.

Being a lesbian had been every bit as tough as she had feared it would be. Terrified at how her parents would react, she kept her sexuality secret, even from herself, for some years. Without Bruno around and given her parents wrath at his unspeakable , not to mention Sven's birth, Anne pushed the demon deep into the magma core of her mind where it throbbed and burnt distantly – for a while.

Desiring a purposeful silence – as opposed to the corrosive one in which she lived, one which was only punctuated by her toddler brother's first words and occasional tears – she joined a trappist order – became a trappistien – in Westvleteren, at the age of 19. Several months of quiet reflection made her realise that her denials were in vain: she was what she was and the thing that was making her dirty little secret sordid was how she was keeping it cooped up inside, where it was growing stale and rancid.

When she phoned to tell them she was coming home, they were aware that she'd broken her hermit's silence. But they were wholly unprepared for the other silence that she was about to shatter into a million shards of righteous confusion on her way out of the closet. A jagged, poison-tipped silence assaulted the room, pushing the normally void silence to cower and whimper in the corner.

Besides her occupation with the sin factor, Anne's poor mother, for whom sex was largely a procreative activity – although she did sometimes allow herself the indulgence of enjoying it and without her clothes on – could only just grasp recreational sex among heterosexuals, if it was used as a means of lightening the burden of multiplication.

Anne found an immediate ally in Bruno whom, besides loving his sister, didn't see her sexuality as any big deal. He also found it amusing that his father had always called him a fag because of the way he looked, but it was innocent-seeming, retiring Anne who delivered the knockout punch. “I wish I'd been there to see the shock on their face when you told them,” he wrote in a letter for Kinshasa.

Anne moved out shortly after her thunderbolt and, years later, following Bruno's death, she could hardly bring herself to face her unremorseful dad – every occasion was a painful ordeal: she could see Bruno's ghost, warm even in death, fluttering like a candle against her father's weathered and frosty features, and she could hardly bear to think that the only thing this heartless man shared with his eldest son was a fleshbound resemblance.

As she wasn't allowed to bring any of her girlfriends to visit, and her parents never again mentioned the love she dared to name, Anne felt little motivation to go to Voeren, except to snatch surreptitious visits to her brother, Sven.

In the dozen years since her revelation, Sven's mother offered up a prayer every day to the Lord urging him to pardon her misguided daughter and lead her to the righteous path. Without either of his siblings at home and with his parents' constant, if largely unspoken, disappointment at how his brother and sister had turned out, Sven really did feel like a step-in, a sub – a semi-retired sperm had been called off the substitutes' bench and pushed out on the playing field, unprepared and un-warmed up, in extra time to score a goal for the team.

Gas particles

The difficult pregnancy – his mum was 41, and her battered devotional frame could hardly take the extra load – and his premature birth meant that Sven was an undersized and sickly child. He lacked the striking dimensions of the rest of his family, each of whom was titanic in stature.

His expectant, angry fans – the fanatics he called his parents, that is – kept a demanding eye over this junior squad member all through his formative years, criticising his every pass, jeering at his dribbling skills, booing his missed shots at the net, mocking his game plan. “I don't even think he'll make the height requirement at the Police Academy,” his father once remarked bitterly about his eight-year-old son, as his wife was finishing up her prayers at the foot of the bed.

Learning from experience was not something his parents did often or well. And, rather than thaw for the son they picked up at the last chance saloon, they became even more uptight. As a boy, Sven constantly felt suffocated by the reverential air that filled the silent corners – particularly during the daily ordeal of their family dinners. When their child prodigy – their last opportunity to mould, blasphemous as it was, a child in their own image, one who would realise all their unfulfilled aspirations – failed to repay them for bringing him into the world, they collected their debt in full by turning off the remaining warmth during the harsh winter of his teenage years.

As an antidote to the invisible authorities both his parents deferred to unquestioningly and unflinchingly, he found solace in the certainties of facts and the crystalline beauty of mathematics. As far as Sven was concerned, numbers spoke louder than scripture. He found emotional and moral support in his maths teacher – a childless and scholarly type who, disillusioned by his work as a nuclear physicist, found escape in teaching youth to appreciate the majesty of mathematics, but also to appreciate its lethal underbelly. Being a fairly popular if unimposing boy, he found solace in his close schoolmates.

Two evenings a week, he got breast-thumping Bible classes from his mother. Although he was sceptical of the certitudes she preached, these were the only occasions in which he saw his mother gush emotion, and he was happy to let the stream of passion flow over him on its way up. But it was Mr de Meester who gave Sven unconditional affection and respect and was to become his lifelong mentor, helping him find his way through academia. If it weren't for de Meester, Sven may well have settled somewhere else after uni.

Despite his parents' loud objections, he went to college in Antwerp to study his – and Mr de Meester's – first passions: mathematics and physics. “A man learns all the physics he needs in the Police Academy,” his father tried. “And your mathematical mind would be an asset to the force,” he said in a rare compliment.

Kind words or not, Sven wasn't about to be swayed. And, as the praise started flowing in from his professors, he was glad that he'd managed to stick to his guns. For his MA and PhD, Sven discovered the fledgling field of econophysics which drew him immediately.

Tired of his parents' “It's destiny, son” explanation, he wanted to understand wealth distribution – why it was some people had the most fabulous riches while others, equally or more talented, wallowed in poverty – in the most scientific way he could. Sven, working with colleagues in Europe, Africa and Asia, was beginning to make a name for himself in the young field.

Their work was helping cast doubt on one of the key pillars of economic theory: economic rationality. “The assumption that consumers are rational beings is, at least in aggregate, a load of hot air,” he explained to Tanja once. Hot or not, according to econophysicist like Sven, income distribution follows the same pattern as the spread of atoms in a gas. Looked at from a macro perspective, people, as a mass, even if they are rational at the individual level act like random atoms in a gas. According to the theory, so many factors affect people's economic decisions that the net result is random.

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The first law of thermodynamics also applies here: money, like energy, is never lost, just redistributed. However, with the sorcery of modern economics, money can be created where it never existed before, Sven reflected. In gaseous economies, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer because it is hard to shift the distribution of energy – wealth – when there is thermal equilibrium, i.e. a status quo. And, of course, the rich usually try to maintain the status quo. In more classical terms, capital is more productive than labour, so people who own nothing else will suffer plenty of sweaty brows just to stay where they are.

On the bright side, Sven argued, if people are like gas atoms, they can jump class and, according to the model, saving money is the best way to help them on their way up. But, of course, all systems are unstable by nature, and if the gas becomes volatile then, well, you might have a revolution or a popular revolt on your hands.

Opening his leather satchel, Sven took out the letter from Professor Singh which he read with mixed emotions. The professor was offering Sven an assistant professorship, and with tenure, if he joined his department at the University of Delhi. Faced with the pear shape his life had taken, Sven had written to the Indian scholar, who was one of the field's earliest and most-respected pioneers, asking if he had any openings. What about Tanja, was the question that kept repeating itself.

Delhi departure

Up in arms at the prospect of spending Friday night in the suffocating and oppressive embrace of his thoughts, Sven downed the last of his beer and decided to endure all the knowing glances and sub-breath whispers at the Dappere Leeuw, his local. On slightly unsteady feet, he entered the garage and mounted his sturdy, but reliable grandfather's bicycle which he'd inherited from his mother's father. Next to it stood his swanky racing bike which he rode at the weekend – and like the dedicated hobbyist that he was – in full racing regalia.

His passion for cycling burned so intensely that he was usually able to rise above his physical self-consciousness and wear a cyclist's skin-tight gear without thinking about what kind of a figure he cut. Slicing through the wind at speed blew away his hang ups and made him feel light and in harmony with his surroundings. He got a bit of that sense of lightness now, even though he was riding along on the heavier-set and slower frame. The wind had a refreshing bite to it tonight and Sven pedalled into it with his face held up to slap some life into his numbed senses.

With tribulation, he pushed open the Leeuw's heavy door. The conversation died down a little as people turned discreetly to view the local TV celebrity, who wasn't all that celebrated. In appearing on everyone's screen, it was as if he'd made his life common property – and the village was split on whether he'd been right. Some people were on record with their opinion that what he did was “very brave. Don't understand why that Tanja went and left him.” Others wondered why he'd gone to all that trouble. “He doesn't look any better now than he did before that domme programme.”

“‘It's only a matter of time, you mark my words' – that was what I said when they got together. That Tanja was always out of his league.”

“Never thought he was the type. Always looked so serious, you know.”

“Yeah, too intellectual, I always said. Not as smart as he acts, obviously.”

“Why anyone would want to air their dirty laundry in front of millions of people, I don't know.”

“Do you think millions watch that rubbish.”

He'd overheard snippets of speculation, conjecture and expert opinion since his return. But that didn't hurt as much as his parents' derision. “Have I been cursed with nothing but deviants for offspring,” his father bemoaned.

“Son, pride and envy are the deadliest of the cardinal sins. You should be grateful for what you have… had,” his mother chastised. “Humility and humiliation are not the same thing,” she railed.

Walking into the warm and glowing interior, he saw that the village news agency, Jan de Wit, hadn't turned towards him. He was too busy on his mobile phone relaying the latest breaking gossip to his wide network of geriatric subscribers to look up.

He was obviously on assignment, discreetly, at least to his own eyes, following the latest exploits of Gina – Divina ex Vagina, one of the geriatric wits liked to call her – who had won acclaim and notoriety as the village's most prolifically promiscuous young woman: an accolade which both intrigued and outraged the old timers.

Since she discovered sex at 18, she'd been, over the last three years, gradually working her way through all the eligible men in Voeren and beyond – on both sides of the language border. Gina was truly multicultural in her taste in men and liked to experiment with the exotic. She had been sighted not only with Flemings and Walloons, but also all manner of Africans and Asians. “At this rate, she's going to have to ship them in,” Jan joked as Sven walked past. “I am sure some asylum seekers have already found refuge in her bed.”

Shaking his head in disgust at the old man's crudeness and bigotry, Sven spotted Tom, his old school chum, and one of the dwindling number of people who took his new features at face value. “Hey, Tom, all alone?” Sven asked.

Closing his book, Tom looked up, smiling: “Can't you see that I'm on a date with a hot new book.” Tom had always been something of a reader. Sven and his friends were fond of saying that, whereas a stork had delivered them to their parents, Tom's mum must have got him off an encyclopaedia salesman. Of course, none of his friends were particularly surprised when he decided to open up a bookshop in town.

“It's good to see you out and about, Sven Shui.” Tom had been the one to coin this nickname when Sven started showing an interest at school in the divine proportion. Luckily for Sven, this had more or less replaced his former nom de guerre Heilige Kind, Holy Child, son of Voeren's Bible queen. His mother had gained a certain infamy when she joined the campaign to keep religious education on the syllabus at Sven's Catholic school.

“How can you have a Catholic school without Catholic schooling?” she asked a parents' meeting rhetorically, while Sven wriggled uncomfortably in the audience.

Among children who thought Genesis was a pop band and parents who normally associated monasteries with beer and could barely tell their Joseph from their Judas, striking religious education from the curriculum only seemed like bowing to the obvious. But the passionate few defeated the apathetic many, and religion stayed on the curriculum. Many an ired schoolboy decided not to let Sven forget it. Taking him out of his comfort zone in the background din, they rechristened him and the sons and daughters of the Catholic brigade as Holy Children.

So, Sven was eternally grateful to Tom for giving him a new name – which to some boys sounded like some sort of cartoon kung fu character – that caught on and helped him blend back into the masses.

“Can I get you a drink, a pintje or something?” Tom inquired.

“Yeah, thanks.”

As Tom went off to the bar, Sven's ear began to wander. “So, you're staying at the converted farm just up the road?” Gina asked her date.

“That's right,” his voice nodded.

“I don't get why someone from Antwerp would come and holiday in Voeren,” she exclaimed. “I'm out of here as soon as I finish technical college. Find myself an IT job in Brussels or something.”

“Well, I hear that the language frontier is beautiful at this time of year,” her cocky companion joked.

Tom returned with a couple of glasses of beer. “I see Gina's got a brand new friend,” he remarked. The old friends exchanged a few pleasantries and chatted a little about work.

“How are you holding up?” Tom asked.

“I try to put a brave face on it,” Sven quipped.

Smiling, Tom tells him: “You know you don't need to put on a masquerade with me. Has the gossip mill stopped grinding your reputation yet?”

“It's slowing down.”

“And Tanja?”

“No news. I haven't heard a whisper from her in weeks.”

“Any idea what you're going to do?”

“Well, I'm going to try to make contact and I have an idea that will help us start afresh.”

Tom nods helpfully, prompting Sven to continue. “Well, new face, new place, I was thinking. With all the crap that's been raining down, I thought that Tanja and I should move away from Voeren.”

“Where to?”

“We'll I've been offered a job in India.”

Tom, who has travelled all over the world, particularly in his books, looks pleasantly surprised. “That's great news! Is it with those guys in Delhi you collaborate with?”

Sven spent the rest of the evening telling Tom about the job and his fear of putting a great, big continent between him and Tanja, if she refused to join him. Despite his better judgement, he knocked back the beers and wound up rediscovering incredible things about balance and gravity, as his bike defied his attempts to keep it on a straight trajectory. Hoping to re-hydrate himself, he poured more water down his throat than he normally gave the plants, then he took his re-engineered features up to bed.

According to Newton's Third Law of Bladder Movement, what flows in must flow out. And, as the sun rose, so Sven felt gravity pull keenly on his storage tank. Before convection could work its magic, he leapt out of bed, dashed to the toilet, where he released an equal and opposite amount of urine to the beer and water that he had swallowed since his previous visit.

As he sat sipping coffee hoping to regain equilibrium in his head, Peggy stamped into the dinning room demanding her breakfast. The where-were-you-last-night darts of accusation from her eyes stung Sven. “I was hoping we could spend a quiet evening in, just the two of us,” her grunt seemed to say as she headed back out towards the garden.

Sven went out to Peggy's shed and upturned a sack of ripening apples and pears that were not supermarket quality which he'd bought cheap from a local orchard. With the abandon normally reserved for mud baths, Peggy dug into her breakfast. Sven, on the other hand, could hardly swallow anything.

He was nibbling on a croissant and making good progress with his third cup of coffee, when he heard the key turn in the front door. “Tanja,” he mumbled excitedly, putting down the newspaper.

She was looking radiant, Sven thought. But something had changed about her. “I've just come to take some more of my stuff,” she said.

“Tanja!” he said a little too urgently.

“Please, Sven, it's best not to discuss it anymore.”

At that moment, Peggy came dashing into the living room to greet her absent friend. Tanja knelt down to pat the pig. “We owe that little piggy a lot,” Sven said. “If I hadn't kissed her, she wouldn't have turned into my beautiful princess.”

“Sven, don't!” Tanja said, as she straightened up again.

“Now, the magic seems to have worn off and she's just a pig again.” Tanja's face started to lose its composure and she rushed off. “No, I'm the beast. You were always the beauty – inside and out,” he told her back as it left the room.

She came downstairs with a couple of suitcases full of her clothes. “I'll come back soon with a van to take the rest of my things. You can keep this place. I've found myself somewhere else to live.”

“With Charlie?”

“Of course not. We're not together anymore.”

“Well, I won't be needing this house either. In a month, I'll be moving to India to start a new job. So, you can move back in. You could always come with me. I'd love it if you would. We could start all over again, somewhere where no one knows us. Give me the chance to make up for my folly.”

“Congratulations. I'm very happy for you. But I'm still not ready to live with you again – in India or here.”

Sven began looking at her curiously. She'd put on quite a bit of weight in the past few weeks. “Tanja, you look different, a little bigger. Are you pregnant?”

“Comfort eating,” she fibbed.

“Your metabolism would walk out on you. You are pregnant, aren't you?” he quizzed.

“I have to go.” She picked up her suitcases.

“I want you and our baby – even if he's not ours – to come with me to Delhi.”

“I'll think about it,” she said and walked out of the house.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the , and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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