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Chapter 1

He stood on a deserted square and looked up to eleven storeys of potential offices, only three of which were actually in use, as the headquarters of several companies. Driven by a resistive power of varying direction, he walked slowly to the entrance. As he approached it the wide glass door performed its usual inviting slide.

He knew the best way to pass the porter’s lodge unnoticed was to behave as if he knew the way, as if he belonged here. The only way to behave like that, was to force himself to feel at ease, even though he didn’t. Hesitating now to accept the sliding door’s invitation would raise suspicion, so his uncertainty faced about and pushed him in.

He touched the electronic button of one of the eight lifts, and a stainless steel sliding door repeated its colleague’s invitation. He chose the seventh floor at random, and also a bit because he liked the number. Upstairs he turned to the left. Five people, just leaving work, weren’t at all amazed to see him, because they were used to people working late, also strangers who were temporarily hired for panic jobs. So they let him enter, and he didn’t need the plastic badge normally required to unlock the door.

Before him was a totally empty, excessively lit corridor. Soon he found the light switches, partly concealed by a coffee machine. The switches would enable him to dim the sharp light, that was felt rather than seen, and to find out if anybody was still there. One by one he put out rows of lights, listening for a while after each switch; but no protesting screams sounded. He opened the door to the toilets, where some lights were still on. That was sufficient to find his way through the corridor to a large room.

He sat down behind a desk near the windows, and stared at left-behind computer terminals, manuals, and all sorts of other papers. Outside was a magnificent view on the twilighted city, a sight that the people working here never enjoyed, because of the lights. He sat there for almost half an hour, absorbing this atmosphere so familiar to him, yet now so different. He had worked in an office rather like this one, worked very hard with little result. Now for the first time he could afford to spend time doing nothing, just feeling and thinking in an unorderly manner.

Then suddenly his glance fell on a sight so unlikely that he decided at once to believe it must be real, for he feared the disillusion of imagining a hallucination that proved to be real after all. On a concrete ledge outside one of the windows were two white swans on a straw nest. He walked towards the window and looked at them anxiously, through the unremovable glass shield. The swans, knowing they were safe, did not make their usual hissing sound, but quietly stared back at him, their heads close together. In spite of their apparent unity, they were different. One was a wild swan, with a yellow bill instead of orange, the other was a mute swan.

He thought of the swans he had often seen in his youth, of their majestic flight, but also of the clumsy way they would take off and land. How could such birds ever have landed on a narrow ledge, without any room to gradually reduce speed? But they were there.

As if to take away his doubt, they suddenly stood up and jumped off the nest. For a moment they fell right down, yet stretched their wings in time, and a minute later they were already out of sight, leaving behind an eggless nest.

The chilly void the swans left made him reflect their disappearance. There was an emergency door close by. He pushed the bar, which had been designed to automatically have the door unlocked by panicking crowds. He entered a totally dark room, and slowly walked in with his hands stretched out in front of him.

After a dozen or so paces he stumbled over a knee-high wooden box. As there was no obvious reason to stand up, he stayed on the ground, thinking. Vanity. Perhaps vanity makes men get excited at the thought of more than one woman making love to them simultaneously, thus proving their unusual manliness and attraction. Perhaps vanity keeps people from using their talents, for mere fear of failure. But that same vanity may also be an urge to friendliness and co-operation.

Heavy thudding and thumping interrupted his thinking. Several times the silence survived and was raped again. He got on his feet and resumed his groping course towards a faint faraway streak. It was another emergency door, which led to concrete stairs. Three floors below a third door led to a corner behind a pillar, from where he had a quiet view on a very warm, smoky, overcrowded discotheque. About one hundred sweating bodies danced in constant mutual irritation, for lack of room.

He stood there for quite a while, watching those people so different from himself, but perhaps hardly happier than he. When he got thirsty he tried to reach the bar in the opposite corner, tacking all the time to avoid touching anyone. Nevertheless he had to stoop part of the way, to make men getting hostile lose sight if him. At the bar he waited patiently for the tender to come to him, but he didn’t pay any attention. Another man coming to the bar two stools to his right was instantly served. He still believed it was a coincidence. Getting impatient, he made gestures, opened his mouth in unheard shouts, showed his wallet, but still nothing happened. The tender sat down on his stool, and stared at some imaginary object one foot to the right of his head, with an amused smile on his face.

He got the message. So he turned away. He sat down at one of the few free tables, staring at the ground, desperately trying to grind his shame, concentrating on composing methods to cope with such situations in the future. He knew of several things he should have done, but the trouble was that he never did anything when the moment was there. Just wait until the reminiscence fades.

When he finally looked up again, he looked into the greenish brown eyes of a girl sitting at his table, hand in hand with her boy friend. God knows why they talked to him, disregarding his shame. A subjectless conversation developed, without any exchange of information. Some conversations suffer from the unspoken law, that some information has to be exchanged, even if everybody knows, sees and hears exactly the same. So whatever could be exchanged would be no information. The result is either meaningless twaddling, if anybody is present who has a talent for that, or an uneasy atmosphere of mutual attempts to keep the silence out. But now no uneasiness was felt, leaving room for feelings, colours, and unhampered smiles and looks into one another’s eyes. The girl had a pure feminine grace about her, which didn’t need clothes nor their absence to be apparent. The boy seemed charming, quiet, without any need to show his manhood in his behaviour.

In contrast to not exchanging information the girl insisted on exchanging names. She introduced herself as Zhusah, her companion was called Noold, and he admitted, with some hesitation, that his name was Ladethe. Noold and Zhusah rose synchronously, and they stood there looking at him for a moment. Zhusah asked: ‘Have you got a place to stay?’ He answered no. It felt like a deceit although it was the plain truth. ‘You can come to us, if you like,’ she said with a smile. ‘Fine,’ he said, sounding greedy in his own ears.

So they went. They started a slow wrestle through the crowd. Near the exit a row was going on. It quickly developed into a serious and unequal fight. One man fell to the ground, and the other man kept kicking him, his breast and his belly, and below. The kicking man, seeing his opponent lying down helplessly, turned and disappeared in the crowd, cheered on by his friends. The victim stayed on the ground, gasping for breath, curving for pain. Now that the fight was over, the thrill had gone for the spectators and they returned to their normal weekend routine. Ladethe felt compassion, and he shared the pain, the humiliation, the despair, but this solidarity only existed in feelings, not in deeds. A string quartet played inside his head, loud enough to rinse away the disco music. He recognised it as the last part of Bartók Béla’s third, symbolising the final victory and revenge of all those humiliated and oppressed.

But he went, using his waiting and apparently ignorant hosts as an excuse. He felt a burning rage against himself. He passed the porter without a tip. Naturally the man would not let him leave, tried to intimidate him, shook his shoulders, but Ladethe ignored him completely, and this unusual lack of fear in such a thin man puzzled him so that he finally released him.