Rust in vrede
To murder a human being is to kill the idea of who they were in the minds of the people who knew them. Try as you might, you cannot shield those memories from reality any more than you can bring the person back to life. Your own mind is subject to an autobiographical retcon, with the result that you’re forced to view long-established situations, events and conversations from new, bleak and often distressing angles. The pure version you knew is gone forever. All you have left is a corrupted facsimile.
Recently, I had the idea of sending my debut novel to a few people who had helped me in my journey towards becoming an author, but with whom I was no longer in contact. Teachers, professors, old friends, ex-colleagues, that kind of thing. Two of these people were my first proper bosses, who had given me a job at a translation company when I’d turned up in Amsterdam in 2009 with a suitcase in hand and an average degree in my back pocket. With it now being almost ten years to the day since I signed the contract, I believed there would be no better way to commemorate the (at least for me) significant event than to send them the novel.
What I found, when I typed the name of the company into Google to get the address, was the kind of listing you sometimes see for restaurants with the red bar where it says ‘Permanently closed’. When I tried to access the website, the page was blank. That couldn’t be right, I thought. The company had always kept its head above water and had a strong client base to fall back on. It couldn’t have gone bankrupt, could it? Then I scrolled down and I saw a headline in Dutch: Legal proceedings to start in conjunction with murder of Boss A. I blinked. No. That had to be a mistake. Then the next headline, this one older: Fresh investigations following the murder of Boss A. Bile rose in my throat. And one more, older still: Blood spatters found on the clothing of prime murder suspect, Boss B. I staggered away from my chair and threw up my breakfast in the sink. Once I had recovered enough to sit down again, I started reading.
The In Cold Blood facts of the matter, as far as they are known, are this: Boss A had recently purchased a bed & breakfast with his savings and was apparently planning to sell his stake in the translation company – which he co-owned with Boss B – and spend the rest of his days smoothing duvets, cooking bitterballen (Dutch meatballs) and drinking strong beer in the garden. For the time being, however, he was still working at the company doing what he had always done: overseeing operations, managing communication with clients and crafting expert translations from even the most uninspiring source texts.
According to the police, relations had soured between Boss A and Boss B over the course of several months due to a number of large, outstanding invoices owed by clients. Perhaps Boss A had decided that he no longer wanted to chase down customers for their money and simply wanted out. Maybe Boss B felt backed into a corner at the thought that he would have to handle the outstanding amounts (and potential losses) if Boss A sold up. I do not know. Whatever the case, the matter came to a head early one August morning in 2018 when Boss A’s blood-soaked body was discovered on the company premises. The call to the police was made by Boss B at 8:20 am, who said he had arrived just minutes previously. The authorities arrived, cordoned off the area and checked the body. Boss A had been stabbed in the head with an axe before being throttled to death with a piece of rope. Boss B was taken into custody as a precaution, and during a routine check blood was found on his clothing. When the police consulted his phone records, they found that he had made a call to his wife from the company premises at 7:20 am, indicating he had lied about his time of arrival. When his wife was questioned, she provided an alibi that fell apart under scrutiny. No other suspects were sought. Boss A left behind a son and a wife. Boss B has been in jail for over a year, and the case is ongoing. He continues to protest his innocence.
When I left university with a degree in German and Dutch, I had no idea what to do. The options open to me in the UK were: graduate scheme, international call centre, hotel industry. In desperation, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Amsterdam, where I moved in with my uncle. After working for him for a couple of months, a friend of mine offered me his interview spot at a translation company, as he had just been awarded a contract for a job in Vienna. The company itself wasn’t in Amsterdam; it was in Alphen aan den Rijn, a satellite city that had very little going for it except for the fact that the rent was cheap and the train connections were good. Wearing a suit stolen from my Dad, I set off for the interview, certain the experience would be a waste of time. Despite the degree, I could barely speak Dutch and I’d never translated a word in my life.
Boss A was there at the station to pick me up, and I instantly felt at ease with him. He was a small man with a bald head peeking out of a shirt with a big starched collar, and I thought he looked like a wise old turtle. He was quick to laugh and plied me with questions about living in Amsterdam, what I’d studied, what my hobbies were, what football team I supported, and so on – all before getting to the industrial estate where the company made its home. Once there, he took me into the dining room, where we were joined by Boss B. He was quieter, less prone to laughter and more business oriented due to being the accounts man, but was nevertheless as normal as they came. They sat me down and asked me what I wanted from work and life in general (they asked the questions in Dutch and I responded in English, such was my lack of confidence in myself). After giving me a test translation to complete at home, Boss A drove me back to the station to catch the next train to Amsterdam. I did the translation, sent it off and expected never to hear from them again.
But I did. Boss A called me up two days later to offer me a six-month contract and I jumped at the chance. I started the following Monday. They didn’t want to spring for a train pass, so I ended up having to do a two-hour bus ride at 6 am each morning, followed by a 20-minute cycle (on a bike Boss B lent me) from the centre of Alphen to the industrial estate. Pretty brutal, but I was young and thought it was normal. There were eight people at the company including me, and I was ten years younger than the next youngest employee. They all had different accents in Dutch, spoke flawless English, kept their distance, and eyed me like I’d won a competition and would be gone soon – all except Boss A, who spent four intensive weeks teaching me everything he knew about translation.
His first rule – which I still think of today – is this: if the sentence looks wonky to you, it’s going to look wonky to the client. Together, we pored over journalistic articles, debated the best equivalents for idiomatic phrases and discussed when to ignore certain adverbs and modal particles. He taught me how to use translation software and went through my early translated efforts with a red pen to show me exactly where and how to improve. He encouraged me every step of the way and coaxed me into speaking Dutch with him and the others. Over lunch, he asked me questions and openly praised me in my work, efforts evidently designed to get the others to see me as a valued colleague rather than a strange English boy. He made me care about my job in a way that no other employer has managed to since, and it’s because he treated me like a human being rather than a tool to be utilised until it was worn out. It still surprises me how few employers see things that way.
Aside from the commute, the job was a good one. The deadlines were usually generous, the projects ranged from confidential EU reports to scripts for television ads, and after a while I was trusted with the more important clients. At Christmas, we all received a suitcase packed with gourmet Italian food and an envelope stuffed with cash. When my Dad nearly died in a skiing accident at the end of January 2010, Bosses A and B instantly allowed me to stop working on a key project so I could fly to Turin, and Boss A called me while I was in the hospital and told me to take all the time I needed. In March, Boss A invited me to his home to meet his wife and teenage son and have dinner with them, and I spoke to the son about his plans for university and what he wanted to do afterwards. In May, which is when Dutch employees receive a ‘13th month bonus’, or annual wage supplement, I took one look at my pay slip and reported it as a mistake to Boss B, the accounts man. Boss B called Boss A down to his office so they could laugh at the naïve look on my face and then once more when I realised the extra money was indeed mine. And when, in September 2010, I finally decided to leave the company – due to being in a long-distance relationship and no longer wanting to endure the four-hour roundtrip on the bus – Boss A and Boss B bought me a gift: two large bottles of La Chouffe, my favourite beer, and a chalice glass. So I wouldn’t forget them, they said.
The difference in personality between Boss A and Boss B was never more apparent than when we had a game of darts together. There was a board in the lunch room, and after we were done eating I would play against one of them. Before I joined the company, I’d picked up a dart perhaps three times in my life and had no idea what I was doing. By the time I left, I’d been playing five times a week for a year and could hit the bull’s-eye at will. As with the world of translation, it was Boss A who eased me into it. He wasn’t great, but he helped me with my throw, slowed down his own game, even purposefully missed when he could see me getting frustrated. Within a few short months, his teaching had taken me to the point where I was better than him. Even when he tried 100%, he couldn’t win a game. He didn’t care. Each time he lost he would simply grin and say “nothing on the hand”, a deliberately mangled translation of the Dutch niks aan de hand (meaning ‘no problem’ or ‘there’s nothing wrong’).
Boss B, by contrast, took his matches seriously. He had played at amateur level and would obliterate me every single lunchtime like it was a chore. Still, I continued to improve and practised alone during break times. I was desperate to beat him just once. Two months before I left the company, I had the game of my life and managed to stay neck and neck with him. It came down to a final throw. His was poor, mine was good, and he lost. I can still remember the surge of adrenaline, like I’d just scored the winning penalty at the World Cup. And even though both he and I knew how much it meant to me, he said nothing. He shook his head, collected his darts and went back into his office.
It would be easy to draw the conclusion here that one man was inherently good and one was not, just as it would be convenient to use it as proof that ‘I always knew there was something not quite right with him’. But the fact is that Boss A had one way of doing things, and Boss B had his own. That’s all there is to it. Nothing malicious, nothing untoward, nothing to hint that one would kill the other so brutally in the room where we’d eaten lunch and played darts together.
One day, perhaps six months into the job, Boss A called me into his office unexpectedly, and my English brain automatically assumed I had done something wrong.
The man of the hour, he said, as I shuffled in.
What do you mean? I asked him.
Look how far you’ve come. When you came in here you didn’t know anything. You couldn’t even string a sentence together in Dutch. Remember all the mistakes you made in that motorcycle text? How frustrated you were?
I remember, I said, wondering whether this was going. You told me to shake it off and start again tomorrow.
He nodded, his bald head gleaming in the sunlight. I’ve just been on the phone to XXX, he said. It was one of the company’s most important clients, and I’d done a translation for them that morning. I winced.
What did they say? I asked.
They said it was the best translation they’ve ever received. Boss A beamed at me. Then he said something I’ll never forget and that I repeat to myself on days when I feel like a fraud: You understand the nuances of language. You can pick out the meaning under the surface and draw it out. You can turn words into something people want to read.
What Boss A did day in, day out, was make me feel like I could do exactly what I needed to do and more. He wanted me to improve, challenge myself and succeed. I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I hadn’t received that kind of support at the age of 22. Would I have returned to England? Would I have learned the bare essentials of translation and flitted from low-level job to low-level job? I’ll never know. And I suppose it doesn’t matter. What is important is that he appeared at exactly the right time, he taught me as much as he could and he turned me into a better person.
In death, my boss has taught me two more things: first, there is not a single person in this world who can be said to be beyond certain types of behaviour. Life is solipsistic by default; we cannot intrinsically know anybody else’s thoughts or impulses. And in a perfect storm of circumstances, the friend, relative or lover you thought you knew can become unrecognisable. Boss A and Boss B were friends. They worked together for decades, supported each other, shared success and hardship, and thought they knew each other. I thought I knew them, too. These were two men who, when I asked them if they would consider buying different biscuits for the tin in the lunch room, laughed and said no. They liked consistency. They embraced boring. If it worked, then it worked forever. They are the last people I would ever have suspected of being involved in something so traumatic. And yet it happened all the same. Second, no matter how good, helpful or pleasant a person may be, this is not a guarantee that it will shield them from evil. There is no account into which you pay your good karma on the assurance that you can use it at a later date. What goes around does not come around, unless it is by coincidence. There is only random energy, positive and negative, and on occasion they will combine with awful results.
I will never be able to think back to my time in Alphen aan den Rijn without recalling what happened later on. My memories are forever changed, cast in a long shadow whose edges I cannot see and whose darkness I am unable to properly understand. Conversations, experiences, jokes, phrases and situations that I once shared with someone are now preserved in my mind mine alone, and this is something I am finding especially difficult to process. My life has largely sidestepped the spectre of death; I haven’t had to deal with loss. No friends, no pets, no family members under the age of 60. This seems to me like an unnecessarily cruel way to introduce how it feels to lose somebody you once shared a bond with.
But that’s the point: there is no necessary or unnecessary, no cruelty or design or intent. What happened was simply the product of thousands and thousands of random actions by two people whose lives became intertwined and, in the end, were ruined. All I can do, I think, is hope for peace for Boss A. And I will harbour no hatred for the other.
About the Author
Grant Price is the author of dystopian climate fiction novel By the Feet of Men, which was published by Cosmic Egg Books in 2019. He lives in Berlin.