A mobile phone rings. Despite my earlier intentions, I appear to have put it in my trouser pocket anyway. Because you never know, there could be an urgent reason for the people at home to contact me. On the screen I see ‘number unknown’. So it’s probably the office calling, as the recipient doesn’t get to see the number of our company switchboard. “We’ll only call you in an emergency”, they promised as I left. “It’s your holiday, after all”. When I contacted my colleagues myself a couple of days ago, they reprimanded me. “What are you phoning for? Just trust us for once. We really can cope without you for a week!” Well, that’s what they actually wanted to say. But because they’re so nice, they said it a bit differently. “You’re on holiday! Don’t think about work. Go and enjoy yourself!” So I’ve been doing my best, since then.
I take the call. “Halbe Zijlstra speaking”, I hear from the other end. It’s a man’s voice, with an accent I can’t quite place. I’ve heard this voice before, I know, and the name’s familiar too. But it still won’t come to me who’s on the other end of the line. “Is it an inconvenient moment?” asks the voice. “It is rather”, I want to say, but the caller doesn’t wait for my reply. “I thought I’d just call about the recommendation we received last week from the Council for Culture. To tell you that of course I won’t be following up that recommendation. At least as far as the Dutch National Ballet is concerned. I thought it was a good idea to let you know. It would save a lot of hassle and all that. Just so you know everything’ll be alright”.
I manage to squeeze out an “Oh” in reply. Gradually, it begins to dawn on me that I’m talking to the State Secretary for Culture. In Denmark, on a windy Friday morning, with a pale sun shining on a deserted beach, I am having a telephone conversation with the man who is about to strip the Dutch cultural sector to the bone. The little fishing boat is still bobbing in the distance. Two seagulls are performing a perfect gliding manoeuvre. Halbe Zijlstra. Now I recognise the accent as well; the man comes from Friesland.
“Look, we always said that choices would have to be made”, he goes on. “Of course, the Council does far too little of that in its recommendation. But I will be doing that. Not hacking limbs off everyone, but choosing for quality. The Dutch National Ballet is at the top. The Inspection Committee said so too. And there is only one such company in the Netherlands. That’s exactly where it differs from orchestral music and drama – we have plenty of that. But you’re unique. As regards repertoire, you can also do what other leading dance companies in our country are doing. They’re also dancing Van Manen. But you can do what they can’t: Swan Lake, Nutcracker, that sort of thing. So they can’t expect me to amputate you. Does the Council think I’ve gone mad?”
I probably nodded in agreement. The seagulls, which have now landed right beside me, look at me almost questioningly, as if they’re waiting until I say something too. But the caller doesn’t need my reply at all. “So I’ve already told my officials that they’ll have to calculate the economy measures without cuts for the Dutch National Ballet”. He pauses briefly. “But on one condition”. Another short silence. It flashes through my mind that this man knows how to deliver a punch line. “That I never have to come and watch a performance!” Before I can say anything, he bursts out laughing. “Ha ha ha! That’d be a good one to put in the papers! Ha ha ha. Even better than that article after my working visit to you. So what do you say? Do we have a deal?” “Thank you, Mr. Zijlstra”, the seagulls hear me mumble; an answer for which I could kick myself straight afterwards. I should, of course, have kept on asking things and putting critical questions to him. Now the talk had ended just like that, while there was so much more that could have been said. And you don’t thank the State Secretary for something so deserved and logical, do you? The fact that he’s doing his work surely doesn’t merit any servile gratitude? But it’s too late. Halbe Zijlstra has disappeared as suddenly as he came. The seagulls fly away shrieking loudly. It’s as if they’re laughing at me.
The fishing boat is nowhere to be seen. Wherever I look, the boat has disappeared off the horizon. But I didn’t see it sail away. That can’t be right. I look at my watch. How long have I been here? It must have been ages. Have I been asleep? Back home, at least at the holiday home, they’ll be worried, wondering where I’ve got to. I’ll give them a quick call to let them know I’m on my way. But after a few minutes of searching for my mobile, I remember. I didn’t even bring my phone. I deliberately left it at the house.
After all, I came here to enjoy myself. To relax. To leave the Netherlands behind for a while.