I was lining my pencils up in preparation for sharpening when the phone rang.
It was Pauw, from the talk show. That morning the NRC had run a small piece on my research. Would I be willing to come on the show and discuss it?
‘I could, I suppose’, I said. I’ve always been underwhelmed by Pauw’s hair, and besides, the last time I went on TV to talk about my research the segment was presented by a man in a snakeskin suit and I was made to comment on unwitting sexual innuendo in the use of English by ageing Dutch footballers.
In fact it wasn’t Pauw himself on the phone, but one of his minions. The content for that night wasn’t yet set in stone, but I was on the shortlist and they’d call back soon to confirm.
I hung up and passed the afternoon pacing up and down, praying I might be ditched for a segment on pandas, or maybe a piece on the long-lost Rembrandt that had materialised that morning in an auction in New Jersey. By mid-afternoon I’d forced Rutger-Jan to cancel all his appointments in order to coach me. ‘Just don’t get side-tracked when they bring up Louis van Gaal’, he counselled.
At last the phone rang.
‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news’, said the voice. ‘We’re replacing you with a head.’
‘Just a head?’, I said. ‘But I’ve got a whole body.’
Earlier that day a severed head had turned up on the street in Amsterdam, its owner the victim of an ongoing turf war between rival gangs. The head, which apparently belonged to a body found in a burning car on the other side of the city, had been placed in a bucket and positioned to peer into Fayrouz, a shisha lounge on the Amstelveenseweg. It was this grizzly touch that seemed to get the story over the line for the producers at Pauw.
‘Compared to a segment on … language … it’s just a lot, you know … sexier.’