Ping Pong     


            A boy goes to a club where nobody knows him.
            A woman looks after a cat belonging to someone she’s never met.
            A man wanders through the city at night spraying images of fat little men on walls. 

There are three stories, and each story is made up of three chapters. So reading it means navigating through a total of nine chapters, all of which are connected in some way.

The work is an online reading experiment based on a story made by Anneke Hymmen and Kumi Hiroi and Basje Boer. The story is developed by responding alternately photos and texts – photos created by Hymmen and Hiroi and text written by Boer. There are three points of view in the narrative and it sometimes overlaps. The story is translated to an online reading experience by Hiroi and van Leeuwen & van Leeuwin. The work is primarily designed for mobile screen.

Concept, Research and Development: Kumi Hiroi Photo: Hymmen & Hiroi Text: Basje Boer Translation: Sarah Welling User Experience: Kumi Hiroi & van Leeuwen & van Leeuwen 

Supported by Dutch Foundation for Literature and Dutch Creative Industry Fund. The project is part of 'literature on screen 2018' powered by Dutch Foundation for Literature and Dutch Creative Industry Fund. 
Special thanks to: Suzanne Meeuwissen, Joris van Ballegooijen


He closes the door behind him. Walks into the kitchen and puts his things on the counter: bike keys, house keys, the stencil, the spray cans. He takes off his coat. The battery of his phone is dead but the orange numbers on the microwave show the time. Nearly four thirty and he’s wide awake. He feels an urge to see the sun.

            When she’s not there, he feels restless. It’s a pleasant kind of restlessness. ‘You’re always busy,’ she’d said. For someone who’s unemployed, he’d added mentally. 

              He gives the milk carton he finds in the fridge a shake, then twists off the cap and sniffs. Turns the kettle on and empties a sachet of instant soup in a mug. Throws the milk carton in the bin.

He has left his trace again in the city. He always sprays the same figure: a fat little man with a wide grin.
            The light hasn’t got going yet. The kettle turns off with a click.

            Even that very first time, he’d let her do the talking. The only talking he did was in the way he looked at her. He studied her carefully, with that same look, once he’d made up his mind to give in.

            She knew it, that he’d give in. When he left, she said: ‘I’m coming with you.’

            He stirs the soup until it’s smooth. Leaning against the counter, he takes a sip. As it gets lighter outside, the outlines of the few pieces of furniture stand out more clearly against the white walls.

He still doesn’t understand what she wants from him.

             She’d followed him. He hadn’t looked around once, but he knew she was there. He took the Metro; she sat down in the seat next to him. He got out, so did she. He went into his building, she rushed forward and grabbed the door before it shut. They stood side-by-side in the lift. She looked at him and he looked at his shoes.

            First there’s the pink.

            They’d sat on the sofa for a while. He didn’t say a word, neither did she. Then he’d gone to bed. There were no doors in his house apart from the front door and the door to the bathroom. He hadn’t been able to see her, but he’d heard her light a cigarette. Heard the rustle of her clothes, of her exhaling smoke, the sound of her taking off her shoes. Suddenly she was standing next to his bed. ‘That’s enough.’

            Then there’s orange.

            She talks, he looks. She pays, he refuses. Sometimes. She comes looking for him, he never goes to her place. They stay at home, in his bed. Sometimes he doesn’t turn up when they’ve arranged to meet: he’s his own man, he doesn’t owe her anything. He stares at his shoes and waits for her to stop shouting. He gets used to it, gets used to her. He crawls under the blanket and kisses her all over. She squirms with pleasure.

            Then the dawn curls around the horizon.


‘You coming?’
            Nervous, heavily made up, she’s standing in front of his door, her hand gripping the strap of her shoulder bag. She says: ‘I could do with a whisky.’
            In the tram she looks out the window instead of at him: there’s something at stake. He can see small white cat hairs on her coat.
            They get out and turn left. ‘Here,’ she points. The bouncer outside nods them in. It’s early, the dancefloor is empty.
            She orders two whiskies. She drinks quickly, taking small sips. As the ice in her glass melts her smile widens. He listens, she talks. He allows himself to be touched – his thigh, his throat, his face.
            His expression tells her he has no money, she should know better.
            ‘I’ll pay,’ she says. ‘No problem, you know that.’ She says the same thing every round. Each time her voice is a little more slurred, her vowels longer.
            He nods: one more.
            The beats per minute rise, the base drops. She has to lean in closer and closer to make herself heard.
            ‘Come home with me.’ She tugs on his sleeve. ‘Comon ho-ome with me-hee.’
            He stands by the door while she pays the bill.
            She opens the door of a cab. ‘Come on.’ She calls him the way a parent would call their child. Her hand grasps in the air, impatiently. ‘I’ll pay.’
In the taxi she bites her lip, breathes hard in his face. She puts her warm hands on his warm skin.
            He waits while she pays the driver. He doesn’t want to wait, he wants to do something. He instinctively scans the street for surfaces to accommodate his grinning little man. Electrical boxes, brick walls, posters that aren’t covered in text. The taxi pulls up and glides out of the street.
            He can already hear her cat meowing inside. She turns the key and pushes the door open. Goes on ahead of him, into the living room. She pulls off her boots and sighs with relief.
            ‘Want a beer?’ she asks. ‘Tea?’
            The white cat comes towards him. Allows himself to be scratched under the chin. Butts his head against his leg.
            ‘That’s Theo,’ she says. ‘I also have vodka.’ The white cat follows her into the kitchen.
            One of the walls of the living room is covered with small picture frames. He looks for her face on each picture. Puts his finger on the glass and traces the line of her chin.
            He thinks of the look in her eyes when she was standing in front of his door this evening. Her hand holding onto her bag tightly. He thinks about her perfectly painted nails, how determined she was to put everything on the line.
            ‘Come to bed.’
            He goes into the kitchen. Pulls open the fridge and takes out a beer. In the light of the fridge he lifts the can to his mouth and starts drinking.
            She asks is something wrong.
            She says we have fun together don’t we tonight was fun wasn’t it aren’t you having fun.
            He throws the empty can in the sink. Takes out another.
            She says come to bed.
            He shuts the door to the fridge. Drinks down the second can and starts opening kitchen cupboards.
            ‘You said you had vodka didn’t you? Where is it then?’
            She says why are you being like this why are you punishing me.
            He doesn’t see the vase. He pulls open the last kitchen cupboard and doesn’t see the vase standing on the counter. It topples and falls to the floor, shattering into a thousand little blue pieces.
            She says goddammit. Roars it out.
            ‘Goddammit you’ve cost me enough already.’


He rolls off his latex gloves, carefully, to avoid getting paint on his hands. He takes another look, at his familiar little figure, in blue this time. The cans rattle in his backpack as he walks out the street.
            He ducks into an alley on the left. Crosses the shopping street with his head down. On the other side he chooses the street with the club where he went with her. He looks at the bouncer as he walks past. Thinks of the blue vase.
            The latex has made his hands rough. He takes a pair of knitted gloves out of his pocket and puts them on. The material feels good against his dry skin. It’s cool for a summer evening. The grey of twilight slowly descends over the city.
            At the end of the street he turns left. Over the bridge. Then right.
            He spots her immediately. He sees her and knows it’s definitely her. He’s not mistaken. Eleonora.
            She sees him as well. She detaches herself from the group of friends she’s smoking with outside a bar.
            He looks at himself with her eyes. Sees himself the way she sees him, her friends see him. The hood pulled up over his head, the heavy bag on his back. The gloves.
            He knew he would see her again.
            ‘Hi.’ She’s wearing a gold-coloured blouse. Her hair curls down over her shoulders.
            ‘Hi.’ He sees her friends looking.
            She asks: ‘How are things?’
            He shrugs. Puts the heavy bag down between his feet. Points to her cigarette: ‘May I?’ He puts it between his lips and smokes it right down in one drag. When they look at each other they know it wasn’t nothing. That it meant something.
            He points to her friends. ‘Someone’s birthday?’ he asks.
            She shakes her head. Says it’s a leaving do. She’s leaving. Going abroad for a month. Staying with a friend. ‘Or an acquaintance really. Someone I want to get to know. She looked after my cat for a while, that’s how we met.’
            He nods as if he understands. He pictures himself, always walking the same circles through the same old town. She was the only one he got to know. She was the only one he had wanted to get to know.
            She takes a breath. He knows what she wants to say. He says, ‘You don’t have to say it.’ He says, ‘We don’t need to talk about it.’ He’s already picking up his backpack. He sees her friends watching. Staring.
            ‘I just wanted to say…’ She’s searching for the right words. ‘I wanted to say that both things are true. It’s true what I said when you broke that vase, that I felt you’d already cost me enough.’
            He pictures the blue fragments. Hears her goddammit.
            ‘But it’s also true that I never minded, all those times I paid for you. It’s both true.’
            He nods. He stores it away. Saves what she says in a place where he can get to it later.
            ‘I have to go,’ he says. She understands. He turns around and then he’s gone.

Three streets further he finds a wall. Doesn’t bother with the stencil. He chooses orange, the colour of her nails, and begins.

(Blond Boy 1)

K. checks the time. He checks his bank balance. Checks his reflection in the mirror and carefully brushes a hand over his short, curly hair. Then he pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up, and raises his eyebrows. Stretches his face into a grin and then drops it again.
            Ready to go, man.
            K.’s already out the door – nearly out – when he hears a voice calling from the living room. Aren’t you forgetting something? Sighing, he goes back in. His shoulders down like a beaten dog. He takes the bag from the rubbish bin and ties a knot in it. Drags the thing downstairs.
            Fast forward. K. takes a lungful of the air outside.
            He starts walking.
            He grabs a short lift on the back of H’s bike. See you later.
            He walks. His phone buzzes. Where you going.
            Takes the Metro. Don’t know.
            Walks. Shoves his hands down into his pockets and snorts. A woman stumbles by on high heels, a fragment of a conversation trailing after her: ‘…and so then I said, what the fuck do you think I would do?’
            K. turns the corner, into a wider street. More fragments of conversations follow him, getting tangled up. Older couples wearing hiking shoes. Young people in groups, beers in their hands. Plumes of smoke climbing up from their fingers. A piece of graffiticatches his eye: a fat little man, grinning at him like a Cheshire cat. K. has seen it before, somewhere else in town. It’s starting to get dark.
            He turns another corner. Across the small square and to the right. A tram has just stopped, he gets on for one stop. Gets off and walks on. He knows exactly where he wants to be. He’s been there once before. Nobody knows him and he doesn’t belong there. Tonight he feels like being nobody.
            K. takes his hood down and looks the bouncer straight in the eye. The man hesitates, then says, gruffly: ‘Go on.’ He turns away as if K. isn’t worth looking at.
It’s dark inside. K. walks to the bar and orders a coke. He chucks the slice of lemon out of his glass. Does the same with the swizzle stick, the straw. Leans his back against the bar. Expectation hangs heavy in the air.
            Next to him a boy leans his forearms on the bar. They are good forearms. He looks up at K. ‘Hey there.’
            ‘You talking to me?’
            The boy laughs and nods. The shape of his shoulder blades is clearly visible through his polo shirt. That’s good – Kgoes for skinny.
            ‘I’m K,’ says K.
            ‘I’m W,’ says W.
            W. is pale. Blond. That kind of hair, falling down over his forehead. He turns around. Together they look out over the dance floor, where limbs jerk to the beat. W. is a little taller than him. That’s good – K. goes for tall. The boy bends towards him. His eyes are large and dark. Brown maybe. Or dark blue.
            ‘How old are you then?’
            Usually K. adds a couple of years. Now the truth just falls out of his mouth, by force of gravity it seems.
            ‘Seventeen,’ K says. ‘You?’
            A new track edges the last one out the way, the beat carrying on seamlessly into the next.
            ‘Come for a smoke.’
            It’s not even a question. 

(Blond Boy 2)

K. leans against the wall and allows himself to be kissed. Over the boy’s shoulder he watches people walking past, to the toilets and back, to the smoking area and back, their clothes stinking of cigarettes.
           The boy puts his hands around K.’s neck. Long, cold fingers. K. grabs him by the shoulder blades and thrusts his tongue deeper into his mouth.
            You coming then, the boy says huskily.
            Where then.
            With me, says the boy.
            K. pushes the boy away from him slightly. In the dark all he can see is the whites of his eyes, two front teeth in his open mouth. Then the rest appear: he is grinning.
            They leave the club, out into the street. K. pulls his hood down over his head, pushes his hands down into his trouser pockets. He lets the boy show him the way. Right here. Left here. It’s not far, he says. Half an hour tops.
            Street lights leave yellow patches on the street, separated by intervals of darkness. In one of these, K. pulls the boy towards him. This time it’s the boy who allows himself to be kissed. K. squeezes his eyes shut, loses his sense of where he is. Pulling him closer, pulling on his shoulders roughly.
            Easy, the boy laughs.
            K. lets go of him. He walks on to the next streetlight, standing under the full glare.
            Come here, K. says.
            The boy steps into the light. K. kisses him, more softly now. He makes his arms more rounded as he lays them on his shoulders. Closes his eyes.
            I have a better plan, the boy says when K. lets go of him.
            What kind of plan, K. asks.

Call this a car?
            The boy opens the door to his Suzuki. Get in.
            Where are we going then.
            To watch night turn into day.
            The boy looks up at him from the driver’s seat. Up to you, he says.
            K. opens the door and gets into the car. Go on and drive then.
            The boy starts the engine. He throws his phone in K.’s lap. Put some music on will you.
            A mellow beat thump-thump-thumps from the dashboard as he and the Suzuki make a turn, out of the city. K. leans his head against the window and closes his eyes.
            There’s a bottle of water down there if you’re thirsty, the boy says. Next to your feet.
            K. drinks eagerly, crunching the plastic bottle in his fist.
            Have any aspirin or anything, K. asks
            In the glove compartment I think.

First a tiny point appears, then the rest is pulled out of the water. K. and the boy stand side by side, without moving, without touching, watching the day slide over the night. It feels more intimate than a kiss.
            K. drops to the ground. He puts his arms around his knees and watches the light change.
            Willem, he says.

(Blond Boy 3)

K. opens his eyes to slits.
            Dude, he says. Why are those curtains open?
            K. opens his eyes a little further. The warm throbbing of a familiar pain in his temples. He raises himself up a little, leans on his elbow. Sunlight fills Willem’s small room. The walls are white, the duvet cover is white. Willem is sitting behind his computer with his back to him. His back is white too.
            Good morning, Willem says without turning round. His fingers on the keyboard make a nice sound.
            K. sits up further. He takes his phone from the bedside table and checks the time. It’s the afternoon. How long has he been asleep? He puts the phone away and looks around. The room is even more cramped than it seemed when they stumbled in here this morning. Cramped and full of things: opened books, dirty clothes. There’s a jar of sausages on the corner of the table. On the floor there’s an empty plastic container and a box of cleaning gloves.
            There aren’t even any curtains in front of the window, K. sees now.
            The ratatatatatat of the keyboard stops abruptly.
            Slept well has he?
            Yeah man. Just a bit too short, that’s all.
            K. puts his arms around his knees and yawns.
            Willem stands up. The yellow sunlight falls diagonally across his white chest. Pigeon chest, that’s what you call it. Spindly legs sticking out from his white boxers. Willem catches him looking. He laughs, allows himself to be looked at.
            Do you have any music or anything? K. asks.
            Willem crouches over his phone, which is attached to the charger. The speakers bleep as they connect, before spitting out a fat beat. Willem moves his head to the rhythm. He laughs, he’s conscious of his one-man audience. He takes one step forward, then another, as best he can in the cramped, packed space. He pumps his arms up and down. His movements are stiff, awkward. That’s what K. finds so endearing.
            Willem flops down on the bed.
            Your turn, he says.
            K. shakes his head.
            You crazy?
            Willem starts to push him off the bed.
            Give us a show then, he says. Come on.
            Okay, K. says. All right then.
            As K. gets off the bed he takes the duvet with him. He holds it in front of his crotch with one hand while his swings the other one in the air. He’s laughing. He’s never done anything as ridiculous before. Laughing, Willem pulls him onto the bed. He pulls the duvet away. K. has never done that before either, kissed a boy in full daylight.

The sun is low in the sky by the time they go out. Willem has had another idea. He’s into doing stuff.
            See this, K. points: on the wall, in a sea of blue, is an orange silhouette.
            Somewhere on a canal Willem stops.
            Wait here a sec, he says.
            He rings the bell, the door opens. K. can’t get a good view of the person he’s talking to in the opening. He leans against the railing of the bridge. Pulls his hoodie over his head. Then Willem sticks his head around the door.
            He makes a gesture: come on then.
            The hallway is high and narrow. They go through a door and down some stairs.
            Where are we? K. whispers.
            At the end of the stairs is a basement. In the middle stands a blue ping pong table. There’s nothing else apart from that ping pong table.
            Fancy a game? Willem grins.
            K. smiles. His smile widens. He pulls the hood down off his head.
            Sure do, man.

(White Cat 1)

She rolls her suitcase into the hallway.
            She sees the short hall, the bedroom at the end and on the right more doors, on the left the pile of books on the floor, the yellow paint on the wall, the light coming in from the window at the back, the white cat tripping into the hall following its own meowing feed me feed me feed me who are you.
            She puts her shoulder bag down. Takes off her coat and goes into the living room. The cat overtakes her. He runs into the kitchen and places himself squarely in front of his feeding bowl. His back is arched, his tail curving up elegantly behind. He meows food food food food food food. Her head throbs throbs throbs throbs.
            She picks up a tin of dry cat food and shakes some into his bowl. ‘Theo,’ she says, softly. She’s not sure how she should pronounce it. Or whether cats care about names. Theo starts wolfing down the pellets.
            She walks through the living room. Looks at the photographs on the wall, of people she doesn’t know. She reads the spines of the books, in a language she doesn’t know. She looks in the kitchen drawers. She opens the door to the balcony, fastening the hook. Throbs throbs throbs throbs.
            There’s an envelope on the kitchen table. It has her name written on it in large, angular capital letters.
            She wheels her suitcase into the bedroom. Zips it open and takes a strip of painkillers out of her toiletry bag. In the kitchen she swallows the pills down with water. The tap drips.
            She sits down. Takes off her watch and opens the envelope. Dear XXX… Great you could step in at such short notice… Theo likes being stroked but isn’t keen on being picked up… The rubbish is collected on… Please make sure you…
            She puts the letter back in the envelope. Stands up and refills her glass with water. While drinking she walks over to the wall with the frames on it. She looks for the face of the person who lives here, only having a blurry profile picture to go on. Wonders who the other people in the pictures are. Is she a friendly person? She sounds friendly. Does she enjoy her work? Is she lonely? Is she happy? Is she in love?
            In the kitchen there are three different packets of paper napkins. Does the woman pick a different pattern for each occasion, for each visitor? She finds a carafe, which she fills with water. The tap drips drips drips drips.
            She sits back down at the kitchen table. Puts down the glass. Theo has slipped out onto the balcony and is stretched out on the ground, giving himself a thorough grooming. He catches her eye and winks.
            She tops up her glass without thinking.

(White Cat 2)

Dear Eleonora.
            Her fingers hang suspended over the keyboard for a second.
            Theo jumps from the windowsill with a soft phwump. He winks at her as he comes tripping towards her.
            I couldn’t find the rubbish bags so I bought new ones. Oh, and the handle on the bedroom door is a bit loose. Was it like that already?
            Theo jumps up on her lap and starts circling around. Purring loudly, he butts his head against the edge of the kitchen table.
            If you can tell me where you keep your screwdriver I can see if I can fix it.
            ‘Don’t,’ she tells the cat softly. Picks him up and puts him on the floor.
            I wanted to let you know I am going back to…
            I wanted to let you know I can no longer…
            I am so very sorry but I…
            She stands up. Circles around the kitchen table. Then into the living room.               She looks at the photos on the wall the way she’s looked at the photos on the wall so often in the past three weeks. Then she goes into the hall, through to the bedroom, where her suitcase is lying, already packed, on the bed.
            What is she doing here.
            She goes back to the kitchen. She selects and then deletes the words.
            Dear Eleonora.
            Theo stares at her insistently. She shakes some food in his bowl and sits back down.
            I’m afraid I can no longer look after your cat.
There’s a bucket and a bottle of all-purpose cleaner in the cupboard under the sink. She finds a mop in the cupboard in the hall. There’s also a box of rubber gloves. She pulls on a pair. Dunks the mop in the suds and begins.
            ‘Dear Eleonora,’ she says while she works. ‘I love the way the light falls in through the windows. I love your things, some of which are worn or old, but comfortable and pleasant to use. Unlike a rented cottage with a strange overabundance of forks in the kitchen drawer or a hotel where the chairs look out onto an odd corner. At your place there are holes in the sheets but they fit perfectly around the corners of the mattress.’ She stands still for a moment, relaxing her arms. Then she carries on, from left to right to left to right, like a choreography.
            ‘Dear Eleonora,’ she says. ‘I have taken all your cutlery out of the drawer and lined it up on the floor in a row. I have spread out all your clothes on the bed, in satisfying combinations. I have searched your books for dog ears, for dates or names scribbled on the title page. I have arranged all your bottles of nail polish by colour, from light pink to orange to deep red.’
            Theo sprints past her and through the hall, into the bedroom. She takes another little break, relaxing her arms, then carries on. The weak light from outside shows her exactly where the mop has already been.
            ‘Dear Eleonora,’ she says. ‘I am so happy to have got to know you.’ She puts the mop down. She leaves footprints on the recently cleaned surface.
            She sits down on the bed, next to her packed suitcase. She thinks about the life she shrugged off like a coat that no longer fits. She thinks of the life she is leading now, half a life, someone else’s life.
            She thinks about the orange nail polish.

(White Cat 3)

She reaches out her hand. Stretches out her fingers. She puts her hand on the cat and coos approvingly, seeing how good the orange nail polish looks against his white fur.
            Eleonora’s nail polish.
            She wraps Eleonora’s shawl around her shoulders. She bats her eyelashes painted with Eleonora’s mascara. In Eleonora’s living room she turns a pirouette and then circles around Theo, who takes fright and speeds off.
            ‘Dear Eleonora,’ she whispers.
            She lets the shawl slip from her shoulders. She walks through the hall, into the bathroom, Eleonora’s bathroom. She turns on the light and looks in Eleonora’s mirror. Using Eleonora’s brush, she applies Eleonora’s rouge to her cheekbones. She goes into the bedroom, where Eleonora’s clothes are lying on Eleonora’s bed – blouses, dresses, jeans, tops, belts, tights, jumpers, slacks. She puts her hand in the pile and takes out a gold-coloured blouse. Puts it on. Looks for tights and a skirt to go with it. Looks at herself in the mirror.
            ‘Dear Eleonora,’ she says.
            In the living room she opens the curtains. She pushes the sofa aside so she can get to the window. She drags the sash window up. It’s cold but she doesn’t mind. She sits down on the windowsill, her legs dangling outside. It’s quiet and dark outside. The night is a sponge absorbing all sound. She’s wide awake. She’s waiting.
She lifts up her hand and compares the first light of day with the orange of her nails.

            She has bought something. She takes the package from the hall and puts it on the kitchen table. Unwraps the newspaper. The blue vase gleams in the morning light.
            ‘Dear Eleonora,’ she says.
            She pulls her suitcase back out from under the bed. Starts gathering together her things once again.
The vase is right in the middle of the kitchen table, the spot where she’d found Eleonora’s letter. She packs her suitcase. She strokes Theo.
            The day is up to full strength now. The sun is shining like it’s summer.
            Theo is the first to prick up his ears. Then she hears it too: the door.
            A key being turned in the lock.
            The door opens.
            Footsteps in the hall.
            ‘Hello? Are you there?’
            Theo jumps from her lap and runs out of the living room. She sits there, frozen, in the middle of the living room. Wearing Eleonora’s rouge. Eleonora’s gold-coloured blouse. Her tights and skirt. The orange nail varnish.
Eleonora says nothing. She takes off her coat and walks into the living room. Calmly, oh so calmly, she reaches down to the floor and picks up the shawl. Starts folding it up.
            Eleonora walks into the sleeping room and sees the clothes on the bed. Goes into the bathroom and sees the makeup on the shelf in front of the mirror. Goes into the kitchen and pours herself a soft drink. She stops for a moment and looks at the vase. She picks it up and holds it in the light.
            Back in the living room Eleonora stops in front of the window. Theo is circling round her legs.
            Eleonora is standing with her back to the living room. With her back to her.
            ‘Dear Eleonora,’ she says.
            Eleonora turns around.