2020’s International Booker winner Marieke Lucas Rijneveld has shared their first foray into the world of narrative non-fiction. The short story, titled Bella and Lucas, sees the author re-examine their childhood on a remote farm in the rural Netherlands. It picks up shortly after the shock death of their brother, and follows ten-year-old Rijneveld as they adjust to grief, love, and their blurring sense of gender identity.
Much of Rijneveld’s coming-of-age story is set in the virtual dreamworld of “Sim Town” – the digital reality from The Sims – which they credit for teaching them vital life lessons. For example, they learnt that it takes “a huge roast chicken” to “woo a woman in a red dress”, and that “gender and identity are what you make them”. The game also made them realise that there are “many keys to the mansions of the human heart”.
Bella and Lucas is available to read in full on Alexander, a new app platforming multi-sensory narrative non-fiction features. Users are able to read, watch or listen read a selection of stories from global, award-winning writers (many of which are narrated by A-list actors, including Richard E Grant and Helena Bonham Carter). Rijneveld’s contribution, which is around 7,000 words long, is narrated by Golden Globe winner Emma Corrin, and comes with a short film directed by Leo Leigh. You can read – and watch – an exclusive extract below.
A friend from school had already told me some stuff about how The Sims worked.
“It’s simple,” she’d said. “You have to live and that’s all there is to it.”
I’d nodded at the time, knowing right away that the bar was high: life was anything but simple. I was reminded of the Tamagotchi I’d been given one Christmas. It was a tiny computer with a simulated chick in it. You had to feed it all day, let it grow, then clear up its poop. However hard I had tried, the chick died every Sunday during the church service and it was GAME OVER. I was never able to feed it in time. When I got home, I’d see the cross on the screen with a chick floating above it. I’d blame this on the pastor for his lengthy sermon, on God, my parents, but most of on all myself. This was the reason my first reaction to The Sims, in which you’d have to take care of someone, was mostly hesitant.
I sat next to Mister Jan on a brown folding chair with my brothers seated behind us side by side. It was always freezing cold in the side room next to the sitting room. It was only snug and warm there on birthdays when my mother would spit on a sheet of kitchen roll and clean the windows of the stove and my father would tear the newspaper into strips to light a fire with the world’s news. On this particular late afternoon I was wearing a woolly scarf as I looked at the screen, upon which a map of a settlement called Sim Town had appeared.
“What do you want to be called in the game?” Mister Jan asked.
I immediately thought of the name of my imaginary friend with whom I had the wildest adventures in the countryside and who, at the end of primary school, had become more and more wraithlike until, on the day I had made real friends, he had disappeared. I’d searched for him many times, but in vain: imaginary friends go when you no longer need them and, at times when you could do with their presence, you’re too old to believe in them. That’s how it works.
“Lucas,” I said to Mister Jan, “call me Lucas.”
As far back as I can remember, I’ve longed to be a boy. I never really felt like a girl, though I didn’t know how that was supposed to feel, either. What I did think was that if you were one, maybe you didn’t wonder about it. Maybe you didn’t doubt it or ask yourself what you actually were, or which sex you’d rather have been.
I looked on in astonishment as Mister Jan created a blond boy with blue eyes. I was allowed to say how I wanted to dress him and picked jeans and a red-and-white baseball jacket. The rules of the game, with all the ways you could build a house and the endless choice of different colours of rooftile, weren’t the only thing I learned about. This was also the first time I came across the music of Marc Russo and Jerry Martin, an American musician and composer duo. Whenever you wanted to buy something for your house, or add an extra room, or whenever you paused the game, you’d hear a piano, violin, saxophone or harp playing. My favourite songs were “Under Construction” and “Mall Rat”. It was my first and only conscious encounter with jazz.
Once Lucas had been created – at which point his fragile existence inside my mind disappeared in a puff of smoke – and the house had been built, Mister Jan folded up his chair and said we should all explore further ourselves. Before putting on his coat he told us that in dire need and only then we could use his secret password: klapaucius. But we should remember that there wasn’t a password for real life. We weren’t to forget, either, that once we’d saved some money we should buy better windows because otherwise the Sims characters would catch a cold, and, in Sim Town, even a cold could be deadly.
Mister Jan had barely left the house when it happened. Inside the game, someone rang the doorbell of my new house. My brothers, who couldn’t wait to create their own Sims, looked on as a woman wearing a red dress turned up at the front door, next to the new yew hedge. I saw right away that she was stunningly beautiful. Intrigued, I right-clicked on her and saw her name appear. She was called Bella, Bella Goth. Without hesitation I opened the door, shook her hand, and around us blue plusses tumbled from the sky, which meant that we liked each other. And that was how things began to brighten up after all on that dreary February day.
Read or listen to the full essay, narrated by Emma Corrin, on the Alexander app.