Out to the country, that s where we were going. I wasn’t fond of the country. There were nasty insects and outhouses instead of washrooms. Mams must have sensed I was displeased. I´d rather have spent this afternoon, at home, warm, playing with Lego. So she spiced it up a little for me. We would be going by car.
Only the wealthy had cars. My parents had their educations cut short by a war. Upgrading was done in their adult life. My father held down a jog at Shell Oil full-time and attended university on weekends and in the evening. In the midst of it all he also twice served in the military as a medic (as a pacifist/Buddhist this was agreeable). My mother had been a nurse and studied opera after I was born. At this point my father was at the end of his studies and my mother just starting her performing career. I can only imagine how tired they must have been. Most of our travelling was done on foot or bicycle or public transit.
Neither of my parents could drive, nor did they see a particular need to have a car. To want one would have gone against their deeply socialist sensibilities. Just occasionally we were offered a ride by someone more fortunate in their circumstances. To be so fortunate quite often meant that during the previous world war you had retained your considerable wealth by selling out your own countrymen. This is another reason that wealth was a source of embarrassment to many, and probably should have been.
My parents were devoted Buddhists with considerable interest in the paranormal. Their interests involved hypnotism, seances, bio-feedback, meditation and all other manner of psychic phenomena. My father’s friend Wim was a respected psychic and hypnotist from Utrecht he and my father attended the University at Delft together.
He was a tall lanky Dutchman (as if there is any other kind), he had pale blue eyes and no eyelashes, his skin was very pink and he had waves of reddish blond hair. I suppose he’d not have been considered handsome, but certainly he was striking. He had inherited a home and some monies from his parents and could afford to live on his eccentricities. Occasionally he would buy one of my father’s paintings and pay my mother to sing at his soirees. He had an old home built with six outside walls. He had a moat, which was filled in, to keep it stocked with ducks and such was too costly. Only part of the small castle was usable most had bomb damage or was run down. His soirees were events to raise monies for rebuilding his home. Other aristocrats in the same shoes also held these events, communist sensibilities amongst the upper classes only. I’ve no desire to be harsh, likely they had no notion that there were other classes.
The car was an old Citroen circa 1948, a ten year old car. It was enormous, not by American standards but by European standards where the average car was smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle. The leather seats were dark red and slightly peeling from age. Likely Wim had no nothing of maintaining the leather, servants would have done that, servants he could no longer afford. We arrived at his home by taking a bus and walking some distance. Wim would have picked us up from the bus but my father was always most insistent we do a good bit of walking each and every day, for our health, and because he was a socialist.
We were greeted by several small Scottish terriers bouncing happily up and down and then chasing one another round the small castle. My mother admired the roses while my father helped Wim peel the canvas cover from the car. It took several tries to start the car, as soon as it did we ran into the back seat. Mams gave me a sandwich wrapped in a tea towel to keep the crumbs from messing up the car. The tea towel had hundreds of waffle squares which kept crumbs from just rolling off. I appreciated the towel, I was a clumsy child, it embarrassed me when I made a mess, this I could manage. I love tea towels, especially the blue and white ones. Food looks better on a blue and white towel.
The adults were deep in conversation, about ghosts and spirits and what happened when the body died. I wondered about that too. Great Aunt Sien had books about children dying and getting wings. I knew I did not want wings, I did not want to fly. I liked walking, and I could not imagine how a coat would fit over wings. I also did not want to die. I didn’t think dying was a good thing. Every time someone we knew died everyone cried and cried. If dying was a good thing no-one would cry. It must be scary even for adults if all they want to do is talk to the dead just to make sure it is ok where they are now.
It was a bit of the shock to find out the people we were visiting turned out to be the principal of my kindergarten. I had just been pulled out of kindergarten because my clumsiness was making other kids hate me and hurt me. Next year I would go to another school where they could teach me how not to be so clumsy.
The house stood aside a dyke edged by farmland and tidy rows of poplars to break the wind rushing in from the North Sea. The sky was dark with large heavy clouds. Fog was forming over the lower farmland, I could hear the screeching sound of the windmill’s sails. It was warm inside. The van Antwerpen’s had large heavily stuffed chairs with an abundance of pillows. The walls were lined with dark wooden bookcases stuffed with books and in front of the bookcases and in every corner of the living room stacks of books.
The walls had portraits filling up all wall space and the walls themselves were covered with tapestries of birds and game and large bowls of fruit. The fireplace had on it several sculpted gargoyles with impudent smiles. I quite liked them. I’d have liked to see them more closely but the coal furnace which was now housed in the fireplace itself was dangerously hot, so I had to be satisfied with seeing them form a bit of a distance. The room, and the rest of the house was filled with every sort of display, wonderful treasures. Their very large striped cat followed me everywhere and the loud purring was gre4at incentive to just sit, stroke the cat and admire all the wonders I could cast my eyes on.
We were served a dinner of red cabbage and potatoes, and stewed pears for dessert. The adults sat by the hearth with a brandy and I was put to rest on the fainting couch, so comfortable I’d have been happy to spend the rest of my life on it. The feather cushions gave me the sensation of being weightlessly suspended. The blanked was a bit dusty, a tapestry otherwise being used for show, quite obviously they were not used to having children as visitors. The large cat was asleep beside me.
As children do, I listened intently to the conversation the adults were having. Mostly it was well over the tope of my level of understanding. I could grasp the concept of dead, spirits, ghosts. Bad ghosts, tortured souls.
The latter I had a problem with. The notion that a soul, which was as I understood it the very essence of what you were, would be put into suffering for an eternity, well, that was most unpleasant. Hard to put that into a framework of a Buddhist whose higher spirit or godhead had no malice. The imperfect souls were put back on this earth to relive life until lessons had been learned. We earned our place in the afterlife. There was as I understood it, no place where after life a soul would be tortured. Tortured like some of the bad children in Aunt Sien’s books. Mams had told me that those books were not true. Yet here was my mother talking about tortured souls inhabiting and haunting, intruding the lives of the living.
The striped cat yawned and exhaled a fishy breath, stretched and purred. The adults were now looking through books, arguing about seeing the future. Mr. van Antwerpen unearthed some old photographs of a haunted tree they had come upon in their travels in France.
“May I see”, I asked. “No, too scary”.
Now I really wanted to see it. apparently no matter how you photographed this tree, from every angle, you could see the faces of tortured souls.
Of course stories were spun about what happened while they were there. Gooseflesh, shivers and the sounds of screams and wailing. My imagination ran with it. I knew I would not want to go to France if it had many tortured souls. I did not like the scary stuff.
The cat looked at me lazily as if to say “I won’t let anyone hurt you”. I’ve always felt that pets do protect you from the unseen. Like guardians. I was safe as long as we had a cat or dog watching over us. I could go to France, if my dog could come too. I curled up with the fishy breathed cat and slept soundly until it was time to go.
Mam dressed me up to go out first and then said their good byes to the van Antwerpen’s. I snuk back and looked at the photos of the tree of many souls, and clearly, there they were, pained, reaching out, weeping.
“You shouldn’t look at these”, mams pulled the photo from my hand, and resolutely the hands were stuffed into my mittens making it very hard to pick the pictures up again.
In the back of the car on the way home Mams asked me if the photo had frightened me. I said no. Truth was that I was confused, not frightened. I spent many hours thinking how one would go about making their pain go away, how to release them from their torment. Maybe I should have asked. I did n;t ask because every time I had asked about death and what comes after I was much more frightened by what they told me to put me at ease than anything I could think up by myself. Maybe if I was a good girl, the good would somehow help? I was very happy I had a dog and a cat to keep me safe, and I trusted my mother when she said I would not die until I was very old. I had to trust her, otherwise I might never sleep again.