Angry does not begin to describe what I was feeling. He sickened me, utterly. I hated the smell of him, the sight of him, the sound of his body dropping forcefully into his “slackass” model Lazyboy, like a sack of wet manure. For an entire week I’d slept with the knife under my pillow, just working my way up to using it. If his fat sweaty fingers touched me just once more, I swear—Ahh, sleep, comfort. Maybe tomorrow.
It made my every hair stand on end to listen to him babble on and on about this sport event, and that. He never looked up, made eye contact. I made eye contact only with the endless rivulet of bacon grease running down the side of his ruddy, flabby cheek. He reeked of sleep on a hot summer’s night.
He would reek worse tonight. I’d stopped suggesting showers to him, he would bark what an unnecessary use of water it was, and he smelled fine. I concluded he’d lost his sense of smell long ago. He choked on the slice of bacon his stubby fingers were stuffing into his still speaking mouth.
I stood behind him. Waiting. He continued to choke, and I stood motionless except for my eyes which were raised to heaven, pleading for mercy. I could have used the Heimlich manoeuvre. I had done it before. He was bobbing up and down in his chair, his arms were flailing, he was making the most awful screeching sounds. How long, I wondered, before it was over? Then suddenly it was over. the offending bit of bacon sailed clear across the kitchen, hit the refrigerator door and slid silently to the floor. He reached for a new strip of bacon. I had committed a sin of omission, but could not feel a shred of guilt.
There it was again, that great slurping sound. My annoyance with the great git in the Lazyboy amplified the sound in my head a thousand times. It was unbearable. He motioned by tapping the side of his coffee cup that he wanted more. He hadn’t actually asked for another cup verbally in years. I might as well be a coffee table.
I looked at him from the kitchen and wondered what on earth he was thinking. He had a sort of smug self-satisfaction plastered on his fat face. The look was almost perverse, dirty, or perhaps those were the memories of last night. Just imagine that great heap in the middle of a hot and sticky night suddenly being”in the mood”. Luckily it never lasted long or I would have died of suffocation long ago. As soon as he was done I showered for nearly and hour, trying to get him off and out of me.
That was him, the once great love of my life. He sighed with great satisfaction after having relieved himself of another round of particularly pungent flatulence. I hated him. I had hated him a very long time now, it had grown ever so much worse hen the kids were grown. There was nothing to take attention away from just the fact of living with him, his habits, mostly just him.
It did no good to remember how I had once loved him. if anything it made it worse. He had taken beauty and trampled it to bits. Love was now a dung pile, and I had to find contentment in living in it? That great swine of course, was happy living like this. why not his coffee was served him, his clothes washed and his baser urges satisfied. My soul was screaming for liberation. I had thought of dumping the coffee on him “oops”, but feared the back of his hand, his piggy piggy hand. So I set it down, picked up my book on poisons from the table, and sat next to the window reading, learning, plotting.
Not now, please dear God, not now. Of course, God hasn’t the time or perhaps the inclination to listen to me. I heard the screen door slam shut. That would be the end of my afternoon’s plotting. I nearly had it worked out. He would walk in right as I was putting the bullets in the gun. Great timing he had.
I stuffed the revolver in my apron and hurriedly tried to find and tuck away the bullets as they rolled all too noisily along the wooden floor. The one under the couch was out of sight and he probably wouldn’t be able to bend down well enough with that fat belly of his to spot the one under the table. Five out of seven. Not bad for a quick grab.
I walked past him into the kitchen. He grumbled some facsimile of a greeting and I reached a beer out to him. He took it and plopped himself ever so predictably into his chair. The very same chair I had just been sitting trying to load a revolver with bullets, all of them with his name on them.
The seething anger for the sleeping blob had hit a boiling point today. It was nothing he did, or for that matter did not do. simply he existed. worse still, I lived with him.
The sound emanating from his body could easily have been and entire forest being cut with a noisy gas powered chair saw. Occasionally it would sputter like an uneven piston engine when it hasn’t been tuned for a while. It would even stall, and I would hope, wish, every time that it would not start up again. Then there would be silence. Then I could sleep too.
I felt a salty tear roll down my cheek. I was not crying. I was quite sure I was not crying, but I also could not stop the tears coming. My hand as though it was not even my own reached under my pillow and pulled out the fish gutting knife. I had bought it today at the mall. One of the few times in my life I gave into an impulse. The knife had reached out to me and I had reached for it, with a credit card. Probably not a very swift move if I were to murder him.
Good God, why had I not thought of that. What point was there in murdering him if life were not going to be free. Free to move, free to travel, free to get a fucking night’s sleep without the forestry industry here sleeping and sweating right beside me. That would be bloody pointless. No fucking way. If I killed him it was to set me free, not to set the world free. Slaughtering or murdering him would not be a selfless act, it would be a gift to myself.
The tear kept rolling as I put the knife back under my pillow. I put my feet into my soft terry slippers and shuffled into the kitchen where I sat watching television in the middle of the night, in the background hubby was felling those imagined trees. Tomorrow morning when he went off to work, I would sleep. One day I would have my nights back for sleeping.
Eventually I would have to take action, just not now. As much as I wanted him out of my life, to kill him stood morally against everything I believed in. This was the worst of what he did to me. It was not just sabotaging my jobs so I was unable to go out and work, and have a life. It was not just that he would go as far as setting fire to all my shoes and hiding the car keys from em so I could not have a social life. As hard as all of that was I could take it in stride because I knew some day I would be rid of him.
I had developed a Stepford wife persona who did as she was told to avoid the back hand and the shoving into the wall with his large fatty hand around my throat. As bad as the pain was, as bad as the humiliation of hiding my face from strangers (friends and family were no longer in my life at all except for special occasions like funerals), that was not what had welled up my hatred of him. I despised him, I even feared him, but I did not hate him for it.
My hatred came out of some visceral disgust that over time had developed in me. He rode my every nerve with his bodily habits, like belching, like never changing his sweaty clothes or bathing before we’d make love, for get made love, it was a quick self satisfying fuck these days, we had not ever made love. We were married before we knew how and he’d never bothered to learn. I did eventually find some other experience long ago when he worked on oil rigs in north Africa. He rode my nerves by slurping his coffee, with his snoring, and with his complete indifference to my existence as a human being. For that he would have to pay. As he was killing the very person I was, to kill him, today or tomorrow would be only self defense, not murder. The question was only, when would my last nerve snap.
“Why do you stay?” My daughter looked at me, gently touching the bruises on my jaw. I had no answer for her. None. None that I could share with her, because it would cause me to examine some very, very painful history. It was more bearable to bury all of that.
What I did not tell her was that the bruises were directly caused by my latest attempt to stand up to the brute and leave. I was much more safe if I just bore the usual crap from him day in and out, and the hours I was alone I would make the most of. I used more and more Valium to dull the part in me that wanted to stand up for myself and confront him. Confronting hurt, and there was no one there those moments to intervene for me. I knew I would never be safe, not if he could find me, to leave him would be in his eyes the greatest sin against him, punishable by death. I could only hope that if I looked after myself, he would die first. If he lived too long, it would cause me to have to put an end to it somehow. So far I could think of a few food additives that might speed things along. Now if I could find the courage to start on the long range plan.
“Have another.” He leaned back and gratefully sipped his favourite beer. His contented piggy eyes looked me up and down. I cringed and took a full step back. Damn. The wooden chair groaned from all the weight put against the already straining frame. I had to think quickly.
“I was thinking of baking a cake.” That was the fastest and only thought that came to the fore. He looked disappointed, but too comfortable to object. “Yeah, alright” he mumbled. He ran his eyes up and down again, and again I cringed. As I walked past him to the stove he gave my butt a pat. Rotten luck the cast iron pan was out of reach. Bastard, still thinks he owns me. The worst of it was that he was in so many ways right. What could I do, fight him? Run away and hope for the best. That would mean giving up all that was familiar, I could never show up here again, not even to see my kids and I just could not do that.
He should have grabbed me hard enough to leave bruises, then I could hit him with the pan. As he once put it, I’d have to get it on the first strike or he would finish me off – if it was the last act on this earth. One day “I” would be willing to give up my life for the sake of taking him of the planet, but for the moment I still valued my life.
Chocolate cake, thank God, the old TV was in the kitchen. I was rattling around getting the ingredients together and passed him one more beer. He got up and left for the living room. An hour later I was having a slice of cake and he was sawing down the rain forest in the next room by the sound of it. Now if I had baked it with arsenic I would have no cake to eat.
My hands shook as I pulled the rat poison from underneath the sink. We lived out in the boonies and needed to discourage outside pests from moving wholly into the house, or just under it. I’d had the stuff in the kitchen years before thinking to use it for an alternate purpose. Alternate purpose, how clinical and cold I’d become toward him, his life and the taking of it. Actually come to think of it, not so alternate actually, to kill a pets either way.
The opened salt shaker was on the counter, and the brown glass bottle sat unopened on the counter for a bit as I stared at it. I bit my lip, hard, and could not feel it. I was rigid and frozen in time and space until his voice rang out for another beer, followed by the universal greeting of the human pig,an enormous billowy belch. Thank God I was far enough away not to have to smell it.
The extended sigh seemed to loosen my muscles up enough to get moving again, and I unscrewed the lid.
“Where is my fuckin” beer?”
I could hear him stand up and move toward the kitchen. Christ I was good as dog meat, or look as if mauled by dogs. So much of a regular occurrence was his violence toward me, that before he was in striking distance, I was already concocting the story to tell the neighbours, or anyone I might run into.
Then, silence, followed by some gurgling sounds and a crash hard enough to shake the house’s foundation. I stood silently and motionless for the second time with the opened bottle of rat poison in my hand. What to do next. I screwed the jar lid back on, and taking my sweet time put it away and got him his beer. Either way he would beat me, even if he was just stopped now by his fall. There wasn’t a sound from the other room. So, brazenly, I pulled out a chair and sat, having a sip of his beer.
Now that was something I had never done before. Normally I would just simply jump up get his beer and within seconds have him sucking it down. After my second sip I felt a sense of curiosity come over me, as he had not made any sounds at all. So, taking the beer with me I walked to the living room, and there sprawled out like a gutted carp was my hubby of over twenty five years. Motionless. Again I sat down. I sat down on his chair in a strangely necessary act of defiance. Another sip of beer passed, and another. I had stared at him awhile now and could not see his carcass move up and down as you would expect from a man still alive. Dared I hope? Not wanting to be disappointed just yet I waited another minute, but there was not change. I put down the beer and slowly crept toward him.
The police and ambulance people were very nice. His bloated body was transported and it was almost as if the entire house sighed with relief. No one doubted how he had come to his end. He slipped was intoxicated and didn’t break his fall correctly. It would be my secret how I wanted something like that to happen. Not that I was a coward for not killing him in the stillness of some other night, but I valued more the life I might have after, free of him and not behind bars.
The past few weeks seem like a blur in someone else’s life. I am still living in the fog of disbelief. That at long last I am fully free, that I get. I feel it in every cell of my being. Very slowly I am beginning to discover who the me is that was so fully hidden under the fearful stillness that was me all those years.
It did not disappoint this new life of mine. Yesterday I banked the insurance money and today I am flying to New York for a little shopping before going to Europe. Beyond that I have no plans. I am in my fifties, I have a good thirty years left to really live. This is why women live longer than men, to taste freedom, if in your life dutifully married you did not. He lived in anger and hate, he was cruel, obnoxious and at every turn unrepentant for it. I never understood what he was getting out of it, all that anger.
He could not have liked himself much either, he at himself into nearly 300 pounds anger with sky high cholesterol. He was fifty four when he died, and for all those years I was the lone party standing by his grave side. My last act as the dutiful wife. That I cam this close to doing him in I would take to my grave with me.
I now stood about to board and aircraft for the very first time. Life unfolded with possibility. In my suitcase there was only one change of clothes. In New York I would buy, for the fist time since my late teens, clothes I liked, shoes I liked, and wear them without looking behind me worried I might be caught displeasing his highness and paying for it with my battered body. If I had used up for this lifetime any and all divine intervention, I would say the gods were generous and their timing exquisite, I not only had life now, but also life in the hereafter which I very nearly sacrificed.
Mrs. Deacon has lived her entire life in the valley. As a matter of fact, she lives in the very house she was born in. She sleeps in the same four poster bed her mother gave her life in as her own drained away in a sea of pain and red. Her own baby’s cries drowned out by the impassioned cries of her father. Cries brought out by tremendous loss of his only love, and also the fear of having to bring up little Barbara all by herself.
Mrs. Deacon herself remained a childless war bride. As a rambunctious child herself, she matured into a strong headed young lady off to see the world. She met Mr. Deacon high atop a mountain in the Himalayas where both were learning the basics of Eastern mysticism. They walked hand in hand through the greenest of the world’s pastures in the plains of Golok. Those long walks between supping on yak’s milk and deep fried breads, shared, with no desire for repayment by the locals. The tribes seemed to enjoy learning about their visitors as the visitors were enjoying learning of the tribes. Tribespeople who marvelled at Barbara’s pale skin and hair. Barbara marvelled at the richness of the weaving and the adept horsemanship of every man woman and child.
Arthur had only a couple of weeks to spend with Barbara, there in the Himalayas before going back to duty in East Asia. They were married only hours before parting ways. Arthur held her from the minute they were married until the moment he boarded the train. She could feel him still, to this day. One could not love more than Barbara had loved Arthur and there was no question of ever loving anyone else.
For a time upon her return after the funeral held in his home town, her friend urged her to again marry. It was not going to be. Instead she threw herself back into the small town that was her cradle, and now her mission to keep it as it was and always had been, a safe and nurturing place to live and grow old. Barbara became a midwife and the other teacher in the small town. She would teach when the other teacher fell ill. Arthur had provided for her so she had no worries and could dedicate herself completely to keeping the perfect little world of the valley as it was then, and to in no small part her credit, is the same peaceful valley to this day.
Her fervent belief in mysticism might have started in the valley and not the Himalayas. The valley teemed with unseen life of fairies and other creatures of the woods, such as the dragon and the halloweenies. Being that she was an only child and her father worked delivering the mail all day, she spent much time with Big Slow Fred. He introduced her to fairies at the goose races. Fairies were small gossamer creatures, very playful, very kind. She saw them too at the graveyard, which though the caretaker was far too old to do a lot of grounds keeping was nevertheless pristine and manicured. It was the one place she truly felt she had a mother, for there was a gravestone with her mother’s name Clara Jeanne Lloyd -Brown. It said right there “mother of Barbara Jeanne and wife of John Brown”.
As Barbara grew older she took responsibility for the grave’s appearance thinking as much of Arthur as her mum. It was all she could do to honour them. As with most everyone she had stopped seeing the fairies as a grown up. In the setting of the Himalayas there was a profound sense of presences, and with each shifting of the light, Barbara was sure she had seen them, small creatures, gossamer, flitting in and out of the shadows. Tending to the sick, in among the yak herds, playing with the local children and looking after the elderly. Engaging the elderly in conversations as a way to keep their minds from shutting down before their bodies were ready for the next lifetime. Barbara was grateful that she had met Arthur there. They studies the beliefs of the tribes, of the holy men, to this their own beliefs and the love between them and for their fellow man. They both knew it was a matter of time only before they once again would be paired off in another lifetime.
The time before her travels abroad she had studied other cultures formally in one of the more prestigious universities on scholarship. It was the one time in her life that none of the unseen were ever hiding in the shadows or flitting about. Sometimes Barbara would notice their absence and wonder why. Not until her travels in the east did she notice that only in the peaceful and pastoral places were the unseen present. Her own theory was that the great noise of the cities and the cruelties man visited on man in these places, out of frustrations of poverty, sloth and impatience, had caused the unseen to retreat. Perhaps they were outright killed off by the negative acts and the hopelessness, just too much for the gossamer little creatures. Fairies need flowers and peaceful clean breezes, carefree play and laughter of children, and the kindness and insights of the elderly to thrive.
On her return to the valley she became one of a group of devout valley inhabitants determined to keep the valley as it was. Grown children could choose to move away, but would always be welcomed back. In order to avoid what they saw as the great problems of the modern work, greed, poverty and loneliness, it was made certain the values were taught at the earliest of ages, sharing and cooperation, and friendships among all that no person should every be lonely or wanting for the basic needs and as much work was contributed by each citizen as was needed and no more, the rest was for family and community. It had worked here. Some had moved away, some returned. Occasionally a new citizen would arrive as a guest and never leave. Grown children sometimes moved back to start a family with a fiancee from elsewhere.
Now Barbara was old, and time had stooped her posture. She used a cane to get around and at home had a wheelchair. Her tired arms struggled to pull her up and down from chair to toilet, and to bed. Fairies would help, and in the scariest of night when she felt powerful pains in her side and her chin and she could feel her heart slow, they would sit and tell stories until the pain subsided.
So it was that one night when her good neighbours had sat with her the afternoon and her hands were dutiful at work on yet another carriage blanket for an expected child in the neighbours family, the pain started one more time. A lovely group of fairies all sat beside her crossed knitting needles on her lightly heaving abdomen, and the fairies were telling stories. Stories of her own travels, stories of Arthur stories of all life’s high points.
In the morning when the neighbours came to check on Barbara they found her no longer alive, but smiling serenely. Beside her on her bedtime table lay a finished carriage blanket. Perhaps finished by fairies, or perhaps by Barbara.
A new headstone came to the graveyard in the valley “Barbara Jeanne Brown-Deacon, wife of Arthur Deacon and a good friend and neighbour”. On a balmy day in the valley, if you should happen to come by there, you might catch a fairy here and there, keeping the grounds tidy, spreading new seeds for next years wildflowers. In the wind you can hear their chatter, sometimes they even sing. At least you can if your heart is at peace and you can stop long enough. You might never leave. Just one warning, there have been stories of the dragon making very sure not one fairy or citizen is ever badly treated. That’s for another time, as it has nothing to do with Barbara.
Train stations were exceptionally noisy places. this one in Rotterdam was under a glass gallery, immense amounts of glass and steel. The sound of voices, hurried footsteps and screeching metal train brakes drowned out even thinking. Our train was just pulling in. The first few coach cars were first class. The people in the cars looked down smugly on the world, their well-coifed hairstyles resting gingerly against the crisp white lace doilies pinned in the velvet upholstered seats.
“Fist class” my father announced, with the disdain one would fully expect from a post war socialist. Now he second class cars came rolling in. These seats were upholstered in vinyl, some dark res and some dark green. These people were well dressed but not nearly as well coifed. My hand was being tugged to keep on walking to the back of the train. Third class.
In third class you were seated on plain benches, if you dared. There were all sorts of stains and puddles and malodorous sticky stuff everywhere. Most of it no doubt left behind by all manner of animal, livestock, baskets of pigeons, Dogs and pigs both on leashes. It was a good idea to cling to my daddy.
As I understood it we were going for a fun weekend out to the country with my father’s university friends. We each packed a small bag with just the necessary things like clean underwear and toothbrushes. The dog was staying with the next door neighbour for the weekend. Mum and dad wore matching corduroy pants and black hand knitted sweaters. I was in my favourite flood pants and striped shirt.
It was not long before our stop, just as my nose was getting accustomed to the smell. The pig on the leash had gone to sleep. I felt somewhat envious of the pig.. I was told that Jaap’s mother was an excellent cook and was excited to have a little girl staying the weekend. I hoped I would like her, if I did I would pretend she was my grandmother, I really wanted a grandmother. It had rained lightly and the cobblestones of these small streets in Leiden had my shoes make a klip klop sound, I made a game of dancing noisily along the cobblestones to my father’s whistling. We passed the canals with ladies putting laundry on the lines strung along deck now the rain had stopped.
Jaap poked his head out of the door, apparently he had been waiting. there was a great deal of hugging and his mother was very nice, really grandmotherly as I had hoped. I was there not five minutes and a hot chocolate and cookie appeared before me. Jaap had also put a fresh heap of sand in the back yard for me to play in.
The afternoon was lovely, I had to go to bed early because the next day included a long walk in the forest for me. I tried to imagine what a forest looked like. I’d grown up in the polder with just the occasional tree. No wildlife other than marine birds and insects. Forests as I understood it has rabbits and deer, and foxes. I was a bit apprehensive after all these would be wild animals and I also had heard frightening stories of little children being eaten by wolves. I asked my father about wolves when he put me to bed and he said simply “no, the wolves all live in Germany these days”. That suited me, after all according to my mother Germans were terrible people so they deserved to live with wolves.
The next day was absolutely beautiful. We left early and could see the mist rising from the gardens and the water of the canals. Jaap’s car was coughing and sputtering it’s way to the forest. He had salvaged the aged Citroen from a junk yard and with my father’s help had somehow managed to get it going. We passed through large fields of brightly coloured tulips, row upon row of greenhouses being built, and finally trees, many, many trees.
From here we would walk. As Jaap stopped the car the engine gave one last full-body shudder. Jaap patted the hood with considerable affection. There were trees everywhere, very tall trees, as we walked into the forest there was less and less sky. I missed the sky, my whole life it had been there and now all I could see were branches, and stuff was falling from the branches, insects, leaves, sticky stuff. I was so focused on the missing sky that I kept tripping over the stones and branches strewn about. (I was getting tired and I hadn’t seen one rabbit.
Mom kept pointing out all the interesting mushrooms but they could not be eaten or touched, pretty boring after a while. I had hoped for flowers and bunny rabbits, but it was not summer so there were no flowers in the forest and bunny rabbits were apparently very shy around people. We reached a clearing where dad wanted to do some sketches and Jaap sat to smoke a pipe. Mom and I had a small sandwich and she told me forest stories, most probably designed to frighten me into never letting go of her had as we walked through the forest.
I screamed, a blood curdling full-body scream, not a scream that was planned, it had taken even me by complete and utter surprise. Searing pain from my calf had completely consumed me. suddenly there was a whir of activity all of it with my leg at the centre. I kept trying to look to see what hurt, but people were in the way. Daddy scooped me up and ran with me all the way back to the car I could see my mom and Jaap running after us. I leaned a new word “adder”. That’s what Jaap was yelling.
In the back of the car mom told me an adder bit me. Daddy explained that adders were like small snakes, but it could make me very sick so I was going to the hospital. I looked out the window and saw the sky, it was blue and the sun made the drops on the car window sparkle and I fell asleep.
I woke up in the bedroom at Jaap’s, his mother was knitting rhythmically in the chair beside my bed. As soon as I started to get up she yelled for my mom and dad. I was safe and I had no desire to get back to the forest, ever. Forests were not safe places for little children, nor little Red Riding Hood, or Hansel, or Gretel or me. We had bunny rabbits in our community garden and there were lots of wild flowers growing all over the polder. I liked the world inside houses and near houses, familiar sounds like the clicking of knitting needle and the whistling of a tea kettle. The forest belonged to adders and bugs and other wildlife. I would not go intruding on it again.
The rituals of the Christian calendar were a mystery to me when I was little. I lived in a predominantly protestant part of the Netherlands, but, in my case, my parents raised me without a religious identity of any kind. My parents were not of the same religion, one was protestant and the other Roman Catholic, neither attended church, in fact both had turned their back on the religion of their childhood in favour of those being explored by my somewhat eccentric and always existentialist parents. By age four, when this memory of mine takes place, my parents were following the teachings of the Buddha quite seriously, and also exploring the occult and paranormal as a bit of a hobby.
I had come to accept Christmas as a time for decorating trees and eating lots of good stuff with friends and family, who were rarely seen the rest of the year. The significance of the history of this wonderful feast were not known to me. Easter also was a time for special foods and candies rarely seen at other times.
Eggs of course were part of daily life, or at least nearly so. My eggs were normally soft-boiled and in an egg cup accompanied by a slice of toasted bread. The anticipation of this breakfast was in itself an event. My mother miraculously timed the egg to perfection and the toast had been toasted alongside on the cast iron stove in the kitchen all was warm and fragrant, and the egg was soft and runny.
This was before the mass raising of chickens who never saw the light of day. These eggs came from chickens most often known to us personally or from one of the merchants at the market, who came with cages of birds also sold (unbeknown to vegetarian me, to become meat for soup). The eggs had bright yellow yolks and were mixed brown and white, some had feathers and straw stuck to them so they always required washing before cooking with them.
I very much liked chickens. I had spent much time sitting with them in the chicken house at the back of my grandmother’s house in Rotterdam. Not unlike cats they cuddled of you stroked and petted them, and they made a wonderfully calming sound when you did.
Easter was a time for hard-boiled eggs, lots of them, best of all we painted them. They were boiled with beets and others with onion to turn them red purple, yellow and orange, and the rest was painted with watercolour paint and a fine brush. My mother would meticulously plan the painting and first pencilled the outline on the eggs and then I was allowed to fill in some of them with pain in whatever colour I chose. some also had words on them, but I could not read. Mostly I filled in the circles and flowers and triangles. The eggs were for friends and family and neighbours so there were several dozens of them.
We kept some, of course, and I always hoped some would not be claimed and we would have even more. Hard boiled eggs sliced on toast with mayonnaise and a little black pepper was a bit of heaven and we so rarely had them that way. At new years when there were visitors we had them on small squares of toast with mayonnaise and pickle. Being that we had little money, the slices had to be very thin, as we had many friends and not so many eggs, and pickles. It was not looked down on or thought of as cheap, everyone was pretty much in the same boat, the point really was one of hospitality, sharing, not showing off.
The most often seen wildlife in the Netherlands was the bunny. Rabbit was a frequent pet and a staple meat, across the street one of the families who lived in a house with a yard used the bunnies to keep the lawn trimmed and every spring there would be a new set of bunnies doing the moving. It did not occur to me then but I suppose the previous year’s bunnies were used in soup and stews through the winter.
At the baker and the local candy shop (Jamin’s) bunnies, chickens and eggs appeared this time every year in chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate and even white chocolate. some were covered in tin paper, pink and blue and green. Baskets holding several confections on a grass made of stringy tissue paper and tied up with a bow was the thing of dreams. I’d never had a basket like that and I was jumping up and down in front of the window to see it better. Oh if only I could have the pink basket with the chicken and little eggs on green grass tied up with a bright blue bow.
Easter morning my feet hit the cold linoleum but the cold was not a concern, I was wholly focused on what the Easter bunny might have brought me. I peeled around the corner to the living room and there sitting on the coffee table was the most beautiful basket with a big brown chocolate chicken surrounded by a variety of little chocolate eggs, some in tin paper and others covered in a sugary shell of candy pink and robin’s egg blue.
After breakfast consisting of the treasured toast with hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and black pepper we were going for a walk. The day turned out o be very sunny and quite warm. I only needed to wear my green cardigan over my lilac dress. I wore my Sunday best shoes and little white gloves. I would not leave the basket with the chicken behind. I carried it proudly over my arm. I resisted eating any of it since it looked so beautiful just as it was and I wanted to be seen with it.
As no day is entirely perfect it was inevitable some part of the day would not deliver only that which was good. The sun, the warm and wonderful sun, alas proved a little too warm. slowly during our walk on the sunny side of the street had melted the chocolate chicken into the green tissue paper which looked like grass. I noticed it only when we were nearly home. I was inconsolable.
My parents who were not made of money, and even if they were there was not one candy shop open on a Sunday, would and could not replace the chicken, or the one or two eggs that had also melted. Instead, very patiently my parents sat with me several hours, and slowly peeled the tissue paper away from the chocolate as best they could. The smallest bits of chocolate found their way on a thickly buttered slice of fresh bread, happily consumed by a little girl. A little girl who’d just learned something about sunlight and the effects it can have on substances such as chocolate. Happily the bow and basket were spared being mucked up with melted chocolate so the basket was entirely useable still and for years to come was taken shopping to the market (real and imagined) and later would house my Lego. We received many compliments on our painted eggs, and received so many eggs in return that happily there were many more days of eggs on toast than I dared hope for. What a lovely holiday!
The little boy across the street was quite horrible to me when I was in kindergarten, and his older brother would stand and laugh as he kicked and hit me. Prompted by my father one day to say what was bothering me I spurted out “the boy across the street hits me”. Dad asked me to point out the boy next time he came by.
A few weeks later, there he was, walking by with a sneer on his face. He was quite the mature bully for one no more than 6 years of age. He was walking along the dyke road, alone but as was often the case carrying a whipping stick. It must have been something he used on other children and quite probably the neighbourhood cats and dogs. I know that hat my dog didn’t like him one bit and would growl as he came near.
“That’s the boy” I told my father.
“Hey”, said my father in one of his most commanding tones, which was rare and I was quite taken aback by it. The boy reeled round, and his mouth was falling open with that look of not knowing whether to stay frozen or turn and run. He stayed frozen on the spot. For what seemed like a very long time as my father slowly came toward him.
My father was a tall and lanky man, and this weekend was still in his army uniform which must have added considerably to the impact. “I hear”, he said, again at a most commanding tone and clasping his hands behind himself, “You’ve been hitting my daughter.” He motioned to me and stayed glued to the spot also, not knowing whether it would be acceptable to smirk or not.
“My daughter is not allowed to hit anyone, and she is a good girl”. Well, now I was positively gleaming with something very near pride. “However, I should have told her she can hit back if she is hit first.” Then daddy turned to me. “Aletta”, which was my cue to come near, “Aletta can really hit quite hard, did you know that?”
By now the little boy’s eyes were flitting around, making eye contact with dad and the ground ahead of him equally, not looking at me at all. “No”, he answered.
“Show this boy how hard you can hit”
I made my best fist, just as daddy taught me with my thumb on the outside. Clenched my jaw and threw an air punch.
“and,” he continued “she can hit even harder if she stands with her knees slightly bent”.
Suddenly I remembered the last time dad tried to teach me fighting styles, he knew some jujitsu and savate. I put my feet slightly further apart and bent my knees slightly, digging the balls of my feet into the gravel on the dyke road. My fist was tightly tucked into my waist and I looked the little boy (who was still quite a bit taller) straight in the eyes. I was feeling very ready and able, but also a bit nervous. As all the possible bad things that could happen, were flooding through my head. I could fall, and look foolish, was the most horrifying. I’d take my lumps happily, but not have to look foolish, not in front of my father.
“Well, Aletta, hit him.”
Remarkably without hesitation my fist sprung from my waist and exactly in the little boy’s mouth. His tooth grazed my knuckles. I had hit him just hard enough to make him groan and yelp. He looked at my father, wondering if he could run or should continue standing there for another. I was winding up for another, he had hit me plenty. He wiped a tiny bit of blood from his lip, but all the teeth were intact. Strange but I wouldn’t have been happy if any of the teeth were damaged. That would have been too much. Even this had sickened me slightly. I really didn’t like hitting at all.
“She hits pretty well doesn’t she”
“Yes Sir” the boy said, nervously changing his weight from foot to foot.
“From now on, if she hits you, she will hit you back, understand?”
Well, that took me by surprise, sorry, he said, “sorry”. My dad released him by telling him to go home and tell his dad what happened. I had no idea then, but now, it must have been the worst of it, to tell who’d hit him hard enough to bruise and make him bleed. Punched by a little girl. He never hit me again. He was at times even quite nice to me. Best of all, it stopped the other kids picking on me as well. It was for the longest time, the last time I hit anyone.
Lilly lay back gratefully on the fresh linen sheets. Fresh linen was one of her very favourite fragrances. From the time the sheets were on her crib, hand-washed by her mother, to the present the sheets washed by machine by her daughter Audrey. Audrey propped her now fragile mother onto the softest of pillows. Gently she braided the elder woman’s white hair into a single braid and fastened it with a soft pink elastic.
It was the details of her care that gave Lilly her glowing dignity. She looked like a grand empress of days gone by. Dignity was not easy to hang onto. Certainly the care she received by her daughter and the gentle and kind doctor who would visit weekly could be largely held responsible for continued dignity, and the sparkling sense of humour the old woman demonstrated time and time again. She told stories, her own stories, other people’s stories, with such wit, that even neighbours would make the effort to visit just to hear them.
It had become Lilly’s vocation “storyteller extraordinaire” in residence. Audrey’s two little girls and their friends were her most loyal audience. They came twice a week now that Lilly’s illness took most of her energies completely away. On days the girls did not come over there were visits from neighbours and the few old friends still left. At eighty, one has fewer friends.
Audrey was her only surviving child, both her sons had died some long time ago. Audrey herself was born when Lilly was in her forties. Dan, Lilly’s husband, had left not long after Audrey was born, The accident which had killed both their boys was something he never came to terms with. Though Lilly accepted his every mea culpa, he could not forgive himself nor move his life forward. Lilly returned to her teaching career.
In her private moments, she always hoped he would come back. In her dreams he would gently hold her hand that she should not die alone. In truth, it was probable that Dan had long ago died himself, but in kindness to this grand lady no-one would speak to that possibility. Audrey’s husband Len was very much as she expected her own sons would have grown up to be, strong, silent, tall and lanky with a decidedly wry and dark sense of humour. Without ever really knowing her own father, Audrey married a man almost identical in character to her Dan. Not that she would say this out loud, ever. Her daughter was happy, the marriage was good, why cast even the smallest doubt into it. Lilly held the pain, bore it with dignity, and from there it would have no further victims.
Now many years into her retirement, after breaking her hip traversing the mountains in Nepal, she had moved in with her daughter. Then came the diagnosis of a neurological illness which would slowly wreak havoc of her breathing, her heartbeat, it made her dizzy, and falling at her age was dangerous. Now was a good time to spend with her grandkids and her surviving child. Life had been good. Lilly felt as prepared as one could be for the adventures in the next world. Not that she dwelt on it. It had always been her philosophy that life was for the present. The rest was either history or conjecture, and neither of those was very useful.
The times when Lilly did wonder, it was to do with her boys and the afterlife. Would they know her? Would they be little boys still or would they be grown? Perhaps having died so young their souls had been given another life and she would never see them again. That thought always made her twinge and her eyes were instantly moist.
When her mind started to wander into that mire she would pick up her knitting. Slowly and with full concentration she worked each stitch, and in a needle, or two, those painful thoughts were gone. Almost every little girl who ever came to visit had a sweater, or hat made by Lilly. Audrey kept the yarn basket topped up so there would always be something to keep Lilly productive.
Today was like most days. Len would pop his head around and bid goodbye on his way to work, and if time allowed Lilly would tell him how handsome he looked, today was such a day. In fact he took the time to come to her bedside and took her pulse.
“You look tired, Lilly, maybe the girls shouldn’t come today?”
“I spend my days in bed, Len, I am just old, I like the girls to come round.”
He knew her well enough not to argue, but told Audrey to keep and eye on her because her pulse was weak and her skin a little clammy. Once the door closed Audrey felt a strong sinking sensation and his words played over and over again as she stood unable to move for quite some time staring out the window over her formidable rose garden. She brought a light breakfast on a pretty tray to Lilly and opened her window.
“Can you smell the roses, mum”.
“Oh, are they out already? Goodness time flies. I remember when you bought the house and we planted them. Little Emma was so angry when the rosebush fist produced blooms and she’d tried plucking a flower for her mum and hot badly stung by a thorn.”
“She still doesn’t like roses much.”
After taking the tray back to the kitchen Audrey ran a few errands and came home with one of the new roses in hand to take to mum. A beautiful white rose. Lilly was asleep and didn’t want to wake.
Sometime later the girls came home with a couple of friends and handfuls of wild flowers picked on the way home from school. A slightly subdued Lilly happily accepted the offerings and told a story about a small house mouse and her adventures with a gentle tabby cat who kept the mouse as her own pet.
On finishing the story Lilly felt a sudden exhaustion that was so profound she couldn’t utter another word. Audrey noticed the change in her mother most immediately. The girls were gently ushered out the room. Lilly felt warm, the scent of the roses was suddenly more pronounced and the sounds in the house became distant. Lilly was aware of the shallow breathing which was becoming ever more laboured and she was slightly fearful. There was no doubt she was dying. She knew she was dying, but had hung on for so long now as a bedridden invalid, that the exact moment was a surprise even to her.
The grand old lady tried to take a deeper breath but could not. Her body was warm and there was no painful sensation, just and unfamiliar but pleasant glow. She was aware someone was holding her hand, but could not open her eyes to see who. Lilly smiled one last smile, and on the scent of roses sailed her spirit to whatever world was next.
After we had moved to our second apartment in Hoogvliet, and my father had finished his studies, we suddenly started collecting pets. We had a dog, Cerbie (Cerberus) since I was about two, a half chow, half wolf puppy, ferocious to others but my very best friend. Dogs are the sort of friends only children value above all others. I could dress him up in clothes or endlessly throw the ball or a stick. Because of his fierce loyalty to my well being I could go anywhere in the neighbourhood if I took the dog. The dog was a given, he was family, not really a pet.
My father’s new self indulgence was collecting up birds and fish. The first bird was Oliver, a handed down canary my dad brought home from work one day (for mom, said he, but…). It was a lovely yellow bird with a ring of black around his little head like the hairlines of a Franciscan monk. He sang with my mother as she did her morning voice warmup or as she rehearsed at home. He also whistled along with my father, who could only carry a tune when he whistled, singing was something we did not encourage in my father. I didn’t much care for birds in cages, I preferred the ones I saw everyday outside, like my little sparrows across the street every morning on the way to school for as long as the bread crumbs held out.
The aquarium on the other hand was much more to my liking. I was forever fascinated by the new fish my father would bring home on pay cheque days. Neon tetras, zebra fish, danios, loaches, and the one Siamese fighting fish, a big ruby read one with a streaming purple tail. It was probably about a 10 gallon aquarium, for me it was huge,, my own personal marine world. It was one of those family projects, and much more interesting than television those days. Tonnie had a television, and occasionally I would watch a show with her family. It was black and white and not very interesting compared to the colourful ever-changing world in the aquarium. Tonnie thought so too and often came to sit with me watching the parade of finned beauties. We made up stories to go with what we were watching.
Occasionally a fish would die, usually a zebra fish, they were temperamental and did not deal well with temperature changes in the water. I did not deal well with dead things. I was frightened of all dead things. He could not get me to fish out a dead fish with the net. Whenever he tried to coax me into it I would end up running off and crying in bed for some time. I could however flush them away, after uttering a few words of respect, a fish funeral rite.
There was no heater in the aquarium. It was set up near the warmest inside wall and occasionally on cold days tepid water would be run into the aquarium as the coldest water was siphoned from the bottom. Consequently the aquarium was spotless during winter. None of us minded the extra work at least not that I noticed, and I could not get enough of the aquarium especially in winter when there was not much daylight for playing outside. We had the basic little pump and used sand found around the polder and plants from the slough not far away.
Every few weeks my father would go to the slough for daphnia, little red ones. My father had a small microscope from when he was a boy and we’d look at the organisms he scooped up with the daphnia, another world to explore. I grew up thinking that my father had the be the most knowledgeable person in the whole world. He knew something about everything.
My father would often take me along on his daphnia expeditions. The dog would run alongside the bicycle and I would be in the basket on the handlebars holding a big jar and the net, a fine net made with one of my mothers old stockings and a wire. We’d be off o the slough near Spijkernisse. I liked it there, I could see the windmill nearby and there were lots of wildflowers and tall grasses. My father liked to take his time and fish out examples of this and that small fish or creature to show me. Those expeditions could take a long time if he found much to show me. On the way back I would hold they day’s catch of red daphnia.
One day in particular we had caught an exceptional amount of daphnia, the intent being to keep them alive in the jar and feed them to the fish in smaller pourings from the jar. That was the theory. What really happened on getting them home was a slip of the jar and a large cloud of oxygen hogging daphnia threatened to asphyxiate the fish, the beautiful prized collection of tropical fish my father had so lovingly looked after.
Eventually the fish would have eaten them and the supply of oxygen the small pump provided would be ample again. Right then, however the little fish were struggling for every breath between meals. Some were beginning, after an hour or so to swim sideways and jerking about. My father had set up a temporary solution, explaining the physics of it to me while doing it (he could have done it faster without the explanations). The bicycle pump and an inner tube with a hose running to an air stone he would pump up the inner tube and slowly release the extra air. It was working the fish were recovering and slowly the red mass was getting thinner. The dedicated teamwork of my parents had all but one fish survive the ordeal. My mother heroically, while hugely pregnant stayed up the night with the bicycle pump and inner tube, giving up sleep to save the fish as my father who had to work the next day slept. It was an error never made again. Still, my father was right, the daphnia made our fish spectacularly healthy and colourful.