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.