Authors: Tessa de Loo
Tessa de Loo
Translated from the Dutch by
For my mother and Maria Hesse
Die Welt ist weit, die Welt ist schön,
wer weiss ob wir uns wiedersehen.
The translator warmly thanks
Rosemary Mitchell-Schuitevoerder and Jake Schuitevoerder for their generous help.
‘Goodness me, what is this, a morgue?’
Lotte Goudriaan woke with a start from a pleasant doze, a light lethargy: to be old and yet not to feel your body. Through her eyelashes she followed the rotund figure, naked like herself under a dressing-gown of innocuous pale blue, closing the door noisily behind her. With evident distaste the woman waddled into the dim rest-room, between two rows of empty beds, up to the one where Lotte was lying – her body an old, long-drawn-out history of ill health between pristine sheets. Instinctively she slid deeper into the bed. The language the woman had made her inappropriate remark in was German. German! What was a German looking for here, in Spa, where every square, every public garden, had a
with lists of the fallen of two world wars carved in stone? Her own country was swarming with health resorts. Why Spa? Lotte closed her eyes and tried to think the woman away by forcing
to listen to the cooing of the doves that gathered, out of sight behind white ruffled silk blinds, on the eaves and in the courtyards of the Thermal Institute. But the German’s every movement was a provocation in sound. Quite audibly she pulled back the sheets on a bed directly opposite Lotte’s. She stretched herself out on it, yawned and sighed pointedly; even when she finally lay still and seemed to surrender to the prescribed quiet, the silence she
was painful on the ears. Lotte swallowed. A feeling of
was crawling up from her stomach to her throat, a mental queasiness that had also come over her the previous day when she sat, up to her chin, in a peat bath.
While she had succumbed to the heat of the sour peat that relaxed her stiff joints, an old nursery rhyme, hummed in an
elderly woman’s unsteady mezzo, floated into the bathroom through a crack in the door. This song, that for the first time in seventy years, from a neighbouring bathroom, penetrated her awareness, released a mixture of vague anxieties and irritation in her – feelings an aged patient in a peat bath at forty degrees Celsius ought to guard against. A heart attack was lurking in the brown sludge, between the lumps, granules and half-decayed twigs that drifted about. All of a sudden she could not bear the heat any more. Laboriously she heaved herself up until she was standing shakily in the metal bath-tub, her body covered in a film of liquid chocolate that evened out all irregularities. As though I were already dead and buried, she thought. When she realized that her state would give the woman who was soon coming to rinse her down a foolish, alarming impression, she sagged slowly at the knees, back into the sludge, holding tightly with both hands onto the edge of the bath. At that very moment the song stopped as abruptly as it had started, as though it were no more than the
of a memory presumed lost.
The German could not tolerate being in bed for long. After a few minutes she shuffled across the worn parquet floor again, towards a table with two bottles of mineral water beside a stack of plastic beakers. Lotte followed her actions intently, despite herself, as though she had to keep on her guard.
‘Excusez-moi madame …’ With a slight inflection, in ponderous school French, the woman turned unexpectedly to Lotte. ‘C’est permis … for us … to drink this water?’
The story that follows probably would not have happened if Lotte had also replied in French. But on a reckless impulse she said, ‘Yes, das Wasser können Sie trinken.’
‘Ach so!’ The woman forgot the water, retraced her steps to Lotte’s bed, exclaiming delightedly, ‘You’re German!’
‘No, yes, no …’ Lotte stammered. But she had already lit the fuse: crackling softly, the woman was coming towards her. Everything about her was broad, round and curved, an elderly
Walküre who would not go away. She stood at the foot of Lotte’s bed, casting a shadow over it. She looked candidly at her, ‘Where are you from, if I might ask?’ Lotte tried to retract her
, ‘From Holland.’ ‘But your German is faultless!’ the woman insisted, spreading her plump hands. ‘From Cologne originally,’ Lotte conceded, in the flat tone of a forced admission. ‘Cologne! But that’s where I’m from too!’
Cologne, Köln. As the name of the city continued to resonate in the rest-room that had never known anything other than
silence inside its walls, it occurred to Lotte for a moment that Cologne was a cursed city, somewhere you were better off not to have come from, a city totally annihilated to punish the arrogance of a people.
The door opened. A preoccupied, middle-aged man shambled in; he selected a bed and slid noiselessly between the sheets. In the dim light only his death mask remained vaguely visible. Everything was as it had been again, except for the German. She leaned over and whispered, ‘I’ll wait for you in the lobby.’
Lotte stayed behind, the victim of confusion and irritation. That sounded like an order: I’ll wait for you! She decided to
it. But the longer she lay there the more restless she became. The pushy German had somehow succeeded in depriving her of her hard-won calm. There was no escaping her: there was only one door out of the rest-room and it opened onto the lobby.
Finally she got out of bed brusquely, slid into her slippers, tied her belt tightly round her middle and walked to the door, resolved to shake the woman off as quickly as possible. Entering the lobby, which was bathed in light, was like setting foot inside a temple dedicated to the goddess of health. The floor, laid diagonally with large tiles of broken white marble, together with an open atrium that gave an uninterrupted view of the balustrade on the first floor, created an illusion of expansiveness. This was reinforced by a
painting of a fondant-coloured Venus driving out of the sea in a shell, ringed by plump cherubim. And there was the constant
sound of running water, created by two grey-brown veined marble fountains on either side of the lobby, flanked by robust Greek
. A glittering spout emerged from a gilded female head, like a protruding tongue dribbling a thin trickle of water. The one
, discoloured brown from the iron-bearing water, which in
days the rich aristocracy of Europe had sought as a cure for their anaemia, was directly connected to the Source de la Reine; the other to the Source Marie-Henriette, a spring from which
velvet-soft water that drove all toxins out of the body.
In this sanctuary of eternal youth the elderly German had appropriated an antique chair for herself. Turning the pages of a magazine, sipping a glass of spring water, she was waiting for Lotte who approached her reluctantly, with the excuse, ‘I’m sorry, I’m pressed for time.’ The woman squeezed herself out of the austerely carved Empire-style chair. A pained expression skimmed over her face. ‘Listen, listen,’ she said, ‘you’re from Cologne. So I must just ask you what street you lived in.’ Lotte sought support from one of the pillars, the ridges pressed through the towelling into her back. ‘I don’t remember that any more. I was six when they sent me to Holland.’ ‘Six,’ the woman repeated excitedly, ‘six!’ ‘All I
,’ said Lotte hesitantly, ‘is that we lived in a casino … or in a building that had once been a casino.’
‘It can’t be true! It can’t be true!’ The German’s voice broke, she brought her hands to her head and pushed her fingertips into her temples. ‘It can’t be true!’ Her bellowing filled the empty space irreverently, it echoed off the marble floor, rose up to disturb the peaceful scene on the ceiling. She stared at Lotte with wide eyes. Full of horror? Of joy? Had she gone mad? She opened her arms, came right up to Lotte and hugged her. ‘Lottchen,’ she moaned, ‘don’t you understand? Don’t you understand?’ Lotte, crushed between the pillar and the German’s body, was overcome by
. She felt an intense desire to escape from this preposterous intimacy, to go up in steam, to evaporate. But she was caught between her origins and her selective memory, which had long ago
entered into a hostile alliance. ‘You … Meine Liebe,’ the woman said in her ear, ‘I am Anna, the very same!’
The magic lantern of the early twentieth century leaves a lot to the imagination. The gap between the projection of one slide and another has to be filled in by the observers themselves. They are shown
bay overlooking the street, on a first floor. Two noses press flat against the window, two pairs of eyes anxiously scrutinize the passers-by down below. From above, all women look the same: hats on their pinned-up hair, long fitted coats with small buttons, lace-up boots. But only one of them is clutching a small shiny aluminium cash box under her arm. At the end of each day they see her on the opposite side: she shuts the double doors of Hope behind her and crosses the street with the day’s takings in the cash box. As soon as she comes home the girls lose interest in the cash box; they cling on to their mother who first has to undo a million buttons before she can lift them onto her lap. Very
they are allowed to go to the shop with her; its name tells the passer-by that it is a socialist co-operative. Their mother, enthroned like a queen behind the high, brown cash desk, fetches a chocolate marshmallow out of a cardboard box for them; she is the linchpin of all money transactions. Since she has been at the cash desk takings have doubled. She is intelligent, hard-working and trustworthy. She is also ill, but no one knows that yet. The illness is slowly taking hold of her even though on the outside she
to look like a plump, blonde Westphalian.
Another slide is placed in the projector – carefully – they have to be kept in proper sequence. The girls only go inside one
room in the house with their father. Its permanent twilight is saturated with a bittersweet smell. Their mother is lying in an oak bedstead beneath a malevolent engraving of black rocks and spindly spruces, a stranger with sunken cheeks and blue shadows under her eyes. They recoil from the despairing, resigned smile that appears on her face as they approach. Their father, who gently
pushes them towards the bedstead each time, is himself one day lying on an improvised bed in the living-room. He instructs them to be as quiet as mice because he is ill and must sleep. Dejected, they sit next to each other on the sofa in the bay with their chins on the window sill and look down below – in
spite of the woman beneath the rocky landscape, expecting the cash box to appear, to put an end to the strained silence. It is gradually growing dark. They have no sense of time; for them its passing is the same as the failure of the cash box to appear. Then the bell goes, hesitantly. They rush to the door. Anna always has to be the first, driven instinctively since birth; she stands on tiptoe and slides the bolt open. ‘Aunt Käthe, Aunt Käthe,’ she clings to her, ‘have you come to fetch us?’ ‘Have you come to fetch us?’ Lotte echoes.
The next slide suggests the projector is going to saddle us with a maudlin tale. On the sofa there is a rectangular coffin and Anna and Lotte are sitting on top of it, with their backs to a room full of unfamiliar relatives. Thanks to the coffin they can put their feet on the window sill. They have discovered that they can drown out the wailing and muttering by tapping the soles of their shoes against the window – the eerie black polished shoes that Aunt Käthe got for them – at the same time they are kicking out this
hold-up in their existence and trying to restore everything back to normal again. Initially those present are inclined to be tolerant – after all, there are no rules of conduct for three-year-olds who have lost their mother – but when the tapping persists and the girls remain deaf to friendly warnings, forbearance turns into annoyance. Doesn’t the foot tapping have something about it of the primitive drum-roll that, according to the illustrated
, accompanies the bushmen in Africa on the last journey of their deaths? A modicum of Christian piety might reasonably be expected of the children in these circumstances. They are ordered off the coffin but they refuse stubbornly, lashing out at the hands of those who want to lift them up from it. Only when the
bearers arrive in their sinister outfits and begin to haul the
coffin away do they allow themselves be taken in hand by Aunt Käthe. After that they behave in an exemplary manner, apart from a small incident in the long procession that shuffles behind the bier beneath an unseemly warm spring sun. In the nick of time Aunt Käthe realizes that they should take off their black woollen coats that their mother in bed had sewn, specially for this occasion. Underestimating the resilience of her body, she must have
The principal absentee from the funeral is in hospital. Every evening at half-past seven Aunt Käthe positions herself opposite one of the walls at the side, holding hands with each child. Then a face appears in one of the many windows, just clear enough to
Anna and Lotte that he has not been swallowed up into
in the same treacherous way their mother was. They wave and he waves back with a large white hand that passes back and forth in front of his face as though he wants to wipe himself out. Afterwards they go to sleep reassured. He comes home one day, thinner and drawn. When they climb up to hug him he puts them back on the ground with an embarrassed, melancholy laugh. ‘I mustn’t kiss you,’ he says weakly, ‘otherwise you’ll also become sick.’