Authors: Tessa de Loo
She was oppressed, threw the blankets off and turned on her side. When it was almost morning she fell asleep despite herself. Her dream was populated with angels of diverse plumage. She recognized most of them at once, some only after thinking it over a little. With one exception they were operating together. The angels on either side of the steps to the Karlskirche left their plinths and flew, with strong beats of the wings and rustling robes over the green dome into the clouds, grasping the crosses to their breasts. The graceful female guards at the Thermal Institute stepped off
the porch and flew after them. Up above, on a gold-fringed cloud, lay the two naked women who normally reclined on a shell-like decoration in the hall; the one strenuously tried to catch they eye of the other who was (deliberately?) looking past her pensively. The pink reflection of the setting sun touched all the faces. Behind, where the night announced itself in deep purple, a figure suddenly dived from a great height, gliding down in a broad, black coat. He held his hat down on his head with one hand, he clutched a walking stick in the other. Two plump children followed astride a fish, making use of the slipstream behind his wide flapping coat. Anna thought she vaguely remembered coming across them
on a monument to the famous people who had visited Spa over the centuries: a cherub sat on a fish with a malevolent expression, on either side of a stone frame with the names.
After that it was night. Nothing flew past offering a distraction except by the light of the moon an unexpected angel, no, eagle, which cleaved like a thunderbolt through the blackness that was exactly as deep and absolute as the black-out nights had been in the war. Anna tossed onto her other side, which abruptly deprived her – released her from her dreams.
A cord hung above the decorative curved copper bath-tub with a handle that said ‘Pull’ in four languages. When the alarm clock gave the signal that the prescribed time was up, a short tug by the bath guest brought the arrival of a woman in a white overall, who helped with getting out and drying.
Lotte’s final week had begun with a peat bath and a carbonated bath. She was resting, swathed in a towel; glasses of Spa-Reine were also cleansing her within. Silence reigned as in a padded cell. No sound whatsoever penetrated from the outside world, as though the complex of bathrooms lay in caves deep beneath the Hoge Venen, right at the source of the springs.
But the silence was rudely interrupted. Somewhere nearby somebody cursed: ‘Mon Dieu!’ Hurried footsteps in the corridor. A scream immediately suppressed. Her door was thrown open; the woman in the white overall stood on the threshold wringing her hands. ‘Madame, madame … since you were always together … venez … votre amie …’
Lotte slid into her slippers and followed the woman to one of the adjoining bathrooms where the door was wide open. Inside, the doctor was being summoned. Someone ran out blindly and almost bumped into Lotte. She took two steps on the tiled floor. At first she could only see the broad back of the woman in front of her, who then stepped aside ostentatiously to allow her to see what had not passed her lips.
Anna was staring at her with glazed eyes out of a peat bath – it looked as though she had been decapitated, or her body had sunk for ever into the deep brown morass while her head had remained, forced up by the muddy mass. She was staring at Lotte with a gaze
that lacked all the emotions: excitement, irritation, scorn, rage, sorrow … a total absence of all those feelings that had alternated kaleidoscopically with each other for two weeks and together had formed the complexity called Anna. The most oppressive thing was that she was so obviously silent … that she was not explaining what had happened to her, according to custom, talking
and gesticulating. Lotte looked around, orphaned. It was a bathroom like all the others, warm and damp. Had she become breathless? The light blue tiles ended at the top in a border with shell motifs – this was the last thing Anna had seen. Had it reminded her of the Baltic Sea where she had almost drowned, together with her husband … where, subsequently, she would have preferred to have drowned …? This was the last Anna had seen – just before then she had been alive and had got into the bath as vital as always. A macabre, tasteless joke was being played on her … Next thing she would start to move again: Mein Gott, what a ridiculous situation this is …!
A doctor rushed in followed by a rescue team. ‘What is she doing here?’ one of them protested. ‘This is no time to let a guest in.’
‘But she is her friend …’ stammered the nurse who had alerted Lotte.
Lotte moved back, away from that empty hollow gaze where only a heartbreaking nothing still came out, away out of all that unexpected, ultimate intimacy that Anna had involved her in
The nurse came running after her. ‘Excusez-moi madame … I thought you ought to know immediately … Perhaps … perhaps they can still help her … Sometimes wonders are done with
… We have to wait … Where are you going now?’
‘To the Salle de Repos,’ said Lotte hoarsely, ‘I … think I ought to lie down for a moment.’
‘Of course … je comprends … I will keep you informed …’
Apart from the busts of two professors who had contributed
much to the development of healing baths, and a solitary female figure who walked through a deserted landscape in a large painting that dominated the whole room, there was no one in the rest-room. Lotte flopped down on a bed at random. Too late, too late echoed in her head. She realized that she had constantly taken for granted the luxurious presumption that she still had all the time in the world. And now, all of a sudden, on a Monday morning, with one week still to go, Anna had taken herself off from that scenario. How was it possible …? Anna, indestructible Anna, who never ran out of talk and not just because of that always seemed to have
life … Like Sam and Moos in the joke with which Max Frinkel kept morale up in the war: Sam and Moos, only survivors of a shipwreck, answered the question, ‘How did you manage that?’ with busy gesticulation reminiscent of a dog-paddle: ‘We went on talking as usual.’
Outside the doves were cooing, as always. Everything was as it always was, only now something essential was missing. Fourteen days ago she did not yet exist for me, thought Lotte, and now will I miss her? Yes, roared the silence in the Salle de Repos, admit it! ‘Tomorrow, I promise, I will let my quieter side show,’ Anna had said. That airy promise was now coming about in a sour, ominous daylight. Whether she opened or closed her eyes, Lotte still saw that one frozen image before her. They had not been able to say goodbye. There was so much I still wanted to say to her, she thought, in a crescendoing feeling of remorse. Oh yes, what then, cried a cynical voice, what would you have said to her if you had known what was going to happen? Something nice, something that spoke of involvement, something consoling, perhaps? Would you ever have been able to say to her what she actually wanted to hear, which had come to mean everything to her? Would you ever have succeeded in squeezing out those two words: ‘I understand …?’
Those two words, apparently so simple, so revolutionary for Lotte, assembled in her throat as though she still wanted to propel them out – now that it was too late, too late, too late. Instead of
that she began to cry, noiselessly and discreetly, entirely in keeping with the atmosphere in the Salle de Repos. Why had she remained stuck all that time in the resistant position she had adopted from the beginning? Although she had gradually acquired more and more understanding of Anna, and sympathy, she had remained fixed in unapproachability, intentionally obstinate. Out of
revenge, not even intended for Anna? Out of solidarity with the dead, her dead? Or out of a deeply engraved mistrust: beware the apology ‘We did not know’, beware of understanding – you could even understand a hangman if you knew his background.
Her powerlessness flowed down her cheeks – too late, too late. The cooing of the doves sounded increasingly like mockery to her ears. Irrevocably too late. To escape from herself she raised the blinds and looked at the grey courtyard hiding behind them, the doves’ domain. As she stared outside from behind the glass she recalled the memory Anna had wanted to share with her the previous evening, right at the very end. She saw herself, with an intensity as though it had happened the day before, sitting on a coffin on the sofa together with her sister and tapping on the
with her shoes – a tamtam to demand their mother to make haste. She saw two pairs of sturdy legs, white socks, shoes with bows. They pattered exactly in time, as though together they had one pair of legs – not only to warn their mother but also to drown out the din of the strange voices behind them and in order to keep an unbearable reality at a distance. She looked sideways at Anna’s blonde head, her tightly closed lips were pursed and fierce eyes cast her a conspiratorial look.
Too late! Lotte let go of the blind. The door opened at that moment and the woman in the white overall, her personal angel of death, tiptoed in.
‘Alas …’ she clasped her hands together, ‘they could not do any more for her. The heart, ah. We knew … it was in her dossier that she had a weak heart and that we should not make her bath too hot … Do you know if she had family? Someone must organize
her transport to Cologne and the funeral … We don’t know … After all you were her friend …’
‘No …’ said Lotte, straightening up. Her gaze fell on the bottles of mineral water and the stack of plastic beakers. Again she heard Anna asking in school French, ‘C’est permis … for us … to drink this water?’ And again she heard herself replying, from an intuition the consequences of which she only now accepted: ‘Yes, das Wassser können Sie trinken.’
‘No …’ she repeated, looking at the woman defiantly, ‘I am …’ she is my sister.’
‘One of the most extraordinary and haunting novels I have read. The plot moves between the time of the height of Amsterdam’s hippy era to Nazi-occupied Holland and back to Budapest at the turn of the 20th century. It traces the story of a Dutch girl in the Sixties who finds out that her Jewish father had been hidden in the war by his non-Jewish lover; and she learns that a young man she has met and wants to have a relationship with may also be his son and her brother. Her journey of exploration takes a riveting narrative back to the Second World War and beyond to her grandparents’ beginnings in poverty in imperial Hungary. Part thriller, part poignant dramatic poem, it lingers disturbingly in the memory’
–David Lister, Books of the Year,
‘An intriguing smoking gun … complete with simmering and forbidden sexual passion’
‘Tessa de Loo, author of the international best-seller
has an aptitude for describing human emotion and experience, while never allowing the myriad separate stories to interrupt the flow of the text’
‘A fascinating way to understand the effects of war, the tangled, muddied absurdity of it, how its traces remain in the blood for generations’
‘So deft, the book repays a second reading, to appreciate its subtlety’
‘A consummate dramitization of the impenetrable mysteriousness of other people’s lives: convincing proof that de Loo is one of Europe’s most acomplished novelists’
‘This gripping, pared-down narrative hinges on a stunning coincidence. De Loo’s simple, delibrate prose and thoughtful compassion make this a virtuoso performance’
‘A sublime tale of abjectional desire, and the guilt that comes from being a survivor. Her world is dramatic and haunting, forcing the reader to question the basis of their own morality. Recommended’
‘A very satisfying read. De Loo’s strength lies in conjuring up incidents succinctly, with a few telling images that develop a solid reality for the reader’
First published in 2000
by Arcadia Books, 15-16 Nassau Street, London, W1W 7AB
This ebook edition first published in 2011
All rights reserved
Copyright © Tessa de Loo 1993
Originally published in Dutch by Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam
English translation copyright © Ruth Levitt 2000
The right of Tessa de Loo to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
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