Anita Terpstra – Different
Desperate, Alma cast the beam of her torch over the trees. The knot of nerves inside her stomach was growing by the minute. Maybe she would find Sander behind the next tree. Or the next. She had been playing this game for hours now.
He had to be here somewhere. It is not as if these woods were huge. They were not in bloody Canada or wherever they had forests the size of Dutch provinces. Around here a child could not disappear without a trace. Her child.
She did not want to think too much about the state she might find him in. Please God, not like Maarten. The poor boy. Sander was small, but strong. Not afraid of anyone. The fact that he had not been found alongside his friend gave her hope. It meant he had escaped. Fled. All she had to do now was find him. But why had he not run back to the farmhouse? She could not figure it out. Had he rushed off in a blind panic and lost his way?
He must be tired. Scared to death. Cold. And waiting for her. For her to hold him in her arms.
The moon looked full in the dark sky. It was June, but the nights were still bitterly cold. Her hands were numb and her teeth would not stop chattering. And yet, strangely enough, she was boiling hot. An intense fear burnt deep within, like fuel. She could keep this up for hours.
She tripped over the root of a tree that stuck out of the ground and only just managed to keep her balance. Just like the rest of the search party, she called out her son’s name every couple of seconds. Her voice was hoarse, her throat felt raw.
It was very windy and the treetops were swaying rhythmically. On the news, the weather forecaster had predicted bad weather for the entire weekend, storm even, prompting her to ask Linc whether he thought it was a good idea to let the camp go ahead. The camp was the initiative of the village youth club. Every Friday evening, children aged eleven to fifteen could amuse themselves in the multifunctional village hall, which also hosted a disco every Sunday afternoon. To mark the end of the school year the club always organised a holiday camp in June.
Linc, who had gone along as a volunteer leader, had said it was too late to call the whole thing off. There were no alternatives. All the other facilities nearby were fully booked and the summer holidays were due to begin in a week’s time. Besides, they were all sleeping in the farmhouse, rather than outside. Nothing to worry about.
Nothing to worry about.
Then why had Maarten been murdered? Why was she walking around here, searching for her child?
Her shoes were covered in mud. White plimsolls, the first things she had put on when that female police officer had turned up on her doorstep and asked her to come along with a solemn look on her face. And to think her wellies were in the utility room. She had seen the floor surging up towards her, but had managed to keep the black void at bay by grabbing hold of the doorpost.
She had only taken the time to quickly swap her jogging bottoms for a pair of jeans. She had been about to turn in for the night. This was the first time in years she was home alone and she had spent the whole evening in front of the TV, with wine and crisps. Iris had gone to camp as well.
Somehow or other she had been comforted to know that Linc was there too. He would make sure nothing happened to the children.
It was a foolish, irrational fear, she knew that. They were fifteen and eleven, and although Linc kept urging her to let go of the children, her maternal instinct told her otherwise. They were young, but that’s not to say they would not try to drink. Drink too much. Or smoke dope. Take pills. Peer pressure. She knew the score. She had been young once. And besides, as a nurse she had seen the mishaps that could befall people.
And so she had been lounging on the sofa, secure in the knowledge that Linc would keep an eye on things.
Then how in God’s name could this happen? This was something that happened to other people. Other families. Not hers.
She rubbed her numb hands until they tingled and tried to recall, as best she could, the conversation she had with the police officer in the car.
After pancakes for dinner they had moved on to the evening programme, which consisted of an orienteering challenge in the woods followed by a talent show. Alma knew about the talent show. Iris had been practising for weeks with her girlfriends. A track by Rihanna. Alma was thoroughly fed up with it. Please don’t stop the, please don’t stop the, please don’t stop the music. Finding the right clothes had taken twice as long as rehearsing the dance routine and memorising the lyrics. Iris had shown her an outfit which left little to the imagination and when Alma had protested Iris had accused her of being old-fashioned. This was how female singers dressed these days. Had she never seen any of their videos?
Sander was a completely different story. She had no idea what song he was going to mime. And with whom. He did not want to say. Whenever she asked him about it, he muttered something incomprehensible – which presumably meant ‘mind your own business’ in boy speak.
The wind blew her shoulder-length brown hair in front of her face. She wished she had brought a hair band. Who on earth would give the go-ahead for an orienteering challenge with a storm brewing? Sixteen children – not everybody had wanted to come along – had been split into groups of four. Four groups of four. Two older children with two younger children. Then the leaders had driven deep into the woods, had dropped the children off somewhere and told them to find their own way back to the farmhouse, without any pointers.
Sander and his best friend Maarten had been paired with Iris and her boyfriend Christiaan, but somehow or other they had lost sight of the two boys. Iris and Christiaan had searched, but could not find them anywhere. In the end Iris had phoned her dad to tell him ‘they’ were lost. Linc had driven over, only to discover that by ‘they’ Iris had meant just the boys. He had sent Iris and Christiaan to the farmhouse saying they should alert the others. He had gone out to search at once.
And then he found Maarten. Dead. Sander was nowhere to be found.
Alma screamed. It felt like a scream from one of her nightmares, the kind in which nobody heard her because her throat produced no sound. But that was not the case now, as people came rushing over from all directions.
She pointed to where she had seen someone, who had turned round and run off. Several police officers set off in pursuit. Loud, excited voices echoed through the woods. The dogs, she thought. The dogs are much faster. Unleash them.
She started running too, but gave up when she could no longer see the police officers. She looked about in a panic. Panting, and with nasty stitches in her side, she leaned against a tree. She was close to throwing up and swallowed furiously.
Exhausted, she rested her forehead against the cool tree trunk. She should have kept Sander at home. She could not stop thinking it. Why had she not listened to her intuition, her feelings, her premonitions? He really did not feel like going to camp, since some of his classmates would be there too. Things were very difficult at school. Sander was the smallest of the lot, always had been, and chubby to boot. It did not bother her, but the school doctor had already commented on it more than once. He had yet to find his feet, his form teacher had told them during a parents’ evening. A stupid thing to say, Alma thought. He had been in class with these kids since kindergarten. Was he being bullied, Alma had asked. She had blurted it out, almost flippantly, which had elicited a strange look from the teacher. She had wanted to explain the giggling by saying that she had always worried about Iris because of the port-wine stain on her face. Fate would be a cruel mistress if she chose to target Sander instead.
He liked to be on his own, and did not seem to have much need for friends. He was not a social animal, unlike his father and his sister. From day one Iris had dragged friend after friend back home from school. Not so Sander. He liked to be outside. As soon as he could ride a bike, he ventured out into the world. After school, he would barely take enough time to scoff some biscuits and wash them down with a glass of lemonade before he went off into the fields and the woods. Adventure beckoned. He would not reappear until around dinner time, dirty and frequently covered in scratches, bumps and bruises. When she asked him what he had been up to, his responses were always vague. Boy things.
School, being indoors, was a nightmare to him. And he hated football. The training sessions and matches were a big drama and after the umpteenth argument on the pitch they had withdrawn him. Linc struggled to accept that he did not have a son who liked to play football, so he could spend Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays on the sidelines, boasting about his child’s achievements to the other dads.
Sometimes she resented Linc’s attitude. A child could not choose his character, but as a parent you could decide how to relate to your child. That’s what she told Linc, over and over, every time he and Sander were at loggerheads. But lately he had been trying really hard, she had to admit. He was spending a lot of time with Sander.
Iris was a lot more like Linc. She had built up a nice circle of friends and was always busy doing stuff. A couple of months ago she started dating Christiaan, a farmer’s son, and had recently spent more time at Christiaan’s parents’ farm than at home.
It started drizzling. As she peered into the dark, waiting anxiously, Alma thought back to the day Sander was born. A nurse had held him in her arms and while rocking him had said: ‘This one’s going to be trouble.’ Alma had felt affronted. The little mite was barely a day old – how on earth would she know? But the woman had been right.
A second delivery is easier than the first, everybody had assured her. But Sander was not having any of it. It was as if he did not want to be born, as if he knew the world out there had something unpleasant in store. Or perhaps she had been the one who struggled to let go. She would have loved to have more children; it was the reason she had become pregnant with Iris at such a young age. But during the second pregnancy Linc had been adamant. No more after this. One child had been enough for him, but she had begged him for another. Even threatened to leave. And so Sander came along.
That’s why the post-natal depression had come as all the more of a surprise to her. For a long time she had refused to admit to herself that something was wrong. After the first few days, which she spent on a pink cloud, her feelings for Sander had changed. Suddenly she wanted nothing more to do with him. That feeling had persisted for months and only got worse. She sank deeper and deeper. The absolute low came the day she was bathing him and fantasised about drowning her little boy. All her troubles would be over in an instant and she would be herself again. Something inside, her old self, had known she was not nursing healthy thoughts about her son so she had gone to Linc in tears, confessing everything. It came as a huge shock to him. He was working long hours at the bank and had no idea what was going on at home. It had taken her a further six months to pull through and feel something akin to love for Sander. She felt guilty to this day.
From then on she had always done everything right.
So why was this happening? A sob escaped her throat. She clapped her free hand to her mouth to stifle a second one. Under no circumstances must she give in to this. It would not do Sander any good to be reunited with a hysterical, tearful mother later.
The wind whipped the drizzle into her face. Her cheeks were stinging from the cold. Once again, she cast the light of the torch over the trees, but there was no sign of movement whatsoever. Had the man got away? What should she do? Stay here or keep going?
Alma decided to walk back. The rest of the search team was waiting, having taking the opportunity for a short break. The police officer she accosted had not been able to make contact with his colleagues who had given chase and could not tell her anything, much to her frustration.
She glanced at her watch. Half past two. Before long the sun would be up again. Her head was a maelstrom of worries, leaving barely enough space for some simple arithmetic. The children had been dropped off at half past nine, when it was getting dark, and were expected back again around ten. Maarten had been found at half past midnight. That meant that Sander had been missing for anything between two and five hours. How many kilometres, on average, could a person cover per hour? No, wait, Sander was only a child. Taking into account the terrain, which was uneven and difficult to navigate in places because of the many fallen branches and raised roots … No, she could not figure out how many kilometres Sander might have walked. And it could have been in any direction. The dogs had failed to pick up a scent, so the search team had just started walking.
A thin trickle of cold snot ran from her nose to her upper lip. With the sleeve of her coat she wiped it away. Her mouth was dry. Was Sander thirsty too? And hungry? At home he ate non-stop.
Alma inhaled the sharp scent hanging in the air. A mixture of cold, mud and leaves. She reckoned she might be able to smell Sander. As a mother, she would recognise his smell instantly. Just after he had been born she could not get enough of his sweetish scent. If she could have bottled it, she would have. Somehow or other it always felt reassuring to come home to his smell in the room. But as soon as children hit puberty they start to smell differently. Over the years, Iris’s wholesome young girl’s scent had changed. The same would happen to Sander. Sweaty socks and unwashed body parts would arrive on the scene, she had been told by Marjo, who had an older son alongside Maarten.
Marjo. Poor, poor Marjo.
She took a shaky breath. ‘Sander,’ she yelled, her voice hoarse. ‘Where are you? Please come back to me. You’re safe with me.’
She wondered if the area had been cordoned off, if all cars were being searched. It must be like looking for a needle in a haystack. The woods could be accessed via several different roads.
Her ringtone started up inside her coat pocket. Since her fingers were half-frozen she had difficulty answering the phone. Linc, it said on the display. Her heart shifted up yet another gear.
At the other end of the line she heard her husband’s voice and the way he said her name pulled the rug out from under her. In the seventeen years they had been together she thought she had become familiar with all the different ways he could say her name – and what they implied. But this one was new to her.
‘We’ve found a coat, Alie. His coat. It’s blood-stained. I…’
She shook her head in disbelief. The phone fell from her limp fingers.
Six years later
As he looked at the hole his heart sank. It was nowhere near large and deep enough to bury the body. It was a bigger job than he had anticipated. The first couple of centimetres were no problem, but further down the earth was hard and it took a lot of strength to dig the shovel in. He feared he might not finish before daybreak.
The flame of the lamp he had hung from a branch created irregular shadows. The oil had nearly run out. He did have a torch with him, but he wanted to save the batteries as much as possible in view of the long journey ahead.
The eyes in the dark were leaving him in peace.
Despite the cold, he was sweating profusely. He had already taken off his coat, knowing that as soon as the job was done he ought to put on dry clothes before setting off or else his body temperature would drop too fast and he might develop hypothermia.
He paused a moment to drink some water, all the while avoiding looking at the body. And resolutely suppressing any thoughts about the life this man had led. The lives he had destroyed. His life. You could say the bastard had died a merciful death. But perhaps he was burning in hell this very minute. The only good thing about his death was that other boys would be spared a lot of grief in future. Because people like him never stop, whatever they claimed. Whatever they swore to you.
The dead man had never revealed much about himself. He knew his name was Eelco, that he was over fifty and that he had once been married. Eelco must have been normal back then. And by normal he meant that Eelco must have held a regular job and had lived in a regular house. That said, he had no idea what kind of job that might have been. Probably something with his hands. Eelco was good with his hands. He had no children as far as he knew. But perhaps he had abandoned them when he had moved into the woods, when he had withdrawn from civilisation.
He did not know what had prompted Eelco’s seclusion. Could it be that things got too hot for him? Eelco had never raised the issue and he had never dared to ask.
The bitter truth is that without Eelco he would never have coped out here. Eelco had taught him how to survive in the woods. Valuable lessons. He was a quick learner, even though Eelco had snorted with derision when he puked while skinning his first hare. But after a week or so he did it just as fast and efficiently as Eelco. Or so he told himself.
Eelco had shown him how to make river water drinkable, which plants you could and could not eat and which had a medicinal effect, how to make and set traps, how to find and recognise animal tracks and how to make fire.
He had adjusted surprisingly quickly. Except he never got used to the vastness of the woods. When it was stormy, especially, he detested these woods. Sometimes a tree would topple unexpectedly, as if it had enough of the wind which had been battering it for decades and simply decided to give up the fight. Sometimes lightning struck. But the hardest thing was the fact that the trees kept the sunshine out.
And if there was anything he would not miss it would be the nights when, even more than during the day, the sounds came to the fore. Earsplittingly clear. The rustling of the leaves, the noises of the wild animals, the relentless tapping of rain on the roof – the roof that leaked occasionally. When that happened Eelco would wake him up in the middle of the night to go up on the roof and repair it. Afterwards he would crawl back under the covers, dripping wet and chilled to the bone.
And although he had grown used to the food, it was never like the old days. It left him with frequent stomach aches. It was certainly no picnic to hover above a hole in the ground with your trousers around your ankles. To wipe your arse with leaves.
He simply could not understand what attracted Eelco to this way of life, however many times Eelco had tried to explain it to him. It was supposed to be pure. Without frills. Back to basics. And more of that kind of bullshit. Nights on end, sometimes until the early hours, he had had to listen to Eelco’s home-spun philosophies. The world outside of the woods was fake. Full of people wishing each other the very worst, yet smiling sweetly at each other. Too many people who did not care about others, only about money, who competed with one another to see who had the biggest car, the biggest house, the most expensive holiday. Man had been led astray by greed. Money was the apple which had driven man out of paradise for good. The soul of mankind was being poisoned by envy and had withered to the size of a small pip. It was too late to turn the tide, because nobody would listen. Humanity was heading for its own downfall. Luckily there were people who had woken up in time and had thrown off the yoke of capitalism. No, no, he was not a communist. Communism was full of rules and restrictions and he did not fancy any of that. There were more people like him, but they were a minority. Nobody listened to them. They were dismissed as lunatics. Some could not handle it and succumbed to drink and drugs. Not him. No, no, he had realised that nature could cleanse your soul. He had created his own paradise here. Animals could not betray you. Rocks never accused you of anything. Trees did not gossip about you behind your back. Here your only concern was that you got enough to eat every day. And he had learned that going hungry for a day did not kill you either. He had never felt as fit and healthy as he did now.
An idiot’s hogwash.
He had built the hut with his bare hands, Eelco had told him proudly. But that the materials Eelco had used for this hut had come from the civilised world was something he failed to mention. Or that he had a frying pan, cups, plates, forks, spoons and knives from the same civilised world. And clothes. Blankets. Eelco was nowhere near as independent as he thought or claimed to be. Every once in a while he left the woods first thing in the morning and would return at the end of the day with bags full of necessities. Matches, tobacco, wire, traps, ammunition.
But he never said any of this. Nor did he point out that Eelco’s soul would never be pure because he could not keep his hands off little boys. The one time he had opened his mouth, he had paid a heavy price. The scar on his cheek reminded him of how the bottle had smashed against the wall behind him and a piece of glass had wedged itself in his face. A few centimetres higher and it would have been his eye.
At some point he had given up trying to understand Eelco. He was mad. That’s all there was to it.
Eelco distilled his own alcohol. He had tried some once – it always made Eelco extremely jolly –, but the next day he had regretted it bitterly. He had never felt so rotten. His head had felt as if it had been separated from his torso and his internal organs appeared to be floating around his body, colliding constantly. Once, but never again.
Of course Eelco had laughed at him. Wimp. You’ll never be a real man.
It did not bother him. He knew he did not belong here. It was only temporary. He clung to that thought. It kept him going. Many times he had wanted to chuck it all in, but he knew he must not give up. He had a plan.
The light of the lamp flickered a little and went out. His heart started thumping. Fighting the urge to switch on the torch, he waited until his eyes got used to the darkness. Soon enough he was able to make out shapes.
Reluctantly, he let go of the tree. He could not leave Eelco here like this. The animals would find him and devour him. Not that Eelco would mind. He would view it as part of nature.
Determined, he drove the tip of the shovel into the ground. The sharp tang of mud entered his nostrils. His trousers and shoes were black. Sand crunched between his teeth.
Translated by Laura Vroomen