Anita Terpstra – Spark
THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS
Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Not all that long ago this was just another expression for me, as it is for most people. Until something happens that suddenly, wham-bam, turns your whole world completely upside-down.
With me it was the accident.
But more about that later.
Hate loves company, I’ve noticed. It comes with so many other negative emotions. Revulsion. Anger. Self-pity. They remind me of those little fish that swim in the wake of sharks, whales or whatever mammal it may be, and get a piece of the pie that way. They owe their existence to the other, far larger creature.
I reckon I’m high on pain medication. I’m not normally like this.
Another one of those expressions I now have personal experience of: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Stronger, yes, but not necessarily better. It’s what folk who utter this sort of nonsense always add: I’m glad it happened, because it’s made me a better person.
Whenever people talk like this I want to throw up. They are the people who refuse to accept that some things happen for no reason at all. What is a thirteen-year-old girl supposed to learn from the loss of her lower leg? What can a young father learn from a stroke that lands him in a wheelchair?
Or take me. Victim of a fire. Why don’t you tell me how to become a better person with a body that’s been ravaged by flames.
I have a nose for such people. Or that’s to say, I had a nose. Forgive me. Gallows humour. The plastic surgeon claims he can make me a new one. Maybe I’m supposed to be grateful for that? For finally getting a pretty nose?
Sometimes I worry that I’m going insane. This place has that effect on you. It’s the silence in here at moments when I’m alone. I always thought that by now I’d experienced pretty much every kind of silence there is – the hesitant silence between the final dance step on stage and the audience’s applause, the shocked silence after I’ve insulted my loved one to the core, or the other way around –, but now I know better. Take the silence when family or friends see me for the first time.
Or rather: what’s left of me.
‘Ms De Kooning?’ An unfamiliar female voice. Friendly. Calm. Gentle.
I’d been through this before. A déjà vu. Water. The children.
‘Ms De Kooning? Mischa?’
I said yes, didn’t I? God, how irritating is she.
‘She’s not reacting.’
I’m answering, all right?
Why was it so dark around me? The sound of rustling and shuffling. My eyelid was lifted and someone shone a small torch into my eye.
‘Ah, good, her pupil reacts. She’s awake.’
I wish that woman would lift my eyelid again. I tried my hardest to do it myself, but couldn’t. I thought I’d caught a glimpse of something green. I just couldn’t quite place the colour.
A hand pinched my right shoulder. It hurt like hell.
‘She’s reacting to pain stimuli.’
No shit. What would you do if I hurt you?
‘Try to open your eyes, Mischa. You’re at the burns unit.’
Not water. Fire this time.
‘My name is Jantien, I’m one of the nurses here.’ A brief silence followed. I wanted Jantien to continue. She cleared her throat. ‘There was a fire at your home. You were injured. But don’t worry, you’re in good hands here.’ The words were meant to be reassuring, the equivalent of a pat on the head, but instead they made the hair in the back of my neck stand on end. Fire, yes, I remembered. The smoke that wrapped itself around me like a boa constrictor, the roar of flames coming after me.
So different from water and yet the same. One cold, the other hot, both deadly. Essential to life, but in large quantities they’d kill you, wasn’t that ironic? And cruel. Yes, ironic and cruel. It didn’t hesitate to take everything. Not because it could or had to, but simply because that was its nature. Neither fire nor water has a conscience. Flashing somewhere in the back of my mind, like a flickering fluorescent tube, was the realisation that someone had exposed me to this destructive force.
The voice recalled me to the here and now, away from the articulation of a name. I tried to open my mouth, but I didn’t manage that either. I tried to feel my body. Normally I always hurt somewhere. Not a day went by when I didn’t push through the pain during exercises at the barre. Stiffness. Especially in my lower back. Bruises. Not to mention the calluses, corns, cuts, sores or missing toenails.
Right now I didn’t feel anything. And that came as a shock. No pain wasn’t right.
I turned my head to the glass sliding door that opened out onto the anteroom, as the adjoining space was called. A nurse, petite, plump and young, covered from head to toe in protective green clothing, including gloves, surgical mask and cap, looked at me questioningly.
I was in intensive care, in a special room fitted with a humidification system. It served to filter the air. The apparatus on the ceiling was blasting away and was positioned straight over my bed. A doctor – I couldn’t by God remember which one; an entirely battery had filed past me in recent days, one to look at this, the other at that, and I’d given up keeping track of what exactly they came for – had explained to me that your skin protects you from infections and regulates body temperature and moisture. Because of the burns my skin had lost these protective functions. That’s why I was in this room. To reduce the risk of infections the staff wore this get-up. It reminded me of movies in which life-threatening viruses had broken out.
I knew it was to protect me, but it made me feel dirty. I’d never felt the urge to hide, on the contrary, but now I did. I was the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons, and it was all because of Mischa. If I’d still been able to use my hands I’d have placed them around her delicate neck and happily squeezed the life out of her. She should have died. Her death would have solved all of my problems.
The only thing I knew about her condition was that because of smoke inhalation she was on a ventilator and kept in an induced coma. The heat had singed her lungs, which in turn had caused swelling.
‘When will you start calling me Nikolai?’ I asked the nurse.
‘The police are here… Nikolai. Detective Hans Waanders. He’d like to ask you a few questions in connection with the fire. The doctor has given his consent.’
I nodded. I’d heard that the detective had been here before, but that the doctors had turned him away.
‘I’ll go and get him. It could take a while. He’ll have to go through all the safety procedures.’ Amid a great deal of rustling she left.
I looked at my bandaged hands lying in front of me on the table. Staying in bed wasn’t an option. I’d been told to sit up and move as much as possible; it boosted my chances of recovery. It was good for my lungs, muscles and joints.
Behind me it was a jumble of machines and wires, some of which were attached to my body. Everything around me beeped, pumped and sighed.
Will I be able to dance again?
It was the first question I’d asked the doctor, after he’d talked me through my injuries. Third-degree burns on my back, right shoulder, both hands and right thigh and second-degree ones dotted around the rest of my body. The third-degree burns would have to be operated on, because they wouldn’t heal by themselves. Some second-degree burns heal without intervention. What didn’t heal within two weeks would be operated on after all. The operations involved the surgeon scraping away the burnt skin to reveal healthy tissue. Because it caused the skin to bleed, only small pieces could be operated on at any one time, approximately ten per cent per surgery. It would probably take several procedures to patch me up again. Where the skin had been removed, the surgeon would perform a skin graft, harvested from intact parts of my thighs.
The fact that transplanted skin has a tendency to contract and not grow with the body can be troublesome. The skin can tighten so much as to restrict movement, for instance around the joints. Not to mention the scars.
‘My body is my instrument,’ I uttered. I needed my hands and arms to lift my partner, my legs and feet to execute moves including pirouettes, arabesques and grand allegros.
‘You will certainly be able to use your hands to carry out the normal functions.’
Normal functions? Did she mean getting dressed, shaving, tooth brushing, grocery shopping and other such mind-numbingly boring things? I really couldn’t give a fuck. That’s what I said and my outburst of anger earned me a pair of raised eyebrows from the doctor.
‘I want to be able to dance again and if you guys here can’t accomplish that, then you’d better take me to a burns unit that can. Be it here or abroad!’
‘They’ll tell you the same as me,’ she replied. Her eyes looked serious, her forehead divided in two by a deep frown.
‘We’ll see about that.’ This woman clearly didn’t have a clue. ‘What if I told you that you wouldn’t be able to operate anymore? Well?’
‘Of course I’d mind that very much,’ she said in a soothing voice. ‘But I’d look for other things I could do. Research, teaching…’
I wouldn’t let her finish. ‘Not being able to dance is not being alive.’
‘We’re getting ahead of ourselves,’ she said calmly, decisively. ‘We’ll have to…’
The rest of her words were drowned out by the beeping of several machines. The doctor had a quick look and seemed reassured by what she saw, because she placed a hand on my shoulder.
‘I’m sorry. I’m causing you distress, and I didn’t mean to. We’re having this conversation far too early. I must urge you to remain calm. Getting worked up isn’t good for the state you’re in.’
I wanted to challenge her, but the truth was that I felt pretty lousy. I was used to dancing for three hours on end, elite sport, but the exhaustion that now racked my body was new to me. And extremely unpleasant. I was dead beat. A nurse had told me that my recovery was akin to running marathons 24/7. I was tube-fed, four thousand calories a day. The burns were responsible for raising my metabolism which, if I didn’t receive enough calories, would start eating into my muscle tissue because my body needed the fuel.
‘I understand you’re worried, but it’s still too early to make any meaningful pronouncements on your recovery,’ the doctor resumed. ‘You’ve just been in a dreadful, traumatic fire. We’ll leave it at this. Try to get some sleep. You need rest.’
‘Can I see Mischa?’
‘We can’t move either of you. Because of the risk of infection,’ she said.
‘Am I allowed visitors?’
‘The fewer the better, but you can use the phone of course. Or how about Skype? I understand you have a son. Your face is unscathed, so Skype is no problem.’
A nurse had made tentative enquiries about family. Was there anyone she could call for me? She’d clearly pitied me when I said that there was no need. My mother-in-law Dorothée had asked to visit, but I’d declined.
How about friends, she’d tried, but I hadn’t known who to call. I had plenty of friends at the ballet, but no close friends. A couple of hours later the nurse had turned up with clothes that had been left at the hospital. ‘I bet you don’t want to walk around in a hospital gown all day.’ I’d had to overcome a barrier to put on the clothes, but the barrier to call one of the dancers and ask him to buy me underwear was even higher. As soon as I was out of the ICU, I could presumably do it myself. That said, I had no money at my disposal. I didn’t even have a mobile phone anymore.
I could use the landline, but I hadn’t phoned Gregory yet. What on earth was I supposed to say to the boy?
I looked outside. Not that there was a lot to see. A wall, windows, and behind them rooms full of sick people. That said, I wasn’t able to take anything in. It was all hazy inside my head and that irritated me. I had to be perfectly clear for what was bound to come.