Corine Hartman – Seeping Poison
Translation by Laura Vroomen
Last night I dreamt I entered in my wedding gown and he ran his eyes over my body without a word. It was a timid gaze—bashful—from a young man who doesn’t quite know what to do with a woman who looks so different all of a sudden. So grown-up.
I loved him. I really did.
My hands are trembling as I hesitantly reach for the keys. Two silver-coloured trinkets. This is the closest I’ve ever been to freedom, so close I can actually touch it. It’s a sign, yet another one; this can’t be a coincidence, not now.
They feel cold in my clammy hand. I turn them over a couple of times, as if to convince myself that this time I really am taking charge of my own destiny. He’s always so watchful. Safety first. The Browning must be kept in the steel gun cabinet, the ammunition in the safe. Both have to be locked and needless to say each key is to be kept out of reach of unauthorized persons. Unauthorized persons like me.
As I open the cabinet and lift the shotgun off its rest, I hear water running in the shower upstairs. I think of Hanna, of what she said about my namesake who was pardoned. That, too, was a sign, and it came from my very own daughter. That’s not to be sneezed at. I open the safe, remove two orange cartridges and load the gun. One cartridge above, one below. Click. The Browning feels smooth and familiar in my hands, even though I’ve only fired a similar weapon once before. That was during an afternoon session last month, just after the summer holidays, for members and their guests. I did remarkably well and even shot a pumpkin to smithereens from five metres away. The exit wound wreaked serious havoc and I remember thinking that if I were to hit Gijs in his stomach his guts would be in pieces.
With the gun beside me I sit down on the sofa, listening to familiar sounds: the creaking of some of the steps, the opening of the fridge door, the cap of a bottle dropping on the kitchen counter, a glass being poured. I’m overcome with nostalgia when I briefly close my eyes and picture him, with Hanna on his shoulders, still a toddler then, shrieking with laughter. And as a bashful groom. Moments of happiness I should have cherished more.
He enters the living room. ‘You didn’t cook dinner? What’s going…?’ Then I see his jaw drop, his gaze fixed on the Browning. There’s some beer foam on his upper lip, and his balding pate gleams in the bright autumn sunshine that floods the room. He clears his throat, his voice less self-assured than usual as he approaches and says: ‘God damn it, Jacq, are you completely off your rock…’
‘I’ll shoot if you come any closer,’ I cut him short before getting to my feet and taking a few sideways steps towards the TV to create more distance. ‘I mean it, Gijs.’ It doesn’t sound entirely convincing to my ears, so to reinforce my words I press the gun against my shoulder. And I take aim.
He has a condescending look in his eyes. It’s a look I know well. It gives me the shivers. In an instant all my insecurities flare up again. His look fills me with powerlessness—not with anger or a thirst for revenge, but with an intense feeling of powerlessness that makes me literally reel. But no, I have to be strong now. This is what I had in mind, right? Hanna agrees with me. The longing for my daughter surges through my body. Hanna. I miss her so much. Tears burn at the back of my eyes, as I focus on his gut in a shirt that’s so tight you can see the white of his vest between the buttons.
‘You can’t be serious,’ I hear him say. His voice is gentle and I feel myself going weak, catching a glimmer of his former self, of the Gijs other people know. Charming. Considerate. Nobody gets it. Nobody will ever get it. Except Hanna, that is.
I start crying. Tears roll down my cheeks. My legs refuse to carry me any longer, so I slump against the TV cabinet and slide down until I end up sitting on the floor. Sunlight flickers in my eyes so I narrow them to slits and see Gijs coming towards me and taking the gun out of my hands.
He doesn’t say anything. Like that time when he saw me in my wedding dress. Except the look he gives me now is different. It holds no trace of bashfulness, but of pity instead. I wish he’d hit me. Hard, really hard, so I’d pass out. So hard I’d never wake up again.
Gloves, I should have worn gloves, I thought to myself, while blowing hot breath into my hands. The sky was torturing me with chilly March showers, sleet and a strong wind that left my fingers bloodless and numb as I cycled to the nursing home. But gloves wouldn’t have been appropriate for this day, not according to Gijs that is. After breakfast I’d looked out of the window. A watery sun shone through the window, revealing particles of dust dancing in the air. He was right. Spring ought to be given a chance to break through properly now, and that didn’t leave any room for suspicion in the shape of wintry woollens.
But at De Horizon, where the heating was always on full blast, I still felt cold and even shivered a little as I pushed the coffee cart out of the lift.
Mr Grevers didn’t want a biscuit: ‘I bet they’re leftovers from a funeral last year, Miss Jacqueline.’ He winked as he said it. He was a dear old man and only grumbled when he hadn’t had any visitors in a long while. Yet I didn’t stick around when he stared out of the window, looking sad and muttering his dead wife’s name. And when Mrs Hagens produced her wedding album and invitingly patted the seat of the chair beside her with her blue-veined hand, I really couldn’t hack it anymore. I took my volunteering job very seriously though—and had done so for almost six years now, ever since Hanna left to be precise. But now I made myself scarce with a feeble excuse. I cycled over to my mother’s, my back arched, my hands firmly clasping the handlebars, half-praying all the while. I’d noticed she’d grown quiet again, that she looked tired and spent much of the morning in her dressing gown, dreading everything. Of course it occurred to me: what if… at which point I took my eyes off the road and was nearly knocked off my bike by a car coming from the right.
The house was quietly reassuring, the only stable factor; in all these years it had barely changed. The smell of tobacco in the open-plan kitchen, where mum lit a fire in the evenings, and while chain-smoking read the tarot and foretold a wretched future and horrific death to a neighbour or aunt who felt obliged to listen. But I didn’t see her and heard nothing, except the laboured ticking of the Frisian grandfather clock that always seemed to need a run-up to herald the hour.
Upstairs I went. The sixth and ninth steps creaked. On the bedside cabinet in her bedroom stood the photo of me and my father: an anxious looking man, his arms crossed, beside a ginger-haired toddler with a lollypop in her mouth. Freckles. Wide eyes. I couldn’t recollect the moment.
I looked around the bedroom, alarmed by something out of the ordinary. Something I saw, or smelled… and suddenly I spotted the black border around the frosted glass bathroom door, as if the gaps had been taped shut, and in front of it, on the floor, a piece of paper. I picked it up and read the words.
Don’t go into the bathroom!
I banged on the door. All remained quiet, so I banged harder. ‘Mum? Mum, what’s going on?’ I stood motionless with my hand on the door knob. Turn around, I thought, hurry down the stairs and get out of the house! Pretend I never came here. Gijs would say: let her go, if that’s what she wants.
Even so, I took my mobile out of my coat pocket, tapped Gijs’s name on the display and immediately considered cancelling the call. But I waited, hoping, fearing and looking around as if there might be a solution in the room somewhere. He didn’t answer. Shit, shit. I dashed down the stairs, out of the house, and ran to the neighbour across the street. Nettie. The candle maker. She’d help me. I hoped so anyway.
Every now and then I’d ask her about her son, a severely disabled child, and she’d always say he was ‘fine’. In actual fact, it was only during the major holidays that a taxi van dropped the boy off at home where, if my mother was to be believed, he did little else but drool. I was curious to know what it was like for her, a child she had no real contact with. Perhaps we could bond over it, or something. That crossed my mind in my rush to locate her. I didn’t find her in the shop crammed full of knick-knacks, but in her living room instead. She looked up flustered, but she must have seen the look of panic in my eyes, because she rose at once.
‘My mother…,’ I said, gesturing for her to come with me.
She grabbed her phone. ‘Emergency number,’ she explained curtly, as she accompanied me into the house. Back up the stairs. To the bathroom.
We looked at one another. ‘If we wait…’ she said, and at the same moment I pushed against the door. The fear of the guilt suddenly outweighed the fear of what I might find. I just wanted my mother to live. The door gave a little, but didn’t open, so I pushed again. Nettie threw her even bigger frame against it, and I uttered a cry of despair, as if to force it through sheer will. The tape nearly loosened, and on the third attempt we did it. The door flew open.
I remained rooted to the spot. The cold swept over me. I closed my eyes, afraid they might freeze right there and then, before very carefully opening them slightly and peering into the bathroom through my eyelashes. Not real, I thought, this is not real, this icy cold mist rising up. So white. It’s as if I’m looking down on heaven—a serene nothingness. And then this silence… Thinking I heard a sound, I realised I couldn’t just stand there. I began to feel faint, short of breath, which may have had something to do with what was lying on the bathroom floor. Blocks of ice, or so it seemed; white, steaming blocks of ice.
‘I hear sirens in the distance,’ Nettie said. ‘I’ll meet those guys downstairs. They need to get up here fast.’
I nodded, hearing her voice as if she were miles away, and coughed, feeling light-headed. Then I took a tentative step forwards. And another one. Until I hit something that yielded. With a hand in front of my nose and mouth, I bent down, my eyes more closed than open, and groped around me. In a reflex I pulled back my hand when I felt something icy against my fingers. Then I saw an arm, right in front of my feet, plus a hand and the sleeve of a blouse with a colourful flower pattern.
What was keeping them? I yanked at my mother’s arms with all my might and dragged her body out of the bathroom, counting myself lucky with her weight, which struck me as lighter than ever, but that may well have been my adrenaline. In the bedroom I closed the frosted glass door and pulled her further inside, because the mysterious mist appeared to be following us through the gaps. I sank to the floor, leaned over her and coughed while pressing the palms of my hands onto her chest. A moment later I blew air in between the red lips. If I pretended she was a doll, the kind used during the mandatory course at the nursing home, I’d be able to concentrate on what I’d learned. Thirty compressions at a rate of one hundred a minute, followed by two breaths. Thirty compressions, two breaths. A doll with reddish hair and red-painted lips. I placed the fingers of my left hand in her neck—the ones on my right felt as if they were on fire—and although the skin was cold, I did feel a pulse. It was weak, but unmistakable. I kept going at it furiously until the first responders arrived upstairs.
Translation by Laura Vroomen