Margriet de Moor – Of Birds and People
A morning in June
It was an early June morning, and he was on his way home. He turned on to his street. A tranquil silence, but a deceptive one. The other cars were all still parked along the curb under the hawthorns. The young trees were in bloom. Light pink flowers. It was just after six. On this street, Mozartstraat in Schalkwijk, daily life would not begin for another half hour at the earliest. Schalkwijk was a village nestled amid green fields and water. It had a past that stretched back to the Middle Ages, but it now fell under the municipality of Haarlem.
As he got out of his car, he didn’t take any special notice of the exuberant din being made by the birds in the hawthorns. Their jubilant chirping was a familiar sound. A gardener by trade, Rinus Caspers worked as a bird control specialist at the airport, which was located about five or six miles away. An unflappable, friendly man, used to working on his own and always willing to pick up the occasional night shift as a favor to a co-worker. Being alone at night under a starry sky or a big cluster of rain clouds – it was a mystery to him how anyone could see it as a lonely job.
He crossed the street, walking to the house he shared with his wife and son, a middle unit in a newly built quadruplex. He took no more notice of the man and woman in neutral attire, sitting in the front seat of a Volkswagen, than he did of the twittering birds. The two were on the job. Soon they would be making an arrest, hopefully without any fuss. Nothing special in and of itself; only this time, it was a woman, though that, too, was hardly unprecedented in their line of work.
He closed the front door behind him. The dog, a border Collie, started sniffing intently at his pants and boots. On this occasion, he had not been allowed to go along with his master to see the planes, and he was keen to find out what he had missed. The rising sun shone through the bay window in the living room into the front hall. Rinus hung his bomber jacket up between the coats and scarves of Marie Lina, his wife, and Olivier, his son. He assumed the two of them would be enjoying another hour’s rest, warm in the scent of sleep, dead to the world.
‘Go to your basket,’ he quietly ordered the dog.
He took his boots off and carried them through the kitchen to the back patio, where he would hose them off later in the day. He had been tramping around quite a bit on the runways last night. There were reports from the tower that an owl had been seen flying over the runways. After that there had been a potentially serious threat to attend to: a plastic shopping bag was drifting down runway 18R, where two colossal 747s and a sleek VIP plane were lined up, waiting for the tower to give them clearance to depart. Because of the plastic bag.
He, too, was now lying there in the morning twilight, just as comfortably as his wife and child but without that languid aura of warm breath and blood. If he smelled like anything in particular, it would have been toothpaste. He didn’t want to clatter around in the shower at such an early hour, so he simply slid into bed next to her, just as he was after an eight-hour night shift. Marie Lina, the woman who never sweated. Always slightly warmer than he was – soft, but never sweaty. He briefly let his hand rest on her rising and falling belly. Sleep on, even though you know I’m here and you’ve already turned over. Sleep on, in the firm conviction that you know who I am and know that I know who you are, to the very depths of your being. He gave his consciousness free rein. It slipped through his fingers and dissolved. He saw the full dimensions of the room around him, mused about the half day he had taken off tomorrow, thought: you know what? I’m going to tie up the sweet pea in the garden; then he saw the room again, with a woman’s robe with red flowers hanging on the door.
Before going to bed, Marie Lina had climbed the attic steps in those red flowers to tuck her son in. Olivier slept in the small room under the slanted roof, his mattress on the boards. That’s what he had wanted. He was eleven now and would probably be headed off to vocational school before long. Last summer he had gone missing for several hours, and they had been worried sick. He hadn’t come home from school. Oh God, a child of ten! Don’t do that ever again, his parents had begged him after a police officer had dropped him off in the kitchen, long after dinnertime, where they had been waiting for him, sitting in front of their plates of meat, potatoes and vegetables.
But he wasn’t hungry.
‘I already had a hamburger and fries and ice cream,’ he said. ‘Three scoops.’
Rinus and Marie Lina Caspers heard that the police had found their son with a very elderly woman at McDonalds. The woman claimed the boy had offered her a cup of coffee and that she had wanted to return the favor.
After the police officer had left, the three were silent for a time. Father, mother and lost son had just looked at each other. Then: ‘Can I sleep with Sjaak tonight?’
Olivier glanced down at the dog.
‘Yes sure, go ahead.’
When Marie Lina had gone upstairs later on, the boy was fast asleep, but the dog, who was pressed up close against his young master under the blanket, had lifted his head from the pillow.
In the dark, his eyes flashed in the direction of Marie Lina Caspers, née Marie Lina Bergman and still often called ‘Lineke’ by her husband, a childhood nickname.
All right, just a quick chat then
Her whispers coaxed him back to the surface. It had been another one of those times when they barely had a chance to talk. With their work schedules and night shifts – Marie Lina was a nurse – they had become proficient at briefing each other on anything of note that might have happened during the day.
She formally asked him how his night had been:
‘How did it go?”
He let the night hover between them for a moment, knowing that the birds of the airport interested her as much as they did him: immensely. It was something they happened to have in common. The other animals interested her too: the hares, moles, ermines and polecats, which were quite rare elsewhere in the country, but not there. The runways at Schiphol airport and the grassy patches in-between them were, from the animals’ point of view, a primeval space without people. The planes did not seem to disturb them.
Rinus told him wife that it had been a fairly quiet night, but that when he was leaving he had seen some buzzards waiting on the approach lights.
She chuckled at this, imagining the scene as if it were happening in front of her. Marie Lina was a voracious reader, just like her late mother, and this was why she, like her mother, had the ability to conjure up anything she wanted in her mind’s eye.
‘They were staring at you, perched between the pigeon spikes,’ she said.
He nodded in the dark. And she continued to describe the scene: ‘Along the western runway, at their regular observation post…’
‘The same place where you saw that one before…’
He nodded again. She was talking about the buzzard that had arrived in Rio de Janeiro in the form of a clump of ice in the landing gear of a KLM plane. The landing gear had refused to open. The plane ended up making a belly flop landing next to the runway. There were no fatalities, apart from the buzzard.
‘Right, same place.’
He pulled the top sheet partway over his face and almost entirely over hers, a habit she had not succeeded in breaking him of in twelve years of marriage.
Although she had never accompanied her husband to his job (Olivier had gone once; the security guards had turned a blind eye to him), she could clearly picture the vast open spaces, bordered by old Dutch farmhouses in the first light of day. Imagine, her gaze seemed to say, how everything was starting up again, and always at the busiest time of the whole 24-hour period. The tower coaxed plane after plane into the sky. They roared past the cows, who took no notice of them, and crawled into space, which absorbed them like a sheeting of blotting paper.
This was the only thing on her mind.
But now they were both asleep, the human scarecrow and his serene wife, Marie Lina, who had gotten into a fight with another woman early yesterday afternoon. It was a ferocious brawl, and she had truly wanted to hurt the other woman.
So how could she be sleeping so peacefully the following night?
Like a log – no, like a baby.
The incident took place by the enormous, chaotic construction site in front of Amsterdam Central Station, where the municipality had starting laying a new modern subway line. Directly across from the main entrance to the station, a 40-foot-deep hole had been drilled in the marshy ground. The hole measured around 250 feet by 250 feet. If you leaned over the casually low wooden fence that had been put up around the site, you could see the groundwater exposed by the digging. Reeking of phosphorous, it reached from the depths below the city to no more than a foot or so below street level. In theory, pedestrians were not supposed to loiter there – there were two convenient crosswalks on the other side of the street – but there were plenty of them who did so anyway. If you were approaching the station from the side of the Prins Hendrikkade, it was the obvious route to take. When Marie Lina exited the station on the eastern side, near where tram 26 stopped, she saw the woman in question walking – call it a coincidence – and went up to her without hesitation.
Marie Lina in a T-shirt and pants.
Marie Lina was not wearing a jacket in this nice weather and was carrying only a light shoulder bag, which she wore diagonally across her chest.
Marie Lina and her will. A calm, normal will, like any other person had, and a dark furious will, also like any other person’s, but in her case, it was something she had been lugging around with her for years like a gigantic duffel bag, something she was accustomed to and which she cherished like a part of her body, an appendage you simply had to make do with, take care of and respect.
Now she was striding along the fence, which she vaguely associated with the barrier she remembered from a wonderful circus performance she had seen as a child. The curvature of the fence looked exactly like it and somehow evoked memories of lions and tigers. She stopped, still eerily calm, blocked the other woman’s path and grabbed her by the upper arms with the intention of looking her in the eyes, giving her a good shaking and staring at her long enough until she realized who was standing in front of her. Then she wanted to shout at few choice words at her, scratch out her eyes and surrender to the intoxication of a moment that had begun so many years before.
The woman seemed to expect the attack. She started fighting back immediately. Although she was no longer young, she certainly did not look like a frail old lady, too feeble to be held accountable for her deeds and pay for them, with interest. A good bit taller than Marie Lina, Klazien Wroude tried to tear herself loose. When that did not work, she started kicking at Marie Lina fiercely with her orthopedically shod feet.
Two newspapers would report on the incident today, one under the headline ‘Fatal fall’. Yesterday afternoon, it would say, a fight involving two women ended when one fell in the waterlogged pit in front of Central Station. The victim did not survive, according to local police. The reason for the altercation was not clear. The second newspaper would say much the same in its local news section, with the added detail that two bus drivers had managed to pull the victim out of the water, an arduous and brave undertaking, given the nearly sheer walls of the crater, with the groundwater almost at the surface. Paramedics had arrived on the scene quickly, but efforts to resuscitate the victim were unsuccessful. The other woman was still at large and being sought by the authorities.
It would be another ten minutes. Ten minutes as thick as walls around the house on Mozartstraat in Schalkwijk, where the paper boy had just slipped one of the aforementioned dailies into the mail slot. The wanted woman was asleep upstairs. Yesterday afternoon, she had stood briefly among the crowd of pedestrians who had flocked to the scene, an eyewitness to what had happened, and then she had gone home.
Lying next to her husband, who after all these years was still very happy with her.
Beating her up was wonderful
The day on which she struck could not have been more glorious. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky, there was a sea breeze (no more than force 2), and everything was in bloom: roses, honeysuckle, hawthorns, chestnut trees, clover, grass – something for every living creature to take in. At the beginning of the afternoon Marie Lina put the dishes in the sink. She took the bus to Schiphol, where she transferred to the train to Amsterdam Central Station. Across from her sat a skinny teenager, who was picking his nose while reading a book. When he looked up and met her gaze, he smiled at her in mock friendliness without taking his finger out of his nose or even making any attempt to hide what he was doing – on the contrary. She smiled sympathetically and looked back out the window. The sun had taken possession of the sky; otherwise everything would have been one big rainbow.
At Central Station there were a lot of young people with enormous backpacks milling around. Marie Lina, who had come to town for some retail therapy, was carrying only a shoulder bag over her white T-shirt. She let the movement of the crowd take her through the labyrinthine station to the eastern exit.
Then she was outside. She saw dust, heard the sound of heavy-duty industrial drilling, felt violence in the air – then nothing. On the other side of the construction site, she saw Klazien Wroude coming towards her. Everything fell silent. Convinced that she too had fallen silent and that her feet were nailed to the ground, Marie Lina was in reality walking up to the woman, who was also walking towards her. They met next to the knee-high, arm-wide wooden fence which separated the gravel footpath from the filthy water that lay in wait, deep and heavy. A short time later, the older of the two women would be in that water. The younger one would reflexively bend over the fence to save her, and the older one would knock away her hand with a vicious swat.
Who was going to make the first move? Marie Line filled her lungs with air. She let out a yell and then struck. That initial lunge was promptly met with an even more forceful counterattack, and at that point, taking this response as her permission to begin in earnest, she began hitting and scratching the woman all over. Fights are a kind of dialogue, with violence replacing words, subject to the principle that there must be at least two participants. Klazien Wroude kicked Marie Lina hard several times in the knee, but then allowed her to grab her by the hair with both hands. Mise-en-scéne: two angry she-devils, nose to nose. Seething with rage, Marie panted in that face she had so resented her whole life long. (In reality: inverted caresses, encrypted anagrams, intended for an entirely different person. How could you, mom?)
Take that! And that!
There was no reply, not in words anyway, but a face can speak more fluently than the tongue. Marie Lina believed her eyes. Confession. The extinction of all doubt. The hell with her!
At the construction site in front of Central Station two women were in the midst of a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Two crosswalks away, the amorphous mass of pedestrians finally began to take notice of what was happening. The older woman seized the younger woman with great force. The younger one pushed her away. At a certain point the two sank to the ground as a single mass, falling halfway over the edge of the pit. From a distance it looked as if they were locked in an embrace. As if they had put aside their differences. As if they were in the process of shoving a heavy load, an unwieldy thing with a couple of thick ropes wrapped around it, back into the stinking depths. Good riddance to it.
The train to Haarlem was quiet. Not a backpack to be seen. Odd, she thought, because it was a local train to the seaside town of Zandvoort aan Zee, and the weather was beautiful. A wiry old man in a straw hat got in at Amsterdam Sloterdijk Station and sat down across from her. He nodded at her, waited for the train to start moving again, which he ascertained by looking out the window, and then said to her, ‘What a lovely day.’
As if the two things had anything to do with each other.
To show interest, she also looked out the window at the passing landscape.
‘Yep, you said it. A really lovely day.’
The man’s curious eyes wandered from her to the fields and back to her again.
‘It’s been quite dry this year,’ he said stoically, like an old farmer.
She thought this over without replying.
When he got up at Halfweg station – according to the timetable, a four-minute journey – she had the feeling they had been traveling together for some time. She gave him a friendly look.
‘Safe travels,’ she said to him, and he returned the greeting.
Now she let her head fall back against the seat. The devil child, capable of doing the most horrible things, was empty after the exertions of the day. She saw the countryside glide past at a leisurely pace. Empty moments were slow moments. By the time she saw the fields on the outskirts of Haarlem, where people used to bleach their laundry in the olden days, she had had more than enough time to think about the picture in the little frame on the sideboard at home. She had only just put it there. Louise. Her mother before she was her mother. The one where she was smiling at something just off to the side of the lens. Young; not meek, but cooperative, since she wanted to look good. She was pretty, Louise. The clear light-green eyes, looking at something she plainly liked, conveyed the message: this is my life, you’d better believe it. Oh, I wonder how everything is going to turn out.
The train slowed down and came to a stop. Marie Lina got out, walked down the steps leading out of the station, crossed the square where the bus to Hoofddorp with a stop in Schalkwijk was already waiting. She sat by the window at the back of the half-full bus. The door closed with a hissing sound, and the bus started moving. She sank down in her seat a bit. The day was done. She felt a wave of perfect torpor wash over her, a heaviness that encompassed everything that had happened today, plus all the things that had led up to it. She stretched her legs out under the seat in front of her. Everything inside her let go, retreated, apart from the face of the young Louise, which was now looking at her with raised eyebrows, saying, ‘What do mean, what was I thinking? What do you mean, how could I?’
Translated by Steve Leinbach