Ernest van der Kwast – Ilyas
Shortly before dusk, everything was bathed in a strange blue light. The horizon was marbled with warm hues. Peter Lindke had stepped out of the car and was looking at the vast fields while he filled up his tank.
The green of the grass was being devoured right before his eyes. If he’d stood not in the harsh white light of the petrol station but in the lush meadow dotted with clover and buttercups, he too would be swallowed up by the blue. A man alone, slowly drifting away. He thought of coarse brushstrokes, white morphing into pink, which turns to orange and then red; the firmament in flames. All else – the trees, the cows, the dead straight ditches – was shrouded in a sapphire glow. In this light everything, everyone vanished.
It had to do with particulate matter and water vapour in the atmosphere, but also with the wavelengths of colours. As the sun dipped below the horizon, blue spread across the atmosphere, scattered, and, like ink, suffused everything. It was as if heaven was trying to capture the scene, harnessing all of its pigments and powers, but even the mighty sky was unable to let this enchanting hour last.
The darkness was nibbling away at things by the time Peter’s wife stood beside the pump. Kay Hamelink looked around, stunned, shocked. She’d been to the toilet, had washed her hands and walked back to find her family gone. Disappeared. No car, no husband, no children. The amount on the display the only reminder of them, of her husband: 83.02. Peter could never get things right, accurate, perfect. Her hands slipped into her pockets. She cursed. Her phone was in the car.
Two kilometres away on the motorway, a Ford Focus was heading towards the town where the Lindkes had recently moved into a terraced house in a diverse community. An up-and-coming neighbourhood, as local government policy would have it. New builds simulating traditional styles amidst social housing from the 1980s. Brick and timber frames, laminate panels and aluminium. The incomplete family in the car was made up of two sons and Peter Lindke, curator of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, father, husband. Not necessarily in that order, but often. Standing by the side of the A12 was his wife.
‘Damn it, Peter. Damn, damn, damn!’
They’d been out in the countryside. Two days after the storm that had paralysed the country. Rail services had been disrupted and lorries had blown over on the motorway. In some streets in the east of the country, it had rained roof tiles. The four of them had gone to the forest and seen the damage the storm had wrought. Massive beeches and oak trees brought down by the wind, their roots dangling above the ground like guts spilling out of a cadaver. The paths were strewn with branches, and 100-foot pines were leaning against one another like dominoes.
On a sand drift, Kay had taken the thermos flask out of her backpack. The steam rose up from the lid and they took turns taking small sips of tea. Sunlight fell between islands of leaden clouds. They didn’t talk much and when they did it was softly, like the rustling of leaves.
There was also an hour of long shadows. As they walked back, they were followed by giants ready to pounce on them at any moment.
Peter and Kay liked to escape the city at the weekend, but their children thought these outings were a horror. They thought pretty much anything their parents proposed was terrible. They even disliked their own names.
Tristen and Ewan, Celtic names. Their children were to be feisty young men who’d live their lives with unflinching courage. That had been their dream when they named their offspring, but the prospects didn’t look promising. Tristen and Ewan not only looked like one another, they also looked like their friends. They were average and predictable.
Whenever they were bored again, Peter Lindke reminded his children about Titian. The feisty lad from Pieve di Cadore had been twelve when he set off for Venice to paint saints and doges under Giovanni Bellini’s supervision. Rembrandt van Rijn was fourteen when he was apprenticed to Jacob van Swanenburg. Jan Lievens was only eight when he started training with Joris van Schooten. What was it like to have the course of your life mapped out so early, when there was no getting away from it? Looking at his children in the back seat, Peter sometimes felt a pang of nostalgia. He longed for a time before his family.
After they’d left the car park at Veluwezoom National Park, Kay had dozed off. The boys had flipped open the laptop and were watching a film, allowing Peter to pick his nose unseen. He spent the next two minutes ridding his index finger of a strand of snot, which inadvertently ended up on the windscreen.
Kay had woken when the door fell shut. She straightened up and looked outside, at the Texaco service station shop. A man had once driven his delivery van into two other vehicles and a petrol pump here, causing an explosion and a seven-and-a-half mile tailback on the motorway. Today they had a special offer on sausage rolls.
While Peter screwed the cap back on the tank, Kay had quickly put on her shoes. ‘I’m going to the bathroom,’ she said. No response from Tristen and Ewan. They were mesmerised by the illuminated screen in front of them. ‘Do you hear me?’
Her eldest son reacted irritably. ‘Ye-es.’
She didn’t feel like challenging them, asking them to repeat what she’d said. She got out of the car, walked to the side of the service station and emptied her bladder over a bowl without a seat. The toilet paper was moist. The white melamine chipboard featured a drawing of a dick – simple lines, strange proportions, the way a toddler draws a flower.
She couldn’t believe it. Had they really forgotten her? She stared at the entrance lane, but there was no blue Ford reversing onto the petrol station forecourt. Their car was driving along the A12 towards Rotterdam at 100 km/hour. The speed limit was 120, but Peter didn’t like to drive fast. That was another thing he wasn’t good at.
Kay took a deep breath and raised her hand when a car approached. She wasn’t the kind of woman who panicked. Of all the emotions, panic is the least useful.
‘Hello,’ she said to the driver who got out of his car.
‘Hello,’ the man replied, surprised, perhaps shocked too.
‘May I borrow your mobile?’ And Kay immediately added, ‘My husband and children just drove off without me.’ The best way to overcome embarrassment is to pre-empt it.
The man seemed incredulous at first, but then unlocked his device and handed it to Kay. She keyed in her own number and waited for the phone to ring.
‘Any luck?’ asked the man who’d taken off the fuel cap, but wasn’t showing any signs of filling up.
‘There’s no answer.’
‘Perhaps it’s on silent?’
‘No, they’re not hearing it.’ She sounded more agitated than she liked.
‘I’d try again if I were you.’
So she did, but again she was put through to her voicemail. She wanted to hurl the phone at the asphalt, but remembered just in time that it wasn’t hers. She was good at controlling impulses, better than Peter, better than her children.
‘How annoying,’ the man said.
Kay put him in his mid-thirties. He was wearing a tailored jacket with a pair of jeans. An IT consultant, she thought. Or a commercial advisor. Not something terribly interesting.
Was this man insinuating that they’d left her here on purpose? He probably had no children, and no partner who’d once gone to work with shit on his glasses. ‘Did you drop your glasses in the loo?’ she’d asked him after he’d been to the toilet. How did she know? Peter was baffled. He’d taken a crap and then he’d scrubbed the porcelain with the brush, but when he bent over the glasses had slipped off his nose. There was a small brown speck on the lens, a little fleck that was still there when he came home from work in the evening.
On the third try, her phone was finally answered. It was Ewan. ‘Yeah?’ he said.
‘You guys left me here!’ she shouted. Kay wanted to yell more, but refrained. The man was watching her as though she was an actress in a film. Maybe he was waiting for a scene, for tears.
‘Dad, mum on the phone,’ Ewan said. But she heard Peter in the background saying, ‘I’m driving.’ For a moment all she heard was static, then she got Tristen on the line. ‘Fuck,’ he said after a while. ‘Fuck. Mum’s still at the pump.’
After she hung up, she handed the phone back to the man.
‘They’re on their way.’
‘Are you okay?’
The question got her hackles up. How she was feeling was none of the man’s business. Or was he trying to calm her down perhaps? Did he see that Kay was boiling inside? Questions can have a reassuring effect, she’d read in an article she illustrated not long ago.
‘Thank you for helping me,’ she finally said.
The traffic passed in a continuous stream. People were on their way home. The darkness deepened.
‘It’s the first time,’ she said.
She felt obliged to remain friendly, to keep the conversation going, but the minute she said it she felt embarrassed. At its stupidity. Of course this was the first time she was standing beside the A12 without her family. This didn’t happen to her every bloody week.
‘Is he busy?’
Was he still trying to reassure her? If so, he wasn’t doing a very good job.
‘We all forget things from time to time,’ the man said when he finally took the nozzle off the pump. ‘Only last week I forgot my umbrella.’
The man irritated her; he irritated her no end.
‘It was raining when I left home…’
‘I’m not an umbrella,’ she said curtly. She was a woman, a mother, a wife. But above all Kay Hamelink was a successful illustrator. She did drawings for newspapers and magazines, made book covers, worked on advertising campaigns, but she wasn’t going to tell him any of that. She wanted to remain anonymous. A woman who’d been left behind at a petrol station by her family – it was too much information already.
A hybrid Toyota approached, but it pulled up beside another pump.
‘How old are your children?’
She’d never experienced anything like it. Why all these questions? Did she look as though she fancied a chat? In the queue at the supermarket checkout nobody ever asked her anything. Outside the school gates some parents would talk to her, but it never went beyond pleasantries. She was social, but not open. She’d grown up in a hamlet in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, the houses and farms miles apart. Her childhood had been filled with silence, broken only by large tractors and the clanging of church bells.
Suddenly it dawned on Kay that the man had her number. Was that creepy? Should she ask him to delete it? That was the danger of asking for help: the other person could take advantage of the situation. Then again, Kay thought to herself, she had his number in her phone. She could just as easily misuse it. She could send him messages, she could ring him in the middle of the night and squeal like a pig when he answered.
What was it the man had asked her? Her children’s ages. Why did he want to know? Kay wasn’t thinking of numbers. Her children were at a vulnerable age. They had a will of their own, but at the same time they were dependent. They got tummy ache when asked to do something they didn’t like and moaned in their sleep after the slightest seismic shift in the house, in their marriage.
‘Young,’ she finally said. That should do it.
The man squeezed the trigger. The digits on the display began to jump.
Why was she still standing here? The man had lent her his phone. She’d politely thanked him. She could leave now. Yes, she could walk away.
‘My name is Paul.’
‘Hello, Paul,’ she said.
Was she supposed to say her name now? Was that part of the deal? Paul had helped her and so she had to answer his questions, tell him her name. That was the price she had to pay. There was no such thing as altruism.
He looked at her. This time he no longer saw an actress, but someone very approachable, available. A woman whose husband had left her at a petrol station. And for a split second that’s how she looked back. Like a woman who wanted to get even with her spouse. She could tell it confused Paul.
She wasn’t available. She’d been married for fourteen years and was good at controlling impulses. Still… If you were to divide the other sex into men you could do it with, and men you couldn’t do it with, then Paul would be in the first group. He had a good body and nice, shiny hair. He was at least five years younger. Yes, she could have sex with him. But he wasn’t allowed to ask questions—what she liked, if he could pull her hair, whether she had come? He had to keep his mouth shut.
She ought to walk to the parking spaces out front and wait for Peter and the children there. But she didn’t. Kay tried to look desirable again. Available. It didn’t work. The moment had passed.
She was cold. Her coat was in the car, with her phone. Suddenly she really, really fancied a hot sausage roll.
The digits on the display had stopped jumping. Paul squeezed the trigger twice in a row, like a cowboy. Seventy euros. Exactly.
Translated by Laura Vroomen