Kasper van Beek – Recollection
The eagle spreads her wings and lets herself be carried on the wind. While sweeping past the treetops of Nuuksio National Park, her gaze travels from left to right across the bright-white plain. At this time of year, the whole of Finland is covered in deep drifts of snow, which makes it harder to spot prey.
Below is the winding river, which ultimately empties out into the lake. After a few firm beats, the eagle swoops down until she finds herself right above it. The current is strong and the whirling mass of water produces a deafening noise. Her jet-black eyes focus on the shallow surface and she slows when a school of fish becomes visible. Some have already noticed her and dart every which way; others carry on swimming, oblivious.
She juts out her beak. In a split-second she folds her wings close to her body and in free-fall dives down at the glistening surface. Just before she hits the water, she rotates and sticks her sharps claws out. At exactly the right moment, in exactly the right place. Soon after, she soars again; mission accomplished. Dangling beneath her now is a fat fish. The eagle flies away from the river, into the dense forest. There she zigzags among the ancient trees, until she comes to a firm branch, on which she alights to fully focus on her prey.
When the silence is broken by a sudden loud bang, her head jolts up in shock. All senses alert, she waits for whatever might come, but nothing happens. Once more, the whispering of the wind among the trees is the only sound far and wide.
Nothing dangerous comes to pass, and with deadly precision the eagle quickly pierces the still wildly thrashing fish with her beak.
The weight of both bird and fish sends a shudder through the branch. A thick layer of snow slides down. Besides falling onto the spreading roots of the tree, it also covers something else. Something that was buried here by human hands not so long ago and is now completely concealed under a white blanket.
Not far from there, smoke comes out of the chimney of a well-hidden log cabin. Its wooden door swings open and a lively husky jumps out. A large man with a thick grey beard saunters after the dog, his woollen cap pulled down low over his forehead. He routinely slings a hunting rifle over his shoulder before closing the door behind him.
With each step, his heavy boots sink to his ankles in the snow. And so he leaves a deep trail. He doesn’t care; there are few other people in the area, so he sees no reason to keep his cabin a secret. The husky runs ahead of him, knowing exactly which way they’re headed. He can find his way blind and seems to have more of an appetite for the outing than his master.
Above them, the tall, thin trees sway gently back and forth. The hunter raises his eyebrows when he notices a black smudge on his glove. Must have forgotten to take it off when he threw another log onto the fire. Luckily there’s a small brook nearby, where he can clean the glove easily enough. He whistles between his teeth. The husky responds at once and moves in the direction of the water. In summer the dog has been known to jump into the brook, but he’s smart enough not to do so now.
When they get to the flowing water, the hunter kneels down, while the husky runs up the nearby hill. There’s a small waterfall where the water cascades down and, besides the wind, produces the only sound for miles around. The hunter rubs water onto his glove and luckily the soot starts to come off. He looks up at the waterfall, but can no longer see his dog. Stoically, he carries on scrubbing, harder and harder.
The sound that follows makes him topple backwards and immediately – much clumsier than he’d care to admit – reach for his hunting rifle.
The husky growls. Not like he does when he wants to eat or be taken out, but more gutturally. More menacingly. A sound the hunter hasn’t heard in ages. The dog is nowhere to be seen though and he anxiously rises to his feet. Aware that the barrel of his rifle is trembling, he tries to gather himself and uses a second hand. Cautiously, he begins to climb the hill beside the waterfall, in search of the cause of the growling.
A bit further up, he sees his husky standing stock-still, his ears flat against his head and his gaze forward. The dog is unaware of his master, having eyes only for something happening in front of him. The trees are shrouded in a dense fog, which drastically reduces visibility. The hunter and his dog stare into the distance. Something isn’t right, he senses as much. He quickly cocks his rifle, ready to shoot.
In the distance, among the trees, a figure appears. He tries to make out the contours, but it’s hard in this light. Instinctively, he takes a step back, looking for a way out, and the husky follows suit. The hunter wipes the sweat from his brow and pulls his cap back a little, while staring into the mist again. The figure grows larger and larger. He’s running towards them!
He anxiously clutches his rifle stock.
‘Hey!’ he yells. But no reaction follows. The figure keeps running and the dog starts barking.
‘Hey! Stop!’ he tries a second time. Again, no reaction. He has to act. Next thing you know, there’ll be a confrontation. That’s a fact. The barking has changed to fearful whining, and for a fleeting instant the hunter wonders whether the figure rushing towards them is actually human. Or whether they’re dealing with a creature from one of those ancient Finnish myths that his grandmother used to tell him.
He shakes his head, closes one eye and aims his rifle. He breathes slowly, the way he always does, and concentrates on his sights. And then – with probably only ten to twenty steps between them – he pulls the trigger.
What follows is a second that seems to last far too long. The figure is hit, and without a single sound it falls headlong onto the ground. Soon it’s almost completely covered in snow.
The silence descends over the forest again, and the hunter looks at his dog, which stares back inquisitively. He begins to inch towards the figure, step by watchful step, still with his rifle at the ready. When he approaches he sees two legs sticking up motionlessly. Close by, dark blue shows through the white, and with a pounding heart he starts brushing away the snow. Slowly, a jacket appears and it’s only now that the hunter realises that lying on the ground in front of him is a man in a suit. Without a winter coat, without a hat, without moon boots. Surprised, he scratches his beard, but then he sees the red stain spreading in the snow. Two stains in fact! Not only around the man’s head, but also around his shoulder blood is pooling. As the hunter desperately scans his surroundings, he thinks to himself, I only fired one shot, didn’t I?
My headlights turn off when I flip the ignition switch and the palm trees in granite pots disappear in the dark. As my eyes grow used to the darkness, I can see the waves rolling up the beach in the distance. We’re in Zandvoort, but by the looks of it the beach joint with the palm trees would like me to believe that I just parked somewhere on the French Riviera. Not that I care. Far off, a seagull screeches as though its life depended on it. I couldn’t care less about that too. The only thing that matters to me is the quiet after the storm.
Next to me, the sun visor is lowered and the vanity light comes on. I don’t need to look sideways to know what she’s doing. The red lips, which just yelled those furious words, are receiving a touch-up. A smile is practiced; everything is fine again. I’ve been through this often enough to know that I have to keep my mouth shut now. Wait for the signal and certainly don’t make eye contact. When I hear her door fall shut and her heels move away from the car, I straighten my tie. That was the signal, now I must act.
When she begins to make her way down the slope, towards the beach joint, I overtake her just in time to offer support. We walk this path every year, and every year it’s preceded by heaps of stress for Liesbeth. Why? No idea.
A girl at the door directs us to the left, although we know perfectly well where to go. The same party every year to celebrate the positive results; the same venue every year. When we get to the entrance, we have a fine overview of the scene. A band is playing at the back, one I haven’t heard before. Last year’s outfit must have slipped up too many times. This company doesn’t hesitate to come down hard on mistakes.
To the right behind the bar, expensive bottles of booze reflect the coloured light back into the room. I clear my throat. Strangely enough I always feel as though I’m the one uninvited guest and that everybody will turn to me on arrival and collectively show me the door.
‘There he is! The man of the moment!’ Jacob sounds more enthusiastic than usual and has clearly had a lot to drink already. ‘Accompanied by the most beautiful woman of the evening.’
He kisses Liesbeth’s hand and I shake my head, laughing.
‘Don’t let Carolien hear you, smooth talker,’ Liesbeth responds with a mischievous smile.
‘Hey, how about me?’ I hug him, Jacob, my colleague and best friend.
‘You? What’s it got to do with you?’ comes his challenging reply.
We enter the room. Everybody is here. At least three hundred people are rubbing shoulders together. Liesbeth wants to dance with me, but I haven’t even had a drink yet. Jacob is several steps ahead and saves me from my wife. They disappear into the crowd and I make my way to the bar – always a good orientation point.
People I normally just nod hello to now shake my hand vigorously. To my shock I receive three wet kisses from the dinner lady, making me grateful for the wide counter that keeps her at a safe distance on workdays. I quickly extricate myself from her clutches and with the international sign for drinking I explain my mission to her. She lets me go.
I order a vodka-and-coke and then casually lean against the bar, to suggest I ended up here by chance but happen to like the place. From this position, I have a good view of the dance floor, where brave and drunk guests find one another. Liesbeth and Jacob are twirling around in dramatic circles, executing moves they must have seen in a film. It probably looks better in their minds than in real life, and I pull a face. But as with a car crash, it takes a real effort to look away.
‘Show-offs!’ Carolien appears by my side, and from her eyes it’s clear that she’s had just as much to drink as her wildly dancing husband nearby. I’d not spotted her before, but she doesn’t look at me. She too can’t keep her eyes off Jacob and Liesbeth.
‘Luckily they’re much better at other things,’ I offer as an ice-breaker. Carolien is my wife’s sister, which makes Jacob my brother-in-law. To complete the incestuous picture, the director of this company is the dad of the two sisters. The fact that I work for my father-in-law is something I try to avoid mentioning in conversations for as long as possible, because every time it does come up I receive the same pitying look.
‘You don’t know it, Olaf. I do.’ She blathers on, in the same sozzled tone as before. I sigh, obliged to play along now.
‘What is it I don’t know, Carolien?’
‘You think you know everything, but you know nothing.’
This is getting more and more fun. I take a quick gulp of my drink and then look the other way. Given his interminable flirting, I understand her suspicions about Jacob, but I’m not the least bit concerned about Liesbeth. Of course I see the male heads swivel when I turn up somewhere with her by my side. But precisely because we give each other so much freedom, we trust each other. Besides, I get on really well with Huub, her father and my boss. She’d never jeopardise all that, especially not for Jacob, however likable he may be.
‘Don’t worry. Soon he’ll come tottering back to you.’
Carolien doesn’t answer and keeps staring fixedly at the dance floor. It’s a good thing, too; intoxication doesn’t suit her. Behind her, I notice, the sliding doors to the patio are slightly ajar; beyond the glass, a small star glows a bright orange. I slowly make my way outside. At this point, anything seems preferable to staying here and propping up the bar.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ I hear a voice from the corner. ‘I can spend hours lying on my back, staring up at the stars.
A shiver runs down my spine – I’d recognise that voice anywhere. We’re on an otherwise deserted jetty that stretches across the sand before ending up at the calming surf. The sound of the water that keeps rolling up the beach before retreating again has a hypnotising effect. Above us is a magnificent starry sky.
‘It’s a clear night,’ I readily admit, and turn around. Emerging out of the darkness is a silhouette with a small orange star between her fingers. When she takes a drag, the tip glows fiercely and briefly illuminates her face.
I instinctively take a step back when Mila enters the light. She’s holding her high-heeled shoes in her hand and I can see her toes curling slightly on the timber jetty. She’s totally different from all the other women in there. The smoke she exhales wafts towards me.
‘Why are you standing here all by yourself? Shouldn’t you go in? The band’s decent for a change,’ I fib. To be honest, the music hasn’t registered with me at all. Luckily it’s dark and she doesn’t notice my discomfort. She’s been working with us for some time, but I still stumble over my words whenever I talk to her.
‘I’m not alone, am I?’ she replies. Above us, a passing seagull screeches shrilly. To my relief, she continues and no response is needed. ‘The parties I normally go to are rather different from this kind of… get-together.’ She casually offers me a puff from her cigarette and I see the lipstick on the filter. Nonetheless, I make a declining gesture. Mila turns to the window, behind which the party is still in full swing. ‘Look at them living it up; these are the same bonces that might exchange three words with one another on an ordinary working day. But once a year an evening is labelled a party so they have fun on command. I’m not really into this kind of controlled mirth.’
‘I’m one of those bonces,’ I reply, aware of the veiled accusation. Now she’s standing right beside me, looking intently into my eyes.
‘No, Olaf, you’re different.’
I shake my head, about to say something in return, but I don’t know what. She looks at me quizzically, a playful smile on her lips. ‘The boss’s son-in-law. That sounds as though a promotion is just around the corner.’
‘It’s the opposite, actually.’ I laugh out loud. ‘Everybody keeps a close watch on me to see if I’m given preferential treatment.’
‘So it’s more of a curse?’ she asks.
‘Everyone’s always very nice… to my face.’ I pause a moment, and she knows what I’m trying to say. ‘I didn’t choose this, but it’s how things go sometimes.’ The words form sentences with surprising ease. Yet I abruptly fall silent when Mila draws near, her gaze fixed on mine.
She could kiss me, laugh at me or hit me in the face. That’s how bad I am at reading women, I think to myself. A small frown appears between her brows as she comes yet another step closer. She leans forward, but rather than at my mouth she ends up by my ear.
‘I discovered something.’
My brain is working overtime to make sense of these words. But I can’t make head nor tail of them.
‘Something isn’t quite right, surely you must have noticed?’ she adds.
I pull my face back and look her in the eyes again, seeing a tension there that’s beginning to unsettle me as well.
‘What do you mean? Where’s something not quite right?’
‘At the office. Something big.’
‘Here you are.’ The words are a dagger in my back. I spin around and for some reason or other I smile broadly. Everything’s just fine here.
‘Liesbeth, this is Mila. Mila, Liesbeth.’ The two women shake hands awkwardly, after which Liesbeth turns to me again.
‘Daddy’s about to give his speech. He wants you to be there.’ She escorts me inside. The last thing I see when I look over my shoulder is Mila’s worried look.
On our way to the stage, Liesbeth snaps, for me alone to hear, ‘You don’t have to introduce me to every single secretary.’ I take two glasses of champagne from a tray and decide that this isn’t the moment to explain that Mila isn’t a secretary at all. Not least because Liesbeth bloody well knows that.
The wipers scrape across the glass and I switch them to their lowest setting; it’s almost dry again. We’re in the car on our way home and I’m staring through the windscreen, lost in thought.
‘Sweet of you to compliment daddy on his speech. You know he loves it,’ Liesbeth says. I smile. That I know. I receive a kiss on the cheek and listen to her breathing.
‘You also know I love you, right? But really.’ That too I know.
‘But really,’ I mutter in response. Gradually, she dozes off next to me, while I concentrate on the passing white lines on the road.
I love her too. Ever since secondary school, when she wanted to slow dance with me at that prom. Liesbeth was with the popular crowd, whereas I didn’t really know where I belonged. I had friends, knew a couple of girls to say hello to, but wasn’t part of any clique. Neither a tough guy nor a nerd. I was invisible.
Until that evening in the auditorium when Liesbeth decided to pull me into the limelight. Overwhelmed by this sudden move, I began to kiss her. Something I wouldn’t have dared before, but at that moment it felt like the only appropriate reaction. And she kissed me back, while everyone else gawped at me wide-eyed. With a pounding heart, my tongue traced circles in her mouth, and I felt her arms wrap themselves around my back.
The following day it became clear that I’d been promoted. I was treated differently, was even stared at. But what surprised me most was that Liesbeth stood behind the decision she’d made the previous evening. She told me I was her boyfriend now. Something I was only too happy to go along with. I grew more cheerful, became more self-confident and the rest of my secondary school career was amazing. And it was all her doing.
We built a life together and were happy from the word go. She was far more mature than me, which intimidated me no end at first. I learned to follow her, to become more serious, to think ahead more. I needed that. I’m positive: without my wife I’d still be playing computer games in my student digs.
I glance sideways and see her smile in her sleep. She’s feeling safe.
The thought reminds me of the incident earlier in the evening. Of that look in Mila’s eyes, that dark apprehension in them. She’s approached me before at work, but then again she talks to everyone. However, until now all of our conversations were either about nothing in particular or about work. She always showed a lot of interest in that. But we never addressed genuine concerns or real issues. Why did she confide in me this evening?
What did she discover?