Authors: Erwin Mortier
Translated from the Dutch by
T WAS IN THE DAYS BEFORE
I had learned to talk properly. Hardly anything had a name, everything was body. Standing in front of the mirror my father drew the razor blade over his cheeks, stretched his neck and gently scraped the foam from his Adam’s apple. He eyed his face narrowly from under his lashes, the curve of upper lip, the lower lip, the chin.
His dressing gown hung loosely over his shoulders. Behind him, in the bath, I was rocking in the waves he had made getting out, pulling the water with him. The solemn silence between him and his reflection gave everything an extraordinary clarity. I can still see, as sharply as I did then, the wet hairs bunching on his shins. In the mirror, above the slumbering sex and milk-white stomach, a track of curly hair rose from his navel to fan out on the shallows of his chest, where I could see his heart beating.
He had run the bath until it was half-full. He had strewn soapflakes in the water and had rinsed the sting from my eyes when he washed my hair. Clean-shaven now, he scooped water over his cheeks, turned to face me and held out his hands.
“Come on, arms up now,” he said.
I lolled weightless in his arms. I shook in all my joints as he dabbed at my ears with a clean towel and rubbed my skull dry. I clung to his calves.
Sitting, legs splayed, on the lowered lavatory seat, he waited for me to steady myself, took my hands in his and ran the back of his thumb across my nails. “Let’s check,” he said, “and see if all ten of them are still there.” And if there was any dirt left underneath.
Finally he dressed me in my bathrobe and opened the door to let me out.
I stepped out of the bathroom like a prince, into the dusky corridor. Ahead of me, past doors behind which rooms drowsed, the corridor tunnelled through the house. Some rooms were familiar, others not. To the left was the door to the cellar, concealing a flight of brick steps, damp and glistening with salt crystals. To the right was the playroom with the building blocks and the dolls I didn’t trust because they remained sitting down, even when I wasn’t looking.
There were so many things waiting to be baptised. Anything without a word to it was too pagan and savage to be left alone. I had to lay my finger on everything within reach.
I could smell the kitchen, a whiff of drains and of hams in gingham sacks hanging from hooks in the rafters.
Someone called my name. A hand detached itself from the shadows by the chimney piece and lightly brushed my cheek, but I did not stop. From the far side of the stove I heard the pious creak of a wicker chair. Next thing I knew, my ear was given a playful tweak.
My mother busied herself taking plates from the cupboard and theatrically banging them down on the table.
“Anton,” she cried. “Anton, little man. Dancing about in your bare feet like that—you’ll fetch up with a tummy ache.”
I took no notice. It was a time for cutting cords and chasing hens in the yard, even though that wasn’t allowed.
In the recesses of the house, where the corridor forked in two and the light was rarely switched on, I felt a stab of fear. This place, inhabited by aunts and cousins in summer but deserted and soulless when they were gone, was home to the dreaded grandfather clock. Its slow beat always seemed to threaten me as I approached, but when I tiptoed past, it continued ticking quite harmlessly. Now the clock was silent. My father had stopped it, so no-one would be disturbed by the quarter-hourly chimes it sent ringing through the rooms.
He knew what was best for everyone in the house. He knew who wouldn’t mind the morning sunlight and who was more partial to the west-facing rooms with the rambler rose outside the window, scenting the air after every shower as if death were at its heels. Come the lazy nights of August with the occasional thunderstorms, I would hear him get up to rescue cousin Flora from the cellar, where he would find her cowering in the space between the freezer and the bottle racks with an upturned saucepan on her head. He would unclench the rosary from her fingers, lift the saucepan off her hair, put his arms around her and say, “It’s not the Germans, Flora. Just a bit of thunder.”
The things that scared me were not yet inside me, but around me. I sought out my fears to check if they were still there—to make sure they hadn’t taken it into their heads to abscond to other places, the better to pounce on me when I least expected. I checked for new shapes in the gloom under the stairs, where the silenced clock filled the air with mute indignation. A door opened a crack and something with worn-down claws padded across the floorboards towards me, wagging its tail. A moist nose snuffling at my toes made me cry out in fearful delight. Not until I cried out again did the hoped-for response come.
“Hear that?” a voice boomed from one of the rooms. “Our little man. Over here, lad. Let’s have a look at you.”
The soft cooing of amused aunts guided me to the right door.
The three of them were sitting at the round table, drinking gin. There was Michel, who lived with us summer and winter in two separate rooms, enveloped in clouds of snuff and the stale smell of Molly his dog. Next to him sat Odette, a gawky creature with long arms like a praying mantis. At the other side of the table Alice, red-haired and flushed, offered me her unconscionably soft cheek to kiss.
“He’s a fine mountaineer already,” said Michel, slapping his thighs invitingly. “Watch this.”
I planted my feet on top of his, gripped his knees with my hands and walked up his shins.
“Up you go, up you go,” the Aunts chanted.
Once at the summit I slid on to his lap. My fingers groped their way up his shirt, button after button, until they reached his chin. Bare skin at last. Stubble. Papery wrinkles. Chapped lips.
He leaned over me to reach for his drink, raised the glass to his lips, took a leisurely gulp and replaced it on the table, out of harm’s way.
I put my hands up to his cheeks and smacked them in protest.
“You can’t have any of that,” the Aunts said, laughing. “Far too strong. You’d mess your trousers.”
He pulled faces and gave me broad winks, stuck out his tongue and wagged his head from side to side. “You can’t hurt me. You’re too little. It’s milk you should be drinking. Milk and nothing else.”
I can still feel the palm of his hand against the back of my head, his thumb rubbing the hair on my neck the wrong way.
He was about to say something. I saw him swallow and press his lips together, then open his mouth so that his back teeth showed, but there was no sound.
He nodded and nodded, and I nodded along with him. “’Ullo,” I cried. “’Ullo, ’ullo, ’ullo.”
I could hear his breath rasping against the roof of his mouth, and deeper down, struggling in his larynx to drag the words from his stomach, as though he had to forcibly expel them from his spasming torso.
Suddenly my pleasure capsized and I was gripped by a fathomless fear, no doubt because of the Aunts’ shrieks of horror. Everything went dark.
Someone, perhaps my father, snatched me from his lap. Someone else, probably my mother, must have called the doctor.
He had fallen sideways to the floor. Hands flew to mop his brow, straighten his legs and slip a cushion under him, to pull off the slippers, then the socks, and to massage the soles of his feet, which already felt cold.
My mother took me to the kitchen and plied me with milk and chocolate, with crayons and pictures, to distract me from the commotion in the corridor, where someone hurried to answer the doorbell.
A moment later my father came to the kitchen. With his hand on the doorknob and half-hidden behind the door, it was as though he didn’t want me to see him. He glanced at my mother, shaking his head.
From elsewhere in the house came the sound of low lamentations. Curtains were drawn. Shutters creaked on their hinges. Our house, Callewijns Hof, at the foot of the dyke along the canal to Bruges, inhabited by us for generations, altered and extended and renovated, had preserved all manner of latches and locks from the past, and now proceeded to shut itself off from the outside world with every one of them.
My mother rose, ran my sticky fingers under the pump and dried them.
“Say night night, sleep tight.” And she scooped me up on to her arm.
In the parlour the Aunts were settled on the sofa like huge black flies, dabbing at their eyes with fluttery lace-edged handkerchiefs as flimsy as the grief choking their muted voices.
My father was hunched in a corner, half-hidden by the heavy blinds, clutching a huge square of checked cloth in
his fists. Compared to the trickle of sorrow shown by his sisters and cousins, the grief deep inside my father was a vast reservoir, swelling and swelling until the dam burst and it all poured forth.
My mother carried me around the room, pausing in front of each mourner. Some were strangers, spectral figures holding their caps on their knees and keeping an unaccustomed silence, fumbling with trouser legs or whispering uneasy my-oh-mys. Oh my.
My father smiled bravely when I pressed my lips to his, and thumbed a sign of the cross on my forehead. The Aunts quickly tucked their hankies in their sleeves, took my face in both hands and offered me their cheeks. There was another ring at the door, and my mother said, “Come, time for bed. Upstairs with you.”
She chivvied me up the stairs more hurriedly than usual, wormed my arms into the sleeves of my night shirt as if she were dressing a rag doll, and then tucked me up without giving me a chance to say goodnight to my bears.
The whole regiment of bears sat on the shelf fixed to the wall facing my cot, motionless and adoring, their glass eyes staring and glinting in the glow coming up from a street light.
I was given a hasty goodnight kiss. Left and right of me my mother raised the collapsible sides of the cot. I was in a cage. The net curtains swayed to and fro in front of the screened window, and in the dying light a lost butterfly whirred helplessly against the pane.
Until now the days had billowed around me beatifically, and I would seize upon what they had to offer as if I were ferreting for hidden goodies in the Aunts’ skirts on birthdays. The hours were puppet shows. They would open on demand to reveal the same familiar scenes again and again. Things waited patiently for me to notice them and acknowledge their existence by giving them names.
But now all sorts of things were going on behind my back. The usual sounds of the night unfurling its landscape, like the lowing of cows on heat, the barking of dogs, the fatherly throb of a barge on the canal beyond the garden wall, were drowned out by footsteps on the cobbles in the front yard.
The wrought iron gate in the archway was given a cautious push, which made it squeal even louder than usual. I could hear wheels rumbling over the cobbles and then the soft purr of an engine, at which moment a beam of surprisingly brilliant light swept across my room, covering my walls with a shifting trellis of leaves and branches.
Car doors were wrenched open, then slammed shut. The beam of light went out. Lips smacked against cheeks. More footsteps, this time on the front doorstep with its little pitched roof. I recognised my father’s bass voice, and the high, plaintive tones of my mother. I couldn’t tell whether she was laughing or crying.
She was sure to be standing in the doorway, rubbing her hands over her arms, even though it was summer and not at all chilly.
The boot of a car was opened and then closed with a dull thud. Meanwhile someone was hopping lightly down the corridor, singing jauntily, “Down in the hole… down in
the hole.” The singing stopped suddenly when the umbrella stand fell over with a deafening clatter.
A woman’s voice, which I did not recognise, called out in suppressed anger, “Shsh, Anton’s already asleep.”
The stairwell filled with the hollow echo of all the voices at once. My father shut the front door, I could tell by the scrape of wood across the tiled floor. Once the tumult subsided the voices coming up through the floorboards sounded muffled.
I was wide awake. The idea that things could go on being exactly the same as they were in the dark, despite having their distinctive shapes and features blotted out, gave me a strange sense of restlessness.
When I turned over on my side or on my back, making my sheets rustle and the bars of my cot rattle, I could hear the sound hitting the walls and bouncing back to me.
Later, when my father slipped into my bedroom to see if I was all right, it was as though the room and everything in it, including myself, took a deep breath. He was surprised to find me wide awake, crawling out from the covers to greet him.
He lowered the side of the cot, sat down on the edge of the mattress and enfolded me in his arms.
I put my hands on his wrists and looked up. The stubble on the underside of his chin felt prickly through my hair.
It must have been very late, later than ever before. It was the dead of night, and I’d have been unconsciously floating towards morning had not the natural order of things been disturbed, leaving us stranded. He did not tell me a story. He did not wind up the music box on the bedside table and talk to me until the tune started. He did not speak at all, just held me close to his chest.
Outside, on the landing, the stairs groaned under the weight of some bulky object being hauled up, tread by tread.
“Over here,” I heard my mother say in a low voice, and again I could make out the sound of someone hopping lightly down the corridor. The hopping came to a stop outside my bedroom, and the slit of light under the door was interrupted by a patch of dark, which cast a long shadow across my floor. The same song was being sung, in the same nasal voice as before, but softer now, “Down in the hole, down in the hole.” Then it tailed off.
“Night night,” my father said, lifting me up on his arm so that I might stroke each of my bears in turn. Furry ears, dry snouts against the palm of my hand, and the cool glass of their staring eyes.
“Night night,” I said imperiously, as though everything were still at my command.