Oscar van den Boogaard – The Hunting Lodge
[Pages 37 – 41]
After the clouds, the red and the blue and the clouds, our plane touching down was like waking from a dream. Boarding a huge white passenger ship in Venezuela, we continued our journey back to a world about which I could remember nothing.
As if my development was being driven by a mechanism of the utmost precision, a rite of passage took place between the quay and the ship to prepare me for the great crossing. From the moment beneath the burning sun when I stepped onto the gangway – chin up, shoulders back – thousands of tiny bubbles fizzed up inside me.
‘I am, I am,’ I repeated to myself, as if gasping for air. The words I knew so well took on a new meaning as I gazed down at the sea sloshing in the depths. My mother walked in front of me and my father followed one step behind, yet I was the one responsible for the safe transfer from quay to ship.
‘I am, I am, I am,’ rose the chant, as I slid my hands nimbly over the handrail above me and inched up the gangway with small steps.
Halfway, I stood for a second or two to look at the hundreds of waving people above me on the ship and behind me on the quayside. ‘I am, I am,’ I repeated, as if seized by the need to imprint my newly conquered identity.
Elsie had come to a halt and her hands slipped from the rail. Her body slackened and crumpled before me. The people ahead of us in line turned round, startled, and in the same moment my father pushed me aside.
The sight of my mother’s body, lying flat out and face down in her white slacks and blue blazer. The shame on my father’s face, as he tried to lift her single-handed. I continued to cling to the railing.
Back on her feet, she tried to pretend there was nothing wrong. ‘The curse of gravity,’ she said as she walked on, supported by my father. I saw black scuff marks on her trousers and she held her grazed hands in front of her like two shallow dishes.
‘Not a care in the world,’ she said with a laugh, but I saw her despair. I should have held on to her. I must do better. I had promised Moersini.
Once we had found ourselves a spot on deck, I watched as yet more parents boarded with their little ones. The fathers and mothers and children could all have been swapped around by some sleight of hand and no one would have noticed the difference.
One loud blast from the horn and the ship eased away from its berth. We looked at the sea of people waving from the quay below us; we had no one to bid farewell.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked my parents.
‘We are going to where we come from,’ my mother said.
‘Are we going back to Moersini and the turtles?’ I asked.
‘Oh, you don’t understand at all,’ she sighed.
‘We are going home,’ my father said brightly.
I was left pondering the question of what could be more home than our house at the edge of the jungle, but before long there were new things clamouring for my attention.
Arms thrust in mid-air, Elsie fell back onto the big bed and examined her injured palms. Only I could see that she was on the verge of tears.
‘This is our hard-earned holiday,’ said my unsuspecting father. ‘There are three restaurants on board, a nightclub, two bars and a swimming pool especially for us, and we can have anything we want brought here to our cabin.’
‘Summon the ship’s doctor,’ she said and a smile appeared on her face. ‘And make mine a whisky and soda.’
‘Fetch me a cigarette from my handbag, would you?’ she asked when my father had left the cabin.
I picked up her bag and poked around inside. Among a few bottles and boxes of pills, I spied the camel. I slid a cigarette from the pack and held the lighter out to her. Raising a dismissive hand, she said, ‘You’ll have to light it for me.’
I put the cigarette between my lips and flicked my thumb. I did what I had so often seen my mother do.
‘Take a good long draw,’ she said as I held the cigarette to the flame and, when it refused to light, ‘It’s not a lollipop!’
After a series of failed attempts, the tip began to glow. Gingerly, between two fingers, she took the cigarette from me.
A waiter entered, bearing a drink. I took the glass from the tray and sat down beside her. Tilting her head a little with one hand, I brought the whisky to her lips with the other. Her brown eyes, which had looked so very sad only moments before, began to shine again.
In a matter of minutes, the ship’s doctor arrived. My mother gestured to him that he was permitted to sit on the bed. With his case on his lap he began to speak in a language I did not understand. He took careful hold of her wrists and examined her palms. Without another word, he cleaned the wounds and wrapped both her hands in bandages.
All that time, I sat there thinking it would soon be my turn, but she did not say anything was wrong with me. Instead she said, ‘Go and find your father,’ and I left her behind with the doctor.
I remember long corridors and little shops and dining halls and children everywhere. And, up on deck, the sea and the sky wherever you looked. There were other, smaller boats suspended above the deck, and this I found fascinating. A woman I could not understand brought me to the children’s room, where my father collected me later that day. He was angry with me for leaving the cabin.
‘Your mother is ill,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t do anything to worry her.’
Even so, she asked me to come and lie beside her in bed when my father went out for an evening stroll. I lit a cigarette for her without her asking, which she seemed to find very amusing. She said her mother Nora was sure to think it was adorable too.
‘Je m’en fous,’ she said and said again, running her fingers through my hair. ‘Jam and poo!’ I giggled but of course I had misheard. This was no infantile joke, but the motto she shared with her mother and spoon-fed me like a slow-acting poison.
‘J’aime un pou,’ she spluttered, tears of laughter welling up in her eyes.
My mother must have got out of bed. I heard her in the bathroom and smelled the scent of bath oil. I spread my arms and my legs, felt circles around me and found myself at their heart.
I woke the next morning to see my father climb out of the bunk across the aisle. While my mother slept on, I accompanied him to the dining room for breakfast. Then he took me to the play area. As I could not understand the other children anyway, I distanced myself from them and drew my mother pictures to cheer her up. My father came to collect me and said we had to give her some rest. He took me to the swimming pool with him, and I slid down the chute while he waited for me in the water below. Though I had learned to swim in Suriname, all at once I seemed to have forgotten how. My father placed his hands on the edge of the pool so that I could get used to the water, sheltered by his arms. Later we stood side by side on deck and looked out over the ever-changing colours of the ocean. We spotted dolphins in the sparkling water.
When darkness fell, my father pointed out the stars to me. The heavens were a map beneath which we found our way. And that was why, he said, the Native Americans likened the starry sky to a trail through the wilderness.
Every day, my father showed me where we were on a map. The small flag advanced little by little. He spoke of coordinates, about which I understood nothing. He showed me the continents where he had lived and probably gave me my first lessons in warfare.
Looking back, I think my father was so very fond of maps because he was unable to think from his own perspective. He saw himself as part of a greater whole, the only world view that allows you to be a soldier. My mother had no need of maps; the world did not interest her in the slightest.
Although the bandages had been removed from her hands and her wounds had healed, she stayed in her cabin. ‘Come up on deck and sun yourself,’ my father ventured. ‘It’s a holiday, after all!’
She couldn’t be bothered with all those people. Life in Suriname had been one long social whirl, what she needed now was peace and quiet. Nor did she feel like reading or visiting the on-board cinema.
‘Come and cosy up beside me,’ she whispered.
‘Why do you wear sunglasses at night?’ I asked.
‘So I can see in the dark,’ she replied, and that made perfect sense to me.
[Pages 71 – 74]
From the moment I set foot in the hunting lodge, I was under its spell. Steps led down to the vestibule with its Delft blue tiles. The stained-glass door with heraldic crests opened onto the marble-floored hall. Beyond that lay the living room, home to a beamed ceiling and a cavernous open hearth tiled with hunting scenes. Adjacent was the dining room, where the fireplace held a round iron stove. The side room was lined with bookcases.
‘This will be my study,’ Elsie had exclaimed.
Not that she had much to study, but there at least she could close the door behind her whenever she wanted to make a phone call.
Every room had oak panelling two thirds of the way up the walls. Little faces peered out from the grain of the wood, here and there. The stained-glass windows permitted only filtered light to enter. ‘This house is one giant pair of sunglasses,’ Elsie said.
The wooden cupboards in the kitchen, pantry and scullery were all painted yellow. ‘I hate yellow,’ Elsie cried.
I did not understand how it was possible to hate a colour.
And the oven was coal-fired, so that would have to go. And she referred to the white tiles as dentures, every last one blighted by tiny cracks.
The notion that she would be cooking for herself had yet to sink in.
Climbing a wide wooden staircase, its banister worn silky smooth by thousands of hands, we reached the first floor, where four bedrooms and a bathroom led off a spacious landing. The floor creaked with every step.
The attic comprised an open space with a door leading to a large room, carpeted in red. A Jolly Roger left behind by the previous owners hung below the peak. Within a few years, this had become my room.
‘The garden in hell,’ Elsie would one day call it.
Jim had always lauded Elsie’s impeccable taste, yet she had no idea how to decorate and furnish our new abode. Perhaps she could not bear to begin.
She summoned Maxim to come and help her. ‘You must listen to the house,’ was his advice.
‘I can’t hear a thing,’ Elsie said. ‘I’m giving you carte blanche.’
‘Lamps, lamps, and more lamps,’ said Cato, who had tagged along of his own accord. ‘Floor lamps, standard lamps. And in the salon, I see a modern turquoise sofa.’
‘I hate turquoise,’ Elsie said.
‘You must dare to be contrary,’ Cato said.
‘I am always contrary,’ said Elsie.
‘And that’s why I love you so,’ said Cato.
I remember seeing Elsie relax visibly.
Maxim took my hand and walked me through the house. Now and then, we would stand still and listen closely.
On the day of the big move, Maxim gave a précis of every item as it came through the door. The sturdy desk for Elsie had belonged to Nora’s father, a senator in his day. The table lamp with a green griffin crouched at its base once graced his wife’s bedside cabinet and had, Maxim explained, been a wedding gift from Queen Emma. A small chip on the left paw was a reminder of the aerial bombardments at the end of the war, when Villa Flora had found itself on the front line. The dinner service came from Metternich and was – I only discovered later – used by the Nazis when they had commandeered the castle, but soap suds by the gallon had since washed their sins away. The mahogany bed intended for me had a headboard at both ends. The twins, Max and Nol, had shared it as little boys at Metternich, sleeping top to toe.
I was shocked by how condescending Maxim and Cato were about the gift my father had bought for Elsie. A modern bedroom suite: bed with matching lighting, bedside cabinets, wardrobes and a dressing table with folding mirror.
‘How bourgeois!’ they exclaimed in chorus, practically spitting out their insult.
Dismayed, Elsie said, ‘We have learned never to utter that word.’ Only to add immediately, ‘But I know exactly what you mean.’
That ‘exactly’ rang out with the resolve of a rifle shot.
Thank God Jim was nowhere to be seen. He had given her the suite with the best of intentions, having wanted to start over with Elsie in a world untrammelled by the past.
‘And what a hideous tabouret,’ Cato said, pointing at the low stool in front of the dressing table.
‘I hate orange,’ Elsie sighed.
‘Perhaps we can reupholster,’ said Maxim.
‘Mirror, mirror on the wall…’ she said, folding open the dressing table mirror. By which she meant she was the fairest of them all.
At the housewarming party, Maxim and Cato were even more thrilled than we were.
‘If you aren’t happy here…’ I heard Maxim exclaim.
Even I could finish that sentence for him.
But when my grandmother came down the steps and entered the hall bearing roses from her own garden, she stiffened. The chandelier made of antlers that had once adorned the hunting room at Metternich had to be removed without delay.
It was the feature from which Max had hanged himself.
Translated by David Doherty