Blesok no. 48, May-June,2006
She was just an ugly old lady living in a small apartment. Nevertheless, a lack of love had given her some odd traits which made her almost interesting. For years she had been a primary school teacher and dedicated to her work, she thought. But all those children seemed to have forgotten her completely. She never saw any of them. This gave her a certain satisfaction: most people were less virtuous than she.
After retiring, she lived a solitary life in an apartment on a dreary street in The Hague. It was called Obrechtstraat, after the composer, but the name was the only gentle note about it, and the people who live there are perhaps unaware of even that. Her loneliness was shared by a small cat which she loved. As much as possible, she kept herself hidden from the neighbours. She did the shopping she had to very early in the morning. She did not even know the people in the apartment below hers. To stop the people across the way from peering in, she had net curtains which she always kept closed. She considered herself quite a good person. Her only real sin was a sweet tooth – cakes, cheap chocolate– of which she was ashamed, but none of her neighbours would ever find out. With this she satisfied her wounded vanity. And since she had few surviving relatives, all the warmth she was capable of was directed towards the cat.
This animal was really remarkably small, a dwarf among cats. Even when it became aged, it still looked like a six-month-old kitten. That was not its only charm. It was also very affectionate, as well as intelligent and handsome: pale amber with a little brown, almost out of this world. Or so she thought. While she was not having an actual affair with her little Felix, her relationship with him was highly intimate, almost suspiciously so. Year after year, Felix calmly accepted her daily caresses, chatter, and other signs of love. He rewarded her by rubbing his head against her and meowing endearingly. Cats are sometimes extremely cunning in feigning affection.
Just as often, however, when it comes down to it, they reveal themselves to be essentially lacking in moral character. Almost to the point of behaving like sluts. Felix had been behaving oddly for several weeks. He would not eat. There were no more gentle meows. On occasion he uttered a scream that was nearly human. He drank without peeing. He was slightly swollen. Nothing could persuade him to leave his basket. One day he even had the nerve to lie down next to it, stone dead. Without the slightest warning. Three days before Mother's Day.
She was inconsolable and cried a great deal. Now there was no one left. She hoped she would not survive him for long!
But after that first day of intense mourning she caught herself lusting for food. She realized that it was scandalous and wrong. It seemed such a contradiction of her grief… still. After four treacle waffles, a piece of supermarket cake and innumerable lumps of cheese eaten with her fingers in the kitchen, she had to admit that her tears were over. Instead, she was overcome by something like anger. Felix had deserted her. It was almost a betrayal, of her love, her tender care. At that point, she knew that this death had hurt but not broken her.
And, furthermore, she realized that she was going to have to do something about the body.
Of course a decent burial would be the best thing. But she happened to live in an upstairs apartment with no garden. And as for asking the people downstairs… it was no use going to them – the corpse of a cat among their sterile flower beds!
A grey rubbish bag at the pavement curb filled her with aversion. Felix did not deserve that. Cremate him in the fire? She shuddered. She could have him removed by a vet 6r take him to an animal home. But what would they do with him? She was certain they would just take the remains to the dump.
Gradually she arrived at an entirely humane and acceptable solution. She would put him in a box and then “forget” it when she got off the tram. Felix might well have an all-day funeral following a route without end. Someone would eventually find him and bury him lovingly in his garden. That's what she hoped.
Deep in her heart she knew that this was wishful thinking, based on cowardice and self-deception, but she stilled her conscience because she also thought this would really be the nicest way. To leave Felix behind on a back seat, curled up in cardboard. To get off and never know where he ended up. She nodded, congratulating herself on being smart enough to think of it. She chose a nice big cake box, plain white, naturally. Any printing on it would have been in poor taste. A white funeral. She tucked soft cotton wool into the box to make a bed. It was regal. From long ago, she remembered the funeral of Prince Hendrik. Death was white, snow, a shroud. She closed the white box with a strip of transparent Scotch tape. Holding it out in front of her, she walked to the stop for the No. 11 tram, going to Scheveningen. Inside the tram, she went straight to the seat at the back and carefully put the box down beside her. It was spring, a fine day, late in the morning. The tram was full of sun. Most of the passengers were not going to the end of the line and got off earlier. With a feeling of peace and quiet resignation in her soul she reached the last stop.
She got out, leaving the box behind. Now her heart started thumping, because this was the moment of parting. She bravely swallowed the beginnings of a sob, and walked on stiffly but resolutely towards the promenade.
“Miss! Miss!” she heard someone calling behind her. She looked back. The smiling young tram driver was chasing after her “Your cake. You forgot your cake.”
Trembling slightly she accepted the box, muttered her thanks, and watched the tram setting off back towards the city. Now what? After long reflection she decided to go back to The Hague and try again there. This time she would be smarter. She would stay on the tram as far as the Hollands Spoor and then slip into the railway station. Among all those people…
As the tram reached the square in front of the station she was pleased to see that it was indeed very crowded. She got off quickly. She almost tripped over the tram rails and then the edge of the pavement as she headed for the station entrance.
“Excuse me, you left your cake in the tram.”
A man in a corduroy suit held the box out to her.
“Oh,” she said, with a sick smile, “thank you very much. How kind of you.” She could feel – for the first time in how long? – a crimson blush rising to her neck. To recover her composure she went up to the ticket window.
The man followed her and said, “Could you spare me a guilder or two?” He held out his hand shamelessly.
Now this on top of everything else, she thought. Some heroin addict. One of those punk people. She put the box down by the ticket window and dug a coin out of her handbag.
Confused and at her wits' end, she bought a return ticket to Leiden in desperation. At least, it was not far. She had to go somewhere, after all. She looked so odd standing there by the ticket window. People were looking at her.
In the train, with the box in the luggage rack this time, she devised a new plan. She would get off in Leiden, but not until the very last moment, as the doors were about to close. It would take a very smart fellow to come after her with the box then.
She was absolutely determined now. At Leiden she stood up quite normally, only to waste time wrestling awkwardly with her coat. Then she walked leisurely towards the doors. They were about to close. Now was the moment to get off. But just at the last second a girl in jeans carrying a large bag jumped on as the train was pulling out. The girl collided with her and she nearly fell over. She just managed to grab hold of a handle.
“Sorry,” said the girl. “That was a close call. Not hurt, are you?”
She straightened her coat and shook her head angrily. Ill-mannered child! And now, oh heavens, she was on her way to Haarlem. Without a ticket.
What now? I'll walk down to the buffet car, she thought. Then at least I'll be rid of the damned box.
So she entered the next car, where the girl was sitting with the bag between her knees. She got a book out of it. Must be a student. The creature had lit a cigarette and said as she passed, “I am sorry. I was so late. You didn't want to get off, did you?”
She shook her head angrily so as not to give herself away and said gruffly, “Certainly not. I'm looking for the buffet car.” “Oh, it's the other way. I happened to see it as I was running by.”
She turned around and went back into the nonsmoking car, with an involuntary glance at the white box which was still in the luggage rack. No one had touched it. A foreign worker near the window smiled beneath his woolly hat. He pointed upwards. “Ah, box, eh! Forgot nearly, eh!”
There was no point in going any further. She was stuck with the box and so she sat down under it. A door banged open. A cheerful voice called out: “Tickets, please.” Deeply embarrassed, she had to confess to the man that she was travelling without a ticket. He looked doubtful. There was nothing to be done. She had to pay a fine. On top of everything. How the other passengers stared at her, thinking: “tight-fisted old bag, bet she thought she could get away with it.” Trembling with nerves, she stared fixedly out of the window, as if the yellow and red of the daffodils and tulips in the bulb fields really riveted her attention.
In Haarlem it all happened again. She left the box in the luggage rack, someone came after her with it. She forgot it in a teashop, someone came after her with it. She bought a bunch of flowers and put it on the ground half under the stall, someone came after her with it.
She threw the flowers into a canal. For a moment she was actually on the point of chucking the box after them, but she managed to control herself because again people were giving her funny looks. She went back to the station with the tiny corpse, took a train to The Hague via Leiden again, got the No. 11 tram for the third time and finally came home to the dreary Obrechtstraat distraught, exhausted, and practically in tears. By now, the box was covered with finger-marks and beginning to look rather strange. Although it was late in the afternoon she decided to have a quick cup of tea. Strong tea, a hot cup, was what she needed. It might make her feel better. It had been such a strange, nasty day! She dropped into her chair at last. She was utterly worn out. The tea tray was at her side. She poured herself a cup and slurped up the brew. Delicious, even if it was only a cheap brand that she had mixed with leaves left from the day before. Excellent! Very reviving. You could put your mind to work and order your thoughts. The white box lay on the table. What on earth was she to do with those ill-fated remains? Wouldn't they be beginning to smell by now? She gave the box a furtive look. Her ugly eyes suddenly filled once more. Bleak self-pity threatened to overcome her. All her life she had had to get used to deep, bitter loneliness. But had she ever really succeeded?
She swallowed and got hold of herself. She made a decision. Tonight, when darkness had fallen, she would set off with the box one last time. A few streets away there were dark doorways, and she would either leave it in one of them or under a parked car. She would not look at the number of the house or the car, no, she would make a quick getaway and find oblivion in a glass of cherry brandy. There was no other way.
All the same she already felt a muddled sense of guilt. Poor Felix! She thought: what must he look like after being dragged around so much? It's a good thing he doesn't know about it. The little dear. Always so affectionate and such a comfort when times were difficult. She also thought: if he had a soul – and who can say? – he will be aware in the hereafter of all I did for him today. It may not have done much good, but I did it for him, and with the best intentions.
She drained her cup. And at that moment she could think of no better consolation than to be with him once more. To see him one last time. She could not bear to leave the box closed until the evening.
She put it on her lap. She slid her teaspoon under the pieces of tape. With a deep sigh and a lump in her throat she lifted the lid.
It was at that moment that the miracle occurred. A new transfiguration took place. For the rest of her life she would remember this as the greatest of miracles. How had it happened, in her own hands, during her tragic exodus on that long, endlessly sad day?
Inside the white box lay an exquisite, cream-topped, amber-brown apricot tart. On a white marzipan oblong was written in elegant chocolate letters: To Mother.
Translated by John Rudge