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Dutch Interior: a story by Jenny Holden

Jenny Holden

 

Hendrickje poured the tea, and remembered her dead. Who was it now? Simon, with his long nose and seriousness. He was already old when she met him, and tall as a larch. Cord trousers. He liked her waist, and her buttocks, he was incorrigible. She smiled, and a late afternoon sun made it down the years and through her kitchen window. A pigeon cooed somewhere, and on her forehead the light rested. Her cheekbones formed hollows, but her hair blazed; white fluff. Her forehead had a strength, a barrel prominence that made her, as a younger woman, formidable. She looked like Danaë in Rembrandt’s painting, strong under duress, and covered in gold, a liquid warmth in her bones and in her crevices. Hendrickje had known too, and Simon’s fingers about her shoulders were marvels, long and pale and knotted, and though there was a little pain, there was joy also. A daughter, Lara, who called him daddy long legs and climbed up his frame, holding his hands. She flipped herself all the way over while he supported himself against the work surface, and every time it made her mother gasp. Hendrickje could be serious too. She was named after her Oma, but that head made her all Rembrandt’s, his shamed second wife. Not puffy sweet Saskia, but Hendrickje, his companion. He outlived her, and the rest.

She tore the corner off a sugar sachet. We are put on earth to bear these things, and if we can lessen another’s pain, so be it. The teaspoon’s clink made the noise which is pleasant to hear if you are susceptible to cosiness, to the state of nestling in, settling down. Three bars on the heater, and the oven light on, crumble inside. She drank it the proper way, without milk, in a glass with a handle. She was leaning on the sink and watching the sky. The palest blue, and empty of anything of note. A tree stuck its limbs out, but it was naked, and she remembered Joost before they moved over here, when she was not short of suitors. He walked with her and held her arm, or let her ride on the back of his bicycle. His hair was red, many coils which she thought of now, and wondered what it would have been to have touched them. There was Penny, from next door. She was dead, and fat, and silly too. Like a pigeon, forever head-butting something invisible.

Two teenagers pushed bicycles down the path beyond Hendrickje’s back fence. She heard fuck sake, and then a mobile ringing. They spoke differently now, expressing the violence latent in youth. In a way, she admired them. She had sworn at Simon only once, after visiting his sister’s children. He had been over the top, bought the boy a model train, the girl a first edition C. S. Lewis. Gone on and on in the car home, what darlings, how well disciplined. She called him a bastard, and closed the door firmly on the car, and went into the house, and felt nothing else. There was nothing to let out. Everything he said was true. They were impeccably behaved, like miniature people, not children at all. Lara, at that time, was unimaginable. Even the idea of a child – it was simply outside the realms of thought. Not that Hendrickje was choosing a career instead; what he never could understand was her deep commitment to their happiness. She saw the world in terms of wasted energy and selfish excess. What she had, she would preserve, and nourish, without fuss. Hendrickje sipped her drink, and saw the sky. The block of them laid out supine on the bed, and the first light through under the Velux. A white sheet revealed them, two interlocked pairs of hands laid across two chests. They were lacking only a spaniel at the foot, a book under his head inscribed with numerals. Hen, she remembered, and his hand breaking the symmetry, plunging below the covers and looking, without sight, for a warm crevice, some resting place about her. She had wanted to preserve this, and was quite firm on the subject. There were ulterior motives behind everything, sex most of all. Things looked patchy, for a while. And then, a slip-up. And after – what she would have to live with. That she’d have aborted it, from the off, perhaps without telling him. She’d always had reserves, she knew her own mind. Her mum dying young had done that, or the move to England.

The best thing in life is the ability to change. When it came to it, Lara was the best person she’d known, and Hendrickje allowed herself to put on a little weight, and worry less about Simon’s long hours and their shaky income. Lara learned to draw, the table, a kite and doll, anything. Nothing on earth had such a capacity for concentration, tongue out, solemn at her paper. Mother watched daughter, who watched only her fist and pencil, learning how to make a world, and live in one too. Life could be good.

The afternoon had passed, and soon she would be late. She had known skies like this – deepening blue, with a low moon growing brighter and fatter – and known people, with whom she’d talked. Some she’d loved. She was going to be late, but perhaps supper would wait, until after. Lotje was dead, and Simon’s brother Eric, who was a perpetual charmer, until he died of something horrible and told Simon on his deathbed that it should have been Eric at the last, with the name, and the life, and the missus. Simon had always thought his brother was gay, and was quietly satisfied that this was, after all, not the case. They had been in competition after all – and he, the lankier, mousier brother, had won. This was not spoken, but Hendrickje knew, and would never judge him for it.

She watched two birds together, dipping, black on blue. If she moved from here, from where she supported herself on the sink, legs stiff as soldiers, if she went to turn on the lamp by the TV, or to put a jumper on for outside, or apply a swipe of lipstick – if she was efficient and capable in any of these ways then there would be no edges to the hell she was living in. The cat, eventually, would have to be fed, and it would begin. But now. There was tonight, and there was Hendrickje, a small, stout woman with the forehead of a Rembrandt, her hands spread on the sink.

 

At Simon’s college she had met some of the other fellows, they flirted with her and liked her jokes, she was a terrific little woman to them. Formal hall, high table. Passing the port round, and all of these great men’s faces, made beautiful in the candlelight. She laughed for them, and was interested in their research. Of Simon’s field she was sweetly naïve, knowing enough about the English madrigal to tease out a professor’s superior knowledge in the subject. She said she liked Carole King, and blushed. She said she liked your Peter Grimes, because of how its salt air took her home. They had holidayed in Norfolk, she and her husband, but she leaned in to hear about Florence, and California. She was certain that if she had travelled so widely, she would not describe it in these terms – the Uffizi, but the locals coarse, or the Redwood, and a Syrah to die for. She wanted terribly to know whether this or that Fellow had seen bears, or eaten Lebkuchen, but never asked. She praised the food, and knew how to make her features still and self-contained for the Latin mass. The textures of the language were different from her native Dutch, more even-tempered and insistent, but she was beguiled all the same. She perched on the oak bench, her weight on her rump, trying to balance her handbag on her lap and reach the food. After those nights she discovered she had pulled unfamiliar muscles, and developed a taste for rabbit. Once, she tripped across Front Quad, aware of each step because she was a little tight, and tried two staircases before she found the toilet engaged. A recently appointed Law Fellow emerged through the ancient door and closed it behind him. He was a large man, ridiculous in all that flapping material. The Dutch Wife, he said, putting both hands on his hips. His wings, and his paunch, stood between her and her bladder’s relief. Too much wine, he said, and, I’ve seen you. You’re a little tease. You’ll forgive me, he said, taking two steps towards her. She took two back, and felt wall. Excuse me, she said. That Laphroaig, he said, it’s terrific, and pressed his groin against her womb, to do which he had to lean back slightly, to accommodate his stomach. No – she said, having always hated Scotch, and wedged her hands between, prodding at too much flesh. She kicked his shin, and he lost balance, and swore. All these men, and she was guilty before them – for what? And as she dipped past him she thought, confusedly, that Simon would be so cross, and there flashed in her mind his body and hers, and cold plaster against her bum, and this was wrong, too. He’d never know, but that night she dug her fingers into his back, wanting to be rid of something. Stepping across the quad, the moon bobbed in the corner of her eye, and Hendrickje was forced to notice such things; a spire, pale greeny-blue with a yellow lamp somewhere within, and points of wetness the moon picked out on the grass.

 

Hendrickje thought of home, of white pavements and the chill of the North Sea blowing in behind Centraal, she thought of the Begijnhof and its courtyard silence, generations of women who knew, as she did, how to soothe, and suppress. That she was descended from one of them, she had no doubt. It didn’t matter that there was no Our Lord or Blessed Virgin, the very will of the beguines was subtle, and it spoke to her bones.

It was gone half seven. A telephone was ringing, somewhere off in the house. She would answer it. She would not. How her heart had been used to go at the sound of it, wondering who would be on the other end. Baby – a lover might address him so. This happened to other wives. For a period after Lara had started at university, Hendrickje would apply herself to her daily tasks and, nearing the time of his return, would lose all stomach for them. She would put on the oven but forget to feed it, instead would curl like a comma in the bed. That he made her jealous was some feat – Hendrickje, the toast of the Jordaan – and he did it by a certain indifference, or staid acceptance of her love. She loves me, sure! He was incapable of malice, was as soft as his best cashmere wool pullover, folded up in a box in Lara’s room – the spare room – stalled halfway to the charity shop. To doubt him was to doubt herself – how terrifying that was! With a little effort of will, she regained her surety of touch and motion. She would think of other men – it was a particular pleasure of hers to summon Omar Sharif into the bedroom – and feel the scales shift once more. Roses, for no reason other than it being a Thursday, other than her being his Hen. The first draft of his paper, for her eyes only, and the dedication at the beginning, from the Song of Songs. The beams of our house are cedars; our rafters firs. There, so. She saw how the power went back and forth between them. Having learned this, she had to forget it, in order that they might continue. Her husband, at the end, admitted no infidelity into the house of their marriage. He died – in his sleep! And he slept so little, down the years. For death to find him there, and with precision stop the breath in his throat and close up his eyes – there was skill in that. There was some comfort. He would work early in the morning and she would roll into his half. Here the sheets around her were cool, and the change of location would alter the substance of her dreams. She would lie spread-eagled, one foot keeping her own corner’s counsel, and a nightmare in which she was failing someone would ebb sweetly into some new narrative, a gathering, or a celebration. She slept well when he was not there, and loved him all the more for it.

Hendrickje turned on the tap. Its noise was startling, more so than the telephone. These were the things of which man was once afraid; fire and flood. She had never been scared of the dark, not of anything really. Mice, perhaps, or snakes. Both unlikely visitors here. She scrubbed the teacup, rinsed it, laid it on the sink. There was the dishwasher, sometimes she forgot. The stone sink from her childhood she remembered now, and the smell of gritty soap powder as her mother washed clothes. How the shirts billowed out and then with a great shhhlup you pushed them under. Her mother’s hands were red and coarse, and beautiful to her fourth daughter. She was dead – sometimes Hendrickje forgot. Oh my God, someone said. This was not some pious relative, speaking through her. This was Hendrickje. The sound of her own voice was the most startling of all. It was low for a woman’s, and it betrayed age. Something had happened to Danae, with her fine forehead and her excellent grammar. It was the word of the town, Kijk naar haar rimpels! Lotje was rushing up Prinsengracht, carrying eggs and bread and trying not to trip. Hendrickje could hear her calling, though the face was not clear. This was certainly not her sister’s body, straddling a chair, dressed only in strips of leather and backlit red. They had walked past the red lights, together, just once. She told him not to be such a prude, and took his hand and was proud how they beckoned, these poor, extraordinary women. Her English man, with his hand in hers. Their bodies were hers, after all, and what he felt was desire – abashed, conflicted. This was as it should be. She begged him to try the hashish, but he would only take a little of the biscuit, and insisted that it was juvenile, that he felt nothing. She pointed out to him how the air admitted the depth of her foot, how it fizzed minutely around each toe. He told her she was imagining it, and she was glad to believe him, and in him. It felt good to be told she was wrong.

She sat down. Her legs had taken her to the living room, there was an easy chair next to the phone. If only it would ring again! She would be late, and had perhaps learned how to be scared, late in the day. A plane passed low overhead, her right foot was tapping. Well, so. All those bodies up there in that metal barrel. The food on trays, and the girls with their painted lips, offering you things. Her daughter had once stated a desire to serve in this way – an air steward, it was called now. She was so stubborn, her Larenka. Knitting her fingers together on her lap and making her two thumbs orbit each other, Hendrickje realised her daughter would not suffice. She had grown thick around the waist, and there was a lumpen complacent way about her. Her eyes focused just through, or above, your head; that simply would  not do. It was her father’s; it was infuriating and dear to Hendrickje in equal parts. In almost equal parts.

She was crying now. She found a handkerchief in her sleeve, and held it to her face. The concert would have started, and so – this was the decision she had made. There would be other concerts, just as there would be days and days to live in. She would ask someone to go with her next time. She would call up Joan, Dr Weston’s widow – those two used to enjoy the opera. One summer the four of them saw Figaro al fresco, and Robert Weston brought a Japanese rice wine which they drank, swallowing with it some of Mozart’s giddiness. They would go to the Far East, they would set up a magazine! They were blind drunk: you could have too much of joy, that’s why she and Simon preferred Bach. Even-tempered. No, Hendrickje would go alone to the next one, if at all. She switched the lamp on beside her and bowed her head, thumbs still circling. The hoovering. A cake for Sarah down the road, with her new baby. A boy, was it? But still, she didn’t move. The bulb had warmed up now, and the window was a black square, which showed her nothing. Traffic noise, a too-empty sky over Oxford. Soon they would be preparing for Christmas, and everything that it entailed. Shopping, and a handful of recycled traditions, cut off from their meaning. In Holland it was different, waiting for Sinterklaas to ride in on his steamboat, surrounded by the Zwarte Pieten – the first sight of the procession, the first gluhwein of winter. Lotje always kept her house stocked with kruidnoten, which Hendrickje would tip into her palms and work through until they were gone, savouring each ginger button. A clock upstairs struck the hour. She should have used the dishwasher – she saw the cup upside down on the sink, tapped her foot in irritation. Back to the kitchen, and picked it up, placed it by itself on the top rack of the dishwasher. Came back. Her thumbs, the motion of them, made a little noise. Her bones were good, for her age, she was strong. A cry, from somewhere, and the heating clicked on, its hum filled the air as though the house would take off. When will he be home, she wondered?

Now Lara was an infant, between them on a back pew of St Barnabas Church. Only a few weeks after they had moved, they discovered the church, an egg neatly ensconced in their nest of streets. The complete Bach cello suites, and a home they were settling into. A winter sky pressed down on pastel-coloured terraces, children playing on the street. There was a health centre, and a pub; its oak and grime not so different to the darkened interior of a brown café back home. Jenever would be a while coming; perhaps when this corner of Jericho caught up with its rapidly modernising front-face. Hendrickje would take little Lara to stroll up bohemian Walton Street and stare in the windows, hand in mittened hand. Delicatessens, second hand clothes. Bookshops, bookshops. This was not the western canal belt – and this was not the Westerkerk – but there was something which kept them here.

Lara’s feet didn’t touch the floor, and she leaned her head against her father’s arm, put a finger in her mouth and listened. She closed her eyes, and her feet stopped swinging. When it was over she pressed her hands together dazedly, but the roots of the music had got in. Hendrickje thought the cellist handsome, thought the playing somewhat mannered, the music beyond words. She looked left – at the other aisle of listeners, and wished she was a painter. Heads off this way and that like boats and their wake seen from an aeroplane. Varying looks of contemplation. The dances were dances, and then were something more. She looked across at Simon, who frowned a little. His hair needed cutting, his mouth was open, slightly. Light showered down from the clerestory, on the audience, and on the musician. Imitation Roman, built for the workers of the nearby Press. She thought it ugly, and liked it. After the ebullient third suite, Hendrickje noticed something. An old woman, a row in front but to the left, sitting alone. Each time applause filled the church, the woman’s head jerked upwards, like a time-lapse flower visibly growing towards the light. Once the cellist had settled into the opening bars of the next dance, down it would go, as though she were praying. The silences of the fifth’s sarabande revealed the quietest of snores. Hendrickje tried, and failed, to erase the memory of the hair, so thin it exposed the scalp beneath.

They got home, and ate chips off newspaper. They got home, and squabbled over the TV, and read Lara a story. It was possible she would never remember which. It didn’t seem to matter, terribly.

The phone rang. Yes? It was a girl’s voice on the other end; how are you today? she asked, as though they were previously acquainted. This was acceptable, apparently. Everyone was your friend, now. Hendrickje didn’t catch the next rush of words, couched in the awkward phrasing of the script-reader. Not enunciating clearly; falling far short of Lara’s beautiful RP. She had resisted throughout her teens, dropping t’s and g’s and speaking lower than was natural, almost in a whisper, to her friends. Mates, they were called. But she found the accent again in adulthood, she grew into it. Sometimes, Hendrickje thought she sounded like a little old lady already, saying such and such was awfully something or other. She had been angry, ferociously so. She stood in opposition to this and that. Her skin was sensitive, and she couldn’t stand dogs. It was terrible. There was nothing else you could say, or think. And still this girl was banging on, in some call centre in Newcastle or Delhi or wherever they put them these days.  Something about a computer, a network problem in her area. No, I – my daughter deals with all that for me, thank you. Only after she hung up did she realise the mistake. Perhaps she had gotten old, after all. The muse of Rembrandt, the toast of the Jordaan. Hendrickje’s hand was still on the receiver, and she heard then the noises of the city about her, of other people, trying to live. She would buy flowers for the kitchen, and avoid excess sentimentality. She would make a cake, and grieve for her daughter. Tomorrow she would go to the vegetable market.

___________

Jenny Holden is a writer based in Oxford, where she is working on her first novel. She has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick. She was runner-up in the 2009 Harper’s Bazaar/Orange Short Story Competition, and longlisted in the 2010 Short Fiction New Writers Competition and the 2011 Cinnamon Press Short Story Award. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in nthposition, Horizon Review, Brand Literary Magazine, Fuselit, Fractured West, Junctures Journal, likestarlings and (Short) Fiction Collective. 

 

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