Mrs Maes told me that our lesson would have to end early because her husband was going to his first finching competition that afternoon. He’d trapped his own chaffinch – the prettiest little thing, she said, all white and green, with eyes like black caviar and the most exquisite song, which is why it’s always worth trapping a wild one if you possibly can – and he’d even built it a special cage.
I’d been to a vinkenzetting, once. About a dozen boxes were lined up along Begijnenstraat, and inside each box was a male chaffinch. Every time a bird sang its song, its owner would chalk a notch on a wooden stick, and the bird with the most songs in one hour was the winner. Many of the owners were old men who had fought in the war and been blinded by the gas, whose only consolation was that they could still listen to birds singing.
I was glad that our lesson was cut short. I’d not practised very much that week, and I hated it when Mrs Maes tried to be encouraging through her disappointment – that was worse than getting hit on the knuckles, which is what would happen at school. Our school was not like the schools I read about in English books: there were no tennis courts or hacking trails, and no one drank mugs of steaming cocoa or ate rice pudding. When you were little you were taught by nuns, and when you were older you were hurled into a world of men: red-faced masters and sour-smelling older boys. In her dark-green dress with the crocheted collar and dainty house slippers, with her silver hair pinned in tight curls around her temples, Mrs Maes was the only teacher I’d ever felt guilty about disappointing. My melody side was good, but I didn’t like touching the black notes, in the way that some people can’t stand the sound of nails on a blackboard. When I had tried to explain this to her, she looked confused and said that if I didn’t play the black notes I could only ever learn pieces in the key of C, which wasn’t very interesting.We didn’t have that conversation today, though, because we were short of time. As she put on her coat and checked her lipstick in the mirror, I asked Mrs Maes if it would be alright for me to leave my accordion in the school overnight. I told her that I was going to make a detour on my way home and didn’t want to carry it. She said that that should be fine, as long as I remembered to collect it the next day, as there wouldn’t be anyone to open the classroom for me over the weekend. Then she turned and looked at me strangely, and asked if everything was alright and how my parents were coping: she’d heard that they still hadn’t recovered the body…
‘They’re fine,’ I said. ‘We’re all fine.’ And I wished her good luck for the finching competition.
Once in the corridor, I could barely keep myself from running: past the rooms where the carillon students had their lessons, around the crooked vestibule housing spare parts for the bells, across the inner courtyard where Father Vandyk tended his herb garden, and into the street.
I followed the canal to the fringes of town, across an industrial development and along the mud flats that were being covered in concrete. For as long as I could remember there had been a bomb crater there, left over from the war. Years ago, after a heavy storm, the hole had filled up and some kids had decided to go swimming. One of the smaller ones got tangled in some netting that had been left behind after a football game, and by the time his sister noticed he was gone it was too late. That afternoon, after the body had been retrieved, Krelis had taken me there, but by then all there was to see was a big hole filled with dirty water. We’d come home down the alley that smelled of potato and oatmeal sausages, where cats gathered to wail for scraps. At supper that night I had snivelled into my jumper sleeves and said I didn’t want to eat, which made Father chuck the plate of stoemp onto the floor because didn’t we realise that beggars can’t be choosers. Krelis had explained why I wasn’t hungry, that we’d been to see the hole where a little boy had drowned, and then Father was silent for a long time. Because what do you say when your boy is crying at the table and you’ve just thrown a perfectly good meal on the floor?
When I reached the second field, strewn with weeds and scattered building debris, I broke into a sprint – over a fence and across a meadow, where the grass was long and sharp enough to cut through skin and a few cows paused to look up at me with sad eyes. Following the towpath as it curved away from the river, I headed straight for my safe spot in the forest. Crouched low to the ground, I would listen for the scrabbling of rabbits and imagine myself as one of them, burrowing in the forest floor with twitching nose and beady eyes, peering up at the vast sky and canopy of branches, nibbling on the bending willows that bordered the riverbank. Through the leafy gloom, I watched a goshawk slice between the treetops on its afternoon death cruise, cutting across a string of wire that had been pegged along the opposite bank to prevent cows from wandering into the stream. In the summer, Krelis used to settle himself in the crook of a tree that scooped out of the riverbank and let his bare feet trail in the cold water while I scouted for lost treasures in the shallows.
Every year in these parts there were rumours of wild-boar sightings: a mother seen lumbering through the undergrowth with her piglets, or a lone male rooting for tubers. But most had died out in the war, killed by the Germans for their meat. Once, I thought I’d heard one: a rustling of leaves, an almost human grunt. A pair of wood pigeons had scattered in alarm at something which I could not see, but which I knew was there.
Leaning against the log pile that never seemed to grow or shrink, I pushed my feet against the empty frame where hunters hung the bodies of trapped hares. Sometimes I would watch the animals being skinned. The carcasses let off steam, the warmth from their lifeless bodies escaping like tiny souls into thin air.
I had lost track of the number of times I had read the letter. A week had passed, and still I had not decided what I was going to do. A part of me didn’t want to decide. So I read it again:
Dear Mr. van Houten,
I’m afraid that the Christian Women’s Union (CWU) sent me your details without explaining your level of English. If you do have any difficulty understanding this, I hope that you might be able to find a warden who would be willing to translate. I was once told that the Dutch are taught very
good English from an early age, so with any luck you won’t struggle to read my letters and I shall be able to help you refine yours.
The information I received about you was rather sparing in detail. I know that you are serving fifteen years in a prison in Machelen, which I understand is somewhere near Brussels, and that you are thirty-six years old. You must forgive my lamentable knowledge of Belgian geography – Waterloo is just about the only place I know, apart from Bruges, which I am told is very beautiful. I hope you will be able to educate me about your country, which I can’t help but think of as an old man, even though it is really so very young in the scheme of things. I would also very much appreciate learning more about you, Mr. van Houten.
In the meantime, I suppose you’ll want to know a little bit about me? I grew up in the English countryside with my parents and two siblings – a brother and a sister, both older than me. My parents are retired, as is – in a manner of speaking – my brother, who had some rather frightful experiences in the war; my sister is happily married with two small children.
For my part, I am currently plotting an escape from a life of drudgery in London. I have considered going to Spain, or possibly to Romania, where I hear the locals practise bear massage. It sounds, to quote my friend Harry, ‘positively savage’ (by ‘savage’ we mean splendid), although I imagine the travel would cost a packet.
I don’t suppose I’m remarkable to look at: fair, with short hair and a long neck, a slight overbite and eyes that are more grey than blue and might be described as ‘deep-set’. I have a rather low voice, which I used to abhor but now I’m grateful for it (my sister is rather shrill). I should like to be a writer, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be good enough.
You must let me know if I’ve made myself difficult to understand. They say that tyrants like simple language, so I feel it’s almost a moral imperative to be as complex as possible in this day and age. If you’d like to respond I promise you shall always have a sympathetic ear in me—
Yours in eager anticipation,
She mentioned Machelen in the letter – Machelen, near to the capital – but had addressed the envelope to Mechelen. Same street as mine, same number.
From my earliest days at school, Father had insisted that I would not waste my time learning French. As a result, I had taken up English, and my knowledge of it was good – almost as good as that of Mr. Hendryks, who had spent a summer in a place called Purbeck when he was a boy. Although many of the words in this letter were a mystery to me – I could only guess what ‘drudgery’ and ‘savage’ might mean – I was fairly certain that Spain was the same as Spanje. This Christian Women’s Union sounded terribly official. Perhaps she was an evangelist?
The letter was far too interesting to be thrown away. The easiest thing might have been to show it to Mother, who would want to send the letter to Mr. van Houten with our apologies, even though it wasn’t our fault. I wondered what crime he had committed to end up in prison.
Hearing voices from across the clearing, I folded the letter and stuffed it into my pocket before wriggling closer to the log pile. I flattened myself against it like one of those shiny grey bugs that can squeeze into spaces you’d never think could take them. There were three people: one was breathing heavily while the other two spoke.
‘That was too easy.’
Pepijn. I knew his froggy voice and recognised the awkward lurching of his too-long body. Pepijn was taller than anyone else in my class, and his legs were already covered with a jungle of golden hairs.
‘He made it easy. Didn’t you?’ I didn’t recognise this voice. ‘I said, didn’t you?’ A soft thud, followed by a grunt and more wheezing. At last, the third boy spoke.
‘Can we go back now?’
There was a gap in the log pile just above my eye level. Carefully, without breathing, I drew up to it.
The boy who had asked the question was crouched on the ground with his back to me, the curve of his spine heaving up and down. I didn’t recognise his voice, but I saw that he had a bad cut on one leg. Bits of dirt and bark, and even a tiny green leaf, stuck to the scarlet stripe that glistened from his knee all the way down to his sock.
‘What happens when a Trapper catches an Indian, Arend?’ asked Pepijn.
‘The same thing that happens when an Indian catches a Trapper. The point is, he was caught.’
The older boy, the one called Arend, was wearing a version of the local scouting uniform, with a red armband and a badge on his cap that was decorated in the Dutch colours. I looked at my own school coat – the piping was coming loose at the cuffs, and there were holes picked in the flannel where my mother had sewn Krelis’s swimming badges – before trying to get a better look at the insignia on Arend’s cap. He was almost as handsome as my brother, with a square face and severe jaw, and eyes as bright as glass. I’d never seen anyone stand so straight.
‘It won’t happen again, Arend,’ snivelled the boy on the ground. ‘Can we go back now?’
‘Get up.’ Arend turned to Pepijn with a swagger. ‘We haven’t got room for weaklings, understand? I don’t care how clever he is. The brainy ones are always the weakest.’
Pepijn nodded with dumb exuberance.
‘Pain isn’t weakness – admitting pain is.’ Arend scanned the ground around him, and I ducked. He halted a few feet from the log pile, and from the rustling of leaves I could tell that he had picked something up. ‘We just need to find out how weak he is, Pepijn, before we decide if he can join.’
There was a pause, followed by the sound of something slicing through the soupy evening air. A heavy sound – not like the crack of a whip, but something blunt and flat and hard. It was followed by a snapping noise, and a shudder.
‘You must be fast as a greyhound, understand?’
‘Yes, Arend…’ The younger boy was crying now, groaning and rocking back and forth, like a buffoon. Arend’s head shone golden in the sunlight as he raised his arm for a second time. There was another splitting noise, followed by a dull thud, and a grunt.
‘You must be tough as leather…’ And again. ‘Hard as steel…’ ‘I promise, Arend!’
The boy had rolled over to one side, his bony shoulders quivering as he drew his knees up to his chin. He was very pale, with dark hair and freckles. He couldn’t have been older than eleven or so. His long, black eyelashes glistened with tears.
‘You see how we do it, Pepijn?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Good. Take him back to the campsite. You can show the others next time.’
As soon as they were gone – Arend striding ahead, Pepijn supporting the limping dark-haired boy – I decided that I didn’t want to stay in the forest any longer.
When I got home, I went straight to my room and dug out an empty jotter. It was one I’d stolen from infant school, with a picture on the cover that showed three children sitting by a fireplace, listening to a story being read by an older girl in a pink sundress. Opening the notebook to a blank page, I decided to compose my letter in Flemish first and wait until I could borrow an English dictionary from school to translate it.
Dear GP, I wrote.
What to say? My name is Marten Kuypers and I am thirteen years old. I live in Mechelen, which is not the same as
Machelen. My best friend at school is Nijs, and my best friend outside of school is Mr. Hendryks at church. There is also a girl I like called Mieke, but she is two years ahead of me and probably fancies my brother, who’s dead.
That wouldn’t do. I started again.
You shouldn’t feel sorry for Belgium. Did you know that of all the foreign armies he met, Julius Caesar said that the Belgians were the bravest?
It looked so silly on the page.
My father was also in the war. The only people he talks about from then are the French, and how they shot Flemish soldiers who didn’t understand their orders. That’s the French for you.
No – I shouldn’t bring Father into this.
I chewed on my pencil for a while, then ripped the page from my book and crumpled it into a ball. How wrong was it to lie? Jesus said that St. Bartholomew was incapable of deceit.
What if I got caught? Dear GP, I wrote. Thank you for your letter. Life in prison is
hard, but I can tell you about it if you like.
From Smoke Portrait, published by Alma Books, 384pp, £12.99 (paperback)