Something is buzzing next to my ear. I can’t see what it is. A bee, I think. A mosquito has a higher pitch, and the buzzing of a fly is more nervous.
When I was little, I once saved a bee from a swimming pool. I sat down on my knees, made a cup with my hands and scooped it out of the water. Its wings were stuck to its body, and I looked for a place in the sun where it could dry out. The moment I laid it in the grass, and carefully spread open its wings, it stung me.
This bee is knocking against the glass above my head and will fly away as soon as the man opens the window. He pushes me across the table until I am hanging with my head out of the window. I can see the farmyard below, and the dogs that saunter back and forth and look up at me full of expectation. The fields all around. The road, winding its way through the fields. There is nobody there. Far away, way too far away from here, is another farm.
Perhaps an alarm bell should have gone off a bit earlier. When the woman said that thing about tights and lipstick maybe. But I am a bit slow in certain things. It’s nothing serious, I’m just a bit slower than others.
I wasn’t nervous when I got into her car. Why should I have been? Curious, yes. And pleased I had got the job. I would do it well. Better than the barman in the café where I sometimes come. He puts the glass down in front of me with a thud and says nothing to me. He winks and smiles at other women. He leans with one hand on the bar and bends forwards as far as possible when he is speaking to the blonde woman in the short red skirt. Or the woman from Suriname. She has brilliant white teeth and lovely curls.
The man at the table by the window does speak to me. ‘Just for a moment,’ he always says when I go and stand near him. Because he wants to read. At home it doesn’t work, he once said. The silence distracts him. He needs to be smothered in a blanket of music and smoke and snippets of conversation. I also distract him, he says, but five minutes is ok. Then he reaches for his book again and I go and sit somewhere else. Once I kept an eye on him for the rest of the evening. I thought it was taking a long time before he turned the page. It was nevertheless an easy book, he had said. Nothing philosophical or anything. I should try it too sometime. ‘I don’t like to read’, I had answered. It’s true. After a while the letters start to dance before my eyes and I get a headache. ‘Pity,’ he’d said, ‘I can get completely absorbed by a good book.’ I still saw him glancing over the edge and looking at who was coming in and going out. And he immediately put the book aside when the blonde woman came to sit with him, and he even stowed it in his jacket pocket when she went to the toilet later. She walked past my table. Her lipstick was smudged and she had a ladder in her tights.
So that was the reason. She wanted smart staff, the woman beside me. ‘No lipstick, no tights,’ she had said during our first conversation, ‘you understand why.’
What I had put on was also wrong. I realized it the minute I got into the car. It was too late. She looked at my jeans with disapproval, and even though she didn’t say anything about it, I still made the silent resolution to wear the black velvet trousers I had bought for holidays from now on.
She asked if I had any children. I shook my head, and she muttered something like ‘thank goodness’ and ‘little ones are hard to combine with this job’. Her eldest was finally old enough to look after the two youngest, when she had to go out at night. No more carry-on with babysitters. It was a huge relief, she said.
We drove fast. The landscape whizzed past. Fields with cows. Sometimes horses. Lots of advertising boards. Now and then a farm.
That’s how it would be every evening from now on. She would pick me up at home, drop me off at home afterwards and pay in cash. Quite a service, I thought.
I’d like to be a barmaid. Stand behind a gleaming bar, polish up glasses, serve drinks, put on nice music and talk to customers. All of them. I would make a better job of it than that barman did.
I signed my contract in a messy front room. There were lots of pages and the letters were dancing again. I told her about me and the reading and writing. And about my being slow. That’s what they always used to say, my mother, my teacher and my boyfriend. That I’m slow. ‘But I’m not lazy,’ I said to her, ‘Not at all. I just need a little bit more time for some things.’ She said I needn’t worry. That she really didn’t care. And she helped me. ‘You just need to sign here and here’, she said kindly. I wrote my name as beautifully as I could. In the meantime, other girls had come in. They were tottering about on high heels, wearing shiny skirts and open tops that I would never have the guts to wear. That was still what the woman said to me first, after I had handed her the papers back; that I should show more of my body. She rummaged in a basket by the wall and pulled out a glittery dress that she held up to me. ‘It’s too tight,’ I wanted to say, but that instant a bell rang, and I could hear footsteps and men’s voices in the next room. As the other girls ran off, I took off my jeans and squeezed into the tiny dress. ‘Fabulous’, the woman said and smiled at me. She also said something about safety, that it was my own responsibility. I didn’t understand what she meant. ‘You know,” she said, suddenly annoyed. I nodded and luckily she smiled again. ‘You too,’ she said, ‘from now on, you’ve got to smile. Keep smiling.’ And before I could ask or say anything else, she had taken me by the arm and was guiding me into the bar, straight to the one man who was still sitting there on his own by the counter.
He was nice to me. He took my hand and spoke to me. He told me of his farm. His dogs. And the pigeons. He was a pigeon fancier, and nearly all his time was devoted to those little creatures, he said.
He thought I looked scared. Like a little bird that had fallen out of its nest. And he asked me how I had rolled into this. And whether someone was forcing me to do it. I didn’t understand. ‘Who makes you do this?’ he asked. ‘The woman’, I said. He got angry. He said he was going to help me; he would get me out. She only came running out when were already driving off the parking. She shouted and waved her arms. The man laughed. He turned his window down and stuck up his middle finger. ‘Fucking whore!’ he shouted.
I didn’t see much of his farm, because he took me upstairs right away. He lay me down on my tummy and gave me an injection in each arm. I didn’t feel anything anymore, and I couldn’t move or talk, but I could see what he was doing. Holes in my arms. A needle and thread that slipped under my skin, again and again. Now and then he grumbled something. That it looked pretty. That the last one had been a floosy. That she’d run away before he was able to begin. She had nonetheless nodded her head eagerly when he had proposed it. Just like I had.
Flying and flirting. My boyfriend also spoke to me like that sometimes when mother had gone to the shops and then he’d pull me onto the sofa.
I did find it a bit strange when I came in. There was no bed in the room and I could only see that big table, pushed right up to the window, working materials on the floor and a jute bag leaning against the wall. ‘It’s bulging,’ he said, ‘but I could pick it up with my little finger.’
A nasty smell came from it. Old and sickly. It was musty. Only when he had already started, and put the sack down beside him, could I see what it contained. Feathers, big ones and small ones. Pigeon feathers.
Now he slowly pushes me across the table. Until the top of my body is hanging out of the window. And a little further. The feathers on my arms are shimmering in the morning light.
– Lenny Peeters
I leave at the river. There's a cruise ship on the quay. Two children play between the empty deckchairs on the blue deck. A sailor touches up the ship's paint with a hand roller. The boat blocks my view. I cannot see the water, even though I know: it is everywhere. Nor can I board here. This ship does not sail to the woods. Not even during the dry weeks, especially not during the dry weeks.
Behind me lies the city, the ship and the heat are waiting in front of me. I turn around. I leave. Behind me lies the ship, in front of me the cars, the road. Life buoy. Food truck. I balance and jump over the quay wall.
Posters Prohibited. Natural Taste. Nation. Burnt Entrepot. Locker. Enthusiastic and Personal, Mercator. Drive a Poppy, So Come and Look Inside Too, Chelsea Cabinet. The Small Height, Gazelle, Coffee and Travel. The Living and the Dead.
Don't let your dog urinate against the facade pls.
Don't let your dog
Take-away food and drinks
Take me with you – food and drinks
Take me with you – Dymphna!
I reach the Middenstatie without any noticeable problems. Shortly: the bike from lock 4, Drukkerijstraat, gloves. Standard Rate, Back and Forth. So Much is Clear, Cranberry, Sh*t.
To the woods, to the wild animals!
Back to that shady street where we were before. It’s a shady walk.
This train stops at Antwerp-Berchem, Lier, Herentals, Geel, Olen, Mol, Balen, Leopoldsburg, Beverlo, Beringen, Heusden, Zolder, Zonhoven, Hasselt.
My faith runs along the iron road. A harsh and sober existence. Compassion. He who knows his destiny has no fear. An hour I have to think about faith, that's stretching over the landscape in this summer heat. There it lies on its back between the fields: Faith. And I: life, little life. All Tracks, all Services, Up the Vestingstraat. That's my intention.
Respect your fellow traveller, even if she takes place in front of you with a stinking dog. Ignore the drooling, the dazzling power of the pull around the mouth. Focus on the faith, on the corn, the marshalling yard. Compassion. Dry grass, dry grass. The thrilling off the engines and late Belgian flags, all wonder gone. No water, nothing flows. I'm impressed by existence but at the first unsavoury mug, I immediately lose sympathy and patience. Where is compassion now? The lady with the little dog, they have to travel a long way with me. I cannot bare to look at them. They confuse me.
It won't take long now. Forests emerge from the landscape, spring up, form a green screen that passes by. Is it this, the tired green people talk about when they yearn for autumn? Are leeches moving through those forests? The words of the city have made way for leaf, stalk, insect. They are the forests of the Kempen. The forests of refuge. The forests of Geel where I have never been.
But then, out of nowhere: the bricks. The residential limbo. Rustic farmhouses full of roar and bluster, built close together, streets full of clinkers and cars tearing off. We arrived. Warehouses, key at the counter. The Cheese Farm, Curtains, Leather Renovation. The Yellow Legend. Bicky Dealer. I wander through the streets with their scary houses, let the placards chase me inside a restaurant. Yellow food: yellow curry sauce on chips. Posters, that way I get to know everything: Mojito Day Dessel Swings Booty Rave Tribute Festival. A Real Bicky Comes in a Box. That's how it is. Me too, I want to make a contribution. Why am I different here? I'm doing my best. I eat all the chips. But I find it difficult, Dymphna. The forests of Geel were a gross miscalculation. The forests of Geel have long since disappeared.
There's a church in the centre but it's not the right one. That's what they tell me at the tourist office, where I buy a postcard from the church that I have not seen yet. I study the map well, so I can recognise the Dymphna Church. Then I send the card home. The post office is nearby. The card that must remind of this pilgrimage leaves Geel even before I reach my goal. Where are you, Dymphna? I come to you.
The Liberation of Geel (September 8-23, 1944). On September 12, Watchbands and Batteries the roof of the Saint Dymphna Church Barbershop is set afire. Most likely, the British Landscape and Garden Architecture Pain-Deco Snackbar targeted the church because the Germans Security, That's My Job! used the tower as a lookout. Welcome To the Donor Centre.
Even before I see the fake tower of the Saint Dymphna Church sticking out above the roofs, I walk past the Dimpna Center, a decayed shopping centre with hastily painted white window displays. In the hall, there are old autumn leaves and some empty bottles of wine. It is for sale at real estate agency Vandamm. 014 72 00 27 Multipurpose Building Approx. 1000 m2 Household Toys Household Toys.
Road Salt Box.
13 Retie Arendonk 19
9 Mol Retie 13
12 Balen Dessel 13
Saint Dymphna College. Saint Dymphna Hospital. Saint Dymphna Square. It's a scorching hot day at its peak. In front of the church building I pull a blue long sleeved shirt from my bag. It fits like a second skin over the singlet I 've been sweating in all day now. I dress up so that I can enter your house with dignity.
For a long time I look at the painting depicting your decapitation, an upward and downward movement on canvas. Then I read on the information boards that the pilgrims and the sick came here from far and wide, also and especially from abroad. Most of the sick stayed in the church for nine days.
I am not sick. I don't have nine days either. I'm not from abroad. Tonight I'm expected home for supper. Yet a one-day pilgrimage is a pilgrimage too? It says that you have been in Antwerp. Have you seen the river, where I live?
Closer to the altar I draw. Your relics should be hanging in the air here somewhere. I look straight above me in the air. I see a plaster of Christ with drops of blood on his face. He is flanked by two women, the left one I suspect to be Mary. To the right of Christ... that must be you. A plaster you.
At the altar, two marble people are lying down, hands folded on their chest. That must be you! Enrapt, I come closer, alongside and through the cast iron gate. I admire the fine marble of your face. It was a difficult journey, but I made it. Then I read the card.
It turns out it is not your face that I admire. This grave is a mausoleum for Baron John III de Merode and his wife Anna. I don't know what to think of that. Two rich dead people, so central in your church. Where are you then, Dymphna, where? Do I give up?
At a kneeling bench rests a guest book. I kneel down and write:
August 2, 2018
I have looked for you but I could not find you.
Despondently, I walk around the apse. There, against my expectation I find the wooden house: it hangs in the air under a stone ciborium. A hanging wooden house in a forest of stone pillars. The wooden house in which you live? The wooden house in the forests? The wooden house where the wild animals are?
I am too small to look in through the barred window, so I touch the wood and stroke it with one hand. I wouldn't mind a splinter now. It smells like shadows here, and damp.
On the plate I read: fragments of the sarcophagi.
On top of the wooden house below the ciborium, there's a second wooden house, painted entirely white. I do not understand. Who lives there? Geberus? Or is this the wooden house of the forest? I have to look for a long time to try to understand.
I leave the church without answers. There’s little else to do other than taking the train back home. I’ve noticed the border language. It may exist. It belongs to the written language. Border language is nog Art Brut. Border language is border language. It fills me with disgust, but can I ignore it? This is how I return home. Gansakker. Antwerpsedries. Rose with White Dots. This is an odyssey without salvation.
At supper, the city heat does not want to lie down. It makes the furniture in the dining room vibrate. When I bring the fork to my mouth, I hear the empty space of the church reverberate in my head. Why didn't I notice people? I look at my plate. Fragments of the sarcophagi. I'm chewing on rubble.
Vincent Van Meenen, 2018