Those years after the war it seemed as if everyone was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
In childhood, my father loved his meat and potatoes but then I grew up. The ‘life of the tiger’ was no longer mine. I think I have loved you and will go on loving you from afar my whole life. Teachers, actors, father substitutes. My sisters are queens. My brothers kings. Curbing anything oceanic. The stalks that grow from this world are like any green feast. They are perfectly in rhythm with the sleepless sea that mocks me. I have found so many people now that worship my fear for them. I anchor myself in the closet behind winter dresses I will never wear. Protection needs order. Routine and gravity. Norms and values. It is not easy to sway from the blue of the sky to where East meets west. The Oriental girl with her matchstick legs gives me my fortune cookie to appease some sinful nature that I have forgotten even exists. I am the scapegoat, the lamb, now I am the unmarried woman again, the insomniac, the nurse, the confidante, the keeper of secrets. I answer the telephone. Wait until it rings three times before I pick up waiting to hear his voice but you see it is complicated. Great men are often complex. Relationships with great men are often complicated. How I long for the sea’s body to cover my own. The weight of water. It is fire. How it burns. How it sates my skin. It goes down like a single malt whisky. I am in Ward 7 again. Valkenburg. Walls closing in. Evaporating. Becoming fainter and fainter. Fading away. Bars at the window. People indifferent to me. Nurses aloof. The angelic creatures who are in possession of night medication. I take those pharmaceuticals. I drown in them. An empty vessel or royalty. I fly home. Onwards towards the light. Sweet Jesus. A cave of flesh. The birthday girl with her twenty-one candles. The pastor strums his guitar. We all sing hymns. Later we eat cake like there is no tomorrow. Later he plays the piano. Much later, years I turn thirty. I walk into a bookstore. Browse. Pick up a book on Cairo, Egypt.
I know what music is. The best way to describe it is your first glimpse of the sea when your eyes fall on it or waking up in the morning. When imagination is there like a bullet ricocheting through the air.
The best way that I knew how to describe him was in layers. He came in layers. I came in constellations.
I know what smoke is. I know what fire is. I know that comfort meant wealth once. Desire and hope meant the same thing to me. I had to define goals. After the war, I think many ghosts found themselves in Germany. Many found themselves in that place of weeping.
Although I do not like to believe in anything anymore, I like to take long walks and imagine that we are somehow together again. Night falls and I find myself surrounded by darkness in an apple orchard.
You were sick and I wanted to cheer you up. Reading a good book always had that effect on you ever since you were child, you told me once.
At night, I dream. I toss and turn. Cry out your name. When I wake up, I think to myself that I should have made my way to America not stayed here. Perhaps this ghost should have found a house to haunt.
I look for your face. I search for you amongst the survivors but I cannot find you because you are dead.
Pain. Heavy dense knots of pain, well, it lingers like the charred smoke and the cries of the deaf children.
Then there is silence. There is the bloodstained redness. There are old people. Their faces lined with age.
There are young people who have forgotten how to be young.
I know you will come out of the dense mass of bodies and call out my name. I will turn to you. Tears running down the hollows of my cheeks and we will embrace.
We will mourn for countless deaths and I will ask, “Do you still remember?”
The roses that I grew at the back. The edges of their petals now brown and wilted. The fragrance sweet. I kept this memory at the back of my mind to tell you.
I am looking for you. I am searching for you amongst this black dense mass of bodies.
I cannot find you…
I cannot find you. You, ghost. Once my friend, then my husband, then my lover. We would take long walks. You would play the piano for me.
Then after the war, it was just me longing for you. I remember the searching, the hoping, grappling with the hooks of issues, eating fish again, just remembering its taste.
I would look at the side of my bed where you should have been. Asleep. Now all that awaits me at the end of the day are empty rooms.
You are so innocent and tender I want to tell this new and brave world filled with playgrounds of carousels, World Fairs and butter.
This is the real world. The killing of innocents. Innocents who wore yellow stars. You never found me as I thought you would and every night I would take a tour through Hitler’s never-ending war.
Yes, the night might be tender. Even the light of the lamp might be tender.
Everybody after the war who had lost anything, possessions, their material possessions, art, money, family members, God Himself. Everybody was poor now. Everybody needed a miracle.
Then I found you. I kept finding you as I walked the streets of Amsterdam. Up streets. Down streets.
Convinced by watermarks or a painting by a street artist. I would hear your voice as I passed by a couple eating outside a café.
I would turn around, my heart beating fast. Of course, people would look at me curiously. I would ignore them.
‘Tell me who the man in the painting is. I will pay you to tell me.’ I would say feeling helpless seeing the half-smile on the artist’s lips.
‘I imagined him.’ The artist would say. ‘You do not have to pay me a cent. I imagined him. You are still attractive. You are a beautiful woman, why do you not pose for me.’
‘I am a journalist. Not an artist’s model.’
I turned my head. I ignored him and started to walk away. I thought to myself how you could imagine someone who is real. Who had a childhood? Who rode a bicycle? Who built model aeroplanes as a hobby?
‘Mad writer. Mad woman.’ He sucked the words under his palate as if he was eating the flesh of an orange.
‘Have a meal with me. Come let us have a drink. You are a beautiful woman but your eyes are so sad.’ Said the drunkard on the corner. I looked into his face as I passed him.
I could see he had been a beautiful youth by the lines on his face. I saw a snowfield spread out in his eyes. A glare there. Bombs were falling and I remembered the trains.
‘Kiss me, my pretty liar. My beautiful fool. Kiss me on the mouth.’
I am sure I have heard that voice before. Somewhere. Somewhere. I walk fast. I can hear footsteps behind me.
‘You must have money on you. Give me what you have and I will let you go. You do not have to be afraid of anything.’ I could hear laughter in his voice. He knew what was coming to me. I did not.
‘I do not have anything. Please, just let me go. Do you not think that we all have not suffered enough by taking money from a widow?’ Those words caught in my throat.
‘Has nobody told you that these streets are dangerous at night? This place especially.’
I did not have to turn around to come face to face with the thief. I had passed the drunkard earlier in the evening. He had followed me. Arms were around my waist lifting me up and I struggled.
‘No, do not struggle. If you do that, you might make me want to hurt you. I just want a kiss. One kiss and then I will let you go.’ I can smell the wine on his breathe. I can see the dirt under his fingernails. He has not bathed in days. I know it will not end with one kiss.
Bombs were falling again and I remembered the trains. The sky turned black, out like a gun. I knew with certainty that this would be the last time that I would remember the guns the SS soldiers carried everywhere they went.
Let us tell ghost stories.
The war was made up of dimensions and these dimensions were made up of certain tribes. Tribes in need of self-help.
When I was a girl books in the library taste like sea light to me. Driftwood. Coming up for air before anything wounds us.
‘What do you like?’ a boy asked a girl.
‘I like music. I like museums. I like libraries.’ The girl answered truthfully.
‘I happen to like music, museums and libraries too.’ The boy smiled at her wanting to gain her trust. Wanting her to be kind. Wanting to know if she was loyal.
‘I know what is genuine. I know what is authentic. The activity of writing is genuine and authentic. It makes me happy and then again, it makes me realise that I am not that drowning woman anymore. In fact, I am more of a woman who is having an affair with water. Water is not something that is concrete after all but on the other hand, water is also something that never forgets. Alone means you can stand on your own and that you are grounded by your principles. Loneliness means you are desperate. Helpless. Tethered to hardship and despair.’ The girl said nothing for a few moments wanting what she said to come across as noted, as sacred. As her contract with the universe.
In the beginning, the word was love, there was an Eden, a paradise, and of course, to a man love means something completely different than it does to a woman.
My name is Martine but what does it matter what my name is. Ghosts do not have names. A man once told me in a faraway life that ‘pleasure’ means to ‘flow’ with the man. To ‘pleasure’ any man you had to understand his energy. And then you will be able to understand where he is coming from.
If you can do that daughter of Eve then any man will do anything for you (his words not mine). So I grew up in that world learning to praise men. Exalt them.
‘Yes, yes.’ He would breathe heavily against my ear. ‘Sing my praises.’
That man was a soldier. He told me that I did not have to fear him. We were close in age. He said he could save me. If that was what I wanted.
But it was the rain saved me. It always saved me. Rain falling on the autumn, spring, summer, winter pavement. It was like the vibration of the ocean was reaching my soul. Making music there like a choir in a school.
Now doors creak. They’re forever shut to withdrawn, timid me. I want to dance but I can’t. I want to sing but I can’t.
I don’t have to watch my figure for a man anymore. Nobody talks about death here. In life we saw enough of it.
Night was always the centre of winter, the soul on fire, and the passages north and south of the camp entertained difficult relationships.
We’re arriving at the end now. I am a vision in white. They’re all around me now. The children from the camp. Joyful little people.
I am more or less at the end of my journey. We used to be farmers at the camps. We used to be able to get the dirt out of our fingernails with great difficulty. Of course most, or all of us, were not accustomed to living like this. We ate what we planted. There are only so many dishes you can make with potatoes.
I find myself talking to ‘fear’ now. My voice made out of salt, milk. Honey. Fear says nothing. Chin up. Head held high. Brazen. Tough.
I talk to her about a woman’s flaws. The imperfections in a woman’s face who was once beautiful, then attractive, then old. I talk to her about ‘coming to terms’ (I don’t know, I am starting to forget, the light can do that to you) with the war. With the limitations of men who were sent to the camps, the shortcomings of everyone there that I met. It feels as if I have been sleeping.
That the physical reality of me is made out of stone. Is buried now like treasure. Like my thoughts.
It’s devastating in the descriptions of pain, perplexity, the gentle perturbation of knowing you’ve been through something you cannot really find the words to explain. I see this story as Martine’s attempt to make herself understood: she’s a ghost therefore without a body, or is she a ghost because she’s a haunted body filled with the overlapping memories of bad times, good times, fearful times, lost times. she’s a ghost indeed in most unfathomable ways.