On a Raw Morning They Said Good-bye
One of them, Lidy, stood at the window and looked out. It was one of those midwinter mornings when it’s just getting light and last night’s storm no longer makes you feel cozy indoors, it’s like a whine that gets on your nerves. She held her little daughter in her arms and her coat was already buttoned. In the process of leaving she hesitated for this one moment like someone who’s glad to be on her way, if that’s what comes next, but would be just as glad to stay home. That the whole plan wasn’t hers to begin with, but Armanda’s, was irrelevant. At this moment, all she was thinking was: I really want to drive a car again. Today and tomorrow, Armanda, you can take care of my daughter, and go with my husband to the party being given by your friend, who also happens to be his half sister. Tomorrow afternoon at the latest, I’ll be back.
The living room occupied the second and third floors of one of the imposing houses fronting a little park in a less imposing neighborhood. Lost in thought, she looked out over the treetops, bare and black against the rectangle of house façades. She didn’t see that diagonally opposite, the figure of a man was groping along a roof gutter until suddenly a flag flapped loose from his hands and immediately stood stiff and shivering in the northwest wind. It was the last day of January. If anyone had said to her that with Nadja held tight and safe in her arms she should take a good look all around because her farewell was a final one, she would have known deep in her heart that this was possible at any moment in life, but she wouldn’t have believed it. After all, she was only twenty-three.
So without turning around, she asked casually, “Do you think it’s going to snow?”
And Armanda, as she stood up from the table with a mug of coffee in her hand, answered, “Of course not, the wind’s too strong,” without the least pang of conscience in her voice. She began to pace up and down, slurping her coffee the way she always did. Not least because she’d taken off her shoes and was wearing a skirt and a knitted cardigan. She was the one who seemed at home here in the high space with the plaster rosette on the ceiling, not Lidy. There was hardly any light. In the back room the furniture was almost in darkness. The only things illuminated by a green standard lamp were a table pushed against the wall—on it a few objects, a teapot, a telephone, a briefcase with a protective band of tape around it—and the door to the hall and the stairs. The house had seen better days, like most of its big neighbors around the park, and the beautiful hardwood doors had been burnt for firewood during the war. But mostly in the rooms up on the third floor that smelled of beds and clothes and soap and cosmetics, it was still possible to recognize the original details of the house’s fin-de-siècle style. In the bedrooms, leaded panes of glass in the upper half of the windows filtered the light.
A squall of rain exploded against the panes and streamed downward. Lidy peered out through the drops. Okay, she decided, I’ll take the coast road. Once I’m past Rotterdam I won’t go over the Moer dike, I’ll head for Maassluis and take the ferry across the Nieuwe Waterweg. She still hadn’t really thought about the whole route, but she knew there were maps in the car. I’ll figure it out. Between another two squalls it was so silent for a moment that she heard the floorboards creak under Armanda’s feet, and as that sound also ceased, she knew that Armanda too was peering out at the foul weather.
“It’s funny really that I don’t know these people at all,” she said.
“It won’t matter to them,” said Armanda, now standing at the window by her side. “They haven’t seen me for a year either.” She sniggered. “Perfectly possible that when you go into the hotel, you know, the Hotel Kirke in the Verre Nieuwstraat, they’ll all make the same mistake and won’t realize right away that you’re not me, but, um, actually you.”
The same little irritated grin on both their faces.
They looked alike. Everyone thought so. They were tall girls with narrow, strong shoulders, always a little bent, which gave them a worried appearance that was quite misleading. And if they had turned round at that moment the double portrait would really have been striking: dark hair, almost chestnut-black, falling smoothly down their backs, exposing delicate little ears, and cut in a straight fringe that concealed the forehead completely. Nobody would ever see their foreheads. But everything could be read in the two pairs of eyes: merriment, sadness, mockery, indifference, passion, and also the speed of their shifting moods, yet what conveyed itself most clearly was that the two sisters appeared to see the world in exactly the same way, and to judge it.
Lidy set Nadja down on the floor and gave her a hug. Never mind the deceptive similarities, she was the mother here. “Mind she ?doesn’t catch cold,” she murmured, as she squatted down and pressed her nose against the child’s neck with a certain feeling of self-confidence born of the countless times she had brought the little girl into bed with her from baby days onward, while whispering to her husband to slide over a bit and maybe snore a little less loudly.
She stood up again. “Did you give me the car keys or not?” As she groped in her coat pocket, she looked around.
Both began to go through the room. They hunted all over the furniture till Armanda realized she’d left the key at home.
“Then I’ll get going,” said Lidy. “I’ll pick it up there.”
In the hall Armanda said, “Don’t forget their present,” and handed Lidy the package. They gave each other a fleeting kiss. As Armanda said, “Give them my best,” they both laughed.
Lidy clutched the umbrella to her chest, lifted the hem of her coat in one hand, and went down the stairs with her luggage. As she opened the front door, she wore a somewhat solemn expression and her forehead creased. As if she knew that she had to be serious about their exchange of roles, even if it was only for a day.
At the corner, by the street with the little shops and cafés that led to the market, she saw people with their shopping bags walking through the slanting sheets of rain: everyday lives, banal perhaps, but weighed down with work, she could identify with that, most of life got taken up with trivialities. So today she took an adventurous detour. She crossed the street. On the long side of the park, in front of number 77, her father’s car was parked in its usual place.
She had used her key. Now she was crossing the marble-tiled hall to the stairs, where she trod carefully to muffle her footsteps, the way one does unconsciously in a house whose occupants seem to have left. Down below, the door to the waiting room stood open, and her father’s consulting room, as always, was closed. So where were they all? She supposed her father must be doing his rounds of the beds in the Binnengasthuis right now. And her mother must be shopping for food in town. As if she had all the time in the world, she went through the rooms on the first and second floors. In Armanda’s room, the one with the balcony that had once been hers, she wanted to take a customary quick look in the mirror, but the wall next to the window was suddenly empty, and refused to allow her any reflection of her face. After that for some reason she couldn’t resist a quick trip up to the attic. All dark, and what a hellish noise the wind was making against the roof. And of course there on his mattress under the low eaves she found her brother sleeping the way thirteen-year-olds can sleep, as if he were going to keep it up for all eternity. The little skylight was misted over. Daylight fell on the pillow. She looked at the pleading expression on the boy’s face and thought: Why wait any longer?
Eventually she found the car keys on the desk in the consulting room.
A few minutes later Lidy, in a black Citroën, left the district where she had been born and raised and drove down the Ceintuurbaan toward the Amstel. At first, unfamiliar with the car, she had to grope for the gearbox. She practiced giving it gas a few times, used the engine to brake, gave it gas again. There was the crossroads, with the dilapidated church on the corner, then turn right. This was all part of a concatenation of different circumstances that had been set in motion the previous Monday, the 26th, when Armanda, in the grip of one of her spontaneous whims, had called Lidy to make her a proposal.
At first Lidy had hesitated. Staring at her fingernails, she had said, “Well, I don’t really know . . .” to which Armanda pointed out that such an unexpected and comical excursion could really be fun. At that point there was silence for a moment as both of them recognized that the answer, given their relationship, was going to be yes. The younger could talk the elder so convincingly into something that what began as a tiny glimmer soon became an idea and the idea in turn became a wonderful idea.
“You can have Father’s car, I’ve already wangled it for you,” Armanda coaxed Lidy, who was always ready to be persuaded, and already seeing in her mind’s eye a map of the western Netherlands stretching to the great arms of the sea.
It had happened late at night. Lidy had gone to bed, but stayed awake until she heard her husband come home. He had undressed in the bedroom without turning on the light and immediately tucked himself in close beside her as he always did. Peace reigned all around them. There were no noises of traffic out on the street, and the trees in the park at the front of the house stood there as if they had never strained in a north or southwest wind. Nevertheless, at this very moment, thousands of miles away, a depression had been set in motion, a tiny area of low pressure. Forming above the Labrador Sea, it had moved quite rapidly in an easterly direction, picking up one or two other depressions as it advanced.
When Lidy took the highway toward The Hague, she was able to turn off the windshield wipers after fifteen minutes; it was dry. Nevertheless she felt herself being buffeted insanely. The wind, which during the night had torn across Scotland with hurricane force, uprooting entire forests, and cleared the east coast of England at around dawn, was for her no more than a constant pressure that forced her to keep steering against it slightly, to the right. It was something you got used to after five minutes and then didn’t think about again.
Shortly before she reached Maasshuis she stopped for gas. A young man in blue overalls filled her tank and washed her windows. Lidy followed him into the little office, which smelled of coffee and cigarettes. The news had just started on the radio.
“How do I get to the ferry?” she asked as the young man was closing the drawer of the cash register.
He indicated with his head for her to follow him and stood in the doorway to point the way. While Lidy nodded and took in the road that ran straight as a die until it finally curved slightly as it met a crossroads, the news announcer in the background began to read an announcement from the Flood Warning Service in a voice that projected no greater or lesser urgency than usual.
“. . . Very high water levels in the area of Rotterdam, Williamstad, Bergen op Zoom, and Gorinchem . . .”
Lidy thanked the man and stepped back out into the wind.
“You can’t miss it!” the gas station guy called after her.
And indeed she found her way quite easily. In no time at all she was at the harbor. She shielded her eyes with one hand. The water was very narrow. Nonetheless the far bank really was another bank, a gray line that seemed closer to being rubbed out than to holding firm. Her scarf tied round her head, she went to the pier, where there was a board with the ferry schedule on it. She read that the ferry coming from the other side wouldn’t dock for another half hour. There was a little hut, up a couple of steps, where she ordered coffee. Dim light, the radio again, she let herself slide into the general mood of passive waiting. Just sitting there, nothing more. Dozily she put a cigarette between her lips.
What am I doing here, for heaven’s sake? Who or what brought me here?
Excerpted from The Storm by Margriet de Moor. Copyright © 2010 by Margriet De Moor. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.