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Between the towers

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The first time I saw her was in the booking hall at Sint-Pieters station.

It was a Tuesday in March. I’d just come in off the train from Brugge, and was strutting through the station as if I owned it. It wasn’t a new thing for me to be entrusted with an errand to run on my own, but I didn’t get much time to myself, and I intended to enjoy it. I suppose that, for once, I managed to give the impression that I knew what I was doing.

The station was fairly quiet at that mid-morning hour. There was me, and the clerk, who was busy explaining to a family of eight which of them were eligible for half fares. I didn’t envy him the task.

And behind them there was a girl – no, a woman: she had a couple of years on me, not that there was any comparison between the two of us. She seemed far too glamorous a creature for a wet Tuesday morning in Gent, with her belted coat of defiantly bright blue, her full skirt, and her patent leather handbag. The murals in the ceiling showed all the delights of Belgium that could be reached by rail, but they had nothing on this vision.

When she saw me, she left the queue. She began, ‘Excusez-moi,’ and then flushed bright red, and tried again in Dutch. I smiled, to show that I’d taken no offence. In fact, I was a little dazzled.

‘Please, can you tell me the way to the Papegaaistraat?’

I said, ‘You need to take a tram...’ and promptly forgot the route number. Seized with a sudden bravery, I said, ‘Look, come with me, I’m going in that direction myself.’ This was not entirely true; or, rather, I was going in that direction, but Papegaaistraat was considerably further than I had call to go.

The wind seized us and pummelled us as soon as we stepped outside the station building, and she recoiled as if tempted to retreat. I held my hand out to her, beckoning, or pointing the way, or something. Anyway, she followed me across the square to the tram stops. I did my best with the route map, but of course it only showed where the tram went, and I rarely had call to go as far west as she was headed. She had some directions, along with the address, on a letter that she showed me, but they didn’t help much. Eventually, I said, ‘I think it will be easier if I show you.’

‘That’s very kind of you,’ she said doubtfully.

She looked back towards the station, and again I wondered if she was having second thoughts. But her gaze swept over the main entrance and followed the striped brick clock tower up into the heavy grey sky; she stood like that until the tram clanked up to the stop.

When we’d found seats I asked what had brought her to Gent, and she blushed fiercely and told me that she had come to stay with her aunt. I assumed that it was for a holiday, or that perhaps the aunt was ill. I didn’t like to ask more. Instead, I asked her name.

‘Marie,’ she said.

I told her mine; then we talked about her journey, and Van Acker, and, when we got off the tram, the rain. I walked with her all the way to the door of the house where she was staying, feeling over-tall and awkward next to her. I said, ‘I hope you enjoy your stay here.’

She managed a smile at that, and said, ‘If everyone’s as nice as you are, I’m sure I will.’

The next week took me to Gent again, and if Uncle Lucas at the market noticed my haste, then he probably thought that I was growing up, growing out of my tendency to dawdle. I didn’t care what he thought; I'd never liked the way he talked to me anyway. I didn’t think too much about what I did next, just tucked the cash away securely and walked as fast as I could to Papegaaistraat.

Gathering all my courage, I knocked at the door.

After half a minute or so it opened. ‘Yes?’

The woman was in her late forties, with iron-grey hair and a tolerant half-smile. This must be the aunt. She didn't look as if she was at all unwell, but then appearances could be deceptive, couldn’t they?

‘I’m here to see Marie,’ I said.

She folded her arms; the smile vanished completely. ‘I wasn’t aware she knew anybody here.’

I explained: ‘We met at the station. I showed her the way here on the tram. I wanted... I wanted to see how she was settling in.’

The aunt looked me up and down. At length she seemed to decide that I was more or less harmless, and called up the stairs, ‘Marieke! Someone to see you!’ She did not wait for a reply, but led me into a room overlooking the street, with a vase of dried flowers in the fireplace and a large print of the Annunciation. There she left me. I sat on the edge of the horsehair sofa and wondered what on earth I’d say when -

Marie came in.

She stood with her hand on the door handle. On her face was an expression of wariness – I might almost have said, of fear – that dissipated when she saw me. She looked less glamorous indoors, without her blue coat, but the years between us seemed to have stretched, and I felt gawky and juvenile. She took a step into the room, and then another. I saw the aunt over her shoulder, watching narrowly.

I stood up, and, since she showed no signs of moving, explained, ‘I came to see how you were getting on.’

Now she was the one who looked suspicious. I suppose I’d put her in rather an awkward position, but I didn’t think of that at the time. She said, ‘That’s very sweet of you,’ and I felt more and more like a child bothering its grown-up cousin. The aunt seemed to have come to a similar conclusion, because she left the room, leaving the door carefully ajar.

‘Marieke?’ I asked, perhaps a little cheekily.

She flushed, and I thought how pretty it made her. ‘She calls me that.’

‘I like it,’ I said. It made her seem more approachable, like a creature from my world.

She said, ‘So do I, I suppose.’ Now she came and sat down in a chair next to me, leaning her left elbow on the arm of it, and letting her feet drift away to the right, ankles crossed. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’m getting on well enough.’

There was a note of uncertainty in her voice; that, too, made her seem human. I said, ‘How do you like Gent?’

I got the impression from her look that she didn’t think much of it, but what she actually said was, ‘I haven’t seen much more of it than I did with you... You don’t live here, do you?’

‘No, but I often come here because of the shop...’ She looked interested, so I told her about the shop, about Brugge, about my mother, about my little sisters.

She said that she had a sister herself, and she had had four brothers, but the eldest... She shook her head.

I understood about that, because of my uncles. Not Uncle Lucas, of course, and Uncle Wout was alive and well too, but the other two.

Then she talked a lot about the family firm, in Liège. She dropped the word in like that, in French. Her Dutch was good, but not perfect; her mother, she said, had come from here. Her father disapproved of her speaking Dutch to the children; but Marieke thought herself that it hadn’t done her any harm, at least – She shook her head again, and said that my French wasn’t as bad as all that.

‘It’s good enough for what I use it for,’ I said.

She laughed, and said, ‘Telling damsels in distress which tram to take?’

Now I was the one with the red face. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed, a thin, silvery note. ‘I must go,’ I said, reluctantly. ‘My mother will worry if I’m not home by three.’

She rose as I did. ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘for coming to see me.’

I said, trying not to sound too hopeful, ‘I’ll be in Gent again on Thursday week.’

She smiled at that, and said, ‘Come and see me again, if you’re at a loose end.’

I did, that next Thursday, and the week after, and as often as I could. Half of the money I'd been saving up for a camera went on train fares. What drew me there? I could say, would say, Marieke, and that would be a true answer. But what was it about her? I can’t remember. I’m telling you all this from the other side, you see, and from here it seems more than natural that I should have been drawn to her: like a sunflower, like a moth, like the tide. I’m not sure that I thought about what or why, any more than a sunflower or a moth or the sea could have thought about it. I can’t remember thinking of any reason why I should – or should not – have felt compelled to see her, week after week.

Say it was the way she looked. Say it was the way she welcomed my visits. Say it was that I’d been able to do something for her. Say it was the blue coat. Say it was the language difference, or at least the fact that she wasn’t from Flanders. Say it was just that I was seventeen.

At any rate, I went to see her often, that spring. I don’t think I displayed sufficiently unusual enthusiasm for my mother notice particularly: it had always been an adventure for me, going to Gent, and there was enough for her to be thinking about in the shop without worrying what I was getting up to. She tended to think of me as the sensible one: that was why I was allowed to go there on my own in the first place.

Of course I didn’t mention Marieke. I say, ‘of course’, though I couldn’t have explained at the time how I knew that it would not have been wise. That my mother would not have understood – or would have understood far too well. That there was anything to understand.

Not until one of my visits when I wondered out loud what such an exotic being as Marieke was doing hidden away in that little room in Gent. And she told me, her face half-turned away from me.

I suppose you’ll think me naïve. I suppose she did. At any rate, she explained to me, in a flat, disinterested manner, what had got her into the situation in which she now found herself, and I listened and tried to pretend it wasn’t new to me.

I was silent for some while, considering question after question and discarding them all unasked.

‘I suppose you despise me, now,’ she said. That was enough to loosen my tongue.

‘No! Marieke, no, I could never despise you!’

She smiled at me sadly, as if she didn’t believe me, and I resolved to come back to see her again and again, as often as I had to, until she did.

It was about a fortnight after that when we took a walk together. Marieke was the one who suggested going out. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it, or if I had, and assumed that she wouldn’t be allowed to. Anyway, I was quick enough to agree.

‘That’s better,’ Marieke said, as she closed the front door behind us. ‘If I’d had to sit for another minute with that dingy angel simpering at me...’ She shook herself, and we stepped out into the street.

Together, we explored the city, the streets and the riverbanks, the markets and the squares. She looked upwards with grudging admiration at the belfry and the cathedral, the way that the towers reached further and further into the sky. It was a thin, spring, sky, that day, with small white clouds speeding across it. Down where we were, the breeze bit our ankles and tugged Marieke’s coat.

Once, she asked, ‘What’s Bruges, Brugge, like?’

I looked around. I’d never had to tell anyone what my home town was like: most of the people I met were already there. ‘It’s like this,’ I said helplessly. ‘Towers, water. I suppose everything’s a bit closer together.’

‘I want to see it,’ she said. ‘I want to see everything, before it's too late.’

After that we went further afield. She came to Brugge, one or two times, but she was always nervous there, and would never agree to meet my mother, or anyone else I knew: and that made it difficult, because everyone knew me. More often, we met halfway.

As, for example, one bright afternoon in late April. We’d met at the station in Aalter and taken a bus out to... I forget, now, which of those little towns it was, though I could still draw you a picture of the main street. There was a kermesse going on, and when we arrived the place was a jumble of bicycles and woollen jerseys, young men with intense eyes, and old men with beer.

Then the race began: the cyclists rolled out, and the spectators either followed them or vanished into the bars, leaving nothing but chip wrappers. All at once, Marieke and I had the place to ourselves. We looked at each other – and set off walking in the opposite direction. We saw a woman hanging out the washing in the garden of an isolated cottage; a tabby cat stretched along the top of a wall; a sheep chained at the side of the road. And after that, not another living creature.

And as we walked, Marieke took my hand, and when we had walked out far enough that the houses were no bigger than shoeboxes behind us, she tucked her hand into my elbow, and when the land was a great expanse all around us of rich brown soil with a fuzz of bright green shoots, we stopped, because we’d come exactly as far as we needed to. She tilted her face upwards, and I pressed my lips to hers, clumsily, not knowing what I was doing; then I thought, mortified, that she had only been looking up into the clear April sky; but she returned my kiss with a small, happy sigh. In that moment, my world was perfect.

There was a kind of urgency about our meetings after that. We’d found something precious, something rare, something that couldn’t last, and we were hungry for each other's company, each other's touch.

She hadn’t told me how long she had left.

‘What happens next?’ I asked her, once, but she shook her head.

‘Don’t talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it.’

I pressed her – wanting more, wanting a future – until she pushed me away angrily, and then I sulked. How much of our time together did I waste in sulking? Too much. A single minute would have been too much. We had so little time, and we knew it, even then.

Oh, but I remember Beernem, and the pompous brown brick station building, and the way that Marieke’s fingers were tight around mine, and the way that we hurried out into the countryside. I remember our glee when we found the abandoned shed. Three and a half walls, it had, and no roof, but what did we need a roof for?

I remember the mossy red bricks, and the soft grass that had grown on what had once been the floor. I remember the clouds piling up overhead, huge and grey, thousands of times taller than any tower that human hands could build. It would rip itself to pieces with lightning, that sky – but not yet, not yet. That afternoon was ours.

I remember that I placed her hands over mine and let her lead me, guide me, show me what I should do.

I remember the way that, though she was the one who was teaching me everything, she shuddered and cried out with what I realised later was surprise and, I think, gratitude.

June: the sky was huge and blank and blue, and the sun looked down on us with the intense dispassionate scrutiny of a scientist observing a sample on a laboratory bench. We bolted for the coast and tried to hide ourselves in the folds of the sand dunes. I told her that I loved her; it was true then, I swear it. And I believe that she told the truth when she told me the same thing.

I wondered how much of this she would tell next time she made her confession. I hadn’t been to confession for weeks. At the time I would have said that I saw nothing shameful in what we did; now, for me, the shame is all in what we failed to do.

Gossip travels just as fast as the trains. I'd like to blame Uncle Lucas, but I've no evidence. I never discovered who told my mother, or who knew that there was anything to tell. For a long time I was too angry to ask, and then we had other things to talk about, and after that it was too late. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Somebody told her, and the evidence was compelling by its very absence. That I had never introduced Marieke – never mentioned her – counted against her, and perhaps, to the experienced eye, she was beginning to show.

My mother wasted no time in telling me that she knew, and adding on what she suspected. I fought back, probably unwisely. It was long. It was excruciating. It was conducted in a fierce hiss, so that my little sisters wouldn’t hear, or, for that matter, the neighbours.

And, when it was over, or, at least, when we’d run out of awful things to say to each other, I was angrier than before. I stormed out and made straight for the station.

I calmed down a little on the train to Gent, but not enough to stop me hammering at Marieke’s aunt’s door, not enough to stop me alarming both of them when I burst in.

‘Marieke,’ I gasped, ‘I must talk to you.’

It took no end of fussing before her aunt would let her go out with me, and then I found that I had nothing to say to her. How could I repeat what my mother had said? How could I use those words to her face?

She got it out of me, or, at least, the general gist of it, with her own ugly conclusions loaded on top of it. She wasn’t surprised, though she wasn’t impressed, either.

I swore I didn’t care what my mother said. I swore I’d love her forever. She didn’t believe me.

We walked back into Paapegaistraat side by side, but without so much as a fingertip touching a fingertip.

It was harder for me to get away after that. I managed it a few times, but her aunt wouldn’t let me in, and I had to meet her – once again – at the station. Each time, we wasted the time in quarrelling, or, if we made better use of it, it went too quickly, and I longed each time for another five minutes, another hour, another day...

Then, suddenly (I can call it sudden, now), I didn’t hear from her for two weeks. My letters might not as well have been sent, and nobody answered the telephone.

I went to Gent once again, and I hammered at the door of the house in Pappegaistraat, and this time her aunt let me in.

‘She's been ill,’ she told me. ‘You can't stay long.’

I swore meekly that I wouldn't upset her, that I'd leave if she wanted me to, that I only wanted to understand. The aunt laughed grimly at that, and told me that I didn't. But she led me upstairs and showed me to Marieke's bedroom.

Marieke was sitting up in an armchair. Her face was puffy and her eyes were red. When she saw me, she sighed.

‘It’s over,’ she said. ‘It’s finished.’

I didn’t think, in that moment, that she meant the thing that we had, and indeed, she might not have meant that. I’ll never know, now.

I sat down on the edge of her bed and said, ‘Tell me.’

She shuddered. ‘It was horrible.’

I said, again, ‘Tell me.’

She looked at me with something like pity, and then turning her face away from me, she told me. She told me about the blood, the pain, the fear. She had thought she was dying. She wished now that she had.

‘Don’t say that,’ I said. ‘Oh, Marieke, don’t say that.’

‘Now,’ she said, ‘they’re going to send me back.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No, they can’t.’

‘Aunt Maartje said, it’ll stop them talking. If I go back now. Early. I’d be a fool not to, she said.’

I begged her to be a fool, to stay here, to stay with me.

She only laughed, bitterly.

Or, I begged her once again, if not to stay with me, then to come with me.

'Where would we go?' she asked, not expecting an answer.

Where would we go? My mother would hardly take her in. Her aunt was already trying to get rid of her. I told her I'd sleep in a haystack, in a ditch, if only it could be with her. She laughed, and I can understand, even if I can't forgive her.

There was nowhere that we could have gone, and yet all my mind cries out to me that if we had tried harder, we should have found somewhere. We should have found a way.

What happened? She left. I never heard from her again.

As for me, I went to all sorts of places, all over the world, through airports and ferry terminals as well as railway stations, and never quite got out of the habit of watching out for a flash of blue. I came back to Flanders, eventually, though I couldn't bear to settle either in Gent or in Brugge. I live in Middelkerke now, and I think of Marieke every time I drive through Mariakerke.

I don't know what happened to her. Perhaps she married, perhaps she had children, perhaps she’s alive, perhaps she’s dead.

Perhaps I could find her, if I tried hard enough.

I have never tried hard enough.

I try to tell myself that we could have done nothing else. How could two little people withstand the impossible weight of expectation? But I know: one of us, both of us, could have fought harder, must have fought harder, if we’d loved each other as we’d said we did.

And I look out of my window, and watch the moon rise serene, silver, hard-edged, over the flat land and the furrowed sea, making the edges of the clouds glow. If Marieke still walks on this earth, I tell myself, that same moon shines down on her – and cares nothing for her.