Penance every day
My grandmother: ‘Oh, Anneke, could you bring some fish too … Three or so herrings for frying.’
My mother: ‘But mother, it’s not Friday, is it?’
My grandmother: ‘It’s an ember day.’
Me: ‘Mummy, what’s an ember day?.’
My mother: ‘It’s when the Church says you have to do penance.’
Me: ‘And when’s that?’
My grandmother: ‘Here, it’s every day.’
From Ember Days (Quatertemperdagen, 1992)
By Erik Vlaminck
‘Why do people commit suicide?’ he had asked father.
‘Out of misery.’
‘Do we live in misery?’
‘We don’t, but the blacks in the Congo do.’ Yet Stanny had often heard father going on about ‘living in misery’.
From Stanny, a Still Life (Stanny, een stil leven, 1996)
By Erik Vlaminck
Soldering pheasant is a craft
The pheasants in the right-hand crate are already blind, those in the left-hand one aren’t yet.
A new consignment of pheasants has arrived. Eight hundred dazed chicks. And the first job is to make the damn birds blind. The sooner it’s done the better. Fons uses a soldering iron to blind his pheasant chicks.
‘Soldering pheasant is a craft,’ he always says.
He takes one chick at a time from the left-hand crate and brings the red-hot soldering iron close to its eyes. He has to be careful not to touch the creatures with that soldering contraption because that will leave burn marks. Which will lead to scarring and hassle with customers. Only the lens of the eye must be scorched.
Fons finds it harder and harder to do the work properly. He has lost the strength in one hand and that makes it difficult to hold the chick properly. Apart from which his sight is going. ‘Cataracts,’ says the priest. ‘Glaucoma,’ says Liza. ‘Old man’s eyes,’ Fons’ grandfather used to call it and he knew what he was talking about, since he spent the last years of his life sitting stinking in his chair blind as a bat.
All of which makes soldering pheasants an even worse chore than it used to be. Sometimes the creatures get badly burned; others don’t go completely blind. Not that there have been any complaints about the quality of his pheasants yet, but Fons knows that there might be complaints. He knows his craft well enough for that.
Things would be different if he didn’t have to do it all himself. But Liza wouldn’t dream of helping him with the pheasants. Liza always feels compassion. Compassion for animals and compassion for people. As if the animals would have any compassion for her. Anyway, animals can’t feel compassion. And Fons refuses to feel compassion. Even for himself. Anyone who feels compassion is done for.
And Fons puts down the soldering iron and picks up the chick he has caught in his good hand. He puts his forefinger round the little creature’s lukewarm neck. He places his thumb over its head. His thumb fits exactly in the hollow at the top of its skull. Then Fons squeezes. And he hears and feels the cracking of the skull. The head is now hanging limply over his forefinger. Fons feels a final convulsion pass through its body. Anyone who feels compassion is done for.
From Wolves Howl (Wolven huilen, 1993)
By Erik Vlaminck
Pain, punishment and schnapps
Henri doesn’t write. Because there’s just no point. The postal service doesn’t work anyway. For almost a year now the front line has acted as an effective blockade. Anyway, what would he write? That toothache is killing him. Toothache doesn’t get any better from writing about it in letters. A shot of schnapps might help but a shot of schnapps costs the earth. Sometimes, when the pain gets really unbearable, when it’s like someone constantly boring into his jawbone with bradawls, right into the centre of his eye, the only eye he can still see out of, he ‘rents’ some schnapps. In the Poles’ quarters, three blocks further. Three blocks of rubble further. Then he walks over there, shy and afraid.
Under no circumstances must Westarbeiter have any contact with Ostarbeiter. If you’re caught it means eight weeks’ ‘ab nach Farge’, to Lager 21, the punishment camp. No argument. And yet, or perhaps for that very reason, Germany is losing the war. Even as a child Henri understood that mindless severity got you nowhere. It hasn’t made him any less afraid of punishment, though. But neverending toothache is a good cure for panic. And now with the Allies so close that the roar of their guns has been audible for days, he has plucked up courage.
The Poles, now that’s what you call living in misery. It’s indescribable, worse than a dilapidated pigsty. After he has paid, over the odds, he is allowed to pour the measure into his mouth, allowing the fiery alcohol, which these guys had got from god knows where, to burn his rotting teeth and inflamed gums. Under the dark gaze of one of the Poles who keeps a close watch on everything. And especially to make sure that he spits everything back into the sticky glass. Right up to the mark. And with no bubbles of spit, otherwise you pay extra. Can he put that in a letter home, that he can spit out schnapps without making bubbles?’
From The Portraitist (De portrettentrekker, 1998)
By Erik Vlaminck
(Kapellen, November, 1961)
Armistice Day. The brass band marched through the village. And we – father, mother with my little sister on her arm, and me – we stood watching from behind the net curtains. Other people went out into the street to watch, but mother thought that wasn’t done and so we watched from behind the net curtains. And without touching them, because that wasn’t done either.
‘Then people will see them moving.’
The musicians marched past in neat ranks. In other processions the brass band was invariably followed by a host of handbag-swinging ladies. Today there were only men in the march. Rows of gleaming medals pinned to their chests. Many houses had the Belgian flag hanging from their bedroom windows.
‘Why don’t we put out the flag?’
‘We don’t have a flag,’ was father’s laconic answer.
‘Why don’t we have a flag?’
‘If you don’t have a flag you can never put out the wrong flag.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It took me a long time too.’
The brass-players lowered their instruments. And then there were only drum rolls.
From Wooden Clogs (Houten schoenen, 2000)
By Erik Vlaminck
Building a better world
I keep thinking about that business with our Fien’s grandson, because I’ve always liked our Anneke, our Fien’s daughter. If it hadn’t been for Anneke, I’d have been in even more of a fix than I am now. That’s why I think it’s so awful that her son’s going to the dogs, and with his eyes wide open.
Seemingly for some reason or other he can’t be bothered to get a normal job. First he went to work at the fair like a gypsy, him with all his book learning. Only for a month or two, because the work tired him out. And for the last year he’s been working as a nurse in an institution for imbeciles and lunatics. There are all sorts of ways someone can bring shame on his parents.
And yet he has a diploma that would let him teach at a secondary school. At least our Fien says he has a secondary school teaching qualification. Actually I can’t imagine a fellow like that who does his hair like a woman and acts like a film star qualifying as a teacher. And not forgetting that our Fien can lie through her teeth.
The worst thing of all is that he maintains, and I didn’t get this from our Fien or our Anneke but straight from the horse’s mouth, that he went to work in that institution for imbeciles and lunatics because he wanted to become a writer. He claims that there, among those nutters who don’t know what day it is, he could pick up ideas to write about.
‘If you simply wrote down the story of my life, you’d have a very nice book. And a thick one too. And then you wouldn’t have to get up to any more strange antics to pick up ideas. You could just sit your backside and write.’ That’s what I told him.
He gave me the sort of look a cow gives a passing train.
‘Do you think you can earn a living writing your books?’ I asked him that too.
‘That doesn’t interest me. There are more important things than that. Anyway, wealth should be redistributed.’
What can you do with someone like that? Redistribute wealth…
‘We have to build a better world. And a writer can contribute to that.’
From Schismatic Writing (Het schismatieke schrijven, 2005)
By Erik Vlaminck
All extracts translated by Paul Vincent
First published in The Low Countries, 2007