Frost in the Hague by Karin van Heerden
Tina was the girl whose mother was a prostitute. The council had taken her into care when she was four and this was her third children’s home. She was seventeen like me, but she had left school and worked at a hairdressing salon.
One Sunday afternoon I came with her when she went to do her mum’s hair. We walked along the Niewe Gracht. It was a freezing cold day and some children were feeding the ducks some bread. The ducks waddled and slipped on the ice, fighting over the food, their big yellow feet looking clumsy and ridiculous. Even under the bridge the water was frozen now, so they had nowhere to swim.
Tina’s mother lived in a small apartment near the railway station. When she opened the door I was disappointed. I had expected her to look like the prostitutes in Paris or the Walletjes in Amsterdam, glamorous. Tina’s mother wasn’t. She was wearing a pale blue nylon nightdress, dirty and undone at the hem. Her hair was unwashed and uncombed and she had no make-up on. A cigarette hung from the corner of her mouth. She looked quite old. Her breasts were sagging, and I wondered how she got any customers. Tina had told me that her mum’s pimp might be there and he was. He was watching television when we came in. He looked around and gave a wave. Balding, middle-aged, ugly.
“How are you Tina? What is your friend called?”
“None of your business, Tom. Mum, are you all right? I brought you some nice mags from work.” And she handed her mother a pile of women’s magazines.
“Ta.” And to me, “Hello. Are you from the Home? Tina doesn’t often bring friends.” She had a nice smile, slightly sad.
“Sit down,” Tina said, and she cleared a space at the table, which was covered with a plastic tablecloth and the remnants of lunch. “I’ll make you a cup of tea.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
Her mother stubbed out her cigarette and stretched herself. She had pink slippers on her feet with some kind of down on them. Tina came back in.
“The tea is in the pot. Come, mum, let me wash your hair first.”
I took one of the magazines and started to leaf through it: a recipe for cheese-fondue, how to make your wardrobe work for you. Tom turned the television off and came to stand behind me. I felt my shoulders go rigid.
“That would look good on you!” He pointed at a black, strapless cocktail dress. What a creep. Tina and her mother came back in.
“Leave Annick alone,” Tina said. “Haven’t you got anything to do?” She obviously disliked the man. He shrugged his shoulders and went to the door.
“Don’t forget, eight o’clock tonight.” He said to Tina’s mother on his way out.
“When are you getting rid of that asshole, mum? You don’t need him.”
“He is all right. Better than most.”
On the way home Tina told me that Tom was always trying to get her onto the street. “I wouldn’t let a man sponge on my hard earned money. I don’t want a pimp.”
I wondered if she meant that she did want to be a prostitute. Hairdressers didn’t earn a lot of money. We walked on in silence for a while.
“Have you ever done it?” I asked.
“Loads of times.”
“What is it like?”
“It’s all right. You just think of something else while they are at it. It’s easy money. Why don’t you come some time?”
We had arrived back at the Home and I rang the bell.
“Maybe I will.”
Miss Stim was doing her hands when we came in. She was very proud of her hands. They were white and swollen, smooth like a baby’s because she had never done any work with them. She was always massaging them with rosewater-glycerine, which she bought from a beauty parlour on the Javaweg.
“Look at my hands,” she would say, stretching them out in front of her under the light.
“You wouldn’t say they belonged to a sixty-year old, now would you?
The first time I saw the prostitutes on the Walletjes in Amsterdam, I still lived with my mother. We had gone to Amsterdam to visit my aunt and on the way back to the station we walked through the red light district. Lit up in their windows, the women seemed like angels or fairy godmothers to me. They were so beautiful. Set apart from the ordinary world in their luminous cocoons. That was what I wanted to be when I was grown up. Now I knew that sex was what those women were there for, and my experiences had shown me that sex was no fairytale, but still I hankered after what those prostitutes represented for me. An otherness, an escape.
One Sunday afternoon a few weeks later Tina and I went to the seafront just outside Scheveningen. It was a dark day, and it was cold. We wandered up and down with a few other girls. I was excited; it was like being in another life.
“Ask fifty guilders,” Tina said “and say that you want no nonsense.” No nonsense, I said to myself. What would that mean? Several cars drove by slowly, but I looked away every time. “You have got to look at them and smile. Otherwise you won’t get customers. Like this.” Tina gave her interpretation of a seductive smile at the next car. I decided that I didn’t want customers if I had to look like that.
It worked though. The car pulled up and the window wound down. Tina leant forward to hear what the man said. She turned round to me. “There are two of them. You want to come?”
“All right.” I sounded nonchalant. Tina got in the back with the passenger so I got in the front. I looked at the driver. Not old, I saw to my surprise, but I didn’t like him. His eyes were very close together. I also didn’t like the way he looked at me. Tina had told me that normally they took you to a road in the Scheveningse wood and you did it in the car. Then they brought you back.
The man put his hand under my skirt and kneaded my thigh. I heard fiddling going on in the back. We were in the wood now and he was slowing down. His hand went up my leg and he grabbed me really hard. I tried to push his hand away but he didn’t let me.
“Stop that, bitch. I want to feel your cunt.” He grabbed even harder, and I realized suddenly that this was not for me.
“Don’t do that. It hurts.” I shoved my elbow in his side. “Let go of me. Now!”
He hesitated, and I used the moment to pull his hand away and open the door.
“Stop the car. I want to get out.”
At first he didn’t stop. “Bloody whore!” Then he stopped and gave me a shove; I half fell out and didn’t close the door.
“Tina, are you all right? Why don’t you come as well?” But he drove off with the door hanging open. Tina looked at me through the back window and gave me a wave. She seemed OK. They stopped a bit further down the road. The man in the back came out to close the car-door. There was no sign of Tina leaving the car.
I waited till the car drove off. Tina would be fine, I hoped. I shivered, turned round, and walked back to the seafront. The tide was coming in and the glass green waves were topped here and there with grey-white foam.
On the tram I felt sick. This was not what I wanted.
What did I want? What was this strange, restless longing? I was pierced for a moment by an unbearable longing for my mother.
If it was love I was looking for, this was not the way to find it. I knew that. I had tried it before. If it was to numb that pain that I carried inside me like an open wound ever since I had my abortion a year ago, then it worked only by replacing it with a different kind of pain. When I looked up I saw I’d nearly missed my stop.
At the Home I went in through the back and was lucky to slip into my room without bumping into anyone. I opened the drawer where I kept the few things I had assembled for the baby. The white and yellow striped top I had knitted, a pair of tiny socks, a tin of talcum powder. I put them back in the carrier bag and ran down the stairs, out of the backdoor to where the bins were kept. I opened the zinc top and dropped the bag into the bin. For a moment I couldn’t breathe, so sharp was the pain that ripped me apart.
My homework for the next day was on Einstein’s theory of relativity. It felt good to do something as normal as school work.
I tried to concentrate. Einstein said that relativity teaches us the connection between the different descriptions of one and the same reality. In class I had written in my notes that the speed at which time happens is mutable; space and time are not discrete entities: time and space and motion (movement through space) collapse into a fourth dimension, in which all act on each other. And that moving clocks tick slower than the observer’s stationary clock.
For some reason trying to understand this calmed me.
Tina came back just before supper. She was on her way up and I on my way down.
“Are you all right?” we asked each other at the same time. We laughed and nodded.
“I’ll talk to you later,” Tina whispered.
She came to my room before going to bed. She offered me a cigarette.
“You were unlucky for your first time. He was a bastard. They aren’t all like that.”
“Did you have problems with him after I had gone?”
“No, they were ok. I am used to it.” She tipped the ash into the ashtray. Her nails were painted coral pink and neatly shaped into ovals. I looked at mine. They were dirty and unevenly cut with a blunt pair of nail scissors.
“You want me to do your nails for you?” Tina offered. “I am doing it at work all the time. I can do it now if you like.”
“Thanks for the offer, Tina, but I am just not the type.” She looked disappointed “I am too messy. Not a lady.”
“So you reckon you’ll have another go?”
“No. It is a shame, but I don’t think I would be any good at it.”
We finished our cigarettes and said goodnight.
That night I was awake for a long time. My head was filled with images, the swell of lead colored waves ridden by luminous seagulls, the blue vein beating under the white skin of Tina’s temple, the bony hand of the guy in the car, clawing me. Would Tina end up like her mother? And if so would that be so much worse than any other outcome? Did it matter what we did in our life? Or did it only matter how we did it?
I tried to think some more about Einstein’s relativity in order to feel less desolate. It worked, the effort to understand dulled my pain.
Karin van Heerden was born in Holland, studied Spanish at Groningen University, and has lived in Oxford, UK for thirty years. An artist by profession, she also works with people with mental health problems, running both art and writing workshops.