November 15, 2004
Mrs. Herrmans touched my hand
by Tony O'Brien
iobhan and I took a flat in the inner city. It seemed natural to be at the centre of things, with the world spinning round us. We could walk to our jobs at the hospital and buy our bread warm from the oven, or the first of the Boston buns, before the cream turned yellow and dried at the edges. The flat was a small collection of rooms; kitchen, bathroom, bed-sitting room. It seemed like more at the time. At night we could hear the whine of traffic and the chime of the town hall clock. We would collapse into bed, lost in each other.
The flat was in an art deco block, square with rounded corners. The paint was flaking, and there was a large crack in the concrete façade, a reminder of the earthquake of 1963. Inside, the foyer had a faded elegance. The floor was tiled, row upon row of tiny white squares scuffed by decades of shoes. A single row of black tiles traced the line of the walls. A staircase led to the upper levels, or you could take the lift, a rattling, shuddering cage with a steel mesh door. Our flat was downstairs, behind one of the lacquered doors that opened into the foyer.
We were inexperienced housekeepers. The rubbish lay uncollected for the first month. When we bought food, we had to visit Woolworths for a pot or pan to cook in. We bought a broom and mop when the small area of linoleum in the kitchen turned from white to smoky grey. We ignored the carpet until Mrs. Herrmans showed us her carpet sweeper.
We’d met Mrs. Herrmans in the foyer once or twice when she was returning from work. She studied us, the way you regard a newcomer, with caution. Sometimes when we were leaving she’d be standing in the porch smoking a slim cheroot in a long plastic holder. Mrs. Herrmans would nod or smile, and we’d feel her gaze on our backs until we turned the corner. Then we’d glance at each other and laugh, like we’d just walked out on a disapproving aunt.
The day Mrs. Herrmans came into the flat Siobhan had gone shopping. The door was open, and in the manner of someone long used to exercising rights of visitation, she was suddenly at my side as I wiped the table.
"How do you like the flat?" she said.
It was the first time I’d talked to Mrs. Herrmans. I knew her name from the mail that was left on the stand in the foyer, and from hearing the landlord call to her when he came to collect the rent. In the light of the kitchen I could see the cracks in her face powder and the fine hairs that covered her cheeks. Her skin was pale, as if at some time in her past the color had drained from it and never returned. I told her we liked the place, it was handy to work, and we found it comfortable.
"It is good that you are looking after it," she said. "The last tenant was a drinker. There were bottles everywhere and I don’t think he swept it once. Is your… your wife… working?"
I said no, but without explanation. Then Mrs. Herrmans asked about the carpet.
"Do you have a vacuum cleaner?" she said.
The carpet had a lush floral pattern, the kind that doesn’t show dust, and we hadn’t thought about cleaning it. Mrs. Herrmans disappeared and was back with her carpet sweeper before I had a chance to invent an excuse.
"You just push it like this."
Mrs. Herrmans gripped the handle and attacked the carpet with vigor. She leaned into her work and let out a short gasp with each push. She didn’t speak, but swept the whole of the room, her efforts rising in intensity as she progressed. Finally, red-faced, she stood back and said "There! It doesn’t take much, but look at the difference!"
Apart from the pile which was now raised in lines along the length of the room, the carpet looked much the same.
Mrs. Herrmans sat on the bed and said, "You can borrow it any time. I’m in number 3, up the stairs." She waved at the door. She sat on the bed for a long time, asking me about my work, and about Siobhan. She placed her hand on mine and I noticed how cool it was. I couldn’t guess her age, but thought perhaps her circulation had slowed.
"I once was married," said Mrs. Herrmans, her words hanging in the air.
"It was in the Netherlands, before the war. I had to go away to the country, and when I returned I received a note from my husband. He was living in Amsterdam, and had a child."
"Did you see him again?" I asked.
"No. I have never seen him again. He was my first love. I immigrated in 1946. I have never been back."
Mrs. Herrmans touched my hand.
"I have photos. Would you like to see them?"
I made an excuse about meeting someone, then pulled on my jacket.
Mrs. Herrmans took the carpet sweeper and I followed her out. I stayed away until enough time had passed, then crept back and closed the door quietly.
The next day Siobahn was working and Mrs. Herrmans knocked on my door. She carried a chocolate box, and I could see the faded image of roses on the lid.
"I brought my photographs," she said. She stood in the doorway as if expecting to be turned away, her memories trapped in that musty box. I began thinking of appointments, reasons to avoid Mrs. Herrmans’s stories, but she took a step inside, and I noticed her hand tremble as she held the box.
"Come in Mrs. Herrmans," I said.
"I’ll make some tea," I said, getting our two cups from the cupboard and filling the jug. I was afraid that Mrs. Herrmans’s sadness would linger after she’d left; that it was impolite to love in the face of such disappointment.
Mrs. Herrmans sat at the table taking the photographs out one at a time. She showed me her childhood; her bothers and sisters, parents, the church where she made her first communion and confirmation.
"My friend Onya," said Mrs. Herrmans, holding up a small photograph of a young woman dressed in a thick coat. The photograph was taken in a park. There was snow on the ground, and bare trees in the background. There were pictures from her wedding; her husband straight and tall, dressed in a military uniform.
Once she’d been through all the photographs—it didn’t take long, there were less than I’d imagined—she sipped her tea and said, "It is fortunate to find love. It is even more fortunate to keep it." The photograph of her husband was on the top of the pile and Mrs. Herrmans brushed it with her finger, then closed the box.
I should have offered her more tea, but it was like I was being drawn into Mrs. Herrmans’s memories, like they would become part of our lives. Mrs. Hermans would become familiar. She would invite us for supper and talk about the Netherlands, her pain passing through her to us.
After that I seldom spoke to Mrs. Herrmans. She knocked on the door a few times, but we just kept quiet until we heard her footsteps on the stairs. If I smelt smoke I’d leave by the back entrance, and if we arrived home at the same time I’d go straight to my door, closing it before she’d had time to get beyond pleasantries. After a time Mrs. Herrmans ignored us. She’d glance in our direction if she saw us, then her head would snap away and she’d find something to look at, a passing car or the pattern of tiles on the floor.
The night we locked ourselves out, Siobhan and I had our first argument, in the black and white foyer of the flats. The first argument of lovers is as torrid as sex. I heard Mrs. Herrmans’ footsteps on the stairs, but it was dark outside, and there was nowhere to hide in the foyer.
"I heard a noise," she said. "Is everything all right?"
I said I’d left the key inside and started to invent reasons to walk out into the night.
"I have a key," said Mrs. Herrmans. "But first you must have some coffee."
I felt myself redden, and I looked at Siobhan. She smiled at Mrs. Herrmans. Siobhan had a foot on the first step, and she tugged at my coat.
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