An attic filled with ribs
Anton Valens

The porch has been designed widely and in a cool way, with natural stone stairs, a glass facade allowing the light to stream inside, and white walls. On long silver chains, baskets with fatsias are hanging down from the ceiling. There’s a vague smell of paint and cement, as if this part of the block of houses has recently been refurbished. Children’s drawings have been hung up next to some of the doors; one of those doors, with a huge Plexiglas nameplate saying GERHARD & CELINE, has even been decorated with a ribbon saying HURRAY, WE’VE HAD A BABY GIRL. Next to others, sport shoes are lying around, or some skates and an umbrella in rainbow colours.

The right front door on the third floor, by contrast, is unadorned; a bluish grey sombre surface, revealing nothing about the occupant. A small simple bell has been affixed to the frame. After a rather long wait, the door slowly opens. The first thing to catch the eye is the Marmoleum floor, in a distinguished tone in between brick and Bordeaux red. Tarnished and mat pieces alternate with each other irregularly; in some places, near the plinths, in front of a door which – as is evident from a round metal plate in the position FREE – leads to the toilet, the Marmoleum has lost its colour and has been worn out to become ashen dark grey. The walls of the narrow corridor are plain mustard yellow. Besides the front door and the toilet door, there are three other doors; all closed. A round grey green ceiling lamp with white stripes, like beams in a copper fitting, diffuses a faint light. An oak wood hall stand, with a hat shelf and cast-iron hooks, carries a grey raincoat, a small coonskin cloak, various rain hats and an astrakhan cap. Right above a yellowed light switch, a framed tile has been fixed with the saying: AN EFFICIENT WOMAN IS THE BEST POSSIBLE SAVING.

Further away, a beam of light falls on the Marmoleum coming from the right. A sixth door is ajar. The woman, who seems to weigh nothing, leads the way. The walls of the living room are an old rose colour. Where it is brushed by the sun, the wallpaper has faded to pale orange. The curtains, printed with brown, orange and creamy blocks and balls, are open. The room smells like a show room at the rear of a museum for cultural anthropology with a very faint trace of cigarette smoke. The floor is covered with carpets. A round table with chairs has been placed in the middle. The woman sits down, slowly, consciously. The act is difficult for her; it seems like she is climbing a hill. A cup and saucer are placed on the tablecloth, decorated with embroidered roses. Instead of a teaspoon, a cut festively striped straw sticks out of the cup. There’s a spiced biscuit on the saucer.

She speaks with a Gelderland accent. ‘In your brain you can do everything,’ she says. Her well shaped waxy hands, her forearms and the upper part of her body are shaking. Parkinson’s disease. ‘But god damn it – yes, I’m allowed to say that, you aren’t – I can’t even carry a small bottle of milk.’

She reaches for the saucer with both hands and brings the cup to her mouth. The vertical wrinkles in her lips get tense, the straw turns brown. When she has sucked up some coffee, she slowly lowers the cup to the cloth. She picks up the biscuit and breaks off a piece using all her strength. Then she looks at me and says in a dry tone: ‘Jesus took the bread in his hands, broke it down and distributed it to his disciples.’

Her appearance, her face, even her voice, are at one with the objects in the room: an oval silhouette in ebony of an affably smiling girl’s face in profile, a wind-up clock shaped as a stepped gable, a scale model of a three-master with large brown sails standing on top of a French-polished wall cabinet and next to it a white Jesus statue (without a halo, it has fallen behind the cabinet); a collection of English tea tins, candles in silver candlesticks, a dated radiocabinet, black-and-white photographs, semi-abstract hard coloured paintings with thick paint structures applied with a pallet knife: stylized birds, a Moresque gate in a Spanish seaside resort – all in good shape.

If I want to paint her portrait, all these objects should have a place in it. But that would never suit, I am thinking, while I watch her trying to prize out an ultra light menthol cigarette from the packet.

I help her with her stockings and shoes. Meanwhile she talks about her life. A colourful procession of people passes in review: TB patients, nuns, lung specialists, poor chicken farmers, women smelling of eel, cleaning ladies, violent men, headmasters, gypsies, hunters. The stories evoke a world filled with forests, sanatoriums, ramshackle houses on the edge of sand drifts. They are fragments from a gruesome book of fairy tales. How can I fit them into my imaginary painting?

With many patients, including her, parts of the lungs were surgically removed. To do so, a hole was made on the side of the breast and a number of ribs were sawn off. These ribs, she relates, were stored in the attic. She laughs. An attic filled with ribs.

She goes on: ‘Once a girl was lying next to me, Grietje. She was still very young, maybe just became eighteen, and she was very beautiful. I can still easily imagine her. Really a good-looking girl, in a yellow jumper with brown piping. From Grietje, they had removed eight ribs. In spring we went outside. We went for walks through the forests, picked up leaves. At some point Grietje asked me: ‘Ans, can you see it?’ I started walking behind her, looked at her jumper and said: ‘Oh no, not at all.’ But that was not true; you could see a sizeable hollow in her back. She asked again: ‘You really cannot see anything of it?’ ‘Well. I said, a very little bit, but almost nothing and you really have to know about it. But do remember to walk upright; you have to keep your back straight.’ It was a beautiful day in spring, the serviceberry blossoms were flowering along the waterside…’

Her eyes became turbid. She puffs out a pall of smoke.

Grietje did not make it. The TB came back and she died. Suddenly Ans gets up; she gives me a mysterious look and motions me to follow her. We go to the corridor. We enter a blue room, serving as a storage space: suitcases, balcony chairs, hatboxes. A picture showing a panoramic lake at a late sun. Ducks with elongated necks are flying over the waving reed panicles. You can hear their wings wheezing. ‘Just take that away,’ Ans orders me and signals towards a spring mattress. Behind it appears a bookcase, covered with a curtain. Ans bows and pares over the titles. Now and then she swears under her breath. Then she raises her finger triumphantly. She picks up a book in a black leather binding with a silver buckle. ‘This is Grietje’s prayer book,’ she explains, ‘she gave me this shortly before she died.’ Her fingers tremble so badly that she cannot open the lock. She shoves the book into my hands. ‘You just do it, I can’t do anything anymore.’

It looks as if the book hasn’t been glanced over for decades. Between the pages, faded pinkish and yellowish sheets have been folded: handwritten letters, benedictions and devotional pictures.

She wants me to keep the missal. Politely, I refuse her offer, and feel embarrassed. After some good-hearted insisting, she yields and tries to put the book back in the binding. While doing this, a card falls from it; it floats in a gliding motion to the floor and comes to a standstill with the front downwards. I turn it around and read: THE SOUL ALWAYS BECOMES ONE WITH WHAT IT LOVES.

Back in the pink room, it is time for the regular soap series. While she stares at the television screen, slightly sardonic, I make some pencil sketches, quick as lightning, of her face, her figure between all her objects, the stepped clock, the sailing ship, the pile of tea tins. ‘Make me more beautiful than I am, will you,’ she remarks without looking at me, ‘my sister used to be the most beautiful of all of us. Now she has to shave her upper lip every day.’

I get my coat from the hall stand, greet her and walk over the dark red Marmoleum to the front
Anton Valens (1964, nl) Studied art in Pennsylvania and Amsterdam, among other places. Made his debut in 2004 with Meester in de hygiëne (Master of hygiene), a collection of stories about his experiences with house-bound elderly people. Other writings include Dweiloorlog (The mop war), Ik wilde naar de rand van Beijing (I wanted to find the edge of Beijing) in 2008, and the novel Vis (Fish) in 2009. His latest novel Het boek Ont (Man and mail) was nominated for the AKO Literature prize 2012.