I Am Home
Keith knew Hilda would understand. She always did. She was the perfect wife. He sat by the window and she knew she didn’t have to make the slightest noise. If he sat by the fireplace she knew she had to bring him coffee, he liked his coffee black and she remembered that well. She was a woman of little words, and he felt at home in her silences; she felt comfortable like an old pair of slippers and she didn’t meddle with his collections.
He had married her after she dropped out of college. He learned she wrote poetry. He read a couple of her poems and told her he didn’t think much of them.
He had three hundred and eleven miniature elephants of marble and ebony, of mahogany and silver, malachite and gold. Hilda had never been inquisitive and that was a thing about her he liked. She helped him with his research and she chose the exquisite vases of different forms which Keith admired so much. He had a passion for collecting ancient furniture and books, and his house was a treasure of collectibles. Not a single item in it was ordinary or cheap. Keith could truly breathe only in his spacious study, which Hilda kept in perfect order. She took care of it all: his miniature elephants, the golden and silver coins, the rugs, each one a treasure, and the seven halls full of books, which she had arranged in neat pyramids in alphabetical order of their authors.
He had a ritual. In the evenings, he sat in his study, a glass of Chablis in hand, and rang his ancient Belgian silver bell. She brought him a tome of the “History of the Roman Empire” and read to him. Her soft voice, the smell of the leather binding and that peculiar aroma of quiet dust calmed him down.
She read beautifully.
She always knew when he had another woman.
Keith couldn’t tell how on earth she learned that. Perhaps he ignored the TV, or perhaps he became too talkative. She knew, but she didn’t ask who the woman was. She understood. Keith was a collector. He collected memories of enjoyable days with women. All the women were expensive and perfect like the objects in his house. Funny, he missed Hilda when he was out happy with a new conquest.
At times he wished Hilda chose the women for him. She had a perfect taste. She never asked where Keith was and why he didn’t come home on time. Her reticent silence waited for him. His house met him brilliantly clean; his miniature treasures sparkled, arranged in perfect rows with tags, reminding him where and at what price he had bought the thing. His golden coins were there for him and his bed offered him good rest. But above all this, clean and efficient, smiling and acquiescing Hilda waited for him.
He had given her a lifetime of peace and security. She was a barmaid before she met him.
Her skin was older than that of the girls he had been happy with. There were lines at the corners of her mouth. Keith welcomed them. She was growing old more quickly than him and that fact was quite reassuring. She was like the rain in Brussels he had gotten accustomed to, cold and clean. He loved it when she cooked for him. She didn’t talk or look at him, she concentrated on the ingredients. He watched her careful hands touch the knives and saucers and he thought her fingers were made of sun’s rays.
They had a son, a boy of seventeen, and it was pleasant to have him about. Keith never wanted children. Children wasted one’s time and grabbed one’s money. Children were often sick or did very bad at school. Keith thought long about it. He should dedicate all his time to his brilliant collections. He could not leave them to a museum!
“It’s much better for your swords to go to a son,” Hilda said once.
He thought about it. Hilda would take care of the child. She’d bring it to doctors and she’d see to his problems at school. It turned out it was pleasant to have Patrick about. Keith saw him thirty minutes every day when the boy was clean and well fed. The child was not fussy. It sat in his chair while Keith read or cleaned his elephants. Patrick was well behaved and said “Thank you” and “please”, his clothes were clean and he never touched the objects of the collections Keith had forbidden him to trifle with.
Keith traveled a lot. Sometimes Hilda accompanied him. Then the hotel room was magnificent with the little odds and ends she dug out of nowhere, not many, two or three, no more, sometimes a sea shell, a scarf, an ancient book. She didn’t go out with him because he often sent flowers to attractive women. He needed and enjoyed the look in her eyes at those moments. It was a pity that soon after that she gathered her things and went back to Brussels. She had to see to an urgent matter, she’d explain to him.
“Do you need money?” Keith would ask and she would answer, “No, thank you.”
She had not attempted to extract money or anything of value from him. If she’d tried, he’d have expelled her from his life. Hilda read his books, she liked the dishes he liked, she wore inexpensive clothes and she was clean. At times, Keith thought that there were no traces of her presence around him. His shadow was her home and she lived there, unobtrusively, like an autumn day. The look on his face told her what he wanted.
She was there for him, she did what was expected of her, and she satisfied his whims without seeming to mind. He liked to watch her touch his things. He loved it when she read his books. He asked her to write a few sentences about what had impressed her and she did. Her mind produced poisonous criticism which attracted him because it contrasted bitterly with her quiet words.
“You bad woman,” he told her after he started collecting her biting sentences about the books he had bought. He enjoyed immensely her ability to see absurdity where there were no traces of it.
“I hate writing the catilinaires that you make me write” she said.
“Tell me what a catilinaire means,” he said. He enjoyed her queer words, although he never told her he did. It was pleasant to bask in the scathing brilliance of her mind.
He didn’t like the idea of somebody else enjoying the sting of her observations, the touch of her hands, the way she cooked the food. She was part of his collection and he hated a foreign presence there.
“A spiteful piece of prose directed against somebody, that’s what a catilinaire is,” she said. “It’s a French word.”
“I know,” he said. “Have you prepared Patrick’s clothes for the camp in the Ardenes?”
“No,” Hilda said.
He looked at her.
“I think you don’t care enough about your son,” Keith said. “And I don’t like that.”
She didn’t object to his accusation. She brought him a cup of orange juice; she always brought him orange juice when he’d done something she disliked.
“So it’s true you don’t care about Patrick,” he said. She didn’t answer.
He was suddenly angry but there was her silence. Her silences were the space where his anger died and peace began. Her jealousy was a foreign town he loved to explore, her discontent quiet skin betraying no anticipation. The depths of equanimity in her eyes exasperated him; the cup of orange juice on the table told him the truth. There were days when he felt victorious. He had broken down her defenses; he saw through her anger, although her face was a closed door.
“What is it this time?” he’d ask her.
“Nothing,” Hilda would answer.
He tried to catch her out at the moment when she bought orange juice. It was a sign she was in a huff, but of course she throttled and erased all traces of her anger in a flash. Once, just once, he saw her open a bottle of orange juice and pour it into the kitchen sink.
This happened on the day when Keith took home Janette, the young translator who had worked on Keith’s project to acquire a new hotel on the Northern Sea. Janette was all auburn hair and blue eyes, just about the average girl Keith chose for his collection he nicknamed Afternoons. Hilda behaved immaculately as always. She talked politely to the translator about the mild winters in Brabant and the pleasant wind in the short summers. Keith noticed she drank orange juice all through the evening. He’d caught her unawares, her composure dead, the juice a pool of hate in her immaculately clean glass.
“You don’t seem to like Janette,” he said.
“I like her,” Hilda answered pouring more orange juice into her glass.
“Did Janette tell you something?” Keith asked. He was not curious, he knew.
“She did,” Hilda answered.
“She told you I was going to divorce you and marry her?”
“Yes,” Hilda said.
Suddenly he hated her cold blood. He’d rather she screamed. He’d enjoy her fury. It was a dark devious streak he’d love to explore. Her jealousy was the most precious piece of her.
“I wouldn’t be so calm if I were you,” Keith told her.
There was silence everywhere, cold and thick, that Keith loved. He had to teach her a lesson. She had to respect him after all these years. She had to be at least a little jealous of him. Life was a sting of little jealousies that made days worth remembering. Hilda had to give him the devious streak he dreamed of. After all she was obliged to respect him, wasn’t she? He’d given her a home. He’d given her a roof and a child she had to be proud of.
“Janette is very clean,” Hilda told him. “I don’t worry about you.”
“I’m glad you mentioned it,” Keith said.
He adored order. Sloppiness and lack of method revolted him. Each woman he’d spent time with gave him a little present, not one she bought from a shop; he appreciated objects that were a part of her life. The objects that interested him were glimpses through a window into an afternoon when the woman enjoyed a cup of tea. He wanted that cup. There was a special hall in Keith’s house in which he kept these selected afternoons. There were handkerchiefs, combs, postcards, silver buttons, and there were pieces of old newspaper smeared with lipstick. Hilda had attached little standard tags on each item. Jane, July 2007; Martha, August – November 2004; Gabriealla, November 2000. Trying to tease him, she had added an umbrella with a tag that read, “John McLeod, July 2007." Keith was angry. In the beginning of August, he fired his associate John McLeod.
John McLeod was Janette’s husband. Janette the translator.
Keith chose Janette carefully. He had to show Hilda he was not to be trifled with. He hated that umbrella and its silver tag with John’s name, like a sprawling spider, on it. All the letters on that tag were insects that wove Hilda’s cobweb about him. Her eyes were cobweb too, but strange enough he missed his wife.
“Janette is different,” Keith said to Hilda. “I won’t have anything from her. She’ll come to my house, and you’ll have to go, I’m afraid.”
Hilda kept her summer afternoons away from him. She remained a cold winter day and if she suddenly died she’d simply close the earth after her. That was all there was to it.
“I add an object to my Afternoons collection after the girl leaves my life for good.” Keith told her.
“I know that, “Hilda said.
“So, what will you give me?” he asked, his eyes on her face.
She stood up walked, to the refrigerator, and took a bottle of orange juice.
Keith smiled. He liked it when Hilda drank orange juice. Then she gave him the devious streak of jealousy he’d looked so long for.
“Yes, it’s time I added something from you,” he said.
Hilda didn’t answer. The tired skin of her face remained unimpressed. There was a good sign though. She drank the orange juice directly from the bottle. Keith felt strong, uproariously happy, and powerful, a man able to take and break.
The mahogany table glittered as Hilda placed the empty bottle on it.
“You can take that bottle,” she said. “I’ll write the necessary inscription on the tag for you.’
“Well, Hilda,” Keith said. “You know I’ll never find another human being capable of taking care of my collections the way you do.”
“That is problem, isn’t it?” she remarked, distant like the rainy night sky.
He suddenly hated the mahogany table, the thick carpet on the floor and the Brussels autumn that appeared to be as slow to speak to him as her face.
“After we divorce I can hire you to look after my collections,” Keith said. “You know every single object. You, like me, put your soul into collecting things.”
She blushed or was it his imagination? Was it the play of the lamp on the polished wood that made her face look taut?
“Another orange juice?” he asked.
Keith enjoyed every tiny breath of air suffused with the aroma of her uneasiness.
“Yes, please,” Hilda said.
“I love the objects of my collections all the more because you’ve touched them,” he said and he was telling the truth. “And I love it when you give me your chilly remarks on the books you’ve read.”
Her smile was the crack through which he crept into the nights when she wanted him or when she hated him, which was one and the same thing with her.
“You can hire me to take care of your collections,” Hilda said.
“Maybe I will,” he said. “I’ll let you know about my decision after I come back from Antwerp. The arts and crafts auction there, you know…”
“I know,” she said.
She might have asked him if Janette would accompany him to Antwerp. That would have given him a pleasant sensation. Hilda’s rancor was a lake in which he’d love to have a swim. Hilda didn’t ask him anything. She made it clear there would be no swim.
“I love the spiteful remarks you write about the books you’ve read. I laugh my head off as I read them.”
“I wouldn’t laugh if I were you,” she looked at him, composed. “Give my love to Janette when you see her.”
Keith came back home from the auction in Antwerp feeling exhilarated. He’d bought a china vase he intended to give Hilda. He knew she’d adore it. She’d been dreaming about a vase like that for years. Some objects of Keith’s collections were her favorites, a Spanish sword from Seville she’d named Heart and a silver Portuguese clock she went to consult every night. Keith gave that clock to Janette, and on the following day Hilda drank a gallon of orange juice. Then he gave Heart, the sword, to Janette. Hilda left the house saying she needed some time off. She said she’d stay at her favorite villa on in Ostende, on the Northern Sea, for a week, but Keith knew she didn’t go anywhere. He’d followed her and he knew she stayed at the Metropole hotel, an ancient building from the Baroque period, famous for its drawings of swords that hung on the walls in the lobby.
He missed Hilda. Janette wanted to sell Heart, the sword, and the Portuguese clock to a museum. They belong there, Janette had said. She was young and ravishing. But she wanted to sell Heart! The idiot!
Keith imagined Hilda’s astonishment the moment she’d see the sword in its usual place in the collection. That would be the perfect present for her birthday. Keith had missed her. And he looked forward to the aroma of his collections, to the glitter of his silver, to the mystery of his malachite, to the sharpness of his blank weapons that Hilda had probably rearranged. She had her little surprises for him: she sneaked to admire Keith’s favorite gold coins. She had dug out the history enveloping them; when Keith was depressed she read to him the stories about the Dutch nobleman who met his death as he tried to hide his gold from his cousins. These dark tales of disaster and woe calmed Keith down.
Keith kept Janette’s electric toothbrush that was very good for her gums, the one with the gilded handle. That was an object Janette the translator loved, and it would be a part of the Afternoons collection. Janette was a toothbrush with a gilded handle; there were no dark tales of dead noblemen behind her. There was the bitter shame of her plan to sell Heart, the sword, and the Portuguese clock to a museum!
His house looked imposing against the azure of the sky. He loved his sitting room and his bedroom. He loved every inch of his manor. Hilda would read to him the disturbing tales about the ancient Dutch nobleman. She’d cook for him and he’d watch the smooth, precise movements of her hands. He adored the evenings. Her body glided with the measured, noiseless movements of nameless women who had cooked centuries before her. She was a collector like him. She collected movements. He had planned to give her the Portuguese clock at midnight. Sex with her was fabulous after she saw the silver face and black fluorescent hands of the thing. Keith loved the sense of itching anticipation in his fingers every time Hilda’s footsteps approached his bed.
He left the car in the garage and almost ran to the house. He opened the front door and was about to cry out “I’m home” when he notices a big bottle of orange juice in front of the great mirror on the wall.
This was strange.
The antechamber was naked. The hat and coat rack had vanished, and the miniature marble sculptures of Venus and Apollo were gone. There was no carpet on the floor, and the small carved redwood table that used to be in the corner under the frosted glass window was no longer there. Keith ran to the living room and froze in his tracks. There were no tables and chairs, no TV set, no pictures on the walls, no shelves, and no books. The laptops were gone, the flowerpots were gone, the divans and sofas had disappeared. The chandelier, which used to hang from the marble ceiling, was not there any more. There was no trace of Keith’s clay pipes he had arranged on the mantelpiece. The clock on the wall had vanished. The telephone was gone. There were no vases and no flowers in the room. There were no Spanish couches. Sheets of papers of different sizes, neatly arranged in equally big piles, were stacked on the naked cement floor.
Keith stared stunned, unbelieving, his mouth gaping. There was a bottle of orange juice jutting out like a bad tooth in the middle of the circumference that the heaps of the documents formed.
He reeled, bent down, and amazed, shocked, tried to focus on one of the sheets of paper. It was a receipt, which read, “Table, mahogany wood, 23 000 Euro”. Then Keith read another piece of paper, “Chair, mahogany wood, 17 300 Euro”, then yet another one. They all were receipts. TV set, carpet, laptop, bookcase, a clay pipe, a saber (silver)….
He ran to the big rectangular hall where he kept his collections. But there were no collections. There were neat piles of papers with the word “Euro” typed in red indelible ink. And there was a bottle of orange juice on the windowsill.
Keith groaned. He needed a drink. His brain squirmed and writhed. His heart exploded. The Afternoons collection with the presents he had received from the girls was there: a bottle of make up and a brilliant silver tag on which Hilda had written in her round hand “Mary Jane, February-March 2006”; a cheap digital camera and a tag, “Sarah, November 2007”; a hairpin and “Judith, September 2008”. There was an electric toothbrush with a gilded handle in Keith’s coat pocket.
He needed a drink.
There was no refrigerator in the kitchen, no stove, no chairs, no table, and no booze.
There was a big crystal glass of orange juice on the marble floor.