The two families crossed over from Dover on the
morning hydrofoil. In Ostend they found drizzle in July. Belgium was showing its northern European face. As they drove through flat Flemish countryside to Bruges, Derek acknowledged that he had visited the town before. In fact, he had fallen in love with a woman there in one of those strange lightning strikes of passion that meant he would never forget her. Aside from that passion, he couldn’t remember much about the town. There were museums and a market square. Was there a belfry?
The families checked in to their hotel. After lunch in a café, they donned raincoats and walked to the old market square. Derek’s memory was correct; there was, indeed, a glorious belfry. To get out of the weather, they visited the Groeninge Museum, admired its finely wrought masterpieces curiously known as “Flemish primitives.” They made the requisite turn around the cathedral.
Now the drizzle was lifting. There was even a bit of sunlight showing through the overcast. Each couple had a teenaged son, born within a year of one another. The boys wanted to return to the belfry and conquer its circular stairway.
“Back to the market square then?” asked the other husband. He and Derek had become friends years before when they worked as correspondents for the same paper.
The others were ready to start off, but Derek hesitated. Just across the street was a hospital. A woman he had known long ago was there. He wanted to see her – and wanted to see her alone.
As a young man he had lived in Belgium. He had dated an American girl who was studying there on a Fulbright scholarship. They had toured museums together, and they had discovered it was not difficult to distinguish a van der Weyden from a Brueghel, a van Eyck from a Rubens or a Bosch.
He and the girl had visited Bruges. They had happened into the hospital which was, in fact, a museum. It owned an exquisite collection of the works of the Flemish primitive artist Hans Memling. Among other paintings, they saw a Madonna holding an apple in her left hand and the Christ-child in her right. They were amazed by the painting, by the deftness of its brushwork, by the specificity and demureness of the Madonna’s characterization, by its timelessness that was, even so, definitely of its time.
Derek could not take his eyes off the woman. It was then that he fell in love with her, even while he was with his date. Later she came to mean a great deal to him. She became his friend.
In June of that year Derek and the American girl took a farewell trip together. He was being sent to the Congo; she was returning to Illinois. They wandered through northern France in Derek’s car, through Normandy and Brittany.
The girl was ready to resume the course of her life, to see once again the “sort of” fiancé to whom she had been “sort of” faithful in a way that made it possible for her and Derek to “sort of” talk about getting married. At the Gare St. Lazare, Derek and the girl had an emotional parting. But once the boat train left, Derek wondered if he would ever see her again.
He wondered, too, about the Congo, then only three years into its bloody and chaotic independence, about the people he would meet. There had been girlfriends in Derek’s life ever since high school. Now most of his friends were getting married. Would there be a woman for him in Elisabethville, where he was being transferred? If not, would he survive? Well, probably. Elisabethville was a real city and he was a survivor.
When Derek arrived in the Congo, he was not sent to Elisabethville. He went instead to Coquilhatville in a region called the Equateur. During his first weeks there he was unspeakably lonely. Then a month or so before Christmas an advertising brochure arrived in the mail. Inside was a reproduction of the Memling Madonna.
Derek remembered how passionate he felt about her that afternoon in Bruges. He cut the reproduction out and mounted it on cardboard. He placed the woman in his house where he could look at her often. In his bathroom, in fact. He sometimes talked with her, joked with her. He teased her with irreverent nicknames. She turned out to be his girlfriend in the Congo.
Now Derek wanted to see his friend again. He wanted to stand beside her alone. When he did, he would not say anything—at least not audibly. That had always been their way. He wanted to look again on her flattish, long-nosed face. He wanted to see the special modesty of her eyes, to feel once more the virtue her manner and presence exuded.
Virtue. Not a quality that most men prize in the women of their pasts, especially when they have married it, as Derek had done. But virtue was the special characteristic of this woman. She and Derek had shared hardships. Her goodness had assuaged his loneliness and helped to carry him through difficult times.
They had been together in Coquilhatville for seven or eight months. During that time the Congo flared into rebellion. Civil war started in the country’s southeast and eventually threatened Derek in the northwest. When that happened, he found it wonderful to have the woman with him. As the conflict grew more violent, he frequently sought solace in her tranquility. Derek would gaze at her for long moments and he would feel strangely reassured.
Finally, when the rebel army was only a few hours outside of town, most foreigners fled. Derek packed hurriedly. A United States Air Force C-130 evacuated him, and he lost track of his belongings. They stayed in storage for months. Eventually he left the Congo. He changed professions. He married and had a son. During that time he came upon some forgotten Congo possessions.
Among them, in an envelope, he found the reproduction that he had mounted on cardboard. He displayed it on a shelf in his office and called to his wife, “Look what I found!” They laughed together about the woman he’d lived with in Coq.
Now being so close to her, just across the street, Derek wanted to see his friend. He might never return to Belgium. If he did not visit her now, he might never see her again. Derek told the group, “I’m going over to St. John’s Hospital.” He spoke the words as if the idea had occurred to him that very moment. “It’s just across the street.”
“You all right?” asked Derek’s colleague.
“It’s a museum. I visited it when I lived here.”
“Not another museum!” said the colleague’s wife.
“Memling,” explained Derek. “Another primitive.”
His colleague shook his head. He’d had enough fifteenth century Flemish art.
“If we don’t hurry, the belfry’s gonna close,” prompted Derek’s son.
“Go on,” Derek urged them. “I’ll catch up with you.”
His wife understood where he was headed. She smiled at him and moved off with the others.
Inside the hospital Derek made his way through dark, cold, pre-modern hallways. Finally he found the gallery and entered it. Derek glanced about and there she was, across the room. He approached.
He stood close before her, examined her minutely. Her lashless, thin-browed eyes were downcast, as they always were. In his mind he said, “Look at me! Look at me!” But she would not; she never had. Derek thought, “I know, I know. It’s all right.” He felt once again the sense of peace he had always known with her.
Derek smiled at the sight of her tiny mouth, her delicate but quite long nose, at the hint of the double chin. He remembered the open window behind her with its view of the northern Europe of Memling’s day. Derek remembered the circular mirror and how it provided a rear view of the woman and a glimpse of the room she faced—although, of course, Memling and his easel were not there. Derek delighted once more in the long-fingered delicacy with which her left hand offered the apple to the Christ-child.
The woman enchanted him, seeming hardly older than twenty. But he’d always had reservations about the Christ-child. Derek thought the child looked like a babyfied Hanseatic merchant. Being held, he did not cuddle against his mother as real babies cuddled, as his own son had cuddled against his wife. Instead he seemed to float.
Derek stood before the painting for long moments. Then he moved off to observe the other Memlings, those consummately sophisticated “primitives.” Before leaving, he glanced again at the painting. He crossed the gallery to bid it farewell.
Then suddenly he and the woman were back together in the Congo, during that terrible time. He could feel the coolness of the nights after the heat of the long days. Once again the African humidity lay moist on his skin. He tasted papaya; he had often eaten slices of it before turning in. He heard the night stillness broken by that patter of droplets that turned to rain battering on the metal roof. Quite unexpectedly he experienced a flutter in his heart, a pang of nostalgia for Africa. It had been a terrible time. But had he ever felt more alive?
“Went through a lot together, didn’t we?”
Derek studied his friend. Demurely she watched the apple, for his rhetorical questions never received answers. Derek thought the words a man always wants to say to the women from his past, “Thanks for all you gave me.”
Leaving her, returning through the cold hallways, Derek felt a curious dizziness. He placed his hand against a cold wall to steady himself. Africa, Africa! Nostalgia for Africa. It was something you never got over. A little like malaria. It hit you—sometimes predictably, in certain weathers, in certain places; sometimes unexpectedly—and all you could do was suffer through it and let it pass.
Outside the sky was clearing. On the sidewalk before a shop selling souvenirs Derek caught up with his wife and the other couple. The boys had gone on to the belfry. His wife smiled and asked, “How was she?”
“She still doesn’t talk to me,” Derek said.
His wife clasped his hand for a moment and smiled. Then she went into the shop with the other couple to look at souvenirs.
Derek stayed alone on the sidewalk.
September 12, 2020 at 6:33 pm
Beautiful and poignant writing on so many levels.