She left the surgery, the note with the specialists name and telephone number on it. Walked
down the stairs without outward hesitation, but with tiny interruptions, like a remote controlled
car in the hands of someone who hasn’t mastered the art of applying continuous pressure to the
control stick just yet, tiny flutters, or like a delay watching a video when the reception is shaky.
Someone was about to leave the toilet halfway between floors and drew the door closer again to
let her pass, she continued without acknowledgement to the front door at the bottom of the
stairs, opened it, turned left. Walked up the streets to the station, got on the train and off at
Central station. Slid into a free space in the crowds of tourists and walked,without determination,
but not entirely unconscious of the surroundings, meandering, but with a general direction.
She passed by a man and a woman, a tourist couple, mid or late twenties, possibly from the
South of Europe. The young woman was walking with her head bowed, wiping tears off her
face. Not in a self conscious or angry way, but with slow movements, tired and beat.
The man kept a few steps behind her, with a neutral face. Probably something that had
happened before. To him and to her, in this relationship, in previous relationships. It was a
regular occurrence on holiday trips, especially here, where a lot of tourists came to drink and do
drugs. That seemed to exacerbate the sluggishness of the men’s responses to the women’s
suggestions to do “something different than smoke joints first thing in the morning.”
Or maybe it was a more serious problem with these two. She passed by, a last brief glance onto
the woman’s face, the man’s.
She quite often saw women in the crowds, alone, or more often with a man, who cried or visibly
tried not to cry. She had seen them in other places, on the bus, or on a walk in the park. Women
crying. She has been one of them. She might be one again. Maybe soon, today, who would be
surprised, and could anyone blame her? But not yet, for now she is walking and another woman
is crying. A memory pops up in her head, from a beach in Italy. She had sat behind a tree, one
of the very few trees that had a few leaves and provided some shelter and shade from the sun
beating down that she wasn’t used to. Her chest and arms had been covered in the rash of an
allergic reaction to the heat. She had cried quietly behind the tree, while a few meters in front of
her a middle aged Italian man in long trousers and a white vest had sat on a fold out camping
chair behind a table on trestles, selling watermelons. The tree was probably his usual spot
during the season and he might have seen his share of burnt or allergic tourist girls behind it,
crying over their boyfriend’s behaviour. She had been the Dutch girl in Italy, 20 years ago, now
that woman, who could very possibly be Italian, had come to her country on a trip and cried.
Sometimes, if she sat across one of the crying woman in a bus or train, she had thought of
offering a tissue or acknowledging the tears in some other non- intrusive way, with a smile and a
nod, something to convey that she has been there, too, and ….but then she hadn’t. Would
anyone want to be acknowledged in that situation?
She walked on and after a while the crowd started to thin out and there were less people looking
like obvious tourists with scarfs and caps with the city’s logo, and more locals, with more
determination, and a place to go. She scanned the faces of those approaching, no more tears.
“If women knew how ugly they are when they cry they wouldn’t do it that often” Another former
boyfriend popping up in her head, a different one, not the one she went to Italy with.
She obviously had not thought of hiding behind a tree that time. It seemed to be something that
she had had to learn, and she wondered about that now. It seemed so ingrained in her now, like
a natural law. Either on the street or behind a tree. Phrased like that it sounds more like the
topic is “pissing” she thought, and smiled briefly.
Why do you actually want to cry, why do you think of crying, what good will it do?
She has walked more than half the way back to her flat, something that she has only ever done
once, when for some reason the public transport had been suspended during the night
unexpectedly and she hadn’t brought her bike and no money for a taxi.
It was a long walk and now she started to feel tired and turned towards the canal that was in this
part of the city, almost at the outskirts, more like a river in the countryside. With yellowed ferns
and grass growing on the banks and the water a dark brown, almost black.
She walked onto a bridge spanning the water, there were still people around, but she was the
only one lingering and staring into the water for that moment.
She had a familiar impulse to throw something into the water, something essential, her
apartment keys or her phone. Like the impulse to take off your skin, transferred onto a thing, to
be rid of something forever.
Instead she turned away from the water and went a few steps to sit down on a small wooden
pier at the canal bank, not far from the bridge. She could reach the water with her finger tips
when leaning forward, and on the other side the patch of grass and soil running along the side
of the low shore. There were a bunch of dandelions right beside her, with slightly withered
heads already, but the stems felt juicy and left a milky white fluid on her fingers when she
squeezed them slightly. She almost would have plucked them, unwittingly, but then
remembered and stopped.
If she wanted to take them, then she would need to take the roots out, too. Take the whole
flower, dig a new hole elsewhere and replant it in a new place.
This was new, thinking about flowers at all, actually. And not just ripping them out, without a
second thought, putting them in a water glass on the kitchen table where they lasted about a
day or two. Why bother at all, it wasn’t that she didn’t like flowers, but she had rarely felt the
need to “brighten up a room” with a flower, as some people said, mainly her mother, or people
like her mother, now that she thought about it. Maybe her life had taken place outside the
rooms, or maybe they had been bright enough.
Instead of plucking the flowers, she started rubbing the dandelion milk between her fingers and
then dug them into the soil around the bunch, deep enough to feel a colder, claylike texture.
Then she held her hands in front of her face and looked at the soil underneath her nails.
It had started a few weeks ago, with her buying flower boxes and potting soil, for the very first
time in her life. The soil came in plastic skins that easily ripped, the smallest size had been 40 l
and she had had some difficulties fixing it to her bike and had left a trail of dark crumbs on the
way from the garden center.
And she had read the instructions and followed everything written on the seed sachets.
First she had thought about just planting a few flowers, apparently they needed less care, were
quicker to grow, were easier to start off with for someone who had never done this, and who
actually had no real interest.
But she had decided on vegetables nonetheless, for the seriousness they suggested and
And had had soil underneath her fingernails at the end of it.
For the first time in a long long time, probably since she has been a kid.
She will have soil underneath her fingernails in the waiting room.
It will help her feel different, as if belonging to the breed of woman or humans that are
connected to the soil and nature in a way she fears she is not. In her mind they have an
advantage in this situation- they can hang on and at the same time be part of the seasons. They
seemed to always have accepted the seasons, as in the song, or the bible, actually, of coursea
time to reap, a time to sow. She felt that if she must die, if that is what the doctor will tell her,
then she has never experienced the time to reap.
And no wonder, if she hasn’t planted. If in all her trials and turmoils and attempts at whatever,
she had failed to plant. Never stopped collecting stones and started building.
And now, in the panic, she has planted her first seeds, and it is ridiculous, it won’t save her, but
maybe it is not even such an uncommon thing for people in this situation to do.
A mixture between taking up root after all, being a part, quickly, hastily, impossibly, before the
inevitable. And the attempt to atone somehow for not being like this before.
To have been a flying seed, letting herself be pushed around by the wind, flying roots.
She took off her shoes and dipped her toes into the canal and after a while put the shoes back
on and walked the rest of the way to her apartment.
After arriving home and a sandwich for dinner, she sat down on the balcony, beside the plants,
and smoked a cigarette. She thought she probably shouldn't do that, but she doesn’t want to
tempt fate. It’s another facet of the plant behaviour, but even more obvious and contradictory, of
course: don’t behave as if you think the worst, or it will happen.
She took the note out of her pocket and read the name, Dr. Annika Abbas- Zijlstra.
A Dutch girl, who had become a doctor and married a guy with a “ migration background”, it
seemed. There had been an Annika Ziljstra in her class.
And had she not become a doctor? She dragged at the cigarette and exhaled. Turned it in her
hand, towards her and breathed on the embers.
Don’t behave as if you think the worst or it will happen.
Maybe she should even put out the cigarette butt into the plant soil, like a stretched out middle
finger, but that would be one step too far.
She couldn’t turn back time and be who she was, and she had to admit that she probably never
was that person anyway, not when it counted. The tough girl, who even dared to cry in front of a
man, not thinking he should be spared.
Dr…..could this be her? Specialist nephrologist.
How does she even remember that girl becoming a doctor? Maybe a friend who had stayed in
touch with the “old crowd” had mentioned it, she had not seen any of them since they left
school. She had actually left before everyone else. School had not been for her, or rather, the
people had not been for her.
That girl, possibly that doctor woman now, had been nice enough, as far as she could
remember, plain and with a bit of an overbite, but not unattractive. Cerebral, but not
She smiled to herself, otherworldly, that would rather fit her own description now. How things
can change. If that woman was her former classmate, the tables truly had turned.
She herself had been all flesh and blood back then, bursting with feelings, with everything, too
much for school, too much for work, too much to endure sober. It’s not meant as a compliment,
she said out loud and startled herself. Took another drag at the cigarette and smiled a smile that
turned out a little bitter. She had looked down on girls like that doctor then.
Otherworldly, as in “inhabiting another world”. Away from it all, at the sidelines.
No “proper” job, no husband. The children almost grown up and hardly ever at home.
She wondered if the doctor had children, but probably. Maybe they are grown up, too, maybe
she had managed to finish her studies in good time, marry that North African fellow doctor, or
maybe he was local. Or she had met him working on a medicine sans frontiere project in a war
zone. They had seen death and realised the worth and brittleness of life, and decided not to
waste time and had kids straight away, before becoming a specialist or settling down in a
private practice. That had come later, they supported each other and shared the care. She
might sometimes travel and speak at conferences. Maybe they were planning to get back to do
more humanitarian work now the kids had left home and went their own way.
She took a drag again and coughed.
She had not looked down on her, she thought, not entirely, there had also been jealousy there.
She could imagine the house, the parents. Solid pine furniture, with a honey staining, that was
the kitchen, some colours added, and books. Important. The mother would also read books, real
books, not just magazines. A hint of something intellectual, even though she would not have
phrased it like that then. She would not have phrased a thought like that at all, but had been
very particular on wood types and colour schemes and materials, and what they conveyed even
though she would not have had words for what that was.
Macrame decorations. Candles. Cushions in different colours. Not much plastic. A garden. The
girl’s mother very probably a plant person. Not like her grandmother, who supplemented the
food they bought from the shops, but already then as a type of hobby. Yes, she thought now,
they would have been the avant garde for the now common thing of having something as a
hobby, that was only one or two generations ago a necessity and a daily chore. Just part of
The mother had had this as a hobby because she also had a job in an office or something.
Maybe the father was employed by the university.
None of them had a job that required them to wear a uniform.
This had always been one of her categories in life, that she organised people or work into, jobs
with a uniform, people who work in jobs with uniforms, or people who wear a uniform even if
they don’t work in a job.
Her grandparents, her parents, herself...all wearing uniforms. Generations in uniform.
But it wasn’t something she despised, not really. It was, so she thought now, also something to
be proud of, to belong. Only the attempt to outgrow it, to try something different, had made her
homeless, and disoriented. She had oscillated between uniform and not uniform and ended up
not belonging anywhere.
She would be sitting in the waiting room, maybe wearing her work suit, to feel better armed,
unable to concentrate on one of the magazines there, and clenching her hands in her lap. She
would notice the soil under her nails. That woman doctor would be a plant and soil woman for
sure, especially after the “third world episode”, a person that would feel the earth with her
hands, is connected and fully there. She would have planted vegetables and flowers with her
children when they were small. Maybe not made jam out of berries, maybe that was too much.
But the seeding and planting. The gratefulness for the earth and its gifts. But not in that
annoying way that she made it sound now in her head. In a good way.
The soil under her own nails would not give her any advantage, not any armour or protection.
She would just recognize it as dirt that seemed odd in combination with her work clothes.
And then she would go in and sit in front of the desk, and maybe on the desk would be the
framed family photo, maybe all four or five , she expected at least two children, in the traditional
clothes of some African country, smiling.
And then they would maybe acknowledge each other, that they had known each other, back
And then she would tell her.
She heard the key in the door and stumped out the cigarette in the ashtray on the windowsill.
“Mama?” Her eldest daughter’s voice, loud, full of energy, only passing by on a steamroll
through the evening.
It made her smile, without bitterness this time. “Out here, on the balcony!” Her own voice a little
“I am just going to grab a quick shower, I will have dinner at Doro’s ” Doors banging, radio, the
sound of water running.
Thursday night, the “little weekend” they had called it, last time you were out on a Thursday,
last century. She had talked out loud again and shook her head at it.
Annika Ziljstra. She took her phone and sent a text to Marte, a fellow refugee from the small
town in which they had spent their childhood and adolescence. She thought that Marte might
have sat beside Annika in the chemistry lab for a while, when they had been split up into pairs
with other students, students they didn't usually work with. She herself had been paired up with
another potential doctor, Eva Leenhouts, who had not been best pleased. Like some other girls
in their class, this Eva had been too well behaved and had probably been a little afraid of her as
well, to make it too obvious. But she had kept her distance as if she might otherwise catch a
smell that was coming off her, or something infectious.
A drink in the bar close to the station, where Marte worked.
Maybe she would ask her about it, maybe not.
The point was in going out, even though she wasn’t sure where it would fit the “don’t behave as
if you think the worst” paradigm.
She wakes up early the next morning after a fit of alcohol induced deep sleep that had left her
motionless for a few hours. The folds and crevices of the duvet and sheets underneath had
imprinted a pattern on face and body. Her eyes were swollen.
On the face it looked eerily like burns, traversing the eye and cheek. Eerily authentic.
On the chest and the side of the stomach it was more like reptile skin.
Maybe it is only a matter of interpretation, her body a Rorschach test, what do you see, burns or
One might be the precursor of the other, the first stage, then the second, then.
What if it stayed like this. It already took much longer now after a night like this for her face to
decrease back into the old shape, for wrinkles to smoothen out.
A kafkaesk metaphor for transformation, without the stiffness, the fossilisation of the skin.
Or was that always the last stage?
It was just the process of turning into something new. Something else, unrecognisable from
what was before.
Don’t hold on, she looked herself in the eyes while speaking to the mirror. Just say goodbye.
She stood leaning against the kitchen table with a coffee in her hand, looking out the window.
Her daughters hadn’t slept at home it seemed, no crumbs on the table, no used dishes sitting in
the sink. She couldn’ make out their bikes among the many outside the entrance to the
apartment block which she could see from her spot in the kitchen.
The note with the name and phone number was on the table beside her.
Of course she would not tell her then, at the first appointment. There were questions to be
asked, tests to be run first, the whole point of the specialist referral. Waiting.
She still hadn’t even rang for the appointment.
With the pack of cigarettes and the lighter in hand she walked through the living room and out
on the balcony.
There was a snail in the plant box with the radish. One of those with a house, a yellow and
greyish spiral shape, still small. The snail’s body was a sandy colour, a bit darker at the frilly
edges against the black and brown potting soil.
She took the spiral with two fingers, careful not to break the fragile shell.
The snail retreated with a slow single contraction.
When her daughters were small and had found empty snail shells, they had deliberated like
most kids, if snails moved house when they got bigger, or if they swapped with each other.
And so they had brought back a book about snails from the library and read up on it.
Snails cannot leave their house, the very center coil of the shell is where the snail began its life,
and as the snail grows, the shell grows around and around that centre.
It can make minor repairs to the shell itself, with a secret of calcium and proteins, like a human
body repairs scrapes or even major injuries. She knew, sometimes the most extraordinary
repairs took place.
But when we find an empty shell, it means, the snail is dead.
Snake or snail, another Rohrschach image, she thinks.
Takes out her phone, and the note with the name and number.