New York, October 31, 1998
It is time. I want to tell you about the past.
Eighteen I was then. I had just nicely finished grammar school, with all good marks. Therefore my mother had thought of a reward: she and I were to spend a while on board the vessel my father worked on, so I would get to know him a bit, because otherwise that would never happen, she said. My elder brothers were already in the Indies by then. It would be a cosy trip, the three of us in the Captain’s quarters.
After an Atlantic summer storm that had wrecked the screw propeller of the “Pooldam”, we ended up on Rathlin Innes. Only thanks to my father’s seamanship, may his soul rest in peace, that we didn’t drown then, but entered the puny port in the bay of Rathlin Innes, a dot on the map, and according to the text there, an uninhabitet island. Well that description was close. My father was extremely worried, as in the meanwhile WWII had broken out, he couldn’t get spare parts for the propellor, since they had to be shipped from Germany and well, that was kind of difficult then. You understand, dear?
After a while I got bored, but it wasn’t all that bad to be trapped on the island. It was an oasis of peace in the turmoil called 1939. Here, feeding seagulls, I had time to think about my life and what I wanted to do. I had just finished my first relationship with a four-eyed Amsterdam boy called Bob, who later joined the Resistance. Well, actually he broke up with me because of Lies, a peroxide blonde skeleton he happened to marry later on, I think. Not that it matters. Not anymore.
Meanwhile, it had been over a month that we were trapped on this godforsaken island, that was part of Ireland, but just as far away from Scotland. Sean was a Scotsman. He was staying here with his aunt, so he had told me, together with the moth-eaten toothless sheep and weather-beaten toothless fishermen, because he refused to fight for the English against the Germans. Sometimes I believed him, sometimes I didn’t.
That day I had been waiting for Sean for an hour or so. As I looked outside through the half round window of the little church, I could see our ship down in the bay. The “Pooldam” was a rusty Dutch freighter, waiting for better times. We were bound for Le Havre in France actually, but the “Pooldam” would never get there. Her carcass is now rusting away on a shipyard in New Jersey, I suppose. Yes, honey, your aunt had quite an adventurous life when she was your age.
I lit a cigarette. A praying woman glanced at me in a disturbed way. I blew some smoke towards her miserable candles, and for a moment the strings of fumes seemed to take on for a sort of dance together. Or a fight. She said something in that local tongue I couldn’t make head or tail from, something horrible I think, but I laughed at her in a rather cheeky way and stayed right were I was. After all, this was our spot. Sean’s and mine. We saw each other here more or less on a daily basis, to share some secret kisses. Sean and me were the only persons under the age of thirty on the island. We always had a great time together during those secret encounters in the church or at the gravelled beach. He would tell me about Glasgow, no paradise either if I had to believe him. He wanted to go to America one day, later, when he wasn’t wanted for desertion anymore.
Sometimes we would row a bit from the shore, in his sloop, but only if my parents would sleep in late. He taught me how to fish, and I know the names of six different sorts of Scottish fish by heart. I was his Bonnie lassie or something stupid like that, in any case our love was meant for eternity and I always stole his cigarettes. I loved him. He me. It was as simple as that.
My father was not to know of our romance, because fathers those days were different from nowadays. I mean, I really would not have tried to live with a man unmarried and all, like you and Luke are doing now. Even dates were not done. Everything had to be secret, and that church on top of the cliff, where hardly anyone ever came, was ideal for our purpose. But that day our luck was against us. So when Sean took a break from lovemaking to go to his aunt’s house and arrange some whiskey, somebody entered the church. A woman with a head cloth and matches at the ready. That devoted woman kept staring in those candle flames, I became a bit queasy watching it. What kind of visions was she having? Why didn’t she just go, so Sean could re-enter and we could go on having fun. Perhaps he really had some whiskey!
Finally the catholic woman had finished. The candles she blew out, and she left. Her footsteps in the gravel faded. I waited and pushed my hair up, the curls were already losing it again. Sean still didn’t show up. I decided to see where he was.
It started to rain, like it almost did every day and it didn’t bother me, even if it was the end of my hairstyle. The path going down was slippery, terribly slippery and I had to hold on to the rocky protuberances not to fall down. Yes, dear, so that was when I saw Sean. He was leaning against a rock. Handsome, tall black hair. Very different from the islanders, who were all ginger and ugly as hell. My heart was beating like crazy when I saw him, you know.
He was not alone. He had his arm around a woman, and he was kissing her. A woman not that young anymore. My mother.
Now your grandmother, my mother, might have been good looking, but surely she was almost forty-two at the time and she had already had four children. And it showed. So what was Sean doing with his lips on hers? Could it really be he felt something for her?
Disgusted I turned around to throw up. When I looked again, they were still standing close together. I heard him laugh. She was laughing as well. They didn’t see me, as they were so busy. I will skip what happened next. After all it is about your grandmother I am writing you, Anna Maria Scholtens-De Vries, born in Amsterdam, February second 1898. Yes, you were named after her, Anna. Not my idea by the way, but no one ever asked me. I am just your aunt. Your crazy aunt.
In the end she walked away shaking her hips toward the slippery stairs that led to the harbour, about a hundred and fifty yards down. He watched her till she had disappeared behind a moss covered rock. As soon as she was out of sight, he lit a cigarette. Obviously he had forgotten all about me, in the church, my hair curled and my lips red with my last lipstick.
I could choose: run after my mother and push her down the stairs, or get even with Sean.
Okay, darling, it was Sean I picked. Well otherwise, you wouldn’t have been born either, right? As she was pregnant at that moment, carrying my little sister. Anyway, your mother was born almost nine months later.
I rushed towards him and gave him a very hard push. Before he knew what hit him, he lost his balance on the edge of the cliff. He screamed, I do well remember. A very horrible scream. He faced away from me, I am glad I didn’t see his eyes.
When I came down fifteen minutes later, some crew members were on the quay. Extremely happy. The First engineer had managed it, the screw was fixed. Everyone had to get on board, the ship was to leave the very night. Destination New York. Well, that was the plan, my father said. My mother nodded. It would be an adventurous and dangerous trip and so on. I took a good look at my mother, but she looked as dull as ever. Perhaps a bit more pale.
“I want to see Sean one more time!” I shouted. “I haven’t had a chance to say goodbye to him at all!” I did it to spite her, of course.
“Dear, that Sean will forget about you in a second,” my mother said. I didn’t get to leave ship anymore. Less than an hour later the ship was in full sea.
Well the rest you know. We arrived in America safely, we became citizens. Your mother, my little sister, was born in New York. She got the most beautiful black hair.
Why have I written all this and sent to you? You tell me. You are the psychology student.
Just the other day I accidentally read an article about the Enigma, that code machine the Nazis had. One of those complicated technical stories, well not really interesting to you. But Seans name was mentioned. Sean Wayne MacGuiness. Not a name you see every day, so it caught my attention.
Apparently my Sean had been one of the people who found out the code of the very first Enigma. This when he was working as a spy in Germany! However, he never got the chance to pass it on to the Allies. He mysteriously disappeared at the beginning of the war on the island of Rathlin Innes, where he was spying on German submarines, waiting for an opportunity to send his code safely.
He never got around doing that. No, of course not.
They found his body after the war, in a cave to where he must have drifted.
He lied to me. I do hate it when people do that.
It is bleak now. I lit a candle, I do that at times these days. I try to see what that woman on Rathlin Innes was seeing in the church. I can’t always do that. Sometimes I only see flames. But once in a while…
Is it okay for me to spend my last living days with you? You are my favorite niece. You do know that, don’t you dear?
your loving Aunt Catherine
This is a repost, my translation of a story I wrote some years ago in Dutch, I didn’t know about proofread then and now that I found some mistakes, I hope this version is better Hope you will enjoy!