What’s in a name?
Especially for our yearly event “Short / Kort / Court”, Flemish author Annelies Verbeke asked her colleague Kristien Hemmerechts to write a brand-new short story. Here you can read the English translation by Stephen Smith.
It wasn't good to be called Jeanine. My family had three and there was something wrong with all three of them. The first Jeanine was kept at a distance, no one could take her as an example, she was the anti-example, and she stayed that way, even after she married a diplomat. Was he even a diplomat? That Jeanine wouldn’t have balked at raising a humble messenger into a diplomat and she might well have believed it herself. But yes, he was a diplomat – he rose to become an ambassador to far off and then to nearby foreign countries, but Jeanine remained Jeanine, light-hearted, exuberant, frivolous, bubbling over with promises and plans that rarely came to fruition. How genuine was her cordiality? Was she sniggering at us behind our backs? Was she making fun of us?
Jeanine number two was fat. She loved to eat and she ate a lot. And that's why she was fat and probably also stupid. That’s the link we made. Later she rearranged the letters of her name. Jannie got a university degree, got married, had children, lost lots of kilos, had a good job, a nice house and a circle of devoted friends. We mumbled congratulations, but to us she would always be fat Jeanine. That was the reality, everything else was a sham.
Jeanine number three also tinkered with her name, to no avail as it happens. This Jeanine felt superior to us, when she really should have known better. Very few people managed to outclass us. As a rule, we knew them from television, that’s where we saw them. Long discussions took place in the armchairs across from the screen. Occasionally, my father acknowledged the superiority of someone who in my mother's eyes didn’t deserve it, or vice versa. But generally, they went along with each other. They were a tight trinity, my father, my mother and the television. Every year, on January 1, that alliance was celebrated with the New Year's Concert, live from Vienna. What a celebration! I’ve no idea whether Jeanine number three also used to watch it.
Jeanine number three made no attempt to hide her misplaced sense of superiority. She spoke painfully precisely, articulated every word emphatically and at times sounded stuck-up. She corrected our pronunciation, harped on about table manners, refused to answer if we forgot to say ‘please’. She kept filling our glasses if we said ‘stop’ instead of ‘thank you’ and greeted our every question or request, no matter how inconsequential, with ridicule.
Just ignore her, said my mother. When she has children of her own, she’ll soon know better. The very worst thing my mother could do to us was to leave us with her. Then I had to share a bed with her. It sagged in the middle, a sort of gully into which you inevitably rolled. To stop myself from lying pressed up against her, I had to cling to the edge of the bed. And stay awake
My father escaped her contempt. With him she had long conversations, or better said: monologues. I can still picture them sitting at the table: her with her back to my mother, my father with a look of intense concentration. We picked up sounds, but no significance. My father didn't either, he swore to us: ‘There’s no rhyme or reason to it.’
So why did he keep on listening? Why did he pretend?
If he already felt sorry for her, she felt no less sorry for him. He was saddled with us day after day. With us and with our mother. That’s how we assumed she saw it.
Her sense of superiority was so great that she couldn’t find a suitable partner. Every man was judged to be too lightweight before he had even stepped up to the scales. If she had been a princess, eligible princes could have been drummed up for her. A debutante ball for young ladies and gentlemen could have been organised.
In the end, she accepted the hand of a man she had rejected more than fifteen years before. By then it was too late for children, but not for a big country house, a manor house. As soon as they spotted it, they knew that was where they’d live, they’d be happy there. The roof was leaking, the woodwork was rotten, all the heat from the immense fireplace spiralled up the chimney, but it had grounds rather than a garden, maybe they could graze some deer there. There was a billiard room with a billiard table, a centuries-old coat of arms had been carved into the mantelpiece. The manor house had a separate staircase for staff, staff Jeanine and her husband couldn’t afford. Workfolk had to use it, because workfolk had to be called in sometimes. They were paid in kind: free sandwiches, the right to graze their sheep in part of the grounds, the right to picnic in the grounds on Sundays and public holidays, the right to make hay. That was how the old Baroness had run her estate and so that was how Jeanine now tackled it, supported by her husband. He used to rummage around the grounds in high boots with a shotgun under his arm and a hunting hat on his head. Sometimes, he shot off the apples ripening on the branches. That one’s rotten, he’d say as he aimed, hitting his target surprisingly often. The workfolk were allowed to pick the apples that hadn’t been shot. Their children collected the ones that had fallen into the long grass. If you were quick, there weren’t any maggots in them.
Jeanine seldom if ever cooked. Applesauce came from a jar, and so did tomato sauce. She might have had good table manners, my mother sneered, but there was never anything much on her table. The fireplace was large, but it rarely had any logs burning in it. Thank goodness I never had to spend the night there.
There was no money for comfort, but it was a manor house, and it remained a manor house, even after its lord's far too premature death. He died in the midst of the rotting apples, and no, he didn’t shoot himself, neither accidentally nor on purpose. His heart gave out and he sank to the ground, unnoticed.
Appalled, we hurried to Jeanine. She finally got herself a husband, and he went and died on her! Pious words were spoken. Yes, he was a fine man. Yes, he was happy in his little castle. Jeanine kept on living there, alone but not alone. Her ‘workfolk’ stayed loyal to her, their children grew up, had children of their own, who also wanted to get to know the ‘baroness’. Was there really a shotgun above the fireplace? Was it loaded? Could they hold it? Could they try to shoot down an apple?
Our visits became more and more scarce. Our visits stopped.
Have you heard from Jeanine? we asked each other: Or: Have you been to visit Jeanine?
No. And you?
I wonder how she’s doing?
We looked at each other. Said nothing.
Jeanine would never admit that the house was too big for her. That she didn't have the money to maintain it.
After her death, we found more than a hundred doctor's receipts. They were lying on the mantelpiece into which a coat of arms had been carved. A local doctor had called on her every month. He had taken her blood pressure and declared her healthy. He had been pocketed his fee and had left a receipt. She hadn’t sent them to the health insurance fund and so she hadn’t been reimbursed. Such provisions were for the common people.
Her doctor declined to comment. He had to respect his patient’s privacy.
The hospital was less discreet. Her GP had had her admitted, they told us. He declined to confirm or to deny it.
There’s a name for such doctors, it escapes me, but it’s not intended as a compliment.
Jeanine was in hospital for three weeks, without a single visitor. One of the hospital’s social workers vaguely knew one of us and phoned. Her message was conveyed in a cheery voice. There was no cause for concern, but maybe we could drop in sometime and visit Jeanine. My mother immediately grabbed the phone. They put her through. Jeanine answered. She was fine, she said. It was just a stubborn cold. They could sometimes drag on a bit at her age. And we needn’t come to visit her. She didn't need visitors.
I should have gone to the hospital right away. I wasn’t in the country at the time, but I could have come back. There were planes and trains I could have taken. We were the only family she had, and she didn’t even really have us anymore. There were her workfolk too and her GP, but she couldn’t receive them in her hospital room. A baroness can’t show herself to her workfolk in pyjamas or a nightdress.
After my mother’s phone call, Jeanine lived on for another four days. Four days that we let slip by. She died alone.
I didn’t come back for her funeral either. That wasn’t necessary my mother assured me, and it wouldn’t be any use to Jeanine. The workfolk came; they shook hands with my parents and my brother. The young woman who had been allowed to help her father to shear the sheep as a child drove Jeanine to the supermarket every Thursday. She helped her to carry in her shopping. Jeanine lived in the kitchen, she said. The kitchen was the only room she heated. Her father had been taking care of the sheep while Jeanine was in hospital. He’d keep on doing it as long as necessary.‘The Baroness did a lot for us. We’re happy to be able to do something for her in return,’ she said.
And that she’d miss Jeanine. And whether my mother knew what would happen to the manor house?
My mother didn't know.
My brother got the shotgun after he promised never to load it; my mother chose the pan in which Jeanine had learned to make apple jelly; my father tried on the hunting hat that had stayed on the hat rack all those years and decided it looked good on him. I got the cup, saucer and dessert plate my grandmother had had made to commemorate Jeanine's birth. All three bear that name, Jeanine, in elegant gold letters. Sometimes, I drink from that cup and think of all the goodbyes that were never said, of all the opportunities that were never grasped, of the jinx on that name and my great happiness that, thank God, nobody in my family has been burdened with it ever since.