Welcome at the blog of Dini Commandeur. I've written quite a lot of columns for various magazines. I also write short stories every now and then. These columns and stories are available for everybody at this blog. I'll release new columns and stories periodically.


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« How is Holland? | Home | Ten years later »


Short story November 2004 Friday 05 November 2004 Three times a week Mrs. Vlas went to the Daycare Center for Adults. Not that she thought it pressing need, it was more for the emotional well being of her daughter. With her mother taken care of she could re-enter the job market without feeling guilty. That’s why on this Wednesday at 9:00 A.M. Mrs. Vlas entered the daycare recreation room. Half an hour later she rode the Interliner (commuter bus) from her town in North-Holland (the north-west province in The Netherlands) to Friesland (the northern province), to Leeuwarden (the capital of Friesland).

The sun was shining, cows frolicked in the meadows, a heron swooped down and picked its glistening prey out of the canal. Mevrouw Vlas thoroughly enjoyed herself. This was something quite different than passing the day in daycare. Not that it was bad in that place – pleasant volunteers enthusiastically engaged the visitors in activities: playing games, singing, story telling, crafts, etc. People were assisted in passing the day in an enjoyable way, but it was a bit annoying that the schedule was so regimented. This morning, for example, the sun was shining and they wanted to go outside, but that was not allowed because it was not on the program that day. “In the morning we will be making greeting cards and in the afternoon we’ll go outside,” said Ineke, one of the volunteers. “But this afternoon there will be rain coming from the West,” said Mrs. Vlas, who always carefully tracked the weather announcements and, therefore, had taken her umbrella with her. “Oh well, we’ll see about that later”, Ineke had said, first the cards had to be made. Mrs. Vlas got a pair of scissors and a brightly colored sheet of paper with the instructions to cut clippings. “We’ll use the clippings to make flowers which we’ll glue onto the cards,” said Ineke. But Mrs. Vlas asked why the program couldn’t be changed around so they could go outside in the morning and make the cards in the afternoon. That could not be done because it wasn’t scheduled that way and “rules are rules,” said Ineke. To that Mrs. Vlas, the sweet, always courteous and quiet Mrs. Vlas, responded that Ineke could shove the rules and the cuttings as far as she was concerned and that she was taking the day off. “I’m taking in some fresh air,” she said, and while the other visitors started to join in (Oh geez, a revolt, thought Mrs. Vlas when she heard the group chant “outside, outside”) she left the building and walked to the bus stop. She was lucky, the bus arrived at that very moment and Mrs. Vlas got on with a friendly wave to Ineke who came running with a flushed face and her arms wildly flailing about, trying to catch up with the bus. Fortunately, the driver didn’t see her and he quickly and skillfully drove the bus to the bus depot, where Mrs. Vlas saw the Interliner to Leeuwarden and decided there and then to make a day trip to Friesland. Because there, by the Waddenzee (“Mud Flats Sea”) was that little town, oh, what was its name again …. the one with the little seals, uh… Pieterburen, that was it, she had always wanted to go there. A beautiful destination, thought Mrs. Vlas taking in the views as the bus drove over the Afsluitdijk (a large dam that was built across the Zuiderzee, or South Sea, connecting the province of North Holland to the province of Friesland while cutting off the salty North Sea water, thus creating a sweet water lake on the other side of the dam, the IJsselmeer). To her right, the IJsselmeer glistened in the sunlight and small fishing boats calmly rocked atop waves, accompanied by screaming sea gulls. Little white cottony clouds in the blue sky didn’t seem to threaten rain and Mrs. Vlas was having a wonderful time. The only depressing thing during the journey was the large number of dead birds, hit by a car and swept along the roadside. “Nature is the big loser in the advancement of the world, “ philosophized Mrs. Vlas. “Come on,” she told herself, “today no worries or sadness. Enjoy life, it only lasts a short time, and I’m going to enjoy myself, because today I’m going to visit the seals.”

In the town of Harlingen a nice lady took the seat next to her and they quickly started a conversation. Mrs. Vlas heard that the town of Pieterburen was not located in FrieslandLeeuwarden. A bit later, Mrs. Vlas arrived at the train station in Leeuwarden, a bit perplexed and confused. Pieterburen was not in the cards, she understood. Oh, it could be done, but she would still have to get back later that day and if she would be able to make it before the eight o’clock news would be the big question. Mrs. Vlas decided to call her daughter first. Ineke likely had done that already and God knows what damage had been done. “Mother,” her daughter said in a tired voice, “what in the world have you done now? You’ve caused a riot at the daycare center and Ineke said that perhaps you will not even be allowed to return there”. Mrs. Vlas didn’t think that was such a severe punishment at all, but she didn’t say so because her daughter had fought hard to get her in that daycare center in the first place. “And what in the blazes are you doing in Leeuwarden?” “I’m going to raise hell here and shake the place up a bit”, Mrs. Vlas responded quickly, but her daughter wasn’t listening and said that she was coming to pick her up because it would be crazy to have an eighty year old travel by bus. It took some effort by Mrs. Vlas to convince her daughter to stay at work and that she didn’t need to be picked up because she was going to see the town first and then visit a museum or do some shopping. After all, she was still quite mobile and she had her umbrella with her in case it rained. She loved travelling by bus so there was no reason for her daughter to come out all this way. Fortunately for Mrs. Vlas her daughter actually was too busy to drive to Leeuwarden and back so, after a thousand promises to be careful, her daughter relented and she left the telephone booth. She tucked the phone card back into her purse, opened the door and there, right in front of her, stood a boy of about fifteen years old who steadily eyed her purse. Mrs. Vlas raised her umbrella and said, “Young man, you touch my purse and I’ll hit you over the head so hard that you’ll see stars for a week. I have worked out long and hard with my grandson’s boxing ball and believe me, this umbrella is much stronger than your head”. “Ma’am,” the boy answered, “I don’t want your purse, but I saw you putting away your phone card and I have a question for you.” at all and that she would have to travel much farther to get there. First from Leeuwarden eastward to Groningen by train and then still quite a distance by bus, the lady thought, but she wasn’t sure either. She advised Mrs. Vlas to ask for directions in

In the restaurant across from the train station Mrs. Vlas treated him to coffee and cake. “Days off should be celebrated,” she thought. Of course, it wasn’t right that she had called the boy’s school and told them that he was sick and would be absent. On the other hand, she had not lied. She had not said that she was the mother of the boy – apparently, they had just assumed so. The boy really didn’t feel well and Mrs. Vlas thought that a day off would do him good. His name was Wilfried, a German name that means “the peace desiring one”. At the time, his parents had met during an anti nuclear weapons demonstration in Amsterdam. With such a background it was logical they should call their newborn son Wilfried. Regrettably, however, they had not been able to keep the peace in the marriage and when they split up his father had stayed in Amsterdam and his mother had moved to the rural flatlands of Friesland. “What rural area?” asked Mrs. Vlas. It turned out that the boy lived close to the Waddenzee. Across the street, up the dyke and when the tide was high there was the water, and usually the wind as well, he added. Mrs. Vlas got excited. During her trip along the Afsluitdijk she had seen the IJsselmeer, but the Waddenzee had been invisible, except for a few glimpses here and there. Mrs. Vlas thought that the boy was lucky to live near the sea in the prestine, rural flatlands of Friesland instead of the busy, exhaust saturated city of Amsterdam. Count your blessings, said Mrs. Vlas, but that was exactly what the boy didn't do. Sure, the Waddenzee was okay, but he had to make a long commute into the city every day to get to school. And if school had been fun he wouldn’t have minded it so much, but he hated school and would have given anything to turn his back on it. His mother often said that he had to hang in there and that he could do whatever he wanted once he would be an adult. “Forget about it,” said Mr. Vlas. After all, at her age life had left its marks on her. As long as you didn’t live all by yourself you would never be totally free. Look at her: Eighty years old and quite spry if she might say so herself, and still, that morning she had received orders to make paper cuttings, as if she was a toddler. And that while the sun was shining outside! “But you walked out," said Wilfried, "you did what you wanted." "Well, yes," admitted Mrs. Vlas "that freedom I took and I didn't hurt anyone by doing so, but had I been sitting in a wheelchair, like a few others in the group, or had I been slow getting around, then I would not have succeeded and I would have had to cut and paste.” She shivered and thought about her future, something she didn’t do very often. What was left for her? Just playing games, singing songs, doing crafts? And then there was the unpredictability of the body. She was still functioning quite well, had few complaints about her health, but likely things would start to break down eventually. Mrs. Vlas shuddered at the idea of her bodily functions failing her and becoming helpless like a newborn baby. Come on, she told herself again, no more worrying. The sun is still shining so let’s take advantage of it. “I’m going outside,” she said. “Tell me, what’s of interest in this city?”

Wilfried took her on an alternative tour of Leeuwarden, which started, for him at least, with the purchase of a warm piece of smoked sausage. They ended on a bench in the park looking out over a real marina. “A beautiful park and a fun city,” said Mrs. Vlas. She had thoroughly enjoyed the walk and it had been amusing to see which pub Wilfried frequented on Friday afternoons after school. It was good to know where you could buy the best ice cream in town, but she politely refused the cone that Wilfried offered her. Not only to save him the expense but also because she suddenly didn’t feel so well. Goes to show you, she had barely finished the thought that her body was still functioning well or she was punished swiftly with an overwhelming fatigue and a strange sensation in her head. “Let’s take a rest,” she said, “and sit in the sun for a bit.” The break did her good and the fatigue slowly retreated while the strange sensation in her head also disappeared. “What are we going to do now?” Wilfried asked. “Would you like to visit a museum?” But Mrs. Vlas thought it better to do that when it rained – she was content sitting on the bench near the water, watching the yachts. Fun! “Or do you know of a better idea?” she asked, just to be sure. Wilfried didn’t have to think very long. “Oh sure,” he said.

In the bus on the way to Wilfried’s house to get some tea, but especially, especially to see the Waddenzee, Mrs. Vlas was rummaging around in her purse to try and find a roll of peppermints. With the peppermints she retrieved her daycare journal as well. She was supposed to write in the journal what she had done each day. Her daughter would be able to read it later so that she could keep track and stay involved in her mother’s activities. That had been the purpose of the journal, but her daughter had forgotten about it the day she had given it to Mrs. Vlas. She didn’t know that in there it was written that Mrs. Vlas did enjoy the daycare center, but would have preferred to spend the mornings in the library and the afternoons listening to classical music on the radio. “Or surfing the internet, that seems so exciting to me,” she had noted one Monday afternoon after playing the shovelboard. A course in Zen meditation she would want to do as well, and going to see a thriller at the theater with the grandkids seemed like fun, too. “You can do all of that,” said Wilfried. The Zen meditation was a bit over the top as far as he was concerned, and classical music wasn’t his thing either. “But,” he said, “If I were your grandson I’d like to go to the theater with you every afternoon. You could probably surf the internet in the library and if not you could still take the train into Amsterdam once a while, into one of those internet café’s. Cool man!” Later, standing at the sea (so beautiful, and how lucky that the tide was high, Mrs. Vlas thought) Wilfried came back to the topic at hand. He said that he didn’t understand that an eighty-year old person still didn’t do whatever she wanted. “If I were you,” said Wilfried, and it was hard for Mrs. Vlas to hear him but that could be because of the wind, “If I were you I would rip up that daycare journal and do as I pleased.” He was right, Mrs. Vlas realized and, putting action to words, with unwilling fingers she tried to take the journal out of her purse. “Are you feeling all right?” Wilfried asked, alarmed. “Good enough.” Mrs. Vlas gasped, but that wasn’t true. She was cold and her eyes were acting up. Or was it getting dark? The strange feeling in her head was back, much more severe than before. Finally, she did manage to take the journal from her purse and together with Wilfried she ripped it in little pieces, letting the wind carry them off. The shreds floated high above the sea and suddenly Mrs. Vlas felt herself float away right along with them, rising above the cuttings and flying ever faster while she still vaguely heard Wilfried call her name.

Text: Dini Commandeur, Translation: Maria 0’Neill


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