The little bottles lined up on the lattice work of the window where definitely the highlight of the short trip from school to home. Emilie would always stop to wonder how nice it would be to look at them from inside the house.
As was usual, Mr. De Cocker sat in his armchair behind the window with the bottles. He smiled at her and raised his arm as if to beckon her. Emilie quickly averted her eyes and, with that surge in her chest and the prickle behind her ears, she started running in an effort to avoid the confusion she was feeling.
By the time she reached the corner, she had lost all sense of discomfort. Soon she walked the sandy path through the unkempt grass, its surface looking as smooth as stone. She could have crossed the street and walked the sidewalk but she preferred to meander the crooked line the path drew. Once in a while she’d have to step aside to make room for a passing cyclist but that only added to the sense of adventure.
On the other side of the street stood a row of nice clean red brick houses with carefully trimmed front yards. Even though Emilie was only nine years old, she could remember the time when there were fields on one side of the road and a small forest on the other side; when there were only Aunt Bertha’s house and Mr. Jansens’s farm nearby.
Aunt Emma was waiting for her by the front door, making sure she arrived home safely and ready to pick up her story where she left off this morning. Emilie kissed her aunt on the cheek. She no longer had to reach up.
“Is Aunt Bertha home?” she asked. It was always the first question.
“In the kitchen,” Emma said, interrupting her constant search for relatives she could no longer place.
Emilie smiled to herself. She had learned in these last two years to let Aunt Emma ramble on without paying too much attention but to still leave her the conviction that she was heard.
When Emma first turned this way, Emilie had been desperate trying to keep her mind focused until it became clear to her that not even her aunt could keep up with herself. Emma no longer remembered who was dead and who was alive. Neither could she remember whose story she was in the middle of telling.
“Mother has the stories all jumbled up in her mind,” Aunt Bertha had said yesterday, as she was untangling a basket with a million different coloured skeins of wool.
This had made Emilie feel all happy inside and soon she and Aunt Bertha had been laughing so hard their shoulders shook and tears came to their eyes.
“Guess I’m not doing much better,” Aunt Bertha had added, pulling out another piece of wool.
Emilie had bent over, she was laughing so hard. She didn’t really understand why she was laughing just as she didn’t understand what happened to old people. But somehow laughing was what was needed here.
Today was Thursday. Emilie would’ve known even if there was no school to remind her of the passing of the days. The mosaic pattern of the hall, which could keep her fascinated for hours, had been scrubbed with brown soap. Furniture polish left a clean smell in the air that was now being permeated by the smells from the kitchen. Since this was Thursday it also meant that she would find Aunt Bertha in the kitchen slicing up potatoes to make french fries. French fries with baby beef liver and gravy and an orange for dessert. It was Emilie’s favourite day.
The starched bib of Aunt Bertha’s blue apron felt like a draft of fresh air. Emilie inhaled deeply. Its smell seemed to be in everything her aunt touched. She loved Aunt Bertha so much that it made her ache inside.
Aunt Bertha kissed her niece on the cheek and asked: “How was school today?”
Emilie set out to talk about every little thing that had caught her attention during the day: the ink that got all over her fingers when she tried to write neatly; how Sister Imelda scolded her for something she didn’t do; the button that came off her blue apron; the elastic that snapped and left her braid to become untangled; the nest of birds Sister Imelda found underneath the window.
But when the daily reminder “I hope you didn’t talk to any strangers on the way home” came, Emilie fell silent. It had never been explained by Aunt Bertha just what was meant by strangers and therefore she didn’t mention Mr. De Cocker waving at her. She didn’t even tell about the little bottles. She would have to explain so much and she simply didn’t have the words for it. As for Mr. De Cocker: well, he wasn’t exactly a stranger. He and Aunt Bertha said “Hello” and “How are you” whenever they met in the street but, then again, he used to be a gardener and gardeners weren’t the sort of people one was familiar with.
Sister Imelda had brought up the subject of strangers in class today. It was very clear that they were somehow connected with sin and with the dangers of the world. Emilie’s heart had been squeezed against her ribs when Sister Imelda paced up and down the class, black skirts rippling, and white cap flying. With her eyes and hands, she had painted the frightful picture of girls gone astray through lack of caution and obedience. Emilie had thought how awful it would be to end up in hell because of a stranger.
That night she sat at the kitchen table just before bedtime. She was sipping her warm milk extra slowly and thinking of being alone upstairs in the big dark bedroom with the heavy furniture, before Aunt Bertha would come to bed. Guilt was weighing her down when she considered how she couldn’t check with her Aunt whether or not Mr. De Cocker was a stranger and if it was all right for him to wave at her.
Tears were close as she hid her head under the freshly-starched sheets after Aunt Bertha kissed her goodnight. She felt herself get all sweaty when she thought of Aunt Emma’s dead people and where they might be now.
But finally she was lying back to back with Aunt Bertha and she let her mind wander freely. Usually she would try and imagine what her parents would’ve been like had they lived, but not tonight. Tonight the colourful little bottles in the widow kept her busy as she struggled to find the right words for what she felt when she saw them as if suspended in the air.
Before drifting off to sleep she could almost imagine what they would look like from the inside with the sun shining through them. How beautiful they must be, those blues and whites and greens. With a vague sense of tomorrow settling in on her, she finally fell asleep.
The next afternoon Mr. De Cocker was standing in the doorway of his house when Emilie passed by. Emilie’s heart began to pound wildly when she considered how she couldn’t avoid speaking to him now.
“Hello there, Emilie,” Mr. De Cocker said in his crackling voice. “How are your aunts?”
“They’re fine, Mr. De Cocker. Thank you.”
Emilie’s throat felt dry and a little nerve started pulsating furiously in her neck. She looked up at the old face with its deep shaded folds and grey stubble as she put one foot carefully down next to the other. When she looked at the window, she saw that he had rearranged the bottles to make room for a delicate red bottle that she had never seen before.
She wanted to ask him about it but then she stopped herself. She wasn’t exactly thinking of Sister Imelda’s words and still she didn’t know if Aunt Bertha would consider him a stranger or not, but she felt her cheeks turn beet red as the words got stuck in her throat.
Mr. De Cocker saw her look at the bottles as she had done so many times before.
“Isn’t that new one beautiful?” he asked.
“Yes,” Emilie said timidly. “It’s most beautiful.”
“Come in then, Emilie,” Mr. De Cocker said. “Come in and see my collection from the inside. It’s so much nicer than from the outside. There really is no comparison.”
With that he stepped aside to let her in.
The house looked dark after the bright light outside. Emilie closed her eyes really tight for a few moments and then she opened them again. There was nothing in this house that made her feel at home. Everything was one big mess. A sour smell filled the air and settled itself uncomfortably in her stomach.
She wanted to turn and run out but that, she reminded herself, would’ve been such an impolite thing to do. So, bravely she stepped into the front room where she turned to see the bottles shining in the bright sunlight. Little blobs of green, red and blue reflected off the walls and the grimy tablecloth. Emilie gasped when she felt as if Mr De Cocker’s house was being transformed into a place of magic.
Suddenly, the sun disappeared behind a big grey colour and the room became its old ugly self again. A shiver ran like a ripple through her body. She became aware of Mr. De Cocker’s breathing right behind her. He had a nice little drink for her, he said, and he made her sit in the chair opposite him.
She was so overwhelmed by the awkwardness of the situation that she could’ve burst out crying. What if Mr. De Cocker was a stranger after all? So Emilie was sure to sit like a proper lady, to act as a grown up would.
The clock ticked on. Emilie peered at Mr. De Cocker cautiously from behind her lashes as she carefully sipped the sweet liquid that was red as the little bottle in the window. The old man sat there without saying a word. His large body askance in the chair, he just looked at her.
Finally, he leaned forward and, with his index finger, rubbed her naked knee for one brief second.
“Your’e a nice little girl,” he said. “You’re very nice.”
She handed him her glass, unable to say a word, and slipped from her chair.
“Yes,” he said. “You better get on home. Your aunt will be worried that you’re late.”
Emilie never even thanked him, she realized later.
When Emilie got home, Aunt Emma wasn’t waiting for her. The wooden door with its dark grain was shut. She reached up to ring the door bell. Its metallic clang rang through the hall. When Aunt Bertha finally let her in she was ready, once more, to burst into tears.
“You’re a bit lat, aren’t you?” is all that Aunt Bertha said. “Better go and wash your hands.”
In the bathroom, water splashed over the rim of the sink as she turned on the faucet. Emilie washed her hands for the longest time. She straightened out her hair and stood for a moment looking at her face in the mirror. Then she quickly turned away and reached for the towel.
Downstairs the aunts were waiting in silence. Emilie walked over to Aunt Emma and gave her a kiss. When she hugged Aunt Bertha, the starch of her bibbed apron felt rough on her cheek. She quickly took her place at the table.
Aunt Emma soon resumed her endless search for those who had gone before her.