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Authors: Marion Pauw

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BOOK: Girl in the Dark
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CHAPTER 16
IRIS

Kim de Boer's attorney sent us a proposal. Van Benschop was to take the film off the Internet, pay six months of Kim's salary, since she had been unable to work, plus another six thousand euro in compensation—around twenty thousand euro total.

The proposal was delivered to me by courier. Aaron was splashing around in a half-filled inflatable kiddie pool, playing with his plastic whales. I read it while tanning on a lounge chair in the sun.

“I'm just going inside, okay?” I told Aaron. “Mommy has to make a phone call.”

He barely reacted, intent on his new favorite game, which involved reciting whole passages from
Finding Nemo.

Wrapped in a towel, I sat down at my mother's desk and called Peter van Benschop.

He wasn't happy. “I already
paid
her. I paid her the agreed-upon amount. She signed on the dotted line. She didn't seem to have any problem with it during the shoot . . .”

“Maybe because she was in shock?” I regretted saying it before the words were out of my mouth. I looked out the window. Aaron still didn't seem to notice that I'd gone inside.

“Very funny,” said Van Benschop.

“I'm sorry. I'll stop with the sarcastic remarks. Now, as far as . . .”

“What good is it to me to have a lawyer who's constantly disparaging me?”

“I'm not disparaging you.”

“You are.”

I sighed and gazed out the window again. Aaron was throwing his whales up in the air to watch them land in the pool with a big splash. It was too nice outside to prolong quibbling.

“Getting back to the business at hand—I think I have a pretty good sense of Miss De Boer's state of mind during the shoot.” In the video she'd looked quite cheerful—at first. Wearing hot pants and a transparent T-shirt, she'd sat giggling on a leather couch. But less than three minutes later, you can see fear and disgust in her face. At the end of the film she was apathetic, almost like a zombie. I'd had trouble making myself watch to the end. “But could you please tell me how she was after the shoot? Did she go straight home?”

“She went and took a shower, then had a Coke . . .”

“With you?”

“Shower, you mean?” he said eagerly.

“I was referring to the Coke.”

“We all sat around having a drink afterward, the whole crew.”

It seemed strange to me that after having been pissed on and subjected to all sorts of other nasty stuff, you'd still feel like sitting around with the crew sipping a soda. But I decided not to say anything that would prolong the conversation unnecessarily. “So we can conclude that after the shoot, Miss De Boer was by all indications . . .
in good form,
” I continued.

“Absolutely.”

“Something else. You told me over lunch that
she'd
approached
you
. Can you tell me how that came about?”

“Her boyfriend called me. He said his girlfriend wanted to make some extra bucks.”

I had to suppress my exasperation. “That's not the same thing as someone approaching you on her own initiative, is it.”

“Well, the two of them came to see me in any case, and we made a deal.”

“With whom did you make the deal? The friend, or Miss De Boer?”

“Well, she signed it.”

“Who did the negotiating?”

“Her friend.”

“With friends like that, you don't need enemies.” I
had
to learn to control myself better.

“What are you getting at?”

“Didn't it occur to you that the girl herself had very little say in the matter? Are you really sure you did right by her?”

“There you go again, pointing the finger. And didn't we agree to call her a young woman?”

I sighed. “I'm just appealing to your common sense. Again, it is not my place to judge you. That's the judge's job. All I'm trying to do is make you see what it looks like from the other side.”

“You don't get it, do you, and you don't want to understand. All you have done is point fingers. Why have you never asked what's motivating me?”

Aaron was still stolidly playing with his whales out in the yard and I was starting to get a chill sitting inside.

Van Benschop didn't wait for my reply. “It may be called ‘hardcore,' but it's just another way of making love. That's the way you ought to look at it. By going to extremes, a person can reach a kind of ecstasy. You have to view my film work as an ode to the human body's surrender.”

I wondered if Van Benschop had taken an adult-ed philosophy course at the local community college. “Of course. As I said before, acting in good faith, I'll do everything I can in your best interest. I'll contend in your defense that Miss De Boer knew exactly what she was in for and had signed a contract. That she was so eager to participate that she even forged her date of birth. I'll also inform them that she joined you in a drink with the crew afterward. We'll leave the boyfriend out of it.”

“What do you see happening?”

“How hard is it to take the video down?”

“If it gets out that I'm being sued, it could get very hot.”

“In that case we'll have to offer her a considerable sum. Enough for her not to turn it down. But not
too
much. That would look like an admission of guilt.”

Aaron had clambered out of the pool and was on his way to the back door, naked and dripping. “Mr. Van Benschop, I'll get on it right away and e-mail you the proposed counteroffer in the morning.”

CHAPTER 17
RAY

“There's someone coming to see you today,” said Mo.

For as long as I've been in prison, my mother has come and visited me just a couple of times. Margaret and Pierre had also visited once. They used to come back to the Netherlands every summer, when it got too hot in France. When they heard I wasn't on Queen Wilhelmina Street anymore, they came and looked me up in prison. Although Margaret said it would be the last time, because Pierre was getting too old to travel.

He'd changed, Pierre. He walked more slowly and had to stop to catch his breath every few steps. It was only ten steps from the door to the visiting room table and four chairs.

“All those years in the bakery have worn him out,” Margaret told me. She still talked just as loud as before. “He just doesn't feel like doing anything anymore, do you, Pierre?”

The whole time, the twenty minutes they were with me, it was Margaret who did the talking. Pierre didn't say a word; he didn't even look at me. I didn't say very much, either. I think all three of us were happy to have Margaret fill up the silence by describing the farmers' market in Grasse.

Rosita was never mentioned. The mother dough wasn't, either.

“My mother's coming
here
?” I didn't think she would come; she'd been pretty firm about that, actually. Not even for a chat with Dr. Römerman, at least that's what he'd told me. But Dr. Römerman also said it was time for me to face up to what I'd done, even though I hadn't done anything.

“No. Another lady is coming to see you.” Mo glanced at a list. “Iris Kastelein.”

“Who's that?”

“Don't you know her?”

“No.”

“Strange. She says she's related to you.”

Hank came and sat next to me at lunch. He'd been avoiding me for the past few days. I didn't know why and I didn't feel like asking him, either.

It was fish cakes day. They were on a plate at the far end of the table, but I could smell them. I was in the mood for a fish cake.

“You and me, we're buddies. Right, Ray?”

The plate was coming this way, but it wasn't close enough for me to take one.

“I'm the only one you talk to, right? The only one looking out for you?” Hank turned and yelled, “Hey, pass those fish cakes!”

A new inmate, his name was Jamal, tossed a fish cake at him. The plate stayed where it was.

“Jamal. I know you still have to get used to the rules in here. But one rule is that we don't throw our food,” said the social worker with the glasses—I could never remember his name.

“Rude behavior at mealtimes means confinement to your suite for two days, okay, we all know,” said Hank. He wasn't scared of
this one. I'd heard that the social worker with the glasses sometimes smuggled in cocaine. You could buy it from him at fifty euro a gram. And the quality was excellent, I'd overheard Eddie tell Rembrandt.

Hank was yakking on and on. But my attention was elsewhere. On the fish cakes that were making a tour of the table but never seemed to land close to me, but also on the news about the visitor coming to see me. I didn't know if it was good news or bad news. My mother was the only family I had. And her name wasn't Iris Kastelein.

“Are you listening to me?” Hank was breathing right in my face. Reeking of fish cake and tobacco.

I nodded.

“You are such a smart guy. I'll show you the ropes. Since we're buddies and all. Understood?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said quickly.

“The way you could . . .” Hank stopped because the social worker was looking at him pointedly. “Hey, don't you want a fish cake?”

“Yes, please.”

“Dammit, Deepak, pass those fish cakes over here, will you?”

Hank passed me the fish cake platter. There was only one left. It was a bit squished and split open, with the white spilling out. I picked it up and bit off one end. It tasted good. I loved the crusty exterior combined with the gooey warm insides, and the little flecks of fish in it.

“Just look at the kid sucking on that thing!” yelled Eddie. “Hey, Raynus, it's goo-food, isn't it?”

All the other guys started whistling and cheering.

“Okay, enough,” said the social worker with the glasses.

“They're coming for me!” wailed Ricky. “I know it.”

“Oh, Ricky-dick, shouldn't they be upping your dosage?” asked Eddie.

Everyone thought that was very funny.

They had already settled me at the visitors' table when the woman whose name was Iris Kastelein came in. Mo came in behind her and sat down on a chair by the door next to the guard.

He nodded at me. “All right, Ray?”

Iris Kastelein was a pretty young woman. Like the ones from the neighborhood with the big houses that would come to the bakery specially and stand in a long line to buy croissants.

“Oh, that's funny,” was the first thing she said. “My son looks exactly like you.”

She'd only just arrived and already she was making fun of me. I didn't reply and concentrated on keeping my hands in check.

I felt myself getting mad. She was making me all confused.
What did she want?

She sat down on the plastic chair opposite me and looked at me the way the Mason Home shrink had sometimes looked at me. As if by staring into my eyes she thought she could see into my brain. I didn't like it.

“You must be wondering who I am and what I'm doing here.” She had a nice, calm voice, I had to admit. She talked the way the anchorwomen on TV talk, not like the people who live on Queen Wilhelmina Street. And not at all like the guys in here. “Or were you aware of my existence? Have you known all this time?”

I glanced at her face. She had dark eyebrows and eyelashes caked with black mascara. Like Rosita used to.

“I think I'm your sister.” Her voice was shaking.

It took a while for me to find my voice. This didn't make sense. It couldn't be. This woman was crazy, obviously.

“Could you say something, please?”

“I don't have a sister.”

“So tell me, what's your mother's name?”

“Agatha Antonia Boelens,” I recited.

“Well, Agatha Antonia Boelens is
my
mother, too. I was born in 1985. But then where were
you
?”

It was too much for me. My hands started whipping around in all directions.

She grabbed them and held them, the way Rosita used to.

I quickly jerked free.

“Sorry,” said this woman whose name was Iris Kastelein and who said she was my sister. “Do you want a glass of water or something? Can he have one?” she asked the guard.

The answer was no. Not during the visit.

Iris Kastelein who said she was my sister looked at me. She did look a lot like my mother. She had the same eyes. I was surprised I hadn't noticed it before. I quickly looked away.

“You're allowed to look at me, you know. I realize this must come as a shock. And I'm sorry to spring it on you like this. But . . .”

I looked at her face again and saw her eyes were wet. Why was she crying? And what did she expect of me?

“What happened to you, Ray? Where have you been all this time?”

I forced my hands down and sat on them. That helped.

“You're better off asking him more straightforward questions,” said Mo from his corner.

“Okay,” said Iris Kastelein who said she was my sister. “How old were you when you stopped living with Mother?” She was speaking very slowly, as if to an idiot, but I answered her anyway.

“Nine.”

“Where . . . did . . . you . . . go . . . live . . . after that?”

“You can talk to me normally.”

“Sorry. Of course. Where did you live after that?”

It was all getting too much for me. This female person coming in here just like that, asking all kinds of questions. How could I know she really was my sister? My mother had never mentioned she had another child. Let alone a brand-new, better child instead of me. A lady, no less, in a fancy suit. Why would my mother have wanted another child once she got rid of me?

“Ray finds emotions hard to deal with,” Mo explained. “And I must say it's a bit much to take in.”

“Yes, I understand it's a lot. Is it okay with you if I continue a bit, Ray? Or is this too much?”

I didn't say anything.

“Where did you live after you were nine? When you left home?”

“Mason.”

“What is that?”

“A home for boys.”

“Ray was at a boarding school for troubled kids,” Mo explained. I very much doubted he was allowed to give out confidential information about me. Whose side was he on, anyway? Mine or hers?

“How awful,” said Iris Kastelein who said she was my sister, and whose eyes were still wet. “I just don't know what to say. I can't
believe
Mother never told me about you. Incredible. Did she ever visit you at the school? Do you still ever see her?”

This conversation was exhausting and confusing. Especially when she called my mother “Mother.” I just didn't have the energy to answer her questions. I caught sight of a
Pholcus phalangioides,
a common skull spider, moseying up the wall.

“Should I come back another time? To give you a little time to let it sink in?”

The spider was going to spin her web up against the ceiling. Then she'd wait for another spider or insect to get trapped and use more thread to reel it in. I'd seen it plenty of times on the Discovery Channel.

“Ray?” said Mo. “Iris was asking you a question.”

“Sorry.” Iris Kastelein who said she was my sister was staring at me with my mother's face, which didn't scare me, but did make me nervous.

“I'm tired. I want to go back to my room.” I got to my feet.

“Wait.” She rummaged in her bag and took out a stack of photos. “I brought you something.”

“You're not allowed to hand things over like that,” said the guard. “Please give them here. We're here to see to it that the resident receives them.”

“Oh.”

“Sorry,” said Mo. “But rules are rules. We're having a problem with drug use among the patients.”

“I understand.” She turned to me. “I took some pictures of your aquarium, Ray. I thought you might like to see them.”

King Kong, Hannibal, Saturn, and Maria! Peanut and François! I sat back down.

“The aquarium is fine. Mother has a guy, Maurice, who comes and takes care of it once a week. The coral has grown quite a bit. And Mr. Van de Akker also came by recently.”

“Van de Akker?”

“Yes.” Her face took on an expression I couldn't place. Was it fear, worry? “He said the aquarium wasn't quite as magnificent as when you took care of it, but that it's still in great shape.”

“And the fish. Tell me about my fish.” I leaned forward so as not to miss a word.

“What can I tell you? Saturn and Venus spend most of the day hiding in the sea anemones and . . .”

“Yeah?” Just to hear their names from someone else's lips filled me with joy.

“And Margie. She swims round and round in circles all day long. Has she always done that?”

“Always.”

“Well, she's still doing it. She fights with François from time to time. I think it's because their territories overlap.”

I shut my eyes and listened to the stories. Like when I was little and my mother read to me at bedtime. When everything was still fine.

“. . . Aaron, my little boy, just loves the aquarium. He's nearly four and likes nothing better than to watch the fish all day long. He knows the names of all the species by heart. The doctorfish are his favorites.” She paused. “You must miss them.”

“Who?”

“The fish.”

“I think about them every day. Every day I say their names out loud.”

“I'm sure they're thinking of you, too.”

“Fish don't think. Not the way we do, anyway. They can't even tell one person from another, so how can you expect them to think about people?”

“I think your sister meant it kindly,” said Mo. “I think she meant to say that you did a great job taking care of your fish, and there's no one to take your place.”

“You like to be very accurate, don't you?” said Iris Kastelein who said she was my sister.

But I couldn't think of her as my sister. I'd always thought of sisters as little girls, like Anna.

The guard handed me the bundle of photos. “Here you go.”

I took them and hugged them to my chest.

“Don't you want to look at them?”

“When I'm alone.”

“Can I do anything else for you? Do you need anything? Money? Food? Clothes?”

“The only thing I want is to go home. To my fish.”

She looked sad. “Sorry. I don't think I can help you there.”

“I didn't do it. They're keeping me locked up; they just won't let me go. While I'm innocent.”

She was silent a long time, gazing at me with another of those weird looks on her face. “I could review your case. If you want.”

I didn't understand what she meant.

“I'm a lawyer. I'll have a look at it and see if there's something I can do for you. But I can't promise anything, of course.”

“I didn't do it.” It was the only thing I could think of saying.

“No?”

“No. I didn't do it.”

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