Photo: Courtesy to Lucia and Viki 🙂
Not much was visible of the man on the platform: a hat pulled down to his nose, eyes downcast on the device he was holding in both hands, wrinkled grey coat, o-shaped legs. Still, she recognized him. Her husband Hubert. He had on that impossible t-shirt with a message across the chest: OBEY NO RULES!
He did not see her, she was on the train coming from the direction of the town of Mechelen, two rails across the platform. It was an early evening and Anne was returning from her regular Wednesday mission of baby-sitting her twin grandsons. She almost shouted to Hubert through the closed window and refrained from doing so with quite an effort. Her peace of mind was lost. Why was Hubert standing on the North Station platform when he was supposed to be in his office in Nivelles good forty kilometres from there? She would no doubt ask him the question, when he comes home.
The train moved on and she lost the sight of Hubert. Slowly, the houses began to go by outside the window and because she was standing now, she caught a better sight of the street running parallel with the rails. Neon hearts, lots of red and pink, crooked, ill-kept houses with large front display and… girls in those windows, hardly any clothes on, underwear of equally bright colors as the neon letters, high heels, swaying in hips, sitting and looking bored, bent over their mobiles. A hot and cold wave went down her spine: Were they the reason of Hubert´s presence here?
Anne returned to their little house in Nivelles and walked around restlessly. She texted to Charlotte, their daughter, that she arrived fine and did not mention anything about her distress, had a shower, prepared herself a cup of tea and took out a bag of sole filets from the freezer for dinner for the two of them.
„Did you have a good day? “ she asked two hours later when they were sitting at the dining table by the street window. Hubert had already taken a shower and changed into some plain dark blue t-shirt and loose trousers.
„Oh, yes, nothing in particular, “ He answered.
She went to check the laundry basket, and the hated t-shirt really was there, in a crumpled pile of dirty things.
Since Anne was already a long-serving teacher of maths and physics at the local secondary school, there were some benefits, like these Wednesdays-off. She usually spent half of her day-off with the two-year old twins, taking them from the crèche at noon. Like the other Wednesday that was still on her mind. The day she saw Hubert on the platform did not go off her mind. Therefore, she was now on the train to the Gare du Nord station. Several weeks passed and cold, windy spring days gave way to the first heat wave of the season. She had called Charlotte earlier in the week to say she was not coming.
Anne was taking the filthy underground station stairs towards that street behind. Sun was baking and the heat was accentuated by humidity, it felt like wet dish towel wrapped over her face and naked arms. The street was almost deserted on this bright afternoon. Brussels was an unpleasant dirty town in general and even more so here, she thought to herself. She was peering into the windows where the girls were offering their services. None of them paid much attention to a sixty plus lady on the sun-lit pavement. Even a red-light district of Brussels is so cheap, at least in Amsterdam it has some quality and reputation. Or so people say because everybody who goes to Amsterdam talks about it. Anne´s eyes suddenly met the eyes of a girl in red plastic bra and knickers. Her face was very broad, contrasting with a rather slim body. She raised her penciled eye-brows in a question mark because Anne stopped right in front of her. Their eyes met and Anne, knowing what to do, pantomimed:
„Can I come in? “
She had no time to be surprised by her own boldness because the girl motioned towards a little door at the side with her long, bright red index finger nail matching the underwear. Anne stepped into a dim corridor.
„Yes? “ A heavy Eastern-Europe accent. Perhaps the girls were used to occasional presence of women on chase of their unfaithful husbands. „Looking for somebody? “ The girl asked indeed.
„Yes. My husband. He got missing. “ A prompt lie. Anne took out her mobile phone, unlocked the screen and showed the girl a picture of Hubert´s smiling face taken on their latest excursion to Krakow. „Have you not seen him around?“ The dim corridor gave a better luminosity to the image that in the daylight would hardly be visible. Contrary to the rules with paper photography. Things were changing, light and dark were swapping places.
„Not really. I cannot say I have seen him. But you know… You mean, you do not know where your husband is now? You suspect this is where he came and disappeared afterwards? I doubt that. Anyway, come in, there is a little yard at the back, we can have a glass of something cold. You look like you might do with some refreshment.”
Anne followed the girl to a little concrete patio with a tiny iron table and chairs around it, a pack of golden Marlboro´s, an ashtray and a cheap lighter on the table. The yard was pleasantly out of the sun, facing the east, the afternoon sun did not get here. The girl brought two cans of ice-tea almost painfully cold to take in hands. She even put a long black t-shirt on top of her underwear, covering half her slim thighs and arms.
„Sit down, business is slow today. You´re not spoiling anything.“
Anne sat down vaguely aware of the fact that she was being served an ice-tea in a kind of a brothel by a kind of a prostitute.
„Have you been working here long? Is this your… profession?“ she finally asked looking into the blue eyes of the girl. She could have been around twenty. Their own daughter was twenty-seven.
„Well, I came three years ago from Poland. Working and saving money. Saving to buy a house with couple of flats that I can rent and make revenues easier. You know, we are all in the same boat, trying to make ends meet. And your husband really disappeared? Are you worried?“
She did not want to lie anymore and told her:
„I saw Hubert standing on the train platform the other day. When he was supposed to be elsewhere. And he did not tell me he traveled, though I asked him. So, I got suspicious. The girl was sipping her drink and listening to Anne with full attention. Finally, she posed the can on the iron table; the sound was a dry click.
„You know, it is none of my business, but I would leave it there, if I were you. I mean, we are all lost wanderers. In towns, in ourselves. Even if you knew he had a secret garden,“ she smiled at the metaphor that was cheesy or vulgar, depending on the context.
„You mean, you would not mind, having a boyfriend seeking services here, if you were me?“
„No, that is not what I mean. I mean, you won´t change anything about the fact if you know for sure or not. Better get used to the idea that you do not fully see into him.
Anne was looking into the big blue eyes. Was the girl really preaching to her? To her, the teacher, the mother, the wife?
“You know, Miss Wise, it is always easy to advice the others.” She paused, did not know how to continue.
“I am sorry. I rather get back to my spot.“ The girl put out the half-smoked cigarette. „A slow day it might be, but it is my work day.“
Before she knew, Anne was back in the street, still hot. Her phone started to beep, she looked on the display: Hubert.
Everything is lost and found. Moods, contacts, secrets, ways, and husbands.
„Yes? I am on my way home from Mechelen,“ she answered. “Hopping on the train in a half an hour.”
Anne´s stomach was having some struggle with the fizzy beverage she had sent down. Perhaps there were more men wearing OBEY NO RULES t-shirt in this town? Perhaps they were passing the North Station on an innocent journey from work? And Hubert on chase of such an entertainment? He surely better went for a beer with his friends. The platform was all grey and dirty.
In the little street there, the slim girl in the red underwear went back to the yard for another cigarette. The business was indeed slow that day. She did not feel guilty for not telling that woman… Really, the men often slipped off her memory, but she remembered this one. He was a regular, not coming for her, not at all, his taste was rather different, he once told her. She was chatting with her friend, Ramona, the other day, when he came to claim her. Gave her a boyish wink while patting Ramona´s naked shoulder impatiently. Ramona stood up obediently, what else there was to do?
“I come later, Anna,” Ramona told her friend and retrieved with her client.