Monthly Archives: July 2015
Above the mix of laughter, intermittent, halting, cut the constant, recurrent peal. Breathy. Forced. False.
Again and again, the laugh rang out. Paul gritted his teeth with each wave, bad molar flaring in protest. He wiped a hand across his sweating brow.
He couldn’t make out the joke. From the sound of the others, with their embarrassed, weak additions, it can’t have been very good.
And yet it rolled on, that laugh, that laugh! Like ripping of paper, like an unending, ever-present irritation, it rolled on. Too much!
The bat cracked into the back of her head, laying her flat. Sensing violence before the blow fell, the other, more reluctant revellers, faded away. There was a look of surprise on her face as she lay on the industrial carpeted floor; a look was all there was time for before the bat was slammed down again. Her nose, the nose that dominated her face, was flattened into a mash that looked simply incorrect. A massive nose, a nose that some would call – that racists would call, Paul thought correctively – a French nose, so out of place atop the thin, parsimonious lips, was spread out over the rest of the face. The sight of it twisted his stomach. He brought the bat down a third time, and the frail body, the bird-like body, began to thrash in its death throws. The face – gone. Pulped, shards of bone and flesh and bright blood and fat and cartilage. Unrecognisable.
“Everything ok, hun? You were in there two minutes longer than average.”
“Nothing to worry about, just a tough day at the office. TGIF, right?” Paul responded ruefully, Karen looking at him with some concern in her eyes, in the hands on hips.
“Okay, if you say so. You know, if you need to see Dr. Thorn again, we can contact the hospital…”
“No!” Paul near-shouted, unusually angry, especially immediately after a session. “I don’t need to go back there – I’m healthy now, I’m alright – Thorn said so himself, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, of course, I was just saying, you know, I support you and all,” Karen said, chagrined. “You don’t need to shout at me, you know. I’m only trying to help.”
“Sorry, it’s just – just, forget it. Let me take a shower, and then we’ll head over to the Jackson’s, yeah?”
“Yeah, sounds good. You know, I’d nearly forgotten? I’ll have to figure out something to wear…” Karen responded absently, already putting aside the outburst.
Paul stared over his cubicle wall with gimlet eyes. That laugh. The nose, an echo chamber par excellence, unable to add any meat or indeed any honesty. That laugh. Even the half-hearted titters of their colleagues held more truth, were a more real, genuine emotion than that laugh. On and on it came. Sure, the face, reddened, the breath, laboured, told a story of authenticity, of candid experience – but it was all belied by that laugh. The thinness, the lie – Paul gripped his desk with both hands, and
breathed out slowly. So she felt like she needed to put on airs? What was it to him? Monday afternoon, plenty of filing to do yet. Best get down to it.
The door swept through the tight space between the frame and the wall. Stupid design. Paul understood the need for privacy, but, c’mon…Hardly any time for the thought to register. The young man stepped into the lavatory, cold grey eyes, canine eyes, piercing the older man. Alien, hostile. As ever.
“Didn’t you read the sign?” Paul demanded angrily. The young man just grunted, not breaking the scorn-filled gaze.
“Look, there’s a sign right on the wall – ‘open with care’ – you nearly bloody hit me!”
A snort, and a shoulder lowered, the young man pushed through Paul on his way to the urinals – or would have.
What the fuck? Paul thought, and threw his heavier weight into the youth, jamming him up against the tiled wall.
A flash of surprise in the grey eyes, then – hands, opened, pushed back at Paul, knocking him out the entrance and into the room proper. A fist came next, catching Paul in the jaw. His head jerked back, straining the neck. His adversary rushed in, taking advantage of the successful blow. Grappling Paul about the waist, the two crashed into the duo of stalls, cheap ply-wood door rebounding off the adjoining wall with a hollow crak, swatting the two as they fell.
Paul took their combined weight, the young man falling on top of him and knocking the wind from his lungs with a sickening rush. Recovering first, the other man grabbed Paul by the collar, and lifting his head from the ground, smashed it into the lino-ed concrete of the floor. Stars burst into Paul’s already oxygen-starved vision. A second time. A fleeting moment of distress gripped Paul’s fogged consciousness. Perhaps…this had been a mistake.
An image of his foe above him, mouth set in rictus grin, not an iota of humour contained, icy grey eyes now warmed by bloodshot veins. Bunching Paul’s shirt in his fists, he made to strike the older man a third – and last – time.
Paul’s knee connected with all the force desperation could gather. Now it was his opponent who was winded, hands releasing their rigid grasp on the colour and cupping bruised testicles. Still underneath him, Paul heaved his opponent aside, floundering to regain his feet. Still woozy, he stomped down with all his force – and a shout – on his enemy’s right ankle. It snapped under his shod heel. The youth roared. It was the first sound either had uttered.
Stamping down on the bony mess, already unsteady, Paul lost his footing and fell on top of the young man. For his part, through the pain of his shattered ankle, the other man was able to twist about, and get his thin hands on Pauls throat. Vision began to narrow, with bright white spots dancing in the middle distance. Opponent straddled above him, pinning him to the floor with knees on ripped button-down.
Paul’s own hands, sweat-slick, slid off the shaven head of the youth, unable to find purchase. Weakening. Uncontrolled fluttering in the extremities. One last thrust, before the velvety darkness – and the pain of air rushing back into over-taxed lungs.
Toppled over, the other man’s face had smacked off the toiled seat, chipping several teeth. The shock of this, the ragged pain of exposed nerves, bought a moment of respite for Paul. Knowing he only had bare seconds before his younger, quicker, adversary was back on him, he lashed out with his left leg, catching the man between the stall’s dividing wall and the foot pressing in on the diaphragm, compacting organs against unyielding bone. A grunt was pushed from bloody mouth, Paul still gasping for air as he pushed harder and more forcefully. Shocked look in the eyes. Twin trails of blood leaking from mouth of ruined, jagged teeth.
Paul let up, staggering to his feet, feeling nauseous. His adversary was doubled up, coughing, trying to regain his own breath. Paul grabbed him by the back of his own white shirt – long ago soiled – and palmed his head with the other hand. Before he could think further about it, before he let his enemy struggle free, Paul slammed the head down onto the covered toilet bowl. The cheap stainless steel cleats gave way after the second hit, and the lid of the toilet clattered to the ground. The third smack echoed dully with splintering bone-on-porcelain. The fourth broke the bowl, rending the flesh of the cheeks, of the forehead.
As Paul closed the door of the machine, he felt a twinge of…not dissatisfaction, but, something like a lacking.
“When you’re done your session, d’you, d’you ever feel like it’s, y’know, not over?” Paul asked Karen sheepishly, rubbing a hand on the back of his head.
Looking up from the lettuce she was washing, looking directly at him – “ Not over…like how? The machine is set up to give the maximum release in the shortest amount of time, you know that!” Karen responded.
“I know, I know – the diagnostics and the psychological tests and all, I get it. But, you’ve never, I dunno, felt like the arc wasn’t finished yet, like the real unloading hadn’t happened yet?”
“Not sure. Impaled mom with a broken pool cue earlier this morning, and defenestrated Sara into rush-hour traffic. Fourth floor. Felt pretty good to me,” Karen said, a smile of remembrance flashing across her face. “Maybe it’s malfunctioning? We could get the technician in next week. You sure you don’t want to see Dr. Thorn, maybe?”
“No! No Thorn!”
“Okay, jeeze! No Thorn. We’ll call the tech, then.”
The lash sank into Paul’s flesh, not deep, not deep enough to scar, but enough to break the skin and sting in the subtle breeze. When it fell again, the man strained against his bonds, the leather creaking in response. Silence. She loomed up in front of him, pvc suit screeching as she minced.
“You know, if you want me to stop, all you have to say is ‘Ich möchte das Sicherheitswort, bitte und danke , Frau Brunhilde.’ That is all, you know.” She curled the whip in her hand.
Paul could only manage an “unnnghh” through the over-size rubber ball-gag, though he was able to drool copiously over his chin.
The woman stood looking down at him, as if considering her next move. With a smirk, she turned around abruptly, placing the still-wet whip on the desk behind her, and pulled out a medium-sized case, built of surgical steel. She plopped the case down on the table by Paul’s restraints with an element of childish glee, her meaty face crinkling under the troweled make-up. Initially, she opened it facing herself, out of Paul’s regulated line of sight. She took a moment, considering, and then she turned the case around with a smooth motion, revealing row upon row of needles, arranged in ascending length and circumference on a bed of synthetic black felt. Knowing the power of the imagination was on her side, the dom allowed Paul some time to consider the assortment of appliances in front of him. She teased him, pulling out needles at random, poking them into her own finger tips and showing him the dots of bright blood. Eventually, she decided on a barbed number – not the largest of the batch, but far from being the smallest, either. The several barbs cut into a side of the three inch rod prevented the needle from being pulled back out, once it had passed the first. From there, one would be committed to sliding the full length through the flesh, or to tearing it out.
She began on the back his left arm, twisting the needle with each fresh barb submerged. A bead of sweat rolled down Paul’s forehead, dropping into his right eye. Several more needles, of various sizes and wicked design, followed the first.
After half an hour had passed, the fleshy backs of both arms, as well as the skin of the stomach and gut, had all been pierced. Madame Brunhilde left the needles where she had threaded them – some running under the skin for barely a centimetre, others for nearly their full length. The most painful, the ones that caused the most bleeding, were the needles that she crocheted through the flesh, in and out and in and out, weaving as if in a macabre cross-stitch.
Drawing back to examine her handiwork, she was pleased by the cordouroy look of the rods beneath the skin. She ran a finger over one such path, relishing the studded feel of it, the compactness of the perforations. The needles, once pushed through the skin, left Paul with only a dull ache. It was the entrance that hurt most, and when ever he should flex the muscles underneath. And when they were touched, as now. Madame Brunhilde noticed the way Paul flinched as she ran a long red nail over a row, and continued with more vigour.
“Onf an alla loftamph!” Paul uttered, gag distorting his words. The woman drew back in surprise and a creak from her body suit.
“Did you say, you wanted the Lötlampe?”
“Anth! Anth!” he replied, anger on his blotchy face.
“Well, if you’re sure…”
She left the room, squeaking with each step. Minutes passed, and Paul began to wonder where she had gone, what she was doing. How long could it take to find whatever she needing to untie him? Ah, maybe she went to get some anti-microbial ointment, for taking out the needles. That must be it.
The creak of the pvc announced her return before Paul’s restrained head could see her. It was dampened, though, as if she were wearing something on top. When she did finally enter his field of view, he understood – at least the deadened sound. Brunhilde had put on a thick leather apron, and a blast-mask sat propped open on her oiled hair.
“Die Lötlampe!” she said with pride, displaying the blowtorch and it’s fuel canister. Paul rocked against his restraints, each motion sending a flare of agony through his metal-studded flesh.
“Nomph! Nomph!” he shouted, or, tried to.
“Ya, ya, ‘Now’ ‘Now’ – Madame Brunhilde hears you. I did not think you ready for the Lötlampe, it is reserved for very experienced customers – but, who am I to deny you when you seem so set on it, hmm?”
Paul found he was getting on much better at work. The small things didn’t dig so much, the little peccadilloes of his office-mates didn’t irk him like they used to.
The second week of his incarceration, the manacles had chafed Paul’s wrists raw. The constant rubbing of the iron, the dampness of the room, it left his skin water-logged. It sloughed off at the point of contact, a white paste. Chained, sitting, his hands bound to the wall above him, he had never felt pain like this – every moment was agony. By the next week, it had died down some, but he hadn’t slept a full night – or day – through. It seemed like every time he would doze off, that sadist of a guard would throw water in his face, or smash the tin bowl they served him slop in against the crumbling brick wall, or kick him in the stomach, or…his creativity knew no bounds. Enumerating the ways, the subtle ways, in which this bland-faced, dough-ball of a man tortured him, it was a way Paul used to pass the time. Not initially, nor, even, on purpose. It was just something he stumbled on, one of those increasingly trackless days.
The start of the third month, Paul noticed something a bit odd. Through the lancing pain of his wrists, bone exposed in places and flesh starting to blacken, he realised he couldn’t feel his hands. Not that any point of his body expressed more than a dull ache, aside from the wrists, but it was more like, they were simply absent.
He shifted his head to look, this becoming ever-more difficult with each day. A wave of nausea rolled over him with the effort. Riding it out, his fogged vision began to clear. He could make out a quivering, furred object above him. A noise cut through the fog, registering as a chittering, squeaking, deeply objectionable sound.
Mustering his weakened will, Paul shifted an arm. The squeaking, hairy objects scattered, and Paul passed out. Coming to several minutes later, and several minutes more after that to collect himself, he once again looked up at his chained arms. He couldn’t make sense of what he saw. The manacle on his wrist, blood and bone, and then the palm of his hand, and then…nothing.
Not quite nothing. His vision was as a weak as his will, and it took him a moment to adjust his gaze even though he had been the dark cell an eternity. Peering a distance of several feet was an unaccustomed effort, and just as taxing as shifting his head bobbling on his thin, chicken-like neck. At last he could make out shrivelled stalks that sprouted from his hand, translucent and a dull white. Bones! His finger bones! Stripped of flesh, with only the barest of tendons keeping them tied together.
The doorbell rang, startling Paul as he towelled his shower-damp hair. Hard, insistent knocking came on its heels directly. Quickly struggling into the pair of jeans sitting rumpled on the bed, he dashed down the stairs shouting “Alright, alright, I’m coming!”
Opening the door revealed two men, suited, wearing shades despite the overcast day. One, the taller, Caucasian, flashed an indecipherable badge, while his companion, Asian, said a perfunctory “Good evening Mr. Kozlovsky…?” slight nod from Paul. “May we come in?” Before Paul had time to respond, the two shouldered passed him. The taller man took to examining the contents of the room in earnest, while the second withdrew a manilla folder from the briefcase he was carrying, examining its contents and studiously ignoring the bewildered Paul.
“Look here, what’s this all about? You can’t just come barging in…” Paul said, irate.
The Asian man looked up from the sheets of paper, gaze locked on Paul through aviators. “On the contrary, Mr. Kozlovsky, we can do just that. It says here,” he indicated a sheet of paper, “and here,” another, “that you’ve seriously breached the EULA of the Imagi Corp. product you have on lease. You’re several hours over the holo-time limit for someone of your pay-grade. And, you’ve been tampering with the specs, haven’t you?” It was just a small change, a little adjustment here, a dial turned there…how did they know?
“Over-stepping your allowed time is one thing, there’re established ways you can make that up to the Corporation,” the man continued. “It’s the unauthorised adjustments that’re the real problem.”
“That’s some real sick shit you’ve been up to, Kozlovsky,” said the white man, a surprising tenor for all his height. “Real sick.”
“You knew, explicitly, what the Corporation’s Product was for, geared specifically for someone of your position and work. You knew, explicitly, that you couldn’t just go around making your own changes to software or hardware. I’ve got your signature to it, right here,” the shorter man pulled from his case a thick sheet of papers, minute font a wash at the distance of seven feet. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us.”
“What? This is ridiculous!” shouted Paul in surprise. “I’m not going anywhere – my wife is going to be home in an hour – we have an important dinner party to attend tonight –”
“Please don’t make this any more difficult than it needs to be,” the Asian man cut in.
“You’re coming with us, Kozlovsky,” his partner continued, “whether you like it or not.”
Shocked for a bare moment, Paul set his stance, looking from one adversary to another. He’d dealt with better than the pair of them, many times. Before he changed the output on the machine, he’d won every fight it threw at him. “Come and get me, then,” he said, cheesy line feeling right for the occasion. He bunched his muscles – and the expected adrenaline didn’t arrive. All the fights he’d been in, all the experience and the hard-won neural pathways, all the muscle-memory and raw aggression – it was all false. His body was just that, his, the body of an office clerk, not overweight, but neither athletic. He was no fighter, no hero.
“Why is it always like this, eh, Xu?” the Caucasian man said, returning the taser to the under-arm holster as Paul twitched on the ground. “Makes you believe that shit they write about the Product in the papers – feeding false expectations and shit.”
Xu, standing above the prostrate Paul, said “You didn’t give ‘im too much, did you Steve? We don’t need another heart attack case on our hands. Here, help me get him to the car.”
Paul, for his part, couldn’t make out what the pair was saying, their words a mush of sound, an undulating roar then a speeding whistle. He did, however, feel the bite of the zip-tie as Steve cinched his wrists together. And it felt natural. It felt right, like something he’d been expecting for a long time. In the wash of pain, just before he lost consciousness, Paul felt happy.
The satin sheet slipped down Veronique’s side, her flesh dimpling in the evening air.
“You truly are the most exquisite of all my possessions,” Wilhelmus Offermans said, cupping the bare breast in his hand. “If only I could show you off, though! It’s your only failing.”
Slightly put-out, Veronique shifted in the man’s grasp. “You know, I was just talking to Maartje yesterday, and she was saying that,” she curdled her face, continued simperingly – “’her weinige Max was taking her to the schouwburg tomorrow night, wasn’t he just such a dear!’ How come Maartje gets to go to the theatre, and we always have to stay in? I want to go to the theatre, Wim! You could show me off at the schouwburg, alongside all the other Ladies!”
Offermans looked sidelong at the girl a moment, before raising his eyes to the ceiling in a long-suffering gesture. “Maximiliaan Dijkstra is a fool if he is willing to be seen in public with that hussy of his. His impudence will be the end of him, mark my words!” A fat finger stabbed the air for each of the last three words, as if to underscore. He shifted himself onto his side, turning back to Veronique. An affected look of distress, he implored “Don’t I give you money enough to enjoy the theatre when you wish? And all the other things your pretty breast could hope for? Do I not take care of you, better than any other man could?”
“Oh, Wim, you know I want for nothing!” Veronique cooed. “But I want other people know it!” She paused, a look of concentration troubling the habitually jejune face. “You’re right, that Maartje is a straatmeid. I’m not going to spend my time with her any longer. It simply wouldn’t do!” A renewal of the simper, mocking. “You know, when she isn’t opening herself up for Dijkstra, she’s double-timing with an artist, a painter! Just goes to show, I guess.”
Offermans’ roving hands paused in their self-directed wandering, a shrewd look screwing up his small eyes.
“Is he any good?”
“Eh? Why’d you stop? Hmm, who? Good at what?” Veronique answered confusedly.
“The hussy’s painter friend, is he any good?”
“Oh Wim, what do you want to know about that for? You think that I’d ask her about that?”
“No, no,” Wilhelmus said abruptly, “is he any good at painting?”
“Oh! How silly of me! Of course. Erm, actually, I think he might be. Maartje is always going on about how he’ll be famous one day, one day soon. As famous as van Rijn! As Vermeer! She always saying such things, but, there might be something to it, after all. My friend Ineke, you remember Ineke, you met her at the party back last Lent season, when she was with Meester van Arends? She told me that you were there, and that you and the Jonkheer spoke for almost an hour? Something boring about the price of dirt in Java – why are you always talking about such boring stuff, you men? Anyways, Ineke, she goes with Van Koeman sometimes – you know, the art dealer? – and he says that Van Peij, he’s one to watch. He’s the artist-friend of Maartje’s, Van Peij, that is…Oh!” Nascent astonishment crumpled her creamy brow. “Are you going to, going to get a painting…a painting of me?”
“No,” answered Offermans, a distracted look on his face, staring into the middle distance. Veronique abruptly sat up, crossing her arms huffily and breathing out her exasperation in a rush. Ignoring her, Wilhelmus continued “it’ll be of me…”
In contrast with the exceptional beauty of Veronique, Annelies, Wilhelmus’ genuine spouse, was a…well, comparison would be too generous a term for that. Head round and small like a bullet, balancing on an over-thick neck and crowned with pin-straight, thin blonde hair. Body unfit – pinched in some areas, flabby in others. It’s true, the enduring fashion did much to hide the lumpy body from sight, but Wilhelmus knew, he knew what lay underneath, and it only took a glance at Annelies’ trussed form to set him shuddering with disgust. Despite these physical drawbacks, this luckless frame, Annelies had not grown peevish with the passing of years and retained her docile, pliable nature. This only irritated Wilhelmus further – seeing the behaviour of a child played out by an ageing and undesirable woman’s manikin.
“It’s a good thing her family had connections,” the man thought to himself as he appraised her. She looked up at him from her sewing.
“Is anything the matter, dear Husband?” she asked, her eyes looking, as ever, on the verge of tears.
“No, nothing, Wife. I wanted to tell you, I was thinking of making a purchase, a large purchase.” Offermans examined his nails, noticing the dirt under them.
“Oh, well, if it comes to business matters, you know that I trust your judgement in every-”
“Not a business purchase, no,” the man overrode her. “No, this will be something for the house. Something, with luck, which will have a large impact on our lives – both of them!” Offermans pulled back his lips in something which was at best distantly related to a smile, looking, nonetheless, quite self-satisfied. “I’ll not give up the game yet, but, prepare yourself!” he said as he left the room. Annelies wasn’t sure why, but the wake of her husband stirred a sense of foreboding in her. But then, she was a woman whose natural state was one of apprehension. She returned to the mending.
“Confess! Confess your sins before the Day ends! Already the sun falls, signalling the lifting of the Son! The lifting of the Hand of Judgement! Every-man has his role to play – today is the day you abase yourself before your Lord and Master!” The doom-cryer, black cassocked, had a small crowd drawn around him. Rough breeches adorned the men’s calves, home-spun by the look of it, the bonnets of the women, more headscarves than calash, fuzzed a patina of ingrained dirt. You could readily tell that they were of an… unsavoury variety; probably boeren come in for a holiday in the city. The majority of people, like Offermans, crossed the Dam Square without paying the oratory heed. The new Town Hall, the work completed some short decades ago, dominated the space, it’s German sandstone already beginning to darken. Equally as impressive stood the Nieuwe Kerk, itself just having finished renovations. Why would anyone be attracted to a louse like that, thought Offermans, when you had a much more impressive demonstration of the faith in plain view? Not that even it held much attraction for him. But, assuming one were that way inclined…
Wilhelmus’ destination was neither of these two buildings, but rather the Weigh House in the centre of the Square. Passing the gaggle of rubes, a shout brought the burger up short, startling him out of his ruminations.
“Mijn Heer! Repent of your sins! No man is without them, but, without the admission of guilt, there is no chance of joining the Elect!”
“My conscience is my own, you harping sectarian! I’ll mind it myself!”
“Listen not to the heresies of the Remonstrants! Your fate is set! You hear me!? Set!”
But Offermans had already made the safety of the weigh house, the heavy oaken doors shutting out the shrill cries of the preacher. Now, to call in those debts…
At last, after months of anxious waiting, it was ready!
Offermans let out a decidedly undignified squeal as the courier read his message, quickly raising a heavily laced kerchief to his mouth to cover the impropriety. A deep-seated agitation took hold of him, a tremor thrilling in his chest. Perspiration dampened his brow, a flush crept along the tops of his heavy cheeks.
Despite the repeated trips to the studio, all of them met with a crossed arms and a barred door, he had half a mind to set off cross town that moment. A slight cough was heard from the corner; Heer de Schoonraad, witnessing the uncharacteristic agitation of Offermans, sought to give the man a moment to collect himself.
“Ah! What am I to do with that stuffed shirt?” thought Wilhelmus to himself, while saying aloud “Very good, very good. Return to your master and tell him I will visit his studio directly, to see the work for myself!”
“Het spijt me, Jonkheer, Heer van Peij, he tells me, ‘do not let Mijnheer trouble himself with a trip to our lowly studio, Piet! What does a man of his stature, his sierlijkheld, want to see a place of menial artisans for? No, tell him,’ that’s you, Heer van Peij, that he means, ‘tell him that portrait, it is only half-itself alone – it ought to be seen, especially at first, in its pride of place, de zijn heerschappij own house!’ That’s what he told me to tell you, zijn heerschappij.”
Wilhelmus had initially bristled at the frustration of his desire, but the wheedling of Piet, the second-hand flattery, had won him round. Aware that he had company, he forced a magnanimous
“Well now, you and your master think too highly of me – I am common-born, just as you, even if the Lord’s good fortune has raised me above my origin.” A glance towards the noble. “Perhaps I ought to follow Heer van Peij’s suggestion though. Artists, they have such exacting standards – but we must allow them their transgressions, mustn’t we, Heer de Schoonraad? How else can they provide us the fruits of their genius?”
“I’ve little truck with them, myself, Heer Offermans. So many of them have such frightful reputations. Mind you, if what they say of Van Peij is half-true, this portrait will surely be something. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to make an event of it?”
Wilhelmus liked the idea immensely. Three more days passed, and each one seemed an individual eternity to him. He didn’t attend to the business, but, this being a slow season, it mostly took care of itself. He only saw Veronique the once, to tell her the exciting, the excruciating, news. She expressed dismay that she couldn’t be there for the unveiling, which set Offermans off in a nervous peal of laughter. The idea of it! The Magistraat was to be there, and several senior members of the legal guild! And that’s not even mentioning the foreign dignitaries, whose attendance he had secured with such effort! Veronique was a beauty, to be sure, but the juxtaposition! She, best suited to her natural bareness, amongst that pile of periwigs, the mountains of lace, the sheer weight of pleated linen – it was too much! No, a more…private audience would be the thing for her. At some point when Annelies was safely away from the house.
“It is true, your wait has been long mijn Heer. However, I hope you agree, it has been worth it!” And with that, Van Peij pulled back the heavy drapery, revealing the painting behind.
At its sight, the assembled grandees broke into a restrained clapping, the appropriate response to an article of such mastery, a specimen of exacting artistry. Polite murmurings as Graaf Lorentz remarked to Magistraat Kuyper at his shoulder
– “Notice how the light draws attention to the face, how it sets the body in relief against the background!” and as the Marquis Valois exclaimed to Advocaat Kappel “Ah! Such work! Methinks Jonkvrouw Valois will soon be requesting a sitting, once word of this gets ‘round!”
As for Wilhelmus himself, he couldn’t have been more pleased – the portrait, framed in a dark mahogany, fit comfortably on the inner wall, extending from three feet off the floor to a foot shy of the moulding. His likeness dominated the room from this vantage, overseeing the collected goings-on.
And the rendering itself! Van Peij had elected for a standing figure of Wilhelmus, the full height of painting some 8 feet tall, the figure of Offermans in ratio. Positioned behind and to the left an elegant table, Wilhelmus’ be-ringed hand indicated a passage in a leather bound Bible, little finger extended outwards, ring finger slightly curled, middle and pointer resting on the book itself. Though upside down from the vantage of the viewer, one could easily read the passage indicated, Galatians 5:16,
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions…”
in a conservative, black print. A testament to the position Offermans had achieved, the honesty and guilessness with which he comported himself.
The opposite hand, the left, held a half-way filled purse with a twin set of thickly set keys resting atop, an obvious reference to Durer’s masterpiece. It was the face, however, that commanded most attention.
Van Peij had embellished Offermans features, drawing out the most august elements of the raw materials. The chin, strengthened, saw the reduction of three to two. A cleft dignified the space, where a dimple was barely present in original. The mouth, often petulant in life, was seen to be of a stern cast. An, if not severe, then certainly obdurate cut. The nose, tending towards bulbous in the original, had lost its parti-coloured nature, and become the prow of a patriarch. The eyes, though, the eyes! Thunder lived in that glance, judgement most cruel and piercing. Wilhelmus himself sported a pair of moleish eyes, close-set, and black of pupil. The eyes of the portrait, though, were the eyes of command. Even in space, direct of gaze, they judged all they beheld, and found it wanting. Righteous eyes, set into a face that supported them in their honourable program. The glare of those beams followed one throughout the room – there was nary a place one could hide from that silent upbraiding.
Upon first reveal, Offermans was at a loss for words – the visage was more reminiscent of his father than himself, that stern, Calvinist paterfamilias, raising his progeny from the lowly muck of their ancestors. For a moment, only, he felt a chill upon his spine, once more under the censorious glare of those judging eyes of his youth. Quickly though, this shudder of worry translated itself into pride – pride that his own visage could provide the base for such a strong, commanding impression. Pride that – and this, this was him! – that he could impose such an imposing presence.
“Heer Offermans,” Magistraat Hoedemaeker said, firmly shaking him by the hand, “a closer likeness I’ve hardly seen in portraiture before this day! Wise choice, wise choice engaging Heer van Peij in this endeavour!”
Wilhelmus strode forward after acknowledging the Magistrate’s compliment, his stout frame crossing the space between himself and Van Peij in short order. He grasped the smaller man by the forearm in a strong grip.
“Never, mijn Heer, have I seen such Truth portrayed in Art! Not even van Rijn himself was able to capture such honesty! You have done me much favour with this rendering!”
The next fortnight was spent in a state of airy exultation, brought on by the new possession. It’s true, Wilhelmus had paid a princely sum for the portrait, but didn’t the mere sight of it dispel any question of excess in the price? To glance at it was to recognise its worth, and to gaze long was to discover the secrets hidden within: the subtle brushwork that brought the skin to life, a flush of colour here, a dimpling effect there – the way the cast of light, augmented by the clever placement of the portrait within the study, seemed to give a physical presence to the image, a corporeality matched by the domineering nature.
Word spread amongst the gentles of Amsterdam more quickly than one would have thought possible. The Advocaat Jansen could be heard declaiming the mastery of it to Judge Dijkstra while lunching at their club, it was the subject of a salon thrown by the gallophile Jonkvrouw de Ruiter, even the lower orders spoke of it – overhearing their Betters, clerks gossiped over it during snatched meal breaks, artisans intoned with open jealousy the luck bestowed on one of their own. If there was any doubt left, this had proven Van Peij’s worth as a master-painter – he was positively inundated with commissions within the first week alone. The prices cast about, each of the competitors trying to edge out the others, spiraled to preposterous levels.
When Wilhelmus was not entertaining guests, expected or otherwise, he spent his time alone in the study. Alone, save for the portrait – his double. Together they would stare at one another, the one no less intent than the other, as if in silent communication. All the time spent in its proximity, the painting became an obsession for the man – it would haunt his dreams, when he was away from his home he would fret over its security. It was so famous now, why think it far-fetched that someone should steal it? To prevent this, he had the locks retooled throughout the house. He went so far as to hire a doorman, a luxury the Offermans’ had thus far gone without. When Annelies questioned this uncharacteristic abandonment of frugality, Wilhelmus waved it off, saying:
“Of course, you are correct, wife – the expense is an additional one. But, think, over the past month we have seen the best of Amsterdam come through our humble door – while we may be able to get on fine ourselves, these high people, they expect fine things, gilt experience. In fact, we stand to lose out if we do not supply these expectations! Continued congress with these people, who knows what will come of it? Business prospects, of a certain, but also those intangible benefits of gentle association – invitations to concerts, private gatherings, the best our fine society has to offer! So, you see, this is an expense we cannot not pay!”
Placated by this line of argument, Annelies bobbed her round head. “I had thought, you know, on top of already having a maid in the house – so unusual for people of our standing! – a doorman would be seen as…extravagant. As ever, husband, you have shown me the truth of the matter. Lord be praised for our Good Fortune!”
In his fervour, Wilhelmus has half-way convinced himself, still laughing it off whenever he was suddenly gripped by anxiety, not willing to believe the hold the painting had gained over him.
Upon returning to trade, Wilhelmus began to express uncharacteristic laxity. He was renowned for the fervour with which he pursued the best compromise for himself. Now, however, it was as if he was half-way distracted by something, as if the behaviour were rote, rather than earnest. It was even seen, not very often, it is true, but startling even in its irregularity, that someone got the best of Offermans. His colleagues, who had seen his temper innumerable times, expected a fantastic show on these occasions. Alas, they were disappointed. When the man noticed that he’d lost out on a deal, he usually accepted it with admirable equanimity, if making a reaction at all. The truth was, with every gainful transaction he made, Wilhelmus would feel a twinge of guilt, totally alien to him before now. A subconscious timorousness began to build, undermining his latent aggression.
Offermans began to have trouble sleeping. When alone at night, he was often assaulted by fits of nervousness – the room seemed to tilt on its side, his breath grew short. Always, underneath it all, was the feeling that he was hunted, that he had done a wrong and, despite their smiles and easy manner, all knew, and judged. Offermans’ initial thought was that he had simply been working himself too hard. Early winter was always difficult, the monsoon turning over in earnest in Batavia. The more clandestine dealings he had out Manila-way, while not the majority of his shipping, were hugely lucrative, and ships could be lost in sudden typhoon with little warning. Chalking it up to getting on in years and an accordingly weakening constitution, Offermans resolved to relax. More time spent with Veronique, less on business matters.
One afternoon, while balancing his ledger in the study, Wilhelmus suffered an attack. His vision narrowed to a tunnel, a roar of white noise deafened him, and he fainted on to his desk, body convulsing. The crash caught the attention of the footman Seegers, who, of course, was stationed not far down the hall. Seegers set to making Offermans as comfortable as possible and a doctor was immediately called for. The patient having come to but still muddled, the doctor could not determine anything more precise than a generalised anxiety.
That is, until Wilhelmus’ semi-delirious eyes came to rest upon the portrait on the opposite wall. A shout ejected itself from drawn lips, and the man once more sunk into unconsciousness.
“You, man!” the doctor said to Seegers, “We must convey your Master from this room. I do not know what manner of dominion the painting has over the poor fellow – it is a disease of the mind, one that I am ill-equipped to diagnose or combat. For now, though, take the odious thing from this place. You’ve seen the effect it has on him!”
Offermans was carried by the two men, the doctor hoisting him from under the arms, Seegers holding the legs, up the stairs and to his bedchamber, a sallow and distraught Annelies looking on. Depositing the prostrate Handelaar there, the doctor left, admonishing Seegers to fetch him once more if the symptoms persisted. Seegers, then, returned to the study.
He looked up at the portrait. The stern face of Offerman’s archetype looked down at him. Growing uncomfortable under the superior will, the footman sniffed nervously and set about the painting’s removal. With the aid of Annelies’ maid, the portrait was transferred to the attic, a heavy drapery enshrouding it.
Offermans was bed-ridden following the attack. The doctor returned on the second day of his convalescence, in order to look in on the patient. And present his bill.
“Yes, Heer Offermans, I do believe it to be the portrait that has brought on this attack. I can’t fathom why it might be, or what about it has conjured forth such uncharacteristic behaviour, but it seems clear. The way you reacted to it, there is no doubt left in my mind that it plays an important role. Now, about that fee…”
Wilhelmus had been agitated and feverish following the incident. The revelation as to the probable cause, though, felled him. He had been nearly ready to resume his usual affairs, but, following the departure of the doctor, he remained abed a further three days and nights.
Images of the portrait floated in his overwrought mind, always glaring. A crystalline clarity took hold of Offermans during the course of these visions. Of course it was the portrait! How could he have not seen it before now, before it struck near-mortally?
“But, who, who has done this to me?” he rambled. “Whose idea was it, whose idea to load me with such a malevolent article, an accursed object? Ah! Ah! I remember now! I see it! It was Veronique, the lichtekooi! It was she that mentioned that diabolist Van Peij – it was her idea altogether! Ah! What a fool I’ve been! She, she’s probably lain with him, just like that onzedelijke friend of hers!” His fevered internal ravings carried on like this for the whole period, souring a heart already clotted with lucre.
When he had finally shaken off the acute symptoms of his condition, his first action was to pen a letter. Sitting at his desk, still faint, he wrote to Veronique, the blank space on the wall opposite trumpeting its bareness. He told her that he knew of her treachery, of her duplicity. He now saw her for the Jezebel she was, how she had used him, gorged herself on the stuff of his naïve kindness, his hard-earned money. No more. There would be no further support, and no further contact. He was cutting all ties, and hoped that she choked on the bitterness of her reward, her hex turned against herself. Catching a theme, he finished the letter saying that it was only, only, the kindness of his Christian heart, and his belief in, even if he couldn’t muster his own, Divine Forgiveness that prevented him from publicly naming her a witch, and inciting The People against her. Let her think on that, the next time she should set her sights on some hapless, honest man.
Next, he had Seegers bring the portrait back down to the study. Grudgingly, the footman complied. Sweating from the strain of carrying the large painting down the three flights of stairs himself, the man heaved it on to the ground with a grunt.
“Good. Thank you, Seegers. Very good.” Wilhelmus said, curtly, absently. “Now, please leave me.”
The man, looking from the painting to his Master and back, nodded once and left the room, closing the door behind him. For a time, Offermans stood looking at the portrait, hands balled into fists as he leaned on the desk. Given the height differential, the portrait glared down from a superior position, smug, condescending. The original felt his face redden, thinking – this is ridiculous! It’s only a blasted painting, after all! And yet…
A twitch started thrumming in Wilhelmus’ right eye. His hand snatched out, grabbing up a stray penknife from the desk as he shifted himself around its dividing bulk. Seven strides and he had closed the distance. A slash, from left corner diagonal, cut across the face. A further stroke rent the body. A stab, a second stab, and the knife struck the wall through the canvas, shuddering from the man’s grasp. Stretching out his arms to their utmost, he grabbed the portrait by the frame, and, lifting it, drove it into the adjacent fireplace. Wedged, he smashed at it, until it had folded itself into the space. The fire, banked, licked at the well-oiled fabric as Offermans stood panting and sweating. A trick of the assault had left the over-large face of the portrait looking back up at its model, patronising even in defeat. Wilhelmus shuddered, and, wheezing, left the room.
Several weeks passed, and Offermans was seen to recover, mentally and physically. However, word of his aberrant behaviour began to circulate, and his nascent social vibrancy sharply declined. These things being intimately connected, his business contacts began to dry up, as well. When invitation to a soiree arrived after a month’s time, even though he would have deemed this set beneath him but a season ago, Wilhelmus jumped at the opportunity.
The evening was thrown by Jonkvrouw de Ruiter, and was populated by her bohemian coterie. Presenting his card, Wilhelmus and Annelies were escorted and presented by the de Ruiter footman. Set in a handsome double-wide canal house in the Golden Bend, one of several de Ruiter residences, the party took place in a broad drawing room. A cut crystal chandelier augmented the candelabra scattered about the space, filling the area with a scintillating yet warm light. The Offermansen had arrived late enough that the room was already abuzz with conversation, and yet not so late as to offend proprieties.
The evening was getting on well, Wilhelmus had spoken with many of his friends of yester-month, and felt that he had allayed their fears, set to rest their doubts. Things might be back on the up-swing, after all, he felt.
Coming up on half-ten, Van Peij arrived. He was greeted with cheers, this being an unusually demonstrative slice of Amsterdam’s high-society. Offermans’ heart sank as his face reddened. While his own winter had been filled with misery, sickness and neglect, the artist had gone from success to success. Libertine, his painterly prowess had prevented the puritanical of society from castigating him. He was, in fact, the man of the hour.
The artist was caught in a rush of people – it seemed everyone in attendance wanted to be first to greet him, to receive a kind word of recognition. The man’s inebriated state was clear from the emphatic manner in which he responded to the jovial and excited salutations. After several minutes of this, however, he caught sight of Wilhelmus sheepishly ensconced in a far corner. Extricating himself with difficulty from well-wishers, the man cut across the hall. As the attendees noticed the development, a hush fell across the crowd.
“So, the Iconoclast has come out of hiding at last, has he?” Van Peij called out in challenge. Turning back to the crowd, who were still massed at the double doors of the entrance, he continued “For this is an Inconoclast, is it not? I am but a humble artisan, it is true, but I, in the work that was commissioned by our Heer Offermans, created a Truth, a Truth which he saw fit to destroy!”
Offermans, for his part, said nothing. The few people left around him sidled away. His flushed complexion merely blanched, leaving him a pallid yellow.
Lifting an accusatory finger, Van Peij continued “View it or no, display it or not, I would have no quarrel with the man. The portrait was his possession, paid for fairly and timely. Its rank destruction, though? Such is the act of a squalid cretin; we have a base philistine in our midst, a beastly creature, do we not?”
How could Wilhelmus explain to them all, explain the way this artist, this sorcerer, had enchanted the painting with such malevolence? How could he tell them how this was all a twisted scheme concocted by the two of them, this rakehell and the slattern? He fled the scene, dragging with him his confused, but complacent, wife.
“Who amongst you has not sinned? We have all sinned, brothers and sisters, in the eyes of the Lord!”
Gripped by an external force, feeling as if he were just as much a bystander as the family across Damstraat, the mother vainly trying to shoo her children along, as the shop goers he and Annelies had just passed by, Wilhelmus shouted out
“I have sinned!”
People turn to look, their interest piqued in a manner shut to the rantings of a doom cryer. The voice of Wilhelmus, though, oleaginous with dignity, struck an unusual note – what was this man doing? Was this a bit of cruel sport? But, surely, surely such would be beneath a man of readily apparent standing! As people turned to look at what was going on, others, freshly arrived, noticed the diverted attention of those around them and sought out the focus for themselves. The crowd grew, as if out of an internal volition.
Offermans was blind to it. He couldn’t feel the tug on his coat sleeve as Annelies pulled at him, whispering with thin lips – “Wilhelmus, people are looking! We must go! Don’t say anything more!” her eyes rolling like a startled horse.
Offermans couldn’t even see the face of the itinerant preacher, who had turned to look at him, saying “Confess your sins, Brother! God is everywhere, and will hear your confession! No doubt of it, your fore-doom is set – but – this may be the moment that your life turns a corner, where you step into His Holy Light!”
It wasn’t the preacher’s voice he heard, nor was it the preacher’s face he saw. It had been replaced, replaced by the sombre tones that tugged at his memory, a vague recognition of his father, replaced by the face of – of the portrait! The portrait he had destroyed, seen burned to ash, months ago!
“I have sinned!” Offermans repeated. The preacher gestured, egging him on. “I have committed the sin of Adultery! Wanton, I have suffered terribly for my sin!” Annelies’ slack hand dropped off Wilhelmus’ coat-sleeve. In her naivete, this was the first she learned of the Other Woman. “The Jezebel struck at me, giving rise to you, my Judger! I see now that it is useless to run…”
“Adultery is a grave sin, brother,” said the evangelist, “but, if God our Lord has so ordained it, you shall be made clean. Your recognition is what is impor-” Wilhelmus cut him off.
“I have sinned!” he shouted out. Annelies drew away from him, backing tentatively into the crowd.
“Is that what you want?” the man shouted. “I’ve sinned, I tell you! I am a usurer! Oh, how many the times I leveraged my position, my superiority, and caught those who came to me in need, just as the spider catches the fly? I sucked their life blood, I tell you! I ate them, as the mouse, exhausted by torment, is finally ravaged by the cat! I am no better than a Jew, a Money-lender in the Temple!” Angry murmurs were heard from the crowd. There were those that had friends, family members, ruined by this manner of conduct.
“Give up your sins, brother, for no sin is too great for God’s forgiveness! Let His benevolence shine on y-”
“A third time, I have sinned!” Offermans sank to his knees, face thrust upwards, unseeing eyes fixed on the distance. “I am a traitor! I have consorted with our enemy, that Popish horde, that vile oppressor, the Spanish! I have traded with them, I have provided them succour, I have profited from their victories, and known their losses! I have secretly spat on the Orange of Nassau, time and again, cursing the Free State in my heart! I have sinned, I tell you!” The murmurings of the crowd swelled to shouts of anger and surprise.
The man keeled over, hand clutching his breast. His blackened heart, in the unburdening of its misdeeds, had burst its bonds. Wilhelmus Offermans lay on the flags before the weighhouse which had once seen such lucrative gains for him, dead to this world.