The Almost Garden
He pours black coffee from a steel kettle flaking with green paint. We are all unsure of the mixture, cooked over a temperamental gas cooker surrounded with paintbrushes, chair legs and the bones of apes. There is a long silence, in Dutch, English, and Malay. Somewhere, out of the window on the third floor, a crow sings to the roses.
“Aini, go show Maria the garden,” your father says suddenly. “You must show Maria the garden.” She nods, turning on her heel, the coffee already forgotten in the forest of art that crowds the kitchen table.
“Come, Maria,” she says in her low faux-american voice, the one all art students have in our global Europe. “I’ll show you the garden.” She leads me through a mass of umbrella stands made of crocodile skins, flaking wood carvings and skulls coated in white plaster. I hide my alarm at the sight of a female body, wrapped in muslin and buried in sand in a jar, her face contorted, her hair still curled on the skull. This house is a great creaking ship of artefacts hoarded between fridges and tables, coffee pots and spray cans. I wonder if the boards will give way, and I will be sent falling down through this aristocratic relic, through to the hard stone floor of the workshop, surrounded by millions of pounds of gore and fascination. This is the great freakshow of polite society in Maastricht: the home of Berent Bentinck.
And so Aini takes me to the almost garden.
It isn’t a garden, so much as a great prison filled with a little sky at the top corner and the slow crowding of ivy that grows up to the light. The walls are stone, grey, and reach a hundred feet into the sky, up as tall as the houses that crowd this fashionable Dutch street, so that you crane your head up to find the blue above you. It is a space die, a space to be caught by the monsters of nightmares and the predators you find wandering the corners of REM sleep. This is where Hitchcock’s villains stifle that last scream, the claustrophobia in sharp opposition of the cheerful roses that bloom in brilliant magenta out of the shadows. Berent has stuck shards of broken mirror up a good thirty foot of wall, sending the light mercifully down to the pit below. This isn’t a garden, but it almost could be.
Aini chatters away cheerfully, excited at her coursework for the following term, moving her arms wildly with a cool grin as she talks of netsuke and Japanese folklore. In a blinding heat of intellect, she has spun on to the archetypes of water spirits in Asian-American cinema, no, wait, B-Movie horror from the 1970s. I listen to her, pleased to be away from the sullen figure her father cuts among his collection of dead bodies and fine china. It would feel surreal, impossible, outside of this boheme outpost of the European elite.
She leads me up cavernous floor to cavernous floor, shrugging when I question her about the 6th Century corpse that sits so still opposite her bed, oblivious to the teen magazines and highlighter pink hearts that litter the floor. Then up to the top floor, bar the attic (the floor isn’t so good, I’m told) where the man himself sleeps, in a great four poster bed surrounded by animal hides and acrylic paintings of his former wife, Noorhanim. She grins out in red fabric, a flower behind her ear. The room is as if she has never left, shoes from the 2000s collapsing out of chests, studded with decaying rhinestones, an old hairspray can thick with dust on the window sill. Everyone knows that Noorhanim is no longer with Berent, and no one can really say what happened. That woman, they said, left the mad man on the hoofdstraat. She is gone, her ghost no more here than the women buried in piles of umbrellas around the house, leaving him and the house in some strange tomb for a woman who has almost forgotten she was ever here.
“He still loves her,” I say, quietly, to no one.
“Yes,” Aini says, carefully. “I think so.”