The sun tries its hardest to break through the low-hanging mist. We are moving through the prettiest part of our route: the heath, dotted with fantastic pines and beeches that glimmer silvery white through the fog.
[private]I would gladly step out into that mysterious world. In my poor, city-girl imagination, I envisage the gradual clearing of the mist and re-emergence of the sun. In my mind’s eye, I can see the forest animals awaken and stretch themselves lazily.
I can’t remember the last time I was in the woods. All I can recall is the city park, which has too little that’s natural and too much that’s manmade: gravel paths, mown grass, neatly planted flowerbeds, geometric streams littered with orange peels and decaying half-eaten sandwiches, patrolled by well-trained ducks and crawling with pensioners, actually nothing more than a graveyard except no headstones, the corpses out in the open, sitting on the green park benches, twittering, scattering crumbs to the birds.
Maybe none of us has had enough sleep over the weekend. Like overfed housecats on velvet cushions, we gaze drowsily out the window. Cora sucks on a bonbon for a long time, apparently not realising what she’s doing.
When the compartment door is suddenly thrown open, we are shocked out of our lethargy. A young, gleamingly polished conductor — new to us but equipped with all the tools of his trade — steps into our car.
“All tickets, please,” he says, his voice stiff and formal.
He examines us impatiently from behind wire-rimmed eyeglasses, as if it surprises him that we’re not sitting on the edge of our seats with our tickets at the ready. As slowly as possible, searching distractedly in handbags and coat pockets, we locate and present our monthly passes. With the precision of a schoolmaster, he studies the small print on each pass.
“This is expired,” he says, and glares at me through the glittering lenses of his spectacles. “You should have renewed it this morning.”
“Oh,” I say, and my hands fly automatically to my cheeks, “I completely forgot.”
“Nothing to worry about,” says Cora good-naturedly. “It happens to all of us. You’ll take care of it tomorrow.”
“Then you’ll need a round-trip ticket today,” says the conductor.
“What do you mean, a round-trip ticket?” asks Cora suspiciously.
“For today,” he says again. He’s irritated; this is taking too long. Cora stares at him, speechless. I flush with the realisation that I have no money on me.
“You’re funny,” Cora laughs. “I haven’t heard that one before.”
With furrowed brow and unpleasantly tight lips, he looks her up and down. He seems to want to will her away, to wish he was looking at something else — his girlfriend, perhaps, who always has her ticket with her, who at this hour of the morning is still in her frilly pink bed, dreaming of him and of the everything-first-class trips they’ll someday take at someone else’s expense.
“We’ve been riding this route for years,” cries Cora, insulted. “The railway’s made a fortune off of us, but you can’t excuse one honest mistake?”
The conductor pulls out his ticket book and begins to scribble.
Cora turns red. “What’s your problem? We were riding this train before you were born!”
He ignores her and tears a ticket from his pad. As he offers it to me, Cora’s pudgy hand snatches it from his fingers.
“Jesus!” She leans towards Trix. “Look at this: the bastard’s charging her a fine.”
And then, as I sit there like a fool with my empty wallet open in my hand, Cora gives him a withering look and takes action in the same cool and detached way a queen of the olden days whose patience had reached its limit would turn away from an accused subject and wave an imperious hand at his bailiff and order “Lock him up!” or “Off with his head!” and then instantly forget all about it and move on to other matters.
She stands up brusquely and — the yellow buttons on her purple dress jiggling with every movement — she gets right in his face and snatches his eyeglasses from his nose.
“No,” she says.
As if his very soul has been stolen from him, the conductor blinks helplessly and chews on his lower lip.
“Give those back,” he says hoarsely, and grabs for them, but Cora holds them high above her head and out of his reach. “Give me my glasses!”
Cora laughs at him, her sweetest laugh, little stars twinkling in her eyes.
Mama, mama, the bear is loose, I think. A strange and delectable excitement courses through me. I feel like something irreversible has been set in motion, and none of us will ever be the same again.
“You’ll get your glasses back when you rip up that ticket,” says Cora. “Not till then.”
He stares at her, confused by the sudden shift in power. He holds tightly to the leather pouch around his waist with one hand and to his cap with the other, as if to reassure himself of his position.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says sternly.
“Fine, then.” With a deep sigh, Cora hands the glasses to Trix, who is sitting in the corner by the window. As if they’ve talked it over at length and agreed how to play out the scene, Trix does exactly what Cora must want her to do: she opens the window and thrusts the eyeglasses outside into the misty air, her graceful posture emphasising the soft curve of her waist and hip. With her lovely smile, she looks just like the women in the ads, leaning seductively against the hood of a Mercedes to lure businessmen into buying it.
“Don’t!” cries the conductor, panicked. “Give them back!”
“I’ve told you what we’re willing to trade for them,” Cora says calmly, as if she’s refusing to haggle with a merchant at the market.
Cornered, he looks around the compartment furiously and then fearfully at the window, where the expensive lenses precisely suited to the weakness of his eyes are in danger of being dropped and shattered.
“I’m going to report you at the next station,” he cries.
“Hear that, girls? He’s going to report us!”
With an ease as if she was merely lifting it from a hatstand, Cora plucks the cap from his head and sets it jauntily atop her own dyed black hair. She turns her head and laughs at us over her shoulder. Without his cap, the conductor seems weak, fragile, his silken blond curls at the nape of his neck.
“You know you have beautiful blue eyes?” asks Cora.
He swallows with difficulty, as if he’s got a plum pit stuck in his throat, and grabs clumsily for his cap, but Cora is faster than he is and hands it off to Lien. “Don’t you think he has beautiful blue eyes?” One by one, we line up beside her and gaze at him with the same fanatical admiration we would give to a James Dean film, which makes him even more nervous. He obviously can’t stand the hysteria of women who would swarm past the security guards and bodyguards onto the stage to touch an Elvis Presley; he feels solidarity not with Elvis, but with the rent-a-cops, the men in the caps and uniforms.
“Now give me your little pouch,” says Cora. He stares at her, astounded. No one has ever dared talk to him like this. Speechless, he shakes his head.
“Come on,” says Cora. “Otherwise, you know what’ll happen to your glasses.”
With supple movements of her wrist, Trix sways the spectacles back and forth in the mist.
Something has erupted in Cora, a power that is stronger than any possible opposition, like a river in monsoon season swelling beyond its banks and ripping trees out of the ground and washing them out to sea.
“Let’s go, sonny, give mamma your toy.”
Beaten, he unhooks the pouch from around his waist. Without even glancing at it, Cora passes it over to Lien, who stashes it in the corner behind her worn shopping bag, her knitting needles sticking up like the antennas on a portable radio.
“So,” says Cora, “have you changed your mind?”
They face each other expectantly, Cora a full head taller than him. How did she get so tall, I think, and so strong?
At that moment, it seems that a peace treaty is in the offing, as if his next words will be: “You’re right, what am I so worried about? It doesn’t make any difference to me. Let’s just forget the whole thing.”
But suddenly he shoves Cora out of his way and lunges towards Trix, falling onto her with his full weight. His attention is riveted to his eyeglasses — his hands scrabble for them, and it’s a wonder that Trix doesn’t drop them out of pure shock.
Just for an instant, Cora seems to have been taken out of the game: she stands there, dazed, like a fat woman who’s lost her little dog. Oh, my, he was just here a second ago!
But then she throws herself onto Trix’s attacker, grabs the collar of his conductor’s jacket and yanks him off her. His eyes bug out and he growls, thirsty for blood. He’s like a dog, pulled off his worst enemy in the heat of the battle.
Trix brushes strands of hair off her face and smoothes her dress. She doesn’t seem the least bit disturbed. No, she’s like a young girl after making whoopee with her boyfriend, crawling out of the bushes with a flushed face and a sparkle in her eyes.
Outside the window, a UFO flies by: Lien has thrown the conductor’s cap from the compartment like a Frisbee.
His legs trapped, his arms flailing, the young man tries to free himself. Cora grabs his wrists and forces them behind his back.
“Get his legs,” she hisses. Trix and Lien each fasten onto one leg and force it down. My heart pounds in my throat. I have no experience of violence. At home, our disagreements are cool and dispassionate — our wars are always civil.
“Let’s take off that cute little jacket,” says Cora. Because each of us ought to have a hand in the taming of the beast, her eyes turn now to me. With trembling hands, I pull on the coarse fabric of the sleeve. It’s no easy task, relieving a struggling man of his jacket. If he would just play along, I think, it’d be so much easier. I can tell from Cora’s expression that it takes all of her strength to hold him down. He’s fighting to escape like a wounded tiger and his eyes are filled with hate.
“Now the tie,” says Cora, calm as a surgeon asking a nurse for a scalpel. I bend over him obediently and we gaze straight into each other’s eyes. I have his tie in one hand as if I’m about to strangle him.
What do I know about people? Nothing. There are a few, like my father, about whom I’ve been forced to think deeply. But I can see the fear in this man’s huge blue pupils, darting this way and that like frightened fish in the deep blue sea. I think his fear runs even deeper than his hatred, which itself helps to keep him from drowning. An inappropriate gulf of pity washes over me and confuses me. I quickly untie his tie.
“Well,” asks Cora, in a tone that says she no longer anticipates any response, “what do you say, boy?”
He says nothing. He just lies there, absolutely still. Is he plotting some unexpected move?
We watch him, waiting. And then his body tenses, and he swivels his head and spits right in Cora’s face.
Cora smiles and wipes away the spittle with her purple sleeve. “Shirt,” she says.
My father has the exact same cufflinks. I fumble them loose. When I have the first sleeve halfway free, the conductor makes a sudden wrenching motion and the fabric rips, like a rabbit ripping its own skin as it struggles to release itself from a hunter’s trap. His chest is pale, his chest hair thin and blond.
I lean back.
“Pants.” Cora seems impatient. “We’ll show him he’s just an ordinary little boy, nothing special.”
“Take away a man’s uniform,” says Trix, “and there’s not much left.”
Uniforms. They’re so, so German. Marching around in perfectly synchronised columns, black leather boots stamping the ground, each with one hand angled skyward in a salute, chanting their battle hymns — I’ve seen it in so many films, read it in so many books, heard it from so many survivors who saw it in the flesh. What are we doing, I think. It’s too late to stop, though — we’ve unleashed something that is stronger than ourselves.
As I undo his belt, I can see Ruud in the dim light of the furniture store, standing by the side of the bed, undoing his belt with self-assured movements, and I’m spread out on the soft bed filled with surprise and disgust at my blind obedience. It puzzles me: why do I keep on doing things I don’t want to do?
It’s not easy for Lien and Trix to get his glossy black shoes off him, but they manage. I almost have to rip off a leg to remove his trousers. Just like a boxer waits for his opponent to drop his guard so he can attack, the conductor picks his moment and lets fly with a well-aimed hick. Trix goes sprawling and clutches her face in both hands.
“You’re going to regret this,” he gasps.
Why her, I think. Why Trix — hasn’t she taken enough punishment already? But his bare foot hasn’t really done much damage and she recovers quickly. Without any further interruption, I unpants him.
And that seems to break him. His upper body lies limp in Cora’s lap. They could pose for a deposition from the cross, with Cora as the grieving Mary and the conductor as the martyred Christ, except for the light-blue boxers he wears instead of a loincloth.
If I ever get married, I think, I’m going to buy boxers just like those for my husband.
Now what? Is there really any doubt? We exchange questioning glances across the conductor’s body.
“Let’s finish it,” says Trix. She shakes back her mane of hair from her eyes.
“Go ahead.” She nods at me.
I stand beside him. I’ve never seen anyone brought down so low.
He looks like we’re about to toss him out the window or, worse, as if he’d prefer that fate to the one we have planned for him.
What is it we want? Is it revenge, to completely debase him? Or do we simply need a new kind of excitement to get us out of our daily rut?
I can’t move. If only I was a mechanical toy with a key in my back, so they could wind me up and I could do what was expected of me. Three pairs of eyes urge me on, one pair begs for leniency. Is this now the touchstone of our friendship? Do I have to prove myself worthy of being “one of the girls”?
“I’ll do it,” says Trix.
She sits up. Ashamed and relieved, I move out of the way. Let her take over, it’s better that way. I can see it in the seductive smile that flickers across her lips.
In one last burst of anger, he roars, “Stay away from me! Goddammit, leave me alone!”
Then, reduced to desperation, he assumes a foetal position on the ground. I can feel his leg muscles straining. Trix resolutely grabs his boxers with both hands and pulls them down to his ankles.
He turns away, his humiliation complete. A shaft of sunlight breaks through the mist and illuminates the compartment, enveloping the conductor’s body in a warm glow.
We are silent, and the rattle of the train’s wheels over the rails seems to swell.
Cora, a peaceful matron, examines his naked body thoughtfully. All thoughts of vengeance seem to have left her. Her hold on his arms loosens and he hangs against her like the prodigal son returned to his mother’s lap.
Lien strokes his leg absently, scrunching up her nose to reseat her glasses, an unconscious tic we’ve seen many times before.
Trix’s usually bored expression is gone, replaced by one of lively interest. She blushes with excitement, her nostrils flare and her eyes gleam. I’ve never seen her so beautiful. She holds the light-blue boxers in her hand like a religious icon.
The sun is warm on my back. I feel the tension drain out of me, the way it feels after a heavy storm has passed. I wouldn’t mind if the train kept on forever.
As majestic as an ancient priestess, Trix leans over and kisses his chest. He shivers, the leg in my hand jumps as if it has a mind of its own. Slowly, carefully, Trix’s lips trace their way from his chest to his stomach, her long blond hair accompanying their descent. From his belly, she describes an arc along his hip to his thigh, tickling the fine hairs which catch the sunlight.
No one says a word. It is as if we are witnessing some secret ritual — and, wonder of wonders, his body reacts to her touch and salutes her. As if in a trance, Trix runs her lips along the inside of his thigh. A groan escapes him, accompanied by a violent shaking of his chest and shoulders, and the mood that has swept us all away is broken.
Trix sits up, and her lust gives way to astonishment as she sees him sobbing in Cora’s lap, trying to hide his face in the folds of her purple dress. Cora, the all-forgiving and understanding mother, strokes his hair tenderly. Dismayed by the effect of her caresses, Trix plucks nervously at the boxers she still clutches in her hand.
The train begins to slow.
I only know what’s been happening in our compartment. Of all the yawning and coughing, the silent glances and gossipy exchanges, the irritations and dreams in the rest of the train, I can only guess. In principle, the conductor is the only person aboard who remains completely neutral, as he makes his rounds from car to car.
Not this conductor, though. This one hasn’t finished his rounds. As we approach the station, he regains his awareness of his surroundings. Exhausted, he rises from the floor and, unsteady on his feet, slides open the compartment door.
“Wait,” says Cora, “your clothes.”
We gather his things together. He doesn’t seem to pay any attention. We no longer exist for him. He staggers out into the corridor, Cora tottering along behind him, us in her wake.
“Get dressed,” she says. “You can’t let them see you like this.”
We wrap his pants, socks, shirt, tie, glasses and leather pouch in his jacket, tie the sleeves together and press the bundle into his arms. He gazes at us blankly, as if he’s just been handed an orphaned child in a blanket.
Thank goodness there’s no one else in the corridor. We hustle back into our compartment — this isn’t our stop. Our excited bodies huddle close against each other as we press our noses to the window and watch the conductor leave the train.
Quite a few passengers are waiting on the platform. They step aside for the naked traveller.
He strides forward through the crowd with the little bundle of clothing held to his chest, staring solemnly before him as if he is carrying his first-born son to the baptismal font.[/private]
Written by Tessa de Loo and translated by Josh Pachter.
"The Sweet Factory Girls" was part of Tessa de Loo’s literary debut in 1983. Haus Publishing will publish her travel adventure, Pig in a Palace, in which she retraces Byron’s journeys in Albania. She lives in south Portugal and Paris and is one of the most successful writers in the Dutch language.
Josh Pachter is an American professor who lived and taught in Europe and the Middle East from 1976 until 1991. More than 70 of his short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the US and internationally, and his translations of fiction by Dutch crime writers appear regularly in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. In the '80s, he edited the popular Top Crime, Top Science Fiction and Top Fantasy anthologies.