In May 1976 my aunt and I were world news. I was six years old and had shoulder-length red ringlets, but you couldn’t see the colour in the photographs. ‘Holy Sister and Her Little Angel’ was the headline in a newspaper in Texas. A Brazilian Catholic magazine wrote about an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary before the gates of hell. In this case, hell was an abortion clinic in our village of Heemstede. We had no idea that we were going to become famous without anyone knowing our names. We had not performed some feat or survived a disaster. I happened to be at my grandma’s house because she was looking after me for a few hours, and my aunt, Sister Trientje, also happened to be visiting. After coffee, my grandma looked at her watch and announced that she was going to demonstrate in the village. ‘Some red women,’ she said, her jaws clenched so that her thin lips disappeared, ‘have occupied that gruesome, baby-murdering factory so that they can stop it being closed down.’
I was ashamed of the colour of my hair and had nightmare visions of shrieking red witches with babies skewered on knives. Thanks to my grandma, I knew exactly what an aborted foetus looked like at ten, twelve and fourteen weeks. There were leaflets all over her house with biblical admonitions and pictures of tiny, underdeveloped bodies that had been torn apart, which she handed out to pregnant women at the door of abortion clinics. Grandma had given me a foetus doll for my sixth birthday with a card that said, in her neat handwriting: ‘Psalm 139:13. For you created my inner parts, you wove me in my mother’s womb! Happy birthday.’ That same evening, my mother threw the doll in the bin. ‘Don’t forget,’ she said, ‘she’s your step-grandma. Your real grandma was normal.
My step-grandma stood up, put on her long brown coat and pushed a stack of leaflets into our hands. She inspected her short perm in the mirror in the hallway, while Aunt Trientje made the broken foetuses disappear into the infinite pockets of her long black habit. On the way there, my step-grandma spat her bile about the murder of innocent children and about atonement. She marched a metre ahead of us.
‘Remember the mop, my dear,’ said Aunt Trientje, putting a protective arm around me. Aunt Trientje had taught me how to mop. The exercise went as follows. I had to find a quiet spot and close my eyes. Then I grabbed a big mop and a bucket of water and I scrubbed my head until it was empty. After that, I’d mop down through my throat and towards my heart and the rest of my body, giving everything a big old clean-up. She’d explained that I was mopping away all the filth and the nastiness from outside, so that I could be clean and fresh inside again. Aunt Trientje used to give herself a mopping at least twice a day, on top of all the psalms she sang all day long, as if they were nursery rhymes. I didn’t know anyone who was as pure as my aunt Trientje.
Fifteen minutes later, we were standing outside the gates of the abortion clinic on Herenweg in Heemstede. What I remember was the relaxed atmosphere. It was like the village fair. Music, cheerful voices, a chip stand on the pavement. In the front garden of Grandma’s satanic murder factory, women, children and a few men were sitting on the grass. They were eating sandwiches, singing battle songs and laughing together. No one had red hair, except for me, and no one was walking around with knives that had bleeding foetuses skewered on them. The only one who looked angry was my step-grandma, who went to stand with a group of like-minded people. A scrawny man in a black habit and wearing a pair of dark sunglasses was speaking into a microphone about ‘the sixth commandment of the law of our Lord: Thou shalt not kill,’ but no one was listening.
My aunt asked if I wanted some chips, and we went to join the queue. In front of us were two young women holding signs that said ‘Knitting needles? Never again!’ My aunt loved knitting, and I couldn’t imagine that anyone could ever have anything against knitting needles. When the women went to pay, they only had a twenty-five-guilder note, and the chip man didn’t have any change. Aunt Trientje said that she’d get them, and she paid for four portions. They gave her a really strange look; it was the first time I’d felt ashamed of her ankle-length habit and black veil. It wasn’t until years later that I realised quite how extraordinary her gesture had been.
The sun was shining, and my aunt wanted to eat in the shade of the trees in the front garden. We walked onto the grounds of the abortion clinic, and I couldn’t fail to notice that all eyes were on her again. With a fearless and friendly smile, she walked past the mini-skirted women, feeding chips to a handful of pigeons and pointing out to me their beautiful grey colour and clever little eyes. When we’d finished our cones of chips, she crumpled the wrappers into a ball and conjured a huge white handkerchief from her habit, which she used to wipe my face. Then Grandma suddenly appeared in front of us and started preaching, with raised finger and lipless mouth. ‘You have entered the camp of the baby murderers! They have blood on their hands!’ She was pointing at the house behind us. They were Nazi doctors, bringing about a second Holocaust, while we munched away on our chips and mayonnaise. I was so scared of my grandma’s wolfish jaws that I grabbed Aunt Trientje’s hand, which was clutching the cotton handkerchief. And it was precisely then that the photograph was taken that briefly made us world famous. This was what people saw: a furious middle-aged woman wagging her finger at a serenely smiling nun who was holding on to a frightened little girl and a white flag of surrender, with five doves of peace at her feet. On the building behind us was a banner: LEGALISE ABORTION.
By Anne-Gine Goemans
Translated by Laura Watkinson
Extract from HOLY TRIENTJE
Published by Ambo Anthos (2019)
Anne-Gine Goemans made her debut in 2008 with the novel Ziekzoekers (‘Unfurrowed Ground’), which won the Anton Wachterprijs for best debut. Her second novel Glijvlucht (‘Gliding Flight,’) was awarded the Dioraphte Youth Literature Prize in 2012. Her latest novel is Holy Trientje (‘Holy Trinity’), published in 2019.
Laura Watkinson founded the Dutch chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her translated works include classics by Tonke Dragt, as well as works by Peter Terrin and Cees Nooteboom.