Meditation involved gathering and eating fruit in a contemplative manner. Sophie’s mind stilled as she ate a variety of berries in season, stopping as soon as her body was satisfied. She then made a selection from plentiful herbs and vegetables to add to her raw salad brunch.
The difference between the countryside around Maastricht and her Perth hills home was the fertile soil. Everything Australians struggle to grow in a dry climate grew wild in its native European environment. Sophie stroked a zucchini plant.
She missed the Australian birdsong, although the melodic conversations in French from neighbouring children, parents and grandparents reminded her of growing up listening to her mother’s records of operas in various foreign languages. Bea’s neighbours were enjoying the coolness of the early morning summer sunshine, as huge bumble bees whirred amongst the flowers, whilst barges chugged gently along the canal half a kilometre away.
‘What have you picked to squeeze into that large glass jar?‘ Bea enquired when Sophie returned to the small kitchen.
‘Aniseed fern, huge mint leaves with a sharp tang, rocket leaves, a few runner beans, beetroot leaves – they’re yellowing, don’t worry the plants will still grow – and nasturtium leaves. I’ll add three large celery sticks, and will have food to chew on slowly till after lunch or later, depending what other activities I do.’
‘Your style of eating is so different to mine.’ Bea wiped the fringe from her forehead. ‘And what are your plans for today?’
‘Cycle to the markets to stock up your fridge.’
‘But I have food in the garden!’ Bea protested.
Sophie laughed. ‘You’ve seen how many vegetables I eat. Your garden will be empty in three days.’
Bea nodded. ‘I remember now. What did you eat at my daughter’s place for the last two days?’
‘As Anna likes to remind us, the supermarket around the corner is her pantry!’
‘Well, I have a lot of paperwork to sort, so I’d better get started.’ Bea hurried to the dining table.
The aromas of herbs filled the kitchen, warmed by the morning sunlight, where the silence created its own sound. For the moment there were no worries to distract her. The peace and total body relaxation were almost sacred. The sunshine warmed Sophie’s heart without burning her skin, whilst her Australian home drowned in cold July rain with no windows facing the winter sun.
After a while Sophie became too hot, so she retreated to the shaded kitchen table to methodically chop her vegetables after rinsing away the brown clay.
As Sophie packed her brunch into the bike paniers, a thought intruded. Poor Alida would’ve been lucky to get fresh anything, let alone select what she wanted. After letting Bea know she would return from the markets in a couple of hours, Sophie pushed open the aluminium garage door with the old Dutch bike’s front wheel. She put the stainless-steel chain with the key around her neck. The wind caressed her hair as she free-wheeled down the hill. Sophie spread her arms to embrace the freedom she felt. This is the life! No helmets as in our nanny-state country.
A few seconds later it struck her how her Australian perspective on the necessity for helmets disappeared as soon as she started cycling in Holland where bicycles are respected by car drivers. Twenty years ago, her skull had felt so vulnerable on infrequent trips to Holland, but for these last few annual holidays when the only cycling she did was in Holland, it had become the norm. She shuddered as she recalled how her helmet had saved her from a split skull on two high-speed falls on roads when she cycled a lot back in Perth.
Sophie cycled through a patchwork of farm crops, ranging from grains, cow fodder –turnips and maize – interspersed with a variety of vegetable plantations and orchards. Small farm-houses were surrounded by rotund, cream-coloured beef cattle, multi-coloured and plain brown, white or black ponies, and black and white milking cows. She stopped to photograph her favourite animal – a massive black Clydesdale horse that reminded her of a photo of her mother with several other children on top of a similar stallion. She remembered that it was one of the few stories her mother had shared with her about growing up in this province.
Sophie wondered if Alida had ever been to this picture-postcard valley. She clenched her jaw, the rage that had kept her awake until three in the morning resurfacing. She hissed passionately to the fluffy clouds. ‘Don’t worry, Oma, wherever your spirit is now; I’ll really enjoy this for you, and write it into the life I am writing about you. How dare Opa deny you this!’
The warm sun brought her attention back to the brilliant kaleidoscope of colours, smells and sounds enveloping her. Suddenly her dad’s mother’s request prior to her embarking on the trip to find the family in Holland thirty-one years earlier popped into her mind. ‘I wish I could’ve travelled around the world in my life. Make sure you enjoy the trip for both of us, please.’ Sophie whispered, ‘So, dear Oma, this beautiful place belongs in your story, even though your husband denied you this lifestyle that your children and I have enjoyed for you.’
In the middle of the fields on a single car-width road, stood a small, concrete post – a solitary marker of the now invisible border between Belgium and Holland. She remembered riding into a strong headwind across this three-kilometre flat valley with Bea seven years earlier. She had longed to get off and walk, but instead had insisted on leading the way to provide her then eighty-eight-year-old aunt with some shelter. Back in the old days when we were both fit, strong cyclists, Sophie thought. At least we didn’t have to wear long wide skirts as Alida did in the 1920s. They would’ve been like bloody parachutes. Suddenly she recalled Bea saying that until 1930 only men with delivery businesses had bicycles.
After seven kilometres, she entered Maastricht’s southern suburbs, with single-family grand houses and well-kept gardens. A kilometre later she was stopped by traffic lights on the ring-road. On the other side was a cycle lane along a single lane road canopied by trees through botanical gardens, and an animal park in which there were many deer that people could pat. Five hundred metres further on, cars were prohibited. Sophie absorbed a visual bouquet of antique shops and thousand-year-old churches around the village square, and then dismounted to negotiate the crowded market.
She stocked up with cheese samples for Bea, fresh fruit, celery, spinach and carrots to make her base salad, to which she would add various delights from Bea’s garden. Everything was available at the farmers’ market in the town square of Maastricht’s old city on the Dutch side of the border.
Sophie cycled across the car-less cobbled streets of the city centre to one of at least a dozen supermarkets to add yoghurt and wine to her backpack. She strapped it on top of the bike frame to which the overflowing panniers were attached. The bike was so heavy it wobbled as she started to cycle. The weight necessitated many stops on the uphills to sip water as the hot sun burnt her face.
On her return to Bea’s home, she rushed inside for cold water from the fridge, then peeked into the lounge room to see if her aunt was waiting for them to lunch together.
‘Hello, there you are.’ Bea followed Sophie to the garage to help unpack the bike. ‘My goodness, you have bought enough for a week.’
‘Well, there are two of us now, and there will actually be more to buy in a couple of days at the Friday markets.’ Sophie laughed.
‘That’s why I go as many days as I can when the weather is good, so that I don’t have too much weight on the bike, because my balance is not so good any more. When Anna comes to visit, she usually brings a lot, or we drive to Maastricht.’ Bea took a bag. ‘I shall set the table for lunch.’
After filling Bea’s fridge, which contained various sealed containers aligned at the front of the shelves so she didn’t forget what she was alternating, Sophie joined Bea for lunch. ‘This weather is just perfect now for cycling and sitting around in shorts. Thirty degrees on the day after I landed was great for my very first swim at a Dutch beach.’ Her face glowed from the hill climbs after leaving Maastricht. ‘I’m hoping for some more hot days so that I can swim at all the beaches around here.’
‘Don’t count on it. They were the first warm days we’ve had this summer. How much do I owe you for the shopping?’
Sophie thrust her nose toward the ceiling with a cheeky grin. ‘You get a holiday from cycling all that way, cooking and paying for groceries while I enjoy using your power, water, gas, plus all the extra washing and all kinds of things.‘ Sophie’s face softened as she looked her aunt in the eye. ‘It’s the least I can do.’
Unlike the arguments of previous years, Bea asked only, ‘What do you plan to do for the rest of the day?’
‘I want to start working on Alida’s story, which is way overdue.’ Sophie’s smile now morphed into a scowl. ‘For thirty-one years I have avoided doing this. When I first found out about the story in 1985, everyone told me that I should write a book about Oma Alida’s invisible life, but what twenty-four-year-old has time for that?’
Bea inclined her head. ‘Sounds like too much hard work for me.’
Sophie had noticed Bea’s eyelids drooping during the last ten minutes. ‘While you have a nanna-nap, I’m going to work in the kitchen on the little tablet computer I brought to do my writing here at your lovely home with you.’
Bea laughed. ‘You can stay in here. I hear nothing when I take out my hearing aids and close my eyes.’
Sophie smiled. Usually she’d protest by going out to weed the garden. She’s aged so much. I hope she can still tell Alida’s story again.