In the throng for the tram she allows herself to be pushed back again and again and ends up getting on last. Most of the passengers stay near the door but Esther presses her way through the tightly-packed crowd. It is drizzling outside and a layer of droplets glistens on scarves, jackets, people’s hair. Esther pushes past wet clothing that gives off a doggy smell with every move. A penetrating perfume rises up from someone’s collar and the scent of toothpaste barely masking yesterday’s booze is exhaled into her face.
She finds an empty seat in the back part of the tram. She sits down next to the window, takes off her hat and smoothes down her grey hair. She was pretty once—fiercely so. Her blue eyes still give off light.
She looks outside while listening to the noise around her. The beeping of telephones, the hubbub. She pricks up her ears and catches the odd word. The way young people carry on intimate conversations in public never fails to astonish her.
“Don’t talk to me in the imperative!” she hears a girl cry out. Esther smiles and tries to imagine ever saying something like that to her husband. She would never dare. She should be grateful he had taken her in, that she was safe with him.
Across from Esther, a young man wraps his arm possessively around his girlfriend. The girl beams back at him and laughs eagerly at his jokes.
Passengers walk past and the scent of smoke travelling on their clothes reaches Esther. Somewhere in the distance, soap.
Chrissy had smelt deliciously of soap after she’d washed and cleaned him. Her mother never wanted to get up when he wet his bed. “You do it,” she’d say, “You’re so much better at it than me.” Once he was back between the clean sheets, she’d read to him from his favourite book. He pushed off against the mattress, squeezing up against her as much as possible. His head on her shoulder. The scent of blond curls.
A resolute woman plumps herself down on a seat facing hers. Her ostentatious fur collar draws attention to itself. Esther hopes it is fake. The woman glances at her and Esther gives her a cautious smile, but as usual, avoiding each other’s gaze is deemed more appropriate.
Esther tries to warm her hands by rubbing them. Luckily Mum hadn’t cared where they slept. Their bodies were each other’s heaters, Esther had told Chrissy.
Shuffling near the door of the tram. People draw back as they always do when they see a tramp. He must stink, his hair looks like it hasn’t been washed in a long time. There is furtive sniggering, loud enough for him to be able to hear it. He pays no attention, squaring his shoulders and progressing further along down the tram.
The woman with the fur collar looks up in alarm and demonstratively places her bag on the seat next to her. But he knows where he’s going, carries on and sits down in the empty seat next to Esther. She instinctively makes space for him, pressing herself against the side of the tram. His heavy body moves towards hers.
Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the grazed skin of his knee. His trousers are covered in stains and torn in various places. She feels the fabric of his coat, stiff with caked dirt. She sees his fingers sticking out of the cut—off fingers of his gloves. Sturdy fingers, dirty nails. Once a nurse told her that you must never scrub a tramp clean in one go. They don’t survive it. Better to do it layer by layer. It takes days to get a person like that clean.
He shifts position and lets his head drop. His hair is clumped into dreads.
You’d have to wash off the dirt and the stench layer by layer with him too. Carefully. Gently.
Then he sighs, leans against her and lays his head on her shoulder. She swallows and holds her breath. She looks nervously at the other travelers. Most of them have discreetly averted their eyes, but the fur collar unabashedly lets her gaze glide over them, her mouth hanging open slightly. It must be a strange sight, a middle-aged woman, well-groomed, the kind who keeps herself to herself, allowing a tramp to use her as a pillow. Esther feels his dreadlocks tickling her nose. She picks up the smell of dusty hair. Far in the distance, soap.
“Are you tired?” she asks. “Yes,” he says.
He takes her hand. She blushes. Doesn’t dare to move, doesn’t dare send him packing. She allows it. Her eyes tear up but she refuses to blink. Don’t breathe now. They sit like that for four stops. Or five.
He frees his hand. Reflexively her fingers reach for him but then she lays her hand back in her lap. He gets up and walks away from her. People take a step backwards in the gangway, like waves parting. They let him pass in silence.
He looks straight ahead at the door. Then he turns around. His eyes are just as blue as back then. Islands in a sea of mud.
“Will you say hello to Mum?” She nods.
“Good,” he says, “It’s all good.”
The tram stops and he disappears amongst the shoppers. She follows him with her eyes; soon she’s lost him.
The woman opposite is staring at her. Her mouth still open.
Esther rests her head against the window. She’s missing him again already.
“The Scent of Blond Curls” originally appeared in the Dutch magazine Opzij in 2014. This version was translated by Michèle Hutchison.