Mrs. J. told the seller of the homeless newspaper that she was from Mars. He stands in his red vest by the sliding doors of the supermarket on Sierplein in Amsterdam Slotervaart, her home is around the corner.
The seller thought she was joking, but Mrs. J. was serious, her bright blue eyes looking at him intently. She was the only surviving Martian when she landed on Earth by accident. The seller, himself from the Horn of Africa, wasn’t sure what to say to this.
He had known her for years. Once he had seen the thin old woman, who was always smartly dressed, who perfumed herself rather lavishly and took care of her appearance, toiling with a heavy shopping bag and offering her help. Mrs. J. was shocked when he spoke to her and fled with his cargo.
When he offered it again the next time, she had said yes. The seller followed the bag to her home, which is on the fourth floor of an outdated apartment complex on Tutein Noltheniusstraat.
When she reached the top, she thanked him for his help and handed him some coins. She waited to open her front door until he was back downstairs, no one was allowed to see or enter her home.
Mrs J. went to the supermarket twice a week. She usually bought the same: wholemeal bread, cheese, milk, fruit, porridge, prepackaged soup and several bottles of mineral water. “Never meat or fish or vegetables or other things for hot food,” says the homeless newspaper seller.
Sometimes she didn’t want to go straight home and crossed the busy road where a now defunct toy store was located. While he waited outside with his purchases, she went to the toy animal shelf and paid for a teddy bear.
The people at the toy store didn’t have to pack the teddy bear, it was for her. She seemed to be speaking to the bear in a made-up language. She bought fake flowers with bendable stems from a nearby home improvement store. The homeless newspaper seller thought it was strange, but asked no questions, also because Mrs. J. spoke Dutch with a heavy Eastern European accent, which made it difficult for him to understand her.
It was equally strange that Mrs. J. stopped with a few steps in the street and then turned abruptly to see if she was being followed. She explained that she was being watched. The homeless newspaper seller had to be on guard too, now that they knew she had an ally.
He had to wait in front of the apartment complex. She looked up to see if anyone was on her balcony, if the always closed curtains hadn’t moved in her absence. He had to keep quiet because she heard all kinds of things too, unknown sounds from distant galaxies.
Although she herself thought she came from Mars, Mrs J’s Dutch passport states that she was born on 20 June 1931 in the Polish city of Poznan. Her parents, I learn from Team Uitvaarten from Amsterdam municipality, came from the Czech Republic and seem to have gone into service during World War II.
At the time of the Polish People’s Republic, she must have worked as a high-ranking official in a ministry. In the 1980s, after Lech Wałęsa’s trade union Solidarność was banned, Mrs. J. fled west with the help of a Dutch man, Mr. De P. They married but had no children; she was also in her fifties when the marriage took place.
Mrs J. was also married in Poland, the funeral team do not know to whom or if children may have resulted from this marriage. In any case, investigations with the help of the Polish consulate have revealed nothing.
Mrs J. lived with De P. for more than ten years at another address in Amsterdam. It is unclear what caused her to flee and how the two met. De P. cannot tell because he died in 1999, after which Mrs. J. moved to Tutein Noltheniusstraat.
A relative of Mr De P. says he worked for the railways and traveled a lot on international trains. “Maybe she persuaded him during one of the services.” Sir. De P. was quite introverted, says the family member. “He shielded himself from the outside world just like her.”
Rumors circulated in the family that Mrs. J. and her parents were deported from the Czech Republic to a concentration camp in Poland during the war. “He seems to have told something similar to his brother,” the relative said.
I walk up the steep stairs of the apartment complex on Tutein Noltheniusstraat. Mrs J’s door is damaged. The police had to make a big effort to get in, beams were installed inside.
I knock on the door of the neighbors, Mrs. El Maach opens the door. A young lady, she came to live here ten years ago. She tried to get to know her neighbor to have a chat. “It didn’t work well, she was very cranky.”
At another meeting Mrs J said she had to lock the windows when she left the house or they would crawl in in a heartbeat. “I thought it was strange because we are quite high up here,” says Mrs El Maach.
Mrs. J. claimed that someone was hiding in one of the storage rooms in the attic above them. Mrs. El Maach went to investigate. “I didn’t see or hear anything.”
One day she came home from work to find Mrs J halfway up the stairs. She was wearing a backpack and was trudging up with difficulty. Mrs. El Maach wanted to take the backpack from her, but it weighed almost nothing: it contained a teddy bear.
Mrs. El Maach thought it was irresponsible that the old woman had to go up and down so many stairs. She explained that as an elderly person she has the right to a ground floor apartment. Mrs. J. absolutely did not want to move, she was devoted to the mysterious house where no one ever came.
The floor in the hallway is washed every two weeks, the cleaning assistant hangs the front door mats over the balustrade. When she got home at the end of the day, Mrs. El Maach, as a courtesy, also put Mrs. J’s mat in place.
She decided not to do that anymore, as she saw her neighbor less and less, who never went on holiday and only went out to buy groceries. “It might take a few days, but when the mat was back in place, I knew she was alive.”
Mrs El Maach spoke to an employee of the housing association who came to inspect the porch due to a leak. “I said, I see her going out less and less, maybe she needs something to worry about.” The employee would report it.
In October, Mrs. El Maach had to go abroad for a week to work. When she returned, she smelled a foul odor that seemed to be coming from her neighbor’s house. At first she thought it was garbage. “Maybe she was sick and left her trash bag in the house too long.” The doormat hung over the balustrade. Worried, she knocked, but there was no answer. “Then I called the police.”
Mr. Tulu van tweehoog has lived in the complex for thirty years. He says that Mrs. J. gave a friendly greeting when she had just moved in. Mr. Tulu’s children were still small, she asked if they were doing well in school.
Mrs. J. said that her husband had passed away and that she had no other family. Mr. Tulu said she could always call him if needed. In the summer, Mr. Tulu went to Turkey with his family. Concerned, Mrs. J. asked how long he would be gone. “I’m glad you’re back, I feel safe with you,” she said when he came back.
Mr. Tulu thought it was sad that she was always indoors. She didn’t have a car, not even a bicycle. “I never saw her walking or sitting on a bench anywhere,” he says. He asked her for coffee, she politely declined.
She climbed the stairs with increasing difficulty. She nodded when Mr. Tulu asked if he wanted to lift her shopping bag. Countless times Mr. Tulu has walked up the stairs with that bag. He expected her to offer him a cup of tea or a glass of water. That never happened, her door also remained closed to him. “Once I said, ma’am, you really don’t need to be afraid of me.”
Mr. Tulu felt “a little insulted” when he noticed that the homeless newspaper vendor was now carrying her messages upstairs. From that moment on, their scant contact dwindled.
On October 20, agents entered the home. Mrs J. had been lying in the hallway for about four weeks, an autopsy was later to reveal. She still looked pretty good, as if she hadn’t actually been an Earthling. She was identified from the photo in her passport.
At the beginning of November I am there with two people from Team Funerals who find that there is sufficient balance in the bank account to pay for the funeral.
I feel like an intruder, that’s what Mrs. J. wanted to hide from everyone: a house full of teddy bears, good-natured inhabitants of her mini-planet. In every room, even the kitchen, where unwashed dishes pile up, they laugh at me. The furniture where the teddy bears sit, hang or stand is decorated with artificial flowers.
Besides teddy bears, there are many books in the house, mostly science fiction. In the living room, next to a cluttered desk, one of the books has been given a prominent place: a bound edition of Stranger in a strange land (1961) by Robert Heinlein.
Stranger in a strange land is about the last inhabitant of Mars, who after World War 3 is taken away by a spaceship and ends up on Earth. Feeling like an outsider, the Martian speaks a language no one understands and establishes a secret religious community that only invitees can join.
On 8 November at 10.00 I read the poem I wrote for Mrs. J. in the chapel at Sint Barbara cemetery. I will play the adagio from the first piano sonata by the Polish composer Szymanowski and Somewhere down the crazy river by Robbie Robertson, who was inspired by Mrs J’s favorite book when he wrote that song.
You were a full blood
alien, a Martian
We don’t need us
because you were the only one
now even dead,
invented, that so-called
Camp Story: Reptile Talk!
No countryman understood
an alien you came
You lived there with teddy bears
on a barricaded planet
where plastic flowers bloom
And spoke a made-up language
Now travel peacefully and endlessly
further in this wooden rocket
You weren’t a full blood
alien, the Martians
George van Casteren
In a series of publications in de Volkskrant, author Joris van Casteren reports on his vicissitudes as coordinator in the supervision of solitary burials in Amsterdam. A poet, associated with the so-called Poule des Doods, reads a poem written especially for the deceased. He also reads the stories in the podcast The Lonely Funeral.