The Chameleons
The Amsterdam Series Home
  1. Mia’s favourite hobby
  2. Bad, little Willem
  1. Gerrit strips
  2. Republicans in Amsterdam
1. Mia’s favourite hobby

‘Look, a piece of fluff. No, it’s more like a feather. Go on; follow it with your eyes. You can’t, can you? Why’s it there? Where did it come from? There are no cushions on the ceiling. Stupid image, stupid. Must be a pigeon. No, it must be from the cushions. So why’s it coming down instead of up? Come on concentrate, it’s twirling now, in the heat of the candle flame. Wait, I threw the cushion on the floor. Cushion to floor; updraft, feather in the air. Doesn’t matter, only a feather.
Look at the candle in the wine. Why’s it jiggling like that? Like it’s alive. I’m not stupid. I know it’s a reflection, through the glass, in the wine. I don’t need to convince myself. The candle does looks alive though; like a dancer, like a little genie in a bottle. I love it; it suits my mood.
Shall I have another one? Do I feel sick yet? Yes…a bit. I feel a bit queasy. Better not then; I’ve got to work tomorrow. I’ve got to. I don’t want to. I’ve got to tackle the accounts. Put them off for far too long.
What is it about a bottle of wine, a dark room and candlelight? What am I trying to create? An atmosphere? Yes, an atmosphere; somewhere romantic, comfortable. Oh God! Don’t start crying! That’s pathetic. It’s the same old story. Mia alone; Mia gets drunk; Mia becomes maudlin. Why do you always end up feeling sorry for yourself? It’s what you’ve always wanted isn’t it, control of your own life? You don’t need anyone else, you know you don’t. You don’t want anyone else. Messing up your life. Leaving things lying around. The bathroom stuff, the arguments; who wants what to eat, when. No, no, the odd bout of self-pity’s worth it to keep your independence intact. I’d better go to bed. What time is it? Oh, who cares? I’ll clean up first, not much to do. Watch the table and for Christ’s sake don’t spill your drink.’
Pulling the duvet tightly round her shoulders, she tried to relax and stop the boat she was in from rolling too violently on the sea of her drunkenness. Not for the first time, she drifted into a well-practised state of numbness and sleep.

The lock was stiffer than normal and Mia groaned as her fingers ached with the cold and the effort. Only her will power had persuaded her to go to work but the books wouldn’t do themselves and she knew how things would get out of hand if she didn’t keep track of them. The door resisted her and creaked, as if complaining about the damp and the warping of its wood. Losing patience, she forced it open and exasperatedly kicked the pile of free papers and unwanted flyers away as she entered the shop. ‘What was the point of putting ‘No’ stickers on the letterbox if the stuff was rammed through anyway?’ she fumed. The musty smell of accumulated dust and old books seemed even stronger than normal and she opened the small window above the door to let some air in, though the wet air outside was so still, it gave little relief. Having removed her coat and put the coffee on, she opened the cupboard door and examined herself in the mirror; a morning ritual, partly to ensure that customers were not confronted with any make-up mistakes but mainly to reassure herself that little was changing as the years passed. Considering the amount of alcohol that had been drunk the night before, she was reasonably satisfied with the image staring back at her. Yes the eyes were a little puffy and her cheeks were a little pale but they would improve as the day went on. Refusing to resort to anything more than minimal make up to mask imperfections and as a modern woman in her thirties, she liked herself enough as she was. Even if that weren’t the case, there was hardly a need to impress anyone in the bookshop? Taking the hairbrush, she wrestled with the unruly tufts of her nearly black hair until it came closer to the aspired gamine look first spotted in French films of the 60s. Then, noticing the redness around her eyes, a couple of drops of eye freshener were applied until she was satisfied that they sparkled again. Green eyes were a gift, she decided and once more silently thanked her mother from whom they’d come. ‘Femme fatale with a touch of butch’. She liked it; it put men off enough so that there was time to make decisions before they plucked up courage to talk to her. She lit a cigarette, sat down at her desk and switched on the computer; its flickering light seeming so anachronistic, as it illuminated the ranks of books stacked to the ceiling on rickety shelves. Last week had been a good week and far more had been sold than expected. An earnest American had spent an hour browsing through the photography section and she recalled how irritated she had felt at his constant questioning but he had spent over two hundred guilders and waived away the change. Once again, the thought occurred to her not to judge by first appearances.
She had just started to work on her accounts, when there was an insistent tap on the window.
“Oh no,” she groaned and put her head down, pretending not to have heard, “Go away Elfriede.”
The tapping continued, then she heard the door opening and the bell clang.
‘Damn, I forgot to lock it again. Shit!’
Her displeasure must have been evident.
“Ooh, dearie, did I disturb you? You want me to go?”
The woman shuffled forward and sat on the edge of the desk. Her smell was pungent and invasive. Making herself comfortable, she brushed delicately at her skirt as if to remove specks of dust from something Haute Couture but showed no signs of leaving.
“Well, Elfriede, it’s lovely to see you of course but I really am very busy today. I’m doing the accounts.”
“It’s lovely to see you too dearie. I won’t bother you I promise but can I just get a biscuit for Beest here?”
On hearing his name, Beest’s head appeared over the edge of the wicker basket Elfriede was holding. He was proud to have Chihuahua in his blood but where the rest of his lineage came from was anybody’s guess. His tiny hairless head and mismatched ears seemed glued onto another dog’s body. Mia always saw him as a canine Frankenstein but couldn’t help liking him anyway. He leapt out of the basket onto her desk and began scratching furiously behind his ear before launching a biting attack on his back.
“God, Elfriede, you need to get him deloused again; he’s in a terrible state.”
Elfriede swept the dog up into her arms and kissed him repeatedly to his evident delight.
“Oh, my poor baby’s got those nasty fleas again. Soon be better. Mama will get some stuff tomorrow; make you better.”
“Listen Elfriede, would you like some coffee? By all means get Beest a biscuit. Have a sit down for a while, you look exhausted.”
Mia felt a sudden rush of compassion for the woman she had known for what seemed such a long time. She’d first met Elfriede in the street and had found herself confronted with someone who was determined to have a conversation, however much Mia tried to get away. There had been something compelling about the woman from the very beginning, despite her bedraggled appearance and Mia had found herself letting out far more information about herself than she’d wanted. It had been no surprise when Elfriede had turned up at the shop the next day and a few days later and then at regular intervals after that. She never stayed long but for some reason, Mia could never bring herself to refuse her and grew to accept the fleeting visits as part and parcel of life at work.
“Well, dearie, I’m very busy today too you know. I’m meeting some dear friends later for lunch and then we might go to the theatre but I’m sure I can spare a few minutes for a coffee and a chat. Let me get it for you.”
Elfriede shuffled to the back of the shop to fill the kettle and continued talking.
“Valentine has invited me to go to see a play put on by young people in the Bijlmer. You remember Valentine don’t you; she is my very best friend?”
Mia didn’t remember Valentine; she had never met her but she knew the name and knew she was an important figure in Elfriede’s past. The old woman didn’t talk about many people, reflecting what Mia saw as her relative isolation but Valentine was a name that cropped up more often than most. She knew also that Elfriede might have been going to lunch and then the theatre but it was equally likely that it was an excuse designed to put the younger woman’s mind at ease. Mia knew the routine and smiled. She also knew when Elfriede wasn’t well and looked closely at the woman as she poured the coffee. She must have been in her fifties, though it was difficult to tell, in her present state, she looked so much older. She had come from Surinam in the early sixties and settled happily in Amsterdam with her husband and had raised two teenage boys. She missed little about the old country and was determined that however hard it was, her family would succeed in The Netherlands. For a few years, everything seemed to work out well. Her sons left home and both got jobs on the railways. Her husband worked for an insurance company, mainly selling policies to other immigrants and she took any job she could get, however menial, to give them whatever luxuries she felt were needed. Then one awful day in December 1986, her husband and one of her sons were killed in a car crash and Elfriede Urmi Christiaanse’s world fell apart. She became deeply depressed and couldn’t work. After a while, she stopped taking care of herself and eventually lost her home. Her elder son lost all patience and refused to come up to Amsterdam from Breda and Elfriede sank into the world of the homeless, where she was able to avoid her life and her past.
The two women chatted for a while. When Elfriede was clear-headed, Mia found her stories of childhood and life in Surinam fascinating. On this occasion, she was lucid for a time but then began rambling and repeating herself and stumbling over her words.
“Are you not so well Elfriede? You don’t look your normal self today. Would you like me to ring for an appointment with the doctor?”
Mia knew how Elfriede dreaded going to the doctor or the hospital. She still retained enough pride to feel humiliation when criticised, however well meaning and constructive the advice might be. She was therefore surprised when the old woman replied,
“Maybe, maybe. Whatever you think is best dearie.” She suddenly sprang to her feet. “Bad boy Beest! Now look what you’ve done!”
Both Mia and Beest looked surprised. As far as Mia could see, the poor dog had been lying asleep under the desk.
“What has he done Elfriede? He seems okay to me.”
Beest sighed, relaxed and went back to his dog dreams.
“ Would you like another cup of coffee? Oh by the way, I think you dropped this.”
Mia pressed a ten-guilder note into Elfriede’s hand, another well-worn and practised routine between the two of them. The old lady looked at her and for a second, the connection between them was crystal clear. Then she suddenly picked up the dog and stuffing him unceremoniously into her basket, rushed to the door.
“Bye dearie. I’m going somewhere special tomorrow.”
“Wait, Elfriede, don’t go. Where are you going tomorrow?” but it was too late, the woman had disappeared.
Mia wasn’t particularly surprised at Elfriede’s sudden departure; it often happened like this and after a few moments during which she again wondered if she could ever fall that far, she returned to the screen.
After half an hour of poring over the figures, she was relieved when the phone rang.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
It was Ben. ‘Sweet man,’ she thought, ‘always knows when I need to hear his voice.’
“Oh it’s such fun; my first choice of a Sunday morning activity. How do you think it’s going?”
She couldn’t help it; she had to be acidic with the man. He was a teddy bear; a complete walkover but she quite liked his looks and his body.
“Shall I put the phone down and ring again?”
The hurt in his voice both stung and thrilled her at the same time. She had never had so much power over another person. She could insult or compliment him, as she liked; he just took it all and came back for more. She had only rationalised this a few days previously and had discovered a sort of pleasure of which she had never thought herself capable. They had met two months earlier at a literary launch on the Keizersgracht and had immediately got into a heated argument about the merits of a particular author. She couldn’t even clearly remember why she was arguing so vehemently; she hadn’t cared that much. She did remember the thrill of winning the debate though and how good she felt when she took the vanquished back to the house and dominated him sexually too.
“Shall I get some lunch ready. Will you be back?”
Suddenly, in the space of a few seconds, she tired of the game. It wasn’t her. Not really. She didn’t want to play the dominatrix any more. Her mother would have been shocked. However much she lived the life of an independent woman and assured herself that she was in control of and responsible for her own actions, occasionally, she realised that she was a product of her upbringing and it caused conflict.
“Why don’t you bring something down here? I’m going to be pretty busy for a good few hours yet.”
“Okay, see you later.”
She had a plan. One more time and then it would be over. She put the phone down and took her lipstick over to the mirror. This time, the make-up could be liberally applied, for a purpose.

2. Bad little Willem

The coffee machine gurgled happily in the background, its aroma drifting seductively around the room. Apart from Willem and Marcel, the café was empty. Very few people had ventured out on that cold and grey Sunday morning. A bewildered tourist, cocooned in an anorak and laden with a backpack, stood at the window, wondering if he would be offered a welcome if he ventured inside. However, despite the comforting glow of the flickering candles and Christmas lights, he moved on, perhaps deterred by Willem’s fierce glare. Willem needed to talk and having discovered unexpected privacy, didn’t want to be disturbed.
“I’m not staying in Amsterdam for Christmas and certainly not for New Year! I’ll go to the travel agents and get something ‘last-minute’. I don’t care where I go, as long as I get away from all this forced jollity and sentimentality! I can’t stand it”
He slammed his cup back on the saucer and cursed when the coffee naturally slopped out. Marcel waited for a few more seconds, until his friend had calmed down.
“Willem, why do we have to go through this every year? You always say this and never do anything about it. You always moan about the commercialism and the TV and the over-eating and the bars being overcrowded and the weather and the Bijenkorf window display and God knows what else. Yet, two days before Christmas, you’re screaming about not having a present for this one or that one and you stockpile enough food to feed a small third world country. Change the record for God’s sake!”
Marcel knew he could talk to his friend like this. Their friendship had long ago reached that level of comfort. Nevertheless, he felt a pang of guilt when he saw Willem’s face crumple and those bleary eyes fill with tears.
“Oh come on, you know I’m right.”
He laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder and squeezed to double the effect. Willem grasped the hand and stroked and patted it, much to Marcel’s discomfort who withdrew it as soon as he decently could.
“I’m so lonely Marcel. Since Koos left, I feel so old and…”
“Sorry for yourself! Was I dreaming, or did I hear someone leaving ‘Chez Willem’ rather early this morning?”
“Substitutes my dear, nothing but substitutes; passing fancies to fill the void. My God! Will you look at that!”
The older man’s face became animated and he craned his neck to stare after a youth, who turned and smiled. ‘Thank God,’ thought Marcel, ‘that’ll keep his ego going for today.’
“I used to look like that you know; perhaps a little more rugged. If I could only turn back time.”
“If you’re going to start quoting song titles I’m leaving now!” Marcel made as if to pick up his coat.
“No, no. You’re right, I’m sorry. Okay, no more clichés. I, of all people should know how quickly adolescence turns into obsolescence anyway. More coffee?”
Marcel nodded and watched as Willem made his way through the festively laid tables to the counter. For the thousandth time he thought how ridiculous leather trousers looked on portly, middle-aged men but his warm feelings for Willem were genuine and he knew he could always count on his support, right or wrong and for that reason, he would never abandon him. His mother had thought Willem a dreadful parody and had visibly flinched when he had enthusiastically embraced her on their first meeting, smothering her in clouds of aftershave. Over the years however, she had come to realise how much he meant to Marcel and had grudgingly acknowledged that the man had kindness in abundance but could never feel completely comfortable socially with him. Marcel had long-since accepted that you couldn’t force people to like each other, even if they were the two most important people in his life. Apart from one fumbling session after a party, they had never hit it off sexually, for which he was now extremely grateful. Willem’s love-life was turbulent to say the least and Marcel did his best to stay out of the firing line in conflicts with whoever was the current ‘everlasting’ as Willem liked to call them. He was always around to pick up the pieces afterwards though; he felt that was what friends should do for each other.
He smiled as Willem embarked on one of his long and familiar stories with the girl behind the counter.
“Are they having the beans shipped in from Brazil then?” he shouted across the room.
“Oh excuse me!” Willem turned to the girl, “My friend is so jealous! Please forgive me my dear. I have to return to my table now! My story will have to wait until the next time.”
The girl laughed and winked at Marcel knowingly as Willem tottered exaggeratedly between the chairs, the tray of coffees swaying precariously on his outstretched hand.
“Now then Miss Impatience. I’m back. Did you miss me?”
“It’s good to see you laugh.” Marcel pulled the chair back so that Willem could sit again. “You’ve been doing far too little of that recently.”
Willem’s smile dropped and he frowned. He started twirling his moustache, long since stained with nicotine and his eyes narrowed.
“You’re my best friend Marcel. You see right into me sometimes. Most people I can fool. They all think I’m a clown. I’m popular at parties and in bars. I can tell a joke and I know I’ve got laughing eyes; they’ve been my best feature all my life and have conquered enough doubtful lovers when all else has failed. But you see me without the tricks. I know I’m a trauma queen and can make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse but I have never been so unhappy as in the last two weeks.”
Marcel didn’t deride his friend this time. He could see that he meant it. The man was utterly genuine and suddenly looked so tired. He was normally a youthful fifty-five, with boundless energy when it was needed, but now, sitting in the window seat, bathed in the grey light of that Sunday morning, he looked ancient and burdened. He had been good-looking in his youth but time and experience had etched his face with lines; ‘wrinkles with character,’ he’d called them and age and good food had given him puffy cheeks and a redder nose than he would have wished. When he was feeling good, Marcel knew that he could still attract many an admiring glance from those who preferred more mature men but now, when he was depressed, his face rather resembled a sad, old bloodhound.
“Was Koos so good for you then? I never really imagined that you thought of him as special. You were always bitching at each other.”
“Koos has nothing to do with it my dear. He was a pleasant interlude but we never wanted to grow old together. Anyway, the bitching was the best part of it.” Willem attempted a half smile.
Out of friendship, Marcel had never revealed his own suspicions about Koos but was irritated enough by Willem’s blatant show of self-pity to introduce a tactful truth or two,
“Don’t you feel that maybe you were being used, just a little? I mean after you two registered your partnership…”
“My dear Marcel, I may look like the village idiot; I may even act like it at times but please…give me a little credit for knowing when I’ve been well and truly screwed. God knows I love playing Pagliacci but this time…”
As if to reinforce the image, froth from the coffee gathered on Willem’s moustache and wobbled with each word. Try as he did, Marcel couldn’t prevent his grimace twisting into a grin.
“Oh that’s right, mock me! I deserve it, though I have to say I thought my best friend might be a tad more sympathetic!”
“I am sympathetic; I’m grinning at your demented Santa Claus impression.”
Willem’s expression as he wiped his mouth was less than amused and he continued while staring blankly out of the window.
“The joint account was the biggest mistake I suppose. Thank God, I kept my main account separate.”
“What did he do then? Although you don’t have to tell me, I can guess.”
“Oh no, it wasn’t that bad really; I just had to keep topping it up that’s all and it became a bit of a drain on the resources. Anyway, I dealt with it, along with other things and I’d rather not dwell on them right now.”
Marcel’s exasperation showed on his face.
“Willem, you do this all the time! I get half a story, start to build up a picture of what’s been happening to you and then you clam up and my imagination runs riot. I know there’s something else. What is it? What’s happened? I’m worried now. I can see it in your eyes, there’s something bad going on.”
Marcel reached over the table for his friend’s hand, completely without embarrassment this time.
“I don’t want to tell you. I don’t want to ruin your Christmas or anybody else’s for that matter.”
“Oh fuck off Willem! This is me you’re talking to. The man whose arse you wiped when I was ill remember. There’s nothing you can’t tell me, now come on, spill the beans. Is it an HIV thing?
Willem looked up and smiled and for a second, looked like a little boy.
“Oh please! No nothing like that. I’ve won the lottery!”

3. Gerrit strips

Gerrit ran through the pelting rain, only narrowly avoiding collision, as he swerved and skipped through the throngs of shoppers and tourists milling about along the Rokin. He had meant to open his umbrella but instead brandished it as an effective weapon to clear a path for himself. He could feel the water running down the back of his neck but he didn’t care. Five thirty, she had said. Five thirty and it was already a quarter past! He leapt onto the tram just as the doors were closing and squeezed himself into a corner beside a large woman, who glared at him angrily as he sprayed water onto her coat. She was even less pleased when he reached past her to stamp his ticket.
“Do you mind young man! We don’t all want to become as wet as you.”
‘Sarcastic bitch’ he thought, “Sorry madam but it’s only honest to get your ticket stamped don’t you think?”
The woman grunted and turned away, leaving him to his thoughts.
‘What if she wasn’t there when he got home?’
She’d always insisted that keeping appointments on time was important and he’d always agreed, though he hadn’t expected to be called in on a Sunday to sort out the sales figures. He’d tried to get away early but Nelleke Knol had insisted on going over yet another sheet of figures in minute detail. Doing his best to agree sincerely with the manager’s conclusions, Gerrit escaped as soon as decently possible. He knew his haste to get away had been obvious and knew that Nelleke Knol had deliberately and successfully found ways to delay him until she tired of the game. This was not a woman to trifle with but fortunately; she’d let him go early enough to have a sporting chance of making his appointment on time.
The panic rose in his stomach as the tram lurched round the corner towards his stop. Making his way to the doors and brushing past the still glaring woman there was no resisting a final shake of the head. Chuckling at her exasperated grunt he jumped out and began running through the rain again. After a few minutes of lung-burning exertion, he reached the front door of his apartment block. Ignoring the temptation to investigate the post box he hurtled up the stairs opened the front door and rushed into the living room. Would she have waited?

He switched on and cursed, as the computer went though its usual setting-up procedure. Water dripped over the desk and chair but he didn’t notice. Log on. Internet Explorer. Favourites. ‘Chat 2’. More breathless waiting as the hard disc chuntered into action. God, it was always so slow at this time of day! The site finally slid into view. He looked at his watch. Five Forty! He scanned the list of names hardly able to breathe. Miranda! She was still there. Double click for private chat.
“Hi, are you still there?”
“I was just about to go. Where have you been?”
“I couldn’t get away from work early, though God knows I tried. I’m sorry.”
“Well, you’re here now, that’s the important thing. I’ve got a new photo to send you. I’ll send it now. Let me know when you get it ok?”
Gerrit launched his mail server and couldn’t believe his clumsiness when he accidentally simultaneously closed down the chat room.
“Shit! Oh fucking hell!”
He became all fingers and thumbs as he desperately tried to re-establish contact.
‘Okay, calm down,’ he told himself and tried to breathe deeply and take control of his coordination again. He stumbled through the whole process, even mistyping his password and having to correct that. Just as he got into the chat room once more, a box popped up on the screen: ‘You’ve got mail – somebody loves you.’ He decided then and there to stop downloading gimmick messages and clicked on the box.
After another wait, during which he urged the blue stripe to hurry up, the message appeared and a picture began to fill the screen. There she was, the beautiful Miranda in all her…. naked glory! He could hardly believe his eyes and drank in the picture pixel by pixel. She had never hinted that she would ever do anything like this but he loved the surprises she sprang on him. She was lying on a sun bed beside a swimming pool, one knee raised up, just covering her groin, although there was a tantalising glimpse of the tiniest bit of pubic hair. Her brown hair tumbled down over bronzed shoulders and framed the breasts. ‘A real Rubens,’ he mused, as he stared at the screen.
Another box appeared to interrupt his reverie; it was the Messenger Service:
‘Miranda has just signed in’
The text box appeared, followed by a message;
“You like?”
“Are you kidding! Of course I like. I never expected anything like this.”
“Don’t you think that the best gifts are the ones you don’t know are coming?”
“Well, in this case, yes. I must say, I’m a little surprised.”
“I think we know each other well enough now, don’t you? We’ve talked so often about getting together. I thought I would give you a little incentive to come over to the States.”
“I don’t need any incentive Miranda. I’ll be over when I can.”
“You don’t sound too excited at the prospect. Do you think I’m being too forward, too pushy? Have I shocked you?”
“Miranda, I’m Dutch! Naked women don’t shock me. We see them every day on television and billboards.”
“So this is nothing special for you then?”
“I didn’t mean that. Of course it’s special. You’re beautiful.”
“Take your clothes off.”
“You’ve got a web cam haven’t you? Take your clothes off.”
“What, now? I’ve just got in from work. I haven’t had a shower yet or anything. I’m dripping wet!”
“Darling, I don’t want to smell you! I just want to see you. You’ve seen me. No secrets any more. It’s only fair don’t you think?”

Gerrit was a little scared. What if she didn’t like what she saw? God! He didn’t like what he saw when he looked in the mirror. He was tall and reasonably well proportioned though by no means what you would call fit. He worried about his somewhat rounded shoulders and his slightly sagging chest muscles, though comforted himself that nothing was beyond repair. He was proud of his hairy chest, distributed in all in the right places and he knew he had good legs from years of cycling but he despaired of the emerging roll around his stomach, although he supposed he looked no better or worse than the average man. His biggest concern was his face, which he regarded as pale, geeky and undistinguished, although again, enough women seemed to find him attractive and gave him compliments on his strong chin and dark blue eyes. He still had a full head of hair, though it was no particular colour, somewhere between dark blond and brown and he’d been tempted to try darkening it more than once in the past but didn’t want to appear effete. Whatever his misgivings however, he knew he had to send a photo but naked! Ah well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“You’ll have to give me a little time. The picture needs to be taken and then saved and then sent on to you.”
“I’m a patient girl. I’ll wait. Meanwhile, I’ll stay on line here, just in case you cut me off again!”
“Yeah, sorry about that, my brain sometimes refuses to communicate with my fingers.”
“Hmm. I’ll remember that.”
Somehow, despite the potential in this situation, Gerrit couldn’t get excited. He was far too nervous. He went through the motions and set up the web cam, then removed his wet clothes, which were obstinately sticking to his skin. He was relieved that she wasn’t in the room with him; this was hardly high erotica. He still half wondered if he should go to the bathroom to wash but settled for a little manual stimulation, so that he wouldn’t disgrace himself on camera. He had to be careful; he didn’t want this to be a porn moment! Eventually, he was satisfied that he was ready and sat down. The beady eye of the web cam peered down at him and once more he shrank under scrutiny.
“Have you sent it yet?”
The message was intrusive, as if she was in the room with him.
“No, just about to.”
“I’m curious.”
‘Well, don’t expect Brad Pitt,’ he thought, as he once more arranged himself in what he thought was a reasonably flattering position. He took the first shot and examined it on screen. The body looked okay, especially if he flexed his muscles but his face looked like a frightened rabbit. He took another one and then another and another. Nothing was perfect.
“I’m getting impatient.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sending it now.”
He saved the best of a bad bunch and attached it to an e-mail, with the message,
‘Hope you’re not too disappointed.’

4. Republicans in Amsterdam

The scream from the kitchen jerked Roy out of his daydreams.’ What now?’ he wondered and sighing dejectedly, pulled himself out of the chair anyway and prepared to rescue Candice once more.
“I want to move to a hotel!”
“Why honey? What’s happened?”
“Look! Just look! Are they mouse droppings or not? In the bread bin of all places!”
Candice held her head in her hands and Roy knew that unless he acted quickly, the next step was hysteria. He put his arm around her shoulders.
“There, there babe. Why don’t you go in the other room? I’ll sort this out and make a fresh pot of coffee.”
Candice shook her expensively coiffured head and took an exaggerated breath before announcing,
“I can’t take this any more Roy. I want to go home. This is the Third World. Why did you bring me here? It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s unhygienic for God’s sake!”
“Off you go sweetie. I’ll put a drop of brandy in your coffee; that’ll make you feel better.”
Candice retreated into the living room and left Roy to examine the suspect black dots in the bread bin. As far as he could see, they could have been anything and as there was no trail leading anywhere else, he concluded that Candice was once more looking for excuses to change their plans.
He put the coffee on and glanced through the blinds of the kitchen window at the driving rain. He still thought the rooftops and gables were romantic, even in the rain and had fallen in love with Amsterdam on his first canal sighting. He did admit to himself however, that their accommodation left a lot to be desired. A home-exchange holiday had sounded ideal at the time. They were both sick of the universal hotel room and thought that they would get a better feel for the culture if they actually stayed in a real home. It had all looked so quaint in black and white; an apartment in the centre of old Amsterdam and on the surface all the facilities seemed to be in place. It wasn’t really his fault that things weren’t as modern or hi-tech as they were used to. Thankfully, the holiday in Amsterdam had been her idea. She had been talking to the Wilsons who had raved about the place and had been sufficiently impressed to suggest this three-week break over Christmas and the New Year. The problem was, the Wilsons were free spirits at heart and while Roy had appreciated this and suspected they weren’t going to enjoy four star accommodation, it never occurred to Candice that standards would be any different to those she was used to. Thinking about what the de Ruiters were getting in exchange in Florida, he knew Candice had a point: modern furniture, all possible electrical appliances, swimming pool, citrus grove in the garden and above all, endless sunshine. Briefly, he yearned to put on his shorts and sip a Margarita by the pool but only briefly. He felt something in Amsterdam that he hadn’t felt for years. He felt alive.

As darkness fell and the lights of the city began to play and sparkle in the endless reflections, they turned the corner into the Vijzelstraat. After two or three of Candice’s obligatory rejections, they had found an Indonesian restaurant that passed inspection and entered through the heavy, deep red, brocade curtains draped across the entrance. The smells were intoxicating and Roy inhaled deeply, trying to capture the moment.
“Jesus Christ! Do they have to smoke everywhere?” Candice complained, her face contorting in exaggerated disgust.
“When in Rome babe, when in Rome.”
Roy had quickly got used to smoke again. He had given up two years previously under sustained social and marital pressure but still occasionally longed for a long, satisfying drag on a cigarette; here, he could indulge vicariously. A petite Indonesian girl with high cheekbones directed them to a corner table. Her hair was tied back in a bun and her skin had that perfect olive colour Roy associated with Asian girls. She took their orders for drinks and brought them thick, red leather-backed menus, with translations into English. Roy looked at the girl and then at his wife. There was no comparison really; they were so different in every way. The restaurant was small but crowded, which Roy took as being a sign that the food was good but Candice found claustrophobic. The panelled walls were hung with various prints of Indonesia and on the shelves were arranged a mixture of tacky gold ornaments and Indonesian puppet figures all, according to Candice glaring malevolently at her. At least the table met her requirements, covered in a spotless pink cloth, with napkins folded into flower shapes at each setting. She inspected the cutlery and finding no blemishes, sighed and picked up the menu. Roy found it all charming and liked the atmosphere, which was noisy but immensely good-humoured and above all, proletarian; a far cry from the prissy pretentiousness of the places they usually went to.

Why had he married Candice? She was a shrew, an angular, sometimes terrifying shrew. Once she got her teeth into something, she never let go. Aggressive, determined and ambitious, it showed in her sharply mean features. It wasn’t that she was unattractive, it was just that, with her mother’s influence far stronger than his, she had worked on herself until she was perfectly manicured, perfectly coiffured and didn’t have an ounce of fat on her body. The result was a cross between Barbie and Twiggy and meant that several hours of the day were spent in front of the mirror, ensuring that the look was never blighted with any tiny flaws associated with daily living. He hardly dared touch her any more, much less ruffle her hair like he used to do. She had become a Florida stereotype, a typical Jewish wife, fighting the onset of middle age with all the resources available to her. Yet he loved her, because he remembered how she natural and unaffected she used to be when they had first met, although he should have seen the warning signs the first time he had encountered her mother. On the back of her mother’s urging, she had driven him to success and would never let him rest. Making love was like lying on a bed of nails, one wrong move and he was skewered on the barbs of her sarcasm. His parents had worshipped her and given her total credit for their social advancement. He used to watch their dog obey her every command without hesitation and wondered if he was like that. He never regarded himself as the hen-pecked husband but accepted that he had met a stronger force and he wasn’t ever sure that he could have made it big in commodities without her.
Their meal arrived, a Rijsttafel for two, which was rapidly becoming a favourite for Roy. As the table filled up with dishes, Roy nearly burst out laughing at his wife’s expression and the way she backed away as if she was about to be bitten. As always, Candice, picked at her food, carefully separating anything that looked suspicious and moving it to the edge of her plate. Gradually, the discarded pile grew larger than the remainder and Roy prepared himself for a later tirade. Fortunately, they barely spoke throughout which gave Roy a chance to contemplate the remaining time they had in Amsterdam. He didn’t give much for their chances of staying in the apartment but he was damned if he was going to go home early. If it had to be a hotel then so be it but he wanted to see more of the city and its people, even if he had to drag Candice kicking and screaming through the streets. They had been to the Rijksmuseum the day before and even Candice had been impressed by the sense of antiquity in the pictures, though had taken it as a personal insult when firmly but politely told not to take photographs by a security man. The poor man had spent some time explaining why this wasn’t allowed but Roy could see by her face that she was way beyond persuasion and had ushered her discreetly away. He had secret longings he didn’t dare share with Candice. He really wanted to see the Red Light district. He really wanted to smoke a joint; like he had seen the teenagers do in the café opposite the museum. Most of all, he wanted to wander the streets on his own and drink in the atmosphere. Candice saw the litter, the tramps and the other tourists; he saw the little antique shops, the lights around the canal bridges and the houseboats. It was all so European and so what he had expected.

They didn’t linger long in the restaurant and hurried back to the apartment because Candice felt a headache coming on. Even sex was out of the question then? He was beginning to get very depressed. After his wife had gone to bed, he turned the television on and while it was tempting to watch the BBC, he surfed through the Dutch channels trying to make sense of what was being said, with little success but a feeling of at least dipping a toe in the culture. Even this was interrupted as she shouted from the bedroom to turn it off; ‘the promised headache no doubt!’ he mused miserably and sloped off to join her muttering a prayer to himself.

The next morning saw little change in the weather but a big change in Candice! Roy’s prayers had been answered. She was feeling pretty awful. The headache had turned into a migraine and all she wanted to do was hide under the bedclothes until it passed. From experience, Roy knew this would be a whole day job and he inwardly rejoiced without the slightest trace of guilt. After making sure that she was warm and comfortable and had the required American painkillers by her bedside, he ventured a question.
“Would it be okay if I popped out for some fresh air babe? We need a few groceries too.”
Holding his breath in anticipation of an angry refusal, he was mightily relieved when all she did was grunt and bury herself deeper under the duvet. As fast and as quietly as he could, he grabbed his wallet and his coat and umbrella and unlocked the door. Still anticipating a recall, he stood for a second on the landing. When none came, he closed the door behind him and on reaching the street took a deep breath, wiped away a tear of pent-up frustration and stepped forward.
Stopping for a moment in front of a shop window, he inspected himself to see how he looked. Normally, this wasn’t ever an issue; Candice did his checking for him. He tried to see himself as others would see him but found it so difficult. He recognised the conventionality of his clothing but knew that he didn’t come over as a stereotypical American tourist; Candice had too much taste for that. What he did see was a man in his early forties, becoming slightly overweight, especially around the face and middle and in danger of losing his individuality, as so many middle class Americans of his age and status did. Shuddering, he decided to look more critically at other men in Amsterdam and see if he could get some ideas from the way they presented themselves. At the next window, he paused again and checked his face. He knew he wasn’t ugly; he’d had enough compliments from Candice’s friends, however untrustworthy they may have been. The truth was he had no idea how he looked to other people and all of a sudden, he desperately wanted to know. He needed some affirmation that he was still reasonably attractive, or not as the case may be; then he could do something about himself before it was too late and he joined the anonymous ranks of the middle aged. Where he would find such an unbiased opinion, he didn’t have a clue but as an issue, it was becoming irrationally important to him.
He spent the day wandering; taking in the sights; having a coffee here and there and a quick lunch in what looked like a bohemian café but then, most of them did. He loved the seemingly classless society that milled around and wondered if this was only a tourist impression and thus too simplistic. Maybe this seemingly laissez-faire atmosphere was just confined to the centre of Amsterdam and that the real Holland existed somewhere beyond the sight of a person only here for a short time. He didn’t know but had a burning desire to find out. It was amazing how quickly the time flew by but he felt in his element. Although they had already done it once, he took another canal boat tour and without the benefit of Candice’s constant carping commentary, marvelled at the variety of gables and ornamentation on the buildings and wondered what it must be like to live in buildings where not a single wall was straight. Hardly speaking to anyone, he just enjoyed the opportunity to observe people and spend some time by himself. It was only when the lights started going on and the daylight started to fade that he realised that he should get back to Candice and after a couple of wrong turnings, eventually arrived back at the house. He was just about to put the key in the lock when, seemingly from nowhere came a voice.
“Hello dearie. You are American yes? I heard you last night. How long you here for?”
C&C Publishing:Amsterdam 2006