5. Roy steps out
Roy jumped. He hadn’t seen anyone. The voice seemed disembodied and yet very close by. He looked around nervously, uncertain whether to make a quick exit or not.
“Don’t be alarmed dearie. I’m not a spook.”
As he peered into the darkness by the steps of the flat building, he saw an indistinct figure emerge. It was a large black woman, whose shapelessness was accentuated by the layers of ragged clothing she wore and the bandanna wrapped closely around her head. As she shuffled towards him, he felt an urgent need to run away, like a child confronted with the bogeyman. She laughed a deep, guttural laugh, making him want to clear his throat.
“Did I startle you? Good. You need startling my friend and this black lady’s going to do a frightened white rabbit a big favour tonight!”
That was quite enough for Roy. He reached in his pocket and brought out the few guilders change he had.
“I’m sorry lady, I don’t know who you are but maybe you could do with a cup of coffee and I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
With that, he stretched out his hand.
“Don’t you insult me young man. I don’t want your money. Yes you’re in a hurry and I know why and it’s you who could do with the coffee and maybe something stronger. You come with me. We have much to talk about.”
With that, Elfriede turned on her heels and shuffled off down the street. She didn’t look back. Roy was completely dumbfounded. His instinct was to escape in the opposite direction but he found himself rooted to the spot.
“Hey listen lady…!” he yelled. Then, realising he was standing underneath Candice’s window, lowered his voice.
“What do you want from me? You can’t possibly know who I am. I’m leaving now.”
All this was said out loud but she was already too far away to hear and anyway, what did it matter? A crazy old woman! What was he hesitating for? He had a wife to placate and a city to explore! The rain plastered his hair to his skull and ran into his eyes. He felt a sudden wave of emotion and breaking into a run, followed the fast disappearing figure into the night. After turning one corner, then the next, he thought he had lost her but suddenly there she was, illuminated by the streetlight, grinning at him from the doorway of a bar. He stopped, wondering what sort of insanity had taken a grip of his brain but as if drawn by a magnet, followed her beckoning finger through the doorway.
Once inside, his senses were assailed by the combination of stale beer, coffee, thick smoke and human odour. Everything seemed brown to him. The long wooden bar, tables and chairs; the walls, with their stained murals; the barrels lined up along the raised gallery above the noisy clientele and the countless knickknacks hanging from every available space. The room was filled with noisy and exuberant customers and he had difficulty spotting where the woman had gone. Eventually, he saw her sitting at the corner of a long table, crowded with empty bottles and glasses. She gestured that he should get drinks for them both, pointing to a beer bottle to indicate her preference. He battled his way to the bar and after some time attracted the barman’s attention.
“Two beers please.”
“What sort of beers do you want sir? We have thirty-two different varieties here.” The man glared at him as if he didn’t have time to mess around with lost tourists. Roy felt distinctly uneasy. He didn’t have a clue. In the end, he pointed to the old woman and said,
“We’ll have what she’s having.”
The barman followed his finger and immediately pulled out two bottles from under the bar, flicked off the tops, filled the glasses and handed them to him.
“How much is that?”
“No charge sir. The lady always pays the bill.” With a half smile, he moved away to serve someone else.
Roy made his way to the table and sat down on the bench with the deepening mystery eating away at him. Who was this woman? Whatever the consequences, he knew he couldn’t leave without finding out.
“There you are dearie. Oh, my favourite beer. How kind.”
Roy gave her a quizzical look.
“Okay lady, you’ve got me here. God knows why but here I am. Now who are you? How do you know things about me? What did the barman mean by, ‘The lady always pays the bill’? Why am I sitting here talking to you for God’s sake?”
Everything came out in a rush and she laid a bony hand over his. He looked at the fingers, each bejewelled with a silver ring and suddenly felt calmer than he had done for months.
“I think you know why you are here dearie. Life hasn’t been kind to you for some time has it? I can see it in your eyes. They’re empty dearie, empty, nothing there. You need to learn how to live again. You need to have some experiences; do some things you would normally call bad; take some risks.”
“But you feel you can’t, don’t you dearie? You feel trapped. You can’t get out. You’re locked in a gilded cage; all very fine inside, very comfortable, very safe but you will die there unless you do something now, tonight.”
Her eyes were watery, afflicted with cataracts and enveloped by fold upon fold of drooping skin but deep inside their very centres, he saw a flame of intensity and was transfixed. He hung his head, suddenly feeling that his whole life hung in the balance.
“You’re right. You’re so right but how did you know? Who are you really? Should I be frightened of you?”
“Never dearie. You’re never going to be frightened again. It doesn’t matter who I am. I’m nobody but maybe I’m everybody. Isn’t that right Beast?”
To Roy’s astonishment, she suddenly produced what seemed to be a malformed dog, made up from pieces of other dogs, from the folds of her clothes. He shook himself and sat on the table, reaching forward to give Roy a surprise lick on the nose.
“Beast knows, don’t you Beast? He knows when people are troubled. Now talk to me.” She stroked the dog, which shivered with pleasure. Roy leaned over and for the next two hours, without a trace of hesitation, poured his heart out to a woman he would have crossed the street to avoid the day before. He told his life story, concluding with his marriage to Candice. As he progressed through the years he gradually began to realise that he was purging himself of all the frustrations and insecurities, which made him what he was now. Elfriede said little but looked unceasingly into his eyes as if drawing out the poison from the wound. Nor did he ask her too much about herself; it was understood that this was all about him and he could be as selfish as he liked. However, when he reached the part about Candice she did say,
“Yes, I know her type dearie. Don’t be too hard on her. It seems to me that she wasn’t the ideal one for you and you weren’t for her. Maybe unlucky you got together but things change, people change and all things can be mended.”
At one point, after several beers, he excused himself to go to the toilet. He hardly noticed the people he was passing through; he was in such a state of euphoria. As he leaned against the wall and pissed into the cracked urinal, he tried to put the evening’s events into some sort of context. One thing was for sure, that expensive shrink in Tampa was about to get his marching orders. An obscene amount of money to reinforce the fears and reaffirm the failings; he looked forward to seeing his face when he told him his services were no longer required. With his thoughts turned to money, he wondered if he could find a way of giving Elfriede a large enough sum of money to give her some comfort and security. The thought was barely out of his mind when, like a revelation, he realised that Elfriede had no need of it and would most certainly be offended by such an offer. That was not what she was all about. God! Had he not learned anything from this evening? Money didn’t solve problems, people did. Elfriede was on the bottom rung of society’s ladder and yet she was content with life and more astonishingly, she was quite happy to impart that feeling to others. What was she, some sort of psychic? She certainly seemed to be able to read minds!
On returning to his table he was ready for another drink and looked for Elfriede to ask if she wanted one too. She was gone! In her place, with her back to him was an auburn-haired, well-dressed woman. There was no sign of his newfound friend. He felt a sudden pang of loss, like a child whose comfort blanket has been snatched away. He fought to contain the rising feelings of panic.
“Excuse me, do you know where the old lady went?”
“Oh, do you mean the lady from Surinam?” The woman had a voice of pure velvet. ‘Just gone but she asked me to tell you not to worry, she’d be seeing you soon.”
Extending the tip of one of her glossy, red nails, until it was close enough to his nose to make him cross-eyed, she asked,
“Are you a worried man then?”
6. Carolien does God’s work
Lieutenant Carolien Visser asked God for the thousandth time to give her the strength to do his work. The rain was coming down in sheets; she felt the first, depressing signs of a cold coming on and that night, she really didn’t feel like battling the elements as well as the intransigence of humanity. However, she had her calling and her orders and she knew how much worse it would be for the poor souls sheltering under blankets in doorways, or drowning their sorrows in gin and beer. Warmed by the thought that she might, against the odds, make a difference tonight, she once more inspected herself in the full-length mirror dominating her hallway. Never a beautiful woman, she prided herself on being neat and presentable. She tucked an errant curl of grey hair under her hat and allowed herself a moment of vanity in thinking that it wouldn’t harm to add a little colour now and then and maybe even a little make-up, though she wasn’t sure she could be bothered with all that after all these years. It was so much work and probably time wasted that could be better spent. Looking in the mirror, she had to admit that she was looking old for her fifty five years and her thoughts turned towards the elegant women she saw in the street, who obviously invested a great deal of time and effort in their appearance. However, vanity had nothing to do with God’s work and dismissing her doubts she concentrated on making sure that her uniform was as pristine as normal. She adjusted her hat, tightened the chinstrap, straightened her glasses and pronounced herself ready. Picking up the neatly tied bundle of the Salvation Army newspaper, the Strijdkreet and tucking it under her arm and checking that her Bible sat comfortably in her pocket, she opened the door and stepped purposefully into the street. The door had just closed behind her when she heard the phone. After a momentary struggle with her conscience as to whether to ignore it or not, she sighed deeply and re-entered the house.
“Hallo, Carolien Visser here.”
“Hallo Carolien. I’m so glad I’ve caught you. Can you do us a big favour? Unfortunately, Cadet Peters has come down with the flu and can’t do her round tonight.”
‘Again!’ thought Carolien uncharitably, ‘That girl should never have joined the Corps.’
“I suppose you want me to take over for her?” She couldn’t disguise her lack of enthusiasm.
“Would you? That is so kind. We wouldn’t have asked you but you live so close and we saw that you were working in the centre of town tonight. Would you be a dear and pop round for her collecting tin?”
Carolien had a vivid image of Major Dijkstra sitting behind his desk, corpulent and smug, with that ridiculous moustache curling around his cheeks, directing operations like some petty Napoleon. She worried about herself when she judged people like this. She knew it was a failing in her character but at times couldn’t help herself. Salvation Army officers were people too and she had to allow for their weaknesses and concentrate on her own work. Still, at that particular moment, she wished Tjeerd Dijkstra a severe case of indigestion at the very least.
“Of course. I’ll be glad to help. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
On arriving at the Goodwill Centre, its lights blazing like a beacon, she was relieved to find that Major Dijkstra had ‘slipped out for a few moments.’ She picked up the collecting tin and Cadet Peters’ orders and left to catch the tram to the city centre.
As usual, on the tram, she received many looks, usually out of the corners of people’s eyes. She was used to them now, although twenty years ago, when she had first joined the Corps, she had found people’s reactions to be extremely disconcerting. At first, she had always visibly shrunk when people looked at her, despite the training that told her to expect more hostility than friendship. The Corps had helped her grow as a person and over the years she had come to realise that people were looking at the uniform and the symbolism, not the person behind them. Only when you began to talk to people did they engage with you as another human being. Even now, however, she occasionally took comfort in hiding herself behind her role. Her friends in the police had explained it to her and she understood exactly what they meant.
As the tram trundled noisily through the rainy streets, she took a look at Cadet Peters’ orders. ‘The Wallen! Oh what fun!’ she thought and tried to remember the last time she had walked the streets of the Red Light District. It was years ago now and a senior male officer had escorted her. It had been one of the most insightful nights of her life and she felt afterwards that all life could be seen there, from the very worst to the very best. She had prayed to be assigned to the area on a more permanent basis but it was not to be and she had found fulfilment elsewhere in the city. The Wallen became a rose-coloured memory.
She got off the tram at the Dam and threaded her way across the square and through the crowds heading back and forth from Central Station. Fortunately, the rain had eased somewhat and she was drawn to the Bijenkorf windows, taking a minute or two to watch the animations of the Christmas display. She knew it had little to do with the true message of Christmas but found it entrancing nevertheless. She loved to watch the children’s faces, as they stood spellbound by the puppets and the sparkling lights. What a shame it had so much to do with making money from their parents, she thought wistfully. Breaking herself away, she walked on, deciding to begin her tour in the Warmoestraat, infamously known for its gay leather bars. There was little external evidence of the Christmas spirit here and she found it a little intimidating in the drizzle and cold and reached for her handkerchief, blowing her noise miserably. She glanced in the window of a shop devoted to condoms. Their massed and colourful ranks seemed to wave mockingly at her, challenging her beliefs from a neon interior; the same colours as in the Bijenkorf windows but worlds apart in sentiment. Lieutenant Visser, a member of God’s army, decided to seek shelter as quickly as possible. She knew that in general, gay men had little reason to be sympathetic to the Salvation Army cause; her particular church was very clear about the rights and wrongs of homosexuality although it had modified its attitude when faced with the ravages of Aids. Nevertheless, whilst most homosexuals applauded the unselfish social work, they couldn’t easily forgive a church, which excluded them on principle. Personally, she had always had friendly relationships with the gays she had met and knew them to be a generous and warm-hearted part of society. With this in mind and driven by the elements, she finally entered one of the bars through a black, wooden door. It was a Wednesday evening and still only nine o’clock and because she felt uncomfortable in very crowded spaces, she was relieved to see that there were only a few customers scattered throughout a long room. She headed to the counter to greet the barman. It was only polite to check with the bar staff that it was acceptable for her to spread her message and collect funds.
“Hallo, what have we here? Very brave of you to be out in weather like this! For a minute I thought we had a new Drag star!”
The barman laughed heartily and welcomed her with a shake of the hand. She looked at him and after a second, during which she worked out the joke, she laughed with him. He was short and stocky, with a huge, black drooping moustache and laughing eyes. “Viva Zapata!’ she thought and felt immediately at ease.
“Would you mind if I talked to some of your customers? I also have the Strijdkreet and a collecting tin for the needy.”
“Of course not, go ahead, though whether you can get a message through to this lot, never mind get them to scatter the moths from their wallets, I have my doubts.” The last part was said loudly enough for the whole room to hear and several people laughed.
“I tell you what, it’s still early. I’ll turn the music down a bit so they can hear what you’re saying. Would you like a drink, a coffee maybe? I take it that red nose is not the result of over-indulgence!”
She liked this little man immensely, so much humour and not a trace of malice.
“A coffee would be very welcome. You’re very kind.”
“Oh, it’s not kindness madam; just helping to book my place ‘up there’ by doing at least one good deed a day.”
As he went off to get the coffee, Carolien resisted the voices inside her that told her this particular man could not gain entry at the gates of Heaven and took the chance to look around. “How little we know of the communities in our midst,’ she thought to herself, ‘I could easily think that this was an evil place, Satanic even!’ Her eyes were wandering over the various posters, trying to keep an open mind at the extravagant sexual scenes they portrayed. She looked at the dildos and the bottles of poppers, the chains and the whips and the leather items hanging from the walls. Then she saw the Christmas lights and streamers, the evergreen branches, fake snow and tinsel draped over every available surface. Finally, she spotted the little Christmas tree next to the till; with its teddy bear ornaments and delicate angel perched precariously on the top. Even the leather man doll with the impossible genitals had a wreath of tinsel to sanctify him. There was no evil here, though she couldn’t pretend to understand what she saw. It was another world, not a satanic world.
“Here you are, specially brewed. I thought about adding a drop of brandy but decided it might not be right.”
Carolien thought a drop of brandy might have been ideal but knew she needed a clear head tonight.
“Thank you so much. How much do I owe you?”
The barman gave her a pained look and with a cheery wave, walked off to serve a customer. Carolien took her coffee to a table and sat down to appraise the clientele. Where should she start? She always tried to sum up the room before working it and decided to begin with a man sitting alone perched on a stool opposite the bar. He looked lonely somehow and lonely souls were the Army’s bread and butter.
After putting her cup on the bar and by sign language, refusing another one from the friendly barman, she walked over to the man sitting on his own.
“Hallo, would you mind if I talked to you?”
He looked at her, his yellowed moustache framing a generous mouth. Apart from his clothing, he could have stepped out of a Flemish masterpiece; that rounded face, with the deeply etched lines and button nose and the receding, mousy hair, just that little bit too long at the back for his age; so Dutch, so Amsterdam. Not unfriendly and not unattractive, the sort of person you didn’t mind approaching because there was no hint of aggression in his demeanour. She guessed he was in his fifties but his eyes, although twinkling, betrayed a lifetime of experiences. He looked like a youthful sage from the Brothers Grimm.
“I’d rather not if you don’t mind. I’m waiting for a friend.”
His voice was light and slightly effeminate; so different to the image.
“I promise I won’t keep you long. I’d like to talk to you about God’s word.”
“I’m sure you would my dear but God and I fell out long ago. He disappointed me dreadfully you see. Like all men, promises and lies, promises and lies!”
“You don’t look very happy about it. I know it’s none of my business but can you tell me what happened?”
“Well, for a start, Aids happened! No really, I don’t want to get into this. Please, I don’t want to appear rude but can I buy a paper, or make a donation?”
‘And then can I go away?’ thought Carolien. She sensed a need in the man but wasn’t sure if she was the one to draw it out of him. He was dropping coins into the tin when she decided to make one last effort.
“My sister died of cancer a month ago. It’s been very difficult for me too. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was really God’s will. She was only thirty four.”
This was all true. Her eyes filled with tears as she recalled those dreadful days after the funeral, when she had been wracked by doubts and fears that a lifelong belief in God had all been built on false foundations. If it hadn’t been for the support of her friends in the Corps she might easily have abandoned her faith.
“Oh my dear. I am so sorry.” The man put his arm protectively around her shoulders, “Here I am, selfish to the last and positively wallowing like a hippo in mud in my own problems. I had forgotten that other people are suffering too. But you see my point? If God exists then he’s a pretty callous taskmaster. You must have felt that?”
At this point, Carolien was on familiar ground. Usually people quoted the deaths of infants in wars, as being evidence of God’s inherent cruelty and then sat back smugly as if their case were proved. She knew how to continue this conversation; how to turn the argument around but in this case, it was personal and she felt all the insecurities caused by Inge’s death and suddenly it was she who wanted to leave. The bar was beginning to fill up; with what to her suddenly seemed like circus acts and the music had got louder again, its rhythm disturbing her equilibrium. She started to panic; maybe she was a little out of her depth.
“Come on my dear. We’re getting out of this freak show.”
The man took her arm and almost propelled her out of the door. Once outside, she gulped at the air and tried to compose herself.
“Oh thank you,” she said, “I really don’t know what came over me. I have a cold coming on, it may be that making me feel light headed.”
“My name is Willem…” he said, offering his hand “…and you and I are going for a quiet cup of coffee until you feel better.”
“I’m Carolien but I’m sure I don’t want to trouble you. I’ll be fine.”
“No arguments my dear. I can’t stay long but I’m not leaving you like this. Come along, Aunty Wilhelmina knows best.”
With that she took his arm and allowed him to escort her to a café around the corner. Somehow, she trusted him implicitly and realised that her intended mission had actually become his.
The Amsterdam Series
7. Mia is furious and Ben doesn’t see it coming
Having used the contents of her make-up bag to create the desired effect, Mia stood back and checked herself in the mirror, posing and pouting her newly crimson lips and giggling like a schoolgirl before settling down to finish her accounts and wait for Ben. There was something exciting about adopting a persona. She could hide behind it and fantasise. Even the guilt she felt at looking like a tart was slightly thrilling. If her mother could see her now! She chuckled again, covering her mouth with the back of her hand, a gesture she’d adopted as a child and never lost. Her mother had left it far too late before allowing the dentist to fit corrective braces on her crooked teeth. They were fine now but she had spent most of her teenage years with a mouth full of metal and had suffered the resulting jibes from boys and girls alike, in brooding silence. The irony of the fact that they became perfectly acceptable and even fashionable after she’d had them removed, didn’t escape her and she never lost her mistrust of people’s glances. Eventually, she had found a magazine showing a thin Parisian model to whom she felt she bore a vague resemblance and decided that she would create her own look based on the aloofness of that anonymous woman. Having never felt part of the herd in fashion terms, she created her own distinctive image based on eighties black and suddenly found herself to be an object of desire amongst her peers.
“You’re losing your femininity,” her mother had said.
“What femininity mother? I’m tall, I’m skinny and I don’t care whether people find me feminine or not. I have to be happy with myself. I’m not just dressing up for boys you know; or to fulfil all your ambitions for me.”
“We just want you to be happy dear.”
“No, you just want me to be married and have kids and settle down, then you’ll be happy. Well, it doesn’t work that way, not for me anyway.”
She’d regretted being so harsh but felt she had to make her point. Life hadn’t been particularly happy up to her early twenties; always trying to live up to other people’s expectations. Well, now it was time to make her own happiness and if other people didn’t like it, hard luck!
It was so dark outside, despite being the middle of the day, that she lit several candles both to supplement her desk light and to create a certain atmosphere. There was no telling when he’d turn up but she assumed he would be bringing lunch and therefore wouldn’t be long. Resting her chin on her hands, she stared out into the street and began to daydream.
She had inherited the bookshop when her father had retired a couple of years earlier. Her parents had decided to move back to Weesp where her mother had been born and her brother had lived in Australia since 1980, so she was in sole charge of the business. It was hardly a thriving concern, there were so many second-hand bookshops but she loved working there, being her own boss and earning enough to live simply. It may have been small and shabby, much like dozens of others but it was hers and she was proud of it. There was little reason to change what her father had built up; it worked this way and no amount of sprucing and modernising would have increased sales in this particular location, nor did she have the inclination to do so. Every now and then, if sales had been good, she would buy a piece of good, second-hand furniture for her flat and was gradually building up a collection of design items which were the envy of her friends. She loved the look and feel of well-made things, whether it be clothes or chairs and prided herself on being an astute collector. Once a month, she would do a tour of the auction houses and used-furniture shops. More often than not, she came away empty-handed but once in a while she would find a real bargain and experience real pleasure from her achievement.
She applied much of the same philosophy to her relationships and consequently, more often than not, wouldn’t have one. Her self-imposed standards were much too high for the average man she met and most were discarded after the first meeting. As she was now approaching thirty-five, she was always going to find second-hand but rarely true quality. Ben was just such a case, likeable, presentable and generous but lacking in several areas on Mia’s tick-list and thus expendable. It never worried her that she might end up alone, after the self-doubts of her teenage years, she now felt herself to be self-confident and self-sufficient. If the right man didn’t turn up then so be it, that’s the way it was meant to be, she was certainly not going to settle for second-best. This is not to say that she lived a cloistered life, far from it. She enjoyed romance. She enjoyed sex and there was a regular supply of casual lovers but although all were assessed, as yet, none had possessed those necessary extras for them to be considered long-term. Occasionally, she would worry that no man could live up to her father whom she worshipped and that really, she was falling into the classic trap of trying to find a substitute. Her mother certainly thought so and had casually mentioned it far too often for comfort but Mia felt she had sufficient self-control and knew herself much too well, for there to be any truth in that nonsense. Meanwhile, there was a game to play and she felt a shiver of excitement at the thought of what she was going to do with Ben before adding him to her relationship scrap heap. Where was he anyway? It was a quarter to one and amongst other things she was hungry.
Ben was doing a balancing act on his bike. Strapped on at the back was a bag of books Mia had forgotten that morning. He had a bunch of flowers under one arm and was clutching the handlebar and steering, with a dangerously swinging carrier bag in the same hand. He was finding it difficult to concentrate on cycling because Mia dominated his thoughts. He was both in awe of and intoxicated with her. Never before had a woman made him feel so out of control. He found himself following her like a puppy when they were in her flat, rushing to fetch things for her if she expressed a need and trying to anticipate her moods so that he could make her happy. She hardly ever came to his own apartment and because it was little more than a one-roomed maisonette, he could understand why but that was all part and parcel of doing things on her terms. Deep down, he knew he was humiliating himself but couldn’t help it, he was completely infatuated. Above all, nobody had ever excited him sexually the way she could. Knowing they were only fantasies he entered into them wholeheartedly. It was just so great not to have to take control and plough through the normal seduction games until she gave in. Mia knew what she wanted and took it and he was more than willing to be subservient. God, he hoped it would last.
The rain had eased to a drizzle but the roads were very wet and busy and getting to the bookshop was turning into an assault course. It was that sort of dark day when nobody was sure whether to put their lights on or not and as he didn’t have any at all on this bike, he knew how easy it would be for drivers to miss him. “Typical Amsterdam,’ he thought, ‘it’s like playing Russian roulette sometimes; near misses are a way of life!’ he tried to keep his mind on the traffic and despite narrowly avoiding another bike that was narrowly avoiding a tourist looking the wrong way, he negotiated most of the route fairly safely and drifted back into his daydreams.
Ben was usually pretty careful and instinctive and always knew to expect the unexpected but none of that helped him to avoid what happened next.
He saw the delivery van suddenly pull out and took evasive action, swerving towards the centre of the road just in time. In that same split second, his wheel caught in the tram rail and he heard the clanging behind him. Before the tram struck, he could see the whole thing with awful clarity and in terrifying slow motion. He watched the flowers of the chrysanthemums disintegrate into myriads of white, spiky petals and lost consciousness.
“You idiot. You stupid fucking idiot.”
Marcel raged at the disappearing van, trying desperately to get the number before it was lost from view. All he could see were the letters VB. He pulled the mangled bike away, then took off his raincoat and laid it over the man’s twisted body, all the while looking around for help. The tram driver remained steadfastly in his seat, looking pale and shocked, though several people had stepped off the tram and were making their way towards him.
“Has someone rung for an ambulance? For Christ’s sake, this guy needs help, quickly!”
It was as if an invisible force field had been set in force around the scene. People had stopped of course; crowds were gathering even but nobody came to help. A voice shouted that the police had been called but for a minute or two, there was a strange hush, only punctuated by the tooting of car horns as drivers, not realising what had happened ahead of them, became impatient. Marcel found the whole thing surreal and glared wildly at people in frustration. Eventually, he turned his attention to the man he was kneeling beside. His corduroy trousers were torn and his thick, cream sweater was spattered with blood and his jacket just seemed to blend in with the mud and water into which he’d fallen. He was still bleeding heavily from his forehead and Marcel could only think of dabbing at it gently with tissues. He investigated further, finding to his relief that there was a weak pulse in the neck. Both the left arm and left leg were twisted into strange positions and were probably broken. He didn’t want to move anything in case there were internal injuries too, so contented himself with gently staunching the blood flow from the head. Trying to ease the longish, matted blond hair away from his eyes, Marcel took a good look at him. ‘Looks like a student type but perhaps too old. Whatever he is, he’s good-looking; a nice, honest face, cute nose, cute lips,’ he thought guiltily to himself. ‘What a shame.’
Just then, the sirens announced the arrival of the ambulance and the police and everything became hectic again. He stood back as the victim was examined and carefully transferred to a stretcher.
“Excuse me sir, did you see what happened?”
A young policeman, ‘barely more than a boy,’ thought Marcel, confronted him with notebook and walkie-talkie. He gave what details he could but was distracted by what was going on by the ambulance. He did remember the two letters of the van’s registration plate but couldn’t for the life of him remember its colour or make. The policeman looked at him quizzically.
“Are you alright sir? You look very pale. Let me get one of the paramedics to have a word with you.”
It was true. Suddenly, Marcel felt very faint indeed; he was cold and wet, his hands shook and he felt like bursting into tears. Before he knew it, he was being bundled into the ambulance alongside the unconscious man and told to lie down. Two plastic bags were laid at his side.
Flat on his back in an ambulance suddenly brought it all back; those days of fear and depression, when he’d thought his life was over. He’d been twenty-four when his internist had told him the news he’d been dreading and he could remember the feeling at the pit of his stomach as if it was yesterday. Everything had happened so quickly. He’d gone from being a fresh-faced and energetic newcomer to adult life, with every hope for a bright future, to being an emotional and physical shell of a man within a year. With his dark, unruly curls and flashing eyes, he’d been an instant hit on the Amsterdam gay scene. He wasn’t classically handsome but everyone agreed, he had that something, that elusive element which made him an object of desire and he had no trouble attracting partners. That had been the problem of course. He wasn’t stupid; he could see what was going on around him, he knew the facts, watched people becoming ill and suddenly disappearing and yet…
As the ambulance threaded its way through the busy streets, the siren searing through his thoughts and the cobbles and potholes jarring his body, he felt himself slipping into semi-consciousness.
“Mr. van Ommen, Marcel, wake up. I need to change your bed.”
Renske’s kindly face smiled down at him. She’d looked after him, his favourite nurse. He’d spent hours talking to Renske and she’d listened. He could see her now, sitting on the edge of the bed, plastic cup full of hot chocolate in her hand, nodding occasionally and asking questions every now and then but generally just listening. It was only after he’d recovered that he found out how much extra time she’d devoted to him and he’d learned a little more about the extent of human compassion. Her face was replaced by those of a succession of lovers, a series of situations, in bedrooms, in bars, in saunas and in dark rooms. How wonderful it had all been. How innocent and guiltless. How he’d fallen for all the compliments and revelled in the physical gratification; how naive he’d been. He could hear Willem’s warnings ringing in his ears, as if he were standing beside him in the ambulance but youth carries its own feelings of immortality and Marcel had carried on regardless, convinced like so many, that it could never happen to him. The shock, when it came, couldn’t have hit him harder.
Mia wasn’t worried about Ben, she was furious with him! Not only was she really hungry now but she also felt a little embarrassed. Irrespective of the fact that she was going to finish with him, she had gone to a lot of trouble to remodel herself as a hooker, a fantasy figure she knew he would find irresistible. Like the Black Widow spider, she hadn’t intended to dispose of him without giving him some pleasure first. Ringing the flat for the second time, she cursed when she heard her own voice once more on the answer phone.
“I’ll bet he’s met one of his university cronies on the way!” she hissed. “Well, that’s it! If I’m not important enough…He’s stood me up for the last time! No last thrills for you mate!”
With that, she switched off the computer, grabbed her coat and purse and left the shop, slamming the door a little too hard on the way out, so that the windows shook. Pulling her collar around her neck against the insistent drizzle, she strode down the street, and headed for the café on the corner. Only when she glanced in the window of an electrical shop, did she realise that she was still in full war paint and still the Parisian tart.
8. Candice meets the neighbour
Feeling slightly embarrassed as well as cold, sitting naked in front of the screen, Gerrit fetched a dry pair of jeans and a T-shirt and slipped them on. He was waiting for Miranda’s response but as yet there was nothing. He’d tried calling her up on messenger service but saw that she was no longer on-line. A strange sort of guilt was creeping over him, although logically, he couldn’t see why. What if any of his friends or colleagues, were at this moment, laughing at his nudity? Or worse, Miranda! Like that time he’d seen a photo of Dick Wolters, who he hardly knew, in a personals list! Ridiculous! It wasn’t available on the Net; he’d sent it in an e-mail but he couldn’t help feeling a little exposed. He decided to give it another five minutes and then get himself something to eat. If she hadn’t responded in that time, then he’d probably blown it. He brought up her photo again and was tempted to use it as inspiration for some physical relief but he really wasn’t in the mood for that either. Besides, what if she came back on line just as he was about to climax? Part of him yearned for the good old fashioned, go to bar, meet girl in bar, ply girl with drinks and compliments, go back home with girl rituals. At least you knew what you were getting for your effort.
He heard a woman shouting in the flat above but otherwise the only noise was the hum of the computer and the patter of the rain on the furled up sunshade over his window.
After deciding to play just one more game of Solitaire, a message popped up,
“Got it! My, my, what have we here?”
There was no way of telling from the text what the tone of that message was.
“You look so different with no clothes on.”
He typed quickly, irritated by the comment,
“Doesn’t everyone? Look I know I’m no Adonis but you could at least try to be kind!”
“No, no, don’t misunderstand me, I like your body. I can see you now as a sort of animal, without the disguise of clothes. Now I can match your body with mine. I think we’d make a pretty good fit don’t you?”
That was better. Gerrit felt his confidence returning. He typed on,
“I think it’s pretty cool that we can do this now. We’ve only known each other a few weeks.”
“You think we know each other? Can two people who’ve never met, get to know each other over the Internet?”
“Well, on a certain level yes. Anyway, you started this. Took it to another level so to speak. When we meet, the chemistry might not be there at all. I might be a big disappointment to you.”
“And me to you. Are we definitely going to meet then?”
Gerrit had already decided.
“Look, I’ve got six weeks holiday next year and that means any time after the New Year. What about if I come over in January?”
There was quite a long wait before an answer came.
“Who the hell do you think you are you pervert? I’ve got your number! The police are already on to you. People like you should be castrated!”
Gerrit slumped back in his chair, stunned. What was all this about? Was she playing another joke on him? He suddenly felt cold and clammy. Nervously he typed,
“Miranda. What do you mean? What’s going on?”
Silence. She was off-line again. Nothing. He sat there for about five minutes staring at the screen before deciding that it was pointless. Leaving his end of the messenger service open, he got up and went to the window. He couldn’t work it out. Why had she reacted like that? Something in his stomach told him that this wasn’t the end of the affair. Not by a long shot!
The shouting from upstairs disturbed his meditation. It was a woman’s voice definitely but it was getting louder. She sounded in some sort of trouble. He walked into the hallway and listened again. By now the yelling had turned into screaming but he couldn’t make out the words. He decided to go out onto his tiny balcony. Opening the doors, he stepped out into the drizzle.
“Roy, where the hell are you? Roy!”
She was English then, or at least shouting in English. Then he remembered; the crazy old lady who sometimes slept rough in their portico had told him that the flat upstairs had been let out to an American couple for the holidays.
“Hallo. Are you okay?” he shouted tentatively from the balcony. The shouting stopped for a minute.
“Roy, is that you? Where are you? Where have you been? Oh, my head!”
Gerrit was certainly concerned now. What had she done to her head?
“Listen lady, it’s not Roy. I’m your neighbour from downstairs. I’m coming up to see if you’re okay.”
With that, he went back inside, picked up his keys and headed out through his front door towards the stairs.
Candice had woken up and momentarily thought she was still in Florida. She looked forward to breakfast on the patio and a few lengths in the pool after her morning exercise regime, then cappuccinos at Di Maggio’s with her shopping circle later in the morning. It was therefore a bitter disappointment when she looked up at the discoloured ceiling and the cobweb-strewn, paper light shade and realised that she couldn’t be further from her dream. She shouted for Roy but there was no reply. It was obviously still evening as the streetlight fell dimly into the room from the rain-spattered window. ‘He must have fallen asleep on the couch again,’ she thought, not considering for a second that he might not be there at all. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and tried to sit up but her headache forced her back. It wasn’t as blinding as it had been earlier in the evening but Candice had a very low pain threshold and gave in to the slightest twinge. She shouted again, still no response. She could feel the anger rising and shouted again, repeatedly.
She suspected that this part of her character made her unpleasant at times but she’d always been this way. As a child, she’d learned that she only needed to demand and she would receive. She was an only child, with elderly parents who were just grateful that she existed at all and were determined that what little Candice wanted, she would get. As a result, Candice grew into the sort of woman who knew what she wanted and took any steps necessary to get it. When she had spotted Roy at a friend’s wedding reception, she first investigated his potential and then claimed him as her own. There was, as she had expected, little resistance. Over the years, she came to realise that Roy was actually an asset. He was easy natured, malleable and doted on her. She had made sure that he made the right career moves and that they mixed in the right circles and slowly but surely, she created the cocoon which now protected them both. His occasional small rebellions were easily quashed, usually by her getting so angry that it upset him enough to give in. Therefore, when he didn’t arrive after several calls, she launched into a familiar tantrum and screamed.
She heard someone shouting, “Are you okay?’ and although it seemed to come from outside, maybe out on the balcony, she assumed it was him and replied at high volume. Clutching her head, she prepared to act the martyr. Once more the detached voice drifted through the walls but she couldn’t make out what was said. This time she lay back and refused to answer; let him come to her!
Gerrit reached the top of the stairs and walked forward to the door ahead. He was torn between responding to the noise from upstairs and staying at home to wait for Miranda’s message but he figured that whatever she had to say it could wait on his hard disc, that had been some outburst! He knocked on the door and waited. No answer. After a moment or two, he knocked again, still nothing. Starting to get really worried, he wondered if he should call the police but decided to try once more, knocking really hard this time. He thought he could hear some movement on the other side and waited again. Eventually, he knelt down to look through the letterbox and that was how an irate Candice found him when she opened the door.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She stood above him in a baby doll nightdress, hands on hips, her hair wild and frizzy from her extended sleep. Gerrit was entranced.
Several cups of strong coffee later, Candice and Gerrit were getting on better than any casual onlooker could have imagined. The normally prim and proper, forty three year old American, who, on any given day in Florida, would rather have eaten worms than appear to a stranger in her present state and the twenty nine year old Dutchman who an hour earlier had thought he was in love with a cyber vision, were sharing their life stories over a kitchen table. Being convinced that he was a burglar of some sort, Candice had been prepared to kick him down the stairs and little doubted that she could. She had never lacked for courage. It was only when she looked more closely and listened to his hasty explanation of who he was and why he was there, did she feel guilty and invite him in. Quite why she had allowed a stranger to see her at anything less than her best, much less invite him in for coffee, baffled her beyond words. She normally trusted nobody but Gerrit’s youthful honesty and obvious concern swept away her doubts in an instant. She didn’t realise of course, that what she saw as concern for her welfare was actually blind fear on Gerrit’s part that this woman was going to do him physical damage! Even more astounding was the fact that conversation flowed from the minute he entered the flat and she found herself relaxed and at ease with this young and she had to confess, attractive man. She found her resentments melting away in the course of this first meeting with a real Dutchman and after a while was giggling at his jokes and his accent and flirting unashamedly. He was so refreshingly honest and showed no trace of the coded double-talk and innuendo that she was so used to deciphering in Florida. She realised that in all the time she had been in Amsterdam, she hadn’t talked at any length with anyone but Roy and confessed to herself guiltily that she’d fallen into the trap of jumping to conclusions based on stereotypes. As she listened to Gerrit talking about the city and its faults and virtues, she asked herself why she hadn’t taken the trouble to look a bit more closely at Amsterdam and give it a fair chance? After all, why should it be anything like Tampa? Comparisons were so unfair. She began to appreciate that the world was full of variety and that her own, carefully nurtured norms and values were somewhat restricted and confined. She felt almost as if she was undergoing some sort of biblical conversion and revelled in it. What was most disturbing was the depth of attraction she felt for this young man. She felt sixteen again as she appraised him physically and wondered what he looked like without any clothes on. Although Roy hadn’t been her first, she’d had limited experience with men and being settled in her role of housewife and career-supporter had rarely given other men a thought. Gerrit awoke feelings that had lain buried since her teenage years and their danger excited her. Even more thrilling was the fact that Gerrit seemed to be reciprocating and she searched for new topics of conversation so that he wouldn’t leave too soon. However, after a while, her limited supply of coffee ran out and Gerrit decided to go back to his own flat to replenish supplies.
“I’ll show you what really good Dutch coffee tastes like and bring some Cognac too.”
“Don’t be long then. I’m can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying this.”
Candice’s eyes sparkled and she just knew she was glowing. The transformation from cat to kitten was astounding them both but neither cared and neither wanted it to end.
Gerrit hurtled down the stairs and ran back into his flat. Just as he was reaching for a pack of coffee, the doorbell rang.
‘Oh God! She must have decided to come down. Look at the state of this place!’ Resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do about it, he shrugged his shoulders and moved, red-faced towards the door.
- Roy steps out
- Carolien does God’s work
- Mia is furious and Ben doesn’t see it coming
- Candice meets the neighbour