The Chameleons
9. Carolien begins to believe in fate

Carolien could feel the froth gathering on her upper lip and decided to use the straw after all. Against her better judgement, she’d been persuaded to have a large milk shake but had to admit, she was thoroughly enjoying reliving this particular childhood treat. She felt much more relaxed than half an hour previously and put it down to the kind ministrations of the jolly, almost gnome-like character sitting opposite her. It may have been the time of year but she likened him to Father Christmas, albeit a Father Christmas in leather jacket and trousers.
‘He talks so much, he could put a glass eye to sleep,’ she noted but was glad of the chance to sit back and let someone else take control. There was only a slight niggle at the back of her mind that she had a job to do that night.
“So, you see, I’m all on my own again. Not that I mind really. There’s such a responsibility in relationships don’t you find?”
She half wondered if he was talking to her or at her but tried to appear to be listening carefully. This was another of her skills. She was well-aware of the need for people to talk out their problems and that sometimes they could only do it when confronted with a uniform and a badge of sanctity. Despite the nature of his life and the sometimes bizarre activities in which he seemed to indulge, she recognised a lonely human being when she saw one and realised that no matter what image a person’s appearance suggested, people’s lives were much the same when it came to emotional struggles. She also had a deep suspicion that this man was actually emotionally selfish and would entrap others by flattering their egos before inflicting his views on them.
‘But doesn’t that also tell you something about the shallowness of his life?’ she analysed.
Her presumptions were somewhat shaken by his next question.
“Now tell me my dear, what is it really like in the Salvation Army? I know so little about what you do. I know I don’t like your ideas about people like me but I’ve never had the chance to hear what they are from the horse’s mouth, if you’ll forgive the expression.”
He leaned over to look her squarely in the eye and rested his head on his hands, waiting for her reply.
“Are you sure you want to hear what I have to say Willem? I thought you had another appointment?”
“Oh that. Oh it’s a dear friend. I’ll phone him a little later. No, I really want to hear what you have to say and I promise I won’t interrupt. Anyway, I’m sure I’d be keeping you from your work if I continued prattling on the way I was. Maybe this way, you can relax and do your job at the same time but I warn you, convincing me will be like asking a dog to stop licking his balls. At my age I believe that everyone has the life they deserve and I’m pretty set in my ways but I’m not too old to learn something new.”
Carolien looked closely at him; he was sincere, she could see that. Maybe she was about to begin her night’s work after all. It didn’t matter which lost soul you should try to save, so she ignored the pile of unsold Strijdkreet and the all but empty collecting tin by her side and began talking.
After some considerable time, she paused and examined his face for signs of boredom or opposition but all she could see was keen interest in his eyes, although she couldn’t understand his motives at all. Was he just being kind? She didn’t detect any patronising tone in his voice. Encouraged, she continued outlining the mission of the Salvation Army, occasionally interspersing her own experiences to give credence to the points she was making. She told about the care and shelter given to the homeless and she tried to explain the many reasons why people ended up in such a position. She explained the many facets of social work and how the addicts, alcoholics, geriatrics and psychiatric patients all received equal treatment and how she had learned to accept failure over the years. She talked about how she had hated the time she had spent organising used-clothing collections because she didn’t like the feel of other people’s clothes and yet felt obliged to put in hours of repair work at home. She talked about Ivo her much older husband, who had been a major in the Corps but died just a year after their marriage. She had suffered little grief at his death but felt a deep regret that their time together had been so short.
“How dreadful for you. You seem to have lost people at the wrong times.” William again took her hand.
“Oh yes but in Ivo’s case I didn’t love him you see. We sort of fell into marriage but I hoped I would grow to love him and I never had that chance, that I regret.”
Just then Willem’s mobile phone and its electronic tones intruded on the conversation.
“Damned thing! Excuse me Carolien. I’m so sorry. I’ll switch it off.”
“No, no go ahead, it could be important, please.”
Willem pulled it out of his pocket and pressed a button.
“Hallo, Willem here.”
“Hi, it’s me.”
Willem covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Carolien.
“It’s my friend Marcel. I’ll just be a minute.” She waved his excuses away and went back to her second milk shake.
“Hello Marcel. Hey, I’m rather busy at the moment, can I ring you back?”
“Busy eh! Tell him to put it back in his pants. Where are you? You’re half an hour late!”
“Oh shit!” Willem covered his mouth and he whispered an apology to the amused Carolien. “Marcel, I completely forgot.”
“It’s your age. All those poppers are rotting your brain cells! Well, get your fat arse down here. I’ve got lots to tell you.”
“I’m sorry I can’t. Well not yet anyway. It’s complicated but nothing to do with men. I’m talking to someone and it’s very important.”
Carolien was trying to attract his attention and tell him to go ahead with his meeting but he ignored her.
“Okay, I know when I’m not wanted. I think I’ll go home then, I’ve had one hell of a day. Ring me tomorrow. Oh by the way, have you decided what to do with all your new found wealth?”
Marcel sounded disappointed and tired and Willem felt guilty but answered as firmly as he could.
“Yes, absolutely. I’m giving it to the Salvation Army.” He held the phone away from his ear.
Willem pressed the cancel button and put the phone back in his pocket.

After Willem had explained the background to his statement to a bemused Carolien and she had recovered her composure, she took both of his hands in hers and said,
“Are you sure? You’re not just saying this because of what I’ve said tonight?”
“Well of course I’m doing it because of what you’ve told me. You’ve convinced me that the money will be used in the best way possible.”
“Yes but… Willem I don’t know what to say. If you’re serious this could make a huge difference to what we can do in so many areas but I feel guilty somehow. You’re not a happy man at the moment and unhappy people often do things on the spur of the moment; things they regret later.”
He laughed and picked up the bundle of the Strijdkreet.
“Okay, I’ll buy these then. If you give me a bank account number, I’ll transfer my payment for them tomorrow, if you trust me that is?” His eyes twinkled and she had an urge to throw her arms around him.
“You see,” he continued, “I was committed to giving half that money away anyway. I won’t go into details but suffice it to say that, if I kept it I’d be the unhappiest man in the world. Last week, I didn’t have it and tomorrow I won’t have it, so what have I lost? If it makes you happier I’ll deduct the price of the lottery ticket. There, I’ve lost nothing. Happy now?”
Carolien beamed at him.
“Now all that remains are the mechanics of the deal. How do I give it to you?”
“She frowned, “You’re not giving it to me. You’re giving it to the organisation. You do understand that don’t you?”
“One hundred percent.”
“Well, normally, I have a lot of literature with me, with bank and giro numbers on and that sort of thing but for some reason I’ve got nothing tonight. Let’s look in the Strijdkreet.” She felt herself getting flustered. This all seemed so surreal. A virtual stranger was going to give the Army a massive amount of money and it was probably due to her somehow selling the organisation. She didn’t know whether to be proud or ashamed and felt somewhat mercenary.
“If you don’t mind my dear, I’d rather put it in your bank account and then you can transfer it yourself. That way, I feel that the person responsible for making my mind up for me, will be directly involved in the distribution and good use of the money. Makes it more personal somehow. Humour me. Just give me your number and I’ll do it first thing tomorrow morning.”
Carolien’s head was spinning. The hanging light just behind him seemed to create the effect of a halo framing Willem’s head though she put this down to wishful thinking. This was rapidly becoming a surreal situation and she couldn’t rationalise it the way she normally did. She felt a fleeting suspicion that there was something wrong with giving her bank account number to someone so easily but after giving Willem another searching look, she found herself writing it out on a napkin and handing it to him. It was almost as if she was caught up in a chain of events over which she had no control.
“Wait a minute Willem.”
She tried to come to her senses.
“ Why can’t we meet tomorrow? I’ll bring the Salvation Army’s account numbers and we can do it properly. This is all too bizarre.”
“Don’t you believe in fate my dear? No, probably not, well I do. I believe our meeting tonight has been predestined and that anything I do is for the right reasons. Somehow, I’m absolutely certain that this is the right way to do all this. I know that logically, it seems absurd but allow yourself, just for once dear Carolien, to be caught up in the winds of destiny and fly with them. This is an unique night for both of us, one I’ll never forget. Nothing can go wrong tonight. Tonight, and believe me this is a rare experience; I feel I’m actually doing what I should be doing. Anyway, I have an idea that we won’t see each other again after this evening.”
Carolien laughed at him, “Excuse me for saying so Willem but to use a phrase I wouldn’t normally use, that’s such a load of bullshit! What’s more, if I’ve given my bank account number to some sort of con artist, I swear I’ll come and haunt you into an early grave. Now, shall we arrange to meet here again at, say, eight o’clock tomorrow evening; to have a coffee and a chat at least? I’ve made a new friend and I don’t want to lose him so soon but now I really have to go, otherwise I’ll be the talk of the Goodwill Centre for coming back with an empty tin. So…” she gathered her things but left the papers behind on the seat, “…do we have a deal?”
She reached to shake his hand.
“Maybe my dear, maybe.” His smile radiated warmth and honesty, humanity and strangely, relief. ‘At last, the mask is dropped,’ she thought and walked out into the street.
As she walked back towards the Warmoesstraat, she looked back to see if he was still sitting there but she couldn’t see him any more. Taking a deep breath of the rain-filled air, she strode on with a spring in her step and a thousand doubts milling around her head.

How she’d wandered into that dimly lit side street, she couldn’t imagine. She’d visited several bars and eating-places and talked to various people, some of whom she knew. She’d looked into the girls’ windows and waved when she saw a friendly face; many waved back. By the weight of the tin, she knew she’d collected a reasonable amount of money and she felt pretty good about herself. Even if Willem hadn’t meant what he said and she felt that in the cold light of day, he might very well change his mind, she’d enjoyed meeting him. Another experience to note in the diary. Yet she’d inexplicably taken a wrong turning and found herself in a very narrow and dark back alley. The only light came from the street behind her and her shadow lay ominously on the ground ahead of her as she stopped to get her bearings. Later she could only put it down to being preoccupied with her thoughts but blamed herself nonetheless for being so unguarded.
The hairs on the back of her neck had stood up when she heard the voice.
“Give me the tin!”
“What?” She’d turned around but she hadn’t been able to make out his features. His head was framed in silhouette by the light at the end of the alley. In retrospect, it had looked like a halo.
“Give me the tin lady. Hurry up!”
The desperation in his voice gave her false hope that she might be able to bluff her way out of this.
“Certainly not! You’re getting nothing. Just go away and I won’t scream.”
The bravado failed and all she felt was a dull pain on the side of her head as she fell to the ground. She still hadn’t let go of the collecting tin and looked up to see the boy, for that’s all he was, a scared, teenage boy, lifting his arm to strike again. She prepared herself for the blow and at the same moment, prayed.
The next thing she knew was that the boy was on the ground writhing in agony and an even more terrifying silhouette had taken his place above her prostrate body.
“Are you alright dearie? Don’t worry. I got him. I got him good.”

10. A surprise in store for Roy

“She said I would find you interesting. My name’s Katherine by the way; with a K.”
The woman’s rich, smoky voice interrupted Roy’s thoughts.
“Oh, sorry, I was miles away. I’m Roy.” He couldn’t get Elfriede’s face out of his mind.
“Pleased to meet you Roy.”
“I don’t really know what I’m doing here,” he said, perplexed, “But that was the most extraordinary woman I’ve ever met and now she’s disappeared.”
“Well, do you know where she lives?”
“No, not a clue.”
“Then you’ll have to wait until you bump into her again won’t you? Maybe it’s part of a puzzle; like a mystery novel; I love mysteries don’t you? .”
Roy took a good look at the woman. She had long, silky hair down to her shoulders, slightly almond-shaped, dark brown eyes and a cute little nose, which perched above full, red lips. ‘She’s beautiful,’ he thought, ‘…bit heavy on the make-up perhaps but elegant and classy.’
“Can I offer you a drink? I’m sorry, I’m being very impolite, I’ve been so preoccupied with my own thoughts, I haven’t been able to thank you properly.”
She looked at him and he could feel his toes beginning to curl. This was one sexy lady.
“I’d love one but not here. It’s a bit too crowded and smoky don’t you think. I know a much quieter bar just down the road where we can talk in more comfortable surroundings.”
“Okay then, you lead the way.” Roy felt as if he was on some sort of roller-coaster which he couldn’t get off until it had finished the ride and despite the slightest stirrings of guilt at meeting an attractive woman while Candice lay ill at home, had had enough alcohol to give him courage and he followed Katherine out of the door and into the street. If this was the sort of adventure Elfriede meant then he was quite willing to let it happen.

She had taken him to a bar with a different ambiance altogether. It was full of arty people, writers, painters, journalists, socialites and the like. He looked at these people. Very few of them were dressed up; there seemed to be very few obvious designer labels; most were in jeans and a curious mixture of other clothes; some were even downright scruffy, certainly by Candice’s standards, yet they were indisputably chic and he began to get the idea of how he wanted to look himself. This seemed to be the European café society of which he’d read and heard but it wasn’t a deliberately created look; these people dressed in a way that made them feel comfortable and the effect on a Florida republican was profound.
The walls were painted with deco murals and the chandeliers hung down from a high, stuccoed ceiling and stretched their curling arms over the old oak tables. The long curved bar was clad in muted brass and even the beer pumps looked like they had ivory handles. There was a wrought iron, spiral staircase at one end of the room, leading up to a balcony, where more guests could sit and watch the comings and goings below. He drank in the atmosphere and felt completely in his element. There was nothing like this in Florida; nothing genuine anyway and he wished back the years so that he could start again with a completely different life and persona. He found Katherine to be charming company, witty and cultured and above all, graceful. He watched her hands carve the air and fingers flutter as she talked expressively about this and that and felt unsophisticated and clumsy in comparison.
“So you see, Amsterdam has many faces. Like San Francisco, for instance, in your country, so many people have moved here from somewhere else. It enriches the city don’t you think? Gives it colour. I always think Amsterdam is like a Rauschenberg or an Eduardo Paolozzi, don’t you? A city that is a collage made up of scraps and layers which are constantly changing and being replaced but somehow makes a vibrant and living whole. Do you know Mimmo Rotella? No? Well, he called it ‘decollage’ and tore posters to shreds, then carefully pasted them back on the canvas, so that you could see the layers underneath. That’s Amsterdam. They’re always tearing pieces up and starting again, yet it never seems to affect the whole; you can always see the original underneath, do you see?”
He did see; he was absolutely fascinated. She had shown him such respect by assuming he knew who she talked about. He didn’t but he understood her because she didn’t just drop names, she explained the thinking behind them. He felt uplifted and inspired for the second time that evening and this time, he didn’t allow the Middle American in him to intrude on his pleasure.
She didn’t dominate the conversation and listened carefully to his explanation as to how he had come to be in that bar with Elfriede, nodding knowingly when he tried to make sense of her wisdom and her contradictions. She didn’t say why she had been there though and he didn’t ask. He mentioned that he was married to Candice but didn’t elaborate and she likewise didn’t ask any further awkward questions. This was his moment and he wasn’t going to let the vision of an irate Candice spoil it. He was going with the flow and although he put it down to the number of drinks he’d had, his entire life before tonight started to seem irrelevant.
“Where would you like to go from here?” she asked with absolute confidence that the evening was not yet over for either of them. He knew what she meant but for him the question became loaded with possibilities and potential; it applied to his whole life.
“I don’t know. It’s your city why don’t you choose? I could also happily stay here but are you sure I’m not keeping you from other things you were going to do?”
She laughed and at that moment, he knew he wanted to sleep with her, though at the same time a nagging voice at the back of his brain was telling him that would be a mistake, there was something not quite right about this woman. It was such a tiny voice however and his libido easily overcame its opposition. The question was, did she feel the same? He couldn’t imagine that she would. He was forty-four and although he had a full head of still dark hair, it was definitely greying at the edges. He had a paunch, though not a serious one and the minute he appraised his shortcomings, he found it difficult to adjust his body language to give off confidence signals. He put his round shoulders down to Candice, maybe even his grey hair too and tried then and there to straighten himself up. But how old was Katherine? Difficult to say but then he always hated the ‘Guess my age’ game that women played. He always plumped for the wrong side of reality and had lost count of the number of Florida matrons he’d offended at cocktail parties. Nevertheless, he made an educated guess that Katherine was somewhere in her early thirties. That hardly inspired his confidence that he was going to get laid!
“Okay, we’ll go to a place I know, where you can dance as well. Do you like dancing?”
She had already stood up and was reaching for her coat. He jumped up to help.
“Oh what a gentleman. Thank you kind sir.”
She flashed him a smile that conquered all resistance. He hated dancing but tonight…well, who knew what he could do tonight?

He looked at his watch. It was already one thirty in the morning and he was having the time of his life. He’d danced, drunk and talked with Katherine in a bewildering array of places, each different to the last. They’d even been to a gay bar and met some of her friends there. He was so intoxicated with happiness; it never crossed his mind that this was something he would never have considered in his former life. He’d reached the point where he didn’t care if they ended up in bed or not, he’d experienced the beginnings of his re-education and would never be the same again. As it was, he didn’t need to make any first moves.
“I think I’ve had enough Roy. Shall we go back to my place for coffee or something?”
He could see in her eyes that the ‘something’ didn’t need explanation and without a second thought, took her hand as she led the way outside to hail a taxi.

Her apartment was exactly as he had expected, simple but stylish. She didn’t have much but what she had was carefully chosen and carefully placed. A few spectacular plants completed the picture. He even found the pictures of male nudes on the walls somewhat erotic. How far had he come tonight? He decided that the Florida colonial clutter he and Candice had was not his choice, never had been his choice and wouldn’t be his choice in the future. It struck him that the one thing he’d learned was that he could choose for himself again. It didn’t matter what they’d be about but he was going to make his own decisions in the future. Deep down, he supposed that future would include Candice.
After two cups of very strong coffee, during which, little was said but much understood, Katherine turned the lights down low and came and sat down beside him on the sofa.
“Well, I’ve had a wonderful evening Mr Roy, how about you?”
“You don’t have to ask. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun and I have you to thank…”
Before his sentence was out, her lips were on his, her hands on his thighs and her perfume swirling through his brain. He took control and held her face in his hands, kissing her with a fierce longing. He could feel his whole body alive with sensation and the years of frustration emerged as he forced her back into the billowing cushions.
“Careful, you’ll crush me. Take your time.”
He could see his face in her eyes; lust reflected by lust and he kissed her again, gently this time. His hands carefully eased each breast out of its cup and his tongue flickered over the nipples like a snake. She moaned in anticipation and reached for his zipper, eased it down and slipped her fingers inside. ‘God!’ he thought, ‘It’s never been this hard in years.’ He responded by sliding his free hand up the smoothness of her thigh towards her groin. Suddenly, his eyes widened and he pushed himself up to stare in amazement at the panting creature beneath him.
“What the…!”
“It’s up to you darling,” she whispered, “Do you want me or not?”
He looked at her again, her perfect face, her perfect breasts and her hand stroking his balls.
Suddenly all the clues came together and he had an explanation for the tiny doubts at the back of his mind.
“What the hell! You only live once!”
The Amsterdam Series Home
11. Marcel plays Florence Nightingale

After having been cursorily checked out and pronounced fit by a rather laconic doctor in First Aid, Marcel, still feeling shaky, went to the reception desk to ask about the patient.
“Are you a relative sir? No? Well, I’ll see what I can do. I’m not sure whether the poor man’s conscious or not.” The Asian nurse beamed at him and immediately put him at his ease. She picked up the phone.
“Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee sir and I’ll find out how he is for you.”
He wandered over to the machine and got himself a coffee then went to sit down in the waiting area. There were several people sitting there all isolated in their own thoughts, ‘Each with their own story to tell,’ he thought. A bedraggled black woman looked up at him, gave him a cheery wave and said,
“Hallo dearie. How’s it going?”
He ignored her. The last thing he wanted to do was get involved in conversation with an old tramp. To avoid her gaze, he looked at the clock. It was only three o’clock; he’d thought it was much later. He picked up a magazine and tried unsuccessfully to take it in. After about five minutes, the receptionist called him over.
“I’ve been told that Mr. van Hulst is awake and would like to see you. If you go back along the corridor, turn left, he’s in room 14.”
Marcel thanked her and made his way towards the guy’s room. He was just about to go in when a nurse came out carrying a tray of tubes and instruments.
“Are you the man who was at the accident? Well, he really shouldn’t have visitors yet but he insisted that if you were here, he’d like to see you. Please don’t overtire him, he’s got to have more x-rays and have his leg and arm put in plaster. Five minutes, okay?”
Marcel opened the door and went in. He was lying on top of the bed, wearing a theatre robe, wrapped in bandages and attached to various drips. From what Marcel could see, the face and arms were very bruised and his heart went out to the man. He suppressed a sudden urge to rush over and comfort him and walked slowly to the bed.
“Hi, how are you feeling?”
The eyes opened and he was given a weak smile.
“Oh, you know, okay I suppose. You’re the guy who got the ambulance and everything aren’t you?”
“Well, no. I didn’t do much really. I was just the first one there that’s all.” Marcel felt sheepish and knew he was reddening from the neck up.
“Well, I wanted to thank you.” He lifted his free hand feebly from the bed.
Marcel took it and shook it very gently.
“Believe me, there’s no need. You were pretty lucky I’d say. Could have been much worse. It was pretty horrible to watch.” He stared at his newly-found object of desire. ‘Those grey eyes, they’re a heart stopper!’ he thought wistfully.
It was now the patient’s turn to look sheepish.
“I’m Ben van Hulst, by the way.” He lifted his hand again.
Marcel couldn’t resist the opportunity and once more took his hand.
“I’m Marcel van Ommen, how do you do? Again!”
Ben raised his head, “Listen, do you think you could do me a big favour?”
“Sure, if I can. What?”
“I was on my way to my girlfriend’s shop when this happened. I was due
there about one o’clock I think. What time is it now?”
“Just after three.”
“Shit, she’ll be furious. Do you have a mobile with you?”
“No, sorry, not at the moment. Do you have her number?”
“Yeah. Could you possibly ring her and tell her what’s happened? The number’s…oh, have you got a pen? Oh good. It’s 6234096. That’s great, thanks. She’s got a second-hand bookshop on the Tuinstraat.”
‘Shit!’ thought Marcel as he scribbled the number down, ‘Ah well, that rules out my romantic notions then. Never mind, you win some, you lose some.’
“I’ll do that straight away and get back to you. If you’re not here, I’ll leave a message.” He was just about to leave when he had an afterthought.
“I’ll pop in and see you again tomorrow if you like?”
“Hey thanks. No problem. Be nice to have visitors. I’ll probably be a bit more communicative then and thanks again for the phone call.”
Marcel gave a little wave as he left. What had he said that for? He didn’t even know the guy but he felt a strange sort of responsibility to him and straight or not, even in his present battered state, he was easy on the eye.

He had tried the phone number Ben had given him several times but there’d been no answer, so he decided to go to the bookshop himself and leave a message there; it wasn’t too far out of his way. He’d had coffee with Willem at a café close by earlier that day and he was once more reminded what a small world it could be. As it turned out, Ben had already been taken somewhere else for treatment so he left a message telling him what he was going to do. Just in case, he asked for Ben’s home address, in case the girlfriend, Mia had gone home. It was becoming rather complicated and he realised that he had a lot to do if he was to fulfil what he saw as an obligation. All he really wanted to do was get home himself and have a stiff drink but there was nothing for it, he’d made a promise and anyway, he enjoyed a challenge. For the first time in what seemed like hours, he walked out into the fresh air and hailed a taxi.

Mia had sat in the corner café for quite some time. She’d drunk several coffees, read the newspapers, picked at the already frayed plastic tablecloth and chatted briefly to the girl behind the counter. She’d even sat at the window table in the hope of catching sight of Ben as he cycled past but in the end, she had no real reason for staying there any longer. She also had no desire to go home, so without really knowing why, she headed back to the shop. She might as well do some tidying up; it certainly needed it. As she struggled once more with the obstinate lock, she heard the phone ringing and felt some relief. It must be Ben. She’d give him hell but she’d be glad to hear his voice. As is often the way with these things, it stopped as soon as she picked up the receiver. Suddenly feeling morose and tearful, she looked around for a suitable place to start work.

The taxi pulled up outside the bookshop and Marcel peered inside, looking for signs of life. He thought he could see a light, so he paid the driver, asked him to wait for a minute, got out and knocked on the door. The rain had started to come down in earnest again and it was rapidly getting darker. He peered in through the window, thought he could see someone and waved the taxi away.
Mia jumped when she heard the knocking. ‘At last,’ she thought and automatically checked herself out in the mirror. The image she had wanted to present earlier was all but gone and she rather looked as though she’d just got out of bed but she didn’t care anymore, any ideas of seduction had long since disappeared. When she saw that it wasn’t Ben at all, she was tempted to retreat to the back room and ignore the intruder altogether but curiosity got the better of her.
“We’re closed,” she mouthed through the glass.
“I know,” he shouted, “I’m not here for books. I’m here about Ben.”
Marcel was beginning to get fed up with this. He was wet, he was tired and this stupid woman was playing silly games.
“Can you let me in? I’ve got some news about Ben!” This time he really yelled but she got the message and unlocked the door.
“Hi, you’re Mia right?”
She nodded, at the same time appraising the dripping man standing in the doorway. ‘Not bad,’ she thought, ‘keeps himself well. Nice clothes too.’
“It’s about Ben.” She jerked herself back to reality.
“He’s had a pretty nasty accident I’m afraid.”

Later that evening, hunched over a single beer, Marcel waited for his friend and mulled over the events of the day. He’d rushed home from the bookshop, had a quick shower, got changed and left for his appointment with Willem. He was deeply tired but at the same time felt he needed to talk about the things that had happened, so had forced himself to go out. The bar was half empty and lifeless. A few stray tourists, the disappointment at the lack of atmosphere plain on their faces and a few jaded locals, looking bored and pallid, hunched over their drinks.
‘Things never change here,’ thought Marcel, ‘A typical weekday evening in the middle of winter.’
He looked at the décor, its unchanging and shabby familiarity giving both comfort and dejection in equal measure.
‘You have to be in the mood for this,’ he mused, ‘otherwise you see it for what it really is, dirty, tacky and ultimately very depressing.’
As the time passed and there was still no sign of Willem, he decided to finish his beer and go. Willem could be anywhere, with anyone. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Marcel punched out the numbers on his mobile.
After Willem had hung up on him, he couldn’t imagine the day could get any stranger. Giving his money to the Salvation Army! Had he gone completely out of his mind? He put it down to Willem’s noted eccentricity and unpredictability, or just plain drunkenness! Though he had seemed unnervingly sober and serious. Marcel was confused but working out that particular twist of events would have to wait until tomorrow. He returned to his drink and tried to read the label on the bottle. His thoughts wandered again.
‘She had been a strange one that Mia. Didn’t bat an eyelid when I told her about Ben. She gave every impression of not giving a damn. Poor guy. I thought she’d want to rush straight to the hospital, being his girlfriend and all that but she just stood there, calm as you like and said she might visit him tomorrow. A real cold fish that one! Very odd but then again, who am I to judge? I don’t know what their relationship is.’
At that moment, he didn’t care either. His head was spinning. Abandoning his drink, he pulled on his jacket and headed home.

12. Gerrit’s cyber problem

“Good evening sir. Police. Are you”
Just after a startled Gerrit had ushered the two policemen inside and they had explained their presence, Candice arrived at the door.
“You were taking so long so I thought I’d come and see what a real Dutch apartment is like. I hope you…” She caught sight of his guests.
“Oh, sorry. You’ve got visitors. I’ll go.”
Her friends wouldn’t have recognised this Candice, wearing a terry cloth robe over her flimsy nightgown and although she’d attempted some hair repair, it still looked like the result of a mistimed encounter with electricity. Even in his confusion, Gerrit thought she looked adorable.
“You remember my telling you about that business with Miranda?” he whispered, “Well, it looks like it has suddenly become much more serious. I can’t believe that it’s come to this. It’s the police!”
He looked distraught.
“Oh, you poor thing. I’ll go then but let me know if I can help.” She touched his arm and walked slowly up the stairs back to her apartment.
‘What has got into me tonight?’ she thought, ‘Normally, I’d be in a complete panic over anything like this. Until a few hours ago, I’d have run screaming from any hint of scandal and here I am feeling sorry for a complete stranger who’s in trouble with the law! In a place I hate, with my husband missing, God knows where and in my nightie for Christ’s sake!’
She was however, secretly proud of her reaction to the night’s events and equally, secretly quite happy that Roy was elsewhere. Gerrit had begun to give her her independence and self-confidence back, something she hadn’t realised was lacking and something she felt sure Roy would feel that she already had in abundance. She realised that she no longer felt as threatened by her surroundings, or by Amsterdam.
Damn, she could do with more coffee! Instead she poured herself a large brandy, slouched down in the ageing armchair, draped one leg wantonly over the arm and smiled to herself.

“Now sir, maybe you can explain a few things to us.” The detective leaned over the back of the kitchen chair towards Gerrit; his partner stood a little behind him, with a notebook in hand. Gerrit was perched on the kitchen table, his stomach churning. Up to this point, he’d had little contact with the police in his life. There’d been a few warnings as a child, for cycling without lights, making too much noise in the neighbourhood with his friends, that sort of thing but nothing serious and as an adult, a few speeding fines. His name didn’t exist on any police files and although the rebel in him thought it pretty feeble, he felt quite smug being a reasonably law-abiding citizen. This then, was somewhat of a shock to his system and he suddenly realised that he wasn’t quite as street-wise as he had thought himself to be. He decided to be completely honest about what had happened.
“I think I know what this might be about, though I can’t say that I understand it at all.
I’ve been writing to a girl in America, Cincinnati actually. Is that it?” From their glances to each other, he knew he was right.
Well, just this evening, we were chatting as normal and this really strange message came up. Insulting really. About the police being called in. I thought she was joking, Miranda I mean. Then nothing. Nothing else happened.”
“Well, sir, let me tell you what we know, then we’ll go from there, okay?” He nodded, feeling just a tiny bit more comfortable. They weren’t being aggressive or anything like that. The one sitting down was even smiling. Not the other one though, he looked like he’d just chewed a lemon!
A few hours ago, we had notification of a complaint from a Mr. Lewins, of Cincinnati, Ohio; you don’t need to know the address. He claims his daughter is the victim of an assault via the Internet, by a child pornographer from The Netherlands. Does this ring any bells for you sir?” The smile had been replaced by a thin-lipped grimace. Gerrit’s jaw dropped. He could hardly believe his ears.
“A child pornographer. You must be joking! I’m not even remotely interested in kids. I don’t know where all this has come from but it’s got nothing to do with Miranda and me!”
“Do you make a habit of talking about sex to thirteen year old girls sir? Perhaps you don’t realise how serious this is?”
The standing detective spoke for the first time. Gerrit’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open even further. He was beginning to get annoyed; this was just too bizarre for words.
“Serious? Of course it’s not serious! It’s a joke! Miranda’s twenty-five! Unless they’ve got laws over there that don’t make you an adult until you’re thirty or something!
Listen, I can prove it all too you. My computer’s over there. It’s got everything on it. You can see for yourselves.”

Candice was getting a little drunk and what’s more, thoroughly enjoying the feeling. It helped mask the prickly truths that kept surfacing in her thoughts. She was a nagging bitch, she knew it and in her present mellow state admitted it. She had always justified herself by claiming that without her insistence, Roy wouldn’t have amounted to much by now and thus, by definition, nor would she. Now however, she was wondering if it had ever been as necessary as she’d thought. She’d always got her own way at home but that was another excuse. She loved Roy in so many ways but it went against the grain to show it; that would have been weakness and Roy responded to her strength. It had all cost her so much though. She was becoming frigid; she knew it and if nothing changed in that direction she suspected that Roy would eventually leave her, or at least have an illicit affaire; another little confession to herself through the brandy. She never enjoyed sex these days and wondered if she ever had. She used to stifle her orgasms so that Roy wouldn’t feel there was at least one area of their lives in which he was dominant. Until, of course, there were no more orgasms to be had and Roy wasn’t prepared to make the effort. For the last two years, sex had been scheduled and limited and never before a tennis day.
‘Poor Roy, what have I done to him?’ she thought sadly, ‘I’ve not only emasculated him but myself too.’ All of a sudden on that rain-swept night in Amsterdam, Candice McKenna recognised her life for what it was. It had taken an honest talk with a younger man and a fair amount of brandy to do it but she suddenly felt that, if it wasn’t already too late, a new life could be found, for both of them. One where material gain didn’t always take precedence and fun could be had without the normal designer, price label. Then her thoughts turned to Roy and she began to worry. Where was he?

It took more than an hour but Gerrit finally persuaded the police that he was an innocent party in their investigation. They apologetically insisted on taking his hard disc away ‘for a definitive investigation’ and reserved the right to call on him again but fortunately, he’d saved every e-mail to and from Miranda, plus the photos, which both shamed him and proved his innocence. In the end, the humour of the situation began to seep through to him, though the detectives had seen the funny side much earlier and had ribbed him mercilessly over the coffee he had provided, to seal a peaceful conclusion to the whole nasty business. After they’d left, he felt sick and embarrassed in equal measures. His rational side ridiculed American Puritanism but deep down, he felt some sympathy for Miranda’s father and wondered what he would do in the same position. It had been his bad luck that the father also happened to be the local chief of police and was able to activate an investigation so quickly. He felt sure it would never have got so out of hand in Holland but the whole business stirred up uncomfortable emotions and he found himself completely unable to sleep. He thought about going up to Candice again but when he looked at his watch, it was already two thirty. He’d talk to her in the morning and anyway, the husband was bound to be back by now.

Roy let himself in as quietly as he could, just after three thirty. He’d been lucky and caught a passing taxi because when he finally emerged from Katherine’s flat, he had little idea where he was. During the journey home, he’d tried to concoct a suitable story for Candice. He wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done, far from it, it had been one of the most exciting nights of his life but he did want to spare her feelings. There’d be changes tomorrow, he was certain of that but he had no desire to hurt his wife plus when Candice was on a vengeance quest, there were no hiding places.
The apartment was dark and he slipped into the kitchen to make himself a sandwich; the night’s activity had left him famished. The light fell partially into the living room, where to his astonishment, a sleeping Candice lay sprawled inelegantly over the armchair, a bottle and glass by her side. He stared at her for a moment or two and then feeling even worse for having reduced her to this state, quietly closed the door to protect her from the light. He then saw the man’s bomber jacket on the back of the chair and was suddenly faced with the parallel consequences of his own guilt.
  1. Carolien begins to believe in fate
  2. A surprise in store for Roy
  1. Marcel plays Florence Nightingale
  2. Gerrit’s cyber problem
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