SACHA DUMONT'S AMSTERDAM
CHAPTERS FOUR - SIX
Kiko was behind the desk when I arrived. She smiled sweetly.‘Oh, Mr Sasha,’ she said, making a slight bowing motion of the head. ‘It’s so nice to have you with us again!’
It was a small hotel nestled nearby the Concertgebouw and run by a musical Japanese family who plastered the walls of the downstairs dining room with photos of their favourite soloists who had performed at the concert hall just down the road. The rooms were small, cosy and rather louche, with miss-matched furniture and balconies - overlooking a communal courtyard - that sagged precariously when you walked out onto them. But it was very quiet, friendly and, by now, I had been coming there for years so felt reluctant to change. Besides, the idea of staying in a Japanese hotel in Amsterdam and eating miso soup for breakfast somehow appealed to me.
Kiko had given me a note along with my key which I read while I freshened up. It was from Marijka. ‘I’ll come to the bar at the Film Museum after work. Meet you around 7?’
I took off my shirt and trousers and tossed them over a nearby chair. Perfect, I thought. Time enough for a little nap.
Vondelpark where the Film Museum is located was just a short walk from the hotel. It is a wonderful patch of green fields and serpentine lakes which extends all the way from Singelgracht to Amstelveense - over a mile in length.
In the late afternoon, the paths and lanes which cheerfully circle through the park are filled with skaters, cyclists, joggers and young, barefoot people totting guitars. There is a pleasant feeling of shared abandon. Ducks, birds, dogs and people have all managed a moment of biological truce, a moment of peace in sunny tranquillity.
Or so it seems until the sun is swallowed up by darkening clouds and you hear the distant rumble of thunder.
Some years ago I chanced upon a statue set back on a grassy mound. It was a figure cast in iron, an image of someone in agony, the strips of metal, like bare lesions, pulling the sinews of the face so the features were distorted into a heart-rending expression. Even so, there’s a strange sense of dignity about the piece which pulled me to it. And something else. Surrounding the piece were bouquets of flowers, still fragrant and fresh. And on the statue itself, along the outstretched arms, were candles and sticks of incense.
A middle-aged woman with a child had come up to the statue the same time as myself. With a sense of wonder she leaned down to inspect the flowers, reading some of the inscriptions which had by now blurred in the dampness, like heart-felt messages smudged by tears.
‘Can you make out the writing?’ I had asked her in English.
‘A ceremony,’ she replied, looking at me in confusion. ‘But for what? All the messages are very unclear...’ Then, glancing over at her child who was playing in the mud, she sighed, ‘It’s a mystery.’
The statue or why children are attracted to mud? I remember thinking that as I brushed some of the flowers away with the toe of my foot to uncover an inscription. My Dutch was limited, but I could make out the sense of anguish and the plea that this may never happen again - without being specific about what ‘this’ was.
It was, of course, Heinke who told me. We were drinking a beer at the Literary Cafe and I had said, ‘In Vondlepark there is a statue, a very curious statue of a woman, maybe a man...’
That’s as far as I had got before he looked at me strangely and said, ‘Were there flowers?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘They were fresh.’
We were sitting on a small, wooden indoor balcony, by a huge pair of foggy windows overlooking the canal which bisected Kloveniersburgwal on the edge of the Red Light District. Heinke was gazing through the windows. I followed his line of sight, across the canal, where three young drunks were standing with their zips undone, pissing onto a houseboat.
‘The Dutch can be pigs,’ he said, taking another swill of beer and looking away in disgust.
‘So can the English,’ I replied, thinking he was referring to the scene of blatant urination.
‘Not all Dutch,’ he said. ‘I don’t care where people piss...’
‘As long as you’re not underneath,’ I suggested.
‘I meant the statue,’ he said. ‘It was built to commemorate a murder. A young man, Surinamese, doing nothing, caught out by a group of toughs, beaten, mercilessly, clubbed until his skull caved in. People saw. No one came to help...’ He took another drink of beer. Then, putting down his glass, he said in a softer, more contemplative tone, as if still trying to come to terms with the mindless savagery, ‘Just because he was black.’
That scene came back to me as I wandered up to the Film Museum. Housed in a large white, colonnaded building - a type the Dutch call ‘neo classical’ - it could easily pass for a country hotel. In front, to the side, an outdoor cafe overlooks the lake. Through the leafy trees beyond one can see a little patch of blood red poppies, a striking contrast to the very deep, almost visceral, green. Above, the trees give way to clouds and, every so often, traces of pale blue sky.
Inside, on the ground floor of the Film Museum, is where you go to order drinks. After working hours, around six to seven in the evening, the place is mobbed - no matter what day it is. To order a drink, especially for an Englishman without a degree in assertiveness training, takes a bit of perseverance as everyone crushes up against the counter waving guilders at the hassled bartender. After a while you learn that standing there waiting your turn is useless and you either join the fray or slink out with your thirsty tail between your leg.
When I finally caught the attention of the barman by thrusting a five guilder note into his face with all the force I could muster, I ordered a Grolsch and watched in disgust as he dipped the glass into sudsy disinfectant and filled it with beer before wiping it dry or even letting it drain. By then I had waited so long to be served and was so thirsty that I took it anyway without registering a complaint (which, because of the frenzied quest for alcohol surrounding me like sharks after blood, would have been a futile gesture anyway).
I took the drink outdoors, hoping for some calm. As it had begun to rain, I grabbed a table underneath a giant Chestnut tree that served as a canopy. A group of young men on skates stumbled over to the table next to mine. A cell phone began ringing. I looked in the direction of a tall man on a bicycle who had pulled a phone from his pocket and now was talking into it as he pedalled past.
A young woman came over to ask for a light. I took out my lighter and offered it to her. She bent down and lit her cigarette while continuing a conversation with someone I couldn’t see behind her.
The rain was starting up again. No one seemed to care. I put my hand over my beer to stop it from being diluted with rain water and thought to myself that there is no calm in Amsterdam between the hours of six and eight.
Then, suddenly, everyone left. I looked at my watch. It was slightly after seven.
An older woman with two small dogs took refuge from the rain at the table where the skaters had been. She pulled out a letter from her handbag and began to read as the dogs wound their leads around her legs.
I was wondering about the woman with the dog - who she was, what was in the letter she was reading, what she fed her animals - when I heard a familiar voice.
I heard her voice before I saw her face. But I knew who it was.
I looked up at her pug nose, her bright blue eyes, freckled face and floppy red ringlets. ‘Hello, Marijke,’ I said.
It’s strange having known someone as a child and then seeing them again full grown. Layered memories, remembered more or less, develop the composition of a face into a montage of something recognisable. But the body is new - once awkward and gawky, it has become confidently poised. The grey fluff of the cygnet becomes the plumage of the swan.
So it was with Marijke. I had seen her on occasion through the years when I had visited Heinke, playing, I suppose, the role of ‘uncle’. When she was young, I would bring her toffee and picture books. Later she requested clothes from a shop on Carnaby Street which no longer existed.
I used to wonder about her growing up on Heinke’s houseboat without siblings to play with or a mother for support. But in Amsterdam you’re never really alone. And Heinke’s extended family was the community of artists.
She had propped her bike against the tree and had gone inside to fetch a beer. I had barely time to light a cigarette before she was back.
‘You had better luck than me,’ I said, gratefully taking the refill she offered. ‘How did you manage to get served so fast?’
‘I know the bartender,’ she replied, pulling up a chair next to me. She sat down, put the glass to her lips and drank half a pint without stopping for air.
Marijke knew everyone. And those she didn’t know, knew her.
‘How’s Heinke?’ I asked.
She put down her glass and took out a cigarette from my pack on the table while using her free hand to fluff up her curls. Her lips formed themselves into sort of a pout. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, lighting up her cigarette and then looking into my eyes.
It was a painful look, full of more emotions than could ever be said - at least at Vondel Park with a beer in your hand.
‘He won’t see me.’
‘Why not?’ I asked.
She made a little shrug with her delicate shoulders.
‘Do you think he’ll see me?’
‘He won’t see anyone.’ She shook her head, stubbed out her cigarette which she had only puffed on once and immediately took another.
‘Who’s his lawyer?’ I asked, taking out a tiny notebook and a pen from my shirt pocket.
‘A man named Van Houten. His office is on Valerius Straat. Wait...’ She reached over to fetch her bag which she had tossed onto the chair next to her. ‘I have his card,’ she said as she fumbled through the contents.
It took her a moment to sort through the bits and pieces of paper. Finding it, she handed me the card, saying, ‘ It’s not far from where you’re staying, I think.’
I took it and copied down the relevant information.
‘Why don’t you stay on the houseboat?’ she said as I handed it back to her.
‘It’s better this way,’ I said. ‘Kiko keeps track of my messages and the newspaper foots the tab.’
A young couple came up to the table. The man was apple-cheeked, very tall, very thin, wearing a leather coat that fell down to his ankles. The woman was half his size. She had huge earrings and spiky hair.
They had a brief conversation with Marijke in Dutch, then, as she introduced me, the conversation shifted seemlessly to English. They spoke a bit about the upcoming Ozu festival and made arrangements to see Tokyo Story. Then the apple-cheeked lad leaned down, kissed Mirijke on the lips and sauntered off again.
‘I saw Tokyo Story a number of years ago with your father,’ I told her after they left. ‘I’m surprised young people would be attracted to that film.’
‘Why?’ she asked.
‘Because even though it’s about a seismic change that had taken place in Japanese society after the war, it’s so slow and subtle that you could fall asleep if you were sitting in a comfortable chair.’
She leaned down on her elbows and looked at me the way her father did when he felt I had said something incredibly stupid. ‘I guess it’s not social history that attracts me to his films,’ she replied. ‘It’s his imagery and they way he was able to capture it. He can fill the screen with meaning just through light and shadow and what he chooses to place within a frame.’
Heinke could have said that himself. In fact he probably had.
‘What can you tell me about your father?’ I asked.
The sun was beginning to set. Across the lake, the blood red poppies had turned purple.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean what do you know about what happened last week.’
Her gaze drifted across the lake and upwards, into the darkening sky.
‘If you don’t want to talk about it now...’
She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. Then she looked at me and shrugged. ‘It’s what I told you over the phone. Van Houten called. He said my father had been arrested. He said Heinke was OK but was in a very distressed state and, for the moment, didn’t want to see anyone.’
‘What did he say had happened?’
‘There had been a shooting. In the Red Light District. A woman had been killed. Heinke had been found in her room.’
Across the lake, the trees had turned to silhouettes. The park was mostly empty now. The cyclists had gone home for dinner. In their place, flurries of dried leaves skated down the paths.
‘That’s all you know?’
She stared at me blankly. ‘That’s all anyone knows until Heinke decides to talk.’
‘And the woman?’
‘The woman who was killed.’
She took another cigarette from the pack on the table and fondled it, brushing the tips of her fingers lightly over the paper before sticking it in her mouth. Her hand was trembling slightly as she reached for a match.
‘A whore,’ she said, striking the match and lighting up. She inhaled deeply, lifted her head and let the smoke out slowly, watching it spiral up into the encroaching darkness. ‘One of those prostitutes who sell their bodies in the window to any man who comes along.’
‘What do you know about her?’ I asked again.
She shook her head, nervously fumbling the cigarette. It fell onto the table. She picked it up again and stuck it back in her mouth.
I could see the tears welling in her eyes. She looked at me, entreatingly. ‘My father didn’t need to go to those kind of women, did he? There were plenty of women around. He had his pick...’
She was right, I thought. Nothing about it made sense. Sure, Heinke knew some prostitutes. Everyone in the Amsterdam art scene did. They were as much a part of Amsterdam life as green pea soup and smelly canals.
But, like everything else in this fascinating city one had to balance the real with the mythological. The Red Light District had become a sort of Sexual Disneyland. It was open, colourful, relatively safe and an amusing place for tourists to hang out. And once you had got over the initial curiosity of semi-clothed women sitting behind shop windows selling themselves like robotic mannequins from a bankrupt lingerie store, you realised that the whole thing was about as erotic as a petting zoo for truant adults.
I took her hand and gave it an avuncular pat. ‘Listen, Marijke,’ I said. ‘I’ve known Heinke a good part of my life. He’s a kind and gentle man who wouldn’t kill a fly even if it landed on his brush just before he was about to put the final daub of paint on his Mona Lisa.’
She made a brave attempt to smile and nodded her head.
But, to tell the truth, even though I knew him for many years, I certainly didn’t know Heinke. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I really didn’t know him at all.
Cafe De Jaren is one of those special places that could only have been constructed by slipping some mad architect a few million guilders, giving him the guts of a grand old three storey bank and telling him to get on with it - the only stipulation being that there should be no interior walls and a maximum of wood and glass. The result is a magnificent use of space and light accentuated by a fantastic staircase to the upper mezzanine that could have been the prop for a Hollywood film. The fact that it’s built into a little bay of the Amstel at the mouth of the canal that leads up to Nieuwmarkt - giving it a particularly prominent watery vista - means that the few million gilders were well spent and the cafe would have been a success even if the food was horrid.
However the food is good - a very nice plus in a world of mostly minuses - and the ambience cosily non-pretentious which is quite a surprise when you think of what the same thing would have turned out to be in London. But this, of course, is Amsterdam where life is nothing but a series of surprises.
Marijke, who was on her bike, got there before me even though de Jaren was just a quick tram ride from Vondel Park. But everything is quicker by bike in Amsterdam - the hierarchy of transportation modes being, in descending order, bike, tram, foot, car.
By the time I arrived - it was sometime after eight - the place was bustling as it was every night about then. Marijke was standing outside chatting with a group of students from the nearby theatre school who were in the process of carting some garish props either to the little theatre next door or away from it.
‘I’ve been advising them on set design,’ Marijke told me as we entered the extraordinary room, filled to capacity with animated people.
It was a different sort of set design that intrigued me as we came in. I put my hand on her shoulder and pointed toward the dining area. ‘Listen,’ I said.
She looked at me curiously. ‘What?’
‘It should be louder. In a room this size, with this many people, the sound should be deafening.’
I was never sure with Marijke whether we were on the same wave length. Mostly, I was fairly convinced we weren’t.
We found a table on the mezzanine. Marijke found it, I should say. Several people had been waiting, but I think she explained I had a gamy leg or was about to catch a plane - something like that. Anyway, she managed to commandeer it without being either exceedingly rude or overtly obnoxious, a skill I put down to her twenty-five year course in urban survival. In this city you could be poor but still feel like you owned the place. Especially if you were her age.
A waitress came by. She was young and slim - about Marijke’s build - poised and relaxed. They chatted for a minute like old friends and then the waitress handed us a menu and left.
‘Do you know everybody here?’ I asked.
‘No, of course not,’ she said. Then, looking around, she said, ‘Quite a few, perhaps.’
She’s not a orphan, I thought. She’s got a bloody big family - pretty much the entire city I’d guess!
‘I’d like to visit the houseboat,’ I said.
‘Tonight?’ She was looking at the menu, not at me.
‘After we eat. Do you have the key?’
‘He usually left it open.’ She was still looking at the menu. ‘If not, I know how to get in.’ Then, suddenly standing up she said, ‘I’ll have the soup and salad. Be back in a minute.’
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
‘Water closet,’ she replied, heading for the stairs.
Wonderful term, I thought. So direct and yet so euphemistic.
I looked over the rail into the main room below. There was an easy flow down there, from the bar - an outlandish piece of art deco - to the casual space in the centre where you could take your drink and peruse the daily papers, to the tables scattered around the periphery where people were eating.
She had stopped at the centre space and was chatting with a bald-headed man dressed in black who had been drinking coffee and reading a magazine. The top of the man’s head was so shiny that it reflected the light like an organic prism.
Even from this distance I could tell their brief conversation was somewhat intense. It broke off abruptly. She walked away - I suppose to the toilets further downstairs.
As she left the bald-headed man looked up. His hand held his face - the thumb on his chin, the tip of his index finger methodically tapping the bridge of his nose as if he was seriously considering something. It took a moment before I realised that the something he was considering was me.
The waitress returned. She smiled in a friendly manner. ‘Are you English?’ she asked.
‘How did you guess?’ I said, thinking maybe there was something about me that stuck out like a GB sticker on a British car.
‘I heard you talking...’
‘But everyone speaks English here - most of them better than me.’
She laughed. ‘But when Dutch people speak English it’s with an American accent. Haven’t you noticed? It’s because of the movies I think. Do you want to order now or did you want to wait for your friend?’
I ordered and then took out my notebook and wrote down some of my thoughts. Then Marijke returned. She didn’t look happy.
‘Something wrong?’ I asked.
‘My father’s in jail for killing a whore,’ she said.
‘I mean beyond that.’
‘I have a sore bunion,’ she said, sarcastically.
It took no time for the food to come and for Marijke to gobble it down. When she finished, she wiped her lips, looked at me in a challenging manner and said, ‘Did you want to go to the houseboat or not?’
I was still piddling with my lasagne, fascinated by the change in colours as I stuck in my fork - uncovering the green pasta from the creamy white sauce while releasing a trickle of red from a submerged tomato. I found her tone annoying.
‘I’m the man you called for help,’ I reminded her, pointing my fork in her direction.
‘So let’s go!’ she said, pushing her chair away from the table and standing up.
Her restless energy was giving me a stomach ache. I looked down at the food. It no longer seemed quite so appetising.
‘I’ll meet you downstairs,’ she said, grabbing her bag and her jacket.
‘Fine,’ I replied. ‘I need to make a pit stop anyway.’
‘A pit stop?’ She crinkled her nose at me. She had a delicious appreciation of any word or twist of phrase that was new.
‘The term comes from motor racing,’ I explained. ‘When an overheated car stops by the side of the track...’
‘Oh, you mean the loo...’
She loved that word which I had taught her last time I had come. And I loved the way she said it - with an extenuated ‘ooooo’.
I signalled to the waitress to bring over the bill. By the time she brought it, Marijke had already disappeared.
Throwing some gilders on the table, I made my way downstairs to the lower level where the toilets resided and entered the chamber which, on a busy night, could have certainly kept several of the canals well awash. There was a neat line of cubicles as far as the eye could see on one side of the tiled room. And on the other was sinks and mirrored glass.
The vast room was empty except for the smell of deodorant, me and a rather loud snorting sound emanating from one of the cubicles.
I did my business and was washing up when, in the mirror, I saw the door to one of the cubicles open up behind me. The bald-headed man dressed in black came out, brushing some white powdery stuff from his nostrils, bits of which fell onto his black outfit like flakes of dandruff.
He came up to the sink next to me and turned on the water. His face, which I had remembered being greyish white had now turned more pink, like half-done pork of the kind one is taught never to eat for fear of trichinosis.
It was my reflection he was staring at with his vastly dilated pupils. So it was more my image than myself that received the brunt of his guttural Dutch.
‘Try it again in English,’ I suggested.
This time he looked at me in the flesh. It was an animal look which, in the jungle, would have made you reach for a weapon.
‘Just watch your step!’ he growled. Then, looking back in the mirror, he splashed some water on his face.
I dried my hands and left him there rubbing his nostrils.
* * * * *
Follow Sacha Dumont’s adventures at VisionsOfTheCity.com. Each issue brings a new chapter in Sacha’s mysterious urban explorations. Ealier chapters can be obtained by request: email Sacha Dumont at Sacha@germinalproductions.com