The Attic

Part Three of “The Golden Years”

Mickey stumbled up the four pairs of stairs and sat down panting against one of the coal bins that lined the sides of what we called ‘the attic’. It was not really a room, merely a six by eight foot space that had a window to allow access to the hoisting beam. All Amsterdam buildings had one, their stairs far too narrow to manipulate furniture up or down. But seen from afar, it seemed that the poorer quarters of the city had an endless mass of ready-made gallows waiting for the eruption of a bloody revolution.

GoudsbloemstraatI unearthed my hidden treasures from behind my parent’s coal-bin; four cardboard model sailing ships that I had  patiently glued together and an old cigar-box filled with dummy men made out of cotton pipe cleaners and wrapped with various colors of knitting wool. I had given the ‘Spaniards’ red and yellow, the ‘French’ blue and red and the ‘British’ just plain blue. The ‘Dutch’ were all black as they were the privateers, the raiders that pried on all the other sailing vessels. The advantage was that you could bend and form those little figures into all shapes that fitted the cardboard ‘ships’; standing at the wheel, brandishing swords at the rail or clinging to the spars and the masts. 

With a small piece of chalk stolen from school, we outlined the ‘coasts’ and the ‘island’ on the bare floor boards and used an old shoebox as the island’s ‘fortress’ from which the marauding privateers would set sail. The toss of a coin decided who would be ‘Dutch’, the other party could be any nationality as long as it was Spanish, French or British. The loser had to sail first, the ‘Dutch’ being the raiders.

Boys_Playing_1We played for hours in that place, never winning or losing and re-adjusting the battle to what we liked, with the rain pattering on the roof and the light gradually growing dimmer and dimmer. We were in a fairly frantic battle around the ‘island’ when my mother’s head suddenly popped up from the stairwell.
“Having fun?” she asked and we both dropped the pieces of coal we had used as gun shells.
“Yes mom”, I answered.
“Well, it’s getting dark; Mickey has to go home and we’ll eat as soon as dad is in.”
And with those words she disappeared down the stairs.
The two of us were sitting dumbfounded. The spirit of battle was all gone and it was really getting too dark to see clearly. With a sigh, I started to collect the discarded puppets and put them back in the old cigar box.

Woning_2A smell that made my mouth water hit me when I entered our apartment. I loved the way mom cooked sauerkraut, mixed with briefly fried spare-ribs and mashed potatoes. My stomach rumbled; I had eaten nothing since those rolls at the market. But there was nothing to snack on in the house so I had to wait until my stepdad came in.

“Did you do your homework?” she asked.
“Not yet” I replied; my teacher had insisted on giving me additional exercises to be done at home.
“Then go and do it before your dad comes home!”
I sat down under the single large lamp suspended on a chain over the dinner table that occupied most of the floorspace of our living room; the stove, a cupboard and an easy chair took up the rest. For a while I worked on my chores. Then the noise of the street door and heavy footsteps coming up the stairs announced the arrival of my stepdad. The door opened and he stepped in, dripping wet from his bike ride. I immediately sensed he was in a bad mood and grabbed my school things and scurried away from the table.
“What’s he doing?” he asked gruffly as he hung his soaked overcoat on a peg outside and closed the door it with a bang.
“He’s got some extra work for school; there’ll be a test to see what kind of school he can go to later”, answered my mother.
“All bloody nonsense”, he growled as he sat down in the easy chair. “He has to learn how to read and write and do some sums. Then he can go and work for a living just like I do.”
“But maybe he–”
“Shut up! Everybody in our family has worked with his hands! He’ll do the same!”
“But he has to–”
“I know; he has to go somewhere else some time. So let them send him to a trade school; he won’t be a bricklayer but maybe he can be a plumber. They earn good money.”
“But maybe he–”
“I don’t want him to go to one of those fancy high schools; all they teach is capitalist nonsense.”

After supper I finished off my homework and by eight I went to bed. After putting the hot water bottle between the sheets my mother kissed me and tucked me in. She switched off the single lightbulb and closed the door and I pressed my feet against the radiating heat of the stone bottle in that thick old sock. As I snuggled down, I thought about my stepdad’s words. Becoming a plumber? I’d seen one at work one day, opening up a sewer to unblock it and repair some pipes and the sight and the smell had been enough. But what else would there be for a boy like me? Carpenter? I loved the smell of wood and the way you could work it. Or maybe I could be an electrician? Electricity was a mystery in our house. The few times my stepdad had tried to fix something had all ended in disaster; fuses blown and hands scorched by sudden angry blue sparks. I thought a little bit about it and decided better not – he would be angry that I knew things he didn’t.  

As I slowly drifted into sleep I decided to wait for the weekend and ask my granddad. Surely he could help me; granddad always knew things and gave straight answers that I could understand. …

***

— To Be Continued — 

The School

Part 2 of “The Golden Years’

Having watched Mom disappear around the corner I turned around with a sigh and made my way to school. It was only two blocks down the street and as I walked past the derelict building, I fished the sticky pieces of bread out of my trouser pockets and threw them into the gaping maw of what once had been its basement.

“Hey Robby”, a familiar voice cried and I stopped in my tracks.
It was Mickey, my best friend and I waited as he came hobbling up to me. Some nasty childhood disease had left him with a crippled right leg. He was not exactly lame but his leg didn’t work too well either so I always stayed close to him. Together we had beaten up all jerks stupid enough to joke about his leg. By now there were no more sneers, I thought grimly.
“Dumping your bread again?” he said with a knowing look in his eyes and I just grunted.
“Don’t! Keep it for the afternoon; let’s throw it to the gulls!”
“Too late”, I grinned as I showed my empty pockets.

IJ_Pont_3One of our nastier little games was to board the ferry behind the Central Station. We would go to the upper deck and toss pieces of bread to the gulls. After two or three pieces, a whole screaming flock would be hovering over the slowly moving vessel, its deck packed with cyclists and pedestrians and the odd car.
We would throw more pieces of bread to the gulls and each time they swooped down to catch them, they would squirt shit on everyone below them.

Our school was one of those stately, 19th century buildings that had been built all over town after the education laws had been passed. Its three gables and its austere lines gave the building a stern and almost forbidding aura, as if the architect had wanted to emphasize that education was a serious business. It had a number of high-ceilinged classrooms, all with three high windows divided into a multitude of rectangular panes. Even in winter they gave us plenty of daylight, but cold air came rolling down from them like an invisible waterfall that made us shiver as it penetrated our thin clothes. In the opposite corner stood a large, coal burning stove and when fired up, it radiated enough heat to slowly cook the unfortunate souls sitting next to it.
The classroom had twelve wooden desks, each one seating two pupils. We were facing the teacher’s table, raised on a small platform in front of a large blackboard. A large map of Holland and a few pictures of the Alps decorated the white-washed walls and that was all there was to see in this most basic of classrooms.

School_2We thronged through the echoing hall with its white-washed stairwells and hung our coats on a row of pegs just outside the classroom door. We noisily hurried to our desks, eleven boys and eight girls, and moments after the concierge rang the newly installed electric bell, our teacher came in. He was a rather short, thickset man in a rumpled brown suit who always wore a dark brown fedora that seemed to be glued to his head. He slammed the table with a ruler and the lessons began.

It was an easy morning; we started off with some writing, then some geography and before we knew it the bell rang for the mid-morning break. We all rushed out into the schoolyard, a place paved with concrete tiles and hemmed in between the school building and the fence of the marshalling yard. Actually it was not a fence at all but a long line of discarded railway sleepers set upright and pointed at the top. It looked like a fortification and I guess a tank would hardly have made a dent in it.
But we could run around in that yard and do all the kind of silly things that young boys do; climb the fence (until the teacher saw it), play tag or just buzz around and pinch the girls to make them squeal.

School_1All too soon the bell summoned us inside again, this time for arithmetic, followed by history. The teacher was good at that. I loved the way he described those historical characters; he made them come alive, doing incredible things against the Spaniards, the French, the Germans…
The bell brought us all back from fighting the Spaniards during the siege of Haarlem in the late 16th century to the here and now. Class had ended and we stampeded out of the classroom, free for the rest of the day.

“Got any lunch?” Mickey asked.
“Nope; fed it to the rats”, I said as we walked down the narrow street. I could go to a neighbor for lunch but all I would get were some stale slices of white bread, plastered with margarine.
“Let’s go to the market and get something”, I suggested.

A quarter of an hour later the two of us were munching freshly baked rolls from a corner bakery  while sitting in an unused market-stall, sheltered from the slowly falling drizzle by its tarpaulin roof.
“How did you get that money?” Mickey asked; I had paid 25 cents for our lunch.
“Every week I go around and collect old newspapers”, I told him. “There’s a guy around the corner there who pays 5 cents a kilo.”
“Ahh”, said Mickey and he took another bite.
Streetmarket 1 Ten Catestraat
We looked around when we had finished the rolls but the market was not an inviting sight. Normally the market was a place of bright colors and smells of fruit and fried fish and the air filled with the cries of hawkers, selling their wares. Now, the steady drizzle made everything look grey and drab and even the hissing pressure lamps in the fishmonger’s stalls did not radiate their normal golden hue. Somehow, they gave off a harsh, metallic light that mingled with the mottled daylight and turned the silver fishes  dull grey and unappetizing. People were hurrying by, huddled under umbrellas or stooped forward with shawls around their heads, hardly glancing at two small boys sitting in that empty stall.
“Any ideas?” asked Mickey and I shook my head. Our normal domains were the market, the docks or the marshalling yard; there was always something fun to be found there. But the steady drizzle spoilt it all and mom’s warning about not getting dirty still rankled. Suddenly an idea popped up in my head.
“Let’s go and play Privateers in the attic!”
“Yeah”, shouted Mickey as he jumped down, gammy leg and all. “Let’s go!”

***

— To be continued —