Excerpt from the forthcoming Java Gold Series Book Three
He parked near the Central Station in the falling dusk, just when the lights came on. The falling darkness slowly transformed the old part of Amsterdam into a magical maze of narrow streets; an enchanted place where floodlighted church towers and illuminated windows and the forms of centuries-old buildings were softly reflected by the dark water of tree-lined canals. All sounds were hushed in this timeless city center, and they walked amid the low hum of human voices and the far-off buzz of traffic in the main streets.
When they passed over one of the hump-backed bridges, the chimes in a nearby church tower played a light, enchanting air before its solemn bell struck the hour.
On the corner of a narrow street and a small square at the foot of a tall 17th century church, was a typical Amsterdam bar; old and brown and with sand on the floor; bypassed by the tourists and still frequented by the locals. The aged barman and a couple of customers greeted them friendly as they sat down at a window table that gave them a good view of the darkening square. He ordered a beer for himself and a white wine for her and when the drinks came, they raised their glasses and said “Proost”. And while taking a sip, he looked at his companion. It might have been a trick of the dying daylight and the muted lights in the bar that somehow revealed the extraordinary beauty of her face and her body to him. Suddenly he felt tongue-tied. All subjects that came to his mind seemed too trivial and unimportant to talk about and an awkward silence fell.
Sensing his embarrassment, she gave him a quick glance and as she put a small, warm hand on his arm she whispered, “I did some modelling once, so I know I look good but remember: I’ve got my nasty sides too; after all, I am just a human being.”
He looked into her luminous brown eyes and he saw understanding and warmth but he still was unable to speak freely.
“How did you know this bar”, she asked, trying to find a subject he could talk about and she listened patiently when he told her about his student days at the nearby university and his love for the old city center.
“I’m pretty sure my grandfather has been standing in this bar half a century ago, having a beer after work”, he said. “Amsterdam was so much smaller in those days; he used to walk home from the docks to his apartment, never bothering with a bicycle.”
“You loved him, didn’t you?”
“Yeah; he was more of a father to me than my step-dad ever was”, he said and fell silent again, afraid of talking too much about himself and not knowing how to make small talk with her.
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.
One 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.
We 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.
All 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.
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!”
When one gets older, one tends to reflect upon things that happened long ago. And dream of a city and a lifestyle that has vanished forever. Gently pressured by my kids, I started to write a series of short sketches and wanted to title them “Requiem for a vanished city”, to reflect my feelings of what has become of my beloved Amsterdam, a wonderful city that is now daily raped and vandalized by dirty throngs of back-packing tourists and beer-guzzling potheads.
Fortunately, common sense interfered and I now titled my cameos “The Golden Years”, Amsterdam and its native life as seen through the eyes of an eight year old boy.
I wrote the first of these short-short stories when challenged to write for 25 minutes during a meeting of the International Writers Collective. The result, when read aloud, was a stunned silence after which people said “I was there”.
So here is the first installment – and there will be more, all illustrated with contemporary photographs.
The banshee wail of a distant factory siren tore me from my sleep when the world was still dark. I knew it was eight o’clock but I kept my eyes closed, pretending that I was not awake. Then the hoarse steam whistle of the nearby marine engineering works opened up and I knew I had lost again.
“Get out of bed; you’ll be late for school” shouted my mother.
The cold hit me when I slipped from under my blanket and I was shivering even before my feet touched the icy linoleum covering the floor. The single-pane window in my little room faced north-west, so it got no sun in summer and was near freezing in winter. Each night my mother would put a hot water bottle in my bed. Well, not really a hot water bottle, those were for the rich folks. Mine was one of those stone Genever jars covered with an old sock.
I grabbed my cold clothes and hurried through my parent’s bedroom into the small, dark living room. By now it was nice and warm and I lingered a bit in front of the pot-bellied stove; my stepdad always made up its fire before he left for work in the docks.
“Hurry up; go and get washed”, ordered my mother and she shoved me into the kitchen, a very grand word for what was a six by four foot space that also held the toilet.
I opened up the tap and held my hands under the stream of ice cold water, lathered them with a bit of ‘Sunlight’ soap and rubbed them against my face. It was the same soap my mother used for doing the laundry and I hated that smell; coarse and cheap and somehow unpleasant. Summoning all my courage, I cupped my hands under the tap again, splashed water in my face and hurriedly rinsed the soap off. Gasping and with my sleep all gone, I grabbed the rough towel and as I dried myself, I silently cursed the cold and the school for which I had to get out of my warm bed.
I found a cup of tea waiting for me next to a piece of bread. A thin skim of strawberry jam failed to hide the thick layer of margarine underneath. I loathed that taste. Even then I understood why she did it; it was a leftover from the war. For five horrible years, the Germans had plundered Holland bare, stolen all foodstuffs they could lay their hands on. So there had been no milk and no butter, or even margarine. By now, it was available again and everything was smothered in it and I was screamed at if I dared to say I did not like it.
I ate those parts least covered with that sticky greasy stuff but, whenever my mother was not looking, I folded pieces together and slipped them furtively into my trouser pockets. I would dump them on my way to school, hoping that the rats in the derelict building would enjoy them.
I tasted my tea and made a face; she always put a spoonful of sugar in it because ‘it was good for me’. I wondered what good it did, as it only gave me a raging thirst. Fortunately, it had cooled down and I swallowed it in one long gulp, gagging at the nasty aftertaste of refined sugar.
“Let me have a look at you”, my mother said as I stood up.
I was wearing my school-going outfit: a pair of denim trousers, a thin checkered shirt and a knitted sweater over it. I liked the sweater; it was dark blue, with light-blue reindeer running around the lower hem. Nobody at school had a sweater like mine; theirs had all been knitted by their mothers and grandma’s and some were simply awful. But children’s clothes were scarce and expensive in post-war Holland so they had to do with them.
My sweater had come out of a box that had arrived by mail from a place far away. ‘Canada’, my granddad had said and my teacher had shown it to me in an atlas but I did not have a clue how far it was from Amsterdam.
“Don’t get your pants dirty”, my mother warned sternly. “I still have to wash the other pair.”
I knew she loathed doing the laundry in that little apartment at any time, but especially in winter, when the clotheslines outside the window were useless and she had to drape the washed garments around the stove to get them dry.
“Yes mom”, I said meekly, waiting for her standard sermon that was to come. Today was Wednesday and there would be no school this afternoon.
“I won’t be home until four. See if you can spend the afternoon with someone. Don’t go playing someplace where you get dirty or I’ll tell your dad!”
“Can I go to Grandma?” I asked hopefully.
Grandma was keeping house for somebody. I thought he must be rich, because he was living in a big house with a garden all around. I loved to be with my Grandma while she was cooking there and telling a maid which rooms to clean and where to vacuum. I loved to roam around that large house, with its many rooms and its mysterious attic but it was on the south-side of town, the ’Gold Coast’ as we called it.
“No; that’s much too far; you stay around here, understood?”
“Yes mom”, I said as I put on my short duffel coat.
After topping off the stove with sufficient coals to keep it burning until she returned, she doused the few lights and we stepped out onto the dark first floor landing. She locked the door and we carefully went down the steep, narrow stairs with their tricky short steps, holding on to the rickety bannister and the greasy rope that ran all the way from the top floor to open the street door.
We stepped outside, into the cold and dark morning, the air heavy with the tang of coal-stoves and the smoke of the locomotives in the nearby marshalling yards.
“Have a nice day at school”, my mother said. She stooped to give me a quick kiss; then she hurriedly walked off and I watched her go, walking upright with quick deliberate steps, eager to catch the bus that stopped two blocks away. A slender young woman with rich dark brown hair, her brightly colored overcoat contrasting oddly with the dirty brown stone of the houses lining our narrow street.
Darkness slowly falls and the old part of Amsterdam ignites its lights and puts on its most alluring face for a quiet night under a clear sky. Smells of delicious food are carried on the wings of a balmy wind from the south that brings the first promise of spring. The age old buildings look benevolently down on lovers strolling by hand in hand, whispering sweet nothings to each other, embraced by the shadows of this timeless, precious, priceless place…
When I say “…the Magical City of Amsterdam…”. it is because I can remember images like this one, etched forever in my memory. The crisp, freezing cold, the tang of coal and wood smoke in the air and all sounds muffled as if the city itself is awed by the majesty of this blanket of snow that has turned even the ugliest places into a fairy-tale.