Part One: Waking up in November…
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.
— to be continued —