Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Weekend in Amsterdam Chapter Four

I awoke the following morning to the sound of my travelling alarm clock. Eloise was gone. I quickly bathed in the bathroom down the hall, wasting little time in dressing as it was a freezing cold morning and the heating was still not on.
When I entered the dining room, Oise was serving Godfrey with his breakfast of two lightly boiled eggs in a double egg cup. Cheese and ham slices were set out on a platter in two neat rows, and there was plenty of bread and jam.
Her hair was once more controlled by the black velvet ribbon, her apron was in place, and the all of buttons on her blouse were securely fastened once more.
“Good morning sir,” she said rather formally. “How would you like your eggs?”
“Boiled for four minutes please miss,” I answered.
When my eggs arrived the whites were runny, so I sent them back, explaining that I would like them cooked until the whites were solid and only the yokes were runny. They re-appeared a few minutes later looking exactly as before, and admitting defeat I ate them anyway.
After breakfast Godfrey went upstairs to retrieve his briefcase. As there was only the old German lady in the restaurant Oise and I could talk freely.
“Why do you tease me?” she asked.
“You started it with the good morning sir,” I replied.
 “I mean last night.”
I had no idea what on earth she was talking about. “I don’t understand, I haven’t teased you,” I protested.
“You kissed me like my father, with the mouth closed,” she complained.
French kissing hadn’t really reached industrial Lancashire, in fact I’d only once tried it and was accused of being disgusting.
 “I’m sorry,” I apologised. “You’ll have to teach me how to do it properly.”
Her face changed from a frown into a broad smile, and she kissed me on the cheek just seconds before Godfrey re-appeared looking businesslike with his leather briefcase.

*  *  *  *

At the Valkenswaard factory Dhr Weiner, met us in the reception area. He was short in stature, which ran contrary to many of the other Dutchmen I’d seen since my arrival, who appeared to be tall, in general, or at the very least as tall as me. He had the look of a Hollywood heartthrob of years gone by, with swept back hair, which was black and wavy, and a pencil thin moustache. He displayed a pleasant and welcoming manner, and escorted us to his office for coffee, where he asked about our journey and the standard of our hotel accommodation.
The hotel didn’t compare with the Rode Leeuw in Amsterdam, but this was a small town and the hotel little more than a family run guesthouse, but the food was good and the hotel, I’d discovered, had fringe benefits.
Dhr Weiner went on to offer an overview of the Valkenswaard factory. Giving Godfrey the opportunity to comment on the factory in England, in which he showed interest, as they compared notes.
After drinking the coffee, which I found extremely bitter, we were given a guided tour of the factory. It was small, in comparison to the Vallard factory in Blakewater, which employed four and a half thousand people, while the Dutch plant employed a fraction of that number. We ended our tour at a repair workshop, which housed control panels in various states of repair or modification. A young man was hard at work. He was tall, with dark hair, but without the dark complexion of our host.
Dhr Weiner introduced us. “This is Dhr Peeters our electronics repair man,”
Dhr Peeters, meet Dhr Dale and Dhr Evans from England.”
The young man greeted us warmly.
 “You will be working with Dhr Peeters repairing the delay line machines,” he told me. “We will meet for lunch, when we will dine at a restaurant in the market square,” and with that he turned and left the workshop with Godfrey trailing in his wake.
“Have you brought tools and an overall?” asked Dhr Peeters.
I’d been expecting a conventional training programme, or at the very least a watching brief, and I was taken aback.
“I wasn’t told I would need to,” I protested lamely.
“I will find you an overall and you must borrow my tools, please.” said Dhr Peeters obligingly.
Returning with a brown nylon smock, similar to his own, but in approximately my size, he passed me a circuit diagram, written in Dutch, and set me to work repairing one of the machine panels.
I was dumb struck; I hadn’t a clue how the machine worked, or even what it did. Had I been able to oblige, there would have been little point in my visiting the Dutch factory at all. I wondered if I should complain to Dhr Weiner at lunch time, but decided to speak with Godfrey instead.
Lunch was booked at a cafe next door to the horse butcher. The menu of ham and cheese, salami sausage, and horse meat, was to be the staple diet each day, although a different soup with crusty bread began each meal.
Managing to isolate Godfrey from our hosts I told him of my concerns. Godfrey turned a bright shade of red, as he often did when faced with a problem he would rather not be required to solve, or a person who he would rather not have to deal with.
“Don’t make waves,” he told me, “just pick up what you can and we’ll sort things out when we get back to England.”
This didn’t make me feel any better, I’d been hoping for a little more support, although I should have known better than to expect support from Godfrey.

*  *  *  *

Godfrey met me in the repair workshop at five o’clock; he’d had a good day, having spent it in Dhr Weiner’s office discussing technical manuals and drinking coffee, two of his favourite occupations. I hadn’t had a good day, and I wanted to discuss my work problems, but Godfrey only wanted to talk about Oise.
“I think she likes me,” he said blushing at his own revelation. “Last night we talked until midnight and we got on really, well.”
I wondered if I should enlighten him as to the facts of life, especially as Godfrey had really pissed me off, but on reflection I decided against it.
When we arrived at the hotel, Oise was in the bar serving the card players with drinks. We both greeted her, and Godfrey blushed as we ascended the stairs to wash and change for dinner.
When I entered the bedroom I noticed that something felt different. The clothes that I’d placed in the drawers appeared to have been removed and re-folded. In the wardrobe my overcoat, jacket, and a number of shirts, appeared to be in a different order on the clothes rail, and my electric razor, toothpaste, and toothbrush, all appeared to be in different locations on a shelf above the washbasin.
Someone must have been in my room to make the bed, I reasoned, perhaps wipe down the washbasin and shelf, which might account for the rearranging of my toiletries, but why would a maid remove, and refold, all of my underwear and sweaters, or re-position my hanging clothes in the wardrobe? I also remembered leaving my suitcase unzipped in the wardrobe, ready to receive dirty washing destined for home, but it was unzipped no more. I was convinced that someone had searched my room, but why, and what were they looking for?
I asked Godfrey if he’d noticed any differences in how he’d left his room that morning, and how he’d found it on our return from work that evening, but apart from his bed having been made, Godfrey hadn’t noticed anything unusual.
The evening was a repeat performance, with Godfrey talking about radio signals, before repeating his conversations of the day with Dhr Weiner. Oise and I snatched a few moments alone when Godfrey left his seat to visit the toilet.
“Is he always such a boring man?” she asked, breathing out heavily as if she’d been unable to breathe while in his company.
“He thinks you fancy him,” I giggled.
“I don’t understand, what is fancy?” She looked puzzled.
“He thinks you’re attracted to him.”
“I could never be attracted to Dhr Dale,” she said with a shudder. “He is so boring, and not a very handsome man.”
“What type of man are you attracted to?” I queried expectantly.
“You have a mirror in your bedroom,” she said with a cheeky smile. “I suggest you look into it.”
As Godfrey reappeared I changed the subject, and asked about the lack of heating in my bedroom.
 “My father does not put on the heating until winter arrives,” she informed me.
“How much winter does there need to be?” I complained. “The ice is a foot thick and people are skating.”
“My father says that the winter begins in December, but I could tell him that the English softies would like on the heating.”
It was the 29th November, one more day and two more nights and the heating would finally be on. I leant forward while Godfrey was distracted and whispered into her ear. “I can wait for the heating to come on if you promise to keep me warm in bed.”
When Godfrey continued the conversation where he’d left off, I decided to have another early night. It was ten-thirty and the card players were beginning to leave the hotel and head for home. The old German lady, who usually came down to dinner, hadn’t put in an appearance, and I figured that if I went to bed early Godfrey might be persuaded to do the same. Oise would then be able close the hotel and join me in my room.
I read for a while, waiting for her to arrive, until I fell asleep, waking the following morning in a sitting position with the book still in my hand. Oise hadn’t arrived, and I wondered what I might have done to offend her. I remembered how annoyed she’d been about the French kissing, or more accurately the lack of it, had I inadvertently annoyed her again because I’d left her to cope with Godfrey alone?
She wasn’t at breakfast, and Godfrey hadn’t seen her since going to bed the night before, so why hadn’t she visited my room? Dhr Bos appeared to be the waiter, as well as the chief cook and bottle washer at breakfast. I wanted to ask him what had happened to Oise, but I didn’t want to tip off the old man as to our relationship. In any case conversations with Dhr Bos were extremely difficult due to the language barrier, and usually ended in total confusion.
I asked him if anyone, other than the maid, had been in my bedroom, but although he pretended not to understand, his acute embarrassment told me that he knew more than he was telling me.
I worked throughout the day, my thoughts wandering back to Oise, and what I might have done to upset her. Dhr Peeters was more helpful than on the previous day, when he’d appeared to be a little under pressure, and spent more time talking to me. He told me that he was married with two small children; both of them girls, but that they were hoping for a boy next time. He rented his home, and he owned a little yellow Daff car, which he insisted on showing to me at morning break. He proudly explained that it was the world’s first belt driven car with continuously variable transmission. I pretended to be impressed, but every time I looked at it I couldn’t help visualising Noddy and Big Ears.

*  *  *  *

After lunch, Godfrey left to catch an evening flight back to England. I was sure that I wouldn’t miss his company, but surprisingly I felt alone once he’d left.
Oise wasn’t in the bar when I returned to the hotel, and I asked her brother, who was on duty in her absence, where she was.
“She will be down in half an hour to cycle to her English class in Eindhoven,” he answered.
I bought a small beer and waited until she appeared.
“Why didn’t you come to my room last night?” I asked.
“Did you miss me?”
“Is the Pope a Catholic?”
“Of course the Pope is a Catholic, why are you talking about the Pope?”
“Forget about the Pope, what happened to you last night?” I wanted to know.
Frau Muller was taken ill, I sent for the doctor and sat with her until morning.”
“I thought I’d done something to upset you,” I said, the relief palpable, despite the fact that poor Frau Muller had been taken ill.
 “Not this time,” she laughed, as she retrieved her bicycle from a multitude of other bicycles parked in racks outside of the hotel.
“Does everyone in The Netherlands ride a pushbike?” I asked.
“What is a pushbike?” She looked puzzled by my adjective.
“Sorry, I mean a bicycle.”
“Why do you call it a pushbike?” she asked.
 I didn’t have a clue, so I made up my own explanation.
“Where I live it’s so hilly, and hard to peddle, so people often push their bicycles.”
I wasn’t trying to be funny, in fact I was trying to give her the most rational explanation I could muster, but she became hysterical with laughter and fell off her bicycle. She put her hands on my shoulders to stop herself from falling, and as I put my arm around her waist to steady her, our lips came together. I remembered to part my lips and felt her tongue slip between them and explore the inside of my mouth.
“That is better,” she told me. “You will, however, need some more practising.”
 “Before you leave, who is it that makes my bed and changes my linen at the hotel?” I asked.
“I do,” she told me.
“In that case did you tidy the clothes in my drawers, and rearrange the hanging clothes in my wardrobe?”
“I have to make the beds, wash the linen, serve breakfast, dinner, and lunch, and work behind the bar, why would you think I have the time, or the inclination, to tidy up your drawers?”
“Could someone else have done it?”
“Only I and my father have a key to your room, and he only cooks and plays cards, I can’t imagine him wanting to tidy your clothes.”
She picked up her bicycle.
 “I will return at nine-thirty,” she called as she rode off towards Eindhoven, looking back just once to give me a cheery wave.
After a solitary evening meal I decided to explore the delights of the market square. I entered the first bar and ordered a pilsner. The barman filled a glass with froth, before placing it on the bar for my perusal. I waited for the froth to settle, expecting the barman to fill it, but instead he wiped the froth from the top of the glass with a wooden spatula and pushed it towards me.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“Good top ja?” replied the barman, looking pleased with his creation and expecting me to feel the same way.
“To hell with good top,” I said angrily. “I’ve paid for beer not froth, fill the bugger up.”
Engels,” announced the barman loudly. Everyone in the bar nodded and sighed knowingly, as if that explained my peculiar behaviour.
In Amsterdam the announcement of “Engels” wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but in this small market town it caused quite a stir, and a ripple of conversation began amongst the previously solitary and silent men.
One man, who sat alone at the opposite end of the bar, moved closer to me and in very good English asked me. “What part of England are you from?”
“Lancashire,” I answered, as I didn’t expect him to have heard of Hartbrook, where I lived, or Blakewater where I worked and played.
“Is that close to London?” the man queried.
I decided it would be far too complicated to explain that Lancashire was in fact a county and not a town or city, so I picked the name of the closest big city to my home. “No, it’s nearer to Manchester.”
“Ah, Manchester United; Bobby Charlton; Georgie Best; Dennis Law,” and then the Dutchman ran out of players whose names he could recall.
I felt obligated to buy my new found friend a drink, so I pulled out a few coins, threw them onto the bar counter, and ordered a Pilsner. Pretty soon I had six new best friends all of them firing questions at me about England and Manchester United. Even though their motives were blatantly mercenary, after two nights of discussing radio signals with Godfrey, I was more than happy with the alternative company.
I left the bar at ten o’clock and staggered back to the hotel a little worse for wear, I thought I spotted the man who’d alighted from the Eindhoven bus, but I was so drunk that I could easily have been mistaken. Oise was behind the bar and she eyed me sternly, as would a mother chastising a naughty child. I remember ordering a Pilsner, but she gave me a black coffee instead.
“Drink that and go to bed,” she ordered.
“Will you come and tuck me in?” I asked while trying to wink at her but failing dismally.
She tried hard to be annoyed, but found it difficult to conceal a smile.
“If you drink your coffee and go straight up to bed,” she promised, “I will call to see if you are asleep when I come up.”
“And what if I’m awake?” I asked hopefully, but she didn’t reply.


*  *  *  *

I'm sorry for any disappointment but my contract with Amazon won't allow me to publish more than 20% of my novel on any other site but their own, so this will have to be my last free chapter. If anyone wants to read the rest of the story then obviously it can be purchased, in e-book form, or paperback, from Amazon, but that is not the object of this exercise.

Publishing the first four chapters has been an experiment to answer  questions I wanted answering. 

When you publish with Amazon the book is hidden in the bowels of the company, and no-one ever sees it unless they ask for it specifically. This is not a good system for unknown authors, who sell on average 50 copies, mainly to friends and family, so I'm considering  using an agent and a traditional publisher, if I can find one, to raise my profile and boost my sales.  Agents, I've discovered, want to read the first 50 pages of a novel before making a decision, but would my first 50 pages be engaging enough? One reviewer has already stated that my novel is a slow burner,  so would this be detrimental in getting my novel noticed?


By the Book Reviews (Canada)


This is Higgins’ first novel. According to the book’s cover he is a retired electrical engineer, which only makes me wish that he’d been lousy at that job so he could have turned to writing earlier. He has a deftness of observation, an ear for natural dialogue, and enough narrative bravery that it’s fair to say he would have carved out a solid career as a novelist with hearty sales and a couple of fat film rights cheques stuffing his bank account. Nonetheless, Weekend in Amsterdam has been worth the wait. It’s a damn good novel.

Book Republik (Cairo)

I was sceptical at first. The opening pages of the book make it a slow burner. It is foolish to give up on a book so easily and a couple of chapters in I was well rewarded. The novel suddenly turns into a page-turner and the calm starting pace is forgotten. A spy tale with a difference ensues. None of the James Bond stuff here, just down to earth human nature. Roy A Higgins, great job and looking forward to more from you.

Question 1.  If my book was on the shelf for all to see, would anyone idly pick it up and begin to read it? Most people judge a book by its cover, so would the cover attract readers to look inside?

Answer. The take up rate to read Chapter One has been 134 people to date, out of 4,800 followers on twitter, only 2.8%, but that had nothing to do with the quality of writing because the other 97.2% didn't even read it. I tried posts with, and without the cover picture, but that didn't appear to influence the take up rate, in fact I got less of a take up with the picture, possibly because it looked more like a book advert and was skipped over.

Question 2. What percentage of readers would want to read Chapter Two after reading chapter One? This would give me an indication of how engaging Chapter one was.

Answer. So far 120 people from 134 went on to read chapter two, that is 90% of the original readers. That's encouraging, as I was hoping for, but not expecting 50% of readers to want to continue reading the story. This tells me that what I have written is readable, 10% didn't want to read more but you can't please everyone.

Question 3. Would readers want to continue reading, knowing that they may never find out what happens in the story without buying it? 

Answer To date 100 people have stuck with the story through three chapters, but chapter three has not been available for very long, and I expect that number to rise. It's expected that for whatever reason people will fall by the wayside, but the results of my experiment have been positive. 

If I tell you that my book is good and you should read it, the take up would be very small, because you don't know me and you don't trust me, I'm just the guy who's trying to sell you something.  If your best friend enthuses about the book you are more likely to take notice and read it, as you trust your friend and value their opinion.

Question 4. How many people would take the trouble to tell others that my story is worth reading,?because without an axe to grind these people are more likely to be believed. When I read a novel, especially by an indie author, I always leave a review on Goodreads and Amazon, authors need encouragement, and readers need to know which books are worth buying.

Answer. 100 people are still reading my story, so I must assume that they liked it enough to read all three chapters, but only 6 of them bothered to tell their followers by re-tweeting, and only six, perhaps the same 6 clicked the love button, that equates to a disappointing 6%. Is that because they didn't like it  enough to recommend it?  Did they not realise that authors need help to get their message across to a wary audience, or where they just too lazy to be bothered? This question remains unanswered.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Weekend in Amsterdam Chapter Three



  After breakfast we packed our suitcases and headed for the railway station. Opened to the public in 1889, Amsterdam centraal station was built to impress. It was a beautiful building of brick and stone construction, with a number of Dutch gables and towers along its facade.

“Look at this,” I said to Godfrey, as I read from an information sheet in the stations foyer.
“The station is mounted on three man-made islands, and resting on over 8,000 wooden piles driven deep into the mud.”
I thought it a fascinating fact, but Godfrey remained unimpressed. We drank a strong coffee in the station cafe, with which he was impressed, and enjoyed a tasty Danish pastry while awaiting the arrival of the train to Eindhoven. The train arrived on time, something unheard of in my hometown, where trains were often overdue, with no apology or attempt to improve the service.
Godfrey suggested that we share a first class carriage, even though my junior staff status dictated otherwise. I would have welcomed the solitude, as I had no idea what topics of conversation to discuss with Godfrey, and I was nursing a hangover from the night before. I pointed out that my ticket didn’t state first class, but Godfrey reassured me that if the inspector challenged us, he’d pay the difference in fares from our travelling expenses.
“Which film did you see last night,” I asked?
“I decided not to go.” he answered. “I studied today’s itinerary and then I went to bed early.”
Soon after settling into the carriage, two men entered and stored their luggage on the rack. I recognised one of them as a foreman at the factory where Godfrey and I worked, although the other man I had no recollection of ever having seen before.
They said, “Good morning,” before realising, through conversation, that we all worked at the same Blakewater factory, although visiting different locations.
“Are you senior staff?” asked the tool-room foreman, fiercely conscious of his newly acquired senior staff status.
“Yes,” answered Godfrey, telling no lies.
The tool-room foreman studied me closely, and although I looked the part in my new overcoat, suspicion showed on the foreman’s face as old memories began to form.
“He isn’t,” said the foreman, pointing his stubby index finger directly at me.
“He did some electrical wiring in the tool-room. You don’t belong in first class young man,” he said, glaring at me spitefully, “I’m going to call for the ticket inspector and have you removed unless you leave right now.”
I hated the class system at the factory. There were three separate and very different restaurants, one specifically for senior staff managers and foremen, one for junior staff charge-hands and maintenance staff, of which I was one, and one for the rank and file production workers. The factory also had senior staff toilets which the rest of the workforce weren’t allowed to access, the key to this status symbol being highly prized amongst the privileged few who held that honour.
The mood in the carriage became tense as I glared angrily at the tool-room foreman. Godfrey, who knew from experience what was about to happen next, tried to defuse the situation by explaining our intention to pay the discrepancy in fares, but I was not in an explaining kind of mood.
 “You little shit,” I yelled, “who the hell do you think you are? Get up from your seat and I’ll knock you down again faster than you can fall.”
 “You can’t talk to him like that,” said his travelling companion in disbelief. “He’s a member of senior staff.”
“I don’t give a flying fuck what he is, or you either for that matter,” I roared. “But if he’s not out of this carriage in two seconds flat, he goes out of that window and you along with him.”
The tool-room foreman turned quite white, he was shaking, and all of his bravado had deserted him. He began gathered his belongings, and along with his travelling companion they left in a hurry to look for a carriage with a better class of clientele.
As they were in the process of leaving, a man in a raincoat who appeared to be searching for a carriage, stopped for a moment to watch the fracas, but seeing the way in which I’d ejected other passengers, he decided to move on.
The ticket inspector arrived shortly thereafter. Perhaps it was the foreman’s parting shot, but the inspector had been expected anyway and Godfrey paid the discrepancy in our fares.
I tried to calm down and forget about the incident by looking out of the window in search of windmills. I was amazed when I didn’t see any at all, as I’d been led to believe that The Netherlands was the land of windmills.
As a child, I’d played spot the windmill with my parents when visiting the seaside town of Blackpool, a popular holiday resort, and luckily, for a child like me, on my very own doorstep. My father always declared that the last one to see the windmill, which surprisingly stood on a housing estate, would have to pay for the ice-creams. He, of course, was always the last one to spot it, while I was always allowed to be the first.
 After watching the flat Dutch landscape pass by for over an hour, without spotting a single windmill, I gave up the challenge and drifted off to sleep, only to awake as the train pulled into Eindhoven station.
As we disembarked, I spotted the tool-room foreman, and his travelling companion, at the far end of the platform. Leaving Godfrey to guard the suitcases I chased after them. They panicked as they spotted me bearing down on them, and made a dash for the exit dragging their heavy suitcases, in a futile attempt to escape my wrath. Leaning forward, with my hands on my knees as I attempted to catch my breath, I laughed at their panic stricken retreat, but as they never once looked back, they failed to realise that I never intended to catch them, and that I’d stopped chasing.
As we left the railway station we spotted the tool-room foreman, and his companion, hailing a taxi for their journey to the Eindhoven factory. Godfrey and I were travelling a further eleven kilometres to Valkenswaard, and to save on travelling expenses for more important purchases like beer, we caught the service bus.
 It was colder in the Netherlands than on our departure from England. As we travelled on the bus, I tried to explain to Godfrey that the Gulf Stream keeps England milder in winter than it would otherwise be, whilst Eindhoven, although further south than our home in Lancashire, had no such advantage.
We passed frozen ponds and canals, which were confidently being used for skating. Skating was a risky occupation in England, as the ice was rarely thick enough to support the weight of an adult, or a child, and could never be totally relied upon even on the coldest of winter days.
The driver called out Valkenswaard, and we alighted in the market square. It was a market day, and the town was alive with activity. Some of the stallholders were dressed in national costume, with painted clogs stuffed with newspapers as insulation against the winter cold.
Clogs were still worn by some Lancashire people, but confined to the older generation, traditionalists who’d never worn but clogs since childhood. I’d never worn clogs in my life, as my parents were affluent enough to buy me shoes. Many of my less fortunate classmates had little choice in the matter, as clogs were cheaper to buy and lasted longer when worn on the feet of destructive children.
In The Netherlands they made their clogs entirely from wood, while in Lancashire, although having a wooden sole clad with irons, rather like a horse shoe, the tops were made from stiff leather and laced up like a shoe, or fastened with buttoned straps. Some of the stall holders were selling clogs, or klompen in the Dutch vernacular. They appeared to be made from plain unvarnished wood, or painted red for local use, but stained and varnished with transfers of windmills for tourist consumption.
Many had been converted to become table lamps, with a single clog representing the hull of a barge, while the elliptical lamp shade gave the appearance of a sail. I’d purchased one of these lamps for my mother when as a child I’d visited Middleburg on a school holiday. Although she professed to like it, at its presentation, it had been consigned to a cupboard and never more seen the light of day.
The ground floor, of the hotel Cordial, consisted of a narrow room with a dark oak bar which ran for three quarters of its length. It was filled with knick-knacks, as appeared to be the Dutch tradition, with foreign coins glued to the bar top, while banknotes, from around the world, jostled for position with photographs of residents and visitors alike around the walls. Adjacent to the bar were circular tables, with a solitary glass ashtray centred on each, along with a quantity of beer mats so that drinkers wouldn’t leave rings on the highly polished table tops. At the rear of the room the tables were no longer circular but square, laid with crisp white table cloths, nickel silver cutlery, and with condiments for use by diners.
 There was no reception desk at which to check in, and except for a group of elderly men who were playing cards and drinking Bols Genever, the room was empty. Among the card players, a man of late middle age wearing a white shirt with dark trousers and a food stained apron, welcomed us.
Dhr Dale?” he enquired of me as I looked by far the more prosperous of the two in my best blue suit and brand new overcoat.
“I’m Dale,” said Godfrey, a little peeved that he’d been mistaken for the underling, “and this is Mr Evans,” he said, gesturing towards me.
Dhr Bos,” said the man, patting his chest to indicate that his name was Dhr Bos, or Mr Forest in translation.
“Ah so you’re the boss?” said Godfrey, mistaking his name for his vocational title. The man failed to correct Godfrey’s mistake, as being unable to speak a significant amount of English he was unaware that confusion existed.
 We were hungry, as except for a Danish pastry consumed at the railway station in Amsterdam, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Godfrey tried to make Dhr Bos understand, by pointing down his throat and saying food very loudly. Dhr Bos wasn’t in the least bit deaf, but Godfrey, like many British travellers, tended to treat people as if they were, as it takes less effort to shout than to learn a foreign language.
Yah,” said Dhr Bos, proving the theory that shouting at foreigners really does cross the language barrier.
Dhr Bos disappeared through a door at the far end of the room, which lead into what I assumed must be the kitchen. Almost immediately, a carbon copy of Dhr Bos appeared through the very same door. He was dressed like the man who had exited, but was much younger, as if the door led into some kind of age reversal chamber.
Dhr Bos,” he announced.
Now Godfrey really was confused, surely they couldn’t both be the boss. Recognising his confusion I whispered into his ear.
“I think this is probably Dhr Bos junior, the son of Dhr   Bos.”
Godfrey turned a bright shade of pink, as he often did when embarrassed, which happened to be every time anyone spoke to him.
“My father will prepare food,” announced Dhr Bos junior. “If you would like to follow me I will show you to your rooms where you may freshen up.”
He escorted me to a room at the top of the stairs, and Godfrey to a similar room three doors along the landing. The bedroom was old fashioned, with a large walnut veneered wardrobe inlaid with tulips and chrysanthemums. It featured two bow fronted drawers beneath mirrored doors, which were used to store extra bedding, and judging by the current temperature of the room I was definitely going to need extra bedding.
The beautiful old wooden bed looked like Santa’s sleigh, with a scroll shaped headboard in highly polished walnut veneer and a footboard to match. It was decorated with the same floral patterns, which must once have been inlaid with highly coloured woods, but which had faded over the years to become almost indistinguishable in colour from each other.
 A cast iron radiator, similar to the ones I remembered from my school days, sat beneath a window which overlooked the market square, while a second window, on an adjacent wall, overlooked the “Eindhovenseweg,” the road on which we’d arrived, and on which we’d return when the time came for our departure.
While looking out of the window, a bus pulled up at the bus stop, and a man in early middle age, wearing a trench coat and trilby hat, got off the bus. It was about half an hour since our arrival in Valkenswaard, and I reasoned that this must be the next bus to arrive from Eindhoven. He looked slightly out of place, because of his style of dress, as did Godfrey and I, a stranger to the town, and the more I watched him the more familiar he began to look to me.
After a little memory searching I was convinced that I’d seen him on our train from Amsterdam. I vaguely remembered him looking into our carriage, as if searching for a place to sit, and on seeing that it was already occupied, he’d quickly moved on.
I’d also noticed him on the station platform, as I rested with my hands on my knees, after chasing the tool room foreman and his friend. Most of the passengers had been startled to see a madman chasing passengers, some had appeared scared and others angry, but this individual was the only person to have remained calm and unruffled, and that had registered in my mind.
He stood at the bus stop for a very long period of time, and appeared to be taking a keen interest in the hotel. I thought that perhaps he was looking for somewhere to stay, him being in a strange town, but I couldn’t understand how he’d managed to miss our bus and had to catch the next one, when we’d arrived on the same train. He stared at the hotel, until he spotted me watching him from my bedroom window. Immediately he looked away, as if embarrassed by my having seen him, and he quickly disappeared from view in the crowded market.
The radiator was stone cold, as was the water in the only tap situated on a triangular washbasin in the corner of the room. I discovered hot water in the one and only bathroom, which was a short walk along the landing, and situated next to Godfrey’s room.
Dhr Bos had prepared coffee, with cream in a small white jug. Cubes of brown and white sugar jostled for position in a cut glass sugar bowl, with nickel silver sugar tongs on top. Ham and cheese, sliced salami, and a very pink and rather rubbery meat, which Godfrey and I failed to identify, were arranged neatly around a huge charger like toppled dominoes. Godfrey pointed to the rubbery meat and asked Dhr Bos for identification, only to be met by a blank stare. Godfrey worked his way around the plate pointing out each item in turn.
“Ham,” suggested Godfrey.
Yah, ham,” agreed Dhr Bos.
“Cheese,” pointed out Godfrey.
Kaas,” corrected Dhr Bos, believing that what Godfrey required was a Dutch translation of what was on offer.
 “Salami,” said Godfrey, pointing at the pink circles with flecks in them.
Yah,” agreed Dhr Bos.
“Meat,” stressed Godfrey pointing at the pink rubber.
 “Paardenvlees,” said Dhr Bos, before leaving us to ponder his explanation.
Having failed to satisfy our curiosity about the origins of what was on offer, but being ravenously hungry, we ate the questionable meat before taking a constitutional around the market square. Three doors away from the hotel we passed a butchers shop with cuts of meat displayed on white ceramic tiles in the shop window. Some of the meat looked rather like the meat we’d just eaten, and I pointed out the shop sign to Godfrey.

Dhr Van der Gaag. de paard slager.


My observation meant nothing to Godfrey until he noticed what I had already seen, a picture of a horse’s head at each end of the sign.
“Paardenvlees,” I told him, “horse meat.”

*  *  *  *

I came down for my evening meal around seven o’clock, after indulging in a hot bath in the bathroom along the landing. Godfrey was already at the bar and talking to a pretty teenage girl who was serving drinks. She’d tied her blonde hair into a short pony tail, and wore a white blouse over a dark skirt, along with an apron around her waist and sensible shoes.
“This is Eloise, Dhr Bos’s daughter,” said Godfrey by way of introduction.
“I prefer to be called Oise,” said the girl, pronouncing it as Weese, while looking at me through the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen.
“I prefer to be called Ray,” I told her, while holding out my hand for her to take. She held my hand for longer than was sociably acceptable, until I reluctantly broke contact out of embarrassment, unable to hold her gaze under the relentless scrutiny of those beautiful blue eyes.
Oise showed us to our table, explaining that it would be ours exclusively for the duration of our stay. I noticed that she filled her uniform to perfection. Some may have commented that she filled it a little too well, but I wasn’t one of them.
The evening meal consisted of erwt soep, which turned out to be a pea soup rather like my grandmother used to make, but with pieces of salami sausage used instead of the pig’s trotter which she always favoured.
This was followed by biefstuk, gebakken aardappelen en erwten, which we managed to translate, in advance of its arrival, as probably a steak, which was accompanied by fried potatoes, and garden peas extracted from a tin. Like the homemade soup it was excellent.
“I enjoyed that,” I told Godfrey. “The radiators might be cold, the water in my bedroom certainly is, but if this is the standard of cooking at least we won’t go hungry.”
The final course was aardbei ijs, which after a good deal of wild guesswork remained a mystery until the arrival of strawberry ice-cream. This would have been welcome had it been summertime, but in these bitter winter temperature’s something hot with custard would have been far more appreciated.
After our meal we returned to the bar and to Eloise. It transpired that during the winter months the hotel was quiet, we currently being the only guests, except for an elderly German lady who lived in the hotel on a permanent basis. Oise explained that the family did not live at the hotel, but because of the old lady’s residency, she stayed in a spare bedroom on most nights of the week, perchance the old lady, who was not in the best of health, needed night time assistance.
It soon became obvious that despite having a fiancé in Blakewater, Godfrey was smitten by Oise. He dominated the conversation, boring everyone to distraction with his talk of radio signals, while Oise flashed come and rescue me glances. In fairness I did try to steer the conversation in a different direction on many occasions, but Godfrey always steered it back to the subject that he knew and loved.
At ten-thirty I admitted defeat. Leaving Oise to her fate, I excused myself, on the grounds that it had been a long day, and went to my bedroom to read my novel. The old radiator still wasn’t working, and the room was freezing cold. I wasn’t in the habit of wearing pyjamas, in fact I hadn’t even brought a pair with me, so I raided the bedding drawer for extra blankets, stripped to my shorts and a tee shirt, and put on a sweater for extra warmth.

Propping myself into a sitting position, I began to read. I awoke around midnight to a tapping sound on my bedroom door. My book was open at page one, indicating that I must have fallen asleep instantaneously. I responded to the intrusion feeling a little disorientated. I didn’t bother to dress, reasoning that it must be Godfrey on his way to bed and wanting to discuss work schedules for the following day. Opening the door, only slightly, as I’d no intentions of letting Godfrey into my room at this late hour, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t Godfrey tapping on my door, but Eloise. Her hair was hanging loose around her shoulders, the apron had disappeared, and she’d unfastened an extra button on her blouse.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Weekend in Amsterdam Chapter Two


Retracing my steps I passed a couple of cinemas along the way, and wondered which film Godfrey had chosen to watch. The western Shalako was playing at the first one, while the science fiction film Barbarella was playing at another. I’d heard that Jane Fonda did a striptease in the film Barbarella, while Brigitte Bardot, who co-starred in Shalako, was in my opinion the sexiest woman on the planet. I wondered should I go to the cinema, as I wasn’t enjoying myself  in Amsterdam, but I decided against it as I only had a limited amount of time to spend in Amsterdam, and I could go to the cinema anytime.
On the Damrak, and not far from my hotel, I discovered a bar with music and the sound of people’s chatter and laughing coming from within. I attempted to peer through the window, but my view was blocked by a heavy, burgundy coloured curtain, supported on a heavy brass pole. Although I stood on tiptoe in an attempt to peer over the curtain, which was supported half way up the window frame, I failed to see inside, which should have served as a deterrent, but it didn't.
Taking pot luck I entered the bar and found myself in a hallway; there I was greeted by a doorman who spirited away my overcoat for a second time that evening. The bar was laid out like a house, perhaps it had once been so, with a staircase to my right, and a hallway leading to a closed door at its far end. Being directed towards a doorway halfway down the hallway, and to my left, I entered the front room, only to discover that the crowd scene, along with the music, was all taped, and except for the barman, and two bar girls who were hustling  sailors, I discovered the room to be empty.
The girls were employed to boost the bar’s takings, as Greta had done earlier at the nightclub, and could well have been offering the same personal services. I was relieved to discover them to be busy, and although I wanted to leave, I ordered a small pilsner to ensure that I was reunited with my overcoat when I left.
A few minutes later a man entered the bar, and although the barroom was almost empty, he chose to sit on a barstool beside me. He was short in stature, late middle aged, and although his hair had begun to recede at the temples, there were absolutely no signs of grey; in fact it was a rather unnatural shade of auburn, and I speculated that it may be dyed. The man’s face looked crumpled, like an unmade bed, while his waist line had expanded over the years, probably due to too many nights spent drinking in seedy bars.
 He ordered his drink in Dutch, before speaking to me in perfect English.
“You are from England, are you not?”
“Yes I am,” I answered, wondering how this strange little man could possibly have known my nationality.
“I am from Russia. My name is Vladimir.”
“Mine’s Ray,” I answered, and took the proffered hand.
“Do you work in the Netherlands, or are you here for your pleasure?”
“I’m on my way to Eindhoven, for work experience.” I answered.  “I’m only staying in Amsterdam overnight.”
“Pity,” said Vladimir, “it’s such a lovely city. What kind of work do you do?”
“I work for a company making components for television and radio sets,” I told him, while wishing the man would go away and pester someone else.
“Electronics is the future comrade; Russia is very much in need of young men with technological knowledge and new ideas.”
I began to feel uncomfortable in Vladimir’s company, as the cold war was currently at its height. Films and television were awash with spy stories involving Soviet agents, and calling me comrade sent a shiver up my spine.
“Why are you in Amsterdam?” I asked, without really wanting to know the answer to my own question.
Vladimir leaned forward and whispered into my ear as if it were of national importance. “I am chief of security at a Soviet radio station here in Amsterdam.”
I pictured a uniformed security guard at a radio station broadcasting Russian folk songs, with perhaps a little Soviet propaganda thrown in for good measure, but that interpretation could not have been further from the truth.
As he leaned forward the jacket of his brown double breasted suit gaped open, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a small calibre handgun beneath his left armpit. The fact that he wore a firearm convinced me of his diplomatic immunity, which would not have been necessary had he been a glorified doorman at a radio station broadcasting folk songs.
The sailors left the bar, and the bar girls descended on us like vultures. I was under the impression that I was obligated to buy the girls a drink to avoid conflict with the management, so I chatted to one of the girls in a friendly way, while she nuzzled my neck and nibbled at my ear. Vladimir, in contrast, had no such illusions. He shouted angrily at the girls, who quickly returned to their seats at the opposite end of the bar. I waited for the fallout from the doorman, who appeared from the hallway on hearing the commotion. He stared in our direction, but realising that the Russian was  doing the shouting, he disappeared.
“We are having such a nice talk,” said Vladimir to explain his outburst. “We do not need to be interrupted by two silly girls and their inane chatter.”
I agreed with him out of politeness, although I’d been enjoying the company of the girls far more than that of Vladimir, which I found to be intimidating, although I couldn’t explain why.
“You must be aware that the Soviet Union will eventually annex Western Europe,” Vladimir continued, as if nothing untoward had taken place.
“It is one land mass after all, not some foreign land far across the sea like America. This is where the future of the European countries lies, as part of a unified Soviet Union, making it the most powerful nation on earth. It would stretch from Vladivostok on the pacific coast, to Lisbon on the Atlantic coast. Just image the power of such a nation.
“I think the Americans might have something to say about the Soviet Union annexing Europe,” I told him, feeling a little irritated by the arrogance of this ridiculous little man.
“The Americans will not be interested in risking a nuclear confrontation to protect Europe. The Soviet Union will have overtaken the United States in firepower in less than five years time, and then you will see how much they care about your tiny island.
I felt more than a little patriotic, and pissed off with Vladimir’s observations.
 “The Germans thought they could conquer Europe, but they came unstuck, perhaps the Soviet Union won’t find the annexing of Europe quite as easy as you seem to think.”
“The Germans could easily have conquered Europe, if Hitler had not made the same mistake that Napoleon made over a century earlier,” continued Vladimir confidently.
“What mistake?” I asked, walking straight into Vladimir’s propaganda trap.
“By attacking Russia of course,” answered Vladimir, although he failed to explain that the terrible winter weather, starvation, and poor logistics had been the major factors in Napoleon’s defeat on the Russian front.
“Most of Europe had already surrendered,” he continued, “and your little island would not have been able to resist the might of the German Reich without Russian assistance.”
“We weren’t alone,” I continued, bravely trying to fight my corner even though I was far from an expert on the subject. “We had the Commonwealth countries and the Americans fighting alongside us.”
“And do you think that the Americans would have come to your aid if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbour? Don’t be so naive. Churchill was clever to declare war on Japan, as America would never have declared war on Germany had he not done so. He manoeuvred them into the war.
I couldn’t disagree with his assessment, but I didn’t want the Russian to get the better of me, so remembering what my father had told me I made my case.
“The Americans had already come to our aid. Churchill asked Roosevelt for assistance, he was sympathetic but the American people had no appetite for war, so he came up with the idea of lease-lend. Russia also benefitted from lease-lend. I seriously doubt if your country would have been able to contain the Germans on the Russian front without American armaments.
I think I might have won that round because he changed the subject.
“That argument aside, all western politicians are fools, and will be militarily unprepared when Europe is annexed. Only Enoch Powell has the vision to see the reality of what it to come, but after his rivers of blood speech he is a discredited man, branded a racist, and just like Winston Churchill when he warned of the dangers from Nazi Germany, no one is prepared to take him seriously.”
Vladimir appeared to have a grudging respect for Powell. I was unaware of any concerns he may have had about national security, although I did remember something of his rivers of blood speech.
Powell’s constituents had been expressing their concerns about the number of Afro-Caribbean’s settling in their area. Kenya had announced repatriation of its Asian population, and most, because they held British passports, were expected to settle in Britain. Powell speculated that at the current rate of immigration, Britain would have accepted seven million coloured immigrants by the year two thousand, plus the offspring of a generation. He prophesied that coloured ghettos would inevitably spring up, leaving the white population as a minority in some areas, unless immigration was halted immediately and repatriation begun. After his speech he’d been branded a racist, and Edward Heath, the Tory leader, sacked him from his position as shadow defence minister.
I knew nothing of Powell’s involvement in cold war politics, perhaps he’d made a speech about Soviet expansionism, as a shadow defence secretary it was quite possible  he had, but if such a speech had ever been made I was unaware of it.
Vladimir appeared to be concerned that if Powell became powerful, within a future conservative government, perhaps the next leader of the party, or a future prime minister (2), it could be detrimental to the Soviet Union’s expansionist plans, which were going full steam ahead with the invasion of Czechoslovakia to depose the liberal regime of Alexander Dubcek.
I didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking, and wondered what all this political rhetoric was leading up to. I didn’t have long to wait to find out.
 “We need operatives, friends to help us achieve our aims.”
“Are you talking about me?”
“Yes of course,” answered Vladimir, as if it should have been obvious to me from the very beginning.
“I work in a factory making light bulbs and components for radio and television sets. What possible use could I be to the Soviet Union?”
“You would be surprised how valuable you could be. What is more you would be well rewarded for your services.”
“I would never sell out my country,” I responded patriotically, but Vladimir wasn’t finished.
“If a third world war were to occur between the Americans and the Soviet Union, it would not be fought in either of our countries; Europe would become the battleground, and the prize. Better a peaceful annexing of Europe than its annihilation, don’t you think? You would be helping to save the European people from destruction, not betraying them; they would become Soviet citizens instead of casualties of war. Think carefully about what I have said, we will talk again on the subject soon.”
The bar had filled, unnoticed, while we’d been talking. Two Gypsy women in traditional peasant dress, who looked to be mother and daughter, were pedalling their wares. The older woman was selling roses and telling fortunes, while the younger one sold trinkets from a peddler’s tray held by a leather strap around her neck. She wore a long black skirt, which brushed the floor as she moved, and around her waist she wore a white apron tied with a large bow at the back. Above the skirt she wore a white blouse with puff sleeves, which was heavily embroidered around the neck with flowers, as was the apron and the hem of her skirt.
 She glanced at Vladimir  as if for his approval, but when he didn’t react she turned her attentions towards me.
Zijn jullie Russisch?” she asked.
“She would like to know if you are Russian,” Vladimir translated.
She must have known who Vladimir was, and it was obvious, from her body language, that she was wary of him, otherwise why would she seek his approval, and then assume that I was Russian.
“English,” I answered, and then as an afterthought I translated. “Engels, one of the few words I’d learned during my short stay.”
“You buy necklace for your sweetheart?” suggested the girl, making my Dutch translation redundant.
She leant forward to display the necklace, lifting the pendant with her fingers and holding it close to my face. At first glance I thought it to be a flying swan cast in a base metal, although on closer examination it turned out to be a winged penis complete with testicles. It took me a considerable amount of time to concentrate on the pendant, as I had a clear view down her blouse as she bent forward. I found myself transfixed by her nipples, which were dark, and even darker than her olive skin.
“I don’t have a sweetheart,” I protested, after regaining my composure.
“You buy one for yourself?” she insisted, unwilling to take no for an answer.
“No thank you.”
She glanced at Vladimir, and when he showed not the slightest interest in the transaction she continued with her sales pitch.
“Fucking scissors?” she announced, which took me very much by surprise, as I was unused to hearing a woman swear.
She produced a pair of painted wooden scissors from her tray; they were about ten inches long, with a naked woman, sporting huge breasts, attached to one of the blades, while a naked man with an enormous erect penis, almost as big as himself, was attached to the other. As she squeezed the handles the two naked bodies came together, and the huge penis disappeared from view, before reappearing as she operated the scissor action. I politely declined her offer, and she moved away muttering and cursing under her breath.
I looked at my watch; it was after eleven. “I think I’ll call it a night and go back to my hotel,” I announced, still feeling uncomfortable in the presence of Vladimir. “I have to catch a train in the morning.”
“You don’t really want to stay at a hotel?” said Vladimir, phrasing his comment more like an instruction than a question, before adding, “so impersonal, don’t you think? Why don’t you stay at my home? I have a nice big bed, big enough for the two of us, and I can cook us breakfast in the morning.”
Suddenly the penny dropped, a man twice my age with dyed hair, who becomes annoyed because his companion is receiving attention from a bar girl. He wasn’t annoyed because she was hustling drinks; he was annoyed because she was flirting and he was jealous.
“I think you’re barking up the wrong tree,” I told him. “In fact you aren’t even in the right forest.”
 “I am so sorry if I misinterpreted the signals,” apologised Vladimir.
 I didn’t know what signals I was sending out, I didn’t even know that I was sending out signals, but whatever I was doing, if this was the consequence, I must remember to stop doing it.
“I hope you are not offended and we can still be friends.” He held out his hand to shake, and I took it out of politeness.
“You will accompany me to another bar where I know I can find what I am looking for?” said Vladimir, ending with the word “please,” as if it were an afterthought.
I wasn’t sure if his statement was a request or an order, as Vladimir’s requests often appeared more like orders, but I decided to go along with him to avoid any unpleasantness.
Vladimir introduced me to a very different type of establishment . The room was long and narrow, barely wide enough to walk around the elliptical bar counter, which sat in the centre of the room like an island in a sea of chattering people. Loud music blared out, almost drowning out the noise of the chatter, which to my uninitiated ear sounded like the stirring music I’d heard played in the newsreels at Hitler rallies.
A couple behind the bar counter were dancing a polka, from one end of the bar to the other, and for the first time since my arrival in the city I was enjoying the atmosphere.
“This is not what I expected,” I told Vladimir.
“It’s a Bavarian bar, he informed me, but didn’t elaborate on its true purpose.
 Soon after our arrival a skinny teenage boy, with bleached blonde hair, came into the bar. He scanned the room as if looking for someone. Spotting Vladimir he waved cheerily, and approaching kissed him full on the lips to stake his claim, in case I had other ideas.
“This is my regular boy,” Vladimir explained, putting his arm around the shoulders of the skinny youth.
I felt uncomfortable witnessing the kissing and cuddling taking place between this child, and a middle aged man with dyed hair and a face like an unmade bed, but then I’d felt uncomfortable in Vladimir’s company for most of the evening. I made the decision that two being company, and three being a crowd, I’d bid them both goodnight and returned to the hotel.

Footnote

(1) In his first speech to the Conservative Party conference, as Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Powell outlined a fresh defence policy, jettisoning what he saw as outdated global military commitments. He stressed that Britain was a European power, and should be in an alliance with Western European states against a possible attack from the East. He defended Britain's nuclear weapons program, and argued that with a weapon so catastrophic, it is possession and the right to use it which count.

(2) Before becoming Shadow Defence Secretary, Powell had stood in the party leadership election. He came a distant third, behind Edward Heath and Reginald Maudling, but  undeterred he stated that he’d left his visiting card, meaning that he’d demonstrated himself to be a potential future leader.