Kees van Beijnum – 23 Seconds
I have no idea what I was expecting when I cast a hesitant, fleeting glance through the downstairs window. But whatever I thought I’d see, it wasn’t a shabby Chinese massage parlour. The front door appears to be the same, except a different colour. I quickly walk on, past the tattoo shop, a few doors down, which was there before. I can picture the eight-year-old girl, with her ponytail and pink suitcase, on the day she rolled into Amsterdam’s ring of canals in the backseat of an old army jeep. Deeper and deeper, like Dante’s circles of hell, while behind the car window the streets grew narrower and life turned more lurid. When, after the long drive, she got out in the narrow alleyway and saw her mother fish a bunch of keys out of her bag, she had no idea where she’d ended up and what was expected of her. However hard I try to connect with her, that young girl from days gone by is keeping her distance. All I see is my mother, the whore closest to Central Station—not counting the streetwalkers, that is. She’s sitting in the imitation leather bucket seat, her legs tucked beneath her. Her burning filter cigarette in the ashtray on the windowsill, her painted toenails in the fluffy slippers, the small round table with the marbled Formica top, the bedspread, the washbasin, the washcloth, all bathed in an inviting, warm red light.
Nieuwmarkt, Koestraat, Bethaniënstraat, Zeedijk, Achterburgwal. I become one with the flow of pedestrians and shuffle past bars, coffee shops, fast food outlets and Chinese restaurants with obscenely glistening Peking ducks suspended from metal hooks behind the window. Molensteeg, the red-light Walhalla, is so chock-a-block with tourists that the scantily clad merchandise on display in the windows is hidden from view. Church father Thomas Aquinas compared prostitution with a sewage system, something a palace can’t do without if you don’t want the stink. But this is neither a sewer nor a palace; thousands of day-trippers are herded through here every day. Couples walking hand in hand. Whole families. All that’s missing is a ball pit.
I walk and walk without lingering anywhere. I recognise so much, but nothing feels familiar. What’s happened to all those junkies from my childhood, I wonder. They must have retired, if they’ve survived this long. On Achterburgwal I pass by the buildings that used to belong to Daems, before he went abroad, on the run from the taxman. One of the buildings housed a casino and the other, with The Temple in large lilac-coloured neon letters on the façade, had been done up like a New Age sanctuary, where in a quasi-mystical setting the hostesses dressed as slaves and priestesses. Depending on the customers’ predilections. Sex shows were performed on a stage. And on the door there was a bouncer, dressed in a long red coat with epaulettes. My father.
On my way back to the tram stop on Stationsplein, I end up in the alleyway again. This time I’m brave enough to pause in front of my old house and to look up at the first floor, where I used to live with my mother. Above the shop, as it were. The dormer window of my former attic room has been boarded up with a sheet of plywood. I can still feel the cold glass window that I used to press my little girl’s nose up against, see the pink stripy wallpaper, my cats on the deck between the houses. Nothing has changed, no one has moved away, nobody has been murdered. But when I look through the ground-floor window I feel sick to my stomach. The spot where a leather lounge chair and foot stool now stand is where she must have been lying. The news didn’t reach me until three days after her body was found. After my final exams I’d joined a few classmates on holiday in the Cévennes, and I was standing in a phone booth on one of those archetypal French squares with plane trees. On the other end of the line I heard the voice of a detective with the Serious Crime Squad in Amsterdam. In retrospect I’m still not sure what shocked me more—the news that my mother had been found murdered in her little cubicle or the realisation, shortly after the conversation there on the small square in the shade of the trees, that I had been asleep in my room while she lay in a pool of blood downstairs.
Next to me an Asian woman dressed in a shiny tracksuit sticks a key in the lock. Before I have a chance to react she’s inside where, without wasting as much as a second, she sets to work with cloth and cleaning product. When I tap on the glass after a while, she looks up startled and shakes her head. ‘Closed!’
She has a broad and sullen face with bloodshot eyes, skin marred by smallpox. Does she just clean here or does she give massages too? Obviously, it’s the finesse of the hands that makes or breaks a masseuse’s career—I’ve read somewhere that short, firm fingers are ideal—but when you’re in one of those leather chairs, day-dreaming, anticipating le grand finale, surely you’d want to maintain an illusion that goes beyond expert kneading by ten nimble digits.
I gesture to indicate that I want to ask something and after some hesitation she makes her way to the door with foot-dragging reluctance. Through the crack she grants me I explain that I lived here as a child and that I’d like to have a look round. She shakes her head, slightly taken aback by my request, it seems, although she must have seen a thing or two from her side of the fence. She eyes me suspiciously, as if she’s dealing with a ghost. Perhaps she knows something, has heard about the past. About what happened in this rotten little alleyway. Does she take me for a bit player in a neighbourhood legend? Or for someone who was recently discharged after lengthy institutionalisation? The twenty-euro note I dig out of my purse and hold out appears to calm her down a little. Still scowling, she looks me over one last time. Most likely to determine that I’m not from immigration or the tax authorities and not dangerous in any other way, since she takes the plunge and lets me in.
The staircase may be dirty and bare, but that does not mitigate the feeling of sacrilege when I climb up with my shoes on. It was my mother’s first commandment, carved in stone: shoes off. The same worn, wooden steps, the same wooden banister. I went up and down these stairs thousands of times when I lived here. And then thousands more in my dreams. Like before, there’s a small kitchen on the first floor, but the cabinets have lost their doors and the stove is smothered in dark-brown grease, as if all the Chinese restaurants in Amsterdam are using their woks on it. And in the living room, where my mother and I, when I was little, sat on the sofa watching The X-Files or a rented video together, the floor is now covered with five mattresses more or less spaced out evenly with bags and suitcases bulging with clothes between them.
‘Happy now?’ asks the woman, who has followed me like a shadow.
‘My room was upstairs, that’s where I used to sleep. Can I have a look?’
‘Very brief. Don’t touch. I work, so quick, quick, quick.’ The little bit of Dutch that she knows is spoken as if she’s hacking away at a roasted chicken with a cleaver. The good news is that she doesn’t come after me on the steep loft ladder that shudders under my weight.
On the attic landing I count two mattresses and behind the door of my old room a further three. My mother and I lived here together, just the two of us, but the house was full because we had a lot of stuff—a sofa, a dining table, a beautiful copper-coloured gas fireplace that produced a soft whirring sound, a wall cabinet with a television, wardrobes full of clothes, a VCR, a CD player, and on a console table we kept the three monkeys, a set of fake porcelain figures, with their eyes and ears and mouth covered. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Because my mother usually worked evenings, she would record her favourite TV series and watch them lying on the sofa in her bathrobe as soon as she’d removed her make-up. She would only ever show up in the attic, where I had my room, for the sunbed, which stood under the sloping spruce rafters. She’d lie naked in the bright light, which would sometimes go out with a brief pop and a muted curse from my mother, so that from one moment to the next the whole house would be pitch-dark because the fuse had blown again.
I step over the mattresses and walk to the window overlooking the corrugated metal decking between the roofs, the slack washing lines and across from there the former window of my mother’s murderer, Johan, known to everybody except his mother as Haantje. Long before the murder there had been the meow meow incident, which had prompted him to slip a note under my window. In simple words he’d written that he wasn’t responsible for the wickedness to which I’d been exposed, and that he’d never do ‘such a thing’ either. I didn’t know what to make of his apology, but I knew perfectly well that he could reach my room across the deck.
I walk to the other window, that of the dormer on the alleyway side, which has been boarded up. The first night I slept here I climbed onto a chair to look out. The moon threw a sliver of light across the roofs, amidst a vast darkness of unfamiliar streets and yet more streets, stretching for miles. There was no end to Amsterdam, as I’d noticed earlier that day during the drive across the city. I was wearing my new nightgown and I’d braided my hair, the way my grandma had taught me, to stop it getting all tangled up. It was spring. I remember the exact date, 8 March 1988, a month after my birthday and my grandma’s death. Below me I could hear footsteps and voices, the sound of cars and motorbikes, and music from the open doors of the bars. It was chilly in the unheated attic, but I kept standing on that chair, shivering and barefoot, staring at the houses across the street, which you could all but touch, so it seemed, and that were part of a city that my grandparents had always condemned as a place of danger and filth. A city where the mayor was spat at in the street. We’d seen it for ourselves on television. What was in store for me here, I didn’t know, but whatever it would be, my life was starting afresh here, so I had to make the most of it.
When I heard my mother coming up the steps to the attic, I quickly slipped into bed and pretended to be asleep. Her footsteps came closer and in the silence that followed I sensed her gaze on me. I could smell her perfume as she leaned over to kiss my forehead. It was late, the Oude Kerk clock struck midnight. I kept my eyes tightly closed until she’d left my room. In the middle of the night I woke up to an English drunk singing in the alleyway below and my mother yelling out of the first-floor window for him to keep his mouth shut. It took me a few seconds to realise where I was.
Below me, in the massage parlour, a vacuum cleaner is whining. The ceiling of my old room is yellow and the flaky paint is peeling off the beams. After some searching, I find a trace of my former presence in the beam under which I used to sleep. Gouged out with a nail file when I was thirteen or fourteen: a small heart with an arrow going through it and the letters A and H. Just like a muffled word behind my mother’s bedroom door evoked a ghostly echo for many years, the heart with our initials propels me back into the past. Those scratches, that room, a shred of spring night and the half-light on the stairs—that seems to be where my memories are stored.
I go down the attic ladder and try to open the door to my mother’s old bedroom, but it’s locked. I remember how we stood opposite each other, on the landing, that last night, and it’s back with a vengeance, the big question about that evening and the first few months after. On the day I returned from France I’d given a statement at the police station to the effect that I thought there had been someone in my mother’s room and that I’d heard a voice, but that I hadn’t recognised it. That I’d smelled aftershave I left unsaid, since I wasn’t sure about it anymore. Nor did I mention the gloves on the stairs, and the detective who’d recorded my statement hadn’t probed any further. In the case of a prostitute—or sex worker as they’re called these days, and no wonder since they’re registered with the chamber of commerce—an unknown man’s voice is not that remarkable. Maybe even irrelevant when the perpetrator has already been caught and the murder weapon secured as ‘exhibit A’. If it was Hayo, which I assumed at the time and still consider a possibility, he played a dirty trick on me. To say nothing of my mother’s betrayal.
Translation by Laura Vroomen