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I first noticed the boy in Vondelpark. It was our second day in Amsterdam and I still felt I’d yet to see the heart of the city, feel its pulse against my own.
You’d chosen our hotel with such care, situated in the Museumplein district far from the scrambling mass of coffee shops and girls in windows. I did my best to hide my disappointment at being so far from what I felt to be the true life of Amsterdam, following you through the spacious rooms of the Van Gogh Museum, edging surreptitiously closer to the masterpieces to sniff their oil paint-scented exhalations.
[private]The park warmed me inside and out in a way the gallery failed to; something to do with the way it didn’t try, but just was. We ambled along the paths, pausing to hear the skin-shivering strains of a violin echoing beneath a bridge. You grasped my hand, your sense of timing as out as ever, pulling me abruptly from my reverie.
Deeper into the park, we walked through a fragrant avenue where white flowers starred hedges of waxy green leaves. “What a wonderful smell!” I exclaimed. “It reminds me of something …”
As always, you were ready with an answer, sniffing hard then declaring: “Honey.”
I breathed in, catching a note of something richer, almost buttery. Honey wasn’t right – it was caramel that caught in my throat. But despite everything, I wanted to be kind to you on our anniversary, so I just smiled.
We reached a lake surrounded by sunbathing tourists and locals, bikes lounging in the grass like heat-hungry metallic lizards. You bought us ice creams to eat as we strolled, wet in the way Dutch ice cream always seems to be, as though the process of melting began long before it was scooped from the freezer onto its cone. Small birds shot overhead from tree to tree, silhouetted against the brightness with occasional flickers of colour showing through.
“Parrots?” I asked disbelievingly. You thumbed through the guidebook, finding no answer between its pages.
Our meandering took us back to the bridge, but the violinist had gone, replaced by a group of kids in their late teens, early twenties, each bearing a handwritten sign offering free hugs. You pulled me closer, proclaiming: “We have all the free hugs we need!”
I pulled away, laughing and pretending I was just joking, and the boy saw his chance, opening his arms.
This was why I’d come to Amsterdam, wasn’t it? Not to be hugged by strangers exactly, but to open myself up, experience something new. His warmth enveloped me, along with a faint smell of perspiration that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. I was aware of the slight stickiness still on my lips from the ice cream, of the boy’s blood pulsing against my back where he held me. He moved his own lips to my ear and whispered:
“Those birds you were watching? You’re right, they are parrots.” Then he broke away, moved back, grinning.
The restaurant you chose was oppressively extravagant: a different wine served in a different glass with each small, exquisitely-presented course. Flavoured foam adorned many of the dishes, that fluffy declaration of cutting-edge cuisine.
The boy only reappeared as you scraped up the last morsel of your dessert, leaning in to light the candle while you smacked your lips. The flame leapt and caught, reflected in his eyes as he gazed at me.
You didn’t recognise him, nodding benignly. “What do you fancy, Liddy? Liqueur coffees are nice, aren’t they, if they do those, or something frothy?”
I shook my head. “Black, decaf, please.” In nine years of marriage I’ve never taken my coffee any other way than black and decaf.
He brought our coffees swiftly, placing your cappuccino before you, then carefully setting down mine: a shallow white cup with a small trail of starry flowers adorning the saucer.
“Some caramel for your coffee,” he said too softly for you to hear.
The boy danced in my mind as I waited for sleep that night. Had he been following us all day? But why? We were no different to any other tourists. I certainly wasn’t. Middle height, mid-thirties, so very ordinary. Why would a youth like that want to stalk a woman like me?
Or perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps he just happened to think like me, see the world the way I did.
Why did that seem the more unnerving of the two?
The next morning we made our way to Prinsengracht, Princes’ Canal. I rolled the name of it around my mouth and stared though doorways and down steps into galleries and painting studios. Between a café serving pastries fragranced with vanilla and a shop overflowing with flowers, I saw a small, enticing studio with a ‘To Let’ sign in the window.
You hurried me on, eager to reach the promised intrigue of the Houseboat Museum. For me the narrow spaces of the vessel brought to mind that wet and disappointing canal holiday on the Norfolk Broads, when the biggest highlight was the crazed swan trying to fight its reflection in the side of our craft.
You seemed more fascinated by what was happening outside the museum’s small windows anyway, to the extent that you bashed your head on a low-lying beam. The pitiful contortions of your face compelled me to suggest we retreat to the pub the boat was moored alongside.
I chose one of the tables outside, beyond which a clutch of statues stood like characters from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, frozen by the wrath of an ice queen. When the boy emerged from between them like a deer from a forest it was as though I’d been expecting him.
“Hello,” he said, beaming. “I’m Tomas.”
“Lydia,” I introduced myself, glad you were still at the bar. I hated that you called me Liddy, as though it’s my job to prevent things escaping, keep things in.
He sat opposite me, cocking his head towards the Houseboat Museum. “The Anne Frank House would interest you more.”
I frowned, uncertain. “Isn’t it just terribly depressing?”
“No, not depressing. Sad, yes, but also uplifting.”
I glanced into the pub where I could see you chatting to a blonde woman who seemed familiar somehow.
“The way those people made a life for themselves in such circumstances, that’s beautiful, I think.” Tomas leaned forwards intently. “In one area you can see up into the attic where Anne would sit with Peter and they could see outside, to the air and the birds and the branches of a chestnut tree. That, that’s beautiful.”
The light in his eyes drew me to reach forward and touch his face. He smiled as I did so and I felt confused. What was I doing, touching the face of a young stranger? His chin was smooth, like he’d barely begun shaving, and I withdrew my hand as fast as if it had been burnt.
Then he stood and a burst of panic rose in my chest. “Will I see you again?”
He nodded, still smiling. “If you can get away this evening, I will meet you at the National Monument in Dam Square around 6pm.”
We queued outside the Anne Frank House for more than an hour, you pretending not to be over-hot and irritated, me swathed in thoughts of the boy and the clear, quenching light in his eyes.
The crowd meant we trailed through each room one footstep at a time, with a slowness that forced me to take in our surroundings in great deal. Tomas was right, it wasn’t depressing at all. In her bedroom, Anne’s pictures were still pasted to the walls, reminding me of my own teenage bedroom, the pictures I’d blu-tacked to those walls.
And when I stood below the opening to the attic, I found myself imagining Anne and Peter sitting up there close enough together to feel the heat from one another’s bodies, only somehow in my mind Anne was me and Peter was Tomas. I felt a connection I hadn’t expected at all, and for the first time comprehended the true, human fear of that war.
“What shall we do tonight?” you asked as we left the museum. “Shall we try one of those restaurants on Prinsengracht, or somewhere near to our hotel?”
I thought hard, seeking an appropriate lie. “I want to do some shopping first. Let’s eat in the hotel. I’ll be back by 8.”
Was I mistaken or was that a flash of pleasure igniting your eyes? What could you be anticipating – room service and a night of passion? I turned away to hide my revulsion.
The lingerie I’d bought in preparation for this trip still lay tissue-wrapped and pristine at the bottom of my suitcase. I wondered if I could return it when we got back home, or whether I should just leave it in the hotel, stuffed into a drawer with the hairdryer and tea-making facilities.
I had the sense this wasn’t the first time you’d been unfaithful, but it was the first time you’d confessed, grasping my hand so suddenly during the easyJet flight that initially I thought you’d been taken ill. You wept as you told me, but I remained stony cold, unable to feel anything beyond a stomach-chilling humiliation.
Why, why there, why then? Why on our way to our romantic anniversary weekend away? I snatched my hand away from yours and vowed to get through these three days, experience as much of Amsterdam as I could, and then leave you.
Waiting in Dam Square, I ran my fingers over the smooth stone of the National Monument, feeling the tiny pocks worn by wind and rain. That’s how I felt about the long years of our marriage, minutely eroded by the many instances of mistrust and resentment carried by me in reaction to the unsophisticated lies and even less sophisticated affairs carried out by you. Only my fear of the unknown has kept me by your side.
Perhaps you read that in my body language, in my growing desire to see beyond the enclosure of our cul-de-sac. Perhaps that’s what moved you to confess this particular fleeting affair – a realisation of game over – as though your belated honesty could restore your tattered honour.
Yet, as I spotted Tomas crossing the bustling square towards me, saw his smile catch and light, the thrill leaping in my blood reminded me of what I once felt for you, and haven’t for so long.
The boy held a twisted cone in each hand, laden with fat, moist chips swirled with mayonnaise.
“Dutch speciality,” he said, handing one hot parcel to me. We ate them, grinning at each other, and I felt again the eerie sense of him knowing me better than any stranger should.
“Tell me about your art,” he said. I saw his eyes flicker to my fingertips, to the faint smudge of vermillion marking the nailbeds, and a sudden fizz of clarity struck.
“No, I want to hear about you,” I said slowly, holding my smile in place. “Tell me about yourself, your own interests – what drives you.”
He looked momentarily alarmed, then conflicted, deciding, I suppose, whether to continue the façade or not.
“I won’t be cross,” I murmured, and he slumped ever so slightly. Game over.
For a long while we sat in silence, and my smile turned inwards. The fantasy romance was dead, but self-respect buzzed inside me. I was stronger than you, stronger than this boy even.
“We didn’t mean any harm,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t have chosen you if I didn’t think you were capable of …”
“Why me though? Out of all the tourists you must have seen that day?”
“Because …” He looked embarrassed. “You seemed to dislike the man you were with. I guessed you would be happy for any excuse to be away from him.”
Tomas explained how he spotted us, followed us through the park that afternoon, before returning to his girlfriend and the handful of students they’d recruited as control groups. You and I, we were their test subjects, chosen to assess a hypothesis of the most reductive kind: men respond to visual stimulus, women to emotive.
“Anyone could have told you that.” I crumpled my empty paper cone scornfully.
“We all assume that to be true, but has it ever been proven?” he asked. “My girlfriend is the quintessential beauty – you may not have noticed her that day, but your husband certainly did. My role was to demonstrate how I understand you, how well I listen, how intuitive I am to your needs.”
“How did you know I would respond to the Anne Frank House?” I asked, kicking my heels against the stone of the monument. The bicycles balanced in their racks nearby resembled both a cage, fencing us in, and a means of escape.
“I didn’t, not for sure. But I know you are interested in people more than objects, that you feel things deeply.”
I liked to hear that, and was flattered momentarily. Gritting my teeth I reminded myself he was probably merely showing me what he’d guessed I’d like to be shown.
Thanking the boy politely for his time and attention I climbed down from the monument and strolled across the square in the opposite direction to the bicycle racks, not to return to Museumplein, where you, no doubt, were enjoying the time and attention of the blonde girlfriend, but towards Prinsengracht.
Just before I reached the studio-to-let that I’d noticed the day before, a movement behind a window caught my eye. A tall, young, exotic woman in lacy underwear gently swayed behind the glass, singing a song I could not hear. She saw me staring, and smiled, and I smiled back, thinking to myself that often the cages that confine us are the ones we create ourselves.[/private]
Judy Darley is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who draws inspiration from all aspects of life, but particularly travel. She’s had short stories published by a number of literary magazines, websites and anthologies, including Quality Fiction Magazine, The View From Here, Gemini Magazine and Crab Lines Off The Pier, as well as in the forthcoming Riptide, volume 7. She has also had short stories highly commended in the 2010 and 2011 Frome Festival Short Story Competition. Judy tweets at twitter.com/essentialwriter.