Amsterdam Winklepicker Moon
He was looking into the wheelhouse. It was a man – I was sure of that by his size and definition, although his back was turned as he stooped to peer in the window. The lights were off, we’d locked the door and there wouldn’t be much to see in that cramped upper compartment, fit for a small table between two rows of cushioned benches and the steep ladder descending to the living area. It had begun to hail – a slight peppering as the first ice pellets fell, but growing ever more percussive and intense. I stopped in front of the splendid Spinoza statue and continued to observe the man who’d adjusted to a different pane, but still bent, seemingly peering intent into the cabin.
This was our houseboat – our weekend rental – and this was the last night of the booking. Only I would be staying and sleeping here after Rob had left for his early flight home, but check out wasn’t until the morning. Who was he? The owner? That was a woman, Brigitte, with whom we’d corresponded when making the booking. Her partner? A friend? An opportunist snooper – or worse? Nobody was home – the dark interior testified to that – so why would he be so inquisitive? Brigitte had our numbers, too – she said she’d call or text if she needed to get hold of us. The houseboat was intact, dormant, sheathed in shadow, moored alongside two others on this stretch of the Amstel – both unoccupied, it being late winter, but both similarly quiet and idle.
I could see now that he was moving towards the terrace on the deck. He took another, penetrative look in the wheelhouse through the windows from that new vantage, and then sat down on the wooden bench, facing the towpath. He was waiting, as the pitch of the hail further increased and the chill sharpened in serration under the vivid winklepicker-toe moon.
I didn’t know as much about Spinoza as I’d have liked – but then, who couldn’t I confess that about? I’d once included his name in a list of writers and thinkers I meant to sample, to flaunt at least a cursory knowledge. However, this became another casualty of questing, adolescent ambition conflicting with my innate laziness and slack attention span. Gramsci and Breton were fellow fatalities, I remembered this – how I’d written those names and a ream of related books and titles in a bid to impress, but as to who, well, I wasn’t sure then, or now. That was, that is, the rueful truth of my life: the things I’d done as if somebody was constantly looking over my shoulder. A somebody I’d always be looking back to check they were still there, still watching. But there was nobody there. There never is.
Rob had caught his taxi to Schiphol from the Green House Namaste Coffeeshop on Waterlooplein. Sunday evening, it had been mostly empty beyond the guy working the counter, who sold us a gram of pineapple kush and two wan lattes. He was sinewy and pallid in complexion, beneath his baseball cap, in a too-tight t-shirt and paint-flecked baggy jeans. The décor was a mishmash – some loose hung throws on the walls depicting mystical symbols, Western saloon-style doors for the bathrooms, a muted flat screen TV showing a compilation of snowboarding feats and mid-volume house music seeping from the speakers stacked in the corners.
We sat on one of the large, low slung, tan pleather couches and Rob prepared the joint while I sipped coffee. This had been our third long weekend away together in Amsterdam – it had become an annual fixture. Four nights on a houseboat and an itinerary of walking, talking, light drinking and heavy sinking into the brain-braised and blazed fug of the occasional hour or two in Coffeeshops. That morning Rob had received word that some unmovable meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the day after our flight back, had, in fact, been moved forward to Monday. He’d hastily rebooked his travel plans while we crossed on the ferry from Centrum to Amsterdam-Noord. This had meant I’d be spending the final night of our stay on the houseboat alone.
By the time we were mouldering in the Green House, Rob with his weekend bag at his feet, me in my fully-zipped anorak and slouch beanie, we were in a conversational holding pattern over the banalities you tick-off when a parting of the ways is imminent. Plans for and a recap on what our jobs held for the week ahead; coming football fixtures; a last sombre sweep of news on mutual or former friends. We were in the desultory drift and dredge of the kush and its effects – monosyllabic, deliberate of movement and sluggish in thought, semi-transfixed by the TV images of snowboarders shredding and searing down the Aspen slopes. I dwelt on the contrast of their speed and vim, the luculent mountain air and fabulous blue skies with my lassitude, smoke-tangled lungs and arid eyes.
I couldn’t linger and pretend to be absorbed by Spinoza unduly. Not as the hail poured and ricocheted all around and over me. He didn’t seem perturbed by this as he sat in position in his mysterious vigil, hood-up, on the deck, but that only served to heighten my increasing concern. I wasn’t going to stand from this distance and stare back – what he wanted or represented, I didn’t know, and if he was looking for me, or Rob or both, I didn’t know either. The Amstel as far as I could see was deserted of cruise or passenger boats and the Amstelhoeck bar behind me was closed, so even if I wanted to slip in, find a table with a view of the houseboat and surreptitiously observe the watcher, I couldn’t. Besides, that wasn’t me. I wasn’t a man given to stealth or discretion and I feared I’d crack; that I’d wilt in such a stand-off, burst out of there and demand he reveal himself and his intentions. I had coward blood. I resolved to walk on, to walk by the houseboat, continue along the Amstel, past the Opera House, turn left on Waterlooplein and circuit back, but slowly, slowly, to check whether he was still there and if he was…? I’d rethink then, again in front of Spinoza.
Rob and I had said our goodbyes and made an imprecise pact to meet up again in London soon. He heaved his bag over his shoulder, more elaborately, almost slow motion thanks to the kush we’d shared and the accumulative impact of all the others over the weekend. With a thumbs-up salute to the guy behind the counter, who raised his head from looking at his phone to acknowledge, he left to meet the driver who was less than a minute away.
I sat back down on the couch and contemplated the remainder of the joint perched like a fishing rod over the ashtray. I could finish it, descend ever deeper into the dappled daze, wallow in front of the snowboarding supremos, then perhaps roll a new one, all for myself, and see out the evening in a zoned-out bliss. But I was done with weed. My chest was crinkling with every in-breath, it was significantly less fun solo and, more pitifully, I’d never been able to roll a joint with any structural integrity. I left the remainder of the gram in its seal bag on my saucer and made to leave. I resolved to head back to the houseboat, hydrate, recalibrate and get an early night before flying back tomorrow. The temperature had plummeted and the forecast told of hailstorms – at least it would be atmospheric and dramatic on board. I could watch the moonlit river being assailed by the weather and make a memory of the moment.
I affected a gait and stride that I thought best conjured cold and bothered but purposeful, with somewhere to go which categorically isn’t the houseboat this eerie figure is sitting on… I put my hands in my pockets and kept my hatted head bowed forward and made towards the mooring dock. Closer to the houseboat I raised my eyes and clocked the watcher, as he clarified from hail-obscured shadow to something more monochrome, but better defined in the glare from the lampposts. The snapshot glance I took told me he was wearing a long dark overcoat with a hood which shrouded his face and features, but he was gazing square in my direction as the only other player on the scene. The hail, as all hail must, had switched from sustained bombardment to a slighter strafing and some drizzle had now joined the downpour, but despite this he was prayerfully still and composed – a squat counterpart to Spinoza, who oversaw all.
The temptation flashed through me to confront, challenge, contest who he was and what he was doing sitting on my houseboat? Sheer fear has a way of rumbling to a boiling point of hot anger, but I’d never mastered the elusive cocktail of stern tone, authority and firm words when trying to be assertive, and this truth froze my tongue. Instead, I veered left, as planned, and quickened my pace, as if a fleeting look at a hooded stranger sitting on a houseboat in foul conditions was wholly typical.
My first visit to Amsterdam was with my Dad in 2005. We’d never been on holiday together previous to that, and we’ve never repeated it since. It was an anomaly – a perfectly pleasurable anomaly, but an anomaly all the same.
I have a cachet of photos from that trip, somewhere in a box file with several others which survive the periodic purges of possessions I pursue to maximise space in my tiny London flat. These photos, they serve only to prove my relative youth – the glint and sheen of my early twenties – and my Dad before his hair turned a shade of ashpan and he still wore heeled shoes. There’s one of me in a duffel coat in front of a bicycle stand outside Centraal and one of Dad beaming on Nieuwmarkt with The Waag in the background. We had stroopwafel and oliebollen and bought little cigarillos which we smoked by one of the canalside bars. Tourists always feel obliged, compelled to visit national museums and landmarks. As if you can’t satisfactorily claim to have done a place until you’ve communed with and paid heed to its past. We got lost on our way to The Resistance Museum, which proved worth the confusion when we did eventually find it, while the Rijksmuseum, undergoing renovation, was overwhelmingly busy and neither of us knew how to appreciate Art. I remember queuing interminably on a staircase and suggesting to my Dad we could leave, and go to Vondelpark, if he wanted to, or the pub, which I knew he would and willed him to choose.
As I walked away from the houseboat, I thought of Dad, that weekend and how he might have reacted to the watcher. My Dad was mild-mannered, decent and unassuming. He barely had a temper or proclivity for indignation beyond the odd sarcastic retort to news readers on the radio, but there was also a deep-rooted hardiness and resolve, albeit I only saw simmer to the surface the once, when I was about 12.
We were waiting by a bus stop outside the back of one of the large department stores in our local town centre when a motorbike purred out from an alley next to the store loading bay, but instead of turning onto the road, mounted the pavement as a shortcut and accelerated towards, but then swerved by us with reckless abandon. I felt the sensation and airflow of him building speed as he cut past. I noted his khaki cargo pants tucked into large black boots, the crimson streak of racing stripes on his leather jacket and the chrome helmet, lustrous as a clairvoyant’s ball. Dad didn’t hesitate, as if something ignited within him. He leapt to his feet and yelled, but it wasn’t in protest, it wasn’t plaintive or pleading, appealing for reason or awareness – it was something guttural and splenetic that carried weight and righteous might.
The rider looked back, some 20 metres away, then abruptly braked to a stop. He waddled off his bike and then marched back towards the bus stop and my Dad, stood up with his arms held out wide like a spirit-possessed Baptist, stepped forward to narrow the distance between them. Motorbike man was shouting and unfastening his helmet strap at the same time, and when it came loose and he took it off, I could see his face contorted, his mouth snarling and shooting back at Dad. He had a close shaved head, covered with a membrane of sweat. He was all threat, bile and stiff-moving menace. Dad maintained his position, stood his ground and returned verbal fire, until the biker was mere feet away, his right hand plunged into his helmet as though it was a big bauble-esque boxing glove. I sat on the bus stop bench and marvelled at the exhilarating choreography as they went nose-to-nose.
It had been 15 minutes since I walked away. I’d reduced my pace to a shuffle on Waterlooplein, heading north. The further I’d retreated from the houseboat, the more unsettled I became. It struck me that I wasn’t even sure how to phone the Police in Amsterdam, and even then, what was I going to report or ask for? A tourist calling for Police assistance because someone was sitting on their rented houseboat – a tourist who’d been in the Green House Namaste Coffeeshop not more than an hour ago – didn’t sound credible or without reason for skepticism. I considered calling Rob, who must be at the airport now and explaining the situation, but again, I’d knew he’d laugh, tell me I was hallucinating, paranoid, but that the kush was as premium as promised.
There were only few people on the sodden streets. The rain wasn’t abating and I was beginning to sniffle and shiver. Even if I did return and find the watcher had vacated his perch, was no longer waiting, I doubted I’d be able to endure the long night on my own. The houseboat was riven with creaks, strains and jarring sounds – and that was without the potential menace of a trespasser skulking on the deck whose potential footsteps and padding would be indistinguishable from the rat-a-tat of the rain that was expected until dawn. I toyed with the prospect of walking around Amsterdam and deferring the showdown until sunrise, but in the wet bitterness of a Sunday in February, the city didn’t feel heady, happening or accommodating to that whim. There was nowhere I wanted to go, or could go, other than the place I was afraid to face.
My full navigation of the square was almost finished – I’d turned onto Zwanenburgwal, next to the Rembrandt Corner café. It was just shutting up – a man in a white shirt and serving apron was bearing the elements and stacking chairs outside in columns of four. Two women, the last customers, were leaving. One of the women made an exaggerated teeth-chittering sound to register the shock of the chill. They linked arms, laughed in unison, swaddled in Puffa jackets, gloves and woollen scarves, and turned right on Jodenbreestraat.
I began walking down Zwanenburgwal, helplessly nearing judgment time. In a few more steps I’d have a beeline on Spinoza, and once I was at his feet, I’d be able to see whether the watcher was still there, eyeballing my approach, waiting for me to stop pretending and come home. And if he wasn’t there? I’d be no better for his absence, spending the rest of the night in dread suspension.
Earlier in the morning, Rob and I had strolled down this street and the market which lined it during the day. I’d abstractedly inspected the stalls selling tulip seeds, ceramic windmills and Jenever gin and bought a black and white postcard of a canal scene at night. It depicted a small bridge, a shimmery river, a silhouetted lamppost with a bicycle leant against it. As I held the postcard to pay, I noted how my thumb also obscured a thin moon – a silver circlet or archer’s bow – in the top right corner. It occurred to me then, and came back to me now as some hail seeds returned to spike the rain, how I’d wanted the picture, without seeing it complete. I’d wanted it without spotting the essential detail which made it what it was. AQ