Low Country

Low Country

The Fall is the most famous book set in Amsterdam, “a capital of waters and fogs, girdled by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all corners of the earth”. Albert Camus also wrote of it “asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges” but, in 1997, a two-hour BBC documentary on him ended with the camera on the sunlit trees along the French road where he died in January 1960. His last letters, read in a sombre voice-over by Brian Cox, were unintentionally funny. Each time, the only changes to the artist’s passion were the woman’s name and the day they were to meet, after he got back to Paris. How did he get time to write a line?

Another January, in the Gare Centrale in Brussels, while waiting for the train back to Amsterdam to get going, Pat had just one woman to think about. He’d landed in Amsterdam a few days earlier, when there were snow flurries rippling across the runways at Schipol. Viewed from the tram on the way from the station to the hotel, the snow on the dark brown stone was like a Black Forest gateau but the cold that white night was unreal. Reaching as far as sixteen below, it was too cold for red light. He’d never have thawed out in time, for one thing. For another, there was someone on his mind.

What really made Saturday night there, nonetheless, in The Grasshopper hash bar on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, was the guy who came up the stone steps inside the front door and then collapsed across the table beside him, smashing cups and saucers before hitting the floor like a dead man. At least, Pat thought he might be dead. The bunch of teenage American girls at that table went, “Oh my gawd, is he like, OK?” “I hope so,” replied the cute little Dutch one who reluctantly came out from behind the counter. Pat helped her pick him up, as an American girl turned and asked one of his companions a question.

“Is your friend a doctor?”
“No. But it’s OK, he’s got a Master’s in Sociology.”

The guy they picked up and put on a seat rested for a minute before making his way to the toilet. Later that same night, the Bamboo bar was where they met a young American chancer who came in with a Dutch mother and daughter. The American explained the presence of his two companions.

“I picked up these two babes in a McDonalds.”

The daughter was in her early forties, a good-looking Germanic blonde, among many, among the menacing trams and bicycles. Her mother was maybe seventy. The American had gone up to them and given them a little-boy-lost story. The charm had worked and later he bought them a drink or two before they all arrived and squeezed in around the table.

At this stage the daughter was clearly on a high, which was only added to by the fact of getting into the bar, away from the cold and the snow and the slush and the frozen canals. She was waving money and insisting on getting the drinks and laughing and seemingly telling her mother that she didn’t have to stay if she was fed up.

Pat didn’t think the mother looked too bothered, actually, but the daughter seemed just thrilled to be having a bit of fun. He imagined a suburban home and a divorce. The young American looked to be on a definite promise that night.

Twenty minutes into these reflections, the train was in Mechelen. I’m a bit deranged, I suppose, really. Too long in the dark facing the wall of the cave and unable to imagine the light. Taking the shadows on the wall to be real. Shadows, shadows, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

Antwerp was reached after another twenty minutes, after he’d listened to a bunch of Flemish suits in the carriage practising their English. Her unpleasantness had mostly taken the form of so much snapping. Talking to him as if he was less than a dog, while he felt a strange kind of sickness that enveloped the ache and left him in a daze.

Soon the train was crossing the Dutch border and he saw Rotterdam again from high over the Rhine. He made the airport with four hours to kill. It’s hard to believe, all the same, considering the fact that I didn’t care that she was gone. The fourteenth of April. The calendar is meaningless sometimes.

Having moved from one garish airport bar to another, he bought a bottle of beer. TV shots of European Union landmarks had given no overall impression of the Belgian capital. It was more like Auden’s poem, Brussels in Winter. Wandering through cold streets, the formula had escaped him alright.

“What’s wrong with you?” she snapped.
“I’m freezing.”
“Well, you should be wearing layers. That’s how to dress, over here, in winter. Don’t you know that?”

In the church of Saint Nicolas he’d lit a candle as an offering to Job. She realised what he was doing and for a moment the old warmth and amusement seemed to return. Back in her place, he fell asleep in his overcoat on her couch as she sat at her computer across the room. When he woke, she was actually smiling.

“What’s so funny?”
“You’re such a waster,” she explained.

At least the tone of voice was mild, that time, but that couch was where he lay awake for long periods over two nights, her discreet door slam both times echoing in his brain in the silence. All he’d hoped for, on leaving his friends behind in Amsterdam, was her good company in another strange city.

He finally checked in but another hour had to pass before boarding. The bitterness and resentment had taken him aback. He didn’t want to believe it but now it was a must. Yet, think of what she used to say (“I do love you in a way”). Now look at me and understand my epilepsy. There’s a chasm between love and justice.

Her mother had given him a pair of shoes she’d left behind and Pat had brought them over but they were no glass slippers. With nothing or no one to turn to, or turn on, he’d been too cold and miserable and too far from home to take the hits with dismissive indifference. He wasn’t too weak, though, to twist the knife a little, in retaliation, before he left.

“Alright, you’re right. I didn’t care, in the end. But no one’s innocent here. So don’t tell me you think you are?”
“We’re just not compatible. I’ve told you that before.”
“I know that. But I don’t want to fight with you. So, if you can’t be civil to me – no more contact.”

This put tears in her eyes. She admitted that they could talk about this all day. Pat remembered times when her tears would have made him do anything to stop them. She had one more thing to say, one more observation to make.

“You think it’s easy to go back to being friends.”

He’d never heard a woman say that before. That used to be his line. All the same, this time he just couldn’t talk about this all day, unlike all those other days.

“Well, look, I have to go.”
“What time’s your train?”
“As early as possible.”

She moved no farther than her doorstep. There was nothing more to say. He looked at his watch. After four hours in the airport the time was gone and he actually had to run for the plane. It was a long, long way to the gate but he just had to get out of there.

They would never completely forgive themselves, of course, but, after two months had elapsed since that last battle, he just knew one day he’d wake up and it would be two years. One day when he’d know that that was it, there was nothing left, except maybe a cold aversion, until that too melted into the past, the history of a foreign country. Out of the loop and beyond the pale, over the seas and far away.