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.

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