When I was still living in The Hague, shed drop by sometimes. She tried hard to stop her eyes from lingering on the dishes in the sink and the dust on the shelves, and she especially avoided the box of condoms next to the bed. If I didnt mention it, she wouldnt mention it. When I took her out to a restaurant it was always on her she provided openings.
-"Do men really go for Madonna? Or is she more of a female role model? What do you think?"
She never ate here. She would have flirted with the cook
-Trains are for cattle, she said.
-"Their Dutch is a disgrace, but they have a way with sweets," she said, sinking her big teeth into a big piece of baklava.
She was a good cook, but she preferred leaving it to others. Father didnt mind going to the shops with a list, just as long as no one expected him to figure it out for himself. Later, she took potluck at my place, and did it without complaint. Liver was the only thing she wouldnt touch.
-"People can read, but wild animals cant. Wild animals tear the insides out of each other, but people dont. And if they do, they become animals.
She was born in Amsterdam near the Haarlem Gate, but she doesnt remember it. Not the neighbourhood and not the city.
-"Stay in The Hague or come back here. Go to Utrecht or Maastricht if you must, but dont move to Amsterdam."
It wasnt something she could explain. And whenever I asked her to come and see my latest flat, she always found some excuse.
-"I cant get up all those stairs with my knees."
-"There wont be anywhere to park unless it costs the earth."
My father wasnt back from the office. Aunt Ursula, Mamas best friend, had cooked for us. I couldnt sleep and had come downstairs for a glass of water, but they hadnt noticed me and Id hidden behind the sofa.
-"It was gushing out of me, Ursula. I squeezed the bamboo handle of my bag so hard it cracked. Hed slipped his hand down through the hole in the pocket of my pinafore into my pants. There were only a few people in the tram, but I felt like they were all staring at us. I was scared stiff and I wanted it to go on forever."
It was until I was much older that I understood why the word "tram" always made her smile.
I told her recently that there were mice at the train station and she burst into song. That song about a mouse in Amsterdam: I saw a mouse. Where? There on the track. Where on the track? Well, there, a little mouse on wheels, it really is true, it went chug chugachug chug down the track, and back.
She couldnt help it, she put her mark on everything. The few times we had to go somewhere by train my father was working, Aunt Ursulas car was at the garage she instantly transformed our part of the compartment into a travelling living room/picnic table. Out of her bag came Grandmas portrait from the sideboard, a rose in a bottle, three plates and a complete lunch.
I never told her about the rats.
This town smelt different, she was right about that.
-"Amsterdam smells like a dog thats crawled out of a ditch. Theres a watery smell here as well, but with dust in it too and something sludgy, like oil. Even the tap water tastes dusty here."
In shopping streets she would often stop to sniff at the entrance of boutiques, bookshops, drugstores and greengrocers. If she didnt like the smell, she wouldnt go in, even if shed seen something interesting in the window.
I noticed recently that you cant smell the dead, at least, not in the cool of a funeral parlour.
During high school I spent my free periods wandering the streets with friends, but shed showed me the city long before. Back when I was in primary school, she took us in tow. Sometimes wed walk all the way to the outskirts.
-"Buy a map," she told me the first time I was going to London alone, "take it with you, but dont get it out until its time to go back to wherever youre spending the night. Walk, look. Thats the only way to get to know a city."
-Her method suits me well. I got to know Paris and Berlin that way too, and New York and San Francisco. But in LA I kept coming up against a wall of freeways.
She could go on about things forever, but still be very sweet about it. For instance, she almost talked me into taking driving lessons.
Another time she was convinced that the guy across the road was cheating the dole. Nothing in the world was going to stop her from voluntarily making her front room available to a social security department snoop. She had a dogged faith in solidarity and the welfare state. People who took advantage were "antisocial freeloaders undermining a beautiful system."
When she was wound up about something, she often spoke with a fine spray.
That first time, we walked over the bridge together. It was an incredibly muggy Sunday when we got back home we heard there was a smog alarm but up on the bridge there was a refreshing breeze. She soaked it up: the view, her city, the bridge itself.
-"You dont have this in Amsterdam. A view like this, panoramic. I remember being with your father early one morning in Yorkshire, at the edge of the moor, on the edge, really. Behind us lay the scrappy, in places boggy, heath. The high country ended steeply and abruptly at our feet. Spread out a hundred metres below us were rolling fields and pastures. The sun broke through the morning mist, and suddenly I almost believed in Creation."
"If your uncle and aunt hadnt been there, your father and I would have conceived you on the spot instead of later that night in the hotel. My God, you wouldnt believe the way those English beds creaked."
It wasnt the first time wed talked about their love life since my fathers death. I liked to keep it abstract and was relieved that she never really went into detail. They spent their time alone in the hotel room doing virtually nothing else all that holiday, at least going by her and my aunts stories, but she was still totally convinced that that was the night of my conception. On one of those creaking beds. Her brand-new seniors bed didnt make any noise at all, she said, highly satisfied, the last time I visited her.
Ill bike on back to the old days. Or was it ride on back? I thought of that song this morning in the shower. I wouldnt mind. Pedalling off to the horizon on a kids bike with training wheels and a deafening orange flag until youre back at the old days again.
After Id left home, she arranged for mine to be shipped off to Iran for her foster childs crippled brother. She had a way of saying that, "my foster child", that made you think she had gone out there and fostered the child personally, without any organisation in between.
Maybe Aunt Ursula knows where her diaries are. I dont think she got rid of them. She was too much of an exhibitionist for that, figuratively speaking.
Sometimes I take the metro from Central Station to the Amstel. And then you get that contradiction in terms: the underground going overground. You ride out of the neon lights and into daylight thats always blinding, no matter how grey and overcast it might be.
Here its the other way round. Soon the train will leave the day behind, the view suddenly contracting until theres nothing to look at except the other passengers. Wild horses wouldnt have dragged her in here.
Ive always found comparisons between the underworld and the underground a little artificial. And now here I am thinking about Aeneas who saw his dead father Anchises appear. And Persephone who didnt feel at home in either place, but got to travel between them.
She said the world looked very different after I was born. Things shed never given a second thought to suddenly demanded her attention. The flecks of light on the wall that my baby eyes were looking at, curtains billowing in front of the open bedroom window.
No matter where she went on her bike, she immediately saw whether there were any sandpits, swings or climbing frames.
I wish there were some way of telling her that the world looks different without her as well. Not because I see new things, but because the old things remind me of her. Even the metro she never wanted to take. Because she never wanted to take it.
I was ten at least, before she dared to go on the C&A escalator with me.
"If I were religious, Id blame all these new inventions on the devil. People say new machines are for our convenience. Is it convenient for me to have to learn how to use yet another device? They make things lonely, not easy. All these contraptions reduce the contact between people. That girl in the tram with the walkman on her head doesnt even hear me say hello. If I call the bank, I get a computer with a canned radio-announcer voice.
-"We used to be stuck with each other, now were stuck with machines," she said, when I tried to explain how her browser and email program worked.
Father loved Charles Mingus. He always said that Mingus wanted his friends to smoke him in a joint after hed been cremated. That appealed to my father as well. In the end he was buried. Hora Decubitus blared between the headstones while he disappeared into the earth. Together with his second wife, I planted a hazel on him.
Can you call an adult an orphan? "Excuse me, sir, Im looking for the Municipal Orphanage for Adults." In youth hostels they used to have fathers and mothers, she once told me. The guy selling the homeless newspaper looks a bit like Fagan, but I think this Oliver Twist is better off alone just for the moment.
Im the little boy with a toy drum following the drum band. I drum and I drum and the rhythm drives my arms and legs. The music carries me along.
And suddenly I can only hear the plastic sound of my red drumsticks on tight yellow vinyl. The drum band turned off somewhere and I kept walking. The street is empty, behind me people are looking in the other direction.
Ive done this so often, and I always run back as fast as I can. Back to the drum band and the grown-ups.
Not today. Today, I just keep drumming and walk on. Around the corner.
Sometimes its as if Im literally going to collapse, as if my skin is all thats holding me up, as if underneath it, theres just a big, grey
I think "void" is the right word.
But now everything in front of me is gleaming cheerfully: the façades, the buildings, the cars and the cyclists. Almost as if now, more than even before, its my city. The little drummer boy sets off into the world.
-Look, Mama, look what I can do.
Id like to think shes looking down at me now.
Is that why that song has been running through my head for days now?
Sometimes I feel like my only friend / is the city I live in, the city of angels. / Lonely as I am, together we cry.
On our way home from holidays, I was always glad to turn into our street. Not because the holiday had been a disaster, but because I was back among all the familiar things I knew. Nowadays, coming back from England or France, I start feeling like that in Belgium, when we drive into the flat country of Flanders.
I dont want to think about Jacques Brel right now.
At the start of the Nieuwezijds there is a building called THE END OF THE WORLD. I always wanted to live there, somewhere on the top floor. Now I think it would make a better home for the urn. And then Ill get the things no one has grabbed yet and set them up around it.
She mustnt disappear too quickly. I want it to happen very slowly, as long as it took her left ear to get really deaf, even longer, as long as I live.
Its only now that Im really free. Theres no one left to worry about me , not like that. My friends love me, but no one looks as closely as she did.
Home is where I want to be / but I guess Im already there.
Give the songs a break, will you? My head is like a preacher battering me with Scripture, except the Bible has been swapped for an anthology of the last forty years of pop.
-All flesh is as grass, she mumbled to herself as we walked from my fathers grave to the reception area. And suddenly I saw that whole cemetery sown with corpses. Each clump a greyish-pink lump. Its from the Bible, she said later.
Would it help if I went and shot some baskets on the square?