International Writers Magazine: Life in Amsterdam
- An Exorcism
. . . And of course
if the mind is separate from the body, it can continue to exist
when the body breaks down, and our thoughts and pleasures will
not someday be snuffed out forever.
Extract from The Ghost in the Machine
I remember seeing
him on a couple occasions before the time we were introduced. I dont
remember the first time we met only that once or twice I saw him talking
to Anne in the bar where they worked. This was back when he lived with
Anne and Jim and I shared a flat with two old friends from back home.
I remember being in the Red Light Bar one time and I remember the presence
of a tall rangy figure across the room. The figure had slender epicene
features. Angular and pale, gaunt even, despite the thick facial fuzz.
His hair was unusually long and dark and straight like that of a womans.
I found myself casually marvelling at the distinct lack of space he
seemed to occupy despite his towering frame. He seemed to conceal virtually
no body mass beneath his lightweight jacket, his narrow shoulders almost
perfectly aligned with his impossibly skinny hips so that he resembled
a lofty human column, a long-haired walking pillar. To me he looked
like a young neo-hippie or some kind of street prophet, almost Christ-like.
As he affectionately engulfed Anne in his huge mantis embrace, shook
hands with their boss and flashed the bar staff his crack-tooth Marlboro
grin my first impression of Damien was that he had the ability to make
people step out of themselves, to come alive, or at least feel something
different. He had a strange quality that was instantly likeable. People
there loved him.
I shielded my eyes from the sun and squinted into the distance to see
if any public transport-sized shapes were making their way towards me.
There werent. The only thing left to do was slump heavily against
the shelter and smoke. I lit a cigarette and attempted to rub the drink-induced
myopic sludge out of my eyes.
At my feet a deformed animal pecked at the dirt trying to sap what nutrients
it could from an old crushed dog end. As it hobbled on to the next scrap
of detritus I observed it with disdain and envied the lame creature
for its superior wisdom of never having discovered alcohol.
As the soft breeze gently ruffled the hairs on my legs I tried not to
think about the loud violence crashing around in my skull. What had
started out as a minor skirmish around breakfast time was now escalating
into a full scale riot and I knew if I didnt get to a bar soon
I would be finished. I wasnt even sure if an all-out rock gig
was what I needed today of all days but here I was with two free tickets
in my pocket and a head full of mayhem waiting for a tram into town.
The tickets had belonged to Bob, one of my old friends from back home,
but it turned out he couldnt go because of something to do with
his girlfriend or something to do with not having a girlfriend at all.
Id managed to get Damien to tag along which I was happy about
because now I didnt have to go alone and sell the other ticket
to some Dutch crusty outside the venue. Id gotten to know Damien
through Anne but mainly because of encounters involving drink and now
I crashed on their sofa because of a mistake or a coincidence or something
that never really came to light.
I stared down the tracks the opposite way - the way I wanted to travel
at high speed - and noticed that the relentless heat had created a startling
reservoir of white light at the foot of Rozengracht. Had I been in a
better frame of mind I might have savoured the shimmering oddity, but
instead I just flicked my smoke at the mutant pigeon and hopped onto
the tram which had suddenly materialised in front of me.
The atmosphere inside the tram was hot and oppressive and I could feel
the fabric of my T-shirt begin to solder to the rubber back of the seat
the moment I sat down. I tried my best to ignore the other passengers
around me which wasnt very difficult as they all seemed too occupied
with their own stifling discomfort. Feeling the pores on my face sprout
with moisture I gazed listlessly through the enormous plate-glass window
as the tram, like a disembodied electric umbilicus, plummeted headlong
into the heart of Amsterdam.
As we pulled into the city centre my clouded senses were ignited by
the volume of bronze female flesh on display. It seemed like all the
women milling around were either dressed for a trip to Vondel Park or
suitably undressed for a day at the beach. I sauntered across the square
with my spirits lifting and my thoughts consumed with what kind of state
I would no doubt find myself in a few hours down the line. The blazing
sunshine spilled over the roof of the Royal Palace like water off a
rock face and lit up the scores of filth-encrusted pigeons turning them
into little phoenix effigies rising and descending above the scorched
I headed off towards the Red Light District and when I passed Slainte
Bar I peered through my own reflection into the submarine gloom hoping
to catch a glimpse of Anne cleaning down tables in her new job. She
was no where to be seen. I cut right down a side-alley that led up to
Achterburgwal and stepped up a gear feeling my throat start to close
A ubiquitous street addict was making his way towards me with all the
purpose and premeditation of a hungry cat. Even in this stark sunlight
his face was punctured with shadows, the hollowed out vestige of a human
complexion in the grip of necrosis. He doddered into my path flashing
his insect smile adapted for the tourists. I avoided his black cuttlefish
eyes and barked, "Ich heb al!" before he could lasso me with
his low frequency junk pitch. He grumbled something inaudible as I shouldered
past in defiance and marched on into the noise of the crowds.
Damien was in the Red Light Bar with Jim and a young Yugoslavian called
Sammy. They greeted me with tipsy smiles and I ordered a round of strong
continental lagers before my arse hit the stool. We exchanged the kind
of pleasantries drinking friends exchange when theyve spent little
over twelve hours apart and I bragged how I came to have two free tickets
to a rock gig in my possession through dense swathes of hydroponic smoke
which emanated from the holes in Jims face.
Later as the beer slowly began to do its job and the possibility of
a ceasefire gradually emerged in my brain talk turned to that of eviction.
Our eviction. It had recently transpired that in a matter of days we
were to be kicked out of Damiens flat because of some crucially
urgent paperwork that needed to be somewhere and wasnt or one
or two vitally important forms that were meant to exist but didnt.
The fact that we had no back-up accommodation sorted - or money to finance
any even if we did - coupled with the looming despair of imminent homelessness
caused our frenetic chatter to dissolve, quite rapidly, into drunken
hysterics. We tried not to find the grim futility of our situation hilarious
but it was impossible. Any attempt at a strategic plan would just collapse
under the hideous comical weight of starving to death on the streets
of Amsterdam. We concocted a grotesquely amusing hyperbole of resorting
to sell our arses to fat American tourists in a last desperate bid for
survival, but finally agreed, thanks to a keen observation from Sammy,
that it would be a better idea just to sell Jims arse because
he was the smallest and the least likely to put up a struggle should
it ever come to something like that.
Sammy and Damien had been close for years since way back when Damien
first moved over here and long before I had even stepped foot in the
country. Sammy was your typical new-age Euro-bohemian, a poet of urban
degeneration and something of an arm-chair politician. I always thought
his resemblance to Sid Vicious would have been uncanny had Sid Vicious
been really blonde with a fat face. Unlike Damien, Sammy was bi-sexual.
From what I could gather a fundamental requisite of this coital orientation
was that ones sense of humour be even more depraved and innuendo-heavy
than that of a regular queen. Although I found his salacious quips amusing
something about him unnerved me. Even when he wasnt cracking lewd
gags Sammy was in the habit of subjecting everyone to a strange perpetual
Cheshire cat grin. All too frequently, and for no good reason, the corners
of his mouth would shoot off into impossibly acute angles pinning his
cheekbones to his face. He would then fix you with this incredible smirk
until you either decided to humour him by matching the expression with
a forced smile, that could only ever pale in comparison, or simply turn
Some weeks later it became common knowledge that after closing time
one night downstairs in the Red Light Bar coffee shop Damien had fucked
Sammy on top of the pool table. At first it blew me, I didnt get
it. They were best friends who had sex one time not because they were
in love or because they shared a vague attraction, but because they
could. Because they were two young queers living in Amsterdam and maybe
that was just what was expected of them, maybe they knew long before
then that sooner or later they would have sex whether they wished it
or not. All I knew was that I could never bring myself to play pool
down there again. Every time I went in to buy weed and caught a glimpse
of the table it was all I could do not to imagine Sammys vast
supine leer invisible in the pitch gloom of the deserted cafe.
Despite my jovial exterior I could feel a quietly undulating ripple
of dread lapping against my insides. Although the sun and the drink
and the vibe somehow didnt let it seem tangible the threat of
being homeless and well and truly fucked this time next week was still
I regarded Damien over my nth pint as he delivered his typical onslaught
of dry epigrams and acid-laced anecdotes which, as always, served to
lighten the mood immeasurably. Even with his future looking as dismal
as it ever had since moving to Dam his sly Irish wit was relentless,
his levity unfathomable. I studied his body language and mannerisms
trying to detect a chink of anxiety through his optimistic composure,
a glimmer of unease that might betray his apparent carefree aplomb.
But there was nothing. It was about this time that I realised Damien
was one of those people to whom lifes problems tried desperately
to cling but could never quite hang on. Traumatic events seemed to glance
off him and burn away trailing in his wake a soundless heat bloom of
mildly irksome trivia. His sanguine confidence infected me and, in that
instant, imbued in me a bizarre sense of reassurance and so I felt my
nerves relax and I drank deeply because I knew that today was going
to be a good day.
A notable personality trait was this effect he had on people, this curious
calming effect. He possessed the cogent ability to change a persons
mood, to put them at ease. He was the emotive tambourine man, a dealer
in psychic valium. One time my parents came to visit and I took them
to meet Damien one night when he was working in the Red Light Bar coffee
shop. As I escorted them into the smoky underground tavern my niggling
anxieties about whether or not this was going to be such a good idea
evaporated the second he spied us. Before any shred of an introduction
Damien seized my mothers hand and pulled her into the dope kiosk
where she was immediately thrown into a wildly flamboyant crash course
in the vocation of skunk trade. In that side-splitting five minutes
in which Damien sloped off to the toilet, leaving my old mum alone to
weigh up and sell big lumps of sticky weed to a string of bemused tourists,
he had changed something forever. In those fleeting moments he made
my father howl effusively through his cracked ambivalent façade
and allowed my mother to forget her empty conditioned values about marijuana
and the law and the warped and corroding marriage binding the two.
With my hangover drowned and realising that we were going to be late
for the show we decked our drinks and stumbled out into the blinding
light of the afternoon.
We deftly evaded the throngs of tourists and druggies and steamed along
Achterburgwal where strangers fucked strangers behind polished glass
doors. Before we could decide otherwise a throwaway comment about narcotics
found us being led up a crumbling flight of stairs by a small child-like
figure in a bright summer dress. We followed the tiny female shape across
a dark dilapidated landing, which threatened to collapse with every
step, towards the luminous rectangle of an open doorway.
Monique was a street whore and a friend of Damiens. Ordinarily
she would have happily obliged our spontaneous appeal for cocaine but
today her decision was influenced by something else. A few weeks back
Damien had let her crash at our place after her boyfriend had knocked
out a couple more of her teeth during one of his customary violent fits.
As we entered the room she turned to motion us through. From behind
Monique could have been mistaken for a malnourished twelve-year-old
girl, but one look at her face was enough to betray her true age, profession
and lifestyle. A heavyweight junky her once delicate pretty features
were now sunken and stretched, scooped out and mummified. She resembled
the victim of some malevolent voodoo spell, a cruel modification inflicted
by her barbarous opiate need. Her quarter century heroin habit had subjected
Monique to a level of cellular decay infinitely more devastating than
any nihilistic rage her boyfriend could throw at her.
I passed her and looked into that pitiful archaic visage, nodding my
appreciation. From deep within the twin umbrae sockets her penetrating
green eyes, still youthful and vibrant, shone brightly and she acknowledged
my gesture with a gummy broken smile.
At twenty-two Neal was a professional drug dealer who - like many Irish
expatriates who found their way to Amsterdam, including Damien - was
living in exile from the city in which he grew up, Belfast. Outcasts,
social pariahs, both had been driven from their homeland because of
the way they chose to lead their lives and, unlike myself, could never
Usually we didnt need an escort to visit the flat but due to the
recent spate of narc raids and shootings in the area Neal had decided
he wasnt about to take any chances. He lunged up off the sofa
to greet us wearing only a scraggy pair of combat shorts and a wonky
stoned grin. While a script of transient small talk ensued my gaze wandered
around the bright airy room and out through the open French doors and
down to where scantily-clad ramblers criss-crossed the large cobbled
expanse of Nieuwmarkt.
Soon restless with the sun-glazed idyll I became unconsciously transfixed
by something inside the room, something about Neal I had noticed on
more than one occasion. From where I stood I couldnt help but
stare at the large pink pock-marks planted just above both of his kneecaps.
The jagged two-pence sized craters were shiny with scar tissue and glinted
softly in the glaring sun light. Before it could dawn on me that I was
gawping my drunken reverie was broken when Neal suddenly clapped his
hands and briskly rubbed them together with mischievous glee and cried,
"So, how much yafter?!"
With our wallets and our heads significantly lighter we clattered down
the creaky skeletal staircase and dashed the rest of the way to the
underground metro. As our noiseless double-decker carriage glided exponentially
out of the station we watched the subterranean blur turn from a nebulous
townscape to a grassy verdant smudge. We sank into our seats and lit
cigarettes and I listened to Damien talk.
Although he injected a light-hearted spin into the tragic events that
brought him to Holland as he spoke I started to get a vivid picture
of what he went through as a young homosexual in a predominantly straight
Irish community. Unable to lead a peaceful existence he left home at
eighteen and drifted around southern Europe for a few months before
settling in Amsterdam. He told me that when he left Ireland, still securely
locked in the closet, his family were under the assumption that he was
into girls. Never during the three year period of living in the city,
or in the time preceding it, had he ever had the guts to come out. He
knew he wasnt in denial, never had been, but whenever his old
man came to visit no matter how much he psyched himself up he just couldnt
bring himself to do it, he couldnt admit to his father that he
was gay. Whenever I asked him how he felt about it he would always shrug
it off and exclaim with a stoical wink, "Bollocks to it, Ill
tell him next time!"
He told me tales of the seven different homes he had occupied in the
city with Jim in the last few years. About the stress and comedy of
moving all their stuff from place to place and of the insane characteristics
displayed by each new landlord.
Some weeks later I would find myself with a starring role in one of
Damiens manic mini exodi. A supporting character in his last story
about moving house in Amsterdam, and one he would never get a chance
Three hours later we left the venue in a curious state of elated suspension.
We floated aimlessly for a while locked in a glorious intrauterine-like
bubble, wailing the lyrics, "Where is my mind?!" into the
shattering cloudless abyss.
With mindless euphoric abandon we followed the swarm of rockers back
to the train station, laughing and dancing like wild spasmodic lunatics.
A strange collective awareness pulsed through crowds, an unusual sense
of unity uncommon amongst strangers. One typically reserved for those
who have survived a singular traumatic experience or won an imperative
Back at the Red Light Bar we drove the staff to distraction with our
unintelligible drink-fuelled chatter of the amazing spectacle we had
witnessed. We sat in our usual place at the bar and we drank and smoked
and occasionally we went up to the toilets and conspiratorially piled
into a cubicle for a quick clumsy livener. The flake powder slits pale
yellow and glinting against the shiny porcelain.
Later on when the Red Light Bar became too busy and smoky and full of
seedy nocturnal agents we found ourselves outside on the raised stone
steps which lead down to the street. It was dark now and the cool night
air was soothing on my burnt skin after the heat of the afternoon. I
chugged on a loose spliff which had appeared in my hand and observed
the hordes of hateful holiday-makers filing up and down the length of
Across the canal the working girls undulated seductively in their glass
boudoirs, lit up like iridescent licentious deities amid a psychedelia
of pulsing neon stars. A cerise-tinged glow hung over the water and
seemed to permeate everything in sight, radiating up into the charcoal
heavens. During the daylight hours this part of town almost evoked a
pleasant, genial atmosphere; one of families and street performers and
reputable trade. Though after dark the freaks would always emerge, crawling
from the stonework to reclaim what was theirs. As I gazed down on the
carnival of indulgence and erratic and corpulent behaviour it looked
to me not unlike a scene from Burroughs Interzone, or a miasmic
vision of his Composite City where all human potentials are spread out
in a vast silent market.
I turned to Damien for a light but at that moment he had stopped a young
Turk who was trying to make his way into the bar. At first I thought
he was acquainted with the man but from his opening line I gathered
otherwise. Damien was swaying on the spot like a slovenly poised incubus,
his eye-lids heavy.
"You wanna fuck me?" He spat the proposition into the Turks
face like some kind of lecherous insult. I suddenly felt uncomfortable.
The man recoiled in shock and disgust and shouldered past Damien into
I was no stranger to Damiens promiscuous nature; he often disappeared
for days at a time with guys he had picked up. Witnessing it first hand
I felt non-plussed and had to turn away. The desolate assertion was
in stark contrast to his normal charming self. Belligerent and devoid
of all feeling, it stuck in my mind. After that when ever I got the
chance I loved to rip the piss out of him, call him a fucked up Dam
slag, the town bike. To this he once remarked, "Watch out, there
are more of us than people!"
We were never close friends but our relationship was a sturdy one built
on satirical humour and scathing cultural criticism. I remember most
nights after he finished work he would wake me up with his 3am ritual
of assembling cheese and ham sandwiches on his lap sitting hunched in
my union jack deckchair bathed in the flickering glare of the TV. He
jovially despised the novelty chair just because he was Irish and I
guess a part of him felt like he had to. We would often sit up in that
dimly lit room discussing politics and film and people we knew and people
we didnt. We talked deeply about our lives and the government
and the end of the world as we perceived it from the shrewdly edited
nightmares which radiated from the 24-hour news shows.
A few months after we moved to the north I decided it was time to leave
Amsterdam. The last two years as a resident of sin city had been fun
but now it was time to move on. I ruefully booked a flight out of the
country and made arrangements to move to Manchester in the New Year.
After my final shift I spent my last evening going around saying my
goodbyes and collecting numbers and emails from friends I would never
hear from again.
It wasnt until more than six months later that I got the call.
It was the weekend and I was doing something or other in my room when
my mobile went, a withheld number. It was my old friend Debbie. Debbie
used to share a flat with me and Rob in the early days. We hadnt
spoken since we parted company in Holland so it was a bit of a shock
to hear from her out of the blue like that. After the initial surprise
and a few pleasantries had been exchanged she came right out and hit
me with it.
"Theres something Ive got to tell you. Its Damien
. . . hes dead."
I dont remember what went through my mind. Maybe my thoughts had
wandered, maybe I just didnt hear what she said. All I remember
saying was, "Whos Damien?"
And then it hit me, like a punch you never expected, or deserved. Damien
was dead. I didnt know what to say. And then I wanted to say everything.
I bombarded her with questions - How? Where? When? Why? She told me
he had been stabbed one night walking down Leidseplein, one of the main
strips in the city centre. Knifed to death, but no-one knew why. Two
men were seen running away from the scene but neither had been caught.
We talked for a long time. Comforting one another with kind words and
speculating in vain as to how it could have happened. Then we hung up.
The phone slipped out of my hand and I noticed I was walking to the
I tried to imagine the scene that took place moments before Damien was
set free from this world. He couldnt have got into a fight, I
told myself. He didnt have a violent bone in his body. He was
renowned for his kind streak, the archetypal altruist. Maybe he was
mugged. Maybe it was just an accident, a reaction born or frustration,
or fear. Perhaps they were just a couple of hetro thugs and Damien,
in a drunken mess, had come on to them in that cold, inhuman way like
that time outside the Red Light Bar.
I couldnt help thinking, where is he now? What the fuck's happened
to him, to his love of Marlboros and Guinness? His tenacious good humour,
did it just stop? Cease to be? Vanish? Maybe its floating around
in the ether, a weird shapeless entity, quietly mocking fat tourists
and dumb American leaders until the fringe of time. Hes probably
watching me right now, the cunt, laughing his arse off as he tucks into
a round of celestial cheese and ham sandwiches.
Only then did it dawn on me. That summer I spent as a down and out in
Amsterdam, barely scraping enough to eat and to get drunk. Through out
those baking destitute days and cool hedonistic nights with Damien and
Jim and the rest of them I never realised it back then, it never crossed
my mind that those times, like that scorching July afternoon we got
smashed and went to see the The Pixies, they could have been
the best times of my life.
As I focused on something invisible through the grime-slick windows
I remembered the words of some long dead showman - Happiness is not
something you experience, it is something you remember.
Too dislocated to feel, too stunned to cry. My eyes rolled unseeing
over the roofed topography of the barren streetscape outside.
He is gone. I am still here.
Over June 2006
stories in Dreamscapes
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