The International Writers Magazine: Life in Amsterdam

Damien - An Exorcism
Tom Over

. . . 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
(Gilbert Ryle)

I remember seeing him on a couple occasions before the time we were introduced. I don’t 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 woman’s. 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 weren’t. 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 didn’t get to a bar soon I would be finished. I wasn’t 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 couldn’t go because of something to do with his girlfriend or something to do with not having a girlfriend at all. I’d managed to get Damien to tag along which I was happy about because now I didn’t have to go alone and sell the other ticket to some Dutch crusty outside the venue. I’d 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 wasn’t 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 cobbles.

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 up.

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 they’ve 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 Jim’s 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 Damien’s flat because of some crucially urgent paperwork that needed to be somewhere and wasn’t or one or two vitally important forms that were meant to exist but didn’t. 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 Jim’s 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 one’s 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 wasn’t 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 away.

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 didn’t 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 Sammy’s 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 didn’t let it seem tangible the threat of being homeless and well and truly fucked this time next week was still very real.

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 life’s 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 person’s 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 mother’s 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 Damien’s. 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 return.

Usually we didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 y’after?!"

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 wasn’t in denial, never had been, but whenever his old man came to visit no matter how much he psyched himself up he just couldn’t bring himself to do it, he couldn’t 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, I’ll 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 Damien’s manic mini exodi. A supporting character in his last story about moving house in Amsterdam, and one he would never get a chance to tell.

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 victory.

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 Achterburgwal.

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 Turk’s face like some kind of lecherous insult. I suddenly felt uncomfortable. The man recoiled in shock and disgust and shouldered past Damien into the bar.

I was no stranger to Damien’s 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 didn’t. 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 wasn’t 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 hadn’t 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.
"There’s something I’ve got to tell you. It’s Damien . . . he’s dead."
I don’t remember what went through my mind. Maybe my thoughts had wandered, maybe I just didn’t hear what she said. All I remember saying was, "Who’s Damien?"

And then it hit me, like a punch you never expected, or deserved. Damien was dead. I didn’t 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 window.

I tried to imagine the scene that took place moments before Damien was set free from this world. He couldn’t have got into a fight, I told myself. He didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 it’s floating around in the ether, a weird shapeless entity, quietly mocking fat tourists and dumb American leaders until the fringe of time. He’s 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.
Tom Over June 2006

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