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ROB BURNS - new love and the artist- a life in Holland

Chapter One
Pieter Van Laere was a painter. He lived alone in a small terraced house in Jan Blankenstraat, next to what had been the Bolls Jenever Distillery before a rogue British bomb levelled the site, along with a considerable part of the Leiden Power Generating Company, a polden mill and a fish processing plant. The house, one of twenty eight terraced and one detached, were built for employees of the Distillery towards the end of the last century but after the unfortunate incident of the 24 September 1944, only twelve remained; six on either side. At the south end, the elaborate and much loved Art Nouveau gates remained untouched; they were made of wrought iron and had once formed an impressive gateway from the narrow street into the factory.

The terrace was built of a soft, yellow sandstone. To give each dwelling an identity, as is considered good architectual practice in Holland, a single line of white, glazed brick ran alternatively from vertical to horizontal, two bricks above the doors and ground floor windows. Inside, rooms were puritanically efficient. Ceilings were low and could easily be touched by the outstretched hands of adults and the stairs, as all stairs in Holland, were steep and dog legged so that the braided rope, which ran their full length, served as a much needed handrail.

To the front of the houses, a pine pergola, stained green, spanned the ten meters between the facing houses and emphasised the close links which members of the community felt for one another. During the winter months, vines and climbing plants, which covered the entire structure, appeared dull, overgrown and beyond control but in the early months of approaching summer, the street was filled with the fusion of jasmine and complementary species of clematis, thoughtfully planted to follow one another into flower. At the last communal count there had been 173 herbs and plants springing vigourously from the assortment of terracotta tubs, discarded sinks, chimney pots and other, less definable, make-do containers. Half firkin barrels, filled with tulips, daffodils and fuchsia, emphasised the love of flowers which the Dutch possess, whilst ensuring that all unwanted traffic was kept at a respectable distance and well out of sight.

Until recently, Pieter Van Laere, had been a student at Leiden University. He had studied painting and art history, had graduating with a 2.1 honours degree in Fine Art and the ‘Kosterhaen’ bursary for outstanding originality in his final presentation. Three years on found him employed as refuse boatman on one of three barges which daily retrieved unwanted detritus and societies throwaways which cluttered the canals of Leiden in much the same way as it clutters the streets of less waterlogged cities.

DMB3 was a utilitarian vessel. Constructed of metal, it had been overprinted with bitumen on so many occasions that a more accurate description was no longer possible. Inside, and buried somewhere beneath the waterline, a noisy Torson Mandel 12 Cylinder engine belched black or grey smoke, depending on the time of day, water temperature or mood of the operator.

To the front of this vessel, a pair of giant crab claws devoured its rotting prey with horrible efficiency dispatching it with cacophonous ease down it’s stinking gullet. Items lying beyond the reach of the claws were salvaged with the aid of a grab hook which by simple mechanics could be extended to well over ten metres. Sometimes, if Pieter Van Laere were raking for a firm hold on a cycle frame, or pram, or moped or bright orange traffic cone, he would see himself as a Gondolier approaching San Marco. Only once had he fallen into the water. It had been during the previous summer when the canals had been at their most pungent. He had been retrieving what remained of a moped from the death-black slime at the bottom of Herengracht when he cought sight of Karen Hals sunbathing on the grass slopes of the University campus. The grab hook snared on a secure mooring chain and as he became dislodged, the barge carried on its way towards the Oude Rijn without him. He remained upright for a short while before sinking slowly, quietly and with a certain dignity into the odorous water.

Generally he enjoyed his work. Being outside and on his own suited him and although the work was physically tiring, it left his head clear for painting. Once in his own private space, he would think and argue and resolve and act until one or more of his canvases had edged a little closer towards that undefinable point he refered to as the 'stop'. Then he would make a wilful attempt at restoring order before walking the short distance to the Praathuis for food, drink and life.

Although never knowingly admitting it, nothing gave him greater satisfaction than these late nights and early mornings when with friends, he would talk about work and love and politics and affairs and painting and matters of little importance. And as he talked, argued and protested, so arms, hands and part-smoked Samson would wave wildly and spiral dramatically to emphasise his point of view, eventually scything through long, blond and tangled hair before coming to rest on the neck of his Grolsch bottle.

Pieter Van Laere knew the inside of the Praathuis like he knew the inside of his Barbour. Over the years, both had become extensions of himself and life without either was unthinkable. This was not a concious conclusion. It was just that he had never thought about it. Entering the bar was as familier an act as pulling on his overcoat.

Tonight it was unusually quiet but then it was still early. He drank a little, then tried unsuccessfully to talk to Tom and dribbled into his beard as he mumbled about nothing of consequence. He took the bottle and a well read morning paper from off the bar, selected a table, lent backward against the worn wainscotting, rested a clogged foot along the length of the bench, rolled a Samson, blow several smoke rings upwards towards the light fittings and watched as others came and went through the draped, brown green curtain. For no reason at all he recalled an evening last winter when a young woman entered with hair the colour of summer wheat fields and eyes like frozen emeralds and remembered how he had fallen backwards out of his seat. By the time he had returned to an upright position she had vanished. It was his briefest love affair.

During the bitterly cold months of January through March, the canals are covered in ice so thick that they serve as walkways or rinks. Ice hockey games are played under sodium lamps long into the night between teams of any number and the sounds of the streets change as falling snow softens traffic noises and peoples voices and the ever evolving ice gives out regular cracks and moans.

As all water traffic becomes bonded one to another, so his role changed. During the day Pieter Van Leare drove his Solex to any number of swing bridges and locks within 20km of Leiden to insure that they were operable, clearing the frozen coating with axe and salt crystals . Today he had been as far as Rijswijk and was late returning. He stopped to watch the larger and heavier sea-going barges as they slid through the ice floes on the Rijn en Schie Kanaal en route from Aalsmeer to Rotterdam. Wondered at the sight of flocks of Greylags and White fronted geese which spend much of the winter months on the flat exposed lands of Holland. Stared at the swirling patterns of frozen snow which lay upon the fields and the thick ice-covered lakes at Stompwyk like white, billowing clouds that had fallen from out of the sky. Draw a farm worker as he stood on top of a straw and snow covered mound, freeing silage with an axe, to feed impatient friesians. And a little later, sketched a row of isolated cottages with their winter wood stacked securely beneath overhanging gables. In the half light of evening he thought that his drawing looked more real than the maquette he saw before him.

Once home in Jan Blankenstraat, he heated soup from a tin, adding cold, cooked potato and carrots left from the previous day and when the red brown liquid began to simmer, took the small blue enamelled pan from off the stove and moved slowly about his studio.
Work in progress was fixed firmly to two easels. In his mind it was somewhere between very good and very bad but he was unable to reach a more perceptive assessment. It was, he concluded, rather too obvious, which upset him but technically competent, which pleased him. He contented himself by blowing warm, steamy air over the canvasses and breathing in the comforting smells of the oils and white spirit.

It was too late to consider lighting the stove. He needed to cut wood first and it would be a good hour before he would feel any benefit. He rubbed his face in a gesture of uncertainty and guilt, placed the empty pan down on the worn carpet next to another slightly larger empty pan, contemplated beer and company and left for the Praathuis.
Pieter Van Laere sat between Caren de Gaede and Hans Brinkler and explained about the geese and the ice floes, told of the farm worker and the cottages and how he felt that his work was being influenced by Ensor and Meunier and he wasn’t altogether sure that that was a good thing.

Caren de Gaede lifted the slender wooden skewer which held the satay, dipped it twice into the ceramic pot which held the peanut sauce, then slowly devoured it. It was good. It was expensive. Then the second bite until all that remained was the burnt, skeletal wood and that she snapped in two between thumb and forefinger. She folded her hair behind her left ear as she leant forward, then ran her little finger around the inside of the white porcelain and held it out to Pieter as an offering. He stopped in mid sentence, took the gift and the finger and only released it when she flicked his nose with her free hand. Then he explained about the peculiar mating habits of the White fronted geese and how they sometimes got frozen to the ice.

The velvet curtain, which protected those inside from the effects of others entering or leaving, drew open. They stood inside and looked like tourists, talking in English, picking out the place and the people as if searching for a souvenir. She was dressed in white and her hair shone like a ravens wing. Her black eyes swept and searched with a confidence which came from knowing that others were aware of her presence; but she had no intention of acknowledging it.

She looked at Pieter Van Laere, then through him and beyond towards a vacant table. As she moved past, he smelt petunia oil and sensed panache and realised that she would have smelt old barge and diesel fuel. Her friend moved hurriedly towards the crowded bar.
He was lost. They would of course meet later. Or maybe tomorrow. In his studio. He would light the stove early and clean away the pans and plates and leave out his better work. Maybe even hang one or two pieces. She would like some of his work but not all. Probably not the abstracts. These she would consider too vague; too distant. Liking it all but preferring the more figurative. The heads she would love, so much so that she would ask for a portrait and sitting would not be a problem. During the following few weeks she would see him more frequently then was really necessary. They would visit small bars for food and drink and talk about him and his work and her and her work and once, when the sun shone and warmed away the last coverings of snow from the walkways, he borrowed the old VW Beetle which sort-of belonged to Hans Brinkman and they had driven out towards Ruigenhoek by way of the sea and the quieter roads which ran along the Polder dykes. But then she had to return to England. She was expected. She was unable to stay longer. He had written but had received no reply. It was over.
She said "Excuse me."

Pieter Van Laere wondered if it had been spoken or imagined. He turned to face her to be instantly aware of the damage she could inflict on others. Her hair as straight as the Rijn en shie Kanaal. It shone with every colour he had ever mixed on his pallet. Her eyes like pools of liquid coal. She fixed her gaze on his left eye, then his right, to eventually devour the rest of his face until he felt altogether too vulnerable and reached for the immunity supplied by the beer bottle.
"Your wallet is on the floor."
He looked down, under and through his arm, downwards to the wooden boards and the folded, brown leather purse. His hand ran down either side of his opened mouth and then back through his tangled unkempt hair. He reeked of canals. There had been a splashback on the Schie Kanaal that afternoon when the sluice man had opened the lock gate before he had been able to move clear and stinking mud and putrefying vegetation had matted his hair and covered his face. He had rinsed his head quickly in the icy water to remove most of the clinging goo but then once home and a little warmer, had forgotten the incident. Until now. He stood and turned.
She said "You have a hole in your back pocket."
Pieter Van Laere talked to the floor. "They are just some old working trousers." He laughed out of embarrassment. "I should burn them I think." Then paused as he sat down before daring another look. Her eyes, like before, drilling through to the back of his head. He asked "You are visiting?"
"For a week. A little work."
"With your husband?" Pieter nodded towards the bar.
"A friend."
Pieter Van Laere lifted up his Grolsch and said "Oh."
Her friend waited impatiently at the bar. His bleach-clean trench coat seemed littered with straps and brass buckles which reflected the overhead lights. The belt about his waist had been turned back on itself and carefully fastened. Those at the end of each sleeve appeared so narrow that only the most slender of hands could have passed through. And below, his dull grey trousers possessed a crease so sharp and straight they challenged all credibility. Maybe he never sat down! His shoes; black and still more straps. He occasionally fingering his knotted tie as if it offended his throat. And as he did so, he projected his crescent chin upwards and outwards in a gesture of mild aggravation before returning his thin, boney hand to the dark hidden security of his coat.

Pieter Van Laere loathed him. Not in the way in which he had recently begun to curse the sluice gate operator for his incompetence, or the way he disliked the building workers who were replacing a mansard roof on a house that fronted the ‘Witte Single’ and amused themselves by using DMB3 as target practice. He loathed this man for his obvious self infatuation, pretentious style of dress, slimy, arrogance and self importance. And as he moved away from the bar and passed next to him, he even loathed him for his meticulously groomed hair, his sickly cultivated smell, his smooth bristleless face, which even at this late hour shone like the buckles on his clothes; as if freshly polished.
As he reached the table he spoke loudly. "God it always takes such an age in these sort of places." He shifted the chair so that it scraped the wooden floor and sat carefully before crossing his legs. When comfortable, he adjusting the crease in his trousers, lifted the slender glass by the stem, gave a cursory glance at his surroundings and took his first taste of the white wine as he did so. "I think it will probably do though. Do you think?"
She said "By far the best. I like it."
He began to define his territory. The Gauloises in their blue and white pack, placed upright on the table. The silver lighter which he rotated nervously between long fingers. The slim, red ballpoint which he magicked from somewhere inside his jacket in an efficient movement to be followed by a brown, leather covered note-book. He began to scribble.

She turned to face the critic. "Is it always like this. This place?"
Pieter Van Laere sat upright in his seat and looked quickly from him to her. He said sorry and she repeated the question word for word. "Less or more. Usually it is a lot busier. At about eleven it becomes more busy. Then you have to stand. It is popular with the students from the University. Leiden has a large University since 1575." Then his voice died on him and his eyes fled about the room for safety and for a brief moment, his mind wandered back to the white fronted geese with their snow-white feathers which melted to the touch as you freed then from the ice. So gently. So carefully.
She said "You are from the University?"
"I was. Not now. I finished thee years ago. Now I work."
"At what do you work?" She lifted her glass and drank without moving either head or eyes.
"I paint. I am a painter."
Pieter Van Laere thought that was enough. It implied a certain attitude of mind. A life style and a rejection of most of the things which her friend obviously stood for. Of the canals or the barge or the man on the sluice gates or the dumps outside Leiden where the stinking contents of his boat were loaded each Friday onto the tanker barges to be taken north to the Noordzee to form new land masses at Flenspolder he said nothing. He thought it unnecessary.
Her friend interrupted "I’ll call David. Let him know what we think and he can come over and take a look. Maybe tomorrow."
She turned to face her friend. "Do you want to stay until he arrives?"
"No. I’ll go to Brussels. You can wait for him though."
He finished his wine in a single mouthful before returning his property to its allotted place. He stood and pulled the coat together with crossed hands so that it fitted him as if he were a coat hanger.
"Do you want to say anything to him. About the script?"
She thought for a moment, then shook her head. "No point at the moment. He has the latest copy." Then added, "But tell him to bring the prints from Brussels if they’re ready. I’d like to see them."
These stolen obscure conversations Pieter Van Laere was not to be a part of. Arrangements for a script. A play. A film maybe? He watched as her friend left, weaving between people, tables and chairs. His knees were much too close together. He looked absurd.
She asked "Do you know the owner?"
"Rupert Jansen". He pointed with his free hand."The one with the full beard. Behind the bar. Do you need to talk to him?"
"We have to take some photographs. Some location shots for a film. For television." She relaxed a little. Maybe because her friend had left. She stretched out her arms behind her until they met behind her back, then reached for her handbag and cigarettes and offered one to Pieter.

He did not like packet cigarettes. He thought they tasted of chemicals. He couldn’t remember when he had last smoked one let alone when he had last bought a packet. He even hated the smell. He thought they should be banned. He took one. He hurried to be the first with a light but lost.
"Thankyou. Your film is about Leiden?"
"Sort of. Well not really. It’s about two people who meet in Leiden. At the University." She paused and he couldn’t think of anything to say. He coughed on the cigarette and lifted his free hand to cover his mouth to hide the lack of conversation. She looked at his eyes, then his hand, then away to her glass. "She’s from England, middle-class, if you know what I mean. He’s from Germany and very much part of the Socialist left." She lifted her eyes to face him as she spoke, then lightly fingered the rim of her wine glass as she began to talk dismissively . "They get it together and it changes them both. Almost a reversal of roles really. She wants to reject the privilege thing. He wants to settle down and have three children. Well hardly. All sounds rather obvious really. Still, there you are." She shrugged her shoulders and let out a single laugh. She looked at her watch and took a drink. "There, a synopsis."

So she was an actress. Young. Beautiful. Possibly famous in her own country. And very much photographed if the previous conversation with her friend was anything to go by. It would certainly explain the expressions and gestures. The searching eyes which seemed to demand so much every time they met his own. She had been trained to affect others; to generate some sort of presence. He couldn’t recall her but then he didn’t have a television. So she was a film star. The first he had ever met.
He said "And you are playing the part of the English Woman?"
"Lord no. I wrote it." She stubbed out the half smoked cigarette and Pieter Van Laere coughed for a second time.

The trench coat appeared from out of nowhere. "He’s arriving in the morning. Should be here by about eleven. He thought it would be a good idea if you were here to talk to him about this place. He’ll meet you at the Hotel first then you can wander down here for lunch."

She returned the packet of Marlboro to her handbag. Pieter Van Laere saw the crumpled air mail letters. A box of tissues. A plastic purse. A red and yellow holdall which probably held make-up. A Black Filofax. A hotel key with its brown plastic name tag securely attached. So she was staying at the ‘Guldenhof’. But then she snapped the metal clip into the waiting barrel with slender fingers and locked out her private life.
She stood, glanced at him, almost sympathetically he thought, then followed her friend who had already left the table and clearly had no intention of waiting for her. Pieter closed his eyes and began counting. By the time he had reached five she had reached the curtains. By the time he reached seven she had passed through them.
Caren de Gaede placed a full bottle of beer on the table in front of him and said that he really shouldn’t talk to strange women, especially foreign ones. Hans Brinkman said he thought she was outrageously beautiful and that it was obvious that Pieter had fallen in love again but her friend was a turd and a half. Then he said that something smelt of rotting cabbage.

Pieter woke from a wretched sleep and knew instantly it would be a bad day. He drew back the curtain without leaving his bed and watched as snowflakes hurryed past the lighted bedroom window to be lost in the empty darkness below. He spoke out loud, as he often did when he was alone. "I should burn them"! But they were his only working pair and he would have to buy more and they would be in a similar state within a week or two.

He swung his legs out from beneath his duvet and into the jeans. Then the vest and thick shirt, patterned like a lumberjack’s, and the blue, black jumper with tear holes at the elbows.

Once downstairs, he took cheese from the fridge and bread from the bin, made an open sandwich of sorts, wrapped both in paper and stuffed his lunch into the bottom of his canvas holdall. The routine with the coffee. The first into a flask, the second into a mug. He sagged into the armchair and allowed himself to enjoy the moment before fitting his boots to his feet.

But this morning his head felt heavy and his brain dull. After she had left, he had remained longer and apart from the mouthful of satay and the soup, had not eaten. So the pattern of the evening became as predictable as the resulting hangover and he accepted the consequences without complaint. Somewhere outside the world was revolving but it was doing so without any help from him.

He made a second coffee. Then took the papers and tobacco, still on the table from the previous night and performed the satisfying ritual, relishing the deep intake of smoke. He held his breath; it takes seven seconds for nicotine to reach the brain. The smoke was exhaled like steam from a kettle up towards the mantelpiece and he watched as the collection of important but unanswered correspondence fluttered behind the brown Genever bottle.

She had had the strangest effect on him. Perhaps no more than 20 minute from the moment she entered the room until the moment she left through the heavy curtain and out into the cold night. And with John Somebody with money and little else. The ‘Guldenhof’. A hundred Guilders per night just for bed; breakfast extra.

So she wasn’t an actress but a writer and film maker. At University he had completed a course on the documentary. The work of Renior and Fellini. Godards early efforts. It was an art form he had never been able to associate with because of the need to involve others at every level. Actors. Crew. To be cameraman or director. The problems of the sequential. Translating and transforming complex ideas into something quite ordinary and commonplace. Then stage two. Stitching together images in such a way that the observer is unable to see it for what it is. An enormous pretence; the camera lying through its teeth.

All that, compared to painting. The working of a single mind within a single frame. To be studied and considered. Giving form to some abstract idea or fancy. A more direct and immediate way of responding to whatever it is that motivates the artist. More personal. If it’s good it’s you. If it’s bad it’s you. Axiomatic. Simple.

He flicked the grey ash from the end of the Samson. It missed the small bowl he used as an ash tray and fell to the floor. He must go. He was already late.
The Solex cut through the darkness and the numbing coldness of the March morning. Away from the town and along the uneven paths which ran alongside the Oude Rijn, occasional points of light pinpointed isolated farms outlined against the first indications of a new day. Tall reaching Aspens holding snow in their winter branches. Horizontal lines of power cables encased in ice and now as thick as a mans arm, each drooping alarmingly between vertical wooden posts. Flights of Shell Ducks and Curlews against a snow laden sky which met the ground on all sides at some intangible and unseen location in this grey scale of a landscape.

Black hair like a ravens wing and dressed in white. If she were out there now he wouldn’t be able to see her.

© Rob Burns 2001
This is thr first chapter of a work in progress. If you like it, writer to Rob Burns encourage him to keep writing. We love it - hope you do to.
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