A Stroll in Breda

I was, without any doubt, indulging myself.  Over-indulging would not be too far from the truth.  What, though, is the point of a vacation if you can’t go a little overboard?

I may also have been trying to smother my guilt, ironically by doing exactly what I was guilty about.  When I’d told my wife I was being sent to the Amsterdam meeting by my boss, I had felt badly, but that was easily balanced by the fact that I would be spending my time in an office.  I should not have felt as guilty as I did for extending the stay in Europe by a couple of days to visit my mother’s home town.  My wife had suggested it, after all, even urged the idea upon me.  Eventually my promotion’s increase in pay would allow us to go on a vacation to Europe together, she said, but if I was over here anyway I might as well get some benefit out of it.

And here I was, living it up nearly bachelor-style.  Without my wife, there was no one to impress with my lack of command of the local language and my ability to almost remember major landmarks from the single trip I had made here with my mother when I was thirteen.  I wasn’t able to watch my wife react with delight or disgust at the local cuisine.  I had no one to be slightly drunk with, which even after years of marriage is still a source of huge delight.  I therefore got a little past slightly drunk to honour her intentions in making me go without her and to distract from her absence.

I picked up the glass of unreasonably good beer I was working on, sipped it, enjoyed the fruity notes it held, and thought about calling her.  It was a too early, though, and she’d likely not be home from work yet.  The previous night, she told me it had snowed like a bastard all day back home.  Here, it was chilly, but green leaves still hung on the trees.  October was a goofy time for a vacation, but I didn’t set the date of the meeting and I was benefitting from off-season rates at my hotel.  I didn’t come to the Netherlands to lie on a beach.  My memories of this country were autumnal in any event.  Like me, Mom hadn’t chosen when to come back.  Her father had died in November.

I drained my beer, concerned that I was growing maudlin and unsure whether it was from too much or too little drink.  Probably too much, I decided after recounting what I’d had since the initial pils at lunch time.  Indulging myself, to be sure.  But perhaps it was time to call it a day.  I settled my bill, hauled on my coat, and made my way to the door.

Leaves on the trees or not, it got dark here just as early as at home.  The old German tank in the park across the street was indistinct through the glass of the doors, and I gave some thought to taking a taxi back to the hotel.  I put that thought aside.  I was here to see the city, not sit in the back of a car.  I had a pretty good idea of the way back to the hotel, and the walk would work some of the beer and bar-food out of my system before I went to bed.  It would also keep me from just staring stupidly at a television for at least the next half hour; that was a habit I hadn’t left back in Canada.

I walked past the tank, considering how much smaller it looked than my expectations called for, the barrel of its main gun only just over my head.  I supposed, looking at it, that if it was chasing you down a street it would seem a lot bigger.  I walked along the edge of the park, and had crossed the next street when I realized my mistake.  The hotel was, in general terms, south.  I was headed north, toward the city centre.  I paused, considering my options, and gave into the lure of technology.  My smart-phone could show me the way.

Looking at the map, I found I had not gone too far astray.  Wilhelminapark, the street I was on, ran more west than north and that served my purposes.  If I carried on to Boeimeersingel, the next major road, I could follow it to the Mark, a river I would be inclined to call a creek back home, then walk south along it to Baronielaan and thence the hotel.  I had lost less time hiking in the wrong direction than I had spent in ogling the tank, and the phone told me that my guess of a half-hour for the exercise was just about right.

As I walked along Boeimeersingel I felt nostalgia creeping over me, its foundation laid on the brief sad trip more than two decades ago.  It was the smell of damp diesel exhaust and the sight of small and slightly unfamiliar cars that did the trick.  Like the old saying about never crossing the same river, it was not quite the same smell and certainly not the same cars, but it was enough to make me feel like a kid again, in the good ways and the bad.  I missed my mom.  I loved this place, because she had loved it, and because it of its small exciting familiarities and its small unthreatening exoticism.

By that time, the dampness in the air had coalesced into what the Dutch call motregen, a mist of droplets heavy enough to be felt on the cheeks like moth wings.  I rolled the idea of a taxi around one more time as I crossed the bridge over the Mark.  My jacket was reasonably water-repellent, but I would still be rather damp by the time I got to Hotel Mastbosch.  Damp, cold and drunk are a good recipe for hypothermia, and I wasn’t drunk enough to dismiss it as a possibility.

But I was drunk enough to be stubborn.  A picturesque early evening walk was what I had set my mind upon, and any chill I took could be abolished by a warm bath.  At the west end of the bridge, I turned onto the quiet Michiel de Ruyterstraat, putting taxis behind me in a figurative and literal sense all at once.

Walking south, I saw where the bike path I meant to follow diverged from the street.  I paused a moment, weighing options.  I had given myself a small turn the night before, coming out of the restaurant in the small woods which gave my hotel its name.  I had turned right rather than left, thinking that a quick ramble in the woods would be the very thing to settle a rich supper, just as I had thought this little urban hike was exactly what was needed to clear the fumes tonight.  I had gone about fifty steps before the darkness and the silence under the trees touched some atavistic nerve.  Looking into the gloom of that tiny managed forest, the little monkey inside me demanded a retreat to the lit and the known.

The bike path was another matter entirely.  It had no lights of its own, but there was plenty of light from the street nearby.  The spacing of the trees and the presence of the river prevented an all-absorbing canopy.  When I set my foot on that path, the inner monkey made scarcely a whimper.

I had not walked along the river for two minutes when my phone rang.  I dug it out of the pocket it was riding in, poked my code into it, and killed it.  I looked at it for a moment, then stuffed it back into the pocket.  Perhaps it was just the battery.  I could not, in my mild beery haze, remember when I had last charged it.  There was some worry that it had been affected by the damp air.  I uttered a mild oath, but there was a smile behind it.  Inconvenient as it was for the phone to go dead, it would now not distract me from this quintessentially Dutch walk.  I would worry about the phone when I got to the hotel.

The moisture in the air was muffling sound as I got further from traffic, but it seemed to spread the lights.  The effect was something like being in a candle-lit room.  It was, admittedly, a candle-lit room with a small river down one side of it, but I felt more sheltered by the mist than cut off.

The lamps on the far side of the river were less distinct, giving a backlighting to the trees and bushes on that bank which was slightly sinister.  I gave my imagination a small kick when it began to speculate on whether the inhabitants of those islands of shadow were the same ones cavorting freely through the gloomy thickets of the Mastbos.  That was not a groove I wanted my mental needle running in.

A little car puttered in front of me, crossing what I had taken to be a footbridge.  The passenger, a young man with a nose ring, smiled and waved as he was driven past.  I returned the gesture, and after a nod of acknowledgement the man turned away.  I wondered if I would have felt more threatened by that brief interaction back home.  Perhaps.  Quite likely, if I had stayed in Amsterdam.  But I was as far from Amsterdam as one could get in this country, figuratively if not literally, and all it had felt like was a simple act of mutual humanity, a mere recognition of a fellow being.

Beyond the bridge a tall hedge cut much of the light coming from the street to the right.  On the left, the far bank was a wilderness, leaves visible in the gloom but only a vague intimation of urban lights beyond them.  My imagination tugged on its leash again.  It whispered go past and….

I walked forward, unwilling to let that sentence find an end.  That sort of internal noise came from the part of me that still believed in explosively radioactive waste hidden in the core of golf balls, and which ran a finger up my spine every time I went into my own basement.  I had indulged it last night, but even on this vacation indulgence had limits.  All the path offered me was a slightly more direct path to the hotel.

I paused at what I considered to be the greatest distance from houses on this part of the path.  Thirty or so running steps from habitation, I stood looking into the dark little river and defying the ghost of my childhood fears.  It showed me nothing, and I began to walk again after a few seconds.  It was cold and damp, after all.

The view opened up again on both sides.  A neat row of attached brick houses to the right, and across the river some clearer hints of grander dwellings beyond the foliage.  Perfectly pleasant scenes to either side, including a family up to some kind of innocent high-jinks in their living room, pursued under the Dutch policy of not drawing blinds.  One day, I hoped, I’d know the joy of living room tag with my own children.  A late marriage, a wife intent upon her own career… but no reason not to hope.

The happy scene was eclipsed by another tree, and I looked back to the river.  The shrubs over there gave way to a flat-topped grassy bank.  On that side, well ahead of me, stood a man.

He was looking out over the river, feet only slightly apart, arms by his sides.  I could not make out what he was wearing, let alone any features, as he was no more than an outline against the greyness of the mist.  It seemed he had his collar up, as would make sense on a night like this.  He also seemed tall, in keeping with the local norms.  I realized, as I walked on, that he was turned to look directly at me.  In the spirit of the young fellow in the car, I raised my hand and waved.

No response at all.  I continued along, arm up, feeling increasingly like a fool.  After a few steps, I lowered my hand and tried not to think ill of the man.  What really put me out was his complete immobility.  If he was going to ignore the gesture, he could at least have the courtesy to stop staring at me.

But stare he did.  I slowed.  It was ludicrous, with at least ten meters of water between us, to have a tingle of fear beginning in my gut.  He was just a guy, like me, out on a slightly moist night… except I was going somewhere.  He was doing nothing but standing there, hands not even in his pockets, not sneaking a smoke away from some watchful loved one, not pausing in a walk of his own to respond to a phone call.  His face was invisible to me, but I became convinced that cold grey eyes were scrutinizing me, judging my existence, and that a harsh line of a mouth was twisting in a grimace of amusement at the plans for me formulating in that head.  The tingle spread into my limbs and neck, pushing the happy mild drunkenness aside as it came.  I was as ready to fight or flee as nature could make me.

I began to review my choices.  I could stop here, stand facing that inscrutable figure until one of us had too much of being uncomfortably clammy.   There was also turning around, going back the way I had come, but that held the prospect of not being able to watch him and re-entering the only true darkness I had so far encountered.  If I got to the mouth of that shadowed space and found him stepping off the bridge to stand across the bike path, I had no idea how to handle the situation.

I could also just walk on, secure in the protection of the river’s breadth.  Doing so would bring me closer to another row of houses, too, and that made it the best option.  I set about pursuing it, although my strides remained short and my pace slow.  I tried not to return the man’s stare, keeping my eyes upon the path directly in front of me, but the path pointed almost directly at him.  He stood there, obscure in the mist and unfocused in my peripheral vision, as active as a rock, as menacing as a gibbet.

I glanced, as I passed close to an intersection, at the sign on the lamp-post.  Boiemeerlaan went south, almost parallel to my path, but the street running away from the river was not identified.  The association of running away from the river was attractive, and I could see a lot of traffic on a cross-street a couple of blocks away.  But they were long blocks, and my rational element kept harping on the wide moat between me and the man.  That element was anxious not to change the plan now that I could not consult my phone for an updated map.  If I were to leave the path, it would be to go along Boeimeerlaan.

Even as I was thinking this, I passed the little side-path connecting to the corner.  My non-rational parts became alarmed at not being able to see the man any more, and I turned my head, scanning the apartment block along Boeimeerlaan through a grove of widely-spaced trees, noting how many of the windows were lit.  Then my gaze fell upon the man again, as close to me as he could be at his place on the far bank, still unmoved.  If he was going to stare at me, I decided, I would return the favour.

A statue.  Of course.  No one would have stood so still for so long.  I chuckled at the foolish relief that surged through me.   I had forgotten the way the Dutch went in for strange public art.  The point of a statue of a man standing on a river bank eluded me, but a lot of modern art went well over my head.  It might also make more sense by daylight.  It would almost certainly not be such an object of inscrutable menace.  I said, loud enough to carry across the river, “You scared the crap out of me!”  I had no idea how to say that in Dutch, but presumed that effigies in the Netherlands were as polyglot as everyone else seemed to be.

In the way of statues, he declined to answer.  I didn’t take it as a personal reflection.  I discovered that the buzz of my beer was creeping back, and my humour improved.  I had been a kid in an unfamiliar basement for a few minutes, the sort of sensation one tried to recapture by going to horror movies.  I had gotten it as a no-charge addition to a generally pleasant vacation; what a lucky man I was!

I sauntered along, trying to decide if I’d tell my wife about this when I next called her.  She’d see the joke, and we were a couple who, rather than embroiling ourselves in a constant struggle for some sort of supremacy, shared their self-imposed idiocies.  However, without some hand-waving and possibly a diagram, I thought she might be more concerned than amused and decided to leave the story until I got home.

A small island had been brought up on my left by my progress.  In a moment, it would screen me from the statue.  I seemed to me that it was only just that I bid it a civil farewell, and I turned as I went, waving in the same way I had when greeting it.  A couple of slightly awkward steps of this and it was lost to view behind the island.  I straightened out and resumed a normal pace.

A couple of more steps, and the sense of having missed an important detail came to me.  I tried to concentrate on it, then slowed and tried to think of nothing at all.

It was simple.  I had never seen the figure across the river from any angle but head on, facing directly towards me.  For that to work… it had to have made no less than a quarter-turn from my first spotting it until just now.  A statue could be on a turntable, of course, but that made even less sense than the statue on its own.  I stopped.  The mist became at once finer and more dense, shifting into fog.  A chill passed over me.  I turned back.

The change in the air had made the far bank more obscure.  The place where I had seen the figure was in dim greyness, and I had to stare into the fog trying to make it out.  After some moments, I saw the distinction between the top of the bank and the background trees with almost the clarity of a few minutes earlier.

No figure stood anywhere over there.  I had once caught a mouse in my hand, and it had felt just like the fluttering of my heart.

I put my face toward the hotel.  My earlier efforts to rationalize a man’s presence over there all tumbled back into my imagination, tangling uselessly.  I looked back frequently, knowing each time that I would see nothing but the empty path, bracing each time for something else.

The path brought me to a corner of a street, red brick row houses running almost to the river, and another bridge.  I stopped at its foot and, turning only my head, I looked across.  The opposite side of the river was visible.  There was no one there, just a little guard shack sitting dark and empty under the yellow canopy of a street-lamp.  I felt an urge to go over, to walk back along that bank and find whatever was there to be found.

On such urges, I thought, are new worlds conquered.  By such urges are cemeteries filled.  Head still turned, my feet began moving, not across the bridge but toward the hotel.  I could not summon the will to do otherwise.

Not five minutes later, the path brought me to the busy intersection where Baronielaan crosses broad Graaf Engelbertlaan.  Cars hissed past on the moist pavement and the river disappeared under the road.  I passed around the end of a bench to wait for the crossing signal, and found in glancing over my shoulder that I could not even see the water for a hedge.  Looking back to the signal, I almost fell prey to a trick of my peripheral vision, which insisted that someone was sitting on the empty bench.  The passage of a bus brought me back, somewhat, to reality.  My heart still quivered.  The light changed and I crossed, glad of the change to a sidewalk that took me further from the Mark with every step.

Over the next five minutes, the fog went back to moth-rain and then, as I reached the last major cross-street, it drew itself in and became rain in earnest, the sort of light drizzle which does not tire the clouds and can go on for days.  I paused at the crosswalk over Willem van Oranjelaan to wait for a break in traffic.  I noticed that this street’s name changed here, and from this crossing down to the Mark, now several blocks to the east, it was Duivelsbruglaan.

That was Dutch I could manage.  What folklore, I pondered, could have made such an impression as to leave a devil on the map?

Not so long ago, I could have asked my mother.

Crossing over, my growing chill did nothing to quell my gladness that the hotel was on this side of the street.  The other side was the west flank of the Mastbos, even darker and more lowering in this deepening night than it had been at yesterday’s dusk.  The rain had cleared the air, and I could see in the gaps between the trees a sharp and utter darkness.  I tried not to imagine an equally dark human form standing in each of those gaps, turning slowly to watch me pass.  There was only a small street now between me and mystery.

Jacket wet through, I came into the lobby of the hotel.  I nodded at the greeting of the efficient pink-scrubbed clerk and made my way directly to my room on the middle floor.  In the bright white-tiled bathroom, I lay in the tub trying to warm myself and failing to read an article in a magazine brought from the airport in Toronto.  When the tumbler of gin I had poured was empty and the bath-water was tepid, I got out, intent on calling my wife.

The phone was still in my jacket pocket.  I was unwilling to attach the charger to it until it had dried, so I set it on the desk opposite the foot of the bed.  Moving towards the telephone on the bedside table, I glanced at the window.  The curtains stood open, showing the tops of trees above the frosted decoration on the lower part of the pane.  Peering through a small clear heraldic inclusion on the frosting, I could see down into a patio, onto the street beyond, and further to the little parking lot used by those who wandered the woods by day.

I tried, not knowing if I sought to succeed, to make out any people in my line of sight, any hint of a human form, man or woman, standing alone and immobile in the cold damp night.  A car went past on the road, its headlights spraying the scene and breaking the fascination.

I lay on the bed, suddenly very drunk from what I knew my wife would call the bath-tub gin.  I could not face calling her.  I let sodden sleep rise up around me, accepting the hangover that would follow if only I could put the walk aside as a dream, and let it vanish from memory as dreams do.  With this hope the final conscious thought in my head, I slept in my mother’s hometown for the last time.

“A Stroll in Breda” ©2016 Dirck de Lint