When Alice and her old friend Kelvin stepped off the train at Amsterdam’s main station, a gust of wind swept up a mix of paper and dust, forcing them to turn their heads and cover their eyes.
She said, ‘I told you there was a risk of getting swallowed up. But what a wonderful risk, eh?’
‘I think you’ll find they call that a bad omen, Alice.’
Kelvin’s friends had tried to warn him that Amsterdam wasn’t exactly the ideal destination for someone tortured by years of impotence. Punishment, temptation and degrading were some of the words that came to their lips. He wouldn’t have minded betting, though, that one or two of them had already seen the famous lights and animated window displays.
The Amsterdam sun was on full beam; probably keeping indoors those who prefer to roam the streets in darkness, he thought. Tiger-coloured butterflies appeared beside them, making him wonder how creatures so fragile are able to survive the noise and pollution. Alice leaned into him and purred, touching his elbow in a motherly way. ‘Isn’t it just something, Kelvin? To think this has been here all this time and you didn’t know about it.’
She’d pestered him with the idea of a trip for weeks. The perfect summer break, she’d said, before starting her voluntary job at the library. He’d never been to the Netherlands, and the train specials did seem rather too good to refuse. Besides, what other plan did he have for the summer? She'd squealed with delight when he finally said yes.
‘Amsterdam the lovely, Amsterdam the depressed,’ she said. She pointed out some unpleasant-looking men sitting together on a grass verge, drinking from wine bottles, with two or three dogs lying beside them. ‘They were probably such cute babies in their prams at one stage. Just imagine that. How terrible for the mothers to watch their babies grow into that.’
Alice was the sensible woman he knew he should’ve courted and married years earlier. Her no-nonsense bob was now grey, and her square face looser, but she hadn’t lost that caring aura. He could’ve so easily avoided all the complicated mysteries surrounding love and sex that life eventually threw up. People often asked why the two of them had never attempted some kind of fusion, what with their shared interests and their tendency to hover around the edge of social groups.
They walked in silence for 15 minutes, glad not to have packed too much in their small suitcases. They crossed over small bridges, deeper into quiet suburbia, where pretty canals keep the cutest of Dutch homes afloat. Having studied a guide of the city on the train, Kelvin knew they were not too far away from the red light district. The air seemed to smell of chemicals, but he wondered if it might’ve just been his imagination.
Before long they reached the house that Alice had unsuccessfully tried to describe. It was a mix of stucco, red brick and splendid dark wood, woven together as beautifully as a tapestry. The building was round, like a fat lighthouse, sandwiched in between more conventional structures. The whole thing appeared to slant to one side.
‘Hasn’t changed since I used to come here as a little girl.’ She stepped back out onto the road to get a better view, putting her head to one side. ‘My dream home. Where I’d love to spend my dying days.’
‘Don’t be so morbid, Alice! Anyway, who said you’re going to have the luxury of dying at home?’
She explained how she’d been invited to make use of the house by some friends of the family, away on a ‘six-month jaunt’ across Asia. The key didn’t turn in the lock at first, but when she gave the door a swift kick at the base everything worked as normal. ‘They told me that would be necessary, just in case you’re wondering if I have a habit of kicking in doors.’
The walls were graced with about half a dozen drawings that featured exaggerated genitals. One of the frames, on closer inspection, bore the title ‘Unashamed Nakedness’. Perfect for Amsterdam, he thought. There was no headroom and no space for nervy arms that wanted to swing and exercise.
She said, ‘I’m going to try to see my niece while I’m here.’
He stepped back into the hallway so she could see his look of surprise.
‘You didn’t know I had a niece living here?’
‘If you’d told me I would’ve known.’
‘Oops,’ she said. She held her suitcase up in front of her and mounted the stairs. ‘I can manage, thank you.’
‘Oh, sorry. I’m just ...’
‘Surprised. I know.’
He was even more surprised three minutes later when Alice came back down the stairs and announced that she wanted to go and see her niece straight away, even before he had a chance to find out where he would be sleeping, and whether the house had a small terrace at the back that looked out over a canal.
Her voice was shaky and her cheeks had turned red. ‘She went astray. A few years ago. Making a lot of cash, apparently.’
He hadn’t left the hallway. He stood by a small cabinet and pretended to look at some shells and pieces of bark on display.
‘I’m not sure if I’m being very clear,’ she said. ‘I find it hard to talk about.’
He looked up and nodded. He had an inkling of what she was getting at, but he was worried that his mind had raced ahead and reached an outrageous conclusion. ‘You mean astray, as in ... the red lights?’
‘Yes. Absolutely. That’s what I mean.’
She sighed and folded her arms. ‘You were the only one I could tell. No one else would’ve been able to come with me.’
‘How awful for your sister.’
‘It’s been awful for all of us. Sorry to have gotten you over here under false pretences.’
When Alice painted a picture of her niece, Kelvin imagined a young woman the size of a cracker, flaunting her red bones in front of the curious and the serious. He’d been right of course, except she was neither the size of a cracker nor that young.
They stood in front of a spotless window, which seemed oddly close to a Chinese restaurant, and watched Alice’s niece fill a bucket with water. He guessed she was probably in her mid 30s. The likeness between niece and aunt was incredible, though he dared not say anything. He could see Alice’s neck had gone red and her shoulders had bunched up.
Lara turned and danced up to him. She wore a black velvet dress, which he thought looked very Al Caponish. She poked out her tongue and licked the glass, indicating with girly, lap-dancing enthusiasm that she wanted him to pay her attention. She obviously hadn’t yet spotted the anxious face of Alice.
He felt uncomfortable watching Lara’s tongue make circles around the glass, and looked over at Alice to offer her an expression of solidarity. She didn’t look his way, though. She’d become crisp with shock. When Lara’s lingering tongue had finished, her hand took over the teasing, stroking her crotch.
Alice banged on the door with frightening force.
‘Aunty!’ Her tongue was now not so lingering. The expression of seduction switched into one of utter surprise. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’
There was something pitiful in Lara’s voice. Her sass had gone. Her shoulders fell awkwardly. Her feet turned inwards.
Alice said, ‘Please, Lara. Let me take you home.’
‘I’m on ‘til four. You’ll have to come back.’ Her inflated brown eyes didn’t blink or turn away.
He didn’t mean to, in the utterly tragic circumstances, but he couldn’t help but notice the wonderful generosity of Lara’s breasts, half exposed, creamy and soft. He looked away.
‘What?’ Alice’s mouth dropped open.
‘I can’t just go off when I like! I have to work until four.’
Kelvin thought she had a wonderful way of moving.
‘I can’t believe you’re here again,’ said Alice, her voice breaking slightly. ‘You promised us you were making an effort ... and you were finished with Cedric.’
‘Well, Cedric’s gone. And I am trying!’
Kelvin took in the smoothness of Lara’s skin, although he did wonder whether he was being duped by the effect of the lights. He was fascinated by the hook-and-loop closures that ran down the side of her dress. Her imagined there might be a pistol tucked in behind a strap somewhere.
Alice openly sobbed, her hands up around her face. ‘So this is what you do when you’re trying? You’ve got to let me help you, Lara. Can’t you see what harm you’re doing?’
Lara raised her head, her snow-white hair spiked up with gel, like candyfloss under the lights. She gave that look that drag queens make when they’re about to unleash an insult. She walked back to get the bucket and started cleaning what looked like a massage table in the corner of the room, refusing to answer Alice’s tearful attempts to get her back to the glass. ‘Come back at four if you want. You’re bad for business!’
After a strident walk back to the house, with not a word uttered, Alice and Kelvin sat on the stairs in the hallway, underneath a charcoal sketch of a woman sitting naked on a camel. She wept loudly and hugged her knees. He could do nothing but sit and try to listen to phrases he couldn’t understand. Dribbles and tears made her words frustratingly inaudible. She told the story of a stroppy niece and her life before the job in the window. ‘She always felt like she was totally unloved, no matter how many hugs we tried to smother her with.’
Kelvin thought the word ‘smother’ might’ve been the key to it. He tried to be a good listener. He nodded. He didn’t say anything. He almost took Alice’s hand. He felt enormous pity for her, and for Lara. He wished there was something he could do.
‘She says she likes to feel the touch of a stranger. Likes to feel a hand touching her in intimate places, kind of like a fantasy. She assures me she never actually does it ... just lets them touch. Helped pay for her boyfriend’s drug habit, but she also says it’s the thrill of someone taking off her clothes.’
He felt embarrassed to hear Alice talk like that. They’d never had such a frank conversation before. He pictured Lara lying naked on her massage table, mesmerised by soft Chinese music and paper lanterns with twirling lights inside, and being touched by some happily married man with dry hands.
‘Does your sister know?’
‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘That would kill her. Absolutely kill her.’
He thought back to that night when he was 18, when he still had the frailty and uncertainty of an eleven-year-old, and his father had taken him to London and dropped him off in a dark street behind a brewery. His father had told him that lots of nice girls would want to talk to him and he shouldn’t be afraid to give them money if they asked for it. Kelvin, puzzled and frightened, slowly figured out what he was supposed to be doing. As he stood there in the dark, letting himself be hopelessly groped, he realised that the woman who’d taken his money was actually a young man wearing a wig. He wondered what his father would say about the cold, masculine hand in his trousers. After a long drive home in silence, with Kelvin too angry to cry, he sat at the kitchen table and decided to tell his mother about what had happened. He made no effort to soften the words. She stared straight ahead, for what seemed like five minutes, and then cried. His father breathed heavily and spread his hands over his face. That night was the first time he’d ever seen his mother hit his father.
A defeated-looking Alice stood up and said she needed to sleep. She said she had no energy to return to see her niece that afternoon and wondered if Kelvin would mind popping back to pass on a message. All the filth of the world seemed to be weighing her down. ‘I’ll go to where she lives in the morning. I’m not going to talk to her in that seedy place.’
‘It’s wonderful what you’re trying to do, Alice.’
‘Sometimes I wonder why I bother. But I don’t want to have any regrets in this life, you know?’ She let her head fall back and then stretched her shoulders upwards, causing the shape of her breasts under her thin blouse to suddenly stand out.
He hadn’t really noticed how beautiful she still was, despite the passing of the years. With her tears and heartfelt dialogue about her niece, she seemed to emit something extraordinary. He watched her close her eyes and sigh deeply, and he knew that some more profound feeling for her had manifested. He imagined that years ago he must’ve seen the outline of her breasts. He imagined, though, that in the midst of all his own anxiety and tension, they might just as well have been elbows or feet jutting out. He said, ‘You look tired. You really shouldn’t let this get you down.’
‘Yes, I need to recharge.’ She went over to a small table and began to write a note, using a pen and paper she found there.
Kelvin walked over and saw it was elegant paper with roses printed on the bottom of the page. ‘Is that scented as well?’ He laughed.
‘Yes, it is. What’s so funny?’
‘No, tell me!’
‘It’s just a bit strange, that’s all. Roses and perfume in this kind of situation.’
‘I don’t see your point.’
She dropped the pen and looked at him blank-faced. ‘Please tell me what I’m missing.’
‘It’s just something you can’t explain. You either know what I’m talking about or you don’t.’
‘You’re strange,’ she said. She picked up the pen and carried on writing.
‘No, it’s OK. I think it’ll probably work. It’ll probably be exactly what’s needed.’
‘I’m really lost here, Kelvin.’
‘Really, it’s nothing.’
‘If you’re lucky, I’ll make up a bed for you on the sofa.’ She walked up the stairs. ‘Take the key with you. I really do appreciate you doing this.’
He said goodnight and then took a quick look in the living room where he’d be sleeping. The room was very overcrowded with antiques, and at one end he noticed carpet went halfway up the wall. In amongst some very old European pieces – vases, china, dolls - there were modern, raw-looking objects. One carving showed a warrior with a huge penis sticking out from behind his shield; further along the mantelpiece there was a po-faced Victorian doll and a statue of what looked like a town crier decked out in splendid gold.
As he closed the door behind him, he felt tired and depressed. He continued on down the street, though, deciding that if he breathed in deeply enough the city would empower him with its passion and energy.
It took only five minutes to find that seedy place that Alice didn’t want to see again, where the softness of the red could make anybody’s skin seem silky and inviting. He passed on the perfumed message through a gap in the door, his fingers suddenly fat and grubby, the veins swollen under his grey skin.
‘Good evening,’ she said. ‘I thought you’d come back.’
‘You have desperate written all over your face.’ She winked.
He had to concentrate so as not to stammer. ‘It’s just to give you this message from your Aunt Alice.’
‘Yeah, right.’ She laughed and sat down.
The street stunk of human piss and kebabs, which is why it was so appealing to catch a whiff of what seemed to be red berries wafting out from the shop. He stood in the doorway and tried to decide whether he should risk going in. He smiled at the insanity of it.
‘I don’t bite,’ she said, swinging a leg.
‘I’m not here for any other reason except to give you that message, and to tell you how worried your aunty is about you.’
‘And who are you?’
‘Pull the curtain Kelvin, or they’ll think I’m available. Unless you don’t have time for a chat.’
‘I wouldn’t dare suggest anything else.’
They settled down on chairs across from each other. Kelvin folded his legs and tried to look concerned. He couldn’t help but imagine what she might be like with a client, allowing them to touch her soft terrain, where perfect valleys rose up to magnificent peaks. He reminded himself that she was someone’s baby girl.
She kept staring at him, like the all-knowing.
‘What do you mean I look desperate,’ he asked, clearing his throat.
‘I get to know the faces.’
‘That’s a very personal thing, and you don’t know me. I don’t like to judge but ... ’
‘I know. No one likes to judge what we do. Don’t worry about it. Forget I said anything.’
He was annoyed with himself that he’d agreed to sit down. He didn’t want to be there. ‘Alice is very worried about you.’
‘I know she is.’ She stood up to rearrange her dress, grappling with the hoops and loops, which seemed to be the only things stopping the dress from falling to the floor. ‘You have a problem with sex. That much I can tell.’ She kept tugging on the top of her dress.
‘You don’t know me.’
‘I know enough about you from one look at you.’
‘That’s very interesting.’ His face flushed and he wanted to get up to leave. He almost believed that she had the power to see that he hadn’t had sex for a long time, that there was a problem with his lower region. ‘They do it then?’
‘Do it?’ She looked confused.
Her eyes weren’t the simple brown he saw before. There were many different shades in there: flecks of yellow, green and marble grey. Small, broken veins were everywhere, like a tiny spider had been crawling around trying to lay a web of glass. ‘I mean, do they go the whole way?’ He coughed to cover his embarrassment.
‘That’s what I’m here for.’ She dropped her head back and looked up at the ceiling. ‘For old men like you.’
Kelvin opened his eyes wide. ‘Old men like me? Thank you very much.’
‘Well, they’re hardly ever young and good-looking, are they?’
‘Thanks for the compliment.’
‘No, it’s just that Alice is under the impression you never actually let them .... that you only ever allow touching.’
‘Oh, I just told her that to stop her worrying. This whole thing’s caused her enough drama, let alone tell her that some men actually do get the three-course meal.’
He checked to make sure that the curtain Lara had pulled around the bed was still in place and that no one was able to see them from the street.
‘You’re a funny man, with your bald head and round cheeks.’ She went up close to his face. ‘Nice to make your acquaintance. Are you going out with screwed-up Alice?’
‘No, we’re old friends. And she thinks it’s you who’s screwed-up.’
Behind a screen, in the corner of the room, was a packet of what looked like chocolate biscuits and a large bottle of Fanta. There was also a pile of books, the titles of which he couldn’t see. He imagined her sitting there during her breaks, reading and making a mess with her crumbs, not at all looking sexy or glamorous.
She said, ‘We’re all screwed-up though, aren’t we? I mean, when I wasn’t working here, I was having sex with men I didn’t like anyway, trying to have fun, sleeping with men because that’s the way things always ended up. Why not get paid for it? Why not get something out of it?’
He wondered if her hair was real blonde or fake. There were no signs of dark roots, as far as he could see. ‘Have you ever had a boyfriend?’
‘Yes, but they were all losers. Just looking for women to replace their mothers. I always wanted someone romantic, but he never came along.’ She searched the wall in front of her.
‘Alice is quite worried about you ... and so are your parents.’
‘They don’t really care. They just don’t want me doing this because it’s not a good look for the rest of the family. It challenges all of their values. They tried to sort me out with a job in a bakery, owned by one of their good Christian friends. Got me a nice little flat, bought me some sweet little dresses, told everyone I was doing well. It was just to keep me out of the way though, out of sight, so they could tell their friends and old relatives I was doing well. Didn’t last long, though.’
It looked like there were pearls across her head, with the light reflecting off the small clips that kept her hair tight against her scalp. Gel wasn’t enough? He could understand wanting to clip back long flowing hair, but hers had no length to it, already minimal and cropped.
He eventually said, ‘It’s a shame you haven’t found the man you’re after.’ He made some slight movement to indicate he wanted to get up, suddenly conscious of the time and the need to return to Alice. ‘It’s been nice having a chat.’
‘Maybe we could go and get something to eat?’ she asked.
‘I’d love to, but it really is late.’
Just before he left, he took in the view of Lara struggling with her dress again. He felt a surge of grief in his stomach. He realised he might just be in a place of profound truth. He wished he’d had the courage to talk to her about his problem, the desperateness that she so perceptively managed to see in his face. ‘Promise me you’ll meet up with Alice. She really means well.’
She didn’t answer. She just nodded with tiredness and pulled open the curtain. Back in business.
He ventured through the confusing, narrow streets, where the silhouettes of men skirted along in the dark, no doubt fathers and husbands who had to race back to their families, the dull pain in their loins temporarily relieved. The memory of Lara’s face made him feel incredibly sad.
He stopped off at a small food kiosk nearby and ordered a lemon and sugar crêpe. He was served by a plain young woman, whose floral clothes looked as if they’d been chosen by her mother. She took great care in making sure there were no breakages around the edges of the crêpe when she lifted it and placed it on a cardboard tray.
He said, ‘I think it’s marvellous you’re doing this, not tempted by all of this around here.’ He could see she wore no make-up.
‘What did you say?’ She had a severe, clipped accent.
‘I mean, I don’t want to be rude, but many young girls fall into it.’
‘Just take your pancake.’
‘They could probably all find some kind of job like this couldn’t they, something more honest?’
‘Have you ever wondered about doing that?’
‘What are you trying to say, mister?’
‘No, I mean, it’s only money isn’t it.’
‘Good evening, sir.’
‘You’re a good woman. Goodnight.’
He walked briskly back to the slanting house, feeling pity for Alice and the job she had on her hands. He turned the key, but had to give the door a small kick. Luckily it opened without further bother and noise. As he crept down the hallway, trying not to make any more racket, Alice yelled out to ask how things had gone. He thought she must be in a room just by the landing, with the door open. Her voice was strong and clear, indicating she hadn’t been to sleep.
‘No problem.’ He tried to choose his words carefully. ‘I think she’ll be more open about seeing you. We had a chat. I told her you mean well.’
‘Thanks, Kelvin. Let’s just hope she phones.’
‘I’m sure she’ll call. Sleep well.’
He didn’t put any lights on. He just felt his way into the lounge, where Alice had made up a bed on a comfortable-looking sofa. He lay down in his clothes and listened for a while to the house’s low creaking. As he drifted off it seemed the noise was coming out of the drawings on the walls. He dreamed he was nervously introducing Alice to his mother and father when he was younger, telling them how she would make a perfect wife. He was then looking out of a window in a house by the sea. He could suddenly see the transvestite from behind the brewery talking to Alice, revealing the truth about his first experience with naked flesh. His father was then licking Lara’s hands, ignoring an icy glare from his mother.
A few hours later he heard a faint tapping on the door and then watched as the shape of Alice came into the room. ‘I can’t sleep,’ she said.
‘What time is it?’ He tried to find his watch on the floor beside the sofa.
‘I don’t know. Can I lie down with you?’
Kelvin was shocked by the suddenness of it, and the way she asked the question with such ease. ‘Oh.’ He struggled to clear his throat.
‘It’s not to do anything,’ she said firmly. ‘I just need to be with someone strong. Do you mind if I lie down beside you?’
He nodded, half sitting up, not sure whether he should pull back the blanket or let her find her own way. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t actually that strong. He held his breath and waited for their positions to become comfortable. Had she heard about his lack of action down below?
Her warmth was incredible, her breath heavy and slow. She was tentative about how close she got, settling on the gentle touch of a knee behind his leg and her fingers on his shoulder. He stayed turned away from her, concerned that she may have something more exploratory in mind.
There was nothing but talking, though. Warmth and talking, slow breathing, only the smallest amount of movement. They talked about their childhoods, their families, their failed marriages. The absence of a sexual feeling made Kelvin relax. After a few hours he was so elated and energised by the experience that he knew for certain that Alice had become even more special to him. He wanted to turn and touch her face after a while, but he just stayed in his curved position, soothed by the soft, sweet pull of her voice. It came to him that he might just tell her about his old attraction for her. He felt close enough to her at that point that he almost uttered the words. Sleep overtook them, though. Deep, rich and restful.
The next morning they sat in a great waterfall of sunlight in the kitchen, with a view over a pretty canal. Kelvin turned to Alice and wondered how she was going to react when he told her that he’d been pleased to spend the night with her, even if there had been no physical contact. He would tell her about the attraction he felt all of those years earlier, about how he found it hard to understand why they’d never tried to get closer. He would even tell her about his impotence. As soon as he caught her eye again, he would tell her everything.
Suddenly, she said, ‘Sex, and our useless craving for love, have made so many people unhappy.’ Her eyes looked like they stung, the pupils dark and dilated. Strangely, she stirred their cups of coffee with a large pair of scissors.
‘What?’ He looked down at the scissors, stuck on the thought that surely there must be some teaspoons in the house. He couldn’t say anything. The only words he had in his head were no longer possible, no longer a part of anything.
‘No, I’m just starting to think that maybe I should be glad to be alone now,’ she said. ‘This whole love, sex, companionship thing really does leave me cold. It was nice to feel your warmth last night, Kelvin, but the rest of it has left me now. Do you know what I mean?’
‘I’m not sure.’ He couldn’t lift his eyes.
‘I was thinking about Lara, about what she’s doing. I think I was actually shocked by her resolve when I saw her, her total disregard for everything we say. Could it be that we’ll never rescue her, and we should leave her alone now? Could it be that on some level she’s closer to the raw truth about all of that business.’
Kelvin stood up without thinking and had to hold his breath to stop himself from gasping. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A young girl on the other side of the canal threw a large rock into the water, scaring away some swans being fed by some other children.
Alice didn’t seem to notice his reaction. ‘Thank goodness we’re over the hill now. We don’t have to worry about all that nonsense, do we?’
He stood behind her and stared at her bare shoulders. ‘I think I’m going to head off into the city. I really could do with a brisk walk.’
Alice pretended to look hurt. ‘Without me? Without your favourite guide?’
‘You need to be here for when Lara calls.’
She sat back in her chair and looked out over the canal. ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right. For what it’s worth.’
He got up and went to fetch his wallet.
‘Don’t go and get lost on me now, Kelvin. Remember that this city can swallow people alive.’
The phone rang as he headed out the door, but he didn’t stop. The last thing he needed was for Alice to ask him about his tears.
© Copyright, 2008. Seamus Kearney. "Stirring Coffee With Scissors". All rights reserved.