It’s catch-up day! After a birthday and day being sick, I have a little over 3,000 words to write today, so I thought it would be nice to chop it up into two part-episodes to give you readers a bit of a break. So here is part 1 of today’s episode. Catch episode 22-b later!
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The rhinestone keychain clatters against the bike’s frame. Helena stands, one hand on the handlebars, the other on the bike seat, waiting for what she knows is inevitably coming. A door opening, the rustle of someone getting up out of the car. Not this side, the other side. There are two people in the car, and the shotgun is getting out. Walking around the car, coming to a standstill a few metres from where she is. She has not moved, stands staring at the glittering streetlights reflections on the canal’s water, waits for it. Finally, it happens.
“Hello Helena,” a voice sounds through the night.
It is a rich and velvety voice that is used to being heard and respected. And it is certainly not Fred! Helena’s head snaps around. A man is standing there in a long camel coat. His shoes are shining and his pantaloons are neatly ironed with creases like razor sharp cuts running down. His shirt is buttoned up except for the top button, like he would normally wear a tie. His hands are in his pockets and his face is bearing a small smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes except ironically. “Stephan!”
“Long time no see, darling,” he emphasises and cocks his head in the direction that Betty and the crew have just taken. “My love never told me you keep such, ah, colourful company. Did you, Fred?”
Fred can be seen sitting behind the wheel in the faint overhead light in the car. He is staring straight ahead, his eyes narrowing as his husband addresses him but saying nothing.
“What are you doing here?” Helena asks Stephan.
He laughs. “Why, I live here!” He points in the direction of the crow house. “Right over there.”
“You live in the… I mean, you live near Hertogsbos! With Fred!”
“Oh dear. Yes I do. And I also live here.” He winks. “You see, my family has always been kind of rich.” He bows, apologetically. Perhaps you would like to join us at the house for a, ah, nightcap?”
She ignores the invitation. “You… but… Your name is not Craay.”
“No, no it isn’t. My mother married a mister Langdon, you see, and of course she took his name. But her name was most definitely Craay.” He smiles again but his expression has a certain waxen quality, like it is costing him considerable effort to stay patient and not snap at her. “I see you are interested in my family history. Very convenient for someone working in the giftshop of our estate.”
“It is not your estate anymore!” Helena protests. She needs to create time to find a way get out of this. She tries to bring her pulse down and breathes deeply, keeping her voice level. “Your grandfather sold it.”
“Indeed he did,” and there is definitely a hint of annoyance now, “although you may find that part of the deal was in fact a donation, not a sale, and that there were terms attached to the deal. But these are trivial legal matters,” he says with his waxen smile still on his face, “and hardly your concern.”
“Perhaps,” Helena concedes, “but I want to leave now so if you could move the car…”
“Ah,” Stephan says and he takes another step forward, in her direction, “that is unfortunately not what is going to happen, is it?”
Helena stands still. Her hand curls around the back of the bike seat and squeezes it gently. Her palms are sweaty. A small group of young women totters by on impossibly high heels, clearly drunk. One of them bumps into the car and apologises to it, then staggers on.
“Give it to me,” Stephan says in a low voice.
“No.” Helena’s heart is thumping in her chest.
“It belongs to me. It is not yours, it is mine.” His eyes are flashing now, his teeth clenched. “Give it to me!” He takes another step.
“No” she repeats and then pulls the ball of wool out of her pocket and holds it over the cold dark water of the Keizersgracht. “And if you don’t back off I will drop this thing.” She keeps his gaze as he immediately stands still. Then he takes a few steps back and says, in a more normal voice, “Fred, you talk some sense into this stupid woman!”
Fred moves for the first time and unfolds himself out of the vehicle. He looks tired, Helena thinks, and he doesn’t belong here in the city.
“Helena,” Fred starts and he holds out his hand, “please give me the stone. I promise I will…” he casts around “I will give you a good recommendation after your internship.”
Helena laughs. “Really? That is all you can come up with? Something I would have gotten anyway if it weren’t for this… this thing?” She shakes the ball of wool and they hear it rattling even through the protective layer.
“What do you want for it?” Stephan calls from behind Fred.
“I want to get out of here unharmed,” Helena says.
“Of course,” Fred says, “you will…”
“And I want… I want…” she casts around wildly, the two men staring at her and the fist she is dangling over the bridge railings. “I want you to get out of my way!”
And with this she grabs the bike with two hands and lifts it up and over the hood of the car, leaving deep scratches where the pedals touch the metal but not giving a damn. She jumps after it, barely escaping Fred’s clutches, and jumps on the bike as soon as it lands on the cobblestones. Using the slope of the bridge for speed, she is already halfway down the canal when the two men have gotten back in the car.
Biking in the city is very different from the country. Here the pavement is flashing beneath the tyres too but the mind is somewhere else entirely. There is no time and no space to take in the elements, for example. Where in the country you would curse the wind or rain, in the city these things become mere background to the endless stream of other concerns. Pedestrians being one of them, of course, and trams and taxis becoming another; where pedestrians are too mobile and will move unexpectedly, thus requiring a fair amount of anticipation, trams and taxis are only mobile in the sense that they will not budge in any way and will totally disregard your vulnerability as a cyclist. While they will damn all cyclists for getting in their way and weaving in and out of traffic in front of them, it is the people pushing the pedals who are putting their skin, skulls and lives on the line outside on the street. One hit will put a scratch on an Uber, or a reprimand on a tram driver’s record, but it may mean the end of the cyclist. Still the taxis will continue to swipe at them like they are pesky flies, and tram conductors will treat them like pigeons: preferably not to be run over or trod on but ultimately replaceable and not to be pitied if they are.
Helena is lying low over the handlebars of Betty’s bicycle as she flies down the streets in the middle of the night. Sometimes nighttime revellers or taxis block her way but she can handle the bike and flies through them like wasp through a picknick – most of the time with the same kind reception from the people involved. She leaves their protests swiftly behind her, eyes already focused on the next hurdle to take: another car to swerve around, another group of people to scatter, another clutter of bikes to pass around or through. She knows that every hurdle she takes, is also one for her pursuers and a car is not as flexible as her. In the middle of Amsterdam at least she knows that a sharp woman on a bicycle, even if she has had pink cocktails, can outrun a car.
She nearly hits someone coming round the bend near the station, on the bike lane where she turns sharply to enter the parking structure for bikes: three storeys high and floating in the canal. Betty’s bike needs to be secured but there is very little time before the last train home leaves. She needs a space to park the bike! She races up the ramp but all spaces are occupied. On she climbs until she reaches the roof, where there are always some slots open. She is fastening the chain when she sees the man running. He is coming round the same bend, where cars can not come, and approaching the parking structure at high speed. “Fuck!” She rattles the chain to get the key out. And off she flies, taking the stairs two steps at a time, in the direction of the station, towards the crowds of people getting in and out, on their way home or coming to enjoy the nightlife. She nearly crashes into a number of tourists and dodges the ‘Hello welcome to Amsterdam’ guide who tries to admonish her for it. But once she has passed the clueless and busybodies and has run on a few more steps, she hears the same ruckus break out again as someone else also plunges into the same group. He must be hot on her heels, but she has no time to look back. Looking back while running at high speed can never end well. Feet pounding on the tiles inside the station, she flees.
Does the train still go from this platform? It does, it must do. Where is it? It is waiting at the end of the platform, which is a good thing because the whistle is sounding just now. People are running toward the doors that will be closing in a few seconds. They are saying goodbye, exchanging last kisses and promises for next week, next weekend, a phone call, a text. Then they must all enter the train and the ones who are left behind must stand there, waving and then turning around and going down the stairs. Some will smile ruefully at the man in the green jacket who reaches the train just as the doors have closed, who will sprint towards the one door with the railway guard that closes last. But they will watch as the man is denied access, is told to stand back. They will see him thump the side of the train but it will make no difference and he will be forced to watch the train pull out of the station. The onlookers may feel sorry for him. Or they may not care.
BETS: DID YOU MAKE IT?
BETS: WHERE ARE YOU?
BETS: TALK TO ME!
BETS: DID YOU MAKE IT???
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