“How long for?” Susan was sitting opposite Derek, her half-drunk cup of herbal tea in her right hand between lips and saucer.
“They are looking for people to be seconded for one to two months” Derek said.
Susan had first met Derek at the local auction house, he had been a porter for ten years and his knowledge of antiques and decorative items never ceased to amaze her. At Christmas Derek had been Susan’s knight in shining armour, in more ways than one. His head-torch had been a godsend during the carol singing and his care after her tumble would have elicited praise from Florence Nightingale herself. Since then, they had met once a week at lunchtime. You couldn’t call them ‘dates’, Susan insisting on paying for her own tea and sandwich. She looked forward to their lunchtime meetings and her colleagues at the library had noticed she took particular care in her appearance on ‘lunch date days’ as they called them, a gaily patterned scarf, sparkly earrings, a pair of brightly coloured tights. Susan was at pains to stress they were not dates. After all, Derek must be ten years, if not more, younger than her.
“We could meet up in Paris, I’m there for a month or two and it isn’t far on Eurostar.” Derek said.
“I’m going to Amsterdam for a few days next month, I mentioned it last week.” Susan was faintly annoyed Derek had forgotten about her Amsterdam break. They had talked about it, well to be fair she had rabbited on about the galleries and museums. “I can’t just change my plans.”
“Just a thought.” Derek drained his cup, stood up and put his jacket on.
“Lunch next week?” Susan could hear the undertone of pleading in her voice.
“Oh, Paris is so romantic.” Beth said, she was tidying the picture books after Toddler Storytime.
“I keep telling you we are just friends.” Susan countered as she picked up a rather chewed-at-the-corners ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ book.
“I know you do, but he asked you.”
“I think it was more of a suggestion rather than an invitation.”
“Oh, you are just being picky.”
“Well, I’ve booked my Amsterdam trip and that is an end to it.”
Susan had been looking forward to her trip for weeks, researching and planning. She had booked a room in a small family-run hotel overlooking the Singel canal. It was well located, only a few minutes’ walk to Koningsplein where she could pick up a number 2 or 12 tram to the Rijksmuseum. Tempting though it was to make for the ‘Gallery of Honour’ with its Rembrandts and Vermeers, Susan turned right and headed for gallery 2.20 where the dolls’ houses were located. She had read Jessie Burton’s debut novel ‘The Miniaturist’ when it had been first published in 2014. The book had been inspired by Petronella Oortman’s Dolls’ House, a time capsule of 17th century Dutch domestic order. It was not a toy to be played with or damaged, but a statement of Petronella’s status as the wife of a wealthy silk merchant, a carefully curated replica of her house in Amsterdam.
As a child Susan’s father had taken her and her sister Hilary to see Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. This perfect miniature world had fascinated her. The level of detail was phenomenal even to a child’s eyes. She had wished she could shrink like Alice so she could enter the house and explore each room in detail. Her favourite rooms were the kitchen and servant areas, pocket sized plates, pots, mops, even a hand whisk like her mother’s. No detail overlooked. Her most played with toy had been a dolls’ house, a hand-me-down, originally a Christmas present from their grandparents for Hilary, but she had grown out of it. Susan had spent hours rearranging the furniture, putting the rooms in different places, bedrooms downstairs and the kitchen in the attic space. Hilary, always the more practical of the two girls would point out that kitchens in the attic were silly, who wants to carry the shopping up all those stairs? Susan couldn’t help comparing Petronella’s house with Hilary’s tidy modern house. An ordered family home with its new open plan kitchen and garden. A weed free lawn and planned flower borders. Susan thought of Hilary’s home as spacious and elegant in contrast to her cosy and colourful cottage.
Having satisfied her love of miniature worlds, Susan was in need of tea and cake. Refreshed, she returned to the second floor and the ‘Gallery of Honour’, with its Rembrandts and Vermeers. There was a large crowd in front of the ‘Night Watch’ watching the restorers at work in ‘real time’. Susan could admire the level of skill and dedication involved but knew she would never have the patience for the work. But it was the simplicity of the Vermeer’s ‘The Milk Maid’ which held Susan’s attention. Its stillness capturing a mundane moment in time. The fine flow of milk suspended, the light through the window highlighting the young girl’s cap as she concentrates on her task.
A snake of people stretched almost round the Van Gogh museum, but Susan had pre-booked a ticket and could just walk up to the entrance avoiding the queue. She spent several hours wandering from room to room taking in the colours and vibrancy of Van Gogh’s paintings. If money was no object, which one would she like to own, she wondered? Maybe the ‘Irises’, no, on second thoughts, one with blossom trees, an ever reminder of spring. In the shop Susan bought two kaleidoscopes to put in the library toy box and for Hilary, an infuser mug decorated with blossom. Hilary had several blossom trees in her garden and Susan imagined her sitting under one sipping tea doing the crossword or maybe a sudoku. The museum café was crowded but Susan remembered near her hotel a café which served delicious looking waffles.
For the afternoon, she had considered hiring a bike and had even investigated the possibility of hiring a tricycle like she had at home. But several online discussion forums had advised against. The locals were a law unto themselves, they said. Susan had first-hand experience of this, there had been several times near misses with cyclists who seemed to have scant regard for pedestrians. Instead, she decided to take a walk along the canals stopping to admire the trim narrow buildings. She took a photo of some particularly ornate gables on her phone and sent them to Hilary with the message – “Amsterdam interesting, beautiful paintings, comfortable hotel well located, weather good.” She wondered when holiday postcards had morphed into WhatsApp messages. Susan sat on a bench and watched as the sun danced on the water and a family of ducks swam by in convoy. A couple holding hands passed her and nodded a greeting, then resumed their own private conversation, their heads tilted inwards as if keeping the wider world at bay. She found the photo she had taken of the waffle, and sent it with a message to Beth at the library – “Amsterdam isn’t disappointing, seen lots of art, waffles yummy with cream and chocolate sauce, weather ” Beth liked an emoji. Almost immediately the reply came back – “sounds a bit lonely to me” Beth, with the perception of youth which always surprised her, had summed up how Susan felt immediately. There was no one to share her experiences with.
“You are leaving a day early,” the receptionist looked up from her computer screen.
“Yes, I …” to Susan’s relief the phone rang at that moment distracting the receptionist from her enquiry. Susan was not sure what reason she could give for her change of plan. She had not slept well; the room was too hot. So, she opened the window, but then there was a draught and the noise from the street wafted in. Couples laughing, bicycle bells ringing and the gently hypnotic wash of the dark black water in the canal.
Susan picked up her bag and moved it a few inches forward as the queue at the window lost another traveller. She wondered where all the people were travelling. Amsterdam Central Station sent out tentacles across Europe. Through the station concourse beyond the platforms she could see water, the life blood that had given Amsterdam its ‘Golden Age’. Another shuffle forward, only three more people till her turn. She must decide, home or Paris? The invitation had been vague but somehow definite.
Susan stood outside the Gard de Nord, its imposing frontage behind her. It was only then she realised she didn’t have an address for Derek.