“Hello? This is Hendrik. You are expecting this call from me, I think.”
You take the wind out of your own sails, somewhat, when you tell someone that they have been expecting you. It’s like rolling out your own red carpet. Imagine if I did that to you! If I told you that you were expecting this blog post! Even though you WERE expecting this blog post! Weren’t you! Weren’t you! Weren’t you?
I have no fucking idea who Hendrik is, by the way. The only call I’m expecting is from the bike shop, where my London Wanker Hybrid Hipster Twat bike is being serviced, so that I can get to people who I hope are expecting me faster.
“That was quick! I say, in English, because Hendrik is speaking English and I’m on a noisy street and I hate talking on the phone and lastly – crucially – I can’t speak Dutch. “Shall I come now?”
“For the bike?”
“What bike? I am Hendrik. Hendrik.”
“Oh, Hendrik!” I will pretend I know what is happening for a while. If it’s a tactic that’s good enough for the President of the United States, then it’s good enough for me.
“So you want these lessons, I suppose?” says Hendrik, before descending into the kind of phlegmy cough that only the very young and the very old can accommodate without self-consciousness. So: Hendrik is old. And he wants to give me lessons. Aha! I have it! Hendrik is my Dutch blind date. I have been paired up with him by a voluntary service in Amsterdam to improve my Dutch. I am surprised that he is speaking English, because I was told very firmly that I shouldn’t expect any English to be spoken by my allocated buddy. It is informal, said the interviewer. They are not teachers. They just want to chat. Meet in mutually convenient places. Do not give your home address. Pay for your own coffee, and they will pay for theirs. After your first meeting you can both assess your suitability.
Hendrik recovers – he lives! – and says: “Where shall we meet?”
I say, “Errrr.”
Hendrik says: “What is your address?”
I give him my full home address.
Hendrik says: “I will come tomorrow at ten, and we will find some coffee, and we will take it from there.”
“Great!” I should have specified woman at the interview. “See you tomorrow!”
Hendrik says: “Yes. Goodbye.”
Exclamation marks never work on those who seem to need them most.
Now it’s tomorrow. The doorbell rings at one minute to ten.
“It is Hendrik here,” says a hoarse voice, in English, over the intercom. “You are expecting me, I think. I shall wait down here.”
This time, I have been expecting him. I have spent some time this morning imagining how this will play out, which has involved a lengthy conversation with myself – in Dutch – in the mirror. I’ve also decided who will play us in the inevitable film, which is, I think, a normal thing to do; Timothy West (of course) will play Hendrik, and Janine from The Handmaid’s Tale – the one with only one eye – will play me. Although she will have two eyes when she plays me. I don’t have anything against one-eyed people; it’s just that I have two eyes, and in real life that actress also has two eyes. I imagine that two-eyed Janine will have a great deal of chemistry with Timothy West. Probably, on set, they’ll really hit it off, and an unlikely friendship will develop. They might make a film about it. Which was, of course, my idea, but that’s actors for you. The bastards.
Hendrik is indeed old. He is also: tall, red-eyed, long-faced, and incredulous at the state of the trees on my road.
“You should be very worried,” he says, waving around at the trees. He still speaks in English. “They are unkempt, too successful. A threat to themselves, and to the houses.”
He tells me about what he believes to be the wilful ignorance of the municipality on the subject.
“They do nothing! I would be worried if I lived on this street. I would be writing letters every day!”
Perhaps he was an arborist in his youth. Maybe trees are his passion.
“The bark falls off sometimes,” I say, trying to engage him. “Why is that?”
He shrugs. “No idea.”
He strides down the road, and I follow.
We head to a quiet café. I need to be able to hear him clearly, on the remote off-chance that we speak some Dutch. We approach the crossing on which I was once pulled over by a policeman for jaywalking. The man is red, but Hendrik pulls me across.
“You will not survive if you wait in Amsterdam.”
“I was fined here once,” I say, struggling to keep up. “For crossing on red. By the police,” I add, for gravity.
“Ha! The police!” He says, mostly to himself.
We take a seat in the café, order our drinks, and Hendrik finally speaks Dutch for the first time.
“Do you own your house then?”
“No,” I rush, self-consciously. “We have a landlady who nice is.”
“WE. HAVE. A. LANDLADY. WHO. IS. NICE.” He says loudly. People turn to look at us. He turns to English again. “Lots of Dutch people are very cruel to foreigners who are learning Dutch. They think they are being nice, pretending that what you say is good. But it is cruel! I will not do that to you! I will tell you every mistake! So you don’t sound uneducated! Now, can I see a photo of your husband?”
I show him a picture of My Lawyer (“Okay, he seems fine.”), and then the kids (Pointing at the four year old: “This guy I like!”). I ask him if he has children, and he says no.
“I have a girlfriend,” he says flatly. “It is fine.”
It is clear, now, which way the film is going; Timothy West, so keen to create a perfect linguist in two-eyed Janine, discovers there is something that two-eyed Janine can teach him too: how to be part of a family. It would end with Timothy West at the Christmas table, one or more kids on his knee, his teary eyes reflecting the blue flames that dance from the Christmas pudding. He would thank two-eyed Janine for accepting such a curmudgeonly old man, and two-eyed Janine would reply that it is a privilege; that Timothy West had changed all of their lives; and then probably some shit about her dead dad. All subtitled, of course; the Dutch at this point of the film would be incredib-
“HOW MUCH IS YOUR RENT?” asks Hendrik. In English.
An hour passes. Hendrik tells me about the forthcoming end of the world.
“I look outside in the mornings,” he says, “and sometimes I expect to see nothing. I think to myself, will it all still be working today? Will anyone be out there? Will the trams be still, will all the lights be off? Because climate change is done! Probably you don’t want to hear it, as you have three children. But it’s really too late, if you ask me.”
The mention of my children causes me to reach for my phone to check the time; as we are not yet in the grip of apocalyptic meltdown, I should probably continue to collect them from school on time. Hendrik sees me looking at my phone.
“Do you not want to talk about this?” he asks.
“No, I really do!” I say, “but I do need to get my children from school. Today is a half-day.”
We stand up. He is almost a foot taller than me.
“I will buy these coffees,” he says, “and you can buy them next week. We are meant to tell the organisation how our meeting was, but,’ – here he puts a hand firmly on my shoulder, as if I am his young boy apprentice – “I don’t think that’s necessary! I expect we will get on well!”
I discover later that real-life two-eyed Janine is only twenty-six; unlikely to relish the role of a nearly forty year old mother of three. I decide, instead, to cast Olivia Coleman as me; British, closer to my age, more likeable. Olivia Coleman also has two eyes, just like me. Perhaps Olivia Coleman and I would become friends during the creative process. Perhaps we’d have some sort of revelatory adventure. Perhaps we’d make a film about it.