The End of Everything – a short story from The Netherlands.

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In June 2010 I arrived in The Netherlands with the notion of finally ‘settling down’. Young, in love and still just a little wet behind the ears, my girl and I had all the typical rat race dreams: Get the jobs so we could save money. Save money so we could get the house. Get the house so we could have kids. Have kids so we could be a happy family, a regular functioning cog in this big old machine we call society. What could possibly go wrong?

S moved out of our apartment sometime in early July 2013, leaving me with our cats CJ & Charlie and a home full of memories. Each evening, when I returned home from work, I existed only in a fuzzy stupor as I tried to come to terms with what was happening. I spent a great deal of time working my way through the towering pile of movies stacked up in the living room. I also re-watched The Wire, just for the hell of it. I took long baths, overate, under-exercised, over-analyzed and underslept.

Nights were particularly difficult. Unable to sleep, I’d sit playing with the cats for hours or simply stare at the ceiling as my mind trudged uselessly through the events of our relationship, from our early days in Belgium right through to our travels around China and our eventual arrival in Amsterdam. I listened to a fuck load of new music. I’d always wanted to collect Marvin Gaye, so I bought a whole bunch of his stuff and binged on it.

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The Voice – a short story from The Netherlands.

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In June 2010 I arrived in The Netherlands with the notion of finally ‘settling down’. Young, in love and still just a little wet behind the ears, my girl and I had all the typical rat race dreams: Get the jobs so we could save money. Save money so we could get the house. Get the house so we could have kids. Have kids so we could be a happy family, a regular functioning cog in this big old machine we call society. What could possibly go wrong?

Leighton: Welcome to your weekly dose of Films & Stars!!! Coming up this week… Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis don’t exactly see eye to eye …

Robert Downey Jr: I despise who you are on a cellular level!!!

Leighton: Charlie Sheen definitely has no issues with acrophobia!…

Charlie Sheen: I just wanna get high!

Leighton: …and Daniel Radcliffe claims to have nothing in common with his character Harry Potter!

Daniel Radcliffe:  I think I’m allergic to magic!

Leighton: But first… sit down, buckle up and hold on tight for this week’s movie news!

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Celebrations and Recriminations – a short story from The Netherlands.

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In June 2010 I arrived in The Netherlands with the notion of finally ‘settling down’. Young, in love and still just a little wet behind the ears, my girl and I had all the typical rat race dreams: Get the jobs so we could save money. Save money so we could get the house. Get the house so we could have kids. Have kids so we could be a happy family, a regular functioning cog in this big old machine we call society. What could possibly go wrong?

“Leighton… you are on de computer again, your eyes will become like squares!” said Papa S with a patronizing chuckle. Looking up briefly from my CV, I shot him a polite smile through gritted teeth and tried to keep my reply as cheerful as possible. “Yes, I’m looking for a job… remember?”

I knew life with Mama and Papa S was going to be challenging; I hadn’t been under any illusions. But with no jobs, no place to live and just a modest pot of joint savings to draw from, S and I had to bite the bullet and accept their kind offer of letting us stay until we got on our feet.  

Nevertheless, I’d spectacularly underestimated just how testing life at the S house would be. I found myself chastised on a daily basis for my many failings. Mama S was into etiquette, if that’s even a thing to be into, so I got pulled up at the dinner table for a misplaced elbow, or an offending knife that I’d set in the wrong position (knives have to face towards one’s plate apparently). One time I was told to remove a tissue that I’d rested by my soup bowl, while my shoes/sweater/teacup had invariably been put in the wrong place and needed an emergency relocation.

My crappy Dutch meanwhile was always an issue. With minimal English on offer (they could, but mostly wouldn’t), I either misinterpreted the general flow of the subject or made such a mess of my own contribution to the point of all-out confusion. Not that a sudden injection of linguistic ability would have made all the difference. More often than not I had no interest in what was going on with Auntie Boring, nor did I need any hot details on Uncle Inconsequential’s new leather sofa. Anything directed purely at me was mere small talk: the weather, my static job search, household practicalities like if I needed to use the bathroom I better do it now because… zzzzzz.

It’s not that they hadn’t been welcoming. Meal times were always a culinary treat and my hosts were forever asking me if I was ok and whether there was anything I needed. But somehow this just managed to make me more anxious. Especially as such questions were usually accompanied by a searching, narrow-eyed look from Mama S, who still didn’t know what to make of me five years after I’d started dating her daughter. 

———————–

The sleepy town of Goirle – Brabant – The Netherlands.

S Headquarters was located in a quiet, Edward Scissorhands-esque suburban road in the sleepy town of Goirle, a fifteen-minute drive from the city of Tilburg in Holland’s Brabant region. With no friends in the area and little on offer in the way of entertainment, it took about a week for an acute sense of claustrophobia to set in.

It was a sunny June morning and I was on de computer again applying for jobs I didn’t give a shit about. Desperately trying to get something… anything that could move S and I out into a place of our own. “Leighton, can you stand up a moment please!” Papa S was hovering over me again and I could see he was in one of his restless moods. He’d been pacing up and down the living room looking for something to keep him occupied and now he’d finally found it.

Scooping my laptop up into my hands, I rose as per his request, looking on in quiet disbelief as he proceeded to pull the armchair I’d been sitting in an inch away from the wall. “You can sit back down” he said, adjusting his spectacles, “The chair should not be against the wall”.  

“Leighton, you have changed the settings on my computer!” he huffed some time later, his cheeks rapidly reddening. I groaned to myself, wishing I’d never gone up to his study, cursing my luck that I’d needed to use his scanner for one of my job applications. Of course I hadn’t done anything to his computer; the poor old guy just didn’t have a clue how to use it. He knew as much about IT as an eagle knows about macroeconomics, but my proclamations of innocence fell on deaf ears.

A few hours later tensions reached boiling point in the kitchen after lunch. It was my turn to do the washing up and Papa S had taken it upon himself to micromanage me. “The water is not hot enough,” he said, flicking the red tap as far to the right as it would go. “It’s fine,” I said, pushing it back a little, the temperature beginning to physically burn my hands. But he just swished it right again, telling me that if the water didn’t get hot enough the plates wouldn’t be clean. I was reaching the end of my tether and suddenly found myself walking out of the kitchen with a sardonic chuckle. And then Papa S was rushing after me. “Leighton, I don’t like it that you are laughing at me! This is very rude and…” Instinctively I quickened my pace and strode through the living room into the hallway. Grabbing my coat, I headed out the front door, ducked into the garage, grabbed one of the S family bicycles and pedaled off into the warm afternoon.

———————–

I’d been cycling without purpose for about fifteen minutes when I stumbled upon an amazing little residential street decked out in orange flags, posters and streamers. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was well into its final stages and the Dutch national football team had reached the semi-finals. With all the drama of washing-up-gate still bubbling in my head I’d completely forgotten that the big match against Uruguay was taking place that night!  

Orange Street, Goirle.

Orange Street, Goirle.

Dismounting my bike, I walked down the road to take a closer look. The locals had really gone to town, with all the houses covered in Orange netting. “Hup hup Holland!” cried one massive banner, while another warned the South Africans to “Watch out, the Dutch Lions are coming!” Strolling down the street, I caught sight of a balding, middle-aged man watering his plants in the front garden. He was wearing a Dutch football shirt from the 70s with Cruyff emblazoned on the back in chunky black letters. Glancing up, he saw me passing and shot me an aggressive fist pump. He certainly wouldn’t be missing tonight’s game and I instantly decided that neither would I. In fact, a party atmosphere was just what the doctor ordered. All I had to do now was convince S to head into Tilburg to catch the game in Pub Street.

———————– 

S couldn’t have cared less about football, but she was passionately patriotic and therefore happy enough to head into the city to enjoy the festivities. With England long ago knocked out and having performed so miserably, I’d decided to throw all my support behind my adopted homeland and even bought myself a Dutch jersey.

An uncomfortable silence wedged itself between us on the bus into Tilburg. She’d heard her father’s skewed version of the day’s events and it seemed there wasn’t much I could say to shake off my appointment as the villain of the piece. “I hope tonight is gonna relax you” she said dully, gazing out the window.

Tilburg was an amazing sight that evening. Everyone was dressed in orange from head to toe, while you could hardly take a step without knocking into a bicycle. They were chained to fences and squashed up together against trees. Others were resting against the backs of the tables and chairs that lined the pavement, a few even strewn across the ground, seemingly abandoned by their drunken owners.

Pub Street in Tilburg during the build up to Holland vs Uruguay – July the 6th, 2010.

And then there was the game itself, an almighty glass-shattering roar penetrating the entire city as Arjen Robben’s bullet header gave the Oranje a 3-1 lead that would eventually be enough to secure a place in the World Cup final.

Everyone around me was so jubilant… so proud… so damn drunk. There was hugging, cheering, kissing, beer glasses smashing to the floor and loud guttural Dutch dialogue rattling through the airwaves from all directions. But as much as I was enjoying myself, this unified jubilation only served to remind me how anxious I was feeling about everything. Was I going to get a job soon? Would I be able to settle in this country? Were S and I really gonna live happily ever after? “Let’s head back,” she said, tugging on my arm. And so we left the delirious masses to their celebrations, setting off back to Goirle where recriminations lay in wait.

———————–

The atmosphere over the next days was awful. Papa S wasn’t really talking to me, Mama S wasn’t talking to Papa S for some reason and I’d become so withdrawn I wasn’t talking to anybody. And then, to cap it all off, Mama slipped in the garden, cut her knee and called an emergency family meeting where I was pretty much hung out to dry. “This happened because of you!!” she spat, the beginning of a lengthy tirade that painted me as the houseguest from hell. I was so angry I made the mistake of shouting back at her. Poor old S, completely caught in the middle, began crying on the sofa. 

Hiding away in the tiny little upstairs bedroom we shared, I knew I’d fucked up by letting my frustration get the better of me. Now I was gonna have to repair this, for the sake of S if nothing else. At a complete loss as to what I should do, I began scouring the job sites for the umpteenth time that day. It had only been an hour since I’d last looked; I wasn’t expecting to see anything. And then it caught my eye… a position so ridiculously up my street I initially thought it might be a joke advert of some sort.

Writer/Editor/Voiceover needed for media production company in Amsterdam North. Applicant must speak excellent English and be passionate about movies/have strong knowledge of all things Hollywood.

Wow! I remember thinking. While on the face of it I seemed to tick all the boxes, surely this was a job I had no chance of getting. Right!? I sat there for a minute or two chewing it over. I mean, what exactly did I have to lose? Without even consciously making a decision I began tinkering with my CV, digging up an old movie review from my archives, constructing a lengthy cover letter. An hour or so later I was ready, my finger hovering nervously over the mouse. Checking everything one last time for good measure, I returned to my Hotmail screen, took a deep breath and pressed send.

This short story was taken from my collection Notes From The Netherlands.

For more on my years in Amsterdam, check out my Top 5 photo articles on EYE Film Museum, The Heineken Experience, Queen’s Day and my choice spots from across the city.

 

My 5: Gorp en Roovert Forest, The Netherlands.

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1. Gorp En Roovert Forest, December 2010. It’s a tough gig celebrating Christmas in the south east of China. No mince pies for me this year, zero turkey, a complete absence of crackers and Quality Street. And so it’s easy to find myself reflecting on Christmases of the past, especially when deciding on this year’s Leighton Literature post. After a little deliberation I plumped for the beautiful Gorp en Roovert Forest in Brabant Province. 

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My 5: Beekse Bergen Safari Park, The Netherlands.

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1. Beekse Bergen Safari Park, October 2012. Anyone looking for an African style safari park experience probably wouldn’t think of The Netherlands! And yet Beekse Bergen, located in the municipality of Hilvarenbeek in Brabant Province, offers just that with the simultaneously enticing/dubious tagline “Sleep among the animals!”

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My 5: Queen’s Day, Amsterdam.

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1. Queen’s Day, April 2011. Some say you haven’t truly experienced Amsterdam until you’ve seen it in the incredible carnival mode of Queen’s/King’s Day. Right enough, the entire city is transformed beyond recognition every April as hordes of patriotic Nederlanders take to the streets, pubs and canals to celebrate the life and times of their glorious monarch.

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My 5: The Heineken Experience, Amsterdam.

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1. The Heineken Experience, October 2010. You can’t miss the imposing form of the old Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam. Plonked on a narrow stretch of pavement on Stadhouderskade at one of the city centre’s busiest crossroads; the building dates back to 1867 and functioned as the original brewery until 1988 when a larger more modern facility was constructed on the outskirts of the city.  

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