Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Garden of Unreality – 4. The Roe

And there we were. We looked around in wonder and sniffed the wafts of sweet scents which came drifting from the garden. After the stuffy, dark basement the open sky and balmy air felt like a treat.
Li'l sister took my hand and pulled me toward the pond which lay glittering amidst a sea of flowers. It seemed much larger now than we’d ever guessed and at its verge was the roe.

“Li'l roe dear,” li'l sister called. She let go of my hand and went straight for the little fellow, who raised its ears and stood watching her for a moment. Then it made a startled leap and trotted to a patch of shrubs a short distance away.
“Dear li'l roe, please, don’t run away,” li'l sister called anew, “please, stay for me,” and she started to walk from the edge of the pond to where the roe had halted.
Afraid to lose her from sight I fell into a trot, which didn’t fail to upset the roe and put it to flight again. In a few quick bounds it reached the edge of a wood where it paused to look back.

Li'l sister kept quietly approaching, her hands stretched before her in a pleading gesture, but when, almost, she might have touched its muzzle the roe turned away and fled under the trees and she followed in its train.
As fast I could I rushed to where she’d vanished between the tree trunks, but neither of her, nor of the roe there was any trace.
“Li'l sister,” I shouted with all my might, “li'l sister, turn back!” but there was no answer and for all my calling and yelling she never came back.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Garden of Unreality – 3. The Vial

Quickly now, we made for the light. On coming closer we saw sunbeams had no part in it, but candles, huge candles, and in their midst, in front of a stone wall, a woman stood attired in fantastic robes that glittered in the wavering candlelight. She beckoned us and smiled. Li'l sister trailed behind me, but I felt as if enchanted and stepped forward pulling her with me until we came before the woman and looked up to her in awe. She didn’t speak.
“Who are you?” I uttered at last.
Her face brightened and she lifted her arms so as to spread her robes like the wings of a butterfly, the gauzy fabrics fanning wide sparkling in the tricky light.
“I have come, the Mistress of Dreams. I am the way between Darkness and Light."
“Look,” she said and at a gracious sweep of her arm part of the wall behind her receded and through the crack we caught a glimpse of the lustrous garden we had seen from aunt’s bedroom window.
“Do you wish to step outside?”
Li'l sister didn’t answer, but I replied “We do!” and pressed her hand for encouragement.
“Some boys are dreamers,” the Mistress of Dreams mused, “girls not so much. However, any girl will consummate a dream more naturally than the dreamiest of boys.”
I was only half listening, stretching myself to see past her through the narrow opening and to the glorious flowers beyond.

The Mistress of Dreams stepped aside and on impulse we followed, right up to the crack.
“Just proceed,” she said, “and have a pleasant look around; and when you’re satisfied, here, take a sip of this potion. It will bring you back inside” and she showed li'l sister a tiny vial containing a liquid of rainbow colours. It was a pendant on a string and she arranged it around her neck.
“Keep it well,” she added and then she helped us through the opening, one by one, and was gone.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Garden of Unreality – 2. Into Darkness

At first, we played with dolls. We were having tea and made them join us. Then we had a bout of hide-and-seek. We ran up and down the stairs and opened the doors to every room, to aunt’s bedroom, as well. This was a marvellous room. The walls were covered with a deep yellow silk. In a corner stood an elaborate dressing table mounted by a triple mirror in gilt frames. On the wall opposite the double bed hung a man-sized painting of an officer in a fancy uniform and standing between the two sash windows was a pedestal with a lavish bouquet of silk flowers and peacock feathers in a turquoise vase.

It was a room out of a fairy tale and our aunt must have been the good fairy herself. We hardly dared breathe. We slid our hand along the satin bedspread and crossed the light blue expanse of carpet to the nearest window. There we pushed aside the heavy lace curtains and looked down on the garden below. The sun was shining, birds were singing and everywhere bloomed flowers so very pretty and gay. And in the midst of it there was a small pond and at its edge a little roe was drinking.
For a brief spell we stood gazing and then, at once, turned from the window, ran down the stairs and to the back of the house, but where ever we sought, nowhere there a door or window was to be found which opened onto the sunlit garden.
“Maybe the entrance is farther down,” I offered at last, and in the vastness of the house we went in search of a lower staircase. In a nook of the hall was a door that hadn’t occurred to us before and on opening it revealed a dark stairwell from which a musty odour sprang. On the wall was a switch and when I flipped it down below a light came on.

At first, li'l sister durst not proceed, but when I reminded her of the little roe and the floral splendour of the garden she gently followed me down the steps. Once in the basement she took my hand and together we set out for the back of the house where, supposedly, an entrance to the garden was to be found.
The front of the basement was lit by two naked bulbs. Racks with pots and flasks lined the walls and leaning against a pillar stood an old lady’s bycicle. Further up it grew darker and more disorganized, all kinds of discarded things and fabrics lying around in random heaps across the floor covered in dust.
“Let’s go back,” li'l sister whispered, “I’m scared.”
I tried to comfort her. It couldn’t be that much farther and once at the back wall, perhaps we’d see a crack of light from a door or window frame.

And so, in silence, we still moved on until there was only darkness. We kept close to each other holding hands tightly and I was at the point of giving up and turning back when in the gloom ahead a pale shimmer of light seemed to reach out for us.
“There, look!” I cried out of relief, “there’s something over there,” and my voice rang shrill in the surrounding blackness.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Garden of Unreality – 1. The Promise


In the late nineteenth century the city of Amsterdam jumped the bounds of its age-old ramparts and began to encroach the surrounding countryside.
The wealthy denizens of the inner city sought their escape from the daily bustle and reeking canals and built their villas along the southern edge of William’s Park, a newly laid out greening for strolling and horse riding, later to become the Vondelpark.
Within the span of three decades an area of roughly a square mile crisscrossed with ditches and patched with old industries, lumber yards, windmills and vegetable gardens, was transformed into a spacious square with two musea1 and a concert hall2 and a grid of adjacent streets, which was bound to grow into a district called ‘Amsterdam South’.

In one of the earliest streets, Palestrina3 Street4, just behind the concert hall, I lived for several decades. Around the year 2000 it was a century old and one of my neighbours decided it deserved a memorial book, which was published in 2004.
I ran a street blog in those days and in the wake of the book the editor and I kept up a lively exchange of posts on the inhabitants of what seems to be the last house of our little street but, actually, is part of the sidewall of a house around the corner.
Our neighbours enjoyed our ‘investigations’ knowing them full well for wholly imaginary.

In the course of our correspondence I invented a find of a bundle of scruffy papers in the trash in front of this spurious dwelling. Peeling them apart I happened on a tale of an enigmatic disappearance of two children.

Part I – The Promise

We were staying with our aunt in Amsterdam. We were seven and nine then, my little sister and I. One day, aunt had to do some shopping and she told us:
“Li’l brother, li’l sister, come and listen to me. Aunt has to go out this afternoon to fit a new dress. There’ll be a gala, shortly, and she’s nothing apt to wear. You two must stay home, but promise aunt one thing: you shall not leave the house or you may go astray and never be able to find your way back again.”
We sincerely promised her to remain inside and after serving us tea and cookies aunt kissed us both and left, locking the frontdoor on the outside.

1 The National Gallery (1876-1885), in Dutch, ‘Het Rijksmuseum’, and
the Municipal Museum (1891–1895), in Dutch, ‘het Stedelijk Museum’, its new wing a.k.a. ‘the Tub’ (2012).
2 The Concert Building (1883–1888), in Dutch, ‘Het Concertgebouw’.
3 Named after the Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi (c. 1525–1594) from Palestrina, Italy, the ancient Praeneste.
4 The last house on Palestrina Street as seen with Google Street View.