It has to be spring in Haarlem. And we know one thing for certain; there will be the smell of rain in the dirt between the cobblestones.
'When are you going to write a book about me?' You ask, rising slowly from the sofa. Your scent mixes with the wet, cut-grass lingering in through the window.
I giggle at myself and you giggle too.
'When am I not?' I reply. I can feel you coming closer to my desk, even though I'm trying not to pay you any attention. You place your hands on my shoulders as your toenails touch the back of my heels ever so lightly.
'What's this one about?' you ask. It's possible to read the screen over my shoulder with your cheek to mine but that will not do you any good. The page remains blank.
I don't know why, but I start to type.
Nothing is said by you as you walk back to the sofa.
After a while, I turn to look up but you're gone. The living room's empty except for me and the lingering scent of your perfume.
I write with no destination, editing as I go, finding the story and characters with each new word I type, delete, and repeat. Sometimes I can see my characters outside the corner of my eye, but they're half-formed beings, ethereal on the page and in my mind. When I turn around, they vanish.
I am trying to ignore the smell of tea and toast coming from the kitchen this morning.
You have been here for about ten minutes... perhaps a bit longer but not much longer. It feels like you've always been with me. When you got here, you saw me write while sitting on a pile of large red books which rest against the bedroom wall, keeping silent, not wanting to disturb me. But I knew you were there. Staying in the background is not your style. Even if you're not speaking, you're demanding attention. It is in the little things that you do, the way you play with your hair, the certainty of yourself in the mirror, the control you exert over any space; you just need to be noticed. And I notice you.
'Can you not just give me one day? One day, alone, to write,' I say as I walk into the kitchen. I am not really complaining. You are cooking in a blue dress, bare feet against the unfinished wood floor.
'It is Haarlem in the spring out there. Did you not notice?' You say to me, not looking up from the toaster.
I know it's Haarlem in the spring. The smell of the rain still lingers on the street there. Haarlem does not smell like the rest of Holland; you informed me. You tell me, 'I could smell the stars at night, the very first time we dined not far from the Grote Kerk ... We didn't eat much that night, though, did we?' you add, reading my thoughts as you do.
'Are you the one who sticks this morning?'
Now you look up. You smile to yourself and demand that I smile too. 'It isn't as annoying for me since it is for you.'
'I think you should go to Haarlem today,' you say, concentrating once again on your wants. 'You don’t know when the window will open to see it again.'
'You want me out of your life that bad?' I joke, but I'm a little hurt.
Around the streets of Haarlem lived a guy who carted tulips with his fiets tracking the dirt between the cobblestones...
You are hovering over my shoulder, reading out loud whatever I have written.
'Can you find him in your thoughts?' You ask, excited as I tap away at words .
He was not an old man but he had an old soul; a soul worn out of feeling too heavy-hearted over the years. Every day he would sell a bouquet or two, and the bouquet or two would please a few more hearts. But that was not the flower merchant's most important thought tugging the back of his head. Greater things occupied the space. Each moment he would pray for a glimpse of the girl he grew his flowers for...
'When are you planning to write a book about me?' I look up at your face and you're smiling. 'Tell me about him?' You ask; walking back and collapsing on the sofa.
'He enjoys the company of this one woman, right? And...'
'I know that. It is you. Naturally, he's in love with the girl. Tell me something different, something new. Tell me why he is different from the characters in your other books.'
I take a minute to think.
'He is sick,' I eventually spit out.
'Is that so, darling? Tell me more.' You reply.
'Itś just a story. I really don't understand the plot. Not yet, but his clothes are too big for him, he moves too recklessly for a man of his delicate framework.'
I start typing again.
The doctors have given him four weeks to live, and his life had come and gone quick. But even as he sat in the rain, he kept his eyes on his flowers, and as always, on the lookout for her.
The schedule does not open for Haarlem for the next three weeks. Too busy working, I distract myself with other tasks while I wait patiently. On the days I am out, I spend the evenings in an old kroeg listening to the locals. Most of them speak English although not frequently as languages are not necessarily needed here, and good manners were clear in any language once the music kicked on. The place is too close for many to sleep soundly nearby. On nights turning to days in the summer months, life opens to Maxim where I enjoy the bohemian lifestyle my editor begs me to nurture for my professional image. Not that it matters anyway, nobody cares there. That being why it's the only place where I'm willing to enjoy the circus show these days.
On most evenings, I close the door straight home from work after a quick stop to Albert Heijn. To kill time around the flat, I read a novel from one of many piles piled up against the walls, or listen to music while scribbling down notes in old journals no one will ever see. With each new city I've seen, I've overlooked the rural north a little more. I miss the smells.
'Imagine if your flower guy is trying to develop the ideal flower for his love?' You say, moving around the room and hanging your head out the window. Again, your perfume mixes with the odour of the space; a heavy scent of the spring flowers and the canal nearby. You're controlling distances, space and time once again as you always do.
'That's why he doesn't leave. It isn't that he doesn't want to, but it is like ... like it is his life's sole intent to develop this one perfect flower for the woman he loves, and until then, he can not do anything but keep trying. Energising his love for her through his passion.'
'What does this perfect flower look like?' I ask you.
'A tulip,' you answer with a longing in your voice. 'It would be a rare blue tulip. Naturally, they are not supposed to exist.' Then you add with a wicked grin on your face just for me and attempt an awkward wink, 'When this is my story, it will be just that.'
We sit and talk about nothing for the rest of the day with our legs crossed over the coffee table. You are at your playful best and I am trying not to notice that your eyes don't always smile whenever your lips do. When it starts to get cold, I shut the window as soon as it gets dim and draw the curtains; turning off the lamp while you rest.
Haarlem train station is much more than I remember. There are far more people than I remember catching connections at this hour of the evening.
'This way,' you say, waving your arm out at me by the stairs with a “This way Stupid :P” sign you made on the train with a marker and back of a concert flyer.
'Restaurant Mr. & Mrs. is this way,' I assert, heading off in the opposite direction once we exit.
'I know that.' And you keep going anyway, not looking back, dodging fiets, crossing multiple bus lines, twirling around the misty road lamps while the wind teases your hair.
'Where are we going then?' I ask; running to catch up with you and hooking your arm. But you don't reply and instead run your finger across your lips; sealing them with a smile.
The night air is damp. We do not pass many people but the ones we do cross have their heads high wearing dark suits and elegant dresses. There is a concert near the Grote Kerk this evening. Haarlem is the kind of city that looks as if the Dutch masters only had one way it could have possibly been painted it, and with that, they mentally monopolised that vision from the grave. You can observe the dazzle from the artist's eye in the street lights reflecting off the canals. Even the air smells like an aged artist's palette... and of you.
You are telling me you visited Haarlem once before we met. You were younger, and can't quite remember how young precisely but it was back when your father wrapped his arm around you and took you on Sunday adventures. The entire time, you jumped between the cobblestones as if they were lily pads, dragging him along with you. Each time you landed a step, you would turn to him and giggle and he would giggle back. You told me your story a dozen times, each time like it was the first time telling it.
Your father took you to find an artist that he had heard of. He lived in an apartment above a kroeg where they played music three times a day on the weekends; the concert would begin when the sun had set and continued till early in the morning. Up the stairs and through the attic shook with each musical wave, and you closed your eyes. You held your father's hands as tight as you could.
He hurried you into the room, hugging your shoulders lightly as you keep your eyes tightly shut. You prepared to brace yourself in case you dropped from the heavy vibrations surrounding the space you´d entered, but instead, you ended up looking at the most beautiful thing you had ever seen; across the insides of the sloped roof, somebody had recreated vivid image of the nighttime sky on the wall. In certain places the paint was soft, whites and blacks and blues all combined together, layer upon layer on top of each other. In other places, the paint was thinner, where tiles on the roof outside had cracked along with the rainwater that had seeped through. Sometimes weeds would grow up from the floor in the corners. Here, the night didn't seem to die. The artist told you he had found it like this; the attic was a sacred spot for writers, photographers and painters years ago. This is where they gathered, where they lived when nowhere else would have them, paying for their lodging by maintaining creative peace and blazing late nights lost in music.
Then he given you a brush. There was no paint on it, you told me. He'd just picked it from a glass of grey water and it dribbled down your hands leaving stars and comets down your forearm. The artist did not have to say anything; along with your father, he just giggled and you giggled back.
We step out of your story and we're on the cobblestone streets; our Haarlem is similar to yours of the past. It looks like it hasn't rained since I was last here, but the smell remains distinguishable from the dirt that remains.
'Let's go find him,' you say.
But I don't move.
'What if I can't find him?' I say. 'What if he is not there or if he won't speak to me; not the person I remember. What if -- '
In one swift motion unknown to gravity, you take my hand, you lean close to me, so close that our bodies are almost touching, so close, you lean in and pull me towards you, and away we go.
In front of you is the misty night sky, just as I imagine you would opt to paint.
Around the streets of Haarlem, lived a guy who fell for a girl. With his fiets, he carried tulips from his dirt through the cobblestone streets...
I let the words play in my mind; let them dance and leap between the cobblestones as we walked. I encourage the words to find their own way through the canals and our adventure; bouncing into blank pages along our blazed trail.
'This must be it,' you say.
We have been walking for what barely feels a minute, but there's orange blending in with the blues of the sky; so morning can't be far away. Ahead of me, I can see flowers of all colour sprouting from a side street hidden by a stack of fiets. The very same ones that grabbed my attention when I was last visiting. It's quieter today. There is a couple of cats prowling near a boat on the canal; a few docks away, there's a concert coming to an end.
'His place is around here somewhere,' I say, letting go of your hand.
'Can I pick one? Only one? Please' You ask, but I am already walking in front of you, stepping carefully so I don't damage any of the unattended bloom. On either side of me, the alley grows thinner, windows gradually funnel us down the plush garden and back towards another canal with a small fence covered in Christmas lights.
'Is that it? Over there?'
I stop at the street lamp, but you are pointing past me to a door farther down covered in vines. Tendrils of green and brown have wrapped themselves around the brickwork instead of smooth cement neighbouring it. The flowers in the garden grow denser as I get nearer to the house.
I pause when in front of the door. My knee is weak from all the walking. I can feel you close behind me, so close that your cheek is almost touching mine. You put your hand on my arm.
I smile to myself; in my mind, you are smiling with your eyes.
And I push aside the vines and open the door.
He is there in front of me; the flower merchant, upright in his chair. His fiets has been brought inside and rests by the door; ready to be wheeled out again the next day with his baskets. All around the room, there is a countless array of foliage; flowers of every colour but one.
There are giant cracks in the roof and through it, we could see a few stars. It's the last remaining area of the night sky this evening, and it's looking right down at us.
He's right there in front of me but he's not moving. His body is really small and looks so frail. I shut the door in the event the wind catches his presence, and he drifts away with particles of pollen. What's most surprising is that the room has no odour to it; it doesn't even smell of your perfume.
'I'm sorry,' you say kneeling next to him kissing his cheek, but I don't know if you're saying it to him or to me. However, while your eyes are on the flower merchant, mine are on what's dropped to the ground by his feet.
There lies a perfect blue tulip.
'You told me it would be ready!' my editor sighs over the video chat. The windows are open wide this morning but I can smell only your scent lingering.
'It will be. Only... not yet.'
'Give him more time,' you shout from the sofa.
'One more week... And another thing, you're going to owe me for this, love. Big time! I hope you understand that I'll have you signing novels in the markt with half a dozen colourful scarfs around your neck in the middle of February if you muck me about.'
'Thank you,' I say, but she ended the video call before being able to thank her again for the extra days.
'You won't be done in a week,' you tell me.
I stand up from my desk, playing with my cup of tea and toast, shutting the window, moving towards you but slightly pause, then collapse onto the sofa alongside you. 'I don't know how it ends,' I acknowledge in a whisper. 'All of it... It can't end like that. It shouldn't.'
I am looking up at the ceiling. It is dark; the only light we've got is the computer screen and the lamp in the corner of the room.
I am looking up at the ceiling and also, regardless of the cracks in the walls where rainwater has been dripping in from outdoors, it looks like our Haarlem sky. Even though it looks less like a wall; it is similar to our sky each new year.
You throw your legs on the old wood floor and jump up on top of the sofa. Your toes move like you're playing a symphony.
'Let me read it' From anyone else, it would have been a question. Not you.
I sit quietly while you read; my palms unable to keep still. When you are finished, you do not say anything... maybe not straight away.
'He abandoned the dying tulip behind to wait for her.' You are quoting me, repeating my words and they sound so much better coming from you. 'And there, in his eternal wait, its stem browned and leaves left wilting for time, but he sat always patiently waited for a glimpse of the girl he loved.'
'What do you think of it?' I inquire squeezing my knee.
You walk over to the window and run your finger along the petals of the tulip that currently lives on the windowsill; the bulb a identical shade of blue as the dress you are wearing this morning.
'When are you going to write a book about me?' you ask.
I giggle at myself and you giggle too.