Strike Out Where Not Applicable

BOOK: Strike Out Where Not Applicable
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Nicolas Freeling

Strike Out Where Not Applicable

Contents

Strike Out Where Not Applicable

A Note on the Author

Strike Out Where Not Applicable

Between the two ancient towns of Haarlem and Leiden is a strip of ground that is famous throughout the whole world. Practically every stranger arriving for the first time in the Netherlands looks about him – before he is well over the frontier – and asks, ‘Where are the bulb fields?' Tulips will grow anywhere, naturally, but this strip, barely fifty kilometres long and not much over ten deep, is a phenomenon – it was sea till about a hundred years ago. William of Orange, in the seventeenth century, raised the siege of Leiden by sea, and Schiphol Airport stands below sea level in what is still marked on maps as the Haarlem Lake. On the seaward side of the bulb fields, and their only protection, a belt of sand-dunes slopes to the broad North Sea beaches. An engineer famous in Dutch history – his highly appropriate name was Leeghwater, which means The Emptier (I hope that he was born under the sign of Aquarius but that might be too good) – used hundreds of windmills to pump the water out, and groups of them can still be seen down in the south of the waterland, near Dordrecht. Farther north, around the bulb fields themselves, one or two have been kept as brightly painted souvenirs. It is the sand from the dunes that has mixed with the polder to make the tulip-soil.

Nothing to look at. Flat, like all of Holland. Drained by ditches running into canals – like all of Holland. A few trees, a few cows, fields looking like any ordinary mixed-farming country. The visitor, gazing eagerly out of the window, from the railway line or the Amsterdam-Hague motorway, draws his head in with a sense of grievance. Is that really all?

Yes, that is all. Even during the few weeks in the spring when the fields are in flower it is a boring sight, and the most attractive manifestation is the chain of daffodil heads the motorist is given to sling on his radiator, and the pretty girls in folk costume handing out bits of cheese on the streets of Haarlem. The fields themselves? Patches of bright crude colour. Instead of being green they are
red, yellow, or blue. Gay, certainly. But the violent colours (apposite, in tune with the countryside, in the other famous flower fields of Europe) seem here to swear at the cloudy greys and smoky blues of the pale and chilly lowlands sky. There is something intrusive, almost coarse: inappropriate and jarring.

Would a similar effect be produced by the baring of violent and highly coloured emotions in the people who live here – the pale and placid people of Holland?

One of the best ways to see the countryside is to take the autobus of the North Holland Tramways Company, which is a very Dutch conveyance. A blunt modern singledecker, painted pale grey, with automatic doors and no conductor. You get in at the front, and the driver gives you your ticket and your change in the minuscule neat Dutch coinage from a little desk by his steering wheel, with careful leisure. Inside it is all grey plastic and chrome steel, and you are of course forbidden to smoke. You progress slowly, in silence, with dignity. The quiet orderliness is uncanny: if anybody wishes to make conversation he does so in a hushed whisper, and every now and then in the churchy stillness someone reaches up and presses a button, a little red light goes on, and the driver slows at the next crossroads and bends to the microphone at his left. ‘Heemstede.' It comes out in a dry rustle through the loudspeakers. A fattish pale woman gets out and a fattish pale man gets in, his tiny nickel ‘dubbeltjes' and ‘kwartjes' ready in a pale hand. The doors close with a sigh, immuring one again in the bus smell after the welcome breath of green moisture, and one trundles on again.

‘Sassenheim.' One after another of the dreary villages between Haarlem and Leiden. The centre, if there is any centre, of the bulb country is called Lisse. It is just the same as the others but you get out with a sigh of relief to be released at last from that floating coffin, that atomic submarine, and the smell, never really clean but never, never dirty.

Walls white; painted, plastered, roughcast. Metal window-frames painted grey. Huge windows washed and polished every day. Nothing dirty or tumbledown, nothing disorderly, vexatious, or offensive. The world is neat, prim, and unspeakably tidied. A butcher with a great spread of glass and marble: stainless-steel trays with a little piece of beef, a little piece of veal, a little piece of pork; pale fattish sausage and a big heap of mince. The apothecary – a pestle and mortar, flanked by discreet bottles of cough mixture
and patent laxative. The druggist – a camera film and a flask of Boldoot eau-de-cologne. Albert Heijn, the chain grocer, with his neat packets of dried beans and margarine to Make You, says his slogan, the Life Cheaper. A kind of greenhouse has a massive title engraved in a slab that says ‘Netherlands Reformed School for Lower Instruction'. Next door a pocket-edition power-station that is the Netherlands Reformed Church. Next to a poster saying ‘Your Paint Comes From Potter' is another telling you to ‘Vote List No. 5 – the Christian Historical Union'.

It is nine o'clock in the morning and all the housewives are chasing dustflecks. The men have gone to factories and offices (no difference can be told, either in the men or the buildings, by looking at them; dark satanic mills are a great rarity in Holland). The bulb industry does not take up much labour: a few husky gardeners in corduroys carrying strawforks, a few pale men in grey suits and white shirts, with diplomas from the Higher Technical School for Horticulture, and some thin little girls wrapping up parcels in moisture-proof paper and typing address labels to Seattle and Yokohama. In the short growing season local women will be enlisted to clip the flower heads and sort the clean, shiny brown-and-white bulbs that look so good to eat but aren't, as the Dutch discovered in the hunger winter of 1944.

Near Lisse there is a country house that once belonged to a Dutch queen. Its park has been turned into a landscaped garden which is a showcase for the bulb industry. There are mossy banks and little streams with golden carp in them, crossed by rustic wooden bridges. There is a tearoom in a windmill, a restaurant, and several glasshouses where you may see precious new breeds of tulip too delicate and experimental to bed out in the neatly raked borders. The trees have been kept; the lawns are mowed. It resembles a golfcourse – a tulip course! It is worth seeing, and attracts very many visitors.

Not far from this park is a building that catches the eye. An old farmhouse with small leaded-pane windows and a thatched roof, the Dutch kind of reed instead of straw. It is painted white, and outside hangs a wrought-iron sign such as one sees in the Tyrol. One can make out a prancing quadruped, and if one spells out (laboriously) the Gothic lettering it says, just as it does by the Wolfgang See, ‘Im Weissn Rössl'. It is plainly a restaurant. The Germans, and a great many Germans visit the bulb fields, love it,
and the White Horse does an excellent business, which is not undeserved, because Bernhard, the owner, is good at his job and his food is eatable. In fact, when Michelin brought out a Benelux guide the Cheval Blanc in Lisse was one of the few establishments the inspector felt able to recommend, and this was a great feather in Bernhard's large hat.

Inside the White Horse at nine in the morning it was very quiet. The front door leads straight into the restaurant, which has panelled walls and a floor of large smooth flagstones which are an attraction but take a lot of warming in winter. Wooden benches are built against the walls, and chairs stand on tables because Gretel is scrubbing: Gretel is one of the two ‘girls'. Towards the back is a bar, with a fat copper pot of flowers standing on it, and an espresso machine. At the side of this bar is a lower table which makes a cash desk, and beside this table is a door through to cloakroom and lavatory. Behind the bar is a hatch through to the kitchen. The walls are decorated with old prints and bric-à-brac of the sort hunted up in fleamarkets to give a now-as-ever-shall-be look to restaurants – brass lanterns, hunting horns and antique pistols.

Opposite the cash desk, on the far side of the cloakroom door, is a table under a huge tank of tropical fish. This is Bernhard's special corner table, where favoured customers come to have drinks, where the butcher comes to haggle about beef, and where he himself sits all day – or would, if his wife did not drive him out for exercise.

Besides Gretel doing the floor there were two other women there. Marguerite, Bernhard's wife, was sitting behind the cash desk finishing the accounts of the day before. Saskia, standing with a cigarette in her mouth and a soft yellowish duster in her hand, was rubbing up the polish on the copper flower-vase, which was full of flowering sprays, because it was April. She went out every afternoon for a walk and came back with fresh branches. Flowers for the tables she got from the growers, extremely cheap. Plastic flowers are not among Dutch vices.

‘Gone nine yet?' asked Marguerite. She was wearing a gold wrist-watch, an Omega at that, which certainly kept good time. Was it winding it, or just looking at it, that she found too much trouble?

‘Five past I make it. Say seven.' Saskia's watch was an old-fashioned silver one worn on an expanding bracelet. She pushed it up her arm, as she often did, and rubbed the line of pink indentations. Her arm was thin, brown, wiry, with little flecks of a deeper brown and a shimmer of fine hairs blonder than her faded, beginning-to-grey head.

‘I'll just slip over to the bank. Time Benno got up – I'll call him.'

The safe with yesterday's takings was in her bedroom. She pushed the bills together, snapped an elastic around them, slid them in an envelope and wrote yesterday's date and day of the week. Tuesday, April 13th, it went in her flowery decorative handwriting. Lunch covers sixty-five, dinner covers twenty-one. Weather cloudy all day but no rain. Thermometer at midday eleven degrees.

‘Iron my blouse, will you, Sas? Not the one with the little flowers – the fern pattern. I'm going into Haarlem – no point in your coming; I'm not doing any real shopping. Those glasses we ordered – the round wine glasses, remember? – they haven't come yet?'

‘They'll come by Van Gend and Loos. You never see his lorry before eleven.'

‘Well, if they don't come today remind me to ring up and complain. Have you got a fresh jacket for Benno? – he spilt coffee down his last night, the beast. Well, I'm off.'

She picked up her handbag, a large shiny affair with a gold clasp, hitched automatically at her girdle, pulled the jacket of her suit down a bit, and examined herself in the large glass that stood behind the bar. This glass was to keep an eye on customers when one's back was turned to them; it was handy in many ways. It showed her a healthy sturdy reflection, with ash-blonde hair cut fairly short and set every week in Leiden, big white teeth, and the high rosy complexion that is so Dutch. At forty-five Marguerite had a large firm mouth, small shrewd electric-blue eyes, and the beginnings of a double chin. Her figure was solid, with a splendid bosom, a tummy well disciplined, and a powerful behind. Her legs were a trifle heavy but long and well shaped, and she was vain of her hands and feet, which were thick, and the fingers obstinately pink, but small and very taken care of. She wore black patent-leather shoes that matched her bag, with very high heels. She did not bother with gloves to go to the bank, nor a coat – it was five
minutes by car to the village and the sun was shining this morning, watery but optimistic.

Saskia's eyes followed her out, then took a good sharp look to be sure that Gretel, in an apron over her overall, was doing the floor properly. She breathed on the copper, rubbed it dry, put it down satisfied, slipped the duster in the drawer with ‘reserved' cards and a spare corkscrew, and pulled off her rubber gloves, which she dropped in the little sink behind the bar where glasses were washed. She gave her hair a pat, her green jersey a pat, her darker green skirt a pat – though none of these things was the least out of place – and sauntered towards the door. Marguerite, in her shiny cream Fiat thirteen hundred, was just driving off; she glanced back and waved and Saskia waved back. Brr, there was a chilly wind; she shut the window that had been opened to air the restaurant. Antje, the other girl, could be heard clattering on the stairs. Saskia stepped into the doorway leading to the back and glanced up. Bernhard, puffing, was coming down the stairs; he patted Antje on the behind as he passed her and her dustpan and Saskia stepped back quickly. Antje, whose turn it was upstairs this morning, picked up the Vim tin and headed for the bathroom.

BOOK: Strike Out Where Not Applicable
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