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North Sea Eyes

Love is a dangerous emotion, let me tell you. And it always happens when you’re least expecting it. It creeps up on you and jumps on you out of the blue. It grabs you by the throat, shakes you and says, ‘I’m here! You’d better take notice of me!’

I mean, think about it. One minute you’re going along very nicely, thank you. You get up every morning for work and you come home every evening. You make dinner. You watch your favourite TV program on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You go out, you come in. You have a drink on Friday nights. The highlight of your week is lunch out on Sundays. That’s life as you know it. At least you think you’re alive, but then real life comes along and does a little dance in front of you and you realize that you’ve been half dead.

That’s the way it was when I met Ria.

One minute I was just going along like this, bored but kind of OK. Well at least I was healthy. Next thing I knew I was out late at night, freezing to death, doing all kinds of strange things. And it seemed to me that I just had to do them; somehow I didn’t have any choice.

Now I don’t know about you, but there’s a certain pattern to my falling in love. First of all, it always happens in winter, so it’s freezing cold. October, November and December are the usual months, and they’re cold in Holland, really cold. And in The Hague the wind comes off the sea and goes right through you like a knife. Not the kind of weather for hanging around on street corners or in telephone boxes, but that’s always what I end up doing. One day I’m going to bed at nine thirty with a good book, the next I’m out at one o’clock in the morning, knowing that I’m going to be exhausted the next day. Exhausted, but excited. Then comes a cold, or even worse, flu. I’d like to fall in love in summer, but it never happens that way.

Then there’s the poetry. Suddenly I start writing poetry; it just pours out of me. And it’s all deep meaningful stuff that has to be written in the early hours of the morning, usually accompanied by lots of alcohol. So the next day, on top of the cold I already have, I have a hangover from the drink. It’s a miracle that my boss hasn’t sacked me.

And the worst bit is when I realise that there’s probably another man in her life. And of course he’s really good looking and has a sports car and a big bank account.

So everything followed more or less the usual pattern with Ria. First came the cold and the poems. I hadn’t seen the good-looking boyfriend yet, but I had the feeling that it was just a matter of time. There was something about Ria that was different, though. She was different from other girls. First of all there was her job. She was a tram driver.

But let me tell you a little bit about myself, because no doubt you’re wondering what an English guy is doing living in Holland, in The Hague to be exact. Well, my name’s Harry Brent, I’m twenty-nine and I’ve been here for two years. I work for an international import and export company, JGD. They’re based in Manchester but have offices all over Europe. They sent me here to work in their Dutch office. I’ll probably be here for another two or three years. Import and export. Sounds kind of boring, eh? Well, it’s OK really, and Holland is an interesting country. For one thing, you can more or less do what you want here. I mean, it’s very liberal, very tolerant. And although I don’t really do much that’s exciting, if you know what I mean, I like it. I like the atmosphere and just the thought that if I wanted to take all my clothes off in the middle of the street, no one would care. No. No one would even notice.

So, like I say, I live in The Hague. It’s not as beautiful or as exciting as Amsterdam, but it has its advantages. The best thing about it is that it’s near a place called Scheveningen, which is almost unpronounceable but lovely.

It has long soft sandy beaches, which are wonderful for walks. And the sea here, the North Sea, is just beautiful, a soft blue-grey.

I go to the beach a lot. The traffic in The Hague is pretty bad, but it has good public transport. The noisy red trams and their rails are a familiar sight and that’s how I get about. Number one to work, number three to the city centre. And number eleven from my place down to the beach. I live alone in one of those typical tall Dutch houses on a little street between the city centre and the beach. I often go down to the beach after work and at weekends, to walk and relax and look at the sea. Which brings me back to Ria.

I first noticed Ria when I was going to the beach on tram eleven one Sunday afternoon. It was early October and a beautiful cold bright day. The tram suddenly stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere; something was stuck on the rails. It happens a lot, and I didn’t take much notice until I looked out of the window and saw the tram driver removing a small piece of wood. Now, you can get on a tram in Holland without seeing the driver, and that’s exactly what I’d done. But now I saw her, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I’ve never seen a tram driver wear a uniform as well as Ria did. She was tall and slim. And even from a distance I could see that she was beautiful, with long dark hair. Really attractive. She was wearing a skirt, unlike most female tram drivers who usually wear trousers. And she had legs that seemed to go on forever. Yeah, she was different.

But the most amazing thing about Ria was her eyes, which I noticed straight away, and which were the exact colour of the North Sea, a lovely soft blue-grey. And those eyes kind of grabbed me, that’s the only way I can put it, so that I couldn’t think of anything else. I’d been grabbed by the throat.

Well, she got back into the tram and we carried on towards the beach. I moved up the tram so that I could be nearer to her. And I just looked at her all the way to the beach, though I tried not to let her see. I was kind of dazed, as if I’d been hit on the head. I was confused, I don’t mind telling you.

Anyway, the number eleven stops at the beach, on the south side of Scheveningen not too far from the port; it’s the end of the tramline. It waits for ten or fifteen minutes, turns round and goes back to the city. I got out and just sort of hung around for a while, looking at Ria but pretending I wasn’t looking. The idea of going away was scary; I might never see her again. After a few minutes, Ria got out of the tram and talked for a while to another tram driver. That’s when I discovered that she was called Ria, because I heard him shout something to her. It looked like she was going to drive tram eleven back to the city.

I had a little time so I went over to the other side of the road and bought some chips from a little shop near the beach, keeping my eyes on the tram, and Ria, all the time.

Then I walked back slowly to the tram, eating my chips and mayonnaise - I know it’s a strange combination, but I’ve got used to it. I got back on the tram and went back to the city with Ria.

So that was it really. For the next two weeks I spent all of my spare time on trams, especially on tram eleven, hoping that she would be the driver, and that I’d get to see her. I got to love that little red tram; it was kind of comforting. I also spent a lot of time waiting for trams, which is when I got the cold. I got to know her routine, and I managed to see a lot of her one way or another. And at nights I would go home to my house and write poetry.

Anyway, one late afternoon I was waiting for the tram on the platform. It pulled up and, as luck would have it, Ria was driving. I was feeling kind of brave that particular day, and I got on at the front, just so I could really see her. As I got on, she smiled at me and said, ‘goede middag,’ which means, ‘Good afternoon.’ Well, not so unusual you might think, but I knew when she said it that she recognised me.

It was the way her eyes met mine. I don’t remember much about that tram ride, I can tell you! I could feel my face burning red. I was completely overcome with it all. I kept reliving that moment when she had said ‘goede middag for days afterwards.

Well, from then on we said hello to each other quite often. I was working towards asking her out, you know, kind of trying to find the courage. Finally, one Friday evening, I knew I had to go for it. For one thing, it was starting to look very strange, you know, me following her around like that. I didn’t want anyone to think I was some kind of weird guy who follows women - you know, a stalker or something.

So this particular Friday evening I left work at six o’clock as usual. What I needed was a drink, I thought. Otherwise there was no way I could talk to Ria, not really talk, I mean.

The office where I work is near the centre of the city, on a street called Korte Voorhout, so I decided to go to the Dudok. It’s a big new bar just a few minutes’ walk away. A cool kind of place, if you know what I mean. A fashionable place to be seen. I sometimes went there for a quick drink after work, just because it’s near the office.

The Dudok was already crowded; it was a popular spot for an early evening drink, what the Dutch call a borrel. Yeah, it was definitely borrel time. I found a place at the bar and drank a couple of beers quickly. There was a new barman there, a friendly sort of bloke who came over and started chatting. ‘English, eh?’ he asked. Turned out his brother had gone to work in London. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d never been there. I mean, just Heathrow airport. So I just nodded when he mentioned Notting Hill and Chiswick.

‘Lovely part of London, Chiswick,’ he said.

‘Gorgeous,’ I said.

‘Another beer?’

‘Er, I’d better not,’ I said weakly.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘It’s… how do you say it…? On the house.’

Anyway, he was a friendly guy, like I said. He kept coming over to talk to me from time to time, and I kept drinking. I was thinking about what I was going to say to Ria, to be honest, and I wasn’t getting very far. After about an hour, he asked me, ‘So, what are you doing all alone on a Friday evening, Harry?’ By then we were on first-name terms. His was Hans.

Well, I’d had a few beers by then, so I told him about Ria. I told him about tram eleven and the fact that I’d decided to try to get to know her and to ask her out.

Hans smiled at me with big round eyes. ‘Oh, well, good luck, Harry,’ he said. ‘And I hope she doesn’t disappoint you. They say that Dutch women are really strong! You take care of yourself.’

Funny thing to say, I thought. Anyway, I had a few more beers, and before I knew it was eleven o’clock! I felt like I knew London like the back of my hand, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to talk to Ria and ask her out, I told myself. It was time to get on tram eleven. I wasn’t totally drunk, though I must say I’d had enough. I said goodbye to the barman and ran off to catch tram one so that I could get on tram eleven at the Hollands Spoor Station.

On the platform I stood where the front of the tram would stop to make sure that it was Ria driving. The first driver was a man, some big blond guy with a moustache, so I waited for the next. Ah, there she was! She looked as attractive as ever, with those lovely North Sea eyes. I got on at the back of the tram this time. I didn’t want her to see me before I was ready, if you know what I mean. I put my tram ticket in the little machine and sat right at the back. It was late October by now and it was really cold and windy.

As a matter of fact, it’s always windy in The Hague. But the moon was up and it was nice and clear.

I still wasn’t sure how I was going to approach her but, like I said, I had to try. Well, I sat there and sat there and I couldn’t think of a way to talk to her - I mean, say more than ‘Good evening.’ What do you say? ‘Do you come here often?’ I just couldn’t imagine myself asking her, if you know what I mean. Truth is, I’m not very good with women, I suppose.

So, before I knew it, we were at the beach and everybody had to get off. There were about ten people on the tram, mostly people who lived up there, I reckoned, and they all got off and walked away pretty quickly. I got off quickly too so that Ria wouldn’t see me. I went and stood behind the tram shelter, where I could see her but she couldn’t see me. It was obvious from the way that she collected her stuff together that she was going off duty. I tried to think of a way of hanging around for a while and kept my eye on her.

Then, she said something to another tram driver who was going to take the tram back to the city centre and then she set off walking quickly in the direction of the port. I didn’t know what to do, to be honest, seeing her go like that, so I followed her. Oh, I know it looked like I was stalking her, which is exactly what I said I didn’t want to do. But it seemed like my only choice. Like I said, love is a dangerous emotion.

Well, by now the wind was blowing up a storm over the North Sea and the sky was full of huge black clouds. Dutch weather is like that old joke: ‘If you don’t like it, just wait a while and it’ll change.’ The sky reminded me of one of those paintings you see at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, painted by Rembrandt or Vermeer or someone. It wasn’t raining yet, but it was only a matter of time.

I kept quite far behind Ria. Well, I didn’t have much choice, to be honest. She was a very fast walker! She kept up a quick pace along the seafront, trying to get home before the storm blew up, I suppose. I was almost running, just to keep her in sight! I suppose I was drunk too, to be honest, and it’s hard to move fast when you’ve drunk too much. There were a few people still around, coming out of the bars and restaurants in Scheveningen and walking to their cars, or just taking the sea air. I didn’t look too strange. It was about midnight by now. I was thinking to myself ‘this is stupid,’ and telling myself that I was a coward but, like I say, I couldn’t help it.

The beach front at Scheveningen is long, and there’s a kind of wide path that goes right down towards the port. That was obviously where Ria was heading, so I was thinking that she had to live somewhere near the port. Part of the old fishing village, the original Scheveningen, is down there. So I carried on walking, following her.

The weather at the beach changes pretty quickly, like I said, and, sure enough, before long it started raining quite hard, that kind of horizontal rain you get around here. I didn’t have an umbrella of course, so soon I was completely soaked. After about twenty minutes’ walk, we got near the port. At the beginning of the port area, there are a lot of fish restaurants and small bars. But by now they were almost all closed, and the place was nearly deserted. Ria looked round at one point, but I was far enough away that she couldn’t recognize me.

Then we got into the port itself. There were quite a few boats there: a few local fishing boats, and some ships with the names of English ports on them. Around the harbour itself it was pretty dark, and the only noise I could hear was the sound of Ria’s heels on the pavement.

Right in the corner of the harbour there’s a little bar called De Hoek. It’s a place where the fishermen go, and some Scheveningen locals. I’d never been in there myself, though I’d heard people at the office talk about it. It had a reputation as a wild kind of place. It was still open; I could see a kind of dim yellow light and there was music and voices coming from inside. I looked at my watch. It was one o’clock! It was late, but the bar was so far away from any houses that it could probably stay open as long as it liked, I thought.

Anyway, Ria walked over towards it, opened the door and went right in. Odd, I thought. Did she live there, or was she just going in for a quick drink before bed? Hard to say. By now the rain had died down a bit, so I decided to wait a little longer. Well, I was already wet through so it didn’t matter. Yeah, I know it sounds crazy, but that’s what I told you. You do strange things when you’re in love.

So I waited quite a while. My mind was working overtime, I can tell you. Did she live here, or did her boyfriend live here? There had to be a boyfriend. Perhaps he was a fisherman or sailor! A good-looking sailor with a sports car and a big bank account of course. That would be just my luck.

So there I was, waiting. And I thought, ‘Hey, I haven’t got anything to lose.’ You know what I mean? So what if she’s got a boyfriend? It can’t be any worse than standing out here, dripping wet and shivering. By now I was like a dog that had just come out of the sea. And it looked like it was going to start raining again. So I walked over to the bar and opened the old wooden door.

The only things I noticed at first were the overpowering smell of cigars, and a fair amount of smoke. I could hear music playing too, sounded like jazz. I looked around, trying to see Ria.

‘Are you sure you want to come in here?’ I looked up into the face of a huge Dutch guy. He was standing right next to me blowing smoke in my face.

‘Er, I’m not sure,’ I answered.

‘Well, decide,’ he said.

The bar was full of people, men mainly, though there were a couple of women too. I looked around for Ria, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. I moved away from the tall Dutchman and pushed through the crowd towards the bar. As I moved through the smoke I could see a kind of stage on the other side of the room. And on the stage someone was dancing to the music. After a minute or so, my eyes got used to the smoke and the dim light, and I could see the dancer. It took me a little while to work out that she was completely naked!

Well, I didn’t know where to look, I can tell you. The big Dutch guy was looking at me, smiling and watching for my reactions. I sort of smiled back. To be honest, I wanted to leave. I felt kind of embarrassed. But I didn’t want to seem foolish or anything, so I acted like it was the most natural thing in the world. I ordered a beer, though it was the last thing I wanted, to tell you the truth. I just wanted to run out of there, Ria or no Ria.

Then the music stopped and everyone clapped. ‘Oh good,’ I thought, ‘this is my chance to get out of here.’ But the music started again almost immediately and someone else came onto the stage.

‘Look at this,’ said the big Dutch guy, pushing my elbow. ‘You’ll like this!’

I smiled kind of awkwardly, and looked over to the little stage and at the face of the new dancer.

She was wearing a bit more make-up than usual, but there was no mistaking those eyes. It was Ria!

Well, I was shocked, I can tell you! But it got worse. The music started and Ria started taking her clothes off. Everyone in the bar was shouting and whistling. Part of me wanted to leave, but the other part just made me stay there. I couldn’t move. Little by little, Ria’s clothes came off until she was completely naked. And then came the greatest shock of all, because then I saw that there was something about Ria that was different. She was different from other girls. And it wasn’t only that she was a tram driver. She was a man!

‘Aaagh!’ I sort of screamed and moved quickly towards the door.

‘See what I mean?’ said the big Dutch guy behind me, laughing.

I ran outside. The Dutch guy followed me, shouting, ‘So, you like our entertainment, do you, little English boy?’

A bit rude, I thought, calling me ‘little’, but I thought I’d let it pass. I ran as fast as I could.

I ran all the way back home. I couldn’t help thinking about what Hans had said about ‘strong women’. He didn’t know how right he was.

Yeah, there are times when life comes and grabs you by the throat.

So, all that happened about six months ago. Since then, things have, well, calmed down a bit. I get up every morning for work and I come home every evening. I make dinner. I watch my favourite TV program on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I go out, I come in. I have a drink on a Friday night. The highlight of my week is lunch out on Sundays. OK, it’s boring, but to tell the truth I kind of like it. I’m happy.

But I’m really not looking forward to the winter.

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