Authors: Nicolas Freeling
As a child his favourite happening was to be taken to the market. Experience loved by all children: ecstatic smells, thrilling hubbubs, loud delightful arguments. His first â and never forgotten â impression of the police; remote majestic figures in splendid boots, walking heavily about, thumbs hitched into their belts, pretending olympian detachment but apt, excitingly, to intervene and create melodrama. The English police, he thought irrelevantly, walk the same way but have no belts â¦ They hitch their thumbs into breast pockets, giving an unfortunate impression of a bra whose shoulder-straps have given way.
Ah, the markets! Holy places of an Amsterdam childhood in the early thirties. This, thought Van der Valk sadly, is very different: hard to say what fun a child could get out of this. Saturday afternoon in the shopping centre of a provincial Dutch town and he was being trampled under foot: they were all in such a hurry â was all this collective insecurity desperate to get back to the reassurance of cars (penis symbol), television sets (womb symbol) or horrid suburban houses (prestige symbol but wasn't he getting them a bit muddled?)?
If he had been an adult during the depression his souvenirs would be different. But a nostalgia for childhood is permissible, he decided: not gravely reactionary; not sinfully fascist. Everyone had been poor and there was pleasurable suspense in one's Mamma's lengthy feeling (lips pursed suspiciously) of printed cotton, in the trying on of stiff and smelly serge trousers â pleasure lessened there by the protesting child being dÃ©culottÃ© in public, painfully aware of its underpants, But as a reward, after, there was the sniffing of oranges, the rejecting as unripe, the ceremonious purchase of One orange.
Just look at them now, scurrying along with their anxious
frightened faces; couldn't wait to get rid of their money. Small children being dragged along in nasty new shoes from which they got no pleasure, not even from pestering everyone with the balloon (spoilt by the beastly shoe shop's beastly address displayed on its squeaky smelly flank) â¦ Children odious in little terylene suits, self-conscious copies of their parents. Older children with imitation-leather briefcases, pretentious files and loose-leaf notebooks, pencil sharpeners like plastic sputniks and rubbers like giraffes â¦ the new school year began on Monday morning. Vive la RentrÃ©e; roll on Mother's Day; vive all such rackets.
Mums were lugging plastic nets of obviously unripe (yet somehow dried-out) oranges, a kilo at a time. No longer possible to buy one orange. As for smelling them, that helped nobody: they smelt like everything else, of plastic. But this is the Grote Markt, the Big Market. Sursum corda, thought Van der Valk; get up off the floor.
In the street he had his legs banged by heavy things with sharp corners. A mum pushed her pram over his foot and glared as though he had deliberately joggled her fat immovably sleeping plastic jellybaby. A travel agency, all large posters of happy skiers gazing at ice-cream Alps as though about to eat them, was already imploring him to leave instantly for the winter sports: to set a cap on exasperation it was a brilliant, hot, sunny day. He wanted a nice cup of tea and a sit; he'd Been to the winter sports.
He was supposed to be working â well he was working â though there was no real need for him to run about like this. Shoplifting was getting out of hand: when one caught them they were never ashamed, never sorry, had pockets full of money, and generally said So What. He had to write a report, and was making a survey. He had to talk to some terrible people, committee members of the Shopkeepers' Association; a powerful municipal body, must be cosseted if it were not to make his life needlessly tiresome.
The crowd was always thickest outside Vroom and Dreesman, and of course the street bottlenecked just there, the pavements were medievally narrow, and accidents frequent. He could not stop traffic passing this absurdly tiny street; he had
tried, and the shopkeepers complained he was taking the bread out of their mouths: they would never be able to afford the closed-circuit television spies they lusted after.
Hm, the crowd was unusually thick; a bus was waiting patiently to get past and a human beeswarm (hooked no doubt to one another's abdomens) had spilt on to the roadway. He caught a glimpse of a policeman â thumb out of your belt, stupid; why aren't you breaking them up? The uniform disappeared as though devoured by Bacchantes: smelling drama, Van der Valk used his stick as a tin-opener.
âRun over, pour soul.'
âHeart attack â anyone can have one â any time I tell you, anyone.'
âI tell you I saw the bus hit him.'
âHow could it when it was standing still?'
âStanding still? â he was walking, aren't I telling you.'
âWill you please move further back.'
Half in the road and half on the pavement lay an elderly gentleman in a grey suit. The policeman was grateful to Van der Valk.
âMove â officer, clear the roadway.'
âHere, I've got a first-aid diploma.' Before his exasperated authority the barrier of chewing-gum gave a little, stickily. A man shouldered to the front with the same unconscious authority, eyes indifferent, so that he was allowed to pass.
âIch bin Arzst â Deutscher Arzst.' He felt the pulse and frowned.
âUmdrehen,' he commanded briefly: Van der Valk and the fat housewife showed off their first-aid diplomas together, she a bit mutinously: been taught
to turn people over and what good were German doctors anyhow?
Harz-Anfall,' a little unnecessarily; in the centre of the old-fashioned waistcoat was set the handle of a sort of antique dagger. Reproduction, said Van der Valk's mind automatically.
âWe'll get him into that shop â you can't do anything on the pavement.'
âWho are you?' asked the doctor.
âAch so.' Thus surrounded by experts the man was brought into a shoe shop and put on a settee.
âPhone,' mimed Van der Valk at the manager.
âAlready have,' an eggshaped mouth mimed back.
The pharmacist across the street arrived with an armful of stuff which he thought might be useful: the German doctor picked at it dubiously, mouthing unfamiliar languages on labels.
âNeinei â spielt hier keine Rolle.'
âNotfall â¦ schwere â¦ Harz-Stimulant,' laborious.
âJa ja, ich weiss,' impatiently.
Outside, an ambulance sounded its siren furiously, unable to get past the still immobile bus.
âShall I come?' offered the doctor conscientiously, as the men were getting the limp body on to the stretcher.
âNeinei,' said Van der Valk, âif you'll just write down the address where you're staying.' He had collected a couple more policemen by now, all busily writing things down on their slates exactly like the jury in
Alice in Wonderland
. A dozen Saturday shoppers, half-scared and half-self-important, had been herded in: he addressed them.
âThis is a death by violence: you may have witnessed an assassination. Directly you have given your names to the officers you may go home. Please be at home tonight: an officer will call to interview you. Try meanwhile to concentrate and don't,' politely, âimagine things that didn't happen.'
Inside the ambulance there was a great deal of equipment and precious little room for him; he wrinkled his nose at a smell of ether. Under the oxygen mouthpiece the man mumbled something. Van der Valk stopped himself from snatching it off, bent forward to listen, collided with an attendant's hair-oil.
âThe girls â¦' said the man.
âWho attacked you?'
âThe girls â¦' â it was not an answer. But he had to be content with it, for the man had died. Van der Valk took the gaudy dagger â as he thought, a paper-knife â looked for a hanky, had to be content with a sticky bit of cotton wool. On
arrival all he could do was tell an excited intern to keep the man and his clothes untouched.
âI'll call the professor.' But the man was beyond resuscitation even by a professor. Zealous busybodies fiddled at him â¦ Van der Valk had small hope of the witnesses either, having recognized the man who had seen with-his-own-two-eyes the poor fellow hit by the bus â¦ He got back to the Grote Markt and found one of his inspectors making chalk marks.
âDidn't choose the handiest spot.' It was littered with ice-lolly wrappers and used bus tickets. âRope it off, Chief?'
âJust photograph it and measure everything or else,' dryly, âwe'll get complaints about spoiling business.' He shrugged. Even if the man's clothes were all bought in Riga, and nothing in the pockets but a hand-grenade and a Gideon Bible, it would still tell more than this trampled strip.
As it happened, identifying the man was no work. He had cards in his pocket in a little case: hm, engraved, said the police fingertip tasting the creamy surface.
An address off the Rivieren-laan, in Amsterdam South. A telephone number; he rang it. A woman's voice answered, young and fresh.
âWho is that please?'
âYou tell me,' said the woman tartly.
âWho is on the line please?' Official drone.
âThis is Madame Martinez and who are you if I may ask?'
âGood afternoon Madame this-is-the-police.' Ritual.
âIf it's that car again,' irritably, âI repeat; I know nothing about it.'
âThis is the Commissaire.'
âOh â¦ Er â is there something wrong?'
âA man has had an accident. We have to ask you to come and see whether you can identify him.'
âYou mean my husband's had an accident?' The usual tone of disbelief, that it happens to others but not me. The usual
note of shock, of alarm, almost of anger â but there was an unsurprised sound. Come, one couldn't tell, especially over the telephone.
âI'm afraid so, Madame, if the cards we find are to be believed. A tall man, with grey hair.'
âOh, God â of course â I'll come â at once. Where must I go?'
A tall man with grey hair: he knew nothing else himself but now was the time to look. Mr Martinez did not lack individuality, even in the little curtained-off cubicle next to what hospitals call the Reanimation Centre: it is where they put the failuresâ¦
The face was long and bony, Dutch, or Nordic at least, whatever his name was. Grey eyes, tall forehead made taller still by thinning receding hair. Intellectual face; the wide thin mouth had been decided and vigorous, the long shaved jaw authoritative. Ears large, flat, well-shaped, the nose slightly aquiline, the skin fine-grained and healthy, and had been tanned not so long ago. Both the face and the slim active body belonged to a man of sixty: when he learned that Mr Martinez had in fact been seventy-six he was surprised, but by then there had been several more surprises.
About both man and clothes there were exterior signs of wealth. Or should one more properly say breeding? â a meticulous, fastidious quality, of taste as well as money always possessed and easily carried. A linen handkerchief smelt of Roger and Gallet; the gold teeth had been made by a good craftsman and so had the spectacles in the worn morocco case, which matched the card-case, and the wallet, and came from an expensive shop. There was a broad wedding ring and a heavy signet, a Sulka tie â the shirt and the socks were silk. Both, admitted, were old, much worn, and had been finely darned, but it still came as a shock to find cheap cotton underclothes. The shoes came from London, or had, rather, before the war at a guess: they had lived all their lives on trees and been polished every day. The gold stamping was obliterated but he guessed it was one of those curtly-named haughty shops â Block, Brock? Shoes, umbrellas, bowler hats â¦ But the suit was very mass-production, very nearly cheap. The
label had been cut, and he suspected out of snobbery. It seemed a queer mixture.