On Friday 5th March 2021, thi wurd hosted an online literary event, paying tribute to Ali Smith’s short story ‘Free Love’. There were readings and performances of original works by 36 writers, inspired directly or loosely by the original story. The pieces are brief, written quickly to be performed on the night. All use Amsterdam as a setting.
Most of the writers who took part are current or former members of writing fiction groups run by thi wurd. Some are part of thi wurd team.
The works below are not presented as ‘published work’ but as works-in-progress – a small representation of a live event.
- Happy Hour – Steven Vass
- The Art School Trip to Amsterdam – Maggie Reeve
- Half Price Love – Stephen Clarke
- Amsterdam – Kate McAllan
- Response to Ali Smith’s ‘Free Love’ – Sean Burn
- Gransterdam – Gill Davies
- He was a Man but he looked like a Woman – Din Carpenter
Happy Hour – Steven Vass
I let myself into the room thinking that Annie will still be out shopping. But she’s sitting on the balcony with an iced drink and she’s got her feet on the other chair. She’s wearing sunglasses and I’m pretty sure she’s still not happy with me. I ask what she’s drinking and she says lemonade.
How did you get lemonade?
Somebody brought it.
I gesture for her to move her feet and she gives me a slight smile and doesn’t move. I sit on the railing and ask where she went, and she says something about trying to find a watch.
I didn’t know you wanted a watch, I say.
I look down at the people below and she’s sucking on her straw. I tell her I saw a nice Indonesian restaurant for dinner and she says she was thinking about a pizza.
There’s nothing on the television except sport and news. I go and have a shower and clean my teeth and then take out the blue diamonds. There’s probably no point tonight but I push one out anyway and rinse it down, and then I tuck the blister pack into my wash bag.
By the time we go out it’s almost dark and there’s a smell of lamb cooking. Annie seems to have cheered up and she’s saying we need to smoke at least one joint before we fly home. I tell her it’s a must, but then it occurs to me that they do random drug tests at work. It’s what you get for working for German engineers.
We sit at a round table and order pizzas and they’re playing Happy Hour by The Housemartins. I tell Annie that it’s strange because last time I came to Amsterdam, they were playing it in all the bars.
I thought you were swordfighting?
Not all the time.
The waiter brings the wine and I get a memory of the two Scottish girls at the youth hostel and how I managed to kiss one of them. And then it occurs to me that Annie probably wasn’t even born in 1986 and I wonder what she’s thinking.
I ask if she wants to go to the Anne Frank Museum in the morning or hire bikes instead.
The Art School Trip to Amsterdam – Maggie Reeve
Arriving in the middle of the night, we stumbled into the hostel, where we were informed that there were female and male dormitories. We were horrified. Someone said to the man on the desk,
Can I ask you a question? To which he replied in perfect English,
I think you just did.
In the morning I leaned out of the bottom bunk and drew the net curtain back. I saw the backs of buildings, and looked down onto a flat roof below. It was covered in syringes and other used items. After a breakfast of rolls and ham and cheese and jam, we gathered downstairs. Itineraries were being handed around, listing the main Art Galleries and the times and places to meet up with our tutors. We split up into small groups. My lot went straight to a café and decided to go to the Rijksmuseum first. The Art we saw in there knocked our socks off. It was real, not like in books or online. It was in-your-face real. We came out stunned, and either couldn’t speak, or couldn’t stop.
The Red Light District was next on our list.
It was weirdly quiet, nothing to see. A man in a café said we should come back after dark. What a transformation!! There they were, women in various states of undress, posing, as if framed by the windows. It looked like Art. Maybe it was Art.
Coloured lighting enhanced their amazing outfits and makeup. They were living paintings.
Ann was whispering something in my ear.
What was that? I said.
I wonder if they cater for women? she said. Before I could say anything, she was on her way up the steps and through the pink door.
Well, said Ian. That takes some balls.
Next morning Ian was in my bed in the girl’s dormitory, and Ann’s bunk was empty.
Oh God, where’s Ann, I said. Anything could have happened to her.
I’m sure it did, said Ian. She’ll be ok, she’s pretty streetwise.
She texted me as we were eating breakfast.
Where are you? I messaged back.
Not far from where you left me, she said. I stayed the night with Suzi and I had the best night ever. You don’t know what you’re missing.
Half Price Love – Stephen Clarke
The stairwell was dark as he climbed the concrete steps, four flights and he was knackered. He stopped in front of a blue door with 4c painted on it in what looked like tippex. He took out his phone, his hand shaking as he typed – I’m outside – the door opened immediately.
You Dave? She spoke with an accent he couldn’t place.
Uh, yeah that’s me. He had given a fake name, but now that he thought about it, that seemed stupid.
Stepping inside the hall, the door shut.
She was pretty, probably not much older than him, but she was confident and smiled brightly, her hair glowed in the morning sunshine which was streaming in through the single paned windows. She was wearing a small pink gown, which was loose on one shoulder, revealing a collarbone.
Oh yeah, I guess it’s always just a transaction.
Oh I just mean sex like, it’s all just a transaction, the only difference for you is you get money you can spend as you like, you could give it to the students protesting down on the square if you wanted.
Yeah, I guess I could. Do you want a shower?
Oh, do I need to shower?
Have a shower, it’ll relax you.
Her flat was not like he imagined, no synthetic furs or beaded curtains, just normal, but no pictures and all the shelves were empty. He went into the bathroom. The water was scorching hot. Examining himself in the mirror afterwards, he looked red raw.
As he came out of the shower he was shaking again. She offered him a beer, and used both hands to steady it in his. He could feel his vibrations being stilled by her strong grip. As they sat down on the end of the bed the sheets felt plasticky, despite looking soft and comfy.
After the half hour was up, she handed him back €50 and he apologised again.
Don’t worry about it honey, you come back any time, I had a lovely time.
Thanks for everything, have a nice afternoon. He wiped his eye again with the tissue she had given him and then stuffed it in his pocket.
The sun was high by the time he got outside, he couldn’t go back yet, he was still supposed to be working, so he just strolled around watching all the people going about their day.
Amsterdam – Kate McAllan
There’s a sign next to the canal in North Glasgow. The board reads ‘Urban Oasis’. We walk along the grass together and sit on a bench. There’s a couple tying up their boat, drinking beer and the sun is spilling down.
It’s nice, but you wouldn’t want to live here, you say.
Well you’re so near to the road.
And the rats, I add.
You and me. We’re always talking about rats.
Just then two men appear, one young and slim. The other a little older. They duck inside a houseboat, closing the door behind them.
D’ you think they’re going to have sex?
I shake my head but I’m thinking it too.
Why did he have that bag of sandwiches, I ask.
You laugh. But you don’t answer. And now I’m thinking about secret love. Why bother to hide it. And don’t people just carry about secrets. Secrets that belong to others and secrets that belong to themselves . By the time you’re 30 it’s actually like a full time job. You carry them around with you. You can’t leave the house without them.
But you and I in Amsterdam that time. Was it Amsterdam? All I remember is the canal. Hot white clouds, but we’d packed for drizzle. It’s all you know when you live where we do. We stood on a bridge watching a bunch of young guys, peel off their shirts and dive into the water. It was a thing they would regret in the morning, but there on the bridge it was really quite a spectacle. Standing there next to you.
They drag dead bodies out of that canal, said someone.
We laughed. I shut my eyes for just a second.
Try and remember this moment, I thought. You don’t need a photograph to remember.
The best thing about you? you once told me, you always exist in the moment.
But the truth is it’s something I’ve always struggled with. In moments your eyes can miss things you won’t get back in a memory. When you try to look back. And it’s only the shape of things. An outline.
And you’re trying to remember it now. Sitting by the canal in Glasgow. Go back to Amsterdam in your mind. Stand on the bridge and watch.
Response to Ali Smith’s ‘Free Love’ – Sean Burn
first time we ever made love? the last time, most likely ever, is more telling.
amsterdam. en route to den bosch. hometown of hieronymous.
bosch watched his hometown burn-baby-burn as teen.
we share the same psychosis, his art makes sense.
and ‘side-effects’ of ‘antipsychotics’ include impotence.
we don’t travel well, enthusiastically yes but not … well.
this once in lifetimes exhibition arks 500th anniversary of the death.
polders, dykes, canals: water focusing sunlight, our places of peace.
and our love announcing we’ve been ex to them for a year just as last-gasp salt-thrust –
amsterdams exit-sting, the shimmer – speeding south.
gigs climax? theres last dusking moments for everything – sex and art and gig.
for us gigs are an emptying, like galleries stilled right before closing.
stabbing water with too too real knife to see how light bends.
for man, also for woman, and for all who slip-skip binaries
owe ourselves – each other – at least this shimmer
blanket-lapped, cool-sunned, red wine to hand,
we unmadden to aprils cobbled square,
we’ll need to go home some day – but for now?
we are all the silence sings
Gransterdam – Gill Davies
I realised where the hotel was when we were on the plane. It would have been fine if it was just me and my son, but my mum was with us.
This can’t be right, she said, when she saw the women in the windows. What kind of a place is this? Her face was a picture when I told her where we were. You can’t bring a child here. She was looking at my son who was laughing at the paraphernalia in a sex shop.
She was the one who booked the hotel. We could have been in an Air BnB, but she said, I’m not staying in someone else’s house.
She wouldn’t let me open the window in the room even though it was sweltering because someone might climb in in the middle of the night.
She wouldn’t go for breakfast in the morning because they might put something in it.
I said we could take a stroll to the Jordaan district because I thought my mum would like it there. She would say it was upmarket. We passed a few places I recognised on the way. The hostel we stayed in on the hen do. The restaurant where the bride-to-be ran away with a couple’s pizza and threw it like a frisbee into the canal because it was crawling with spiders. We had to buy them another one and keep her off the mushrooms for the rest of the weekend.
It all looks the same here, my mum said, her face tripping her. Don’t think much of their architecture. She didn’t like the coffee where we had breakfast. She didn’t want to go to the Rembrandt Museum because his paintings are too dark. And the Van Gogh Museum would be full of tourists.
When we walked past Anne Frank’s House, my son wanted to go in. Oh no, my mum said. I’m not going in there. That’s just depressing. I’m here to enjoy myself.
He was a Man but he looked like a Woman – Din Carpenter
It was your last evening in Amsterdam.
Across the café you meet their eyes, familiar yet strange in this place full of working men from the Port.
You crossed and sat on the stool opposite. Their face, smiling, was cupped in their hand with fingers that could have been your own. Hi, you said. They nodded the same. You gestured to their finished cup, asking Drink? They shook their head. Dutch, you asked. Espanola, they replied. You tried your little Spanish, asking: Hablas Ingles? They coiled a circle with their thumb and forefinger, saying: Un poco de. Then lifted their bag from counter saying: Vamos?
Outside they and you started walking in the cold night air through the empty out-of-season streets. Near the docks they stopped, entered a passageway and climbed a narrow staircase.
Inside the flat there were posters of James Dean on the walls. There was a small kitchen behind beaded curtains and two doors into rooms, one opened. They set down their bag on a glass coffee table and took off their coat and you saw how thin they were beneath their black roll neck sweater. They gestured to the open door.
Inside you sat on the end of a bed facing each other and our eyes held on each other. You drew off their sweater. Their chest was as your own with faintly growing breasts that you touched and they shivered. You took off your jacket. They removed your shirt. You drew closer, touched, and lay on the bed, your hands and your eyes exploring one another. You grew hard and your hand went to find them below. They stopped you just short of what they’d been. You accepted who they and you were becoming. And in the sensation of it all you spilled.