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.
- Old Ground – Rachel Carmichael
- Amsterdam – Jennifer Baker
- The Price of Love – Wayne Connolly
- Omafiet – Marie McQuade
- Movement – Craig Angus
- In Amsterdam – Ryan J Smith
- Sometimes you just wonder why, don’t you? – Gillian Mayes
Old Ground – Rachel Carmichael
You used to enjoy hearing the story. You would say to her, Tell me again about Suzy. Everything, don’t leave anything out.
Now she’s telling you, We don’t have to go there.
You don’t think she means it, so you say, We may as well now we’re here.
There was a Mexican place round the corner, she says. We can go there after. See if it still does that chocolate chicken mole.
You say, That sounds a bit rich.
You leave the Rijksmuseum, on hired bicycles. You ride behind her, waiting at junctions next to people with uncomplicated destinations. Her pedalling strikes you as more urgent than this morning.
You stop outside a building in a narrow street and she points to a window on the third floor.
You call up the Suzy of your imagination. You don’t want her to look that way any more. You don’t know if you want her to look attractive. She must have had a hard life in her line of work. She might not be recognisable.
You have both stopped thinking about each other.
Then she says, Tattoo studio. She’s gone.
The handwritten cards she told you about have been replaced with a metal panel with printed names. No-one is on display in the windows, just blinds and some rainbow flags.
You take her hand and say, Let’s go somewhere you’ve never been before.
Amsterdam – Jennifer Baker
“Right – it’s all booked, you’re going to spend your 50th birthday in Amsterdam.” He looked delighted. “A weekend break.”
And that’s how we came to be sitting in a hotel bar not far from the red light district with him getting drunk, his face flushed and sweaty. We’d had a stroll around. It was disappointing. No longer the erotic seediness that I remembered but instead hefty tourism. Google it. You can book a guided tour for heaven’s sake.
I was last there when I was eighteen. Jesus – that was an awakening. Sex with two women in one holiday. It didn’t last like that. Marriage to a man was de rigour if you wanted to continue relationships with friends and family. I chose a nice doctor ten years older than me, had the required number of children but, truth to tell, often fantasised both in bed and out of it about soft round bodies and sexual equality. It was only fantasy.
He pushed himself up from the chair, “I’m going on up, you coming?” His words were slurred.
“Not yet, I’m going to have another glass of wine.” Sullen, he walked off. I called for the wine and sipped it approvingly. I’m a bit of a connoisseur of a good white wine and this one was exceptional.
A woman approached and said, “Can I join you?”
I was kind of expecting it. She had been sitting alone at the next table. Mid forties, tall and slim. Good looking. I looked into her eyes. “This wine is excellent, can I buy you a glass or, no, it’s so good, I think I’ll go for a bottle.”
“I’d love that,” she said and somehow her thigh brushed mine as she sat down. I signalled to the waiter.
Amsterdam. The city of Sappho.
The Price of Love – Wayne Connolly
I’ve never liked Amsterdam. It has always seemed to me to be a squalid place, more suited to disappointment than romance. The first time I went there was to spend a weekend with Agatha away from our work and families. We had met at a conference in her home city of Budapest a few months before and we thought the quiet anonymity of Amsterdam would suit us. But on the day we arrived it was a national holiday. There was music on every corner and the streets were crowded with young people dancing and drinking. By the end of the afternoon we were wading through plastic beer glasses and FEBO wrappers, feeling old and conspicuous. In one of the squares a boy staggered towards us, about the same age as my son, waving a can of Heineken in our faces. “What are you doing here?” he said. “You look so respectable!” And he walked away laughing.
Next morning the city was quiet. The pavements had been cleared but you could still see the previous day’s debris in corners and alleyways. At an open-air market I bought Agatha a small semi-abstract painting of flowers. It cost more than I could really afford and I saw straight away that she didn’t like it. “They’re supposed to be tulips,” I said, “Isn’t that the national flower of Hungary?” She frowned slightly. “I have never seen tulips like that before,” she said, “here or at home.”
As we wandered aimlessly in the afternoon, the atmosphere began to change. Crowds were gathering again and heading towards the main square. This time they were mostly young men carrying red and white flags, chanting and singing and setting off flares. I remembered hearing that Ajax had won the league the previous evening and the celebrations had started up again with a new and more strident tone. “It looks like the days of Cruyff have returned,” I said. Agatha looked at me blankly.
We retreated from the noise and walked away from the centre towards the quieter residential streets. We stopped at the side of a canal and leaned against the railing, watching the late sun on the water as it shimmered between the beer cans and food wrappers. A young girl walked by, pushing a bicycle with a broken chain. She was small and dark-haired, and she had oil stains on her jeans. At first I thought she had had some sort of mishap, but then I could see that she was smiling and laughing to herself, oblivious to the sound of the crowds nearby. She was glowing with happiness.
Agatha turned to me. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I do like your picture. You’re very kind. But I don’t think we should meet again. Go home to Glasgow and forget we ever came here. This is a city for young people. Look,” she said, pointing at the girl who was walking away, “They’re young and free and happy. They can do anything they like. Sometimes the things we want have a price that’s far too high to pay.”
The Omafiet – Marie McQuade
I could tell by the way she stamped on my pedals that she was in a bad mood. This was unusual for a tourist, especially a British one, they were timid, nervous, but not normally grumpy.
When we got to the red-light district, she perked up. Single females didn’t tend to take me here at night, so I was just getting over my surprise when she dropped me as she was putting on her jumper. Clearly not someone who could do more than one thing at a time. Then she simply left me sprawled across the concrete cobbles. It was humiliating, lying there, wondering if she’d deign to pick me back up or not. Not, it seemed.
Fuck you, I thought after a few minutes, this’ll get your attention, and I threw off my chain. She picked me back up then alright, but within minutes she was distracted again. This time she was reading some cards and before I had time to see her go, she was off, and I had to watch her disappearing up a staircase. Not a backward glance at me, abandoned by the wall, my chain still hanging off.
Imagine how she’d have felt if I’d left her in the street with her knickers hanging down?
When she came back looking happy I couldn’t bear to see it, not after the indifferent, no callous, way she had treated me.
I’ll show you, I thought, and I did. When she mounted me, she pushed hard on my pedals again but this time with glee not anger. I thrust her face at my handlebars and almost smashed her chin, but I stopped myself, I’m forgiving like that.
Then she pushed me back to her hostel. She was much better company when she walked slowly alongside me. Although she was young, she was graceful, and she kept stopping to look at the reflections in the canal, a beatific, glacial expression forming across her features. I almost began to like her.
Her friend’s fingers made light work of fixing my chain when we got back – dexterous that’s what she was. This friend hired a bike too, so I had company and over the next few days we took the more usual tourist routes, visiting art galleries. But at the end of day two my heart sank when we pulled up at the Heineken factory. Never a good idea by bike, especially with someone as temperamental as my tourist.
I am glad she saw sense and left me by a tree when she staggered out. I watched her and her friend as they lay in the grass together. This was the last time I saw them but they looked happy, very happy, so it was a good moment to say goodbye.
Movement – Craig Angus
‘I’ve never been to Amsterdam,’ he’d said. I assumed he would have been to Amsterdam. A lot of people had, folk like him that were into art and having a good time and had a bit of money. But he was a mystery. I was constantly on the back foot. Life was full of possibility in his presence but he made me feel like shit a lot of the time. I would just sit by myself wondering if he was thinking about me or what he was thinking.
‘You’d love it,’ I said, kissing him on the bottom lip, and then imagining us hiring bikes, checking out the Stedelijk, getting pancakes, basking under the sun in Vondelpark. I pictured us posing for photos outside the cheese museum, drinking in that brewery inside a windmill, putting away a few strong beers until the urge became too much and we went back to passionately fuck each other’s brains out at the hotel.
I came to Amsterdam anyway, alone. I couldn’t tell you where the other ticket was. I don’t really like bikes, but I walked a lot on the first day just taking it all in. It was my third time, and everytime it always revealed something different to me, something new. I listened to Darklands by The Jesus and Mary Chain and This Year’s Model by Elvis Costello and In My Own Time by Karen Dalton. And loads of Sheryl Crow too, just the big hits.
I ended up quite near the photography museum so I went in to see what was what. There was an exhibition called Teenage Lust by Larry Clark. I didn’t know anything about it, or him, but I paid 20 euros to see it. Three hours I spent just solemnly taking in these stunningly beautiful black and white photos of a youth culture that was a world away from what I’d known as a girl. This amphetamine fuelled free love. Scenes of depravity, of chaos and yet of a strange inner peace. There was a picture of a young couple standing up in a bath, dirty water lapping round their ankles, her breasts nestling against his ribcage, his smile one of defiance rather than ecstasy. The rejection of the conventions that had been presented as gospel and then aggressively unlearned. There was a quote from the artist on the fabric as I left.
Once the needle goes in, it never goes out.
Walking home I listened to the first Bon Iver album, wallowing. I fucking hated him for not being here, and at the same time was glad he wasn’t. He’d made a fool of me and I despised myself for having ever cared about what he thought.
Back at the hotel I stared out the window for a bit gazing at the sky, which was an intoxicating hybrid of burnt orange and violet as the sun dissolved into the architecture. I got changed into a black jumpsuit I’d bought for the trip and decided to head out to get some food, some drinks, or maybe just drinks. The receptionist’s name was Suzi, that’s what it said on her badge anyway, and she was an older woman that looked a bit like Patti Smith with her long silvery hair. We chatted for a bit about me being on the trip by myself, about the exhibition, the sunset. She scribbled a few places down on a pad of paper for me. She had a detached coolness that made me feel fine about it all.
Before I knew what I was doing I blurted it out.
‘What time do you finish? Do you want to join me for a bit?’
She smiled. And something in her smile said she’d lived this same movement, this same moment before, somehow.
In Amsterdam – Ryan J Smith
My mum said that the first time she’d been in love was in Amsterdam.
At first I thought she meant the city; like she was in love with Amsterdam.
But I could see in her face that’s not what she meant.
She said she went there with her best friend from home, when they were students.
Why have you brought up Amsterdam? she asked.
I told her I was thinking of going. Seemed like the sort of thing students do.
She smiled, though I felt like the smile wasn’t for me.
A few days later we were in the car park outside Tesco’s.
A woman came over and spoke to my mum. She was dark and pretty. She looked clever.
I watched them talking, working their way through the pleasantries.
When they said goodbye and my mum turned around she was glowing. I had never seen her look so beautiful.
She saw me looking and tried to hide her smile.
On the way home she didn’t say much. I tried to ask her about the woman but she just fobbed me off.
That night I heard her sobbing in her bedroom. It was her room since dad had left. He’d moved into a caravan with a girl from work, some twenty-something he’d been training.
I pushed open the door. She was sitting on the bed holding a photograph tightly, like it might blow away. She got up and started to fuss.
Christ sake you gave me a fright.
I saw her put the picture under her pillow.
What’s that? I asked.
The picture mum. Why are you crying? Is it dad?
She crumpled. I held her.
When she’d settled I reached and got the picture.
It was of her and the woman in the car park. They were eating ice cream next to a canal. They looked young and gorgeous. Happy.
So it was her you went to Amsterdam with? I asked.
What else did you guys do there?
Oh you know, she said, We rode bicycles, went to museums, fell in love.
Sometimes you just wonder why, don’t you? – Gillian Mayes
My cousin and I flew in from separate continents to have a short break in Amsterdam. The first two days we did the usual tourist things: the Anne Frank Museum (a two-hour queue), the Van Gogh Museum (one and a half hours).
The third day we passed a fish restaurant and she got very excited and suggested eating there that night. We looked in the window where we could see them preparing the food. I was worried: years earlier I’d had a bad reaction to shellfish: my face and body became bloated – big forehead and couldn’t walk because my feet were like giant sponges. An itchy rash all over.
So I was looking in the restaurant window and saw how they prepared the ordinary fish with the same utensils as they used with the shellfish.
I’m really sorry, I said. I just can’t eat there. It’s too much of a risk.
Ok, she said. But can we go to Cos now?
This was a fashion shop on the other side of town.
What about the Rijksmuseum? I said. Were we not going to go there?
I want to go to Cos, she said.
She was very into fashion.
Did you know, by the way, I said, that your father had another wife before your mother? And that she died giving birth to their baby?
I knew she didn’t know because I’d always been told to keep it secret. I don’t know why I was being so cruel.
She looked at me and said: I’m going to Cos. I’ll see you later.
We ate pizza that night. After we flew home, we kept in touch. I think we both thought that if we never mentioned it again, it hadn’t happened at all.