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.
- Needs Must – Sean McMenemy
- Electrical Love – George Smith
- The first time ever I saw her face – David Young
- Boiled Egg Suntan – Katie Paterson
- Afternoon Fade – Chris Nelms
- Adrift – Martin Macaulay
- Going Dutch – Dominic Howell
- Trick of the light – Niamh Gordon
- Fin – Angela Arcese
Needs Must – Sean McMenemy
It had been a long time, a very long time, so long he thought those urges were gone forever. Maybe it had something to do with giving up the weed or maybe it was the change in his diet. At first he did his best to ignore them hoping it would pass but as the weeks went by his desire only grew. In the end he decided to go out and try his luck. Started in the fancy Oud-West bars, in the off-chance of a certain free-love type. But all he got was odd looks and upturned noses. As the night went on and without even the beginnings of a conversation he found himself veering towards the centre. With a look of desperation and the Dutch courage from the whiskey he offered a woman in every bar a drink, but each time he was met with the same silence and disdain. In the toilet he saw a poster for high-end escorts and typed the site into his phone. He looked at the bodies and faces and read their profiles. Age, height, nationality, language, rates. What they were willing and not willing to do. It felt like reading one of those cheap restaurant menus with the photos on them. Was something he’d never done in all his time there. He remembered a friend once saying call girls are far classier than window girls. I’ll try anything once he muttered, needs must. Heading for a taxi he received a message. Lana will arrive at 2am for one hour. Would be lucky to last a minute. He was hungry and stopped for food on the way home. Inside, he took out the vintage, one he’d been keeping for an occasion. He poured himself a large half, and carried it with his kebab over to the couch.
Electrical Love – George Smith
Westy’s it the bar n Tony’s in the toilet – while Ah sits it a table scannin the tomb. We’re in Amsterdam’s Red Light District – early afternoon. Bar’s dark – wae low ceilin’s n hardly any room. Too early for a café. Westy’s never been a toker – bit he’s well prepared tae zoom. Both arrive back thegither – bit neither sits back doon.
Jobbie, Tony? Westy asks, placin three tumblers ae lager oan the table’s gloom.
Visit tae the Bank, Tony says.
Whit? Yae brought yer ain Eccies tae Amsterdam. Ya fuckin loon!
Much rather hae a wee lacin ae broon rather than pure MDMA. Wae love fae the street doctor. Gauchin awh day long oh-lay oh-lay oh-lay!
Clock they lassies wae the wee dugs? Westy says.
Cannae fuckin miss them – Ah’m thinkin – cause it’s only us – them n the barman in this tiny fuckin room. Ah nods n smiles.
Whit’s this lager? Tony asks n how comes ma tumbler’s a different shape tae youse?
Yours’s a flute n we’re a vase, so play’s an orange tune.
Tony’s laughin: Bite me – yah hun fuck! But actual what drink’s goin doon?
Westy points it tumblers. Bar man says four pints ae these, room’s goin linde-boom!
Tony’s nods to girls: Big smiles in reply. Tall these Dutchies should ae wore ma heels the day n looked them in the eye.
We oor? Westy asks.
They’re guys – cries me.
Potato/potata, says Westie, shruggin n smilin. 40 denier mustard tights girl, wae the heavy patterned shoe. Thinks Ah’m awh ready in love wae her, n whit’s a boy tae do? He’s on the move.
Four booms n a smartie later – Ah’m sittin wae a Pomeranian called Petta on ma knee n Ah’m kissin a beautiful boy/girl/man/woman/kettle/toaster named Sue. Awh – who fuckin cares – we’re awh jist part ae the wider electrical network – we’re – only energy passin through.
The first time ever I saw her face – David Young
She was at the party one evening after school with her friend Jackie. Stewie and I were chilled out on a settee enjoying a lager or two when I noticed her looking in my direction. She was super attractive. Was I onto something?
In fact, nothing happened that night. They kept themselves to themselves and I couldn’t work out how to break into their conversation. But, afterwards, every day at school was another chance to see her.
For months, I tried to get close enough to talk to her when, out of the blue, I overheard her talking to Jackie about a trip they were planning to make that summer, even if finding the money might be a bit of a struggle.
It was when I heard her mention Amsterdam that I became really interested. Being a Jacques Brel fan, that was a place I’d visited many, many times in my head. Sailors ashore, drinking, visiting prostitutes. Fantastic.
It took a while to convince Stewie that we should go there too, but the idea of prostitutes everywhere made the sell a good bit easier.
And when I found out that she and Jackie had booked a room in the youth hostel for July and August, we did the same. I was ecstatic.
We flew out in order to arrive a couple of days before they would, and that gave me the chance to get to know the place, including the red-light district. Women in windows, half-dressed, smiling at any guy who was brave enough to stop and look at them. And we were to be there for two months.
The hostel was very close to the town centre, and luckily the male and female rooms were on opposite sides of the entrance foyer so Stewie and I could be discreet until I’d worked out how best to fake a chance meeting with her.
On our second evening there, we went over to the café on the opposite side of the street. We had only been there for a few minutes when I saw her come out the front door of the hostel pushing a bicycle. How long had she been there?
I told Stewie I was going to follow her and he insisted that he came along with me. I didn’t say no.
She didn’t seem too stable as she set off and that made it easy for us to keep up with her. Then she turned into a street along the side of a canal and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We were back in the red-light district, De Wallen.
I was even more amazed when she got off her bike and walked over to a door and rang the bell.
She left the bike standing in the street before going in and closing the door behind her. I ran over to see what it was and I couldn’t believe it. Becky? Dieter? Suzi? Which one was she?
I knew that she’d found the trip expensive but this was no way to fund it. A feeling of disgust came over me. Stewie just suggested we go back to the café and he’d buy me something to eat.
Boiled Egg Suntan – Katie Paterson
We chained the back wheels of our bikes together like we’d seen the locals do and took a table outside a bar that had blue parasols. Jackie didn’t like being in the sun too long so I took the seat that was half in, half out and covered my sunburned thigh with a napkin.
The waiter came over and switched our ashtray out for a fresh one, asked what we’d like to drink – without actually looking at either of us.
Beertje for me, Jackie said. She was good at making the effort like that.
I said I’d have the same and an ice cream as well. I pointed to a poster on the window to be clear but I don’t think he saw me.
We sat nursing our drinks for a while, which I think annoyed the guy. He kept dragging chairs in front of us to make room for more customers. It’s hard to do anything at pace in Amsterdam though, especially when the sun’s out. The cafes are all set up for people-watching: the chairs face out the way onto the street so you don’t feel like you’re even meant to talk to each other, which worked perfectly for me and Jackie as we were running out of things to say to each other.
Both those girls have cellulite, she said, nodding towards two teenagers in denim shorts.
She could be a real bitch.
I used my napkin to wipe the ice cream off my hands and dragged my chair closer to Jackie’s to get into the shade. We were close enough now that the hair on our arms was touching. I looked down behind my sunglasses at her tanned skin, which looked exactly like the shell of a boiled egg I’d had for breakfast at the hostel that morning. At the time, I’d almost not wanted to eat it. But I was running out of money and Amsterdam’s an expensive place. I’d take what I was given.
Afternoon Fade – Chris Nelms
It was late afternoon by the time they had finished their relentless cultural tour. It’s funny how after years of marriage a weekend away leaves you scrambling to fill the hours with experiences, anything not to have a conversation. They grabbed a coffee and took up residence on a park bench in the afternoon sunshine. Listening to the wind push faint sounds of cars and bike bells through the park.
“I hope Gabriella’s not a pain for mum,” Michella sipped her coffee as two ducks on the pond came in to listen.
“Should I call her?”
“She’s fine,” Jacob was miles away, the vibrancy of Amsterdam reminded him of a missed youth racing for achievements against the call to freedom.
Two girls shakily dismounted from their bikes on the other side of the pond and lay down under a tree.
Michella studied the happy pair. “Do you think Gabriella will come here one day? Backpacking with a friend?”
Jacob stared blankly at the vacant ducks.
“God the possibilities! All that future! University starting after the summer, new experiences new friends, maybe I should call mum just to check.”
The two girls across the pond were nose to nose, deep in conversation.
“Do you remember our uni days Jacob? The late night conversations, the parties! How we ever had the time to study, it’s beyond me,” Michella smiled to herself.
The girls began to embrace as Jacob aimed blades of grass at the ducks which fluttered to his feet.
“There will be so much time now with the house empty. A time to start again…” Michella trailed off
The blonde girl put her arms around the other, they began to kiss. Michella and Jacob watched on as the two girls fondled each others thighs, lips softly caressing necks.
“Jacob, I want a divorce.”
Adrift – Martin Macaulay
The girl in the photo looks happy. She has golden hair which shines in the sun, its glow accentuated by the grainy instant camera technology. In each hand she is holding an oar and the small boat drifts far from the lake’s shore. Mature oaks, thick with foliage, line the perimeter. You can see red tiled roofs from large homes peeking through the lush greenery.
It’s Amsterdam. Not that I can tell from looking at the scene, but my mum has written ‘Amsterdam. 1985’ on the other side in green biro, the ink more faded than the picture. There is also a kiss. A small x etched in red in the bottom right hand corner. I don’t know who the girl is. Mum never mentioned her.
My gaze moves from the girl in the picture to this little bird of a figure, bent in her chair, staring out into the garden.
‘Who was she mum?’ I say to no one in particular. She looks at me, surprised I’m there even though I’ve been sat with her for an hour.
‘The girl. What happened to her?’
I place the photo in front of her but she looks through it. The time for questions passed a long time ago. When we knew things were slipping, we went through mum’s possessions. Documenting memories, trying to staple facts and stop them from being lost in the mist. But a life can’t be relived in a precious few months. In the end there were too many questions.
Questions I didn’t know I wanted to ask
They drift in, silently on a breeze.
Now they float.
Going Dutch By Dominic Howell
Alan finished sword fighting and immediately felt the urge to get high. He took off his treasured tin hat – it’d been a nightmare to get through customs – and contemplated leaving his codpiece on for when he hit the waterfront bars of Amsterdam later. He broke out into a smile imagining Jackie’s reaction, and he scanned the crowd but couldn’t see her.
His brain felt tired and spongy and he was still panting when he arrived, clopping like a Medieval robot, into the changing room. He went to the peg where his jeans were hanging, threw down his sword and helmet, and sat on the bench opposite. The familiar stench of the male changing room comforted him somehow. Home from home.
He was carelessly exhausted, sweating, and strands of his long, brown hair were matted onto his forehead. He liked the feeling of the chainmail weighing down on his lungs. As he was sitting there, enjoying his tiredness, he spotted his opponent through the open flanks of his jeans. He watched as the Dutchman unbuckled his armour, and peeled off a pair of white sword-fighting leggings. He had thick, powerful legs with muscular definition. He kept staring as the man took off his chainmail and carefully folded it into an Adidas sports bag. Then he removed his vest with an ease and grace that kept Alan interested. His body was tight and compact. The full force of their exchanges flashed into Alan’s mind. There was no doubt about it, he was an impressive swordsman, and Alan was glad he’d made the 700-mile journey.
Then, the guy was naked, and Alan was pretending not to look. He put his head down and stared at the tiled floor, but found himself impulsively looking up again. He caught a glimpse of the man’s buttocks as he headed to the showers. Alan checked his phone, no call from Jackie. And then he realised he’d left his towel back at the hostel, no shower either. He felt a pang of disappointment.
Trick of the light – Niamh Gordon
If you can imagine this, not too long ago I took rooms in Amsterdam for the Spring. I had a novel to finish and I was running away from a broken heart. The apartment I’d found was simple and spare, and my desk faced the wall, which was exactly what I needed. No distractions, no dreamy glances out onto the street, watching the world come into colour. I focused instead on the magnolia paint in front of me, and tried to type the truth.
But after a few days I realised I’d stumbled into a dream. There was a large window to my right, and because of a peculiarity in the way the buildings on the other side of the canal curved away to the left, twice a day I found my desk was bathed in sun. In the morning, the rising sun cast itself through the window and lit me from behind. And then, in the evening, the setting sun glazed me in exactly the same way.
Of course, I knew the light from the evening sunset wasn’t real. It was an imitation: a reflection, projected into my room by the windows of one of the wide, tall buildings across the canal. When I looked over there the light blinded me, blazed gold and white long after I shut my eyes. But I grew to love this false sunset. It didn’t feel false. And, as the time passed, I found that I’d rather have them both—the morning light, and the evening—and accept an impossibility: that here, the sun both rose and set in the east. Every day the same, so that by the end of my stay, my novel abandoned, I’d forgotten entirely which of my sunlights was real.
Fin – Angela Arcese
The last time I was in Amsterdam, I was going home to America from France. I had an overnight stay at Schiphol. I ate a slice of airport pizza, the best thing I’d tasted in months. In Paris I’d lived on Nutella and Camels.
Snow sparkled in the night on the path to my motel. A Dutch woman with silver hair said, “Hello, how are you?” in English as I passed. She made me want to stay in Amsterdam, that’s how desperate I was. One kind hello and I could imagine a whole new life, where this woman was my neighbor and she had a tabby cat and drank a lot of red wine.
My motel room was a tiny modern pod. I lay on the crisp bed and thought about Gilles. Our relationship was impossible to sustain. The first time I met him he said, “Tu es la plus belle femme que j’ai jamais vue” – which was ridiculous. And even if it had been true just in his eyes, no one stays beautiful, I tried to tell him, but he said, as if time and gravity meant nothing, no, you always will be. He wanted kids, but I was getting too old. He wanted to go to America, but what about his job? I would have stayed in France, but my son was stuck in the States with a dad who despised me.
One night Gilles and I walked the Champs-Élysées and he yelled, “Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire?” in the crowd again and again. What the fuck were we going to do?
Here’s what we did:
- I went to Dallas.
- He stopped Skyping.
- I met someone else.
- He emailed me death threats.
- I told him to send me my clothes, and he hedged, then admitted he’d sliced them to shreds with a knife.