One Enchanted Evening

by Debra Moolenaar

On such an enchanted evening, nothing could go wrong. A soft summer breeze before Easter was a good omen and just look at those candy cane clouds. After battling her way off the number 7 tram at Leidseplein, Astrid hurried to the agreed-upon meeting spot. Stationing herself between a  trendy fish restaurant with mosaic walls and a cosy Thai café with thick Persian carpets for tablecloths, she shivered and drew closer, her new cashmere shawl. Which restaurant would he choose?

“Pieter, over here!” She waved. “How lovely of you to invite me out this evening. It must be almost a year since I left Deering International.  Any office gossip?”

“Not much.” He shied away from her ritual bear hug.

She smiled and shoved her nibbled fingertips through her close bottle-blonde crop. He’d not changed much. Perhaps his sandy hair was a bit sparser and he had gained a solid middle-aged paunch. But where’s the harm in that? Heavens, no one was getting any younger, she least of all. But after seven years of having been just friends, he’d finally give a sign that they might be more than that.  That would make up for any sin.

“Tell me about your new job,” he said, wagging his head as if it were a tail. “You must love the free parking.”

“It’s great.” She winked. “Except that I don’t drive.”

“Sorry.” He turned to watch a cyclist whiz past. “I forgot.”

“Never mind.” She patted his arm. It was just past seven and the scent of grilled coriander chicken made her tummy rumble. “How about dinner? Why don’t we try the Thai?”

He buttoned his pea-green duffle coat. “For old times sake, let’s go to the Roxy for a couple of nice cold beerjes.”

“Um…sure.” With a sideways glance back at the restaurants she scrambled after him down a grimy alley carpeted with cigarette butts and soggy moss.

“Are you still living in Amstelveen?” she shouted. “Near the Amsterdamse Bos?”

He turned and glassy-eyed, stared.

“You had a bungalow with a garden that backed straight into the park,” she prompted. “Such a nice open feel to it. A great place to raise a family.”

“That’s my parent’s house,” he mumbled into his coat collar. “I live in Amsterdam just off the Overtoom.”

“I didn’t realise that.” She tried to smile. Perhaps her own memory wasn’t as reliable as she’d believed or perhaps – no – Pieter would never tell a lie. “The Overtoom is…so central…I mean so convenient for your commute.”

“Yeah, well.” Like a squirrel in the park, he scurried left on the Marnixstraat then right on the Liedeskade.  Dead end.  With his back against a boarded up shop window, he waited. “Sorry, got lost. But I was meaning to ask if there were any vacancies in your company. Deering is doing some downsizing and our department is on the hit list. You never know.”

“Yes, you never know.”  She nodded without conviction.  “Which way now.”

“Back.” As he turned to retreat, a lanky lad in tatty jeans and a crumpled Manchester United football shirt nearly mowed them down. “Hey, mate, watch where you’re going,” said Pieter.

“Hey, mate, watch where you’re going,” mimicked the thick tourist tongue.  “You got a problem?”

“No.” Pieter straightened his spine.  “Though you might take more care especially since you’ve been drinking.”

“Me drinking?” The man flashed a row of perfect teeth. “So I have.” His well-executed left hook caught everyone by surprise.

Grunting, Pieter unbuttoned his coat and raised his fists.

“Don’t,” whispered Astrid, her body humming on emergency alert. Pieter was twice the size of the lad and twice as strong too. He wouldn’t hurt anyone, of course not. But this time he’d been provoked. She grabbed his hand and held on tight. “Don’t,” she repeated. “It’s not worth it.”

“Listen to your girlfriend, mate.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” he hissed lunging forward. Tripping over Astrid’s shawl, he fell flat on his face.

The lad chuckled and sprinted into the gathering dusk.

“What an asshole.” Pieter brushed dirt from his khaki trousers.

She kneeled to retrieve her new shawl from the ground.  She ought to be full of pride with Pieter’s  bravery.  So why was it all she felt was the emptiness of defeat?

“Hey, what’s this?”  Pieter kicked at a black lump and heaved a belly laugh. “Looks like our tourist has lost his wallet. Now isn’t that just too bad.”

“He’ll come back for it.”  She grabbed a lamp post to help her to stand.  Why on earth was she was so weak at the knees? It wasn’t as if she were a stranger to petty violence. Even though born and raised in the pastoral fields of Nord Holland, she’d lived in the city for years.

“What if he doesn’t?”

“Then… someone will find it and turn it in.”

“And what if they don’t?” He snickered. “What if they steal all the money and our visitor can’t pay for his hotel? There must be a couple of thousand in there at the very least.”

“There’s a politie station back at the Leidseplein,” she offered, refusing to cry.

“No.” He deposited it in his pocket. “Later. The politie never close.”

The sixties Beatles music in the Roxy was loud and the multitude of unknown faces, thick.  Fogs of blue cigarette smoke stung her eyes and there was no place to sit down.  As Pieter forged his way to the bar,  she hung back and caressed her stained shaw.  The price of a week’s groceries trampled in the mud.  The buttery fabric lavished with hand-embrodered dragonflies with seed pearl eyes that had been love at first sight, was ruined.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  Never before had Pieter spoken as he had tonight – so thoughtless – so rude. Of course she wasn’t his girlfriend.  She knew that.  But why did he have tell it to a drunken tourist?  She’d like to think that when she’d first met him he’d never have behaved like that.  But she’d only be kidding herself.  That was the way he’d always been and always would be.

“There we go.” Pieter plunked down two foaming mugs on a dusty window ledge. “Hey Astrid, I’m sorry about tonight. This isn’t what I had planned.”

“What did you have planned?”

“I don’t know…something…but not this.”

“Do you really mean to turn that wallet over to the police?”

“Sure.”

She stared into her beer and watched yeasty bubbles burst, one after another.

“You don’t believe me?

She refused to look up.

“OK, it that’s you think then take it to the politie yourself.”  He yanked the wallet from his pocket and shoved it into her hand. “Deal?”

“Deal?”

“You give my CV to your boss and your conscience remains unstained.”

“Sure.”  She wrapped her new shawl around the wallet then shoved them both in her handbag. “I’ve got to go.  Send me an email.”

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