The Ghost Tram

Amsterdam.

There was me huddled in an alley with only a sheet of cardboard to keep the rain at bay. I didn’t own a damn thing except the clothes I wore.

When Dan stumbled across me, a rat was nibbling my shoe. I was too cold to know or care.

Dan recognised me at once. We’d shared a room in some hostel in Dublin and I’d made off with his money. And now he had the perfect payback opportunity. He could have kicked me in the head or hauled me into a canal. But Dan didn’t do that. He saw me in that alley, bundled me into a taxi and got me back to his place.

One of nature’s gentlemen.

Dan was an artist. He lived and worked in an attic above a fish shop in the Jordaan. It was cluttered with paintings he couldn’t sell. There was a camp bed in the corner and a table with a primus stove on it.

The morning after he found me, Dan went out and got another bed. We made space for it under the table and that’s where I slept.

The first weeks of our friendship were marked by Dan painting and bitching about nobody appreciating his genius. I’d listen to him from the lawn chair on the balcony and occasionally venture to say something encouraging.

Twice a day, I knocked up a frugal meal on the primus stove. Me and Dan would eat it on the balcony and tell each other what we’d do once fame finally caught up with us. Dan wanted to live on Tahiti like Paul Gauguin. Me – I dreamt of Hollywood and its swimming pools. I knew I had it in me to write a great script. But not yet. I wasn’t ready.

Like I say, Dan’s studio was in the Jordaan. It was small and needed renovating. Even so, the rent must have been considerable. I didn’t want to ask how much; that would have risked raising the subject of my contribution to the household income. But one day curiousity got the better of me. So I said to him, ‘How can you afford this place?’

We were on the balcony, leaning over the rail to watch a girl in a low-cut dress go by. It was a sunny day. The smell from the fish shop reached us three storeys up. The girl didn’t hang around.

I pay in kind,’ Dan replied.

With paintings?’

With my body.’

I was a little disgusted. It was easy to see why the landlady would appreciate a bit of bed time with Dan. He was athletically built with thick black hair and perfect teeth.

Vrouw Schoonhaven, on the other hand, was pushing sixty, had a figure like a wine barrel and reeked of fish.

I’ll get a job,’ I said guiltily. ‘It’s time I pulled my weight.’

Dan shrugged. ‘Wait until you’ve got your strength back.’

But I was never going to get my strength back living on lentils and rice.

We talked about it some more. There weren’t many openings for an Englishman in Amsterdam. Dan suggested I try the Wijngarden on Haarlemstraat. He knew the owner and thought he might be short-handed.

I started the next day. Four hours in the evening, five days a week. Payment under the table.

The pay wasn’t great but it would cover the rent.

The Wijngarden was a favoured hangout for Amsterdam’s Bohemian underclass – its would-be artists, never-yet-made-it authors and between-job actors. Most of them were broke and adept at making a beer last an hour. Any tips I got were miniscule.

I spent most of my time listening to people proclaiming how they were a hair’s breadth from success.

The owner was an American called Mr. Tom. So long as I wiped the tables every half hour and never kept a customer waiting, he kept off my case. Most nights he holed himself up in the back with a bottle of wine and a stack of porn videos.

When I got my first pay packet – two hundred guilders stuffed in a brown envelope – I raced back to the attic and dropped it in Dan’s lap.

He was sitting on the table, a sketchpad under his arm. There was a fevered look in his eyes and a flush to his cheeks.

It’s come at last,’ he said, tapping his head. ’It’s here. My inspiration.’

He picked up the envelope. ‘How much?’

Two hundred guilders.’

Not bad. Let’s get some chips then grab a few beers at the Wijngarden.’

Jumping off the table, Dan clapped me on the shoulder. ‘It’s been a good day, Kel. I can’t wait to tell you all about it.’

The Wijngarden was busy.

Dan seemed to know everyone. He introduced me to people I’d previously known only as customers and then we shoved our way onto the end of a crowded table.

We waited until we had beers in front of us before Dan told me about the ‘truly amazing thing’ that had happened to him.

I was having a glass of wine on Spuistraat,’ he said, ‘when I looked over the road and set eyes upon the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She was sitting outside a café reading a book. Everything about her was elegant and self-assured – even down to the way she sipped her tea like she knew she’d never spill it. I was fascinated. Enthralled.

Nothing else mattered. She was the centre of Creation. I felt like I was on some sort of drug trip that wasn’t so much a distortion of reality as a peeling away of the mundane to reveal the delicate workings beneath.

For a long time, I lost the power of thought. Thankfully it returned and I remembered my sketchpad. I drew feverishly, afraid that she might go before I’d captured her essence. I made studies of her eyes, her lips, the crook of her elbow. And it seemed like I was more than an artist. Sometimes I was an architect or an anatomist, maybe even a mathematician. With every stroke of my pencil, I knew I was getting closer to the Big Secret.’

The Big Secret?’

Dan nodded earnestly. ‘The Meaning of Life. The Purpose of It All. The Reason I Became an Artist.’ He smiled in a self-deprecating way. ‘I know I’m getting carried away. But I’m an artist not a poet. I don’t have the words to truly describe the moment.’

One word will do it, Dan. Love. You’d fallen in love.’

But it was more than that. There’s something that goes beyond love – something deeper, more fundamental.’

Did you go over and introduce yourself?’

Good Lord, no. That would have broken the spell. Besides, I didn’t have the chance. I was sketching the way she held her teacup. A tram rattled past. I looked up and she was gone.’

The night wore on. We drank away a sizeable portion of my earnings and staggered home singing and laughing.

Next morning was the best in a long time. I was coaxed out of sleep by the smell of bacon and freshly brewed coffee.

Crawling out from under the table, I found Dan on the balcony tucking into a fried breakfast. ‘Yours is on the primus,’ he said, and so it was.

After we’d eaten, we felt like kings. All those dreams we’d shared seemed that much more real. It was time, I declared, for me to hunt down a secondhand typewriter and get busy with my script.

Dan was delighted. But he wouldn’t let me go before I’d seen his sketches.

The first was a full head and shoulders of a girl with long, dark hair and a face that was part oriental. She was beautiful in a way that made me think of misty mornings.

The next picture was just her face. And then her eyes, her wrist and her hand. He’d also captured her shoulder, the nape of her neck and the curve of her breasts.

Now get out,’ said Dan. ‘And don’t come back without a typewriter and a ream of paper. I have work to do.’

The days that followed were a fever of creativity as Dan painted and I wrote. We broke for meals and the odd can of beer. On Monday and Tuesday I went to work at the Wijngarden and tried not to think about the rate at which we were getting through my wages.

My script was going well. It was about two down and out lovers in Amsterdam. They lived in a squat and muddled through as best they could. But everything seemed to go against them.

In the meantime, Dan’s work reached unprecedented heights.

Girl On the Sidewalk was exquisite. Even before it was finished, it filled me with a yearning, an aching loneliness, a sense of there being something wonderful that I could only glimpse and never attain. Amidst the hustle and bustle of Spuistraat, the Girl was an oasis of calm untouched by the commonplace.

She was the eye of the storm.

I had never originally intended to base my heroine upon her. But the more I wrote, the more I fleshed out the world of my story, the clearer it became that she could be no other. And Dan, of course, was her lover.

Not that I ever told Dan.

I went home on Tuesday night with a bottle of whisky and a determination to knock out another ten pages before hitting the sack.

As I climbed the narrow stairs to the attic, I heard Vrouw Schoonhaven in the throes of passion. Her grunts and groans echoed through the brickwork. Dan was taking care of the rent again.

I hurried up to the attic. A breeze stirred Dan’s sketchpad which was sitting on the table.

Shutting the balcony doors, I pulled the curtains and left a gap for the moonlight. It fell upon Dan’s picture like an ethereal spotlight.

The painting was complete. A moment in time had been perfectly captured and I knew at last the feeling Dan had tried to convey to me in the Wijngarden.

Love wasn’t the right word for it. What I felt was more akin to worship, to a spiritual awakening. There was something about the Girl that rendered all else ordinary.

I couldn’t stand to look at the painting. It made me feel base.

Cracking open the whisky, I poured myself a good measure, sat down and slipped a sheet of paper into the typewriter.

Then I wrote.

I wrote as a man might write if he knew he wouldn’t see another morning. I wrote like the world’s worst sinner desperate to confess all.

I wrote. Page after page. My wrist ached. My eyes smarted. My heart sang. And before I knew it, I was nearing the end. The Lovers had their backs to the wall. Life had defeated them. Not even love could save them now.

And that’s where I stopped. My mind blanked. So close to the finishing line and I couldn’t go on.

Tired and drunk, I fell asleep at the table and dreamt of swimming pools gleaming in the California sun.

When I awoke, the final scene still eluded me. I knew it was somewhere in my head but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps I didn’t want to.

There was no sign of Dan. This didn’t bother me but something else did and I wasn’t sure what.

I stretched my muscles, rubbed my neck. As my thoughts turned to breakfast, a realisation hit me like a thunderbolt. The picture was gone.

Anxiety gripped me. Anger too. And self-reproach. If I hadn’t gotten blind drunk, this wouldn’t have happened. I’m a light sleeper and the floorboards creaked like the timbers of an old ship. Even the nimblest of burglars would have woken me if I’d been sober.

What was I going to tell Dan? That I’d let someone walk off with his masterpiece? That for the sake of a drink I’d blown his chance of making it?

Before I had time to think things through, I heard footsteps on the stairs. It was too late to run. I was going to have to face the music.

Dan breezed in with a hearty good morning. He picked up the empty easel and placed it against the wall.

Get changed into something decent,’ he said. ‘You and me are going to celebrate.’

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a cheque and waved it in my face. ‘Two thousand guilders.’

You don’t mean – ?’

Dan laughed and hugged me. ‘I did it! I sold Girl on the Sidewalk!’

The weeks that followed were Hell.

My script remained unfinished. I revised it and polished it. I agonised over every word and every nuance. But still that closing sequence, that last crucial piece of the jigsaw eluded me.

And Dan fell to pieces.

It was days before he started on a new picture and hours before he gave up on it. Every day after was the same. He’d bring out a fresh canvas, mix some paints, daub a few colours here and there. And then throw in the towel.

After putting so much into Girl on the Sidewalk, he had nothing left to give.

With all that ennui and frustration, it’s no wonder we turned to drink.

We drank before breakfast. Usually a couple of beers. Then after our daily ritual of fruitlessly searching for inspiration, we’d head down to the Red Light District and lounge about in a bar feeling like characters from a Jean Paul Sartre novel.

Ironically, working in the Wijngarden gave me a break from the booze but as soon as I finished I’d hit another bar with Dan or we’d stay in and drink cheap wine.

There was never enough money for the rent, so Vrouw Schoonhaven retained her weekly treat.

I could see Dan slowly losing it. He would pick fights with strangers for no reason. Some nights, when I lay in bed unable to sleep, I heard him crying in the dark. He seldom ate, showered or changed his clothes.

He was becoming such a pain that I thought about getting the hell out. But I kept remembering the night he’d found me in an alley and played the Good Samaritan.

We were going to sink or swim together.

And then everything changed.

Though the Wijngarden was filling up with its usual consignment of deadbeats and beatniks, the atmosphere was subdued. It was about eleven o’clock. Mr. Tom was out back. His snores made a curious counterpoint to the carnal sounds of the video that had sent him to sleep.

Nobody spoke above a whisper.

The atmosphere was beginning to get to me.

I went to put some money in the jukebox. Halfway across the room, a creeping sensation on the back of my neck made me turn around.

The Girl sat by the corner window with a glass of wine. She was alone. More than alone, she was lonely. I could see it in her eyes.

Dan had captured her perfectly. I’d assumed he’d idealised her, ignored her flaws, but she was flawless.

She was also the girl of my script.

A feeling of guilt overwhelmed me as I remembered how I had thrown every possible tribulation at her, chipped away at her self-esteem. All the pain she carried with such quiet dignity – that was down to me.

I couldn’t bear it.

Taking refuge in the stock room, I had a small cry and a spliff.

When I came out, she was gone. Her empty glass sat on the table. It was marked with lipstick.

Dan was rolling a spliff when I burst into the attic. He had on a pair of underpants and the look of someone who’d spent too long in the trenches.

I saw her,’ I blurted out.

Who?’ Dan sat on the table. Tobacco spilled onto his crotch.

The Girl on the Sidewalk.’ Breathlessly, I described my brief encounter.

Are you sure it was her?’

It couldn’t have been anyone else.’

Then she’s real?’

Of course she’s real.’

Dan crushed the spliff in his hand. ‘Where is she now?’

How the hell should I know?’

Didn’t you follow her?’

I was working.’

You idiot, Kel!’ Dan’s eyes flashed dangerously. I prayed we weren’t going to get into a fight because I knew I’d come out of it the worst. But the moment passed and he was suddenly quite jolly.

Dan slipped out of his underpants and headed for the shower.

What are you going to do?’ I asked him.

Find her,’ he said.

Dan showered and put on clean clothes. He looked once more like the Dan who had painted Girl on the Sidewalk, the Dan who knew he was going to make it big one day.

There was no point trying to stop him. Nor did I want to. Though his search was likely to prove futile, it gave him a sense of purpose. And if he didn’t find her tonight, he could try again tomorrow and the day after. It was better than drinking himself to death.

He returned a few hours later, woke me up and told me what had happened.

He hadn’t expected to find her, but it was a good night for walking, for getting lost in unfamiliar streets and winkling out whatever secrets the city still held.

He headed away from the Jordaan, past the museums and out to where tourists seldom venture. If a turning looked promising, he took it. If a road seemed familiar, he ignored it.

After about an hour, he was as lost as he could be in a small city. He paused outside the entrance to a park. The houses across the way looked empty. And there wasn’t a car in sight.

Dan found a wall to sit on and rolled himself a cigarette. Closing his eyes, he imagined the Girl reclining on the steps of the Van Gogh Museum. And he saw her as he thought Gauguin would have – ablaze with colour and filled with the glory of creation.

He was shaping his next painting. It formed in his mind in a split second, complete and perfect. His torment was over.

A bell clanged. Power lines hummed.

Dan looked at his watch. It was way too late for a tram, and yet there it was, snaking round the corner, heading in his direction.

He figured it was being transferred to a depot in readiness for the morning run. But, as it rattled past, he could see that every seat was taken. A few passengers had to stand. Every face told its own story of despair and bewilderment. Except for one that turned and smiled sadly at him.

It was her,’ said Dan. ‘She knew I’d be there.’

The tram rolled on past the stop and into the night. It left behind a profound silence and loneliness.

Dan headed home. The night was no longer his friend.

We talked until the sun came up. I didn’t know if Dan’s imagination had been playing tricks, but I knew he wasn’t lying. Dan wasn’t the sort.

Why didn’t the tram stop?’ he asked. ‘I wanted to get on – to be with her. To go wherever she was going.’

Finally unable to stay awake, I crawled back to bed. My dreams took me to an unknown quarter of the city where I waited for the Ghost Tram. It never came.

I awoke feeling cheated.

Dan was up before me. He had started his new painting. There was enough detail to make out the Van Gogh Museum. A couple of matchstick figures hurried by, their shoulders bent as if they were walking into a strong wind.

It was the picture Dan had described, only it wasn’t. The colours were angry, psychotic.

Dan stood in front of his easel waving a paintbrush like a dagger. I had seen him battling his inner demons before, but never so intensely.

Sensing it would be unwise to disturb him, I dressed and went down to check the post. There wasn’t any.

I rummaged through my pockets and found I had enough for breakfast and a few drinks. It was mid-afternoon; I figured I’d hang out in a bar and then head to work. Best to stay away from the attic until Dan had worked through his angst.

In the event, I spent most of the day wandering around Amsterdam. Some part of me hoped I’d run into the Girl, that she’d listen to me long enough to learn she had a fervent admirer. I owed Dan a lot. Bringing the Girl to him would be repayment in full.

She was his muse. It was only right that they should be together.

I did my shift in the Wijngarden and got back to the attic at midnight. Dan was on the balcony smoking a spliff.

It’s finished,’ he said. ‘Tell me what you think.’

So I took a look and was dumfounded. Matchstick men and women milled on a melting pavement. The museum seemed to have had been assembled from random body parts collected from an abattoir. The sun spun like it did when I had a migraine. And in the midst of it all was the Girl. Her hands were claws pressing at her cheeks, distorting her face. Waves of hideous colour radiated from her screaming mouth. Dan had taken all that was good from the Girl and replaced it with its mirror image.

I had never seen such a beautifully ugly painting in all my life. It scared me to think that the man who had painted it was standing right behind me.

What do you reckon?’ asked Dan as I rejoined him on the balcony.

It’s brilliant,’ I told him. ‘Brilliant but disturbing.’

What should I do? Burn it?’

I was horrified. ‘You should sell it.’

You’re right. If I burnt it, all that darkness would come right back to me.’

That night, I sat on the balcony pondering what Dan had said about the darkness in his painting. That same darkness inhabited my unfinished script.

What had started as an uplifting love story had quickly transformed itself into a tragedy. And why? Because I couldn’t stand to see my creations happy when I wasn’t.

Somehow I had infected Dan’s work with my negativity.

I pictured the Girl riding the Ghost Tram, unfulfilled, unable to move on. She was caught in Limbo, denied access to the afterlife. And I had put her there.

Dan persuaded me to tag along while he tried to sell his picture. He took it to a dealer on Breestrat. It was the same one who’d bought Girl on the Sidewalk. He wasn’t interested.

Too dark,’ was his verdict. He was a mouse of a man whose only interest in art lay in its commercial worth. ‘My clients are mostly tourists. They want happy pictures. Something to remind them of the good times they’ve had here.’

Next we tried a place on Albert Cuypstraat decked out like an art deco cinema. The owner wasn’t in but his assistant – a drop-dead gorgeous redhead – didn’t think he’d be interested. Looking around the shop, I was certain she was right. The walls were hung with works in the style of the Dutch masters. There was nothing there you could call modern.

We spent the day walking from dealer to dealer. Although a few made appreciative comments, none considered buying the piece.

Dan’s reactions ranged from quiet acceptance to despondency. I expected him to at least show the odd flash of anger but it never came. Perhaps he had known all along that he would never sell Girl on the Museum Steps.

That night, I was on duty at the Wijngarden. Dan staggered in, drunk and hell-bent on getting drunker.

After his fifth whisky, I tried to talk him into going home but he wouldn’t be persuaded.

I can’t stand to be in the attic on my own,’ he said. ‘Not with that thing there!’

He hated his picture with a vengeance. It resonated with some dark part of his soul. And he could lose it no more than he could lose his shadow.

A few of his fellow artists tried to cheer him up. He met their bonhomie with sour looks and muttered oaths.

After a while, they gave up and left him alone.

I all but carried Dan back to the attic. Thankfully, he fell asleep the moment I got him to bed.

But for me sleep was a long way off. I was worried about my friend. He was close to the edge and I had no idea how to keep him from going over.

The cause of it all – that damned picture – sat in the corner covered by a cloth. If Dan couldn’t bring himself to destroy it, maybe I could?

But there was no telling how Dan would react. He believed dark forces in the painting would be released if it was tampered with.

Besides, tomorrow was another day and there were still plenty of art dealers he could take the painting to. Unlike Dan, I saw Girl on the Museum Steps as a masterpiece. For all that it was disturbing, it was undoubtedly a work of genius, albeit a twisted and tortured one. Even if it never sold, it might at least lead to a commission. Or so I reasoned.

Grabbing a bottle of wine, I rolled into bed and set about drinking myself to sleep.

Dan and the painting were gone when I woke up. He’d left a note to say he was having another go at selling the thing. Good luck to them both, I thought.

After breakfast, I had a bash at a new script. I thought it would be easy to concentrate with Dan out of the way, but his absence was tangible. Now and then, my scalp would tingle and I’d feel certain he was standing behind me, glaring at the back of my head.

I’d look around and find myself alone.

Towards evening, all I had to show for my efforts was a pile of discarded paper. The attic became unbearable. It was as if some residue of Girl on the Museum Steps still lingered. When I stared at the paper in front of me, I saw her face and felt her torment.

I had to get out.

It was a calm, languid day with an overcast sky. Amsterdam felt subdued.

I strolled along the Amstel in a grey fugue. My thoughts drifted from one matter to another, never settling on any topic for long.

It seemed important to keep moving, to always increase the distance between myself and the attic.

Just after sunset, I found myself in an unfamiliar quarter. Abandoned warehouses brooded to the left of me. On my right, a piece of wasteland was in the process of being turned into an industrial estate. So far only one unit had been built. A small earth digger sat on a mound of dirt. There was no sign of activity.

The road terminated at a T-junction. I turned left.

Ten minutes later I was outside a park. The houses across the way were boarded up. There was no sign of human activity.

Exhausted by my walk, I sat on a low wall and considered heading back to the centre of town. There was a tram stop just down the road. If nothing else, it would have a map to tell me where I was.

I heard a tram approach. It swung round the corner.

If I ran, I could catch it. But something told me it wasn’t going my way.

I studied the faces of the passengers as it rolled by. Each was a mask of despondency and despair. These, I knew, were the people abandoned by life, those who had lost love or never known it.

Dan was sitting by the window, next to the Girl. Neither looked happy. He waved to me but I couldn’t bring myself to wave back.

The Ghost Tram didn’t stop.

Things barely registered when I returned home. A crowd milled about a body on the pavement. Glass shards glimmered in the moonlight like the Hollywood pools of my dreams. There was surprisingly little blood.

Vrouw Schoonhaven sat red-eyed in the doorway. Having used up all her tears, she stared into space.

Sirens approached.

I ran up to the attic. The balcony door was a splintered frame devoid of glass.

A fresh painting sat on the easel. It showed the Girl lying beside a tram. The side of her skull had been torn away. She was drenched in blood.

Another suicide.

And now she and Dan would ride the Ghost Tram together for all eternity.

Packing a rucksack, I headed for the station.

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