The rattling sound of my wheeled suitcase echoes across the canal in the Amsterdam night. Apart from the occasional drunken cyclist, the city centre is deserted.
She was still asleep when I left, her swollen belly heaving gently up and down in time with her breathing. On her forehead was a slight frown that briefly relaxed when I kissed her goodbye. I leave her as I leave cities, not knowing if I’ll return.
At first the voices sound distant, like a neighbour’s television. But with each step I can hear them more clearly. They’re coming from the alley. A man, a woman and a bicycle. Mumbling and shouting. An argument. Or worse? The woman calls for help. I hear a blow, then a groan, followed by the thud of a body falling to the ground. I hurry, but not fast enough. The bicycle is on its side, its rear wheel spinning. The attacker is bent over the girl. Now he sees me too. He’s wearing a worn-out hat and a dirty coat. A face full of displeasure. He points to me, slowly, as if to say something threatening. The words don’t come. He grabs the girl’s bag and runs off the other way.
The victim is young, a student, not from here. Her pinkish cheeks are not yet besmirched by the city. Not a girl who has felt the sharp claws of urban contact – till today. She’s lying unconscious on the ground with her arms and legs flung out helplessly. There’s a big lump round her temple and eye socket. I take off my coat and put it under her head. A patch of blood. Not much, but still – a head wound. She opens her eyes. For a few seconds she looks at me uncomprehendingly, like a child that has just woken up.
She can’t remember what happened. I tell her she’s been mugged. ‘Did you see it?’ I nod.
‘Then why the fuck didn’t you do something about it?’ she says angrily. She’s so pretty as she lies there, so fragile. Her eyes are still blurred, but she exudes a serene calm, as if she’s fallen on the right part of the back of her head.
‘I was too late,’ I confess.
She slowly clambers to her feet.
‘Do you want me to call an ambulance? The police?’
She feels the lump on her head and looks at her bloodstained hand.
‘No, it’s OK.’ She picks up her bike.
‘What did he look like?’
I try to recall the shadowy figure. ‘He was thin, but wearing clothes that were too big for him.’
She rolls her eyes.
‘Yeah, thanks – fat lot of good that’ll do.’
‘Not much of a hero, are you? But since you’re all I’ve got, will you walk me home?’ The church clock strikes four. My flight’s leaving just before seven.
I ride the bike. There isn’t the slightest breeze in the narrow side streets. She pulls the suitcase behind her on the cycle path. She lives in West Amsterdam – a long way away. On reaching the front door, I wait till she’s locked her bike. She asks me if I’d like to come up. I check the time on my phone.
‘I’d rather not go up the stairs on my own,’ she says, looking at me with wide-open eyes. I say yes.
We walk up the narrow stairwell. It’s a small flat, with IKEA furniture. She goes into the bathroom and runs a bath.
‘Grab a seat.’
She goes into the open bedroom and looks at her wound in the mirror. ‘Christ, what a sight.’ She unbuttons her trousers and lets them slip down. She has long legs, and well-shaped thighs. She takes off her shirt and bra, and puts on a bathrobe that falls smoothly round her body. I can see the base and curves of her breasts. She drops her panties and turns towards me. ‘Getting an eyeful, are we?’ she asks provocatively. I quickly look away.
‘I don’t mind. I’m going to have a bath. Will you make us some tea?’
She goes into the bathroom. I can hear the water sploshing as she sinks into it.
‘Wow, that’s great. Can you bring my tea in here?’
I can hear her humming as I search the kitchen cupboards for tea.
‘Are you coming? I’m bored.’
‘There aren’t any clean cups,’ I call.
‘Then wash one.’
‘Sure,’ I mutter. ‘Shall I vacuum the place while I’m about it?’
‘No, I can think of something better.’
I take her tea into the bathroom. There’s no lather. She’s lying there, looking very desirable, up to her ears in hot water.
‘Coming in too?’
I look at her doubtfully.
‘I’ve got a flight to catch.’
She waves this aside. ‘You’ll make it – or you can catch another one.’
It doesn’t take me long to decide. I take off my shirt and trousers, and stand before her in my boxer shorts.
‘Not bad,’ she says. ‘The tall dark stranger. And those too,’ she adds, pointing to my boxers. I do what I’m told.
I rotate slowly so she can inspect me.
‘Fine, now we’re equal.’ She laughs.
When I quietly slip out of bed at dawn, she’s already asleep. I pick up my clothes from the ground and leave without waking her.
Later that day I’m driving along the sunny Finchley Road to Mayfair for a lunch appointment with a private investor. On an impulse I decide to pay my father in North London a visit.
He sits opposite me, drinking tea. His grey hair is cut short. He’s still well-built, and as strong as an ox. In the bookcase photographs of his four children, by three different mothers, his youngest son is just starting school. His girlfriend brings us sugar cubes and leaves us alone. He observes me from top to toe. We both say nothing for a while.
‘So? What’s the matter?’
I shift awkwardly.
‘I’m going to be a father,’ I say hesitantly.
He claps his hands in delight.
‘At last. I thought you’d never get round to it. So why are you so gloomy?’
‘Because I’m afraid.’
He waves this aside.
‘Afraid of what?’
‘I don’t know. It’s so final. What if I regret it?’
‘There’s nothing to be afraid of. Bringing up children is dead easy.’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Look at yourself, your sister, your younger brothers. You’re all doing fine, aren’t you? Let me tell you, it was no sweat. Pure instinct.’
I can’t deny that instinct is his guide.
‘But that’s the whole point,’ I say. ‘My instinct’s letting me down.’
He looks at me disappointedly.
‘Europe’s got hold of you. You think you have to be in control of your life. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more boring than that. Leave being “good” to pious Muslims and European moralists or whoever. Trying to keep in control is for people who are afraid of living.’