I approached the coloured lady. Her face was well hidden behind a thick curtain of smoke which came from the cigarette dangling from her lips, making it quite difficult for me to make her features. She sat forward and peered at me with a bored expression. Somehow, she still managed to evade the full glare of the red neon lights shining from across the street, whose tiny slats forced their way into the small hall she occupied in Anne Frank. She chewed on a bubble gum, making loud clicking sounds with her tongue. A musty tang, mixed with the strong whiff of tobacco, hung languorously in the air. It took all of me to keep from holding my nose and hiding my disgust. For the latter, I had the poor lighting in the hall to thank; smoker lady wasn’t the only one who avoided the intrusive tiny bright lights. The two worn armchairs resting on the wall and the sordid carpet were the only appurtenances that weren’t so lucky.
“May I help ya?”
Her voice dripped of boredom, reminding me of the Black American clusters in suburban New York and their funny singsong lilt.
“Yes Ma’am,” I parodied her accent. I could almost see a grimace in the featureless face behind the desk.
“I need company,” I ventured further.
Prior to that day, I had no idea concerning what really went on behind the massive oaken front doors of Anne Frank. The few times I had walked past the district, I never gave the buildings a second glance. But today, all of that was about to change.
“Ya been drinking?”
My slouched steps as I walked into the hall must have given me away. She cocked her head to the side, flipped ash from her cigarette onto the dirty brown carpet and regarded me with cold unfriendly eyes. I had the unsettling feeling that she was taking in my every detail.
“Let’s see some Id.”
I flipped my student Identity Card for her to see. To take a proper look at the card, Smoker Lady was forced into the light. She was coloured alright, with big round eyes that would have looked beautiful on a lady twenty years younger. She couldn’t have been less than forty-five, at least not with the dull look, the desperation and fear in her eyes as they regarded me. Her nose was pinched, and her teeth were brown, tobacco stained—I never would have been caught dead kissing her. Her cheeks drooped in shame just like the flesh in her exposed upper arms. Her skin was an uneven blend of coffee and orange. I was certain one of her precursors must have been American. The other, I wasn’t so sure; could have been anything from black to yellow. She drew her lips together at the side, so they formed a wrinkled circle of disapproval as she scrutinised the plastic.
“Damn coppers.” She muttered under her breath, taking a lazy drag on the almost extinguished cigarette. “Well, don’t ya blame me; ya look really young. Guess I was wrong.” She said with a heave of her wide shoulders. She fanned my face with smoke. “Got twenty dollars and ya just got ya a nice time.” She held on to the ‘nice’ word, drawing on it like it had some hidden meaning I was yet to fathom.
I counted two ten dollar bills from my wallet and dropped them on the worn wooden desk. Veined fingers snatched the bills and tucked them into a mountainous cleavage.
“Upstairs. Second floor, room 302. It’s the first door by your left as soon as you get off the landing. You won’t miss it.” Then, with a conspiratorial tone that sickened me, she said, “Enjoy.”
I hurried up the stairs, away from the stench of her and her dirty hall, but not before her voice caught my disappearing back.
“Her name’s Mati,” she called after me.
“Thanks for the info,” I hollered back.
I climbed up the second floor in one piece. The passage snaked down a dimly lit hall with several doors. The rays of the lone light bulb hanging overhead was barely enough to keep one from stumbling against the dreary non-descript metal and wooden contraptions alike that littered the hallway.
I held the brass knocker—it was a long-legged stripper—and hesitated. Did I have to come this far? I tried to weigh with my overburdened heart but just like I suspected, my domineering intellect seized all options, leaving me with the carnal thoughts of what a great tumble in the hay would do to my hurting ego and suicidal thoughts—at least this was better than drinking myself to death. By all means I had to forget her and move on.
One of the many doors along the hallway flung open, pouring harsh light into the gloomy passage. The door snapped shut almost immediately, taking its white light with it. A fat middle-aged man, an American by his looks, waddled towards me, struggling with his buckle. He gave me a frightened look, shielding his face with short pudgy fingers like he was afraid I might recognise him. I did not, and I didn’t care. I felt familiar disgust rise in the pit of my stomach.
I pulled back the stripper and rapped her twice on the metal door, then without waiting for a response, I turned the knob and stepped in.
Room 302 was quaint.
The same musty tang from downstairs came rushing into my olfactory lobes. The floor was laid with another sordid carpet that had cigarette burns in several places. Pale light hung limply from the wooden ceiling, casting its weak glow on the dirty brown curtains, hiding pockets of darkness here and there in the small room. An old ceiling fan whirred noisily, casting long shadows every time its blade swung over the light bulb. To my right was an armchair with patches of dirty brown foam peeping from its every corner. The smell of sweat was pungent. I wrinkled my nose; it was all I could do to keep away the lascivious images of American tourists whom I guessed frequented this place.
My gaze rested on the small bed in the middle of the room. Seated on the edge was a very pretty damsel. She had a gold wrap wound around her supple body, exposing her upper arms and a bit of her chest. A pair of red slippers lay beside her feet. From the look of them, I could safely assume they were about the only things worth any value in this smelly shack. I could feel her expressive eyes drill holes into my clothes.
I closed the door behind me, only then did I realise why the initial feeling I got from room 302, despite its discernable filth had been pleasantly strange. It was this girl.
She stood up and ran into my arms, burying her head on my shoulders like she had known me all her life. I stood transfixed, my heart thudding against my chest. She felt so fragile; I had the strangest of urges to protect her. Her curly black hair dangled loosely over her bare shoulders and she smelt nicely of a blend of many fruits. I inhaled her fragrance and found myself relaxing. I raised my hands, held them tentatively in the air before bringing them to rest on the small of her back. Then I felt the tears slowly creep down my cheeks. I hadn’t allowed myself to feel since Kelechi’s passing. I was so scared that my heart would burst if I let it feel the significant loss that had nearly crippled my brain.
I felt Mati’s hands tighten around my waist.
Like she knew my pain and could relate.
I stiffened, and then pulled away.
How did she see my grief? Was I so porous, she could easily glom my sorrow?
I took three long strides into the room and stood by the curtains. I threw them open and welcomed the moon with a wry smile. Here I was in a house of necessity, in the very heart of a foreign land. Kelechi would probably be churning in her watery grave if she knew where my insane desperation had led me. But she wasn’t here to see the anguish caused by her absence. She wasn’t here to see the shadows that lurked in a heart that was once luminous light. She wasn’t here to see how confused, how alone and how thin I had become.
I heard the shuffle of petite feet. I turned. Mati stood beside the bed, her gaze seeking mine. With all the innocence in the world, she let her wrap fall to the floor. My breath caught sharply in my throat; I can’t do this. I averted her eyes and returned my gaze to the moon and her emerald city.
Amsterdam lay before me like vast, pulsating machinery with a thousand green, red and yellow lights. From where I stood I could see the tall architectural masterpiece of the ancient Royal Palace which dominated Dam Square. The twinkling green lights of Amsterdam’s most famous bridge, the Magere Brug, or “Skinny Bridge” as it was fondly called dotted the distant skyline. I traced the lights of the Dutch draw-bridge from one bank of the River Amstel to another. But tonight its beauty didn’t hold its usual charm. The longer I stared, the sooner it paled.
Not so far away was the looming cross of Ouder Kerk. Tonight, the old church exuded peace that even I could feel. Not the frenetic immorality that bathed the Red Light District could touch this haven which was situated in the same neighbourhood as I was.
I closed my eyes and relaxed my shoulders. I forced myself to unclench my fists and breathe through my mouth. Now, that was better. Then I turned to face her.
Mati lay sprawled on the bed, naked as the day she was born. Her legs were carelessly thrown apart, exposing her clean-shaven pubic mound and the bloated lips of the moist crack in-between her thighs.
I sat beside her, willing myself to get it over with already. Even I, surprised myself when I picked up her wrap and covered her nakedness. She stared at me, disbelief colouring her eyes.
Then she sat up and that was when I caught a good look of her face.
Mati had a high forehead which was framed by her long curls. Her eyes were dark pools of emotion, perfectly spaced, reminding me of the eyes of a feline. Her neck was graceful, tapering down her chest towards the swell of her apple-shaped breasts. Her skin was dark, her lips full with a pout.
The alcohol in my system was wearing off, and looking around me, I realised I never should have come here. I made to stand but Mati grabbed my hand and pulled me towards her. In her eyes was a glowing light, a nagging question I immediately discerned.
“You want to know why I am here.”
Her head bobbed up and down like a basketball.
I favoured her with another wry smile and then something struck me.
“Why are you here?” I asked her instead.
A dark cloud fell over her face, swallowing the glint in her eyes. I watched as tears pooled just below her eyeballs, shimmering in the dimness like a lonely stream. She looked away.
“You see, not even you can tell me why you are here.” I said.
She shook her head vehemently from side to side and stared me straight in the eye. That was when it dawned on me. This beautiful girl was dumb. In her eyes, I could see tales and tales of pains past and pains, present; pain she could never express with words, pain that ate her up hourly and daily.
With frail hands, she wiped her tears and locked her gaze with mine. This time, I understood what she wanted. She wound her arm around my neck and pulled me to her bosom.
The dam broke and the tears I had denied light for the past weeks broke to the fore. Mati cradled me, rocking me to and fro in her arms like I was her child.
“She died!” I cried like a baby. “She left me all alone . . .”
Mati kissed my hair, pressing my face against her scented skin. I told her all about Kelechi, my childhood sweetheart with whom I had only recently exchanged marital vows. That had been six months ago, just before I got admission into the University of Amsterdam to do a Masters programme in Engineering. Two months ago she had called and told me she was heavy with child. I had begun necessary preparations for her to join me immediately. I could not stand her being all alone while expecting our first issue. Six months without her was already telling its toll. The time came for her to come, just two weeks ago.
“And . . . and her plane had crashed over the Atlantic.” I roared with tears. In my eyes, I felt my whole life slowly grinding to a halt.
Mati cuddled me, running her slim fingers over my face and bearded chin. She raised my face and sought my lips. Once again I surprised myself at the urgency with which I responded to her kisses. Within minutes our naked bodies lay entwined, moaning and writhing on the creaking bed like a pair of snakes.
I woke at dawn, a new man. The figure on the bed slept soundly, snoring like she had no cares. Quickly, I threw on my clothes, kissed Mati’s brow and headed out. I had no regrets. In Mati’s arms I had found a reason to look beyond my pain. I didn’t kid myself that it was going to be easy, but somehow I knew that with this emerald queen in cheap clothing and bedding, by my side, I could find my way back to sanity.
The hall downstairs was deserted. I pushed up the flap of my jacket to cover my neck from the early morning cold. Out on the sidewalk, I took one last look at the giant front doors of Anne Frank and I knew with a flutter in my heart, that I hadn’t seen the last of her walls.
From the window, Mati beckoned, waving frantically at the stranger. Desperate, she flung the first thing that reached her hand, at me, narrowly missing a commuter.
I could recognise the red slipper anywhere.
I looked up and saw her, framed against the sky in her golden wrap.
There and then, I knew I had to protect her.