Friends Reunited by Özgür Uyanık
A blanket of snow over Amsterdam makes it feel like you might still be dreaming underneath the covers. The air is fresh in the nostrils and dead in the ears, except for the crunching of snow crystals beneath my boots.
I find him amongst the evening commuters on a little ferryboat about to launch from Buiksloterweg dock, located in the Noord district of the city. I gamely approach him and we begin to confirm our identities with broadening smiles. The ferry hauls us across the narrow grey waterway; we disembark and walk in lockstep towards the Centraal Station, still chatting. Our enthusiastic stream of exchanged memories is building to a climax when I stop and suggest a coffee. He checks his gold watch, grins happily and says he can catch a later train so we head towards a café on Haarlemmerstraat, in the opposite direction to the vulgarities of the red light district. The route takes us through an alleyway, a shortcut I discovered, I tell him, the previous day. We imprint upon the virgin snow, reminding me of adolescent strolls along a glossy beach when the talk was all about girls, even though it was just the two of us on holiday together.
In the busy café I learn that my childhood friend has done well. A banker by trade, he had left London to make his fortune in Hong Kong, apparently. He shows me photographs from his leather wallet; he is married to a woman called Sue and they have two children, Mark and Samantha, aged seventeen and twenty-one. Samantha is about to graduate and Mark still doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. Nowadays my friend consults for a chemicals company and is trying not to think about retiring although Sue likes to make expensive plans, he says. I experience the secret pleasure of knowing that I followed him from where he works earlier as he goes on to tell me that he lives in nearby Utrecht and intimates that I ought to have dinner with his family sometime. That would be great, I say and leave it at that.
The Netherlands can feel sluggish after London and Hong Kong, he is saying when, suddenly, his brow tenses: By the way, what are you doing in Amsterdam? I completely forgot to ask, he says, and I reply smoothly with the lie I practiced earlier in the hotel. He accepts this without fuss, without the old cynicism that the years appear to have worn away. I had always enjoyed his contempt for humanity when we were at school and my antisocial attitude dovetailed perfectly with his. I look in to his blue-grey eyes as he gabs away. They have remained bright and humorous whilst the surrounding flesh is creased and sags. Then, as he delves in to our shared past with nostalgic whimsy, his features become fuzzy except the pin sharp pupils looking back and perhaps remembering too, behind the hard lines of my own middle-aged face, the silly taciturn young man I used to be. The realisation that a part of me that had lain dormant for so long has been revived by this encounter, strikes me as profoundly troubling; how much we see ourselves reflected in the memories of others!
Risking complications, I am nevertheless compelled to extend our chat and remind him of how my mother had warned me that he was a bad influence. We chuckle wanly. It was true that possessing the more extrovert of our two personalities he had molded me in his image until I started dressing like him, listening to the same music and even sharing the same naïve political opinions. Delving in to the past with someone corroborating the details of your existence makes for a strange awareness of time; yearning for something forever lost and relief that you’ve made it this far. I guess the validation provided by friends is why people keep them even after their original bonds have become phantoms. The noise of the café fades and I feel as if I am in the present and the past simultaneously like some unseasoned, baffled time traveller.
But I need to concentrate and dismiss these emotions and in reply to his question I tell him that, in general, my life has gone quite well for someone who had the lofty ambitions entertained by young adults whose lives were yet unencumbered by misfortunes, or a love affair. He laughs happily at this and says I must be referring to having children or marrying as a “misfortune”. I correct his jovial assumption by pointing out that for most people having a family is a mark of success and nothing to be dismissed. He laughs again and says he was only joking which, of course, I already knew. I go on about my job using details that have been dreamt up just for this occasion and soon realise from the croakiness of my voice that I need to start summing up the conversation so that we can get going.
It has already been two hours in the coffee shop—I have let my emotions dictate my actions. He offers to take me out to lunch the next day as we rise and I feel a frisson that unexpectedly evokes an adolescent summer afternoon, smoking grass and experimenting—or was that just a momentary fantasy that came to nothing? I decline his offer because I am flying out tonight from Schiphol airport—this part is true—but that we should of course swap numbers so we can meet up the next time I am in the Netherlands or when he next visits London. He agrees and hands me his expensive-looking business card.
It would be lovely if you could meet Sue and the kids, he is saying, as we leave the shop with a tinkle of the bell above the door that I hadn’t noticed on the way in, probably because it was noisy when we entered and the opposite is true as we leave; it is still deathly quiet outside in the all-absorbing snow. He gives me a quizzical look and wonders out loud about the odds of us bumping into each other like this. I smile and shrug—it is indeed an amazing coincidence, from his point of view.
As we walk together like two boys skipping school, he opens up and tells me that Sue has become quite distant recently and is brooding about something although he can’t find out from her what it is. I commiserate as we stroll, two pairs of hands in two sets of coat pockets, mirroring each other, heading back towards the train station. She had rolled her eyes at him the other day. This was really playing on his mind. It means contempt, he says and that is worse than anything else because it signals the end. Soon, we are walking down the muffled alley again, over our own reversed footprints, and I check that we are alone and stop. He stops too, synced as we are now, and right then I glimpse the metallic flash. Practiced as I am, I do not need to look at the blade and keep my eyes on him; his face registers surprise that grades into shock. The knife had gone in smoothly and I twist it—instinctively he grips my shoulders, nonplussed, as I lower him onto an icy bed. Those blue-grey eyes are dulling even as his face says, what’s this?—caught in the bottoming valley between two mountains of questions. I push down with my body weight and he deflates like a lido on the cold ground, my hand at one with the metal inside his warm belly.
Would he be surprised if I told him that it was his wife, with that innocently bland name Sue, who had hired me? I feel my eagerness to see his expression switch in the last few moments perverse and keep quiet for this one. His face drains of colour, his head swivels like a lizard’s trunk in its death throe; then the rasping rattle and final sigh as blood fills the throat. His hands fall from my shoulders like a soul dropping off to sleep. I tell him that it was an unfortunate coincidence that we had known each other in a previous life but I doubt he can hear me anymore as he succumbs to his eternal dreamless slumber. I check his heart has stopped. Frozen pupils register nothing as I pull out the knife. I stand up and look down, wondering, why? Money was usually the answer. This reminds me to take his wallet and watch to make it look like a robbery.
With the sound of snow crunching beneath my boots, I focus on grabbing a quick lunch from an automat I saw at Centraal Station that dispenses hot croquettes. I think I will have one with mustard.