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Postcards from no mans l.., p.1
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       Postcards From No Man's Land, p.1

           Aidan Chambers
Postcards From No Man's Land



  About the Book

  Title Page



























  About the Author

  Also by Aidan Chambers


  About the Book

  Jacob Todd, abroad on his own for the first time, arrives in Amsterdam for the commemoration of the Battle of Arnhem where his grandfather fought fifty years before. He meets the terminally ill Geertrui, an old lady who tells an extraordinary story of love and betrayal, linking Jacob with her own Dutch family in a way he never suspected and leading him to question his place in the world.

  This richly layered novel, spanning fifty years, powerfully evokes the atmosphere of war while brilliantly interweaving Jacob’s exploration of new relationships in contemporary Amsterdam.

  The fifth in a sequence of six ground-breaking and provocative novels that explore different aspects of teenage love and self-discovery. This new edition includes an Afterword by the author.



  Amsterdam is an old city

  occupied by the young.

  Sarah Todd

  NOT KNOWING HIS way around, he set off back the way he had come. But changed his mind about picking up a tram to the railway station, not yet ready to return to Haarlem, and kept on walking along the canal, the Prinsengracht, still too jangled by what he had just seen to notice where he was and too preoccupied to wonder where he was going.

  Ten minutes or so later he came to when a tram clanged across his path. Suddenly he wanted to be in a crowd, wanted to feel the push and press of people, wanted noise and bustle and distraction, wanted to be taken out of himself—the past twenty-four hours had been a ruffle—wanted something to drink, wanted to sit and drink it at a touristy on-street table while watching the goings-on of passers-by. And, though he could not admit it to himself at the time, wanted an adventure.

  His skin prickled and he shivered, not knowing why, for though the day was overcast with a threat of rain, the mid-September temperature was mild and he was sweating slightly in his anorak, which he wished he hadn’t worn, but its ample pockets were useful for carrying money and addresses, phrase book, street map, and such stuff as he needed or might pick up on a day out on his own in a foreign country.

  Choosing to turn right across the bridge over the canal, he soon found himself in a bulge of open space, dominated by the bulky frontage of a theatre, in to which many streets and tramways flowed. Leidseplein. To one side of the theatre, facing in to the rest of the plein like an auditorium facing a stage, was a mini-square crammed with tables served by waiters who fluttered in and out of canopied cafés like birds from nesting boxes.

  He chose a table on the edge nearest the theatre, three rows in, and sat and waited.

  And waited. But no one came. What should he do? You’re the bloody customer, their job to serve you, don’t be such a wimp, assert yourself. His father talking. Shyness, his strangulating shyness, kept him quiet. So he did nothing, but didn’t mind, there being plenty to look at. Accompanied by incidental music from a trio in the middle of the plein, two butch boys about his own age, one white on fiddle, one Afro black on tin whistle, and a plump girl, eye-catching centrepiece squatting on an upturned litterbin, going rampant with a pair of bongos, long blonde hair flying, eyes closed, tanned arms deliciously bare, rapping hands a blur, roly-poly breasts alive in tight black tank-top, white Lycra’d heavy-duty thighs gripping the little battered drums he suddenly envisioned as the willing cheeks of someone’s bum. His own perhaps. Hello, where did that come from? Never a hint before, not of himself anyway.

  He shifted in his seat and smiled secretly. The pleasure of self-discovery.

  I wait for a waiter but no waiter waits for me, he dittied under his breath to the rhythm of the bongos. Until a slim leather-clad arm obtruded a languid finger across his view. A girl’s face smiling down at him, questioning, more stunning than she of the cheeky drums. Cottoning on that she was indicating the unoccupied seat beside him, he scrunched up to allow her to squeeze deliciously by, trailing the tantalising smell of worn leather and warm jeans.

  She sat, easing her proportionately long legs (for she was not tall) under the cramped little table, where they grazed his on the way to arranging themselves. More, more, his inner voice pleaded. Ruffled black short-cut hair gave her a boyish look; pale complexion without make-up; loose black leather half-jacket over white T-shirt; trim black jeans.

  She smiled a thank-you. ‘British?’


  ‘I understand. I like it that I’m Dutch.’

  He shrugged an excuse for his pedantic affliction that some (his father and his sister Penelope aka Poppy) denounced as the tic of a literal-minded bore, and added, ‘Just meant I’m not Welsh or Irish or Scottish.’

  ‘And I’m glad I’m not Frisian or Flemish. Not that I’m against them, only …’ A glance at the table. ‘Served yet?’


  She looked behind them, this way, that. Raised a lazy long-fingered hand, the sensuousness of which to a hand fancier like him was enough to induce sexual trauma. Her ease daunted his shaky confidence but notched up his desire. There was also something puzzling about her, a difference from the usual he couldn’t quite locate.

  ‘On holidays?’ she asked, holidays sounded as holidaysh. Impediment or something imported from her Dutch? Whichever, he liked it.

  ‘Sort of,’ he lied, not wanting to go in to the whole complicated story.

  ‘Okay to talk?’

  There was a deep note in her voice that added enticement.

  ‘Sure. Fine.’

  A waiter arrived to whom she spoke Dutch.

  Then the waiter to him: ‘Meneer?’

  ‘Just a cola, thanks.’

  ‘Not a beer?’ she said. ‘Try a good Dutch beer.’

  He avoided it usually, but when in Rome. ‘Okay, a beer.’

  ‘Trappist?’ he thought the waiter said, but supposed that couldn’t be right.

  She nodded and off the waiter went.

  Suddenly he felt like a nerd sitting there beside her, coddled in his anorak, so stood up, took it off, draped it over the back of his chair. And now his leg nudged hers as he settled himself again. Dare he? Would she? Picking up girls wasn’t his style. Not for want of wanting to, but from fear of rejection. And dislike of what he thought of as the sex-hunt, a blood sport the brutishness of which, when he observed others at it in full-blown lust, offended him. A fastidiousness his father scorned as further evidence of his wimpishness.

  He so much wanted to look at her that, nervous of giving anything away, he forced himself to stare across the plein—the bongo trio were packing up—at the modern ads and familiar international icons, Burger King, Pepsi, Heineken, that adorned/polluted the old high-peaked Dutch facades.

  She rescued him by asking, ‘First time in Holland?’, which allowed him to turn his gaze on to her again.

  ‘Yes. Arrived yesterday.’

  ‘You like it here? Holland, I mean, not here,’ she dismissed th
e plein with a nod. ‘A tourist trap, to tell the truth.’

  ‘You’re not a tourist.’

  A wincing smile. ‘No. Just—what’s the English?—passing over?—and wanted a drink.’

  ‘Passing by. Passing over would mean that you’re dying.’

  Now a deep ironic chuckle. ‘Not yet, I hope.’

  ‘Look alive enough to me.’

  She pantomimed relief. ‘Thank god!’ And held out a hand. ‘I’m Ton, by the way.’

  ‘Jack,’ he said, enjoying the brief contact, not at all an English shake: quicker, no grip, a kiss of hands rather than a hug.


  ‘If you want.’

  ‘I like Jacques.’

  The waiter returned and unloaded two big mammary glasses of chestnut-brown beer. Jacob twisted in his seat to get money from his anorak, but by the time he’d managed to unzip the safety pocket, extract his wallet, and fish out a note, Ton had paid and the waiter was gone.

  ‘Look, I can’t let you do that,’ he protested with no great conviction, because he rather liked it that she was paying and because it meant he owed her one (he ignored the pun) and the meeting would be prolonged by his buying another.

  ‘Your first time here. Be my guest.’

  ‘But …’

  ‘Your turn next time.’

  So there’d be a next time. ‘Well …’ He slipped his wallet back in to its pocket and held up his glass. ‘Thanks.’


  ‘Prost,’ he mimicked.

  They drank.

  ‘Like it?’

  ‘Pretty strong! Is it really called Trappist?’

  ‘Sure. Made by monks. Got to be pure, eh?’

  They laughed.

  ‘You’re here with someone?’

  ‘On my own.’

  ‘And staying in a hotel?’

  ‘No. With some people near Haarlem.’

  ‘Nice for you,’ Ton said, ‘perhaps?’

  ‘Yes,’ Jacob lied and, not wanting to go in to the subject, took another slurp of the thick beer he was finding even less to his taste than any he’d tried before. Already he could feel it curdling his stomach. Ton was downing hers in long swallows.

  She said, ‘You know your way around Amsterdam?’

  ‘No. Haven’t a clue where I am now, to be honest.’

  ‘You’ve a map?’


  ‘I’ll show you.’

  For the next few minutes Ton orientated him, tried to explain the tram system, marked with Jacob’s pen the location of places she thought he might like to see.

  ‘Think of the old town as half a spider’s web, with the railway station at the centre,’ she said, ‘the canals being the half circles, you see, and the streets across them the—strings?—’


  ‘Threads that connect them.’

  ‘Looks more like a maze to me.’

  ‘Yes, perhaps that too.’

  ‘Easy to get trapped in one and lost in the other.’

  Studying the map had brought them head to head, bodies touching shoulder to shoulder. Ton gave him a gentle nudge and, her teasing smile only a fist away, said, ‘You’re a pessimist, Jacques.’

  He smiled back, held by her green eyes, and very much wanting to kiss her wide mouth, but only said, ‘Typically female to think of a spider’s web and typically male to think of a maze, wouldn’t you say?’

  ‘Oh! You—’ She lowered her face to the map again.



  He waited for her to go on, puzzled by her reaction.

  ‘Must go soon,’ she said, shifting away.

  ‘Really? Sorry about that.’

  She drained the remains of her beer. ‘No, I must.’

  He said, all in a rush, ‘Could we meet again? I mean—would you like to?’

  Looking at him deadpan, she said, ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘I’m sure. What about you?’

  She smiled again, but the corners of her mouth turned down. ‘I’ll give you my phone number. Call if you still want to sometime.’ She searched in a pocket, brought out a book of matches and took up his pen from the table. While she wrote he folded the map—why is it always such a test to refold a new street map the way it’s meant to be?—and stuffed it in to the anorak’s marsupial pouch.

  As he turned back, Ton took his hand and, holding it firmly under the table, said, her face square and close, ‘I’d like to see you again. Show you some places tourists never go. I mean this. But you know—such a brief meeting. You might decide you made a mistake.’

  ‘No, I—’

  Two simultaneous actions silenced him. Ton’s lips placing fleetingly on his the ghost of a kiss. And her hand pressing his hand deep in to her crotch, where he felt the swell of a compact set of penis and balls.

  In the ensuing daze he was aware of Ton standing up, saying ‘My tram’, of himself standing up to allow her (him) to squeeze by, of her (him) saying what sounded like ‘Good thingsh’, and of her (him) slipping away through the crowd and climbing in to a tram, and of her (him) waving through a window as the tram door closed, its bell tringalinged, and it moved off. Only then did he find his voice again and as he raised an impotent hand heard himself call out, ‘Hey, you took my pen!’

  You took my pen? He looked down at the table and saw that indeed she (he) had. But lying beside her (his) empty glass was a book of matches. His actions still running ahead of his thoughts, he picked up the book, turned it over, front, back. Nothing. Was about to lift the flap when the edge of his chair rammed in to the back of his knees and he collapsed on to his seat. Turning instinctively, he saw his anorak flying past his face, clutched in the hand of a scrawny youth, the bright red of whose reversed baseball cap mapped his path like a beacon as he dodged through the crowd.

  Letting out a yell, ‘Hey, that’s mine! Come back!’, he struggled to his feet, stumbled away from the table, sending beer glasses shattering to the ground as he set off after the thief. Who, pausing in the middle of the plein, stood on the upturned litterbin earlier occupied by the bongo player, where he remained, with a blatant grinning cheek that inflamed Jacob’s rage, for long enough to be sure that his victim had spotted him. It was as if he wanted to be chased. ‘Stop him!’ Jacob shouted, pointing as he careered through the crowd, but people only gave him startled glances and did what they could to get out of his way.

  As soon as Jacob was three or four metres from him, the thief was off again, this time making for a corner of the plein that led in to a narrow street full of bars and cafés and touristy shops. So fleet was Red Cap and so obviously practised that he easily put distance between himself and Jacob, who was only a few strides down the street when his quarry swerved left. Arriving there, Jacob saw him standing twenty metres away at the other end of an alley, holding up the anorak, leaving no doubt he was waiting for Jacob to catch up, before setting off again, along another narrow street parallel with the first.

  And so the chase continued: right at the end of this second street, where it joined a canal, up to the top of the canal, left across a bridge and half-left down a narrow street of houses, left and right again, and then left in to a busy wide shopping street with trams running down the middle. On went Red Cap, agile as a whippet, Jacob now hampered by a stitch and beginning to lose breath. At a bridge over a major canal Red Cap sprinted across the road and along one more block before swinging right in to another narrow street, this one mostly of houses with here and there a small shop or art gallery, a longish stretch with few people or vehicles to inhibit Jacob’s progress. Feeling there wasn’t much left in him, he put on a desperate last-try sprint, almost catching his quarry by the time they reached the end of the street. But Red Cap bobbed to the right along yet another canal and with dispiriting ease accelerated away.

  Out of puff and out of heart, Jacob couldn’t help himself, but clung to a canalside tree, while catching his breath and watching in tear-jerking ang
er as Red Cap paused long enough on a humpback bridge a hundred metres away to look back and wave a perky farewell before disappearing down, oh god yes, another canal that intersected this one by which Jacob was panting. Red Cap had certainly all along been leading him a fool’s dance. But why? It made no sense.

  Sour beer rose in his gullet and emptied itself in to the canal. He thanked heaven there was no one about to witness his humiliation. The canal was deserted. But no one to ask where he was, either.

  Rain now began to fall in a limp and dreary fashion. He welcomed it as a face douche and mouth wash. Then realised that, dressed only in sweat-shirt and jeans, he would be soaked before long. Nor could he see anywhere to shelter except for a strange-looking wooden building, the Kort, a restaurant?, in a large open space on the other side of the water, and he could guess how he would be received there without money and in his present gungy condition.

  What to do? Not having a clue where he was, he didn’t know which way to turn.

  His stomach clenched in a fit of minor panic.

  His nature, when caught in a fix, being to do something rather than nothing, and to go on not back, he took a deep breath, swallowed hard, belched and trudged off to the intersecting canal. Which, to judge by its width compared with the one he had just left and the larger imposing houses on both sides, must be one of the main waterways. He looked for a sign and found it on the corner building between the first and second floors: Prinsengracht.


  In the whole of Holland, never mind Amsterdam, there was only one address he knew by heart: 263 Prinsengracht. The house where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in the secret annexe during the Second World War, the house where she wrote her famous Diary, one of his favourite books, the house which was no longer a house but a museum, and the house from which earlier that morning he had fled in distress at what he had found there.

  Even in his fuddled state he knew that if he walked the right way along the canal he would reach 263, where perhaps the staff would help him. Or a visitor. There had been plenty while he was there, mostly back-packing youths about his own age and English-speaking. He had had to wait in a long queue before he could get in.

  His stomach unclenched.

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