The Red Hat

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2001-11-01
  • Publisher: Natl Book Network
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Bayley's characters are distinctly subtle, constructed from qualifications and convolutions, and propelled by the rapidity of their thoughts.R--Times Literary Supplement


Chapter One

I flatter myself that I am not at all boyish, although I am often told, as if it was a compliment, that I look like a boy. 'As pretty as a boy', a gay friend with whom I am a bit in love once assured me, gazing with satisfaction at my absence of bust. I never wear a bra, I don't need to. Actually I think breasts are a bore; and the sort of men I approve of don't favour the bigger ones.

    Funnily enough I used to know a splendid fellow, not at all gay, who prided himself on his own breasts. He had pectorals like a powerful fish. He once told me, too, that he could never pee in his wife's presence, but had no trouble with a girlfriend standing by. There had once been trouble about this once, and he told me why; but that, as Kipling would say -- he used to be one of my favourite authors -- is another story.

    Peeing and all that seems suited to the Netherlands, which is where we were when this particular story happened. It's often shown in their pictures; but not, of course, in the ones by Vermeer, which we had come to see.

    Why had we come? -- Cloe and Charles and myself, that is. Well might one ask. I found myself wondering why after I'd been trapped for an hour or so in a small dingy room bursting with Vermeer worshippers. We weren't allowed to move until the crowd in the next room moved on; and when I tried to sneak out backwards I was stopped by the spreading arms of a burly Dutchman in a grey uniform, who was friendly but firm.

    I gave up then even trying to look at the pictures -- the devotees in a cluster round each made them all but invisible anyway -- and I amused myself instead with a fantasy about being a painter like Hieronymus Bosch, and painting us all with nothing on, brooding away cheek by jowl over Vermeer's masterpieces as if we had been summoned to the Last Judgement.

    There we would all be, in the nude, but pretending not to notice each other because of all the silent admiration that was going on. I wonder what old Bosch and Co would make of Vermeer? Probably not much.

    Does it sound as if I know about art and artists? In fact I don't. Charles is the one that does. Charles, by the way, is the man who once told me that I looked as pretty as a boy. I've loved him for it ever since. Although he's about as queer as they come, and believe me I ought to know, Charles is trying pretty doggedly to be in love with Cloe, or to do his best to fall in love with her. She adores him of course. Cloe is supposed to be what we once used to call my best friend, which is one of the reasons I am here with them.

    OK: another is because of Charles. Cloe knows about all that, but she doesn't let it worry her. Cloe is my best friend, yes: but actually I hate the idea of best friends. Or friends of any sort, come to think of it. What's the point of them? -- why such a big idea? There are people you know, and a great many more whom you don't, and that's about it. So I feel; but I have known Cloe a long time, and always 'kept up' with her. And I'm always trying to impress Cloe. I can't help it.

    Cloe's very feminine. If I'm boyish she's everything that a female is supposed to be. Pear-shaped, though her bottom's more like a toffee-apple. If a man were to put his fatherly hands on her shoulders, and I'm sure that plenty have done or wanted to do just that -- she brings out their protective instincts -- his rugged paws would slip down off them helplessly: just like those old Victorian climbers sliding off the icy top of Mont Blanc.

    That's assuming she had nothing on, of course; but then she wouldn't have, would she? I imagine men usually look at her as if she'd nothing on, even when she's fully clad. If my little fantasy were to come true, and we were all there together in the picture gallery naked, I think it's just possible that Cloe might distract one or two of the male devotees from their Vermeer worship. Not that she's living art -- far from it -- but it could be that in the unusual circumstances I had in mind some art-fancier might wrench his gaze away from the paintings for a moment to take a normal interest in her.

    Or maybe not. Still, enough of these frivolous thoughts. I was, and am, fond of old Cloe -- can't deny that. Grateful to her too. She'll see why presently, if she cares to stick the course. And looking at pictures can be rather like reading a book, I suppose.

    Meanwhile, there was Charles trying so hard to be in love with her. He being gay I suppose she represents for him the maximum challenge. To be in love with me wouldn't mean anything to him at all. After all those boys and men he's had he could do it in my arms at the drop of a hat.

    Of a hat, yes. It was a hat that started the whole thing off. Not a real hat but the one in the Vermeer picture. It's the one of this girl, looking at you with very bright eyes, and wearing a red hat.

    Of course I hardly saw the picture in the flesh, as it were. I shouldn't think many people did. Just a glimpse of it over heads and between arms. But this picture of the hat had been put on the entrance ticket, and I still have that. Two of them in fact. Little souvenirs. You'll see why presently.

    What I see when I look at the ticket is the lips and the eyes -- the teeth a bit too -- all lustrous and gleaming, but at the same time pink and warm too. As if they were made of some divine marshmallow.

    Amazing what Vermeer could do with paint. Especially pure plain white paint.

    Or was it done by the people who restored the pictures? I've no idea; and I wonder if anyone else has, really. It's one of those things, and there are so many of them, that one doesn't know and would rather not know, like who are the men and women in the pictures, and what were they doing, and what happened to them afterwards.

    If it comes to that the Dutch don't even seem to know what their own capital city is called. We call it the Hague; they call it Den Haag -- fair enough. But they don't seem to be sure by any means, for on the map they decide to mark it "s Gravenhage'. This means 'the Count's Hedge', so a Dutchman told me. But, as my mother used to say, can't they make up their mainds?

    Never mind that -- back to the Red Hat. As I said, she's a girl. She's wearing ear-rings. Nice long pearly ones. She's wearing ear-rings like that -- not queers' ear-rings you understand -- and yet she's not a girl. She's a boy. That's obvious. At least it's obvious if you really start to think about it, so perhaps you shouldn't think about it.

    But another thing that's obvious -- and really obvious this time -- is that she looks just like me. Or he does. I was absolutely staggered when Charles put the ticket into my hand. It was so abundantly clear who he was -- or she -- that neither Cloe nor Charles bothered to remark on the fact, and neither did I. They just looked at me with a knowing smile, to which I paid no attention. As the pressure of the devout mob, before and behind, propelled us into that black hole of an exhibition, Cloe did give my arm a squeeze and say: 'That was a bit of a shock for you, Nance, wasn't it?'

    As soon as we got in Charles and Cloe began to wear their dedicated look, like everyone else in the crowd. One of the things this look takes for granted is that in pursuit of art the wearer would be prepared to undergo any quantity of discomfort. But there's nothing elitist about it you understand. Charles and Cloe don't think they're so very special. On the contrary, they assume we can all stand in front of old Vermeer for hours -- and all of us with that special rapt look on our faces.

    Actually people like Charles are not at all common, because in the pursuit of art he is prepared to undergo more than discomfort. Actual hardship. That's one of the things for which Cloe genuinely admires him. She wouldn't do it for herself -- undergo hardship I mean -- but she would for his sake. It's exasperating in her, but also lovable no doubt. Some kinds of women today know better than to identify with their man's interests -- that wouldn't go with feminist correctness. Instead they have a way of becoming more him than he, if you see what I mean. More subtly, more sort of invasively, what he is, than what they are themselves. As well as being into Charles, Cloe is now into art in this sort of way too. Into Vermeer's pictures, that is.

    Oh those pictures. The great thing for the devotees is that you stand there in silence. Just a bit of a hushed murmuring. Nobody says 'Oh look at the little boy or the little girl -- aren't they sweet!' There are no little boys and little girls -- none of those twee and cosy goings-on that there are in the other Dutch pictures painted at the same time. Could their absence make Vermeer, do you think, just a little bit boring? By the time you've stood and contemplated for ten minutes or so, along with all the others who are lost in contemplation? I daresay I am, or shall be, just a sentimental old maid really, but I do like a bit more life in my pictures. Very philistine of me no doubt. But in an odd way there's plenty of life in the girl, or boy, with the red hat.

    The command was given and the crowd obediently moved on, bearing Charles and Cloe in its bosom. Soon they were standing four or five deep in front of that hefty woman who's pouring out the milk. Although she's built like an all-in wrestler she can only coax the thinnest possible stream of milk out of that great stone jug she's holding. Perhaps that's the great zen-like charm of the thing, but it can keep it as far as I am concerned.

    I baulked. Smiling sweetly at the attendant who was trying to shoo me in with the others I slipped under his extended arm and back into the first room again. There was a moment's delightful emptiness in there before the next lot were let in. I said to the man 'I'm feeling a little faint -- would you mind?' -- and with true Dutch gallantry he let me sit down on a cold radiator. From there I could contemplate one of the Master's early paintings. Very unVermeer-like. Some female saint is wringing from a cloth into a basin the blood of a martyr who's just had his head cut off. You can see his head in the background still looking a little bit surprised. The rest of him, naturally enough, is quite unbothered.

    I preferred this saint lady to the milkmaid. At least she's really getting somewhere, and she looks devoted and dedicated as if she's found the very job she ought to be doing.

    It was a simple matter now to escape not only from Charles and Cloe but from Vermeer. The rooms hung with other pictures were empty. Hardly a viewer. The Vermeer exhibition had put poor old Rembrandt in the shade. Normally I'm not a great Rembrandt enthusiast. Nor is Charles, who like many of the experts hates pictures with what you might call a human interest. I don't mind that. I don't like him because he's such a show-off. Sometimes he's just like one of those more modern artists -- or writers, come to that -- who are always reminding us that they've got right away from any conventional nonsense, and are showing us reality as it really is.

    All the same it was a relief, after the Vermeer worship, to have a quiet look at the big dusky -- or perhaps just dirty? -- canvas which shows us the boy David playing the harp to king Saul. Meek crafty very Jewish David is giving us a conspiratorial look, while Saul sits there in his tawdry robes, with a great tear at the corner of one eye. Saul looks as if he knew what trouble was all about, but wasn't expecting any from this young chap, at least not yet.

    I idled on, nearly missing a small even dingier picture in a recess. A female figure beside a sort of sandy bank, with some weedy grass, and a dark round spot among the general dinginess which suggests a rabbit-hole. A rabbit-hole by Rembrandt is a nice thought somehow, particularly when the subject is what you might call a classical one. The female is wearing one of those garments which in Rembrandt's version of the ancient world seem to have the sole function of slipping down round the hips, in order to leave bare a big bald wrinkled tummy. Did the Dutch and their patrons think those fat stomachs seductive? Or was it to cheer the men up when they looked at their wives, and to make them think their old Dutch must be really quite an oil painting? -- `if this is art I'd better try to like it' sort of thing?

    This fat old girl has her hands chained above her head and looks fearfully uncomfortable, apart from her dressing-gown coming down. She's labelled Andromeda. I recalled that Rubens has a much jollier Andromeda, a rollicking great lady who looks as happy as the day is long to be showing off her charms to the cliff watchers. The languishing Victorian ones do look a bit nervous about the monster who's coming to eat them up; but they seem even more concerned to keep the graceful pose they've been arranged in by the painter; and like the Rubens lady they don't seem to mind being watched by the gents on the cliff-top, or rather in the picture gallery. No doubt the Victorians enjoyed a romantic marine landscape all the more if it could boast a damsel in distress, and in the nude.

    But Rembrandt's woman is just having a lousy time, and was that his idea, I wonder? If so, you could say he's pulled it off by making you see that the real Andromeda must have had absolutely no fun at all, however sexy she looked to Perseus as he came to rescue her. Did Rembrandt get just a bit too cocky, though, picking a model who looks fat and forty? The poor thing's not so much pathetic as comic.

    But maybe that was his idea too? Perhaps the real Andromeda, if such a person ever existed, was fat and forty? How can we know, at this moment in time, as they say? Losing interest in the question I wandered off to a giant canvas by a painter called Potter. Chiefly a cow and bull, though there was also an excellent frog. But I was beginning to feel bored with the whole art gallery. Hell, why had I come in the first place? Because of Charles I suppose.

    I sighed. The bonds of love could be so tiresome. But bugger all that, and art too -- I was a free agent, not like poor Andromeda. I'd sneak out and get myself something at the refreshment place. I'd noticed on the way in that they served smoked eel sandwiches. Trust the Dutch for something like that. The thought of a smoked eel sandwich made me wriggle with hunger pangs.

    As I turned to go I noticed this very tall man who must have been standing behind me. Rather a good looker too. He himself was not looking at the pictures but at something in his hand. I saw it was the ticket to the exhibition, which had Vermeer's picture of the Red Hat girl reproduced on it.

    Next moment he looked up and saw me. He started visibly. I mean he really did. I swear it. He had been gazing at the girl on the ticket, and then he looks up and sees her walking towards him, for by that time I was on my way out. There she was, in the flesh, minus the red hat of course. But you could have knocked him down with one of its red feathers.

    I felt gratified of course, distinctly so. But what I really wanted was one of those eel sandwiches.

    As I made my way to the buffet I pondered the question of the young person on that ticket; or in the real picture on the wall, somewhere among the crowds where she could scarcely be seen. Well, what is she really? -- a boy or girl? Or is Vermeer so mystically Zen-like that it doesn't matter? Perhaps that's the answer, but I don't really think it is. I mean, everybody must be one or the other when it comes to the point, even if a great artist can't make up his mind while he's painting them.

    I stopped again, to look more closely at the picture on my own ticket. The eyes -- my own eyes -- looked back at me. Was there a faint suggestion of blueness round the chin? If so, was it the beginnings of a beard, or the shadow cast by the red hat?

    And then again, the portrait is full of shine and light. The shine on her nose -- it's very definitely she this time -- makes her look both charming and vulnerable because she doesn't know it's there. She's thinking instead how well she must look in the red hat she's been told to put on. Would he have the same thoughts, or would he just be wearing it as his natural right -- a swashbuckling young man? He wouldn't be caring about the shine on his nose either.

    There's another possibility too -- maybe there are lots more. But one at least could be that she's not a model but a rather older and richer woman, the owner of the red hat, whom the artist has cunningly painted to appear younger than she was. She's having her portrait painted, in all her finery, by a respected but obscure artist, happy to earn a few guilders.

    Naturally there was an interest in all this for me. And that was the astounded look on the face of the tall man, when I turned round and he looked up and saw me. Which did he think I was -- boy or girl? Which would he have liked me to be? Did he have any trouble making up his mind?

    I rather enjoyed imagining I now had other selves. And I enjoyed wondering which one, or some unknown one, he most went in for, since it was so obvious he was struck by the resemblance, and by my appearance. I daresay the thing I like in art galleries is watching the people. And being watched of course.

    Not so Cloe and Charles. They really do look at the pictures, whereas I look at the pictures while I look at the people strolling about. But Charles and Cloe vie with each other, as well as showing off in their own style, so that they're not really much less philistine than I am. Not absolutely dedicated art-lovers, if the truth be told. Miaow, miaow, as my mother used to say sometimes.

    As I ate my sandwich (I love smoked eel and never seem to get it in England) I pondered a bit about them. Not eels: Charles and Cloe. About Cloe more particularly. Was it she who had wanted me with them on this trip? Or had it been Charles? Which of my selves had they fancied might be useful, or reassuring -- someone to distract them from each other? They're the kind of couple who find it easier to be on good terms with each other if a third party is present. I've noticed that's not uncommon even with a pair who've been married for years. They need another person to show off their close and harmonious relationship, particularly if its closeness and harmony consists in bickering all the time.

    Married couples are gruesome; but, mind you, anyone can see that Cloe will be just right for the job, in time. Meanwhile she's one of those women who can only be sure they exist if they identify with someone else's existence. Touching really -- or is it? Of course whatever oaf she attaches herself to takes it as no more than his due. And both she and the oaf -- Charles in this case -- want someone else, like me, to be the witness, and the guarantee, so to speak, of their existence as a couple.

    It's not the first time it's happened to me, and it probably won't be the last.

    Finishing my sandwich I decided I couldn't struggle back inside. I assumed Cloe and Charles would realise I had gone back to the hotel, and that is what I did. Now comes the first surprise.

    It wasn't a bad hotel at all. Nice and oldfashioned, but at the same time up to the minute: they didn't give you a key for your bedroom door, but a dinky little bit of plastic that looked like a domino counter. I had been amused at first by the way it wouldn't work, whichever way round you put it, until you took it out and put it in the other way. Made it more human somehow. Perhaps the lock had to read it first, like an old porter peering out of a cubbyhole, before it was prepared to open up? I had plenty of time to think about that plastic key later on, because its very far from being another story.

    I walked past the bar, which was also oldfashioned, but I felt no inclination to go in. Up to a point I quite like to drink, but if I'm on my own I'd rather do it in private. There's something so dreary about the way you get looked at in those places -- particularly by single men, or women -- and equally dreary is the nonchalant way you avoid looking back at them. It often makes me think that sex, like drinking, is something best done on one's own.

    My single room was on the top floor. There was a lift of course, and it was a real oddity, although you could call it a part of the oldfashioned charm. Charles, who is no great shakes as a man of action and resource, pretended when we first arrived that he was afraid of it. Perhaps he really was? He and Cloe used to get out on the first floor to go to their room, and leave me to trundle on up to the top. For a lift it was enormous, like a small room itself, and it seemed to be of irregular shape. There was a comfortable chair in one corner. And there were no doors on either side. You just got out when it stopped, and a carpeted landing appeared on one side or the other, down which you proceeded to your numbered accommodation. Certainly a rum sort of lift; I should think an heirloom from the early days of technology. Lifts were made then to look like rooms I expect, as cars started off by looking like carriages. No doubt the hotel was very proud of it.

    It was at the end of a little lobby, open and welcoming and lit up inside, rather like a Vermeer interior come to think of it -- perhaps that was the idea? -- and as I walked in I saw there was a man sitting on the chair in the corner. He was dark-suited, and his head was bowed forward a good bit, as if in pain, or perhaps in meditation. I wondered if there was usually a lift operator, to go with the ancient conveyance, and if so this might be the chap, having a quiet kip in the absence of custom.

    But perhaps he was a hotel guest like myself? Anyway I automatically remarked 'Oh sorry,' as one does by reflex in England in almost any situation. Funnily enough the Dutch use the word too.

    The man did not reply, neither did he look up. With a sort of inner gulp of vulgar excitement I thought he might have had a heart attack in the lift, sat down and died. Or perhaps it was a Vermeerish murder, very unsensational, commonplace, and yet quietly mysterious of course? Perhaps he had a dagger handle between his dark-clad shoulder-blades?

    These childish speculations were put a stop to in a very peculiar way. I had gone over to the dashboard, as you might call it, where the would-be lift traveller pressed numbered buttons in order to rise to his or her floor. As my finger approached Number 4 -- I had assumed by now that I had better take no notice of the man in the armchair -- I became conscious that the lift had already started to move, though it was hard to say in which direction. At the same moment two hands, dark and hairy, took hold of me by the waist, either side, and gently pulled me astraddle on to the seated man's knees, face to face with him.

    I was so astonished that I just sat there, not uncomfortably. And now that I was looking into his face, which was big dark and handsome like the rest of him, I realised that he was the man in the museum, the man who had been looking at the picture of the Red Hat on his ticket, and who had given such a start when he saw me walking towards him.

    Well! I had certainly made an impression, and every girl, or even boy-girl, likes to do that I suppose. In a curious way it was so peaceful just to sit astride him and gaze into his face, which was kindly and relaxed, that I began to feel we were a kind of Vermeer couple -- one had the painter on the brain of course -- as if he were about to teach me some instrument like the virginals, which happened to require a certain amount of close proximity for its operation. Sitting on the other fellow's saddle, as you might say. At any rate I wasn't conscious of his cock, though it must have been just under my crotch, and in spite of my astonishment I found myself smiling into his peaceable face in the solicitous and slightly apologetic way in which one smiles at a handicapped person. Perhaps he was paralysed from the waist down? But as an old masterhand on the virginals, or whatever they might be, he liked sometimes to share his expertise with a young disciple, as best he could?

    So we sat a minute or so in silence, and a minute's a long time in a lift, that I can tell you. His eyes were expressionless, but seemed full of friendly goodwill. Not surprising perhaps if this was what he had been wanting to do, and now he was doing it. His eyes didn't exactly devour me, but they had the impersonal concentration which one has when looking at a picture which really appeals, rather than one which we all know we must stand in front of and look at a long time. I've noticed that us ordinary folk, as opposed to the Charleses of the art world, only look at a picture in the way I mean when there's something in it which appeals personally and privately; and for obvious reasons that often means something to do with sex.

    So how much longer was I going to sit on his knees there, as if I were riding a cock-horse to Banbury Cross? Perhaps Balthus ought to have come along and painted us, although I would resent any suggestion that I look like a Balthus girl -- I don't at all. Was the man going to carry matters further? Start doing something else? I didn't feel particularly perturbed about that. Things were too quiet and peaceful, as if the Red Hat girl had indeed strayed into the room where a well-dressed man -- Vermeer's fellows are all well-dressed of course -- is giving the young lady the lesson on the virginals. I reflected anyway, as moments calmly passed, that as things stood there was a sufficiency of material obstacles -- his trousers and mine, two pairs of pants, our shirt-ends as well, between me and trouble. That is if he were to start anything else, which at the moment he gave absolutely no sign of doing.

    I detest jeans: all girls wear them. I get my trousers made for me by a proper tailor, though I don't go so far as to have a zip put in at the front. At the side it makes a better fit. I have them done in tweed, or a nice woollen material, or sometimes in that ski-pant stuff, though I don't go for it much -- too modern and flashy. My present pair were a choice herringbone pattern, in sober shades of grey. I admit I did idly reflect, while seated there, that it might be just as well there was no front zip.

    So we sat. It was getting a bit timeless, like a picture, and the lift was motionless now of course. I had the feeling it had come to rest at the bottom. The apertures at the side were blank -- one had something stencilled on it in Dutch -- and somewhere behind it there were subdued sounds of activity, a rattle of plates and occasional voices. But it seemed clear there was no way in or out at the sides, and that was why we were here. Like being in a tube train that stops between the stations.

    At last -- it felt like that but had probably been less than two minutes -- he lifted me carefully off his knees and set me on my feet. Turning away, he pressed a button I suppose. We rose up in a leisurely way, and soon there was a melodious clang like a ship's telegraph and a light came on the 4 sign. We had arrived, and there was my carpeted corridor stretching away, and looking all lit-up and warm. I stepped out, looked back with a smile, and said 'Thank you'. That was all there was to it. As I looked back I had a glimpse of him, very tall and black he looked, standing as it were officially by the control panel. Perhaps he really is the liftman I thought, repressing an impulse to wave.

    As I walked down the passage I realised I was carrying the little domino plastic thing in my hand. I must have taken it out of my bag as I walked into the lift, and sat there with it throughout the curious episode that followed. Somehow it must have completed the picture, I thought, had any old master been there to paint it; and viewers afterwards might have peered a bit as they said: 'What's that funny little thing she's got in her hand?'

    I enjoyed a bath, and put on my usual clothes, just as I had been in the lift. I wanted to do that somehow, for the lift was a happy memory. There had been nothing much to it, certainly no sex, at least not for me, but there had been an odd feeling of kindness about the encounter. I really felt as if something worthwhile had happened; and I had warm feelings towards the lift man, if that was what he was, without any wish to see him again.

    Indeed I rather consciously hoped that he wouldn't be there in the lift when I went down to Charles and Cloe's room. A bit apprehensive about what might happen a second time. But I needn't have worried. He wasn't. Charles and Cloe were in the bar, and full of Vermeer of course: though being the sort of real picture people they -- or at least Cloe -- set out to be, they didn't gush at all, or say anything indicating the commoner kinds of enthusiasm.

    They made comments on my absence, naturally. I fully expected that.

    'Of course, my dear Nance,' said Charles, 'you feel that you don't need to see the collection, as we ordinary people do. You so obviously already belong to it yourself.'

    I didn't take the trouble to answer him. I smiled sweetly and said nothing. Charles's malice never bothers me at all. I find it a kind of compliment, and it could be one of the reasons why I love him. If I do love him. In my own sort of way -- and his I think -- we did at that moment. I wrinkled up my nose at him and we grinned privately at each other. For a second or two it was rather bliss.

    'You can instruct me at the virginals some time,' I told him. 'The gentleman who's been supervising me is not really my type.'

    Cloe intervened, but careful not to be cross. 'When you two have quite finished,' she said, 'perhaps Charles would like to bend his mind to the question of our dinner. I'm starving.'

    'I'm not,' I said. 'I had an eel sandwich -- delicious' -- and I wriggled my fingers at them.

    Cloe pretended to look disgusted, and then yawned rather offensively. 'Don't flaunt your eels at me, Nancy-boy,' she said. 'We don't want to hear, do we Charles, what the creature gets up to when art isn't good enough for her.'

    Of course I had no intention of telling them about the lift. That was my own private experience, when I had my red hat on, so to speak. I enjoyed smiling at them and thinking about it though.

    Cloe had changed into a black silk moire evening skirt, which distinctly suited her. She and Charles were drinking glasses of white wine. They didn't suggest getting one for me, and I didn't want one anyway. There always seems to be far too much white wine about nowadays.

    I was prepared to sit patiently. I knew they wouldn't want to dine at the hotel. They're the sort who when travelling always think there must be a much more interesting little place to have dinner round the corner somewhere. Quite often, of course, they're right about that. Hotel dinners are usually dull and insipid, and the dining-room apt to be full of old people who look at you in a depressing way. At the same time Charles and Cloe make a point of going out that's rather tiresome, as if they owed it to themselves as lively young persons. They're not particularly young actually, and lively? -- well, in a rather obligatory way, like some duty that's taken for granted.

    We wandered round the streets in a drizzle that made a mild hissing noise as it hit the surface of a canal. Charles rejected one nice-looking little place because it was too crowded, another because it looked suspiciously empty, a third because the menu outside didn't feature dishes he liked, or at least the sort of things he felt one ought to eat in Holland. It seemed a long time now since my eel sandwich. Cloe was predictably stoical. Being in love with Charles she knew better than to complain, and besides she's phlegmatic by nature. Being the shape she is she's clearly got a bigger hunger threshold than I have.

    At last we found a little place that called itself an Israeli restaurant. Charles and Cloe were charmed. Perhaps the drizzle by now had something to do with that. We'd passed a couple of Indonesian places which Charles felt -- quite wrongly I'm sure -- were not the proper places to go when in the Hague. Was Israeli food the same as Jewish, he now wondered, as we stood there in the rain. As it had now come on quite heavily even his exasperating powers of procrastination were at last overcome. In we went.

    There were only four or five tables, all empty. We sat down at one of them. There was a bar, with a couple of people standing at it who might have been either guests or waiters. They did not seem pleased to see us and paid us no attention, continuing to talk among themselves in a language which could have been Dutch but probably wasn't. That put Charles on his mettle, and after a moment or two he went up rather aggressively to the bar and asked for the menu.

    I could see that this provoked an unhelpful response. There wasn't one, evidently; and a tall athletic fellow behind the bar could be heard explaining to Charles in very reasonable English that there was a dish of the day. He seemed to imply that they had nothing but contempt for the fawning decadent ways of a bourgeois restaurant. Their image was a simple heroic one, as on a kibbutz; and casual visitors were expected to be rather thrilled by it, and also made to feel a bit small.

    Charles appeared to come to an agreement with the barman, and returned to our table to tell us, with a certain self-satisfaction, that we were to have hors d'oeuvres Haifa-style, with lamb chops and chips to follow.

    That sounded all right, except that it wasn't. The hors d'oeuvres were stale pitta with vinegary houmous, and a sort of ghastly red paste, and the chops were far too tough to eat. We sat gloomily masticating chips, and Charles got all bright and defensive, praising the Mount Carmel wine, which was not disagreeable but seemed barely alcoholic.

    It was definitely diuretic, however, and just as we were about to leave I decided to go to the Ladies. There was a door I could see with the male logo on it -- the forked-looking object -- but no sign of the trim lady in her skirt. Was it a unisex toilet? Or were only those bursting with virility entitled to patronise it? Provoked, I was about to push the door open when I noticed another one, unlabelled, in the alcove beside it. So I tried that instead.

    Two men were sitting in there at a small table under a light. One was the athletic-looking type from the bar, and the other was small and slight, with a white face and a dark moustache. His bright black eyes looked up and gazed into mine, and I found myself momentarily hypnotised and unable to do anything but stare back at him.

    It was a long moment, but then I muttered the usual 'Sorry' -- that so handy Dutch-English -- shut the door and went back to our table. After those eyes I didn't have the nerve somehow to try the one with the Gents sign: I would just have to wait now till we got back to our hotel. Cloe raised her eyebrows in a feminine query, to intimate that she might follow me if I had been successful, so I smiled at her in the same spirit. In sheer desperation we had drunk three bottles of that Mount Carmel stuff.

    'The non-Gents is full of gents,' I told her cryptically. I rather liked to think of me and Cloe at that moment as both looking like the trim logo lady in her skirt. Demure and slightly disdainful. Not like the forked male.

    Charles meanwhile ignored us, for he was absorbed in working out sums in guilders. He had been sternly told they didn't take credit cards, and this had thrown him somewhat. Dutch currency is rather pretty in its way, and has a tremendously caring look. Emphatically designed to be used by the halt, the lame and the blind.

    I noticed the bright red and green notes mechanically, as Charles was fussing with them, but really I had had rather a shock. I kept seeing the small white face, and the black eyes looking squarely into mine across the table. The big bronzed Israeli with him was obviously a subordinate, though he had not himself bothered with our dinner at all -- that had been done by a silent sour-faced girl who brought it from somewhere at the back of the bar and dumped it in front of us.

    Back at the hotel I was still feeling puzzled. Baffled rather. There was something about that face. I knew I had seen it before; and yet where could I have seen it?

    After I came out of the Ladies -- a real Ladies with paper towels and toilet water -- I found Charles and Cloe being very animated at the reception desk, over the great question of tickets. They were busy getting the ones for our ration of Vermeer-viewing, next day; and wondering in loud voices what times would be the most strategic for squeezing in an extra hour. The people at the reception desk smiled tolerantly, pleased to think the English rude and childish, not like good Dutch children. They were also asking if we wanted tickets for the big dance at the town hall tomorrow evening. They showed us the poster, decorated inevitably by a picture of the girl in the red hat. They looked at me knowingly and said it was a fancy dress dance: many people would be got up as some character out of Vermeer. Cloe decided of course that we must go.

    'You've got it made, Nance,' she pointed out. 'We'll just have to find you the right hat.' Girls like Cloe can never resist the obvious.

    They went into the bar, and I decided to go up to bed. The lift seemed an old friend by now, and as I entered it of course I wondered where the man was who had sat me on his knees, and if he were still hanging about. What an odd kind of charm he had, or so it seemed to me now. I had been too surprised at the time to have really taken it in.

    I was woken some time in the night by a faint scratching sound. They say, don't they, that a noise like that is more likely to wake you up than a much louder one? Then I heard the door of the bedroom, which was down one of those little passages with a loo and a cupboard off it, being quietly opened. There was no time to do anything abut it, even if I had wide enough wake to put two and two together. There was a rustling sound quite close, and someone got into bed with me.

    I knew a man of course. It sort of smelled like a man, and though I wouldn't put it past Cloe to have Lesbian tendencies, and even to act on them where I was concerned, it seemed highly unlikely none the less that she would have abandoned Charles in quest of me. Besides, how would she have got in? The locks on the doors closed automatically.

    I had time to think of these things and several others, and also to wonder what to do. It should have been a panic situation, but for some reason it wasn't. I should have screamed, fumbled for the light, shot out of the bed on the opposite side. I did none of these things. Was it because I sort of knew, though almost unconsciously, who this man was?

    It was a pitch dark of course - just the vaguest bit of light from the window area. For a single the bed was reasonably large, and he didn't touch me, except that our feet gently collided. His were nice and warm.

    I addressed the darkness boldly, which seemed after a second or two the best idea. 'How did you get in?' I asked.

    A voice replied that it had been quite easy. In the lift he hadn't spoken, but he had just the kind of voice I would have expected: foreign but pleasantly foreign, deep and slightly husky.

    It amused me to realise, when I heard it, that if it had turned out to be one of those upper-class standard English voices I should have leaped out of the bed pretty smartish, telling the invisible man, in the same sort of tones, to get the hell out of it.

    Perhaps the man could tell now that I was smiling in the dark, although I have to admit that I was also beginning to feel more than a trifle fluttery. I had been sitting on his knee in the lift fully clad, and in my substantial trousers, and here I was in bed with nothing on. I never wear anything in bed, not for any erotic reason but because I find it more comfortable that way.

    But how had he got in? I was about to ask again when I remembered that when I was sitting on his knee in the lift I must have been holding the plastic key thing in my hand. Could there be some connection?

    Apparently there could. Still without touching me he began quietly and laboriously to explain that he had a photographic memory. He memorised the location of the holes in my card, and as he had key blanks and a proper punch it was no trouble to make a card of his own. I found his voice irresistible. It was calm and low and slightly husky. Courteous, but quite unapologetic.

    He came three times before it began to get light. No apology for it either. Once he tried to do it to me the other way around, but I wasn't having any of that. I'm not a boy after all, and there's Aids to think of, even at a moment when I was beginning to be half in love with my liftman, as I still thought of him. This dark gentle foreigner who had got into bed with me, and who spoke with such a lovely unEnglish voice.

    He left me about six, as quietly as he had arrived. We had very little conversation, apart from the bed sort. To tease him I asked him once if he was doing all right. He picked up the tease - it was just before the third lovemaking - and told me with a little chuckle that he would be in a moment. As he slipped out of bed he murmured in his funny voice what sounded like 'You a good lad - a smart lad.' I didn't grasp the words at once, but they started me off giggling after the door closed.

    I'd felt him carefully at first to make sure he was using a condom; and he'd been very meticulous about using a new one each time. I found he'd put them tidily on a sheet of hotel stationery beside the bed. I popped them in one of those little sanitary bags they give you in the loo, printed with a lady wearing a bouffant skirt, and looking for some reason much more rackety than the self-possessed lady on the toilet door. The chambermaid was hardly likely to investigate it, and I have some solicitude for the drains in hotel bedrooms, having once found that I'd been given a blocked one. Naturally enough they're not like ordinary drains, with a short urethra, so to speak. They must wind about from room to room.

    He had been thoughtful in his precautions. But naturally he was protecting himself too, which he obviously needed to if he did this kind of thing often. Somehow, though, I didn't feel that he did. That was sentimental of me no doubt. But I was a bit in love, or rather, to be honest, just feeling pleased with myself.

    Why was that? Partly because he had called me a smart lad; and partly because I was sure that he had very much enjoyed himself. Partly, too, for the much odder reason that there had been no sex in it for me, or only the barest minimum, and I'm usually quite a sexy sort of person. But he hadn't turned me on at all, and I felt mysteriously gratified by that. Rather maternal I suppose. And although he'd kept me awake about four hours, and had hardly said anything, I hadn't been in the least bored. Quite the contrary.

    I'd arranged to meet with Cloe and Charles at eight for breakfast, since we had to report early with our tickets at the Mauritshuis Museum. If it hadn't been for Vermeer the amorous couple would no doubt have had their petit dejeuner snugly upstairs in their room. I always like to come down myself, in any hotel, and whether I'm alone or not. No petit dejeuner stuff for me. I like to confront whatever there is going, although at home I admit I never much care for the sound of a 'full English breakfast'. But the Dutch do it admirably. Everything from Gouda to frankfurters and from radishes to kiwi fruit.

    Cloe watched me tucking in with a look that was half indulgent and half envious. She knows she'll get fat and she knows that I won't. But she took a sort of pride, all the same, in my plateful of goodies, as if I were her little boy. I was touched by this. Charles of course paid us no attention. He drank a lot of coffee, ate a brioche, and pretended to read a Dutch newspaper. Occasionally, to keep us amused, he mouthed bits at us: but sotto voce, in case there was a real Dutchman within earshot.

    It was while he was doing this that the penny suddenly dropped. I was pretending to laugh at Charles's performance as a Dutchman when I caught sight of the photographs on the front page of his paper -- Arab looking characters, some in headscarves and some without. At once I remembered the man who had been in the room last night at the restaurant, when I opened the door thinking it might be the Ladies. And I knew where I'd seen him before. It was on the front page of a newspaper, back in England. It was a picture of some notorious terrorist from the Middle East, who was suspected of being behind the latest atrocity. I couldn't remember which it was or where: there are so many of them.

    Anyway, that was the man I had seen in the restaurant. Looking at the pictures in Charles's paper made me suddenly quite sure of it. With hindsight I now feel I could easily have been wrong -- they are all apt to look so alike in a spruce expressionless way -- but that kind of uncertainty was to become typical of our whole Dutch adventure. Just as you don't know who the people are in those Vermeer pictures, or what they are thinking about and doing. Charles would no doubt say I've got that all wrong too, and very likely I have.

    My conviction, at least at that moment, was that the man I had seen in the restaurant was the famous terrorist. I felt quite thrilled at the thought, but I didn't say anything. What could the man be doing there, in a so-called Israeli restaurant? The whole thing was so inexplicable that I soon ceased to think about it, in the way one does about funny coincidences to which one will never discover the answer, if it exists.

    I started to think instead about my companion of the night. There had been nothing unreal about him, and the thought of him soon gave me that nice warm feeling again. Who on earth was he, who could he be? But that didn't really worry me particularly. Whoever he was, he had a thing about me; and perhaps I should see him again. Perhaps tonight he'd be getting back in bed with me? And perhaps tonight I'd be really passionate and abandoned.

    I toyed with the idea that it would have been nice to have him come down to breakfast with me. Wouldn't Charles and Cloe have looked surprised? But I soon dropped that notion, amusing as it was to think of. My man of the night, and of the lift of course, was my own private property; and I wasn't going to mix him up, or let him have anything to do with Charles and Cloe. Or with anyone else at the hotel for that matter.

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