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Sport 25: Spring 2000

Anna Keir — The Summer of Love

page 56

Anna Keir

The Summer of Love

Yesterday I saw Steve O'Rourke being filmed in Willis Street. He strode along the pavement in his Italian suit while the camera crew ran backwards in front of him and I stood in a doorway, watching. I only ever see Steve on television these days and I'd forgotten how short he is. I'm not tall and I can give him an inch or two. When I was around him I used to wear flat shoes and bend my knees.

This might suggest he was my boyfriend. It was never like that. We shared a flat, that's all, for a few weeks during the late summer of '78.

Amsterdam. Narrow gabled houses, windows festooned with lace curtains and red lights, houseboats on the canal. My memory also conjures sturdy brick apartments with flat roofs, recessed doorways, solid balconies giving room for a chair or two, some geraniums and maybe a washing line. Workers' housing, built on sound socialist principles between the wars.

I loved those buildings. A fan of the recent past, I felt right at home as I wandered hot suburban streets in my tatty op-shop dresses, watching out for the war around the corner. That is, when I wasn't sitting out on the balcony listening to Steve.

These days Steve's a media icon, doyen of the New Right. Back then he was a kid on the run from Hamilton, searching for interesting places and exotic people. I'd heard on the colonial grapevine that his South African flatmate was going home for a holiday. Steve was very drunk when I called about the room. He said he always preferred to share with women and, by the way, he hoped I was sociable. I winced but I soon found Steve rated sociability largely on the basis of your stamina for listening to him talk.

But I have to write about her in the third person, the young woman I once was. I'm fond of Chirs—well, sometimes—but a lot of the time she irritates me. I want to snap her out of her self-absorption; page 57 tell her not to be so wet. I want to warn her about the chill winds of the '80s just around the corner, point out what she'll have to contend with and ask her to please make a start.

She wouldn't listen to a middle-aged woman telling her all that angst and for what? She wants to be loved, this girl with her big eyes and breasts, her long hair and floppy layered clothes. She wants affection. She's not fussy about where it comes from.

Steve's not really interested in Chris but he's a kindly soul and always in search of an audience. He'll sit on the end of her bed, drinking cheap wine and extolling the beauty of his one true love who left him at Heathrow on their return from Greece—the holiday of a lifetime Chrissie—saying she couldn't cope with his drinking and wild mood swings. He weeps as he tells her and Chris sits with legs tucked up wondering what she'd do if he wanted to get her into bed and watching the lace curtain float out through the open balcony door and the lights in the windows across the way. All those lives out there, irresistible for a voyeur. Chris can sit enchanted on the balcony.

Steve's saying he'll never forget Angela, never. Chris, who'd come home the previous day to find him tucked under his flowered duvet with a young woman she'd never seen before—God how embarrassing, why does he never shut the door?—thinks he's such a showman, a complete bullshit artist. She has no idea how many of his emotions are real and she's beginning to think neither has he. Though he'd probably just say, God Chrissie, you innocent. I'll always love Angela but that doesn't mean I have to live like a monk. It's the '70s after all. Free love and all that—Amsterdam's its capital.

‘So how's the enigmatic Dirk?’ asks Steve, finally responding to her silence.

Dirk's important. He's a shadowy figure. If Steve's the joker, Chris the fool, then Dirk is—the masked man? The wild card? He's not directly involved in the action; you only catch glimpses of him through others. Chris replies, ‘Okay. I haven't seen him for a while.’

Chris doesn't confide in Steve. One drunken night she told him about Dirk—not that there's much to tell—only to come home the following evening and hear him talking to Viv out on the balcony. ‘We know the type, all that lapsed Catholic guilt and buckets of charm. page 58 Chrissie's head over heels and, of course, she'd never be his sort. She's a sweetie but far too plump and earnest.’

She'd slunk off to bed, ashamed as much by how he saw her as by hearing him say it—and to Viv.

I like to think I'd storm out on that balcony and give him a piece of my mind. He didn't even get it right. Chris knows Dirk's a fantasy. She's aware that his otherness, his difficulty with English, gives his most commonplace utterances a resonance. As the long days pass and he doesn't call and she wonders about his silence and can't bring herself to phone him, still she knows Dirk likes her. It's his simple acceptance of her as whole and unflawed that enchants.

Chris doesn't yet know he won't put in an appearance all the time she stays at the flat. He's given her the book—Dutch modernist architecture, crammed with monochrome photos and incomprehensible text. I looked for it the other night, but I couldn't find it.

Chris carries it with her on her walks, checking out the buildings it mentions and making notes in the margins about those she prefers. She imagines Dirk beside her and talks to him, discussing structure and detail. Mostly these conversations are inside her head but sometimes she mumbles. She'll have to watch that.

Back from her walk, she thinks of ringing him. But what would she say? Besides, there's Marlies, Dirk's wife. Yes of course, Dirk's married. In this disposable world that's part of his charm. And there's Steve, out on the balcony with Sally, Don and Viv. He calls as she passes. ‘Gidday Chrissie. Grab another bottle and come and join us.’

I hated Chrissie even then; I cast her off with the crêpe de Chine. Now I'm Chris, or Christabel if I'm feeling formal. Chrissie sounded so wet. But I never said anything.

Chrissie gets another bottle of cheap wine and a glass and goes out on the balcony. Five make a tight fit but it helps that Sally sits on Don's knee. They're on their honeymoon, seeing Europe in a month in a battered campervan. They say Amsterdam's all right but they really can't wait to get back to Hamilton and work on their house.

Viv, on the other hand, has been here for years. She's a performance artist, a living statue. She's tall and very thin and her costume is a long page 59 bronzed gown and a close-fitting head dress. She smooths metallic make-up on her face so her eyes glint out of a bronze mask. Chris often sees her stilled on her plinth, upturned bucket draped in bronze cloth, in Dam Square.

Viv's dark eyes follow Chris as she moves to the balcony's outer edge. Viv watches everyone; Chris imagines her storing up experience, unfussed by who it belongs to. When they're middle-aged she'll probably write a bad novel full of half-truths and Chris will read herself reflected in Viv's distorting mirror.

Viv smiles up over the rim of her glass. She has a mischievous, triangular smile but it doesn't reach her eyes. ‘You'll never guess who I ran into last night Chrissie. Your friend Dirk, all alone and slumming it in the Bloemenweg.’

Chris has passed it, a seedy dark café down by the station. What was he doing there?

‘Dirk Ruiters?’ Steve perks up, sensing gossip. ‘You never said you knew him Vivy.’

‘Well I don't. Or didn't. After an hour or two and several genevers we got quite pally. Two lost souls drowning our sorrows and all that. Actually Chrissie, your name came up a lot. He told me all about how he met you.’

‘There's nothing to tell. I went to an exhibition he was having.’

Viv eyes her speculatively. ‘He was very sweet about you. He said you were “really interesting” and he liked the way you “noticed things”. At least I think that's what he was saying, he was fairly pissed by then and his English isn't up to much is it?’

Chris feels Steve watching her. She meets his eyes defiantly and he grins and winks.

‘I know Chrissie's a woman of hidden depths. You've just got to take the time to get to know her.’

‘Dirk Ruiters was certainly keen to get to know me. He was all over me like a rash. And he asked me to go home with him. He said his wife was away and he was all alone.’

Chris notices the geraniums need watering. Someone's dropped a roach in their pot. There's the blue sock she lost. It must have dropped off the line.

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Steve says it's time for coffee. He starts to collect bottles and glasses but Viv's voice goes on. Riveted, Sally leans forward from her perch on Don's knee.

‘Anyway, I had to turn him down, even though I could have fancied someone last night. I haven't had sex for weeks.’

Steve's quick as a flash. ‘There's really no need to save yourself for me Viv.’

‘Don't get sarcastic with me, not with all the young girls you get off with.’

‘Ah,’ he says, smiling sweetly, ‘it is getting harder to pull the young ones.’

This is awful. Chris starts to leave but Viv's back to her story.

‘I do draw the line at married men. Much too tacky, all that potential for boring complication. Besides, he's not really my type. I should have sent him round to you Chrissie,’ she calls, as Chris moves off the balcony and into the room. ‘I bet you were home.’

Chris goes down the stairs, grabs her jacket from the peg by the door and leaves the flat. Steve's calling but she doesn't pause. Out the door, left, and at the corner, left again. Don't think, just walk. Cross the road, through the tiny park—brown grass, green bench, lone lime tree. Plaque in wall remembering the three people shot here in '42. Right now, past the school and the superette, down the alley. Don't think, just walk.

A café. Not the Bloemenweg. This one's bigger, with a screen of healthy green plants streaming down the window. It's nearly empty. She sits down the back and the Turkish proprietor brings her tea in a glass fitted neatly inside a delicate metal holder. She's learnt not to add milk but she concentrates as she stirs in two sugars. Around her plants gush and droop over every available surface and pairs of clogs punctuate the walls at regular intervals. Did he inherit the decor or is it camouflage?

She buys a pack of Camels. I don't smoke. Chris feels a cigarette lends sophistication and gives control. I could tell her she'll look older in a few years when those chipmunk cheeks cave in. I don't think she'd listen; she needs those Camels.

She lights up, inhales deeply, sips her tea. All the time the tape in page 61 her head repeats Viv's message. Dirk was close by. He could have come and seen her.

It's one thing for Chris to believe nothing's possible with Dirk. After all, he's married. Steve would probably say her faith is touching, given the times. Knowing Dirk had the chance to come and chose not to, perhaps didn't even consider it, is something else. She's appalled he propositioned Viv. Viv's so flagrant. Why would the ascetic Dirk want her?

Chris considers another tea and sees Steve standing by the counter. He waves and comes towards her. ‘What a sensible woman you are Chrissie, escaping that lot. Can I join you?’

He's the last thing she wants. But he's pulling up a chair, pulling out his cigarettes. The proprietor brings coffee. Steve takes his black, with three sugars. He asks for a menu. ‘God I'm starving. How about some pizza? It's on me.’

She'd like to say she's not hungry but it takes more than heartache to put her off food. ‘Okay, thanks. Pizza would be good.’

Steve leans back. His head narrowly misses red clogs, patterned with daisies.

‘Love the decor! Actually, this is a nice place.’

He leans towards her, blows a smoke ring. ‘I don't think we've met. Do you come here often?’

‘I just come for coffee sometimes, when I've been walking. It's quiet.’ She grins. ‘And the pizza's really good.’

A long oval of crisp dough, edges rolled over to hold spiced meat studded with sliced red and green pepper. The proprietor places it on the table and deftly slices it. ‘Enjoy,’ he says, baring tobacco-stained teeth.

Chris reaches for a slice. ‘I've never seen him smile. It must be your magnetic charm.’

Steve waggles his eyebrows, mouth full of pizza. Chris would like to sit alone, smoking and suffering, but she can feel the pizza's savoury heat warming her, filling her up.

‘Sally and Don'll be off tomorrow,’ Steve says, between mouthfuls. ‘Back to Blighty and then home to the mortgage.’

‘Yeah, well that's what they want.’

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‘Not like us free spirits, eh Chrissie?’

‘I don't know. I mean, it's not what I want right now but I don't know that I'd like to be living like this when I'm thirty. It's a bit hand to mouth.’

‘Viv's thirty-three,’ Steve says casually. ‘Don't mention it though, she'd kill me.’

‘Really! She doesn't look that old.’ Chris finds this cheering; even thirty seems ancient.

‘She does in bright light. All that make-up. We had a bit of a thing going last year actually; slept together a few times. We got on each other's nerves. Too similar I guess.’

In subdued lighting, anaesthetised by pizza, Chris finds this difficult. I'd smile and tell him to save the tedious details. Chris blushes and chews on stolidly. Steve grins.

‘I know, I know. You're thinking, he'll sleep with anyone.’

‘No I'm not.’

‘Viv's all right. We understand each other. She's a theatrical old tart—loves a drama if she's at its centre. Do you want the last slice?’

She does but, ‘You have it.’ After all, he's smaller than she is.

They step out into the summer evening. Chris, conscious of her size beside him, bends her knees slightly. He takes her arm. They navigate the rubbish bins, dodge the dog shit and cross the road to the park. Steve pauses beneath the lime tree and looks around. ‘It's so tame. A humble little world, all in proportion. Maybe I'll move on.’

‘I like it. I like the way it was all planned. So ordinary and yet so careful.’

Steve runs his fingers over the plaque's lettering. ‘A few years later it all came to this. Ah well…come on Chrissie Wallace. Let's sit on the balcony with some very large gin and tonics. I can just about afford a bottle.’

Suddenly Chris feels all right. Dirk's temporarily back in some safe corner of her mind, smiling sweetly with his long pale face. She grins at Steve. ‘Gin would be a good idea.’

Steve beams and takes her arm. ‘We men do have good ideas from time to time. Charming men,’ he adds, nudging her in the ribs, ‘never trust them Chrissie. Take it from one who knows.’

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I left for Germany a week later. By the time I returned Steve had moved on. He sent me a postcard from Prague, but after that I never heard. I hadn't thought our friendship would last but I remember his kindness.

A year or so after I came home, when Dirk's stilted letters had long since changed to humorous postcards, then stopped, I heard that he and Marlies had spilt up. He'd moved in with another woman; they'd been having an affair for most of the time he was married. I imagined Steve rolling his eyes and saying, ‘Well Chrissie!’ And after all, it was the '70s. Steve was also back in New Zealand, his career on the way up. Soon after he traded in his first wife—Viv, yes Viv—for a younger model. Viv got the last laugh. Her scathing exposés of Steve's habits in assorted women's magazines launched her career as an interior decorator and feng shui expert.

Last night I dreamt about Dirk. All of twenty-seven, with wild hair and flapping coat, he held my hand as we wandered through summer streets. I left him waving beneath the Noord-Brabant building, the angel at the top stretching her wings in benediction.

A complete invention. We were never there.