Novella: A Clean Operation

Novella: A Clean Operation

A Novella

about a man who lost his face

A Clean Operation 1

Short Stories and NovellasPosted by Graham Thompson Sat, May 26, 2018 09:20:32
It had been a long day. I finally got into Amsterdam Central at just after 11pm and took a taxi to my hotel somewhere along the Dambrugge. It was a day full of missed appointments (definitely not my fault for a change), missed trains (one my fault, the other not), and ditto opportunities. So as I glided gently through the thick and truculent Amsterdam autumn mists I hoped that there was nothing more in my little world that would go missing. But of course I was wrong. When we finally arrived at the Apex Hotel I was looking at a mirror of myself on the other side of the hotel desk, but it wasn’t me it was the desk clerk. Like me he looked utterly exhausted, and like me his body language spoke of an imminent fall into a bed that unfortunately was still on the missing list.
“Sorry sir,” he drawled unconcernedly, “we have no record of any reservation under the name of Smith Jennings - Smith yes, but this particular Smith is already asleep in his room. So let’s call it a day, as you British say.”
“So....let me understand this.” I said with such a sense of frustrated exhaustion that I could hardly raise a hackle in my voice. “Some bastard with half my name has probably pinched my room. Don’t you think it’s your duty to find me another one?”
“Not at this hotel sir, I’m afraid we’re fully booked out, all rooms vol, vol, vol!”
“This can’t be happening to me.” I said in the last gasps of exasperation.”Oh my God - do you realise what I’ve been through today?”
“No sir, that’s rather impossible even for my overactive imagination. You see you maybe come here from the other side of the world, I don’t know where, but me, I feel I’ve been twice round the world already just sat at this desk all day since 6AM, and I should have been disparu at 11PM precisely, but yes, here I am still waiting for my relief, the first having not turned in at five, the second also now running late. But I’ll give him a message to find a room for you ‘cos I’m all in, good night.”

But he didn’t move, seemingly propped there permanently against his desk and staring idiotically past me. During his long rambling speech I was caught in a strange limbo. It seemed there might be a a race as to who might fall on the floor first, but after he finished I marshalled the last of my active brain cells in a final attempt to secure a bed. “Uurrrrgh look, OK yah, wur both tired, no make that 180 degrees west of utterly knackered, but there’s gotta be some solution to my bedless and sleepless problem. Can you do one last thing for me before either collapsing or disappearing, that is: call a few other local hotels to check on the chances of me finding the horizontal somewhere other than the bottom of the canal? Because that’s where I’ll certainly end if there’s no final solution to this interminable day.” I realised I was mixing a cocktail of metaphors, but to hell with it, the guy spoke Double Dutch everyday and so wouldn’t care, as long as he got caught and didn’t drift too far away on my drift. If only he’d try just a little to find me a bed in this city of sleepless sinners, I’d fall on his feet and .......... well, maybe not that far, but you know what I mean.

Then for a moment my eyes cleared a little and I thought those expressionless and immovable pair of Dutch eyeballs had already passed out into a paralysis beyond even sleep. But then he suddenly jumped to at least a simulation of attention and seized the phone on the desk before him in a mockery of his real role, which until that moment he had played only reluctantly. He stabbed so hard at the buttons with his long finger I thought the machine might scream or hiss back at him, but amazingly it responded to his third attempt at the number and he was through to an Erik.
“Erik, Erik, ben jij’t? Is dat het Royal Red?” He paused examining the pink ceiling in arduous detail. A long pause - but at least I knew that he was on the trail of my bed for the night. The Royal Red - that sounded interesting. Did I still have some curiosity left after such a day? Surprisingly I did. ‘Ja,ja, ik weet het, maar ik heb een man hier, een Meneer Smith Jennings- heb je een kamer voor hem?”
Another long pause. I was weighing up my chances in the balance of the day and preparing for the scales to come crashing down yet again on the nyet side. My stomach couldn’t take much more of this roller coaster kind of day. I was sure my wheel of fate would spin of its axis at any moment.
“Ja,ja, oh that should be no problem - the guy’s kind of, well, desperate, yeah, I’ll send him down right away.”
“How desperate am I? What have you booked me into - some kind of bordello?” I was desperate at least to find out my fate, but was I desperate enough to accept any kind of bed? The guy’s smile was from London to New York on the globe of his Dutch face. “Whoa there - first things first, You gotta room, down at the Royal Red, and it’s ultra respectable, makes this joint look like a public toilet. One snag though.”
“ I knew it, I knew it. What is it?” “It’s the honeymoon suite. A little itsy bitsy expensive. Can you afford $250?” The question slapped me in my face like a wet fish but I hesitated only half a second before saying:
“If it’s a choice between that and the canal - I can afford it. Do I get a free bride?” “Funny, very funny, no, but you do get my friend Erik - and he’s, huh, kind of special.” “Not gay for godsake, you mean I have to pay $250 to shack up with a Dutch pirate?” “No, no Erik is not that sort of special, he won’t make you walk his plank. You’ll see why he’s special. He’ll look after you in a strictly professional kind of way, as long as you have a legal credit card.” “I have a posse of those and luckily they haven’t caught up with me yet.”
“That’s kosher then. Run along to Erik and he’ll put you to bed.”
“And read me very special bed-time stories no doubt.”
“Yeh, those too, he has some believe me.”
”I just want bed. I’ll negotiate the price in the morning.”
“Hah, negotiate prices at the Royal Red Omani? You got to be joking. Do you know who owns that place?”
“No, how the hell could I? I’m more or less a stranger to this town.” “Ok, ok, well he’s Sheik Rafael, Raaf to his friends, but I don’t count myself lucky to be one of them. Erik’ll tell you all about him. Rafael is the business. I mean he don’t give reductions, deductions and he never even listens to seductions, male or female. In fact I think he doesn’t have time for any kind of sex life, which is really queer in this city, he’s too busy doing and living his business. He’s holy in that way. Not Jewish or Muslim holy, just numbers holy. He only has one commandment: keep counting the sheikels. Or in his case, as he’s Egyptian, the shillings, but he’ll take any currency - at his own very special rates of course.”
“Would he take my pennies too? I ain’t so rich you know.”
“Oh he would take halfpennies and even farthings as long as they added up to his demands.”
“How come you know so much about our old currencies?”
“Sir, you do me a dishonour. I was porter and all the way up the second class social ladder to booking clerk in the London Hilton back in the pounds shillings and pence days.”
“That must have been a long time ago. We dropped the pennies a good twenty years or more ago.”
“Yes, I know I look young, but that’s what a healthy sex life does for your appearance. Rafael on the other hand is half my age, but his pock-marked face looks like an old cliff. Maybe it’s the cause. or result, of his purity in that direction, or maybe he had a childhood illness back in the Egyptian slums. Either way he sure isn’t pretty. But you’ll no doubt find that out for yourself. Why don’t you hop along to the Royal Red now sir and let me get some shuteye."
“Who is keeping who awake? Just point me the way.”
“It’s down the same canal, away from the station, cross the first intersection then it’s the next hotel on the same side, not 400 meters from here. You can’t miss it.”
“Yes, I know, it’s covered in red lights. Just like the rest of this quarter.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Royal Red Omani Hotel was luckily exactly where the Apex desk clerk said it should be. He was also right in that it was just about as other as it could be compared to the Apex, For beginners the desk clerk - Erik - was tall lanky and long-haired, and, as I was soon to learn, bland and a little surly rather than loquacious and tongue-in-cheek as the Apectical variety. Though the outside of the building was pretty discrete, inside was way up market from the Apex: the hall looked like some kind of Arabic walled garden with miniature trees in pots and water features springing up everywhere. Behind Erik there was a shimmering wall of cascading water lit from the floor behind, through which one could make out a highly impressive abstract expressionist art form, kind of Roethkoish but not his colours - more orange yellows and browny greys. On a second take it could have been just the mould and algae formed on the wall by the wetness of the surface. Whatever - it was an impressive backdrop to the guy who only now looked up from his book behind the desk and stared at me with impassive Dutch-blue porcelain eyes. The theatrical backdrop was completed by two giant ferns that acted as side curtains to the stage of the wide and curved desk, lit again from below and also from under its ledge. In fact everywhere there was indirect soft red tinged lighting, muted again by the plants and dark red walls. The only sound was the soft flop of the water repeating itself in its endless varied rhythms. Erik spoke out at last in a low deep voice:
“Mr. Jennings Smith?”
“No....yes, uh..I mean it’s me but my name is Smith Jennings. Father Smith, mother Jennings.” This was an old routine and I was long tired of it. My tiredness in general had ebbed away for the moment but it quickly galloped back at the confrontation of the usual hotel routines I could see coming.
“Mr. Smith Jennings it is then, do you want to sign the book and let me see your passport?” I instantly flourished it from my breast pocket and said:
“The room, it’s a bridal suite I hear." Here I tossed a thumb in the general direction I vaguely remembered coming from. “Is there any way we can negotiate the price, because after all, I’m not both man and newly wedded wife.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have the power to change the prices of the rooms, sir, that’s something you will have to take up with Senor Rafael.”
‘The boss you mean, the Sheik from Egypt?”
“Mr. Rafael is not from Egypt sir, you’ve been misinformed. He’s from Spain and you’d better not address him as Sheik in person. People who have done that on a regular basis in the past have been known to disappear. Seriously sir, I’m not joking. Now if you want this room please sign here. How many days will you be staying.”
“Probably one if the price doesn’t come down - it was $250 a night wasn’t it?”
“Yes sir.”
“Oh well, can I see this guy tomorrow to discuss it?”
"Can’t say for sure sir, but sometimes he`s here in in the mornings.” I signed, numb from the day’s infinite minor confrontations. I couldn’t face another now even though I hated paying that kind of price for a room,
“Would you like some help with the bag sir?”
“No, no, it’s not heavy - just show me the way to this harem for the happy couple minus one.”
“Pardon, sir?”
“Nothing, just show me up James.”
“My name is Erik sir.”
“Yes, well I know that, your mate in the Apex (another tossed thumb) told me as much. James is a figure of speech, used for,,,,,,,,, oh never mind. Where’s the........”
“This way sir,” Surprisingly there was no lift, but a maze of corridors and half-stairs which took us somewhere into the bowels of the old Dutch building. Finally we arrived at a room on whose door sat a metal plaque: “The Bridal Suite”.
“Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” I muttered incongrously.
“I’m sure this room will have everything you need sir,” intoned Erik.
“Except the bloody bride herself.”
“I’m sure something could be arranged sir.”
“No, no - I was just joking - don’t you have a sense of humour?”
“My friends tell me I don’t have sir. I must have lost it in my accident.”
“In your accident? No, it’s too late for another tall story. Tell me about it tomorrow if I’m still here.”
“Well I’m not sure if I’ll be working here tomorrow night sir.”
“In that case I’ll probably have to miss your accident and how you lost your sense of humour. After all, it’s not as serious as losing your virginity.”
“Ha, ha” laughed Erik in words, but not for real. “I got that one sir.”
“Did you - I didn’t, not quite, it was a hopeless comparison, born out of the similarity of the expressions. Maybe I’m losing my sense of humour too!”
“Oh, I’m sure not sir. Well you must be is your key. Have a good rest and ring me if you need anything.” At this he turned and began to leave.
“Don’t you want a tip?” said I, thinking: he hasn’t even shown me the room properly so why did I say that?
“I don’t presume sir.”
“Good, because I don’t yet have any Dutch money.” This was a white lie - I did but no change. “Maybe tomorrow night eh? Then you can tell me of both your losses. Goodnight Erik. Sleep well. Though I guess you don’t actually do that.”
“No sir - I have problems in that direction, that’s why this is a good job for me. Goodnight.” I pushed the electric key into the door and it swang open. My hand searched for a switch on either side inside the door but there was none. However, when I finally crossed the threshold a whole battery of lights sprang into action automatically. I guess it was from the heat of my body picked up by a sensor. I hated this kind of thing which always left me feeling that I was not in control of my own environment. In the centre of the rather small room (I had expected a huge suite - but this was rather like a cave with an en-suite) there was a queen size circular bed, about 2 metres in diameter. This left only about four feet to the sidewalls and the corners were covered in middle eastern fabrics drooping from the ceiling, thus enhancing the cave effect. I wondered if Senor Rafael had ever read Tristan and Isolde. The bathroom, which I examined next, was off to the left via another half-curtained door. More lights from inside blazed out as I entered. Yes, there was a small jacuzzi looking like a folorn set of dentures with metal fillings, a shower, a whatdoyoucall it French bowl thing for washing the bits the English rarely wash, a sink, and, to my surprise a small pool full of lukewarm water, bigger than the bed, in which two or three couples could lie, not just one. Stripping off I entered this in preference to jacuzzi or shower and was rewarded with instant gentle ripple effect and piped retro-ambience music. Automatically, of course. As I lay back and took in the room I realised the en-suite was bigger than the suite.
After a couple of minutes I rose and dried, then took my grey pyjamas from the Samsonite. I pulled out my suit too to hang up for pressing the next morning before my meeting with El Almaht. The light had automatically faded in the bathroom, presumably because of the absence of my body heat. But now I was presented with a dilemma - how an earth did you turn off the bedroom light. I was desperate for sleep but could not fathom a solution. By my bedside was a reading lamp with a switch - perhaps if I turned this on the main light would go off - but no nothing happened. I tried searching for a hidden switch but there was none anywhere. I tried shouting at the light in English “OFF”, then Dutch “AF” but of course the lights were deaf. I was tempted to phone Erik but I was too proud - I wanted to seize back control all by myself. I pranced round the room for a further 15 minutes until I was so tired that I feared I would be late for my interview the next day. I gave up and moved onto the bed. As soon as my backside fell onto the bed the lights slowly began to fade and then went out. It was a metaphile for my whole day.

The bed was so big and perfectly round I couldn't decide where to sleep in it. I tried putting my pillow to where I thought north was and my feet south - a position in line with all known magnetic forces and following my usual custom, but it didn't help me get to sleep. Maybe I had lost my normally impeccable bearings en route to the room. So I tried my head where I thought east might be and feet west, but that felt equally unnatural. After several more changes in orientation I began to feel like the needle of a compass placed directly over the magnetic north pole. In no position could I relax - I hated the roundness of the thing, my body needed a definite top and bottom. In the end I curled up in a ball in the centre, hugging my knees in a way that was most unusual for me, but which brought me close to sleep. But then I thought I heard a muffled knocking. My portable alarm read 2am. It couldn't be true. I went to the door - the lights sprang on again but revealed nothing, nobody in the corridor. I lay back and the lights faded again - the knocking had stopped. I tried to sleep. But then I heard it again, fainter and more rhythmic. I got up and the lights blared down, I was thoroughly awake now. I listened to the left, then the right of the bed. The sound remained constant in volume. I stood on the bed - the lights went out but the sound was the same. I crawled under the bed and the sound seemed slightly louder. And now I thought I could hear water lapping gently too. In a corner of the room lay the telephone, so I picked it up and rang the desk. Erik answered:
"Yes, can I get you something?"
"Well, no Erik, I was wondering if you could come up and listen to this noise, I can't sleep because of it. It's a kind of knocking, quite musical really with water in the background. You don't have automatic ambient sounds plugged into the rooms to help us get to sleep do you?"
"No, not at all sir, are you sure it's not from the next door room? "
"No, I don't think so - I think it's coming from somewhere below my room."
"That's impossible, there's nothing below your room except maybe an underground canal. You are on the ground floor there."
"But I thought we went up some stairs to get here."
"We did, but we also went down some too. You are on the same level as me. I expect there's something stuck in the canal."
"You mean I'm sleeping over running water? That's not in agreement with my Feng Shui principles, this is impossible."
"Keep calm sir, I'm coming immediately, I'm sure we can sort things out." Within 2 minutes there was a firm knock on the door. I bade Erik enter and pushed the bed to the side so he could hear the noise. The lights went out and Erik's voice called from the darkness:
"You shouldn't have done that sir, you've disconnected the automatic lighting system." "OK, OK, but can you hear the noise, bend down next to me and listen."
"But where are you sir?" A hand came groping me in the dark, I guided it down to the floor where I was intently listening. But of course the noise had stopped.
"Nothing sir, maybe it was an object stuck in the canal, a dead body or something and now it's moved on."
"A dead body!"
"Let me find the right position for the bed so the lights will come on again. No, that's not right, a little to the left maybe, or..........the right. Ah that's it." I was solidly relieved to find we were back in the brightest of lit rooms.
"There was definitely a noise, I'm sure it was made by a live body, not a dead one." "Don't worry sir, maybe you are right, this place is said to be haunted, you see many Jews were discovered hiding in the building by the Gestapo in the war. They shot them immediately they found them. Maybe it's their ghosts you are hearing."
"Well that's great, I'm glad you've given me the true explanation for the noise, I'll really get a good night's sleep now."
"Oh well sir, glad to be of service. I hope you do, goodnight sir."
“Wait a minute, I wasn’t serious, it was, well, I was speaking I-RON-IC-ALLY, you see.” “You mean you don’t think you can sleep after all?”
“Precisely - and I’m paying about $10 a minute just not to be able to.”
“Would you like some chamomile tea then sir.”
“Chamomile tea - what’s that when it’s in town?”
“It’s an infusion made from natural herbs, it’s good to help you sleep.”
“No I don’t trust it, anything with such a long name can’t be any use for dormitorial purposes. The word dormitory is the same - it keeps me awake. I was forced to sleep in one in my public school, but it only caused sleep deprivation. The word had too many letters and the place too many bodies.”
“Oh then I don’t know what to suggest sir.”
“Look, maybe if I come down with you and you tell me the story of your accident - the one where you lost your sense of humour - maybe it could be such an interesting story that it would make me sleepy.”
“But sir, that’s illogical.”
“All good stories are.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not following you, but you are welcome to come down. I don’t think that my story will help you sleep, but I could get you a whisky or something else from the bar if it’s more for your taste.”
“Well now you’re talking - let’s go.” So I stumbled after him through the half-lit passageways and was soon installed on a stool on the other side of his reception desk, supping a Glenfiddich and ready for his tale.
“It’s quite simple really, it happened after a car accident we had when we were on our way to Italy. The car went out of control on our way down from a mountain pass in the Alps.”
“Wait a minute, how long ago was this?”
“What? Mmmm ... about four years ago.”
“Not long then.”
“It seems long to me. Can you imagine what it’s like not to laugh or smile in 4 years?” It was as he told me this that I realised that his face, though stunningly beautiful, almost perfect in its symmetry, had rather a fixed and mask-like quality to it. Was this the result of the accident, or the result of four years without laughing?
“No, I can’t imagine, but I have been clinically depressed once in my life. It was hard for me to smile or laugh for a whole year, but I guess I must have. It’s a spontaneous thing, how can you stop it? What happens when people tell you jokes?”
“I don’t generally understand them, or at least they don’t seem funny anymore. Maybe the accident did something in my brain. But that’s not the only reason why I lost my sense of humour.”
“ Wait, I know what you are going to say, you lost your face in that accident didn’t you. And now you can’t physically laugh.”
“Well yes, I did lose my face, how did you know? Most people can’t see that.”
“Partly intuition, plus the fact that you have so few natural lines around your eyes and cheeks. Your face is too young, though it’s certainly a beautiful face. You look 19 but you’re probably 26 or 7.”
“ I’m 32 actually. Many people think I’m younger. I even have problems in bars for godsake.”
“So they gave you a new face after the accident, why, what happened?”
“It was a terrible accident. The brakes failed on this bend and we rolled over several times. The car caught fire and..........”
“We? Who was with you?”
“My girlfriend. She died you see, we couldn’t get out......”
“Oh God, this conversation is not in the least making me sleepy.”
“Well I did kind of warn you sir.”
“Cut the ‘sir’ bit. We’re equal now, maybe I’ll tell you a few stories if I don’t get sleepy. My name is Howard, Erik, please go on."
“Well OK Howard, the fire burnt my face away, but it was worse for my girlfriend. She died in hospital with severe burns on the whole of her body.”
“Jesus, and can you remember any of that, in the car I mean.”
“Luckily, very little. I remember the crash itself and being pulled out, but nothing of the fire. As you can imagine I was pretty sad to lose my girlfriend, after all we were due to be married. But that’s not the worst thing, it wasn’t that that caused me to lose my sense of humour.”
“You mean you were driving? It was your fault? And now you can’t stop blaming yourself?”
“No, no. as a matter of fact she was driving. It was nobody’s fault, it was an old car I guess. I was unlucky to survive.”
“Unlucky to survive - I like that. I know just what you mean, I’ve been there too. But was that the worst - that you survived?”
“And she didn’t? No, not that, it seemed bad at the time but it soon passed. The other thing didn’t pass. It was the loss of my face. Something I have to live in every day.” “But the surgeons have done a fantastic job. I didn’t realise a thing until I looked closely. You have an extraordinairily beautiful face, especially as it was made for you. I mean I bet you can still pull the women, no trouble with a face like that.”
“Pull the women where?”
“Pull the women? It’s an expression. I mean attract them, seduce them, get them to fall in love with you. In fact when they get to know that it’s not your real face it must be a double attraction. Such a wonderful copy of the lost original. It’s like you’re an actor but the part you’re playing is more real than......than, the original.”
“But you are wrong.” He exclaimed vehemently.
“About the women you mean?”
“No, no, no, no, NO!” I was shaken by his now angry tone. “No, I don’t care about women, in fact it annoys me when they’re attracted to me. And it’s not the loss of my woman - that’s life, that’s already in the past. But this face you are looking at now, it may be good, yes, they really tried to make me look good, to make it a good copy using old photos and matching it carefully with my skull measurements, yes they tried everything but......”
“But it’s not your face, not your original face.” He looked at me with astonishment and the anger in his eyes had disappeared. I realised again that his face didn’t register emotions but only his eyes did.
“Yes, that’s right, my God you do understand after all.”
“Well, sometimes I think I was born into the wrong family, and maybe in a way my feeling is a little similar to yours. I mean though my face is the right one when I look in the mirror, the rest of my family have the wrong faces, they were always complete strangers to me.”
“Waw, that’s strange too, but what I feel is a complete rejection of the most important part of ME, not someone else. I mean I look at my face every morning and these eyes are certainly my eyes, but I have the definite feeling that it’s someone else’s face. That it doesn’t belong to me.”
“But does it hurt to smile?”
“No, no, that’s not the point. I’ve got no reason to smile. This face, the one they gave me, just doesn’t smile.”
“Are you sure it’s not just a physical thing - maybe they didn’t replace the face muscles properly so you can’t smile anymore.”
“No, I don’t think it’s that. Because the face belongs to someone else I’m not ever going to smile until I get my own back. It feels like someone else’s face is stuck on top of mine, And when I get hot or embarrassed, the face on the surface shows nothing, but underneath I’m hot and sweating. I can feel my original face squirming under the one you see right now.”
“Ugh, that’s horrible, truly no laughing matter. But what do you mean the face they gave you belongs to someone else? It’s just a face they gave you, just a good approximation. It’s not a particular face they took from someone.”
“I don’t know where they got it from, but it’s the way I feel when I look in the mirror. It’s such a real face, it looks like it has somebody else’s soul. It seems to move independently of me. And it’s nothing like my original face - and that’s weird because they really tried. Something must have got in there when they stuck on this new face.” “That sounds crazy. But can you prove to me that it’s not like your old face? Do you have a photo of yourself from before the accident?”
“No, I don’t - I burnt them all.”
“Why the hell.............?”
“Because I was so angry after the operation that I would never see my own face again in the mirror. I did it to try and help me adapt. To accept this face. But it didn’t. Sometimes I have this terrible feeling that I’ve stolen this face and that the owner wants it back.”
“But that just doesn’t make sense. Don’t you think it’s a kind of psychological thing? Naturally if you feel it’s not like your face you must be confused about your identity. And after all the trauma you went through both before and after the op.......”
“I don’t really have an identity anymore, I’m just a man without his real face. I haven’t felt myself since they took the bandages off and I first looked in a mirror.”
“But that’s what I mean, it’s a common feeling after shocking events, a kind of depersonalisation. And maybe that’s also why you lost your sense of humour. Maybe even there was some physical damage to your brain during the accident and it had that double effect, both on your normal emotions and on your sense of self. What do you think?”
“Maybe the accident did damage my sense of humour, I’ve often felt that I’m not normal in that way anymore. And there was some slight damage to my frontal lobes that showed up on the brainscans.”
“And can you remember having a sense of humour? Before the accident I mean.”
“Yes, I think so. I mean nobody ever told me before the accident that I didn’t. And yes I can remember laughing at things. But now nothing seems funny, although, of course, I can see when others find them funny. But it’s more than that. This face I have now just WON’T smile. Maybe it can physically, but I don’t have the impulse any longer.”
“So do you feel depressed?”
“Not in a profound kind of way. More a kind of perpetual disappointment. When I see others hurt or crying I feel sad for them. But I don’t get sad about my situation. More kind of angry.”
“Didn’t you get psychological help both before and after the operation, I mean to help you with the change?”
“No, at the time they didn’t seem to think it was necessary, they told me the new face would be very much like my old. But after when I started complaining that it wasn’t, that’s when they suggested getting psychological help, but it was like they thought I was crazy. I didn’t accept their help, they wouldn’t believe it just wasn’t my face. The only ones who have understood me and given me sympathy are the American doctors in California I went to see last year. All the Dutch doctors are shits.”
“Why, what did the Americans say?”
“They said it was a pity I’d burnt all the photos but they were pretty sure they could reconstruct my face - first from skull measurements and then mock-ups which I’ll get to approve. I think they are a whole lot cleverer than the Dutch surgeons. They sold me a bunch of crap.”
“You paid to get the wrong face?”
“Well, no, it was paid for by the state, but I mean I bought their line that my face would be like the original.”
“But in California I bet you’ll have to pay and how!”
“Yes, but not until they show me my real face in a mock-up.”
“I hope you can recognise yourself after all this time.”
“That’s bullshit, of course I will.”
“And how much will it all be to get your real face back again?”
“About $150.000, and maybe $10,000 for the initial mock-ups at the beginning,”
“Jesus! Do you have that kind of money?”
“Of course not, we’re a poor family. Do you think I’d be doing a job like this if I had money?”
“No, I suppose not - but what was the point of going all the way to California if you can’t afford the operation?”
“I’m sure one day I’ll be able to afford it. I mean I do have some money and that’s been carefully invested, so maybe in a couple of years.”
“A couple of years? Can you raise one and a half grand in a couple of years? What kind of investment is it?”
“Well, it’s in diamonds....”
“Diamonds, oooohhhhh...........maybe, maybe that’s a different kettle of fish.”
“Fish? What’s it got to do with fish, I said diamonds. there’s no money in fish.”
“You’d be surprised these days, no, what I said was a different kettle of fish.”
“Kettle? You mean for tea?”
“No. more like a Dutch ‘ketel’.”
“For cooking you mean. Sorry I’m still lost.”
“You’re not the only one. Look let’s get back to the diamonds, the fish can simmer on the side for a while. What kind of returns are you expecting on your diamond investment?”
“I’ve been promised to multiply my investment by five times within 2 years, maybe more, but that’s a guaranteed minimum.”
“Not bad - do you have a lease on the mine itself or something?”
“Almost. I know the mine owner.”
“And where are these diamonds?”
“Well they’re still in the ground at the moment. But by investing now I’ll get a return big enough for a down payment on the operation in two years time.” “Who told you?” “Who told me what?”
“About the diamond mine.”
“My boss here.”
“Your boss huh, you mean Sheik Raf.............. I mean the hotel owner Rafael? This guy is beginning to intrigue me. Can I meet him for myself?”
“Maybe he’ll be in in the morning. Why, do you want to make an investment?”
“No, well I shouldn’t think so. It’s just curiosity. Does he live here in Amsterdam?”
“Well, he has three hotels here but his main business is in Antwerp, I think he has an apartment there.”
“Antwerp - the diamond centre of the world.”
“You got it - maybe he’ll pop in tomorrow, he’s sometimes here at 8, or if not, 6 in the evening. He even sits at this desk sometimes when we’re short of staff or someone is coming in late.”
“Strange boss.”
“He likes to know who’s coming in or out. He likes to keep his hands on things, all his operations.”
“He has more?”
“Well, him and his brothers.”
“It's a family affair?”
“Oh yes, but he’s definitely the boss, the big brother so to speak.”
“And the other operations?”
“I don’t know much about them, but he’s an artist, an architect and interior designer so they say.”
“Multiple talents.”
“Seems so.”
“But diamonds are the big earner.”
“Hope so.”
“Does he own the diamond mine himself?”
“I think so, that’s how he got rich and he’s promised me the same returns as he makes himself.”
“Can’t believe it - no percentage for himself. Where are these mines?”
“I’m not absolutely sure, but people say he has most investments in Zaire.”
“Zaire! But that’s a dangerous dirty business. Don’t you know there are rebels and coup attempts and counter rebels and counter counter rebels. There’s a dying president and a country sinking into chaos. The returns may be incredible but it’s high risk, high, high risk. Has he given you any guarantees of return?”
“Not exactly but he’s promised to pay back the original sum if things go really wrong. He knows the realities of these kinds of places, he was born to them.”
“So you trust him?”
“Absolutely. He gave me this job didn’t he? Despite my appearance.” “Your appearance?”
“I don’t smile remember - not exactly an advantage for a desk clerk.”
“Does he know your history?” “Yes, everybody does here.” “And he’s sympathetic to your.. er... um.. cause?”
“Certainly. He’s the one who told me about the Californian doctors.”
“A real good guy then, a good guy in a dirty business.”
“Well, diamonds aren’t always a dirty business.”
“With the kinds of returns he’s promising it must be a dirty business.”
“Look - I’d do anything to get my own face back.”
“Including selling your own grandmother.”
“I don’t have a grandmother anymore.”
“Oh god, either you really did lose your sense of humour or it’s become sublime.”
“I don’t know quite what you mean.”
“Oh never mind.”
“Want another whisky?”
“No, it’s bedtime. It’s gone three. I’ve got to work in the morning. Must try and get a little sleep.”
“OK then, but tell me, why are you so interested in Rafael? Do you think he could help you too?”
“Help me? Did I say I needed help?”
“We can all do with a little bit of help.”
“Help from our friends. He maybe your friend but he not mine. No, he’s just kind of interesting. Diamonds are always a fascinating business. An Arab who is not an Arab but a Spaniard. A Spaniard who is big in the works. A busy man with so many operations. A good and honest businessman so you think. I wonder just how honest and clean he is?” “Nobody is totally clean.”
“True, true.”
“So what about you, what business are you in?”
“It’s a little late to start on that. Tonight was your story. Maybe another night I’ll tell you some of my own.”
“But you must be a rich man to stay here.”
“Force of circumstance, that’s all. No, I’m not rich, why are you fishing?”
“Fishing? I don’t do that, it’s boring.”
“No, don’t take me literally again - I mean fishing, looking for information about me.” “Oh, I’m not really, it’s just you know so much about my life now, I know nothing about yours.”
“I know you don’t like your face. No, correction, you don’t like the face the surgeons gave you and you want another - but that’s about all I know.”
“That’s a lot more than I know about you.”
“Ah, well we shared a few whiskies, put it on my tab and we’re almost quits. Now I have got to play the hotel guest again, and you’re the desk boy. I’m going to hit the sack, goodnight.”
“OK, but from your interest I had the feeling you might like to help me.”
“Are you asking for contributions for the op? Handouts?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then what do you mean - some kind of ideas to raise money?”
“OK, I’ll think about it. I’ll tell you tomorrow if I have any ideas.”
“Fine, sleep well.” “On a roundabout - you must be joking.”

A Clean Operation Part 2

Short Stories and NovellasPosted by Graham Thompson Sat, May 26, 2018 09:16:51
Next day after an Indonesian lunch by one of the canals under a warm but slightly cloudy sun, I sat and took a long coffee in order to think about Erik’s problems and prospects. Was there any way I could actually invest in the situation, in the making of his new face? This phrase “the making of a new face” was familiar to me from another context - where did it come from? But, of course; Hollywood! It was what every Hollywood mogul and director was busy doing: making new faces to fit the silver screen, creating stars. Could I help to make him a star because of his new face? Maybe even by making a movie based on his whole story, either before or after a successful operation? Pity, but I didn’t have the right connections to make it happen. In any case, these drama docs about personal tragedies put right by a miracle cure were two centimes to a dime these days. And what if the happy ending never came about, what if the new face they gave him was still the wrong one: it was just too risky. No - it needed a different approach. His present face was so photogenic - maybe we could make him into a professional male model. Models never smiled so he was perfect for the job. The face he’d stolen (so he said) was more than handsome enough, together with the long straight blond hair, to make him mega-successful in that world. And here I did have a connection who could give us a second opinion: Noel, an old college friend, who had a model agency in Soho, London: he knew the business outside in. If Noel thought he might be able to make it, and might even employ him, then he could quickly make enough money for the first stage of the operation. But could Erik be persuaded to take advantage of the asset he so hated - his false face? If he could, and then he went through with a successful operation, he might even triple or quadruple his earnings afterwards. It would make a great news story - to be sold worldwide. I knew I’d better sound it out with Noel before I said a word to Erik. So I called him immediately on my cell phone.

Noel was gently cautious with me. But he agreed to look at some photos of Erik in full costume and advised me where to take him in Amsterdam in order to have them taken. He also told me to get him some decent clothes for the shoot and where we could find a fashion tailor to get them. There was no point in making plans, he said, until he’d seen the photos. He didn’t seem too fascinated by Erik’s story, I had the feeling that he’d heard something like it all before. But he didn’t douse my enthusiasm. So I promised to do what he said but added that I would take a picture of Eric's remarkable face and send it asap. I needed two more things - a sweetener for Erik, something to help him get over the phobia about his face, and secondly some starter money for the clothes and for at least one trip to London and maybe California. That would mean at least five grand, and I certainly had to find it quick. Where could I lay my hands on that? Maybe Erik could tap up Senor Rafael? But I doubted whether Rafael would be keen on a plan that took his employee away from him.

Then it struck me: my shares in Oxaca Mining Group – the south American aluminium specialists, who had seen their shares rise phenomenally with the popularity of this lightweight metal. It was now being used in everything from fighter planes to bicycles, and demand had soared since I bought the shares 5 years ago after some good advice from my cousin, a banker in Panama. But he had called me the other day and told me to sell as soon as possible, apparently he had smelt it on the wind that Oxaca's biggest mine was going to be nationalized once the socialists won the next election – and this was a certainty, according to him, after the corruption scandals of the previous right-wing government. Oxaca had other mines in Peru and Bolivia, but the whole continent was going through another of those periodic upheavals in which dictators fell, both of the left and the right. So if I took out my money now I would have plenty for investing in Erik, after all, it was ill-gotten gains as far as I was concerned, and no doubt in a years time I could invest in the same shares, or something a bit more ethical, for a much cheaper rate. I was not really an investor big-time, I really only did it for pin money when my cousin gave me a good tip, and being in Panama he seemed to have plenty of those. Erik could pay me back if he “made it” as a male model – and somehow I knew he would, especially if he was just as good looking after the op. On the other hand it might be difficult to get hold of the money straightaway, and no doubt it would be taxed in the UK, unless I could funnel it through elsewhere. I needed a back-up plan, just in case I could not lay my hands on the money right away.

I got back to the Royal Red Omani at around 5.30pm I had spent the rest of the afternoon circumnavigating the city along the seven circular canals of Amsterdam, obsessed with thoughts of Erik and how I was going to help him get a new face, or rather his old face back again. But could he ever feel the same again as when he had his original face? Wouldn’t it be just another layer of foreign skin to him? I tried to dismiss these thoughts as I entered the hotel foyer, which surprisingly had changed colour from the previous night: now it was a bright orange. The desk boy had also changed. Or maybe both were as they had been when I left the hotel that morning, I’d been so half asleep as not to notice, probably. “Good afternoon,” I addressed the dark haired very smooth looking (compared to Erik) desk boy, “could I have the key to the bridal suite?” “Ah, Mr. Smith Jennings, you’ve come back at last. We have already moved you from the bridal suite as you requested. You see we have a happy couple arriving this evening, so I hope you don’t mind but we took the liberty of moving your things to room 34, it’s on the first floor with a view over the canal.” I had completely forgotten that I had asked for a new room and now it was a fait accompli. Nevertheless it was a little disturbing as they must have collected up my personal things and moved them to the new place. But at least this man remembered my correct name! “Well, no that’s perfect, thank you, yes I wanted a different room, I hope this one is a little cheaper without being any smaller.” “Well I’m afraid it is a little smaller sir, you know how it is with these old Dutch houses converted into hotels. But it has style, even if it lacks some of the bathroom accoutrements of the other room.” “And the price?” “Of course it’s only €50 a night. Senor Rafael, our owner and manager, has given you a special reduction because of the inconvenience of your first night. When he came in today he took special notice that you had been forced to use the bridal suite, so he told us to move you to 34 but at the special rate. Normally you would have to pay €80 for that room.” “And does the price go up if I stay a whole week?” “I very much doubt it sir. Why, do you intend to stay a long time?” “Well, €50 a night sounds a lot better than €250. I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying yet, it all depends.....” “On what sir?” His look and his manner was so inoffensive that I couldn’t treat his words as an impertinent request for private information. “On business.” I replied opaquely. “Tell me, er, what is your name?” “Sonny, sir.” “Tell me Sonny, when is Senor Rafael expected again?” “Well, I’m not exactly sure sir, you see you just missed him, he came in a little earlier than usual tonight. He could pop in again later, but I know he has a lot of business to attend to so I somehow doubt it.” “Pity.” “If you want I can leave him a message sir, I mean that you’d like to see him.” “No, no. it was nothing important. By the way, that painting behind the waterfall, it is a real painting isn’t it?” Sonny turned his face to it and then back again. “Yes, of course it is sir, it was done by Senor Rafael. He is quite a well known artist here in the Netherlands.” “But it’s not the same colours as last night.” “No, sir, that would be the lighting. It automatically changes in the foyer at nightfall. It’s all Senor Rafael’s doing sir.” “Interesting. And does Senor Rafael have other artistic talents?” “Well sir, all the decor you see in the hotel, the ceramic pots, the hangings, the general design, that was all put together by Senor Rafael. His conversions are quite famous sir. His other two hotels are quite different from this sir, but both individually designed by him. He’s done quite a few private houses too for his friends of course.” “So that’s another business of his?” “Oh no, sir, I wouldn’t call it a business. He charges only for the materials when he works for his friends. And nothing is up for sale, not even his paintings. In fact he doesn’t even have exhibitions of his paintings, he prefers to show them to the public in his own private spaces. Books have been written about his work. Some of his pieces are given to his friends on the understanding that they should not be sold. It’s his strict rule: art is not for sale.” “Fascinating. I can’t wait to meet the man. Tell me, is he an Arab or a Spanish person?” “Both, sir. His ancestors are Spanish Andalusian Moors. In 1492 they were ejected from Spain. For 500 years they lived in North Africa. I believe he himself was born in Ceuta, that’s a Spanish enclave in Morocco.” “Yes, I know that, but I thought he was born in Egypt.” “No, sir, his mother was Egyptian, his father was of the Royal Nasrid blood from Granada.” “Remarkable. And how did he come to live in Amsterdam?” “He doesn’t really live here, sir, it’s just one of his bases. I don’t know where else he lives, but he’s often away, sometimes for two or three months. It’s not really my business.” “OK, I think I’ll go and get a drink at the bar now. I hope he comes back later this evening.” “Who, sir, Senor Rafael?” “Yes, of course. And Erik - is he working tonight?” “Erik? Erik who?” “Erik, the one who changed his face. The night porter.” “Changed his face? I don’t know anyone who......... ah, maybe you mean Meneer Adelaar. Yes, I think he’s on duty, coming in at eleven.” “Well if that’s Erik, it’s good news. Or rather he’s got some good news.” “I’m afraid I don’t know him so well, sir, so I wouldn’t know.” “No, no, I mean I have some good news to tell him. Never mind, but it’s strange you don’t know about his face.” “Of course, one hears gossip, but I never take notice of that kind of thing.” “Yes, well, I’m off to the bar. Is there someone to serve me at this time of the evening?” “Oh yes, Nele will be there to help you.” “Nele who does the cleaning in the morning? She introduced herself just as I was going out.” “That’s right sir, she doubles up after finishing the rooms. Keeps her busy and gives her a bit more in her pocket I expect.” “See you later.” “Yes, well I’m off soon, maybe tomorrow.” “Oh yes and if Senor Rafael comes in tell him I'm in the bar.” “I’ll tell him sir, or I'll leave a message for him. Was it something specific you wished to talk to him about?” “No, just to meet him finally, and... and... put a face to him. I’ve heard a lot about him, it would be nice to er... um... have a talk... about his art maybe.” “I’ll tell him, sir.”

I moved out back to the bar and settled on a bar stool in front of red headed Nele. She served me with the Glenfiddich that I’d asked for in her quiet and diminutive manner, though the battery of lights, mirrors and glasses hanging behind her projected her forward like a stage set does a film star. She was so unlike a bar girl, flat chested, drably dressed, and dark voiced, with a timidity in her face hidden by the swathes of straight red hair that fell across it every time it looked down, which was pretty often. Her mouth was thin, made her look a little worn, so her age was a puzzle: could have been around 21 with a turbulent teenage past, or could have been 30 with a long uneventful but frustrating youth now finally slipping away. She was much better suited to the cleaner's role. But it was she who spoke first. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you this morning sir, I thought you had already left your room.” “No problem, I needed a jog, I would have missed my appointment if you had not tried to come in.” After playing with the single ice in my glass for a while I asked: “Tell me Nele, do you like working for Senor Rafael?” “Well sir, I hardly know him, I’ve only been here for a couple of months you see, but he seems alright. He’s very charming, but always very proper, not like .......... some bosses.” “You mean he’s never tried to advantage of you.” Suddenly I realised I was in deeper than I intended. But Nele had no hesitation fielding my rather intrusive question. “Advantage? You mean in a sexual sense? Oh no, absolutely not sir. I can’t imagine he would,” she finished with a tone almost of disappointment. Whatever he was like in the flesh, Rafael had obviously made quite an impression on Nele. “Why don’t you ask Sonny or Tony about him sir, they know him much better than me.” “Well, I did talk to Sonny but I get the feeling that he would only tell me the good things about his boss.” Nele just looked at me as if to say “maybe he’s as good as his reputation - why are you prying for dirt on this guy.” “And Tony - who’s he? I haven’t met him yet.” “He’s the longest serving member of staff at the RRO.” “RRO? Oh you mean the.......” “Royal Red Omani. Yes, Tony does both days and nights, sometimes in the same day.” “Strange I haven’t seen him.” “Well he doubles at the other hotels sometimes. But if you stay long enough, you will see him, for sure. Just how long will you stay with us sir?” “Well I thought I’d be gone tomorrow but my business, it’s not quite completed yet. Maybe a few more days.” “Then you will certainly meet Tony, and he’s the best one to ask about Senor Rafael.” “To get an honest opinion?” “Tony is very honest, too honest for his own good sometimes, and loyal too. Perhaps that’s why Senor Rafael values him so much.” “And you Nele, where do you come from, you have a strange accent not like the typical Holland one?” “Well that’s because I’m not from around here, sir, I’m not Dutch, I’m Belgian. We are not at all like the Dutch. They are always counting their guelders. It’s always money, money, money.” “But money makes the world go round.” “Yes, it makes it spin around, but spin too fast in my opinion.” “Ah, you’re a bit of a philosopher.” “I’m not a lot educated, if that’s what you mean, but, yes, I like to think about things and how they could be different. Like in India, for instance. I think there’s a lot more to life than money. But that’s probably why I’m always poor.” “Well, thanks for being honest Nele, I’ll remember there’s at least one honest person in Amsterdam.” “Thank you sir, would you like another whisky?” “Yes, but why is this bar so empty?” “It’s early sir, and in any case it’s rarely full. Most people prefer to go to the proper bars, not stay in their hotel.” My eyes were only then adjusting to the relative darkness behind me as I peered into the empty corners of the room. It was a room with only one exit, the walls lit from below by gentle indirect lighting, except those that hung above several large paintings. The canvases were very striking, each of them a strong slash of purple on a light blue background. The large purple strokes were faintly Chinese, but huge in an echo of Franz Kline’s work. But rather than letters or ideograms the purple images were more like devastated buildings and streets. “Tell me Nele, do you know who did these paintings? It wouldn’t by any chance be your boss Senor Rafael?” “Well I think it is sir, it’s something I’ve never asked about, but when he comes in here I often see him staring at them, and he stands there, kind of complaining to himself about something, as if he’s not quite happy with them. But if he didn’t really like them, and they weren’t his, I mean he’d take them down, wouldn’t he? But I’ve heard he’s quite a famous painter in Amsterdam, and the way he talks to himself in front of them, well it’s just like a painter, if you see what I mean.” I moved closer to them and pronounced my judgment: “There’s no signature or initials on them, but they are truly impressive. He must be a well recognised artist.” “That I don’t know sir, except what others have told me.”

At this point another customer came in the bar and stood next to me. I didn’t take much notice of him at first as I was still busy with Rafael’s paintings. He took a glass of water and began strolling around the room, glancing at the paintings from time to time, and then he disappeared. I turned back to Nele and she looked at me meaningfully as she said: “That, sir, was Rafael Nasrid, our boss.” I was stunned and couldn’t find my words. “But why, why... didn’t you say something Nele, I mean introduce me or something?” “It’s not really my place, sir.” I turned and rushed after the manager. I didn’t know clearly what I was doing when I ran out the bar to the foyer. Obviously I was looking for Rafael, but I wasn’t too sure what I would do if I found him. But he wasn’t there, and nor was Sonny. The place was eerily silent apart from the backdrop waterfall. So I turned back to the bar. The most frustrating thing was that I had absolutely no clear impression of the man, no image of his face or even his clothing, yet he had stood right next to me. “Another drink sir? This one’s on the house, care of Senor Rafael.” “You mean… , I didn’t hear… did he tell you... ?” “Yes, of course, he told me to offer you a drink. Same again.” “Yes, oh why not, but why didn’t he introduce himself?” “He seemed a little preoccupied, he’s often like that, and shy at first with new people. Why, did you want to ask him something?” “Yes, I mean, no, nothing specific, just to get to know him a little.” “He’s not that kind of person sir, at least not to us here in the hotel. Even Tony says that he knows him only a little, and they’ve been working together more than 10 years.” She gave me the drink and I fell into a long silence. Everyone had spoken about Rafael as if they really knew him, but it was obvious that that was not the case at all. Maybe the only way to know him was through his work - his paintings, the design of the hotel, and the effect he had on others. So I looked again at the paintings. My first impression was that they were very violent, but now I began to see other things in them, animals, faces of men, women, and even bodies making love, but all in a devastated landscape, as if after a holocaust. I took back my empty glass and then made my way to my new room.

All my things had been moved there, laid out carefully by some hidden hand. The room was small but the windows bigger, with a view over the canal waters, which now reflected the night lights of the streets and bars that lined it. I had three hours to kill before Erik arrived so I took a nap, and then went out for a stroll through the red light district, There was a stranger on the desk when I left, whom I guessed must be Tony, but I said nothing to him. I wondered if Rafael had known who I was, and I was upset that I hadn’t made contact after all I had heard about him. But there was no point in asking Tony. Instead I drifted into the Amsterdam back streets, only half aware of the picture windows full of multi-coloured flesh, the hung faces of foreigners staring into them, the sound of breaking glass and laughter floating out the bars, the solid air thick with hashish smoke and pheromones. I was thinking of Erik and the real face trapped somewhere behind a skin mask. The few people I saw in the streets seemed to have something in common with him - victims of operations to their faces, which made them grotesque caricatures of lust-driven male ghosts, but unlike Erik, laughing and shouting in hideous tones. My mind was driven back again to Rafael’s paintings, and I could now see the common thread back to Bosch and even Rembrandt. I had been more affected by those paintings than I at first realised. I was deep inside them, I was looking through them into the darkness in the souls around me. I vigorously shook my head and headed for the big open streets where there were more lights, more certainties. A bus came and I automatically got on it. It took me way out from the centre through estates of apartment blocks which all looked exactly alike - grey and faceless with their equal-spaced square windows unvarying and democratic to the end of every street. I was reminded of Tom Wolfe’s comment on modern architecture: “that bracing slap across the mouth that repays for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul.” I changed buses and got the same number bus from the other side of the street back to town. I drank in a few bars, but the smoke always drove me out again after a time. I took myself back to the hotel wondering all the time how Erik might react to my proposals. In the foyer there was the same guy. “You must be Tony.” “Yes, pleased to meet you Mr. Jennings Smith.” I let it go, it was too boring to challenge him about the mistake to my name. “Is Erik on tonight?” “Erik?” “Yes, Erik, the night porter.” “Don’t know sir, Mr Rafael never told me tonight who it was. But there’s always a night porter. By the way he also told me to give you a message.” “He told you what?” “To give you a message. Apparently you have been wanting to meet him. Well he said he’d be here at 9 in the morning if you want to speak to him.” “Did he say that he’d already seen me?” “He didn’t mention it sir.” “Well he did, in the bar, but maybe he didn’t recognise me.” “That’s possible sir, but he usually tries to know all the clients if he can, that is if they stay more than a night or two.” “Nine, you say, that’s unfortunate, I have a meeting in the morning.” “Yes, that is unfortunate, I know he was looking forward to meet you.” “Really? Did he say that?” “Well, not exactly sir, but it was the way he talked about you. Said you were a great art lover, and how good it would be to discuss modern art with you.” ”Well, well, I can’t quite believe that.” “No, it’s what he said. By the way sir I have to go off early this evening, but the night porter should be here in fifteen minutes. Do you mind looking after the keys for me until he comes? There’s also a key for the bar on there, it’s this one. Just help yourself to a drink, care of Mr. Rafael, it’s really OK. You don’t mind do you?” “Sure, it’s OK, but why do you trust me?” “There’s nothing for you to be trusted with except the alcohol in the bar, I’m sure you won’t abuse Mr. Rafael’s trust in that little matter.” “You mean Rafael gave you permission to give me the keys?” “Not exactly, sir, but he kind of indicated that you were a trustworthy client. So if it’s OK with you, I’ll be off now. Just hand the keys to Meneer Adelaar, he should be in very soon.” “But can you leave a message for Mr. Rafael. I would really like to meet him – what about getting me an appointment for tomorrow evening if you can, say after dinner, around 9pm.” “If it is convenient sir, I am sure he would enjoy to see you. Yes I will give him the message in the morning and when you come back tell you. What time will you return from your appointment?” “Around 12. I can a light lunch in the bar before I go out again – you will be here?” “Oh yes sir I am on duty until 3pm. I will tell you tomorrow if it is convenient for the boss.” “OK, it's a deal Tony.” Then I took command of the reception and bar, pouring myself a few Glenfiddichs.

In fact Erik bowled in about 25 minutes later and I was only on my second whisky. He appeared completely unsurprised when I handed over the keys. I sat on the high stool next to the reception desk and tried to prevent the constant shush of the water-picture behind us from hypnotizing me. "Did you see Rafael today" I ventured. "No why, did you?" "Yes and no. I saw him but we didn't speak. I saw him but I didn't realize who he was." "Pity. He's a bit of a cool character. Did he see you?" "Oh yes, I'm sure he did, and he probably knew who I was." "Yes, he's cool but you can trust him" "Strange you should say that, I couldn't say if I could trust him, but he sure trusts me. Or at least Tony thinks so. That's why he left me the keys to give to you. Don't you find that strange?" "No, not at all, Rafael is a very generous man, and he has great intuition. For instance I feel like he knows me very well, even though he never asks questions, and he comes from a completely different world to mine. I trust him completely." "So it seems, but he wouldn't win my trust quite so easily. I would have to know him first. But I only know of him." "I'm sure you will come to know him sir, in time, if you wish to." "I don't have so much time. Apparently he wanted to see me in the morning but I have to go to a meeting. But let's stop talking about Rafael. I have some questions for you." "OK, go ahead.” “First off - have you ever done any modelling? Been a male model I mean, in the fashion industry?” ‘That’s funny. Yes, I have once or twice. It was good money, but the agency I worked for never called me back. Guess I didn't have the right face for it. Why do you ask?” “Well, I have a friend in London, he’s big in that world, and he may be interested in giving you some work in that line. Would you be prepared to go and see him?” ‘I don’t know, I don’t feel so good about showing my face to thousands of people when I know it’s not mine.” “Just think about what it could bring you, I mean in terms of money for the operation, don’t think about your face.” “But that’s what I’m always thinking about. And what about my job here, if I worked in London I couldn’t work for Rafael. That might have consequences.” “Well, maybe you wouldn’t have to move there, just visit occasionally. Noel, that’s the name of my friend who’s in charge of the agency, he also gets shoots, you know what I mean, over here in Holland. He’s very international, and once your name gets known, you could work anywhere.” “Does it involve guns? You talk about shoots – that sounds dangerous.” “Don't be silly, a shoot is a photo session.” “Oh … I see. But why do you want to do this for me?” “To help you pay for the pre-op stuff of course. Why else?” “But we hardly know each other.” “Well maybe you can pay me 5% from your first pay-check. That would pay me for the favour and time I use to get it set up. We have to go and buy you some clothes and get some pictures taken to send to Noel.” “5% seems very reasonable, but what are the real numbers here, how much do you think I’d get paid?” “That’s difficult to say, you’d have to ask Noel. I know top models get more than a 1000 dollars a shoot, but you wouldn’t be in that league, at least not at first. In any case you could do it just long enough to pay for your op. If the diamond mine comes off....” “Comes off, what’s that, falls down, collapses?” “No, no, succeeds, if it’s a success, then you could stop all the earlier if you didn’t like it. I mean if you couldn’t stand someone else’s face in all those magazines ..........” “Yeah, that would be a problem, that would be kind of weird. It would be like having mirrors everywhere in which I could only see the face I hate, the one I want to change.” “But as I say it would be just for a short time, a means to an end.” “In fact I need money right away as I have to go to California pretty soon. The specialists want to make a cast of my head and show me what's possible.” “So where are you going to get the money for that? How much would such a trip cost?” “Yeah it's a problem as I gave all my savings to Senor Rafael and I need $10,000.” “Look, maybe I can help you with that, and to get some basic gear for the modelling.” “Gear, what gear do I need for modelling? I don't have to pay for the studio equipment surely.” “No, gear as in clothing, for some preparatory shots to send Noel. Now back to my idea: if I lent you the $10,000 you could pay me back in instalments when you got the money for modelling. Or if your investment comes up you could pay me back with some of that. Do you really believe in Rafael's diamond business?” “Oh yes I have seen how it works – it pays for every new hotel he buys.” “And you'll need an extra $5,000 for the clothes, up-front, don't you have any savings of your own? Or maybe you could tap up your boss for an advance loan.” Erik sighed a deep sigh and seemed to crumple a little from his extraordinary height. “Nooo, I do not think so, Mr. Rafael never lends money. But I am sure my investment will come to make a lot of money with him, maybe sooner than I thought. So if you could lend me all the $15,000, it would definitely be returned.” “Look Erik, yours is such an extraordinary story, if I just get back most of the money I lent you that would make me happy. It so happens I have been a little lucky in the stock market, and I have nothing else to invest in at the moment. It would please me to invest in you, because I am sure you will make it as a model, you just have that kind of look and build, I really don't understand how you were not picked up the first time you tried it. But maybe your original face was not so beautiful.” “Er, picked up, you mean like garbage in the street?” Erik seemed to ignore my negative comment about his former face, which surprised me. “No, picked up really means discovered in this case, used more for modelling. Are you sure you never understand any of these special, oh God what are they, idioms I guess. You must have them in your own language.” “I guess we do, but since my accident I have general trouble with language and remembering stuff, especially things that happened since the car-crash. I never spoke English very well until I started working here for Mr. Rafael, it's rigorous.” “I think you mean required, necessary. It is obviously rigorous too, but that means difficult to do, more for physical stuff – like running or weight lifting.” “Weight lifting? What is that, I know what weight is, it's how heavy you are, so weight lifting must be...” “Lifting up people for fun? No, you have got the wrong end of the stick again.” “Stick ...” “Stop it, stop it, you are giving me a nervous breakdown, asking about every sentence I speak. I will try and avoid… uh, idioms, special talk with strange meanings. But it is difficult. Even simple words like, ah, milk, for instance, has so many different meanings and uses. But let us not get into that, just try and stay with plain talk.” “OK, suits me, but I would really like to learn more English and you seem a pretty good teacher.” “No not really Erik, I want to be your backer, no wait, your investor, I want to invest money in you, get you started so you can get to California and have the op. Not teach you English. You can go to night classes for that.” “Night classes?” “Oh my God shut up! Look, I have had an idea how to raise some pin, I mean starting money, for your clothes and maybe the trip out to the States.” “That's great – what is it?” “We go to a casino. I am a gambler you see, not a professional one. I only ever go to the same casino once and never again. Then I move on, in case they rumble... oh yes, I mean discover, my system. If they think you have a winning system they ban you, throw you out – you understand?” “Yes, we have banned people, as you call it, from the hotel sometimes. Ones who sleep a week and then cannot pay, or succeed in seeming to pay but can't really, because their credit cards are all in debt or fake or stolen. WE know that word well.” “We I am glad this is not a casino then, otherwise I would get banned, ha, ha! But seriously we could go to Zandvoort Casino, it's not far is it, and use my system just the one time.” “But does it always work?” “No, not absolutely always, but I never lose that much if it fails. But the chances of it failing are very slim... I mean not very high, very unlikely. I usually win, mostly small amounts - €500 - €1000, but sometimes I really hit the jackpot.” “Jack pot...?” “Yes, win a lot, that is what it means, hitting the jackpot.” “Ok, let's have a go. Could you explain your system?” “Well, no, not in simple language. But you will see how it works when I do - it is best if you come with me. Then I can give you the money I win directly and you can get some togs,” Another puzzled look spread across Erik's face so I added: “clothes, togs are clothes. It's slang.” “Oh I know what slang is, We have some good slang in Dutch...” “Save it Erik, it is getting late.” I looked at my watch: it was already nearly one and I had to get up latest at 7.30 the next morning. “Look Erik, I have arranged to try and see Rafael tomorrow evening, so that is booked. Are you free on Friday night, the night before I leave. We could go to Zandvoort together by train, say about 9 in the evening.” “Yes I am totally free on Friday, only have to work Saturday and Sunday night. Shall we meet at the station?” “If you like, though Amsterdam Central is such a big station, we could easily miss each other.” “No, no – it is simple, meet me at Platform 1, that is where you catch the train for Harlem and Zandvoort.” “OK, let us say 8.30, then we go in the casino at nine, not too late, it is better when there are less customers there.” “Yes, it is a deal as you English say, that is one I learnt a long time ago: Though it is confusing because I must deal with the customers.” “Yes, yes, Erik, we see each other Friday, Platform 1 main station, 8.30pm, goodnight Erik.” “P.M. - I thought that was a leader of parliament...” “Yes, yes, but in this case... oh Erik 20.30 – is that clear??” “Yes, crystal clear Mr. Jennings Smith – goodnight!”