BEYOND THE LAST WATERHOLE

That first spring morning he came up from the east harbour, where he’d been dossing on an old barge. He strode down the Geldesekade, one of the waterways into the old city. The April sun intersecting the trees, seeming to drape a leopard skin around him. Down one side of the Geldesekade were warehouses and Chinese restaurants, fronts for big-time heroin smugglers. As he walked past he glanced in through one of the restaurant windows absentmindedly and saw a swarm of eels cease their squirming and stare back at him, their round, desolate eyes as beseeching as a Chinese work gang.
Down the other side of the Geldesekade loitered the cheap, black, shop-worn whores of the day shift, about half the price of the ripe night-time girls. He cut across the bridge and to their inviting gestures grinned, displaying his empty upturned palms. If not quite Spender’s cynical gesture of the poor, the message of penury was clear. He cut across the head of the Nieuwmarkt Square, the sun beating back the chill of the morning, warm on the backs of the market traders, their voices ringing out for the coming day amid the clang of scaffolding poles as they erected their stalls in the shadow of the old Toll House. Then he turned right and headed up the Barndesteeg, past the dissolved nunnery, as far as the Thai brothel at the end, where the curtains were drawn against the day. And across the alley was the Torenzicht Hotel.
The steps of its ancient stoop were worn as hollow as collection plates by the centuries of pilgrims’ feet of whores, burghers, sailors, nuns, murderers, merchants and the miscellaneous flotsam that had wound their way to this, their temporal Santiago del Compostella, and grasped their moment to peddle their trade or take their pleasures in this black Narcissan well that grants your every wish.
He entered what was now a bar in its full morning shift. The original Golden Age red brickwork of this canal-side house was half panelled over with a coffin of pine, and at the centre was a horseshoe bar, behind which a girl smiled hospitably. She had an idiosyncratic beauty, her lips as plump as maggots, with one grey hang-tooth. He sat there breathing in her smell as he drank the beer she’d poured him.
Suddenly a muscular powerhouse with a rotund gut and a ring beard was framed in the doorway. This was the first time he’d set eyes on English John.
“We’ve heard some good things about you from The Last Waterhole”, he said.
"Good to know."
The bartender had been working there for a while as a barman/bouncer: a lively, dingy establishment, with a cheap dormitory hotel in an alley off the Warmoesstraat, offering temporary shelter to the westerners coming in from Thailand, India, South America, many of whom had thereafter neglected to leave and whose lives had now shrivelled to this alley, mollified by the bar’s en-suite hash dealer and the less official coke dealer.
But since the owner, Canadian Brian, had gotten himself pinched slipping into the US with a suitcase full of heroin, and was now doing a long stretch as a homies sex kitten, he’d found himself unable to stomach working for his lavishly-rhinestoned wife, Sibhon, a sly waitress on the make, planning to render unto her what was Caesar’s.
John interrupted his thoughts, “We need someone who can take care of himself, if you’re interested”.
The bartender nodded.
John took him upstairs to the office on the first floor. The barmaid buzzed them through. John unlocked the door, showed him where the key box was hidden in the desk, the safe, the surveillance cameras. Then he drew aside a calendar hung on the wall with a picture of a Dutch girl in a traditional white bonnet, smiling as she held a cheese, to reveal a flue hole for a now absent stove. Like Arnaut Daniel’s jongleur. But rather than emerge brandishing a troubadour’s missive of love to the Countess of Bezieres, John’s hand re-appeared like a greedy ferret with a 9mm Beretta.
“You’ll be needing this now”.
“John, there’s no way I’m carrying a gun to work behind a bar”.
“It’s up to you”, he said, “but at least take this”. He retrieved a Bowie knife from the jongleur and presented it to his new bartender.
“Okay, then. When do you want me to start?”

It was 7 pm. The red and purple signs from the strip shows burned all along the waterside, as if the Styx were lit up for All Soul’s Night. The multitudes filing by with their flaming, bug-like, fluorescent eyes were pressing joyfully down to the canal-side, as though a Marchioness full of Henrys determined to sail out into the dark, as a conga of goggle-eyed voyeurs and sex tourists marched through a fosse, their eyes on stalks, groping the whores in their chains of heroin and greed, beneath the feet of their slave masters, pimps and lover-boys, with their calculating eyes. He let himself be swept along by this human spindrift until he reached the Torenzicht Hotel.
On the stoop outside, American Dave was craning over the railing, a corporeal gargoyle that some passing drunk had draped a baseball cap over as a testament to his wit. He was the other bartender and he grinned like a malignant idiot. He’d been doing this since someone had struck him over the head with a baseball bat during a bar fight.
“Hey, new guy, how ya doin”, he said welcomingly. “It’s gonna be jumpin’ tonight, you’ll be rakin’ the tips in, any chance of borrowin’ twenty guilders till payday”.
By reputation Dave was a compulsive borrower and a reluctant re-payee; or so the barmaid had warned him earlier that day. Fortunately, the bartender had no alms to dispense. Dave, as he would later learn, had two work-a-day passions, feeding his wages into the slot machines in the recesses of the bar and pumping semen into the recti of the Thai boys in the alley.
“Sorry, Dave, broke until payday”.
And the bartender slipped through the door before Dave could muster a riposte.

A low, black marble slab or stoop lies at the entrance of the Casa Rosso – a pouting Yamamomo’s lip, or a war monument to the transient bearing none of their names. Upon it loomed two procuring mounds of flesh and bone, beneath a pink fluorescent elephant, gazing in rapture upon the ejaculating factotum of a fountain, as they peeled off the flusher gawkers rubbernecking by. This was the premier strip club in the Red Light District, acquired by the kidnappers of the beer tycoon Freddy Heineken. They’d purchased the club with their massive ransom but forgot to give Freddy back again, leaving him manacled in a warehouse, as disconsolate as Lord Byron in Château de Chillon.
A human herd was now migrating beneath the searchlight gaze of these two silverback gorillas, their eyes winnowing the marks from the chaff like a couple of Dachau goons. Then it merged with what was emanating from Steam-Pan Alley, with its windows stacked like jumbled boxes, a rabbit warren for the lithe Asian dancing girls. Then the coalescence of these living lava streams flowed over a little bridge across the canal, lit up by coloured municipal bulbs, and blazed past the scarlet windows and the sex shop display that trumpeted its giant dildos. After which, like a busy centipede, it scuttled through the roseate glow of the Torenzicht, from which some inane rock song now drifted.
A couple of tourists peeled off and latched onto the sex shop window like two puckering limpets. They’d donned their guises of ridicule, but in truth were transfixed by the image on a porno mag nestling as snug as baby Jesus between the dildos, battery-powered fannies and gimp masks, depicting a grinning Thai Boy, her mini skirt hoisted above her thighs, as she pinched her taut nipples and played with her slack dick, which was as dark as turkey meat.
At that very moment, Thai-boy Chilli was riding a barstool in the Torenzicht, as though she were a cowgirl. She swooned, enchanted by the flashing eyes of the slot machine. Her make up must have been done by Juan Gris. Her penis was strapped back between her legs, snug as a baby kangaroo between her cheeks, and her anus was as soft as velvet; or so a German dealer was repeatedly and passionately confiding to the bartender at that very moment, lolling on the bar like a beached invertebrate, the remains of his Chinese in his goatee and beer on his breath. Chilli was happily feeding the fifty guilders she’d just earned off him into the slot machine, as though it were a baby bird.
Just then Dave slipped back into the bar and slung his arm over Chilli’s mechanical beau, about as welcome as Christmas trimmings on a January day. His manic hands kneading her breasts, her thighs, her buttocks, were a little too Marquis de Sade. And though her body made no move, her eyes seemed to slink into a corner. But, as her handful of coins declined, so Dave’s stock began to rise. He called for a sub from the till. And they rose to go.
To those gathered he announced: “First I’m gonna tap the python and then I’ll make sure she don’t shit right for a week.”
Chilli floated over to the bar, her face as harrowed as a spectre, her body rouged and perfumed for the grave.
To the dealer and bartender she confided “he so dirty, so velly dirty, that one”.
Her mouth twisting as though from a bitter margarita. Quite the accolade to be so marked out by a street-side whore. When the python had been properly tapped and tucked away the couple swept out through the door and into the night like a parody of Dante's Paolo and Francesca. Chilli tottering on her sequined heels, her face like a pug dog smeared in a paint palette; Dave looking as crazy as a My Lai rapist, his finger already in Chilli’s arse. The dealer, for his part, pouted like a lovelorn cuckold.

The bartender’s life is a sequence of moments of tedium, strung into a rosary of worries upon which he prays for meaning, which to him is custom, until some new gust of clients blows him into life, like a Goyan executee flailing in the wind.
The bartender cast his eyes around the deserted barroom and the drunk dealer, his head drooping on the bar in a stupor. Then he picked up an immaculate glass from the shelf and began to re-polish it. They also serve who only stand and wait. The bartender bartered his life away for twelve guilders an hour.

The dealer was beginning to drift towards Lethe.
John came in and shook him by the shoulder like a Rottweiler with a toddler, telling him to “fuck off, or rent a room”.
The dealer shuffled groggily towards the door murmuring of the injustice in, fortunately for him, incoherent German, leaving the bar as deserted as a whistling prairie but for the two men. John looked at the bartender measuredly and took a quarter of cocaine from his breast pocket. He unwrapped the paper it was folded in and cut four lines on the bar with a knife from his belt. He rolled up a fifty-guilder note and snorted a line into each nostril. Then he offered the note to the bartender who followed suit. As the coke rose through his sinuses it felt like fresh, spring air, gushing into his brain.
Coke, as you’ll probably know, has one of two effects. Either you witter like an incessant idiot, or as in the case of John and the bartender, you are possessed with an unshakeable sense of your own power, born of the chemical suppression of all doubt.

From his accent the bartender surmised that John was from somewhere in the north of England.
“So where are you from actually?” he asked, but John declined to say.
Neither did he know his surname. Many of the foreigners here were on the run. The bartender poured them a couple of beers and set them down on the bar, as a big-boned, well-stacked, slightly-pockmarked woman of about 25 walked in.
“Here’s my princess”, said John.
He introduced her to the bartender as Corinne. She kissed John on the lips.
“Hi, sweetheart, can we go home now?”
She was a tough girl, as the bartender would later learn, a long-time hang-around of the Angels and the Angel Banana's Moll in an earlier incarnation. But since then she’d hitched her wagon to John's star, whether it might rise or fall. Some vague uncertainty now flitted across her face.
John wet his finger and dabbed the residue of the coke from the bar, rubbing it onto his gums, numbing them.
“I’m going to hang around here for a bit”, he said.
Again the uncertainty flitted across her face, like a shadow falling upon a tank of eels.
“How much have you had today, sweetheart”.
“Hey, don’t start fucking interrogating me, I’ll take as much as I like and I’ll be home when I feel like it”.
“I’m sorry”, she recoiled. “I only want us to spend a little quality time together”.
“I know, princess, but I’ve got some business on first”. Unconsciously, he adjusted the gun beneath his waistcoat.
Her face darkened, but she said nothing. She kissed John’s numbed mouth one final time, shook the bartender’s hand limply, and crept out through the door, her sturdy frame craning like a beaten child.
“She’s a good girl”, John said, “but she’s got to learn to mind her own fucking business.”
He sat there for a moment longer, brooding silently, and then said: “I’m going up to the office. I've got some guys coming in later. Don’t keep them waiting. Buzz me down when they’re here, okay.”
Then he turned to go, trudging up the stairs like a sumo, before twisting on his heels and ploughing through the office door, as the stairs rose beyond him into the darkness of the eaves.