Mustapha , December 7, 2022
Entering Bar Soissons and heading to a table at the back, Patrick Ford nods to the bar’s owner: a large, rotund man called Matthijs Rijkeboer. Matthijs smiles, returns the greeting, gestures that he’ll be along in a minute.
Considering the cluttered walls around him, Ford thinks it must have been decades since anyone saw the original brickwork. The bar’s walls are covered now by a rusted tapestry of faded tin signs, peeled beer labels and picture rails loaded with empty bottles dating back before most breweries began. Crates of empties, ready to be exchanged or recycled, are piled high next to new stock in every available space. The low lighting and deep, cavernous shape of the room itself, tunnelling back from a single wooden doorway onto the street, gives the impression inside of it always being one drink away from closing time. Even when the high noon sun is blazing bright outside, inside, the room retains a warm candle-lit ambience.
The bar, he thinks, is a place anyone could lose a few hours in. And it’s a place he already has, shielded from the chatter of the main bar in a small booth at the back that seems carved into the building itself.
In this reclusive recess he can be at peace and focus his thoughts on quiet contemplation, just as old Trappist monks might, he imagines, in their own quiet chambers, the same Trappist monks who likely brewed the beer he spends these evenings nursing.
Matthijs is a regular behind the bar, tending most nights and, he assumes, throughout the day too. He seems a friend to all who drink in the bar. He watches him now as he ferries up and down the room, spritely despite his advancing years, both in front and behind the bar, delivering drinks, sitting with customers, laughing, and talking and slapping a tabletop in happy amusement. He notes too that he always seems to wear the same loose, chequered-trousers and the same stained-white chef’s jacket, both hidden beneath an apron he ties tight around his thick belly.
But he has found Matthijs to be a kind and calm soul too, someone who is naturally disarming and able to put those around him at ease with a sympathetic nod or a gentle, reassuring hand on the shoulder. Like a good barman should, he radiates trust. He is like a friend who has known you at your worst but is still there to listen, no matter what mess you might find yourself in. And to that effect, Matthijs has presented a sympathetic ear to him too. Indeed, despite his attempts to avoid unnecessary interaction with others, since he began coming into Bar Soissons six nights ago, he has already revealed to Matthijs why he moved to Amsterdam, what happened to his wife and, even, where he is living.
Similarly, he has learned much about Matthijs. That he was born in Utrecht in 1943, during the Second World War. That the war left him an orphan. That he was taken in by an aunt and uncle who lived in Werkhoven on the southern outskirts of Utrecht, until, in 1973, a friend he made working in De Oude Mol in Den Haag invited him to move to Amsterdam to open their own place hidden a little off the beaten track of the busy Leidseplein. That he had lived and worked in Bar Soissons ever since.
Looking up to see Matthijs finish serving a couple across the room, Ford watches as the barman collects a bottle and a glass from the bar and heads over towards where he sits. Matthijs places a bottle of Westmalle and a branded glass on the table.
“Good evening, Patrick,” says Matthijs. “It is good to see you.”
Ford nods back, thanks Matthijs for the drink and watches as he shuffles back to the bar where a group of four young men stand waiting to order their own drinks.
When he had first come into the bar six nights ago, he had been happy to remain unseen, reading his book alone. But Matthijs had struck up conversation soon after he had ordered his first drink. It was nothing too strenuous or invasive, just enough, he was aware, to encourage him to lower his guard and present Matthijs as a reliable ear. It had worked, and they had since shared their stories and settled into an unspoken routine. Each night he has two glasses of Westmalle, which he paces over two hours before finishing on a small glass of brandy. He has noticed Matthijs makes the shot of brandy more generous each night. And, after two nights, Matthijs had begun to bring over fries and a sandwich for him, which, after pointless protest, he accepted, grateful for the gesture.
He always sits at this same table, a small circular one tucked into the recess at the back, or – if it isn’t available when he arrives – he waits on a stool at the bar until the table becomes free. While in the bar, he doesn’t speak to anyone but Matthijs. Instead, each night, after spending his first hour in an almost trance-like state thinking about Elizabeth, he takes out his book and reads in the low light, transported to a different place, distracting himself from the world that continues around him regardless.
Shaking himself into focus now, he considers the bottle and the glass Matthijs has just placed on the table in front of him.
He pours out the bottle of beer, watching the bubbles rise through the dark, amber liquid to form a finger-thick head of white froth on the heavy, chalice-like glass. He reaches to his pocket to take out the copy of The Trial he bought that morning, but he stops. Instead, he sits back, leans his shoulders against the wall of the booth and lets his hands rest on his lap. He wonders to himself for a moment if he isn’t going through his own kind of trial, but he is quick to stop this line of thought. For one, he knows that it is not helpful. But also, he thinks, for him the trial is already over. The verdict was delivered when Elizabeth died and the only one still judging him now is himself. Or perhaps in his own desire to remember Elizabeth he is in fact putting himself on trial. No. He knows he is being melodramatic. He shakes his head, a physical movement to dislodge the thought. He understands to think in this way does not help him to achieve his goal. The loss of the photograph, the only photograph he still had of her, however dispiriting, does not change what he is here to do. He must remember her. This is his only task.
Closing his eyes again, he pictures the lost photograph in his mind: her face, her eyes, her smile.
Returning to the bar, to his present self, allowing his remembered thoughts of Elizabeth to drift to the back of his mind, he glances over to the bar and sees Matthijs watching him. He does not know how long he has been lost in his thoughts. A minute? An hour? He realises too that his book is still in his jacket pocket. He takes it out but does not begin reading. Instead, he places it on the table next to his glass, which he sees is close to empty. He looks back to Matthijs, instinctive almost. The barman smiles, nods, and turns to the fridges fitted low behind the bar.
He watches as Matthijs waddles out carrying another bottle of Westmalle and a fresh chalice glass. When he reaches the table, the barman gestures towards the empty chair next to him. He nods for Matthijs to sit. And, once he has planted the bottle and glass down on the table, Matthijs lowers his hulk down onto a rickety stool beneath the low wooden bench.
“Alstublieft, Patrick,” says Matthijs, as he struggles to twist his apron around his waist and back into position.
Ford nods hello, sits up a little in his seat and pours the second bottle into the clean new glass Matthijs has brought over, unsure exactly of when he drank the first.
“I might say I see you’re not in the reading mood tonight, no?” continues Matthijs, in the affected English he seems to adopt for Americans and any other English-speaking guests who wander into the bar.
He does not answer Matthijs immediately. Staring at his glass of beer, he thinks about the question.
Before he can offer an answer, Matthijs continues:
“Is it something that has happened today? An anniversary, yes?”
He looks to Matthijs, resetting his focus. It is as though he is seeing him there for the first time and he apologises for having been distracted, pulling his jacket a little closer around himself. He is vague in answering, says it’s just something that he lost today, says he doesn’t want to think about it too much.
“Something important?” asks Matthijs. “It’s always the way. We lose the things we want and gain the sadness we don’t.”
Confused by Matthijs’s strange phrasing, he repeats the line in his head and his focus drifts back to the glass, noticing the liquid fizzing to find its natural level.
Matthijs says he is needed.
Not saying anything in response, nodding more to himself than to anyone, he is only half aware of the barman. He is still lost in thought, still distracted, staring down at the foaming glass of beer before him.
He picks up the glass, tries to focus on the still-fizzing liquid. He takes a sip of the cold, hoppy beer and places the glass back down.
Suddenly he is aware that Matthijs is still there, leaning forward towards him over the centre of the small table.
“Tell me, Patrick” Matthijs says, his voice quiet, concerned, “what is it you have lost today? You’ve had enough loss of late, no?”
“A photograph,” he replies.
“I see,” says Matthijs.
Intrigued by Matthijs’s question, and finally coming out of his daze, he looks up to see a broad, sympathetic smile fill the barman’s face before he starts nodding, apparently resolved to an already agreed course of action, as if the loss of a treasured photograph is a familiar problem Matthijs has come across before.
He watches as Matthijs now uses the tabletop to push himself up from the stool and squeeze himself out from behind the table’s edge. Standing there, still beaming down at him, he adjusts his apron and pats the table three times. Here’s the plan, the assertive knocks seem to suggest.
“Simple,” says Matthijs, “you take the picture again.”
He watches as Matthijs waddles back over to the bar and, lifting the partition, lets himself behind it. He sees Matthijs open his thick arms out wide to welcome two women who are waiting. They are both young and attractive, one blonde, wearing a plain white t-shirt, the other with dark black hair, in a grey sweater. And he notices they have a confidence about them, an ease about the way they interact with Matthijs and the space around them. He watches as they analyse the drinks menu that the girl with the dark black hair holds out between them. They ask Matthijs a question and he struggles to lean over the bar between the pumps, pointing out something on the creased and curling lamination, a list of beers that, he imagines, has barely changed in decades. The two girls make their choice, nod to each other, content with their selection, and Matthijs turns to the fridges behind to retrieve the drinks.
Ford looks back at his glass.
And then it hits him.
He is dumbstruck by how simple an idea it is, yet, at the same time, how impossible it is too.
For a moment he remains still, sitting in silence, before he cannot prevent a feeling from rising in his gut.
It is a feeling that surprises him as much as Matthijs’ idea.
It is, he realises, laughter.
He is laughing to himself. He is laughing in spite of himself and in spite of his otherwise sombre and melancholic mood. It is the first time he has laughed, he realises, since he lost Elizabeth. It feels strange. But it feels welcome somehow, like a tightness is being lifted from the muscles in his neck and chest.
The laughter gives way to a sudden and urgent need to do exactly as Matthijs suggested: to take the picture again.
The feeling is that of epiphany. Stranger still, he senses in this moment she is already there with him. In fact, this sense, he realises, is even greater than the sense that he must take her picture a second time. Both, he understands, are impossible. Both, he knows, are nothing but folly, silly ideas inspired no doubt by the strong beer he has been drinking. But still, something in him feels changed. He is filled with a new sense of purpose.
Abruptly, he stands.
He snatches up the Kafka still laying on the table in front of him and he jams it in his jacket pocket before lumbering out from behind the tight table.
Focused now, determined, he strides through the bar and out into the lamplit night.
Once outside his apartment on PC Hooftstraat, he realises he is anxious.
Scrambling up the steep stairs he fumbles to find his keys in his pocket. As he reaches the landing, in his excitement he drops the keys on the floor, cursing as he does. He bends down, feeling a familiar ache in his lower back. He retrieves the keys and stiffens up straight again. He finds the lock and manages to drop the latch. With what little force his weak frame can muster, he barges his way into the shadowed hallway between the landing and the apartment. Leaving the door swinging open behind him, he rushes across the room to the mahogany table, grabs his Leica and loads a roll of 35mm film.
Loading the camera is a practised routine as familiar to him as brushing his teeth. He flips off the base plate and tucks it under his chin. He gurns open his mouth to use his jaw to hold the silver piece of metal in place against his chest. He drops the loose take-up spool out of the camera, into his right hand, and he places the camera itself onto his lap. With the thumb of his left hand, he pops the film out of its plastic container, and, with that same thumb, he guides the film into the spool. He is careful to insert the connected film and spool back into the bottom of the camera. Picking up the machine, he flips open the black back plate and lines up the holes of the film with the tiny protruding gears of the advancing mechanism. He winds the film in place and takes the silver base plate from beneath his chin, fixing it on. At the same time, he advances the film with the silver lever on the camera’s top. He does this final part all in a single, elegant movement. The whole process is lightning fast, even though his hands are shaking and even though they are much more unsteady than they once were.
The camera loaded; he slows.
He sits down on the edge of the bed and pauses.
He considers the west-facing window.
The Leica rests at his side.
You take the picture again.
In Bar Soissons, the suggestion had struck him like one of the decisive moments he has always sought in his photography; the instant when everything comes into view; the perfect combination, as though the situation unfolding was always inevitable: the light, the shade, the movement, all coalescing into a single moment, a single idea, a memory stopped in time, trapped for a split second before it is lost forever. It is these moments that count. Everything in its right place.
The truth is he has always seen his photographs as a form of failure, a failure to capture the essence of an instant. That was always his ambition. A naive one, he admits, but his ambition, nevertheless. In his attempt, he had stumbled on an aesthetic style other people found original, daring, and often moving. Yet despite the fact he welcomed the success and the critical acclaim, for him, once a picture was taken, he was done. He had no interest in spending any more time with the result than was necessary to develop and frame it. Even his most famous images – the photocollages of Invisible Spaces and, later, The Moment as It Was and Will Be – they were created out of a certain dismissive view of the images he developed. Tearing up the individual photographs, scratching them, presenting them upside down or back to front, obscuring one with another, they became puzzle pieces, nothing more than an art material to work with, rather than them being meaningful images in and of themselves. Separate to his work on the collages, it was Elizabeth who would often make the final decision about which standalone images would be included in his exhibitions. He was much less concerned with these. In effect, Elizabeth curated the more traditional exhibitions – at least the later ones – single-handed. They really were more than just husband and wife; they had grown to be a working team. His art owed as much to her as it did to him. And he was often led by her sharp eye for style, only making the case for a particular photograph when it reminded him of a shoot where he had thought he was closest to capturing the essence of the scene. Otherwise, he used to see much of his work as nothing more than indulgent nostalgia. It wasn’t that he disliked his photographs, and it is not that he holds them in any contempt. Of course, he respects their beauty; he just cared more about the process itself. He had carried with him the photograph of Elizabeth by the window not only because it was a pretty picture, but because he felt it was close as he had ever come to capturing the whole essence of a scene, the emotional whole. He felt he had finally caught the perfect interplay of thought and feeling between photographer and subject in a single image, without resorting to collage. In taking the picture itself, he had inhabited the moment. Of course, it helped that the subject was his wife. He knows that. But he feels in the moment of that specific photograph, in lining up that specific shot and seeing Elizabeth framed in the viewfinder, he did experience some sense of an ideal.
You take the picture again.
Sitting there on the edge of the bed, his Leica loaded and the empty window in front of him, he thinks to himself how ridiculous it is to be doing what he is about to attempt. The world is alive. It is always changing, always flowing forward. Just as it is impossible to step in the same river twice, to take any photograph a second time is impossible too. Yet in his innocence, Matthijs has reawakened something in him. A desire to see. A desire to work. It is something he has not felt since he lost Elizabeth.
And so, he considers the window.
Holding up the Leica to his face, he peers through the viewfinder.
The buildings opposite, cut out against the orange-tinted hue of the night sky, the city’s light leaking heavenward.
He adjusts the aperture and corrects the focus to bring the outline of the west-facing window itself into view. He can see the glow of the streetlights outside, shimmering through the four panes of thin glass. He realises he charged into the room without turning on the light, and, in the dampened shade, the wooden frame of the window is turned a dark indigo, the love seat that she had leaned against now a greying blue. But for all the differences in colour and tone, the image in his viewfinder is identical. Elizabeth is the only absence.
But, as he feels the resistance of the camera’s trigger against his finger, for the briefest moment it happens.
Standing there, by the window, he sees her, smiling at him as she did almost forty years ago.
He is stunned still.
She wears the same white camisole, the same tweed skirt, and her hair is ruffled in the same way he remembers it was in the picture, in the moment.
She is there in front of him.
He is there in front of her.
It is stronger than a memory. More tangible. He can sense her, physically. She is in the room with him. Her body, her breath; the sound of her. It is as if he could reach out and take her hand. But he dares not, and as soon as he releases his finger from the trigger, she disappears.
He lowers the Leica onto his lap and looks to the space she had just occupied.
He sits, motionless.
There is no doubt for him. In the moment that just passed his young wife had been in the room, she was there with him again as she had been all those years ago, as if no time had passed at all.
Outside someone calls for someone else to slow down, to wait for them, and he is once more aware of himself. His thoughts return to the present moment, to the room and to the loaded Leica still in his hand.
He lifts the camera to his eye a second time.
He stands and lines up the shot.
Anxious, he takes the photograph again.
He takes another shot. And again, and again. Over and over, desperate to see her.
But there is nothing.
Just window. Just empty glass. Just the quiet street outside.
The buildings across from him are more insistent in his viewfinder now and no matter how he tries to refocus, they reinstate themselves as the subject of each frantic shot.
He knows he is searching for something that is no longer there.
Was she ever there? he wonders.
The camera’s trigger clicks empty.
The film exhausted.
Lowering his arm, he lets the Leica fall behind him and onto the bed. He moves forward towards her absence. Close now, almost against the window himself, he stands where his wife had stood just moments ago. He kneels himself up onto the love seat and leans his forehead against the windowpane. Feeling the cold glass against his tired skin, he closes his moistening eyes. Life continues in the street outside, indifferent: the warning bells of bicycles; the excited chatter of young friends moving from one bar to another; the rattle of a tram passing through the crossroads at Museumplein in the distance; he had heard her breath as real as any of these sounds.
He must remember her.
He tries to focus on the sensation he has just experienced, to remember it, to feel it once more, but it is already leaving him. He is already forgetting.
It was a moment too brief to capture in all its staggering reality.
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