“Who the hell was that?”
The abruptness of the abuse was more surprising than alarming. It was supposed to be a peaceful morning for Robert, enjoying a coffee break at one of the many terraces in Amsterdam. The assault on him was thankfully verbal, rather than physical, but he felt the legs of the chair shake under him, as if he were sitting too close to the bass speakers at a festival. Or was it his own legs shaking?
“Here, what you looking at, mate?” said a deep voice.
Robert had been in one of those trances, staring at nothing in particular, deep in thought. He was jolted into life by a person he had never seen before, inches away from his face. He felt the warm breath. As he focused his eyes, Robert found himself nose to nose with a sorry apparition who looked like he had just come from another century, with plump cheeks and ruffled hair protruding from under his black beret. He had an unwashed aroma to go with the look and was unsteady on his feet. He was leaning on the table with a soiled hand coated in what looked like paint remnants.
“Pay no attention to me,” answered Robert. “Or have I missed something?”
“What you staring at? Listen, I have a lot of problems and I don’t need people like you making me feel worse,” replied the stranger.
“Sorry, if you thought that. I really wasn’t looking at you; I was miles away.”
The stranger seemed torn between pushing his anger further or lapsing into despondency. The despondency won.
“Maybe you’ll be hearing more from me,” he said, and resumed his travels, pushing his ancient and unusable bike, which seemed to be loaded with his only possessions. Robert sighed. He never felt he was in any danger, but it had certainly woken him up. He knew he had been in a world of his own. His attention was on the girls in their summer clothes, not the wanderer. He watched as the owner of the booming voice and strange gait disappeared from view, wondering why he had picked on him. Just for staring?
It was nice, warm, pre-summer weather and everyone had a spring in their step, especially the girls. Before he was disturbed, Robert’s thoughts were bouncing awkwardly between the girls on the street and his marriage. He was happy – no, comfortable – but the excitement was gone, and he had little idea how he could get that back. Right now, he was playfully contemplating how he could travel back to his student days, a time he felt he was more in control, even if it was control of a more chaotic life. He wanted his past back. In the meantime, he was playing with fire and the fire’s name was Saskia.
The day dreaming was over. As he was about to leave, Robert eyed a coin that had been left on his table. He had no idea how it got there, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t there before. He picked it up and saw that it was very old, rough around the edges. It looked silver, but he didn’t know what it was made of. It appeared to depict an armed figure holding a sword and a coat of arms; the date looked like it said 1660. It was clearly not a current currency, so he put it in his pocket for later investigation. Strange morning, thought Robert.
Robert was a picture of health. He lived a good, if complicated, life close to the centre of Amsterdam, in a leafy part of Java Island, just on the northern edge of the city. He recently made his life more complicated when he started juggling too many things at the same time.
Saskia was one of these things, but so, too, was his decision to embark on a new business venture with one of his best buddies, Mark. On paper that gave him two jobs, but he thought he could handle that with relative ease. His main employment was the business of organising music festivals, but because that was seasonal it gave him ample time to explore other opportunities. His friend Mark was in the business of selling high quality paints for artists and had stumbled upon some of the artist collectives in China who specialised in copying old masters. One thing led to another and after much brainstorming they started a webshop with the name Masters in Paint, offering ‘original’ hand-painted copies of old masters and, later, even copies of any painting that anyone wanted. It wasn’t limited to the famous old masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Constable, or Monet.
Mark was a British expat who had been living in Amsterdam for a while. While Robert was full of ideas, Mark was the one who moved things along with a typical British can-do attitude, one that Robert was sure had landed them in the trouble.
Mark had all the right contacts in China, and they had front-loaded their website with hundreds of sample paintings so that potential clients could see and choose from a library of images. It didn’t matter that these paintings were not part of their stock, it was just a part of their marketing strategy. Each order was unique, so all they had to do was wait and let the orders come in, without holding any inventory. For Robert, the business was a no- brainer.
One of the more immediate complicating factors was Robert’s wife, Belinda. Unlike him, she was the conservative type, and did not share Robert’s enthusiasm for new ventures that might disrupt their steady suburban life. She already had to live with the vagaries of Robert’s festival business and, without knowing why exactly, she didn’t like the sound of a business that copied other people’s paintings. The Chinese already had a bad reputation for copying intellectual property, and to her this was even more “in your face” than a hectic festival. She was not happy about it and she made sure Robert knew.
“Isn’t it time you started thinking more about your family than new businesses? Especially risky ones,” she would say.
Robert, in turn, tried to head his wife off by answering, “I think I am doing this for the family.” He emphasised the word family. “You know the festival business is somewhat unpredictable and insecure, so it’s only right that we have something to fall back on. Mark knows his stuff and we have all the right contacts in China. It’s not a huge investment because we only need a website, some good marketing, and a generous dose of common sense. The bottom line is that it gives us some extra income. For the family.”
“I still think it’s risky. What happens if you get caught selling copies? I mean, your website will be easily traced.”
“No, no. You don’t understand. That’s not an issue. It’s all perfectly legal. If the artist has been dead for more than seventy years, then it falls into the public domain. Then anyone can copy the painting. You just can’t try and pass it off as a genuine article.”
Robert immediately added, “And the margins are good.”
“Robert, it still doesn’t change my opinion. You’re already away a lot, and now you’re adding all of this, so how do you think that’s going to help our already rocky relationship?”
“I had hoped it would. Yes, I am doing this for me—but also for the family. And I think you’ll warm to it, eventually,” Robert finished hopefully, adding, “And I think you should meet Mark. He’s a bit of a charmer, but I’m sure you’ll like him and maybe it’ll make you feel more comfortable about the business. And, like you, he’s English.”
“I’m not going to be a part of it. It’s your thing. But be careful. I’m sure I’ll meet Mark one day. Then I can give him the same message I’m giving you.”
Belinda’s lack of interest in her husband’s entrepreneurial instincts had become more and more frustrating for Robert, and he was sure that she felt frustrated too. Robert wondered where this would lead. In the meantime, he carried on with his two jobs and, in his own opinion, finely managed the balance between them and his family. That included his two kids, Daniel and Maxine, who were thirteen and eleven respectively. Even if the children could now look after themselves, Belinda was the brooding type, continually worrying about every little thing, and she expected Robert to be the same. That wasn’t working either, as Robert was much more inclined towards a laissez faire existence. He was a freewheeler who wanted to see his own children stand on their own two feet and not be fretted over.
Belinda’s fears about Masters in Paint were about to become reality. On their website, Robert and his partner Mark had decided to include an option that allowed users to select any painting they wanted to have copied, regardless of whether or not it was in their portfolio. They didn’t say anything about the rules of public domain, but it was addressed in the frequently asked questions.
The result was that there were people who wanted more than just a painting from a long dead master. They started receiving requests for works of art from well-known painters who were still very much alive.
“Now what?” said Robert to Mark.
“As I see it, we have two options. One is to simply say ‘sorry, we cannot do this,’ but then we’re turning away good business. The other is to ask for assurance from the buyer that it’s for personal use only and will not be used in any public place. I favour the latter,” said Mark, who was surprising Robert more by the day. He steadily became more assertive, more of a risk taker. For Robert’s part, the rattling cogs in his brain were reminding him of Belinda’s warnings.
“Are you sure we’re not running any risks?”
“No, not if the buyer is using it privately.”
“Yes, but we’re just going on his word. That’s not safe.”
“Robert, look how many requests we’re getting. I think it’s something we can safely do. And other sites in other countries offer the same, at least from what I can see.”
“OK, but let’s make sure we get it in writing from the buyers.”
“Agreed, but, technically, that is not protection. You know that?”
After that, Masters in Paint started accepting orders for living artists, and it slowly became a sizeable part of their small business. Everything had been running smoothly, but that smoothness was interrupted when they received a cease and desist letter, and a claim. The letter came from the lawyers of one Emerson Parker, a well-known Brazilian-American painter who normally enjoyed sales of his work in the low millions. The letter made it very clear that there would be financial consequences.
Robert was stunned when they received it. He was in the small office he had set up with Mark, where they fielded customer enquiries, managed the website, and even did some framing for clients who wanted a finished product. The paintings normally arrived as rolled canvases from China.
After the inevitable arguments with Mark had died down, Robert began pacing the office and went on like that for a while.
“Will you stop that ‘ijsberen?’ It’s driving me insane,” said Mark, who had used the Dutch word for pacing. Literally translated, the word turned the noun polar bear into a verb, “to polar bear.” Robert was often like a pacing polar bear. He always thought it was one of those Dutch words that aptly described the feeling of frustration.
“I’m going to continue my ‘ijsberen’ outside. We can talk about this later.”
The fact that Robert now had a major problem on his hands—and was in the middle of the festival preparation season—meant pressure was mounting up. He needed some immediate down time and Saskia was the comfort he craved right now. It had been fifteen years since he first got together with Belinda, and eight years since they had married. Saskia offered him the refuge he needed, when he needed it, but Robert was aware that he was walking a tightrope. Sometimes he asked himself whether he was exploiting Saskia’s kindness and affection for him without giving much in return, though he did think that his sexual prowess was a bonus.
Saskia was in her mid-forties and she had had some tragic moments in her life. The worst was the loss of both of her parents in the MH 17 plane crash over Ukraine, along with more than one hundred other Dutch citizens. As a result of this tragedy, she had received an inheritance which enabled her to lead a more relaxed life than others around her. Saskia would often remember the repatriation of the bodies, arriving at Eindhoven airport followed by the precision of a convoy of over seventy hearses, all black, driving over more than 100km of motorway lined with clapping onlookers. Her personal tragedy played out as tear-jerker news on all media channels and around the world.
She had been married very briefly, and had one daughter, Lynda. She was the product, if you can call it that, of a short but intense relationship when Saskia was in her early twenties, long before marrying her husband. She enjoyed motherhood and looking after Lynda, but the relationship with her partner at the time was always doomed. Lynda was now twenty-one, no longer at home, and studying at the University of Bristol in the UK.
It was one of those impulsive on/off relationships that started at the height of youth; but, when Saskia became pregnant, she dearly wanted to try to make something of it, if only for the benefit of Lynda, and maybe for any other children she might have. It didn’t take long for her to realise that this was not going to happen and there was clearly no future in trying to hold the relationship together. This relationship cast a shadow over her future love life. Her new partners were never settling companions, and she had difficulty juggling the dating scene with being a single mother. She was happy with the place she was in now. Despite the lack of a father figure, her daughter had both feet on the ground, and she was proud of how things had worked out. The father was nowhere to be seen or heard from, which had been a tragedy.
More recently, Saskia had had her own personal setback. Medical this time.
She had never been one to grumble or rush to the doctor at the first sign of something. She was also not one to pay much attention to inspecting her own breasts on a regular, or even irregular, basis. She was still relatively young.
Breast tumours were known to be deceptive. They hid, like snakes under a rock. Saskia didn’t find her snakes until it was almost too late, only turning over her rock after the tumours had been germinating for several years. They were small but malignant, so had to be removed, and the surgery was complemented with a round of chemotherapy. Fortunately, breast cancer treatment now had a remarkably good track record for recovery, but the scare was there, and remained a constant reminder. The snakes could come back. But she was not worrying about that now.
At home, Saskia heard the doorbell ring and knew it was Robert. She lived on the bottom two floors of a house on the Herengracht canal in the heart of Amsterdam. There was hardly a nicer place in the city to live, unless you needed a lot of parking space, which simply did not exist in Amsterdam. The house was a traditional “heren” house, the type of house that would have been home to a gentleman of the city many centuries ago. Now, the houses were occupied in whole or in part by the established rich as well as the millennial rich. The house was part of the inheritance which Saskia, an only daughter, had received after the plane crash.
Saskia liked Robert, whom she met a few years ago. His surname was Dekker, which Saskia thought was a little pedestrian compared to some of the weird and whacky names that many of the Dutch have. She did allow herself the thought that it would be nice if he had something a little more colourful. In Holland, you would only have to open the now non-existent telephone directory to discover the range of wonderful surnames; Throw-a-Coin (Muntjewerf), Born Naked (Naaktgeboren), Thunder Shop (Donderwinkel) and many more. The story, or myth, went that when the French occupied The Netherlands, Napoleon was frustrated that no one had a surname and if he wanted to collect taxes and draft new soldiers for his army, he needed some form of identification. So he instructed the Dutch to create surnames for themselves. Not taking this particularly seriously, the Dutch developed names to amuse themselves and confuse their French occupiers as much as possible. They also thought it would be a temporary measure, but the names had stuck and been passed on from generation to generation.
Robert was a powerful name in its own right and fitted her Robert well. Two strong syllables, and plenty of precedent, with names like Robert the Bruce, Robert Kennedy, Robert de Niro, Robert Redford. On the other side of the coin, Robert Mugabe might not be a shining example, but he also belonged to a powerful, if questionable, elite.
Saskia met Robert quite by accident. One day, he was driving down the Herengracht canal at the same time as Saskia was going back into her apartment loaded with bags and boxes. Her trip was only from her car further down the road, but she was being a little too ambitious. Robert, who had an impulsive streak to him, pulled over into the miraculously free parking space behind and offered his help. With some hesitation, Saskia accepted. Robert stood out in a crowd and her curiosity got the better of her.
Robert grabbed a couple of the boxes from her arms and followed her up the short flight of steps to the front door. Once inside, they went down the narrow hallway to the back of the house where there was a large kitchen and living area that opened onto a large inner patio. There were double doors opening from there back towards the front of the house, where there was another large room, primarily used as a den and an office for Saskia. There were high ceilings, which was typical of the old houses, and Robert noticed that his new acquaintance’s place was exceptionally “gezellig,” the all-encompassing Dutch word for cosy, and the apartment was blessed with some stunning paintings. One in particular was a very large and striking abstract painting that looked much like wheat fields, dominating the kitchen area with many of tones of yellow.
“Hi, my name’s Saskia, and thanks very much for helping me,” she said before Robert headed back out.
No problem at all, I enjoyed it. I’m Robert,” he said as he presented a hand to her.
“I have one more bag in the car, front seat, I mustn’t forget.”
“Do you need help with it?”
“No, no. You’ve already done enough, thanks.”
Robert started heading for the door but turned just before leaving.
“Can I be ever so rude and ask to use your bathroom?”
“Oh, is that why you wanted to help?” she quipped. Robert ignored it with a big smile.
“The toilet is down there on the right. Yes, that’s it.”
Saskia followed Robert out of the house as she went to retrieve her last package.
“It was nice meeting you. It’s a small town, so maybe we’ll see each other somewhere, sometime,” Robert said, trying unsuccessfully to elicit a positive response.
A few months later, more or less, Robert finally “met” Saskia at a reception for people in the events business. It turned out that Saskia had her own business, designing and arranging sets for theatre and occasionally product launches, but she preferred the former. After the excitement of the first few months, and as they became closer, it was clear Robert’s marriage was not a deterrent to Saskia; she was not in search of anything lasting. She did have her reservations about the secrecy, however. She didn’t want to be responsible for any break between Robert and Belinda.
It didn’t take long for the two of them to be physically attracted to each other. In fact, that was the easy part, much like covalent bonding between two chemicals. Their characters also matched well. Both were freewheeling types with strong independent tendencies, with a good dose of intelligence and a grounding of common sense, even if having an affair was a deviation from that.
Today, Robert had arrived at Saskia’s by bike because he knew that it was highly unlikely he would find a parking space for his Volvo estate. Unlike many others in the city, Robert was not a fan of the bike, considering it merely a necessary evil. With more bikes in Amsterdam than inhabitants, if you couldn’t beat them, you had to join them.
He had had to cover some five kilometres from the Masters in Paint office, which also meant navigating what could only be described as a gridlock jungle, despite all the dedicated bike lanes.
Robert’s journey to the Herengracht canal meant he had to deal with a mix of the local car and cycle traffic and the horror of tourists. One group knew exactly what it was doing and disobeyed every road rule known to man; the other had no idea what they were doing and were a hazard to themselves and others. Robert knew what he was doing, but didn’t enjoy it. He knew the city and could easily avoid the worst hotspots, but there was always a hothead who was not paying attention, on their phone or listening to music on headsets.
Saskia’s house was generally their meeting place, as they both preferred not to take the risk of being seen together in bars, restaurants etc. Amsterdam was a small city, and if you were in the bombastic festival business, or the more pedestrian theatre business, you could generally assume that everyone knew you and you needed to know everyone.
Robert arrived, not exhausted but hot. The weather was already getting warm. The day’s events had not left him in a good mood, but he summoned up some level of frivolity when Saskia greeted him at the door with a simple kiss and hug, supplemented by a tug at his bum.
“I do like that bum of yours. Always have,” she said.
Robert followed Saskia down the narrow stone hallway to the back of the house, which opened onto the inner garden via the patio, a large wall of glass windows, and a small flight of steps. Saskia’s bum was also a sight to behold, and she knew it. Today she was dressed in a tight, revealing jogging outfit with colour highlights in all the right places. Robert could not resist a quick grope as they proceeded to the back.
“And I am jealous of yours as well. How do you keep it like that? At your age.”
A quick but friendly slap followed. Saskia worked hard to stay in shape and took the compliment as it was intended. She was not tall, but also not small. She had a nice figure, with only a bit of weakness developing in the stomach area. Her hair was black with highlights that enhanced her face and gentle skin, which had a very slight hint of olive. She was the product of a Dutch father and an Italian mother, and it was clear that the prevailing genes had come from the maternal side. She was in top form.
It was only mid-afternoon. And it was almost as if the two already had a muted regimen together. There was no hot pursuit of a sexual encounter, nor any plans for one. Saskia had recently arrived back from the gym.
“I have to take a shower. I know this is no way to greet you. If you’d like a drink, why don’t you grab something and come with me?”
“Sure, I’ll be there in a sec.”
Saskia headed downstairs to the bathroom, which adjoined her bedroom in the basement. It was not a basement as most people would understand it to be. It opened onto the garden at the back, so got plenty of light. It was a sunken part of the house that ran from front to back, and for Saskia it was home to her two bedrooms, a bathroom, and some utility space for things like bikes, a washing machine, and an old wooden chest of drawers; a chest that looked odd because it was not symmetric. Her own bedroom had French windows which could open out to the garden. She had a large shower, as well as space in the bathroom to accommodate a whole family, if you wanted to. She turned on the shower, disposed of her jogging clothes and jumped in. Robert came downstairs, with a beer, bottle of wine, and glasses in his hands.
“I brought you a wine.”
“Isn’t it a little early for alcohol?”
“Believe me, now is a good time for alcohol. I need it.”
“Yes, but I’ll tell you after you’ve had your shower. I’ll just sit here and watch.”
That statement in itself was enough to excite Saskia. She decided to play up to the situation, with a lot of soap and much overstated caressing and limb movement. Robert knew what was coming, but that was part of the game. Just the stimulus and excitement that he was looking for, remote foreplay. He put down his glass. As much as he would have liked to walk into the shower fully clothed, he was realistic enough to know that would have raised another dilemma. Instead, he undressed and joined Saskia in the shower and immediately took over the task of gently caressing her body. Saskia enjoyed the attention to all parts of her body. Water and soap was just as sexy as massage oil and without going any further than the shower, they entwined under a stream of water that drowned out their respective climaxes. It was what Robert needed, but Saskia felt he was rougher than he normally was. Robert felt better, blissfully unaware of any change in himself.
An hour later, they were both on the patio in the garden, this time with a couple of wines. As it was pleasant weather, Saskia had put on one of her favourite floral dresses that ended just above the knees, revealing shapely legs and, especially, that sweet spot visible along the outside flank when a woman sits cross-legged. Robert knew he needed to get back home soon. The phone was in his pocket on silent mode, but he could feel the buzz of WhatsApps that came in.
“So, tell me, what’s stirring in you? I can feel it?” Saskia asked.
“Yes, I’m sorry if it’s so obvious. I’ve had a shitty day, really shitty.”
“Tell me, if you want. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”
“I know, but I’m not sure you can help me anyway, apart from being here.”
“It’s the painting business. We’ve received a threatening letter and a claim from a lawyer representing a living painter.”
“But you don’t copy living painters’ paintings. You told me that.”
“Yes, but we changed our policy, provided it was for personal use only and not hung in public. Other sites offer something similar.”
“Robert, you’re an intelligent man. That wasn’t a wise thing to do, was it?”
“That’s what I thought too,” Robert said, “but Mark convinced me, so now I don’t know what we’re going to do. The worst thing about it is that if it comes to a serious claim, then I am personally liable. I don’t have Masters in Paint protected as a limited company. And Belinda will kill me if that happens. Or I’ll kill myself.”
“I’m going to stay calm, but I think we can agree that was very naive of you. With any luck, they’re just making an example of you to warn off others and it will blow over. But you will need to be very apologetic. Time to grovel.”
“I know. I haven’t really discussed it with Mark yet. I was too pissed off to be around him.”
“So, you came here?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. That was unfair of me,” said Robert.
“No. In a way, I’m flattered, but I can’t always be your bolt hole when things are bad; or even good. Which brings me to the subject.”
“You know, I’ve been thinking, we’ve been going around in”— and at this she hesitated—“very enjoyable circles for a couple of years now. You know I love you coming here, and I love being with you, but it’s no longer as rewarding as it was.”
“No, don’t get me wrong. That didn’t come out right. I mean I still love seeing you, I still love the sex we have; but our relationship is potentially heading up a cul de sac, don’t you think?”
“I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Exactly my point. Robert, sometimes you’re in your own world and you lose sight of the people who are important to you. Me, for example. I don’t know that I can go on like this forever without some prospect of a future. And it’s not going to be a future which has you just turning up when it’s convenient for you.”
“Wow, two low blows in one day.”
“Yes, I’m sorry, our chat just led into it. I hadn’t planned it for right now. But I had been meaning to talk to you one of these days. Maybe it’s for the best. This way you have one really bad day instead of two.”
“But I thought you liked your freedom and independence?”
“I do, that’s me to a tee. But with you I feel I’m moving on from my past, even if you’re not the most attentive of men. I do think you have it in you, and that’s the you I would like to get to know. And I fear I’m the one who gave you the wrong idea. Yes, I once told you that the one marriage I had—and any subsequent relationships—didn’t work out because I liked my independence. Maybe that gave you the wrong impression?
Robert seized on what little defence he had and answered, “Yes, I think maybe you did. I do remember your husband was a First Officer on a cruise ship, he had a glamourous life on board, and you also got what you wanted; time to yourself and time with him.”
“Yes, two months on, two months off. What I had not counted on was that the two months off for him, was two months on for me, literally and figuratively. It became suffocating. But it’s not the same. And I am older now. More mellowed, don’t you think? And I’m not looking for a repeat.”
“Absolutely, but I think you are sending me mixed messages.”
“No, I’m just reinforcing the message you don’t seem to be picking up on.”
“That’s clear,” Robert said. “I used to think you didn’t even know what you were going to do tomorrow, let alone next week or next month. I guess that’s changing?”
“Now you got it.” And then a pause. “No, I didn’t mean it like that. Robert, all I am asking is that you think about where you want to go with our relationship. There’s no rush. I don’t want to burst the bubble we’re in, I just want it to be bigger than this house.”
“Alright. Please, give me time. As you can see, I’m juggling just a few too many things at the moment. And maybe I should compare my marriage to a cruise ship. Once it gains momentum it takes forever to bring it to a stop.”
Saskia ignored this.
“You’ve forgotten your wine. Take a few slugs. You’ll feel better.”
There was a bit of a pregnant pause. Then the two of them moved onto less touchy issues. They talked about Robert’s other work with festivals, Saskia’s own work, and rehearsed standard grumbles about the Amsterdam council, traffic, tourists, and other mundane matters.
At about 6 o’clock Robert left to head back home so he would be there in time for dinner and help with some homework for the kids. It was the same hectic story on the bike ride back, this time even more so because of the rush hour. Robert had the opportunity to get rid of some of his frustration by yelling at other cyclists and pedestrians who got in his way.
Fortunately, his day didn’t get any worse, but he did call Mark and suggested that they let the copyright liability matter sit until after the weekend. It was going to be dragged out anyway.