The Welsh Schoolteacher, the Italian Prostitute and the Complete Plays of Brendan Behan

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I am not sure exactly when the following incident happened. All I can say for certain is that it was sometime during the summer of 2003. I moved to Amsterdam in June of that year, in response to the invasion of Iraq, and stayed a year. My logic was that if Bush and Blair could illegally invade Iraq with no justification, there was no reason I couldn’t quit my job on the assembly line of a medical devices factory and move to Amsterdam. For most of that year I worked in a low budget hotel on Haarlammerstraat. I know the following incident happened during the first part of my stint there as it happened on a night shift. I briefly left and worked in a coffee shop but quickly discovered that the owners of coffee shops are paranoid, arrogant and erratic, and therefore not the best employers. I quit and took my job back in the hotel, on condition I didn’t have to do any more nightshifts.

The hotel was cheap. It was basic and while not conventionally nice had a certain charm. It was reminiscent of a budget Mediterranean hotel from the 1970s. Some people complained that it was subpar but for most it suited their purposes. We had a lot of repeat custom and were regularly fully booked. It was built in the nineteenth century and had served a variety of purposes before it was a hotel. The ghost sign on the front and side of the building indicated it had been a haberdashery called Willem III. A more recent, but hardly new, sign protruded from the building and from top to bottom spelled out H-O-T-E-L, in black letters on a yellow background. Five stories over basement with just over twenty rooms. It sat on a corner. In front, Haarlemmerstraat led from the centre of Amsterdam to the West of the city. The narrow street to the side ran down to the Herrengraacht, one of the four canals which encircle the centre of Amsterdam running in an ellipse from the Ij to the Amstel. If you look at a map of Amsterdam, you can see where the centre two canals terminate and that’s where we were. The lobby took up the front half of the ground floor. From the outside it looked like a fish tank but from the inside the large plate glass windows gave a cinematic perspective of life as it passed by on Haarlemerstraat. The door was on the corner and the side wall also featured a large window and when you sat watching the world go by you saw everybody before they arrived. The door was also glass and any arrival stood in its frame like a momentary portrait before they opened it. If they arrived between midnight and eight they found it closed and had to ring the bell. There were coffeeshops on the two corners to our east and a house on the corner opposite. The reception desk sat like an island in the middle of the lobby. It was rectangular and imposing; made of pale green formica. The receptionist was surrounded by desk and commanded an excellent view of the lobby and the world outside. The interior walls were white and there were terracotta tiles on the floor. Worn couches and armchairs and mismatched tables and chairs provided on abundance of seating.

We had a mixed clientele. The hotel was Israeli owned and there were a lot of Israeli guests but these were only ten to twenty percent of the clientele. The remainder were every possible combination of people that one would find in one of the cheapest hotels in town. They were mostly young. Some middle-aged or older people, but hardly ever families. There were a lot of Europeans visiting for a couple of days. Americans travelling through Europe. People visiting on stopovers and so on. We also had, and I must stress they were in the minority, the occasional prostitute or drug dealer. They usually paid in cash and stayed for longer periods or intermittently. Their business was none of our business, as long as their business wasn’t carried out on the premises.

As it was a small hotel there really wasn’t much work to do. The main part of the job was just being there. This left a lot of time for chatting. Sometimes friends dropped in or colleagues hung around after their shift but the people I spoke to most were the guests. The majority of guests passed through, picking up or dropping off their keys, but there were some who became near permanent fixtures sitting on high stools around the reception desk. There was a young American couple on their way back from Iraq where they had been working as private contractors. They arrived with no clear departure date and kept extending their stay by a couple of days at a time until they had been there weeks. They made a heroic effort to consume as much weed as humanly possible while still maintaining consciousness. There was a young Dutch prostitute called Jenny who stayed a couple of nights a week when she come to Amsterdam to work. She was once so shocked to see me eating a crisp sandwich she offered to buy me dinner. I had to explain it was an Irish delicacy and not an act of desperation. There was an older Indian man, Dr Mistry, who said he was a medical doctor who had come to buy pharmaceuticals. He spent a lot of time on the payphone arguing with an Englishman named Benson. Benson was supposed to get him the pharmaceuticals but he never came through. There was a gay Irish man who had been in England 27 years and had lost his accent. He was astounded when I spotted he was Irish by the fact he began a sentence with a negative supposition. He lost his wallet when it fell out of his chaps. We walked up and down the stairs looking for it but never did find it. There were a myriad of others but for some reason these aren’t the ones I have been thinking about lately.

One time, as I say sometime in the summer of 2003, I struck up an acquaintance with a Welsh school teacher. He must have been in his late twenties or early thirties. Young enough, but a few years older than I was at the time. I don’t remember his name, or many specifics about him. He was a really nice guy and we had a lot of common interests. We discussed history, politics, literature, cultural identity and everything in between. He told me the Welsh were the Irish who couldn’t swim. As I have already mentioned we had a wide range of guests. However, the reception area, which didn’t have a bar and had no facilities apart from a TV, a pool table, an old arcade game and a pot of coffee behind the counter, provided a point where the paths of our eclectic clientele could cross. I can’t remember if he was at the counter when she showed up or how he began talking to her.

She was Italian and not very friendly. She must have arrived after midnight because the door was closed. She wore a long dark coloured puffy coat. I think they were in fashion then, at least for Italians. She had long straight brown hair and a large wheeled suitcase. She looked like a typical tourist but her behaviour wasn’t very typical. There was something uneasy about her. She had arrived in Amsterdam chasing something or running from something. She had a booking for our hotel and a phone number to call. She used the pay phone. The Welsh school teacher was drawn to her. She sat drinking coffee and he talked to her. He was impassioned and animated, she was withdrawn and her face didn’t express much beyond weariness. He wanted to save her. She hadn’t asked him to. Maybe it was old fashioned chivalry, maybe the last thing she needed was a hero. Maybe he didn’t understand her distress. I didn’t understand why he was involving himself. I thought he was better off to steer clear but maybe he thought he could make a difference. They must have talked for an hour. Eventually she went to her room and left him there. He hadn’t managed to save her but he hadn’t given up hope. He left me with a note to pass on to her if I saw her. I presume it had his contact details.

In the morning, just after the sun came up, the bell rang. I was alone in reception now. There was a Dutch man at the door. He was in his fifties, stocky, shaved head, lots and lots of tattoos. He wore a leather waistcoat and had an elaborate moustache. It was grey and waxed into points at the ends. I let him in. He was here to collect someone. She was expecting him. She would be down. He didn’t go in for small talk. The Italian girl came down in her long coat and wheeling her big suitcase. They greeted each other unenthusiastically and left together. I never gave her the note. Maybe I should have. I had gotten on well with the Welsh school teacher. I never saw him again as he checked out that day after my shift had ended. He had given me a gift though, the complete plays of Brendan Behan. I had mentioned that I had never read anything by Behan and he happened to have it on him. I liked it. I learned from reading the introduction that the plays as they appeared were very different to how their author had conceived them. The director took considerable liberties in their interpretation. Funny isn’t it, how sometimes the script in our head can be so different to the actual performance.

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