LOCKDOWN IN AMSTERDAM – Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
I was awoken early the next morning by a ringing telephone. At first I thought it was the hotel management to complain about the racket the girls and I had been making in the wee hours of the night, but it was my cellphone, and the caller was a woman from Van Renkum Publishers whose name I didn’t catch.
Moving to the window so as not to wake the sleeping beauties, I asked her how everyone at the office was coping with the fallout from the Booga Ball. She was not in the mood for banter. In a tone of voice as flat and unapologetic as a Dutch polder landscape under a grey winter sky, she informed me that my entire promotional tour was being cancelled.
What the fuck?
To contain the virus outbreak, the Dutch government was banning all get-togethers of more than a hundred people, eliminating most of the events in which I played a role, as a writer of my stature tends to draw big audiences. That wasn’t all. Out of solidarity with the Dutch health workers who were bracing themselves for a surge in cases, Van Renkum Publishers had decided to go a step further than was strictly necessary and was cancelling all smaller engagements as well, such as the “meet the writer” sessions they had planned for me in smalltown bookstores and libraries. The space in such venues would be cramped and most of the visitors over sixty years old, exactly the group running the highest risk of dying from Covid-19.
It all sounded reasonable enough. The corona situation here in Holland was looking bad. Really bad. As Full o’ Bull would later tell me, some early projections were forecasting a situation even more dire than in northern Italy, the worst-hit area thus far. If cancelling my book tour was what it took to flatten the curve, then of course, I was glad to be of help.
And yet a little voice was telling me something wasn’t quite right. Who was this person at the other end of the line? Did she need to be quite so unfriendly? And why wasn’t Sip the one breaking the news to me?
Sure enough, in the days that followed, from the little bits of information that my agent managed to glean from his various connections in the Dutch literary world – Van Renkum Publishers wasn’t returning his calls – a somewhat different story emerged.
The stone-cold voice at the other end of the line probably belonged to Hella van Renkum, Sip’s older sister, a high-ranking member of the executive board and one of the publishing company’s major shareholders. Sip’s flamboyant style of doing business had worked wonders in times of plenty, but in recent years, with book sales slumping worldwide, it was putting too great a strain on the company’s reserves. The extravagant promotional campaign for the Dutch edition of Revenge of the Optimists had been the final straw. Now, Hella was using the corona crisis as a ploy to push her reckless younger brother towards the sidelines.
I’m a fairly easy-going guy who tends to take things in his stride, but back in New York, my agent was livid. Corona or palace revolution, this was no way for the van Renkums to treat a literary star, hauling him all the way over to their piddly little country only to leave him out in the cold without even a semblance of an apology. Well, they could bet their sweet asses that they’d be getting a letter from our lawyer some time soon, along with a hefty bill for lost revenue, for the many long hours I had (apparently) wasted on preparing for this tour, along with a big fat bonus for further damages.
But before our poor lawyer had even rolled up his sleeves, the pandemic reached the New York area, and he was one of the first to be smitten. Apparently he is still in an IC-unit somewhere on Long Island, hooked up to a ventilator and fighting for his life. In the shadow of this far greater human drama, I have quietly kissed my money goodbye and moved on.
Luckily, things have a habit of sorting themselves out for me. According to my American publisher, this “online corona novel” that you are reading right this very minute is beginning to take off. With several thousand paid subscribers and thousands more eager to sign up, the money is pouring in. Dear fans, wherever you are, thank you ever so much. As long as you keep up the good work, so will I. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Let’s return to my suite in the Amstel Hotel, where I was standing by the curtains in my birthday suit, still on the phone with the snow queen from Van Renkum Publishers. Though I was trying to keep my voice down, my exclamations of surprise had awoken the girls, who were now yawning, stretching, and unabashedly letting the silk bedsheets slide from their breasts as they reached for the bowl of strawberries that they had dared me to order from room service at four in the morning, along with a generous helping of whipped cream. Much as I had looked forward to taking part in a highbrow panel discussion in Utrecht on how to make books sexy again, I had little reason to complain, with such a garden of earthly delights to return to. Or so I was thinking.
But the nice lady at the other end of the line had one final surprise in store for me. The company’s corona crisis team was implementing an immediate budget freeze, which meant that while they were arranging for the first possible flight back to New York for me (economy class, needless to say) I was being transferred to a cheaper accommodation, a nice and cosy family hotel in the theater district. Oh, and to further cut costs, they had taken the liberty to call the Amstel Hotel and cancel breakfast. There were plenty of good places near my new accommodation where I could grab a bite to eat, using my (greatly reduced!) per diem.
She concluded not with an apology, but a moral imperative. Maybe it was hard to imagine for an American like me, but it was truly impressive to see how everybody here in Holland was working together to fight this common enemy. It was not the time to put self-interest ahead of the general good, and so she was counting on my full cooperation. And that was that. Have a nice day.
“Sorry, girls,” I now had to say. “The party’s over.”
Nice&Cosy was the actual name of the hotel that I’d be going to. As I scrolled through the customer reviews in the taxi on the way over, I braced myself for paper-thin walls, stale bread for breakfast and a short-tempered proprietress.
How quickly one’s fortunes can change, I marvelled, as we passed the city theater where only yesterday, I had mingled with the crème de la crème of the Dutch literary elite. Two garbage trucks were now parked along the side of the building, and a couple of guys were loading speakers, lights and other equipment into a van.
My hotel was on a canal just off to the left. As we pulled up in front of the entrance, two short and stocky fellows were coming out the door with their suitcases – your typical English blokes, no doubt about it. Following close behind was a third guy wearing net stockings and high heels, a strapless black corset with a bowtie, and rabbit ears. But something was amiss. The playboy bunny’s eyes were red from crying, and when I got out of the taxi, I could hear him moaning softly to himself.
While the driver opened the trunk to get my suitcase, one of the blokes came inching towards us with unexpected shyness. Enveloping us in his boozy breath and with an accent that conjured up images of smoking factory chimneys amid mountains of slag, he asked the driver if him and his mates could get a ride to the airport, along with a fourth friend who was still inside paying the bill.
“He’s not going to be sick, I hope?” the driver wanted to know, eyeing the whimpering bunny with a frown.
Nah, there was little cause for concern. Ol’ Barry boy had “vomi’id foive toimes las’ noigh’”, making it “hoighly unloikely” that there was anything left for him to throw up.
The other bloke meanwhile was telling me that they were from a small town just north of Sheffield. They had come to Amsterdam to celebrate the fact that Barry was getting married next week. Last night, they had gone to a live sex show in the Red Light District and were having the “toim of their loives” when poor ol’ Barry ’ad ’ad a panic attack. The groaner voyeurs had totally spooked him.
“The groaner voyeurs?”
I was unfamiliar with this particular subgenus of pervert that had so upset poor Barry boy. But his buddy now gave me the strangest look. Had I been living under a rock or something? How could I not have heard of the groaner voyeurs? The voyeurs from Choina?
“Oh, the corona virus!”
A fourth member of the stag party now came out of the hotel with two more suitcases. The bitch at the reception wasn’t giving them a refund for heading home a day early. Fuckin’ disaster, this whole trip. No more Amsterdam for him. Ever. Fuckin’ shi’ole of a place this was. Fuck.
I left them to carry on with their negotiations with the taxi driver and went inside. A long, musty corridor led to a reception area, where a woman in a pink frilly blouse with the bosom of an opera diva was on the phone, arguing with a customer. On the wall behind her was a poster of a man on the edge of a cliff, greeting the rising sun with outstretched arms. “Wake up with a smile,” it said, “and the day will smile back at you.” Off to the left, in a dining room half the size of my suite at the Amstel Hotel and with a ceiling more than twice as low, a young Arab guy was busy clearing the tables.
No, the woman was telling the person at the other end of the line, they were not getting their money back. The hotel’s cancellation policy was clearly stated in the terms of agreement. Yes, the corona virus. But no. Nice&Cosy was a small, family-run business that was suffering just like everybody else, not a disaster relief fund. What was that? Well, to hell with you too, sir! Damn.
“Hup, hup, Abou!” she now said, rising out of her chair and clapping her hands. “We still have rooms 6, 11 and 13 to do.”
“Yes, ma’am,” came a soft voice from the dining room.
“What is it with people nowadays?” she sighed, meanwhile handing me a pen and a registration form. “It’s me me me and nothing else. Back in my day, we’d help each other out in times of need.”
While I filled out the form, she went off on a rant against the incompetent Dutch government for not having closed its borders to all air traffic from China. And guess who was paying the price? Not the politicians, not the big companies who were being bailed out yet again. Nor the hoards of asylum-seekers or the good-for-nothing unemployed, who were still being pampered with cheap housing and free handouts. No sir. As always, it was small, hard-working family businesses like Nice&Cosy who were footing the bill. What was needed here was a strong leader. Someone like Donald Trump. Had I seen him on television the other day? Only fifteen cases in the entire U.S.A.! And it would be down to zero soon. Compared to the mess Holland was in right now…
“No, Abou, not the daffodils!”
Coming out from behind the counter, she pushed past me and went to stand in the doorway to the dining room, her fists planted firmly against her hips.
“Did I tell you to throw out the daffodils? They were fine, for Christ’s sake.”
“What are you… ? No! Don’t pull them back out of the garbage bag. That’s disgusting. Oh Abou, you idiot!”
Swearing under her breath, she returned to the desk.
“He’s my third,” she said, holding up her hand and pointing to her wedding ring. “And almost as useless as numbers one and two. I don’t know. This unlucky girl just can’t seem to find Mr. Right.”
Aha, interesting. The age difference was quite spectacular, not to mention the difference in physique. To each their own, of course. And it was a relief to know she had been yelling at him simply because he was her husband, not for politically incorrect reasons.
As she glanced over the form I had just handed back to her, her eyes brightened.
“So you’re a writer? And your name is Quinn? Are you by any chance related to Julia Quinn?”
It was by no means the first time I had been asked this question. Julia Quinn is a hugely successful writer of historical romance novels. We’re talking about millions of copies sold, not mere hundreds of thousands like with my own books. As far as I know, we are not related, which is not surprising considering that Quinn is just a pseudonym in her case. Her real name is Julia Pottering. I looked it up once.
But the lady of the hotel was blinking up at me so expectantly, so yearningly, that I didn’t have the heart to let her down.
“Why yes,” I said brightly. “Julia and I are cousins.”
“No! You’re joking. That’s wonderful! She happens to be one of my favorite writers! I’ve got the whole Bridgerton series upstairs. So you… you actually know her?”
“We see each other every Easter, at the big family reunion on the Quinn Estate in Martha’s Vineyard.”
“Oh, my goodness. The name of that place alone… Martha’s Vineyard. I’d love to go there some day. And do you… do you get to talk to Julia?”
“Oh yes. After an elaborate brunch, while the governess takes the little ones out into the garden to hunt Easter eggs, the rest of the family will go for a stroll through the cherry orchards, which are in full bloom right around that time. And then Julia and I will catch up on whatever books we’re working on.”
“Oh, Mr. Quinn!” the delighted proprietress said, fanning her face with her hand. “That’s so romantic that it hurts. What a gifted family you are. Writing must be in your DNA!”
“I suppose so.”
With a happy sigh she reached for one of the keys behind her. “I’m giving you Room 8 at no extra charge. You’ll have your very own private bathroom.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Abou, dear! Can you come out and help this gentleman with his luggage?”
“That’s okay. I’ll manage.”
“No no, I insist. Any member of the Quinn family is like royalty to me. C’mon, Abou. Hup, hup!”
I followed her lanky-legged young husband up a steep flight of creaky, uneven stairs. After wiggling the key around in the lock and fumbling with the handle for a while, he had to give the door a hip-check for it to open. Setting down my suitcase and handing me the key with a shy grin, he hurried back downstairs to carry on with his kitchen chores.
Wow, the last time I had stayed in a place as rundown as this was on a high school trip to New Orleans. Nice and cosy indeed. The smell of bleach in the bathroom was enough to sear the hairs in my nostrils, yet it had somehow missed the skidmarks that the previous guest had left behind in the toilet bowl. Lying down on the sagging bed, springs poking me in the back whichever way I shifted, I reflected on the inspirational quotes adorning the posters on the walls. “Begin each day with a grateful heart,” a sun-dappled forest lane instructed me. “Your life is a reflection of your attitude,” according to a flock of sheep grazing in an alpine meadow. “If you don’t like your life, first change your attitude.”
I must have drifted off and slept for hours, for when I woke up, it was already dark. Not having eaten all day, there was a hole in my stomach as big as a jumbo-sized pizza with an extra helping of cheese on top, though any other food would do, as long as it was a lot.
Finding a restaurant proved harder than I thought: it was only eight o’ clock, but for some reason, everything was either closed or in the process of closing. A guy in front of a Mexican restaurant, who was ladeling thick gobs of guacamole from a bucket into a garbage bin, explained to me what was going on. As a further measure against the corona virus, the Dutch government had just ordered all bars and restaurants to close, effective immediately.
He pointed to a takeout sushi bar on the corner that had been allowed to stay open, where I ordered a couple of trays, along with a sixpack of Heineken.
Hurrying back to the hotel, I was eager to get upstairs and dig in, but the lady of the house was waiting for me at the desk. She had a huge favor to ask of me. With Easter just around the corner, would I be willing to play postman and deliver a small gift to Julia? For when I saw her at the family reunion in Martha’s Vineyard?
“Sure. No problem.”
She reached under the counter for a parcel wrapped in pink paper, with a lilac ribbon tied around it and a sprig of lavender taped across the top.
“It’s a package of caramel syrup wafers, or ‘strobe-waffles’ as we call them here in Holland,” she explained. “Along with some decorative paper napkins of Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. Do you think Julia would like them?”
“I’m sure she will,” I said with growing impatience.
But when I tried to take the parcel over from her, she tightened her grip.
“Or would she prefer Van Gogh’s irises? Because I could easily run upstairs and…”
“No, no. Definitely Vermeer,” I insisted, all but yanking the gift out of her hands.
“Thank you, Mr. Quinn. Thank you ever so much!”
“My pleasure!” I called down to her from halfway up the stairs.
With a growling stomach and trembling hands, I took the first tray of sushi out of the bag and separated the conjoined complimentary chopsticks with a little snap.
Some of the sushi were so sticky that they came undone when I tried to pull them loose from their plastic encasing. Smearing them as richly as I could with wasabi paste to overpower any misgivings I might have with regard to their freshness, I washed everything down with lots of beer and hoped for the best.
When I had had my fill, I spent the next couple of hours on my bed texting with friends back home. Corona permitting, I’d be in New York within the next couple of days, I kept telling everyone. Just as I was getting into a flirtatious back-and-forth with an ex-girlfriend now married to some Google nerd out in California, I was startled by an overhead thud so violent, that flakes of plaster came twirling down from the ceiling.
It was the voice of the porprietress, and from a previous visit to Holland, I happened to know that “gloat-sock” is Dutch for scrotum, but it’s used in much the same way we would call someone an asshole.
Poor Abou. I could hear him pleading for mercy. His wife now flew into a tantrum so fierce, that even I found myself wincing with every stressed syllable of whatever words I managed to pick out. NO re-SPECT… HARD-working WO-man… HEART-less BAS-tard… I’m gonna KILL… Had I been a neighbor, I would seriously consider calling the police, but as a foreigner just passing through, it was probably wiser to mind my own business.
Above me, a door slammed shut, followed by the shattering of glass. Angry words made way for howls and wails that no longer sounded human. Then it went all quiet, eerily, awfully quiet.
Holy moly. That was horrific.
Later that night, fretful, niggling little thoughts kept pulling me out of my sleep, which wasn’t at all like me. On rare occasions that I lie awake, it’s because I can’t stop congratulating myself for all the wonderful successes of the previous day. Was it frustration that my tour had been cancelled? Was I spooked by the “groaner voyeurs”, just like poor old Barry boy? Or was it my guilty conscience for not having saved Abou from domestic abuse?
It was only when I switched on the light to go to the bathroom that I figured out what had been nibbling at my peace of mind all this time. A mouse had climbed into the wastepaper basket and was feasting on my discarded sushi. So much for self-analysis. Startled by my approaching footsteps, he leapt into the air, easily clearing the rim of the wastepaper basket. Landing on the floor with a little plop, he went scurrying off under the bed.
Okay. This was war.
Turning on all the lights and using whatever objects I could find to limit his possible avenues of escape, I spent the better part of an hour luring him into the bathroom. There, at long last, I managed to corner him. Watching him shiver uncontrollably as he awaited his impending doom, I was reminded of a poem by Robert Burns that we read back in high school:
Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
Sadly for the mouse, I wasn’t a kind-hearted 18th-century poet but a nasty 21st-century novelist, the murd’ring pattle in my case being a toilet plunger. A shadow fell over the tim’rous beastie as I slowly lowered the plunger, ever so slowly so as not to trigger a last-minute escape, until…
Ha! Gotcha! With my fingers still firmly around the handle, I hesitated. Did I really have it in me to follow the motion through and squish the life out of the poor critter?
Of course not, dear readers! I may be a nasty novelist, but I’m not a psychopath. Leaving him inside his rubber stupa to meditate on what it means to be a mouse, I went back to bed, where the gratification of a successful hunt cradled me to sleep.
To put to rest any lingering worries that you might have: the very first thing I did the next morning was to check on our little friend. He was absolutely fine. Fresh as a daisy, in fact. Once he realized he was free, he went scurrying off as if none of this had ever happened.
Downstairs in the dining room, the only other guests were an elderly couple from New Zealand, celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary with a trip to Europe. Their next destination would have been Venice, but with all of this corona unpleasantness going on, everything was up in the air. Their prime minister Jacinda Ardern – and god bless that woman, for she was doing an absolutely tiptop job – was taking such rigorous measures, that they weren’t even sure whether they’d be allowed to fly home.
When Abou sailed into the room with two plates of scrambled eggs for the New Zealanders, I was happy to see he had made it through the night unscathed, although when he came closer to my table to ask me if I wanted tea or coffee, I did notice that his eyes were darting back and forth and that he kept glancing over his shoulder.
“And how about some eggs, maybe?” I suggested, nodding in the direction of my fellow guests.
He seemed annoyed that I had caught him out on his oversight and oddly reluctant to take my order. But once he had, he was back from the kitchen in no time at all. As he hurriedly set the plate down in front of me, the yolks jiggled obscenely on top of a translucent disc of nearly raw eggwhite. He can’t have given the eggs more than a quick sizzle before sliding them onto my plate.
“I’m sorry, Abou,” I said, making a flipping motion with my hand. “But I did say ‘over easy’.”
Sighing unhappily, he took my plate back to the kitchen.
“No Abou, don’t you dare!” came a voice from the hallway.
And then there she was, the Big Bad Lady, looming in the doorway.
“Out,” she said to me. “Get out.”
“What?” I said with an incredulous laugh. “For sending my eggs back to the kitchen?”
“No, Mr. Quinn, for being a filthy liar. I was on the phone with a friend last night, and she told me Julia Quinn is a pseudonym. That her real name is Julia Pottering. So you can’t be her cousin.”
Playing back last night’s scene, I considered the possibility that I was the gloat-sock she had been yelling at, not Abou.
“Now what if I were to tell you that my real name is Pottering too? Toby Pottering. Julia and I chose the same pseudonym.”
For one brief moment, she seemed to fall for it. But then her expression hardened.
“What is it with you, Mr. Quinn? Do you enjoy making fun of people? Does that make you feel superior to the rest of us? I’m giving you ten minutes. Ten minutes to get out of my hotel. ”
We live in topsy-turvy times, dear friends, in which world leaders are admired for telling lies, while storytellers like me are expected to stick to the truth. Wishing the baffled New Zealanders a safe trip home, I went upstairs to pack.
Ten minutes later, I was out on the street again, without even having had a proper cup of coffee. Now that all bars, cafés and restaurants were closed, I was just standing there wondering what to do next when an older man came out of a side alley carrying an aluminum step ladder.
“Rats,” he said, shaking his head.
At first I thought he was commiserating with me. But he really did mean “rats”, as in the rodent.
Apparently, with tourists leaving Amsterdam in droves, the trash cans in the nearby city park no longer overflowed with their half-eaten cheeseburgers, pizza slices and other goodies. Now the park’s hungry rat population was on the move too, fanning out into surrounding neighborhoods.
Finding oblong droppings on his balcony every morning, the man with the ladder, who lived just around the corner, had called in the help of the municipal pest control service. On their advice, to stop the rats from clambering up through the drain pipes Mission Impossible style, he had just sealed off the openings with gauze.
And what about me, he wanted to know, pointing to my suitcase. Was I leaving this virus-stricken, rat-infested town while I still could?
“I’m not sure, actually.”
I told him how I had just been kicked out of the Nice&Cosy Hotel (I wasn’t the first, he assured me), after being forced to move out of the Amstel Hotel (well, well, well) because my Dutch publisher had pulled the plug on the book tour I was supposed to have been doing here in Holland. Poor little me. Framed in this way, it seemed like quite a sob story.
“Wait a minute,” the man said, taking a step back and shaking his finger at me. “You’re Toby Quinn! I saw you at the Booga Ball the other day.”
“What. So you were there, too?”
“Me? Are you kidding? I saw you on television, I mean.”
When people find out you are a writer, one of two things can happen. Typically, they will be impressed, never having met a real writer before. They’ll maybe ask you what it’s like to be a writer, or where you get your inspiration from. Stuff like that. But this fellow from around the corner belonged to that much smaller but more tiresome category of people who will promptly start telling you about their own writing. They will have a full-length novel from their student days stashed away in a drawer somewhere (“I’ve been meaning to take another look at it”), or else they’ll have this great idea for a new one, if only they could get around to writing it.
This brazen character was even claiming that five of his novels had been published, not self-published, he hastened to add, but published published. Not that he was as well-known as me, obviously, but still, his books had been reviewed in national papers and better yet, a number of them had appeared in translation. So all in all, he hadn’t done too badly for himself.
“At least, that’s what I think on good days.”
Hm. This peculiar flip-flopping between pride and modesty seemed to suggest he was more than just another wannabe, but in fact the real deal.
“My name is Philibert, by the way. Philibert Schogt.”
“It’s quite a mouthful,” he chuckled. “Friends call me ‘Phil’. Now normally, we’d shake hands at this point, except that our prime minister has just instructed us not to. But can I invite you over for a coffee?”
The next thing I knew, I was following him around the block to his house.
That fateful encounter was weeks ago. Considering I’ve stayed with Full o’ Bull and his family ever since, it was a good thing I didn’t show up empty-handed, although to be fair we have my dear cousin Julia to thank for the scrumptious caramel wafers with which I made such a favorable first impression on my kind host and his delightful wife and daughter.
(coming up next – Chapter 3: The Amadeus Effect)