Installment One - Installment Two - Installment Three - Installment Four - Installment Five - Installment Six - Installment Seven - Installment Eight - Installment Nine - Installment Ten - Installment Eleven - Installment Twelve - Installment Thirteen - Installment Fourteen - Installment Fifteen - Installment Sixteen - Installment Seventeen - Installment Eighteen - Installment Nineteen - Installment Twenty - Installment 21 - Installment 22 - Installment 23 - Installment 24 - Installment 25 - Installment 26 - Installment 27
THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission
There was indeed snow on the ground, though no more than a dusting. Still, as Tory and Max met up after clearing customs, she saw that many of the people in the terminal had hats and gloves, as well as heavy coats. “It looks like it may be cold out,” she speculated.
“It has been below freezing for several days,” he informed her, and stepping outside the sliding doors she felt the cold air as familiar and comforting. They were walking toward a dark gray sedan pulled up to the curb, guarded by a large, dour-looking man in a black wool overcoat and cap. He smiled when he spotted Max, and came toward them to take most of their luggage. “Henk kindly brought my car along for us,” Max explained, and Tory expressed appreciation. Then an exchange of Dutch, keys and currency took place, Henk sketched a salute, Tory waved, and they parted – Tory chivalrously ushered into the sublime comfort of her first Rolls Royce ride.
They didn’t have far to go, and accomplished the drive in the well-bred silence of the luxury car, making plans for the next day. Tory assured Max that her visit two months earlier had allowed plenty of time for museums and sight-seeing, and that she would be very glad to fit into his family’s routine during their short visit. They relapsed into a comfortable silence as they drew near the city, until Max broke it with an exclamation. “Tory, I entirely neglected to ask whether you might be comfortable staying at my home. My mother is there, as well as the staff, and we shall all do our utmost to ensure you feel welcome and at home.”
“I’d be delighted.” What more could she say than the truth?
Tory wasn’t certain she would want to drive through the narrow, often short and frequently-winding streets of downtown Amsterdam, but Max was clearly at home there. They were on one of the main thoroughfares – the Prinsengracht? – when Max turned down a side street, under an archway and into a quiet cul de sac with just six townhouses lining its street. Tory was particularly taken by a wide brick house with a pretty, curvy gable. She could have guessed that would be the one where Max would pull up and park.
Not much more than 24 hours later, they were back in the Rolls, headed for the airport. The visit had been short, but educational. This was how the other half lived, apparently: very nicely indeed. They had arrived to a warm greeting in a foyer that looked like something from a Vermeer oil painting. Both Max’s mother and her butler, Wim, had been on hand to welcome them, and Wim had magically disposed of their luggage. The guest room to which Mevrouw van den Nie escorted Tory was a charming mix of old wooden furniture and modern comforts, in shades of blue and cream. As tempting as the high mattress and puffy eiderdown looked, or even the damask-upholstered chaise by the window, she was not the least tired, and chose to head back down the ornately-carved staircase after a hot, scented bath and a change of clothes.
Max had also bathed and changed, and he and his mother were sitting in one of the front rooms entered from the foyer. Tory barely noticed the thick rugs, silk curtains and dark wooden mantelpiece before being distracted by two dogs. She crouched down and held out a friendly fist as a huge, grinning Bouvier and a small, sleek mutt approached her. Max introduced them as Juniper and Tooantoo, and Tory made much of them before taking a seat on Queen Anne-style sofa upholstered in pale green that toned with the deeper greens and occasional raspberry splashes in the high-ceilinged space. “I am so very comfortable,” she replied when her hostess asked whether she had found all she needed in her room. “Your home is lovely.”
“Max shall show you everything this evening,” Mevrouw van den Nie decided. “Now we have a nice lunch almost ready, and in the afternoon I shall spend a few hours with baby Julius. You are both welcome to join me in the visit. Joke will be with us, of course, but she appreciates a chance to step away now and then, and to have some conversation.” And so they chatted, at first in the drawing room, about baby care and child-rearing. The subject took them into the dining room, where they enjoyed a rich mushroom soup, followed by spinach crèpes and green salad, with a fresh lemon tart for dessert. Tory, enjoying every morsel, chuckled to think what the twins would say about a three-course lunch!
A short stroll through the city brought them to Joke’s home, where baby Julius was fast asleep. Max’s sister was quite like him: the same height, cheekbones and blonde/blue coloring, but with the prominent nose and heavy eyelids softened to beauty. She was delighted with her child, and even more so to be done with her first pregnancy. “We run to large families, we Van den Nies,” Joke said, “but my husband’s family must have its influence. He has only one brother. What about you, Tory?”
“Two sisters and a brother, spaced out a bit. I thought four was about perfect when I was girl. Of course, two of them are twins.”
“So your mother had that less trouble, only pregnant three times” Joke asserted.
“I think with twins you just trade one sort of trouble with another. One pregnancy, but two babies.”
There wasn’t much to do, even after Julius awoke and had a meal. They took turns cooing over him, and showing him their fingers and pressing his button of a nose, and Joke took the opportunity for a leisurely shower. She also fixed a light tea for them, with speculaas and slivers of buttery bread topped with sliced cherry tomatoes. The sun had set by the time they left, promising to return in the morning, and Amsterdam’s lights twinkled beautifully against the evening sky.
“Since we’re here,” Tory proposed, “I’d like to pick up some chocolates. Everyone loved the ones I brought home in October.”
“I shall have a very short nap before dinner,” Mevrouw van den Nie said. “Max will help you find a shop.”
And so, after seeing his mother home, they set off toward the shopping district. “Did you have any place particular in mind?” Max asked.
“There was a shop called Pompadour that won raves.”
“I know that one. It’s just along here, and I agree their wares are excellent.”
Half a dozen small boxes acquired, they headed back toward the house. “Aha,” Max exclaimed, turning her toward one of the narrower canals that brandished a colorful sign, “we have ice enough to skate now. I must believe you’ve skated.”
“Since I was in diapers, I think.”
“We’re sure to have skates to fit you. Shall we have a go after dinner?”
“Yes, please!” Her face lit with glee, and Max caught her hand and began to hurry along the cobbled sidewalk. As soon as they regained the house, Max vanished to confer with his mother, who willingly offered babysitting services so Joke and her husband would be able to join them on the ice.
“We must move quickly,” Mevrouw van den Nie explained. “We cannot be sure the ice will last.”
“Will you join us?” Tory asked.
“Maybe for a little while, after Joke has her turn. She has not had much exercise these last few days.”
Dinner was another three-course meal, this time beginning with an avocado salad, followed by sole Véronique, roasted new potatoes and lemony green beans, and concluding with fresh berries over chocolate sorbet. As delicious as everything was, Tory enjoyed the skating party even more. They had returned to Joke’s apartment to meet the other couple, and Joke had happily offered to loan Tory something shorter in place of her calf-length overcoat. Tory had been stunned when Joke threw open a closet to reveal at least a dozen overcoats in various lengths and colors. Her hostess chose a car-length coat in a dark, silver-grey color, and a luxurious blend of wool and something furry – mohair or angora, Tory guessed, burrowing into the wide collar.
At the canal, they laced on their skates, and glided out into the throng of happy Amsterdamers. Joke and her husband, Henrik, who clearly adored his wife and son, joined hands and sailed along, perfectly synchronized. Tory, suddenly self-conscious, clasped her hands behind her back and headed toward a french-fry vendor on the other side of the waterway.
“You are ready to try some of our patat, Tory?” Max asked, gliding beside her.
“Just sniffing for now. I had some when I was here in October, with curry mayonnaise. I liked the curry better than the potatoes, I’m afraid.”
His laugh seemed to warm the air around her, so she put her head down, remembered Joke’s closet and its myriad coats, and skated deeper into the crowd. When a little girl bumped against her, she was glad of the distraction. Max slid toward her as she waved away the apologies of the child’s parents, and they greeted him warmly, switching to English as he introduced her. They were Radmer, Elisabeth and Julianna, and the parents seemed almost as thrilled to see Max as their young daughter was. Julianna crowed with laughter as the doctor lifted her into the air, then set her down and twirled her around gently, skating out of the crush of people a bit.
Elisabeth turned to Tory, her plump cheeks glowing with cold and exercise, and pleasure. “He is such a wonderful man, your Doctor van den Nie,” she said, as Tory wondered whether to explain. Before she could frame the right words, Elisabeth continued, “Our Julianna was in terrible shape two years ago, with damage from a car out of control while she bicycled just by our house. The surgeon gave us no hope, but the dominee knew of the clinic, and sent us there, to Dr. van den Nie. We thought to sell our little house to pay for the very best for our baby, but he would take no fees, and he spent many, many hours in theater with her many broken, small bones. Now you see her, today – it is all thanks to him, and we can never express all our gratitude.”
Tory smiled, wondering if she had understood the meaning behind the other woman’s somewhat broken English. Would she dare ask Max to explain? He would be certain to downplay whatever he had done. She contented herself with enjoying the exercise for now. The five of them skated together, playing games with Julianna, trying figures and enjoying short races, with Joke and Henrik joining in after a bit. Tory elected to go back with those two, while Max waited at the canal for his mother. He seemed to understand her thinking; when she announced her decision, he murmured, “Of course. Tired ankles, no doubt, or some other excuse.”
“Another look at the baby,” she countered, and shoved her feet back into her boots. An offhand question or two to Joke confirmed what she had thought: Max worked at a clinic for low-income patients – in fact, Henrik explained, he funded it – and frequently provided his services free of charge to those in need. Tory felt the warmth of his generosity glow in her heart.
In the morning, over bread and cheese followed by toast spread with chocolate, Tory enjoyed seeing Mevrouw van den Nie’s eyes sparkle as she discussed her brief foray on the ice. She had danced with her son, she reported, “until my ankles began to ache just a bit.” Max’s chuckle inspired Tory to a quick glare.
After one more brief visit with baby Julius and his parents, she and Max headed to Schipol and the flight back to Boston. It was beginning to seem natural now that everything should go smoothly when they were traveling. Tory was tempted to ask whether he had ever experienced a delayed flight – and realized the tension of spending so much energy managing her impulses had frayed her usual good temper. Uneventful travel was not a reason for snarky commentary!
A bit of a nap and an in-flight romantic comedy restored much of her sunny outlook. The discovery that Jaap was waiting for them at the terminal with the rented Mercedes, so Max could handle the two-hour drive home, helped even more. She gladly claimed the rear seat, stretched out and fell asleep again, awaking only when something in her body sensed the quiet, comfortable sedan was slowing from highway speed to a pace in keeping with small-town streets. Soon enough, she was waving goodbye to the two Dutchmen, Jennet and Hal wriggling around her legs. Jaap’s presence had ensured that she and Max said goodbye pleasantly, without any sentimental reminiscences. On Monday morning, she resumed her usual routine.
Dr. Bachmann was busily interested in the events of her working vacation; Millie was avid for details. She had met Max shortly before he and Tory had left, and been pretty much bowled over by his courtesy, tailoring and size. When she learned Tory had visited his home, she wanted to know all about it, with a view to informing the renovations she had in hand at her 19th-century gingerbread cottage. “Well, it certainly wasn’t Victorian,” Tory told her. “Mostly older, I think – Queen Anne and Regency and Georgian things, but all blending with each other.” She had been relieved that their skating party kept them too busy for the house tour Mevrouw van den Nie had suggested. She probably would not have held up strolling those warm and beautiful halls and rooms in company with Max.
Tory shared her safari photos, and a box of Dutch chocolates. Colleagues and patients oohed over both – as well they might. She was surprised, as she always was, at how easily she resumed everyday life after the sharp disruption of her established schedule. Her brief, packed visits to Paris, Otjiwarongo and Amsterdam felt half-imagined. She relived her adventures dreamily at the kitchen table, writing thank you notes to all her kind hosts. On Wednesday, a thank-you note arrived from Max, containing an invitation as well. Would she accompany him to a Christmas gala at the Pops Orchestra in Boston on Saturday evening?
Well! Tory had seen the orchestra’s galas on television – they were fundraisers, repeated over many nights each December – and knew they were black tie events, with grown-up dancing. She had yearned to go since she had been a little girl, to wear a wide-skirted dress and swirl along the dance floor. She would be wiser to decline, but the next morning, picking a time when she could expect to get voice mail, she phoned Max’s number and accepted the invitation.
She followed up with a phone call to Jane, to invite herself for a visit on Friday and Saturday nights, explaining that she would need to go dress shopping on Saturday morning – or Friday night, if she arrived early enough, or both. She was not going to settle for less than the dress of her dreams.
When Max returned her call, her brain was so stuffed with fantasies of swaying romantically in candlelight that she could barely speak. She did manage to provide Jane’s address, and agree to be ready at 7:00 on Saturday evening, when he would collect her. Then she pushed herself into the sitting room, and collapsed into the overstuffed chair there. Hal and Jennet rallied around, and she soothed herself with patting them and expressing her tangled thoughts aloud.
“One night. Not even the whole night; just a few hours. Everything perfect: romantic music, an evening gown, he’ll probably wear black tie, there’ll be candles and flowers and Champagne and dancing. It’s the perfect culmination of a late-adolescence crush, with everything like a scene from a movie, even the man. For four or five hours I’ll pretend we’re in love, and living happily ever after, and he doesn’t need to know what I’m thinking, and it’ll be pure fun and fantasy and I’ll remember it for years if not forever, and I’ll make sure it’s a happy memory. I’ll never do anything like it again, and I don’t need to, and most people never attend a gala dinner dance in their lives, so I really can be perfectly happy about it. And real romance isn’t waiters and orchestras and truffles; it’s walking the dogs and sitting up with a sick kid and apologizing when you track in mud and not minding if he’s grumpy at supper. But one perfect night will be pure fun. That’s what it will be: pure fun.”
That decided, she phoned Emma and ensured the dogs and the house would have a caretaker for the weekend. Her battering ram of a sister, for once, blessedly asked no questions. She spent the evening brushing up on her foxtrot and jitterbug, which she had fortunately learned in the swing-dance club at college.