Best Sinterklaas ever
St. Nicolas's Rod
As told by Kate van de Casteele to Ron Dudderie.
This is a short story about the lives of Martin and Kate, the main characters of the 'Carstairs Trilogy'. It consists of:
1. Best Sister Ever
2. An Audience With Carstairs
3. And The Winner Is
This story is set six years before the events in Best Sister Ever.
I moved to the UK when I was ten, with my parents. That's never easy. I had to leave my class mates in Leiden (a university town in Holland) behind, which sucks. And suddenly I had to speak English all day, which is okay but can get a bit tiresome. It's not as if you can say: 'Okay guys, my jaw hurts. How about you all humour ME for a change?'
I didn't care for the food much, either. And the weather was hardly an improvement. But the worst thing, the absolute worst thing was leaving behind my big brother, Martin. I didn't sleep much, the first few months. Still, we found a way to make it work. And we found reasons to visit each other, even if they were lame. Hey come on, we're family. We don't need a reason, do we?
Actually, we sort of did, because by that time Martin was married to Monique. She put up with me and I tolerated her. That's as close as we ever got. But he absolutely adored her, because ... Well, because he didn't know any better, I suppose. My brother never had the best of luck with women, so as soon as one came along that gave him the time of day, he fell for her. And that was Monique. The woman looked like a Praying Mantis with a blonde wig, but hey ... she made him happy. You're happy when you THINK you are, right?
For 2007, when I was eighteen, my excuse to visit was the arrival of St. Nicolas in The Netherlands. I suppose I ought to explain that. You know how you guys have Santa Claus? Well, the Dutch have Sinterklaas, also know as St. Nicolaas, or Nicolas in English. He's a bishop, he lives in Madrid (yes, the one in Spain) and once a year he travels from Madrid to The Netherlands by boat. Sinterklaas is accompanied by a lot of assistants, called 'Zwarte Piet' or Black Pete. Oh, this is not a religious thing. Not in the slightest! Sinterklaas does not carry a bible, he never prays and he is not about religious conversion. He just happens to be a bishop. We all need to eat, right?
This is going to get a LOT weirder, trust me.
So why does a bishop from Spain come to Holland? Why, to give gifts to the children! His birthday is on December 6th, so on December 5th he leaves presents for everyone (I don't get that part either), accompanied by little poems that make fun of your misdeeds or your bad fortune in the past year. He distributes them together with his assistants, as he rides a white steed over the rooftops.
There so much more weirdness to come, you have no idea.
Sinterklaas is an elderly white man with a silvery beard and a moustache. He is dressed like a bishop, which is to say he wears a red mitre with a golden cross, a red velvet cloak (also with cross, on the back) and a white robe with a purple stola. He wears white gloves and carries a staff or a rod. It's gold-plated and curves inwards at the top, like a question mark that's doing a forward summersault. Technically it's called a crosier. One of his Petes carries a big book of kids names, which also lists if they have behaved in the past year or not.
You think the weirdness is done? Oh, you're so sweet and innocent. Strap in, bucko.
Black Pete is black. As in: his skin is black. Sometimes brown, but usually pitch black. That's because he travels up and down the chimneys, to spy on kids and deliver presents. Meanwhile, Sinterklaas and his horse (called Amerigo) are waiting on the rooftops.
As you'll understand, a white man with a black assistant is a bit of an issue. Less so in 2007, but these days it's a proper shit storm each year. The Netherlands is a fairly diverse country and our immigrants from Surinam and the Dutch Antilles really don't care for this tradition. It doesn't help that, apart from the blackface, Black Pete is dressed like a Moor (which he is, traditionally; we have TWO explanations for his black skin), in a Renaissance outfit. He wears a cap with a feather, gold earrings and ... here it comes ... has big, red lips. Yup. Well, that's what you get with traditions that start in 1850. Recently, the United Nations called us out on it and said we ought to end this racist tradition. The committee on that topic was headed by a black, American woman. Oh, how we laughed. Yes, let's have Americans lecturing us about racism. How about we lodge a complaint with the UN about Thanksgiving? That's about successful repression of the native Americans, isn't it? Or how about we all shut the hell up about traditions of other countries and let them deal with it?
There are many Black Pete's and, like the Smurfs, they don't have proper names. There is a 'Hoofdpiet', a Lead Pete if you will, a 'Pakjespiet' (a packages Pete), a Horse Pete, in short a plethora of Petes. There's also a Navigation Pete and they should fire his ass, because every year when Sinterklaas arrives (which is always the first Saturday after November 11th) the sodding boat gets lost. And if it's not the boat, it's the book or the rod or the horse or the mitre. I sometimes think black people are mainly angry because we're accusing them of bad inventory control.
There's more weirdness. Lots more.
The arrival of Sinterklaas in The Netherlands is televised. Each year a different city plays host. When Leiden, where Martin and I grew up, was 'it', he took me to see it. Hundreds of children and their parents lined up along the canals of Leiden to see the boat come in. My parents were at work, but Martin and I were inseparable then (I was seven), so even though it rained for most of the day, he picked me up and put me on his shoulders. I recall singing my tiny little lungs out, even though the boat was nowhere in sight.
When it finally came (the fuckers got lost again) and Sint Nicolaas rode his horse through the streets of Leiden, the actor who played him noticed me and came over for a chat. He was preceded by a marching band, playing one of dozens of special Sinterklaas songs. All the others kids were jealous of me, as you can imagine.
"Hello there! I know you! Remind me, what's your name again?"
"Ah yes, Kate! Now I see. So, what would you like to get this year?" he asked, as he shook my hand with his gloved fingers. I remember a big golden ring with a purple jewel.
"A girlfriend for my brother!" I yelled.
Look, I had no idea we were on TV, okay? I didn't notice the camera crew and even if I had, I fervently believed this was St. Nicolas and he could work miracles. My brother really, really deserved a girlfriend.
"Is that your brother?" asked The Sint. (We have so many names for him, get used to it.) Martin couldn't possibly hide, because I was on his shoulders at the time. We were both soaking wet and surrounded by throngs of people.
The guy looked him over and said, with a smile:
"Well, he looks like a very, very good brother. I'm sure it will sort itself out soon enough. I'll get you something nice, don't worry. Bye Kate! Bye, Kate's brother!"
And off he rode, followed by a parade of Black Pete's who were throwing candy into the crowd, doing acrobatic stunts and climbing into lamp posts.
"Gee, thanks, Kate..." mumbled Martin. Everyone was looking at us. Poor guy.
That must have been in 1994 or thereabouts. I was seven and Martin was twenty-three. It was before he met Monique, or I'd have said: 'A DIFFERENT girlfriend for my brother!'
They still play that clip on occasion. Whenever they do a montage of what it means to be Dutch, you'll get the coronation of Queen Beatrix, the celebrations after the liberation of Nijmegen by Canadian forces, the winner of the most recent Eleven Cities skating tour, our victory over Germany in the 1988 European Soccer Championship and me, accidentally humiliating the man I love more than anyone or anything on this planet. I was only seven, but I still feel bad about it. Over 500.000 people saw it live. Those who missed it caught it on the eight o'clock news. We also have a tradition on New Year's Eve where a comedian reviews the year on TV. Millions of people watch that show. Guess what event was mentioned several times in it? I still cringe, I really do.
Anyway, in 2007 I came to visit Martin in Holland. Obviously I no longer believed in St. Nicolas, which meant I was now part of the conspiracy. It's such a wonderful tradition, it really is. No adult will EVER spoil it for a child. You can ask any police officer, teacher, bus driver or politician and they will not, under any circumstances, admit that it's a lie. You just don't do that. The entire country puts on a play for the kids, and once they figure it out they're told all the secrets and they play along. Isn't that marvellous? Sure, Americans have something vaguely similar with Santa Claus, but that character is based on the Sinterklaas tradition and it sometimes seems that only the Disney company still believes in him.
I liked being a part of it all and I liked being around my brother, so on a Friday, it must have been the 16th of November, I took an easyJet flight to Amsterdam and was picked up by him from Schiphol Airport. I don't fly easyJet nowadays but I've always been petite, so at least I could fit in the sodding seat with some room to spare.
Martin was in his early thirties back then. He was beginning to lose his hair, but that's fine for men. His weight was okay, because Monique was a dietician and she kept him in check. Still, he's a big guy; broad shoulders, fantastic blue eyes that give the impression of being linked to a massive supercomputer, a dimpled chin and the best thing of all; big arms. Massive arms that can wrap around me and that make me feel safe and at home no matter where we are. And although he's no athlete, there is no doubt in my mind that he will literally tear apart anyone who so much as lays a finger on me. Someone once felt me up in a discotheque and I had to lie about it to Martin, because I am 100% sure he'd have found the guy and ripped his nuts off. I just slashed his tyres and keyed his car, so he got off easy.
I was restless from the moment I got on the plane in Luton and seeing him through the glass partition between the Schiphol baggage claim and the arrivals hall only made it worse. I love that guy, I really do. It's not healthy. I can't for the life of me imagine why it's not the case that every woman he meets just kneels in front of him and tries to open his pants. I would. Oh, fucking BITE ME. So I'm his sister. Big deal. It's not as if I'd actually do it. But a girl can dream, right?
Sinterklaas would arrive in the city of Kampen that year, but here's the thing: after the official arrival, which is on TV, he is also received in state EVERYWHERE ELSE. It's always a bit of a problem for cities and villages that aren't anywhere near a river or a canal, because he is supposed to show up by boat. The big cities, which includes Leiden, go all out on this. God knows who pays for it all, but in Leiden, which has a harbour, it's a massive event. They dress up some old steamer, they have dozens of Black Petes, there are thousands of people lined up along the canals and the Mayor receives Sint Nicolas on the steps of Leiden Town Hall. And then we all go home. Unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is not available to be harassed in shopping malls, but he will visit schools, hospitals and even some companies and retirement homes. As you can imagine, there's some money to be made renting out Sinterklaas-outfits. Many a student picks up some nice cash visiting rich families with a few mates, to hand out the presents in person. Obviously you can tell from the eyes that these guys aren't elderly men, but kids are generally stupid and we also have extensive lore about the 'hulp-Sinterklaas'. It's the same story you tell kids who understand that Santa can't be in every mall in the country at the same time, basically.
I always travel light, especially on easyJet, so I only had a carry-on with me. I made my way through the green channel, looking forward to wrapping myself around him. Wouldn't you know it; they picked me for a random check. It took a lot of patience to remain calm and collected with the mouth-breathing asshole who felt it would be a worthwhile pursuit in life to bother people who are keen to be reunited with their families. Bunch of bastards ... Obviously I understand that bags sometimes need to be checked. People smuggle ivory and stuff like that, which is bad (mmmkay?)
But why not be civil and a bit helpful? How is it my fault that your life went wrong to the point where you're little more than a miserable snitch with a uniform?
"So, why are you here?" the customs guy asked.
Presumably because you can't just pull black people out of the line; you need the odd white, blonde girl to make the not so random checks seem actually random. And then put her at station one, where everyone can see her. But I didn't say that. I said:
"That's not an answer."
"Yes, it is. I am Dutch. This is The Netherlands. That is why I am here."
He rummaged through my underpants. Shame they were clean.
"And what's this?"
He held up a bottle of almond shampoo. It said so right on the label.
"Christ if I know. It looks like a bottle of shampoo. Could be anything. Absolutely anything."
He opened it and sniffed. When he smelled almond shampoo, he looked disappointed.
"Okay, you can go," he sighed.
You know what pisses these bastards off? If you then take a looooooong time to pack your bag. They can't use that station. I neatly folded every damned piece of clothing in there.
"Could you hurry it up please?"
"Sure!" I said, with my biggest smile. I was hurting myself as much as I was annoying him, because Martin was out there. We had made eye contact, so he would be wondering why I wasn't coming through the sliding doors. But you need to teach these fuckers a lesson whenever you can. He'd be the first to agree.
"Miss, we need this..."
"Just a second ... OOPS!"
I managed to push my trolly off the desk. Now I had to fold everything again. Such a shame. I kept him waiting for about fifteen minutes, fumbling around with my frilliest knickers (which you can't fold) and chatting away like an idiot to other people who had their bags searched. I'm tiny and I'm cute. I can get away with shit like that.
Just before he was going to arrest me for deliberate obstruction, I closed my bag and made my way to the double doors. As soon as they opened and I saw my brother leaning against the silver railing, his arms folded and a smile appearing on his face as soon as he saw me, I knew I'd wasted my time trying to teach that heel a lesson. I could have had a quarter of an hour longer with him.
"Katey!" he said, opening those big arms, just as I'd hoped. I always make a point of climbing up him. He's big enough and I'm small enough for that to work. I stopped doing it when people began to film absolutely everything with smartphones, but in 2007 it was still okay. The first iPhone had just been launched, but hardly anyone in The Netherlands had one.
He laughed as I stamped him with kisses, moving his head to keep his lips away from mine.
"Yeah okay okay I get it, I get it! You're happy to see me," he said, putting his hands on my hips and lowering me gently to the ground. People around us smiled. They probably wouldn't have, had they known I wasn't his girlfriend.
"What took you so long?" he asked, picking up my trolley. God, he looked good. He wore a suit, presumably because he'd come from the office.
"Customs needed to prove they're not racists."
"Oh, right. Even though they totally are. It's so good to see you, sweetheart. How are mom and dad?"
"Great. Mom bought a double bed, for you and Monique. So nothing is to stop you both from going to Hastings for a visit."
I could tell from the expression on his face it wasn't going to happen. Our parents live in Hastings. Had they chosen to retire in Paris, Monique would probably have moved in with them.
"We'll see..." was all he said. No fucking chance, in other words.
Although we grew up in Leiden, we drove to his villa in Soest. (Which is pronounced 'soost'.) It's a small village just outside Utrecht and it has a reputation for being the sort of place where rich people like to buy property. I'm a city girl, but Soest is all about secluded villas and wide open spaces. There are sandy dunes, forests, meadows and grasslands. The army has a few firing ranges there, and the actual village has a few more hairdressers and jewellers than you might expect. Can't move for fucking Land Rovers and Jaguars.
My brother has done well. He graduated as an economist, but his passion is mathematics. He has his own business, which is growing year by year. I'd love to tell you what it is they do, but I have no idea. It's about key cards and secure transactions. Very exciting, yawn. Still, he's doing well out of it. So well, in fact, he managed to buy Monique a massive villa and a very nice sports car. She goes on expensive shopping trips with her friends and I don't think she even knows buses exist. Her nails and hair are always immaculate and she only wears the big brands and exclusive designs. Her favourite is the Dutch designer Marc Jacobs, who used to be the creative director for Louis Vuitton. But she also likes Fendi, Hermes, Versace, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Dior, Chanel ... She'll wear all of them, she's not fussy ... And she buys so much, she tends to get invited to the presentations for new collections in Paris and London.
You wouldn't think a woman like that would cook, but to her everlasting credit she does and it's a good thing too or my dear brother would have imploded into a black hole long ago. He eats when he is sad. And he's been sad a lot. Monique trained as a dietician and even though she's never actually worked as one a day in her life, she can cook a hell of a lot better than me or our mum and she's found a few recipes he likes. Men are easy; feed them and show them your tits once in a while and they'll think they're well taken care of. Especially Martin, because he doesn't know any better.
"Hello Catharine," said Monique, giving me the traditional three kisses. I always forget there's another one coming when I'm in Holland, so we nearly touched lips when her face zoomed past unexpectedly. I don't kiss Martin three times, you see; I kiss him until he makes me stop.
"It's lovely to have you here. Did you have a good trip?"
At a quick glance I appraised her outfit to be around three thousand pounds. The house was, as ever, spotless. Martin had driven his car, some sort of Mercedes, all the way up the gravel path to the front door.
"Hi Monique. Thank you for having me."
"Any time, dear. Martin? It's just you and Catherine for dinner tonight, I'm afraid. I have a vernissage. Marlene Dumas, the one who does the South African themes. She's very expressionistic and conceptual. Very erotic, too."
I suppose the explanation was for my benefit. I like a dirty picture as much as the next girl, but God save me from an evening with stick-thin women getting sloshed on Riesling and caviar crackers.
"Tell her I said hi," answered Martin, bringing in my bag and kissing his wife, who turned her cheek. "And don't buy anything. She's one of the richest artists in all of Holland. I prefer to give the new kids on the block a break, even if they don't serve wine and canapés."
"But she's very nice," whined Monique.
"Doesn't mean I should give her another five thousand for a piece that looks exactly like all the others. I'm serious. Don't buy."
"But that's so impolite!"
"My darling, it's not as if she is selling five euro trinkets. The cheapest pieces she has are a few hundred euros. If you feel obligated to buy one because you've had two glasses of white and a few pieces of toast, I'd rather you gave her one hundred bucks as soon as you walk in. That works out considerably cheaper."
"We'll see," answered Monique. If I were him, I would see that as grounds to lock her in the basement. You just KNOW she's going to buy something now, right?
Their house is nice. I can never work out if Monique has taste or if she hires people with taste, but Martin has an eye for nice antiques and they haven't filled the place up. You can't really go wrong with cream carpeting and antiques, can you?
Monique took me to the guest room at the far end of the house, which has a niece view of the garden. It's massive, with a pond in the middle.
"How long will we have you, Catherine?" asked Monique, as she took some fresh towels from a cabinet in the hallway and presented them to me. I knew there would be a big, white bathrobe hanging near the shower. They buy theirs. Isn't that just pure class?
"Well, we're off to the arrival of Sinterklaas tomorrow and the day after is Sunday. I'm booked on a Sunday night flight back, but it's a late one."
"So we will have dinner tomorrow night?"
"I ... You know, we haven't planned it. There's every chance we'll stay in Leiden and get something to eat there."
She gave a thin smile.
"If you do, keep an eye on him, would you? Not a starter AND dessert. And I know you'll both have fries, which is fine, but try to steer him away from the peanut sauce, okay?"
"I will. He looks good, Monique."
"I know, dear. And that involves a lot of hard work. Now, dinner for both of you is in the fridge. Top shelf. I know you like all things pizza so that's easy. Martin is having a vegetable lasagna. Thirty minutes at 180 degrees, same as your pizza. Don't steal too much off his plate, it's supposed to be 1250 calories for him and I don't want him snacking later tonight. He can have two speculaas cookies with his coffee, but no more. Okay?"
Speculaas is a particular spice mix. If Holland had an official smell, it would not be herring or cheese; it would be speculaas. We were big in the spice trade in the days of the East India company, so we had ample supplies of even the most exotic spices. Sadly, apart from inventing the speculaas blend we didn't do too much with them; we had to colonize Indonesia before you could finally eat well in The Netherlands.
Martin found us, bringing up my luggage.
"Hello ladies! Say, Monique, would you like to join Kate and me tomorrow? It will be nice to..."
"No dear, thank you. Bit too crowded for me. Well, Catherine knows about dinner so I'll be off then."
"May I have a kiss?"
He hadn't had a proper one yet. Not from her, at least. I saw her suppress a sigh.
"I did just put my lipstick on, dear."
I couldn't help myself.
"I should think your brand was kiss-proof, Monique!"
Martin clearly had no idea this technology existed.
"I don't know. I'm not sure prostitutes can afford MAC. Now, I'll be home around tennish. And I would appreciate it if there was no repeat of the pillow fight you two had last time."
As the joke goes: you fuck ONE goat...
"Have fun, sweetheart," said Martin. But before he finished even that brief sentence, Monique was headed down the hallway. A few seconds later the front door shut and her car, a baby blue Audi convertible, crunched its way to the gate over the gravel path.
"Shame. I was looking forward to having dinner together," said Martin, trying not to look at me as he fussed with my carry-on. I put my hand on his back. Frankly, I would have liked to give him the kiss his own wife had withheld him.
"We'll have fun together. I promise. Don't we always?"
I was relieved to see him smiling in the mirror on the credenza next to the wardrobe.
"Yes. Yes, we always do."
And so we did. I was actually a bit tired and I had a headache, but I took two aspirins, downed a glass of diet Coke for the caffeine and then, after dinner, I made him build a blanket fort with me, between the couch and the television. That took some doing, but I just dragged my bedding downstairs and made him get into his pyjamas. My brother wears actual pyjamas...
I was eighteen then, but the thing is: he doesn't always realise that I, too, get older. I'll always be his little sister and when it comes down to it, he'll do anything to make me happy. And the same goes for me, of course. And so we made a blanket fort.
"What shall we watch?" he asked, as we sat on the floor with the couch in our backs. Two high dining table chairs were on either side of us, as the support struts for our roof. The roof that would be my duvet in a few hours.
"Battlestar! What else!"
He sighed, but he laughed at the same time.
"They do make new stuff, you know."
"Oh, come on! One episode! It's tradition!"
He chuckled and began to work two remotes at once. A minute or so later an episode of Battlestar Galactica, the original series, began to stream from a computer somewhere in his house. We spoke the opening lines together, in perfect synchronicity.
'There are those who believe ... that life here began out there, far across the Universe ... with tribes of humans ... who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians ... or the Toltecs ... or the Mayans. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man ... who even now fight to survive. Somewhere, beyond the heavens!'
I loved that show as a kid. The gleaming Centurions with the scary red eyes were magnificent, obviously. But what I liked most of all, because I was actually afraid of him, was a creature called Lucifer. He was the assistant to Count Baltar, a traitor to the human race. Lucifer had a purple, plastic face with red eyes and a pointy head that ended in a transparent cone. You could see his brains working as he spoke, in a sinister British accent. Martin could mimic him perfectly and I made him do that all the time. Lucifer's catchphrase is: 'By your command, ' spoken in a way that implies that, whatever happens, Lucifer will not take the rap for it.
Actually, Martin could do tons of voices. It's wonderful being a kid and having the opportunity to have actual chats with all your favourite animated characters, provided they were male. I will admit I've had a few too many discussions over the phone with Courage the Cowardly Dog, Foofur, the Bear in the Big Blue House and SpongeBob Squarepants about the meaning of life as I understood it, at age six. They all seemed very insistent on me taking school seriously and tidying up my room. My brother is a good actor, but more than that: he'd make a terrific father. And he has been, to me. Let's be charitable to dad, who worked fifty hour weeks, and to mom, who worked at least as much but often at night, and say I had three parents. One really great one and two backups.
I could tell Monique's pending arrival made him a bit nervous, so at around ten we cleared up the fort and just got on the couch, under the blanket. Come on, we're siblings. We're allowed. And that is how she found us when she came home with a not very attractive watercolour that I was almost certain depicted a vagina with a lilly in it. I may be wrong, though. Might have been a rose.
"Only five hundred!" she said, triumphantly holding up the twenty by twenty piece. I'm using centimetres here, but that's about the size of an A4 sheet of paper.
"Well, if you like it that much..." sighed Martin. "Let me know where to put it up."
She laid it flat on the dining table and took off her scarf.
"I don't know! You have space at the office, put it up there! It doesn't really go with anything here. Now, shall I turn off the lights or are you two snuggle-bunnies watching another episode of Ren & Stimpy, or whatever it is? Oh and why are the dining chairs not where you found them? They're supposed to be in the indentation on the carpet. See to it, please. Good night."
We stayed up late, ignoring three episodes of Galactica because we were talking, arm-wrestling, trash talking and quietly making sandwiches in the kitchen. Around 1 a.m. we both turned in.
That night I had a dream where I dragged Monique to the pond and drowned her in it. I was sad to wake up and find I wasn't soaking wet. It was a bit early, but back then I could get by on very little sleep. I could also eat like a horse, so I snuck downstairs again to get myself an early breakfast. Martin sometimes calls me a hobbit, but not because of my height; it's because of the number of meals I fit in a day. I'm not sure why I was blessed with an efficient digestion and he wasn't, but there you are. Then again, I can skip meals for days when I'm busy and live off crackers and coffee. Martin gets dangerously cranky when his blood sugar dips below 'frosting'.
I was surprised to see him asleep on the couch, rather than in his own bed upstairs, but it was a great opportunity to wake him up by dropping myself on top of him and trying to smother him with a pillow immediately afterwards. I won't repeat what he said, but it was hilarious. He did get a good punch in, but I only had myself to blame for that.
"You ... You ... miserable..." he grunted, once he had shook me off. Martin doesn't wake up easily. When I was little I took advantage of that by climbing into his bed as soon as I woke up. Sometimes I'd have up to half an hour, snuggled up to him. Eventually he'd kick me out, or rather he'd make me get out from under the blankets. Then I'd watch the TV in his room, on volume setting one. I'd watch any old nonsense, really. I just liked being near him. By the time I was ten I'd seen enough breakfast TV to last me a lifetime.
"Why aren't you in bed?"
He tried to tell me, but his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth. I went to the kitchen to make him a cuppa. After a minute or so he joined me, dressed in a red and black satin housecoat. My brother is not one for pottering about in his underwear. I am, but I'm cute. It would be a shame to deprive the world of that sight.
"It's not even seven yet," he moaned, as he stumbled into the kitchen.
"Why were you on the couch?"
"Monique said I was a bit restless and I snored. I usually do, when I've had a beer."
"Yes, but ... Why on the couch?"
"Because you're in the guest room. Tea is in the top left cabinet."
"Yeah, but ... You should have kicked out Monique. She could have slept in my bed. I don't mind your snoring; in fact, I think it's relaxing."
"I would have done that, but I didn't have the number of a swat team to give me backup. Tell Monique to leave her own bed? You must be joking. There is a bath robe in your closet, by the way. Jesus, are those knickers transparent?"
"Yes. Well, a bit. Do you like them?"
I lifted my arms and turned around. My T-shirt raised up. Predictably, he turned his head like I was some sort of hideous old hag.
"You'll catch cold, Katey."
"You prude. I bet Monique doesn't galavant around in frilly knickers in the morning."
"I wouldn't know, I'm never here before nine. One of the perks of running your own company is that you can come in late. And steal as many paperclips as you like. I'll get that bath robe for you. No sugar in mine, I'll have two sweeteners."
Two hours later we were on our way to Leiden, which is about an hour by car from Soest. But then, this was Holland. Practically everything is an hour away, unless you get stuck in traffic. Although Sinterklaas would be arriving at 2 p.m. we needed to be there early because we were volunteers. Mrs. Bloothooft, who used to cook for us when we still lived in Leiden, was one of the people who helped organise the Sinterklaas event. It's usually the same committee that does the 'carnaval' parade, which is somewhere between March and April. Oh right, carnaval ... Let's not get into that. Anyway, these people knew exactly what to do, because they'd done it countless times before.
We drove to the training grounds of a local soccer club, Valken 68. Their grounds border a deep canal, where an old steamer which was usually called Caroline but that today went by the name of Pakjesboot 4 (Packages boat 4), was moored. It's not actually an old steamer any more because the steam engine had been replaced by a diesel. It still had a chimney stack, though, which could produce vast amounts of smoke by burning a special mix of birch wood and coal. Half a dozen cars were parked in front of the tiny sports canteen. I spotted Mrs. Bloothooft's old Fiat Panda right away.
We found her ironing the red cloak of Sinterklaas, surrounded by volunteers who were going through the script for today. She rushed up to hug us, told us both we were too thin (which Martin loves to hear, but I don't) and before long we were given coffee and instructions. I would be manning one of the make-up tables, as about thirty people needed to be given blackface and costumes for the role of Black Pete. Martin wasn't one of them; he knows a thing or two about boats, so he would be wearing blue overalls and helping out Ton, the Captain. Ton would have to be on deck most of the time, so Martin would stay down below to keep an eye on the engines and the fire for the smoke.
I would be a Black Pete, because even if you think the whole affair is racist, it's not sexist. Apart from the fact Sinterklaas is a white guy, of course. But Black Pete can have boobs, that's perfectly fine. They're hidden under those Renaissance clothes anyway.
It was nice to catch up with friends and old neighbours, but soon enough I had a queue of people who needed a costume, fake earrings, make-up and lipstick. Black Pete wears black gloves, because make-up on your hands is impractical. We had one guy from Surinam who was also a Pete. Not all of them moan and bitch about it, let's not forget that.
The most important character is, of course, Saint Nicolas himself. The part would be played by someone from the fire brigade. Quite a few Petes were firefighters. Sinterklaas and the fire department have always been linked; if the Good Saint visits a school, he is usually given a ride by a fire truck. And quite a few scenarios that start with him or one of the Petes getting stuck on a roof or on a ship with engine failure involve the fire department as well. The colours match, too. And they have communication equipment, which helps to coordinate these things.
Our Saint Nicolas would be played by Willem, a commander of the fire department. He was in his mid forties, broad-shouldered (nobody likes a weedy Sinterklaas), had a deep voice and he was about five foot eight. You don't want a Sinterklaas that's too tall, or he'll lose the bloody mitre each time he goes through a door. Obviously a dwarf is no good, either. In fact, it's not every guy who can play him, if only because you need near infinite patience with little kids who insist on telling you incomprehensible stories. Being able to ride a horse helps too, though there's generally a Horse Pete available, who guides the animal with a lead rope. Sinterklaas is busy waving at the crowd, after all. But you have to be fit enough to mount and dismount whilst wearing a dress, so generally people over sixty are out. Willem fit the bill. He was a shameless flirt, though. I was one of his first targets, presumably because everyone else with tits was either sixty or over or covered in black make-up. After a few tries he gave up trying to engage me in conversation, but a new target appeared soon enough ... Asshole. Who chats up a girl of eighteen? And anyway, he wasn't my type.
Even though the arrival in Leiden was a local affair, which would not be televised, we did have some media attention. Local TV stations aren't really a thing in Holland; TV takes vast resources to produce, compared to radio, so you only find that in the big cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague. And it sucks. But practically every city had its own local radio station and Leiden was no exception; Leiden Lokaal FM was out in force and one of their reporters showed up to pre-record an interview with Saint Nicolas. It was a woman in her mid thirties, accompanied by a slightly older, scruffy man. Mind you, these people were volunteers. Nobody in local broadcasting makes any money in The Netherlands. It is, however, a stepping stone on the way to a proper media career, and the woman who came to see us was obviously on that trajectory. She was very attractive. Not very tall, but with a delicate face lined by cute, dark curls.
As soon as she stepped in, I saw Martin's face sink. He had been quietly minding his own business, collecting coffee and tea mugs and washing them up. That's what he does. He sees what needs doing and it doesn't matter that he is the CEO of a growing business, flying off to far away countries to broker deals. Cups need washing, coffee needs brewing. But now he seemed annoyed. I had a better look at the reporter. She seemed familiar, somehow.
Martin stepped away from the bar, opened a rear door and quietly disappeared.
"Just a sec," I said to the young man I was slathering in black make-up, as I shot up and followed Martin. I found him leaning against the back wall of the canteen, his hands in his pockets and with one knee bent so his foot was against the wall.
"Oh, hi," he said, as I came through the same door.
"Martin, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. Just having a break."
"Oh come on! It's me you're talking to. Tell me."
"I'm just not that keen on someone who just came in. They'll be gone soon enough."
I imagined a different hairstyle on the female reporter. Now it made sense.
"Is that ... Esther?"
I found I still had some cotton swabs with black paint in my right hand, so I opened one of the trash cans and tossed them. Esther. One of the first to screw him over. Martin used to help tutor people in mathematics at business school. Specifically statistics, which was a difficult subject for many first and second year students. But, ever the businessman, he charged them for their time. However, if they passed, they got a partial refund. Now they had skin in the game and being tutored wasn't simply an excuse to say: 'Hey dad, I tried everything, but I just don't get it.'