Chapter 1: Not Worth the Paper
Caution: This Humor Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Heterosexual, Fiction, Humor, Tear Jerker, .
Desc: Humor Sex Story: Chapter 1: Not Worth the Paper - Professor Doctor Pjotr van Voogt tot Burema is the smartest man he knows. Not smart enough to understand why his wife left him, but still pretty smart. His most recent scientific publication involves women, and how they use the fact that men can't live without them to their advantage. His theories are, to put it mildly, not well-received. Forced to go into hiding, Pjotr discovers there is more to him than a weedy, clumsy professor. Then he meets Angel, literally a truck stop whore...
“Hi, and welcome to NPR’s Planet Pecunia, I’m David Adamson, with me is Zoe Hunt. Zoe, today we’re going to talk about a book!”
“Oh dear indeed. It’s a new book and it’s making waves in the world of economics. But not just there!”
“Yes, it’s ‘The Female Currency’, by a Dutch researcher of the University of Amsterdam.”
“And A shad sah ah am nat a fan.”
“You’re not a fan. Noted. But before we get into it, let’s talk about what money is.”
“Akah. What as mana?”
“Well, the traditional definition of money is in four parts. In fact, there’s a rhyme about it and it goes like this: ‘Money’s a matter of functions four: a medium, a measure, a standard, a store.’”
“Ah lav that rham.”
“Yes, it’s funny. And these four functions were defined by an economist called William Stanley Jevons, as early as 1875.”
“Akah, lats ga dahn tha last. Sah ats a mada-am af axchange. What das that mahn?”
“Well, what that means is that money helps us trade goods and services without having to resort to bartering. So if I want, say, a car, I don’t have to bring in goods to the value of a new car. Which is hard if I work in an office and I don’t have a lot of stuff, like grain or milk. Instead, I bring a bag of money and I leave with a car. And everyone is happy.”
“Akah. And a masjar?”
“It’s a measure of value. Money helps us to convert totally different things to a common value. Say I am a farmer and I actually do have a ton of grain. And I want a car. How much grain is one car worth? Or how much milk? Or how many toilet rolls? That’s the problem with bartering: how much is something worth, expressed in something else? Money helps us with that: it converts the value of an hour of my labour into a basket of groceries. And that makes life easier, because it is easily divisible and one dollar bill is worth as much as any other dollar bill. You don’t get that with clumps of gold or diamonds.”
“Ahkay. Sa mana as a grat anvantjan.”
“It is a great invention, yes. The other two points are a bit more esoteric. It’s a standard of deferred payment. In other words, it helps you to borrow capital and it defines what you have to pay back. And, very importantly, it’s a store of value. It doesn’t spoil. If I have a lot of milk, I can sell it while it is fresh and I can keep the money and spend it long after the milk is gone. In other words, I can save money for later. But there is one thing that Jevons didn’t even define, because it’s so obvious. And that is that money can be used by anyone. We may not all have the same amount of money, but we all have access to it, to buy and sell our goods or our labour.”
“And naw wa cam ta tha bak.”
“Yes, now we come to the book. This Dutch economist, his name is ... I hope I’ll get this right ... Pjotr van Voogt tot Burema, and he tells us that there is another currency out there, to which half of the world’s population has no access. In other words, there is a way to get goods and services that cannot be used by over four billion people.”
“Ah hate thas gah.”
“You hate this guy? Well, you’re not alone. That’s why we didn’t send you to interview him, but I went to meet him in his office in Amsterdam.”
Cut to package.
“Hello David, welcome to The Netherlands.”
“Thank you for having me, Professor. Or should I say Doctor? Because you’re both, right?”
“Ah yes, I am. I hold a Masters in economics and I teach, so I’m a professor of economics but I am also a Doctor of Sociology, here at the university of Amsterdam. And please, call me Pjotr. Would you like some tea or coffee?”
“I sat down with Professor Doctor ... oh dear ... van Voogt tot Burema, who has a lovely corner office overlooking a busy street in the heart of downtown Amsterdam. He is a gentle man in his early forties and he looks every bit like you’d expect: a wild mop top of professorial hair, an outdated jacket complete with elbow patches, some chalk dust on his sleeves, thin glasses and an office that is packed to the rafters with books and research papers. An assistant brought us coffee and then we sat down to talk about this mystery currency. So, Professor, what is this Female Currency?”
“Well, I hope your American listeners won’t be shocked when I say it out loud, but it is sex.”
“We can say the word sex, Professor.”
“Good. Well, that is the primary currency. One in three women admit to having used sex to procure goods or services. That could be anything from a free drink to help moving house, although the classic example is a wedding ring.”
“Is that prostitution?”
“Not by most definitions. Mostly because in the case of prostitution the exact payment is known and handled beforehand and it involves people who are strangers to each other.”
“But don’t men do this?”
“Men exchange other things for goods and services. They might provide physical protection or social status, father and raise a child, do repairs or maintenance, things of that nature. But that’s far more varied and women can also offer these things. But men rarely if ever get to exchange sex. There are male prostitutes, but they are extremely rare and serve very specific women. Specifically, women who are so involved with their careers that they have no time to date or even to find a free encounter. Other than that, male prostitution occurs only in the gay community. Female affection is far more in demand. Conversely, any woman will tell you that sex can be arranged in a matter of minutes, provided the bar isn’t set too high. Most women are offered sex, often quite against their will, several times per day or week. Which, by the way, is unpleasant and in no way acceptable behaviour by men. I’d like to stress that point. Behave, gentlemen. Behave.”
“Now ... One in three women ... how accurate is that number?”
“We looked at the data from several surveys. This exact question was never asked, but it can be extrapolated from other data. How many women demand a wedding ring of a certain value, for instance. How many women actually work in prostitution. How many would sleep with George Clooney, based on self-reported numbers. If we weigh all these answers, we can get a pretty fair assessment. The number is global, by the way. The Arab world takes the average down considerably, as do many other deeply religious communities. In the Western world, the number is closer to seventy percent. Two out of every three, in other words.”
“So one in three women are prostitutes?”
“No! I don’t ... That is absolutely not what I’m saying. Prostitution is not the same as using the female currency. It’s just ... using what the good Lord gave you, so to speak.”
“I’d like to turn to page sixty of your paper, where you come up with a remarkable theory: mandatory prostitution.”
“That is absolutely NOT what that section is about!”
“What is it about then? Because you discuss how young women should work as prostitutes for a few months, to...”
“I said no such thing! I am referencing one female prostitute, who said in an interview I used as source material, that it would be a good idea IN HER EYES if every woman worked as a prostitute at least once in her life. Because that would reduce or even remove the stigma of prostitution. I thought she might be onto something, so I did a sort of ‘thought experiment’, if you will, to see what would happen if prostitution was more commonly accepted.”
“The idea you propose is that, much like military service, young women would work for a few months as prostitutes.”
“I don’t propose anything. Look, it’s just a way to explain how much women would benefit. It’s just ... You know, I hope your listeners are mature enough to understand that this is just a thought experiment. It’s as realistic as saying: ‘What if the entire world ate nothing but cheese?’ But suppose that it was commonplace for young women to work in a brothel for a few months. There would be a lot of benefits.”
“Well, for one thing there would be absolutely no debate on birth control. It would be crystal clear that birth control for women was of extreme importance. It would be free and ubiquitous. Birth control is one of the most important contributors to female health. For another, it would end the stigma of prostitution. It would improve sexual and mental health within the general population immensely if that taboo disappeared. Being a sex worker would get the same respect as being a nurse. And we all cheer and admire nurses. There would be no more illegal prostitution, simply because there would be a constant and large supply. There is no more money to be made forcing women into it if each year every girl who left school worked in a brothel for a while. Need I go on?”
“Uhmmm ... Yes ... please ... Can you?”
“Right. Women would also learn about sex, from having been with several men and talking amongst themselves. After all, it would teach them right away what their market value is and how to improve their ... service level. Young men would also find it easier to get some experience. That would decrease sexual violence against women by a lot. You don’t have to bother a young girl in a bar if you can go to an affordable brothel and find an identical one who will happily provide what you need.”
“Okay ... But not all women will want to do that that.”
“Listen, I served in the army when I was twenty-one. I didn’t want to, but they made me. The alternative was jail. National service, you see. My needs were deemed unimportant. I didn’t want to crawl through the mud and I certainly didn’t want to shower with other men, or sleep with seven others to a room. But everyone had to do it. Now I’m not saying all women should be prostitutes. They could be webcam girls, if that suited them better. They’d have to do that a bit longer, of course. But I wasn’t done listing the benefits. Women would start life with a nice bit of money. Some more than others, but generally women begin adult life with fewer financial means. A spell as a prostitute would certainly fix that, even if on average the prices went down a bit from all the extra supply in this market. It would make women less dependent on men. They might opt to educate themselves for longer. But at the same time, we know that highly educated women look down on men who are on a lower rung of the social ladder. Women want to marry up. We already have a problem with a surplus of highly educated single women, and on the other side a lot of single men who do not have a lot of education. Having experience as a prostitute might put their relative value into perspective. It would make women less fussy, is what I’m saying. They would be more inclined to find a partner who is on their level or maybe one rung lower. In the end, that would help the single men at the bottom of the ladder, too. And those men often cause considerably less problems when they have the love of a good woman, if I can put it like that.”
“Yes ... Uhm ... Wow ... So all women would have to...”
“NO WOMAN WOULD HAVE TO DO ANYTHING. It is a THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. By giving an extreme example, like ‘what if we banned all cars’ or something, we get extreme outcomes. But they help us to see subtler patterns. If we get rid of all the cars, we’ll destroy our economy. But we’d also see a massive health increase, because people would have to walk a lot more and the air would be cleaner. That doesn’t mean cars are poisonous, but it DOES tell us that taxing fuel will have SOME effect on health and the economy. That’s what the thought experiment illustrates: it’s quite obvious that the fact women use sex and affection as a currency works against them in many ways. It creates scarcity, and therefore it makes all of their lives more unsafe and unpleasant than it needs to be. It causes them to see each other as rivals, because they all want to attract the men who are willing to offer the most for their affection. It causes many of them to end up alone, just like someone who wants to sell a second hand TV for an unrealistic price will end up storing it in his attic until the thing is outdated and nobody wants it.”
“Sah at laks lahk ya rallah passed aff tha prafassar.”
“Yes, he was getting very annoyed with me. So I decided to move on.”
“Professor, when is your paper due out?”
“About two weeks from now. I don’t know when your show airs, but...”
“It’s a Podcast.”
“Oh, I see. Well, we will present the paper here at the university on the 14th of September. Or will have presented. Then the peer review process will start. Or will have started.”
“Any ideas for a new paper?”
“Oh, yes! I think high frequency trading might be an interesting topic to tackle. Lawmakers seem increasingly interested in banning it, so a neutral look at the phenomenon seems to be in order. Everything out there so far seems to have been commissioned by lawyers defending HFT firms and I can’t abide academic dishonesty.”
“I ... thank you for this interview, Professor.”
On the one hand, I wish I’d never written that paper. On the other hand, I shudder to think what might have happened if I had not. It was just that: a paper. Every now and then you’re supposed to come out with one. I’m a tenured university professor, I have two doctorates: it’s what they pay me for. Teach classes, put out papers.
Fortunately, it’s not that hard; you make your students do all the leg work. That is why so many papers come out each year, especially in my field. Most of them will be read by anywhere between thirty and a hundred people and it may get a mention in the wildly interesting publication ‘Oxford Economic Papers’. When it’s done, the university pays for ninety minutes in the hospitality room with wine and cheese, a few printed copies are sent off to gather dust in university libraries round the world and that, by and large, is the last thing you’ll ever hear of such riveting titles as ‘Demand Uncertainty and Unemployment’ or ‘Firm Restructuring and the Optimal Speed of Trade Reform’.
If you actually teach, you might boost your readership by making your paper (which you pad out to a book) part of the curriculum. Only assholes do this, in my experience. Essentially it’s an 80-Euro tax on your pupils. I did use some of my own books in my classes, but I mailed out the PDF to the class in advance, including a list of chapters they needn’t bother to print. My salary is quite enough and scholarships aren’t particularly generous these days.
When my paper was complete and had been peer-reviewed by a few people who were so busy they didn’t even type their full name as they signed off their emails, I expected it would all go exactly the same as before. Ninety minutes of shaking hands, signing the copies that would be sent off to the Library of Congress and the University of Amsterdam library and then I wouldn’t have to worry about producing another one for at least two years. Don’t worry, I’d still be up to my neck in mentorships, academic evaluations, panel work and teaching.
This year had been different. First of all, my wife had not been at my side during the presentation. We were still going through the divorce the last time I published and she had been kind enough to show up then, but by now everyone knew we had split up and we didn’t bother each other for things like this. Don’t kid yourself: there is no such thing as an amicable divorce. But we had reached the point where we sent each other kind words for birthdays and the holidays, inquired about former in-laws and occasionally met up to deal with something that popped up from the past; friends from long ago who hadn’t yet heard the news, a funeral where we were both expected to attend, paperwork that required a joint signature. But those matters were over and dealt with by now and the last time I had seen Danielle in the flesh was two years ago. And what lot of flesh there had been...
Okay, that’s not fair. She was stout, if anything. Technically obese, but that’s mainly because the BMI-scale is such a poorly designed measure. Actually, I’m selling Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet short here, because even he said it should never be used to indicate fatness in an individual. It was meant to provide a quick and dirty way to gauge the population as a whole. There’s also no reason to square a person’s height, as the formula does. And it ignores waist size, which I think you’ll agree should be part of any half decent measure for obesity. Still, Danielle wasn’t what you might call dainty. It’s just that it was about the only thing I could think of to complain about when I was in one of those situations where men are holding a beer and talk about women.
“So, Pjotr, why did you ditch your wife?”
She ditched me, but I preferred not to bring that up.
“Well, you know, it was getting to the point Stephen Hawking was working on a theory about the size of her ass.”
I know. I’m an asshole when I’ve had a few. I was just hurting, and that’s when you lash out. I really did love her. But I could understand why she stopped loving me, to be honest. I’m not the manliest man you’ll ever meet. Not effeminate, mind you. Just ... not your typical man. I can’t even hang a painting on a wall. I know nothing of cars. I despise soccer. Judo had managed to hold my attention for a few years in high school, but that was about it. I had one trophy: silver in a regional tournament. I was a black belt (first dan or shodan, the lowest one) but I’ll remind you it’s judo, not karate. I had to ask my wife to open troublesome jars. Oh, I’d been in the army alright. But after basic they stuck me in an office and had me review the effectiveness of several cost saving measures. Quite good fun for fifteen months, actually. Never felt manlier than when I boarded the train in my uniform each morning. It never got me laid, though. I hadn’t met Danielle by then, but when she saw pictures of me in uniform she asked if I was supposed to be a tree. I’d rather be mistaken for a tree than a forest, okay?
The straw that had broken the camel’s back had been this: a TV show. It was called Love Academy and it was hosted by a Flemish sexologist called Goedele Liekens. It’s the sort of show where you think: ‘How the HELL do they get people to sign up for this?’ Over the course of eight weeks, couples that have unsatisfactory marriages are put through a series of shameful exercises, to be performed in front of a camera. Men are asked to write poems (which I would have managed, probably) or to instruct an artist to draw a picture of their wives in their preferred sexy outfit. It gets worse in a hurry after that; around episode three the men are expected to give blowjobs to bananas to see ‘what that is like’. Excuse me, but I live in Amsterdam. Had I ever been remotely interested to know what that is like, I think I’d have been able to find someone willing to accommodate me.
Anyway, quite out of the blue Danielle had suggested we sign up for the next season of this horrible, degrading, low brow show. Me! I’m a teacher! I teach hundreds of students a week. I’m a respected scholar. I am a man of learning. I have two academic titles. How likely is it that I will willingly sign up to take part in a TV show where I am asked to caress my wife’s breasts on national television, or show her on a rubber dildo how exactly I’d like her tongue to flick against the tip of my dick?
Mind you, I wouldn’t even have signed up for it if I’d been a Norwegian lighthouse keeper, but this would have been professional suicide and my life at the university would have become a living hell. I’d find a fresh banana on my desk until the day I retired, I was sure of it. So I politely declined, or maybe not so politely, and that is when she told me she’d had enough.
As an economist AND a sociologist, let me say this: do not get divorced, if you can at all avoid it. It’s phenomenally destructive and life after gets a lot more expensive. The savings of a shared household alone are massive: if two singles each spend 1000 dollars (I’m keeping it simple for those amongst you who may not regularly read academic papers) on the cost of living, then those people living together would only spend 1300 dollars rather than 2000. In other words; there are massive cost benefits to sharing resources. And that’s just the financial side of it. Men, on average, need five years to get back to same level of happiness (and financial security) after a separation. Women, in many cases, NEVER recover from their divorce. Zsa Zsa Gabor notwithstanding, obviously. She once said: ‘I am an excellent housekeeper. Whenever I get divorced, I keep the house.’ Which is funny, but hardly true for most women.
Financially speaking, both of us had recovered somewhat quicker than the average. We had to sell our house at the height of the Dutch housing crisis, taking a loss of twenty percent, so that hurt a lot. We’d gone in big, with most of our savings, because we figured our relationship would be forever. Those savings weren’t all that impressive, because both of us had decided to do some travelling after we had graduated and neither of us is the backpacking, roach motel type. It’s actually how we met: on a bus tour through India and Nepal. (Here’s a tip: always visit Nepal last, because you will lose your faith in humanity in India. Nepal is like a breath of fresh air after India. Literally.)
Anyway, neither of us had all that much left to start over with but we both had decent and steady jobs so a new mortgage, although expensive, was feasible for both of us. Danielle was a biochemist for DSM. She actually made more than I did and got herself a house in Almere, which is a bland city built from scratch in the 60’s on land reclaimed from the IJsselmeer, the inland lake we created by damming off an inland sea. As you know God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. That’s something to be proud of. But you never hear us saying WHAT we created, because the result is the province of Flevoland and I honestly wouldn’t be found dead there. Actually, I would: of boredom. I’ll gladly live with a bit more noise and in a smaller (I call it: ‘cosier’) house if I can be in Amsterdam, where the shops never close and you don’t need a car to get around. My commute is fifteen minutes by bike, for Pete’s sake! How can you put a price on that?
Turns out you can, because if you live in downtown Amsterdam you’re either quite rich (at least on a global scale) or you’re in a rent-controlled house that the building corporation can’t wait to demolish and kick you out of. The actual price is about 70,000 euro per year, to maintain the same standard of living in Amsterdam as in the northern Hamlet of Drogteropslagen (population: 564. Average house price: 93,000 euro. Public amenities: 1 mail box, 3 street lamps, 1 public trash can (dog poop only). Nearest Post Office: 48 minutes by bus, of which 36 minutes are spent walking to the nearest bus stop.)
As an academic it had taken me a while to finally start earning some money, but tenure helps to get your mortgage approved. I absolutely didn’t want to leave Amsterdam, so I paid the premium for that. I know it’s not nearly as bad as London or Manhattan, but 350,000 euro doesn’t really buy you all that much. Even so, I managed to get a cosy two floor apartment of about 80 m2 in the Jordaan district and I was quite happy with that. I can’t really cook, so being able to get food from every continent (except Antarctica, but I’m expecting a ‘Tastes of McMurdo’ to set up shop any day now) is really a major benefit. You can also get tradesmen to come to your house really easily, which is good because I really don’t know how to work anything other than a computer keyboard and a can opener. And I struggle with that, so I had an automatic opener. Marvellous invention, very much underrated.
I did everything by bike, so I bought myself a sturdy one with a crate hanging off the handle bar and that really covered virtually all my transportation needs. If I had to travel out of town, I went by train. On very rare occasions I’d get a car from Greenwheels, a public car sharing service, but I switched to their ‘pay as you go’ scheme a year ago, because I found I only ever made two or three trips per year.
I don’t really like driving. I don’t know why, but as soon as I get behind the wheel, my mind wanders to the topic of sex. Isn’t that odd? If I drive more than ten kilometres I end up with a raging hard-on. That’s not nice. And completely useless, in my life. The only women remotely interested in sleeping with me were female students (maybe males too, who knows) with poor grades. Obviously that was out of the question. I had tenure. No way, no how was I giving that up. Besides, there are other ways to solve that problem in Amsterdam. I hadn’t actually availed myself of them, but it’s comforting to know it’s just a phone call or a bike ride away. (Who am I kidding; I’d never go to the red light district. Thousands of people have taken my classes and I don’t know their faces, do I? Amsterdam is a village, and that includes gossip.)
And so I was one of the millions of bikers that terrorise the city every day and yes, I have inadvertently run over my share of tourists. I’ve even done the classic ‘getting your front wheel stuck in the tram rails’ bit, and fractured my wrist. That was the only time I ever had any use for my judo training; I took the fall well enough and was initially uninjured, but then an Italian tourist on a rented moped drove over my arm.
So let’s get back to that paper. We had 150 copies printed and as all our University publications require an ISBN number and a copy with a hard cover it was technically a book, rather than a paper. It was my sixth publication as lead author at the time, so the novelty of appearing in print had worn off. I was just glad I’d have at least a year before I had to think of another subject for a publication. Meanwhile I would claim to be ‘following the literature’ and ‘doing follow-ups’. Look, I’m not lazy, okay? I just wanted to enjoy my steady job and I harboured no illusions about being the next great mind that would advance The Dismal Science. I taught, and I did it rather well. That was enough, wasn’t it?
The press office had sent out the routine press release a few weeks before. The reporter from Planet Pecunia requested an interview but I was glad to see him leave and who listens to Podcasts anyway? To my absolute astonishment an actual journalist showed up, just when I was signing the first copy. He was with ‘De Telegraaf’, which is not exactly a quality newspaper and certainly not one you’d expect to show any interest in academic matters. ‘Police Tickets Guide Dog’ and ‘Immigrants May Cause Diabetes, Says Study’, that’s more their sort of thing. The chap who spoke to me was perfectly pleasant, though. Had he actually been wearing a dirty Mac, I might have paid more attention.
“Congratulations on your book, Professor!”
“Thank you very much, Mister ... ah...”
“Danny de Vries! I’m with De Telegraaf. Signing copies for your fans, are you?”
“No, not really. It’s tradition to sign two copies, you see. One for the university, one for the Library of Congress. In America.”
I’ll admit it was pure pedantry of me to add that. He did indeed seem to think that was something special, but the fact of the matter is that they keep a copy of every book ever published, as long as it has an ISBN number. Signing the copy is actually sort of a joke, because nobody will ever retrieve it. The book isn’t even on a shelf. It’s in storage, somewhere.
“Oh, really? Is it for the president?”
I was sure he meant the American president, because The Netherlands has a Prime Minister.
“Well, it becomes his property, in a way. You see, they...”
“And what happens to the rest of them?” he said, pointing at the stack.
“They have been or will be requested by economics libraries around the world, maybe some think tanks.”
Again, nothing special. I could publish the Big Book of Farts and they’d order a copy, simply because my publications are listed in the right journals. Don’t think I’ve never considered it, but it would be my last publication. Or maybe second-to-last because it takes a while for these things to get found out. I would call it ‘On public methane emissions and their signatures in a free market atmosphere’.
“Impressive! So what’s it about then?”
Why was he here, if he didn’t know? But then again, asking the obvious is what journalists do. My students kept a polite distance, amused by the inane questions of this man.
“It’s a study about the resources that women have at their disposal in economic life. We all know that women don’t get paid as much as men, for various reasons. The...”
“Such as not daring to ask for more money when it’s time to negotiate a raise. Or feeling that they aren’t contributing as much as their male colleagues, because men tend to exaggerate their importance. But the...”
“I see. So what IS ‘the female currency’ then?”
“Ah. Well, you see, women do have some advantages over men. They can leverage the fact they are women, the keepers of love and physical affection, and turn that into an economic resource. Women create artificial scarcity, you see, by not...”
“The keepers of love and physical affection?”
“Yes. Women, young and attractive women in particular, can do something that only central banks can; they can create wealth. By providing men with something they want, be it just some attention or actual sex, they can...”
“Oh, like hookers!”
“What? No! Well, yes, I mean, sure, prostitution is somewhat like that because there is virtually no demand for sex from women towards men. There is some, but there is such an abundant supply of free sex on offer from men that it has no value. The average man would starve as a sex worker. The average woman does just fine. But women have learned to limit the supply of sex they provide, in order to...”
“Oh, I see! So they sleep with the boss and they get a pay rise? That’s what your book is about, is it?”
I could see the panic setting in around me. My students vehemently shook their heads at me, as if I wasn’t aware of the contents of my own book. The faculty staff, which nobody would ever mistake for an impromptu gathering of bikers and body builders, backed away from this stupidity.
“No. That’s entirely wrong. Here, I’d like you to have this copy.”
I took a book from the pile and handed it to him. The Economics department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal would just have to wait for the second edition. Which would never come. I’d simply mail Dr. Zweli Mkhize the PDF.
“Read this and you’ll understand what it’s about.”
“Oh, thanks! Before I go: will you sign it?”
“Ah ... ah ... yes, sure, of course.”
I opened the book and took a pen from my breast pocket.
“Professor?” he asked. I looked up and was caught by the flash of a camera phone. He looked at the screen.
“Ah, lovely. You can see the cover. Now, the autograph?”
For God’s sake, who will rid me of this troublesome fool? I signed the cover sheet and handed him the book.
“There you are. Once you’ve read it, I shall be happy to answer any questions you might have.”
I’d have agreed to taking his questions in the back of a dog sled at this point, just to get him to leave.
“Yes, absolutely. Any questions ... come to me.”
“Wonderful! Well, thanks very much!”
And away he was.
The next day there was an interview with me on page six of the biggest newspaper of The Netherlands, and on their website. I’ll translate it for you, even though I can’t actually stand to look at the clipping without seeing my life about to explode in my face, like an idiot holding an avalanche rocket in his teeth whilst lighting a cigarette.
MEN USE MONEY, BUT WOMEN USE SEX!
A new study into the way women pay their way in life by using their bodies was published by Professor Doctor Pjotr van Voogt tot Burema of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). In an exclusive interview with De Telegraaf, he tells us all about the way women exploit men by preying on their weakness; a desire for sex, love and affection.
“Traditionally, women don’t make as much as men,” explains the Professor, who teaches hundreds of students his theories each week. “That is because they don’t have proper negotiating skills and don’t contribute as much in the work place. However, they compensate for this by using their feminine wiles and their bodies.” It’s all laid out in detail in the book, which is expected to be read all over the world. In chapter 7 of the book, it is explained how between the ages of 18 and 40 the average woman will have had enough sex to earn herself a brand new Mercedes! And did you know sexual crimes against women would disappear overnight if all young women were sent to state-run brothels?
Prof. Dr. van Voogt tot Burema will be presenting his findings to the President of the United States and passing them on to several so called ‘think tanks’, as he believes his findings will have a profound effect on the way we look at the income of women. In fact, he signed a copy for president Obama in the presence of our reporter. (Pictured.) To win your own signed copy of ‘The Female Currency’ and an exclusive face to face with the author, enter our competition by answering this question: ‘Do you think it’s fair women can extort men with sex?’
I don’t take De Telegraaf. I read a quality newspaper. And so I was blissfully ignorant of the shit-storm that was brewing as I biked to work the next day. I stopped for a chai latte on the way and handed in a slip with my weekly menu selection at the vegetarian delicatessen shop on the Rozengracht. I can’t really cook, but when I go home I always stop there to pick up a styrofoam box with a delicious meal I can pop into the microwave. Once a month I drop off those boxes for recycling and pay in advance for the next month. It’s amazing food and they are right next to the yoga centre, where I tend to go a few times a month to just let it all slide off me. In fact, I was planning to go tonight. Had I known who was waiting for me to show up, I’d have booked a double session with an aromatherapy treat for afters.
“What the HELL did you do?!” yelled the Faculty Coordinator. I’m sorry, but absolutely nothing in the Dutch education system has an equivalency in the English or American system. In fact, I’m always struggling to translate my own title. We’re trying to standardise it, but it’s slow going. Think of this man as the Dean and we’ll make it work, somehow.
Three people were in my office, which I shared with a colleague who had been on sick leave since 2012. There was someone from the board of directors (again, that’s not what they’re called), a lady from the press office and the FC.
“Oh. Hello. Good morning.”
I wondered if someone had died. My roommate, perhaps? Would I be allowed to keep this office to myself? Or would I get a new one?
“No, it isn’t! Have you read the paper!?” he said, holding up De Telegraaf. His fingers were smudged. They like their fonts big at De Telegraaf.
“Not that one, no. I generally read the NRC on my iPad.”
“Did you give an unauthorised interview?” bristled PR.
“What? No! I gave someone a book, to PREPARE for an interview! And anyway, you sent out a press release, didn’t you? Well, guess what: someone showed up!”
It became a shouting match, until I actually got around to reading the article. Then I stopped shouting in a hurry, I don’t mind telling you. Though not for long:
“That’s ... There isn’t a word in there that’s factually correct!”
“Apart from your name. And your titles. And where you work,” said Board of Directors-guy. “And that’s quite a big picture you posed for, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t pose for it! He snuck up on me! Look, this is ... I didn’t say any of this and he clearly hasn’t read the book. But it’s De Telegraaf, for Pete’s sake. Tomorrow a kitten will meow the word ‘please’ or Jesus will appear on someone’s toast and they will have forgotten all about it.”
“WHAT IS IN CHAPTER SEVEN?” bellowed the FC.
“You signed off on the book!”
“I sign a lot of things! What’s that chapter? Women fucking for cars, what’s that about?”
“It doesn’t say that! It’s a comparative table that looks at the average hourly rate for prostitutes in twenty countries and cross-indexes that to the income disparity for five typically female occupations. From that, you can extrapolate how many hours it takes the average woman in those countries to earn, say, a car. And then you know the difference in value between the...”
“Oh my God! What did I sign?! You’re mad! It’s your divorce, isn’t it? You’ve been a grumpy old sod ever since she left you and now you’ve fucking gone and quantified ... Oh Jesus Christ! We’ve PRINTED this! This has our name all over it!”
The FC sat down in my chair and rubbed his left arm vigourously.
“I have a class to teach in ten minutes, so if I can just get to my drawer, I can...”
“Do we allow that?” asked the FC. “Can he still teach?”
“Not unsupervised,” answered BoD.
“I’ll come with him,” added PR. I had never seen that lady in my life! I wouldn’t hear of it, but I needed to get going and I couldn’t very well stop her from following me to a building across the street, where our classrooms were. I could, however, pretend to get into the lift and then pop out just before the doors closed. In our building, the doors only stop if they hit something. I waved at her and took the stairs. Then I took a side exit and that seemed to have done the trick.
The University of Amsterdam doesn’t have a central campus; it has grown over time and takes up over a dozen buildings within Amsterdam. They try to keep academic disciplines grouped together, and the Economics department is mainly clustered around the Sarphatistraat, which you may know from the tram stop if you’ve ever been to the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) or Artis, which is one of the oldest zoos of mainland Europe. At other universities lecturers get their own parking space, with their name on a little sign. We laugh at that in Amsterdam; I have a reserved parking space for my bike in every building. Most of the faculty members live in Amsterdam and those that don’t by and large use public transport to get around. Today I was lucky; I just needed to cross the street.
My class that day was the third lesson of an introductory class in economics we provide for all students of the UvA. Even the layabouts from such useless courses as ‘Scandinavian languages and literature’ had to take it, which is a bit like teaching a dog to speak Aramaic: impressive it if pulls it off, but it’s not going to get much use out of it. Fortunately, they could drop out after one year, but anyone who was planning to do something serious with their lives had classes with us in their first two years. Two of my colleagues taught this one as well. It’s a bit silly to have a distinguished academic such as myself teaching the basics of supply and demand to a bunch of twenty-somethings, but it’s part of the job and I try to make it relevant for everybody who attends. Our pre-meds, too, need to understand how markets can signal demand better than a bunch of whiny sick people going ‘Yes, I will have any treatment I can get if it’s cheap and doesn’t hurt too much!’. And engineers all want to be part of the next big start-up, so they’re much more interested in my subject than they used to be. Some come in expecting detailed instructions on how to apply to be on the stock market. How about you invent something first, slick? What’s that? You’ve designed a version of Facebook for taxis that take you to exclusive B&Bs? No, I’m not helping you with your IPO.
First year classes are massive, because we haven’t thinned the herd yet. I was expecting to see around three hundred people; it’s a class I teach in a room that is so big I wear a headset and there are two microphones set up in the aisles, so I can hear what people are asking. It’s not for everyone, teaching those large groups. I have colleagues who absolutely refuse to do it, but I suppose I’m a bit of a show-off.
Today looked to be a busy day. People were filing out of the blue and white municipal trams, hundreds of bikes were parked outside the building and the security guy was outside, keeping an eye on things. He was chatting with a man in a big, square van.
“Sorry mate, you can’t park here. It’s not me, it’s the police.”
“We have permits to park wherever we like,” argued the driver.
“Well, that’s fine with me. But don’t complain if they tow your van.”
“We’ll be fine, trust me. Is it always this busy?”
“Start of the year. But it’s a madhouse today.”
We don’t have metal detectors and nonsense like that (yet), but we do have electronic gates. They’re supposed to keep out the homeless more than anything. Usually entry is about as fast as the Paris Underground, but today there was a queue for the tourniquets. People were loitering in the corridor, so there was no room for those who wanted to enter. The security guy spotted me and waved me into his small office, so I could skip the line.
“Morning!” he said, with a professionally cheerful smile. He didn’t add my title, because this is Holland and we really can’t be bothered with that. He probably didn’t know it, either.
“Good morning. Busy day today,” I said, squeezing past his desk.
“Yeah, I think they want to be on the telly. They’re filming today.”
“Oh, right. What for?”
“I dunno. There’s usually camera crews at the start of the year. For next year’s publicity. Can’t put kids on the website with clothes that are two years out of date, can you? Or holding last year’s iPhone!”
I laughed and entered the service corridor that circumvented the main lobby.
“You’ve been around the block, I can tell. Thanks for the shortcut.”
I made my way to the small prep room at the back of auditorium four, where I donned my headset and booted up the laptop that would display my slides. Then I checked my watch and entered through a door next to the stage, so I could switch on the projector on the ceiling and fix the settings of the supposedly fool-proof audiovisual system that somehow is broken half the time. You’d be amazed how completely inept my fellow professors are when it comes to such a simple matter as ‘selecting the right audiovisual source’. My goodness, how many stickers can you fit on one remote? I am really not very technically minded, but at least I know how to work a television.
There was an excited murmur as I stepped onto the stage. That was new. Usually there is an air of relief that the teacher actually showed up, because for most students getting here is a trip across town and people don’t like to make it in vain. Now a rowdy group of young men were applauding, and others were shushing them. I made my final adjustments and dimmed the lights somewhat. I have gotten used to the fact that I then face a sea of Apple logos. It didn’t used to be like that in my day.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. What beautiful computers you all have. Now, who am I to object to students taking notes, but I would like to point out that there are annotated versions of the slides I am about to show you on the intranet and I would be amazed if your notes were better than those. So if you want to save your battery, why not put the machine on standby and that way you won’t be tempted to check the news or update Facebook.”
Normally about five people actually close the lid and the rest of them don’t even look up. I would dearly like to ban these bloody things, but then again I have already graduated (twice) and they haven’t, so it’s their lookout. Today was a good day: dozens of laptops were closed.
“Right. Thank you. Today we are going to continue our introduction to Macroeconomics. A brief refresher: Macro is large, which means we are going to be ... Yes?”
A young man had moved to the microphone on the right hand aisle and pressed a button. That makes a red light switch on, so I can see there’s somebody there with a question. (The fact there is someone standing there is something of a clue, but quite a few of my colleagues are fairly myopic and would probably not see anyone out there. Either that or they can only bring themselves to look at their notes.)
“Are you going to talk about your book?”
There were cheers. It began to dawn on me why it was so busy here. All this from a small article on page six? I assumed these kids got all their news from the free papers they give out at the train station. De Telegraaf isn’t actually free, though it might as well be since two thirds of it were ads. Most of these kids had not bought a newspaper in their lives, and never would.
“Oh, come on!”
A girl stood up and stood behind the other mic stand.
“Are you going to explain why we are all whores, then?” she asked in a disparaging tone. I turned on the auditorium lights again, because I wanted to see what was going on. It seemed as if every young man in the room was laughing and every young woman was either looking at me in disgust or hissing.
“What?! Look, that piece in De Telegraaf was a load of nonsense. I know you’re all young, but you’re supposed to have learned that it is not a quality newspaper.”
“So what DOES your book say, then?”
You’ll note that nobody added ‘Professor’ when they addressed me. There are a few reasons for that. For one thing, we’re quite an egalitarian society. Very few people use their titles. Mine are on my door and my business card. You can find them in the syllabus, but they’re not even mentioned on the class rosters. Generally, these kids address me in the formal form (English doesn’t have that, but in Dutch, as in French, there is a formal and an informal ‘you’) and if they REALLY want to make a good impression they will call me ‘Meneer’ (Mister). When we work in small groups, I’m fine with being called Pjotr, more so because my last name is a bit long. Too bad Pjotr is such a stupid name, but I was born in the seventies. I’m used to it now, but it does tell you something about my parents, namely that they were idealistic twats. Who gives a kid a Russian name?
“We are not here to discuss my paper. It’s a paper, not a book. And if you make it to year four, we may have a look at the underlying theories. But for now...”
That’s as far as I got. I was booed! And by quite a few people, I might add.
“Well, I can’t wait that long!” said the girl, emboldened by the people around her. “You have written a book that says all women are whores and we deserve an explanation!”
“Where does it say that? Have you even READ it?”
“PROVE IT! PROVE IT!” shouted the boys, as if they were taking my side. To my surprise, the girl actually produced a copy of my book and turned it to a page she had earmarked with a yellow post-it note. (It’s nice to see young people respecting printed books, isn’t it?) Then she read a section out loud:
“Chapter nine. Comparative incomes of sex workers and office workers. Introduction. The most direct way for women to earn money through providing men with sex is prostitution. As this occupation is dangerous and frowned upon, relatively few women choose this direct path. For those that feel they would rather keep their dignity or reputation intact, it would be interesting to know the cost of this dignity. Table twelve A compares the hourly income of prostitutes in seventeen nations and that of junior office workers.”
She slammed the book shut and had to wait a few seconds to ride out a virtual hurricane of shouting and screaming from one side of the room and laughter and applause from the other side. I found myself pacing up and down the stage, trying to remember exactly what that table meant to convey.
“Now tell me how that does NOT say: ‘Most women aren’t whores because they’re a bit fussy!’ demanded the girl. There was laughter from the boys.
“Look! Miss ... What is your name?”
“Ellen. Ellen, this book does not offer value judgements. I am not saying it’s good or bad to be a prostitute, or to be an office worker. Obviously, we need them both. But...”
“WHAT? WHY DO WE NEED WHORES?”
“Because there is a shortage of sex in our society, caused by women. There is an artificial scarcity that is hurting men. And that means there is a market. We need to know about this market, so we can legislate...”
“Are you saying there aren’t ENOUGH whores?”
Now people were laughing.
“Well, yes. In an ideal world there are exactly as many whores ... I’m sorry, prostitutes, as the demand can sustain. But there aren’t, because many women prefer not to work in that trade. It’s dangerous, for one thing. But why is it dangerous? Because in many countries it is illegal. It isn’t in our country, but that means it is taxed. In countries where it’s not legal, the government can’t tax it. So that’s interesting, because now we can try to work out what the legal status and the tax status mean for the average hourly rate. And you’ll find that in poor or socially backward countries, such as India or The United States, prostitutes make considerably more money than they would have made in an office job, if you assume that they spend about forty hours being available to customers. Not having sex all the time, obviously. But office workers are generally only productive for about three hours a day as well. Now in our country, being promoted ... I’m sorry, you must all be quiet ... being promoted ... to even a mid-level management ... Please! I must insist!”
Even though I was using my headset and my voice boomed from two speakers on both sides of the stage, I could barely make myself understood. The girls tried to get a chant going but couldn’t decide on what it should be. The boys were shouting and laughing. Some of them, mostly the ones with dreadlocks and weird facial hair, were on the side of the girls and shook their fists at me. I waited for a minute, but as soon as I went on, speaking was made impossible by a renewed chorus of complaints and abuse. And then I happened to look into the light booth in the middle of the back rows; whenever we did more complex presentations, we’d get a technician from the audiovisual department. He’d sit there and work the lights and the wireless microphones. Now I saw that there was a camera on a tripod there, filming me through the glass!
That was it for me. I took off the headset. For some reason I had the presence of mind to turn off the LCD projector on the ceiling (those lamps are quite expensive I’m told) and then I moved towards the side door. By now the ladies had agreed on a slogan:
“FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!”
Well ... If they’d actually done that when I was a student, perhaps I wouldn’t have had to write this paper, now would I?
I locked the stage door behind me, as I was instructed to do by a sheet of A4 paper stuck to it on the inside. ‘Lock the door at all times to prevent the equipment from being stolen, ‘ it said, in Comic Sans MS. I find it hard to take any instruction seriously if it is given in that typeface, but today I needed very little encouragement to turn the knob and lock the door. As I turned around, I saw the PR lady leaning against the tiny desk.
“That’s why you needed supervision, professor van Voogt tot Burema.”
I latched onto her. Proverbially, I might add.
“Look, I’m sure most of those people aren’t even in this class! And they don’t understand my paper.”
“I think they understand your paper well enough. It’s disgusting, if you ask me.”
Now I got angry.
“But I didn’t ask, did I? What’s the qualification for being a PR girl, isn’t that a Bachelor’s degree in Communication studies? Did you read even a single word of my paper?”
She reacted very unprofessionally:
“Good luck, professor,” she said, as she left me to fend for myself. Someone tried the door handle.
“Hello? Professor? Why did you run away?” a female voice demanded. I hastily packed my stuff and made my way through the corridor. There I found the security guy again. He pulled a puzzled face as he checked his watch.
“Back so soon?”
“Yeah. Listen, can you let me out via the loading dock?”
I held my hand behind my ear. Now he could hear the chanting coming from the auditorium.
“They’re a bit upset. You may want to have a look. But let me out first, please.”
Without a word he reached for his key chain and walked with me to the loading dock doors at the side of the building. I was glad he realised his first duty was to me, as a staff member.
“Thanks,” I said, as I jumped nearly a metre from the dock bay.
“I don’t know what you said, but you should probably give out less homework,” he called after me, as soon as I started to run.
I picked up my bike across the street and decided to have a ‘personal day’. My phone was pinging with text messages, which I decided to ignore. It kept buzzing like an angry hornet, but it was in my jacket pocket so I didn’t really notice. September was graciously sunny this year, so I cheered up a bit as I pedalled home.
Do you know Amsterdam? I’m sure you know it is famous for the canals. Amsterdam is divided into a North and a South part by a channel that runs from our massive inland lake to the North Sea: The North Sea Channel. It’s called ‘Het IJ’ behind Amsterdam Central station. We may safely discount the North side of town; everyone else does, too. It’s where the riff-raff lives, you see. Think of it as our New Jersey.
The city centre is on the South side of Het IJ. If you think an I and a J are an unlikely combination, you are perhaps not aware that they are a digraph that form a vowel in Dutch. We have A, E, O, I, U and Y, just like in English. But then there’s also IJ. On Dutch typewriters it used to be a special key, but on computer keyboards we just type i and j. It sounds like the English I, as in nice and fine. We also have the vowel ei, which is exactly the same sound as ij and also our word for ‘egg’. So now you know how to pronounce ‘Lijnbaanstraat’, the street where I lived.
If you’ve never been to Amsterdam, maybe you’d like me to give a brief idea of what it looks like and how it’s built up. If you have been, odds are you went to the Rijksmuseum, the Van Goghmuseum (we can add words together, so ‘museum’ is attached) and then straight to a coffeeshop. Yes you did. Don’t lie to me.
Imagine four U’s, or horse shoes if you like, each one bigger than the next and enclosing each other. (Not in a row, that would be silly.) These U’s are the main canals of Amsterdam. The innermost and smallest U is a bit misshapen. That’s the Singel. Next up is the Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal), then there is the Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and the biggest U is the Prinsengracht, or Prince’s Canal. The canals are lined by thousands of houses.
They’re intersected by the river Amstel, which comes in from the South-East and leads to the Central Station. The area in the middle of the smallest U contains (amongst others) Dam Square (with the former city hall, now a royal palace where nobody lives) and the infamous red light district, which is a five-minute walk from Amsterdam CS. Tramlines from the suburbs come in via the cross sections. We even have a subway: the fugliest one I’ve ever seen. It was built in the sixties, when they felt orange was an appropriate design choice. ORANGE! Have you been to the Moscow Underground? They went with MARBLE and GOLD, with artworks and mosaics. What did we get? Cubist art and lots of ORANGE!!!
I never use the Amsterdam Metro. It makes me retch. It’s not very orange nowadays, because everything has turned the colour of puke and dog shit after being caked in it for so long. Our subway cars look like those in New York: coffins of corrugated metal. Breathtakingly ugly, in other words. You shouldn’t use it, either. Take the surface trams, or just walk.
The Central Station, a magnificent and historic building, sits at the open end of the smallest U, and has its back to the IJ. It’s where most of the canal boat tours start. Thousands of very, very expensive properties line the canals. Law firms and media companies love to be on the Keizersgracht or Prinsengracht. Their offices are in grand houses of three to five floors, that often used to be warehouses in the days of the Dutch East India company. Some of them date back to the 14th century, but due to fires and demolition works most of them are relatively new. By which I mean 1850 or thereabouts.
We have modern buildings too, of course. The biggest eyesore in town happens to be the language facility of the UvA, my university. That building urgently needs to burn down, preferably with some faculty members on the roof. It’s a hive of radical feminists that have found a way to get paid as a ‘professor of Scandinavian literature’. How is that even a thing? Their department graduates at most a dozen or so women per year (Economics graduates over 250 people) who have been indoctrinated by the most radical feminist literature out there and who have absolutely zero prospects, as ‘being able to read books in Icelandic or Finnish’ is not really a marketable job skill. The only jobs available to people who graduated there are teaching positions at that faculty. And they’re all taken. For some reason an introduction to economics is part of their first year curriculum. Girls from that department had a 15 percent pass rate in my class, but took up almost half my student mentoring time.
Back to Amsterdam: obviously the canals are intersected by bridges at many points and in fact there are so many of them that ‘Venice of the North’ is not an entirely incorrect title, even though our canals are lined by narrow roads. You won’t drown if you mistake the broom cupboard for the front door, is what I’m saying. The city is teeming with cars, owned by people who insist on living exactly where cars are the least convenient and spoil the most beautiful views on Earth. Sometimes one of these asshats forgets to pull the parking brake and when they get back to their car it has sunk to the bottom of the canal or, more likely, ended up on the roof of a house boat. Which is hilarious. I hate people who live in house boats almost as much as I hate people who own cars. And I especially hate house boat owners that complain about drunks pissing on their roofs and stealing their plants. What do they expect?! It’s a boat! Move the damned thing to Almere!
Anyway, the area where I live wasn’t the rich ‘canal belt’ I just described, but used to be one of the poorest areas of the city. One hundred years ago, kids slept in cupboard drawers in those houses, they were that poor. It was a slum, basically. But gentrification is a wonderful thing; the poor were duly chased out and headed to Almere, or the suburbs; the large tower blocks of the Bijlmermeer and the unofficial Moroccan enclave that is Osdorp. Those were built in the 50’s and 60’s, so over the past four decades the Jordaan has become the most affordable area for people like me: the middle class (economically speaking, anyway). People who need to live and work in Amsterdam to maximize their potential. Imagine me wasting away hours of my life riding the train to and from Almere! Every city needs to have a space for the forward thinking, educated elite, not just for the media types and lawyer/banker/consultant type scum that invoices by the hour for telling you something you could have learned from a first year syllabus. And there is: De Jordaan. Trash collectors, shop keepers, waiters and similar low potential individuals can easily come into town by bus or tram from the suburbs. The invoice people live along the canals and I was very happy in my cosy apartment on the Lijnbaanstraat number 29. It’s a narrow street where cars aren’t allowed, thank goodness. There are a few trees and most of the houses have recently been renovated. Just around the corner there’s a yoga studio, a Surinam-Indian restaurant, a really good wine shop and deli, a lovely antiques store I really shouldn’t be allowed to set foot in because I always want to buy something, so many nice coffee shops (proper ones, with coffee) and everything else a man could possibly need. It’s the real Amsterdam, I think. The best sort of people live there. Birds of a feather, you know? The only thing I would change is that one facade around the corner from my house; it has big white letters on it that read: ‘The bible, the book for you.’
I mean, honestly ... Foisting religion on decent people like that! It’s not on, it really isn’t. Still, I can’t see it from my front room window and when I cycle past it’s too high up to notice.
I didn’t even have neighbours to one side of the house, which is always nice in a big city. And the ground floor apartment was empty right now, so I could play the piano with impunity. To my left there lived an American gentleman, but he was hardly ever in. For a while he rented the place out to tourists and he even asked me to be the host. You know: hand out the keys, do the final inspection, help them on their way.
“I’ll pay you!” he said. He’d have to pay me quite a lot: I’d be the most highly educated receptionist in the world! Two academic degrees and I’m explaining to a couple of Norwegians where they can get high and not to leave their shoes out in the corridor? I don’t think so. Fortunately, he gave up on the idea, or I’d have had to file a complaint. If you can’t afford to live here, just move. Don’t start a bed and breakfast. That’s what hotels are for.
Home seemed to be the best place for me right now, so I drove back to my house straight across town. Without reading my incoming messages (which were bound to upset me), I typed a brief message to my department chair on my phone as I waited at a traffic light, to explain I had been verbally assaulted during class and would be taking the day off. There were alarmingly high numbers in the red balloons that indicate the number of missed calls, email messages and incoming chats, so I switched my phone to airplane mode and enjoyed the bike ride. I briefly considered popping into the Rijksmuseum (which you can now also pronounce - you’re welcome), which had only recently reopened after a lengthy restoration, but I felt I was a bit too much on edge after this morning. Were people really that stupid and judgmental? A few lines in a paper that’s known for being sensationalist and they were ready to call me, a man of science, names? No wonder this planet was going to hell in a handcart.
I made a brief stop at a greengrocer who did wonderful fruit shakes. Orange, lime and some mint, all fresh. Every true Dutchman can ride his bike with only one hand and in fact I would probably be able to get home with both hands off the handlebar, but that would be showing off. Eventually I arrived at home, put my bike in the downstairs hallway and went up the stairs to my apartment. I’d only left here an hour and a half ago.
The fluorescent lamp in the hallway needed replacing, so perhaps today would be a good time to get a handyman in to have it fixed. I never know what kind of lamp to get, I don’t like to get on a ladder and I never want to have anything to do with electricity unless the master circuit breaker is off, which means having to reset all the clocks. Let a specialist deal with it, I say. I’ll explain the economy and humanity to people (not that I taught at the Social Sciences department, because that didn’t pay extra and those students are impossible to deal with), and someone else can change lightbulbs and make a buck. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs, to quote the world’s worst economist ever.
On the other hand; those men have a call-out fee so it would make sense to wait until something else broke and have him do a few things at once. A door handle might come loose or the sink would back up soon enough. For now, I’d make do. I just wanted to sit down with my shake and read a book. There was a precariously high pile next to my favourite spot on the sofa by now. Or maybe I’d get a prostitute in today ... I’d been checking out websites for them and a naked girl on my lap would be just the ticket. Put my theory into practice, so to speak. But then, I think about calling a prostitute every day. And I never do.
I was startled by the sound of my phone. The land line in my hallway was never used. Like everyone else, I only gave out that number to people whose calls I had no intention of taking. But this time it rang three times and then disconnected halfway through a ring. This happened twice, so I knew who it was. I got there just in time for the third ring. The phone was mounted on the wall in the hallway, just behind the front door. Yes, kids, phones used to be screwed to the wall. Imagine that.
I usually answer with my name, but not today.
“Ik ben het.”
“Hi Pjotr,” said my ex-wife.
We were both quiet for a second or two. Talking to her still hurt.
“Hoe gaat het?” asked both of us, to be civil.
“Okay,” I said.
“Really? Because you’re home in the middle of the day, at the start of the academic year.”
“Yeah. Had the day off.”
“Oh, right. So it’s nothing to do with your new book, then?”
I hadn’t told her about it and she didn’t take De Telegraaf. It’s not for our sort of people.
“What do you mean?” I asked, because I don’t think you should tell women new facts, ever. They find out quite enough on their own without us men contributing new information that will end up being used against us one way or another.
“I mean the book that’s all over Facebook and Twitter and that causes journalists who are looking for you to call ME instead.”
“I’m sorry about that. Just ignore them.”
“That’s what YOU do, Pjotr. You ignore things until they go away. Sweetheart, what have you been writing? They’re calling it the most sexist book ever! You’re still an economist, right?”
I should get a chair in this hallway, if I’m going to have long discussions here. But I didn’t have a chair and I didn’t like talking to Danielle because my life hadn’t exactly improved since she left me and I didn’t want to be reminded of her. Being called ‘sweetheart’ by the woman who had walked out on me didn’t help much, either. Force of habit, of course, but still.
“It’s just a paper. Nothing special. I worked on it with some students for five months and nobody said a word.”
“They’re saying words now. Terrible words. What did the uni say?”
“They weren’t pleased. I had a delegation waiting for me this morning. And some girl turned my lesson into an impromptu demonstration. I was booed out of my own classroom! So I came home.”
“Right. I see. Pjotr, I’m at work. I can’t help you with this. But hiding isn’t going to help you. I spoke to a girl from De Wereld Draait Door and she seemed very nice and willing to give you a chance to explain yourself. Please write down her number?”
I leaned into the kitchen and grabbed the notepad for my shopping list.
She gave me a mobile number.
“She’s called Wendy. Give her a ring. Don’t hide from the world, Pjotr. This won’t just blow over.”
I didn’t see why not. Most things do. Most notably the concern for my wellbeing from our so-called ‘friends’.
“I’ll think about it. Sorry it spilled over into your life, Danielle.”
“That’s okay. How are you doing, though? Apart from all this?”
“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”
“I see. Just ‘fine, thank you.’ That’s it?”
“Yes. Just fine.”
“Well, at least you haven’t changed. Bye, Pjotr. Call that girl.”
I tried to tell myself I was reading a book. I was doing all the right things, after all. I was sat in a chair, with ‘The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole’ by Roland Huntford opened on my lap and my feet on a pillow on the coffee table. Fresh juice within reach. From outside, the gentle humming of electric trams as they pulled up came through the window, along with the occasional swearword aimed at a bicyclist, or an angry ding-a-ling from a biker trying to save the life of a careless pedestrian. My eyes were even moving across the page: I was THAT serious about reading. But I wasn’t. Journalists were reaching out to Danielle? Over a paper?
Eventually I had lunch. It was far too early, but it was something to do. I can’t cook, but I can make the most elaborate sandwiches. My best one is the Taj Mahal. It’s rye bread from the farmers market, with curried chicken and mayo, tomatoes, very thin cucumber, some cumin seeds and the secret ingredient: Amul, an Indian bread spread I get from a small ethnic supermarket in the Dapperstraat. They order it just for me, even though I only need two packets a year. Costs a fortune, but most of that is shipping, I guess. No idea how Indians could afford it, otherwise.
So I made that and I ate it while I looked out of the side window. If I stand in just the right place, I can see a small section of the Elandsgracht (Elk canal - I never got that one either) at the end of my street. From there I saw a group of young girls, about student age I’d say, turning the corner into the Lijnbaanstraat. There were about ten of them and they were looking at the house numbers. Instinctively, I stepped back from the window. Surely this wasn’t...
My doorbell rang. And again, very insistently. My name is on a little white card next to the bell. I remember being proud when I managed to put that up myself. Only took a bit of glue and two tries. I listened as carefully as a young boy on his bed with a copy of Playboy. Female voices, being higher, carry far.
“I don’t think he’s in.”
“I saw someone behind the window.”
“Was it him?”
“He had stupid hair. But other than that, I’m not sure.”
Stupid hair!? Now what was that about? I’ve had the same hairstyle for twenty years! I have been blessed with a full head of curly hair. All around me men went bald as a coot in their late twenties. Some even shaved their heads! I’m always told women like a good head of hair on a man, so I took care of mine. I even used a curling iron, sometimes.
“Ring it again.”
“It’s no use.”
“So, do we wait?”
“Let’s go around the corner, for lunch. This is a dead-end street. If he comes out, we’ll spot him.”
Oh, great. Now I was under surveillance.
“DWDD, Wendy speaking.”
I should perhaps explain what ‘De Wereld Draait Door’ means. Literally it means ‘The World Keeps Spinning’, but it’s really the Dutch version of the phrase ‘As The World Turns.’ It is, however, not a sickening eighties soap opera, but the most influential show on Dutch TV. If you have a book to sell, or a record coming out, if there is a debate going on in society or a new phenomenon that people want to know more about, DWDD is the show that will cover it first and with the best guests. It’s on an hour before the eight o’ clock news and it is broadcast live from a studio in Amsterdam. The host makes an obscene amount of money by Dutch standards; he’s on public television, which means it’s funded by the tax payer. And yet he gets paid 570,000 euros per year, four times what our Prime Minister makes and more than any other TV personality. Which he then doubles with speaking engagements. He speaks faster than a machine gun and over the years his ego has inflated to the size of a barrage balloon.
I can’t stand his show. I really can’t. They have a section of ‘funny clips’, which is essentially a montage of schadenfreude. People falling over, in other words. Weather girls falling in puddles during storms. Women who panic whilst parallel parking, so they end up ramming ten other cars. Dogs that appear to be saying ‘hello’. All that, interspersed with glowing praise for very mediocre authors and musicians I’ve never heard of. It is a curious mix of elitism and vulgarity, and they get both wrong. Another thing I would hate if I had to appear on it, is that the guests are used as a backdrop. You don’t get to wait offscreen but you sit with the audience and you’re supposed to smile and clap and look interested. They made our Prime Minister sit in the audience for half an hour! And he did it, because 2 million people tune in on average and in terms of Dutch television that’s just about everybody. We only have a population of about seventeen million people. One million are Muslims who really don’t give the slightest fuck about this country, except when it comes to claiming benefits or building a new mosque. Three million are kids and four million are senior citizens, which means out of the people who matter, two out of nine will have seen the show. And that’s how you get the Prime Minister to show up and sit pretty while you discuss a Charles Aznavour anthology album and showcase a hip, new band whose primary instrument appears to be ‘the rectum’.
Anyway, back to my call:
“Hello Wendy, I’m Professor Doctor Pjotr van Voogt tot Burema. You spoke to my wife, that is to say my ex-wife, earlier today and...”
“Hiiiii Pjotr! How good of you to call! Where are you?”
“Uhm ... I just wanted to know why you have been...”
“Shall we send a taxi? Where are you again?”
“I ... I’d rather not say.”
“Oh? Look, Pjotr, we really love your book here. It’s amazing. And it’s getting a lot of press right now so you really should be on our show tonight.”
“You know, it will really boost sales and you get to explain your story.”
“Boost sales? There are only 150 copies. And they’re sold out.”
They were, in a way. Those 150 sales are guaranteed. That’s why we don’t print 151. We’d never shift that last copy.
“Sold out?! Wow! You know, Matthijs would really like to meet you, he has so many questions about your book.”
“He’s read it?”
“Since ... yesterday afternoon? All 428 pages? In English?”
“Well ... not all the tables and numbers, obviously. But he’s read the highlights. He certainly knows what it is about. We can pay you an appearance fee and if we pick you up right now we can offer you dinner. You’ll get to meet Matthijs and some of the other guests. We have Klaas Wilting coming in, you know.”
That’s a former spokesman for the Amsterdam police department and the biggest ass outside the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon. He has nearly the same amount of education as that chimp they taught sign language, only the chimp had the common decency not to choose a career in ‘failing to solve burglaries’. He liked going on game shows with proper celebrities so much, they nearly fired his ass over it. I’d be more excited about meeting a retired osteopath who was into stamp collecting.
“So how would it work, would I get thirty seconds after those clips of old people breaking their hips during the funeral of their spouses?”
“You know, those gloating clips you have.”
“Oh! The DWDD Montage! No, it’s a real appearance.”
“Right. Like those bands that only get sixty seconds to play a song, followed by a seven-minute interview with a guy who does King Lear in a gorilla suit for whoever happens to wander into a certain photo booth for some passport shots?”
“Hello? Hello? I think the line has gone bad, I could have sworn I heard you say ‘gorilla’. Are you still there, Pjotr?”
“Yes, I am.”
“It would be the main interview of the show, ten minutes.”
The doorbell rang again.
“Right. Would you send a cab to Lijnbaansstraat 29? The driver will have to call, there’s no traffic in this street. Actually ... There are quite a few people at my front door. Would it be possible for him to pick me up at the door?”
“Oh, I seeeeee ... People at the door. I get it. Don’t worry, we’ll get you here safe and sound. And we’ll set the record straight. See you soon!”
DWDD is recorded in a former gas production facility on the west side of town, aptly named the Westergasfabriek (West Gas Factory). It was built in 1883 to produce gas for cooking and heating, by means of dry distillation of cokes. That’s how Amsterdam was heated and lit (street lamps used it too), until we found the massive gas deposit near Slochteren in 1959. That gas field made us a rich nation (an even richer nation, I should say) and the Westergasfabriek became redundant. It’s a beautiful piece of industrial heritage now, built in a particular style called ‘Dutch Neo-renaissance’. After years of neglect those big factory buildings are now in use as a TV studio. There’s a ‘gas holder’ on the grounds, a decommissioned, massive, round gas storage tank, which can be converted to host all sorts of events. Because they used to store massive amounts of coal, the grounds are extensive and parts of it are now a public park. I could have gotten there on my bike in about fifteen minutes, but I didn’t feel safe doing that, so I was happy they offered me a cab.
Actually, I figured I should probably pack some things so I could leave the house for a few days. Hole up in a hotel somewhere until girls stop ringing my bell, hoping to debate me. I found a black sports bag (not that I do sports of any kind, but it’s what they’re called) and tossed in a few things. Laptop, passport, some underwear, stuff like that. If the interview went really well, I’d go home again. Surely I’d be able to explain my research in ten whole minutes. It’s hardly the dumbest TV audience out there, so that would work in my favour. DWDD even had spin-off shows, where they gave experts an hour to talk about the cosmos or the human brain. Sure, those were gimmicky shows with lots of ‘experiments’, but we weren’t talking about your typical Wheel of Fortune crowd.
My doorbell rang just after I saw two burly men in black suits turn the corner into my street. They had the tell-tale little silver V on their lapels, which means they’re private security with about as much real-world power as a retired crossing guard, but I was happy to see them. I locked up and was on my way downstairs by the time they rang for the second time.
“That’s me. Let’s go,” I said, looking around to see if any of those girls were here.
“HEY THAT’S HIM!” I heard from a pavement cafe, just before the door of a sturdy grey Volvo slammed shut behind me. A paper cup with coffee hit the window as we pulled up.
“Friends of yours?” asked the security guy who rode shotgun.
“Admirers,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant but clutching my bag.
“Welcome to De Wereld Draait Doorrrrrrr! My co-host for the night is Eva Hanssen, we’ll hear from Klaas Wilting about his new career in musical theatre, our musical guest is Mainstreet and, ladies and gentlemen, WE got him, Professor Doctor Pjotr van Voogt tot Burema on his new book, The Female Currency. De Wereld Draait Doorrrrr!”
The set-up is not that of your classic American chat show, where the host sits behind a desk and his guests are in comfy chairs to his right. Here, the host sits at the head of a massive oblong table. His co-host is to his right and other guests are to his left. Sometimes it gets busy. The audience sits around them in a U shape and they make sure any half-decent looking women are visible directly over the host’s shoulders. There is also a new band every day, which is invited to play for a full sixty seconds. And given the eclectic musical taste of whoever books them, that is more than enough.
They made me sit in the audience, on the first row. The co-host changes every evening and today it was a very pleasant and quite attractive Flemish lady. She gave me a few curious stares as the show quickly went from one item to the next, with people around me being called to the table and sitting back down again. I had to pretend to be interested, because whenever the people who sat at the main table were on camera, so was I. I’ve never seen an entire episode. At one point, after a particularly nasty clip of two neighbours throwing hedge clippers at each other, at which everyone else laughed, the host called on me. He does that from time to time, involve guests who have come to speak about completely unrelated topics.
“Professor, I see you’re flinching? Do you have problems with your neighbours too?”
“No. No, I do not. I just don’t think it’s funny to see people fighting.”
“No? Are you a man of peace?”
“I guess so.”
Was I supposed to come out with an anecdote right now? I was nervous and I couldn’t really understand him because he was five metres away. I think it showed on my face because he left me in peace. But after the nasty clips they get to the biggest interview of the evening. During a six second musical sting I was supposed to change places with the former police spokesman, who would apparently be featuring as the Evil Godmother in a Christmas Pantomime later that year.
“A new book came out yesterday and it has nearly brought Twitter to its knees. It’s called ‘The Female Currency’ and my guest is the author, Professor Doctor Pjotr van Voogt tot Burema. Welcome!”
A few men applauded me, probably because they had no idea who I was, and stopped after about three claps. Every woman in the room had her arms crossed over her chest at this point.
“Here is what happened only this morning, when the Professor met his students at the University of Amsterdam. Let’s take a look!”
“What?” I asked, but I was shushed as a clip began to play on several monitors around us. It was footage of me, being beleaguered by students and seemingly running off stage. Then the girl who had been asking those questions was given a chance to air her views.
“It’s a disgusting book,” she said. “He says all women use their bodies to get what they want in life. He says we should all intern in a brothel! And when you try to engage him in a debate, he dodges the question and runs away! I’m ashamed to be a student of the University of Amsterdam right now. They should fire this man.”
“FIRE HIM! FIRE HIM!” chanted at least thirty girls behind her. The audience laughed at that point. The clip ended.
“Well, Professor Doctor ... Is that how I address you?”
“Professor is fine.”
That was apparently not what he expected. I was supposed to have said: ‘Call me Pjotr’, in keeping with the Dutch tradition of egalitarianism. But he was at work and I was here because of my work, so it didn’t occur to me to get chummy with this man. You can drop the doctor because it is the lesser title, was what I meant to say.
“Professor, how do you respond to that girl?”
By now the Belgian beauty was giving me the evil eye, which was quite disturbing. It was as if someone was welding; you’re not supposed to look, but the brightness catches your eye.
“Well, she’s wrong. She clearly hasn’t read the book, or understood it. And then she found a group of people who were up for a riot and I had to abort my lecture. You know, even missing two hours of my lessons can have an enormous detrimental effect on the academic career of young people. It’s about a basic understanding of...”
“Professor, what IS your book about, then?”
“Oh. Right. Well, this is hard to explain in just a few minutes, but the idea is that there is a currency to which females have access and men do not. It varies from woman to woman, of course. Miss Hanssen has massive amounts of this currency, but as women age and depending on other factors, it diminishes.”
I was trying to be charming, to ward off the angry glares I was getting.
“What do you mean, ‘she has massive amounts’?” she asked. That shook me up a bit.
“Well, I ... I meant it as a ... as a ... a compliment!”
“And what can that currency buy her?” asked Matthijs, the host.
“Anything, really. Regular money can be exchanged for goods and services, but the Female Currency, as I explain in my book, also has considerable economic value. For one thing, Miss Hanssen can get free meals out of men. But they might also provide her with free living space, or perform repairs to her house or her car. Just because she is an attractive woman, if ... if you’ll allow me to...”
She clearly didn’t, so I moved on.
“And that has a clear economic value. She gets stuff without spending money, for a resource that diminishes somewhat over time but that is essentially free to her. Give or take a stick of lipstick, haha.”
That laugh didn’t come out right. Was it always so quiet in here?
“What is that resource, exactly?” asked Matthijs, keeping an eye on Eva’s expression.
“Well ... Just being a woman. Could be just a smile or giving someone a brief amount of attention. Some flattery. And if she enters into a relationship, then it increases. Obviously.”
Everyone was quiet for a few seconds. That NEVER happens in this show. I had a moment to look at the audience. The women were uniformly angry and the men were either amused or looking at me as if I were a suicide bomber fumbling with a box of matches.
“Do you mean to say that women don’t contribute to a relationship? That they just latch onto a man and sponge off him?”
“NO! No, clearly not! Women do contribute! Absolutely!”
There was something of a sigh of relief. I explained some more:
“Though not as much, obviously. About seventy percent, is what my study suggests. The rest they make up for in...”
The women in the audience began to groan. Or grunt, is perhaps the best word.
“WHAT?” asked Eva.
“Well, there is an income disparity between men and women. Which is sad, of course. But it’s the reality of our society. That’s why women vastly prefer men who are more successful. The ideal man for a woman isn’t just physically taller, but he is also at a slightly higher station in life, or at least on the earnings ladder...”
I had to stop. There was too much noise around me. Matthijs raised his hands.
“Ladies! And gentlemen too, but mainly ladies. Please. The Professor is our guest and he is trying to explain himself. I really ... I REALLY THINK ... we should let him do that. Professor, can you understand that women do not like to hear you saying that they ... get things for free?”
“It’s not free, exactly,” I explained. “It takes some upkeep to remain slim and have a good skin tone and all that. Looking good takes some effort, especially as women age”
“But SURELY,” said Eva, now sounding exasperated more than anything, “men get things for looking good too? It works TWO ways, right?”
“Hardly. Not enough to be economically significant. It’s not unthinkable that some twenty-something boy-toy gets the odd bit of pocket money from a rich widow here and there, but that is absolutely nothing compared to the global effect of women who get thirty percent of their economic benefit ... Actually, I can put it more simply: women get around a 30% discount on the cost of living. These are averages, of course. Men need women far more than women need men. And that means there is a market. A market for female affection and attention. And...”
“You’re NOT just talking about prostitution, right?” asked Matthijs.
“No. Clearly, that’s the shortest route. One hour of sex for x amount of money. Not goods and services, but cash that the woman can spend however she wants. But what you see is that women in particular despise prostitutes. Because they short-circuit the system. When men can buy an hour of love or affection, that means the relative value of a bit of flirting or allowing a man to take you to dinner diminishes. That’s why women are always so incredibly hostile towards prostitutes.”
“Are they?” asked Matthijs. I imagine he genuinely had no idea. Some men don’t. Particularly men who earn half a million and are on TV.
“Yes. But you see that the internet is changing that. Many women, especially young women, are using it to hone their skills. Now that we all have mobile phones with cameras, there are so many pictures and video clips of women showing off their bodies. Women make money doing webcam shows, they can sell underwear to a global market, they can dip into a huge online dating pool and look for a man with the right income AND the appearance they can afford...”
“Yes. Not all women look good enough to be able to attract the proverbial Olympic athlete who is running his own hedge fund, obviously. It’s a market, after all.”
Finally people were quieting down, so I could get to some of the finer points of my research.
“Actually, the internet is also helping women to restrict the supply of affection. Women can now easily procure sex toys. And every time they use a toy, they don’t need to rely on a man. That means a man is going without and that drives up the relative value. If you have sex with your husband as little as possible, you can demand a higher price when you do.”
“Have you ever paid for sex, Professor?”
“What? No! Certainly not! What kind of question is that?!” I fumed.
“Well, because ... you seem to imply it is common...”
“I’ll tell you what is common: girls trying to get favours from me. I’m a teacher. Whenever exams or some deadline roll around, invariably a few girls will show up to my office. And they will make sure they are wearing tight jeans, or short skirts if it’s summer. There will be cleavage. There are smiles and flattery. And they try to get an extension or special consideration or an easier assignment or God knows what else. And I never budge. You won’t believe what those girls say about me when they find they can’t use their currency with ME. If young men show up, they’re either completely honest about why they need help, or they will have gone through the effort to make up some convincing story. I’m in a corner office. My colleague in room twelve can SEE them, pushing up bras, or taking them off entirely through their sleeves. Checking lipstick. Opening an extra button. He SEES them as they prepare to enter my office. Tell me that’s not about women using their female capital to get something for free? Huh?!”
I shouldn’t have lost my temper, but that question about hookers had rattled me. Do I look as if I might order prostitutes? Surely not!
“Are ... This is so ... Are you married, Professor?” asked Eva.
“Never been married?” she asked, as if that was a great discovery.
“I have been. But I’ve been divorced for a while now and I will thank you to leave my wife out of it. She has already been bothered by the press and she has nothing whatsoever to do with my paper. It’s a PAPER, by the way. Not a book. We printed 150 copies and they’re all gone. I didn’t write a book, I did some serious and groundbreaking research that will help women in the long run.”
“HELP women?! How so?”
“Because,” I said, barely managing to suppress an annoyed sigh, “if we understand more of the Female Currency, we advance our understanding of our economy in general. And we may be able to protect women who have less or no access to this resource, or men who simply can’t get entry into this market because they have insufficient capital. And that endangers women. So...”
“GELUL!” called someone from the crowd. That translates loosely to ‘bullshit’, certainly in intent. Some people laughed, others applauded. Matthijs held his finger to his ear, the universal gesture for ‘I am listening to an earpiece’.
“I’m being told ... There are people outside.”
I could vaguely hear chanting. High voices. I couldn’t make out what they said, but it was clearly not: ‘We want to buy the book! We want to buy the book!’
The Westergasfabriek isn’t exactly downtown, but that means it’s in an area where rent is at least somewhat affordable. Quite a few students lived here. From the start of the show, where my presence was announced, they’d have had more than enough time to get here. This was a live broadcast. The Westergasfabriek grounds are accessible to the public. They only secure the actual studio during the show, so people won’t come in and cause trouble.
“I think they’re here for him,” said Eva, not without glee.
“Are they?” asked Matthijs, speaking to whoever was on the other side of his earpiece link.
“It seems they are,” he added after about two seconds. “But security is handling it. Professor, how do you react to the UvA press statement denouncing your work?”
That came as a shock to me. DENOUNCING my work?
“I ... was not aware. I’ve been ... busy, today.”
Matthijs began to read from an autocue, mounted on a camera on the other side of the table. I just needed to turn my head to read every word.
“Oh yes. It says here: The University of Amsterdam is shocked and surprised at the contents of ‘The Female Currency’, which was published by a heretofore respected faculty member. The UvA strongly believes noted academics should be allowed to pursue research in their fields without undue influence by administrators, particularly in fields where ethics are not usually a concern. However, in this instance this has led to a topic of research that UvA deems unsuitable and wishes to distance itself from unequivocally. The suggestion that all women exchange sexual favours is reprehensible and not congruent with the morals and standards that UvA embodies. We have therefore asked all institutions that have so far received copies of the research paper to return them forthwith, so they may be accounted for and destroyed.”
I leaned back in my chair, oblivious to the world. Was that the end of my academic career? Denounced by my own university? My paper to be physically destroyed?
“Looks like it’s the unemployment line for you tomorrow, Professor Doctor Bill Cosby,” said Eva. She got a massive laugh and applause for that. I was still staring at the last words on the autocue. ‘Accounted for and destroyed’ it said, in a massive sans serif font. The camera slowly panned to me.
The noise from outside was growing.
“FIRE HIM! FIRE HIM!” a chorus of what sounded like hundreds of female voices called out. The studio audience was getting restless. The band, a group of boys I guessed to be around eighteen or so, laughed nervously as they stood ready to sing a third of their least awful song.
“Did you talk to anyone about your book, Professor?”
“YES I DID! I worked on my paper for over a year, with seven students gathering data and conducting interviews! I submitted regular progress reports to the Faculty Chair! I got GRANTS for this research!”
“Were they female students?”
“Some were, yes! But...”
The din from outside was growing. I could hear male voices shouting back, behind the massive black velvet curtains that circled the studio, presumably to muffle outside noise and stop the place from sounding like an echo chamber. Matthijs had his finger to his ear again.
“I’m being told ... there are a LOT of people outside and they demand to be let in or that the Professor is sent out. Oh my God, this is terrible! What should we do? I’m asking the director; what should we do? Do we go on? Are we still on?”
That was it for me; I stood up, clawed at my clothes to get rid of the clip-on microphone and took the transmitter box out of my jacket pocket. Then I ran towards the backstage area. I wanted to get to my bag.
“OH NO YOU DON’T!” cried a woman in the audience, reaching for me. She managed to get hold of my jacket. I could feel the seams tear, but I just held my arms behind me and the jacket slipped off. Shame. I’d only had it for about three years. Those leather patches make it last for ages. A less combative woman who was with the crew stepped aside. I found the room where I had left my bag, grabbed it and headed to the bar, which was where everyone was supposed to go after the show to congratulate the host with delivering yet another masterpiece that would go down in television history as the night the medium was reborn. A young guy was polishing glasses as he watched the show on the monitor. He was surprised to see me. Without speaking he stepped aside and nodded to his left, where there was a door. It led me outside, where there were dozens of crates and empty beer casks. The night air was cold, especially as I had been under warm studio lights and no longer had my jacket. There was nothing in it I would need, but I dislike the cold. I had one more jacket in my bag, but no time to put it on.
There were no women here, but I could hear the chanting well enough. They were at the other side of the building, the main entrance. And if they found me, I’d be dead.
The Westergasfabriek is separated from the Haarlemmerweg, which is the road that leads from Amsterdam to nearby Haarlem, by a moat. Or a canal, if you like. You can get off the grounds via one of three small bridges. The nearest ones were at least 100 metres to either side of me. One is big enough for cars, the other ones are just for bikes. I had no intention of jumping into the cold Haarlemmertrekvaart, or ‘Harlem Tow Canal’. Before cars, this was the main way goods were transported between cities. Barges were pulled by horses that walked on the footpath along canals that ran in as straight a line as possible between cities and along villages. You can transport far more cargo if you make a horse pull a boat than if you make him drag a cart along, you see. And if you didn’t have a horse ... kids would do. All that made for a wide canal that I wouldn’t even be able to get out of at the other end. But I needed to go somewhere and so I ran to my right. Eventually I rounded the corner of the rectangular building which was clad in red brick masonry and had been lovingly restored a few decades ago. There was a terrace, with a space heater that gave off a nice, cosy, yellow light.
“THERE HE IS!” cried someone. I didn’t stop to look but legged it towards the nearest bike bridge. Two women on bikes who came from the residential area behind the Haarlemmerweg stepped off and spread their arms. I made a sharp turn and ran away from them, but now I had a horde of women coming from my right. The screaming was deafening. Good thing most of them were on stupid shoes. You can’t stop women who know they will be anywhere near a camera from wearing heels, fortunately.
There’s more than one building on the grounds of the Westergasfabriek and I was headed to the Transformatorhuis, which was often in use as a concert venue. It is also a rectangle (this was a factory, after all), but it has a triangular black roof, with windows that are high and narrow. It would be a downright stupid place to hide, even if I could find a door that was open.
Next to the Transformatorhuis (transformer station, if you hadn’t guessed) is the gasholder I’ve mentioned. It’s also a massive empty space, but at least it’s something other than a rectangle. It is, in fact, perfectly round and about fifteen metres high. It dates from 1902, when they were quite capable of building something large without internal pillars. Sadly, that meant there wouldn’t even be pillars to hide behind.
Meanwhile, I was running out of steam. It had been ages since my last round of Judo. Riding my bike was my only exercise and doing that for thirty minutes keeps you fit but it’s hardly the shape you need to be in to outrun a murderous bunch of bloodthirsty, illiterate cunts. I had a nice head start, though, so I disappeared around a corner (if that is at all possible with a round building), hoping to find some bushes or to be able to escape into the park.
Then I saw a fire ladder. We don’t have the ones you see in American TV-shows, where the last bit is a ladder and you can escape from the Crips or the Bloods to have romantic meetings with your girlfriend in the window sill. The ones we have reach the ground and have a one-way door so you can get out, but not in. Except this one. In 1902 they apparently used the American model. I ran towards it, dropped my bag and jumped up, hoping I’d be able to reach high enough to pull it down. I wasn’t, by about thirty centimetres. Meanwhile, the sound from the angry horde made it clear I was running out of time.
That night I learned that desperation can make you excel yourself. No, I didn’t suddenly jump thirty extra centimetres; who am I, the Six Million Dollar Man?! But I did spot a rolling trash bin, which I dragged underneath the ladder and kicked over. That was how I excelled myself: by kicking over a trash bin. I’d never have done that, under normal circumstances; I’ve never so much as dropped a chewing gum wrapper on the pavement ... Fortunately, the bin was empty. Now I could reach the ladder. I remembered to grab my bag, threw it up onto the first platform, hoisted myself up on the ladder as it slowly, very slowly, came down and scrambled onto a level metal grate about three metres off the ground. Then I held the railing as I pulled the ladder back up again, which wasn’t easy because it was rusted over. That’s when the women, at least thirty in the first tier, caught up with me.
Human vision, like that of many primates. is based on many things, but movement is certainly one of them. They weren’t looking up and they weren’t looking to their left, either. It was dark anyway, and this area was lit only by a few orange street lamps. The gasholder itself was illuminated by spotlights but we were at the back of it, the side that had some shrubs and staff parking. They all ran past, towards the darkness of a line of trees. As soon as there was something of a lull in the train of murderous women, I picked up my bag and traipsed all the way to the top of the gasholder, making sure my feet didn’t make any more noise on the rusted metal steps than necessary. When I reached the roof I was careful not to lean over the edge, because it was a moonlit night and I might stand out to people on the ground.
The roof wasn’t flat, but hollow. Think of a modest dome, like the bottom of a jam jar. That was probably the best way to make it strong enough to contain pressurised gas. Around it was a metal ring that I could theoretically walk along. I elected to just sit on the top ladder, in a corner that wasn’t well illuminated. Below me I could hear running feet, and conversations starting up.
“Is he here?”
“He’s probably disappeared into the park. Asshole.”
“My phone has a flashlight! We’ll find him.”
“NO USE!” called someone who was returning from the edge of the park. “He’s not there.”
“How do you know?”
“There’s a fence. It’s just three trees deep and then there is a fence. It’s two metres, at least.”
“Maybe he climbed it.”
“Maybe. But even if he did, I’m not going into a dark city park where there is a man ready to bash in my skull.”
“Not if we go together. Not if we get him first.”
“Maybe he’s in this thing. Let’s walk around. See if we can find an open door.”
There were a lot of voices now, each one telling a variation on this story to someone else, who wasn’t listening and asking the same questions about the park and the fence. They circled the gasholder, found no doors open and when they saw the toppled trash container they didn’t think to connect it with the fire escape. That might be because these were young women, who wouldn’t even have seen the American movies in which they feature. And they were from Amsterdam, where a toppled trash can is hardly unique.
Eventually the voices faded away and now I found myself on top of a gas holder, in the dark, without a jacket. I opened my bag and considered putting on the extra shirt I’d brought, just so I’d have a double layer of clothing. I also found my phone, which I had left in airplane mode to save the battery. Making sure to turn off the ringer sound, I switched it on. It began to buzz like mad, as thirty ‘missed calls’ and ‘you have a voicemail message’ texts came in. I put in on my knee and waited for it to finish buzzing while I considered my life. Chased by an angry mob, denounced by my own university ... What had my life become? And how could I even go home if I needed to be escorted to and from my own front door?
I stared at my phone, which gave an endless stream of notifications. ‘You have missed a call. You have a voicemail message. You have missed a call. You have a voicemail message. You have missed a call. I know you’re up there, call me back if you need help. You have missed a call. You have a voicemail message. Seriously, call me. I can help. You have missed a call. You have a voicemail message. You’re going to catch a cold up there.’
I figured I had very little to lose by calling the number associated with the text. Curiously, it started with 44, the country code for the United Kingdom. Holland has code 31 and you don’t even see that on local calls. But then again, the text messages were in English, too.
“Hello, Professor. Glad you called,” said a polite male voice.
“Hello. Who is this?”
A short laugh, more of a snicker.
“I suppose I’d want to come straight to the point if I were trapped on a rooftop. My name is Peter Fox. I’m with Keller & Fox. Have you heard of us?”
“I haven’t. Are you a law firm?”
“We are not. Though we might as well be, with the number of lawyers we have on staff. Professor, are we going to conduct this call with you freezing to death or shall I get you to safety first?”
“How do I know you will?”
“Because it is my business to help people. If you had been in show business, my name would have been sufficient. In academia our services are only very rarely required. I should warn you that there are several ladies preparing to conduct a very thorough search of the grounds. You should be quite safe, as I’ve had the trash can put upright again, but even so you’re in for a long wait. Unless you clamber down right now. We have a white van on the grounds. Just get in the back.”
I looked around me. From here I could see the illuminated red cranes of the Amsterdam harbour, the square roof of the former Shell laboratory Overhoeks across the IJ and some buildings downtown, familiar only to Amsterdammers. From there came the usual din of police sirens, mixed with a murmur of traffic and hundreds of ecstatic tourists. There were fire trucks in the mix tonight. That’s one good thing about Amsterdam; no fire hydrants necessary.
I had nowhere else to go. This could be a trap, but it wouldn’t exactly be hard to direct that angry mob here and he hadn’t so far. I’d have heard them. Any group of more than three women will make noise. They just have to talk, don’t they? And they’d be clambering up that ladder, for sure. I had managed to get to the roof too, after all. And so I said I’d come down, took my bag and gently traipsed down again.
“Hurry it up, Professor,” said the same voice, at the foot of the ladder. A very small man wearing a light grey double breasted three piece suit and very thin glasses beckoned me. He was accompanied by two big men in leather jackets, who were swivelling their heads like meerkats. A white van idled nearby.
“How do I know I can trust you?”
A patient smile flitted over his face.
“I am a gay man, Professor. Women have no sway over me whatsoever. I am loyal to only one woman and that is because of friendship and mutual respect.”
“Hurry it up,” said one of the Men In Cow. I decided to trust them and came down as quick as I could.
“Peter Fox, how do you do?” said the small man. He shook my hand but didn’t let go; that way he could direct me to the rear doors of the van. The big men walked alongside us, one of them backwards. We heard female voices coming this way.
“Get in ... that’s right. I’ll join you,” said Mr. Fox, as he finally let go and climbed into the van. It had wooden benches on both sides. The doors slammed shut and the big men got into the front. Before long we were passing by the Transformatorhuis and then the building that housed the DWDD studio. There were a LOT of people here, including some police officers. The Dutch police had recently been outfitted with a new uniform, with fluorescent yellow shoulders. It makes the Scandinavian police forces look positively scary, and they mostly look like boy scouts. Our van was eyed suspiciously and two women even began to run after us, but they were stopped by the police. Without any problem we drove past the studio and crossed the bridge in use for cars, that took us off the grounds and onto the Haarlemmerweg. Only now did I see that Mr. Fox relaxed as well. He eyed my luggage.
“Is that an overnight bag, Professor?”
“Yes. My house was being watched today. I figured I might need to sleep at a hotel.”
“I see. Very sensible. But it doesn’t look as if you packed very much. Shall we swing by your house, to pack a suitcase?”
“Yeah. Sure. If these guys stick around, that is.”
“They most certainly will. Perhaps we can have a cup of tea and draw up a plan. John! Take the man home. D’ya know where that is?”
“Yes, Mr. Fox.”
I took out my phone, from force of habit more than anything.
“Good. Professor? Your phone, please?”
He held up his hand and wiggled his fingers.
“Protocol. Does it have an unlock code?”
“But my wife ... ex-wife...”
“We will take care of that. I really must insist. The code?”
“Ah. Victor Meldrew’s phone number. Thank you.”
I didn’t even care any more. Having just been chased by an angry mob does that to you. Peter leaned over and gave my phone to the man riding shotgun, who began to mess around with it.
Near the Haarlemmerpoort, the former city gate for people entering from the west, we were overtaken by a police car that cleared the way for a fire truck. A lot of needless noise.
“It’s not quite New York, though, is it?” said Mr. Fox with a smile, trying to make conversation. I’m average for a Dutchman, about six foot. Fox was 5.5 feet, if that. He had white curly hair and now that I had a better look I saw that his suit was immaculate and his shoes had probably cost more than my entire wardrobe.
“I’ve never been,” I admitted.
“Really? Have you had the chance to travel?”
“Yes. Asia, mostly. And all over Europe. I’ve been to the US, but that was just for an event in Washington D.C. Some sort of dinner.”
“I see. Profe ... Whoops!”
We rounded a sharp corner that ended in a bump. The tram rails are in the middle of the street and they are raised. Not the rails, but the bedding. You’re allowed to drive there if there is a car in the way, which happens a lot, or if you need to turn into a side street on the other side. It had caught Fox unawares, but his hand shot out and grabbed a strap that dangled from the ceiling.
“Professor, may I ask what your prescription is?”
“For your glasses. How much?”
“Uhm ... Minus 1 in my left eye, minus 1.5 in my right.”
What a dumb topic for conversation...
“I see. That’s not much. We can...”
“Sorry, we can’t get through,” said the driver over his shoulder. A policeman on the corner of the Elandsgracht and the Lijnbaansgracht raised his hand. He was illuminated by blue strobe lights from a patrol car. John rolled down the window.
“Tisteraandehand?” (What’s up?)
“Sie je det nie? D’r is fik! Je ken alleen rechtdoor.” (Can’t you tell? There’s a fire! You can only go straight on.)
“What’s that?” asked Peter, but I didn’t need a translation. I scooted to the front of the van, so I could have a look through the windshield. There was an orange glow, that came from the Lijnbaanstraat. Three fire trucks were parked along the Lijnbaansgracht, with hoses taking in water from the canal.
“Just drive around it, John,” said Mr. Fox, when he figured out what was wrong.
“Don’t ... bother...” I gasped. I knew for absolute certain it was my house that was on fire.
“So, no tea then,” said Mr. Fox. We stood shoulder to shoulder, more or less, on the other side of the Elandsgracht. Our guardians were on either side of us, keeping a wary eye on passers-by. Especially the ones with breasts. But most people were looking across the water, at the orgy of orange flames, red trucks and blue flashing lights, and the dark smoke that came from the windows of my house. Arcs of water poured in and created a lot of steam, but didn’t seem to be doing much else.
“No tea...” I repeated. This was an odd sensation. It happens to so many people each year, but you never think it will be you one day. I lived there. All my money and then some was in that building, not to mention my personal library, my clothes, my photo albums and my piano. Oh, and my bike. What would I do without my bike?!
“I don’t mean to be insensitive, but we’re clearly not going to get in there. May I ask what’s in the bag, Professor?”
“Underwear. A shirt. Socks. Jacket.”
“I see. Nothing else? Passport?”
“Yes. To check into a hotel,” I said, still staring at my house. Thank God downstairs and next door were empty. Whoever had done this couldn’t have known that. This had to have been done on purpose, by someone who really didn’t care about endangering others to get to me.
“Passport, that’s good. Credit cards?”
“Credit cards? Medication? Oh God, you didn’t have a pet, did you?”
For the first time, Mr. Fox seemed to get a bit emotional. He put his hand on my back. I don’t usually have any sort of physical contact with men, apart from a firm handshake.
“No pets. No medication. I have my driving license on me. And my bank cards.”
My mind was racing to inventory the house. My books, that was the worst. Hundreds of them. The movers had cursed me and it was probably the books that were aggravating the fire.
My work was safe. Even I had gone digital long ago. Everything was in the cloud, with backups over various services. Then again, I’d probably never work in my field again so what the hell did I need my files for?
I stared at the fire for I don’t know how long, maybe five minutes, when Mr. Fox gently pushed me towards the rear doors of the van again.
“It’s more serious than I thought. But at least you’re carrying your passport. That’s something. Willem? Your name is Willem, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the other big guy.
“Call our pilot. We are taking the Professor home with us. Straight to the airport, please.”
“Yes, Mr. Fox,” said Willem, as he took out his phone and closed the doors behind us.
I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t object. Basically, I was like a tame parakeet. Just point me at where you want me to sit and I’ll do it. We went to Schiphol, but not the main terminal. We drove out of Amsterdam and headed towards Amstelveen, which told me we’d go to the cargo area of the airport. Gates swung open, passports were inspected, an armed guard looked into the back of our van and a few minutes later we drove onto the black tarmac, to an area where three greyish jets were lined up. A pilot in a suit was waiting for us, shook my hands and before I knew it I was in a plush leather seat, taxiing towards the runway. I had absolutely no idea where I was going, but I did know one thing: anywhere but Holland was fine with me.