As a writer I am intrigued by what moves people to trespass beyond the borders of accepted behavior and by what makes people commit crimes. In “Happy Hour” I explore this through a suspenseful narrative of what lures one man into sex with an underage girl prostitute and how the lapse turns into an obsession. The book is written from the perspective of the perpetrator, rather than the victim.
‘The noose around Jean-Pierre’s neck draws ever tighter, the whisper of his conscience becomes deafening, it feels like real life. A strong psychological thriller debut with a surprising ending.’ - review in Noord-Hollands Dagblad
News coverage of recent scandals in Europe involving sex with young girls held as virtual slaves have only scratched at the surface of this disturbing phenomenon. “Happy Hour” is set in the Netherlands, where Jean-Pierre, the main character, could be anyone’s everyday neighbor – as readers have commented. This picks up exactly the idea that I want to communicate: nasty secrets aren’t uncommon.
I translated the beginning:
Bone dry tongue. Where is that glass of water? Jean-Pierre puts out an arm and checks the top of his bedside table. Ach, those red numbers burn. 04.46. Lying on his side, he takes a sip. Suddenly he catches his breath. Something’s wrong. Something, but what? Slowly he sits up. He rubs his face. What was it again?
The fog in his head lifts. A sweat breaks through the pores of his skin. No, that can’t have happened. He jumps out of bed. Sshhh, don’t wake up Edith. In the bathroom he collapses over the toilet bowl. His mouth wide open, his body convulses. A strangled squeak escapes through his straining vocal cords as yellow pulp spouts out of him and explodes over the white porcelain. His watery eyes register lumps of fatty cheese and sausage that he’d eaten earlier. His breath tastes sour and his head pounds. Quietly he closes the bathroom door before he flushes the toilet. He’s made enough noise. Edith must not wake up. He can’t imagine answering her questions. Not after tonight.
He crouches on the toilet and lets his urine flow. What got into him, for God’s sake? The evening had started off so well. It was Friday. His Friday. As always he had washed his armpits at the office and pulled on a clean shirt before walking softly through the corridor on his way out of the building. He chuckled about his colleagues whom he knew to be sitting behind the half-open doors, working their fingers to the bone, unable to let go of the abstract files. On other days he himself was like that too, but this Friday he was not doing any overtime. Even so, each time he stops 15 minutes early on this one Friday in the month, he anticipates being accused of running away from the collective drudgery, and the hair of his neck stands upright and his sphincter tightens. Quickly he looked behind him into the empty corridor. Out of habit, not because he could have suspected what was awaiting him that night. Or had his sixth sense wanted to warn him?
He sighs and rubs the base of his skull. His neck muscles are hard as rock. In the mirror above the sink opposite the toilet he stares into his own bloodshot eyes. Slowly an emerging panic is starting to glow, right above his navel.
Outside the office his step had become bouncier. He left behind him the modern, snow-white block of the ministry at the Schedelhoekshaven and steered a course for the centre of The Hague, walking by the high-rise castles of the modern city with their brown, white and orange facades. In a few minutes he reached Korte Poten Street. Briefly he stood still in front of a small Jugendstil building, one window wide, where a shop sold evening clothing. An elegant black dinner jacket. Once upon a time he had nearly bought it. Determined, he swallowed and walked on, past the old drugstore that today had two plastic flamingos on display, past the Wiener Konditorei, to the Plein, the main square.
Jeroen and he had often played this game when they were still students, not taking the fastest route to their destination, but increasing their pleasure by postponing the moment of arrival. They would never ever have spent an evening the way he does now. If Jeroen had been around, last night’s disaster would never have happened.
He switches off the light and sneaks back to bed. When he slips under the duvet, Edith groans in her sleep. He covers her up again and continues to retrace his steps of the evening before, lingering as long as possible over the innocent part of it.
He had crossed the Plein and walked onto the Binnenhof, the Inner Court and seat of the government, where he paused for a moment. He often imagines how his efforts at the Ministry are bricks in the structure of state power, that he is part of a greater scheme, that he matters. That the Binnenhof belongs a little to him, too. In front of the Knights’ Hall he imagined how Count Floris IV must have looked up at this gothic building he had built here eight centuries ago, gesturing and pointing as he gave orders to his knights. Such imagining took him back to the old days with Jeroen. For a brief moment, pigs and chickens snuffled and pecked around him instead of tourists. Plein, the grand square that he just crossed, was then still the vegetable garden of the court. Jean-Pierre was taken aback when he noticed that allowing himself the old dream plays didn’t hurt that much anymore.
Finally he had turned up the collar of his coat and walked through Gevangenispoort, the ancient prison gate along the water that surrounds the Binnenhof, and into Lange Voorhout Street. The twilight blackened the long silhouettes of the leafless trees. His detour had ended. Even with his eyes closed, he could now have found his way.
Warmth, cigarette smoke and a smell of beer enveloped him as he opened the door of the Bar of the Veil. Above the entrance hangs a sign with a lady in baggy trousers, her face half-hidden by a transparent cloth. The picture is misleading, because the bar has nothing much eastern about it, or anything else that a veiled lady might suggest. Unless you counted the dark red, knotted carpets on the tables and a kitsch bust on the counter with round cheeks and a yellow turban. The owner had, before he married Marie and to her sadness died early, been on holiday to Egypt and didn’t want to forget the exotic ladies with their feather-soft touch. But his passion for the East hadn’t gone beyond the name of his bar, which Marie inherited.
Jean-Pierre hung his coat on the stand by the door. Happy hour had just started and the place was already quite crowded. Cheerfully he recognized three faces. He joined them at their table.
‘Charles, Peter, Chris… you all in good shape?’
Without waiting for their answer he waved at the woman behind the bar with a boyish smile he has used since a woman told him it made him irresistible. It works for men too, as he discovered years ago during his job interview. The fact that he had graduated cum laude from Leiden University had helped, of course, to get into a rather high position for a young lad on the make. The man who gave him his job had admitted, just before he retired, that his cheerful, well-mannered ways had tilted the scales in his favor.
‘Marie, give us a round, girl!’
Marie gave a thumbs-up to show that she’d heard him. A little later she appeared with four beers and a tray of sausage. She let out a coquettish cry when Jean-Pierre gently slapped her well-rounded bottom. His friends laughed. He felt how her buttocks were firmly held together by her corset. Sometimes he had fantasies about how he’d open up the hooks one by one. Inch by inch her white flesh would open out, swell from the taut wrapping that his hands would rip to each side. Marie has a pretty face with red lips that beg to be kissed. Jean-Pierre never went that far. His freshness won him a cuff on the ear.
Marie took his hand off her hip, smacked his wrist and ticked him off in her deep voice.
‘Keep your hands to yourself, Romeo!’
He basked in her good-naturedness, in the chuckling of his friends. They raised their glasses and cheered him on. Outside darkness fell, but here the lamps and the chrome of the beer tap were glowing cosily. He found comfort in the clicking of balls from the billiard table and the gathering murmur of voices as more guests arrived. Here, his cramped innards relaxed. He can never remember exactly how these hours pass, or what they talk about. Football, politics, and jokes which he immediately forgot.
He stroked his moustache. ‘Marie! Bring us another round!’
Friends, yes, that’s what he called these men, even though he doesn’t know much of their lives yet and they only see each other in The Veil. He’d first met Charles, a gas station owner of 52, seven months ago at his garage. Jean-Pierre was still feeling miserable and aimless back then, but somehow Charles had managed to make him laugh. It had been brief, but enough to lift the black cloud over his heart. Jean-Pierre realized that he didn’t need to spend the rest of his life in darkness and accepted Charles’ offer to have a drink together. Edith applauded the fact that he was getting out again.
He presses his face into the pillow. If only she knew.
Charles doesn’t get his hands dirty anymore. He has a couple of men working for him and is about to open up two new workshops. When he tells about how he cheats some customers, they roar with laughter. Every now and then Jean-Pierre is a little jealous of him, a man with his own business. At such moments he wished he hadn’t listened to his parents but followed his heart, even though he knows he did the sensible thing by taking a government job. He is such a sensible boy, his mother always says. And smart. None of Jean-Pierre’s companions went to university. He happily accepts their admiration.
Chris is 46 and a bookkeeper. His work yields no more than an occasional tip about tax deductions, but he makes up for that with his travel stories. Chris goes to obscure places all over the world. That too, Jean-Pierre would have loved to do, but Edith finds even Germany an adventure. Jeroen was no explorer either.
Peter, 42 is a photographer at a portrait studio and recently divorced. That’s a topic Jean-Pierre avoids. Friends, by now, have to be people with whom he enjoys himself. Serious subjects he’ll discuss with Edith, if at all.
Until just a few hours ago he felt grateful to these men for uncovering his passion to act as a real man, something he’d never known he had in him. Raised by a mother who taught him to cook and work the washing machine, he adjusts and bends to the sensitivities of the opposite sex. He thinks nothing of a crying fit, and navigates skillfully through the irritable days of the month. The other three are far more macho. Sometimes their pronouncments about women make him gasp for breath. He laughs, not altogether sincerely, at their rude jokes, but he’s happy that he can laugh again at all. Once a month he takes on this other skin to indulge primeval instincts these friends have helped him discover. At home he drinks white wine, very civilized, here he drinks beer. Here he can be a lad, able to be a charming fellow once again.
Ha! What has he talked himself into? Grimly he stares into the darkness and pushes the duvet off because the beer sweat makes him hot. How did he fool himself?
He wanted to please his so-called friends so much that he hardly gave them the chance to order a round. A gush of cold air from an open door brushed past his ankles. Curiously he looked over his shoulder. He felt a light tingling in his lower belly when he spotted a skinny man in a long, grey coat. He turned back to the table and wrestled with the muscles in his cheek to suppress the grin emerging from under his moustache. He saw from the others that they too had spotted Patrick.
‘Hmm, Romeo,’ Charles growled, and rolled his eyes. All four burst out in laughter and raised their glasses to their mouths for a greedy gulp. With the back of his hand, Jean-Pierre wiped the foam off his moustache. He raised his hand.
Marie nodded. She knew Patrick and knew that the fifth glass was his. Jean-Pierre suspects she doesn’t like the man, but Marie is first and foremost a businesswoman. She put the glasses on the table.
Soon a male arm appeared in the corner of Jean-Pierre’s eye, pushing a tray with five shotglasses of jenever onto the table. The person whom they knew as Patrick, hadn’t taken off his coat. The Dutch gin was part of their ritual, but even without it Jean-Pierre would have known immediately who was dressed in this cool-grey, expensive looking material. Patrick’s tightly cropped head lowered into his field of vision. His face was a little puffy. Too many jenevers. Business was going well.
‘Patrick, man, join us,’ Jean-Pierre said.
In silence they raised their glasses. The liquid warmed his tongue, made his gullet glow and soon set small flames licking at his ears and toes. As soon as Patrick appears, the party starts. Tonight he seemed tense. Without pausing he ordered another round of jenever and knocked back his glass. The other three noticed too. They looked at Patrick with a question in their eyes, which Jean-Pierre voiced.
‘Well,’ Patrick said and remained silent.
Jean-Pierre became impatient.
Patrick only sighed.
Ashamed, Jean-Pierre remembers the void he felt below his stomach. Exactly in the spot where he feels panic now. What eagerness to throw away his life. He huffs and turns onto his side. He had been so afraid that his evening would fall through. ‘Well?’ he hears himself ask again.
Patrick got up, and, watched by all four, walked to the bar. He came back with one shotglass of jenever. Jean-Pierre clenched his fists on the table.
‘Oh, come on, tell us!’
Patrick turned the little glass between his manicured fingers and stared at it. When he looked up his eyes were shining.
‘I have something very special,’ he finally said.
The void in Jean-Pierre’s belly stopped growing. His friends shifted on their chairs.
‘Very special,’ Patrick repeated. ‘But only one of you can be the lucky one. Who?’ He lifted the glass and looked straight at Jean-Pierre. ‘For whom?’
Jean-Pierre felt his throat dry up. He couldn’t say anything, didn’t want to say anything, especially not the name of one of the others, he hoped so much that he…
‘Romeo,’ came from Peter’s mouth.
‘Yes, Romeo,’ the other two joined in.
‘For Romeo,’ they repeated all three together.
Patrick put the shotglass in front of Jean-Pierre. ‘For Romeo,’ he whispered.
‘Are you sure?’ Jean-Pierre asked hesitantly. The fist around his innards relaxed when he saw the three heads nodding. A flush of excitement washed over his body. ‘Rraww!’ he growled and pounded his chest with his fists while the other watched and laughed. Such fantastic friends he had, he needed to buy them another round, make up for their sacrifice. ‘Marie! Five!’ he shouted jubilantly.
He wanted to offer them more drinks to make this grateful warmth inside him continue, but Patrick got up. ‘We have to go.’
Jean-Pierre pulled himself up. The light dizziness in his head increased his feeling of bliss. He growled again. Patrick was already at the door, and from the corner of his eye he saw the cool stare of Marie, while his friends whined softly: ‘O Romeo!’
He walked away from the table, but Charles stopped him. He stood up and pretended to be solemn. ‘Romeo,’ he said, while the others looked at him expectantly, ‘a man only turns forty once. Congratulations! Enjoy!’
Confused, Jean-Pierre gazed at him. In a flash he remembered the never-executed plan to celebrate both his and Jeroen’s birthday with Edith and Carla in the Kurhaus Casino, but a jolt form Peter brought him back to The Veil. ‘Go on,’ Chris said, ‘and enjoy for us too. But we do demand an extensive report.’
Before he closed the door behind him, he looked back. His friends raised their glasses and nodded encouragingly. They were even nicer than he thought. A present for his birthday!
|Date of birth||2009|
|ISBN||978 90 5429 276 0|