White t-shirt on scraggy chest, Jean Pierre pulls on levers that turn bank notes into lager. The frothy piss flows into slim glasses that are quickly lined up before the small crowd of revellers hanging around the counter. His dark hair is licked silver at the temples. His eyes, two dark strobes that shine out of slightly sunken sockets, sit above a sharp nose.
We’ve walked to the pub from a livelier spot up the street. An earlier downpour has trickled to a light drizzle and with beer and a weak cup of tea downed, we push open the pub’s glass door with fingers crossed.
“What movie are you showing tonight?” is what I assume she asks. My friend is speaking Dutch. It seems to me like the words are formed right at the back of her throat, gurgled from behind a tongue curved into a small hill; vocal chords vibrating.
After a few exchanges, Nyn turns to me with a smile on her face. I’m in luck. The tiny theatre will be showing an English language film that night. It is English in every sense of the word. Invisible Woman is a British film about the secret love affair between a middle-aged Charles Dickens and a nubile Nelly Ternan. I hand over the cash for my ticket and Jean Pierre pretends to stuff the bills into his front shirt pocket. “What am I supposed to do with this? Is this a tip?” he says to me in English. Nyn and I laugh. He hands me my ticket and we turn to leave. We have an hour to kill. Right at the door, I turn back and yell, “Don’t start the movie without me!”
He promises not to. We skip to our next destination. A dance studio. Nyn and her fiancé are practising their first official dance as man and wife. It is supposed to be a surprise so I can’t take pictures or record videos. Instead, I watch the athletic Nyn and her muscular beau perform a Hip Hop routine to ‘Happy’. They are adorable.
Pharrell sings about a room without a roof in one full of mirrors and a shiny timber floor. The couple watch their reflected selves. Their moves are still a bit mechanical. I can hear them count out the steps. They stop often, correct each other with a laugh and a shaking of the head. I am the one-finger DJ who slides an arrow back and forth until it is 10 minutes to the movie and I make a mad dash back to the pub.
I am back. Jean Pierre comes out from behind the counter and leads me down a hole in the middle of the room. The bar and its noises disappear above us as the staircase curves towards darkness. We finally land in a small room bathed in soft light and covered in movie posters. I can see the street pavement from a corner window. Jean Pierre opens a side door with flourish and I walk into the tiniest professional movie theatre I’ve ever seen. Twenty plush red seats face a large white screen to the door’s right. I’m puzzled, where’s everybody? He tells me I’m the only one watching a film that night and I’m elated. This means I can yell at, laugh at, argue with the figures on-screen without judgement. Hell, I could freely fart in there.
Jean Pierre hands me a fluffy blanket and tells me to come upstairs once the film is over. I settle in. A goofy smile on my face. The film opens on a rough sea. A woman in heavy skirts, corset and a dainty hat is furiously cutting across the sea shore. Her chest is heaving as her feet kick up small specks of sand.
Felicity Jones is fantastic as Nelly and Ralph Fiennes as Dickens is beyond fine—but has that man ever disappointed in a role? I later learn that he doubles up as the film’s director and I’m deeply impressed. Time flies and the script draws me in. In one scene, Dickens reads Nelly a passage from his novel, Great Expectations:
You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since—on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with…Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil.
Little wonder why the affair lasted 13 years. Too soon the film is over. I am filled with questions as I ascend the swirled stairway. Loud conversations and alternative pop music rush into my ears. The pub is considerably full. I spot the future Bikos in a corner. They ask me about the film. Palms face the ceiling, I shake my head and say, “Beautiful! Tragic! Aaah!” I tell them how I was glad to be alone in the small room. Nyn tells me she’d been speaking with Jean Pierre and apparently the cinema and pub have been doing so badly they’ll be closing at the end of the month. I am horrified. I rush to the counter, find an empty seat and press Jean Pierre for more information.
He serves drinks, brings his own ruby-coloured poison to his lips and talks about the looming death of Café 16cc. Jean Pierre offers to make me a cocktail on the house. I decline. “You don’t drink so I can’t spoil you with something sweet,” he says. I settle for the next best thing, cranberry juice.
Jean Pierre has been at the café for six months. It used to be a much bigger space. Turns out the staircase in the room once led to both hell and heaven. The Pearly Gates were now plastered over. St. Peter is making no more admissions to the room with a fully-stocked bar and a chilled out vibe. All through the changes, Jean Pierre has worked as bartender and manager. He tried to keep the place lively by hosting film, music, photography, art and literary gigs; something unfamiliar in that part of Amsterdam. Still, the numbers refused to climb.
There were two main problems: the rival sister pub up the street and an obstinate boss. The café’s adversary was the livelier one Nyn and I had been to earlier. It took the lion’s share of potential clientele. And, the man who owned both pubs did nothing to aid the struggling one. If anything, Jean Pierre felt the man bought up Café 16cc to ensure that there was no real competition on his turf. “You must really love something to make it work,” he says.
I’m asking too many questions so the tables turn. Jean Pierre is delighted to learn that I’m interested in short fiction; so is he! I feel a tap on my shoulder, the Happy dancers are tired and want to head home. I’m torn. Jean Pierre finds out where I’m staying and offers to help me get a cab home later. He’s neglected the counter for too long and the sullen faces of ambitious drunks require him to return to his station. Besides, this is the final drinkup that the group of law students would be enjoying there. They had formed a tradition of getting jointly plastered there once month, but no more.
I retire to the other end of the room. Slip off my boots and tuck my stocking-covered feet beneath me on a leather sofa pushed against two windows facing the street. My boots and the legs of the sofa rest on a tartan carpet under which is a wooden dais. There’s a floor lamp next to me and a stool covered in cowhide. Green curtains frame the windows.
Books run the length of the walls opposite the counter. I had plucked one as I went to sit and wait out the final party. Thick as a phone directory, the glossy-covered tome partly chronicled the 100 best films of all time. From the eerie staircase shadow of Nosferatu to the undeniable white-suit cool of Casablanca’s Humphrey Bogart, the volume covered two decades of cinema and was enough to sponge up the rest of the evening.
Soon, the noise dies down and the last group merrily hiccups their goodbyes. I slip my shoes back on and return to the bar. On my way there I notice that what I thought were doodles on the wallpapered sections of the pub were in fact faces drawn with a ballpoint pen. The blue, spindly figures stand in groups of twos or threes, though some were solo. They grin, loop arms across shoulders or strike bemused poses to form a template that is reproduced ad infinitum.
Jean Pierre wasn’t always a bartender and manager. He used to live in South Holland near the North Sea. One day, he met an Amsterdam girl on holiday. Jean Pierre fell in love and followed her to the city. That was two years ago. They’re still together. What Jean Pierre has always been though, is cheeky. He developed a penchant for drawing tiny penises around the bar when bored. His boss didn’t find this amusing so Jean Pierre took to drawing them in obscure spots. The miniscule pricks would then become visible only to customers whose eyes tended to wander about as they waited to be served.
The news of the café’s closure has made Jean Pierre start to rethink his priorities in life. What dreams have been deferred? Writing is certainly one of them. He wants to take a Creative Writing course but the local universities don’t have strong programs. Therefore, he has come up with a plan to teach himself how to write.
It involves finding a book he loves and in it, a page that deeply moves him. Taking a piece of paper, the goal is to write it from memory until the handwritten matches the printed, word for word. Copying it by hand over and over until he begins to understand the elements that make the passage work. He then uses these tools to rewrite the passage. It’s time for a trip to the restroom. I slip behind the door and discover that they are unisex. The Ally McBeal theme song plays in my mind. On my return, Jean Pierre is yawning and rubbing his eyes. I find out that it is 2am.
We exchange email addresses and I ask for a souvenir. He takes a branded matchbox off the counter and writes something in the inner track of the ‘6’. He hands it over and it reads: ‘This is not a penis’.
I laugh and laugh and laugh.