Simon Kearns’s “Standing Before The Apostle”
Simon Kearns was born in London in 1972. He grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in the south of France with his partner and two children. His debut novel, Virtual Assassin, (Revenge Ink, 2010), was followed by Dark Waves, (Blood Bound Books, 2014). His short stories have appeared in The Future Fire, Litro, The Honest Ulsterman, and all over the internet. A new novel, The Night Has Seen Your Mind, will be published later in 2020 by Elsewhen Press.
Standing Before The Apostle
It had long been my desire to return to Amsterdam, city of indulgence, city of sin, whose threat of watery extinction compels you to live like there’s no tomorrow. Existential angst and debauchery, the city and I have a lot in common. That said, my second visit was business, not pleasure. Just another merchant of the black market, shifting contraband, keeping the veiled wheels of the world well-greased.
Not much had changed. Amsterdam is the kind of city where nothing ever seems to change; canals and coffee shops, bikes, dikes, and hookers — that’s what I expected and that’s what I got. Tall, skinny houses, bell-shaped gables, open shutters like down-turned eyes. A sad-faced Venice, sinking into the Amstel and Zuyder Zee, the convergence of which gave the city its birth, and against which it has battled ever since.
At the hotel the Chinese girl on reception wore turquoise contacts that gave her eyes a cold hardness, but her smile was warm, and she directed me to a clean and reasonably sized room. Being a business trip, and a decently paid one at that, it was an above standard hotel. The only requisite for the booking had been the inclusion of a fridge, and there it was, small and squat, humming quietly to itself. Inside were four tiny tins of beer and a few shorts. Perks. I took out a minuscule bottle of Jack Daniels, rinsed a plastic glass, and poured out the golden liquid.
No hurry. I’d done the whole Amsterdam thing last time: smoked the killer weed, banged a couple of mid-price hookers. This time things were different. The bed was soft. I sat and it sunk towards the middle. Savouring the bourbon, I lay back and listened to the sounds of the city seeping in from the tiny window high on the wall.
People, always people, walking, talking, hustling, heaving. The ding-ding of a tram rang out as it rattled along the Damrak a few streets over. The hotel was just a minute’s walk from Dam Square, well situated to lend support to my cover as a tourist. To get into the role I had bought a guide app. Bored, I accessed it, fitted the ear plugs and listened.
‘Hey, buddy! Welcome to Amsterdam! One of the most popular short-break destinations in Europe with almost forty-five million overseas visitors every year.’
It was in American, so I changed it to English, and flipped the gender to female. ‘Relax in the canal-side restaurants, sip a beer in one of the many Brown Cafés, or lose yourself in the city’s vibrant nightlife.’
I was woken by the chiming of bells. I looked at my phone, it was coming up to eight o’clock. My alarm was just about to go off. Up on the wall, the little barred window was beginning to darken. Groggy from sleep, I went to the sink and splashed cold water on my face. The meeting was due to take place in an hour. My contact’s name was Andre. I was to meet him in a café called The Schreierstoren, on the edge of the red light district.
The girl on reception gave me another of her winning smiles as she buzzed me out the front door. I liked her, she was pretty. I decided to offer her a drink when I got back from the meeting.
The street was hectic: a swollen river of people with two well-defined currents. I joined the one that led east and flowed into Dam Square, itself a sea of faces. On the far side rose the national monument to the dead of long ago wars: a big stone island towards which I had to swim, then swing around to head out of the square and into the tight warren of streets beyond.
The café wasn’t too hard to find. It was dark inside, not many customers. I ordered a beer and took a table at the back. The others all seemed, like me, to be on their own, leaning over their drinks, not at all concerned with anyone else. It wasn’t the kind of place you came for a beer with your mates. I sat on my own for half an hour. He was late. I drank two pints of lager. I don’t go for those small glasses the Dutch drink, most of it’s froth anyway. Half nine approached. I watched one of the customers get up from his table and come over to mine. He sat opposite me.
He wore mirrored sunglasses despite the dark of the café and onset of night; they reflected the dull brown of the table top giving him a vacuous wooden stare. He was short, balding, dressed in a shabby, dark suit. His impressive nose sloped back and joined a forehead of sorts, an incline that ended near the back of his head in an exposed dome. From a pocket he took a vacuum pipe and sucked in a deep, smokeless blast of marijuana, held it in his lungs, then exhaled with a long, wheezing sigh. He turned and waved at the barman.
‘So . . .’ he said eventually in a cracked voice, turning back to face me. I caught a glimpse of myself in his sunglasses, and a synthetic odour of musk. ‘You have the money?’
I couldn’t place his accent. It was Euroland, country-less, the kind of erratic inflection that comes from nowhere but is found everywhere. The barman slouched over and put a small glass of dark liquid on the table. Andre grunted and knocked it back. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket.
‘You have the goods?’ I asked.
He laughed. I waited, watching my unsmiling reflection in his sunglasses. ‘They are in safe place, we go. We get them.’ He stood up. With a flick of his head he indicated the bar. ‘You pay.’
I caught up with him outside and we walked for a few minutes in silence. He struck me as the kind of person who can’t stay quiet for long, and I was right.
‘You know how they do it?’
‘The eyes. You know how they take them?’
‘You just buyer, eh? New London’s man . . . It’s easy, painless. First you decide which eye you lose. The left or the right. You know how to decide?’
I didn’t want to know, but he wanted to tell me.
‘It’s easy, okay, everyone, they have one eye stronger, they call it dominant eye. You see that, up there?’
He had stopped and was pointing at a weather vane atop a church spire. ‘Okay, you point, go on . . . point right at the top bit with your finger. Okay, now look with just one eye. Now with other. Ja? You see, one eye is good, the other is off. The good eye is dominant eye . . . That way you choose which eye to lose, the one that is not dominant, yes? . . . What are you? Left or right?’
‘You don’t need to know that.’
He laughed and started walking again. ‘Yes, this is true. So, what they do next, once they know which eye to take, they give them knockout pill and suck out the eye with special pump,’ he made a popping noise with his lips, ‘cut and burn the nerves and stick in glass eye, et voila, very easy, yes?’
He must have been expecting questions. When he realised I wasn’t going to ask any, he shut up. I wondered what was behind his sunglasses. In what kind of life can giving up an eye be an option? There was that guy, the Viking god, Odin. He gave up an eye, but that was for knowledge. Mortals give up eyes for money. They come from outside Euroland, countries where Ret-Scans are not the primary means of identification. Old East Russia and some of the break-away Chinese states. Women mostly. Some children. They don’t differentiate; it’s the eyes they’re after, not what they’ve seen.
Back in New London the Boss had set up a venture to meet a demand that was small but very lucrative. With the rise of Ret-Scan, passports and IDs became obsolete. These days everything is in the eyes. They used to say that the eyes are a window to the soul, now they’re a window onto your bank account. Identity, credit rating, and criminal record, and, let’s be honest here, anyone who’s not with a company has a criminal record. It’s all there in the eyes: a lifetime’s worth of transaction, all the loyalty points and lifestyle choices you have ever made.
At the airport I was especially conscious of having my iris read by the cameras. My eyes are clean, tied to the company the Boss set up as cover, but it doesn’t stop my nerves from tingling, knowing they are watching me, the machines. I’m old enough to remember passports, those fuckers were easy to fake. Humans are gullible, machines aren’t.
As soon as I took the eyes back to New London they would be brought to a cloning lab and duplicated, the irises would be removed and grafted on to the eyeballs of whoever was paying. The hackers would get to work and new identities would be tied to the eyes, the buyers free to travel anywhere, buy anything, be anyone, without past indiscretions hindering them. It’s quite a luxury to be born-again.
We reached an anonymous door in an unlit alley. I heard the jangle of keys and wondered at the archaic security system of old-fashioned locks. Andre slipped inside.
‘Come,’ he whispered from within, from a deeper darkness. I couldn’t see him.
‘Where are we going?’
‘To get the eyes,’ he answered. I didn’t move. ‘The eyes,’ he said again, more urgently.
I reminded him for whom I worked and he responded in a hurt tone, as if I doubted his intelligence. We climbed five flights of stairs. Stopping outside an apartment, he sent a message from his phone. From within I heard footsteps, a muffled voice. Andre answered in a language I didn’t recognise and there followed a brief conversation in the same rasping lingo.
This is not a good place to die, said a voice in my head I didn’t recognise. I kept my eyes fixed on Andre and steadied my breathing. The beers had been a mistake, strong Dutch lager had clouded my faculties. I had no idea who this Andre was — he, however, knew me, and he knew how much I was carrying.
Although he still wore those sunglasses, I realized he was watching me. His tongue flicked across his bottom lip. I took a step back. He was about to say something when there was a loud thud and the door opened.
Momentary impressions — stink of skunkweed, hard beat of retro techno, and a man, silhouetted against the dim light coming from inside. He pointed something and I heard a click, my stomach lurched, I gripped the banister behind me.
It was only a weapon scanner. He shone it at me, then Andre. Content that we were unarmed, he spat onto the landing and waved us both inside.
We entered a hallway lined on each side with bunk beds so that one could only progress side on. Each bed was occupied and the eyes of those not sleeping followed me as I edged by. We passed rooms with even more beds.
At the end of the hall was a living room of sorts. Lit by optics which flickered, candle-style, the low ceiling looked graffitied but it could have been decoration, it was hard to tell because of the smoke.
Andre and the other man went into a side room. I was about to follow when someone spoke.
‘So, Engels, you have good flight?’ It was a woman’s voice, practically shouting over the monotony of the techno. She was lain like a paraplegic on a sofa bed by the far wall.
‘That’s good. Sit down.’ She went back to watching the silent screen beside her; it was showing Euroleague baseball. I crossed the room and sat on a chair next to her. She smelt of oranges, even over the stink of the skunkweed spliff she held between tattooed fingers. Thick white smoke crept through the grubby air and into my face. I could feel the drug rubbing up against the edge of my mind.
I stood up and walked to the sole window. Brick wall view. I returned to my seat and watched the game as I waited; Southern Spain against Ireland. The Bulls were losing.
‘You like?’ the woman asked, indicating the screen with a nod of her shaved head.
‘It’s okay,’ I answered.
After a few minutes Andre and the man returned. Andre was drinking from a bottle of beer. In his other hand he held a small silvery flask which he threw to me.
I caught it. Cold and bright it was out of place in the dingy room. I didn’t need to check the contents, I was just there to pick up the package. I put it into a side pocket of my jacket.
‘Five eyes,’ he said. ‘Two left, three right. You have fridge?’
‘Put it there tonight, it stays cold enough for journey. Now . . . monies.’
I stood up and reached a hand into my jacket. They tensed. I stopped for a second, enjoying the sudden reversal of anxiety. Slowly, I took out my phone. Andre held up his own. I pointed and transferred the credit. He verified the transaction and a skewed smile spread across his face.
‘Very good to do business,’ he said, making a little bow.
I nodded, once, and followed him to the front door. I walked out without looking at him.
‘Remember, Engels,’ called Andre from inside, ‘you ever need to sell eye, you come to me.’ He made the popping sound and laughed. The door closed and I was alone on the dark landing.
Back at my hotel the cute receptionist had been replaced by a man. I went up to my room and set the flask in the fridge. My boss would ensure an easy passage through customs so I didn’t need to worry about that. I didn’t need to worry about anything. All the same, my hands were shaking. I took out a miniature vodka, drank it neat from the bottle.
It was early. I decided to take a walk, see the sights, drink some more. A whole lot more. The streets were busier than before. It took me half an hour to get three roads over. I stopped by a kebab house and had falafel; it was good, the chilli sauce was vivid red and viciously hot. I grabbed a beer and, pushing through the throng, made my way to the streets where all the hookers have their windows. They stood against neon backgrounds in their knickers and nighties, bodies swaying to unheard music, automatic motions. Most of them were wired for Neural Networking but I couldn’t see the appeal of experiencing what a worn out pro felt while you were fucking her.
Some of them were actually beautiful, or had been, once upon a time. They gawked with hollow expressions and pouted turgid lips fattened by backstreet body-mods. As I passed, taking in all the shapes and sizes, the colours, the come-ons and provocations, I couldn’t help looking at their eyes, checking for glass. It’s in the eyes that all the despair is stored, all that shit a Ret-Scan will never be able to read — to a human it’s impossible to hide. They really are the windows of the soul, except these windows were thick with the grime of life’s basic urges; they let in no light, and they gave no indication of there being a soul behind them. Everything was surface here. What you saw was what you paid for, it didn’t go any deeper than that, no matter how much credit you transferred.
I drank for three hours, just watching.
Tourists, out to see the spectacle, walked briskly by, cracking middle-class jokes, trying not to look too shocked or too excited by what was going on around them. Gangs of drunken men stumbled, leering at the neon sharp booths and the dolled up meat inside. It was pathetic, the whole thing. I left feeling sick to my stomach, sick of all that it is to be a man, to be human. Sick of life.
I went back to my hotel and drank everything in the fridge. Near dawn, unable to sleep, drunk and spinning, I took out the silver flask. It weighed practically nothing. I shook it, gently. There was no sound. I wanted to open it, to look inside and see five eyes staring back at me. I wanted to see if eyes could induce the same nausea when they were dead.
I fell asleep on the floor with the flask in my hand.
When I finally found my bed, the hangover kept me there till midday. Luckily, before going back to sleep, I’d managed to return the flask to the fridge. I was due to fly back to London that evening. The need for food made me move. I washed my face and neck, put on clothes, and headed out to find a late breakfast.
Down by the flower market I discovered a cheap café. I ate and observed people wandering through the stalls of gaudy tulips. Nobody has gardens anymore, can’t afford the space, it’s all window boxes and plants modded to stay small.
After I had eaten, I fitted my earplugs, accessed music and took a walk through the market to some apex era rock. The Rolling Stones, remastered to reproduce the authentic sound of vinyl, the hiss and crackle and raw glory of the age.
I came across a bonsai stall, rows of tiny forests laid out on a table. The miniature bio-domes were misted bubbles teeming with genetically reduced rainforests. The woman selling them beckoned me over, got me to lean in and look closely. I peered into the steam of the micro-climate, wondering what I was supposed to be looking for, then I saw it. A bird, no bigger than a mosquito, its bright plumage flashing briefly as it appeared and disappeared amongst the dinky trees. I blinked and peered harder. There it was again, and another. They wheeled through the tiny space, chasing each other, then were gone. I looked up at the woman and she grinned at me.
‘Real,’ she said. ‘Real.’
I nodded and moved on. Real. What the fuck does that mean these days?
Next to the Keizersgracht, I took a table outside a bar and had a pint. It tasted good. Before leaving New London, I had decided not to indulge in narcotics whilst in Amsterdam, some foolish notion of professionalism, but my job had pretty much been done. I called over a waitress and pointed to a brand of marijuana on the menu. She returned with a smokeless pipe and the grass. I smoked a few bowls. It was potent, modded to produce a sudden high that would last for the rest of the afternoon. I frowned, I yawned, I rubbed my eyes as a cloud of intoxication settled over my senses.
The Keizersgracht was one of the canals they’d cleaned up. The purifiers had done their work, been netted and released into another canal. The water was clear, the bottom dredged and filled in with golden sand. Children were diving from a bridge and two women were sunbathing on a small wooden jetty next to my table. They wore thick, white sunpaste with strategically placed swirls of thinner block on their midriffs and around their breasts so as to produce the light and dark rococo patterns which were in vogue then.
I took out my phone and changed the music to something more suitable to my stoned state, then accessed the guide app and flicked through the programme. The GPS found me and I widened the map to see if there was anything of interest nearby. A little icon depicting a paintbrush flashed just south of where I was. I tapped it.
‘The Rijksmuseum is a grand palace of the arts and a great place to visit. It is also the National Museum of Holland. Like Central Station, it was designed in the second-wave gothic style by Cuypers. It houses many wonderful pieces by Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as numerous other famous works of art.’
Rembrandt. I remembered meeting him in Old London when I was a student. Another life. More than forty years ago now. Met him — that’s how it felt when I saw the self-portrait, like I’d met him. He fascinated me when I was young: his was the face of old age, something I thought I’d never see in a mirror. In his paintings he always looked as if he were losing a battle against the shadows that surrounded him, as if any one of those paintings could have been his last.
I got up to leave. The waitress pointed her phone at mine and made the transaction. I walked, following the on-screen arrow. It led me south.
The Rijksmuseum was imposing. Not in size, but in demeanour. There was an arrogance in its frontage, in how the sun glinted off the gilt finish; it wore the haughtiness of a survivor. I’ve seen war, it said to the nouveau-gothic buildings that surrounded it, all flashy glass and graphene, they were pale in comparison.
I interfaced my phone with the payment device, knowing that the credit transfer was being backed up by Ret-scan. The bars of the gate slid noiselessly into the wall and I entered.
Galleries are weird places. To me anyway. It always spooks me to be walking amongst the faces of the long dead. The portraits looked out at the whispering, shuffling crowds, as if it were they that were the viewers, respectfully silent, gazing through golden-framed windows onto a future world.
I stopped in front of a painting that showed a man, a drink in his left hand, his right spread open, looking as if he had been caught in mid-sentence, burbling happily, drunkenly. His eyes struck me immediately, they were glistening, watery, most likely through laughter.
‘Frans Hals,’ said the interactive guide with a lilting woman’s voice that introduced itself gently over the music my phone was playing. ‘The Merry Drinker … Notice the seemingly random and frenetic brush strokes which give the painting its lively feel.’
The gallery guide spoke perfect American with a pleasant Dutch accent. Obediently, I leant closer to admire the touch of the artist’s brush. I got really close. I stared, but no matter how hard I looked, or how close I got to the canvas, I couldn’t work out what it was about those few flecks of ancient paint that made the eyes so lifelike. Up close they were just blobs of colour, smears of oil, but from a few steps back they were alive. Bright and wet and vital.
I walked on. The walls were intensely white, the polished floor shimmered. The ever-present crowd pressed in. Everywhere, I saw people with chrome phones gleaming in their hands, stood in front of rectangles of colour, mostly dark colours, old colours, browns and shades of brown, dark gold and burgundy. I stopped in front of a painting and it took me a few moments to see it for what it was.
‘Jan Baptist Weenix . . . A dog and a cat near a partially disembowelled deer,’ said the guide cheerfully. The animal had been strung up by a rear leg, its guts spilt out on the table. A dog and a cat eyed each other threateningly on either side of the carcass, vying for the offal.
‘Game, such as this deer, were hung to bleed, thus tenderising and improving the taste of the meat, to mortify, as the process was known.’
It was disgusting and beautiful. The deer’s noble head rested on the table, turned towards the viewer, disdaining the squabbles of the domesticated cat and dog. Its one visible eye was milky white, dead. But still it revealed something, a secret pact between viewer and viewed, a mutual recognition; even if the eye was blind in death, and doubly blind because made of paint, there was recognition here.
I moved on, without direction, sauntering through the busy rooms, stopping only when something caught my attention and demanded my gaze. Blue eyes. Greeny-blue. They belonged to a madman who stared straight at me, a directness that shocked me.
‘Vincent Van Gogh … Self Portrait.’
His stare cut right through the oils, right through the fug of dope and beer and phone music. The right eye was blurred. Tears? Movement maybe?
‘Of the thirty-five self-portraits that Van Gogh painted, twenty-nine of them were painted in Paris, as was this in 1887.’
What was in those eyes? What was he asking of me, over all the years between us, through all the crowds of people that jostled to see his face? I blinked and shook my head, realising, with relief, that the grass-induced high had begun to recede. I freed myself from the throng around the canvas and went to find the Rembrandts. See them and go, I thought, enough of this stoned crap.
He was waiting for me.
First in disguise, stood next to a woman in a veil, The Jewish Bride. Her eyes were as wet as those of the Merry Drinker; big, soggy eyes, fit to burst with tears, as if the waters that had threatened Holland for so many hundreds of years had soaked into its people, water-logged them like the land, saturated their very souls so that when these gifted artists had tried to paint themselves or fellow citizens, all they could do was offer these sodden glances.
Just a little further along, Rembrandt was watching, alone and patiently. And he recognised me. Weary, honest Rembrandt, dressed this time as Saint Paul, but unmistakably him. The man who lost everything but his talent. He wore an expression that changed every time I looked it, but mainly he seemed to be saying, ‘Sorry, this is all there is.’
I felt as though I had disturbed him, walked up to him in his studio and tapped his shoulder. He stood there, playing at being the saint, clutching his letters.
‘Rembrandt van Rijn,’ said my phone, trying to break the ice with a formal introduction. ‘Self-portrait as the Apostle Saint Paul. Painted in 1661 . . . Rembrandt was fifty-five years old. Protruding from his cloak can be seen Saint Paul’s sword. The Apostle Paul was traditionally depicted with a sword to symbolise the period of his life when he fought against Christianity, and also as a foretelling of his own beheading in Rome.’
Fifty-five years old. Jesus, he was younger than me in this picture.
‘So,’ he said eventually, returning my gaze, ‘is this what you have become? Is this what has emerged from the excited young man I met in Old London all those years ago? A criminal, a low-down, dirty bagman, buying the eyes of the destitute for your rich master. Is this all there is?’
Yes, I answered, this is all there is. I turned my back and left him to his darkening studio. I left him to suffer the chattering crowds that surrounded him. I left him stuck in his silence. He was of another world, another time. I lived in the modern world. It was business, that was all. I was a businessman.
The effects of the dope wore off but a mood hung over me, a feeling of impending doom that nagged from the back of my mind. I tried to chase it away with more beer. It wouldn’t go. I went back to the hotel and lay on the bed, wide awake, listening as the bells of the nearby church rang out the passing hours.
They passed slowly.
When, finally, it was time to go, I gave the room a cursory check, then took the flask from the fridge. It was so cold to the touch that it roused me from the maudlin state of mind that’d hung on me since the gallery. I studied the small piece of silvery plastic. My reflection was stretched in the curved surface. I thought of the money it represented and that cheered me up. It was a commodity, like every other fucking thing in the world. The people who’d once owned what lay inside had made their choice; they’d gotten what they wanted, now it was my turn. That was what I told myself.
The cute Chinese girl was back at reception. Purple contacts this time. I put down my bag and pointed my phone for payment.
‘Thanks for staying at the Koninklijk Hotel sir, we hope you had a pleasant time in Amsterdam. We look forward to seeing you again.’
‘Yes,’ I smiled, ‘I was thinking I might return soon. Pleasure rather than business. Spend some of my hard-earned money.’
She smiled approvingly. I winked at her, picked up my bag, and stepped onto the crowded street.
I was feeling good.