Mr. F woke up one morning like many others. It may have been Sunday, but then again, Mr. F is not one that makes a difference between work days and weekends, he’s a lucky one. Lets assume though that it was Sunday, for the sake of all the other fellows who abide to the seven day week.
It was a morning like many others, a July that could have been September or October. For sure this ought to be sea, thinks Mr. F as the noise of the ever present Dutch wind starts to get on his nerves as regularly as his morning coffee. He wonders about the Dutch and their indefatigable stubbornness in claiming the land from the sea, in working everyday for centuries to keep barely dry this country that clouds and wind still consider as sea.
As his mind is divided between this thoughts and which book to pick up for the day’s company, he thinks what he really likes of the Netherlands. He has many friends not far away, they are the one who, he believes, made him understand this country. They demand little of him but a little company every once in a while, so that the ever present wind doesn’t blow his thoughts into anger, his nerves strayed as if the wind was actually playing with them like flags. Sometimes he doesn’t see them for weeks, too busy or too lazy to think about them; but every time he feels idle – not lazy, which is as different as a gourmet and from a glutton – he pays them a visit. Silent friends who speak to him every one of the same and yet so different things. Old men with wisdom and history in their eyes and on their hands, red cheeked boys and fair maidens. One of those blondes may have taught him the meaning of platonic love, Mr. F thinks as his eyes go over the bookshelf for the third time in a row. He has been to visit them just last week, but that was different, he had company. Every time Mr. Norris has guests, or in general acquaintances willing to follow his habits for an afternoon, he is very proud to introduce them to his northern friends. It is a different kind of pleasure than the one he usually has with them though. He is proud of his friends, although he has no right to this pride, and he therefore enjoys introducing them. When he does so, he barely pays attention to them and spends the time observing the reaction on the guest’s face. Mr. F, in these cases, feels like a collector showing his most prized pieces, an explorer back from exotic lands eager to astonish and impress with his findings, things that he considers his own with the same right of the artist or the craftsman who made them. He feels pleasure in sharing his friends and exchanging opinions on them, but that is not the pleasure that makes him treasure and visit these people so much and so often.
Concluding these thoughts along with the cheap filtered coffee his gaze must have gone over the back of the books in his library at least eight or nine times, never stopping on one long enough for his mind to decide on it. Sometimes he wonders if a library could be a book in itself, one author after the other, titles and publishing houses, colours and genres. Indeed, taken as such, it must be the book he has read the most, over and over every day, increasing by a few sentences a month.
Even so, he cannot spend his day reading his library; idleness, after all, is not laziness, nor slumber. Putting down the empty mug with a satisfying full sound on the hardwood desk he stands from the armchair, perusing the library one last time, just to be sure, but he has already made up his mind.
Mr. F grabs his coat, damning the weather which doesn’t seem to abide to the seasons, and packs a small bag with notebook and book; even if he didn’t settle on one Mr. F strongly believes in never going anywhere he could have free time without a book. He will go visit his friends, properly this time, alone, and he will take the opportunity to buy a book his mind will actually stick on. As a child he visited bookshops like other kids did toy stores and, unlike the other grown up kids, he still hasn’t lost the fascination for his toys.
The wind is a nuisance but nothing anybody living in the low countries is not used to or, in the case of Mr. F, used not getting used to. While he pedals on the bike towards the amorphous box of the new station – such a little nice one they had the first time he came here, it felt like you really had arrived somewhere – he thinks about his friends and the order in which he should visit them. They all live in the same house, one of those places in which their kind dwells thanks to governments or private benefactors, but Mr. F knows that you can’t simply start from the first room from the entrance and carry on. This way of going on meeting them is for other kinds of visitors, those who only visit once, maybe not even to meet and get to know the tenants but to be able to say that they have met them. They take a picture with them, as proof, a nod of the head and a minute sitting together, often just a peak from the front door, and off they are, having forgotten the face of the first as they meet the second. No, this is not Mr. F’s way, he visits often and in the order he, and he believes his friends as well, prefer. For example, the lady he fancies being in love with must be the first he visits when he arrives and the last to say goodbye to when he leaves. Mr. F is a gentleman after all, and he is in love, although she probably doesn’t know; not that it matters. In the same way, he would not dare mix the lax joviality and fat laughter of some of his merry friends with the soberness or mystique of some of the most noble ones. The manager, he must admit, has done a good job in placing the tenants according to age, character, social class and so on. Still, there is no absolute order nor hierarchy, or so Mr. F believes, especially when dealing with such a complex matter as people; one has to make his own order and hierarchy and be willing to change it.
Mr. F likes very much their house, which in fact is part of the reason why he visits so often. He likes especially the fact that his friends, although so diverse in all those matter that define a human being, are at home here. Of course, like in all the residential complexes of this kind, no one who lives in them was born there, probably many of them didn’t even want to move in or had no choice. Nonetheless, Mr. Maurits has left one of the best examples of its kind Mr. F has ever visited; not only his friends feel at home, but he feels at home with them too in their company. Very often he wishes he could make that his house for a few nights, or at least be able to visit them alone. He would spend a whole evening in the dim warm light of the old lady’s candle, becoming a child again, like the one she shares her stories with every day. How much she says to him every time he visits her, the simple wisdom of the old and poor comes out of her as only a great artist could render without dirtying it with rhetoric. He would watch the flame play with her wrinkles while confronting them with the shiny cheeks of her nephew; he always feels so calm when he is with them. Mr. F has wondered many times what is so attracting about that couple, simple and powerful, full of secrets on the world, life, time; they are there, waiting for the right question, or an attentive gaze. When he spends some time with them, oblivious of the other visitors, he feels like standing in front of the ocean; silent and murmuring, so simple and yet complex, it holds everything one could imagine beneath its wrinkled surface. He spoke about it with one of their neighbours, a jovial and wise monk whose bulk and clothes seem to Mr. F as though he should touch them, feel them. Mr. F, however, keeps the proper distance and speaks with him of religion and kindness, of order and magnanimity. He really likes this monk who’s dressed in religion but welcomes all with open hands and a smile.
Although he really likes many of those living there, he wouldn’t consider them his friends otherwise, not all of them convey to him the same sense of familiarity. Some of them keep him on edge, and he likes to visit them because of it. There’s a stern man in a deep blue room whose gaze penetrates Mr. F in a way that pierces deep inside of him, although he still has to figure out what and where are those eyes looking for, or for that matter, what it is they pierce in him. He speaks very little, his severe eyes taking over the whole figure, but nonetheless he is usually one of the firsts Mr. F likes to visit. Partly because he is very close to Elisabeth, his ideal love, but also because when he is with him Mr. F feels a certain solid quietness that soothes him and makes him feel his feet on the ground, as they say, like an old grandpa whose presence is enough to calm and cluster the whole family.
Others give Mr. F an uncanny feeling he still hasn’t fully understood. There is a group of them, doctors they say, although he is not completely sure he can trust them, that look around all the time. Their gaze seems to be everywhere except where it should be, when they look at him he feels like a specimen in some alchemical jar. Luckily their neighbours are jovial fellows whose laughter and cynicism he never fails to enjoy.
A few doors down, passing through bouquets of flowers and fantastical vistas from the windows, Mr. F knows he can find two of his favourite tenants. The first is a little goldfinch, a merry little thing whose song and fly keep Mr. F in a rapture for minutes on end. Its wings are so shiny, they clash with the deep melancholy that he feels in its presence. It may be because the bird is chained to its little house, or maybe it still remembers the fire who killed so many of his companions and left him almost alone in the world.
After the goldfinch usually comes the most visited of Maurits’ tenants, she is so famous that sometimes Mr. F has to wait in line to exchange a few words with her; sometimes the visitors are so many, noisy and rude that he satisfies himself with a quick glance which says how much he’s sorry and that he’ll come back another time. He hopes she understands this glance, harassed as she is by all those practitioners of disposable tourism. When he is alone with her they don’t talk much, she is so beautiful and with such a mysterious countenance in between shyness and soberness, tinted with an undefinable malice – she reminds him, and he’s not alone in this, of another lady in a house like this in Paris. He simply looks at her red lips moving against the dark background of the room, her golden hair shining against the softness of her turban. Dutch but not Dutch, familiar but enough exotic to never stop wondering about her, after a while Mr. F usually gets lost in the single pearl hanging from her lobe and he leaves this ungraspable beauty to go and say goodbye to his love; platonic, ideal, but much easier to grasp than the girl with the blue turban.
As Mr. F arrives at the house, he thinks of these and other friends that are waiting for him inside. The noise of people and bikes slowly dies out as he descends into the underground entrance of the building. He still hasn’t decided who he will visit after Elisabeth, probably the old lady and her nephew, a couple that somehow covers all the other tenants in its breadth of age, atmosphere, light…
We leave Mr. F as he ascends the white staircases leading from the lobby to his friends. You can do the same and visit them, maybe spend a bit of time with them after having taken their picture, maybe come back another time. You can find them all in the Mauritshuis at Plein 29, The Hague, Netherlands.
Peter Paul Rubens, Old Woman and Boy with Candles, c. 1616 – 1617 (source: www.mauritshuis.nl)