Oil on Panel 2018, 12 x 18 inches
With the permission of Max Ferguson, the artist.
I knew he'd come back. Later. After dark. Alone. This gracious gentleman from Beijing. I could tell Valentine thought much the same. We could see it in his eyes. The way he stared at me as he spoke, as he asked his questions. The lilt in his voice. The smell of excitement exuding from his pores.
I’m always happy to help Valentine. To talk with the visitors she’s showing around. Exposing them to Amsterdam. The liberal Dutch, with the coffee shops and legalised sex industry. We’ve known each other for nearly twenty years. Ever since she was an outreach worker handing out needles and condoms to the street-girls. I was a teenager back then. Fresh from the country with a raging smack habit. It was scary and dangerous and the vultures were as eagle-eyed in Amsterdam as in any place. The guy who pimped me was a professional. He injected me full of heroin and for that I did whatever he put my way. Yet Valentine always seemed to be there. At all hours. In the darkest corners of the city. With her backpack, flask of soup and kind words. She knew all our names. Where we were from. What we dreamed after. Trust grew between us. Then, when it mattered most, it was she who called the ambulance when I overdosed. And it was Valentine who was at my bedside when I came around. Valentine persuaded me to go to detox and rehab. And I've been clean ever since. Then I followed a time-honoured path. I did some studying. Fell in love. Had my beautiful daughter, Miranda. Fell out of love. I tried other work (even at Valentine’s agency). But I wanted to be an active participant in Miranda’s growing up. So I went back to the job I knew best, that paid well and gave me agency and control. It won't last forever, but what does?
Nowadays Valentine’s big in the Health Department, heading up HIV policy, speaking on the TV, travelling to international conferences. Dr Yeuwan was on a study tour for Chinese clinicians specialising in sexually transmitted infections. He seemed especially impressed by the doctor who visits us for weekly check-ups. And, like I said, he also seemed impressed by me.
Business had been slow today. There was a football game in town, so it was mainly young men strolling by, window shopping, swilling beer and chanting. Egging each other on, but no one crossing the threshold. I was thinking of going home. To be indoors before Miranda finished her shift at the restaurant. That's when I saw Dr Yeuwan. He was standing on the pavement as I sat patiently on display in my bay window. I smiled. Just the hint of a smile, but enough to put him at his ease. Then I outstretched my hand. Almost imperceptibly. Wiggled my fingers. Time honoured gestures. Beckoning. Enticing. He moved from view. Then I heard the familiar turn of the handle and the opening of the door.