Gabriel Bernink

Hailing from Amsterdam, Gabriel moved to the U.K at eighteen to study social theory at Cambridge. A recovering academic, he has since moved to London, where he tries with varying levels of success to write funny stories about serious topics, forsaking his mother’s tongue for his father’s English.



He turned right onto the canal quay and began to walk beside the water. Rising high on the left and looking down, the Old Church on the next street tolled midnight. He looked back up and smiled. An ancient church hemmed in by two rows of houses forking from the canal on either side with prostitutes beckoning behind red-neon-lit glass. Amsterdam’s very own Bermuda triangle, he’d say, where husbands and sons go missing. 

Smiling he walked towards the little shop whose lit-up windows had begun celebrating Christmas in early November. There was a long queue in front of the ATM inside. Most of the girls behind those other windows only accepted cash. He pushed through the crowd to reach the alcohol section. He grabbed a can of Jupiler Tripel, and then another, and sauntered up to the counter, where, as usual, he was met not only by the old balding Turkish owner, but also by his diminutive assistant, an angry red gnome greeting customers from his place beside the till with an even angrier erection. 

Your colleague is a little in your face, eh? The joke was as much a part of the ritual as his Tripel. The shopkeeper ignored the remark and scanned one of the cans. 

Two beers, Potje? Must have been good day. 

People are a lot more generous around Christmas, Erdie. 

Erdem laughed. Then they will be poor as you soon, I thinks. 

Potje laughed too. Aye, but I’ll be rich! He felt in his worn black jeans and handed Erdie three euros in 50-cent coins. 

Oh and Erdie, one last thing


He grabbed the final newspaper squished into his right back pocket and unrolled it. 

Don’t suppose you could take this last newspaper off my hands? Wrote one of the pieces myself. 

Again? I don’t believe. But Erdem did believe. 

Potje nodded gravely. This one’s about you! 

Erdem smirked, but leaned forward anyway. Potje opened the newspaper and showed Erdem an ad for hair-loss treatment on the third page. 

Very funny, Potje. Very funny. 

Potje put the cans in his pockets and left the newspaper on the counter for the gnome to read. 

Back outside it was cold, but not too cold; not like some of the other winters he’d survived, when his balls would freeze along with the canals. These days he could just about make do with dirty jeans and a threadbare overcoat that had stopped stopping the cold long before he’d found it. He shuffled to the nearest wooden bench overlooking the water and sat down to examine the orange clogs on his feet, carved during the free Wednesday woodwork classes at the local shelter when everyone would gather round his table to admire his handiwork. Home-made by a homeless man, he’d said proudly when he’d finished. And he did feel proud. They were perhaps the only things that were truly his – not found, not borrowed, not stolen. 

He opened his first beer. The familiar fizzing sound warmed his spirits, as did a long deep sip, and he looked up from his clogs to the water reflecting the light thrown from brown street lanterns. He smiled again. After all these years Oudezijds still possessed a beauty unequalled in otherwise parallel streets, a simplicity that had attracted him when he first arrived here, after the accident, and still lured him back irresistibly every evening. 

He took another big gulp and found his mind wandering back, as it did more and more often around this time of year, to those first weeks in Amsterdam, when he’d take long, restless walks hoping the steady rhythm of his footsteps would distract him from the crash echoing endlessly in his brain. In a trance he would wander for hours without pausing, focused on nothing except his feet and his breathing. But inevitably the noises would come screeching back. 

He gazed across the water to the other side of the canal. It would have been thirty years this Christmas. Every year, as all the happy families did their festive shopping, he relived it. Little Lizzie crying in the back. His girlfriend baiting him, egging him on, making him say or do things she knew he’d regret. She’d kept saying that he thought too much, that he lived in his head and faced the tiniest decision like a dangerous intersection where he had to look long and hard in every possible direction before advancing. He’d kept quiet. Sometimes, she’d said, you just had to put your foot down. And so he had. A moment’s rage haunting him a lifetime. 

His eyes fixed on the kitsch Amsterdam Pancakes outlet across the canal and another wave of sadness swept over him. Once the old stone building had catered to a different sort of crowd. He still remembered pushing through its saloon doors on that long desultory walk when he’d first stumbled across this little canal with its garish reds and blues. He’d walked in without knowing why, and had left ten hours later without knowing how. 

Inside had been a different world. In the middle a massive old mahogany bar had loomed that curved round like the hull of a ship. Large blackboards on red walls had listed an almost infinite range of drinks, while mosaic floors depicting violent nautical scenes had seemed a timely reminder that your drinking days were probably numbered. A billiard table, in a backroom to the left, had groaned under the bare feet of a large man dancing on its stained surface, spurred on by tapping shoes and clapping hands. 

The people he’d imagined to be sailors drinking at the bar had, in fact, been sailors. That had become clear when, after a shot of rum, he’d been affectionately assaulted by a stout man with flushed features and green eyes, who’d slapped his back, ordered a pint each, and offered a toast to the cursed crews blessed to be sailing off in the morning. 

Five minutes later, his new drink untouched, he’d been ready to leave. Slowly he’d pushed his stool from the bar and risen to his feet, hoping his new friend would be too drunk to notice. The plan had failed. Insistent eyes more so than the hand on his side had pushed him back onto the seat. 

Just then four rangy men had marched up to the bar, stretching across it in turn to ring the bell four times to a crescendo of drunken cheers. They’d spotted the frail skinny newcomer and their big hulk of a shipmate and boarded the conversation. 

Joel botherin’ you? 

No need lookin’ so pale – he’s piss-drunk is all. 

First time settin’ off? one of them had joked. 

Ain’t too bad! laughed another. 

Take some of this, do you right

Unsure why (maybe because it had been nice to act and not think, because it had felt strangely liberating to be cornered at one end of a seedy bar, told and not asked what to do) he’d taken his first bump, and had felt the world speed up, slow down, a weight lift, his jaw drop. Drinks had arrived and disappeared, men and women had vanished into toilets and returned. Giants had whispered, screamed, shouted. As afternoon had slipped into evening and evening into night even he’d begun to talk, quietly at first but then louder. Asking questions, mainly. Life at sea? Freedom. On land? No life at all. 

Drunkenly he’d sunk back into his own thoughts. Maybe Amsterdam could be his ocean. Maybe he like them could live free, port to port, or rather, bar to bar, with this place his guiding light and safest haven. De Vuurtoren: his Lighthouse. 

He took another long sip. No use dragging up old memories when it had been such a good day. All of his twenty-five newspapers sold but one. One-fifty profit per newspaper made… almost forty in total. Best day of the year and people hadn’t even been paid yet. Not too bad having a bit of income. He could almost imagine himself behind a desk. 

Heavy footsteps sounded close by. He turned slightly on the bench and saw Wallie struggling towards him. It’s funny, he thought, walking as much as we do we all develop our own rhythm. His was more of a falling forward. Wallie’s was like a whale being dragged over sand. 

Potje you drunk bastard! 

Wallie threw his newspapers down on the bench.  

Folks tight as a noose these days. Only person bought a paper  used it as an umbrella. He lowered his large body onto the bench. Round as a barrel. The only fat hobo Potje had ever seen. He handed him his other can. 

I did alright today. Ever consider smiling more? 

Wallie grunted. With these teeth? 

Potje laughed. Or lack thereof. 

They clinked cans and Potje swore he detected a smile somewhere. 

Across the canal a group of young tourists came streaming out of Casa Rosso, and Potje realised he recognised the puffa jackets from the queue inside the cornershop. Wallie chuckled. I hoop you enjoyt de sex show! he shouted across the water. The boys looked at them and hurried away. 

Wallie turned back to face his friend. So how come your skinny ass gets to write in the paper nowadays? That last thing on tourists – knocked my socks off. 

Potje tried not to think of Wallie’s feet. Instead he said he’d been in the public library reading something about – 

You spend your time in the library reading? Wallie interrupted. 

– reading something about the benefits of Amsterdam tourism. In anger and response he’d written his own account on one of the public computers, printed it and shown it to someone from the council when he came to collect his batch of charity newspapers the next morning. Wallie stuffed a large chunk of a large sausage roll into his mouth. 

Lucky fella. I been sellin’ em for years and they’ve never even let me near their office. 

Potje grinned and felt December poke him in the ribs despite the layers he’d put on. A cough stirred and rumbled in his throat. It erupted. Wallie yanked his sausage roll out of harm’s way. 

Jesus, Pot, yer like a ticking time bomb. 

They drank in silence. When you were grouped together by default rather than choice, more family than friends, words sometimes ran out. And they were a family, Potje thought, his friends at the shelter – no matter what its owner Ed claimed. Ed, the chatty old Holocaust survivor who never tired of talking about his other ‘diaspora’ – how they too were ‘fundamentally displaced’, uprooted from homes and happiness. But Potje felt it was the other way round. Those men were his brothers, even if they might have been born cities, countries, continents apart. From everywhere and all walks of life they’d flocked to a promised hidden land, Amsterdam’s underground, and found each other in welcoming exile, reunited at last with a family they’d never met. Ed’s diaspora, inverted. Alone, together. 

Wallie was the first to break a silence that was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. 

You goin’ to Ed’s Christmas party tomorrow then? 

Haven’t missed one in ten years. 

Wallie nodded. Aye, going on eight myself. He got up with a deep sigh. Right, I’m starving; I’ll see you in a bit. 

Potje waited for his friend to turn down one of the alleys and then got up himself, crumpling up the empty cans and tossing them in the rubbish bin beside him. Enough of this sitting down like an old man. He was as young as the night ahead. Tonight he almost believed it. 

Up ahead on the footpath another bunch of young tourists stood leaning against a bike rack, inhaling balloons filled with laughing gas. As he walked past two of them exhaled loudly and giggled like girls. His feet picked up pace. He knew they weren’t laughing at him, but he couldn’t help feeling that on other days, along different streets, they may have been. To him the foreign youngsters crowding the canals all looked the same, and sometimes he found courage in thinking that to them he must also just look like any other hobo. But other times he knew that was a load of rubbish and that he stood out, even among the homeless. A tramp’s tramp, Wallie had once said – a reduction of all stereotypes to their absurd extremes. 

Potje was not sure he really disagreed. He was tall, very tall, and it felt a burden rather than blessing – too much of a good thing. Balanced uneasily on his thin angular frame was a face melting with wrinkles, and his green eyes now protruded awkwardly from their sunken orbits. Then there was the hair. When he had last cut or washed his long grey strands he could not remember, nor was he entirely sure how long it had been since he’d trimmed his beard – the left side, anyway. The right side of his face he shaved religiously, with a devotion rivalling a Buddhist monk’s commitment to his hairless scalp. He even ritualised it, in his own way, slipping into the same McDonalds toilet each Monday night an hour before closing, when no one was around. When people would look in horror or amazement at the half-beard that now reached the middle of his chest, he’d feel both embarrassed and proud, and remember why many years ago he’d suddenly decided to shave only half his face: a big fuck you to everyone and anyone. Later, someone had joked drunkenly, Are you a man or a goat? Maybe that was it, too. He was both. Unlike the animals who abused him. 

He stopped before a wide building and walked down the narrow steps that led into the Banana Bar. Inside it smelled of sweat and spilt beer. He pushed through the jostling crowd to reach the banana-shaped bar jutting out from a wall of exposed red brick. 

The new barman did not seem to speak much Dutch. In broken English he ordered a bottle of Duvel, leaning on the counter with one hand as his other mined his pocket for some coins. The boy behind the bar did not remove the bottle cap until he too had counted the money. 

He shuffled to an unlit corner of the bar and turned to face the Friday-night dance floor. At the far end two girls in black thongs wound themselves sinuously around a pair of strip poles a goal’s length apart. He strained his eyes to make out their faces and recognised the blonde on the left, but not the one on the right. She wasn’t here. He looked at the girl dancing in her place and thought she seemed very young. 


It had started to rain lightly. He zipped up his coat as far as it would still go and began to walk, past the passage Wallie had entered, past Blood Alley, past all the other women smiling like sirens. At De Molensteeg he turned right. 

Trijntje saw him approach before he saw her. Of all the men who called the streets home that she called work, his way of walking was undoubtedly the funniest. With every step you were sure he’d fall, face-flat in those slapstick shoes. 

Potje stumbled. Trijntje lit her cigarette and laughed. 

A few too many? 

Potje smiled. A few too few. He looked at her in her big winter jacket, leaning against the door he’d never entered. No more Banana Bar? 

I quit weeks ago, Pot. Look much better under red lights these days.  

Potje had to agree. Smoking and, well, sex had robbed her of the youth she’d had when she’d moved to the area, so to speak, years ago. But they still got on as brilliantly now as when she and Wallie had dragged him out of the canal drunk as a skunk and they’d had a big laugh and drink after. She’d become family, too. Hookers and hobos. Two sides of the same windows. 

Trijntje turned her face away from Potje’s and exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke. 

You’re not tryna to sell any more shitty papers are ye? 

No, no, no Miss – all gone. 

She took another habitual drag. So what are you selling

Potje fumbled with an old key ring. Did she know what day it was tomorrow? 

Of course, Pot. Even I get Christmas Eve off. 

He knew that. But would she be at Ed’s? 

I’ve tagged along for the past ten years or so haven’t I? 

But this year it was important. 


He shifted his weight from one skinny leg to the other. 

Cause I might not come round asking the next. 

You say that every year. 

She’d expected Potje to smile. 

For the first time in a long time they were both silent. 


The church clock struck two high above the deserted Zeedijk. He continued walking. One bar would still be open, and one customer, he hoped, would still be inside. 

The sign glowed bright as ever. Casablanca. He stopped before its wide windows and peered through the glass. A few figures were scattered along the bar on stools wrapped in velvet. To their right, at the first table beside the bar, an old man seemed to be singing, as much to himself as the world. He tapped the glass in excitement and struggled to push open doors through which he had once barged effortlessly.  

Partne-eer! Where have you bee-een? 

His old friend beckoned from his seat across the room, and began, again, to sing. To the A-aamsterdam cana-aal… I have pledged my heart for a-always and eve-er! 

Glen spoke, and sang with a Surinamese twang that expressed an almost gastronomic enjoyment of language. He savoured words in his mouth, rolling them around with his tongue, tasting them drunkenly on his lips. His dark face, literally rough around the edges, a scar running along his left chin, beamed a gap-toothed beardless smile. 

Been a whi-ile, Pot. 

He nodded in agreement. 

Glen stopped smiling. 

I hee-ard about your hospital trip

Potje got the first round. Glen got the second, and the third. With every drink their mood lifted. 

We haven’t had it so-oo bad, eh partne-er? Free, free, freee! Not like little policeman that kicks us in the morning.

Potje smiled too. You been locked up half your life Glen. 

Glen laughed his Glen laugh. 

But poo-lice been locked up their whooo-le life! 

Potje coughed and Glen grew quiet. 

Christmaas as bad like ever? he asked finally. 

Potje finished his drink. Worse. 

But tomorrow will be good

Potje looked up from his empty glass and was grateful beyond words that Glen would be there too. 


He turned to face Casablanca once more. It felt strange standing before those massive doors alone, rather than jammed among all the happy faces waiting for the night to begin. Staggering slightly he started back toward the canal. 


The church bell rang four times. Potje let himself fall down on the bench. He opened his Tripel and fought back the urge to be sick. 

He looked out across the canal. There had been a girlfriend and a baby and a car and an accident. Now there was just the water. 

And a party.