A day of sleeping off jet-lag slips past, followed by one of concentrated writing. And because the days are short now, so The Hague becomes a city I inhabit mainly in the dark.
As curious as I am about my surroundings, I’m also reluctant to demystify them by means of a fold-out map, a flurry of tourism leaflets. Perhaps I like it better once all the galleries and museums and souvenir shops are locked up for the night, the postcard stands put away. My attention swings to the pretty spookiness of the leafless trees and humpback footbridges, the spot-lit stonework of historic buildings. And underfoot, all the different pathways which comprise a single street. Tram lines, cycle tracks, grey brick paving. Slicing through the cement, latticelike. After dark, the poetry of my arrival is replenished.
Annelies Verbeke expresses it better than I can. Where does the poem stop and the story begin? She asks.
In my hotel room, I keep BBC World playing incessantly, because I cannot bear to write in silence. The prime minister of India visiting London; the dead bodies of babies in Bavaria; the suicide attacks in Paris; the fine weather in Spain.
Whereas in The Hague, the wind picks up. It slaps against the flat sides of the hotel and moans. It shakes the flags below my window. Their whooshing sound makes me think of sky-diving, makes me jump out of aeroplanes in my dreams. I wake up once every hour of the night, because so much is happening, and everything is so unfamiliar and intriguing. Even my unconscious brain remains alert, afraid that it might miss something.
And yet, when I sit down to write, it’s the minutest details I am drawn to. Not the sight of the Binnenhof, but that of a pot plant on a windowsill in the office block opposite, pressing its leaves against the glass. Not the music of the festival, but the song of a solitary tin can grappling around the square. Wherever and however far I travel, immediately and unthinkingly, I narrow my world back down to the minute, to the familiar.
In every story there is at least one character from another story, Annelies says. And in the Karma Lounge, as if to corroborate this, I meet an Irish man who knows the village where I live. Its tidal bay, its oil refinery.
Walking back to the hotel alone, through the dark city, I realise why I prefer The Hague by night. There are less bicycles. All day long, they swarm the streets. Queue up in chains along the railings. I don’t understand why nobody ever appears to collide. Perhaps Dutch people are born with the sensibility of starlings, the ability to move altogether in perfect synchronicity without so much as grazing elbows. Perhaps from the sky, every city of the Netherlands resembles a murmuration of bicycles.
The final song of the night drifts back into my mind. Jonathan Jeremiah crooning, knowingly: Like the birds, let’s fly off to the sun…