She cycles the last part alone. She waves to her girlfriend and then turns to the road ahead. She sings softly to herself, her back straight, a carefree look in her eyes.
School’s out. It’s Friday afternoon. The weekend can begin.
She’s strapped her jacket onto the luggage rack behind her, over her black canvas school bag. She feels the heat of the sun on her bare arms.
It’s a glorious day, the beginning of a promising summer. The blue sky extends like a high, radiant dome above her.
At the traffic light, she brakes and dismounts. It’s a solitary light, a little outside of the city centre, where the bustle of school children on their bikes, mopeds and car traffic lessens.
She’s completely alone. No cars or buses go by. She looks from left to right, frustrated at the pointlessness of waiting.
A delivery van draws up behind her and stops, its engine throbbing.
The girl gets back on her bike and rides on. The van overtakes her and envelops her in a thick cloud of diesel smoke. She coughs, flaps her hand at the smoke and stops pedalling.
The van tears away, in the direction of the Dark Dunes. The girl thinks about her meeting. She’s having second thoughts now – perhaps she should have chosen a less isolated place.
I stand at the entrance to the beach, my hands in the pockets of my jacket, and look out to sea. It’s 6 May and way too cold for this time of year. Apart from a solitary beachcomber, the beach is deserted. The sea is the colour of lead. Snarling and foaming, it swallows up more and more sand.
A little further up, a young girl sits on a bench. She too looks out to sea, hunched up in her padded jacket. She’s wearing sturdy shoes that can withstand the wind and rain. A school bag lies at her feet. Not far from where she’s sitting, her bike leans against the barbed wire fence. It’s padlocked, even though she’s nearby.
I knew I would find her here.
She stares blindly out to sea. Even the wind, which tugs at her clothing, can’t get a grip on her. It catches her light brown hair whirling around her head, but not her attention.
Despite her insensitivity to the cold, there’s a vulnerability about this girl that touches me.
I know her, yet I hesitate to speak to her because she doesn’t know me. But it’s extremely important that she gets to know me, that she listens to me, that I get through to her.
I walk towards the bench, my gaze fixed on the sea as if I’ve come here to enjoy the angry waves.
The girl looks the other way, her face expressionless. For a moment she seems to want to get up and leave, but then resigns herself to having her solitude invaded.
We sit next to each other on the bench, our hands in our pockets, and watch how air and water merge. I must say something. She’ll leave soon and we won’t have exchanged a word. But what do you say when every word counts?
As I take a deep breath and turn towards her, she looks over at me. Our eyes are the same colour. We probably have the same expression too.
She’s about fifteen. The age Isabel was when she was murdered.
Years ago I went to school in this area. Every day I rode ten kilometres there and back, sometimes with the sea wind behind me, but mostly straight into it.
The wind blew in from the sea, unhindered by anything on the flat polders, the drained fields reclaimed from the sea. It caught up with me on my bike. The daily struggle against it made my body strong. The distance between school and home, that no-man’s-land of meadows and salty wind, was like a buffer zone between the two worlds I inhabited.
I look at the sea, its waves casting up memory after memory. I should never have come back.
What brought me here? That short announcement in the newspaper.
Two weeks ago I was standing at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee, leafing through the paper. It was eight o’clock. I was dressed and had eaten breakfast, but I didn’t have much time. A quick glance through the headlines was all I could manage.
I turned the page and a small notice in a side column caught my eye: HELDER HIGH SCHOOL REUNION.
My old school, which, in the meantime, has amalgamated with some other schools in Den Helder.
I’m twenty-three. My school days are thankfully long over. I’m not even thinking of going.
The girl has left. I let her escape while I was deep in thought. It doesn’t matter. I’ll see her again.
The wind blows my hair into my face and every so often steals my breath. Yes, this is just how it used to be. I’d pedal into the wind with tears running down my cheeks. I’d put my hair up in a ponytail, otherwise it would get hopelessly knotted. When I washed it in the evening, it would smell of sea salt.
The scent of the beach is the same, of course. Its familiarity takes me by surprise, bringing back old memories and allowing me into the dark corners of my mind.
Why did I come back? What did I hope to achieve?
The only thing that might come of it is more clarity. I don’t know if I’m ready for that.
As I stroll back to my car sand flurries around me and the wind pushes at my back, urging me to hurry. I’m not welcome here. I don’t belong here anymore.
But I’m not planning to return to Amsterdam yet. Even when it begins to pour, I don’t quicken my pace. My car stands alone in the large carpark. Normally it would be packed here, but summer has abandoned us temporarily. I think about the rows of cars parked here on hot days, glistening in the sun. It was good to live on the coast. You could ride right past the sweaty drivers stranded in traffic jams, throw your bike against the fence, pull your towel out from the luggage rack and look for a place to stretch out in the sun. In Zandvoort these days, you can’t find a spot anymore if you’re not on the beach by nine.
Heating on, radio on, a bag of liquorice on the seat next to me, I drive out of the abandoned carpark, past the woods, the Dark Dunes, towards the town centre.
Den Helder is not a comforting sight in the rain. Neither is Amsterdam, but at least Amsterdam stays alive. Den Helder looks like a city where the air-raid sirens have just gone off. I haven’t been back since my parents moved to Spain five years ago.
I love cities with a soul, with a historic centre. But the only thing old about Den Helder are the people who live there. All the young people go to Alkmaar and Amsterdam when they leave school. The only people left are sailors and tourists taking the boat to Texel.
I drive along the Middenweg towards my old school. When I reach it, the school grounds are almost empty. A small group of students are defying the drizzle to get a fix of nicotine that will help them through the day.
Once around the school and then along the same route I used to ride home, past the military camp towards the Lange Vliet. The cross wind can’t touch me now. In the corner of my eye I can see the bike path.
Isabel lived in the same village as me. We didn’t ride home together that day, but she must have taken the Lange Vliet route. I saw her ride out of the school grounds. I’d deliberately lingered before leaving. If I’d ridden after her, nothing might have happened.
I accelerate and drive at the speed limit along the Lange Vliet. At Juliana Village I take the first left onto the motorway. As I drive along the canal I change into fifth and turn up the radio.
Out of here. Back to Amsterdam.
I sing along at the top of my voice to the chart hits blaring out of the radio and fish one piece of liquorice after the other out of the bag next to me. Only when Alkmaar is behind me do I return to the present. I think about my work. The Bank. I have to go back on Monday. It’s Thursday today, I still have three days to myself. Even though I don’t want to go back to work, I think it will be good for me. I’ve been home alone for too long, watching unexpected and incomprehensible images passing like dreams before my eyes. I’m starting back on a trial basis - mornings only, to see how I feel.
That’s what the doctor ordered, after all.