WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?! …….. PIET MONDRIAN, chapter 10
In my dream, a telephone was ringing in the darkness cutting through the emptiness like the proverbial knife going through room temperature butter...I opened my eye lids which were heavy with fatigue and realized that the phone wasn't ringing in darkness.
In fact, my room was filled with light. I climbed from bed and made my way to the desk. I picked up the receiver and cradled it between my shoulder and chin. My packet of tobacco was already in my other hand. I grunted out a plausible "Hello" and extracted a goodly pinch of tobacco from the pouch and took out a paper. With both hands, I pulled at the tobacco and into a stretch of about five centimeters long. A voice at the other end of the cord said, "Did I awake you from your sleep, Meneer Cord?"
"Yeah...late night...or better said, early morning. What can I do for you Meneer Jansen?" I rolled the paper and tobacco into a perfect cylinder, pinched off the wormy looking ends and lit up. I held my hand over the receiver while I went through my coughing ritual.
Jansen was telling me that the photographic place had called him saying that the paper copy of Mondrian transparency was ready. We made arrangements to meet in a few hours. He had suggested Vondel Park, the Blue Tea House. Good suggestion. Close to my flat or close to my office. I didn't need to think about where I would be; it was a convenient place for both locations.
Once Jansen was off the phone, I checked out the time. A little after 11:00. What was that? About five or so hours of sleep? I headed for the toilet. Did my thing! Wandered into the kitchen and did my thing there, too. I'd have at least one cup of coffee before I gave any thought to breakfast. That was an interesting word, breakfast. Actually, it might more properly be described as a phrase that has come together. At least in my lexicon. Literally, it means, to "break" one's "fast." You have fasted through the night and have not eaten since dinner. The long haul.
I was still sluggish after the first cup of java and not much better for wear after the second cup. But I would keep swilling it down my gullet until my heart got its rhythm back and pumped an infusion of blood and energy into my weary brain then I would rise to the occasion. Whatever it was.
Considering the time of the morning, or more accurately, afternoon, I thought I would skip breakfast and do a brunch. My, how cosmopolitan. Maybe I should indulge myself by buying a split bottle of champagne, breaking out a flute glass and act like I was having "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I went out to do a little shopping. Willem provided me with my allotment of need for my nicotine fix for another 24 hour period and the Herald. I bought aged Dutch Edam at the cheese monger. Decided fish might be nice for my main course of the day. I still had broccoli which went with everything. A starch? Potatoes, rice, pasta ... nah, I had that last night. Maybe a rice dish. I bought a few things to throw into the mix. As to the brunch menu, I decided a nice mushroom omelette with the aged cheese would tickle my inners; but I nixed the champagne notion. There was work to do!
Back at my flat, I went into the kitchen and put on another pot of coffee. I took out the mushrooms and sliced up three. There were button type and not too big. I had also bought a small shallot. I cut it in small cubes. I sauteed the mushrooms and shallots together for about three or so minutes. Removed them to a small plate. I took a tall glass and broke three eggs and deposited their contents into the glass. For each egg, I added about a tablespoon full of water. I mixed it all together and put the small frying pan back on the gas burner. When it was just getting hot, I added a bit of oil and poured the mixture into the pan. I left it sizzle for thirty or so seconds, then, with the flat bottom of a fork, I began to stir, slowly, in a counter-clockwise direction. A minute or so later, I turned down the heat, but continued to stir. A good omelette takes a little time and a little patience. But it is damn worth it. When only the center still held a small quantity of liquid batter, I added the mushroom mix, let it all cook about a minute, then took a wooden spatula and with a flipping motion folded one half over the other half. It was only after this motion that I realized I hadn't included the cheese. Damn! Too much on my mind. I left it in the pan and went to the toaster and extracted the two now nearly black slaps. Just the way I like it! I lathered them with butter, which I don't indulge in everyday, gotta watch my waistline, ya know, and laid them on a plate. I flipped the omelette next onto the white platter.
In a short time, I was smacking my lips together. Brunch, with or without champagne, had been a damn good idea.
I poured more coffee and went into the garden house with the Herald. Sat in my easy chair and checked up on the world. Reagan was screaming about the "evil empire." I wondered which one he was talking about? The one that had killed over two million Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, etc. in a war that lasted for twenty years or the one that was now on fire in Afghanistan where the Russians were trying to conquer a tribal people who had kept to themselves for a millennium or two. Then there was Iran and Iraq going at each other; tying young boys together and sending them in waves against mortars and AK47s. "Evil empires" is what you mean, Ronnie, baby.
By two thirty, I had reached the Herald's anemic sports page. During the baseball season, all you got where the line scores and a sentence or two summation of games played two days before. The problem with following a game where the schedule calls for a game-a-day and being in a time zone six to nine hours removed from the action meant I always felt like I was trying to catch up with what was going on. I did the comics too. A nice way to close out the front page comic "hero," Ronnie. I thought Dagwood would make a better president. Dagwood? How about Charlie Brown. Hell, Snoopy would do in a pinch. On that note, I closed the paper and made for the door.
The weather was still blustery and the enormous cotton puff like clouds where moving across the bright blue sky like an aircraft carrier making its way through a deep blue sea: effortlessly, confidently, relentlessly. The clouds were propelled by a strong and gusting wind off the North Sea a scant 20 kilometers to the east. Since becoming a daily bike rider little mysteries have cropped up. One, still unsolved, is how it is possible to ride in a time span of 15 minutes to the north, south, east and west and, no matter the direction, the wind is always in my face. Can't figure it out. Where is Holmes when I really need him? Oh, well, he'd probably telling me---in his indubitable manner---that somethings are just not deductive, "Like the weather, my dear Cord!"
In six or seven minutes I was locking my bike on the fence that surrounds The Blue Tea House. However, no one calls it that. Generally, when someone suggest meeting there, you hear, "At the place that looks like a flying saucer." And that it did. Like a blue painted flying saucer. It had two levels, but the top one was reserved for the proprietor who operated it as a concession from the city. On my first visit to Amsterdam, there were waiters who worked the big enclosed area. They were gone and now it was a self-service operation. You went down a line of a service table which resembled one at a cafeteria. It wasn't difficult to pick out Jansen. The weather was still a bit chilly and the place far from packed. I joined him.
I asked if I could get him anything, "Cappuccino, with four sugar cubes, please." Sounded good to me, but I limited the white cubes to two. I take my coffee black; but the Italian concoction calls for sugar. Two cubes kept the mantra "Gotta watch the waistline," in perspective. Once back at the table, I sat the two cups and their saucers down. Then I sat. I took the cookie that had come with the beverages and offered it to Jansen, "Why how kind of you my dear sir. Don't mind if I do. Have a bit of a sweet tooth. Truth to be told."
He opened his briefcase, which had been lying on the ground, next to his chair, and took out a large envelope and handed it to me. I opened the end flap and inserted two fingers into the space and pinched the paper and pulled it out. I have no idea what I had been anticipating. I was unaware of the luminosity or naturalistic period of Mondrian, so I had no clue as to what to expect. I looked at the photo and at first I thought it was black and white. I mean there wasn't much color. I looked to Jansen and asked, "Is this a faithful rendering?"
"Oh, by all means." Jansen said reassuringly.
"It seems so...dark! Not much color."
"Indeed. It is a 'night painting.' A style that Mondrian was exploring and developing at the time." His tone indicated approval of this exploration.
"How do I say...it seems sketchy...I am sorry, I don't want to sound denigrating, but, well, I have a small print collection and my knowledge of oils is only from what I have seen in museums and a few gallery shows." And I put on my most sincere face.
"Not at all. Not at all. The 'sketchy' style is a very proper and accurate description if you judge by what you see in that photograph. Unfortunately, the nuances do not show themselves in it. The transparency is much better in that respect. However, let me assure you that there is nothing sketchy about the painting itself. His strokes are quick, strong and assertive, yes. Certainly a departure from the academic style that had been taught and practiced since the Renaissance. But they are well painted. This is true of his linear abstracts as well. You should look closely at the white background in those. The paint has not been put on by a roller. You can see each individual---if not meticulous---brush stroke."
As he talked I continued to study the work. What did I know about anything? Was I looking at a masterpiece? Well, I still had trouble with Picasso. His "masterpieces," to me, sometimes reminded me of the way I looked in the mirror after a hard day and night of drinking. Still staring at the painting something caught my eye. I thought for a moment and said, "Meneer Jansen, I do think I see a major flaw to your argument that this is an authentic Mondrian---masterpiece or no masterpiece...The signature reads M-o-n-d-r-i-a-a-n. There are two 'a's. His name is misspelled!"
"Ah, Meneer Cord, you are a good detective. It pleases me that you have made note of that fact. However, you are obviously not an art historian---not that I retained you as one. So please do not take it as a criticism. But that is the original spelling of Mondrian's name. Just a year or two after he had executed this work he began with his experiments with representational abstraction. This would lead him to his linear abstractions. All this occurred between 1910 or 1911 and his uncle, Fritz, also an artist---and one of some repute---was scandalized by these artistic developments which in his view were not artistic at all. Piet Mondrian dropped an 'a' from his family name to restore family peace. It is not recorded if Fritz was amicable to this peace offering however."
I tried to hide my chagrin at this revelation and hoped that I was not blushing. "Learn something new every day," was my closing comment on the subject matter.
"Yes, yes. most true...Well Meneer Cord, have you had the opportunity to address the scoundrels I directed you to?"
"Yeah, Covered it! Blind alley."
"Blind alley...I do like American expressions. My, yes...However, if I understand the context of this particular refrain it would indicate that you are not pursuing that line of thinking." And he raised his filigreed pepper and salted accented eyebrows for emphasis.
"Yeah, That pretty well says it!"
He said nothing; just stared back at me. He showed nothing. It was like he was evaluating and unauthentic masterpiece, I guess that would be a good metaphor in this situation. Finally, "A blind alley---" he said resignedly, and still staring at me, "Then who took it?"
"Who, indeed. That's the $64,000 dollar question."
"Ah, would that be another American reference to something I know nothing about?"
"Yeah, it would. It means...Look, it doesn't matter what it means...who has a motive? And what is the motive? That's what matters!"
"My, oh, my. I don't know! If you are so certain that it isn't either of these cads who so openly coveted it, who else would want it? It doesn't even have a provenance."
"My point exactly!"
We both sat there sipping our cappuccino. Jansen now had a white moustache from the frothy mixture. It didn't look bad on him. Gave him sappy look that mellowed the hard edges of his pompous flair. And, in a sense, his pompousness was a talent that more than likely helped him to deal in his field. He broke the silence with, "My, oh, my...That does complicate the detecting part; now doesn't it." It wasn't a question, but a statement of fact.
"Yeah, anyway you look at it ... But, hey, you still got time on the meter. I've put the word out that I'm looking for a Mondrian. Let's see what turns up. Also, I've got the photo. That should help. The way I see it, the rest is easy!"
Famous last words.
I moved on to describe to Jansen my visit to De Zon and that my request to see the records regarding lot number 2472 had met with the same ending as his own. I followed this with, "You didn't by any chance hire thugs to break into the place to get the information?"
"No, of course not. I don't deal with thugs or the like ... except you, of course." He voice inflection didn't betray the remark as a derogatory one, but I didn't like it.
"I'm not a thug!" And I hoped I had demonstrated some level of anger.
His reply, "Ah, the pity of it!"
There was a pause, then he said, "Meneer Cord, I was disappointed that they would not give me the information, but not surprised. After all, when the good lady had called me and said someone wanted to know the name of the person that had bought lot 2472, I told her the same thing---"
"Wait a minute...what did you say? Someone wanted your name?"
"Yes they did. I assumed, at the time, they wanted to approach me for the purpose of purchasing; but whatever the purpose, I was not interested in talking to them. Why should I?"
"When was this? When did she call you?"
"About the same time I had made my call. And that was directly after I had made the purchase. Let me think..." He put a hand over his eyes as I sat there playing all this back in my mind. Another coincidence? Someone not only broke into two different locations ... scratched that, someone had gained entry into two different places and someone---no!---two different people were trying to learn the principals involved in the selling or buying of said unauthenticated Mondrian!
As I was coming up for air, Jansen said, "You know, I think---it was when the lady called me back to inform me that the seller had demanded anonymity as to his identity---it was then she informed me of someone wanted to contact me. We shared a good laugh over the coincidence." I looked at my watch. I had about thirty minutes to get to De Zon before they would lock the door for the day. I told Jansen that this was valuable information and that I must leave immediately to follow it up.
"But why is it valuable? I don't see any connection?"
"Meneer Jansen, think about it! Someone wanted to know who had bought the Mondrian. Someone had called De Zon to ask them. When they didn't get the information, someone broke in ... that is, entered De Zon surreptitiously and made off with the information of the buyer of the Mondrian. Then someone broke ... I mean, entered your house and made off with it. All these happenings appear to me to be directly related."
"Oh, my yes. I do see the connection. Oh, my. How exciting. Have you solved the case, Meneer Cord?"
"Solved it? I'm still trying to understand what it is all about."
I pedaled hard to De Zon. I got there before the door was locked. The woman was sitting in the glass cage and on the same stool as she had been before. I gave her a reprise of the conversation with Jansen. She closed her eyes and gave it some thought. When she opened them, she said, "I remember now. I am sorry Meneer...Cord was it?" I nodded, "I never forget names ... but it seems I did forget this little incident. Yes, a man, yes, it was a man, he did call shortly after the auction and was most insistent about knowing who had bought Lot 2472. I explained to him that I could not give out the information without the consent of the person involved. I told him I would call the person and call him back. I then asked his name and telephone number. I remember now, too, that he hesitated before saying his name was 'Jan.' When I asked for his telephone number, he hesitated again and said something about being difficult to reach. He said that he would call me and asked when it would be good. I suggested two days. He did call back. When I told him the buyer had said 'no' he became rather indignant. I said it wasn't my fault. He excused himself and hung-up .... Has any of this been helpful, Meneer Cord?" All I could reply was, "I have no idea." I thanked her and got out of there. It was getting to be a good time to follow up on my diamond affair.