Amsterdam · Family · Life · Stories

Exhale With Intent


As I imagine you imagine, I spend a lot of time, these days, home alone. Being, as I am, the unemployed mother of three school-aged children. A Lawyer’s Wife. An Expat Missus. A Kept Woman. A Trailing Spouse. Lady Muck. Lady of the Manor. With predictable regularity, I find myself in the vicinity of lilies and coffee, or perhaps a peppermint tea. I don’t know who I think I am.

During these quiet days of middle-class expatriate whimsy, I sit in front of my computer at what we like to call The Big Table. Oh, it’s just one of our little sayings! It’s just a regular table, how mad are we?? At The Big Table, I might be studying, which is a sweet thought, isn’t it? My Dutch course is over, and my ability to read Dutch is, on the whole, reliable, but speaking is still an effort. I read Dutch out loud, to myself, from Het Parool online, unable to correct my mistakes due to being wholly unaware of them. This is easy, I think. If I am not reciting poorly enunciated Dutch, then perhaps I am dealing with personal administration, which means emails, of course. Possibly there is some issue with The London House. Oh, the bureaucratic obligations that weigh upon the scarved shoulders of the European Metropolitan Elite! Wait. I must sigh, and make another coffee.

Possibly I am blogging, although that is less likely than I’d hope. I could be plotting a web series, as I’ve been promising to do for the best part of a year, or I might be Google-Imaging Barack Obama with babies. More likely, I will be googling the psychological effects of childhood bilingualism, or the nine year old’s cough that he has had for four months, or the seven year old’s involuntary mimicry of her playdates’ accents, or the four year old’s relentless repetition of sentences. In America, autism is usually diagnosed around the age of four. Accent mimicry is often observed in people with borderline personality disorder. Walking Pneumonia in children can go undiagnosed when parents (the female ones) assume it’s just a lingering cough. I can tell you one thing about myself which is really all you need to know: I have seen two minutes of Sophie’s Choice, and that is the two minutes in which Sophie makes her Choice.

About a week before Christmas, around the time that reserves of festive enthusiasm begin to dry up for mothers (Santas) everywhere, I find myself alone in our apartment, dallying once again in the neurotic frippery reserved for the gainlessly unemployed. I am checking the Christmas spreadsheet, making sure I haven’t forgotten anything, although I have forgotten to check that My Lawyer hasn’t forgotten anything, which he has, but this will only emerge later during the festive period, and, in certain areas, some considerable time after it.

Whilst I am congratulating myself on a job well done, well divided in terms of gendered expectation and obligation (ha!), I hear an almighty crash. This isn’t all that unusual; for the last four months, the house next door to ours has been under construction, or, rather, deconstruction. Brick by brick, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, skip by skip, the house has been hollowed out until she has – surely – nothing left to give, and even then, she’s given yet more. Drilling, banging, crashing and crushing noises have become a daily soundtrack, although on occasion I might grasp at my pearls (where are my pearls?) and exhale with intent if the blare of the builders’ radio reaches an unacceptable volume. I know my strengths. No one can Exhale With Intent quite like a middle-class white lady from gentrified South London (Zone 3 – yes, the train connections into the city were excellent. *pregnant pause* When they worked. *EXHALES WITH INTENT*).

But there is something different about this particular crash. Firstly, it doesn’t stop. It continues; for so long that I find myself waiting for the adjoining wall between us to fall inward, for the hollowed-out house to drag me down with her, her crumbling skeleton shouting SO MUCH FOR THE SISTERHOOD! WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THEY LIFTED MY SKIRTING BOARDS? MY STAIRCASE? THE LANDING FLOOR? OH, YOU WERE THERE NEXT TO ME, PRETENDING NOT TO WATCH! OH NO, DON’T START ON ABOUT YOUR PELVIC FLOOR AGAIN. IT’S NOT THE FUCKING SAME. AS AN ACTUAL FUCKING FLOOR. THE ACTUAL FUCKING FLOOR ONTO WHICH YOU’RE ABOUT TO SPLAT, AND NOT BEFORE TIME, LADY MUCK.

At a certain point, I realise that I am listening to echoes of devastation rather than real time demolition, through which men begin to holler. But is there a woman alive who can honestly say they’ve lived a day without such an experience? I stand, and Exhale With Intent. Time for tea.

Kettle on the stove, I wonder around the apartment, scratching my ass, picking my nose, turning the heating up, because it’s cold work, doing nothing. Movements from The People opposite catch my eye – they are standing at the window, looking down. This is unusual, because The People spend most of the time hugging in unlikely parts of their apartment, at unexpected times of the day. Their Christmas tree is decorated only on the side that they can see. For something to have enticed them to the external world is notable. I walk over to the window, and see a fire engine – no, two fire engines. Two ambulances. Three police cars. Didn’t I hear the sirens? A third fire engine arrives, and I remember the kettle on the stove. The gas stove. I run, sliding in my house socks (of course I have house socks!). I turn the stove off – I will live! – and I join the gathering crowd outside.

It turns out that she did have a breaking point, this stoic old neighbour of mine. After her structural integrity had been picked apart, after her lobotomy had been administered, some resistance still lingered. The echo of a memory. The men were foisting up a steel beam, to keep her going, despite everything. This isn’t meant to be here, she thought, and she spat it out.

The fire crew have set up a crane leading up to the first floor window. A team in red jumpsuits run in and out of the building, grabbing equipment, giving instructions, looking important.

“These ones in red come to save lives,” says my Dutch neighbour. “They can do surgical procedures on the ground.”

“It must be very serious then,” I say.

“I saw one make a joke,” she replies. “I don’t think anyone is dead.”

“Did you hear the crash?” says someone else.

“My whole apartment shook!”

“The dogs were terrified.”

“This is what happens when you do this to these old houses.”

Here, a murmur of agreement, an accord of inevitability.

It was only a matter of time.

Eventually, we see a young man, matted with blood and dust, emerge from the front door of the building. He is surrounded by five or six people, some holding drips, others carrying the young man upright, and we learn later that this is so his lungs don’t collapse in on themselves. A small boy runs up to the scene and stares. The young man raises a shaky thumb from his chair of people.

There will be no more building work this year.


January comes. My Lawyer’s yuletide inconsistencies are forgotten. We assume that the young man lives. The accident is reported in the local news, and includes a comment from a local resident that concerns had already been expressed to the local municipality about the safety of townhouse renovations.

School begins again, and so does the building work next door. We all trundle out of our apartment, loaded with school bags, packed lunches, and vague resolutions that exist upon a cloud of hope rather than expectation.

The builders say goedemorgen; they’ve been working for an hour already, scooping out the unseen reserves of the building and sliding them down a plastic chute, out onto the street. Another skip is full.

“You could make a house out of all that!” says the seven year old.

“Of course you could. It was a house,” says the nine year old, rolling his eyes at his sister’s idiocy, oblivious to the poignancy of his statement.

Another avalanche of rubble descends down the chute, leaving a trail of white dust in its wake. The nine year old coughs, and I add two and two together, of course. As we make our way to school I wonder if there is asbestos in the dust, and how, if the nine year old dies, I will be able to prove that it’s because of the dust. Should I steal a sample? A dust sample? None of my other children are coughing. Why is it only the nine year old? How would I prove that my dust sample came from this particular building site? I file these thoughts under Google Later as we park the bikes up outside school. I smile at everyone. Off we go again.




6 thoughts on “Exhale With Intent

  1. Brilliant. I could read your musings all day. Must check my reader more often. Oh wait – that’s what the ‘Follow’ thing is for, right? (‘Scarved shoulders of the metropolitan elite’! Love it.)


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