AN HONEST RECOMMENDATION
A Christmas story by Guustaaf Damave
The light of the of the street lamp barely made it to the ground, so thickly was the snow coming down. At three in the morning the street was empty. A faint bluish glow emerging through the flakes directly above betrayed where the full moon was revealing itself. It was a cold winter’s night in 1964, a week or so before the Dutch holiday of Saint-Nicholas. The snow had covered all traces of the day’s comings and goings and was quickly covering a fresh track of footsteps leading to a broken window. Inside, the beam of a flashlight moved across the wall, from painting to painting. The thick white carpet outside hushed every sound. Carefully avoiding the sharp glass, the man climbed out of the window with two paintings under each arm and dissolved into the curtain of icy flakes.
I was born in that old town, the son of a fine artist. That year I was eight. I enjoyed going for long walks looking at shop windows, building sites and ships moored on the river Spaarne, on which we lived. The snow made it a little bit harder to get around, but the river and canals being frozen over, more than made up for that. A trip with a note from my mother and a ten guilder bill to the grocery store only took half as long walking over the ice.
For a young child the sight of the full moon on a cold and crispy night stirs the sense of wonder and imagination like nothing else. I had looked at it often and read about it. The idea that the light came from the sun meant that the sun shone at night too! Was there really no one living there on that moon? I wasn’t so sure about that. On my many walks through the streets of our nine century old town I frequently included one particular store in my route. In the window there was an instrument of magic and mystery called telescope. If only I could own this. Many of the questions that occupied me could be settled once and for all. I would be able to look at the moon and the stars whenever I would like. My life as I knew it would definitely be over and new and brighter existence would be mine. The telescope… I wiped the fog of my breath off the store window. The price tag was the appropriately astronomical sum of twelve guilders.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ eve is the primary occasion for gift-giving. Even though it is his birthday being celebrated, Sinterklaas is the one who gives the presents. Children are allowed to express their wishes by putting a note in one of their shoes and putting it near the fire place. I had my own ideas about where exactly these presents came from but I carefully played along with the traditional protocol so as not to interfere with any of its mechanics. I had written down the telescope as the only item on my list and the address of the store that was displaying it in its window. It was a lot to ask for, and I was one of ten children. All the same, if there ever was a chance that this telescope could be mine, this was it.
As the long awaited evening drew closer and the air became thicker with expectation, I made my daily rounds to the store window and imagined everything I would be able to see once I could look through the telescope’s eye piece. The glance that my mother gave me however, when I came home, made me think that I had asked for too much and that I would probably have to settle for perhaps a new sweater.
Early that morning they found the broken window and the empty spaces on the wall. It is not hard to guess at the motives of the mysterious man who broke into the museum on that icy cold night so close to gift giving day. More mysterious than his identity was his particular taste in art. Maybe his choices were dictated by the convenient size of certain works or their proximity to the shattered window. Still, there were quite a few works to choose from and the burglar left slushy footsteps throughout the contemporary wing of the Frans Hals Museum.
That afternoon as I got ready to leave to continue my explorations of the snowy landscape the newspaper dropped on the floor inside the front door. It reported the art theft from the museum on the front page. I knew my father would be interested in this and took the paper to him in his studio. He read the article with rapt attention. He looked at me and said that they stole one of his works. He went to the front of the house to tell my mother about it. A burglary in the museum is serious business I thought, but they did not seem particularly distraught.
Over the next few days there were frequent phone calls and visitors interested in purchasing one or more works of this artist whose work was stolen from the museum. The unknown burglar had unwittingly brought abundance to our house. I knew that my chances of having a close-up view of the moon had taken a turn for the better. Saint Nicholas’ eve was only two days away now and as I was approaching the store window with the object of my desire and felt pretty sure that indeed it would be mine. But as I came closer I was struck with shock and horror. It was gone! Someone must have bought it. I had to muster all my restraint not to let tears roll down my cheeks. I slowly turned around and walked away. I wandered the cold dark streets in a blur of disappointment. When I came home too late for dinner my mother asked what was the matter. I explained to her that the telescope was gone, the only thing I really wanted. “That’s terrible,” she said.
When the evening of great expectations arrived the air was charged with excitement. Knowing that I would not get what I really wanted, I was prepared to pretend to be happy with whatever I would get. But when the package with my name on it was pulled out of the large pile I could not believe my eyes. It had a long familiar shape. In a frenzy I ripped off the paper. I was surprised and delighted that I did get the telescope. It had disappeared from the store because it was making its way to me. My father also had his best present ever because there is no more honest recommendation than that of a thief in a hurry.
2007 Guustaaf Damave
The author, Guustave Damave