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The Challenge That is Tony

by Pedro

Jan en de Winkelwagen

Mid-August after Year Eleven

It is now nearly eight weeks since I finished my GCSEs and I should be getting ansty again about my results which are due out a week next Thursday. Well, I would be if I had time to think about it, but I have been kept that busy what with the training course Dad fixed for me where he works and my helping out in the evenings at the Indian restaurant run by uncles of Raj and Naveem, two boys in my year. Add to that the tasks (on top of my usual chores) that the 'rents have managed to find for me to do at weekends and trying to fit in time to be with my boyfriend, Tony, or hang with our friends, I've had little time for introspection. I didn't even take much note of my sixteenth birthday earlier in the week. Things will change next week as today is the last day of the training course so I shall have the days free to think and get myself all maudlin again. Unless the parents land something else on me. I suspect the course and extra tasks have been a cunning plan by the 'rents to keep my mind off the exams.

I meet up with Dad at lunchtime.

"Nearly finished then, lad," he says.

I grunt something non-committal through my mouthful of shoe-leather beef sandwich from the cheap and cheerful sandwich shop Dad frequents.

"You've found it worthwhile, haven't you?" he continues. "I mean apart from the cash in your pocket."

In spite of Dad's comment, I manage to avoid choking on my mouthful as I swallow it.

"Yes, it's been interesting, seeing how the various bits of the business work," I reply. "I've enjoyed working with most of the guys and I've learnt something about what life might be like after school. As for money in my pocket — you and Mum have taken most of it in board and lodging!"

Of course Dad grins at that. "You've got your wages from the Indian," he says.

"Which I have used to buy some chef's whites and some chef's knives. The rest I am trying to save," I grouch back. "One day I'll need a deposit for something big. Like a car or for the rent of a place of my own."

"Very commendable too," he concedes. "Leaving that aside, has working here given you any ideas about what you might want to do if you don't go back to school or after you've finished if you do go back?"

I have gone back to my sandwich and am chewing on my last piece of shoe-leather so I 'hmm' and nod for yes.

"Well think about it, lad, because Mr Hayes, the HR manager wants to see you at three for a leaver's interview."

"Ah! I hope he won't be too long. I'll have time to finish what I'm working on before seeing him, but I would like to go and say goodbye to some of the people I've been working with before we go home."

"That's okay. We can leave a bit later if necessary. Come and find me in my office when you're ready to go. But don't forget you've still got your shift at the restaurant tonight."

Mr Hayes welcomes me into his office and indicates I should sit down.

"I'll try not to take too much of your time," he says. "I bumped into your dad after lunch and he said you wanted to do a trip round to say goodbye to those you have been working with. That's very considerate of you.

"However I thought it might be useful to have a chat with you. We sometimes do exit interviews with leavers where we think there might be something that needs discussing that hasn't been covered in previous conversations about the employee's reason for leaving. In your case I am interested in how you have found your time here. Have you enjoyed it and have you found it useful?"

Mr Hayes leans back in his chair and studies me as I reply.

"Yes, it has been interesting, thank you. Seeing how the business works and all the various sections interact. Having more than the two weeks normal for a work experience placement has let me do some of the work instead of just watching others. It has also meant I have been able to get to know the people I have been working with and learnt a bit about life and what mine could be like when I finish school."

Mr Hayes smiles.

"Learnt a bit about life, eh? Well, you do seem more self-confident than you did the first time you were in this office.

"I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the feedback I have been getting about you from around the business has all been favourable, particularly the way you have rolled your sleeves up and got stuck in to the tasks you have been given. I will admit I was a bit sceptical when your dad first asked me to set the scheme up for you. We have had a couple of bad experiences with school placements where the trainee has not been engaged at all — basically just twiddling their thumbs until their time was up — to the point where we had stopped offering placements.

"Now, has your time here given you any pointers as to what you want to do when you leave school? I think you mentioned before that you were waiting for your GCSE grades to decide if you would go back to do 'A levels'."

I suppose I could have guessed the subject would come up, but I am grateful for Dad's tip-off at lunchtime. It has allowed me to have an answer at least partly prepared.

"I liked working with the electricians," I reply. "I also enjoyed being in the fitter's shop - setting up the machines, repairing breakdowns and I was fascinated watching them make parts and tools from scratch if necessary. I think I could see either of those as a career, but on balance I would probably go for electrician – I guess they find it easier to get work as there is always the domestic market. Not many households have jobs needing time-served fitters."

"Good point, although there are probably more electricians out there chasing the work," says Mr Hayes. He glances at some notes on a pad he has on his desk. Looking back up at me he continues,

"Either way, to work towards a qualification for both of those you would need GSCE grade D or above, let's say grade four in the new system, in Maths and English. From what I've heard I don't see why you shouldn't have achieved at least that. If you decide not to go back to school, come and see us. We won't be able to offer a formal apprenticeship, but we might be able to offer something with day release at college to work towards the relevant qualification."

I thank him for the offer and we then spend a few minutes talking about my career choices if I do go back to school. He starts to wrap up the interview.

"Thank you for coming to see me," he says. "I wish you all the best for your future, whatever it may be."

"Thank you, and thank you and the company for arranging these few weeks for me."

"You'd best be off, if you are going to do the rounds before you go." We get up from our chairs and as we shake hands, he smiles. "I gather you are working at the Indian restaurant tonight. I can't offer you a job in catering. We've no plans to open a canteen."

On the way home, I thank Dad for organising the placement and tell him about Mr Hayes offer of a training place if I don't go back to school. Dad says I must have made a favourable impression. Our conversation ends when we reach home and I have to get ready for my shift at the Indian.

It is busy at the restaurant, but the good sort of busy: steady away. Not a mad rush then nothing or, worse, nothing then a mad rush. However, it isn't the mad rush all the time like it has been the last few weekends. I mention this to the uncles as we start to clear up at the end of the session.

"We noticed the middle two weeks of August were quieter last year," says Sabhya.

"We asked Raj about it," adds Lilat. "He said it's the same in his father's shop. A lot of people like to go away during the school holidays and for some reason in this town the middle two weeks of August are the most popular. Some cousins in Blackburn, you know, up in Lancashire, say the same thing happens there, but earlier in the school holidays. They said it was something to do with Wakes weeks, but we didn't understand what they were talking about."

"Dad told me about that," I say. "There used to be a cloth mill and a couple of big factories in the town. They all used to close down for a week or two for annual maintenance. The employees had to take the time off." I don't mention that, initially, it was unpaid. "They might go away to places like Blackpool and Skegness for a holiday. It was easier for everyone if the whole town took the same weeks. It also made sense for different towns to have different shut downs. Especially as some of the maintenance was done by specialist engineers moving from town to town. The holidays were known as 'Wakes Weeks' for some reason that my dad didn't mention."

Raj comes into the kitchen with a pile of dirty plates and serving dishes.

"Nav is waiting to collect the rest of the stuff from Virginia's table," he says.

"Standing there googley-eyed, no doubt," Lilat chuckles. We all join in. Nav swoons over Virginia every time he sees her.

"Oh yes," Raj admits then adds, "The only other people still here are Paul and his mother with a man I assume is his father."

Paul's father works abroad on contract, so he is not home very often. I think I have only met him once. Last time I talked with Paul about him, Paul said he was working in Holland. I walk across to the door look through the little window into the dining area. I recognise the man at Paul's table.

"Yes, that's Paul's father," I say to Raj who has followed me to the door.

"Well, he's asked if they could have a word with you," Raj replies.

After confirming it is okay with the uncles, I take off the apron I wear to keep my whites from getting too mucky — some of the spices and marinades we use really stain — and go out to meet Paul and his parents.

"I think you know that I mainly work abroad," Paul's father says after we have all been introduced. "I have been working in the Netherlands but my contract is now finished."

I must have a blank look on my face.

"Netherlands? Holland?" he laughs. "We complain about the Americans using Britain and England interchangeably, and yet we do it with the Netherlands and Holland. Actually North and South Holland are just two of the provinces of the Netherlands," he explains. "I've been in the province of Limburg down in the South East. Maastricht is in Limburg. You'll have heard of Maastricht?"

I acknowledge that even I have heard of Maastricht.

"Anyway," continues Paul's father, "I have to go back next week to tidy up a few loose ends and make sure everything I have put in place is running smoothly. I also have to clear out the apartment I have been renting. Paul is coming with me to help. It'll give him a bit of a break and something to do to keep his mind off his exam results. He thought you and Tony might like to come too, assuming you both have valid passports."

"I thought we would ask you first," adds Paul before I can reply, "as you would have to agree it with your bosses here. Tony is only doing some work for his dad in their garden as far as I know, so he shouldn't have any problem getting away. You have finished your work experience at your dad's place, haven't you? You said you thought today would be your last day."

I don't have to think for long. It will be my first chance to go away without the 'rents. I know Paul's dad will be there but that's different. It will be somewhere new too. We have only been to France before. It should be good fun with Tony and Paul, and I'm sure Paul will give Tony and me some space. As his father said, it will also help us forget about the exam results.

I thank them for their offer and ask them for more details of the trip and most importantly how much it will cost.

"We are going by car, taking the overnight ferry from Hull," says Paul's dad. "We are going out on Sunday night and back on Thursday night. It is about two hours to Hull so we will leave here late afternoon on Sunday and should be back here around midday on Friday. So you would have time for a couple of hours rest, if they wanted you to work your shift here in the evening.

"We have got a five day return fare deal that is for up to four in a car. You would have to pay a supplement for the cabin and meals on the boat. The car expenses will be charged to my contract. There is room for you to stay at the flat, so the only other money you will need is spending money and for meals."

"And you're cooking if we don't want to eat out!" Paul adds after his father has given me an idea of the ferry costs.

"It sounds great," I say. "But I will have to clear it with Raj's uncles in the kitchen. I'll have to ask my parents as well. If you will excuse me I'll go and ask the uncles now."

I explain the situation to the uncles and they um-and-ah for a bit until I realise they are winding me up.

"You go," says Lilat at last. "We told you earlier we are expecting the next week or two to be quiet, and you will be back in time for the busy sessions at the weekend."

I go back into the restaurant to tell Paul and his father the good news and say I will give Paul a call in the morning when I have had a chance to catch up with the parents — and Tony.

"First thing, if you would please," says Paul's dad. "I need to add you to the ferry booking before lunch time."

The parents are in bed when I get home from the restaurant. Before I crash out myself, I send Tony a text telling him about Paul's invitation and that I will ring him in the morning when I have talked to the 'rents.

Dad is sitting at the kitchen table when go downstairs in the morning.

"Morning, lad," he says. "You're early. Restaurant not busy last night?"

Okay, so I normally have a lie-in on Saturday and Sunday mornings after busy sessions at the Indian. No need for Dad to rub it in that I have had to get up early.

"Steady away," I reply as I put the kettle on for a cuppa and marshal some bread into the toaster.

"If you're mashing, I wouldn't mind another, please." Dad holds out his mug, handle towards me. Good job I made sure there was plenty of water in the kettle.

"I'm up early because I need to talk to you about something." I turn to face him, leaning my bum against the kitchen worktop. "Paul and his dad have invited Tony and me to go to Holland for a few days and they need a reply this morning, the sooner the better."

"That's kind of them. Sounds like a good idea. It would be a bit of a celebration for your birthday and would stop you moping around while you wait for your exam results. As a bonus, it would get you out from under our feet for a bit." Dad's tone tells me he is joking, then he changes to serious mode. "You had better tell us more about it. Shout for your mother. If we're both here you will only have to explain once."

I call Mum and get another mug out of the cupboard. She will want some when she sees us supping tea. I get the drinks and my toast sorted, then join the 'rents at the table. At the same time I tell them the details that Paul's dad had given me.

"So," I conclude, "will you let me go? And have you got my passport, please?"

Dad looks at Mum. "Do we need to talk to Paul's parents? You know them better than me."

"Only if you think they need our confirmation," Mum replies. "Paul is a really nice kid. I don't think he could lead himself astray, never mind these two. More like the other way round!" she cackles. "Anyway, there will be three of them to look out for each other, and Paul's father will be there when he isn't working."

"What about the language," Dad asks. "You've been doing German at school, but Dutch isn't the same. Similar, but not the same."

"I thought muddling through in a foreign language was all part of the experience of going abroad," Mum counters. "It certainly seems to be the case with you!" She flashes her 'point to me' grin at him.

To avoid a digression into a friendly(?) parental point scoring match, I tell them that Paul was over there at Easter and said nearly all the younger generation speak English. Some secondary schools even teach in English. So there shouldn't be a problem.

I will make the effort to pick up a few words and phrases. Tony, the swot, will probably be fluent ten minutes after we arrive.

"I think the trip will be good for you," Dad says. "Broadening. Building on the life skills you developed during your placement at my work. You had better get things set up with Tony and Paul."

"Thanks, guys." When I don't immediately move from my seat, Dad picks up on it.

"There's a snag?"

"Well, even without travel costs and with free accommodation when we get there, I'm not sure I can afford it. It's still quite a chunk for the cabin and meals on the boat and then there's doing things when we get there. I don't want to be the poor kid tagging along. Although he isn't a spoilt brat, Paul's dad spoils him rotten and Tony's dad makes sure Tony isn't short of a bob or two either."

Mum puts her two penn'orth in first.

"From what you say, I'm sure Paul's dad will pay for some things for you to please Paul, but it would be wrong for you to expect it." She turns to Dad. "He needs to have enough to stand his corner and be able to maintain some pride."

Dad pauses as if to gather his thoughts before slipping into teaching mode.

"We have always tried to be careful with money, borne out of necessity early in our marriage, and we have tried to instil the same habit in you. Since you started your placement we have been asking you for something towards board and lodging, and you have dutifully paid with a minimum of complaint. You have probably realised that we don't actually need the money. After all we have managed to support you for sixteen years without forcing you to sweep chimneys."

I am not sure I appreciate that attempt at a joke.

"We asked you for board," Dad continues, "so that you would learn that some things need to be paid for before you can spend on the fun stuff. Watching you spend, or rather save, your earnings from the restaurant, tells us that you have a responsible attitude to money. We have kept what you have paid us separate. It was our intention to give it back at some appropriate time. Work out how much extra you need for the trip and you can have it back. When you return from holiday, we can decide what you want to do with the rest. Or you could leave it with us and add to it out of your restaurant money or future earnings if you don't go back to school.

"Imagine that: a child investing in the bank of mum and dad, not borrowing. That would be a first!"

Gratitude makes me laugh at Dad's quip. I thank them in words too, and get told to get Tony signed up to the trip. Dad also says he will bring me my passport before I ring Paul's dad as he might need the number for the ferry booking if it is anything like the airlines.

When I call Tony, he tells me he was sure my parents would let me go, so, to save time, he spoke to Paul to confirm the details before pitching the idea to his own parents. Of course, Tony says he had no problems persuading them. Except they did feel the need to ring Paul's parents!

Although I need to get on and confirm things with Paul's father, Tony starts making lengthy suggestions about how we will get some together time, for example: in the cabin on the boat.

I have an excuse to end our call when there is a tap on my door. It is Dad with my passport.

"Here you are," he says as he hands it to me. "Don't lose it! They won't let you back into the country without it."

Finally, I can call Paul's father to confirm that Tony and I can go on the trip and give him any extra details he needs. He rings back after he has added us to the ferry booking. We agree that he will pick us both up at Tony's tomorrow afternoon at four o'clock. That should give us plenty of time to drive to Hull before the ferry check-in closes.

I put my passport in my desk drawer for safe keeping. Hopefully I will remember where I have put it. As I scoot my chair to get at the drawer, I can feel the wheels dig into something on the floor. Passport safely put away, I get up and pull the chair away to examine the carpet. I can see it is getting badly worn by the chair wheels. The rest of the room is fine. I must remember to mention it to Dad.

Thinking ahead for once, I get out my hold-all and start packing so that I can make sure I have everything for the trip. If there is anything I need, I can get it in the shopping centre when I meet up Tony later this morning.

To call it a shopping centre makes it sound bigger and grander than it is. In reality it is little more than an arcade of small shop units leading from the high street to the supermarket. However its size is in keeping with our town. Mum says it is about the only time the planners have ever made a good decision. They made building the arcade a condition of the planning consent when the supermarket chain applied to redevelop that corner of town to build their store. They did a good job of it too — the shopping centre/arcade is a pleasant space and a nice place to meet someone — especially when it is raining.

When I meet up with him in the arcade, Tony is already sitting at our usual table in the café that we have used ever since that first time we got together. He has his nose in a book.

"Sorry I'm late. I've been packing," I say as I sit next to him. "What you reading?"

"I knew you would be late, so I nipped into the second hand bookshop. I found this."

He holds up the little paperback so I can look at the cover: 'DUTCH - Phrase Book for Kids'. There are cartoon drawings above the title.

"It's great," he says. "Simple phrases and useful words with translations and pronunciation hints. And lots of drawings to illustrate. Just about your level!" He is wearing his cute grin. He'll be wearing the book if he comes out with another comment like that.

"I love you too," I reply grumpily.

Before I can say more there is a discreet cough. It is the waiter with drinks for us.

"Morning, guys. Let's not have a domestic!" He must have overheard our exchange. "I've brought you your usual order to save you coming up to the counter and risk losing your seats. I had to chivvy two other old biddies away from this table for you to get your turn. They must have finished their coffees an hour ago."

We thank him for his thoughtfulness, carefully ignoring the implication in his comment about old biddies. He knows about us though. He should do: he is about our age and is the son of the café owner and he has been working on Saturdays all the time we have been coming. He also knows that, for us, he is part of the attraction of the place!

"It was nice of Paul to invite us," I say after the waiter has left.

"Yes, was," Tony replies. "I wonder why he chose us? He has other friends."

"A girlfriend would normally be the first choice but he hasn't got one of those. He wouldn't dare ask Susie. She would refuse anyway. Cath & Bruno are so all over each other they would make him feel like a spare wheel and would you want to spend a week being bossed around by Mel and/or Virginia?"

Tony shivers at the thought. "His dad might have suggested that it would be better not to be girls. Did he tell you we would be sharing the sofa-bed in the main room of the flat?"

"Er, no." I am thinking that could restrict the chance of any nocturnal activities. At least we will be sharing a bed.

"He is probably hoping to get some work out of us as well: helping to clear the place before he hands the keys in."

I take a sip of my drink then ask something about that has been buzzing in my head.

"How come your parents felt the need to speak to Paul's dad about the trip and mine didn't?"

"They wanted to talk to him and confirm the offer was genuine."

"Don't they trust you?" I tease before getting serious. "Or do you think mine were negligent not to speak to him?"

Tony pauses to think.

"No. Each to their own: my parents are a bit more formal than yours and would think it the right thing to do anyway. Besides they don't know Paul as well as your parents do."


"He's round at your house more often than he calls to see me even though I live nearer to him."


"He's never said anything but I think he finds it easier to get on with your parents. Mine can be hard work sometimes… There's also the attraction of that tin you and your mum keep filled with lemon bars!"

We attend to our drinks and watch some passing eye-candy.

"You're very organised to have done your packing. What brought that on?" Tony says to restart the conversation.

"I wanted to see if there was anything I needed to buy for the trip."

"Was there?

"Usual things. Toothpaste, deodorant and shower gel. I was going to get them in the supermarket."

"Apart from things I might need on the boat," says Tony, "I'm working on the basis that anything I've forgotten I can buy there."

We finish our drinks and pay. There is nobody watching so we blow a fish-kiss to the waiter as we leave. He has got so used to us now that he doesn't blush any more.

We find all the stuff I want in the supermarket. Of course Tony has to spot that the rack with the condoms has been moved next to the shelf with the men's deo.

"Do we need any supplies?" he asks, wiggling his eyebrows for emphasis.

"I don't think so. We haven't finished the last lot yet." I don't remind him that we haven't had a chance to start on them either.

"Get a pack anyway," Tony says as he grabs a pack and drops it in my basket. "You never know, Paul might get lucky and it will be such a surprise, Boy Scout or not, he won't be prepared."

"I'll get some lube as well then." I was going to anyway. My stock is depleted as I use it sometimes when rubbing one out.

We are about to join one of the checkout queues when I notice that it is Donny, from our year, on the till. I don't want to give him the satisfaction of perving on our purchases so I steer Tony to the other end of the store. Thank goodness for self-service checkouts.

When I get home, Dad has some bad news for me.

"Sorry lad, but I'm afraid we've got to go to your Aunt Doris tomorrow morning," he says. "She's got a job she wants us to do."

"Oh. b..," I manage to bite back the swearword. "Don't forget I have to be back in time to get to Tony's for four."

"Oh 'b' indeed," says Dad with sympathy. "It shouldn't take that long, but you had better make sure you have everything packed before we go. We can put your bag in the car so if we are cutting it fine I can drop you off at Tony's on the way home from Doris's.

It is a good job I have done most of my packing as I won't have time to do it in the morning and won't want to do it tonight after my shift at the restaurant. I finish putting stuff in my bag and just have time for a quick cuppa before it is time for me to get ready to go to work at the Indian.

It is only as I am walking over there that I realise that I have forgotten to ask Dad what it is that Aunt Doris wants us to do. I will find out in the morning.

I take my bag with me when I go downstairs for breakfast.

"You remembered then," Dad says as I plonk the bag on the floor by the outside door. "Have you got your passport, phone and wallet?"

I pull the items from various pockets to demonstrate that I have them with me.

"Okay," he grunts in acknowledgement. "There's tea in the pot and I've put you some bread in the toaster. Get your breakfast and we'll be off to your aunt's. The sooner we get there the sooner we can escape back here."

That gets him a playful cuff round the ear from Mum. "Watch it! This is my sister you're talking about," She winks at me as if to say she actually agrees with Dad's comment. Parents!

Dad retreats to the garage to get the tools he thinks we are going to need today and puts them in the car while I am finishing my breakfast.

When we get Aunt Doris's, I am enlightened as to our task for the day. On entering the house we are confronted by rolls of carpet and underlay. We are told which room it is to be laid in, and a box of carpet gripper is pointed out to us. Mum and her sister the go into the kitchen for a gossip and to keep out of the way. Probably a wise move. I see Dad's face fall when he looks at the carpet.

"What's the problem, Dad?" I ask as we walk through into the room in which is to be laid. He looks around the room.

"Apart from having to shift all the furniture before we start and get the old floor-covering out? She's bought a flat weave in man-made fibre. It's sort of thing you sometimes get in offices. It'll be very hard wearing, but also very stiff which will make it a pillock to fit."

We go back to the carpet so that he can show me the difference in construction compared to a normal tufted carpet.

"I hope it's big enough. She said she got it from that shop that does roll ends."

"Cheap then?" I ask.

"Only if it is big enough!" I help Dad turn the roll over to read the sales label taped onto the carpet. "Big enough and definitely a bargain. The underlay probably cost her more. Come on, let's get started on the furniture."

It takes us ages to move the furniture out. Of course it does. We have to empty the contents of shelving and cupboards first. Then we have to lift the old floor covering. That turns out to be straight forward as it is laid with dark brown carpet tiles. It is still hard work as they are thick and heavy.

"I remember laying these for your aunt," says Dad. "It was years ago, probably before you were born. They are not in bad condition considering. Still that new carpet will make the room a lot brighter. I always thought these tiles made the room depressing."

When we have cleared the tiles, Dad tells me to fetch the box of gripper. After digging in his tool bag for a hammer, he gets a strip out of the box and shows me how it is nailed down just away from the wall. He passes me the hammer and asks me to carry on working round the walls, while he gets his measuring tape to check the size of the room.

"The piece is much bigger than needed," he announces. "We might need to take it outside to get it closer to the right size otherwise it is going to be difficult to handle. I'd better tell Doris, she might have bought that piece with the intention of using the oversize piece somehow. If so we will have to be accurate with our cuts." He disappears into the kitchen.

I should have guessed there was a reason why he let me to fit the gripper. By the time I have finished I am covered in pin-pricks and scratches. The damn stuff fights back. Who would think an inanimate object could be so vicious? When he returns Dad says she has nothing planned but wants to see what's left over. At least he has brought a brush back with him and sweeps the floor so that it is clean and we can lay the underlay. Then we take the carpet outside to unroll it and carefully re-measure both the carpet and the room before marking the carpet where it is going to be cut.

"Measure twice, cut once," intones Dad as we measure yet again and check the marking out. He gives me his Stanley knife and has me make the cuts. About a metre off of one side and two off one end. He then has me cut a strip off one end of the narrow piece.

"What's this bit for?" I ask after we have taken it and the carpet back into the house.

"I want to test something. You see these straggly bits where we have cut the edge?" He pulls some of the threads that have worked loose as I made the cut. "They can fray and if you pull enough you can make a mess of the carpet. It is made from man-made fibre so I am guessing that the edge can be heat sealed." He goes and fetches his hot air gun, the one he uses for paint stripping, from the tool bag. "Get this going and play it along the edge of the test piece. If it works you will see the straggly bits shrink back into the body and the edge melt and seal but be careful not to melt it too much."

The experiment is successful but I yelp when I accidentally catch myself on the hot edge.

"It gets hot," says Dad stating the obvious. "The nozzle of the gun gets hot too, and stays hot for quite a while after you release the trigger. Be careful not to mark the carpet with it."

Never mind the carpet, I need to make sure I don't mark me.

We manoeuvre the carpet into position and Dad starts trimming it to final size. He lets me do the bits that will be under the furniture and when I do a good job on those he lets me carry on. Trusting of him, I think, but maybe there's an ulterior motive. You know something: that carpet fights back with its stiff rough edge and the gripper is still trying to take lumps out of me.

We share the work of sealing the edges and then finish off stretching the carpet onto the gripper. Dad has a knee-kicker thing for that. When we have done, I fetch Aunt Doris and Mum to inspect our handiwork. It passes.

"How long will you be putting the furniture back?" asks Mum.

"About an hour I should think." Dad replies.

"Good, I can put the lunch on now so it will be ready when you've finished."

"Thank goodness," Dad whispers to me when the sisters have gone back into the kitchen. "If your mother is in charge, we know it will be edible!" I snigger in agreement. We have suffered Aunt Doris's cooking in the past.

Aunt Doris comes in as we finish with the furniture.

"We've just put the Yorkshire puddings in the oven so lunch will be about twenty minutes," she announces. "I've also been thinking about the offcuts. Do you think you could make a couple of runners out of them for me please? To protect the carpet in the hall. It is beginning to wear a bit."

That gives me an idea. When Dad has agreed to my aunt's suggestion and she has gone back into the kitchen, I tell him about my chair wearing out the carpet under my desk.

"If there is any left, do you think she will let me have it for my desk?"

"Mm," Dad muses. "I can make sure there will be a piece about a metre square left. That should do."

He 'hmm's again. "Don't you ask her. I'll ask just before we leave."

"Okay," My tone suggests he should elaborate.

"You know how vague she is about remembering your birthday?"

That is an understatement.

"If you ask, especially before lunch, she will get confused. She will remember she has given you something and assume it was your present. I'm not saying it would be deliberate…" Dad trails off.

"In other words it runs in Mum's side of the family as well," I say.

"What does?"

"Being tight!"

Dad laughs but tells me not to push my luck.

We get the runners and my spare piece cut, all the tools put away and ourselves cleaned up in time for our late lunch.

The meal seems to drag and I am starting to clockwatch. The parents also start making noises about wanting to get home. At last the meal is over and we clear the table. Aunt Doris stops me as I am about to follow the 'rents into the kitchen.

"Let them do the washing up. I've something for you," she says and hands me a thickish envelope. "I believe it's your birthday this week. I am sure anything I choose for you these days would be wrong, so I have given you cash this year. I thought you could get yourself something you want."

I put the envelope in my pocket and thank her profusely. Of course I have to give her the obligatory aunt kiss. I tell her about my holiday and say that the money will come in handy on the trip.

"Well you had better dig them out of the kitchen and get home," she says when she hears that I am supposed to be picked up at four.

Dad asks for the spare piece of flatweave and we make our escape. As we get in the car Dad makes me check that I still have my bag, phone, passport and wallet.

"Good," he says when I have everything accounted for. "Because we've been here so long we will have to take you straight to Tony's."

I text Tony to say where I have been and that I am on the way. When I put my phone away, I pull out Aunt Doris's envelope. As well as a nice card there is quite a tidy sum in used notes. More than I expected. Enough that I won't have to draw down on my deposit at the bank of mum and dad. Maybe the old girl isn't so bad after all.

I tell the 'rents how much, and Dad has to spoil things by saying it is what he told her she would have had to pay a fitter for doing the carpet and someone else to help move the furniture.

Paul and his dad are already at Tony's when we get there, so with a quick round of hellos and goodbyes, I chuck my bag in their car and we are on our way to Hull.

As might be expected, Paul is in the front seat next to his dad and Tony and I are in the back. It is several miles before we join the motorway and as we near the junction Paul's dad asks us to check we all have our passports.

"Last chance to turn back," he says.

I pull mine out of my pocket so that Tony can witness I have it. Doing so reminds me of Aunt Doris's envelope. I grip Paul's seat in front of me to steady myself against the motion of the car and lean forward so that I can talk easily to Paul's dad.

"I have some cash with me to pay you for the cabin and the meals on the ferry. Don't let me forget to give it to you." I want to pay him so that I don't risk overspending or worse – losing it.

"We can settle up when we are on the boat," Paul's dad replies as we join the motorway.


I lean back in my seat. Tony picks up my hand and examines it.

"What have you done to your hand? It's covered in scratches." he asks. "It looks like you've done three rounds with Merkin."

"Nah," I reply. "I told you we've been laying carpet at my aunt's. That gripper is vicious."

"Who's Merkin?" I hear his dad ask Paul.

"The school cat. She'll have your hand off if you try stroking her," Paul replies.

There is only so much conversation you can have on a long motorway journey. It is difficult to talk with the people in the front seats. I do comment on how flat the countryside is once we pass Doncaster.

"You think this is flat," Pauls says. "Wait till we get to the Netherlands."

We see the Humber Bridge as we get near Hull. In fact we drive under it and then along a road parallel to the river. There are lots of buildings that look like distribution centres and out-of-town shopping sheds. Paul's dad explains that the area used to be where the deep sea fishing fleet was based and there were the landing quays and fish processing factories. The industry had started to decline in the 1960's and has now pretty much all gone.

We get to the port and the ferry check-in with plenty of time to spare. We are directed up a ramp and through a door half way up the side of the boat onto the car deck. Apparently there are three decks for freight vehicles below the car deck, accessed from the quayside at the rear of the ship. Tony says that's known as the stern and the front end is known as the bow. I knew that but I don't mind letting him show off sometimes.

Paul's dad helps us find our cabin and shows us how the key-card unlocks the door.

"That's good," he says when he steps into the cabin to check it. "They've given you a four berth cabin. You've got a bit more room."

"Four berth?" I say. "I can only see two beds. One either side."

"The other two bunks pull down from the ceiling," Paul's father stretches up and pulls a catch, dropping down the bunk. The pillows, sheets and blankets are there if needed. He pushes the bunk back up and makes sure it is properly latched. "Get yourselves sorted, have a look round the boat and meet us in the lounge on the top deck in half an hour. Then we can go for something to eat."

He tells us which cabin he and Paul are in — it is on the deck below — so that we can find them if we need to.

The first thing I need is a shower. I must stink after my exertions this morning.

While I am cleaning up there are a couple of announcements on the PA system. Each announcement is repeated twice. The original is in English, the second repeat I can tell is German, so I guess the first repeat is in Dutch. There are a couple of words that seem similar in Dutch and German although the accent is different.

When I step out of the little bathroom, I find Tony lying on his bed with his nose in the phrase book.

"It's interesting," he says. "I've been listening to the announcements and found some of the words in here. The pronunciation makes the words much more obvious than the spelling. Some of the spellings look really weird. Take U-I-T for example. How do you think that is pronounced and what does it mean?"

"Er. Yewit? No idea!" I finish towelling myself down and dig my deodorant out of my bag.

"It's 'Out' and means 'out', so the 'noteoutgang' in the security announcement means the emergency exit and is spelled n-o-o-d-u-i-t-g-a-n-g. The 'note' bit refers to emergency."

"I can follow that. The German for 'way out' is 'ausgang', and we have gangway and gangplank and Geordies have 'ganging along the Scotswood Road'." I say, lapsing into a feeble attempt at a Geordie accent.

"Don't you dare start singing 'Blaydon Races'!"

"Just because my singing voice is better than yours!" It is too. I start getting dressed. Tony changes the subject by going back to his book.

"How about this one? B-e-z-o-e-k-e-r?"

"Bazoka? Sounds like it should be a bazooka. Nah, it can't be that. Why would that be in the phrase book."

"I said 'e' not 'a' also think about what it would sound like if you softened the 'k' a bit."

"Bezooka? Besoocher? Ah. Like the German 'besucher', a visitor."

"You've got it. Although it looks from the book as though it is actually the hard 'k'."

"Come on," I say as I bend to put on my sneakers. "We had better get on with it if we're going for a look around before we meet them upstairs. Bring the book with you."

We start on the lowest passenger deck, the one above the car deck, and work our way up. By the time we get to the lounge on the top deck, we have found a buffet restaurant, a coffee shop, a souvenir shop and an entertainment area on two levels. We know we didn't find everything.

Paul and his dad are not in the lounge, so while we wait for them I borrow Tony's book and he goes off to investigate the sounds of a piano being played. When he returns he reports that it is playing itself but there is a notice saying someone will be playing it later. As I am busy reading, I mumble something in acknowledgement.

"It's fun that book, isn't it?" he asks. "Have you found anything useful?"

In spite of his disparaging remark the other day about the book being simple and therefore at my level, I have found it useful and the little cartoons are amusing and reinforce the teaching points.

"Yeah. I can see the spellings are a bit weird for us but once you get the hang of the pronunciation, I can see it has a resemblance to German. But it's almost as though they are trying to make it as different as possible using the spelling."

"I don't think the Dutch would take kindly to that remark." I jump at the voice from behind me. It's Paul and his father. They both have grins on their faces. So does Tony. He must have seen them approach.

"And if you think Dutch spellings are weird," Paul's dad says as they sit next to us. "Have you ever stopped to think about all the crazy English spellings?"

"Er. Like caught, taut, bought, sort. All words with the same sounds but different spellings," Paul replies.

"Or cough, bough, tough, dough, through. Same spelling different sound" adds Tony.

"What about sow – a female pig, sow with a needle and thread, or sowing seed," I offer. "One spelling, two pronunciations and three meanings, that sort of thing must be a nightmare. We grow up with it, so it seems easy."

"Don't forget the variations between American English and British English," says Paul's father, who then quickly changes the subject before we can start making derogatory remarks about missing 'u's and 'i's. "Shall we go and have something to eat. I thought we could go to the restaurant with the table service rather than the buffet. It's less of a scrum and a more relaxed atmosphere. We can take our time. However it is not a set price, but if it comes to more than the amount we've prepaid, I'll stand the difference."

After this morning, I feel like being waited on, so his suggestion has my vote. The food will be cooked to order too.

Mentioning the prepaid amount reminds me I have not paid Paul's dad for the cabin and the meals. So I settle that. Tony had dealt with his share before I got to his house.

As we get up to leave, the music from the piano is interrupted and the entertainer announces his arrival. He starts playing something I sort of recognise as the long introduction to a well-known song.

"Why do some people think they can do better than the composer and have to embellish everything?" Paul's dad asks as the pianist starts to sing. Except Tony or I could do better. Paul too.

"The same reason they think they can sing when they can't," I reply.

We order our meals and, after establishing we've had it before when with our parents, Paul's dad persuades the waiter to let us have a half of beer with our meals. He has a large glass of red wine.

During the meal we discuss what has to be done to clear the apartment and what else we can do.

"It's a bit of a detour," Paul's dad says at one point, "but I would like to go via Arnhem tomorrow. My grandfather is buried there. He was in the Paras during the War and was killed during Operation Market Garden. You'll have seen the film 'A Bridge too Far'." He pauses and we say we have. "I would like Paul to see where he is and I haven't been there for several years myself. We can also visit the museum in the hotel building that the British used as headquarters during operation. I haven't been there for ages either.

"We can have some lunch in Arnhem and then we can drive down into Limburg. We should arrive at the apartment late in the afternoon. There should be time for Paul to show you around the area in the evening."

Since he is in charge and doing the driving we can't really object and the visits will be more interesting with Paul's family connection.

By the time we have finished our meal the ferry is underway and it has gone dark outside.

"I'm going to turn in as it is an early start in the morning," Paul's dad tells us. "You three can please yourselves, but don't forget the public address will wake you at about six Dutch time – that's an hour earlier than home – and breakfast starts at half past in the buffet restaurant. It pays to be early to breakfast otherwise it gets busy. We'll meet you in there or after breakfast at our cabin. We should dock at around eight and disembark soon after. Paul, have you got your cabin key? Take care, boys. And, Paul, don't wake me up when you come in!"

The three of us wander around for a while. After a spell on the aft deck getting some very fresh air, we find some arcade bikes in an area behind the bar but they are all occupied. None of us find the show in the entertainment area particularly entertaining so when Paul is distracted by something Tony suggests we should go to the cabin and make our own entertainment.

Whatever distracted Paul, it didn't have potential, as he says he is also going back to his cabin when we tell him we are going to ours.

Tony and I cuddle and chat, but whether it is the beer, the fresh sea air or the hard work in the morning, I'm starting to fall asleep on him. However before he can complain about my lack of enthusiasm for taking advantage of being alone together, there is a tap on the cabin door. Of course it's Paul. Tony lets him in.

"Sorry if I'm interrupting anything," he says. "I can come back a bit later if I am."

"No, don't bother. You've already interrupted whatever wasn't happening," Tony replies. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"I hope you don't mind, but can I let down one of the top bunks and sleep in here tonight? Dad's zonked and he's pushing out zeds like there's no tomorrow. It's like sharing a room with a chain saw. I'll never get to sleep."

"Didn't you know he snored?" I ask. "I know my dad does. Mum does too."

"Yeah, but I didn't realise how bad. I've not shared a room with him before and he's away most of the time."

We take pity on him even though it means Tony & I have to put anything we might have been going to do on hold. There are some compensations: the last thing we see before turning out the light are Paul's long legs as he climbs into the top bunk.

Paul's long legs are also the first thing we see in the morning after the PA call has woken us up.

"Sorry, guys," he says as turns on his light before climbing down. "But I've got to have a pee."

His legs are not the only thing we see. Although he is wearing his boxer shorts, his morning piss-hard is leading the way to the bathroom.

"If you need to have a wank to get that to go down," quips Tony, "make sure you don't block the loo."

"Piss off."

I suppose that is the appropriate response in the circumstances.

By the time we have all used the bathroom and dressed, it is time to go down to the buffet restaurant for breakfast. We use a route that takes us past Paul's cabin. His father has already left, but Paul notices that the word 'sorry' has been scrawled on the note he had left his father last night explaining why he had moved to our cabin.

We find Paul's dad in the restaurant. He explains where everything is including which coffee machine has the better coffee. I'll stick with tea. He also says we should make sure we have enough to eat because lunch will only be a snack. We pig out on the cooked breakfast. I get groans of horror from the others when they see the black pudding on my plate. Why? It's delicious with scrambled eggs, the squeamish wimps.

After breakfast we go out on deck to watch the approach to Europort. We don't stay there long. The air is heavy with the smell of petrochemicals. When we meet in their cabin after collecting our belongings from ours, Paul's dad tells us that we will pass the petrochem plants as we drive inland.

It takes about half an hour from when the boat docks to get disembarked, through the border post where we have to show our passports, out of the dock area and onto the motorway heading east. It does seem strange at first driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. Paul's dad tells us that you soon get used to it, but you can get caught out if you are alone on a narrow country road. Also on some big junctions it is difficult to read where the exit is. However, he says the most important thing is to remember to look out for cyclists, especially going around roundabouts. Officially or unofficially they have right-of-way at all times. The only thing cyclists will give way to are the trams found in the major cities.

Once we get through the motorway network around Rotterdam and we drive east, I see what Paul meant when he said the country was flat. About the only gradients on the road are man-made overpasses and underpasses. The flat horizon is only broken by stands of trees or the spires and roofs of the towns and villages we pass. The fields are level and divided by drainage canals. Paul's father says we will start to see some contours in the landscape as we near Arnhem and that Limburg, where we are going, is the hilliest part of the country.

The Airborne Museum in the old Hartenstein Hotel is actually in the small town of Oosterbeek about three miles to the west of Arnhem. The cemetery is also in Oosterbeek, just to the north of the town. We find the museum easily and agree to visit that first as it will give context for the visit to the cemetery.

The museum is interesting and informative with a mixture of factual displays and life size dioramas to illustrate parts of the narrative. I enjoy the visit and the others do too, although none of us are sure 'enjoy' is quite the right word given the subject matter.

"Although we see reports on the news," Paul's dad says to us as we return to the car, "I don't think your generation, or even mine, truly understand the horrors of war. Filtering through the telly screen makes it seem unreal. Sanitises it somehow."

None of us feel it appropriate to say anything more than a muttered agreement.

It is not far to the cemetery and its rows of white headstones beyond an entrance portico. Paul's dad takes us to one end of the portico to where there is a cabinet set in the wall. It contains a book that indicates where the graves are of all those interred at the site. Although he thinks he knows where his grandfather is, he wants Paul to know how he can find the grave should he ever visit again.

As we walk along the rows, reading the headstones, Paul's father tells us that he came in September one year, shortly after the Annual Memorial Service, and every grave had a single flower placed there by local schoolchildren. There had been some talk of ending the annual services as few veterans were left and able to attend but the residents of Oosterbeek and adjoining villages insisted it continue.

We find Paul's great-grandfather and Tony and I pay our respects before moving away to let Paul and his dad have some time to reflect on their own. While waiting for them, we visit the rest of the site thinking our own thoughts. Both of us have found the visit to the museum and the cemetery moving and made all the more poignant by the connection to Paul's family.

As the morning's visits have taken longer than he expected, Paul's dad suggests we have our lunchtime snack in the town instead of going on into Arnhem. He also says it will also make the journey south easier as we can avoid the traffic by going around Arnhem and Nijmegen. As the weather if fine, he finds us a café with outside tables.

My foodie interest makes me ask Paul's dad to recommend something typically Dutch.

"Try the snert ," he replies after quickly looking at the menu card. "You can't get more Dutch than that."

"Sounds awful," I say, amused by the name. "What is it?"

"A thick soup made with yellow split peas, vegetables, bits of ham and rookworst – the smoked sausage they have here. A ham bone is probably in there somewhere for the stock as well."

"Sound good. I'll go for that."

My enthusiasm persuades Paul and Tony to have the same. Paul's father just orders a coffee with an appelgebak which I correctly guess is an apple cake of some sort.

When it comes, I understand why Paul's dad didn't have the snert . Yes, it's good, but it's very filling. After the big breakfast we had, it is more than enough. Even for teenagers. Mind you that appelgabak portion isn't small either and there is whipped cream with it.

By the time we have driven south and got ourselves settled in the apartment, which is in the middle of the town, it is close on four o'clock. Paul's dad says he wants to go to his client's office to check with them how things are going and what needs to be done over the next couple of days.

"I'll probably be an hour or two. Why don't you show these two around the town," he says to Paul. "Get some fresh air and work up an appetite for dinner."

"Okay," Paul replies.

"Can you get some wholemeal bread and milk while you are out please? And anything else you want for breakfast. If you remember, there is an Albert Heijn at the other end of the main street, with a Lidl opposite."

"Okay. Out of here, down to the high street and turn left?" Paul asks to confirm his memory.

"No, right. Left takes you down to the river past the Chinese. I was thinking of getting take-away from there for dinner – unless you find something you would rather have when you are in the supermarket."

Paul's dad hands Paul a key to the flat and is about to leave when he remembers something else.

"If you haven't got any euros you can use your debit card. They call it 'knip and pin' or just 'pin'. Watch out in Albert Heijn. Some of the checkouts are ' pinnen ' only. You will need a euro coin for the shopping trolley in both supermarkets, in fact any shop with trolleys.

"Be back for six. Stay together until you get used to the layout of the place. It's safe enough but take care like you would anywhere strange. Ring me if you have any problems, otherwise I'll see you later," he says as he leaves the flat.

Paul suggests we look through the store cupboards in the kitchen area to see what else we might need. I check the fridge and find some nice cultures of mould on something unrecognisable. We find other items of dubious vintage. I can see one of our jobs will be cleaning out the fridge and cupboards before Paul's dad hands the keys in. In fact I insist on an initial purging of the fridge before we go out and get new stuff to put in it.

The town is on the side of a hill that slopes gently down to the river. The street entrance to the apartment block is onto a lane that runs downhill, which we can see broadens out as it joins the high street. As we walk down, Paul tells us that the lane, the high street and a couple of other streets have been pedestrianised.

Tony has brought his camera with him so when we get to the junction, he stops to take photographs. I take the opportunity to look around so that I can remember the way back to flat. The high street is quite wide. There is some seating and a few trees to make it a pleasant place to spend some time. However, pedestrianised doesn't mean bike free. So, presumably to give some protection to the other users of the street, there is plenty of street furniture in the form of strategically placed bollards, plant pots and long low steel barriers which are generally aligned along the street. The bollards are about three quarters of a metre high and fifteen centimetres in diameter, tapering to ten at the top. They are capped by a dome shaped piece with a rim. To those with a dirty mind, they would look quite phallic. Somebody has tried to be artistic with the barriers as they are made of polished stainless tube and vary in height, although they are too low to be used as hitching posts for bicycles. Special places have been built for parking bikes.

"If we go down this way to the supermarkets, we can do the shopping and then carry on down to the river, walk along the bank and come back up the other way." Paul waves his arm to indicate his intended route.

"Why don't we go the other way round," I suggest. "Then we can look at the menu in the Chinese on the way and decide if we need to look for something else for tonight in the supermarket. It also means we are not carting the shopping around with us."

The others agree that I have made a sensible suggestion and we set off down the grade towards the river.

The Chinese is at the bottom of the slope near the junction between the high street and what I guess is a newer road that runs along the riverbank. The end of the pedestrian area is marked by a row of bollards across the street three metres beyond the end of the low barriers.

We look at the menu posted outside, but we are having trouble recognising the names of any of the dishes. Tony points out a section headed ' rijsttafel ' which, from his study of the phrase book, translates as 'rice-table' and which he guesses is the set menu. It is only when Tony mentions rijsttafel that Paul remembers from his last visit why we are having difficulty with the menu. He explains that unlike Britain with is historic links to Hong Kong and mainland China, Dutch maritime trade in the Far East was centred on the Indonesian archipelago.

"Although Dad calls it the Chinese, the place actually calls itself ' Indochinees '." Paul points out the word on the menu under the restaurant name. "And the food is Indonesian or Indonesian influenced and named accordingly."

"We could go for the rijsttafel . That will be a selection and saves us trying to choose," Tony says to general agreement.

We continue to the junction and find a place to cross the road to get to the river. At some point in the past the riverbank has been built up as a quayside and promenade and what is now the main road runs between the promenade and the town.

Although it is late afternoon it is still warm and pleasant walking along the promenade enjoying the view over the river and its barge traffic. Tony is busy taking photos as we go. We pass several cafes. The weather must be reliable as each one has far more tables outside than they could possibly have inside.

At one point there is a little booth next to a gangway that leads to a pontoon on the river.

"It's the landing for a ferry. It must run to that town we can see upstream on the other side of the river," says Tony after he has read the information board in the window of the booth.

Paul and I accuse him of being a swot and ask if he has swallowed the phrase book.

"No," he replies, sounding very smug. "If you look very carefully at the small leaflet next to the board, you will see it is in English. Fares: adult: one euro, bike: one euro."

There's only one possible reply to that smug look. We grab him and frog-march him to the edge of the quay as if we are going to throw him in the river. We won't, of course, but we do have to warn him not to struggle or we might lose our grip and he would fall in. Needless to say our antics get disapproving looks from some of the locals who have been watching us and amused grins from others. Funny how it's the same as at home: the women with the frowns and the men with the grins!

We take our time wandering along the quayside promenade, enjoying the exotic of sights and sounds of a different country. Okay, maybe not that exotic, but it's still new to me. Eventually we come to the point where there is a bend in the river and the riverside road joins back up with the other end of the high street. I recognise the junction because there is a fourth road that leads off higher up the hill which we drove up earlier to get to the parking garage under the apartment block.

The high street also climbs away from the junction and the first section is not pedestrianised as it provides access to a car park that is on both sides of the road beyond the supermarkets. We do our shopping in Albert Heijn. Definitely more upmarket than Lidl.

There are some guys about our age stacking the shelves, so I ask one about something we can't find and he replies in perfect English.

"Whore!" Tony whispers to me when the lad has left us alone. He has guessed why I asked that particular guy. Well, he was cute. In fact most of them are and they are all tall. I feel like a midget. Even Paul, who is the tallest in our year, says he feels like a short-arse like he did before his growth spurt in year ten.

We eventually leave the supermarket and as we cross the carpark I can tell it is on a slight reverse gradient, the high street starting to climb again once we pass the bollards at the beginning of the pedestrian zone.

It has taken us that long to do the shopping that the other stores on the high street have closed. That doesn't stop us looking in the windows. One of the first we come to is a clothes shop, so we check out the menswear in the window. I soon see all I want to see — like the price tags — so I go and look in the shop opposite. It sells furniture and on the street in front of it is what I assume is a sample of their wares: a bed frame and mattress. It's not a plain bed frame either. It's one of those that have a section you can lift up to support you if you are sitting up to read or something. The store owners must be very trusting: both that it won't get nicked and in the weather. You could never trust the weather like that at home.

Now the stores have closed, and the shoppers have gone, a few more of the local kids with skateboards have appeared and are doing tricks. Some of them are using the stainless barrier rails to jump over or do scrapes. I had a board for a while but gave it up after I had a spill and tattooed my knee with gravel. I know Paul used to have a board and was quite keen, but I haven't heard him say he has been out on it lately. I don't think Tony was ever interested.

The skaters avoid us as we walk on. We pass couple of side streets before we get to the lane up to the apartment.

It is just on six when we get in and Paul's dad is already home.

"Have you had a good look round?" he asks.

Paul tells him where we have been and that we did the shopping in Albert Heijn on the way back.

"Oh," his dad says. "I'm sorry. I forgot to mention it but, although it's the cheaper shop, I prefer the wholemeal bread from Lidl. Never mind."

"I wouldn't mind having a look in Lidl," I say. "To see what it's like compared to the ones at home."

"Are you being tight again?" whispers Tony.

I would have made a lewd comment about being tight had we not been in company.

Paul's dad agrees that the rijsttafel is a good introduction to the cuisine when we tell him about looking at the menu in the window of the Chinese. He rings the restaurant and orders the take-away.

"Are you not having the rijsttafel ?" asks Tony who had been listening to the call.

"Yes," Paul's father replies.

"But I thought I heard you say ' drie ' not ' vier '. Three not four."

"That's quick of you. I did order only three, but I also ordered an extra starter. It will be plenty, you'll see."

It is. We are all totally stuffed by the end of the meal.

During the meal, Paul's dad tells us that he will be at his client the next day from mid-morning and probably Wednesday morning as well. He says what he would like us to do to help with clearing out the flat.

"I notice someone has already made a start on the fridge. Thanks, whoever it was."

"That would be me," I confess.

"Well, thanks," Paul's dad says before continuing with his programme. "Tomorrow can be a free day for you but, in the morning, before I go to work, we will need look round and decide what is to be packed up to take home, what needs to be thrown in the big communal bins in the garage, and what can go to the kringlope."

We boys all have blank looks on our faces – even Tony. The word can't be in his book.

"The recycle shop. Spelled k-r-i-n-g-l-o-o-p, he adds for Tony's benefit. "They're like charity shops at home but are not run by national organisations. Some are run by local groups and some by the local authority. They take just about anything. Most of the furniture in here came from the one in the town and can go back there. It is just around the corner, behind the Chinese.

"Save your strength lads, we might have to help carry the stuff round there."

Now we know why we were invited!

It's been a long day. Paul helps us set up the sofa bed, then he and his dad retreat to their rooms. Tony and I can snuggle down together after everyone has cycled through the bathroom.

Something wakes me up in the night, so I get up and go for a pee. As I come back from the bathroom, I can hear Paul's dad snoring away through his bedroom door. No wonder Paul came to our cabin for sanctuary.

With our bed being in the main room of the flat, there is no chance of a lie in. We are woken by Paul's father going into the bathroom. While we wait for our turn, we fold the bed away and open the windows to air the room out.

After breakfast, Paul's dad walks us round the apartment telling us what is to be packed, what taken to the charity shop and what is to be thrown away. Most of it will be going to the shop.

"There might be some stuff we have to throw away because we can't get everything in the car," he says. "But otherwise I don't think there will be much to chuck other than normal rubbish.

"By tomorrow evening I would like to have everything we are not going to be using overnight or in the morning packed and in the car or taken round to the kringloop , the cupboards cleaned out and the place given a spring clean.

"That should leave just the beds, a couple of chairs and the fridge to take to the kringloop on Thursday morning. We can ask them tomorrow if they can send someone round to help. After that it will be a final clean round before the agent comes at one o'clock to collect the keys and check everything is in good order. That should leave us plenty of time to get to Europort for the ferry.

"Questions anybody?"

"Are we taking the table tomorrow? You said only leave a couple of chairs and the beds. And will you be here to help with the stuff going to the charity shop?" asks Paul.

"Yes. The table can go. We will eat out tomorrow night and can breakfast standing up. And I should be back from my clients just after lunch to help. Anything else?"

"Changing the subject, but can you tell me where there is a bank please?" I ask. "I could do with getting some euros in case I see anything I want to buy."

"It's easier to use your card to get money out of the ATM," Paul's dad replies. "The rate is sometimes better and it is less hassle. There is usually an option for the instructions to be in English. There is an ATM outside Albert Heijn's." He turns to address us all. "While you are down that way, please would you get another loaf. With four of us, we have eaten most of the one you got yesterday."

Paul's dad picks up his keys, ready to go out.

"I should be back about six," he says. "If you want to start on the flat today, there are some collapsible boxes in the cupboard by the front door. And if you see any in the supermarket, it might be an idea to pick up a couple of cardboard produce boxes in case we need them to take small stuff to the kringloop . If there are any, they will be behind the tills. Don't forget to shut the windows before you go out."

"Uh! If you want to start today..," grouches Paul after his dad has left.

"With three of us, we should be able to do it all tomorrow," Tony says, trying to mollify Paul. "It's not as though there is that much stuff. There's just been your dad here on his own."

I agree but suggest that we look at the collapsible boxes in the cupboard before we go out. That way we can see what cardboard boxes we need from the supermarket.

Although there is no rush, Paul seems to be ages in his room getting ready to go out. While we are waiting, I close the windows.

As we walk along the high street Tony suggest we could go on the ferry to look at the town on the other side of the river. Paul agrees, but doesn't sound too enthusiastic. He doesn't say much until we are outside Lidl.

"You go and find the ATM and get your money," he says, pointing at the Albert Heijn store. "I need to go back to the flat for a crap. I'll nip in here and get the bread and take it back with me. That way we don't have to carry it with us all day. When you've got your money, you can have a look around in here. I'll meet you by the clothes shop we looked in last night. There is an alley near there that drops down to the ferry."

He dashes into the shop before we can say anything. Oh well.

"I was going to ask you if you thought Paul was in a funny mood this morning," I say to Tony as we look for the ATM. "But if he needs a crap that might explain it. Perhaps the Chinese last night has upset him although it hasn't affected either of us."

"I don't think it will be that," Tony replies. "If it was, it would be more urgent. He would have gone back before. He certainly wouldn't have wanted to waste time getting the bread."

Thanks for that image, Tony. Too much information. I concentrate on getting the machine to give me some euros.

"He does seem distracted though," Tony continues. "I've noticed him look at his mobile a couple of times. Perhaps he's expecting a text." He starts to chuckle. "You don't think he actually has met someone over here do you? Y' know, last time he was over."

"Nah. He would have let something slip by now."

I put the cash away in my wallet and we cross the road to go and have a look around in Lidl. We are there for some time as I am seeking out at all the things that are different from what we get at home. I didn't really have time to look in Albert Heijn yesterday. It would be nice to take something back for the 'rents. However I want to ask Paul's dad about what it is permitted before I buy anything to take back. There are some pastries that could be like Bakewell tarts. I get some for us to nibble on.

As I struggle to understand what the woman on the checkout is asking me when I go to pay, I see Tony pull out his mobile and look at the screen.

"It was from Paul," he says when we get outside and I ask him about it. "He said he is sorry for taking longer than expected. He is about to leave but has to drop the rubbish at the bins. The stuff you emptied out of the fridge was stinking the place out. To speed things up he will come down on his skateboard."

If his board is here, that would explain why we haven't seen him out on it at home.

"We had better get a move on if we are going to be at the clothes shop before him," I say.

We just make it to the shop in time to see a blond head coming down the high street, weaving in out of the pedestrians and moving fast enough to be on a board. It will be Paul.

As he gets closer, the blond figure can be seen doing little tricks, some using the low steel barriers. Tony decides it makes a good scene and gets his camera out. I can tell he is using the video function by the way he is tracking the action.

The flow of pedestrians means that the hero of our screenplay gets trapped on the other side of the street on the far side of the barriers. He will have to go to the end, loop round the bollards and come back to us. Of course he has to show off by scraping along the top of the last section of barrier. Except…

Tony has his eye to his viewfinder panning the camera to follow the skater. I can see more of the scene. It is too far away for me to do anything about it and I watch the inevitable disaster unfold. An unattended shopping trolley meanders down the slope from the car park and comes to rest exactly in the dismount zone for our skater from the last barrier. It is too late for effective evasive action.

"Nay…!" he cries in despair before there is a sickening thump.

Man down!

I start running towards the figure crumpled in a foetal position on the ground just by the bollards.

"God, Paul. That was spectacular!" I say to the groaning mass. Well there is no point in asking if he is all right. He clearly isn't. On the other hand if he is groaning, he is not unconscious or worse.

It was spectacular too. He managed to avoid the trolley by maintaining the line of the barrier, but he couldn't avoid the bollard lying in wait — or should that be standing in wait — a few metres further on. With his legs splayed either side of the bollard he almost made it, but didn't, and he clipped himself where it hurts on the top. Hence his current agony and contortion. His board, meanwhile, hit the post lower down then rolled to find a parking place under the trolley.

In the few moments before Tony arrives, I watch the victim for signs of damage other than to his ego and, more painfully, to his libido. Tony gathers up the board and puts it and his camera in the trolley and wheels it over to us.

"Come on Paul," I say. "Let's get you picked up and we'll take you over to the bed outside the furniture shop. You can use the trolley as a Zimmer. Tony's got your board."

To an accompaniment of groans and gasps, we get him settled on the bed, leaning against the backrest. As he recovers, he props himself up and tilts his head down as if to inspect the damage. He does look as sorry sight as he ponders if he will ever be the same again. It is then that I notice his shoes and socks.

"Paul, have you been holding out on us?" I ask. "Flamer converse - with matching socks. They're a bit OTT. And a pink skateboard: don't you think that's a bit gay?"

He psyches himself up to say something.

"Dank u wel voor uw hulp. Maar mijn naam is niet Paul. Ik ben Jan ."

I know I have that blank look on my face again.

"He said thanks for the help, but he isn't Paul. His name's 'Yan'," Tony translates for me. Not that he needed to as I had worked it out with an educated guess. My blank look is because I could have sworn he was Paul. Talk about spitting image!

"Het spijt me . Er. Sorry," says Jan. "I knew you were speaking English and I should have done the same, but it just came out in Dutch."

"Understandable with the pain you must have been in," I reply. "I thought you were a friend of ours, that's why I called you Paul. You do look very like him."

"You could be his twin," adds Tony.

Jan stands for a round of handshakes as we introduce ourselves. We start to tell him why and how long we are we visiting the town when we are interrupted.

"Hi Jan! That was some entrance you made. Classic!" It is Paul. He walks up to Jan and they do a sort of hug and air-kiss thing. Twice. Once on each cheek.

"Okay," I draw the word out. "How do you two know each other?"

"We can tell you about it over a coffee," says Jan. "But first, let's take de winkelwagen — sorry, what is the English term, shopping trolley? — back to the rack and collect the euro. I'm surprised there are no people fighting over it. Nobody ever, and I mean ever, does not take their trolley back and collect the euro. No Dutchman would ever waste their money like that."

"We know someone else like that," Tony whispers to me.

"Yup!" I won't deny it.

Tony retrieves his camera from the trolley, and Jan recovers his board and the euro.

Jan leads us across the main road and to the nearest café on the promenade. We all order coffee and appelgebak . Paul and Jan then tell how they met. Not surprisingly, given how alike they look — they could be twins, although when you see them together, not identical — it was another case of mistaken identity.

When he came over at Easter, Paul was window shopping in the main street when he was suddenly surrounded by three lads, calling him Jan and apparently wanting him to go with them. The three lads were classmates of Jan's who had arranged to meet him in town. Because some of their classes are being taught in English, they thought it was Jan just messing around when Paul wouldn't speak Dutch with them. Fortunately the real Jan turned up before things got out of hand. Everyone had a good laugh and Paul hung out with the guys for the rest of the day. He didn't see them again because he spent the next day with his father and went back to England the following day. Paul & Jan did exchange numbers though and text each other occasionally.

"So I thought it would be fun to see if we could confuse you two, like Jan's friends were," Paul says. "It worked. Spectacularly. But not according to plan."

"Colliding with the amsterdammertje was definitely not in the plan," says Jan with feeling.

"Amsterdammertje ? The bollard?" asks Tony. "Why do you call it that?"

"It's what my parents call them. They used to live in Amsterdam and say all the streets were lined with them. There were so many they became a symbol of the city. Apparently a lot of them have been removed over the last few years and sold off. My parents bought one as a souvenir. I have it in my room." Jan's tone gets a salacious edge to it. "It is also a slang term for an erection. What do you say: 'a hard on'!"

Tony gets a fit of the giggles.

"Come and see my amsterdammertje ," he says to Paul when he calms down enough. "A bit blatant compared to the old cliché 'Come up and see my etchings.' Don't try it with Susie. She'd never speak to you again. She's hardly spoken to you in the two years since you showed it to her in the school gym."

Of course we have to explain the joke to Jan so tell him about Paul accidentally exposing himself when wrestling in PE class at the beginning of year ten.

"Have you ever tried it as a chat-up line," I ask Jan when we have finished telling the tale. "Do the girls fall for it?"

He pauses before he replies. I wonder if he is weighing his answer or just struggling with how to express it in English. He sounds reticent when he answers.

"You were right before. I am gay. I thought Paul must have mentioned it when you asked about my shoes and my pink board. He told me you two find him attractive."

Tony and I blush at the remark. Paul blushes too and so he should for outing us in such detail, but I am prepared to forgive him in the circumstances. However Jan's comment leads me to think of something. Much as I like Paul, I would also like Tony and me to have the cabin to ourselves on the way home for the obvious reason.

"Do you know where we can get some earplugs?" I ask Jan. "Paul's dad snores really loud and Paul is sharing a cabin with him on the ferry when we go back to England."

"They probably have them in Albert Heijn, but they will definitely have them in Da, the pharmacy on the corner near Paul's apartment."

Although I ask what I should look for, I am also wondering why Jan would know where Paul's flat is.

"… It would be easiest if I go with you." Jan says when he sees I am not really paying attention. "You've nothing else planned have you?"

He signals to the waitress and we settle the bill.

We walk along the promenade before crossing the riverside road again to take one of the alleys that lead up to the high street. About half way up Tony starts rubbing his shoulder. We slow, letting the others walk a little way ahead.

"You all right?" I ask him.

"Yes, but where Merkin scratched me at Halloween that time is giving me some gyp." he replies. "It does sometimes."

"Usually when you are in the presence of the temptation of illegal substances," I remind him.

I stop walking and look around. We are next to a shop window with the words 'Coffee Shop' stencilled on it. Above the words is a line drawing that I recognise as a cannabis leaf. I've heard about these 'Coffee Shops' in the Netherlands.

"Looks like her spell is still working!" I say as I point to the leaf.

Jan and Paul walk back to join us when they realise we have stopped.

"You have to be eighteen," Jan says when he sees us looking at the shop window. "And they will ask for ID. You stand more chance of getting a drink in a bar."

I get the impression his is the voice of experience.

Getting the earplugs for Paul is much easier than expected. We soon find them on the rack as half the product lines have English names. He buys some called 'Sleep Plugs'. How difficult is that. Having to ask for ' oordopjes ' might be a different matter.

Jan gives us a tour of the town telling us stuff you won't find in the guide books. It soon gets around to time for something to eat.

"Have you had a kroket yet?" he asks.

"Like potato croquettes? We sometimes get those at home." Tony says.

"No, these are not made of potato. They are a sort of thick stew." Paul replies. "I had them last time. They are delicious."

"Heel typisch nederlands ," Jan adds. "Very typically Dutch. The best way to have them is a ' broodje kroket ' – in a soft bread roll."

He takes us to a fast food place and tells us what to order. Of course we all have chips, sorry: ' frites ', as well. There is no vinegar for the chips though. Jan slathers his in mayonnaise. Sounds terrible but is actually okay. The calorie count must be horrendous, but we can get away with it, we're teenagers. Jan tells us where to find the ketchup and mustard if we want it.

"It's not English mustard, is it?" I ask.

Tony has to put his oar in.

"He can do curry as hot as you can make it, but can't stand English mustard," he says. "Work that one out."

The guy behind the counter must have been listening.

"I'm the same," he says with a grin. "There is our German mustard in the other dispenser. I like that. Try it."

While Paul and Tony put the dreaded red sauce on their krokets , I put some of the mustard by the side of mine so that I can taste it first! I've been caught out with the yellow stuff before, usually when it is hidden in ham sandwiches. Yuck! However this mustard is brown and is okay. It has some heat, but not too much and it must be made with vinegar as it has that kind of bite to it.

We take our food to eat at the tables outside. Jan asks us what we have done on our trip so far and we tell him about visiting Oosterbeek .

"My opa , er, grandfather, was born in Arnhem just after the war," Jan tells us. "But he never mentions his parents."

The conversation flags as we eat our krokets. They are tasty. I shall have to see if I can find a recipe on line.

"I can't stay much longer," Jan says when we have just about finished eating. "I agreed with my parents that I would look after my little sister this afternoon. My bus goes in ten minutes. The stop is just opposite so I will be able to see when it comes."

He explains to us that he lives on the edge of town near the top of the hill. He finds it easier to come down on his board — no waiting for the bus to arrive — and get the bus back up, than it is to use his bike. Tony comments that after today he might decide he is safer on his bike.

"Come on, Tony," I say. "You'll have to show Jan the video of his birdman impression before he goes."

Tony gets his camera out and shows us all the video. Now that he has recovered Jan can see the funny side and asks Tony to send a copy to show his mates. Tony can get his contact details from Paul.

"Seeing them on the video reminds me," Tony says to Jan. "Where did you get your converse and socks? I think they're great."

"Paul gave them to me."

Oh? Oh!

When I see Paul's embarrassed look, I am glad Tony and I both instinctively managed not to say anything. There is a question to be asked later though.

The awkward moment is broken by the arrival of Jan's bus. We walk over to the stop with him. Paul gets the air-kiss thing. If Jan was going to give us one as well, he doesn't get the chance as the bus driver shouts something to him, presumably that he should get on the bus if he wants to ride.

"Enjoy the rest of your stay. Take care," Jan says as he puts one foot on the entrance platform of the bus. "Unless you want to come with me to see my amsterdammertje ?"

He pauses as if expecting us to go with him. The bus driver decides he has waited long enough and starts to close the door, making Jan jump in.

"It's too late to be worth getting the ferry over to that other town," Tony says. "But let's go down to the river anyway and watch the barge traffic for a bit."

Tony's suggestion seems at first as if he is ignoring any questions either us might have for Paul, but with conversation impossible as we weave through the other pedestrians and negotiate crossing the road to the promenade, I realise he has given us time to breathe and think about the situation. Down by the river will also be a better place to discuss things with Paul. It could feel awkward if we were in the flat, especially if Paul's father is there.

We amble along the promenade, watching the river traffic as we go. The barges are huge compared to the ones we have on our canals at home. They are carrying bulk goods both up and down stream between the docks at Rotterdam and the cities of Limburg or on into Germany.

This section of the prom is different to the section that parallels the high street. Here some of the public seating is arranged in little gardens areas. The benches still let you watch the barges on the river, but the gardens give a sense of privacy. Between two of the areas is a small stand emblazoned with the word ' Roomijs '.

"Anyone for an ice-cream?" asks Tony.

Silly question.

While Paul is choosing his ice-cream, Tony tells me that we need to sort things between Paul and us, and suggests what I can say to get the conversation started. He steers Paul to a bench in one of the gardens, while I pay for the ices.

"I'm surprised we didn't see you arrive when Jan was doing his birdman impression," I say to Paul when I join them on the bench. "Where were you hiding?"

"I was in the clothes shop." He takes a lick of his ice-cream before continuing. "There is another entrance at the back and from there you can get to the road that leads up to Dad's apartment block."

Tony delays his question with a lick of his own ice-cream. "So did you see it all?"

Paul's mouth is busy with matters other than speech so he hmms a yes...

"Do you know what this plonker said to Jan when we picked him up and put him on the bed?" Tony asks between slurps. "Thinking Jan was you he said 'Paul, have you been holding out on us? Flamer converse - with matching socks and a pink skateboard: that's all a bit gay?" He slurps again. "The best part is that Jan is gay."

Paul is still engaged with his sweet treat, and says nothing. But then nothing Tony said specifically required an answer. I try and take the hint from Tony's approach.

"That air-kiss thing he made you do was pretty gay too." I say with a grin before going back to licking my ice-cream.

Paul breaks from lapping a dribble of melted ice-cream from his hand. "It's a typical Dutch greeting for people you know well socially," he explains.

That begs the question.

"How well do you know him?" Tony asks after he attends to a dribble of his own.

Paul uses his ice-cream to pace his thoughts and answers.

"Jan says the air-kiss greeting could be three kisses for close family or girlfriend. I don't know him that well." Lick, slurp. "He's not my boyfriend if that's what you're thinking, you pervs. I'm not gay."

It is my turn to delay my answer using my ice-cream. "We didn't think you were. You would have told us or we would have guessed before now. But I can't deny the thought did cross my mind with the kissing thing."

"And you did give him those shoes and socks." Tony chuckles and goes back to finishing his ice-cream.

"Piss off!"

His choice of expletive tells me our relationship with Paul is back on familiar territory.

"So what is the story there, then?" I ask.

"Same old. Dad gave them to me. You know how he buys me stuff, but he never asks me if I want it first. You know me: they're not my style. Can you imagine the flack I would get wearing those at home? You two were on to me as soon as you saw them, and it wasn't even me wearing them at the time!" Paul pauses to consume the remains of his ice-cream before it all melts and dribbles onto the ground. "At least Dad got the right size this time, but that meant there was no point in carrying them home with me. Nobody we know has feet as big as mine. I had to wear them here to show Dad I appreciated the thought. Jan had said he liked them so I texted him and said he could have them if they fit. I had to sneak out with them without Dad seeing me and meet Jan in the garage at the flat. That's how he knows where the apartment block is."

Like my ice-cream, that's everything cleared up. Except it isn't. There's one more thing.

"I got the impression," I say, turning to face him. "That Jan was expecting us to go with him when he suggested going back to his place to see his amsterdammertje …" I let my voice trail away with the unspoken question.

"I did tell him that you both fancy me," Paul replies. "Since we are so alike, maybe he believed you would fancy him as well." Something tells me there is more to this.

"And perhaps he was encouraged in this belief?"

Paul's body language gives him away.

"I think I said you've been itching to get in my pants. I didn't say as much but I thought you would like the chance to scratch that itch with him."

I don't feel upset, more disappointed than anything I think. I am not so sure about Tony. His face is hidden behind Paul.

"Paul, you silly bugger," I say, "Jan is not you even if you look the same. We know you, we don't know Jan. Yes, we tease you about itching to get in your pants, and with you it's a game because we don't expect to get anywhere. With Jan it wouldn't be a game anymore and he would have his own expectations."

Paul looks dejected. "What if I say there are times when I have nearly called your bluff?" he says.

"Tony and I know how far we would be prepared to go if you did. It's not far!"

"Basically, it's one of those itches you don't scratch because it will bleed," Tony says re-joining the conversation.

Paul still looks miserable.

"Come on Tony. Let's give him a hug to cheer him up."

Since Paul is in the middle, we pull ourselves into him. Just for devilment I lean in and give him a sloppy Aunt Doris kiss on the cheek. Tony realises what I am doing and does the same the other side.

"Get off, you daft pillocks!" Paul is laughing as he flails his elbows around to push us away.

"No hard feelings?" I ask.

"What? With a kiss like that? No chance. It would make Priapus go soft."

Sense of humour restored.

The afternoon is wearing on. We start to wander back towards the town. There is something I need to know.

"Paul, did your dad say anything about what we are doing for a meal tonight? I know he said we would go out tomorrow night."

"No. Why?"

"Because if I am supposed to be cooking for you, we probably need to do some shopping. Especially if I'm doing a curry."

"I suggest we eat out," says Tony. Thank you for that vote of confidence in my cooking abilities. He redeems himself though. "I would be happy for you to cook," he says looking at me. "But don't forget we have to clean all the walls down tomorrow. We don't want to make the job harder."

"Why don't we go back to the flat and see if Dad is home early," Paul says. "If he isn't I can ring him to see what he has planned."

"We can check out suitable eating places on the way," I suggest.

When we get to the flat, Paul's dad is still at work. Paul starts to call him but I tell him to wait for a few minutes. I want to see what is in the cupboards. I only looked in the fridge yesterday. I find some pasta, bottled veg — yes bottled veg, tinned fruit, all sorts of stuff actually including herbs and spices. We might have to get a few things from the supermarket — onions for example — and the results be a bit off the wall but I can make something out of it. There is method in my madness — if I cook, Paul's dad will feel duty bound to analyse and critique my efforts over the meal. If we eat out, and if he is like most parents, he will be asking how we spent our day. I know I don't want to be reporting on our meeting with Jan or our subsequent chat with Paul.

"Does he know about Jan?" I ask Paul after I have explained my thinking to the others.

"Not that we have kept in touch after that first meeting."

"Even if he did know, and we tell him we met with Jan," I say. "One of us is bound to let something slip, like mentioning those converse."

"Why are you looking at me when you say that?" Tony grouches.

The guys agree to my suggestion, so I do a more focused trawl of the cupboards and make a list of things to get from the supermarket.

By the time Paul's dad comes home at six thirty — he did ring Paul to say he would be late — I have a sauce simmering, pasta ready to cook, grated a really old piece of edam cheese I found in the fridge to use instead of parmesan, put together some starters from some bottled sweet peppers and bottled olives I found in the cupboard and some feta from the supermarket. I have made a dessert with a couple of the tins of fruit. Most importantly there is an appetising aroma that focuses Paul's father's mind on food and away from making small talk with us.

Paul has also managed to find a bottle of red wine in the cupboard for his father to have with the meal. If he has had a tiring day at work and he drinks some of that, he should soon be asleep and pushing out the zeds. He might let us have a small glass apiece too.

The meal is a success, both culinary and in terms of parental management.

In the morning we go over our list of tasks for the day with Paul's dad before he goes to work. He makes sure we know where the kringloop is and tells us he thinks it opens at nine.

"Ask for Yoka," he says. "She speaks English. Ask if you can borrow a trolley to move stuff round there. Also tell her about the beds and fridge that will have to be moved tomorrow. Ask her if she can organise someone to help, please. Don't forget everything has to be out of here and cleaned up by noon, ready for the agent at one.

"I should be home sometime after lunch to help. Dinner out tonight. I've booked for seven p.m. My shout."

"Sometime after lunch," Paul grumps after he has gone. "That could be anytime."

I think that means we shouldn't expect him to be home in time to be of any help.

After spending ten minutes working out the order we need to tackle the various tasks, we set to. I break off every so often to keep us supplied with tea – builders' strength, of course. We empty all the cupboards and drawers and clean them out, pack the stuff to go home and stack it by the door, take several bags of rubbish to the bins in the garage and make several trips to the kringloop . There is a little café there, so on one trip we have a snack for lunch. Tony and I have a good look around while Paul is discussing the moving of the beds tomorrow. We can see what Paul's dad meant when he said you can furnish a house from the place. In the afternoon we finish washing down the walls in every room and sweep the floors – the rugs have already gone to the charity shop.

When Paul's dad comes home — just before five: surprise, surprise — we are all done.

"Sorry, I'm a bit later than I intended," he says. "First, they wanted me to run through some stuff again after lunch and then they had a little leaving presentation for me. Anyway all finished now, and it looks as though you are all done here too. You've done a good job. Thanks, guys."

We tell him what is left to do in the morning, then load the boxes for home in the car. There is just time for us to clean up before we go out for dinner. He takes us to one of the bistros we had spotted when we were walking on the prom yesterday. Very good it is too.

Back at the flat, it's bedtime. I am last out of the bathroom. As I get into bed next to him, I see Tony is already fast asleep. I will be too when my head hits the pillow.

The morning is predictably busy with the last clean-up. Paul's dad says the sheets need to be washed at the laundrette before they can go to the kringloop with the other bedding. Paul volunteers. I can't decide if he has volunteered to be away from his dad or to avoid shifting the furniture. Bit of both probably.

Except for the bedding, everything is dealt with by midday. Paul's dad takes us to the nearest café for a snack for lunch, and we are back at the flat before one. We just have time to put our bags in the car before the agent arrives to collect the keys and check the flat is in good condition. The three of us pick up the bedding to take it to the kringloop , leaving Paul's dad to deal with the agent. He says to wait there and he will pick us up.

While we are waiting, we have another look around the shop. I find a pottery jar about ten centimetres diameter and twelve high. It has plain lines but is decorated with scenes of windmills. Well it is Holland! Tony says it is known as blue-and-white or Delftware. It is quite decorative so I buy it as a souvenir for Mum. I know we don't have anything like it at home.

"Trust you to buy your mum something in a charity shop," says Tony.

"I'm sure she would approve. Dad certainly would," I refuse to rise to the bait these days. "We haven't exactly had loads of time to shop, have we?"

He grudgingly admits that's true before he spots something in a different section of the shop. He drags me over to look at it. It is a pink skateboard.

"Don't mention it to Paul," he says. "But isn't that Jan's board? He must have brought it in this morning. It wasn't here yesterday."

"It certainly looks like it."

When Paul's dad sees the jar, he tells me it is for stroopwafels, big waffle biscuits with treacle in the middle.

"If we have time when we get near Europort, we can find a shop and you can get some to put in it," he says.

"I think I've seen them in Lidl at home," Tony whispers to me as we get in the car. So his family shops there too!

The journey back to Europort is mostly motorway although there are some bottlenecks. Paul's dad is concentrating on the driving and the rest of find it difficult to hold a conversation in the car so we watch the scenery — and other traffic — go past. It takes us about three hours, but there is still plenty of time before we have to go to the ferry, so Paul's dad detours off for us to visit the little town of Brielle. We walk around looking at the picturesque old parts for about an hour, then find a supermarket for me to buy the stroopwafels before heading for the boat.

The boarding and cabin arrangements are much the same as on the journey out. As we leave the car deck, we agree to meet in the top deck bar before having our meal in the formal restaurant again. Tony and I find our cabin.

"Earplugs or not, I think we will be playing host to Paul again tonight," Tony says.

"I think you are right."

Paul's long legs are again the first thing we see in the morning after the PA call has woken us up.

"Sorry, guys," he says as turns on his light before climbing down from the top bunk. "But you know I've got to have a pee."

Once more, his legs are not the only thing we see. His morning piss-hard is again leading the way to the bathroom.

"Do you need us to give you a wank to get that to go down," I tease.

"Piss off."

Just the response I was hoping for.

By the time we have all used the bathroom and dressed, it is time to go down to the buffet restaurant for breakfast, but there is something we want to ask Paul about before we do.

"Did you know Jan must have been in town yesterday morning?" Tony asks. Paul looks guilty.

"How did you know?"

"We saw his skateboard in the kringloop ," I say. "We thought he might have spotted you in the laundrette and told you about it."

"He texted me to say he had had another accident with an amsterdammertje , and valued his assets more than skating."

I notice he didn't deny they had met, but it's not really any of my business if they did.

We find Paul's dad in the restaurant. As before he explains where everything is including which coffee machine has the better coffee. We pig out on the cooked breakfast again and I get more groans for the black pudding on my plate. Wimps.

We arrive back at Tony's just after midday. We thank Paul's dad for inviting us on the holiday.

"Well, thank you for coming," he says. "It hasn't been all that much of a holiday with all the work you've had to do. I should be thanking you for your help, and for keeping Paul company."

While Paul's dad is exchanging pleasantries with Tony's parents, I pull Paul to one side.

"Paul, you know where we are if you want to chat about anything or just need some company."


"Well, don't forget."

I say goodbye to everyone and walk home. I should have time for a kip before I go to the Indian for my evening shift.

Of course the 'rents want to know all about the trip and if I enjoyed it. They get the censored version. Mum likes her waffle jar and the waffles. Dad likes the waffles as well, but says they too hard and play havoc with his fillings. Mum waits until he is out of earshot.

"He hasn't worked out that you should put them over your cup so the steam from your drink warms them and softens the treacle," she cackles. "Don't tell him. It's all the more for me!"


© Pedro, June 2020 All righst reserved


This story is part of the 2020 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Sofa Skater". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 31 January to 21 February is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2020 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - Sofa skater

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Jan en de Winkelwagen

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