A novel for Middle Grade. Chapter 1
Chapter 1 (excerpt)
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
April 6, 1923
I run as fast as I can, my rucksack bouncing on my shoulder, cousin Hero just ahead of me. I jump over wandering pigeons, cross the road, leap over horse poo, and head up the walkway along the canal. Hero turns first onto the ancient stone bridge and stops at the crest. I come in second. We are huffing.
“We made it just in time,” Hero begins.
“There,” I say, pointing to the barge. Our favorite barge. The one with the friendly man, and the beautiful, fluffy dog. The man at the back works the long pole. The man at the front works the net, scooping up garbage in the water. They come closer, and we both wave like crazy.
The man with the net stops and tips his cap to us. The dog smiles and barks to us.
“Look how beautiful that dog is,” I say to my cousin.
“You and your dogs,” Hero shakes his head.
We are still catching our breath, leaning on the old bricks when this boy we know from school named Jorge gets to the top of the bridge. He’s with an older boy we don’t know.
“Hendrik, what’s your family going to do if the carpenters strike?” Jorge seems upset.
I look at Hero who shrugs his shoulders, because we don’t know what he’s talking about. Just then the older boy pulls Jorge along, and we go back to enjoying the barge, which is passing under the bridge and out of sight.
Hero and I part ways when we get close to our houses. I scale up the worn wooden stairs, stopping at the first landing. Nothing in the world can take away my good feelings today. Not even Pappa in one of his bad moods. The door to my Oma’s flat stands open.
“My little Henkie, come in.” My grandmother breaks into a big smile just for me. She is stirring potatoes on the burner as I step inside the door.
“How is my Henkie?” Oma wipes her hands on her apron, opening her arms wide.
“Very good, Oma.” All of me sinks into her arms, her softness surrounds me.
“How was school today?” She backs up enough to look at me, pushes my hair off my forehead.
“Great. Oma, I wrote a poem! It mentions you! Mr. Swart really liked it. He read it in front of the whole class! Everyone in the class said it was really good.”
“My clever boy.” Oma plants a kiss on my forehead. “Maybe we are going to have a poet in the family, yah?” With my coat sleeve, I wipe away the wetness, still smiling. “Ach, are you getting too old for kisses from your Oma? Is this because you are almost ten?” Oma laughs. “Tell me more about this poem, Henkie!”
Quickly, I take my school rucksack from my shoulder and dig it out. “Here it is,” uncurling the slightly bent piece of white paper.
I carefully put back the book my teacher loaned me –his very own copy of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. I stand up tall and ready.
“Spring, by Hendrik Van Veen.” I take a deep breath, looking over at my Oma, who waits patiently.
“Spring is coming, yes it will,
Tulips bud on Oma’s sill.
Sun is warming, days get long,
Soon birds will sing their welcome song.”
“Wonderful, my Henkie.” Oma claps. “You are a clever boy.” She looks at me, her hand on her chest. “Now, you best be getting upstairs. Your mamma is waiting for you. Your sisters are already home.”
“Yes, Oma. They passed me when Hero and I stopped on the bridge.”
Oma holds out a plate. She knows these butter and almond cookies are my favorite.
“Take one,” she warns holding up one finger. Snatching it, I shove it all it in my mouth, pick up my rucksack, and begin to take the stairs up to our attic flat two at a time, hoping Oma is not looking.
“Be careful on those stairs!” she yells after me. “Someone could get killed on those stairs!”
Stepping into our attic flat, I stand on tip toes to hang up my woolen coat and cap on the second peg by the door. Not the first peg. Pappa’s coat goes there. He gets mad if anyone else uses it.
“Ah, Henkie, you are finally home,” Mamma says while one hand holds our big pot steady on the alcohol burner. The pot has been filled with water. Kale, potatoes, and even metwurst are next to the pot. My favorite dinner! It’s been weeks since we had my favorite dinner!
“Mamma, I wrote a poem today!”
“Wonderful, Henkie. Maybe you can read it to us after dinner.”
“I already read it to Oma.” I pause. “She said that maybe I am going to be a poet someday.” Mamma turns away from the pot and looks at me, putting down the towel.
“You are good with the words, Henkie.” She turns and adds potatoes to the pot. Then the leaves of kale, a few at a time. “But remember Pappa expects you to be a carpenter, just like him. Boys always do the same trade as their fathers. You know this. You can still write poems for enjoyment, though.” Mamma adds the ring of metwurst on top of the kale, pushes it all down with a wooden spoon, and puts the lid on the pot.
My bubble bursts a little, because I want to write.
Still, the wonderful feeling of reading my poem in class today stays with me. I walk over and put my rucksack on my cot in the alcove. My sisters’ beds are here, too.
But, this will change when we get our new place. We are all so excited about getting our new flat.
Looking out our only windows, I see Pappa walking up the street. It’s way too early for Pappa to be getting home. He and another man stand there with his heavy toolbox, each one holding a handle on the side. They wait to cross the street until a horse and cart pass by.
“Why is Pappa coming home early?” I say to anyone who might be listening. I think back to what happened while Hero and I were watching the barge. What was Jorge talking about? Something about a strike. Maybe I should have asked his what he meant. Something doesn’t feel right.
“Why is Pappa getting home so early?” No one answers.
The clock strikes one ding dong for 5:30. Betsie goes to the tea table in the corner. She pulls down one of the glass doors and gets out five teacups.
“Mamma, are we getting our new flat soon?” Betsie asks while she is arranging cups at each person’s place. She is now as tall as Mamma.
“Yah, I think so,” Mamma looks over and smiles. “Pappa says we are high on the waiting list. Not much longer now.” Steam rises in Mamma’s face while picks up the lid, stirring our dinner.
“ I am tired of living in an attic,” Betsie chimes in.
Any flat will be bigger than this place!” Mamma chuckles. The plodding lumber of Pappa’s footsteps move slowly up the last set of stairs, one at a time. I hear the thud of the heavy toolbox on each step as he makes progress.
Pappa inches in, straining to manage the end handles on the wide and tall wooden box. When he plunks it on the floor, dishes on the table rattle. He’s breathing hard. He hangs up his jacket and cap, and pushes his hair away from his face. Pappa is only a little taller than Mamma. His work clothes are not dirty as usual.