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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

The End of Everything a short story from The Netherlands.

In June 2010 I arrived in The Netherlands with the notion of finally ‘settling down’. Young, in love and still just a little wet behind the ears, my girl and I had all the typical rat race dreams. Get the jobs so we could save money. Save money so we could get the house. Get the house so we could have kids. Have kids so we could be a happy family, a regular functioning cog in this big old machine we call society. What could possibly go wrong?

S moved out of our apartment sometime in early July 2013, leaving me with our cats CJ & Charlie and an apartment full of memories. Each evening, when I returned home from work, I seemed to exist only in a fuzzy haze as I tried to come to terms with what was happening. I spent a great deal of time working my way through the towering pile of movies stacked up in the living room. There were a lot of films. I also re-watched the brilliant HBO TV series The Wire, just for the hell of it. I took long baths, overate, under exercised, over analysed and underslept.

Nights were particularly difficult. Unable to sleep, I’d sometimes sit playing with the cats for hours. Other times I’d just stare at the ceiling as my mind trudged uselessly through the key events of our relationship. I thought about those early days in Belgium and our travels around China. And of course I found myself going over our arrival in The Netherlands and the rocky road that led to this current state of affairs.

Short story The Netherlands

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

I also listened to a fuck load of music. I’d always wanted to collect Marvin Gaye, so I bought a bunch of his stuff and binged on it. No surprise that I found myself drawn to his epic divorce record Here, My Dear. As a companion piece, I also picked up a copy of the engrossing David Ritz book Divided Soul, the ultimate Marvin Gaye biography.

The book details Gaye’s messy breakup with Anna Gordy, the daughter of Motown Records boss Berry Gordy. It was an intense separation; a sorry affair punctuated by bitter legal action, out of control spending habits, debilitating drug use and a messy child custody battle.

Marvin Gaye 1966.

And you thought ‘your’ divorce was bad. Marvin Gaye in 1966.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

With his estranged wife suing him for a huge amount of money, Gaye was talked into putting out a new record, with fifty percent of the royalties going directly to Gordy as a divorce settlement. In the beginning, Marvin was determined to make the record “quick and painless”, not wanting to put in much effort. However, as the recording process unfolded, he found himself fascinated by the idea of documenting the most painful experience of his life through music. As a result, Gaye ended up pouring his heart and soul into the record. Furthermore, knowing Anna would end up getting half of the profits, he cheekily titled his album, Here, My Dear.

Here My Dear Marvin Gaye.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

Marvin’s divorce story certainly helped me put things into perspective. After all, S and I were actually dealing with everything very well! We’d managed to iron out the financial side of things without a major row and had even begun the awful process of separating possessions and dividing up all those little personal treasures we’d acquired together.

It wasn’t easy of course, but piece by piece we were getting through it. “Titanic!” said S, a ponderous finger on her lips as she scanned the shelves. “True Romance!” I replied. “Cry Baby!” she announced vigorously. “The Deer Hunter” I countered, trying not to hide the smile that was breaking out on my face. This is going to be easier than I thought, I realized, as we went through the dreadful process of splitting our beloved film collection in two. I knew I was going to lose loads of precious titles, but the more we progressed the more it became clear that she was also going to relieve me of a whole bunch of crap.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet Titanic.

Titanic, an expendable component of any divorce negotiation.

“This is literally the most amicable breakup in history,” said a friend of mine over the phone. “Why are you guys splitting up again?” Even I had to admit that it all felt very surreal. “Are you sure this is what you both want?” my mum asked, back when my parents had visited. We’d been sitting in the little garden of their canal side apartment, the four of us drinking wine. My dad was listening intently as he puffed away on his signature vacation cigar. It had all been so strangely civil.

“This is literally the most amicable breakup in history”. 

I could see how it looked from the outside. But honestly, I’d grown tired of trying to explain it to people. They could never truly understand, especially those whose own relationships had survived all kinds of crap. Habitual fighting, screwing around on each other, alcoholism, chronic depression, drug addiction. You name it, people just seemed to deal with it all and stay together. 

S and I hadn’t wronged each other in any way, we’d just drifted apart, lost our spark, run our course. I wasn’t angry or resentful, I was just heartbroken. To be honest I felt gutted for the young idealistic people we’d been when we first met. I felt disconsolate about the shared dreams we wouldn’t fulfil and the children we’d never have. These were the thoughts that invaded my head at night and haunted the dreams of the little sleep I managed to get.

heartbreak short story.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

At Old Harbour I was starting to grow tired of the job. After three years with the company, I felt like I’d hit a wall when it came to the nuts and bolts of my typical working day. I could pretty much knock out the daily news items in my sleep, while the formulaic structure of our weekly programs no longer felt fresh and exciting. Now that S and I were calling it a day, a frightening notion hit me one morning while I was cycling to work. Do I really need to stay in Amsterdam? The thought lingered in my head for almost a week before I finally came to the conclusion that the only reason for me to stay was the opportunity to interview more stars. Was it really worth it? In the words of Mr. Marvin Gaye: “Is that enough?”

“Do I really need to stay in Amsterdam?”

I found myself mulling it all over as I trammed my way across Amsterdam to interview the French film maestro Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I could never proclaim myself an expert in French cinema, but I did love Jeunet’s work. His movies Delicatessen, Amélie and The City of Lost Children were titans of modern day cinema. These movies were stuffed full of cartoonish visuals, off-kilter characters and contrasting senses of heightened romance and dark, brooding despair. My interview with him was for his second English language movie, The Prodigious T.S. Spivet, starring Helena Bonham Carter.  

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet film poster.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

Looking back, and I’m not sure if it was just my state of mind, but I found the movie incredibly underwhelming. On the one hand it contained all the elements of what a great Jeunet picture should be. However, despite the beautiful cinematography and quirky people, Spivet was full of contrived character decisions, heavy handed dialogue and a muddled plot.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

If I was a little disappointed with the movie, that was nothing compared to the experience of interviewing Jeunet, who was an abrasive, uncooperative ass from the moment I sat down and said hello. With the limpest of handshakes, he refused to even look at me until the cameras started rolling. Moreover, he seemed intent on peppering our chat with a series of withering looks and one-word answers. Maybe he’d just been having a bad day, though my online research suggests this almost certainly wasn’t the case.

Jean Pierre Jeunet French film director.

Jean Pierre Jeunet: Great director, lousy interview.

“Leighton, how are you?” asked Trudy, “What about your life in Amsterdam?” I was skyping with my old boss from the school S and I had taught at in Beijing. Despite our somewhat bumpy year working together, we’d kept in touch. Furthermore, I’d even continued working for her as a freelance recruitment consultant. Every now and then she’d ask me to screen a bunch of CVs and interview any desirables before making a final recommendation. It wasn’t a great deal of work and my bank account certainly appreciated the extra cash injections. When I gave Trudy a brief rundown of “my life in Amsterdam” she was initially lost for words. “Oh… I’m so sorry” she muttered and quickly changed the subject.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

But then, a week later, I was surprised to find an email from her with a job offer! Trudy wanted me to return to Beijing and help her manage the school. “You will be my head teacher” she explained, as if the matter had already been agreed. “You will help me manage everything, especially when I take Happy to school in America”. Ah yes, The Prodigious Happy Wang. Boy genius, the micromanaged one, the student of infinite subjects. The child who would sometimes look at me as if he’d love nothing more than to do a T.S. Spivet and jump on a train that would take him away from everything. 

Job offer story.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

I knew I was going to accept the job offer the moment I’d finished reading the email. There were some finer points of the contract I wanted to sort out, but my overall feeling was that a move away from The Netherlands was just what I needed to get my life back on track. It would be a great chance to reflect on everything and begin the long journey towards inner peace. It would be an exciting new start!

Those last four months of 2013 were the toughest of my life. Having made my decision to leave Amsterdam, it was agreed that S would retain the apartment and buy me out of my half of the mortgage. But then, in a truly horrible morning with a valuator, we discovered that our place was in negative equity. This meant that if I wanted to move on I’d have to buy myself out of the contract! I lost about 75% of my life savings that winter, but sometimes you just have to bite a big old bullet. Freedom is priceless, I told myself, signing the papers with a lump in my throat. I felt sick that day, even if I knew I was doing the right thing. 

“Freedom is priceless, I told myself, signing the papers with a lump in my throat”.

S had no interest in keeping the cats, so it was up to me to find them new homes. After a succession of frustrating time wasters, I finally found a young Moroccan couple who I felt wanted to adopt them for the right reasons. Packing up all their stuff and popping them both into their cat bags for the last time was just another level of heartbreak. I can still see little Charlie fixing me with a confused, wide-eyed look, right up until the moment the car sped off. “What’s going on?” his little black and white face said. If only I could have explained.

The end of Everything a short story from The Netherlands.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

“We’ll be sorry to lose you,” said Ap, shifting his glasses up to his forehead. “But I understand. You gotta do what you gotta do”. With just three months to go until I boarded my plane to China, it was a scary thought to realise that I was gradually building up to the end of everything as I knew it. I’d lost the love of my life, my home and most of my savings. Additionally, I was turning my back on the best job I’d ever had and bidding farewell to some great friends. With what remained of my stuff already finding its way into packing boxes, I arranged for everything to go into a storage facility outside Amsterdam until my long-term future became clearer.

“It was a scary thought to realise that I was gradually building up to the end of everything as I knew it”. 

“Leighton, do you think you can handle one last junket?” Lianne asked me one snowy December morning. “Sure, who’s up?” I asked. My final press junket for Old Harbour took place on December the 11th, 2013 at The Marriott Hotel on Grosvenor Square in London. The movie Anchorman 2 hadn’t been my cup of tea at all. In fact, speaking frankly, it was a bit crap. Having said that, I had no complaints whatsoever with The Hollywood stars I’d be adding to my interviewing CV.

The Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square London.

The Marriott at Grosvenor Square, London.

My first chat of the day was with Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, who were incredible fun from start to finish! “Jellybeans?” scoffed Rudd, as I took my seat. He was stuffing his face from a giant glass jar and didn’t hold back as he emptied a small mountain into my hands. “Oh, you’ve dropped a few”.

Jellybeans.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

I’d hardly finished relocating them to my jeans pocket when Carell leaned forward with a fishbowl of shiny, plastic wrappers. “Would you care for a condom?” he enquired. “Uh… sure” I replied, “any recommendations?” “I’d go for the skins” he said, so I fished out a pink one and popped it into my pocket with the jellybeans. I kept that condom for two years and when I finally used it, with much reluctance, I believe the magnitude of the moment was completely lost on the girl in question.

Paul Rudd and Steve Carell Interview Anchorman 2.

With Paul Rudd and Steve Carell in London for Anchorman 2.

Will Ferrell was an odd one, just as I’d expected him to be. When I entered the room he was in deep conversation with David Koechner about something Will had said in the previous interview. “Maybe we can edit that out. I don’t want it to sound like I was…” “Oh, hey!” he cried suddenly, interrupting himself as he became aware of my presence. “How’s it going? Are you all psyched up for Cyber Monday?” 

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

We talked about who pulled off the best perm (Paul Rudd?), which actor could have played Dobie the Shark (Warren Buffet, Sylvester Stallone) and why live police car chases make such great TV. While Ferrell was totally cooperative and highly quotable, there was something about his stiff body language and forced laughter that made me feel a little uncomfortable. “Did you like the movie?” he asked at the end, once the cameras had stopped rolling. “Uh… yeah, it was… entertaining”. Fuck, he’d really caught me by surprise.

Anchorman 2 movie poster.

The End of Everything, a short story from The Netherlands.

Director Adam McKay was really personable, although there was initially some confusion in the beginning when he thought I was Dutch. “Leighton, your English is fantastic!” He was also genuinely interested in finding out how I’d ended up in Amsterdam and could I teach him a few Dutch words. As a former Saturday Night Live writer and helmer of comedy classics like Step Brothers and The Other GuysI remember being surprised and pleased when, a few years later, McKay won a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for the financial drama The Big Short.

Adam McKay director Anchorman 2.

Hollywood film director Adam McKay.

Elsewhere Judd Apatow joked that making an Anchorman sequel was “all about the money”, while James Marsden was polite and pretty, but ultimately bland with his cardboard cutout sound bites. And finally there was Christina Applegate, who did nothing at all to charm me with her snippy comments and general argumentativeness. All in all though it was still a fun day. And, as I headed off to Heathrow for my flight back to Amsterdam, I knew I would miss all this, no doubt about it.

—————

My farewell drink with S was easier than I’d thought, initially at least. We knocked back a few beers, recalled some funny times on the road in China and kept the anecdotes light and breezy. Finally, it was time to part, the two of us stranded at Rembrandtplein tram stop like stone slabs set opposite each other at a polite distance.

“Goodbye Leighton!” she sobbed. We were hugging each other tight, a hug I didn’t want to step away from. But of course I had to, because the tram was pulling in and it was time to go. The tram that would take me away from her forever, back to the empty apartment that would only be mine for one more night. It was as if all eight years of our relationship had gone into that hug, an embrace of nostalgia and genuine warmth. But also incredible sadness and regret.

“Goodbye Leighton!” she sobbed.

Turning away from her, my vision blurry from the streaming tears, I boarded the tram and dropped into a seat. Wiping my eyes with the sleeve of my coat, I caught sight of a young Dutch couple sniggering at me from a few seats ahead. The guy had a smirk on his face that for the briefest of seconds ignited a rage in me I’d never felt before. I wanted to jump up and attack him, go properly medieval on his ignorant ass.

But then we were moving away, the clunking of the wheels acting as a sedative. I could feel S was still standing there, waiting for me to turn the corner out of sight. I wanted to look back one last time but I thought it best not to. So I whipped out my phone, dove into the nearest Bowie album, hit play and emptied my mind.

‘The End of Everything’ is the sixth and final chapter of my short story collection Notes From The Netherlands.

For my travel reports on the Dutch capital, take a look at my articles on Amsterdam.

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4 Comments

  • Beverley

    Made me very sad for you. As a parent we always want to make everything right and protect you from sadness and hurt but sometimes we cant do anything other than show love and be supportive.

    November 14, 2019 - 10:02 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for this touching message. I’ve had quite a few today in response to this story. 🙂

      November 14, 2019 - 10:04 pm Reply
  • Team Leisure

    Need a stiff drink after this flashback. I recall our visit to you in Amsterdam like an old movie in slow motion standing beside the Richard Krajicek tennis court. Like your mum said we felt powerless to help. I think you dealt with it all heroically. Having your life turned upside down in such a short time. Your a solid guy X

    November 15, 2019 - 7:46 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Whoa… thanks. Another moving message. This story has had quite the impact.

      November 15, 2019 - 7:51 pm Reply

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