Thursday, 2 December 2010

A small mystery...

Not all mysteries are big. Some are small. Others are a mystery only to the person who finds them mysterious. I have a mystery, not a very big one, personal to me but a mystery nevertheless.

I’m of Dutch descent, my family coming across from the Netherlands to settle in Lincolnshire early in the 19th century. I knew this even before I was told. I’ve felt a Dutchness in me all my life, a kind of memory. I remember windmills, grey open fields, the purple white clouds racing across the sky, skating on frozen canals, a woollen cap. But this isn’t the mystery, neither is it that when I attempted skating I found I could do it pretty well, or that I am drawn to windmills and the paintings of the Dutch masters, or my love of Edam cheese. My mystery, though simple, is something else entirely.

My mystery wakes me in the night and is often my first thought when I awake, popping uninvited into my head at the most unexpected times. It’s bothered me since I was a child, since I first saw them both, brass and kissing, next to the windmill by the small sailing boat on the shelf of the pink tiled fireplace.

Who are the little Dutch boy and girl and what is their story? We all know them. They are everywhere. Sometimes they are on skates, occasionally they’re yoked and carrying buckets or baskets - but usually they are just leaning towards each other and kissing or simply standing side by side just like they were in my mum’s brass double bell. They look so happy, so suited.

My mum used to collect brass, laboriously shining it with Brasso and old ripped-up sheets every few weeks or so, her hands turning black, the acrid smell on the creamy yellow fluid hanging in the air. She had a lot of brass, her collection proudly displayed on the fireplace – shell casings from the First World War, horse brasses, bells, miniature warming pans, Lincoln imp letter openers, crinoline ladies, ornamental owls and cats – and a collection of Dutch brass which I think was inherited from somebody in my dad’s family. There were three pieces that I knew were Dutch – the beautifully made windmill with the turning brass sails, a Hoeker sailing boat, and the mysterious boy and girl.

I’ve spent years trying to find out the story of the boy and girl but all I’ve turned up is the boy who put his finger in the Dike and ‘Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland’. The little boy and girl remain a mystery despite them being everywhere; portrayed on plates and tiles, coupled ornamental dolls, modelled as figurines, salt and pepper pots, or sewn onto quilted cushions and antimacassars.

Who are they? What is their story? Deep inside I think I know, it’s part of that memory I was telling you about – the windmills and grey open fields, the purple white clouds racing across the sky, skating on the frozen canal, my woollen cap, a girl in clogs. Often when I awake from my dream I still feel the ice beneath my wooden skates, hear the rip of my blades as they race, feel the icy air on my cheek. I pass the windmills and the empty fields and see the pretty face looking up at me from beneath the ice. I know their story, each and every word. It isn’t a mystery at all. Maybe I should write it down.


  1. Aa-ha, so your mother was a collector too! That makes sense...

  2. There is comfort in brass. It has history - it's a gypsy thing.

  3. I remember the brass (and the smell of Brasso!)
    Like you; I could ice-skate quite easily (although I still have the scar on my finger from someone's sharp 'privately owned' skates that caused a lot of blood on the ice! We used to come to Birmingham and skate.
    I love Dutch pancakes (not sure they're really Dutch) and windmills etc.
    Jed had changed his surname to Heitke-Roberts for a while ... he too found the 'Dutch connection'
    Still raining here in Australia - mosquitoes love it (and my blood).
    Little sister Della
    :O) x

  4. Gypsy's and Dutchmen - what a mixture.

  5. You are welcome to come to my house and skate on the Rochdale Canal if you want to enhance that Dutch feeling. I think the ice is just about thick enough.

  6. I skated on a small lake that formed after rain in Perry Park in Birmingham once. Outside in the open air, under the skies, crisp and clear for hours and hours. It was great, really great.

  7. My mum had a pair of brass bells - they were ladies dressed in crinolines. They sat at opposite ends of the mantel piece. I'm afraid they had to go when we cleared the house but your picture brought back happy memories of them.