The notes in Joe’s bag become more sodden by the second as he and Tom run for cover. The sudden shower has caught the boys on their way from class. The rain quickly penetrates their summer clothes and they duck inside the nearest café for shelter. A bell tinkles as they push open the door. Behind the counter, the owner remains absorbed in his newspaper.
“I’ll get coffee,” says Tom. “You sit and get organised. Cappuccino, right?”
“Right,” replies Joe.
“Two cappuccinos?” says the owner, looking up at Tom.
“Yes please. Large ones.”
Joe squeezes between a round black iron table and the wall. The counter is to his left. Opposite him is the door, and to his right is the only other customer, a wet shirt straining against his broad back. From his bag, Joe extracts the damp sheets of paper on which his notes have begun to smudge and places them on the table.
He notices that the customer is clutching a pepper pot in one hand and a salt cellar in the other. Little sachets of sugar and plastic stirrers are spread over his table, as if he is playing a child's game. On Joe's table the same items are neatly arranged. Even from behind, Joe can see the edges of his full ginger beard.
Tom joins him, dumping his own bag on a chair. The rain has stopped. Weak summer sunlight covers the table.
"Seen what that guy's doing?" Joe says, nodding in the customer's direction.
Tom peers at him for a moment. "Leave it," he says. "He's probably trouble. Coffee’ll be here in a moment.”
Joe keeps staring. Despite the damp shirt, a dry coat hangs on the back of the customer's chair.
Tom looks at the pile of crinkled paper.
“So how can I help you?”
Joe points at the guilty pages.
“It’s this Dutch word order. I just don’t get it. Sometimes it’s like English, and sometimes it’s completely strange. How do you know where to place what?”
Tom takes a deep breath.
“OK, so it goes like this. You’ve got main clauses and other clauses. The word order of a main clause is just like in English, with the verb usually the second word in the sentence. But in other cases, the verb gets sent to the end of the sentence. With me so far?”
The owner places two cups of coffee on the table.
“There you go, gents. Watch those papers now.”
Joe slurps his cappuccino.
“So far, so good.”
“OK,” continues Tom. “So in subordinate and relative clauses, you put the verb last. And since complex sentences with more than just a main clause are very common, the verb comes at the end most of the time.”
“You mean that the word order that looks normal is actually used only rarely?”
“Relatively, yes. Just in simple main clauses”.
“Aah, I see it now,” says Joe, leaning back with hands behind his head. “So what looks weird to us, is actually normal in Dutch.”
“Right,” says Tom, and swallows some coffee.
Joe smiles and leans forward.
“And when you look only at simple examples like main clauses, you get the wrong idea of what normal is. Correct?”
Joe lifts his cup to his lips in celebration.
Tom salutes him with his own raised cup.
“Nicely put. But don’t forget the time-manner-place rule.”
Joe stops in mid-gulp. His forehead creases. Froth settles on his upper lip.
“Shit. I forgot about that. How does it go again?”
The rain resumes, sending drops thumping on the canopy over the tables on the pavement.
“Well, in English we use place-manner-time, don’t we?” explains Tom. “We say things like I'm travelling to London by train today. London is the place, by train is the manner, and today is the time. Actually, there is some flexibility because there are a few options here, such as Today I’m travelling by train to London, but let’s keep things simple for now.”
The owner calls to the customer, “Sam, it’s raining again. Want to give it another go?”
The customer returns the salt cellar and pepper pot to the jumble of items on his table.
“Thanks Vic. Back in a minute.”
He rubs his hands together chuckling softly to himself as he sidles out to the street. The bell tinkles when he opens the door. His coat remains on the chair.
“But in Dutch, we usually change the order to time-manner-place. So you get Vandaag gaan we met de trein naar Londen. Joe, are you listening?”
Joe is looking out on to the pavement. With arms stretched out to the sides and head tilted back, the customer spins around on the spot, grinning up at the squally shower. He rotates until his beard is dripping and his sodden shirt sticks to his burly frame.
“What the hell is he doing?” says Joe.
“Getting wet,” says the owner without looking up from his newspaper.
“What on earth for? Is he mad?”
“No son. Just unlucky.”
"What do you mean? Why’s he out there spinning round in the rain?"
“He’s got a very rare nerve condition. He can’t feel anything unless he’s wet. So he can’t hold anything in his hands. Everything just slips out, even when he’s looking straight at his hands. He’s broken so many cups here.”
"Oh my God," Joe places one hand over his gaping mouth. His eyes widen. "I thought there was something mentally wrong with him."
"People often think that. But it’s purely a physical condition. He spends a lot of time in the bath or the shower at home, but the effect of the water wears off after about ten minutes, so he’s constantly having to get wet again."
Ten minutes, constantly, in the bath, Joe thinks.
The owner is still talking.
"Being wet makes him feel more like a regular person. He can get a grip on things when his hands are wet. Otherwise, he can’t feel objects, or heat or cold, or anything. He prefers to be wet and have control of his hands, than be dry and look normal, but be unable to function normally. Even though he's wet, people react to him more normally than when he drops things or knocks them over all the time."
The bell by the door tinkles. The café falls silent. The customer steps inside dripping water on the floor. He stares at the boys, then exchanges glances with the owner.
“Coffee Sam?” says the owner.
The customer walks slowly to his table and sits. He picks up a sugar sachet and rubs it between his thumb and forefinger. His head tilts to one side. His eyes close in the ecstasy of feeling. He drops the sachet and looks at the items spread on the table. He chooses a stirrer. He places his palm flat on the table surface and gently stabs the back of his hand with the plastic tool. Each impact draws a sigh of pleasure.
The owner places a cup of coffee on the table.
“There you go, Sam.”
The customer places his hands around the hot cup. He raises it to his mouth and gently rolls it over his lips before taking a sip. A broad smile breaks out across his face.
He swivels on his chair to face the boys.
"Get a good look, did you?"
They fidget in their chairs and stare at the floor. Tom collects himself first.
"Oh, er, yes. Um, Vic here was just telling us about, about your condition. I, er, I hope you don't mind."
The customer grins. Throwing his coat over one arm, he approaches the boys' table. He stoops to meet Tom's nervous gaze. Drops of water still glisten in his beard. Beads shine on his forehead. They can feel the heat from his face. Without taking his eyes off Tom, he slowly rolls his head from side to side.
“No sunshine. I don’t mind. There’s a time and place for everything."
He stands upright.
"Isn't that right, Vic?”
The shower has stopped again. The feeble sun dances on oily puddles.
The customer strides to the exit and opens the door. The bell tinkles.
Behind the counter, the owner nods.
“That's right, Sam. And a manner”.