There were just no two ways about it; somehow it had to fit in the car. If for no other reason than to spite the aproned, middle-aged Dutch housewife watching me from her second floor balcony across the street, bemused by my stupidity and willing my failure.
An April thunderclap had corresponded precisely with my entry into a labyrinthine shop off Amsterdam’s Albert Cuyp market, a den of pathways leading through stacks of fabric, cushions and naked latex foam shapes piled high. I had come to buy a firm foam mattress, covered, of the dimensions 140 x 200 cm, the European equivalent of a double bed. We were soon to be moving to Canada and burly men would be arriving in the next week to pack up our household, including our pine bed, for which I knew it would be hard to source a fitting mattress on the other side of the ocean. The present mattress was nearing 10 years of age anyway, so we decided simply to dispose of it and ship a brand new one.
The shopkeeper, realising I needed to carry my purchase through the market, covered it in plastic and rolled it up like a giant sleeping bag, running packing tape around it several times. This rendered a package that was far easier to handle than the full, flat mattress would have been, but it was still bulky and unwieldy as I stepped out into the now wet street, carrying the burden on my shoulder. The shower had mostly passed, bar a few heavy raindrops and the drip, drip of the market stalls.
A few blocks away, arriving at the car, I realised I was in a predicament. Suddenly the little two-door Suzuki hatchback I had borrowed from a friend looked completely unsuitable for this task. And it was. The passenger seat would not go forward far enough to squeeze my packet in behind it, and in any case the width of the back seat was nowhere near 140 cm. The rear hatch too was not wide enough to be of any use.
It was about this time that I noticed the housewife across the way. She finished hanging her laundry on the line but, instead of heading back indoors again, took a prominent position on the balcony, glad for the diversion. I tried to ignore her but was conscious now that my every effort was being silently judged by a third party.
The passenger seat again. I pulled the lever and pushed it back as far as it would go, also reclining it to where the back was resting on the seat behind. Maybe my mattress could ride along in the seat next to me like a very large passenger. Still not enough room.
The roof? I lifted the mattress roll onto the wet roof, glad it was wrapped in plastic, but now seeing again what an immense thing it was. I let go, needing to see if my friend had any kind of rope of straps in the car to secure it. No, he didn’t. And sure enough, as I was busy looking, a gust of wind rolled the mattress off the roof of the car; it landed with a wet whack! on the pavement.
The housewife knew I was out of options. Like a gladiator delaying the Caesarean thumbs-down for as long as possible, I refused to look up, but even at a distance could nevertheless feel her sense of pleasured triumph.
“Stupid foam mattress,” I muttered.
And at that moment, by some dark mystery of cerebral function, the words I had just uttered caused a shift in my brain such that the proper two synapses finally made their vital connection.
“Foam mattress,” I said. “Foam.”
With fresh eyes the object before me became something altogether different than an article of furniture that necessarily had to keep some semblance of it’s intended shape. I saw it for what it was: a large, fabric-covered, rectangular piece of foam rubber. And foam rubber, as I knew, was eminently packable as long as one applied enough pressure.
I got out my pocket knife and cut the tape, allowing the mattress to spring into it’s full shape. Then I again put the passenger seat forward as if someone was going to squeeze into the back seat. Confident now, I lifted a corner of the mattress behind the seat and simply started pushing for all I was worth, giving no heed at all to the contortions my efforts were effecting on the shape of the mattress. I was now stuffing the ‘sleeping bag’, not rolling it.
In no more than two minutes the mattress was in, filling entirely the rear passenger space of the car. Whether it would come out again at the other end of our journey was a concern for later, and in any case was a conundrum I would face without an audience.
With triumphant gusto I slid the passenger seat back into place, slammed the door, and waved a friendly ‘Goede dag, mevrouw!’ to the woman across the way. She lifted her chin in acknowledgement, the mildest of grins gracing her face as she turned to go about her business again.
This is the story of the first day of our mattress; the same mattress which – 11 years later – is now leaning against the wall of the entryway in our house in London. Thursday will be its final day. And tomorrow I will tell you the rest of the story…