Backyards: Perponcherstraatstudio

Words by Bryan Whalen

Pictures by Erin Michelle

Published on February 19, 2014

I love how the Dutch cram words together. I love this studio. I love the rubbish truck idling in the back alley, beyond the brick wall, where we lit firecrackers on New Year’s Eve and drank red wine mulled with cloves and orange peels. I love the coffee that keeps me awake when I’m afraid to fall asleep and these gloves that protect my hands from the morning frost, the pen gripped between my padded fingers, the words that emerge from nowhere to tattoo the pages of this journal. I love the cats assaulting each other in the neighbour’s yard, crying like infants, and the matchbox you gave me for Christmas — how its rough sides accept the match’s scratch to create a flame — and I love how the sun on the horizon needs no match to light it. I love God. This is not ironic. This is not even close to ironic.

Last night I rode my bike to Den Haag Central and watched passengers on the platform, their eyes on the screens of their phones. It was still Sunday, just before midnight, and the station was silent but I thought I heard church bells ringing.

We never went to church. I am not religious — have never been, have nothing against religion and nothing against suicide — but thought, as the passengers looked up to watch the train pull in, ‘This will pass,’ and it did, both the train and the moment, the faces in the train lit up with yellow light, melting, the passengers looking out as we looked in. I rode home to our studio and now I love all these things but you still don’t love me. So be it. So it is. So I sit in this wooden chair in the backyard and listen to the pigeons cooing on the windowsill, the seagulls flying toward the North Sea, the crows squawking in the bare trees. Our neighbour is banging around her kitchen, yelling at the cats in a language I hardly understand, and I haven’t spoken to another human being since you left for Helsinki, three weeks ago.

What’s in Helsinki? Why would you go north in the wintertime? I’m no ornithologist but I’m pretty sure that’s against the laws of migration. All the pretty birds go south, save the bird on my matchbox, a swallow, like a sailor’s tattoo. It reminds me of Melbourne — the kids on Brunswick Street, drinking their organic beers and scoffing at sincerity. I’d dive into this matchbox and emerge on the other side of the world if that were an option. But we have yet to invent that form of travel and I am out of money, jobless, unable to speak the language, to say in Dutch, ‘I am a hard worker. I have enthusiasm.’ I could be a rubbish collector, though. You don’t need Dutch to collect rubbish. You need to wake early, to work outside in these freezing temperatures with gloved hands, and to collect things people no longer need in their lives. I could do that. I would love to do that. To collect these things that nobody loves and throw them into the machine that crushes things.

Bryan Whalen writes fiction, creative non-fiction, screenplays, journalism and poetry. His work has appeared in several online and print publications, including The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Scum Mag  and The Lifted Brow. Read more at and feel free to send decorative matchboxes to Noordeinde 47B, Den Haag 2514GC, The Netherlands, where he currently lives and writes.

Erin Michelle  draws pictures and writes words. Follow at