We find ourselves, quite by accident, amongst the bustle and clamour of the Albert Cuyp market. We had left our hotel on Wibautstraat and crossed the bridge over the Amstel river in search of breakfast and a guitar shop we understood to be situated at the far end of the De Pijp district, to the south of Amsterdam city centre. Our journey so far had been uneventful apart from having to negotiate our way through what appeared to be an infinite number of bicycles.

We order pancakes and coffee at a small café nestled amidst the traders and the shoppers, a brief and welcome respite from the confusion that arises when exploring an unfamiliar city. I watch him as he tucks into the pancake, with its heavy dusting of powdered sugar. I wonder if she would even recognise the teenager who sat before me; if, should she return in the form of another, she would recognise her own son? He is certainly very different from the four year old child she would recall. He doesn’t really remember her, only in flashes of images and emotion, and in her later days; photographs and the stories others tell.

We finish our breakfast and pay the young man, who wishes us a good day, and head along Eerste van der Helststraat, turning left onto Gerard Doustraat. The streets here are long and narrow, the older tall skinny buildings on one side and the more modern apartment blocks on the other giving the street an overbearing, almost claustrophobic feel. We pass the odd coffeeshop until the street opens up into a wider intersection with an abundance of cafés and shops and bicycles haphazardly chained to railings, posts and even each other. It’s late August and the sun is high and the air is warm; I feel relaxed here, a welcome change to the anxiety of our first night and my attempts to negotiate public transport and empty stations in search of our hotel.

She was always the organiser, the keeper of checked emotions, while I was left with my anxiety and fear. She would have been a much better mother than I am a father, but life doesn’t always give us the chance, does it?

‘What would you like to do when we’re in Amsterdam?’ I had asked.

‘See a band and go to a guitar shop,’ he replied.

‘You can do that in Leeds.’

‘I know. But it’ll be more fun doing it in Amsterdam.

Despite my best efforts, we can’t find the shop. I was never very good at directions. I feel disappointed; sad that he will be disappointed. We’re standing at the end of the street, it should be here. Perhaps streets work differently in the Netherlands.

‘Sorry,’ I say.

‘It doesn’t matter, it’s just a guitar shop.’

He looks at me through his mothers eyes and the melancholy resurfaces from where it hides sometimes.

‘Perhaps we can try again in the morning.’

We had known each other for so long, she was only eighteen and I barely twenty-one when we met. Our lives stretched out before us with such endless possibilities. When he was born a new chapter began, we were a family, bonds of blood and shared experiences. But the uninvited guest that took up residence in her brain had its own plans, plans that would forever alter the trajectories of those who loved her.

We make our way back to the market, from there we walk until we find ourselves on Stadhouderskade and then we follow the canal towards the city centre. We had no real plans but it was often our way, to walk in the general direction of where we wanted to be and eventually, and with some luck, we would find ourselves at our destination. A few weeks previously we had done the same when we stayed in London, our trek to Abby Road taking us via Regents Park and Primrose hill (where we sat for a while and I imagined Blake conversing with his spiritual sun). We walk, he and I. One day we might find that we’ve walked around every major city in the world.

In the evening we eat at a place opposite the hotel. We walked down by the river earlier but we’re both tired from our day exploring the city. The restaurant isn’t busy, it’s still quite early, and the patrons are mainly couples and families. You rarely see fathers and sons out on their own, it’s usually mums and kids or families. Once you become aware of this the more you notice it. It’s like when she would say that she never noticed pregnant women until she became pregnant; when our attention is drawn to something, it’s difficult not to be aware of it. We head back to the hotel. I watch an American crime drama with Dutch subtitles and flick through the days photographs. The best ones I upload to Facebook and Instagram. They get a couple of ‘likes.’

He wakes late in the morning. He’s always been an early riser but I think yesterday tired him out. When he was little he would come into my bedroom as soon as the sun was up. He would climb onto the bed, poke my face and try and prise my eyes open with his tiny fingers. In those days it was a matter of trying to get everything done and save something back for being a father.

We take a more direct route into the city today. I suggest a bus or the metro but he prefers to walk. We breakfast at a café on Jodenbreestraat and I see him staring at a building across the road.

‘Coffeeshop Reefer,’ he giggles.

‘You shouldn’t even understand what that means,’ I reply.

There’s an elderly couple sitting at the table next to us. She’s speaking in Dutch and English, switching between one and the other while her husband speaks occasionally in Dutch. They’re meeting their daughter later. I’m constantly ashamed of my lack of foreign language skills and the fact that many of the Dutch here appear to speak English better than I do. Although during our walk today I’m sure someone swore at me in Dutch, due to a lapse in concentration and cyclist in a hurry.

We’re walking again. The German film director Werner Herzog said that the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot. I want the world to reveal itself to me.

We stroll passed the Rijksmuseum and rest for a while at Art Square. I climb onto the huge letters that spell out the name of the city and ask him to take my picture. He is unimpressed with my antics and refuses my offer to take his photograph.

‘Shall we go to the Van Gogh museum?’

‘We shall.’

When he was younger he wanted to go to art college. Now he’s not so sure. Now he plays guitar, listens to thrash metal and hard core punk and wants to be in a band. Later we’re going to the Melkweg to watch a couple of California punk bands play.

Am I trying too hard to be a ‘cool’ dad?

Perhaps I’m not trying hard enough to be any kind of dad.

There are so many paintings on so many floors. There’s an exhibition on his mental illness, anatomical drawings of his decapitated ear (or at least what’s left of it, which isn’t much). A young woman calls me ‘sir’ and asks me to leave my rucksack in the cloakroom. Being called ‘sir’ reminds me of when I was a teacher and makes me wonder if I’ll ever be one again.

I began training as a teacher the year before she became ill. She left us at the beginning of my second year in the classroom. I always found being a teacher incredibly hard just as I’ve found being a father hard. I did it for ten years but I suppose something had to give. Now I’m just a father, although just doesn’t seem to do it justice. Being a teacher was just too much.

The paintings, as expected, are amazing; they are so much more amazing because these are the paintings he painted, the actual ones. We stand and stare at them. When I was a teenager I had a postcard of The Starry Night stuck to my bedroom wall with Blu Tack.

But it’s not here. Apparently it’s in New York. I feel a little let down.

Life is filled with disappointment. Perhaps I need to lower my expectations.

In the end it’s not even a Van Gogh painting that beguiles me but a work called Apollo Slays Python by the French artist Eugène Delacroix. The canvas is chaotic, so much so that I need to stand and stare at it for several moments before the images emerge clearly. Perhaps it’s my contact lens’s; perhaps it’s something else.

We venture back outside. There’s a man playing the piano; I take a photo and drop a few euros into his hat. Outside in the gardens there are rocks in the trees and in the distance I can hear the sound of Pachelbel’s Canon.

We try to act like we’re not tourists, but we need to take some photographs.

We find ourselves at the Leidseplein. It’s mid-afternoon. We need to be back here later to see the bands.

‘Shall we go back to the hotel for a couple of hours?’

He looks tired.


I remember him once picking up a photograph and staring at the person in the picture.

‘Who’s that?’ he asked.

‘That’s your mum,’ I said.

‘Oh. I don’t remember her like that.’

He only remembers her from when she was ill; when the drugs bloated her body and the radiation made her hair fall out. But now he doesn’t even remember that. How can someone who played such a vital role in my life play no role in his? When she died I told myself that my only purpose in life was to look after him, but soon he won’t need looking after, so where does that leave me?

I like Amsterdam. I think I would like to live here someday, if only for a while.

When she died I thought of getting away for a while. I wish I had, but I didn’t really know where to go. She loved India and I’d always fancied going back. But I wasn’t sure if he was still too young for such a journey. Instead I did nothing; just continued where I’d left off and more than ten years on I regret not being more confident in my ability to live without her.

The music is loud and the crowd is lively. He stands amongst the crowd surfers and stage divers while I hang back in the shadows. The mainly Dutch audience is rowdy but good natured. He’s having fun.

Eventually we arrive at our last day in the city and we rise early the next morning to make our way to the airport. I look back at the hotel; one last picture. Amsterdam was a big deal for me, as ridiculous as that might sound.

The UK seems less attractive now somehow and, true to form, it’s raining when we land in Leeds.

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0367441624