Sixteen years ago my husband and I stayed in Amsterdam overlooking one of the big canals. Pregnant with my daughter, I fed my son from glass jars and changed his nappy on the bathroom floor. But this never took away from the beauty of the streets on stepping outside.
This striking beauty is still here. The doors are still painted in gorgeous tones, built up by multiple coats of enamel paint. The sight of bikes outnumbering cars still refreshes. Cycling upright, without helmets, men and women of all ages go about their business. Picking up kids from school. Stopping off to shop for food. Talking gaily into mobile phones. The contrast with the fug of London traffic, which we have just left, is delightful.
Even my husband’s impatience at the delay of the young man sent to give us the key to our apartment doesn’t bother me. Nor the drizzle. Nor the four flights of narrow stairs, although I do promise myself never to travel with a heavy bag again.
After bagsing bedrooms we head straight out, as darkness and more rain, falls. My husband disappears to work before supper while my kids and I walk down a few canals to the supermarket. Before we even reach it I have promised my son that he can hire a bike in the morning.
By now we are all starving and I cook pasta in the tiny kitchen as soon as we get back. My husband’s key turns in the lock and we sit down to steaming plates. It isn’t a brilliant meal but, considering we got off the train three hours earlier, not embarrassing either.
My husband sighs loudly as his fork meets the plate. It’s the sigh that I have come to dread. I let it pass. He sighs even more loudly. ‘What’s wrong?’ escapes my lips. A pause. ‘Well’, he says, staring at his plate. ‘We have just arrived in this wonderful city, and I’ve done some really good work in a café that I didn’t want to leave, and now this’. And he stares down at his bowl of wholemeal penne with tuna and leek and flakes of parmesan.
My daughter frowns darkly. ‘Don’t worry, Daddy’, says my son, shifting gear. ‘Tomorrow you can do all those things’. ‘But you know we are all tired’, I say, feeling got at and so failing to find the right tone. ‘And you know that our kids aren’t mad on eating out, especially after a long day of travelling’.
‘I know, I know, I know’, he says. ‘I know I’m being stupid’. My daughter, the hungriest of us all, pushes back her chair and shoots up the ladder to her bedroom upstairs, sobbing as she goes. Her bedroom door slams. A cloud of silence hangs over the table. A long minute passes and my husband slips away from the table, leaving my son and me sitting across from each other, smiling comfort and rolling our eyes.
I climb the ladder and open my daughter’s bedroom door. ‘May I come in?’ I ask. No answer. She is crying, face to the wall. ‘I’m so sorry’, I say. ‘Your father can be super annoying’. No response. ‘He’s just disappointed not to have more freedom. And he loves this city so much. We all do’, I add, into the silence. ‘I don’t care’, she blurts out. ‘He always spoils things and I hate him for it’.
An even longer silence follows which I decide not to break, partly because I don’t know what to say. And then, straight from her heart into mine, she looks at me and says, ‘I wouldn’t have married him’. ‘Oh God’, I think to myself, looking deep into her blue eyes in the middle of her tear-stained face, the blue of her father’s eyes. How, I wonder, has our family trip come to this?
I go downstairs and ask my husband to come up. He tip toes into my daughter’s bedroom, sits on the opposite bed, and says nothing. I try to make peace between them but, realising it is too soon, I don’t stop my husband when he gets up to leave.
I lie on the bed and hold my heaving daughter until her tears subside. Half an hour has gone by since my husband left the room. I stare out at the rooftops. Despite everything, even these please me. I stroke my daughter’s arm and tell her not to worry. It is, I tell her, so understandable that she should be angry. Her father, I say, struggles with family life. This isn’t anyone’s fault. It isn’t his fault that he is forever worried about his work, and that this comes out in unhelpful ways. And nor is it her fault that she has no sympathy with this.
Eventually she stops crying. Not, I decide, because of anything I’ve said, but because she has no tears left. I go downstairs, make her a hot milk drink, and sit with her while she drinks it. I tell her that she’ll feel better in the morning and that I love her. Then I visit my son next door. He has taken the silver computer into his bedroom and is busy looking up Dutch boats for sale. He smiles wanly and makes room for me to perch on his bed. ‘I wish Daddy wouldn’t do that’, is all he says about the scene at dinner, and I silently thank him for it.
Downstairs my husband is sitting with his head in his hands. ‘Why don’t you go out for a walk?’ I suggest, hoping it might settle him. ‘You could take a book and read somewhere’. ‘You wouldn’t mind?’ he replies. ‘Not at all’, I reply, thinking that it will give me breathing space.
After he leaves I make myself green tea and check emails. I look at the guide book and work out what the three of us can do the next day, leaving my husband to work. The Maritime Museum looks interesting, and just the right distance for walking. I hug my son goodnight and go to bed, keeping an ear open for my husband’s key in the lock, which turns quite a lot later. He and I touch without words, and I soon fall sleep.
Amsterdam looks even better in the morning. After hiring a bike for my son, my daughter and I head east along one of the big canals. As the Maritime Museum finally comes into view, my daughter catches sight of her brother’s stripy beanie, as he leaves the large wooden ship on the dock and reenters the museum through a side door. When we meet up with him, inside the museum his eyes are lit up. ‘It’s great’, he says, ‘although I’ve already seen most of what is on display. Let me show you’.
It is dark when we leave the museum, and head back along the half lit canals. The city has done its magic on us all. Even dinner goes smoothly. It is still raining, but we are used to that. And we have moved to another apartment, leaving the bad memories of the night before behind.
Again my husband goes out for a drink on his own, once our kids are in bed. Twice he asks me to go out with him, and twice I make excuses. ‘I’m too tired’, I explain. ‘We did heaps of walking today and I really don’t feel like going out again’. ‘Even with me?’ he asks, persisting. Well, I reply, sounding unconvincing, I really don’t want to leave our daughter in a new apartment. And anyway, I end, we are having dinner together tomorrow, and there’ll be lots of time to talk then.
But I don’t tell him the real reason for my not wanting to go out. I really am tired and do want our daughter to feel safe. And I really have forgiven him his outburst of the night before. It’s more that I need some time on my own, even more than time with him. It has always been that way, even before we thought of having children. I still need to hear my own heart beat, to have my own down time, before I can find it in myself to be giving to anyone else. Even to my husband. And especially to myself.