Salon Serpent

Salon Serpent

Amsterdam, 2016

It’s not so different to a dentist’s waiting room. Bouts of frantic whirring (like a fully charged electric toothbrush) pulsate at regular intervals through the wall. Admittedly, the receptionist in my dental practice doesn’t pass round a box of sweets telling the clients ‘they’re good for the blood sugar.’

The parlour’s bare brick walls are crammed with gilded frames of tattoo designs that demand our attention. Ballet dancers and cartoon figures jostle for space with grizzly bears, golden eagles and a skull and crossbones. A rosy faced cherub clutching a dagger stares haughtily whichever way I turn. My favourite is of a traditional Dutch street scene with the caption ‘home is in your head’. If this was a Pixar movie, all the characters would come to life at night. 

J___ introduces himself and talks through the Old School design that my nephew has planned for his first tattoo. J___ is tall and blonde. He is politely spoken and has ironed his shirt. The sort of chap any parent would be delighted for their daughter or son to bring home, until he rolls up his sleeves. He struggles initially to understand my nephew’s Welsh accent and apologises. He hasn’t had much sleep lately. 

‘I’m a first time dad,’ he explains proudly, showing us a picture. My sister and I exchange an anxious glance. A sleep deprived new parent isn’t someone we ideally want sticking needles into our nearest and dearest. 

My sister visibly relaxes as her son emerges from the parlour. Flushed, happy and mostly unchanged. 

From torn blue jeans above the right knee
I spied a lone wolf peeking out at me
His primary coloured ink filled eyes,
demanded our attention like
the paste of Van Gogh brushstrokes
we’d seen displayed in the gallery nearby.

Eighteen years ago my mother and I drove non stop to visit this newborn grandchild. I wonder where the years have gone. The room is too warm and that cherub still has her eye fixed on me. I excuse myself for some fresh air and go into the sunshine. 

By the canal side, geranium filled boxes tumble over the rails, displaying reds, fuchsias and whites late into the autumn. All along the narrow-cobbled street, tall thin houses cling together to stop themselves falling down. Across the stretch of water, neighbours shout greetings as the boats chug down the canal, but I can no longer understand what they say. 

When it’s time to leave, we check in at Schiphol and are herded towards the blue channel. 

‘Enjoy the short queues while you can!’ jokes the customs officer. It is only four months since the referendum, and the airport employees take every opportunity to tease the British travellers passing through. Three years on, the joke will have worn thin, although it was never very funny in the first place.