Petterson Close was a blind alley in Permelta city centre; it had not much to be noticed for, except for a tattoo shop, or workshop, as was advertised on the window. It was a small place; the shopfront was painted a clear, light green, picturing long, spiralling, sinewy dragons of a bamboo-like colour, spotted here and there with obese, deep blue beads on their scaly skins. It had been painted a long time ago, and the dragons were sloughing off their skins from the wall onto the pavement. The wind, as it funnelled into the Close, brushed scraps and scales off the wall and took them for their first flight in the dust and cold of the Permelta streets. But the workshop was still in activity. Behind the window, which was always kept clean, thick ledgers displayed possible tattoos. There were monsters and skulls and mice; mulatto mermaids, blue and pink and winking at you as you walked past; Chinese characters, the winds and dragons and flowers from the Mah-Jong; hearts, diamonds, spades; snakes, coiled around wrists and ankles, maps of Byzantine churches, with their naves slithering down the backbone, or crying Christs and more abstract symbols, moons and anchors and masts, ropes and mirrors and numbers and Arabic notions.
Jenny McDove thought all that was pretty repulsive. When she walked past the alley from school and, by accident, caught a glimpse of the shop – she had to lean to her left to see it, and, sometimes, to take one or two steps towards it – she shuddered all over and walked hurriedly away. She thought, what kind of people would do that to their skins? Probably people who are not happy with their bodies. People ashamed of their shape, or colour, so they try to cover it with nice inks and drawings, thinking people will not see them anymore, but only the picture. Sometimes it worked, too.. Jenny would walk away from the shop to her house and keep thinking about it, impressed as she was by the fierce colours and harmonious lines on the wall – she never came close enough to look at the ledgers – and ponder what was bound to happen when wrinkles appeared on the skin. Would the tattoo grow old too, and wither like an old fruit? She had never seen an old lady with a tattoo, though; this remained quite a mystery. Musing, she imagined the needles and the tall, heavy, bare-armed, bearded tattoo-master who would handle it, and the sensation when the needle first went into the skin, quickly, and out, leaving a tiny smear of ink on it, that would never go away. She shivered and felt prickles rising all over her skin.
One day, Jenny went to the shop and asked for a tattoo. The man she met there was not tall or bearded; he was not much older than she was and, in her eyes, looked even younger. He wore his hair long on only one side of his head, and a dark lock kept falling over his right eye – every few minutes he would blow it away with a quick puff, or toss his head sharply. But his skin was indeed covered with tattoos, although Jenny barely had time to notice it, before she fixed her gaze on the floor, grabbed the hem of her sleeves in her fists and said, in one breath, that she wanted a tattoo on her wrist. She did not know she wanted it on her wrist before she came in.
The shop consisted in only one room; it was large and, although it gave out on the alley, the sunlight slanted in abundantly. There were a counter on one side, and a big, black leather seat on the other, which looked like a horrible instrument to torture people in – or a barber’s. The room was painted in green, similar to the dragons outside, and up the walls were dozen of large-size pictures, mostly displaying the results of the tattooist’s art on former customers. The photographs pictured their whole bodies; they may have been smiling, but all Jenny could see was the arms, thighs, shoulders, backbones that they proudly exhibited, now adorned and emblazoned by colourful drawings. Jenny, when she first noticed them on the walls, felt dizzy and, staring, she forgot that under the colours and shapes used to be living limbs and skins.
It took them a few minutes to choose the picture, as Jenny had no idea of what she wanted to be tattooed with. The tattooist showed her a few of the books, their pages full of pictures he could paint in smaller or bigger sizes if she wanted to. She did not really listen to what he said, because it had occurred to her that since she was a child people had told her her wrists looked very blue and she must have a lot of veins there and she was afraid it would not be possible to paint on them because of that. She thought it was stupid to choose it if your skin couldn’t receive it, but then the young man was already taking the heavy ledgers from behind the window. He did not give her any advice, only showed the possibilities to her, saying what he thought was nice about each tattoo, and all the time she was terrified at the idea that he would leave her alone among the books to make up her mind.
He stayed near her, demonstrating and explaining, turning the pages one after the other, slowly, so that she would have time to see all the pictures. Yet after a few minutes, his hands started to fly and flicker quickly above the books; he flicked the pages at a more rapid pace, as if he knew the picture she was going to choose was not there yet; his arms made wider movements and he spoke faster. His face blushed, although Jenny could not see him. His voice became somewhat high-pitched for a man – he was growing enthusiastic. Timidly, Jenny laid her finger on one of the pictures, hoping he would approve. The fluttering hands came to a sudden rest and he closed the book, after taking the picture out. Then he discussed the size with her.
When she rolled up her sleeve he did not look particularly concerned with the veins. He asked her to lay her left arm on the armrest of the black chair and taped her hand to it, palm upturned, so that she would not twitch or move. He clipped a rectangular mirror, no wider than her forearm, on the arm of the chair. She could see her wrist twice, one with the wan skin and the tracery of veins turned upward, the other lying on its side and facing the tattooist.
He asked her if she was comfortable and she shyly answered “yes”. At that moment all her braveness was exhausted and she only hoped he would paint on her forever without asking any more questions.
She saw him take his tools from a leather pouch. Her eyes widened. There were a few long things, like pens or very thin paintbrushes, to draw on her skin, and a long needle with a plug. As she looked away, the arms and hands on the wall formed a circle ready to welcome her among their smiles and newly discovered personalities.
He sat on a stool near her knees and started drawing on her skin. She felt a tingle. He did not speak as he worked; she expected him, she realised, to babble like hairdressers. She watched the lines of the drawing on her skin, thinking there was nothing more interesting to watch than what her skin in a few minutes would look like forever; she also looked at his fingers, working with slow, swift, slow, gentle strokes, the palm of his hands sometimes lying on her arm; she looked at her skin again, remembering the forever, and his fingers, her skin, his jaw and his nose she saw in profile. His nose made a steep drop from somewhere between his eye-brows and his jaw-bone was long too, with a curve like the wing of an aeroplane, making his cheeks look wider, paler than most people’s, and he sucked them in as he worked. On his throat, just upon the big vein she could see throbbing, there was a tattoo, a hand, closed into a small fist. It could have been a religious symbol, but she found it moving and it soothed her a little.
She forgot his nice jaw-bone when he plugged the thin black needle in. A drone filled the shop, and her tattooist sat back on the stool and held her arm firmly with his left hand. She quickly breathed in and held her breath. She noticed him glancing at her – he thinks I won’t manage, she thought, that I will scamper away as soon as he starts needling me in. But he’ll see, I don’t care for the pain. He can go as hard as he wishes, I won’t budge. She kept her breath in and watched the needle intently, so that the pain, the burning and piercing and tearing, would not take her by surprise.
When the needle touched her skin, she felt a pinch, like a chick pecking at her skin. She held on her breath. He is only testing his tool, she thought, this is not it yet. Then she saw a thin pale blue dotted line on her skin, and blew the air out, slowly. She was certain that although he was still intent on his work his lips were crooked as if he had heard a joke.
She watched, with fascination, the imperfect line on her wrist. It crawled painlessly down her arm, sometimes almost invisible, sometimes blotting, forking and spiralling, forming darker shades and pools. She wondered how deep the ink would go. Does it seep in to the bone? Can I scratch it off if I let my nails grow? She thought she would sound even more stupid and inexperienced if she asked him.
The ink-line circled, forked and intertwined and finally formed a picture. The young man unplugged his instrument and put it away. He took her arm in his hands, smiled at his work; then he turned and smiled at her. It occurred to her that he may find her prettier than when she came in the shop a few minutes earlier. He untaped her arm and told her that she would have to be careful of it during the next few days. Jenny unrolled her sleeve cautiously over the tattoo, afraid that she might make a smudge of it, and reached for her purse to take out the money she had in an envelope, while he was writing her bill on a piece of carbon paper.
Still writing, he asked if she knew how she should treat it over the next week, and Jenny shook her head. He explained that she would have to rub a special cream on it every few hours and that it should be let uncovered as often as possible. Leaning on the counter, the boy puffed at his hair to look at her in the eyes, still smiling.
‘Is it your first one?’ he asked.
Jenny nodded and told him that she hadn’t been sure she would do it until she actually opened the door and saw him. She liked to talk to him about the tattoo, as she realised that he was the first one to see her with it, and maybe the only one for several months, as she intended to hide it from her family and even her school friends. He said he liked the picture she had chosen and they discussed the other pictures on the walls. When she said she had to go, he tore off the bill and answered:
‘I got my first tattoo at fourteen, you know. I got one more every year since. So maybe I’ll see you soon. I can give you my number, if you want to come back some day.’
Smiling, he handed her his telephone number on a card where it was embraced by the opening petals of a night-coloured lotus flower tattooed on a girl’s back.
‘My name is Ian.’
Jenny froze at his words, wide-eyed, her mouth open. She imagined herself covered with pink and green dragons from head to foot and people pointing at her in the street. She felt her heart pounding and was suddenly afraid of the young man with the vicious little fist and some smeared shape lurking under the collar of his shirt – there even was a verse in Arabic on his forearm, which she had not noticed before. Apparently he had enjoyed it so much that he wanted to paint more tattoos on her. She put the envelope down on the counter and left without taking the card or looking at his face. Once out, she muttered, panting, “No thank you I don’t think so, but it is very nice of you.”
The brisk winter weather caught her on the other side of the door and reddened her cheeks. Jenny walked back home through Permelta. The sky was clear and blue and the clouds scuttled across it. She walked looking up at the corrugated iron roofs and the brick chimneys and saw the ascending spirals of white smoke opening up, expanding in the cold air and slowly dissolving. A cat scampered away from behind a litter bin as she approached the Permelta Primary School. The school was a long grey building and she walked along it on Morris Street, smelling the bread and pastries from the bakery on the other side of the street, and right at Capital Row, up to her front door.
She waited a few minutes in the doorway, indecisive, with the door half-open behind her and the coat-hanger on her right. She heard the clinking of cutlery and the deep voice of her father and locked the front door. Before she joined them in the dining room, she checked her sleeve to be sure it was properly covered.
She walked round the table to sit at her usual place in front of the clock and spread the napkin on her knees. Her father was not always home for dinner but this night he looked particularly happy and winked at her when she sat down.
‘Thank you for leaving a note’, he said. ‘I thought you would be out longer, but your mother said let’s set the table for her too, and obviously she was right.’
‘I went to see Joanne,’ Jenny said quickly.
‘We were talking about her just when you came in.’
‘She dyed her hair white’, her mother said. ‘Not blond, white. Not even all of it. Just locks. Some white and the rest her natural black. At least I think it’s her natural colour. Have some potatoes, Jenny.’ Her little brother, Tommy, sitting on a high chair, was eating his potatoes ravenously and had not raised his head since she was there.
‘What d’you think of that, Jenny?’ her father asked.
‘Bob told me he thought it was pretty.’
‘Well, she probably did it for him then.’
‘I don’t think so’, Jenny said. ‘He was surprised as well.’ She set the potato dish near her plate and took the ladle from her mother.
‘Jenny! What happened to your arm!’
Jenny started and brought her arm back to herself as if the ladle was scalding hot. Then, following her mother’s gaze, she remembered her right arm, which lay on the table unconcerned. There was a blood-red, moon-shaped smear on her wrist.
‘It’s Callum’, she said. ‘I think he was really excited yesterday, and when I brought him in he bit me.’
‘This cat is impossible. We should have him castrated, Henri.’
‘He’s a little young now.’
‘Not if he bites. I told you it was necessary now.’
Looking away, his father said, ‘Well.’
‘If you don’t want to do it, I will, darling.’
‘I can do it. I just think that when you take a pet you should take it as it is.’
Jenny put down her fork and cautiously scratched her wrist as her parents talked to each other. Her skin was itching and she was concerned about having it covered for too long. She thought about Joanne and tried to count all the things Joanne had done that had caused Bob to say it is pretty. Joanne was a beautiful girl, with wide blue eyes and naturally dark hair, and she could change anything about her body or even have it pierced as Jenny knew she would soon enough, there would always be someone to say he liked it. Sometimes Jenny suspected she changed her haircut or her colour only to see if Bob would like her still. Or maybe she just wanted to know how many things she could change about herself and still be pretty. She was now saving money to have her tongue pierced with a small diamond. The diamond would not be real but only her and Jenny would know that. Joanne had told her that they had to do the piercing without anaesthetics and that the pain was horrible, but now she wasn’t sure it was real either.
‘Would you pass me the water please?’ her mother asked. ‘So what did you do with Joanne today, Jenny?’
‘Just hang around,’ Jenny said.
‘Did you go shopping?’
‘Well, I thought you wanted some new tops for the winter.’
‘Oh, yes. I suppose we’ll go soon.’
Jenny’s brother pushed his empty plate on the table and said in a loud shrill voice:
‘I saw a toad at school today!’ He nodded repeatedly like an old man confronted with the world’s foolishness. ‘It had only half a head left.’
‘We’re eating here, Tommy.’
‘So where did you see it, Tommy?’
The boy frowned. ‘In the school yard, I think. I did not touch it.’
‘I would hope so, Tommy.’
In the bathroom, Jenny sat on the toilet seat, her purse lying on the sink, and rubbed the moisturiser she had been given at the shop on her arm, abundantly and for a long time. She did not dare to take a shower because the tattoo boy had said nothing about that and she was afraid of what hot water may do to it. She rubbed the moisturiser on in circling movements, very cautiously – as her skin now hurt a little – but without looking at it. Instead she pictured the barber’s shop on Larkhead Street, where Joanne had showed her the fake diamonds shelved behind a window, glittering in the brightness of artificial lighting. They would probably go there by the end of the month, when there would be enough money saved, and she could imagine Joanne a-flutter in the waiting room, fingering all the objects on the shelves and prattling loudly. She could show her the tattoo right after, when they would be out of the shop – although Joanne, sucking her tongue and gaping at her every five minutes, would probably not appreciate being distracted from herself. She will be really proud of her piercing then, Jenny thought. She turned the water on in the bathtub and let it run uselessly before turning it off.
The kitchen was clean and tidy – her parents had sent Tommy to bed and gone for their daily walk in the neighbourhood. Still in her day clothes, Jenny opened the French windows and stuck her head out in the cool air.
A streak of light purple still hang low over the roofs of the houses, barely touching the pavement with glowing, fainting light; the hedges were progressively losing their silver outlines to the night. The laurel-bush shivered in the garden.
‘Callum! Callum. Come here boy.’
She heard the cat whisking over the lawn to meet her and stop just out of arm’s reach, sulking sullenly in the pool of light from the kitchen.
‘Come here, Callum! You don’t want to stay outside, do you? Come inside!’
Jenny crouched and held out her hands, whispering to him. The cat darted forward and struggled feebly in her arms like a sleeping lover, before jumping down on the tiled floor and scampering away, under the kitchen table.
Before her parents came back Jenny went to her room and sat on the bed. She twisted the neck of the reading lamp, bringing the bulb just over the pillow, and built the blankets up into a teepee over her head. Kneeling, she tucked them under her shins; the light was imprisoned and formed a sightproof soundproof cocoon around her. She rolled her sleeve up and, cradling it like a baby, looked at the pale, blue-veined, now unfamiliar part of her forearm. She ran her fingers on the sore skin, pressing it, making it sorer, discovering for herself the lines and hollows of a knight in steel grey armour kneeling under a blue star which sent shafts of light upon his face.
Callum pawed at the door and joined her through a window opened, and closed, in the furls of her teepee. He nestled on her knees and watched her arm with uncurious gleaming eyes.
‘You’re the only one to know about it’, she whispered. She made a conscious effort to discard the tattoo boy from her mind, like a blunted knife or a useless instrument. ‘No one else knows about it.’
The cat nuzzled her stomach and purred disinterestedly. She lifted her forearm in front of her eyes and opened and closed her hand. The sinews under the knight made small scalloping movements, as though he shifted his uncomfortable position. She watched him, rocking awkwardly from one knee to the other, for a long time, in the weak light. When she went to bed, she tucked herself neatly under the blankets and slept with her arm lying on the pillow, very close to her face.
Quentin Marrou asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work