The buzzer above the door announces his entrance. He looks lost, like a child separated from his mother in a busy shopping-centre and standing perfectly still in the hope that he’ll be rescued. The look of bewilderment and growing panic is slowly replaced by wonder. He gazes round the shop, at the walls, the ceiling, the floor and then the walls again. His sense of wonder is child-like too, a boy in a toy shop, or Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
On busy days his presence would have gone unnoticed. He might just have been coming in to collect a child – a grandchild more likely, from the look of him – but it is Tuesday morning at half past ten. Valerie knows the time because she keeps checking the Elvis clock on the wall behind her; his arms move to signify the time. At ten to three, for example, he looks like he’s singing and striking a classic pose, maybe Blue Suede Shoes or Heartbreak Hotel? Twenty past three, it’s as if he’s been punched in the gut and is in the midst of a spasm which has left his lithe body contorted with pain. Half past ten doesn’t look too awkward, more like Elvis is in the middle of an exercise regime, one hand reaching up while the other touches his toes.
Valerie flicks through the appointments book. There’s one at half past twelve, just a bit of touching up on previous work, while someone is coming in at one o’clock for a consultation, a lunchtime appointment squeezed into a busy working day. Then nothing until half past three.
The man slowly approaches the counter, his feet barely leaving the floor.
“Hi,” she says.
“I’m Harry O’Connell.”
Valerie isn’t sure if it is a statement or a question, the inflection in his voice almost searching for affirmation. She holds out her hand.
“Nice to meet you, Harry O’Connell. I’m Valerie Watson.”
His smile is as weak as his handshake. It’s like he’s resting his hand in Valerie’s palm. He doesn’t immediately let go.
“You have soft fingers,” he says.
“Well, I need to look after them, Harry. They’re my livelihood.”
“Like the skin of an apple.”
She gently withdraws her hand.
“How can I help you today, Harry?”
“It’s my wife,” he says.
“I don’t want to forget her.”
“Why would you forget her, Harry?”
“Her name’s Rose? That’s a nice name.”
“No, that’s her favourite flower.”
He begins rolling up his jacket sleeve under which is a plain blue shirt that is buttoned. He keeps trying to push the shirt up as well but without any success.
“Here, let me help you,” Valerie says, placing one hand on his arm to soothe his mounting frustration while, with her other hand, she unbuttons the shirt and pushes it up, exposing pasty-coloured flesh covered with grey hairs.
“Can you put my wife here?” he says, patting his arm.
“What do you mean?”
“Her name. Angela.”
“That’s a nice name.”
“Can you put it on my arm?”
“You want a tattoo?”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t want to forget her.”
“Why would you forget her, Harry?”
He leans on the desk, letting it take his weight.
“Are you okay,” she asks, touching his arm again.
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll get you a seat.” She quickly grabs the one from behind the counter and shuffles round ‘til she’s beside Harry. “Here you go.”
He doesn’t resist when she nudges him gently towards it and he drops down gratefully.
“Do you want a glass of water?”
When she gives him the glass, he clutches it with both hands and raises it slowly to his lips like a priest sipping wine from a chalice. As he gulps the cold liquid, some of it dribbles down his chin and on to his shirt. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“Do you want more?”
“No thanks,” he says, handing the glass back to Valerie. He stares beyond her, above her, behind her. He frowns or smiles, sometimes nods or even raises an eyebrow, and Valerie tries to guess which image has provoked which expression.
“Do you see any that you like?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “There are so many to choose from.”
“Can you draw them all?”
He whistles slightly as his gaze turns on her. His eyes run up and down the length of her. She doesn’t feel awkward or embarrassed. She is used to the attention. It doesn’t mean she is beautiful, or that she thinks she is. ‘Eye-catching’ is how she describes herself. Eyes always follow her, inspect her, undress her, admire her, judge her. She ignores them all. Harry’s pupils stop darting and focus in on something. She glances down at herself and then at Harry again. If he was younger, she might have suspected he was just staring at her breasts.
“What’s that?” he says, pointing.
She pulls down her dress slightly until the curve of her breast is visible.
Her fingertip grazes the tattoo, a black sledge-hammer shattering a red heart into tiny pieces which are scattered over her flesh.
“What does that one mean?”
“It just reminds me of someone I used to know.”
“Is it an old tattoo?”
“A couple of years.”
He nods like he knows the story already and she stares at him more closely, frowning slightly. She lets go of her dress and it slips back into place, though part of the sledge-hammer and a few fragments of her heart remain visible.
“Do you already have any tattoos, Harry?”
“So why start now?”
“I don’t want to forget my wife.”
“Why would you forget her?”
“Because I forget things nowadays. People’s names, their birthdays, where I left my slippers. My pin number.”
“I keep doing that too.”
“It’s not forgetfulness. It’s… Well, you’re still young. I’m old.”
“You’re not that old.”
“That’s not old.”
“It’s old enough. What age are you?”
“But I’m not getting any younger.”
Valerie doesn’t feel young though she knows, despite what she sometimes says, that she isn’t old. Not yet, but she can feel it creeping up on her, the aches and pains and coughs and colds offering gentle portents, while her empty flat says more in silence than any words could articulate. She might fill the vacuum with voices from the radio, the splash of running water filling a bath, a tuneless reverie as she clumsily sings along to songs she vaguely knows or remembers. She can shout at the top of her voice, have conversations with her reflection about Iraq or the economy, or the wisdom of continuing to dye her hair black when grey hairs lurk under the surface of her skull, but nothing can hide the inescapable fact that she is thirty-seven and on her own.
“So can I get a tattoo?”
“You really want one?”
“And what does your wife think about it?”
“… She thinks it’s a good idea.”
His hesitation tells her what she needs to know. She straightens up and Harry watches her as she stands at her full height. Five foot ten in flat shoes. She is wearing a pair of emerald green baseball boots. He looks down at them, though it is her legs he is more interested in, the tattoos he can see and the ones which disappear under the hem of her skirt.
“Are you … Do you … Tattoos. Are they all over your body?”
“I’m afraid so,” she says, stretching her arms out wide and then spinning round, the motion puffing out her dress, giving him a glimpse of what is hidden underneath. “Not quite from head to toe, but near enough.”
“Why do I have so many tattoos?”
“I don’t know really. It’s just happened over the years.”
“But you’re very pretty.”
“No, I mean, you are pretty. Your face. But the tattoos.”
“You think they’re ugly?”
“No. They’re just …”
“… Different. That’s what they are.”
“You haven’t met many tattooed women, have you, Harry?”
“I’ve not met any,” he laughs. “You’re my first one.”
“Well, I hope you’re not disappointed.”
He smiles as he looks her up and down before shaking his head. “No,” he mutters.
She moves round to the other side of the counter, hoping he doesn’t notice the hint of crimson on her cheeks. She brings out a drawing pad, opening it at a blank page, and lays it on the counter. Then she gets a box of pencils.
“So, first things first, Harry. We need to get a design for you.”
“I told you, I just want her name. Angela.”
“I know, but you still want it to look nice, don’t you?”
“Right, so what I’ll do is draw something and you can take it away and show your wife and if you both like it, you can come back in a couple of weeks and I’ll do it for you.”
“But I want it to be a surprise for her.”
“I thought you said your wife thought it was a good idea.”
“She did, but –”
“Well, even if it is to be a surprise, you still need to go away and have a think about it.”
“You can’t do it right now?”
“Not when it’s your first tattoo, Harry. It’s a big step, so you need to have a good think about it.”
“Because once it’s done it can’t be undone.”
“I know. That’s why I want it.”
As she speaks, Valerie lets the pencil caress the white paper. Black lines soon begin to fill up the page, apparently disparate strokes which are actually interconnected like a complicated system of veins and arteries. After she finishes the outline, she uses different coloured pencils to add substance to the sketch. When she is finished she holds it up for Harry to see.
“What do you think?”
“I thought, since they’re your wife’s favourite flower, that it would be nice to have them growing within the letters of her name. Do you like it?”
Harry is holding the paper now, staring at it.
“It’s beautiful,” he whispers, and a tear drops on to the paper. “Oh, sorry. That’ll smudge the drawing.”
“It’ll be fine. You keep that for now. And make sure you show your wife.”
Harry doesn’t turn up for his next appointment. Valerie isn’t surprised, though she’s more disappointed than she thought she would be. Either he’s forgotten, or more likely he told his wife of his plan and she said no. The appointment was for eleven o’clock, and by half past she’s put a line through his name in the appointments book. Just as she does so, the door buzzer sounds and she looks up quickly. A couple of boys in their late teens. They start studying the designs on the walls, pointing and whispering conspiratorially every few minutes. She’ll have to ask for proof they’re over eighteen when they eventually pluck up the courage to approach the counter. She can vaguely remember being just as nervous when she got her first tattoo. That was many years, and many tattoos ago.
It was a Cupid’s Arrow on her hip. She figured at the time – she was only sixteen – that it was the most discreet spot, where she could look at it whenever she wanted but no-one else would see it unless she revealed it to them. It was a bow with an arrow attached, its tip hidden within a red heart. It was her first heart, but it wouldn’t be her last, and at least this one wasn’t broken. There had been a boy – wasn’t there always? His name was Stuart and he was twenty-one. It was his idea to get the tattoo. She hadn’t needed much persuading, excited by the thrill of doing something her parents would disapprove of, and desperate to please her boyfriend because he was five years older and he had a car and all her friends were envious of her. She’d already had sex with him, so what was a tattoo in comparison? She couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but even as the needle began carving into her skin, she knew it would last longer in her life than Stuart. Much longer. The shattered heart was someone else’s fault, and it was less painful to think of her teenage self than to remember anything more recent.
Her fingers automatically touch her hip, though she’s not sure she’d still be able to find Cupid. For one thing it will have faded, and it has been crowded out by other images of varying shapes, sizes, colour and quality, each one with its own individual story, only some of which she remembers. The ones that matter, she does, but that’s not always a good thing.
She doesn’t hide the tattoos. What’s the point of having them if no-one else gets to see them? She wears sleeveless dresses or, when it’s very hot or she feels bloody-minded, she wears denim shorts and a vest top, much to her mum’s disapproval. Her flesh is covered with random patterns and intricate designs; the crucified Christ, a devil fornicating with an angel, the solar system, a soaring eagle and a venomous snake, a flaming guitar and Jessica Rabbit. A shattered heart.
She calls him sledge-hammer man, if she calls him anything at all. It’s a good name for him. Well, a polite one at least. She doesn’t want to say his name, or even think it. The sound of it still hurts like a cigarette burn. She was old enough to have known better. At least the tattoo will remind her next time, though she has no intention of there being a next time.
She’s working on a tattoo when someone comes into the shop. It’s a Latin inscription – Habeo Deum Iudicem. It means ‘God is my judge.’
“I checked it on Google,” the girl tells her and Valerie isn’t going to argue, or even check for herself. She doesn’t care. It’s not her tattoo. The girl is lying on her back as Valerie works on the intricate lettering. She wants it on her heart, though she winces a few times as the lettering is etched into her skin. Her eyes are closed which Valerie prefers so that she can concentrate on her work.
“Val, there’s someone here to see you.” Ryan’s head appears round the door and the girl’s eyes open to see who has spoken.
“Who is it?”
“Don’t know. She wouldn’t say.”
“Tell her I’ll be about half an hour if she wants to come back.”
She starts working on the tattoo again, tracing over the ‘cem’ of the last word. The lettering looks good, she thinks, though without any sense of vanity. She knows that no matter what she is asked to do, the end product will be of the highest quality. That can’t disguise the fact that some choices are just awful. She hates doing people’s names. Boyfriends or girlfriends. Husbands or wives. True love etched into flesh for all eternity. Don’t do it, she wants to scream. It will never last, and even if it does, you’ll still look in the mirror one day and wonder who the stupid person with the tattoo is who stares back at you. She says nothing, of course. She just takes the money.
The tattoo is finished. The girl sits up and studies it, a smile breaking out across her face like sun from behind the clouds.
“It looks magic,” she says.
Valerie wraps a layer of cling film round it and hands her a jar of Bepanthen.
“Do you know what to do?”
“I think so. It’s been a while since my last one.”
“Keep the cling film on until tomorrow. Then take it off and wash the tattoo with soapy water, but when you’re drying it, make sure you don’t rub it.
“Will it come off?”
“No,” Valerie laughs, “but it might smudge a bit.”
“Then use the cream, just a little bit. And then wrap it in cling film again for another day and do the same thing again. Just follow all the instructions in the leaflet and you’ll be fine.”
Valerie follows the girl back out to the front of the shop and leaves her to pay Ryan, who stands leaning on the counter beside the cash till. He glances up and nods towards a woman who is sitting in the waiting area. Valerie follows his gaze and when the woman sees Valerie, she stands up.
“Hi, can I help you?”
“I’m Mrs O’Connell.”
“Sorry, do I know you?”
“I’m Harry’s wife,” she says.
“Harry?… You mean, Harry that wanted the tattoo?”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Valerie.”
She holds out her hand and Angela takes it in hers. They both smile politely. Angela’s younger than Harry, much younger. She is small and pretty, with bright red lips and eyes dark as a forest. She brushes her shoulder-length hair away from her face and smiles again. Valerie keeps looking away, though her eyes are drawn back to Angela’s face.
“I’m from the Philippines,” she says.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s okay. I get it all the time. I’m used to it now.”
“I’m sorry,” Valerie says again.
Angela’s gaze soaks in every tattooed detail of Valerie’s body. She waits until Angela’s eyes have exhausted themselves and returned to looking at her face.
Sorry,” she mutters.
“It’s okay. I get it all the time too. I’m used to it now,” Valerie says with a smile. “So how can I help you? Has Harry told you about his tattoo plan?”
Angela opens her handbag and brings out a sheet of paper, crumpled and creased like a shirt stuffed at the bottom of a wardrobe. Valerie can make out the design she sketched for Harry.
“He wanted that tattoo so he wouldn’t forget you.”
“But he didn’t turn up for his appointment. I thought that maybe he told you and you wouldn’t let him.”
“Harry. He’s gone.”
Angela starts crying and instinctively holds up the sheet of paper to her face like it is a handkerchief, though as soon as its rough surface touches her skin she moves it away.
“I’m sorry,” Valerie says. “Do you want to sit down?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on through to the back of the shop and I’ll make us both a cup of tea.”
She guides Angela gently through to the small office that holds a desk, two chairs and not much else. When she brings the tea into the office, she hands one mug to Angela and then puts the other one on top of the desk.
“I’m really sorry,” she says.
“I didn’t know he was ill.”
“He wasn’t. It was just so sudden.”
“I only saw him a couple of weeks ago.”
“Was that when he came in for his tattoo?”
“I told him to have a think about it, or talk to you, and then come back.”
“He had dementia, you know.”
“He told me. I didn’t realise it was so bad.”
“So what happened?”
Angela takes a gulp of her tea and then puts the mug down beside Valerie’s.
“He stepped out on to the road and a car hit him. It just doesn’t seem real, no matter how many times I say it. I keep expecting him to walk in through the front door.”
She starts crying again, burying her head in her hands. Valerie doesn’t move.
“I’m all alone now,” she says. “I’ve got no-one.”
“What about your family?”
“They’re all back in the Philippines. I don’t want to go back there.”
“What about Harry? Does he have a family?”
“They hate me.”
“Why do you think?”
“He was sixty-three. I’m twenty-seven. I’m from the Philippines. He’s from Scotland.”
“Is that why they hate you? Because you’re younger?”
“They think I’m after his money.”
“His kids. His son and daughters. They think Harry bought me and I’m only here for his money. They call me the catalogue bride, and now that he’s dead, they believe I’m just a gold-digger who’ll run off with their dad’s money. They don’t even want me at the funeral.”
“That’s terrible. You’re his wife.”
Angela brings the piece of paper out again and spreads it on the desk.
“He wanted to put me on his body because he didn’t want to forget me.”
“I know. He told me.”
“That means he loved me.”
“He did. He told me that.”
“And I loved him. They don’t believe me but I did. I don’t care about the money. I just wish I could have him back.”
The door swings over behind them and closes. Valerie automatically turns round when she hears the noise. It feels cold, though she’s not sure if it is the temperature or the fact that there’s a dead body lying in the middle of the room. Angela strides over to the coffin, leaning in and kissing her husband. Valerie remains by the door.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” she says.
“But you promised.”
“I know, but it’s wrong.”
“It’s fine. He’s my husband.”
“I know, Angela, but still…”
Valerie walks slowly over to the coffin, each step forward weighed down with reluctance. Harry looks as though he is sleeping, though the make-up on his face reminds her that he isn’t. Angela is already rolling up his right sleeve.
“We’ve got half an hour. That’s all they’ve given me to say goodbye to my husband. Will you be able to do it?”
Valerie’s bag is open and she perches a bottle of ink on top of Harry’s chest.
“I’ll do what I can, but I don’t know what I’ll be able to manage in half-an-hour.”
There’s no time to go through her usual preparations, much of which are hygiene-based, but Harry is dead so it doesn’t matter. Angela has put the design beside the ink bottle and Valerie glances at it as she begins drawing, though the image is planted firmly in her mind since she spent the past couple of days studying it. The quicker she is able to do it, the better. Much of the intricacies of the original idea have been dispensed with, though Angela has insisted that one red rose remains, entwined in her name.
“For love,” she says softly and Valerie nods, thinking of her own shattered heart.
As she carves ‘Angela’ on to Harry’s arm, Valerie can hear tiny sobs beside her above the buzz of the gun, but she ignores them, working quickly but carefully. She wants to make sure it’s something that Harry would have been proud of. Maybe he would have forgotten who Angela was one day, but perhaps his heart would have always remembered even if his brain didn’t? Now she will be there with him, on him, for all eternity.
You never know when you’ll fall in love. It could happen tomorrow, Valerie’s mum tells her during strained telephone calls. Valerie doesn’t really believe it, but sometimes it is a hopeful, if deluded, thought to console herself with.