The large window at her back lights up the photographs and doodles of tattoos on the wall. The chair is worn and shiny with use, the blue and white of the foam pokes through holes worn by other peoples’ skittish hands pulling at the tatty threads. The rain outside bounces off the glass, and the traffic as it trundles past the studio. The whole city goes by, as her hands tap nervously at her phone as she sits. She waits. Her stubby, rough skinned fingers hit the keys as she sends messages to her friends. This tattoo is a birthday present to herself for her 18th. She wanted something that would last, and what lasts longer than a tattoo, right?
She will turn 18 in 23 days and she hopes that the tattooist cannot tell that she isn’t old enough. She is getting more added to the previous one, a rose she’d had done a couple of weeks before. A voice calls from the back and she goes through to the small room. It smells faintly of antiseptic, like the dentists or a hospital. The walls are painted pink and yellow, an odd colour combination for the tattooist who sits in it, with his black rubber gloves and his heavy rock music shrieking out of the speakers, making the pictures on the walls shudder slightly. The tattoo inks line one side of the room, the bottles smudged with fingerprints. On the opposite wall there is a mirror, resting on the floor with a handprint once belonging to a small child in the centre. She wrinkles her nose. It smells clean, but it looks a bit dirty.
The tattooist adjusts the chair to the right height before she sits down. He stands her back up and applies the purple transfer to her side. She goes over to the mirror to check her new design. Perfect. And her mum won’t see it if it’s there. Her nerves increase as she goes back and settles back down in the chair. She turns towards him as he questions her about the design she is having extended, a red rose which is still slightly sore. It’s only a week old. It’s fine though. It looks like it has healed enough although he warns her it might hurt more than last time. She sits twisted in the chair, peering down at the transfer, biting her short nails even shorter. He orders her into an uncomfortable position, and starts up the tattoo gun, its needle dipped in the black ink he has placed on the table besides him. He begins, and the pain is not as bad as she thought it would be. It vibrates up her spine, like an electric shock. The music is drowned out by the angry buzzing of the needle. It sounds like a razor, accompanied by sharp strokes as he draws on the outline of a new flower.
Suddenly, her phone vibrates. It was one of her friends, replying to the message she’d sent before. The tattooist’s arm had been resting on her back pocket to steady it. The vibrations added to his already shaking arm and the needle slipped. Where there was supposed to be a leaf, there was now a thick black line. She looks down, and promptly burst into tears. Shit. Don’t worry, I can fix this, he says. He grabs a biro off the table, and draws on more lines. As she looks, they turn into tendrils, emerging from behind the leaves. The design, perhaps poorly chosen in the first place, begins to grow. It looks like part of her, emerging from inside her as he erases her skin.
How’s that? He asks, and she tells him that it’s perfect. The needle starts up again, and she shuts her eyes. She imagines the design growing and growing, until she is covered in its creepers and flowers and tendrils. It covers her in ink. It covers her scars, the ones she had inflicted last year. The ones that she thought looked like maggots on her arms. She remembers having needles in her skin then, as the doctor sewn up the wounds. She’d watched, fascinated, as the gaping bloody wounds had disappeared, leaving behind bright blue knots of thread against the now thin red lines.
Right. Time for a break, he says. He stands up, and stretches his arms above his head, hands clasped. He pulls off the gloves, and throws them in the bin. Reaching into his back pocket, he pulls out a packet of cigarettes. Want one? She nods, and takes one from his hand. They go through to the front, and he holds open the door to let her outside. The rain has stopped now, and the sun is showing above the buildings. She puts it in her mouth, and lighting it, inhales and exhales deeply. The smoke wreaths before it is blown away to nothing by the wind.