Eighty Days White
By Vina Jackson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2013 Vina Jackson
All rights reserved.
The Girl with the Teardrop Tattoo
Had I known about its meaning, I might not have gone ahead with the tattoo. But by the time I was made aware of its significance, it was too late and I'd already become known to friends and strangers as the girl with the teardrop tattoo.
I had dreamed of getting one for years. Somehow it was one of those things – like getting a job and maybe one day falling in love – that I felt would be an inevitable part of my future. It was simply a matter of waiting for time to pass until the preordained day arrived. I felt more certain about the tattoo than I did about finding a job when I finished university, or even falling in love.
So when Neil finally disappeared and Liana and I found ourselves alone outside the weathered door that nestled inconspicuously amongst a bevy of retail stores, vintage boutiques and cafes, it seemed obvious to me that the time had finally come. On the pavement outside the door stood a simple white sign, which read 'Tattoo Parlour' in large black italics.
I had lingered here before, had even worked up the courage to push the door open a few times, but I had never been inside. I had often dreamed of walking in, flicking through books of drawings, confidently selecting the one that would suit me best, lying back in the chair and having it done. But I always backed out at the last moment, believing that someone like me, the living, breathing picture of a good girl, would be laughed out of the shop by the pierced and tattooed cool kids that I imagined ran the place.
'Come on then,' Liana said, brushing past me and stepping inside. She had always been the wild one of the two of us, and did not seem to carry even a shadow of the self-doubt that possessed me like a disapproving second skin, no matter how hard I tried to shed it.
The door led to a flight of steep, rough, concrete steps, painted red, now chipped, with a metal handrail up the left-hand side that had the thick heaviness of something that might have been salvaged from a plumbing supplies warehouse. I took hold of the rail gingerly, as though it was the lifeline that might carry me away from the person that I was and towards the person that I wanted to be, and followed Liana up the stairs.
At the top was a studio, its walls painted a deep red and covered in photographs of tattooed limbs, sketches and posters of old heavy-metal and rock bands. I was heartened to see a battered print of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant with guitars in hand. Whoever had decorated the place had taste.
The tattooist ignored us entirely when we entered, until we had been standing in front of him at the front desk for a few minutes. Liana coughed and eventually he introduced himself. His name was Jonah, and he hailed from New Zealand, but had owned the studio in Brighton for fifteen years, or so he told Liana who was attempting to charm him with a stream of chatter.
Jonah was bald and dressed almost entirely in leather, besides a thick metal belt that jangled when he stood up. Both of his arms were covered in tattoos from his knuckles to his shoulders which bulged out from his vest.
'You girls been drinking?' he asked, peering at us with a suspicious eye.
'Oh, God no,' Liana replied. 'Just a glass for courage. We've been planning this for years.'
'You got ID?' he continued.
I could hear the muffled sound of an old-fashioned kettle whistling through a door to the side. It swung open, and another man appeared. He was much younger, probably in his early twenties, and could have been Jonah's son. They had the same mouth. Lips like Mick Jagger's, so full that I couldn't decide whether the feature was handsome or not. Either way, it gave them both the sort of sleazy look that Liana seemed to love and which made me nervous. He leaned against the doorframe and began to roll a smoke, staring at Liana as he ran his tongue along the cigarette paper.
'Come on, Jo,' he said. 'These two look like sensible girls. Don't be a mean bastard. If they've got the money, they get the tat.'
Liana cast him an appreciative smile.
Jonah snorted. 'No ID, no ink. I don't have time to deal with pissed-off parents.
'You know what you want?' he added, barely glancing at our student cards as we handed them over for inspection.
We were both over eighteen, and had been born only a month apart – her on the 21st May and me on the same day in June. A pair of Geminis, on the opposite ends of the cusp, a fact that Liana's hippyish mother believed was the explanation for our friendship.
'Yes. We're both getting the same.'
Jonah raised his eyebrows as if to suggest that this fact was another obvious sign of our idiocy.
Liana immediately volunteered to go first, winking at me as she slipped behind the curtain that separated the inking equipment from the rest of the studio. Her long skirt swayed around her calves as she moved, flashing her slim ankles. She was so naturally thin that she was closer to bony, and she dressed in loose-fitting, bohemian style, wearing the sort of clothes that Neil said reminded him of his grandmother's curtains, but she moved with the sort of swagger that made her attractive in a way that far outshone the sum of her parts.
Her form was clearly not lost on the cigarette-rolling man, who did not make the slightest effort to hide his appreciation of her backside as she sashayed across the room.
'I'm Nick,' he said, still staring at the space that Liana had just inhabited, as if I didn't exist at all.
'Lily,' I replied, under my breath.
'Pretty name,' he said in a bored voice.
I ignored him.
I hated my name. To me it was further proof of my status as a good little rich girl. Pure, boring and practically virginal. If I had to have an old-fashioned English name, I wished my parents had at least picked one I could shorten into something that sounded off-hand and rakish, like Jo or Jac.
Nick lit his cigarette and blew smoke into the air and I held my breath, refusing to give him the satisfaction of making me cough.
We didn't speak a single word to each other until Liana was finished, and I hurried behind the curtain as she exited it, keen to get the experience over with in case I changed my mind.
'Let's see it, then,' I heard him say to her as I left the room. She giggled in reply, and I imagined her lifting her skirts far higher than necessary and extending her leg to display her bare skin, and Nick responding with a gentle caress.
'Same for you, then?' Jonah asked without looking at me. He was bent over a tray of metal instruments, preparing a new needle.
'No?' He looked up and met my eyes. A hint of a smile played across his thick lips. 'Thought you said the two of you had been planning this for years.'
'I want something different.' I was suddenly sick to the teeth of doing what other people wanted. Even Liana, as much as I loved her.
'You sure about that?' he asked, as I told him what I had in mind. The idea had come to me only moments earlier, as I took a final glance at the posters on the walls before heading through the curtain.
'Positive,' I replied.
He motioned to the chair alongside him and I climbed up into it. I briefly considered asking him for a painkiller, or anaesthetic, like the kind you get at the dentist. But I guessed that Jonah would sneer at the idea even if he was able to provide such a thing, and besides, I didn't wish to appear weak, undecided or to miss a single moment of the experience. The tattoo was going to be so small, I reckoned, that it would be no more than a mosquito bite, surely, sharp and annoying.
I was wrong.
I almost screamed when the needle pierced my skin and I gripped the handles of the chair in which I was sitting tightly as the ring of pain radiated outwards, numbing my cheek and then my jaw until even the nerve endings in my fingers buzzed and jerked as if I was a frog on a dissecting table who's been jolted with electricity in front of a snickering classroom. My imagination was already running wild.
I closed my eyes.
Just as the pain was beginning to ebb or, at any rate, I was getting used to it, the second bite of the buzzing needle hit me. I drew a sharp breath as the hidden smells of the parlour assaulted my senses: indistinct chemicals, the dry odour of all the invisible dust suspended in the air, the manly fragrance of Jonah leaning over me, his old leather vest, the stale whiff of ancient cigarette smoke mixing with fresh, and even Liana's bargain perfume, though she was still waiting in the other room, behind the multicoloured curtain, nursing her ankle and her new tattoo and no doubt flirting with Nick.
The muted sound of Jonah's apparatus slowly faded as my mind finally began to process what was happening, segregating the sensation, isolating the pain until it felt as if it was part of another dimension, miles away, nothing to do with me any longer.
'How's it going, darling?' Liana cried out.
I snapped back, returning abruptly to the realm of reality and mumbled, 'OK ... I think.'
Jonah took a step back and looked down at his work.
'Almost done,' he said. 'Just have to fill it in.'
'Black, please, not blue. I just don't want it to be blue.'
'Yeah, so you said ...'
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him pick up another needle, and carefully slot it into his instrument. I took a deep breath as once again his heavy hand lowered itself to just below my left eye, an inch or so outside my perimeter of vision.
This time, the pain was not as sharp. Fuzzy, even soothing. Almost pleasant.
I'd always enjoyed visits to both the doctor and the dentist, and this was surprisingly similar. I found the sensation of relaxing in the chair and having an expert loom over me soothing somehow, and I took a strange sort of comfort in the spartan surrounds of the room, the cold shine of the sterilized equipment and the movements of Jonah, so precise and methodical. The touch of his gloved fingers was as gentle as an insect alighting on my cheek.
Besides the initial shock and burn, it wasn't as awful as I had expected. I basked in the glow as Jonah busied himself, his eyes just inches away from mine, every pore in his ruddy cheeks magnified under my close gaze, his features deformed as in a fairground mirror, a cartoon caricature, this stranger who was marking me for ever.
'I'm just going out to pick up some more cigarettes, OK?' Liana shouted out, followed by the sound of parlour's doorbell ringing.
'Won't be long now,' Jonah said, carefully wiping a tissue around the area he had just marked. Cleaning up. The pungent smell of chemical disinfectant rushed towards my nose as he did so, strong and overpowering.
Now the pain was just a distant memory, a blurry warmth serenading my still slightly drunken senses. But I felt more sober than ever. I'd done it! I had a tattoo.
A wave of apprehension swept across my mind as I thought of what my parents would say. Then again, I knew this was exactly why I'd had it done, why on the spur of the moment I'd proposed to Liana that we both have tattoos there and then as we walked down the North Lanes after an afternoon of celebrating the end of term.
I was fed up of being Lily from the Home Counties, the dutiful daughter, the boring one. I wanted to stand out, to be different. To do something no one would have expected from me for once.
'Here we are,' Jonah said, holding out a small mirror in front of me.
I opened my eyes.
It was perfect.
A minuscule teardrop, falling from my left eye, to which it was still connected by a thin black line.
Dark black against my white skin.
Now I no longer looked like Snow White, which is what both my parents and my relatives had always affectionately called me until I was twelve and had rebelled loudly once and for all against the nickname, and they'd never used it to my face again. I hated Disney movies with a vengeance.
'It's beautiful,' I said, as Jonah dabbed some cream over the area and taped a piece of plastic dressing in place under my eye.
'I hope you still feel the same in twenty years,' he answered.
I gathered my things and walked out of the store.
Liana and Nick were both puffing away, standing on the pavement, looking out dreamily towards the seafront.
'Finished,' I said.
She looked up at me.
'Fuckin' hell!' she exploded. 'You got him to tattoo your face!' She squeezed her eyes tight to get a closer look. 'What the fuck have you done, Lily?'
'I changed my mind,' I replied. 'Wanted something different.'
Nick grinned his approval and let out a low whistle.
'I knew you were a dark horse,' he added.
'Jeezussss ...' Liana hissed. 'I thought we'd agreed we'd have the same.' She put her leg forward and pointed at the small, brightly coloured butterfly she now sported on the side of her ankle, visible but distorted through the clear protective bandage.
Maybe tomorrow I would have my hair cut. Become the new 'me' in earnest. It was already jet black by nature, so at least I wouldn't need to dye it.
'You sure are a crazy gal, you know.'
I haven't always been crazy. In fact, if you asked anyone who knew me before I went to university at Sussex, they might well have described me as dull. Middleclass, professional parents, house with garden and pets, room of my own and all that. It was a happy environment to grow up in, despite the cloistered nature of my existence, and somehow it wasn't until I actually left home that I began to question things. Small things at first, then bigger ones. And once the seeds of doubt had been sown in my mind, it all just festered.
When I thought of my mother's life – the long-suffering parent who packed in her career to bring me into the world and then filled her time with nappies, school runs and pulling weeds from our walled garden – a part of me shriveled in fear. Was this all that life was about? I had a few boyfriends, gave away my cherry at seventeen to a nice boy who meant nothing to me but happened to be around to do the deed and so I played along. The sex was OK, though not great, but I had no doubts that one day it would become better. All along I was aware something was missing. Something important. I just didn't know what.
You couldn't even say I was a rebel, because I had no cause. My rebellion had been limited to plastering the walls of my room with posters of classic heavymetal bands and musicians. Somehow, the fierce images of Alice Cooper and Kiss felt inspiring, though I was aware that even my musical rebellion was a couple of decades out of date, and these days my rock heroes had become ageing and respectable. But mostly I just drifted.
I met Liana on my first day at university. We were sitting at the same table in the student cafeteria, both away from home for the first time and getting our bearings and knowing we didn't fit in yet. We were two outsiders, cut from the same cloth, though her hair was mousy brown where mine was black, and she was taller and thinner than me. Where my parents had both trained as doctors, her father was a patent engineer and her mother had once been an air stewardess.
It wasn't so much the fact that we had the same sort of background that attracted me to her company, but that I saw a wildness in her, a recklessness I aspired to. As if she had broken those unseen chains that were holding us back. We were both studying English Lit and shared several of the same classes, and quickly became inseparable, eventually moving in together a year later into a large flat near Hove that we shared with four others.
Neil was one of them. He was only in his first year and so he came under our wing. We treated him like a younger brother, inoffensive and always present, although Liana once confessed to me that he reminded her of her father, always silently disapproving of her excesses.
It was a Friday afternoon and, together with Liana, Neil and a dozen or so others, our drinking had begun early at the student union bar and quickly moved on to a variety of pubs in town. Liana and I were pacing ourselves – we had a plan to make a whole night of it once we'd lost the others. Neither of us wanted to visit our parents during term time, so, as Liana had put it, we would have the whole weekend to get rid of the hangovers before tutorials and lectures resumed on Monday.
By the time we'd hit the seafront and the Lanes, there were only seven of us left and we wandered in high spirits from bar to bar at a leisurely pace. Liana and I were still relatively sober and amused by the antics of our friends who would be written off in a matter of hours while we still had the whole evening ahead of us. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Eighty Days White by Vina Jackson. Copyright © 2013 Vina Jackson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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