Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006
SHE WAS FIFTY-NINE, rich, divorced for a year, and out alone on a Saturday night. She told the taxi driver to head for the Cross; she wanted to do something different, and she decided on the bar where Leon had taken her as a treat the last time he had been in Sydney. On reaching William Street, the traffic slowed to a crawl and Marie looked out the window, fascinated by the gaudy scene. A woman as big as a man stood out from the shadows of a building like a fruit-vendor, holding her enormous breasts to the passing cars. A prostitute half her age and size teetered past in spike heels to a companion propped against a pylon, head lolling. They leant against one another like slivers of cardboard with fluff for hair, trying not to blow over in the wind. A group of English boys lurched down the footpath shouting drunken songs. All of this had to be endured like a thicket of lantana that had grown across the path, as the taxi struggled onwards. The rawness of the street not two blocks from that sumptuous bar with designer chairs and a billion dollar view amazed Marie. As the taxi paused at a red light, some Aborigines sauntered up from Woolloomooloo screaming with laughter then stopped to stare directly through the window at her.
Inside the bar, safely seated in front of the view, Marie ordered a Cape Mentelle white. It had been three hours since her last drink: she swallowed the wine quickly and ordered another. The man at the bar was staring at her. Tall and slim with thick grey hair, he was picking peanuts out of a dish and tossing them into his mouth with a languid precision that Marie found sexy. She sat facing the view, watching his reflection. She turned to catch the waiter's eye, meeting those of the man at the bar in the elegant suit.
She tried to identify the colour of his eyes, the curve of his lips as he turned away and exchanged a word with the barman. She moved into their meeting, the first touch of his hand, the shape of him seated in the chair opposite, as the waiter walked back to the bar with her order. She went with him into the first months, the initial electric offering of bodies, discovery, compromise, the unravelling of pain and history as they gently conquered one another's children. They argued and reconciled, the months settled into comfortable silence. All of this before her drink arrived, thinking so far inside a life together that she only noticed at the last minute that the man was placing money on the bar and leaving, shattering an ancient intimacy. She sat there humiliated, friendless, staring at the city lights.
Drunk, exhausted. Floating over to the lift, leaning up against the cool mirror, floating out on to the street. The fresh air slapped her back to herself and she began to walk as though she had a purpose, somewhere to go. But where was she anyway, where was the taxi rank? This was Leon's territory. Leon would be taking her arm, urging her to forget her car parked on the other side of the city and take a taxi all the way home. She walked faster down the hill past a lump of rags in a bus stop that she realised afterwards was a human. My god, was he dead? Was he a he? Aren't there any bloody taxis on this side of the street? What a waste of time having lunch with Susan and accompanying her through two furniture warehouses, buying more things she didn't need, only to be told just before they parted that Susan couldn't do the Spanish course. Susan's calculated contempt for Ross and his young wife hovering in her ears like a malign whisper. Well, all of you can go to bloody hell. Marie stopped to face the oncoming traffic, headlights glaring, a car slowing to a halt the driver leaning over. It wasn't a taxi – he wanted to hire her. Flattered and frightened, she left the edge of the footpath and pressed herself against a shop window.
She found herself looking through the window of a tattoo parlour then, pushing the door open, tinkling a bell. Eddies of flash flew around the walls blurring into an ugly miasma inside which she felt somehow at home like a leper rightfully sent to quarantine. There were more designs in folders on the counter. A sort of aggression was pawing inside her as though she had set out that night to hunt and the prey still eluded her.
She flicked through the folders quickly then, reckless as a teenager, she was past the counter and inside a small room on a padded vinyl couch. She was actually unbuttoning her shirt in front of a strange man, hiding her face, her fear and excitement. Her heart rose and inflated to a large throbbing ball inside her mouth. She kept it shut. Face down now, her right bra strap pulled aside, the shopping, the bar, Susan, her family, everything disappearing into the small black moment of this whirlpool. The burly bearded man pulled on latex gloves. She heard the rip of a packet and the smell of isopropyl alcohol scoured her nostrils, her skin icy clean. How long had it been since the touch of a man? No, this was like being at the doctor's. A sudden desire to laugh hysterically surged in her stomach, then he gently touched a transfer to her shoulder blade and her body stilled.
"Want to check before I start?" He angled a mirror behind her and she twisted to see herself. Calm down Marie, it's just a little picture.
"That's good," she managed.
"So what's the occasion?"
She would have seen a look of knowing bemusement on his face, but kept her eyes on the floor. She had to think. She looked at the pictures on the walls. Girl on a motorbike, Chinese dragon, rock band, some mass of green – maybe a rainforest. Photographed body parts livid with fresh designs like the offcuts in a forensics laboratory. She had walked through the looking glass, shattering everything she had known. Sliced and swooning, she tried to think.
"My freedom," she said. "I'm free for the first time in almost forty years."
"To your new life, then." He pressed a switch and the iron began to whir. "Ready?"
The needles entered her skin.
FROM THE MIRROR, the red rose stared at her slick and shiny as though painted on with oils. Marie fetched her reading glasses then removed the gauze pad, hanging by a piece of tape after a long night's sleep. A sore heat radiated from the fresh tattoo, the memory of pain a tiny glowing ember. In the en suite in the morning sunlight, twisting to the mirror, she could see every detail. The curl of crimson petals, the serrated leaves, three thorns, the entire area raised red. And all the surrounding skin – tired, old, damaged.
She hated her skin. Imported, unsuitable, over-reactive. It kept no secrets. Everything transmitted, most things exaggerated. Spicy meals, daybreak tears, anxiety, embarrassment, another long, hot day in the garden. Every ultraviolet hour of her life was written across her skin, every drink taken. Her entire history roamed its galaxies of spots, scars and blotches. Marie untied the belt of her dressing-gown, removed it and hung it on the back of the door.
Fearless, she appraised herself on this warm winter's morning, naked in her bathroom. The breasts she had always considered too large, sagging and drained, the belly loose with menopause and childbirth. The short, thick legs, the swollen ankles she hated enough to hide even in summer with socks and shoes. The darker, mottled skin of exposed areas, liver spots creeping across her hands. Like an old queen whose realm had survived the ravages of decades, she sadly examined all that had invaded her.
Yet here, finally, was a scar she had chosen, a red rose cut into her flesh gleaming like a beacon. She had planted her own flag in her own country.
She washed the tattoo carefully under the shower then covered it in a layer of cream and a fresh gauze patch. A Bloody Mary with breakfast, to settle her stomach, then a taxi to town to fetch the car. A parking ticket was slipped like an invitation beneath the windscreen wiper. Wearily, Marie got inside and sat staring at the street. She reached into the glove box for a mint-flavoured indigestion tablet, then thought about what to do for the rest of the day, leaning back against the seat for the pleasant, painful reminder of tattoo. She wasn't needed anywhere, she wasn't missed. She set off reluctantly in the direction of home then an arm came down out of the sky and turned the wheel and like a stormchaser Marie was speeding towards the hurricane, towards the parlour where she chose a floral motif as an ankle-band. She signed the same piece of paper she vaguely remembered signing the night before.
SHE WAS ABLE to look at the tattooist properly today. His beard was grey, what little hair he had was grey too. He was wearing a flannelette shirt and leather waistcoat and writing something into a large ledger with a cheap biro whose end had been chewed. Stuck on the corkboard behind him was a photograph of two toddlers perched on a huge motorbike, the tattooist holding the handlebars and smiling at the camera. His bare arms were covered. Imagine being nursed in those arms. If he had told her she had come to the wrong place she would have agreed and left immediately. She kept wanting somebody to wake her up, but she slept on through the alarm. Cautious, polite, the tattooist welcomed her into the back room. "My first customer of the day!"
She supposed he saw all sorts in here. A cavalcade of criminals, sluts and rock stars sauntered through her mind. She wanted and didn't want to follow them, but they didn't seem to know where they were going. Not in here anyway. Marie changed the channel. She saw herself, lost but moving, moving again on to the couch.
"I hope I don't get another parking ticket," she said, lamely.
It was cool and quiet in the shop. Sporadic Sunday traffic drifted past. How still these moments that change everything, hollow, pregnant, like the eye of the storm.
"S'pose you're happy with the rose then?"
"I love it."
She could have been at a florist. Practice for customer service at the nursery.
"You got a garden? You've chosen more flowers."
"I do actually. A big one."
"No. I have a lot of natives. And a subtropical section all along the bottom."
It hadn't even occurred to her; she hadn't even thought about it. She didn't want to think about it. She removed her shoe and sock then settled on to the couch and watched him swab the area to be tattooed.
"I don't grow roses," she said. "I tried once and they didn't take ... never persisted."
He wrapped the transfer around her ankle. "You'll get some swelling after this. Don't go running around afterwards."
How drunk had she been the night before? This wasn't the sensation she remembered – not the smarting that rang through her leg to her heart like an alarm. Her breakfast Bloody Mary wasn't sufficient for the ordeal. She forced her eyes open and, soothed by the dexterity and steadiness of his hand, watched transfixed, holding her quivering thigh as though her leg would leap off the couch of its own accord to flee the clawing pain. The man paused and scrutinised her face, wiping blood and ink from her ankle.
"You're bleeding a lot. You OK? Yes. Can you turn over?"
And the needles went in again, her heart banging furiously against her ribcage like a lunatic prisoner: what am I doing? why did I get a rose? Christ I can't stand this. To be able to stand, and speak and walk away half an hour later felt like a victory. She was flooded with energy.
How could she go home now? On such a sunny day, in an unfamiliar neighbourhood with its terraces and flats and narrow streets, the bitumen like a strip of black paint between gutters of colonial sandstone. The sweet reek of the season's first jasmine washed over her as she turned the corner. She smiled broadly at a couple walking past, the girl turning to look back at the ageing woman getting into a pale blue Saab.
Hobbled by folly, she drove aimlessly with her pristine right foot until she saw a cafe with white awnings and pine furniture. She felt like celebrating. She parked the car and went inside. Did they know? Could they see?
"I'll have a ham and cheese baguette, please," she said to the waiter as though nothing had happened, "and a glass of the Lehmann's Cab Sav."
SHE LONGED TO rest her swaddled ankle on the chair beside her. Opposite, a well-dressed young man was reading the paper. On the front page, Marie saw the familiar image of a torture victim, naked and blindfolded, hands tied behind his back, curled on the ground by the boots of a soldier. The young man saw her looking and smiled over the newsprint then went back to his reading. So many people out there getting away with murder, day after day, so many bodies, so many crimes. And this, now, in her own smug heart, this pounding lust for taboo and severance, this blood seduction. Like coming home after a tryst with Jonesy in the boathouse to her husband and children. Serving dinner slick with lies and another man's sperm, drunk with orgasm. Full of love. This bliss, this murder.
The waiter placed the bill on her table and she saw the sacred heart tattooed on the inside of his forearm. Wreaths of thorns encircled the red organ, a drop of blood spilt down his wrist, all of it nestled in a bed of flames. So the bells had rung, the bets been laid, and she made her way back into the ring, terrified of fighting again, terrified of death equally if she reneged.
When she entered the tattoo parlour, there was nobody behind the counter. From the back room, the buzz of the iron and a fat white back reclining on the couch. The tattooist came to the counter and eyed her warily.
"I want another one on my right ankle."
"Whoa," he said.
She stood her ground with the arrogance of the initiate. And a woman who always had money to buy.
"Are you sure you don't want to wait a while and think about it?"
"I have thought about it. I feel unbalanced."
Through the door she could see the owner of the back. A man in jeans with copious ginger grey hair that gathered up his body to a bush around his face. He twisted his head around to look at her and grinned. His chest a blur of hair and old tattoos, the afternoon's work a lurid expanse down the inside of his forearm.
"I don't recommend getting so many tattoos so fast," said the tattooist.
"It barely takes an hour."
"And you shouldn't be getting tattooed when you've been drinking."
She looked at him with amazed resentment. "I had one glass of wine with lunch." She said it quietly, conscious of her breath travelling through the air.
"Apart from the fact it's not a good state of mind to make decisions in, you bleed a lot more."
How dare he speak to her like that ... a grubby tattooist.
"I'm not a teenager for God's sake." She put the money on the counter.
"You'll have to wait."
"Maybe an hour."
He sighed and picked up her money. Nobody paid beforehand. "I'll do it this time then. But you're going to have to take a break after this, and think about what you're doing."
He looked at Marie authoritatively. "You might want the same design." He opened a folder and pushed it towards her. "Or you can choose a different one. Think about it."
He turned to walk into the back room, stopping in the doorway. "It's for life, you know."
FOR OVER AN hour she sat in the small waiting room plastered floor to ceiling with designs. She chose a slightly different floral band for her right ankle, based on lilies. She remembered Blanche, the inveterate art director, at her wedding, shifting an enormous vase of day lilies to a better position, her head tilted to one side. An hour later, seated beside her at the long head table, Marie saw a delicate track of yellow pollen smeared across Blanche's white neck. She was filled with a sorrowful pang and wanted to grab her daughter and tell her everything would be alright. But Blanche flushed and gregarious, busy with her friends, seemed to be convinced that it would be alright anyway.
Night fell on the street outside and, as the alcohol receded, Marie's desire remained white and certain as a bone. She began to look through the pile of dog-eared magazines, hoping vaguely to find somebody like herself. A fried egg and bacon on top of a bald head, the knife and fork angled like flowers over each ear. A girl with an airbrushed stallion cantering across her back, sundry bikers wearing their totems with surly pride. Blanche reappeared briefly to scoff at the designs and Marie for once found herself in genuine agreement. All of them left her cold.
The next magazine was better. A Louis XIV sun shining on a plump shining chest muscle, its eye a pierced nipple. A Yakuza in a loincloth photographed full length, his entire body a floating world. Then yes, at the end, a woman older than forty. Well, probably only just, the photograph itself at least forty years old so the patchwork of bluebirds, hearts and sailing ships on her skin was as faded as the print itself. But nor was Marie a tattooed lady for exhibition in sideshows across the land; she could not picture herself amongst these people.
She was nowhere. She belonged to nobody.
She realised when the tattoo was completed that she didn't even know the tattooist's name.