This is a work of fiction that I wrote a while back. I feel rather vulnerable sharing it with you – for many reasons. Firstly, I don’t write a lot of fiction! And while I call it ‘fiction’ there are elements of truth embedded. You might be able to pick them. It’s also based on the topic closest to my heart: how immensely precious life is. I would be so grateful for any constructive feedback xxx
Blood runs black beneath the nib hovering at Allira’s wrist. Jim smoothes the design on its scrap of paper before pressing back into flesh. He’s a redhead with blue-green eyes, freckled skin and a half-hearted goatee. The acrid whiff of cigarette smoke loiters at his teeth – he was drawing on a rolly at the shop’s steps when Allira arrived. He took his time to finish before walking in to set up. Allira sat on the couch to wait, gaping at the framed sketches of skulls, bare-breasted women and taloned creatures. The music was angry.
Finally, Jim called her over where something like a padded stool had been covered in cling film. She sat down, proffered an arm and he got to work, first transferring a carbon outline of the image onto the downy skin just beyond the right wrist before readying the pen.
She should have noticed the colours swarming down his own arms in twisting patterns, obviously stretching beyond his shirtsleeves. And how he leans forward until his nose is just centimetres from the buzzing instrument, hands steady as stone. But Allira cannot watch. The pain is a searing, screaming thing that fills her ears, throat and eyes. She searches for distraction.
An enormous moose head is in profile on the wall, head and horns so immense that it dominates the terrace shop. Someone’s trophy. Unlike the other tattoo artists simmering in corners with their own customers, the moose lends a softness to the place. Its eyes are inquiring, as if it poked its head through the wall to see what was happening. Allira wonders what it would have thought, to see humans voluntarily accepting pain, dragging it across their skin like the knife that must have slit the beautiful creature’s throat.
She knows the wizened eyes of that moose.
When she was younger, driving home from a school concert late one night, a deer leapt into the road and froze, startled by the headlights. Still staring at the moose on the wall, she remembers how her dad swung his weight onto the brake pedal and her mum screeched, “hang on!” She saw that deer, its velvet muzzle quivering and its coat glowing fiercely with life. The tyres were squealing and just before impact, the vision in the road dashed into the dark.
The pain flares again as Jim changes the nib to a broader tip for filling the space within the crisp, black outline he has just completed. Allira steals a glance and looks away again. She forces herself to notice the tubes of colour stacked in a plastic trolley on casters. She counts them – 23 – and wonders where they keep the blue. She pinches the pale skin of her inner thigh until an angry red mark flowers and she tugs at her Cue pencil skirt with her free hand.
The woman beneath the moose throws a sidelong glance at Allira. Seth is working on her bicep, crouched in concentration. He asks where she went after the party on Saturday night and Ruby says tersely that she went to Sarah’s place. He grunts like only the owner of a tattoo studio can to a long-standing customer.
Ruby’s bottle black hair hangs beneath her shoulder blades and when she shifts in her seat, the movement reveals an undercut of rough stubble on one side of her scalp. She wears a yellow floral dress that might have been pretty but for the skeleton drawn down one side of her back with a marker, bones following her own fleshy frame. Scapula, vertebra, pelvis, femur – and a wing stretching from the top of her ribs.
Allira wonders what image is being marked somewhere between Ruby’s shoulder cuff and elbow, the one held away from her view. She only knows that Seth loaded deep fuchsia into his tool after first quibbling over her choice. Allira imagines a picture of beauty marred. A rose with oversized thorns or a mermaid with the jaws of a shark. A picture of the world as she sees it: beauty disfigured.
Allira’s thoughts turn to Liam – what will he think? Five years of marriage yet somehow she didn’t believe he would understand her need to do this. He would hug her and support her, but this was a lonely journey. She would tell him about the moose and his eyes would light up, relieved to talk about something different, the hunter in him piqued. And she would just let it happen, a deer in headlights.
The buzzing stops and Jim wipes Allira’s wrist with a paper towel and lays down the pen. He has finished. Relief floods her veins as Allira leans forward and looks at the wound, the artwork, the statement. It is perfect. For the first time since he sat down, Jim opens his mouth.
“What’s it mean to you?”
The silhouette of a swallow is imprinted at her wrist, in flight, winging away from her, destined for somewhere beyond her. Wings spread, tail in two fluent slashes, head pointed like an arrow.
Allira walks to the mirror and smiles at the reflection. A small tattoo, one the skeleton girl would sneer at, she muses, but something that will forever be part of her in a visible, tangible way.
“I lost my baby,” she tells Jim as she hands him the fifty. She was 12 weeks pregnant when she started to bleed.
“My baby flew away.”
“Where’d you go after the party on Saturday night?”
Ruby simmers. She knows he knows where she went, and why. The party had started alright, a nice group sharing a few drinks, but then there was the whiff of weed as she walked down the hall to the bathroom, and Trent and his druggy mates had turned up, high on something harder. Just the sound of his name churns Ruby’s stomach. The staccato beginning and end of the word – much like their grotty little fling.
“I went to Sarah’s – better company,” she says in a nonchalant voice and Seth grunts without missing a stroke in the pinking of Ruby’s flesh. The lurid fuchsia is colouring a luscious pair of lips gaping in a scream, tongue rigid and tonsils bared. They are beautiful lips, moist as if just licked and seductively wide and full, but the scream that stretches them apart is something dark and horrific.
Seth is good at what he does. His designs are so wild and spangled that people point at them in nightclubs and say, that must be a Seth Pargo. He’s booked out for months and mainly by his regulars, those like Ruby who will forever want “just one more”.
She watches closely as Seth presses the image into her bicep, collecting her blood with paper towel every few strokes. His shaved head beads with sweat and he glances up at Ruby, at the clock, at the shop every so often. The towel darkens as he wipes, wipes, wipes. Her blood for his sport.
That’s how it was with Trent, Ruby knows now. He was untamed, wired for flight. They were the qualities that attracted her initially, that sustained her all those years through drug binges, impulsive trips through the outback and trying to claw back respect and trust from friends, family, employers. He was Seth’s best customer, probably still is. It was Trent who coaxed Ruby into getting bigger and more colourful designs that mimicked the riot of pictures covering most of his own body. Ironically, here she was doing just that, without him.
“This will be my last,” Ruby says, more to herself than to Seth, as if realising it for the first time. No more bleeding. No more pain. Seth nods as if he already knew.
The tongue is taking shape now in a deeper shade like the stain of raspberries. Her arm throbs, more from holding it stiff for so long than for the countless needle jabs inflicted. She’s used to that. Ruby turns her head away and sees that Jim has finished his little job on the blonde office chick. She is standing at the mirror admiring the bright black bird at her wrist. Her smile says she is happy but there is sorrow in her eyes. Ruby feigns indifference and turns to avoid those eyes and a sorrow that is so familiar.
She fixes her mind on the pain and wills it to be louder, more unbearable, to drown out the noise of a sorrow that is her constant ugly companion. When Ruby told Trent she was pregnant, his response was icy. He leveled his eyes at hers and said, “I don’t want it,” showing his teeth with the same staccato of his name. Ruby was shocked and something inside told her to run, but her tears prompted Trent to sympathy and he circled her in his arms. The weeks and months after that day were a torment. Trent withdrew, jumped in his ute and went awol for weeks on end leaving Ruby with an unspoken ultimatum; Get rid of it, or you won’t see me again.
It wasn’t till 12 weeks that she worked up the resolve to go to the clinic. She didn’t let her mum in on the whole messy situation – Ruby knew her Catholic leanings would judge her. A friend came to the appointment; picked her up and took her home, made sure there was food in the fridge and that her number was on speed dial. She stayed in bed three days unable to move with the weight of knowing what had happened. Trent came back and at least showed some sympathy. He cleaned the house and ordered takeaway. But they drifted apart and in the space of three weeks it was like they hadn’t known each other.
Ruby thinks of that 12-week-old smattering of atoms expelled from her almost constantly. She wonders if it was a boy or a girl, what colour their eyes were, who they would have become. While her doctor assured her that the baby wasn’t alive in a sensory way, the guilt is blinding. Because that was the day when the scream caught in her throat and has been ringing in her ears with every heartbeat. A scream so shrill that pain is welcome relief.
Allira is walking towards the door when it swings open in front of her and a woman sweeps through, smiling as she does. The knees of her jeans are muddy and a cap is pushed into her back pocket. She smells of earth and sunshine and Allira sees that she is pregnant; a slight swelling above her pelvis, a subtle stretching of her singlet top. She flip-flops in her thongs to the counter where Jim is cleaning up.
“Hey,” he says.
Allira hovers at the door, fiddling with her phone.
“Hi,” the woman says, “I want to get a verse written around my ankle, here,” lifting the hem of her jeans, “Beauty for ashes”.
Ruby looks up, searching the tanned face of this woman who just described the unlikely transaction she yearned for. Her face is radiant yet plain, eyes luminescent as water. A Wiggles bandaid is wrapped around her right index finger and a leaf is marooned in her mass of brown curls. Unbidden, she continues.
“My husband and I were told we would never have children… eight long years…” She clears her throat and her hand – the Wiggles hand – absently rubs at the space beneath her belly button, “Is it safe to have a tat when you’re pregnant?”
Jim smiles, “Well, we don’t recommend it,” he says. “How far along are you?”
Seth takes the pen away to re-load ink and Ruby stands as if to stretch her legs, walking nearer to the counter. Allira puts her phone in her handbag and reaches for the door.