Someone I love has a tattoo on his upper arm that says 'Part II'. He had it done a few years ago, I guess he must have been in his mid to late thirties at the time. He said he had it to acknowledge the end of the first part of his life and mark the beginning of the second part. I like it a lot. I particularly like it because he is sartorially pulchritudinous (yes I did just use the word pulchritudinous), prone to tweed, and singularly elegant in Grenson brogues. And I don't think most people would suspect that beneath this dapper exterior he'd be sporting ink. Which is sexy whichever way you look at it. We were at Pride a few years ago and it was raining (God's punishment), his crisp white shirt got wet and the 'Part II' became visible through his sleeve. I remember thinking he'd never looked more handsome than in that moment, when the image you choose to project and the person you are come together in an unexpected way.
We had our first tattoos together. A gift for my thirtieth birthday. He made me go first to see how much it would hurt. I told him it was fine as I clamped my teeth down on my lolly. He is over six feet tall and has the physique of a man from the 1940's. Not these spindly modern tall boys you see. He cried, I didn't. He had the word 'Love' on his lower back and I had the word 'Words'. It was the only tattoo I would ever have. He suggested it and it seemed perfect. I love words. I love writing, I love books, I love stories. And y'know, just because.
The artist said they were addictive and I would probably want another one before long. I smiled knowingly at his ignorance.
I had my second tattoo a couple of years later. An L.P. Hartley quote at the base of my neck. The words reminded me of an uncle I loved very much who had passed away unexpectedly.
It just felt so right and two tattoos is hardly anything at all. I had read somewhere that people who have a lot of tattoos don't have a very strong sense of who they are. And when I see people with chinese symbols etched alongside celtic bands and framed by flying eagles I kind of see how that could be the case. But I also think it's bullshit. I've always loved tattoos. Maybe because my dad's arms were covered in them and he stood out from the other dads outside the school gate. He looked cool leaning on the bonnet of his racing green daimler sovereign in mirrored aviators smoking a cigar. He had navy tattoos, various animals and birds in that dark green you don't much see anymore. If you scratched them you'd smell sea salt and rum.
My third tattoo was quite a long quote, part of the speech Lucifer made to the fallen angels in Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. This one on the inside of my forearm. I called the aged family retainer to see what she thought.
'Is it facing out or facing you?'
'It's facing me.'
'Wonderful. Then you are reminding yourself of its truth, not bullshitting the world with an idea of who you might be.'
The artist told me I'd want one on the other forearm before long, you know, to even things up.
I rolled my eyes. Hey man, I'm not in to symmetry.
When I had my fourth tattoo I was drunk in a pub with my niece and the parlour was jussst opposite and it had been a shitty year and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
And it was a good idea. So on the inside of my right wrist it says 'This too shall pass.' Something the family retainer had said to me many times in conversation. When she first uttered those words I was about fifteen and thought it meant that all the bad times pass. As I got older I saw its levels and understood that it meant everything passes, good and bad, in a constant ebb and flow. I find it comforting. But I won't lie, it was a bit of a surprise when I woke up the next morning with a throbbing wrist wrapped in cellophane. Not least because whilst I knew I'd had something written on my wrist, I couldn't remember what it was and I knew Neil, the tattoo artist, was dyslexic.
So where are we up to? Oh yes, my fifth tattoo. I had been in Australia a few weeks and one of Kate's new songs was going round and round in my head. The lyrics were so lovely, so perfect, and they embodied everything I was feeling about this new chapter in my life. We were walking along Chapel Street in Melbourne looking for a coffee shop.
'I should really get those lyrics inked on soon,' I said.
Kate laughed and pointed to the shop we were stood outside: Chapel Street Tattoos.
Synchronicity. I walked in and the nice man said he could do it right away. Kate went oddly pale.
'You're having it done now?'
'On my other forearm.'
'I feel nervous.'
'It's fine Kate.'
'Shall I go get coffee?'
As soon as she left the shop the artist leant over conspiratorially;
'Is that Kate Miller Heidke?'
'I thought so.'
'She's much smaller than I thought she'd be in -'
'Could we focus on that needle mate?'
So I have the lyrics: 'A piece of morning sun, swallowed with a grin' in large letters up my right arm. It's quite curly and he did it freehand so in a certain light it looks like 'swallowed with a gun' which is a bit dark, or 'swallowed with a gnu' which is abstract at best. I love Kate and wanted to carry a little bit of her with me. But its also my version of the 'Part II' I think. Somewhere between the ages of 38 and 39 I found a well of happiness that I can draw on whenever I need it. I forget about it bit sometimes and gripe and moan but then I remember, or something I love causes me to remember and I grin. Bliss. Which incidentally is the name of the song that quote was taken from.
We're not allowed to have our tattoos on display at work. It's a 'nice' place so we take out our nose rings and wear our sleeves rolled down and buttoned up. But when it gets busy and hot and you're running around with plates, well, they get rolled up. Sometimes I see guests trying to read them surreptitiously, their heads bent at odd angles. They whisper to their companion as I'm walking away and I know for the most part they are wondering why someone so well spoken and educated would have something so common on their body. It's that kind of town. I like it when people ask outright. A very posh elderly couple did just that last week.
'I hope you don't mind dear but what does that say? It looks like...is it -
'Oh my! The thing about heaven and hell?'
'I love that bit! How very erudite.'
'Do you have others?'
'Can I see?'
I look across to the bar to find my manager laughing and shaking his head.
My sixth tattoo is a latin quote I found in a comic. I'm having it done next week along my collarbone. It's always been about the words for me, I'm not crazy about the idea of other peoples pictures on my body.
Until I saw this tree. It's gnarly and twisted like something from the forest of a fairytale and it would look marvellous with a single lantern hanging from its branches. In black obviously. I think it would look splendid if its roots started by my hip bone and it climbed up along the side of my torso, its outer branches resting on the back of my right shoulder. If you know of a good artist do please get in touch. And don't tell my mum. She once said that she liked my tattoos but worried that each one represented an emptiness in me that I was trying to fill. I don't disagree with her (I wouldn't fucking dare) but I think a lot of what we create in art and literature and music is an attempt to fill an emptiness, or at least give expression to something we find intangible.
Mind you, she also came out with the classic: 'What about when you're old? They'll look terrible.'
Who gives a shit? I'll be old and wrinkly. It'll give the handsome young carer something to read whilst he gives me my hourly bed bath.
I'm not turning out to be the person I thought I would be. And what on earth made me think I, or anyone for that matter, could be finite or finished or complete? As my Gran says; We're a work in progress until the very end. And I'm alright with it. I think its an awfully big adventure.