Boo smoothes the paper out on the counter,
feeling irritated. Maybe it’s the boy’s skinny legs in his too tight jeans,
slung down low so you can see his boxer shorts. Maybe it’s his silly
haircut, bleached and backcombed and streaked with pink. Or maybe it’s just his
lack of manners. Boo isn’t sure. He’s probably just tired. The
receptionist had called in sick, again, and amidst finishing up a huge Japanese
back-piece for one of his regulars, he’d had to deal with the usual parade of
young kids, all after exactly the same tattoo as their footie hero, or
favourite rapper, the same ones he’d done a million times before.
Plus his back is killing. I’m getting too old to be hunched over all
day, he thinks. His work is crippling him; pains in his neck, pains in
his wrists; he’d already been prescribed glasses. He’d look a treat at the
next biker rally wearing those under his helmet, that’s for sure. But, if it
meant doing what he loved, it was worth it. Or what he used to love.
‘The statue of liberty,’ he says to the boy, stating the
obvious. The copy is blurry, crinkled, the features of the lady
barely visible. The boy doesn’t speak.
‘Well, it will make a great tattoo,’ Boo
says, stroking his beard, ‘Any ideas about colour? Black and Grey? Size?’
The following week, the boy arrives for
his appointment. He stands in the doorway of the shop, as if scared
to come inside. Boo had forgotten all about him; what with the big tattoo expo
looming, and the hunt to find a new apprentice underway, and he fights the wave
of annoyance that the boy’s presence provokes, waving him in.
‘First tattoo?’ Boo asks, taking a
disposable razor from his stash and running it over the boy’s pale arm. I’ll
bet he doesn’t even shave yet. The boy nods, and Boo notices his eyes for
the first time; unnervingly pale, with an engorged pupil that has seemingly
eaten all the colour surrounding it. They snap shut as Boo applies the stencil,
and Boo watches his eyelids flicker. Is he a puker, or a fainter? No.
He’s fine. Boo can spot them a mile away. He knows that just the buzzing
of the machine and the smell of disinfectant is enough to set some people off;
and he’d normally joke with the lads: tell them about that barrister who wanted
his nipples inked black; tell them that he’s the worst tattooist in town; that
they’ll be in agony, that they should be afraid. All to reassure, them,
mind. He’d tell the girls that they’re tougher than the men; that
they’re brave to be having such a large piece, that’ll he try not to hurt them,
unless they’re kinky and into that sort of thing, and if they are then can he
have their phone number, please? But today, he can’t think of anything to
say. At all. The words move around his mouth, like tasteless chewing
gum that he can’t bring himself to spit out. Or swallow. ‘Don’t be nervous,’ he
‘I’m not,’ the boy says. He flinches as
Boo starts, and clenches his teeth.
‘Ok?’ Boo asks, pausing on the robes at
the foot of the statue.
The boy nods, eyes still closed, his
hair, hanging loose today, falling over his face. As Boo heads up, outlining
the torch, and beginning to move over onto the shoulder, the boy
begins to softly moan. Boo sprays his arm with soapy water, and wipes off the
excess ink. ‘It’s always uncomfortable on bone,’ he says, ‘especially bony
bones. You need to fatten yourself up, lad.’ The boy doesn’t reply, but his
mouth is open, and Boo can see saliva glistening on his lips.
‘Go on,’ the boy murmurs.
Boo continues, and the boy’s cries get
louder, start to become embarrassing, indecent, almost. Is this dirty
bastard getting off? Boo thinks, looking at the boy’s crotch. He
wouldn’t be the first.
The boy’s fists are clenched at his
sides, his eyes screwed up with pain, or pleasure, his breath coming in shallow
gasps. Boo skids his chair back, almost dropping his needle. He knows he’s
popping this kid’s tattoo cherry, but this, this feels like
he’s truly fucking a virgin. It feels dirty, wrong, more than that, profane.
And Boo’s never found anything profane in his life. ‘Oi, mate, you
ok?’ he says, tapping the boy’s leg with his foot.
The boy’s eyes open. ‘Carry on,’ he
says, his voice hoarse.
Boo doesn’t want to, but he can hardly
leave him half finished, can he? He rotates his wrists, and tries to shake his
peculiar thoughts away, busying himself by switching to the shading needle. He
starts again, and thankfully, the boy stops groaning. Boo rushes through,
head down, back aching, until finally, the tattoo is complete.
The boy peels himself out of the chair,
looking shaken and pale. He stumbles to the long mirror, and stares at his
reflection for a long time, like he’s trying to work himself out. A
smile plays on the corner of his lips. ‘Cool,’ he says.
Boo feels exhausted as he
leaves. He cancels his last customer, and spends the rest of the
afternoon washing and re-washing his hands.
The boy comes back a week later, and
Boo’s heart jolts when he sees him hovering on the street outside, peering in. Caffeine,
he tells himself, too much of it. That’s all.
It’s raining, and cold, and he can see
that the boy’s wearing only a vest; keen, like most of the newly-tattooed, to
show off his new skin acquisition. Boo normally loves to see his work on
display; takes pride in the pride that he’s given his clients, but the water
running down the boy’s blank face, his folded goose-bumped arms, and the dirty,
white vest clinging to the boy’s ribs makes him feel nothing but sick. But he
calls him in. He can’t leave him out there. He’ll see what he wants, and
hopefully get rid of him.
The boy enters silently, and slides a
picture of a crucifix across the counter. He taps on his opposite arm, but
underneath, moving down from the armpit.
‘Another, already?’ Boo asks, feeling his
heart begin to rev up. Jesus Christ Boo, chill out. He takes a
deep breath. Boo can see that the other tattoo has already healed,
perfectly. ‘No scabbing, nothing?’ he asks, inclining his head, strangely
reluctant to touch the boy’s skin at all. The boy shakes his head. Boo
turns his attention back to the picture. ‘Religious, are you?’ Boo asks. Ars
gratia artis and all that was fine by him, usually. Maybe he’s
just etched out too many kid’s names onto the arms of dads who never see
them. Maybe he’s done too many cover-ups over lover’s portraits; too many
angels on the skin of scum.
The boy looks puzzled, like he’s been
asked something in another language.
‘It’ll look awesome, man,’ he says,
He sits playing with his phone as Boo
sets up, one of those new snazzy gadgets with all sorts on, no doubt. The boy
holds it up, and it clicks, taking a picture.
‘Hope you got my best angle,’ Boo says,
unfamiliar anger rising, ‘now put it away, and lie down.’ The boy obeys, lying
flat on the bed, his arms stretched up submissively above his head. Boo
pushes the one to be tattooed down, firmly. Much firmer than
necessary. ‘Ready?’ he asks, gruffly. The boy nods, already flinching and
clenching and looking like he’s about to burst into tears before Boo’s even got
The groaning starts as soon as the needle
meets his skin. It makes Boo’s flesh crawl, makes him want to slap the boy
around the face. He’s sees the boy’s nose smashed beneath his knuckles, and the
image startles him. Despite being twenty stone and looking like a “brick
shit-house”, he’s placid, gentle, doesn‘t get upset, doesn’t get riled. Well,
never used to. ‘Wouldn’t say boo to a goose,’ his mum used to say, usually to
comfort one of her trembling old biddies when her hulking leather-clad son
interrupted their coffee mornings. He inhales, tells himself to get a grip, to
stop being silly. The poor boy is in pain. Tattoos hurt. It’s
nothing seedy, or bad, and certainly nothing personal.
Boo turns the radio up; pulls the boy’s
flesh tight, and within two hours, a personal best, he’s done.
As the boy gazes at himself in the
mirror, Boo finds that his hands are trembling. Big Boo the biker,
acting all weird around a little poncey kid. Wait until later when
your mates at The Duck hear about it, they’ll piss themselves laughing. But
he’ll never tell them, of course, where would he start? You’re losing
it mate, what‘s the matter with you? he thinks, and the thought goes
around and around like a bike hurtling across the Wall of Death inside his
skull, defying all reason.
No blood. That’s it! The boy doesn’t
bleed! Boo spins around on his chair and looks at the tissues in the bin. White,
and crumpled, and smeared with black ink, but no blood, at all. He feels like
throwing the dirty tissues up in the air, like a lottery winner. He smiles, and
exhales happily. He’s found an explanation for his feelings. His
explanation doesn’t make any sense, at all, he knows, but neither does getting
spooked by a teenager, so it’ll do. Better than nothing.
The following morning, as Boo pulls up on
his motorbike, the boy is waiting. Boo feels nothing short of dread. The boy is
like some mangy stray that he can’t get rid of. Come on, come on,
he tells himself. He steps down onto the pavement, and takes off his
helmet, grateful for the cool air on his face. The boy stares at him
expressionlessly, then takes another folded piece of paper from his pocket: a
big number 13, in the centre of an ace of spades. The boy taps his neck.
Now, Boo has rules. Despite the
acceptability and popularity of tattoos these days: no necks, no faces, and no hands. He
may tweak his policy for his biker mates, or other tattooists, or those already
covered or who don’t have to worry about smiling nicely behind the counter of a
bank all day, but other than that, it’s no. No. No exception.
‘A popular design, it’ll look great.’ Boo
hears himself say as he unlocks the studio. He feels like the words aren’t
coming from him at all. Like somebody’s pulling back his ears and pulling
his jaw down by the beard and making him speak. He doesn’t want to do this
tattoo at all, anywhere. He just wants this boy to go away. For good.
But he knows, somehow, that this boy won’t leave until he gets what he
wants. ‘Take a seat and I’ll cut the stencil,’ he says, hanging up his
The boy sits in the chair, watching,
silently. Boo should be pleased with the quiet, but he isn’t. Most people treat
the chair like a place for confession, and he’s heard it all, this priest in
denim, and more. He’s nodded along and offered advice and condolences, even
when he couldn’t care less. Plus Boo isn’t really one for small talk. He’s
learnt to be, for the sake of his job; but he is happiest out on the road,
alone, rushing through the country with the wind in his ears and his mouth
firmly shut. That’s what you need Boo, a holiday, it’s long-overdue, he
thinks, distributing the ink into tiny pots, and glancing sideways at the
boy. Say something, dammit. Boo knows that this kid’s quiet
because he’s got nothing to say, absolutely nothing, and for
some reason, this bothers him more than he knows why. Over-worked,
that’s it, Boo. Take that holiday.
Boo leans over the boy’s neck. He doesn’t
smell, Boo notices, at all, and the thought unnerves him so much that he
smudges the stencil, and has to reapply, and start again. Would you
rather he stank? Boo thinks, picking up the needle and remembering
some of his less-than-hygienic clients, now you really are being
ridiculous. He starts, and as feared, the boy’s lips tremble and the
moaning begins, but more guttural this time, more intense, like Boo’s picking
and chipping his way to the boy’s very core. He sounds like he’s sobbing; looks
like he is, but Boo can see that his eyes are quite dry. Boo feels himself
starting to sweat, but still, he keeps pressing down on the peddle, keeps the
machine going, finishing the numbers, filling in the black, wiping his brow on
his arm as his eyes begin to sting, feeling dizzy and sick. He finishes and
rushes to the toilet, where he heaves and heaves, clutching at the wall. Those
bloody burgers, he thinks, splashing his face with cold water, that’s
why I feel so odd. Mary said they’d kill me, and they will.
When he comes back, the boy’s still
there. His neck is covered in clingfilm, and ink is smeared across it,
like his throat’s been cut and is oozing thick, black blood.
‘Another,’ he says.
‘Another?’ Boo repeats, ‘Now? Now? No,
No way.’ He’s seen these kids before, racing to get covered, not a rite of
passage anymore, nothing means a thing, just image after image, competitive
almost, let’s see who can have the most, in the shortest time
possible. Meaningless; or worse. Pretending. Pretending that
everything means something, when it doesn’t. When it means nothing at
Boo looks at his forearms. His skin
to ink ration was unusually balanced for a tattooist: Dad, in a heart, for his
father, done when his dad passed away when Boo was nineteen; a cartoon crest, a
faux biker’s badge that he and his friends had inked when the hostility between
rival gangs was getting ridiculous; the artwork of his favourite album when he
was a teenager. Stuff with meaning, real meaning, he thinks. Or thought. Maybe
not. Maybe everything means nothing. Maybe he is just like this kid, just
‘I’m busy, you’ll have to make an
appointment,’ Boo says, feeling his stomach flip over.
‘No, I asked the receptionist, your next
client’s cancelled, his dog’s ill… or something.’ A shadow of a smirk crosses
the boys face.
‘Well I don’t feel well,’ Boo says,
‘It’ll be my last,’ the boy says, ‘I
promise. Then I’ll go away. For good.’
Boo nods. Or something makes his
head move up and down.
‘This,’ the boy says, holding his mobile
phone millimetres from Boo’s face. He points at his chest: ‘Here.’
Boo cranes his head back, so he can make
out the letters. ‘Ubi sunt?’ he babbles, his throat raw, ‘Latin, I presume,
The boy shrugs, making Boo feel stupid
for even asking.
The boy takes off his top, his hipbones
poking out above his trousers, his stomach concave, his pink nipples poking
out, his paleness magnified by the neon lights in the shop. He slides into
the seat that’s still warm. Boo pulls on his gloves. You can do
this. Do it quick. Get it done. And tonight you can go see
Mary. You can lie in her arms and forget all about this kid, forever.
Boo outlines the “U”, and feels himself
digging the needle in harder, and harder. He pulls back, and takes a deep
breath. What are you doing, Boo? get it together. He moves in
again, and after a few seconds, feels himself pushing harder, applying yet more
pressure; like he’s trying to penetrate the boy, determined to draw
blood. Nothing. The boy bleats, once, and shivers, but he doesn’t
move. Boo sits back and shakes his head. The shop is swimming around
him. Stop, you’re going to hurt him, going to wreck his tattoo, his
He starts on the “B”, even harder than
before. The boy’s white skin is black, the excess ink running down his
arms, collecting in nosebleed droplets on the white, tiled floor. Boo
works an inch from the boy’s chest, hair sticking to his forehead, face
scrunched up in concentration. Everybody must bleed, dammit, he
thinks. Just give me one drop, one fucking drop, and I’ll back off, I
swear. Boo feels like he’s only working on the surface, his brush
merely flicking across the oily exterior of an impenetrable porcelain vase, one
that’s resisting his art, yet demanding it, one that he wants to smash across
By the time he reaches the “t” Boo is
practically stabbing the boy’s chest. He feels like some sadistic
scratcher in a jail, pumping Indian ink into some poor first-time shoplifter’s
skin –‘M.I.N.E’ – before beating and raping him in the shower. He’s the big,
burly lifer, a big living ‘Boo!’ in boots, but this kid’s been fucking asking
for it. His skin sucks in the ink, his pores like tiny gaping mouths, cunts,
always hungry, needing filling. He’s nothing without this. He fucking needs it.
The lines are wobbly, terrible, an
embarrassment. The ink is blurred, and what should be a grand, medieval font now
looks like a child’s scrawl. Boo is trembling, pouring with sweat, he can
smell himself, animalistic, inhuman, he feels like he wants to cry.
‘I’m sorry,’ he apologises, again and
again, ‘I’ll neaten it, I swear, I must be ill. I am ill.’
The boy doesn’t care. He looks
sated, euphoric, like he’s just achieved something, just tossed a load over
some young girl’s face. His eyes gleam, and he smiles when he looks at himself
in the mirror, as if he’s really there, for the first time ever, like he’s
transformed nothing into something. He picks his t-shirt up off the floor,
and stretches it around the neck before he puts it on, so his new tattoo will
show. The sound of seams ripping splits through Boo’s skull. ‘Well, let me
cover it,’ Boo says, dropping his roll of wrap, clutching for the boy. ‘It’ll
stick to your top, won’t heal, it’ll hurt.’ He feels like a mother at the
school gates, making sure her kid’s got his sandwiches. He imagines lying
on his chest, running his rough fingers around the lettering, making it better,
making it mean something. It needs to mean something.
The boy looks at Boo disdainfully. ‘It’s
cool, chill out, man,’ he says, smoothing down his top. ‘See you tomorrow.’
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