Ubi Sunt, by Nicola Belte
artwork by Kirsty Greenwood

Boo is shutting down for the night; putting the needle tubes in the autoclave; giving everything a final burst of disinfectant; checking his appointments for the morning, when he realises that somebody is in the shop. A boy, just turned eighteen, if that, looking queasy and nervous and holding a crumpled photocopy in his hand. ‘I want this,’ he mumbles, jolting forward and pushing the balled up paper into Boo’s hand. He taps his arm: ‘Here.’

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?’

 ‘Whatever, man.’

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 in London 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 manages, eventually.

‘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 shoulderthe 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, finally.

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 going. 

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 kidWait 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 jacket.

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 all. 

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 as empty.

‘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, honestly.

‘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, doyouevenknowwhatitmeans?’

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 chest, even.

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 the floor. 

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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