One of the most common questions writers are asked is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Usually, the answer is no more enlightening than ‘my head’. But sometimes you do remember the spark, even if the final story bears no resemblance to what inspired it. So it is with Louise’s Tattoos. It’s an old story, published in my anthology No Love is This way back in the day. It’s been on my mind a lot as it was inspired by a good friend of mine, and we are coming up to the 5th anniversary of death.
As is always the way with fiction, the inspiration morphs and distorts into something completely different. Cerwyss wasn’t much like Louise – Louise is more flaky, less focused, a little more self-centred (Cerwyss was frighteningly smart – she worked at Glasgow University’s ground-breaking historical thesaurus project – and she was also famously warm-hearted and considerate of others), and, unlike Louise, Cerwyss was actually married to the drummer (and had two gorgeous kids with him). But I like to think I captured her rock star charisma, the sheer glow of her personality, even if I buried it under the filter of another woman’s story. Anyway, if she was offended, Cerwyss never let on: she read the story, and said she liked it, so I think at least she took it in the spirit in which it was meant. Anyway, I decided to post it here in tribute. Hope you enjoy it.
You are so missed, shining girl.
Louise’s tattoos start just above her thumb, where the hand joins the wrist. From there, they climb elegantly up her arms, an intricate, abstract network of blue that ends just below the shoulder. She told me that part of the reason they are so extensive is to prevent her from ever being able to settle down and get an office job. Like much of what Louise says – like Louise herself – this is appealing, a little outrageous, and not quite the whole truth. She can and does cover them quite easily in a collection of long-sleeved tops; she just enjoys the myth of their visibility.
The first time I saw Louise she was on stage, far enough away so that I thought the tattoos were actually the sleeves of the black vest she was wearing. She plays bass in a band; a loud, thrashy band whose name is faintly embarrassing, the kind you see advertised on cheaply printed fly posters, a pub and a date scribbled at the bottom in black marker pen. I have no idea whether they are any good or not, though by now I have seen them play dozens of times. The small crowds they attract seem enthusiastic enough, but as they usually consist of friends of the group or other bands on the bill, currying favour for their own performance, it’s hard to tell whether that means anything. I wouldn’t expect them to be on Top of the Pops anytime soon, or cluttering the stage at the Brits, but they do manage the occasional, equivocal review in NME or Melody Maker. Equally, I have no idea whether Louise has any talent as a bassist, but I don’t think it matters. She looks so magnificent on stage that she could get away with playing an ironing board. Small, with boy-length blonde hair and a compact frame that seems dwarfed by her guitar, she stands sweating and swaying, a magnet for the eye that draws you away from her fellow band members – a gangly, loose limbed singer prone to throwing himself around the stage and a squat, unsmiling drummer.
I have no idea why she talked to me. I’ve never been brave enough to ask. Camouflaged by the dark of the club, I suppose I looked as inconspicuous as anyone, though I felt as though there was a neon sign above me flashing my discomfort. Perhaps she took my strained expression – the result of simultaneously thinking the music was far too loud and hating the fact that I felt like my mother for thinking that – as some cool aplomb. Whatever; the set finished, she bounded over to the bar where I was leaning (it being furthest away from the stage) and propped herself up on her elbows and breasts, on tiptoe in an effort to be seen.
“Christ! I’m gasping, do you mind?”
She reached across to the packet of Marlboro Lights in front of me, helping herself before I could answer. It was only after she had inhaled, caught the barman’s eye and ordered, that she turned to me, her dark eyes cool and appraising. It was then I realised her arms were bare, and the ‘sleeves’ I had seen from the distance were an elaborate pattern of ink. I recoiled, slightly, which only made her smile.
“What do you think?” she asked, inclining her head towards the stage.
“Very…loud,” I managed, and she laughed, throwing her head back and spraying me with a slight shower of her perspiration.
“I suppose that’s fair! I guess you’re not a regular here then?”
I nodded towards Michael, who was coming back from the toilets, though slowed by his need to stop and speak to everyone he bumped into on the way.
“My friend wanted to come.”
“Well, a bunch of us are going to the 13th Note after this, if you and your friend fancy it. If you can stand the noise, of course.”
She was making fun of me, but I didn’t mind. I felt so much like a fish out of water I didn’t expect anyone to do anything else.
“I’ll ask him,” I shrugged, but she was already turning away, uninterested in my answer, heading back to the band, who were assembled at a table by the stage in a mess of instruments and empties. Michael, finally returning, followed my gaze and shook his head, disapprovingly.
“Don’t even go there, Jen. She’s fucking the drummer.”
Even as I spluttered my denials, I could taste disappointment with the beer in my mouth.
Louise has a scar above her eyebrow where it used to be pierced, but she took the ring out when ‘every middle class student started getting them just to shock their parents’. The nose ring went too, though she has kept the thick hoop in her belly button; it’s no less of a cliché, but at least it is less obvious, and besides, she smiled at me, hardly anyone gets to see it. I asked her what she would do now middle class students get tattoos, but she laughed and said none of them could have her level of commitment.
Her hair is bleached white blonde, the dark roots growing back uncontested. She used to have a shaved head, then, when her hair started to grow in, she dyed it a variety of colours to suit her mood. Now she’s been told by her hairdresser if she doesn’t stop it will start to fall out, so she consoles herself with rinses and a selection of magic marker pens. She used to work as an extra on film and TV, called in when a director wanted someone to look rough in the background or add a touch of ‘street life’ to a scene. She told me she has been in ‘Taggart’ on TV and even in ‘Trainspotting’, though I’ve now watched it 3 times and still haven’t seen her. She still gets the occasional call, and has had her picture in a tattoo magazine; Louise, half-naked and in colour, proudly showing off those arms and the sunburst that frames her navel. Louise loves her stomach. She calls it ‘belly’ and is proud of its roundness. She puts a hand on it, tenderly, as she walks naked around the flat, and I have taken to stroking it like a pet as we lie together watching TV, or when she is engrossed in one of the Playstation games she finds so compelling. It has the firm curve of early pregnancy, though it nurtures nothing more fertile than Louise’s lager habit.
I knew most of this the first night I met her. Michael, although adamant I had no chance with Louise (while I was equally adamant I didn’t care), could no more turn down an invitation to a party than he could sprout wings and fly there, so we ended up at the club and I found myself once again leaning on the bar while Michael carried on his campaign to talk to everyone in the Western world. I felt odd, bad tempered but highly strung, like the onset of a particularly grim bout of PMT, but I put it down to tiredness and tried to ignore it. And once again I ended up talking to Louise.
Talking to Louise was easy. She bombarded me with so much information that I felt I could tell her anything, it wouldn’t matter because she would lose it in the torrent of facts she supplied about herself. It never occurred to me to think of her as self-obsessed because even the most mundane trivia enthralled me; she could have told me about her shoe size and I would have hung on her words. She waved her hands around when she talked, the lit cigarette hardly ever reaching her lips, and I had my first taste of what I later discovered was almost cartoon-like clumsiness when she knocked her drink over someone at the bar, much to our amusement, if not his. Her face got closer to mine even as our voices got louder, and though we were only inches apart I was as surprised as I was delighted when she leaned into me and asked, “Can I come home with you tonight?”
Louise’s body is a shrine I never get tired of worshipping. Her arms, lean and muscled from her bass playing, are atypical of the rest of her, which despite her compact size is a joy of roundness and curves. The first time I saw her naked, nervousness blurred my vision. The stomach ring and the tattoos made me worry that she might be hiding other, more intimate piercings, and my squareness reasserted itself as timidity until she moved my hand to reassure me that she was pure, uncluttered softness. It was only later, as we dozed, her hand still cupped proprietarily over my breast, that I had time to marvel at her, the smooth, sharp line of her shoulders, the pale marble of her skin. I was in awe, and I was afraid, searching for imperfections that would ground her in reality lest she prove herself a vision and I woke up with empty arms.
Louise wakes me early in the morning, disturbed by dreams that rival films in the complexity of plot and detail that she relates to my back as I try to stay awake. (“The whole point of having a girlfriend is to have someone to tell your dreams to,” she said to me, “No one else has to listen.”) I try not to remind her that I have to get up for work, while her job commitments – two afternoons a week in a vegetarian café, two nights in a pub where the band often play – are a lot more flexible.
“Jen,” I can feel her voice as much as I can hear it, nuzzled into my back. “What’s your darkest secret?”
“What? I don’t know.”
“Go on, you must have one.”
I don’t want to play this game. I am scared that Louise will reveal some hideous tale of sexual or criminal misadventure I will never be able to forget. Or compete with.
Besides, I am half-asleep, not in the mood to start dredging through my memory for my worst moments.
“I really don’t know, Lou.”
“Do you want to hear mine?”
I mumble an answer that she interprets as a yes. She is quiet for a moment, and my heart sinks within me.
“If I laugh really hard I sometimes wet myself.”
I turn around, laughing, “What?” And then I tickle her so hard that she cries and I prove that she was telling the truth.
I trace the patterns on Louise’s arms as she sleeps. I try to imagine her having them done, the kinetic Louise forced to stay still as a needle is dragged across her skin, and afterwards the scabbing and the discomfort. She told me it took hours and cost her hundreds of pounds, and I wonder how someone whose finances are always so perilous ever afforded them. I love her tattoos, but they are a constant reminder that even naked we are not equal. Wrapped around me, two blue and ivory arms, they remind me of her experience, the difference of her life. I feel content, in her arms, but I also feel dull. My life is reasonable enough; a job teaching English lit. to undergraduates barely ten years younger than myself, the rent on a decent flat, one holiday a year with a weekend away as well if I’m careful. But Louise seems to live in short bursts of energy and excitement, and though the difference in our ages is measured in months rather than years, I feel old and staid beside her.
I spend my days and our nights in a panic that I will lose her. I watch her, on stage, her face pink with exertion and creased in concentration and I cannot understand why the whole world doesn’t want to steal her. Is it because society casts such aspersions on our sexuality, branding it a phase, a perversion, a media-inspired affectation, that I even doubt that? I watch her with the band and I envy their camaraderie, their joking insults and easy embraces. It is a long running joke that everyone thinks she is, as Michael put it, ‘fucking the drummer’. Has she? Would she like to? I’m scared to ask her such questions, afraid she might not lie. Their occasional talk of a possible record contract terrifies me. I am haunted by the spectre of their unlikely success, because that would surely lure her away from me, so I am disgusted to find myself praying that her dreams will never come true.
“Do you think I should get a tattoo?” I ask, damp from the shower, looking at myself in the mirror. Louise puts her arms around me from behind, and peers round me at her own reflection.
“It would look great. Do you want one?”
“I just think…” I shrug, uncomfortable with her scrutiny. “It might brighten me up a bit.”
“Baby, I don’t think you need anything to brighten you up.” She kisses me lightly and goes back to her computer game, leaving the mirror darker by her absence.
The tattoo studio looks like I expect it to. Crudely drawn pictures of anatomically improbable women adorn the walls, next to football logos and flaming skulls, Chinese lettering and Celtic symbols, with hand-written signs banning smoking, eating and dogs. It is the customers who surprise me; two young women giggling over a magazine share a bench with a student and his girlfriend, though the two cropped haired, muscled but with beer bellies men conform more to my uninformed stereotype, the blue lines of previous work creeping out from their short sleeves. I try to ignore the noise coming from the studio and flick through a book of designs, but every block of ink just reminds me of how many stabs of the needle they would take to create, and it is with a churning stomach I wait to hear my name.
I’m called in by a dark-haired man whose lean arms are patterned with heavy slabs of colour. I wonder if this is the man who tattooed Louise, if it was he that has spent more time on my lover’s body than even I, in my adoration, have yet managed.
I hand him my small flower design with a shaking hand and he looks at me kindly.
“Have you had a tattoo before?”
I can barely force out the ‘no’, and try to focus as he talks me through the procedure with well-practised words. I nod, blankly, but cannot take my eyes off the needle gun in his hand. He wipes my arm and I feel him outline the drawing on my skin. Then the needle pierces my flesh and all of the colour drains from my world.
They are nice enough. They fetch me a glass of water and tell me it happens a lot, that even men have fainted, but I am humiliated beyond belief. I cannot even manage this tiny thing! How much stronger is Louise than I?
Later, she asks me what is wrong but laughs when I tell her, until I start to cry and then she puts her arms around me.
“I didn’t think you actually wanted a tattoo, hon.”
How do I tell her that sometimes her life seems so alien to me that I was seeking just one point of contact? I thought similar markings might tie us together.
“That reminds me, though – I got you a present.” She digs in her bag and pulls out a carrier bag, dropping it in my lap.
“It’s pens!” she trills, typically Louise, unable to keep a secret even for the time it takes to open a bag.
“Body art pens. You use them to put on fake tattoos.”
“So this is my consolation for being too wimpy for the real thing?” I scowl, looking for the joke or the insult in her face, then feeling bad when all I find are hurt feelings.
“I just thought they’d be fun.”
“But it isn’t the same as yours…” I protest, and Louise takes my hand from the bag and kisses it.
“But I don’t want you to be the same as me, Jen. I want you to be you. Where’s the fun, otherwise?”
She grabs back her present with the eagerness of a child.
“Come on, let’s try them out.”
Louise strips me naked and positions me in front of the mirror, despite my embarrassed protestations. Her face set in an odd combination of mischief and concentration, she sets about her work, tracing stencils onto my skin, adding her own broad strokes of art. The minutes tick away and I see myself slowly transformed, her patterns creeping up my arms and across my breasts, down my stomach and over my thighs. I watch Louise, intent on her work, not noticing my gaze. Unguarded, her eyes have an expression I have often seen there but never recognised before. It is the same way I look at her. Stripped of its disguises and filters – of humour, of desire, of anger – it is love.
“What do you think?” Louise rocks back on her heels, smiling up at me. She clambers to her feet and moves aside, letting me examine my new appearance in the mirror.
“I like it. I think it’s beautiful.”
“No, you’re beautiful. It just makes you look beautiful in a different way.”
She takes my face in her hands and kisses me, and we stumble together in clumsy passion, and for once I allow myself to relax completely in her arms. My temporary colours blur her more permanent stains as laughing, entangled, we fall to the floor.
This story was first published in No Love is This (pub. Kennedy & Boyd).
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Rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues
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