The Tattoo

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by Katie Young

It’s worse at night. The itching. It’s all I can focus on when the distractions of the day are over. Sleep is elusive and fitful. In the brief periods when I’m exhausted enough to drop off, I have nightmares about being covered with insects. I once read somewhere that tickling is used as a form of torture because it can destroy a person psychologically but leaves no marks on the skin. I never really believed those stories until now.

I have a mark too, of course. A tattoo.

After the funeral, once the public spectacle was over and hugs and cucumber sandwiches dried up, as the deliveries of cards and flowers dwindled and the thoughts and prayers dissipated, I began to feel you slipping away. The elastic days and shallow nights between your death and the ceremony had been a kind of limbo. There was a sense of dread, a strange, distant panic that eased the minute the curtains closed around your coffin. But with your body gone, I felt estranged from you.

I must have booked and cancelled the appointment four or five times. I had looked into having your ashes pressed into a diamond and set in a ring, but when I heard about memorial tattoos, I became obsessed with the idea of having you under my skin. It seemed more intimate. The ultimate gesture of everlasting love. Of course, my nerves got the better of me several times and I bottled it. The artist was kind and patient. She was a former circus acrobat with a reputation for pressing down hard with the needle to give crisp, clear lines that wouldn’t blur or fade over time. She offered me a tissue to dry my eyes as I handed over a tiny pouch of your ashes for her to mix with her inks. It hurt more than I imagined it would, but that seemed fitting.

I look down at the simple black design on the inside of my left arm; a sideways figure of eight. The infinity symbol. It’s been almost a year since it healed, but not a second goes by when I can’t feel the itch. The tattooist warned that this might happen, but no amount of creams or ointments or cold compresses seem to help. This isn’t normal.

My fingernails scratch and scratch over the slightly raised outline where the black ink is deepest. The pale skin turns beet red, tiny beads welling here and there. The old scabs have only just come off. This is the pattern: I scratch until I draw blood, let the wounds heal, and repeat.

I try to divert my attention away from the maddening sensation by remembering happier times. The weekend you surprised me with a trip to Brighton and we went skinny dipping and ate chips on the beach. The day I got a new job and you cooked fisherman’s pie to celebrate because it’s my favourite, even though you couldn’t stand the smell of seafood. It lingered in our small flat for days and I felt so guilty. The Friday nights we’d lie in bed and listen to music and drink wine and talk until it was light again. I never got bored of talking to you. Listening to you. You knew something about pretty much everything – or so it seemed to me. You were my entire world.

I look down at my arm to see the tattoo is now smeared rust red with blood. I’ve gouged longs furrows in my flesh. I’m dimly aware of the stinging, the exposed, raw meat, but still the itching overrides the other types of pain, and the fingers of my right hand keep reflexively scritch-scritch-scritching.

I remember the day I came home early to find you with her. It was nothing as dramatic as discovering you in bed together. Maybe that would have been better somehow. If I could have put it down to pure animal attraction. An impulsive fuck. But you were lounging on the sofa, her feet up on your lap in a way that suggested an easy familiarity, a deep affection that must have been fostered over a long, long time.

I tried to get the tattoo lasered off last month. The artist sounded a little concerned but reiterated it was normal for new ink to take a while to settle. Finally, after days of incessant pleading, she agreed to the treatment. It made no difference. After every session, the infinity symbol would fade for a few hours, then restore itself, darker and itchier than ever.

I tried a more drastic measure next. I bought a disposable scalpel from the local pharmacy and carefully excised the entire area. I cut as deep as I could bear. It took ages because I kept gagging and almost passing out, but once the flap of skin and ragged flesh was free, I wrapped it in newspaper and buried it in the outside bin.

I took several strong painkillers, weeping with relief and fell into a deep sleep. But sometime in the early hours, I thought I heard your voice in the bed next to me whispering,

“Wake up, babe. I’m back.” And when I opened my eyes, my arm was unscathed, and the tattoo remained, as if I’d dreamt the entire ordeal.

My jeans are soaked in blood now. My forearm is a pulpy mess. I’ve really done a number on it this time. I think I can see a glint of white in the slick ruin of red muscle and yellow fat, and I swallow down bile as I recognise it as bone. I stagger to my feet, my head spinning, and stumble into the kitchen. I pull open the drawers and find the meat cleaver. It’s Japanese Damascus steel. Heavy and sharp. You always loved to cook.

“What are you doing, you silly cow?”

Your voice is warm – that fond exasperation you used to save for when I had PMT and burst into tears at the slightest thing. I can almost feel your breath on the nape of my neck. It’s nothing like the desperate, shocked scream that ripped its way out of your throat as I shoved as hard as I could and watched you topple into the ravine. You’d always wanted to explore the Highlands. You were so surprised when I agreed to come hiking. You didn’t think I’d make it up to the summit. You poked my ribs and called me your pudgy little couch potato.

Your head hit a rock on the way down and burst like a ripe fruit.

I know some ink gets absorbed into the bloodstream, but maybe there’s still time. I didn’t think this through. Why did I have to choose an eternity symbol? I just wanted to keep you close. I didn’t think about the ritual. The magic of it. The implications of injecting you into me like a drug. I guess on some level I always knew you’d never let me give you up. You would never let me out unscathed. I place my left arm on the chopping board, brace myself, and bring the blade down hard and fast just below the elbow. I throw the severed limb into the sink, but I just have time to register it before I drown in TV static and silence. There in the empty space where the tattooed arm used to be. The itch. It’s back.

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