Monthly Archives: May 2013

NOTE TO SELF

Week 6
Welcome to my life tattoo.  We belong together, me and you
The Who

One in five of the UK population has got ink.  Today the inside of my right wrist comes under Pedro’s steady hand and my life as one of the four in five comes to an end.  I’m joining the tattooed ranks of the twenty percent.

Why cross the line now, after 42 years, I ask myself, even as the leather curtains are held open and I cross the threshold from magazined waiting room to worn leather chair?  The short answer is of course my son, but still and all why brand myself?  Why now a mark of permanence on transient flesh unblemished over five decades by anything save an operation scar, long unwelcome years of acne, sundry surface wounds and a steady succession of shaving cuts?  A reminder, a note to self?  To stake a claim, make a label, write a legend?

I can honestly report that nothing short of the coming of the first born could ever have propelled me from pavement to parlour.  Thankfully no ill starred old school tribute to Leo’s mother, lest I now be seeking redress by laser.  Five solid stars evenly spaced along the inside length of the forearm – an enduring tribute to Liverpool Football Club’s glorious nights in Europe?  Well, I came close.  A nice idea, but forever to remain just that.

Pedro prepares the stencil as I recline, casting my eyes about the walls in the private air of the clients-only back room.  I savour for a brief moment the faintest frisson of excitement – for proudly embellished though legions of us are, the whole carry on still spells anarchy and subversion to some small, buttoned up, conservative partition in my soul.

Stuff and nonsense, of course – it’s not as if one has to break a taboo to get a tattoo.  What was once at best back-street DIY deviance now enjoys new found and hard earned respect as an art form – whether that’s a blessing or a curse for tatooist and tattooee depends on your point of view.  In any case tattoos (and in some cases the flesh they embellish) can now be viewed in galleries and museums and even bought and sold on the collector’s market, and have long since transgressed any class or social boundaries – if indeed such confines ever existed.

The late 19th century saw the aristocracy bare considerable stretches of flesh to the needle.  George V and Tsar-to-be Nicholas II were both inked on their travels in Japan; George simply following in the footsteps of his father Edward II, whose chest was adorned with a Jerusalem cross.  We’d surely be disappointed to learn Prince Harry was tattoo-free, though it would appear the Prime Minister’s wife is not unadorned.  Whether or not Churchill’s mother got ink is sadly not established; it seems it may after all the stuff of urban myth that the nation’s saviour’s old mum had a snake applied to wrist.

Today’s tattooed aristocracy largely kick a ball for a living and are probably worth more money.  Premiership footballers now carry the flame, in some cases literally, and are now positioned as the prime canvasses for the cream of global tattoo talent, whether practitioners of neo-tribal or old school.  So on a planet so heavily saturated with inked midfielders, an inch or two of pigment across my inner wrist seems barely a footnote.

As the single father of a child barely into the second month of his life perhaps this is, after all, mere gesture – no more than a note to self.  Life as a dad thus far has been life in a bubble, just me and Leo and little or no scope for the joyous intimacy of sharing – those rights appear to be reserved for a fourth party.  Without a partner I’m without an audience, without a sounding board, without someone to oooh with and aaah with.  So the impulse to record is urgent, almost as if proof were needed.  Just as I reach for the iPhone to snap him and snap me with him, just as I reach for the pen and the diary, so too I reach for the needle to score the event on the parchment of my own skin – look, this is happening – it’s real and here’s the record for posterity.

I can find no deeper impulse, no primal directive, as I observe the work unfold at a right angle to the translucent green lattice of veins visible just beneath my tautened skin.  Looking on with the detached interest of a patient viewing his own operation under local anaesthetic, I’m almost disappointed to note the absence of pain, as if I’d hoped that my branding might be paid for with more than just the fold of notes wedged tight in the front pocket of my jeans.

I ride off, inscription tingling beneath its cling film wrap, my thanks ringing in their ears and their careful instructions for after-care ringing in mine.  To the chemist then, for the Bepanthen that will conveniently sooth both inflammation of newly etched tissue and newborn bottom afflicted with nappy rash.

Clarity comes with metronomic pedalling back to base through summer evening tailbacks.  Perhaps a primitive call has been answered here after all, writ neat in black ink.  Sailors tattooed their journeys and stories, logging ports of call, documenting conquests and sweethearts just as any child might mark its own skin given a biro – show and tell.

I too came under the tip of the biro time and again, a biro held gingerly between thumb and forefinger of a lover.  Those dedications doodled in bed became faded epitaphs in the next shower.  But £50 has bought me an indelible affirmation – my body now a contract, signed for life.

And this newly acquired distinguishing feature, that will be here ’til I die, is a new and enduring story, a legend in three letters presented in Signerica font and bordered by two straight horizontal lines.  In black ink, all I believe in, my heart and my life.

Leo –

HOME ALONE

Second Month

Thirty-four days and thirty three nights along the way and a small milestone passed by the roadside – Leo and I, home alone.  Another first in a time of firsts, a lone landmark of no small note for now though doubtless to be supplanted in time by a forest thick with first-time memories.  Ellie is Sundaying in the general area – precise location undisclosed – and won’t range beyond a thirty minute radius of a panic button I have no intention of pressing.

We amble downhill to the high street in the warm welcome glow of an Indian summer’s sun, Leo bobbing head-to-chest beneath his white muslin like a cartoon ghost.  He takes the siesta option, leaving me to mosey around undisturbed as I gather together the ingredients for a bachelor supper before sauntering back to the flat formerly known as ‘home’.  And that, as they say, is where my troubles began…

Halfway uphill he rouses, hunger his alarm call.  I know that only a bottle of expressed milk will dampen the slow-burning volcano of anguish that’s strapped to my breast, and I know that bottle lies on a kitchen counter-top long minutes from here.  I may look the picture of modern metrosexual fatherhood on an afternoon jaunt as I flip-flop uphill with eight pounds worth of prize accessory strapped into the carrier and a few more pounds besides of veg poking out the top of the tote bag, but my pulse rate is going through 0-60 in seconds as Leo’s crying gives way to screaming.  I’m pounding concrete now, flashing the well-rehearsed toothless ah-the-joys-of-fatherhood-eh? smile to passers-by, staving off the demon panic all the while.

We’re locked together in a downward spiral, hurtling earthwards as I fumble for the ripcord of a parachute that isn’t there.  My chocolate smooth patter of reassurance has melted into futile gibbering fuelled by the frictionless acceleration of the knotted muscle punching out from my chest.  We hit the hot gravel of the garden path, home and I’m speaking in tongues.  He’s feeding off my fear when he should be feeding on her milk as we burst out of the sunshine and through the doorway into the cool shade of the kitchen and the grail of the prepped bottle.

Bottle duly applied to mouth and with the injustice of his hunger easing and my fear and loathing receding, a fragile equilibrium is restored.  And then shattered.

As phase one of feeding ends we regroup, readjust and settle in for phase two, only for any fragmentary illusion of peace to be splintered again by the soft clip of the clasp of my watch against the tender nape of his neck.  This volcano is no longer dormant, Leo refuses the bottle and I’m sent hurtling back into new territory, the two of us careering to the point of no return.  To use the time-worn parental jargon, this is meltdown…

We’re the only two people on the planet now, locked together in the reactor core, seconds dissolving into minutes.  Fatigue and hunger crash together like matter and anti-matter, and the fabric of Leo’s universe rent asunder – unable to feed, unable to sleep and beyond consolation.  In the vice of my arms he thrashes and flails, writhing in spastic stop-motion like a Harryhausen animatronic, the two of us dancing out a choreography of catastrophe.

Nothing save his own exhaustion will bring this runaway train of distress to a halt, and it’s a small miracle to be twenty minutes in before I reach for the phone.  Tempted momentarily to dial the emergency services, I hail Ellie instead and push the panic button down.  Hard.  She’s a thick chunk of minutes away, minutes that drag like long months as she races home distraught.

With Ellie in the building and some semblance of harmony restored, I beat a hasty retreat to the shade of the decking and sit trembling on the garden bench – gooseberry in my own family, blinded by tears and the misery of abject failure, terrorised by his torment – my inability to alleviate it, and my contribution to it.

A cuckolded dad playing out time in the garden of his old life, unable for one single moment to see the commonplace in an episode of no unmanageable consequence.  Within minutes Leo is back in my embrace, full of the milk of maternal kindness and all the chemical comforts it brings, dry-eyed and wide-eyed, face open as if to say ‘what?’, and a smile to erase any shadow of memory.  As if nothing ever happened…

I READ THE NEWS TODAY…

Week 4, day, night?

It’s the mother of all before-and-after experiences, a tectonic shift inside and out that sidesteps all anticipation and eludes all explanation.  And that’s just from a parent’s point of view.  For the newborn it can barely be guessed at.  Born of the world and into the world, rent from the soft and muffled darkness of amniotic slumber, from darkness into light.  A before-and-after trip never to be remembered, and most likely for very good reasons.

Each day delivers kaleidoscopic shifts in perspective now and, living in the neutral zone of a non-relationship with no outlet save my smart phone’s notepad and the sanctuary of the diary, emotions eddy endlessly as the ground pitches and rolls beneath my feet.

A baby’s cry, once someone else’s problem, mere noise pollution – distraction from a book on a bus or the sound of a checkout queue that’s lasted too long – is now my baby’s cry.  It’s Leo’s, it’s distinctive, uniquely his, somehow always known to me, and coded for my response.  It resonates at a cellular level, molecular vibrations turn my entire body into an ear.  And I never imagined for so much as a second that it would not be his crying that would be intolerable, but rather his suffering, the pure anguish and injustice of needs unfulfilled.  And now the cry of any child echoes his own, and the inner voice that once implored the parent to shut that child up now urges help that child.

His face, a reflection of mine, enhanced with visual echoes of my father’s and his mother’s father’s, but his very own, a one-off for all time and ineffably beautiful.  Each morning a new day in his eyes.  I look at him, I look at me, and it seems barely credible, ludicrous even, that I had a hand in his creation, so luminous is his beauty.  There’s a joke in there somewhere but I can’t find it in me to laugh at it yet, and for now it’s enough to know that it is indeed I who can take (half of) the credit for this latest, all-new chapter in all our lives.

A story half-read in the day’s papers – Sinatra Sr leaves Sinatra Jr when Jr’s barely six, and the pieces barely picked up four decades on to leave decades more of debilitating uncertainties as a son flounders in his father’s shadow, and you wonder how any man can turn away, whatever the enticements, whether centre of his own star-studded universe or part-timer forever mithering on the periphery.

A shame-faced reflection on those less fortunate and an attempt to place my own small whirlpool of turmoil into some form of perspective as I read of a young Liverpool widower’s struggle to raise four young children alone, months after cancer has taken his young wife.

A scene from a parallel life as I daydream in the afternoon – Leo as a child, seat-belted in the open rear of a hire car hurtling holiday-happy along southern French roads colonnaded by plane trees, mouth agape in delight as sunlight and shade dance in alternation across his face.  I can’t see who’s driving – an episode from my life or someone else’s?