‘Turn around,’ she says.
You do as she says and turn around.
‘How long have you had the tattoo?’
‘What are you talking about?’ you say.
She walks around the bed that you had intended to enter. She stands behind you and straightens your shoulders. Her finger touches your shoulder blade.
‘You despicable pig,’ she says. ‘I hate tattoos.’
‘So do I. I wouldn’t dream of having a tattoo.’
‘I hate you,’ she says.
In the bathroom, you stand in front of the long mirror on the wall and hold the large shaving mirror behind your back so you can see the tattoo. There are two words and they say May Williams. You return to the bedroom and stand by the bed. Your wife is sitting on the bed and holding a pillow to her chest.
‘I don’t understand this.’
‘I do, she says, ‘you’re a despicable pig.’
‘Why would I do this? I hate tattoos. Was this your idea?’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ she says and clutches the pillow tighter. ‘You told me she meant nothing.’
‘She was over thirty years ago.’
‘Her name is written on your back.’
‘This must be a practical joke or something. I don’t understand.’
‘I’m sleeping in the other room,’ she says. ‘How many times did you and her?’
‘Half a dozen times, perhaps, I was young and easily flattered.’
She sleeps in the other bedroom.
Throughout the next day, she refuses to speak, so it is a surprise when she comes into the bedroom that night.
‘I want another look,’ she says.
She walks to the side of the bed where she does not sleep and turns the shoulder around so she can see the tattoo.
‘Have you seen this?’ she says.
‘I’m frightened of looking.’
‘There are more tattoos. They’re on the other shoulder.’
She finds a pair of glasses and reads the new tattoos.
‘It’s a list of dates with numbers at the side. The dates are in black and the numbers are in red. Most days have a red number. The numbers are between 1 and 3. At the bottom of the list there is a total in red. Oh, my God. 250, you had a whale of a time, didn’t you?.’
‘I didn’t think it was that many.’
‘I was flattered by her.’
‘250 is a lot of flattery.’
‘I don’t know what’s going on. I think I’m going crazy. Maybe we both are.’
Again, she sleeps in the other bedroom. Neither speaks to the other during the day although she comes into the bedroom and watches you undress.
‘You’ve got another tattoo,’ she says.
‘Surely, you don’t believe I’m putting them there?’
‘This is a drawing. I presume it is May Williams.’
Your wife sits down on the edge of the bed and makes you sit next to her. She stares at the tattoo.
‘You said she was not as pretty as me,’ she says. ‘But she’s beautiful.’
‘Maybe she just looks good in tattoos.’
‘You’re an idiot,’ she says.
She sleeps in the other bedroom again.
The next evening, she climbs into bed but after midnight switches on the bedroom light. You lay on your side, quiet and harmless, head in the middle of the pillow.
‘There’s a new tattoo,’ she says. ‘She looks good without clothes. I’ll say that for May. So did you, actually.’
She prods the tattoo a couple of times with a finger.
‘Oh, my God,’ she says. ‘The tattoo has started to move. It’s like a movie. I’m watching you and May Williams. I can’t believe I can watch this. I thought it would be unbearable. But it’s just like watching animals. Isn’t that strange? I don’t even feel angry.’
The next day, they eat an evening meal together but say little although they do agree the mystery of the tattoos is frightening. She does not agree that the past can be forgotten, not since she has seen the tattoos and been told the number 250. You wash the dishes. All the time you are thinking that the tattoos or whatever is behind them will soon kill you. Everything is malicious and out of control.
That evening, she switches on the bedroom light from her side of the bed.
‘This tattoo looks dull,’ she says. ‘You’re only in some restaurant with her.’
She taps the tattoo with her finger and, like the tattoo from the night before that showed you and May naked, this new tattoo proceeds to run like a small movie. She draws her finger around the faces and the tattoo makes a noise. She runs a finger from one corner of the tattoo to the other and realises it acts as a volume control. She bends down and puts her ear to the tattoo.
Afterwards, she says, ‘You told her you loved her. You said things about me.’
‘I said things I didn’t mean. You have to. It wasn’t real. I was flattered.’
‘I reckon it was an expensive restaurant,’ she says. ‘I think you’re an absolute pig.’
She cries and leaves the bed. She throws the things she keeps on the dressing table against the wall. She makes enough noise for the neighbours to hear.
‘You tell nothing but lies,’ she says. ‘You’re worse than an animal.’
‘Aren’t you worried about what is happening to me?’
‘No,’ she says.
The next day, she packs two suitcases and leaves. You are surprised by what she has left, all the shoes and the expensive make up and perfume. That evening, you stand naked in the bathroom with the large shaving mirror behind you. The tattoos have disappeared from your back. In the next few weeks, you make enquiries about where she might be and send emails to all her friends. Like the strange tattoos, she has vanished.
One evening, just before you are ready to climb into the bed, you are curious about whether the tattoos have left any traces on your body. You walk into the bathroom and stand in front of the large mirror on the wall. You use the shaving mirror to inspect your back. There are no scars but there is a new tattoo. You stand very close to the mirror on the wall. You read the tattoo. It is the name of your wife.
Each subsequent day, another tattoo appears. As before, the tattoos can be made to move and are audible. This time, though, the tattoos appear everywhere. Soon, they are all over your body. They are front and back and reach as far as the neck below your ears and cover the soles of your feet. Unless examined closely, the tattoos look like a coloured pattern. Inspected carefully with the mirror, they tell the story of the many years together. You learn to keep the tattoos covered in public. Each night, though, you strip until you are naked and watch and listen to the tattoos that completely cover the body. They only recall what happened with your wife but much of it, you realise, you had forgotten. You spend so long in front of the long mirror each evening that your back aches and so you buy a chair and move it into the bathroom. The chair is a little cold because you are always naked but it is comfortable. You realise this is how you will spend most of what is left of your life, watching and listening to these tattoos that have been crammed across your body. You will remember the woman you loved and occasionally think about the women you merely wanted. You realise that regret is inevitable and now beyond concern. The disappointment, though, is immense.
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Spooky, chilling but excellent tale of male and female approach to fidelity. Howard has perhaps found a natural niche with horror.
What an interesting, scary and spine-shaking story. Really creates an amazing image in your mind. How intriguing it would be to have your life, or parts of it, played to you via your own body by tattoos. Such an awesome piece. Compliments to Howard for this superb story.