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Fall '23

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IAN GOUGE

“There’s not much room left.” 


“I don’t need much more room.” He looks at the tattooist in the mirror, the man’s head reappearing for a moment over his left shoulder. DK knows Ray has been staring at the small unadorned patch on his back, wondering if one of his regular income streams is about to dry up. Perhaps he is hoping he’ll be given the office to start elsewhere. But DK knows there will be nothing more to be etched after today. 

 

Ray gets back to work.  


DK doesn’t flinch like he used to. He tells himself this is because he has become used to the process, the pain, or that he has reached a part of his skin where there are fewer nerve endings. Largely, though, his increased tolerance is all down to Ray’s skill. Ray had talked a lot about nerve in the beginning––it had a been  patter akin to a Government Health Warning. But after his sixth visit the pro-forma changed, as did Ray’s attitude towards him. He’d seen people come into his shop with grand ideas about what they were going to have done, only to bail out far too early. “Fear,” Ray once said, “or pain. Or the pressure from outside. All can culminate in the lack of courage to go through with it.”

 

It was clear that he’d come to respect DK for his single-mindedness, for seeing it through—even though he had no idea what it was. One visit each year, and for the last twenty-five years.

“When I’m done”––the buzz of his gun stopping for a moment, Ray’s head appears again––“are you finally going to tell me what it is I’m doing? Because even after all this time I’ve still not worked it out.” 


DK laughs. Ray’s plea has been a constant over the last few years. In fact, it was that which replaced the warning about nerves. 


“What does it look like?” DK had replied more than once. It was his standard comeback. 


“A whole mess of things. Symbols and letters; words in some language I don’t understand. Little pictures a bit like emojis…”


There were indeed multiple languages, some modern, a few not; some of the symbols were hieroglyphs, some of the text was in Latin. Where DK had permitted the words to make sense and allowed English to stray into the image, they mainly comprised of quotations from writers, philosophers, poets—though to ensure incoherence, they were never placed together and in the right order. That would have made things too easy, and puzzles should never be easy. 


“It’s a story,” DK always said, “a narrative.”

 
“Well, damned if I understand it.” 


“But if I told you what it said…” 


“I know. You’d have to shoot me.”

They laughed at their private little Vaudeville routine—except Ray didn’t realise that DK wasn’t joking. 

 


*


When did he get the idea? He tells himself it was when he’d had the ‘accident’ with Shona’s yappy dog, but suspects the seeds were sown much earlier than that.

 

As a child he’d had what his mother liked to call ‘little mishaps.’ Some—like wetting the bed or tipping out the contents of cereal packets onto the kitchen floor—were  nothing out of the ordinary. What little boy of four or five didn’t do something to earn his parents’ wrath? In DK’s case, the parent was singular, his father having abandoned his mother as soon as he found out she was pregnant. “It happens,” his mother told him many years later. 


Whenever he’d done something wrong—especially if that wrong doing resulted in her needing to spend money she didn’t have—she’d tell him that she would add what he’d cost her to ‘his account,’ that one day he’d have to make good on what he owed, and it was meant to make him remorseful. If there was a beginning, perhaps that was it: the notion that it was perfectly reasonable to keep a log of transgressions in order to excuse oneself later. Gradually, he began to have deliberate accidents in order to see what she would add to his account. The knocked-over mannequin in the department store: added. The kid pushed off the swings: added. Fusing the lights when he tried to mend a plug: forgiven. There was a pecking order driven by the degree of cost, embarrassment, or inconvenience foist upon his mother. 


One summer, as he neared his teenage years, he took it too far and she threatened to have him taken away as she couldn’t cope any more. He relented, and she agreed to wipe the slate clean. 


And now DK’s back has become his adult slate and, after twenty-five years of etching, it is nearly full. 

 

*


Shona had been his first proper girlfriend. They’d met at a work Christmas party and fallen foul of a combination of cheap champagne and mistletoe. DK knew that they weren’t the first to do so and wouldn’t be the last. He’d lasted a few months before he began to tire of her; but as he grew weary, Shona became increasingly keen. She started talking about the future, painting pictures of a life he didn’t want but which he could see drawing inexorably closer. DK’s problem was that he didn’t know how to extricate himself from her clutches. 


Shona had a small white terrier named Poppy, and she hated DK with a passion. DK wondered if the mutt could read his mind, knew he was wanting to make good his escape. The more desperate he was to free himself, the yappier Poppy became. In any conflict between the two of them, Shona always took Poppy’s side, said the dog knew DK didn’t love it. From his perspective, Poppy was unloveable. 


...Which was one of the reasons he ran her over––that and to definitively prove to himself that Shona loved the dog more than she loved him.

DK pleaded innocence, said it was an accident that he hadn’t seen Poppy on the driveway. Shona was inconsolable—but retained sufficient acuity to finish with him there and then. He had rid himself of both her and the dog in one swift push of the accelerator. “You’ll pay for this!” Shona shouted after him as he left. Was it then that he had the idea to re-open his account? For no good reason he could fathom, when he got home he made a note of the incident. Just the date, and two phrases: R.I.P. Poppy and goodbye Shona.


Writing it down made him feel better, though it wasn’t exactly absolution. If anything, doing so proved the opposite, ensuring he wouldn’t forget. But either way it was liberating. Perhaps terminating Poppy and getting away with it unconsciously brought back memories of the department store dummy and the kid on the swing. Something in him clicked, linking malevolence with record keeping—and the notion that the second might excuse the former. His account became his conscience. 


There wasn’t much to speak of that first year. When he looked back on it, his transgressions were few and far between; apart from part of one page, the notebook remained empty. At that point the sensible thing to have done would have been to tear out the page and throw it away. To forget the notion entirely. Yet it was a concept seeded so deeply within him that he found himself unable to let it go. Not only that, his freeing himself of both Shona and Poppy seemed too important to ignore. The episode was worthy of record—and worthy of an account too.

As coincidence would have it he had been reading John Irving’s Until I Find You, a novel about a boy searching for his absconded tattooist father. The collision of the book’s narrative with his own history, allied with contemplation of the year that had just passed, coalesced into a single fresh idea: he decided to carry his account with him wherever he went. 


If he was going to do this, the practical composition of his life-log was critical. He could hardly get someone to tattoo goodbye, Shona on him. Not only might they not want to, but what if he ended up doing something truly despicable? It would be like carrying a visible confession around; he could never take his shirt off in public, never sunbathe or swim and DK loved to swim. So he came up with a schema that involved pictures and words, with few of the words in English––a jumble of pieces a little that you found when you first opened a jigsaw puzzle. Although there wasn’t much to record that first year, DK settled on his back as the ideal location to keep his history—and in doing so committed himself to the project for the long haul. He choose to begin with some Latin, in principio erat verbum—‘in the beginning is the word’—though only verbum made it to that first year’s entry. Ray added principio twelve months ago. 


So for twenty-five years, unbeknownst to him, Ray has been etching DK’s life on his back, the incoherent catalogue of all his misdeeds. And—inevitably—for the last five, he has also been pointing out that all the available space was nearly used up. 

 

*


There are two questions which have been exercising DK over a similar period. The first is how he should he close his account. And the second is whether or not, having set out on this path, the tattoo has taken over his life. Not in the physical sense of course—after all it is just a patch of skin—but rather, has DK’s desire to keep the image fed led him to do things he would not otherwise have done? Has the tattoo made him a bad person? Nature or nurture, perhaps. This second, more philosophical question, no longer remains unanswered as he sits one final time and submits himself to Ray’s artistry, the other man working off the detailed sketch DK has provided.  


This session has been no different to all the others: DK presents his design, takes Ray through it, Ray asks his questions—mainly about size, colour, or the spelling of words he doesn’t understand—then gets to work. The difference today is that DK has reached the conclusion that the tattoo has steered his life; that he has deliberately done things—seemingly ever more radical—in order to build an adequate inventory such that every year’s entry into his account is worthwhile. When DK joked that he’d have to kill Ray if he told him all the things the illustration meant, then he’d probably been truthful. After all, Ray wouldn’t be the first. Not that DK counts his mother in this. In her case he is convinced he was doing her a favour, saving her from a life of old-age misery and loneliness as she slid inexorably into dementia. Better to go out with some faculties still intact. He’d got the idea for digitalis after using rat poisoning to kill a neighbour’s dog who wouldn’t stop its incessant barking. And when, like Irving’s character, he eventually tracked down his father… Well, there could be only one possible outcome. 

 


Would he have done those things without having had the tattoo to fill? He doubts it. But he has embraced his destiny, etching into his account as one might once have put a notch into a tally stick. And now, the stick is full. 


There is, of course, only one way to close his account. He has already settled on the means. It will be painless enough, he believes, and most importantly it will leave his skin untarnished, his account finally to become his confession. He only wishes he could be around to watch as they try and unravel what it all means. 
 

Ian Gouge has been writing for many years with over twenty books to his name: novels, collections of poetry, and a small number of non-fiction works. In June this year he performed his poetic monologue Crash at the Ripon Theatre Festival. He have his own publishing imprintCoverstory books under which he publishes most of his work, plus anthologies and collections for other people. He also mentors at public writers’ retreats.

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