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Sign Your Name Across My Heart

Judy Raymond

Despite my reputation for artistry, still gratifying after all this time, I don’t have a lot of clients, even though the ones who are satisfied with my work praise its elegant, practiced lines, the warmth of the colours, and the fact that they never seem to fade. Generally, because they’re so pleased, these particular clients forget to mention that my tattoos—depending on the subject—may hurt more than others. Still, I always offer them a painkiller beforehand and tell them to take more afterward if they need it. Anyway, I get good word of mouth from them, and then other people come to me.

I do the usual designs too: dragons; hearts wreathed with roses, with “Mother” across the centre; ouroboroi, coiled around wrists or ankles with their tails in their mouths; crucifixes; skulls, again with the inevitable roses; portraits; the emblems of retro heavy-metal bands.

Some ask for semicolons and cry while I’m inking them, but it’s not the needles that hurt. They get a big discount, though they don’t know it. So do the ones who want something to cover scars on their wrists or their arms.

Others want portentous Latin phrases that they’ve copied out for me. I point out the mistakes and they disagree, but I ignore them. They can google it again later and see I was right. I learned those long-ago lessons very well, scratching my letters into a wax tablet propped on my knee, on a wooden bench near the banks of the Tiber.

Clients marvel that I can glance once at a phrase in Arabic script and copy it.

“Where did you learn that?”

I just smile. Best not to tell them: “In a little school outside the walls of the Alhambra, before Ferdinand and Isabel came . . . in the 1480s.” I can do the original Fraktur, the German Gothic script; runes; Classical Greek . . .

They look at my rows of clean, ugly plastic bottles and ask what’s in the ink.

“Oh, don’t worry, modern tattoo inks are perfectly safe, it’s all regulated.”

That may be true, I don’t know. I think of my round-bottomed vials of green Roman glass, stoppered with corks, glowing with cinnabar, raw ochre, indigo, oak ash, turmeric. I decant them nowadays, into the hygienic modern bottles. It’s the words I say over them that keep my clients from harm.

Sometimes in the pause while I’m switching needles, someone will ask me why it hurts so much. “How deep do those needles go?”

“Only a millimeter or two,” I say, though the real answer is, “This name is being written on your heart.” How deep is that?

There are other things I don’t know. Something will make me turn and look outside, to see people passing by the shop front, clearly searching for the tattoo studio they’ve heard about, but who can’t find it, no matter how many times they sweep impatiently up and down the pavement right outside. I edge toward the back of the store to make it harder for them to spot me, and watch in the mirror, from the corner of my eye, and whisper the needed words until they give up. They’re not meant to find their way in; I don’t know why, and I don’t want to find out. Then there are the clients who come in but don’t stay long enough to become clients, to get inked—those who want to carry forever the name of their current girlfriend or boyfriend, brand-new husband or wife, and are surprised or offended by my reaction to their perfectly reasonable requests. I don’t blame them. They’ll be the ones who warn other people about me, that I’m odd for someone who runs a business and whose work is good—if not my sales technique, which seems intended to put them off.

“Are you sure you want that name?” I’ll ask. “How about the heart by itself? For now, anyway.” Or, I’ll suggest just the object signified by the pet name for their beloved that they’ve asked me to needle indelibly into their skin: kitten, tiger, honey bunny.

“Do you want to think about it for a while and then come back?”

It’s a relief if they pretend I’ve persuaded them to change their minds. They tell me yes, good idea, they’ll come back soon (I know they won’t, and it’s better that way). They leave quickly, thinking they’ve had a narrow escape: perhaps I’m on drugs, perhaps there’s something wrong with me. I suppose I should care about the money I miss out on, but it’s not about the money.

If they insist, I have to ask repeatedly for the correct spelling, even of a very ordinary name—Rachel, or Andrew, or Joanne—to make sure I get that name into my head properly. Then they start to worry that, if I’m that forgetful or absent-minded, I’ll permanently engrave some other name on their skin for all the world to see, including the shocked Rachel or Andrew or Joanne.

As well they might. It happened once, although of course it worked out in the end.

But there are also times, as I’ve said, when out of weariness I give in and sketch in the wrong name. I water down the ink and don’t push the needle deep enough, so that the lettering will fade quickly. By “wrong name,” I mean the name they ask for. The customer isn’t always right. They complain about what I’ve done: it’s so pale, it’s barely visible, it’s unreadable, it looks half-hearted.

I can’t very well answer, “That’s because it is.” So I tell them wait and see, the colour will deepen over time (it won’t). I don’t have the energy to come up with more excuses. Inking the wrong name on their biceps or over their heart exhausts me. Sometimes it’s even painful—for me, more than them. Occasionally, I have to confess, I’ve found myself starting to work on the right name, one they didn’t ask for. I’ve caught myself in time, added a curlicue or a bonus flower to disguise the letter that shouldn’t be there, got away with it, and finally gave them what they wanted. Even though they won’t want it for long. There’s a lot of buyer’s remorse over tattoos, though less in my shop than others.

Once, on a wet Saturday evening, as I was wrapping up my used needles to throw out and packing away the inks, a young man came in and begged me, before I closed up for the weekend, for a heart with “Paula” underneath it. So I did the heart—a small one—but then . . . I was tired, it was the end of a difficult week, I wasn’t concentrating . . . on the ribbon below, I tattooed “Lauren.”

He changed color when he saw it in the mirror. I should have felt terrible, I suppose, but the look on his face told me, as if I didn’t already know, that I was right.

Naturally, he refused to pay. I didn’t object; how could I? He cursed.

“What do I do now? It was supposed to be an engagement surprise—show her the tattoo, then give her the ring . . .”

I said I couldn’t fix it immediately, but perhaps he could put a plaster over it and say it was healing, but slowly, and then come back in six months.

“Six months? How do I hide this for six months?”

The door slammed behind him. I waited.

Six months later he was back, confused, curious, radiant. Paula had eventually gotten suspicious, pulled off the dressing on his arm, packed her things, and left him. Now he was about to propose to Lauren, whom he’d always loved but never dared to tell until Paula had gone. It turned out Lauren felt the same.

I could have told him that.

He couldn’t be happier. He wanted to pay me now—pay me extra, in fact, and he wanted to know how I’d known.

I shrugged. “I don’t understand it myself.”

He left and turned to squint up through the drizzle at the sign over the shop door. It’s not a memorable name, really. The original, suggested by a friend, had been “Skin Deep,” which was so inaccurate I’d had to change it almost at once. My friend was unimpressed. He didn’t think the new name was clever or catchy. I was pleased; I didn’t want it to be obvious. A word to the wise is enough, they say.

“Why?” he asked. “It doesn’t even make sense.”

“It’s true, though,” I said. He didn’t understand, and I didn’t explain.

But so it is that now, on a shiny gold banner, spangled with plump deep-red hearts that glisten in the rain, the sign reads, in soot-black copperplate letters: “The Real Deal, Ink.”

I stepped outside after the puzzled young lover, locked the shop door, and murmured a cantrip to keep the place safe til Monday. I waited until he’d gone, and then I too vanished into the night.

Educated in England, Judy Raymond lives in Trinidad, West Indies, and is adrift between the two. She has published three biographies and one book inspired by a British-born artist’s images of sugar cultivation in the last years of Caribbean slavery. She is now working on fiction and essays.

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