Read by John de Holland
Danny always hated this time of year. Robins he could just about put up with, despite how silly they’d look come spring, but candy canes? Christmas trees? Santa's smug face complete with a triplet of brightly coloured 'Ho's? He sighed as he laid the tattoo gun down; just the holly berries to ink and he was done, thank God; the smell of gin permeating her skin was getting to him.
He glanced down at the chain of skulls encircling his arm. Even though the shop’s small heater could barely compete with these cold wintry months, he liked to work short sleeved, to show off the wares. Memento mori – now there was a proper reason for getting inked. Skulls, Angels of Death, black roses with thorns dripping blood: a permanent reminder of your mortality, a piece of inked flesh that would go with you to your grave.
Nowadays you didn't need an excuse. As soon as you were old enough, down to the parlour you would go. Sometimes with the parents in tow! Where was the rebellion in that? Where was the stigma that set you apart from others, even when the artwork was discreetly hidden away? Now, it seemed, you needed a tattoo to fit in; a tattoo on the wrist, or the ankle, where it was always on show. And of what? A star, a butterfly, a cursive “YOLO”: tattoos purely for the sake of getting a tattoo. With age verification a legal requirement, it ought to be a sign of maturity, a mark of adulthood, if only people didn’t ask for such stupid childish images: cartoon figures, superhero logos, even Father Christmas himself. He felt like asking – why? Felt like asking – didn't you stop believing in that fat fraud ten years ago?
Danny dabbed the last of the blood and ink from the holly and mistletoe wreath, and, after the girl had admired it in a handheld mirror, he took a Polaroid for the records before covering the inked area with gauze held in place by surgical tape. The girl fidgeted as he gave the aftercare instructions he doubted anyone ever listened to any more, and only when he was done did she finally pull up her knickers. Almost as if she’d been trying to give him every last opportunity.
“I want to be kissed under the mistletoe,” she'd told him with a smile when she'd entered the darkened shop. It might have been funny if it wasn't the third one he'd done that week, all between the belly button and the pubis. At least this girl wasn't as fat as the other two. Or as shaved. It wasn't that shaved reminded him of a freshly plucked chicken, though it always did, but the girls who shaved down below thought that the exposed area was fair game for his artwork. He had to warn them of potential light scabbing, raised, sensitive skin, and the fact they shouldn’t be going anywhere near it with a razor blade for at least two months.
He blamed the footballers. The pop stars and celebrity wannabes as well, but mainly the footballers. Fact was, even he – a tattoo artist heading towards the big 5-0 – had less ink on him than the average footballer seemed to collect before getting out of their twenties. He wondered when they found the time. And did they have to get them done in the off season, so the healing skin didn't interfere with their training?
Was it Beckham who’d started it? Each fresh piece of ink captured by the waiting press, scrutinised, analysed for its non-existent meaningful insight and then swiftly copied by his most ardent fans?
He looked at his watch as the doorbell tinkled mistletoe girl’s exit, answering her cheery festive farewell with a grim nod. Four o'clock – time to close up shop and maybe not open again until the New Year, takings be damned.
His gaze rested on the open bottle of white wine on the counter, the label unfamiliar. Something cheap. The girl must have left it behind. Presumably wine is what you graduate to after an afternoon on the gin. Or was gin yesterday's drink, the distinctive aromatics lingering long after the effects of the alcohol? He'd been aware that she'd got a bottle with her when she'd entered, she’d offered it to him, but he’d insisted: no drinking on the premises. She’d pouted, he'd remained stony faced, and then she'd smiled.
“Back in a second,” she'd said. He'd assumed she’d been downing what was left, wringing the last bit of Dutch courage from the fermented grape. That, or handing it to her two mates who had been lurking outside, and who had turned to go as she headed back in. But as it was still half full, he guessed she and her friends had only had a quick swig instead.
Time was, he'd have joined her in a drink even before he started work. If it was a full bottle, it'd pretty much be empty by the end, and then they'd screw. But he hadn't screwed a customer since ... ah ... He remembered the tattoos, including the rose he’d added to her collection, but not her name. He must be getting old. And he hadn't had a drink while working for ... what, five years? He’d had a few complaints. Had a nasty visit from Health and Safety. But it was better for all of that, better for him, better for his customers. Even if, along with the plastic gloves, disposable needles, and consent forms, it was all rather sterile. He laughed, of course it was sterile! Though not in the way his tired brain had at first meant.
He was drawn once again to the wine bottle. No doubt nasty stuff. And warm now, too, although warm was a relative term. But ... it was only half a bottle ... something to get him started with while he closed up. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
He came to, his tongue thick and furred, his cheek pressed against a hard cold surface. A floor. A tiled floor. His tiled floor. He was in the shop, the main lights off, just his workstation lamp to see by. He tried to push himself up, but his head howled in protest, his arm sliding from under him, and his forehead clunked back to the tiles. He didn't need to get up yet, did he? Give it some time.
He slowly opened his eyes again, saw the wine bottle too close to focus on. Still with a pool of piss-yellow liquid at its overturned base. The demon drink. But ... he hadn't even finished it! He groaned. It must have been spiked: probably ketamine. He'd taken that before, recreationally, and the fuzzy hole of his memory and the blurry return to consciousness were all too familiar.
But then, wouldn't the girl have been in a similar state? She'd been merry, sure; full of Christmas cheer, but not falling over paralytic.
Unless ... she was the one who'd done the spiking?
He scrabbled to his feet, lurched over to the door. The sign said closed but it wasn’t locked. He groaned again. Turned to the cash register – which was open. Open and empty.
He’d been rolled by Mistletoe-girl.
So much for her Merry Bloody Christmas. She must have been just waiting, hoping he’d drink her spiked wine. Her, and the couple of guys that had been hanging around. And like a sucker, like a complete and utter twat, he had.
But as the feeling was restored to his body, it wasn’t the ransacked till that worried him most. It was the tightness on his left side; sore, and tender. That, and the discarded tattoo gun on the floor. He pulled up his shirt, fearing the worst.
Fuckers. Unbelievable fucking fuckers.
His favourite tattoo. The skull with eyes a-flame that spanned five of his ribs. Ruined, by a Hitler moustache and a cack-handed attempt at the outline of a Santa hat.
He slumped into his chair. Losing a week’s takings was bad enough, but this? He carefully ran a sterile wipe over the punctured flesh, trying to work out how deep they’d needled. If he was lucky, it would slough off with his dead skin. But he had a feeling this wasn’t his lucky day.
Anger seethed up. There had been a time when these punks wouldn’t have dared mess with him. When he could quell – or start – a fight, with just a look. When youth and the amount of ink on display had combined to make him a scary sonofabitch. He knew he’d mellowed over the years. But to find that he’d got so obviously soft as to become a victim ...?
He gritted his teeth. He should report the theft. Report the botched inking. Take his punishment meekly and let the authorities dole out a few slaps on the wrist, assuming they ever identified the culprits.
Well, screw that.
He’d get his revenge and it would be bloody. He’d make them pay for messing with him.
First though, there was something he had to do.
He’d inked himself before of course – every tattooist did. Usually only small pieces in easy to reach areas. But he was damned if he was going to let some other artist fix up what mistletoe girl and her friends had done. He’d be the laughing stock of the community, a community not known for its tolerance of fucked-up tattoos – they gave the industry a bad name. He rigged up the mirrors so he could see his side.
The Hitler ‘tache was first to go. Streaks of white gave it a more natural, salt & pepper look, and extending it to the sides quickly removed the distinctive, blocky shape. If a skull with a handlebar moustache was a little unusual, so what? Moustaches were in, weren’t they? That and stupidly big beards on wankers who, if they had any self-respect, would be riding Harleys, not bloody Bromptons.
As for the outline of the hat ... well, flames. That would work, Danny thought. Covered a multitude of sins, flames. A lot of ink, mind ... but you didn’t have to be too precise and fortunately there was space enough to accommodate them.
Christ though, it was painful! Whether it was because he was stretching to reach, or simply because he was doing it to himself and so unable to tune it out ... but shit ... It got so bad he almost reached for the dregs of the wine, before he remembered what else the bottle contained.
It was past midnight before he was done, his side stinging like a bastard and his fingers cramped with tension. He doubted he’d do anything over the holiday period, except seethe and plot revenge, but even so he was pretty happy with his work. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough never to guess it hadn’t been planned all along, even if he'd have to grow his own facial hair to match the now bewhiskered skull.
Maybe it was time to reinvent himself anyway. He’d make other changes. He’d stop doing anything he didn’t fully believe in. No more cute kittens, stupid mottoes, or bloody unicorns. If he couldn’t convince them to get something real, he’d send them to one of the other parlours that kept springing up. Change his window display. Change his name. He’d always wanted to be a Damien, and what after all was stopping him? He’d make something good out of this festive disaster.
It was only as he was unclipping the mirrors from the stand and one tilted upwards that he saw something written colourfully across his forehead. “OH?” he muttered, reading what the mirror showed, his face crumbling in despair as he translated it the right way round.
Ho-Ho-Ho, it said.
(c) Liam Hogan, 2014
21 today, 21 today ... this is Liam Hogan's 21st story to be read out at Liars' League London. He thinks he might be a tiny bit addicted. He's uncertain if short stories are a gateway towards harder literary abuse – like novels – and claims that he can give up at any time should be treated with the derision they deserve. http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/
John de Holland (left) has worked extensively in film, theatre & television. He has written two novels and a collection of short stories. His voice work is represented by the Vocalpoint agency, www.vocalpoint.net. In addition to commercials & narration he has also supplied voices for computer games.