FICTION (August 2018)
Will It Hurt?
by Matthew G. Rees
Photographs of tattoos lined the small and gloomy room. They were either tacked to the walls or, in the case of the more esteemed examples, mounted in frames.
The effect was to make the place seem, at least momentarily in the mind of Fedor Turov, like a chapel of the kind where women sought solace, lit candles and crossed themselves in front of icons.
Fanged serpents, Death’s heads, grim reapers, roaring bears and fierce eagles stared down from snapshots of pallid shoulders and bare chests. Not only men’s chests: women’s too.
Cuter illustrations like butterflies, dolphins and pet cats and dogs (with names such as Sasha and Ludmilla) had their places on arms, calves and ankles. And there were hammers and sickles and flags aplenty, of both the Soviet and the new Russian kind; hearts and cupids also, on knuckles and necks.
But the ones that caught the attention of the teenage Turov were those that, to him, seemed particularly odd.
A black crucifix drawn on a drooping penis was one.
‘A priest’s,’ said the man whose parlour it was. ‘Ordered by his bishop… to make him desist.’
In another, an owl’s wings fanned spectacularly from a woman’s inner thighs.
‘Like it?’ asked the man, following Fedor’s gaze. ‘I could have won an award with that. A schoolteacher. She was worried her mother would find out. But it’s a great piece, no?’
Fedor half nodded, moved on. Apocalyptic inscriptions swirled in the valleys of ears, zodiac signs showed themselves inside peeled-back cheeks and lips. Eyes inked on the tops of eyelids made it seem as if their owners must never sleep, and hands reached alarmingly from the crevasses of arses. Bizarre miniature busts of Lenin and Marx, meanwhile, adorned proud pink nipples: the owners’ chest hairs groomed into whiskers and beards. The domes of St Basil’s hung on some guy’s balls. I love Russia his shaved groin proclaimed.
‘So, do you want a tattoo?’ the man asked.
Fedor turned to look at him.
To Fedor’s surprise the man, who sat on a stool in a faintly avian way, had nothing – nothing visible at least – in terms of tatoos – on his own body. His face was lean, his hair short in a silver crop; a white T-shirt reaching over his muscular torso. But his skin—his skin was clean.
Fedor had seen the man’s flyer in the downstairs hall of the block: Change Your Skin – Professional Service – Reasonable Rates. He’d passed characters he didn’t know, from other blocks, waiting for the man, on the landing and the stairs. At times, when the man’s door had been ajar, he’d heard the buzz and whine of his tools while climbing up to or from the floor where he lived with his parents.
‘How long have you been doing this?’ Fedor asked.
‘Too many years to remember. Centuries!’ said the man. ‘Rostov, Samara, Saint Petersburg, Murmansk… Arkhangelsk even. They all had me for a while. There wasn’t a sailor in the northern ports untouched by my needle. But the cold up there got the better of me. It drove me here to Moscow. I had a place in the market, my own stall, but the rents got expensive. Those sons of bitches. You know how it is. Each wanting their pound of flesh. So now I’m here, working from home.’
Fedor couldn’t remember him in the market, but said nothing.
‘So, have you decided?’ asked the man.
‘Are you licensed… and everything?’ Fedor asked.
‘Hell no,’ said the man. ‘Shit like that is for busybodies and lawyers. And look what merchants they are. See around you. I deal in art. Fabulous art. Extraordinary art. But don’t worry. You’ll be safe with me.’
The man pulled a pack of cigarettes from under the sleeve of his T-shirt. As he did this Fedor thought he saw something – inked, dark, on the man’s upper arm – like an arrowhead or the tip of a tail. It disappeared as the sleeve fell taut on his bicep, as if whatever it was had darted, back under a stone.
The man offered Fedor a cigarette. Fedor shook his head. The man lit one and started to smoke.
‘I’m not sure what to have,’ said Fedor.
The man smiled. ‘Spoilt for choice? It’s like the Hermitage here, isn’t it? Ever been to the Hermitage?’
‘No,’ said Fedor. ‘But I’ve been to the Pushkin.’
‘Oh the Pushkin is good,’ said the man. ‘Maybe better. Wonderful art. You know…’ he drew on the cigarette, exhaled ‘… some people are against tattoos. They say that they are barbaric and all kinds of nonsense. But look,’ he said waving at the walls, ‘is this not art? Is this not civilized?’
‘Will it hurt?’ Fedor asked.
‘You’ll be fine,’ said the man.
‘And if I don’t like it, can I get rid of it?’
‘Oh there are ways,’ said the man. ‘Just like Stalin.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, I once had a guy, a big Party guy… from the old days… and he had me tattoo all the big leaders and revolutionaries on his chest. I’m talking Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Kirov, Zinoviev, Khrushchev, you know. It was a big job and a nice-looking job, even if I say so myself, all over his chest. Anyway, one day he comes rushing in and starts unbuttoning his shirt on me and demanding his money back. When he opened his shirt up – you know what? – there was only one man still there. Stalin. He’d rubbed all those other bastards right out.’
The man drew on his cigarette, stared at Fedor.
Fedor looked back at him not knowing what to say.
The man started laughing. ‘I’m joking my friend, I’m joking.’ He put a hand on Fedor’s arm. ‘Let me see if I can help. Where were you thinking of?’
‘My shoulders?’ Fedor said uncertainly. ‘My back… perhaps.’
‘Oh the back is good… good territory for a tattoo… especially the upper back. An excellent canvas.’ The man stuck his cigarette on a saucer, as if seized by an idea. ‘Please… take off your top.’
Fedor pulled his sweatshirt over his head. The man turned him around, wrapped his hands over Fedor’s collar bone, left and right. He pressed Fedor’s back with his thumbs.
‘You know what?’ he said. ‘I think you were made for a shark.’
‘A shark?’ said Fedor.
‘Yes,’ said the man. ‘Right across your back. I think that’s really you. Nice skin by the way. Some of the young guys who come to me have boils and all kinds of shit. Strong-looking lad. Work out?’
‘A little,’ said Fedor.
‘It’s good to work out. Healthy body, healthy mind. That’s what they say. The Motherland needs boys like you. Oh yeah, I can certainly do something with you.’
He handed Fedor his top.
‘Maybe a small one…’ Fedor said, ‘to begin with.’
Instead of going to his parents’ flat Fedor walked to the Metro station and hung round the kiosks and shops. He bought a Coke and chewed some gum. He saw Oxsana Antipin, one of the local mothers. Once – going back – he’d considered her hot. Now though he felt different about her… different about a lot of things. Whether it was because she’d gone to look old and had stopped taking care of herself (after what had happened to her son Arkady, a kid who’d been half-blinded in some freak accident with a snowball), or whether it was because something else had changed or was changing inside him, he didn’t know.
Oxsana Antipin passed him with her shopping. She headed for the crossing to their block. He put his bottle in a bin and walked the same way. As he did so he found himself thinking of Arkady’s dad who went to the gym he’d also started to use. He thought about how Antipin was a guy to be respected. Not only for the way he kept himself fit, but for how he’d got a woman like Oxsana (who, Fedor thought, must have been really stunning once). Above all he thought of Antipin’s tattoos. They ran the length of his powerful arms – sea serpents, flowers, mermaids, wild horses. As Antipin lifted weights, skipped and hit the bag at the gym his tattoos came to life, blooming… journeying. They were heroic… beautiful. Fedor had found himself similarly fascinated by the tattoos of some of the other men, and looked at their bodies while pretending not to. One had a wonderful Pegasus whose wings spread over the pectorals of his chest. Another had a red rose that rambled down his thigh and leg.
Fedor had come to feel awkward about this. He wondered if the attraction the tattoos had for him was rooted in something more than skin-deep. He thought about going to see Father Pytor, but decided against it. A tattoo… a tattoo was what he wanted… what he needed, he told himself. Then he’d be like the other men and he’d get a girl – a beautiful girl, a gorgeous girl… and no mistake.
Getting a girl. That’s what Fedor’s parents went on to him about. Not all of the time, but a lot of it. A nice girl, to be exact. Nadine, whose mother worked at the pharmacy the Turovs used, was a ‘nice girl’… as was Lesya Vitsina whose mother was on the counter at the post office. Even Alyona Goreva, who Fedor remembered being banned from their youth club after a catfight at a disco, had, according to his parents (and to his intense disappointment), turned out to be ‘nice’.
Fedor’s mother worked at the library, his father for the civil service. Fedor looked at them and said nothing while thinking about the sort of girl he wanted. And that was a bad girl… in stockings and heels – the badder the better, in actual fact. Then, later, on his bed in his room, he wasn’t sure if he even wanted a girl at all… no matter how nice, or bad, she might be.
‘Made up your mind?’ the man asked as he showed Fedor in.
‘The shark – I think,’ Fedor said.
‘Good. That’s wonderful,’ said the man. “I think that’s going to work really well. I’ve been picturing it. The big thing now is this: how are you going pay? You’re a college kid, right?’
‘I have a part-time job. I stack shelves at Billa supermarket… by the Metro,’ Fedor said.
‘Oh that’s right,’ said the man. ‘I’ve seen you there – in your overalls.’
‘Can I pay by instalment?’ Fedor asked.
‘You might be in my debt for quite a while,’ said the man.
‘You’ll get it all,’ said Fedor.
‘Promise?’ said the man.
‘Promise,’ said Fedor.
‘Okay, let’s do it,’ said the man.
‘Do I need the consent of my parents?’ asked Fedor.
‘No. You’re old enough in my book. Take off your top.’
Before the man started he showed Fedor the equipment he’d be using: the different needles for lining and shading, the phials that housed the ink.
‘How long will it take?’ asked Fedor.
‘A while,’ said the man. He put out his cigarette, pulled-on some gloves that were tight around his fingers and wrists. ‘A tiger shark has 48 teeth. Twenty four upper, twenty four lower. Jaw to jaw. Did you know that?’
‘The pain,’ said Fedor. ‘Will it…’
‘My, you are a worrier,’ said the man, smiling. ‘It varies from person to person. But don’t worry, I’ll give you something.’
The man moved things around in the room – adjusted the angle of a lamp, changed the height of a stool, checked several switches and plugs. He took a brown bottle from a cupboard, held it away from himself, unscrewed the cap and upturned it for a second onto a wad of cotton wool.
‘Okay, get on the couch,’ he said to Fedor. ‘On your stomach. That’s it. Now… you won’t feel a thing once you’ve smelt…’
The man put the wad under Fedor’s nose; a sweet, gluey wave engulfed him. For a moment Fedor had the feeling of being an animal in a slaughterhouse – one that had been stunned or shot and was on its knees… halfway to falling, dying.
‘…this,’ finished the man.
As his eyes were closing on the couch Fedor watched the man’s form melting. He was on the stool, holding his gun, working his foot pedal. The icons on the wall – the beasts, satyrs, superheroes, mermaids, cherubs and busts of Lenin, Marx, Putin and Tsar Nicholas – carnivalled around him in a whirl.
Fedor felt something slap his face.
‘Hey, boy! Boy! Wake up!’
Slowly, groggily, his head throbbing, Fedor realised where he was.
‘Weren’t you the lively one,’ said the man. ‘I had to spoon you a second helping.’
‘How long have I… been… here?’ Fedor mumbled, blinking at the light.
He saw the man set down what looked like a camera.
‘Five hours, approximately,’ answered the man. ‘Do you want to see it?’
‘Is it finished?’ asked Fedor.
‘As far as I’m concerned,’ said the man, lighting a cigarette.
‘Then… yes… please,’ said Fedor.
‘Okay, get to your feet… slowly,’ said the man. ‘You’ve been out of it, remember.’
Fedor placed his feet on the linoleum floor. He felt woozy. His trousers sagged on his hips. He saw that his belt and flies were undone, which confused him because he couldn’t recall undoing them.
‘Here,’ said the man. ‘Come stand here.’
Fedor stood in front of a mirror as the man fetched another which he held up behind Fedor’s back.
‘There. What do you think?’
Fedor saw, firstly, the shark’s grey tail flicking over his right shoulder blade. Then, when the man stepped to the other side of him (in the manner of a barber in a salon) Fedor saw the shark’s snout pointing outwards over his left shoulder blade, as if it were about to leave his body for other matters and was merely ‘passing through’.
The man bade Fedor turn at an angle to the mirror in front of him. He then held his own mirror in such a way that it ran like a camera along the length of the shark: from the tail, past the small hillock of its rearmost dorsal, over the stripes that gave it its tiger name, beyond the pelvic and principal dorsal, through the wing-like pectorals and gill slits, before reaching the dead, black eye and, finally, on Fedor’s left scapula, its jaws of forty-eight icicle teeth.
‘Well, what do you say?’ said the man.
‘It’s… bigger than I thought it would be,’ said Fedor.
‘Of course it is. Of course,’ said the man. ‘We’re talking about one of the most beautiful, ancient creatures on this planet. Something like that should command its canvas. It must have its realm. It is not some little goldfish from the fair to be hidden on a postage stamp.’ He paused, began again. ‘So… do you like it?’
‘Yes… yes, I like it,’ said Fedor. ‘I like it a lot. Thank you.’ He thought for a moment about how the shark’s eye looked like photographs he’d seen of the sun eclipsed. ‘How long have I been here did you say?’ Fedor asked suddenly.
‘Five hours,’ said the man. ‘Thereabouts.’
‘Five hours!’ said Fedor. ‘My parents! I must go!’
‘Wait a minute,’ said the man. ‘We need to protect this fellow for a while.’ He wrapped some bandages around the tattoo, tied the ends in a knot.
‘What do I do with it now?’ asked Fedor.
‘Be careful with it for a couple of weeks. Let your new friend settle-in. If you get scabs or anything, don’t worry. Just let them fall off.’
‘Thanks,’ said Fedor. ‘I have to go, but I’ll pay. I promise.’
‘I know,’ said the man, and he lit a cigarette to replace his other, which had burned itself to ash.
Fedor kept the tattoo to himself for nearly two weeks. In lectures at college and while stacking shelves at the supermarket he thought of almost nothing else. Knowing that he had it gave him a confidence he’d never had before. Finally – one early evening after his parents had gone to mass – he took off his bandages, and looked at the shark. He propped their bedroom mirror behind him as he stood before the one in the bathroom above the sink.
If anything, the shark seemed bigger than he remembered it – as if it had somehow grown on his back.
The snout seemed further over… nearer his armpit… the jaws broader than before. He wondered about this for a moment. Then he told himself he was a growing boy and that, therefore, it made sense that the shark was growing too. He imagined himself places, saw himself taking off his top, the shark – he would name it something – rippling on his back. He thought of the awe there would be among the bathers at Sokolniki ponds come summer. He pictured himself above Oxsana Antipin, her legs around him, her fingernails in his back.
He went to the gym. Normally he worked out in a T-shirt or vest, but that night he went at the weights and the punch-bag in only his shorts. He sensed the sweat beading and glistening on the shark, and the other guys watching and following him as he and they went through their routines.
In the showers afterwards there was the usual banter among the other men, to which Fedor only half-listened. He felt good. He stood with his face to a nozzle, then dropped his head so the warm water jetted down his neck, slewed over the shark. He imagined it gliding in grey-blue depths over a coral-bottom sea floor, flicking its tail.
In virtually one movement the rest of them had his arms against the tiles and pulled the towel around his mouth.
Fedor went to the man’s flat. Although he didn’t want to show that he’d been crying, his eyes were red and his cheeks were pink and puffy.
The man came to the door, opened it not much more than a crack. He recognised Fedor.
‘Yes?’ said the man in the tone of someone who hadn’t wanted to be disturbed.
‘The shark,’ said Fedor. ‘I want you to take it off.’
The man opened the door properly. He was stripped to the waist.
On the man’s abdomen was a large, black expanse that was almost like the mouth of a tunnel. It startled Fedor. Its ovular darkness was such that it looked as if it had been daubed… painted… layered with ink upon ink… as if all of the bureaucrats of Russia – every clerk, every factory manager, every official at every port and every court, every doctor, every head teacher and every curator at every museum, every librarian like Fedor’s own mother – had written on the man, had brought down for generations, from as far back as the time of the serfs, the stamps of their office on his torso, for the purpose of indelibly staining this man, of branding him, so that no matter what might happen to his limbs – be they sheared by some sawyer or severed by the wheels of some railway carriage or trolleybus under which he might find himself flung – the coal-black darkness at his core would remain, so that no one might ever mistake him and his intent.
‘Take if off?’ he shouted suddenly, his face a picture of fury. ‘Why? Do you have any idea of the cost and the time of doing that? You who’ve not paid me a kopek. Not one single kopek. I have more rights over that shark than anyone, mister, including you! And if I say you’ll wear it, you’ll wear it! You hear me? Now get out of my face! I’m busy!’
The man yanked the door to – ‘I’ve places to go… people to see’ – but not before Fedor caught sight of the drab room at the end of the hall.
Almost all of the photographs had been taken from its walls.
Near the man’s bare feet was a box (a jumbled line of them reached back into the hall). For one moment Fedor’s eyes fell on a photograph. A pair of shoulders. Not firm and proud, but sloped, fat, the skin – where it could be seen – a greasy, sickly white, like that of the victim of a drowning.
Across the blubbered back an ugly, indecipherable image sweated, melted. It resembled the palette of a poor Sunday painter by one of the canals on a stifling summer day, its colours grotesquely smeared and streaming.