Gemma has displayed the tattoo defiantly for years now. The regulars at the café have all heard her tell the story of its origin. Admittedly, the telling has been piecemeal but the instalments have been numerous and I am not the only one who can easily put it together.
Just lately though, Gemma has become decidedly reluctant to share it when someone mentions it and asks, as they always do, what is that on your back? Now, Gemma spins round and glares at them. Her demeanour is hostile and the expression on her face more than a little scary.
‘It’s a tattoo that went wrong,’ she spits. Quickly deterred, the strangers back off and the subject is not pursued. But it seems only a few weeks ago that Gemma had revelled in these encounters, relishing the attention and a chance to perform.
Gemma has often been asked why doesn’t she do something about the tattoo. Why not get it removed or have it re-worked? ‘Yeah’, she always replies, ‘when I have the time, when I have the money, when I can be bothered’.
When she was seventeen, Gemma designed a butterfly, sketching it with a biro on A4 sheets. Once satisfied with the shape, using her brother’s felt tip pens she added the colours. It had been garish but she had thought it beautiful, had taken her design to a tattooist and suffered under his needle.
Matching her colours as best he could, he reproduced the butterfly on the small of her back, but the colours had run and mixed to create, once the scabs had fallen away, something else entirely. Not her butterfly but a messy hybrid, a startled moth too close to the flame, mottled and drab.
For months, Gemma moped around in a baggy denim shirt. One night, naked in front of the mirror, turning she glanced back and noticed at the tattoo’s centre the tiniest of eruptions. Her skin was breaking through. She began to claw at it, believing the tattoo was flaking, but to no avail. It resisted her fingernails and although more of these holes would appear she could never find any evidence of this, other then when she turned to look in the mirror.
‘Man, that is the weirdest tattoo I have ever seen.’
I look up and, as expected, Gemma is glaring at him but he is looking down and craning his neck.
‘Come on, let me see it’, he pleads, ‘what is it?’ Come on, lemme see’.
He is trying to move around her but Gemma, stepping closer, is turning along with him.
‘What am I?’, she asks, ‘am I an antelope?’
‘What?’, he looks at her now. ‘Come on, let me take a look’, he continues but less forcefully now.
‘What am I?’.
‘I don’t know’, he is backing away now but Gemma is right there with him.
‘What am I?’.
‘I don’t know’, he stutters, ‘I don’t know what you are but you’re not an antelope’.