Published: 12 April, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 127, November, 2005

Pace was shattered when my niece Shannon called in today; a fifteen-year-old explosion of colour and indignation. An offensive message screamed out from her baby pink tee shirt and industrial chains hung from her enormous jeans. Poised on the brink between childhood and womanhood, she can be enchanting and she can be a real pain.  She came to have a good moan because her mother, my wife’s sister, had told her she’d have to wait to get tattooed. Didn’t forbid it, you’ll note, just advised her to wait. Legal age and all that. Sounded reasonable to me but Shannon was outraged and slouched around my living room in her stinky trainers ranting away until, exasperated, she stomped out, flinging a parting shot; “Oh you wouldn’t understand Uncle David, you’re just an old fart anyway.”  I was still chuckling as I heard her slamming the front gate. Teenagers are so charming. A delight to converse with.  “Old, eh?” I repeated to myself. Looking at it from the inside, forty-seven suddenly seems merely not so young. The room seemed to settle and quieten into its habitual order as I sat and thought of Shannon’s vitality, her belligerence, and the assuredness of her right to a place in the world.


Unseen clouds rolled back and a column of sunlight cut across the carpet. Suddenly hectic, the dancing dust motes sent me back through the decades with an almost painful lurch, to a similar room where my father had sat as I did now, and had watched an outburst of teenage angst. A scene which had been echoed in some small ways just now, but the outcome of which had changed my world forever.


My parents had been immigrants to Britain. Such a loaded term; it invites you to imagine differing skin colour, exotic dress, minority religions. Edges you towards assuming poverty, lack of education, and deceptions for economic gain.  


My father had been a pilot, my mother a nurse. They came from Eastern Europe halfway through the war to serve with the British forces and stayed when it ended. Oblivious to all this, I arrived in a small Midlands hospital in 1958.


What does that make me now? Oh, acceptably British. Born and bred. Disguised by a subtle Anglicization of the family name by my father many moons ago. No trace of a funny accent, no noticeable colouring. I don’t keep up any secret tea rituals from the old country, I play golf badly and shop at Ikea just like everyone else. Never in my adult life has it been suggested that I should be sent back anywhere.


Sometimes I have the sensation that I’m lucky I haven’t been rumbled. What must it be like to live where you feel you have every right to be? Like a luxury I suppose.


I grew up painfully aware that my family was different. My parents were outstandingly foreign. They looked, sounded and behaved differently to everyone I knew in our small town. Living with them made it hard to keep them a secret, and ‘our’ foreignness was a constant source of curiosity, comment and hostility from my peers and strangers alike. 


As well as being abnormal, Mum and Dad seemed old. When I went to the secondary school most kids’ parents were in their thirties. Mine were well into their fifties. Positively geriatric I’d thought then. In time I found out that age is merely relative.


I was too busy trying to fit in to be interested in my family background. I wanted to be accepted, unremarkably English; I didn’t want to know more about what set us apart. I’d asked why I had no grandparents, and was told they were dead, that they’d be too old to be alive now.


Ours was an uncommunicative household, not tense or brooding, just reserved. All was orderly, quiet. The furnishings were plain and simple, spartan even. All was well cared for and long lasting. 


My mother continued working as a specialist nurse. She was remote; efficient at caring for us, ruthless at cleaning me and my clothes but rarely loving. She was not unfriendly, but detached, as if some part of her was carefully closed from the rest of the world. 


As I grew older I spent much of my time round at friends’ houses seeking the rough and tumble of siblings, the careless loving insults and banter of a ‘normal’ family. 


I got to hear my friends’ assumptions of us as generic foreigners; all ‘Continentals’ were supposed to be verbose and emotional, always shouting and waving their arms, then crying and hugging each other. As my emotions surged and rushed with the swirling hormones of adolescence I longed for expression, some tears, some anger, some ebullience in our household.


Apparently everyone except me knew that people from abroad were morally lax and therefore sexually free and easy. My friends presumed that there was plenty of nudity in our house. Although no one could or would be specific, there was a definite air of nudge nudge wink wink about their imaginings of my home life.


It couldn’t have been further from the truth. I never saw my parents undressed. I didn’t often go in their bedroom and when I did I felt like a visitor on my best behavior. We dressed, bathed and went to bed behind closed doors.  Of course, I thought this was normal until I was old enough to go round friends’ houses early or late enough to catch members of their family in their bedclothes. I remember the strangely liberating shock of seeing George Middle’s father sitting in his vest on a Sunday morning.


Even more mind blowing was calling round mates’ houses on a Saturday evening ready for a night out when their mothers, sisters or girlfriends were running around in an appealingly half ready state. I had never even seen my mother in her underwear.  My father was always buttoned up in every sense possible. Always shaven, always in a shirt, usually with a tie. Always with his carefully polished shoes firmly planted on the ground, always polite and considerate towards my mother, never openly affectionate. As I sunk into my teens he drove me mad. So controlled, so emotionless, so unmovable. He went uncomplaining to his boring factory job, returned uninspired to his ordered home.


There was one glaring anomaly in this picture. Dad had a passion; his photography. It was, from as aesthetic point of view, a good job the house was so sparsely decorated, for every wall was covered with photographs Dad had taken. He developed them himself, black and white, in the old outhouse which was set up as a tiny darkroom, framed them simply, and hung them where he found space.


Many were truly beautiful. I realize now, as I couldn’t have known then, that Dad had a real talent, an innate ability, and a deep artistic sense. In my young ignorant state I only knew that many of the pictures were a pleasure to look at, to blank your mind and escape into.


All were of landscapes. Towns, countryside, elements of nature; but never twee or fey. It was again, in my teens, that great and terrible age of questioning and realization, that it dawned on me that there were no people in any of Dad’s photos. There were never any figures at all, not even caught by accident. No pictures of any family, no affectionate studies of my mother, and none at all of me. I knew he took shots of us, but the results were never displayed.


The years crept forward, my unnamed frustrations growing, the house seemingly shrinking, and although I dare say my parents hadn’t changed at all, to me they seemed to have become stifling with their self-control, almost intolerable.


I wanted conflict. I needed to clash horns with someone but I couldn’t get a rise. I wasn’t very good at being rebellious and difficult, I didn’t really want to do extreme things. I just wanted some life, some zest, a bit of juice in the dry emotionally austere atmosphere of our house.


My frustration grew into a terrible monster that churned my stomach, waiting to burst through the fence of reasonable behavior. It finally escaped unexpectedly over a trivial comment.


It was late one Sunday morning, not long after my fifteenth birthday. I was prowling the house, waiting to bolt dinner so I could escape to George’s to hang out, smoke, and fight a little; all the important stuff. I was decked out in my best brown wide collared shirt, the crimplene flares that hugged my arse and a wide striped tank top; I knew George’s older sister would be around.


So I was feeling sharp, trendy, with it; too powerful and modern for the small quiet polish-worn rooms. The hall clock ticked heavily, muffled sounds of cooking came from the kitchen, my footsteps dull as I paced in and out of the living room.


Suddenly Dad annoyed the shit out of me for sitting there reading his paper in his square boring stiff clothes; so formal, his collar buttoned in his own house on a Sunday for God’s sake! I made a puerile comment about the headline of his paper and he responded vaguely, dismissively. Behind my eyes rage ignited and flared. I felt a huge anger growing. I luxuriated in it, part of my mind delightedly noting that many clichés I had read of were true; a sudden ingress of black, a physical pressure in the head, a rising sea of red, seething rolling waves of sensation.


I started muttering through gritted teeth that he didn’t listen; he was arrogant to dismiss me. The ball was rolling; I moved onto shouting.  A personal attack; he was too old, too out of it, he had no idea what was really going on, what the real world was like, his outlook was narrow, closeted, he never went anywhere, never did anything new, never opened his mind.


At first he looked mildly annoyed and murmured a few replies. I was quickly picking up the pace and volume, I didn’t want to hear anything he said. So he carefully folded his paper and sat, brows slightly furrowed as if watching an interesting spectacle, an unusual phenomenon, which I suppose it was. This infuriated me further - the patronizing parent who I imagined was inwardly sighing ‘it had to come sometime now he’s a teenager.’


I wondered if he was getting angry as I watched his jaw clenching and his frown deepening, but I was in absolute control, reveling in the power of my anger. I really let rip, I shouted and yelled and roared at him.  As I got more vitriolic and offensive his face grew paler. He was listening intently and was beginning to look more distressed and sad than angry. A shrunken white-faced old man in a washed out shirt gripping the arms of his faded armchair. The spotless window glass allowing in a bright rod of light beside him, dust motes dancing lazily, oblivious to the drama.


I started to get frightened and felt a dip in my attack, a waver on my part. This goaded me further as I couldn’t allow my own weakness - I’d set myself a task, I had to carry on, see it through, to win or something. It was dawning on me that if Dad wasn’t going to take control then the conclusion was up to me - but where was I heading, what did I want. It felt as if I was doing something terrible and wonderful at the same time.


As my poor pea brain was realizing all this my silly mouth kept ranting away. I found myself saying increasingly hurtful, silly and unkind things that I knew, once said, could never be taken back. I said he was a prude and a freak because he always kept his shirt buttoned, he was afraid of his own body. I depicted him as grotesque and screwed up. 


I said he only cared about himself, we weren’t a proper family, and he didn’t really love me. If he loved me or Mum he’d have our photos on display like normal people. I was feeling sick and drained, sorry as hell but still fighting. I wanted to storm out just to end it but that was too immature. I struggled to remind myself he was wrong and bad, he was the enemy.


I ran out of words, but not all the anger had gone, I stood before him, huffing and puffing, my arms so tense they made involuntary movements. He took a deep long breath, whistling unappealingly through his nose. I knew he was about to speak - the fire in my head said if he patronizes me or tells me off, by God, I’ll kill him.  My heart lurched when I saw tears in his eyes. Never, never had I seen my father cry.


Slowly, awkwardly, as if he’d aged by decades, he pushed himself up out of his chair. I thought he was going to walk out on me. The last sparks flared; if he did that, I would lose the game. But he shuffled over to the sideboard, and fumbled around with the glasses and bottle of brandy that had been there for ever, untouched. Another shocking first - he never drank at home.  I was numb with disbelief when he held out a glass for me. My mumbled thanks sounded ridiculous, ingrained manners after unbelievable rudeness.


A strange moment - we stood in silence taking the brandy as if it were a cure for the situation. My father stared at me as he drank, composing himself, then motioned me to a chair. Carefully, he blew his nose, cleared his throat and began speaking, his accent a little heavier than usual.  “David, there’s much I’ve never told you. I thought after all this time things could be forgotten, but you are becoming a man and I realize now you do need to know.”  He took a deep breath and sighed.


“Your mother and I grew up in a little village near the border. We knew we were meant for each other. We were very much in love, we had so much hope, we were so full of plans. It seemed there were so many wonderful things ahead for us; we married, we studied and trained. I taught myself photography, Anna taught us both to dance. We felt bursting with happiness.


But then the world went insane - our village was ripped apart. The Nazis came - our parents were the first killed. Both of our brothers and their wives were tortured and hung in the village square. Anna’s sisters were raped and shot. Anna and I by chance ran in the right direction at the right time, and after a nightmare journey, managed to get to England.


Your mother never recovered. The spark, the joy, the life in her had gone. I expect I seemed the same. We were able to serve in the war, and after to carry on working; we had a nice little house, we knew we were so lucky, but at the same time we wondered what was the point to be alive any more.


We still had bad times. People distrusted foreigners, stupid ignorant people thought we were German and called us Nazis - can you imagine how that felt? Before, we had always talked of having children; Anna wanted them so much, perhaps five or six! But after all the shock and the stress, Anna wasn’t well, so nothing happened.


But then, when I thought perhaps she was too old, she came to me crying with fear and joy that we were to have a child. I cried too.


I cosseted and pampered Anna as best I could as her belly grew. We were always torn between the happiness of new hope, and the terrible fear that it would destroy us if anything went wrong. And grief still weighed so heavy - Anna should have had her mother and her sisters around her at this time. I knew she felt alone in a foreign land.


Then you arrived. I was unprepared for the strength of my emotions. We loved you so much. We loved you desperately, violently. We clung to you as the one light in a dark world, a little baby on which we would hang all our longing and regret and needing. We near smothered you with our love.


I knew this wasn’t healthy, that it would be no good for you in the end. I took so many photos of you. You were born beautiful, not scrunched up and red faced like some little fellows are, and the very first photograph I took of you was the best.


One day I mislaid that photograph. It was in the house but I couldn’t find it. A sick panic came upon me like a madness. When we had escaped from our village, we ran with nothing. All was later destroyed by fire, so we came here with no single picture, no memento, no reminder of our loved ones. 


I have tortured myself with the regret that we did not just snatch an album, a photograph, if only of one person - something to hold in your hand and feel still a connection with all that is lost.


So when I lost your photograph it was a metaphor for losing you, worse still than losing all the others. I found it shortly afterwards, and never allowed that to happen again. That’s why I have no portraits on the walls; people, they are kept more safely than that.


Then one day, while you were still small, a plasterer at work took off his shirt. He had on his back a picture of his dog, and it was very good. So I asked him how that had been done, and he told me all about it, and that is how I came to know about tattoos, and how they are made, and where you can go to get one. I thought to myself, what a very good idea!


So, I went and had one made. I had a copy of that first photograph of you made on me. Your mother loved it, but she said by the time it had healed you didn’t look like that any more - you were growing so quickly. It was agony for me to go off to work and leave you. I didn’t want to miss a thing that you did. I was jealous of your mother being at home all day with you - she would sit making you beautiful little clothes while you slept. 


Always we’d be saying to each other isn’t he beautiful? And I’d get my camera and take another photo of you, and we’d look at my tattoo and say hasn’t he changed? And I’d say, don’t worry I’m going back for a touch up - that became our little joke.


Visiting the tattooist became my indulgence. He was a very sympathetic gentleman - kept his shop open late so I could go after you were asleep. I asked if he minded if I talked while he worked, which he didn’t, but I shouldn’t always expect a reply as he was concentrating. 


So I told him all about you; your development, your milestones, the funny little things you did. I felt it all went in with the tattoo, every drop of love with every drop of ink.


The pain of course is not severe, but even that seemed right. It was a bittersweet experience, pain for my family, pain that you should have had grandparents and aunts and uncles to love you too.  


My tattooist gentleman listened so well to me, and after his work we always took a small drink together. He was a quiet, wise man, who had seen many terrible things in the war too; there was much we didn’t need to say.


He helped me see that oppressive love for you would become a bad thing. We must not burden you with our sadness and the shadows of the past. We must not keep you locked away with us - we had to help you out into the world. If we were overprotective, didn’t let you out to play or to take little risk, then we would be stealing your hope for a happy life. 


Me and your mother talked and talked, and we resolved we had to find the strength to let you go a little, to put a little distance between us so you would be able to go to school, to go out with your friends without us breaking our hearts every time.


Perhaps, though, we went too far. I think your mother cannot trust that you will not be taken too, and so has shut herself away to hide from any more hurt. She has never recovered from the war, she knows she has a kind of illness from the trauma that makes her cold. But she was determined not to spread her grief to you, and so has kept herself a little from you. 


And so you see, we have tried to make you free. Free from our past. I am so, so sorry if you feel I am not close to you, but in fact, you would not be able to comprehend how much I love you, how important you are to us.”  I sat, shocked, as my father smiled at me. Then I crawled across and clung to his legs, hot tears running down my face. I had known absolutely nothing of these events; my parents seemed suddenly like strangers with terrible histories. It was as if I was seeing them as real people for the first time.


I was ashamed of myself, of what I had said. Curiously, though, my father’s story had been so extreme, encompassing events and feelings so big and beyond my own small world, I somehow knew my behavior was not so significant. As he stroked my hair, calming me, I knew I was forgiven.


There was so much to take in, everything had changed. I was aghast at my mother’s suffering - I wanted to rush out and kill those responsible, I wanted to hug her and clown around to cheer her, make her well. At the same time I was frightened to go near her, a thin vessel of hurt who might break if I touched her. 


Dad wasn’t small and grey and funny and foreign any more, he was a hero. In my eyes he had saved my mother and won the war. He’d had the strength to go to work and keep us together instead of going mad. I knew all these big thoughts would take a lot of mulling over later.


For now, the most immediately amazing discovery kept popping up; square old sensible Dad had a tattoo! Like the workingmen, the muscled men, the slightly dangerous looking self-possessed men I had seen! My Dad!  “Can I see it?” I croaked, husky after the shouting and the tears.  “See it? See what?” Dad sounded puzzled, lost in reverie. “Your tattoo, Dad.”  “Oh, ‘my tattoo’” Dad chuckled, and I felt a bit confused. “Well, I’d said I’d never show it to anyone, except your mother of course, but secretly I think I’ve been waiting for you to be old enough to ask.” 


Which was a strange idea, for unless he told me, how was I to guess?  With a small proud smile Dad carefully unbuttoned his cuff and very deliberately rolled up his shirtsleeve. As if presenting himself for a blood sample he held up his inner forearm and there was a little face looking out at me with the black raisin eyes and doughy chops of a babe too young to smile. 


The tattoo looked heavily shaded and old - as old as me, I realized. The features were a little indistinct but it was excellent -it looked like a photograph and it looked like me. I thought it was wonderful.


Dad’s forearm was surprisingly broad and solid. I was just taking in the first ever sight of his body, and the mind-blowing fact of his tattoo, when he said; “That was the first one.”


First one? I looked at him blankly. Did that therefore mean he had TWO? Incredible. He rolled his arm over and there on the back, peeping through the hair were three lively baby faces, carefully shaded together to make one picture. I was a little older here, the features were more expressive. One face was smiling with fat round cheeks, one concentrating with a fixed stare, a little string of dribble hanging down, and one was howling with eyes screwed shut, a gaping black hole in the middle of the face from which you could almost hear the wails.


I laughed, the portraits were so affectionate, the tattooing accurate, artistic and animated. Grinning at me, Dad started unbuttoning his shirtfront. I thought he was teasing me, and couldn’t suppress a gasp when he held the cloth open to show his chest.


Dad was in surprisingly good shape. His belly was quite lean, and his muscles well defined. He only had a little chest hair, neat and white. Unbelievably, his whole front was covered in tattoos. Gently Dad put his hand under my chin to close my mouth, hanging slack with shock, then talked me through the images crowding his chest and belly.


“Here, above my heart, you can see I have your mother, where she belongs. I wanted more of her, but Anna would only let me have one and it is so beautiful, perhaps she was right.”


It was very beautiful. Mum looked young, vivacious, smiling as if she were about to laugh, her eyes sparkling.  “You see, David, how clever the tattooist has been? Using only black and grey ink he has made her lips look glossy and red, her hair look rich and shiny.” I felt tears prick my eyes again as I stared. I had never seen mum look so alive, never so happy. If the bad things hadn’t happened perhaps she would be like this now. 


“Look here, David.” Across the rest of Dad’s chest were more of me as a baby, but in these you could see my mothers hands as she held me up in the air, her arms as she cradled me, sleeping peacefully. The tattoo artist had blended the images through shading, showing the texture of a soft blanket, cloudy pillows around my head.


Across Dad’s stomach romped a boisterous toddler, images of me walking, reaching for a balloon, putting a book on my head, bending over to pick up a worm, shouting, laughing, crying angrily, wearing Dad’s shoes, dragging a toy horse, the sight of which stirred a painful pang of recognition.


The amount of work on Dad was immense. He twisted in his seat to show me his sides, where pictures of me as a four and five year old had been tattooed within frames as if real photographs had been dropped casually onto Dad’s skin. The effect was three-dimensional.


I could see the tattoos continued further round. Wordlessly I touched Dad’s shirt and he shrugged it off, kneeling on the carpet to let me have a proper look. Seeing Dad shirtless really shocked me, for he was so completely tattooed his skin appeared to be black and grey. His back was broad and still wrought with knotty hard muscles. I felt I was intruding upon a stranger.


His back was a montage of action, showing me growing from childhood towards adolescence. In one area streaks of shading captured motion perfectly as I was depicted running through the woods. Another showed me riding full pelt on my bike. Clever shading of dappled light revealed me smiling down from a tree I’d climbed. It was like an advert for a happy childhood.


One tattoo struck me with a pang. Running down the lumbar muscle was a quiet scene of me lying on the floor reading, caught in a shaft of sunlight. I remember Dad taking that photo. He’d come in to my bedroom quietly. I’d been aware that he was there but I’d been totally absorbed in my book and he’d snapped me before I could wrench myself away from the narrative.


I’d looked up just as he lowered the camera and our eyes had met in a conspiratorial smile. That had been a small magical moment, one that I’d subconsciously treasured, and Dad had it for a lifetime in his skin. “He really was a wonderful artist, wasn’t he son?” Dad got up stiffly, his knees obviously hurting. “He knew he was dying when he did these last ones. It was very sad. He was determined to complete my back before he went. He said it was the finest work he’d ever done, it was his masterpiece. I am privileged to have it, and a little sorry I didn’t show it off for him, but we both knew this was very private work.” Dad stared at the carpet, rubbing his chin.


“Fortunately, however, he had trained his own son to be as good, if not better than himself!” With a flourish, Dad unbuttoned his flies and dropped his trousers. I was beyond shock now, so just grinned.  “You see the different style on my thigh. This boy has made all his own tattoo machines; he’s traveled a lot picking up information and techniques. He’s going to be phenomenal, but he’s very modest, like his father.” Dad stroked his leg, as if smoothing down the picture there. 


It was a large portrait, a copy of a rather formal posed photo from a year ago. The detail was incredible, the likeness uncanny. I thought I looked handsome and grown up, and I had been having what we’d now know as a good hair day. The tattooing was so good, it looked like a real person. It was very weird looking at this version of myself, a kind of skin mirror.


I had to touch this tattoo. My fingers found places where the skin was still a little shiny and raised, as if not yet fully healed. As if a big cog clunked into place I realized this meant that Dad was still being tattooed.  “So I have some space left for you as you become a man.”  Dad motioned to the back of his leg, then rubbed his other thigh. “As they say, David, watch this space!”


So this wasn’t all something in his past, all done and finished with, but something still happening now. How had he sneaked off to the tattooists’ place, spent all that time there without me knowing?


It seemed he’d had a whole other life without me knowing. I felt resentful at being excluded, yet thrilled that Dad had hidden depths. I felt I knew him better yet didn’t know him at all, which made me uneasy. Seeing him so heavily tattooed had freaked me out - my father didn’t have skin, he had ink. 


That day should have brought us closer, but there was no miraculous coming together like in the movies. I never really got used to Dad being covered in.... well, covered in me I suppose. If I hadn’t been excluded from the facts for so long I might have handled it better.  I certainly respected and admired him a lot more, and he’s kept that heroic sheen in my mind. I just felt as though my Dad had been replaced by a different, unknown version of himself.


Dad died unexpectedly a couple of years later, his left leg still untattooed. That seemed right, his skin showed the story of my life and that shouldn’t be completed before his own was. I’ve had many years since to contemplate this, and I’m glad the tattoo story stopped where it did. I would have felt uncomfortable had he continued having portraits of me as an adult. 


Was it a celebration of my life or a ghoulish obsession driven by the horrors of the past? I’ve never been able to decide. I see him as a man trapped by the past, a little unhinged, who built a wall around himself with pictures and tried to etch protection for us into his skin.


I never had children myself. Mixed feelings there. I’ll tell you what, though. When sweet niece Shannon finally gets herself into the tattooist’s chair, I hope she gets herself a butterfly, or a flower, or a whole damn troupe of fairies - something beautiful and light that celebrates her presence and lifts her heart forever.  


I hope she feels proud of who she is and what’s in her skin, and free to show it to the world.


By Jenny Clark


Skin Deep 127 1 November 2005 127