The Tattoo Parlour

By Ciaran

Write a short story in which a tattoo plays an important part in the narrative

Another satisfied customer had just left the parlour when Greg Gates looked up at the clock and noticed that it was around quarter to six, about time to start closing up. Greg looked around and noticed that he was the last person in the parlour. Ink Incorporated was hardly the most successful business at the best of times but the frequent storms over the past month had meant most people were battening down the hatches at home instead of heading over to the local tattoo parlour to get inked. Greg wondered to himself if it was perhaps the location of the parlour that held the business back. A small, rural Irish village isn’t exactly the best place for a tattoo parlour to flourish. Greg had founded the “company” ten years ago and the only other person working in the place with him was a 72-year-old woman named Miriam Hall. Five years ago, she had arrived at the door with a present from a customer who was too ill to deliver it themselves. They were very happy with Greg’s work and they wanted to express their gratitude but when Illness got in the way, Miriam had volunteered to deliver the present herself. The present turned out to be a box of tea bags so Greg insisted on Miriam staying for a while to thank her for her kindness. Miriam put the kettle on and she and Greg had a chat that lasted for around two hours before she noticed how late it was. She promised to come back the next day to finish the story she was telling and she kept her word. After a while, Miriam just kept coming back to the parlour for chats and eventually she started doing odd jobs around the place while she talked, like cleaning up Greg’s filthy desk after a long day at work or going out to get lunch so the two could eat together. These ‘odd jobs’ eventually transitioned into actual jobs like handling finances and putting up posters around the village. One day, Greg handed Miriam a pay cheque for her troubles and, just like that, Miriam was a working woman again. She hadn’t missed a single day at the parlour since joining and she hadn’t showed any signs at slowing down any time soon. The two of them would often argue over which of them actually ran the business. Miriam did finance, marketing, greeting, cleaning and anything that wasn’t tattooing. That was Greg’s job. As Miriam pointed out, Greg only ever did one thing in the parlour, but Greg would always point out that if Greg ever stopped doing his one job, then Ink Inc. would go out of business within the hour. Neither of them really knew how to continue the debate after that, so the conversation would usually just fizzle out. Despite all that, Greg pondered, he’d probably call Miriam his closest friend and confidante. Greg then took a second to ponder how miserable that statement sounded. Greg, a 27-year-old tattoo artist and his best friend, the 72-year-old Grandmother who lived down the road and wasn’t even related to him. But Greg didn’t mind.

Miriam had left early that day as she had to help her family prepare for Christmas. That meant Greg had to clean up around the parlour for once. He looked around and sighed. He really had to stop leaving the clean-up ‘till the last minute. But right before Greg could start sweeping the trash from his desk into the bin, the bell at the front door rang and one last customer entered the parlour. Greg knew exactly who it was without even looking at the man. Ink Inc. only had one regular and it was a man by the name of Eoin MacNeill. He’d show up every second week or so and always right before closing time. Greg had tried telling him to come at an earlier hour once or twice, but Eoin would always just nod his head and keep talking so Greg gave up after a while. Greg had had a good few memorable customers over the years, like a Punk Rocker who’d been to every tattoo parlour in the country except for Greg’s or a young lad by the name of Oliver who’d insisted that he was 19. Greg didn’t actually believe him but they really needed the money and the boy was willing to cough up the cash. And, of course, Miriam’s husband Albert, who had come in to see ‘what all the fuss was about’ and had left with a tattoo of a dragon across his arm. But there were none stranger in Greg’s eyes than Eoin MacNeill. You would think that if someone were to go to a tattoo parlour as regularly as once a fortnight then they’d be covered in tattoo’s from head to toe but not Eoin. If you came across Eoin on the street then you wouldn’t even take notice of him, except maybe to admire his gleaming bald scalp in the sun. But Eoin had tattoos, there was no denying that. He just chose to have them applied under his clothes so that he could ‘go out in public like normal’. Greg didn’t judge him for that, but he did always wonder what the point of getting tattoos only to hide them was. Perhaps stranger than that even, was the tattoos themselves. Whenever Eoin came in, it was always the same tattoo he requested, a simple black rectangle, 1cm wide and 3cm tall. The first time Eoin had come in, Greg assumed that the tiny tattoo was simply a clever way to get out of a dare. But when Eoin had come back two weeks later and asked for the same tattoo, Greg decided there was something up with him. But Greg had a strict ‘Keep it professional’ policy. If Eoin didn’t want to give his reasons, then Greg was perfectly happy to not ask. Greg wasn’t complaining either. Eoin’s tattoos were quick and easy to apply and Eoin’s frequent visits was probably the only thing keeping Ink Inc. afloat at the moment. But recently, Eoin’s visits were becoming less and less common. That meant less income for Greg and Miriam and they had had to start cutting corners in the day-to-day business life. No more fancy lunches, no more days off, it was an all four hands on deck approach.

This specific cold December night didn’t seem any different from Eoin’s other visits. ‘Hey Eoin, how are ya?’ Greg said without even turning to look at him. ‘I’m alright’ replied Eoin. ‘The usual?’ ‘Please’. Eoin was never the chattiest individual, so Greg left it at that and got to work. Once the mark was added, Eoin asked ‘Is Miriam gone?’ ‘Yeah she left early today, Christmas preparations and all that.’ ‘Shame. I wanted to tell her something.’ Greg was intrigued, despite himself. ‘Well, how about you leave a message and I’ll tell her about it tomorrow?’ ‘No, it’s alright. I’d rather tell her myself.’ Greg was a curious man, by nature and he couldn’t let it rest there. ‘Well how about you come in tomorrow and tell her?’ Greg could feel his ‘Keep it professional’ policy crumbling in his hands, but his curiosity had finally overwhelmed him after two years of minding his own business. ‘Oh, but I don’t need another tally tomorrow.’ Tally? Greg thought to himself. So he was counting something with these tattoos. ‘Oh it’s alright Eoin, you can come in and not get a tattoo, we’re not going to fine you for it.’ ‘Oh alright. I’ll see you tomorrow then.’ ‘Safe journey.’ And with that, Eoin MacNeill left Ink Inc. to brave the wind and rain outside. Greg’s mind was buzzing however. A tally? Of what? Is Eoin hiding something? Oh god, am I in danger? Greg sighed to himself, resigned to the fact that he now had to know what Eoin was hiding. Greg got up off his chair for the evening. He’d have to talk to Miriam about this before Eoin showed up. Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.

Tomorrow arrived as it always did and Greg opened the parlour at around 8 in the morning. He spent the first hour of the day lounging about before Miriam arrived with the tea bags. ‘Morning Miriam’, Greg greeted. ‘And how are you today, love?’ Miriam replied. ‘I’m doing alright, do you want me to put the kettle on?’ ‘Oh, that would be a great help, you’re a star.’ Greg grinned to himself. If he helped Miriam out as much as possible today, she might be willing to spill the beans on Eoin MacNeill. Deep down, Greg knew he was being a terrible businessman and not best person around either. If Eoin didn’t want to tell his story then Greg shouldn’t push it. But Greg had already made up his mind. He was going to find out Eoin’s secret today if it killed him. For all Greg knew, it might. But before Greg could say anything, Miriam had started her own conversation, ‘Albert’s been thinking about getting another tattoo. It might even be my name, he said. He’s mad about you, anyway, thinks you’re the best tattoo artist around. I pointed out to him that you were the only tattoo artist around but he didn’t listen.’ And so Miriam went on for a good few hours. I can see why she and Eoin would get along. Greg thought to himself while listening to her, she could carry a conversation with a mute. Eventually, Miriam paused to take a breath and drink her tea and while she was quiet, Greg seized his opportunity. ‘By the way Miriam, Eoin MacNeill’s coming in today to say something to you.’ ‘Eoin MacNeill? Really? I wouldn’t have suspected that at all. He wouldn’t say much to you unless you interrogate him first and that just isn’t good for the poor man’s health. He’s a quiet fella and he keeps to himself and there’s nothing wrong with that.’ Suddenly, Greg was feeling like awful for intending to uncover Eoin’s secrets, so he decided, instead of going after Eoin directly, he’d try a different tactic. ‘Say, Miriam, do you know what Eoin does with those black tallies I do for him?’ Greg thought he’d have to do a little more prodding to get to the bottom of this mystery but Greg had forgotten who he was talking to.

‘You know dear, I thought you’d never ask me that. It’s been two years since Eoin first arrived and you haven’t said a word about it. Has anything changed recently that made you suddenly so curious?’ ‘Well it’s just that he wanted to send you a message and I was curious what connection you two had.’ ‘Oh, well, now that explains it. I suppose you have a right to know as well, since you’re the one doing these marks for him. Right, I suppose I’ll start at the beginning. I knew Eoin MacNeill back when he was just a little fella barely two years old, I’d say. His mother was a very good friend of my daughter’s, you see. He was always a bright boy, knowledgeable in the ways of the world, if nothing else. But, sure, toddlers don’t have to know anything, do they? That’s for later in life. He started off alright in Primary School but sadly, he didn’t last long before he started struggling. He was in around third class I think when he just started giving up on school altogether. He stopped listening in class, he stopped engaging with the teachers, he stopped trying to make friends and he stopped doing any homework. His teacher wasn’t having any of that of course, but he eventually gave up on poor Eoin. He wasn’t a very good teacher, everyone said. Once he’d left Primary, Eoin’s mother had him all ready to go for Secondary but Eoin didn’t want anything to do with school anymore. He kicked and screamed cried and sulked but his mother wouldn’t budge. Until, one day, Eoin’s father came up with a plan. He said “Clearly the lad doesn’t want to go to school at all, can’t you see that? He’d have a mental breakdown if we sent him to school like this.” And Eoin’s mother saw his point. But neither of them knew what Eoin would do with his life if he never even entered Secondary School. So, until they could figure out what to do with him, they asked the young lad, if he’d rather go to school or work hard home at the farm? Now you can probably guess what Eoin decided. So for six years, Eoin worked on the family farm, tending to the animals, milking the cows and going to the market on the weekends. Once he reached the age where he would have graduated Secondary School, Eoin decided to go out into the world and find a job that he could do properly. Eventually, he found work as a factory worker, moving crates around in forklifts and all the stuff and that’s where he works to this day.’ Miriam paused for a minute to catch her breath and drink a bit of tea. ‘Now, where was I? Oh yes, what I had to do with all this. One day, you see, around two and a half years ago, I was having a drink at Fionnbarra’s when a young bald man came over to me and said, “Excuse me, are you Miriam Hall?” and I said, “Yes, I am, why do you ask?” and he said, ‘My names Eoin MacNeill, do you remember me, Mrs Hall?”. Of course, I was in a right state after hearing that. They always say it’s a small world but you never know how small until you’re reminded. He bought a drink and sat down at my table and we caught up a bit, he told me what I’m telling you right now, and then he asked me a very strange question, “Mrs Hall, when I was younger and I saw you in your house with my mam’s friend, you were always reading books and you always looked so happy and content. I always wanted that feeling, but I could never get the hang of reading and when I dropped out of school, I lost the knack completely. So what I basically wanted to ask you was, could you teach me how to read?” Now, I hadn’t seen this child in around twenty years, he was like a stranger to me, but when he said this to me, I suddenly felt like I had to do everything in my power to help this poor child. So I bought us another round of drinks and we agreed on a date. And ever since then, we’ve met up once a week and he’s made great progress. Once he’d finished his first book, The Cat in The Hat if I remember correctly, he said to me “Mrs Hall, I’d love if I could get some kind of tally or something to celebrate this” and that was when I had a tremendous idea. So I said to him, “Eoin, I work at a tattoo parlour and I was just thinking that it would be a wonderful idea if you maybe got a tattoo for every book you’d read.” See, I’m always keeping the business in mind, Greg love. We first thought it would be nice if we could get a tattoo representing each book but we then realized he’d be out of body space in no time at all. So we came up with a much better idea and that was the tally marks you know today. And that’s the whole story if I remember correctly. So is your curiosity satisfied, Greg dear?’

For a moment, Greg could only sit there in silence, processing everything he’d heard. Suddenly everything made so much more sense. Eoin’s quietness, his lack of vocabulary, the fact that when he first came in, he had to ask if he was in the right place, it all suddenly fit together like the last few pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. But there was one more question that Greg had, ‘But why has Eoin been coming in so rarely nowadays?’ ‘Well, that should be obvious, shouldn’t it? He’s reading longer and longer books and he’s very happy with himself. Honestly, you never were the brightest bulb in the box Greg dear.’ Greg decided to ignore that slight and focus on how much of an idiot he had been up until now. Eoin’s “secret” was so simple and mundane that he didn’t know how he could ever have made such a big deal out of it. Silently, he patted himself on the back for dodging the pitfall of interrogating Eoin about his secret. That would have been awkward if that ever happened. ‘Do you have any other questions Greg? Because I’m all worn out from talking for so long and I need to down the rest of this tea to recover.’ ‘No, go ahead Miriam’. Greg looked at his watch. It was around 10 past five. Eoin would be hear shortly. I think I’ll give Eoin his next tally on the house, business be damned. Greg Gates thought to himself as he watched the wind and pouring rain outside.