The tattoo was a huge butterfly on the left side of her neck, mostly red, with feathery strokes in green, yellow, blue and black. Jay the tattooist had said, “Let’s do a butterfly to represent your fluttering soul.” He’d done it with its wings outstretched, as if it were hovering, about to take flight.
Afterwards, she typed butterfly and soul into Google, searching for what he meant, and that’s how she found her new user name, Psyche.
Four weeks later she was back on Google, typing Tattoo Removal and following links from Laser Therapy into a local chat room for people with facial disfigurements.
Someone was talking about scarring from burns. Another one had cancer. Jacqueline jumped in and typed, ‘Does anyone know about laser for tattoo removal?’
They ignored her, but she kept trying: ‘Does it work?’ and ‘Can you get it on the NHS?’
The burnt man told her to clear off: ‘You’re in the wrong room, Psycho.’
She was going to give up and log out, but then someone with the username Markt-1 said, ‘Psyche, dbl clk Private to talk.’
He told her a lot about laser therapy, more than she needed to know, and it was disappointing news.
‘It doesn’t always work well for tattoo removal. It doesn’t work at all for some colours, and in any case it’s a long, expensive process, quite painful, too. Your best bet might be surgery, but you might need skin grafts. That would cost the earth, as well, even if they’d do it. Failing that, you can hide it with a camouflage cream. There’s nothing I don’t know about them.’
She gave him her email address and he sent her a list of websites and told her which cream to buy. He seemed very knowledgeable, like a doctor or some kind of expert, but he said he’d been a patient. He had a birthmark on his face:
‘It’s a venular malformation, a port wine stain, over the right hand side. They’re quite rare and mine’s a high-grade one. It’s got worse over time. Laser therapy was not that advanced when I was born, in the seventies, and my mother was told there was no effective treatment for me. But she found a doctor who had a go and made things worse. I’m stuck with it.’
She sat at her keyboard in a state of shock. There’d been a leaflet at Jay’s with the sentence: Our tattoos are permanent and will not fade. This time, she’d really gone and done it. She’d joined the ranks of the disfigured. She typed: ‘But I can’t be stuck with this tattoo forever.’
‘Why did you get it done?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Maybe we can figure it out. Tell me what you do know.’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘I like long stories.’
There was no answer to his question that did not lead back to other things. So she told him how she’d got the tattoo because of working for Jay the tattooist; wanting the Saturday job to stop herself stealing; needing money because she just needed money, to go out, to get away from Dennis.
‘He’s my mum’s boyfriend. My mum’s called Deirdre. He’s taking over everything. He got me this laptop, trying to win me round. It’s not new but it works, and I really wanted one.’
You could use the school ones if you lived in the dark ages and didn’t have one at home, but there was always a teacher in the room, walking about and breathing down your neck. One time, she looked up Stealing, trying to find out why she couldn’t stop doing it, and Mr Mahoney paused at her desk just as she was opening a file. She had to close it down quickly without getting a chance to read it.
She and Deirdre watched while Dennis set up the laptop in her bedroom and got her onto broadband.
“I’ll be paying for this, Deirdre,” he’d said, over his shoulder. “It’ll help her with her homework.”
Dennis worked with computers, and they could see he knew what he was doing. None of Deirdre’s other men had ever had a decent job and money in his pocket. What Dennis did was set up systems in offices and sort things out when they went wrong. He was showing off his skills, and even Deirdre seemed interested, though she’d always said she hated computers, knew nothing about them and didn’t want to. She’d brought in the kitchen stool to sit beside him, and Jacqueline saw her lean into his shoulder and breathe in his smell. It was sandalwood, from the soap in his black sponge bag. Whenever Jacqueline saw that bag on the shelf over the basin, she knew he’d be staying the night.
Deirdre kept saying things like, “Ooh, Dennis, that’s clever,” and “Aren’t you quick on that keyboard!” Dennis had a proud little smile on his face, and Jacqueline wondered whether he was giving her the laptop just to impress Deirdre. He didn’t need to, though. Deirdre didn’t seem to mind that he looked like a wizened gnome and had freckly hands with fingers like wrinkled sausages.
Colin asked: ‘Does he live with you?’
‘Mum reckons he will when he’s got his divorce, but I bet he’ll be gone by then. None of her men stick long.’
‘So, where’s your father?’
‘Don’t know. I haven’t got one.’
‘Just you and your mum, then, was it, before this Dennis came? And life was good and now he’s come and spoilt it all?’
‘It was better. Not good, because school was horrible and I’m not going back. And Mum was always bringing men home. I can’t even have a lock on my door. She thinks it’s a fire risk. She gets depressed. It’s like living in a minefield.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Shall we introduce ourselves? My name’s Colin Locke.’
So she told him she was Jacqueline Smith and, because he asked, she said she’d dropped out of school and Deirdre was going to freak out when she finally grasped it because of the GCSE exams in the summer. But she didn’t care about them. They were ages away, and she’d messed up the mocks so she’d fail them all anyway. Her course work was awful, too.
Mr Powell had said, “This is most disappointing. You’ll have to work very hard to achieve some satisfactory grades in the summer.”
She hadn’t been to school since the tattoo and she couldn’t go back, even if she wanted to. Mr Powell wouldn’t let her: “Don’t come back with that still on your neck.” He thought it was one of those transfers that wash off.
He asked: ‘Do you often talk to people on the Internet?’
‘Sometimes, for a laugh.’
She told him about going into a chat room for cat lovers, making out she was sixty-two, a widow called Mabel whose cat had died. They were really sympathetic and said time was a great healer, but they didn’t say how much time.
‘It wasn’t all a lie, because we really did have a cat, and he died. He was called Fergus and he was my friend.’
‘What was he like?’
‘Tabby, and his ears were frilly from fighting. He slept on my bed. He was great.’
They had kept the bathroom window open for Fergus, even in the winter, so he could prowl along the narrow parapet to the rickety fire escape and freak them out when he came back with live birds, mice, even a bat once. He had a special miaow to announce his triumphs, and when she heard it Deirdre would leap up with a scream and all hell would be let loose as the three of them charged about, trying to capture those poor creatures.
She’d tried to write a poem about the sadness of finding him dead in his basket that chilly morning and all the things about him that she wanted to remember forever: the love in his eyes when he looked at her, the way he understood when she cried and told him things, and how having him had somehow kept things together.
She’d known there was something up the night before when he didn’t come to sleep on her bed. Deirdre was already on a downer, lying in bed all the time, being depressed, but when Jacqueline woke her and said she thought Fergus was dead she got up and went to see. Together they wrapped his body in a blanket and took him to the vet for disposal. They cried, both of them, for three days, and then Deirdre seemed to get over it. She went back to work and quite soon she met Dennis, and after that Jacqueline was on her own.
‘Does your mother mind you talking to people in chat rooms?’
‘There was a girl called Vanessa I told her about, and she didn’t mind that.’
‘Do you still talk to Vanessa?’
‘No. She wanted to meet, but I’d made up a load of junk so I couldn’t.’
She’d pretended she was seventeen and blonde, into Girls Aloud and studying for her A Levels. She’d said she lived in a big house, with a brother and sister, a dad who was a doctor and a mum who made brilliant cakes. Then Vanessa sent a photo of herself with a crowd at a Halloween party, all nice looking people dressed as ghosts and vampires and having fun. She said, ‘Let’s meet,’ but of course they couldn’t.
‘So is this a load of junk, too, that you’re telling me?’
‘No. I’m sick of pretending. It’s fun but it doesn’t get you anywhere.’
He said he’d been in a few chat rooms, too, and he’d looked up all the Disfigurement sites. ‘There’s one run by a woman called Beverley, who has a mark a bit like mine but nothing like as bad. She calls herself a motivator – Be Proud to be Different. I saw her on the television once, saying how great her life was and how she wasn’t letting a little thing like a birthmark get in her way. She even said it was a gift from God. I emailed her and told her: if my mark is a gift from God, it’s the sort of gift that makes you say, ‘Oh, but you shouldn’t have.’ She never answered.’
‘What’s it like, for real, your birthmark?’
‘Hideous, a curse, like the mark of Cain. You’d have to see it to believe. It’s deep red and it stretches from eyebrow to chin. It has bumps and lumps and scarring from the failed laser, and sometimes bits of it bleed. My right eye looks half shut, which it is, and the eyelashes never grew back. Have I disgusted you?’
She wasn’t honest, then. She thought that if she had something like that she’d kill herself. She said, ‘I guess it is a bit worse than having a tattoo.’
He asked her again why she’d got it, and a scornful voice in her head told her the real answer was that she couldn’t say no.
‘Jay said people get them to mark changes in their lives.’ She left out the other bit Jay had said, about expressing trauma, about pushing it out onto the skin.
‘That sounds like sales talk. Aren’t they a form of self-harm, like cutting?’
‘Anyway, I’ve gone off it. It is a really good one, though. Jay’s a real artist.’
‘You sound a bit ambivalent.’
She looked that word up, and it really did describe how she felt. Some days she fantasised about walking into the shop and into Jay’s arms. Other days she hated him and wanted to stab his heart with a knife.
If Jay hadn’t thrown her out she’d still like her butterfly, because getting it had made her feel she belonged. But now she wasn’t there, and she couldn’t stand the way people stared at it, looking disgusted, thinking she was just the kind of stupid girl who would go and get a tattoo.
‘What does your mum think of it?’
‘She hates it. So does Dennis. But they can’t do anything because I won’t tell them where I got it.’
She thought Deirdre wouldn’t have said much if Dennis hadn’t muscled in, as if he were her dad or something. Deirdre had a tattoo of her own, a little black star on the outside of her left ankle. She’d always had it.
Dennis had noticed almost as soon as she went into the kitchen for tea. He and Deirdre were eating from a plate of chicken sandwiches.
“Dig in,” Deirdre said, and Jacqueline leaned across to take one.
Dennis said, “Christ! What the hell’s that on your neck? It’s not a real one, is it? Surely not.” He stood up and moved to touch it, but Jacqueline sidestepped out of his reach.
“‘Let’s see,” said Deirdre, smiling, and Jacqueline briefly turned her neck. “Oh my God! Come here, come closer.”
Even then, she’d still thought Deirdre might say she liked it, but she didn’t; she just stared in wide-eyed horror. Then she said, to Dennis, “It is a real one.” After that, she said, “Oh my God” about sixteen times and sat down with her hands over her eyes.
Dennis came a step nearer. “You’re under-age,” he said loudly. “We can sue whoever did it.”
But there were several tattoo shops in town and they had no way of knowing which one to sue.
‘They went on and on, asking me his name, but I’ll never, ever give Jay away. I’ll never say, however much they try to get it out of me. Even though Jay doesn’t want me any more and he’s just about broken my heart. I expect you think that sounds stupid, but it’s true.’
‘No – it’s sad. But here’s a cheery thought for you. Maybe your tattoo has its uses. People who judge you because of it are the kind of judgmental people it’s best to avoid. How would you know that without the tattoo?’
‘Is that how you see your birthmark?’
‘Touché! But you can’t compare. And there’s nothing ambivalent about the way I feel’.
They went on exchanging emails until her eyes stung with tiredness and she said she had to go. She typed ‘Night night’ and signed off: ‘Jacqueline’, and a message came back:
‘I shall go on thinking of you as Psyche, because it was that name that drew me to you. I suppose you know the story of Psyche and Cupid?’
She didn’t, so he wrote it out for her, and for ages afterwards she couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to have a lover who visited you only under the cover of darkness, so you never saw him and could imagine him any way you liked, and in the morning you could pretend it never happened, that it was all a dream, not of your choosing, nothing to feel guilty about.
She didn’t think she’d hear from him again, and she wasn’t too bothered either way. All the same, she sent him an email the very next evening: ‘Hi, it’s me. How are you today?’
He said he’d had an awful day. He’d been to his mother’s funeral. He hadn’t even mentioned that she’d died. He called her Annabel. She was seventy, and she’d had a brain haemorrhage. He said he didn’t feel anything. Jacqueline couldn’t understand that, and he said he couldn’t, either.