Iustitia Omnibus

Another short story.

I only gave people what they wanted. That was the truth of the matter. As I weighed the bags out in my kitchen, I reflected on the nature of the public service I provided. I should add the caveat that it wasn’t necessarily a service that was entirely legal, but one soon learned that legality does not impact demand – a quick glance at history will tell you that. I scooped another pile of powder into a bag. Five bags were lined up on the counter, meticulously weighed and sorted. Each had a specific destination, but more importantly, each had a specific purpose. It was 8pm, and nearly time for my rounds. The fluorescent lighting flickered, and my reflection stared at me in the window, observing quietly. I looked into its eyes and held their gaze. As I stared, I knew that an observer upon this scene would question just exactly why I appeared to be so content, and that would be a fair question. My house was nothing spectacular; merely another suburban pile of brick and asbestos slowly succumbing to decay. There wasn’t a sports car in my driveway, nor was I particularly handsome, clever, or even well-liked. I possessed none of the qualities deemed necessary to succeed in the world – I was destined to fail, and in the eyes of most I had done exactly that. The electronic scales beeped, telling me that one bag was over-weight. I was the walking C grade, and nothing I ever did would ever be of any consequence. Except, of course, for my work. I stood up from the counter and pushed the bags of into my pocket.

Stars had begun to emerge as I neared the drop-off point, beginning their nightly viewing of the world with sets of cold, indifferent eyes. Yellow light from the city leaked into the sky, staining the clouds amber as I moved with the traffic that rushed along asphalt veins. It was going to be a good night. I pulled my car into an alley, the transmission crunching in protest. The streetlights shone onto the road in flickering halos, casting slithering shadows amongst the abandoned houses and windowless factories. I shoved my car into park and wrenched up the handbrake. Waiting was the worst part. The anticipation spiked my heartrate and shook my hands, forcing drops of acidic sweat through my skin. I savoured it, felt its weight, drank it in. It would be time soon enough. I ran a hand through my hair and checked my clothes. Appearances still mean something, after all. I cranked the window and let the night breathe onto my face with its breath of petrol and gravel. Every night had a distinct scent, an energy separate to others. I was one of the few that could feel it. The rush of the traffic, the organised chaos of the street, intermingling ant lines of people scurrying between their sources of pleasure. A black Mercedes turned into the alley, its headlights cutting through the dark in blinding swipes. A rat scurried along the gutter and disappeared up a drain. I felt for the bag in my pocket, tracing my fingers along its outline. The black car slid up behind mine and stopped. It sat for a moment, its engine growling like an animal caged in steel. I don’t know why they persisted with the façade. We both knew why they were here: I have something they want. I pulled a clear plastic bag out of my pocket and held it up against the light. The white powder shone like crushed diamond. I grinned. You can deal with the devil, but the odds are always stacked.

I swung my car door open and approached the Mercedes. As I neared, a window slid down. A middle-aged man sat in the driver’s seat, his hands clenching the wheel in white-knuckled tension. He looked up at me. His hair was dyed black, far too black. His nose was creased from where he had taken his glasses off. Wrinkles had begun to spread from his eyes like spider webs. Despite our efforts, we are all creatures of decay. I glanced over his car. Powerful or not, universal truth is uncaring.

‘Good evening’ he said.

‘Hello, sir,’ I said. I liked to keep things formal. We both knew our roles, and we would play them.

‘Nice night tonight,’ he said, drumming his fingers on the wheel.

‘Yes, it is. Very warm. A good night for a walk,’ I said.

He darted his eyes to mine.

‘Do you have it?’ he said.

I pulled the bag from my pocket and held it up. His breath quickened at the sight.

‘300 right?’

‘That’s right.’

He held a wad of notes out through the window. I reached for them, and touched the knuckles of his hand. He recoiled.

‘Hey, relax,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to bite. You’re one of my best customers, after all.’ I smiled, like rotten fruit.

‘I know, I know,’ he said. ‘I’m just a bit jumpy.’

‘Aren’t we all,’ I said. I placed the bag in his hand and took the money. He snatched his arm back inside the car and put it into gear.

‘You have a good night, Councillor.’

The man froze.  No doubt electric bolts of panic were now shooting through his head, as the realisation dawned that I knew who he was. He was a powerful man, the chair of the city council. He was wealthy, in possession of vast governmental contacts, and was confident that he had secured his place at the top. For a man like him, venal lies were his native tongue, and he was exceedingly good at what he did. Yet, he had merely done what he needed to. A dedicated family man, he dearly loved his wife, and his children. One solitary vice could never bring him down.

‘Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me, ‘ I whispered with a wink.

He sped away in a screech of burning rubber and gravel. I watched as he disappeared into the dark. His hubcaps cost more than my car, so perhaps this was fair. After all, for some things, everyone pays the same price.

That morning, I tied a robe around my waist as I walked to the footpath to collect the paper. I had slept well, a black and dreamless void that was the closest thing on earth to heaven that I could imagine. The yard was overgrown with weeds, snaking over every surface and burying them beneath a tangle of thorny vines. They pierced the flaking weatherboards and buried their way through windows, but I would not remove them. I admired their blind desire to survive, forcing their way through whatever obstacle they may encounter, free from compassion or mercy in pursuit of a singular goal. Fence palings lay on the ground, rotten with age. The gate swung closed behind me, gouging the concrete. I rubbed my eyes as I sat down at the kitchen table. A plunger of coffee steamed on the counter. I flipped open the paper, and scanned the front page. ‘Counciller Ryan Found Dead’ the headline stated in bold black. Now that was interesting. ‘Prominent local businessman and chair of the city council Peter Ryan has been found dead,’ the article continued. ‘Ryan’s body was found inside his car by his wife this morning. No cause of death has been identified thus far. Tributes have begun to flow for the tragic loss of one of our most prominent local figures. He was 46.’ I placed the paper down and poured a cup of coffee. It hadn’t taken much. Just a few milligrams more, and this was the result. The sun began to break through the kitchen blinds in shafts of golden light. It had taken me a while to find the right additives to ensure the desired result, but eventually I had perfected it. Councillor Peter Ryan was just the latest in a long list of those brought low by a deviance of only a few milligrams, and he would not be the last. I killed them all, and my conscience was clear. I only gave them what they wanted. I lined up the bags on the counter. Tonight would be another busy night.

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Best Laid Plans: Ep. 2

So I wrote another one for fun. It’s pretty similar to the first one, but oh well. Maybe I should try to make these someday. Also, I don’t have anything against cats, they just seem suited to comedy.

  1. INT. APARTMENT. NIGHT

 

MARCUS, MATT and RYAN are seated around the kitchen table from the previous episode. They are all in thought.

 RYAN

Public litigation is interesting.

 MARCUS

What about it?

 RYAN

You’re always hearing about huge payouts just because some burke tripped on a drain.

 MARCUS

  And?

 RYAN

It’d be easy to trip on a pipe, roll around and scream for a bit, and then bam – ‘Hello, I’m Ryan and I live in Moneytown’. I’d just threaten to sue if they didn’t pay me.

 MATT

 That’s extortion.

 RYAN

I can’t be charged with something I don’t know how to spell. It doesn’t even sound like a real word.

 MARCUS

You’ll spend too much time in court, and lawyers cost a fortune. Unless you represent yourself, in which case you could make friends with the bailiffs when they arrest you. Also, Moneytown isn’t a real place.

 RYAN

Sure it is. You never watched Duck Tales?

 MATT

Scrooge McDuck frightened me as a child. I would have a recurring nightmare where he would appear at the end of my bed and recite a list of my sins as his head slowly rotated.

MARCUS and RYAN stare at MATT.

 MARCUS

I think it’s best if we just ignore you said that.

  RYAN

Anyway, there’s a construction site out the front. I saw a pipe or something in there earlier. I’m going to pretend to fall over it, pretend like I’ve hurt myself, and then not-pretend sue the council. They must have deep pockets – I mean, how else could they afford all those bins?

Ryan leaves the room. 

 MATT

Does he know its nighttime?

 MARCUS

I don’t think so. Anyway, I have an idea too. Pet cleaning.

 MATT

Pet cleaning?

 MARCUS

Yeah. I found this high-powered dish washer in the paper. I think it’s from an aircraft carrier or something. With a couple of modifications, I think it could be used to wash pets in a fraction of the time other services take. Sounds like an opportunity to me.

 MATT

   Is that safe?

 MARCUS

  Sure.

 MATT

       For the pets, I mean?

 MARCUS

Oh. Yeah, why not? It’s just water and soap. Propelled by a tractor engine.

 MATT

Well, I suppose I could have a look it at …

 MARCUS

You do that. Also, I’ll lead when we go door knocking, as usual.

 MATT

I was thinking I could try to lead this time?

 MARCUS

But you’re terrible at sales. And talking.

 MATT

(quietly) I wouldn’t say that, I did drama at University.

 MARCUS

Yes, I remember that. The new version of Romeo and Juliet where Romeo vomits on Juliet and faints. It didn’t help the feuding very much. Anyway, let’s get to work.

A loud crash is heard from outside, and Ryan shouts in pain. Marcus and Matt look up, but both return to their work.

 

  1. EXT. SUBURBAN HOUSE. DAY 

 

Marcus and Matt wheel a large metal box up to a house. It has two large water tanks attached to it.

 MARCUS

Ok, let me do the talking.

 They knock on the door. A woman answers.

 MARCUS

Hello, ma’am. Tell me, do you have a cat or dog?

 WOMAN

Yes, I do. A cat.

 MARCUS

A cat, great. Does it frequently get dirty?

 WOMAN

No, not really? See, he’s right here.

 A cat has appeared around her feet. It is clean, as far as cats go.

 MARCUS

Hm. Oh dear, is that your kitchen inexplicably on fire?

 WOMAN

What?

 The woman turns to look. Marcus swiftly dumps a load of dirt on the cat. The woman turns back with a puzzled look on her face.

 MARCUS

My mistake. See, your cat is filthy!

 WOMAN

Oh, I could have sworn he was …

 MARCUS

But never fear, for one low fee you can use our patented cleaning system, and your cat will be looking great in no time!

 Marcus picks the cat up, and places it inside the metal box. He turns it on, and it makes a gentle swishing noise.

MARCUS

See, no danger to the cat at all.

 Then, a loud metal crunch comes from the box, and the swishing noise becomes louder and faster. It begins shaking violently. The cat screeches in alarm.

 WOMAN

Oh god, Mr. Sprinkles!

 MATT

Ohhh no.

 

  1. INT. APARTMENT. NIGHT

MATT

Was she upset?

 MARCUS

Well she kept screaming ‘die’, so I think so.

 MATT

I’m just glad the cat was alright.

 MARCUS

You think she still could have paid us. The thing was clean when it eventually came out.

A cry of pain comes from outside.

 MARCUS

Have you seen Ryan?

 MATT

I think he’s …

 RYAN

(From outside) Oh god, my leg! I’ve been laying here for 16 hours! I’ve really broken it! For god’s sake help me!

 MARCUS

He’ll give up soon enough. I’m going to bed.

 Marcus leaves the room.

RYAN

(from outside) You’re not going to bed, are you? For the love of god you’ve got to help me!

Matt looks worriedly towards the front door.

 

END

 

 

Best Laid Plans: Ep. 1

I like to write little screenplays sometimes, just for fun. I suppose this could be a webisode sort of thing, but I don’t know anything about making films. This is basically about three idiots being stupid. Riveting stuff, I know. But it does give me an opportunity to try being funny, even though I usually fail. Also, the formatting is all wrong, but WordPress really doesn’t like importing things.

 

  1. INT. APARTMENT. DAY

Three young men sit around a table in a cramped apartment. The table is littered with scraps of paper.

 MARCUS

So, any ideas?

 RYAN

We could become hitmen; they get paid well.

 Marcus sighs.

MARCUS

Sorry, I should have clarified. Any sane ideas?

 MATT

Perhaps through careful manipulation of the stock market and an analysis of future trends, over time we could …

 RYAN

Boring. And takes too long. We’re trying to get rich quick. Not get rich at some vague point before we die.

Matt looks down at the table, chided.

 MARCUS

I think the best way to do this is to open a business. Identify a product or service that people need, but doesn’t exist yet. Sounds simple enough to me.

They think for a moment.

 RYAN

Personally, I think you dismissed my hitman idea too quickly. It’d be easy. You ring somebody’s doorbell, hit them with a golf club, and job done.

 MARCUS

It’s a stupid idea. Having someone killed isn’t like having your gutters cleaned. People aren’t going to want to hire some idiot with an orange bag on their head to knock off their boss.

 RYAN

You’re just mad you didn’t think of it.

 MARCUS

Matt and myself will try to think of something useful. Matt, you have a background in engineering, don’t you?

 MATT

Yes, I completed my masters in applied …

 MARCUS

Good, great. Now, what if we combined these two products?

 Marcus begins writing on a sheet of paper.

 MATT

I’m not sure if that’s feasible, it would take months of …

 MARCUS

Great! Let’s get started.

 RYAN

I bet I’ll be sitting on a huge pile of cash by the end of the week. I’ve already come up with my ad!

Ryan holds up a piece up paper. On it is written:

 I KILL PEOPLE (YOU KNOW, FOR MONEY, NOT RANDOMLY)

0411-111-111

 

 

  1. EXT. OUTSIDE HOUSE. DAY 

 Marcus and Matt are standing outside a suburban house. Marcus is holding a rather shoddy-looking vacuum cleaner.

 MATT

I don’t think this is ready. Nothing can be ready when it’s been built overnight. I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.

 MARCUS

Don’t worry about that, that’ll come later. We’re raising capital, you see. We’ll generate interest and take orders, thereby creating the revenue we’ll use to create the product.

 MATT

  That sounds an awful lot like fraud.

 MARCUS

It’s not fraud. It’s only being a teeny tiny bit deceptive in order to achieve financial gain.

 MATT

      That actually is the definition of fraud.  Only without ‘teeny tiny’.

 MARCUS

My point is, it’s only a little bit of fraud. Everyone lies these days anyway. The media, the government, the guy who said I took a shit on the hood of his car.

 MATT

He had a photo of you doing that. You were waving.

 MARCUS

Like I said in court, that could have been anyone taking a shit. It could have been the Loch Ness Monster for all they could prove. Anyway, let’s hear your pitch.

 Matt stammers nervously, before speaking in an oddly robotic tone of voice.

 MATT

‘Hello sir and or madam. This is … this is, uh, a vacuum cleaner with an old iPod soldered onto it.’

 MARCUS

No, no, no. It’s all in the tone. You just have to know how to be a salesman.

 Marcus straightens up, and adopts a ‘professional’ tone of voice.

  MARCUS

‘This a revolutionary cleaning device slash internet entertainment center!’

 Satisfied, he turns to Matt.

 MATT

So cheerful lying?

 MARCUS

    Pretty much.

 MATT

I don’t think I had enough time to do this. Normally this would take months, even years, of research and development.

 MARCUS

We don’t have the time to go through a whole drawn out process, we need money now. When they have to make the film about the beginnings, they’ll just have to make stuff up. Ok, here we go.

They knock on the door.

 MARCUS

Hello ma’am! We’re here today with an exciting new product for you. Do you suffer from the pain of having a vacuum cleaner that settles for merely doing the job it was designed for?

 WOMAN

We already have a vacuum cleaner, and we’re very happy with it, thank you.

 MARCUS

Wait, wait! I’m sure you don’t have one like this. Matt, show her.

 Matt puts down the vacuum cleaner and turns it on. It makes a loud crunching sound and begins moving forward. It is very loud.

 MARCUS

Whisper quiet according to some, it ‘cleans’ your house, and may or may not stream movies and music straight to your television!

Matt looks worried. The vacuum cleaner begins moving forward erratically. It is leaving large black marks on the carpet and shooting sparks. A nearby cat hisses at it and runs away.

 MARCUS

With just many low payments, this amazing new product can be yours!

 A loud bang is heard. The vacuum cleaner has stopped. Smoke is pouring from it.

 MARCUS

So, can I get your details Miss …?

 The vacuum cleaner catches fire.

 

 

  1. INT. APARTMENT. DAY

 MARCUS

I’m not going to lie, that could have gone better. Thanks for blocking that punch by the way.

Matt doesn’t say anything, and has a black eye. He looks miserable.

 MARCUS

Well, back to the drawing board with that one. I feel like we were close though. And it’s not like Ryan would have done any better. He would never have gone through with it.

He turns on the television.

 TV REPORTER

‘An idiot wielding a golf club was arrested in the city today. Wearing an orange bag on his head, the man repeatedly claimed that he was running a legitimate business …’

 MARCUS

Although, I have been wrong before.

END

Curtains

As a child, I was admitted to hospital often. Countless nights were spent in the frenzied rush to the hospital, followed by the agonizing purgatory of the emergency ward, seeing out the night in bleary-eyed waiting. Finally, I would be wheeled to the paediatric ward, oxygen tubes trailing behind in matted transparent coils. By the time I was sixteen, I was thoroughly accustomed to the process, and to the hospital itself. The off-white walls that never quite seemed clean; the aseptic lighting that seemed to drain all colour from whatever it touched. I would lie on my hospital bed, watching the routine of the ward, which was comforting in its unceasing process, and leave the curtains around my bed open, completely at ease.

On one occasion, I had been in the hospital for about a week, settled into the comfortable routine that I was now very familiar with. Later that day, a teenaged girl was brought into the room, and placed into the bed opposite me. I watched her for a moment. She was painfully thin, and was almost dwarfed by the bed, seeming to have sunk into it to escape from a biting cold that I couldn’t feel. After a few minutes, I decided to ask her name.

‘Hi, I’m Luke’ I ventured.

The girl raised her head, and considered me for a moment. Her eyes, a vivid shade of emerald green, ringed by darkness and made only more brilliant by the paleness of her skin, blinked slowly as if she was returning from some place far away.

‘Hello, I’m Sophie,’ she answered. ‘How long have you been here?’

‘About a week. It’s hard to tell in here sometimes. Without the television, I wouldn’t even know what day it was.’

She laughed at that, a quiet lilting sound that I felt wasn’t heard often.

‘It’s nice to meet you, Luke. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to in here.’

With that, she smiled; a sad, haunting smile that I have never truly forgotten. She then closed her eyes, and began to drift off to sleep.

Over the next few days, we spoke often, and I tried to make her laugh as often as I could. I liked her smile, I realised. As we talked, I discovered that she possessed a sharp and witty mind, undimmed by the fragility of her body. But I soon noticed things, like how she never ate. Meals would be brought to her, but she would only look at them with distaste. I watched as she hid food around her bed, and as she would take my plates to regurgitate food onto, trying in vain to remain unnoticed. I soon realised that Sophie was slowly dying, decaying away into dust from an illness I couldn’t possibly understand. We began to talk less as her energy faded, despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the doctors and nurses, but still those vibrant green eyes looked out from her bed, viewing the world with an energy I only wished she could harness to fight the demons that were slowly wasting her away. I would watch her during the night, observing the rise and fall of her breath, before I would fall into a troubled sleep. Then, one morning, she was gone. I stared at the empty bed opposite, feeling an immense sadness bite into the depths of my stomach.

‘What happened to Sophie?’ I asked the nurse, as she did her morning rounds.

‘We moved her to an intensive care unit’ the nurse replied vacantly, distracted as she took my pulse.

I remained silent, trying desperately to hold off tears. I was discharged a few days later, and was never comfortable in a hospital again. I never found out what happened to the girl with the luminous green eyes, whether she conquered the illness that was driving her to the brink of death, or if she finally succumbed to it during lonely and anguished nights. I have never forgotten her. From then on, each time I found myself in hospital, I drew the curtains closed around my bed.

Assorted Pottery

By which I mean poetry. I’ve been writing these stupid little poems for a long time, I don’t really know why I keep doing it.

‘Sick’

No sunshine beneath the street

Smiles melt and leak and drip off your faces

The tar breathes black and snarls upon feet

Spitting bitumen blood and untold spaces

Yellow muzzles press on the pane

‘Stand tall, son’, an empty stare

And I’m sorry to say

That I’m scared

Thrashing in the night

Aching like cracked bone

You’re like a sick twilight

and you won’t leave me alone

 

 

 

Tales Told by Idiots

  1. ‘Ataxia’

 

There are no heroes here

the blind frenzy of the drowning man

cackling clocks and bloodless clear,

nights where hope was overran.

 

Tick, tock. That hideous tick tock, echoing through the darkness of my room. Apparently in a real dark night of the soul, it’s always 3am. Whilst I agree that F. Scott Fitzgerald may have had a point when he penned this line, I feel that true despair obliterates time, and renders it meaningless. Time may indeed be the enemy, but in the oozing black anguish of a depressive episode, it too becomes indifferent. 3am could well be 3pm, and it would make absolutely no difference. Ante and post meridian becomes nothing more than a knotted, indistinguishable mess of rotting, worthless time. As I lay in bed, I knew that one hallmark of depression is that any day could be selected from this indistinguishable mass of retreated time, and no matter which one emerged, it would still be the worst day of my life. The reasons for this aren’t exactly clear to me – it seems as if I’m on one side of a dirty window and have completely forgotten whatever was on the other side. One thing I do know is that I’m desperately trying to catch a glimpse at those opposite, those to whom everything comes easy, flitting from task to task, completing everything with such facile grace, that they should be dipped in Lucite and placed upon an enormous pedestal, serving only to remind of the things I can never be. As the sun dawned and intruded through my curtains, I knew that I was just another fool, whose way was now lit.

 

  1. ‘Asphyxia’

 

Nameless yet aimless,

long-since dead and totally blameless.

Just stack my body high,

and take me home.

 

Feet shuffled forward. I shuffled forward. The bills I needed to pay were folded neatly in my hand, growing slightly damp from the beaded perspiration forming upon my fingertips. Most people’s lives are unremarkable, of that I am certain, but they were surely above the level of dullness that I had managed to achieve. It had not been easy. It had taken effort to be this dull, stripping any source of vibrancy of its colour and covering it with layers of assorted, laminated tedium. My life had somehow become the wallpaper of a mid-1970’s flat, which is scientifically proven to be the most depressing décor in history. I bumped into the person in front of me, a beige-shaped mass with lonely wisps of hair that clung to his head like a thought bubble. He grunted. I was surrounded by faces and bodies, pressed up against each other in limp acceptance. Stranded amongst a sweaty, bulging mass of humanity, with no way to get out. Why was it so busy today? Aren’t these people supposed to be working, toiling dutifully in factories of industry and making sure those societal wheels kept turning? Oh Christ. Here it comes again, the beginnings of panic, tingling inside my skull and rising like bubbles in soda. It was unavoidable, inevitable, as certain as death and taxes: I was going to have a panic attack. Normal people don’t live like this, I told myself. Stable people seldom ran screaming out of banks, unless there was a gun-wielding maniac inside demanding money. These normal people were everywhere, apparently. They stood in line, waiting to be served with the serenity of people who, for all intents and purposes, weren’t there – they could be walked through like a breeze, floating lazily in a hazy peace found in intangibility, the disconnection from their surroundings rendering them almost ethereal, subsisting amongst the world in a state of living humdrum. It would be a perfect way to live; untroubled, unimpassioned, and tranquil to the point of flat effect, and I was extremely jealous. The line shuffled forward. The tellers counted their cash, as the branch manager glided behind them like a black-tied shark. A cough sounded, wet and rasping. Still the panic rose, and I knew that I had to get out of there. That seemed to be all I knew, an all-encompassing fact that took precedence over all other considerations. I was stranded amongst this grey, sweating throng for a reason: the bills needed to be paid. Red-inked and angry, they greeted me like wasps every morning at the mailbox, and were quite clear in their warnings to not be ignored. They would just have to wait. I wished that I hadn’t thought about where I was, or why I was here, or that my brain had even made the rather poor decision to fire a single synapse. It just didn’t pay to think too much. Thinking too much, I had discovered, had an inexorable tendency to turn an otherwise manageable day into one that could quite easily come to a close at the end of an extension cord. I pushed roughly through the crowd, before the automatic glass doors slid open, and ushered me out into the cold, winter’s midday.

 

  1. ‘Hypoxia’

 

Web-cracked hope and shattered faith,

tracing fingers where you used to be,

smiling knives flash in the night,

as you recede away from me.

 

I sat in the McDonalds and picked at my food. Talk bubbled around me, the chatter rising and falling amongst the earth-toned walls and non-threatening décor. I wasn’t always like this. I swear I used to feel things, other than gasping panic and pitch-black despair, of course. It would be nice to experience a version of life that didn’t feel like it was pushing through several layers of Styrofoam. I scrunched up my food into a tight ball, my appetite now vanished. A family ate near me, their jaws moving in rhythmic unison, swallowing in breathless gulps. The largest creature sat at the head of the table, slurping the remnants out of his drink. Someone belched. A grin spread across his pink, snouted face, and the family brayed loudly, spraying pieces of half-eaten food into the air. When you haven’t slept in thirty hours, the world is ugly. I cannot bear to look any more. Rain splattered on the window, and wind blew fast food detritus across the car park. All I wanted now was to get home, where the only ugly thing that remained was myself.

Regretstacy: Pain and Pigments

 

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As I walk in through the front door of the tattoo parlour, my pulse immediately quickens at the sound of the needle. It’s an unmistakable sound, angry and buzzing like a supercharged swarm of wasps. It is the primary tool of the tattoo artist. A wickedly sharp needle connected to an electric motor, it enables the tattooist to create works of surprising intricacy, but is also the main method of dispensing pain. Pain and tattoos are inextricably linked, and it is not possible to have one without the other. It’s simply a part of the process. As I walk further into the studio, I wonder if the pain becomes alluring to some, an agony-induced rush that cannot be replicated by any other means. A ragged groan sounds, rising above the buzzing of the needle. It is not the sound of someone enjoying themselves. Everyone is different, I suppose.

The parlour is clean, tidy, and mostly empty today. The tang of antiseptic fills the air. Appearances mean a lot in this business. No longer are tattoo parlours the hangout of bikie gangs, criminals or other undesirables. Artwork of surprising beauty line the walls; a delicate Japanese print of a samurai, a surreal traditional painting of a flower-laden skull, exploding with vivid colour. Professionalism and legitimacy are important parts of the image of the modern tattooing industry, and this studio has clearly aimed to be in line with such an image. It is not a trendy studio within the inner suburbs, where artists are in high demand and often booked out six months in advance. Located in the outer east along a busy main road, walk-in traffic and word of mouth are vital for a place such as this. The studio must be inviting, friendly, and, most importantly, the work must be good.

James and Michael are the two artists working today. Both are heavily tattooed, which is comforting in a way – they have felt the pain and live with the permanence that is the nature of tattoos. James, in his early-twenties, is excitable and talkative. Having just completed an apprenticeship, he approaches every job with enthusiasm, and has a habit of talking constantly to clients even if they aren’t talking back. Perhaps some find the constant chatter soothing, a way to distract themselves from what is happening to them. James’ father was also a tattooist, ink ingrained in his family not only on skin, but in tradition. He is hunched over the ribcage of a middle-aged man, halfway through a detailed piece that envelops most of his right side. This is where the earlier groan came from, and I can understand why. Bony and extremely sensitive, the ribcage is a notoriously painful place to get a tattoo. Michael, slightly older and more reserved, sits behind the counter. He doesn’t tend to talk to clients, preferring instead to focus upon his work. Not much of a talker myself, I appreciate his approach. He looks up as I near the counter.

‘You’re a bit early, mate. Haven’t finished copying your design yet,’ he says.

Coming in early isn’t always appreciated, I have noticed. It’s almost as if the process of his preparation is ritualistic and private, not intended to be seen by others. This tattoo parlour may be one of the few places on earth where the advice ‘Be five minutes early’ does not hold.

‘Yeah, sorry about that. Just thought I’d come in a little early this time,’ I say.

Michael eyes me suspiciously. Perhaps my arrival during his preparation makes him feel rushed, robbed of being able to complete his routine to schedule. Another explanation could be the inability to fathom just why someone would want to be early to an appointment that mostly involved having pain inflicted upon you. Whatever the reason, I get the distinct feeling that I should leave him alone. I walk over to the tattooing tables, where James continues to work. Essentially massage tables, most work will involve lying down on them at some point. Despite being padded, they are never comfortable. James continues to talk at his client, who lies red-faced and silent, hands clenched into tight balls at his side.

‘G’day Luke,’ James says, looking up from his work. ‘You’re in today, yeah?’

‘Yeah, Michael is doing it,’ I say.

‘Nice, nice,’ he says, nodding. ‘Thought I was doing you for a second. Was going to have to tell you to come back tomorrow – this one will take a while.’

James has a habit of being somewhat flaky with his appointment times, as I have discovered in the past, but he doesn’t mind people arriving early. Everything is open and accessible with him, in contrast to the more guarded nature of Michael. I look down at the silent man on the table. He doesn’t look like the sort of man who would be getting tattoos, but that definition is becoming increasingly vague these days. I know he probably doesn’t want to talk, but I decide to risk a conversation.

‘Looks good,’ I say. ‘How does it feel?’

He looks up at me. Drops of sweat fall from his face and onto the table. His skin, flushed red earlier, has now begun to pale as the ordeal of the process takes its toll. His eyes lock onto mine. I get the feeling that I have asked a profoundly stupid question.

‘How do you think it feels?’ he spits. ’It bloody hurts.’

I nod. There really isn’t much else to say, and he obviously isn’t in a chatting mood. It occurs to me that tattooing, despite usually being derided as a realm beset by regret and poor decisions, does have advice to impart: sometimes, you have no choice but to grit your teeth, endure, and hope that it in the end, it will all be worth it. Both in life, and in ink.

That the man doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a tattoo isn’t altogether surprising. Tattoos have become increasingly accepted amongst mainstream society, and have subsequently seen an explosion in popularity. 19% of all Australians, or one in five, have a tattoo. Whilst traditionally seen as meant solely for the young and rebellious, over a third now get their first tattoo at twenty-six or older, with 20% of people waiting until their mid-thirties to go under the needle. Although some will never be accepting of the practice – my mother being one such person – it seems that the long-held image of the ‘typical’ type of person to have tattoos doesn’t exist. Now, it seems, it is all of us.

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In many ways, this surge in popularity has seen tattooing move away from its roots. Its popularity amongst women has soared, with women now more likely to have a tattoo than men, almost one in four. Linked traditionally to masculinity, modern tattoos have now become a common feature amongst both genders, shifting dramatically away from its male-dominated historical basis of naval tattoos and bikers. However, it has not completely abandoned its past. As with most forms of art, artists often look to the past for inspiration and influence. The current popularity of traditional tattoo design, which stems from the naval tattoos of the early 20th century, is a result of this. The resurgence of this style, with its bold outlines and intense colouring, has replaced the more familiar tattoo designs of inspirational phrases and tribal symbols, with over half of all tattoos now being a picture, or drawing. Tattoos have certainly come a long way, both in artform and acceptance. However, some contradictions remain. Whilst it is true that more people than ever are likely to have more than one tattoo, about 26% of people answer in the positive when asked if they have ever regretted getting a tattoo. This paradox lies at the very heart of tattoo culture – why, after all, would someone continue to get tattoos, when you end up regretting them? Despite the advancements made, it seems some clichés about tattoos may hold true after all, which raises an altogether unsettling proposition: perhaps my mother was right, and I will eventually come to regret my tattoos. I hate it when parents are right.

‘Ok, I’m ready to start,’ Michael says, beckoning me over with a wave.

I walk over and sit down. Little thimbles of ink are lined up on the bench, each held in place with a smear of Vaseline. Fire red, emerald green, golden yellow – these colours will soon be punctured into the skin of my arm, where they will stay to be faded only by time and sunlight. Michael tests the tattoo gun which responds with a piercing buzz. Already I can feel sweat forming on my hands. My pulse speeds up. The anticipation is almost like a drug. People with tattoos do say that it is hard to stop at just one, and perhaps this is the reason why.  It is this thrill that they chase – the pounding pulse, the sweating hands, a way to feel alive. Michael dips the tattoo gun into a thimble of black ink. The outline is always done first, with shading and colouring done later.

‘Good to go?’ he asks, tattoo gun held in air.

‘I’m ready’ I say.

I never really know if I am, but I always lie. It’s usually good enough. The needle touches the skin of my arm. Biting and sharp, it is akin to a few small cuts at first, an annoyance more than anything. It eventually grows over time to feel like shards of molten glass tearing at your skin. I am not anticipating a good session. The inside of the bicep is another notorious location for a tattoo, eliciting grimaces from those I asked about it. So far it isn’t too bad, but I know that time is the enemy. It will only get worse.

As Michael works, I think of my mother. Every tattoo I get would invariably bring forth similar statements. ‘I hope you still like those when you’re seventy’ she would say, shaking her head.  She would then repeatedly point out that they would be there forever, as though that fact had somehow escaped me. As the needle worked its way across my skin, it occurred to me that ‘forever’ is a term without much meaning to those in the present, which is most of us. It is simply too vast and shapeless to have any opinion on. Besides, when I’m seventy years old, will I really care what I look like? As Michael pauses to swab blood and ink off my arm, I realise that tattoos are a peculiar mix of both impermanence and perpetuity. The tattoos we get now represent ourselves at that moment, but people are not static. They change, grow, and evolve over time. Tattoos mark these representations permanently onto us, where they remain unaffected by the ever-changing person who inhabits the interior of the skin. They will all come to serve as constant reminders of a present long-gone, for better or worse. If the only thing I regret in the future is a few tattoos, then I think I will have made it out from life well, all things considered.

As the pain grows, Michael pauses to refill a container of ink. I look at the tattoo that is beginning to take shape on my arm. The black ink stands up prominently, forming ridges across my skin. My arm is already beginning to swell. The skin of my arm has turned an angry shade of red, indignant that I would be allowing this to happen to it. I take a deep breath, and await the return of the needle. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.