“Can I help you?” I ask.
“I think so. I want to get a tattoo covered up.”
“No, no,” he says. “Can I come in?”
I stand back and he walks past me, the same plastic bag rustling in his hand.
He takes a seat, removes his jacket and unbuttons his shirt. His story is revealed: he has been seaman, lover, convict.
“So which one do you want covered?” I say, taking in the blurred lines of mermaids, and Sailor Jerry pin-ups, the lexicon of names: Mabel, Assoulina, Grace.
He stands and looks in the mirror, pushes his shoulders back to right the sag of his chest. “Do you know what?” he says. “Give me a new one altogether.“
I haul a book of flash from the counter for him to look through. “Where do you want to place the new piece?” I say, my juices up at the idea of giving him something to blend with the cascade of ink on his chest. I hold out the book. “Here you go.”
He puts his hands behind his back, refusing to take it. “I don’t want some ready-made thing. I trust you.” He sits again, whistles a bar of O Sole Mio and looks up at me.
“You trust me? You don’t know me.”
“I know enough.” He slips off his shirt and shows his back to me; there are no tattoos. “There’s a man in Catalunya who collects tattooed skins. He says he’ll buy mine when I’m done with it.”
“That’s big in Japan,” I say. “Well, maybe not ‘big’ but they do it there.”
“I’ve been saving my back until I met the right artist. I want the sun – a great furze and orange coloured ball of light. I want it to have a face.”
“I can do that.”
“I know you can. Like I said, I trust you.”
HE COMES EVERY DAYafter that and I work on his back; the sun’s rays lick at his shoulder blades and armpits; its face frowns on the right side and smiles on the left. He asks me to put bones across the eyelids and a skull on each cheek.
“Everything has light and dark,” he says, “even the sun. We’d be as well to keep that in mind as we go about our lives.”
My machine buzzes and he talks and talks. About his life as a seaman; how Barcelona was his favourite port; how he misses the sway of a boat under his feet. I mention Luke, little snippets: our trips to India; his love of musicals, especially when Esther Williams was involved.
“It gave him such pleasure to watch that Esther swim,” I say. “Luke was a merman, most at home around, in or on water. He taught me to love the sea.”
“I’m that way myself,” the man says. “Why don’t we call it a day for today? Go out for a walk.”
I switch off the machine. “Are you sure? All I’ve done is a bit of shading.”
“Haven’t we all the time in the world?”
He sits up on the side of the tattoo couch; I wash him down gently with cold water and rub emollient into his skin. I watch him put on his shirt; he does it deliberately, with care, unlike Luke who was always in a hurry. I catch the scent of lemon off his shirt, that sweet freshness that always makes me feel hopeful and at ease.
We head along Walk and Run Avenue to the top of the terraces, past the ghost hotel and along the stretch where the residents have planted flowers on the tops of the stone walls. There are daffodils now, sweet and smoky and bright as the sun. We both stop to sniff them and we smile at each other, noses bent into the flowers’ yellow bells.
Once at the beach, we sit on Luke’s bench and look out over the bay and the two lighthouses. Stella Maris watches over the water and the boats, her arms raised in an eternal blessing. I take my new friend’s hand in mine and he throws his arm around my shoulder; I lean my head against his head, feel the heat from his skin. He whistles a few bars of O Sole Mio.
“Brine gets into your blood when you live beside the sea,” he says. “It gets into your bones.”
We sit on, watching the oystercatchers and the ducks, the sway of the marram grass. The bench grows warm beneath us and the sea sways and shimmers under the wan glow of a March sun.
This story is from Silver Threads of Hope, an anthology, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, in aid of Console, the suicide prevention charity. Also featuring writing by Anne Enright, Emma Donoghue, John Boyne, Colum McCann, Pat McCabe and Roddy Doyle, it is published by New Island