|Denlea wasn’t the sort of town you’d expect to see a tattoo-come-body-piercing parlour, but there it stood. 'HIBISCUS - Body Art and Massage' shared a row of grey stone terraced buildings with a chip shop, a boutique for mature ladies, a hardware shop, a butcher’s and The Copper Kettle Café.
Its neighbours had opposed the opening of the tattoo parlour, objecting to the type of clientele it might attract. Jimmy Marshall was accustomed to objections however, and wasn’t about to give in to these.
On this particularly day, a steamy one as a rare bout of sunshine poached the rainsoaked streets, Jimmy was close to finishing a design he'd been working on for almost four months. A client, a keen SCUBA diver, had commissioned him to draw an octopus's tentacle wrapped around his lower leg. Jimmy snapped shut his sketchbook however, when his stepbrother entered the shop and Keiko stood to turn down the radio.
“Bloody ‘ell Keiko, it’s our Phyllis! What’s dragged you in? Have you decided on a design then?”
“Alright Jimmy, Keiko. You look rushed off your feet. It’s a ‘ard life eh!”
“Eh, less o’ the cheek. ‘ow come you’re not at work any’ow? They finally sacked you?”
“Nah, I just used up an ‘oliday. Me and Debbie are off into Blackburn to look at rings.”
Jimmy Marshall’s mother remarried nine years after his father had been killed in a motorcycle accident and a year later she and Barry Willet had produced Philip. Jimmy was already fifteen when Philip was born and played a large role in his half-brother’s upbringing.
In many ways the two boys were chalk and cheese. Jimmy’s passion was motorbikes, despite the nature of his father’s death, and Philip could never be distracted from football from as young as anyone could remember. Even so, Philip had always looked up to his big brother and Jimmy had recognised his responsibility as role model and had done his best to guide the lad.
Recently Philip had become a local celebrity with his prowess on the football pitch with Denlea FC, and a queue of professional scouts had formed at his door. Unfortunately, so had the vultures.
“Oh aye. Mam was telling us about this. She’s not an ‘appy bunny is she?”
“Tell me about it!” Dawn Willet had phoned her eldest son three days previously. She’d been hysterical as she told him that Philip had announced he was getting married.
“He’s throwing ‘is bloody life away on that bleedin’ trollop.”
“Don’t worry mam, I’ll ‘ave a word with ‘im.” He’d reassured her. He began immediately to think of how best to deal with this one.
He knew Debbie Ireland and was well aware of her allure and of her reputation. Teddy Miller, one of Jimmy’s old motorbiking mates, was the father of her three-year-old girl.
Teddy had been a national motocross rider when he met Debbie and was breaking into the top flight of international competition. She had accompanied him on a tour of rallies in the US and Della had been conceived after a post-race party in Delaware, hence the name.
Debbie had been a crutch to him when a motocross accident had resulted in a fractured vertebrae and she had helped him through a very difficult two and a half year recovery. The recovery wasn’t complete however, and doctors warned Teddy that his motocross days were over. One more jolt of his spine could kill him instantly.
It was less than two weeks after Teddy had announced that his motorcross days were over, that Debbie announced that she was taking Della and moving in with Neil Draycott, a local entrepreneur who’d recently opened a recruitment agency that had just begun to take off. Fortunately, the rafters in Teddy’s makeshift garage didn’t support his weight and his failed suicide attempt left him with only rope burns around his neck.
For this exercise however, Jimmy feigned ignorance,
“So what’s she like then, this Debbie bird?”
The seventeen year old lay back in the leather tattooing chair and broke into a monologue extolling the virtues of his new girlfriend. His eyes swept the ceiling in search of inspiration as he struggled for words to justify how strongly he felt about Debbie.
Jimmy rolled his eyes at Keiko as Philip reflected about how having a mature girlfriend - Debbie was five years older than him - was making a man of him.
He'd expected better of his younger brother. He’d credited him with more sense. Hadn’t he taken great care to explain the dangers of women like this?
“She’s got a tattoo an’ all. You’d love it, it’s really cool. It’s a …”
“A red ‘ead pullin’ a wheelie on a chopper. I know.” Jimmy wasn’t able to bite his tongue any longer.
Philip propped himself up on one elbow and looked confused first at Jimmy, then Kaiko then back at Jimmy.
“I did it.” Jimmy explained.
Philip let this register.
“You ‘aven’t … you know … you haven’t …?”
“’Ave I frig. I’m the only one this side o’ the Pennines who ‘asn’t though!”
This hadn’t been part of Jimmy’s plan and he regretted the words as they passed his pierced lips.
“Piss off Jimmy! I thought you’d listen at least. I’ve ‘ad it from mum and dad, Noddy, Armishire … I thought you’d back me up.”
Philip jumped off the chair hurt and angry.
“Look Philip," Jimmy stood up now. He always thought quicker on his feet, "don’t you think it’s funny that she’s known you all these years and ‘asn’t said ‘boo’ to you, but as soon as you get a sniff of success, she’s all over you?”
“So you reckon I can’t get a bird like Debbie unless I’m famous? She loves me for ‘oo I am. She always ‘as. She were just too shy to say owt before.”
“Aw Philip, come ON!”
Philip headed for the door and Jimmy had to sprint to prevent him from opening it.
“Don’t go mate. Come back and ‘ave a brew. Kaiko’ll do us one of ‘er Japanese teas, won’t you love?"
Kaiko placed the tea tray on the coffee table on front of the two brothers and returned to the satellite chair to continue painting her nails. The chinking of the pottery and the soft tap of her stilettos seemed to echo in the charged silence.
“I know what ‘appened wi’ Teddy,” Philip had begun sipping the soothing green sencha tea even though it was too hot, “but she’s not like that now. That were cuz she were scared for t’ little ‘un.”
“I’m sure she ‘as Philip. You know me, I’ll always stand by you, and I’m not saying you should finish wi’ ‘er. All I’m saying is, why get married? Me an’ Keiko have been seein’ each other for eight years an’ we’re not married.”
Keiko glanced towards her boyfriend with a raised eyebrow. “I just don’t see what the rush is.”
Philip’s replies lacked conviction - Della needed a proper father figure. Settling down would help him concentrate on his football career. It’s what Alex Ferguson always told young Manchester United players.
“But you don’t ‘ave to be married to ‘ave all that, not these days. Just go out wi’ ‘er. Why make it so permanent? You might change your mind in five years an’ it’s too late then.”
Philip was lost for a reply and stared into his green tea.
“Look it’s like getting a tattoo!”
Philip and Keiko simultaneously cocked their heads in confusion. Jimmy explained,
“You’ve got to take your time and think about it so you can make sure it’s the right one for you. Otherwise you’re stuck with something you don’t want, and you’re reminded of your mistake, every single day for the rest of your life.”
Still silent, Philip looked at Jimmy.
“Listen, when I were your age, I were thinking about my first tattoo. Guess what I wanted.”
“A big fat cock?!”
“Very funny smart arse. I wanted a sheriff’s badge here, on my chest.”
“A sheriff’s badge!” Philip guffawed at the image.
“Alright! It made sense then. You know, Marshall? Sheriff? Anyway, …”
Jimmy gulped down a small cup of the hot, wet tea.
16-year-old Jimmy wasn’t like his peers. He forewent football for motorbikes and would spend all his free time negotiating the rugged slopes of the surrounding hills on his trail bike.
His hobby introduced him to a new social network of bikers from the surrounding area and from across the Pennines. His association with these gruff looking men safeguarded him against would-be bullies and gave him the confidence to be different.
He’d dabbled with drugs and booze but thought better of it and took only the occasional drink. Yet his mother had gone beserk when he announced he was getting his eyebrow pierced and again when he told her he wanted a tattoo.
“You’ll look like a bloody criminal. And you’ll never get a job.”
He understood that getting a tattoo was a big commitment, his biker mates had warned him against a rush decision, and he decided that he was going to wait a year. If he still wanted the sheriff’s badge then, he’d get it done.
So it was with conviction that he entered Electric Ink on Blackburn’s Manchester Road. Decko, the tattooist, wore a tight vest which revealed every clichéd tattoo imaginable; anchors, dragons, daggers and girls’ names on his otherwise palid skin. He nodded his understanding without really listening when Jimmy described the tattoo he wanted. However, the design that Decko sketched could have been drawn by a five year old.
Jimmy wanted the tattoo to look like a real badge. He wanted it to look three-dimensional and metallic. Decko paid more attention and tried again but became frustrated when his work wasn’t up to scratch. When Jimmy left Decko’s shop it was without a tattoo but with a new direction. He would learn to become a tattooist and do his own bloody sheriff’s badge.
It was perfect for the creative teenager. He had no interest in academia. He’d inherited his father’s half of a custom motorbike workshop. His uncle owned the other half and agreed to pay Jimmy an allowance while he worked part-time for Decko. He'd save his money then travel the tattooing world studying techniques.
A year later, Jimmy had perfected his penmanship and had embarked on his adventure. He immersed himself in tattoo cultures, living with various communities and tribes. He learned how to make organic dyes and antiseptics as well as alternative traditional tattooing crafts, designs and customs.
He stayed on the tiny island of Tanna for eighteen months. Their tribal initiation involved drinking a bitter hallucinogenic concoction before lying prostrate for four solid hours. The tribe’s artist tapped a hibiscus design on each shoulder using bougainvillea thorns and the juice of jungle berries mixed with ash.
The artist became his mentor and eventually Jimmy mastered the art so proficiently that he’d been honoured with an invitation to ink the island’s chief. It was Jimmy’s finest hour, well five and a half actually!
His own skin became a sketchpad on which he would practice new methods and designs until he was confident enough to paint other people and later, in moments of reflection, he would use the sketches to trace the steps of his journey.
It was while studying traditional Burmese tattooing in Mandalay that he met Keiko. The sight of this dainty little Japanese girl, navigating the city’s traffic perched on top of a rumbling trail bike, stopped him in his tracks. He recognised the bike later that day, parked outside a vegetarian Nepalese restaurant, and couldn’t stop himself from finding out more about its alluring rider.
Keiko had been traveling alone around South East Asia for the last three years on a mission similar to Jimmy’s. She was hoping to open an alternative massage parlour in her hometown of Kitchiba just outside Osaka, and was learning different techniques. Jimmy’s Tanna tattooing story impressed the hell out of Kaiko and she suggested they meet for a drink that evening.
Jimmy’s odyssey had taken him the length of Japan and although he’d liked the nation and its citizens, he’d found their culture very conservative. But this girl broke the mold. It was Keiko who had ordered the bottle of Mandalay rum when they felt bloated from too much beer. Keiko was the one who insisted they go on to Mandalay’s only night club and it was Keiko who had virtually carried a rubber legged Jimmy back to her hotel room.
They decided to amended their itineaccomplish that they could accomplish each of their missions, whilst traveling together and sharing the highlights of their travels.
U Bein’s bridge, 11km and an easy bicycle ride from Mandalay, claimed to be the world’s longest teak bridge - the two travelers wondered how many bridges it competed with. The bridge spanned a huge lake and was used as a practical causeway for the residents and traders of the two villages.
The locals tolerated, with typical Burmese warmth and patience, the swarms of tourists who persistently clogged up the teak boardwalk. Local activity around the bridge offered an idyllic scene of rural life.
Fishermen in swallow tailed boats moored themselves to its posts where the fish took shelter from the heat of the sun.
Chalk white buffalo were driven to scratch furrows in the sun-baked lakeshore by farmers who relied so heavily on the paddy fields.
The sunset cast long shadows of the bridge’s woodwork and cycling villagers wearing conical straw hats on the jade coloured lake surface like charcoal drawings.
Jimmy and Kaiko sat in an isolated spot on the edge of the lake absorbing the atmosphere. Kaiko laid her head on Jimmy’s shoulder and sneaked a peek of his doodled scene of life around the bridge. She insisted that he tattoo her that evening, she wanted to be reminded of the moment forever.
That night Jimmy sterilized five sewing needles and strapped them to the end of an eighteen inch long piece of bamboo. Kaiko lay on her front on Jimmy’s hotel bed wearing a short t-shirt and panties so as to expose her lower back which was to be the canvas for Jimmy’s masterpiece. Jimmy couldn’t contain his arousal and was careful not to let it brush against Kaiko’s pert buttocks as he straddled her to begin work.
According to the customs of traditional Burmese tattooists, the bamboo stick was to be aimed and supported between the thumb and knuckle of the index finger of the left hand, while the right hand jabbed the needles into the surface of the skin. Jimmy worried that his shaking hands might not allow the accuracy that the procedure required.
The potential eroticism of the situation – Kaiko scantily dressed, showing her firm fleshy white bottom curving into a 22 inch waist, and Jimmy sitting astride her on the bed in a semi-seedy back-packers’ hotel room – was almost too much for the Englishman. It was only the concentration required for the task that prevented him from either making a clumsy lunge for his new traveling companion or bolting for the door.
Surely Kaiko could feel this sexual tension too? Or was it Jimmy’s imagination; wishful thinking? This quandary occupied the back of Jimmy’s mind as the dabbing and jabbing went on into the early hours of the morning.
Kaiko proved to be a good canvas. She remained stock-still and uncomplaining for the duration and several times Jimmy checked to see if she was asleep. She wasn’t.
The jabbing action, the straddling and bending and his almost constant state of arousal took its toll on Jimmy and when the piece was finally complete he flopped onto the bed without putting away his tools and ink pots.
Kaiko bounced around the room with excitement, contorting her lithe torso in front of the long wardrobe mirror to view the scene from as many angles as possible.
“Oh it’s beautiful Jimmy.” Her dark hazel eyes welled up with happiness. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And it didn’t hurt a bit.”
Jimmy’s eyes were dry and stinging from focusing on the minute details of the image in the dim light of the room for such a long time and they remained closed as he felt Kaiko land on the bed beside him. “Jimmy.” Kaiko whispered.
“I want to thank you.” Her hair fell over his face and she kissed him before his eyes opened.
“What about this one?” The pair remained naked on the bed, tattoos exposed, with the bed sheets lying on the floor, trying to cool down after their exertions. Kaiko demanded a story for each of Jimmy’s tattoos as she traced their outlines with her fingers.
At the end of each story, some true, some embellished and some invented, she lightly kissed the skin and gave the tattoo a ranking in the list of favourites that she was compiling. So far the hibiscus ones were winning.
As almost a year of traveling together drew to a close, the lovers were forced to consider their next step. They were both running low on funds and beginning to tire of the constant moving, of airport queues and tedious bus journeys. They both longed to be able to stay somewhere where they could relax on a sofa in front of a TV and make their own food.
They had never discussed anything long term although each wondered about the other’s thoughts on the matter. The topic was brought up over diner by Jeronimo, an Argentinean architect who, like Jimmy and Kaiko, had come to Cambodia to see the magnificent Angkor Watt.
“So where are you going to end up? Japan or England?” Later that night they were both relieved to learn that each would be prepared to follow the other to wherever was decided upon and they began a list of pros and cons for Denlea and Kitchiba.
There wasn’t much in it. Both destinations offered equal odds of them fulfilling their ambitions, or not. Both towns had a lion’s share of shitty weather intervalled by a short but glorious summer.
In the end Kaiko decided that she might enjoy being out of range of her father’s control. He was liberal by the standards of other Japanese men his age but by western standards that was still very conservative.
She was concerned that a large, long haired, body pierced, tattooed white boy might not meet with his approval, but she didn’t worry Jimmy with this concern. Besides that, she loved motorbikes and thrilled at the image of navigating snaking roads through the Pennines and being part of a motorbike gang.
“It’s not like the Hell’s Angels or owt you know.”
“Please, don’t spoil it Jimmy. I want to be Hell’s Angel.”
“… and now I’ve got everything I always wanted. But imagine if I’d got that Sheriff tattoo off Decko? I’d look a right dick ‘ead and every time I looked at myself in the mirror I’d be pissed off. I wouldn’t 'ave become a tattooist. I wouldn’t ’ave travelled the world. I wouldn’t ‘ave my own business. I wouldn‘t 'ave met Kaiko. And I wouldn’t be irresistable to women like I am now!”
This last part was spoken louder for Kaiko’s benefit. Kaiko looked at Philip and rolled her eyes.
“And it’s only because I didn’t rush into an irreversible decision.” Jimmy annunciated the last two words exaggeratedly, hoping that the point would reach its mark. “I waited until I found out what was out there, until I was sure I knew what it was I wanted in life.”
Philip was on his feet now, looking through the window out onto the empty street with his back to his brother.
“But I don’t want to lose ‘er, Jimmy.”
“Look mate, six months is generally considered too soon to marry someone. It’s not unreasonable for you to tell ‘er you want to ‘ang on. Tell ‘er you want to develop your relationship and to concentrate on your career. If she really loves you, she’ll say ‘yeah’ and if she doesn’t say ‘yeah’ then she doesn’t really love you and she’s not worth all the bother.”
“Aye. No, you’re right James.”
“It’s your life Phil, remember. You’ve got to go your own way. Don’t let anyone else distract you. You need to be in control of your own future mate. Yeah?”
“Yeah. Nice one Jimmy. Thanks mate.”
“Listen, I’ve got to leg it. I’m meetin’ Debbie in ‘alf an hour.” Then quieter and perhaps to himself, “I’ll talk to ‘er.” Philip seemed lost in his own thoughts for a minute then headed for the door. “You coming on Saturday? We’ve got Gavely in the cup, should be a cracker.”
“Yeah, me and Kaiko’ll be there. Won’t we Kaiko?”
“Of course Philip. I’m your biggest fan remember.”
“Magic! Thanks for the tea Kaiko.” Philip punched his brother lightly on the shoulder. “Thanks for the talk our kid.”
“Anytime you need a bit of philosophy on life mate. You know where I am.”
Jimmy watched his younger brother open the door, stop and turn.
“A bloody’ sheriff’s badge!”
“Get out you cheeky little sod.”
Jimmy stood looking at the doorway with a half smile on his face when Kaiko stood in front of him and began unbuttoning his shirt.
“Jimmy Marshall is a big, fat liar.”
“Well, hell lil’ lady. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
Her fingers traced the fading blue outline of a star on Jimmy’s bare chest.
“Let’s close the shop early today.” Said Kaiko.