by Alison Bond McNally

The first story I told on my skin was the oldest tale in the world. Girl meets boy, boy breaks girl’s heart, girl gets ink, impulsively and indelibly.  That first image remains, a splodgy swallow on my hip showing a devotion to some lad who really didn’t deserve it.  The bird lasted longer than the boy and the memory of the needle stung longer than the ache in my heart.

The next time I invited the gun to bite me was during the aftermath of my first real loss.  My best friend, too beautiful to be a cliché, will always be young thanks to an exhausted driver and an ambiguous road sign.  My first acquaintance with the permanence of death required a permanent memorial.  A key in a padlock to symbolise how we always fitted together, the shackle open to show what I was missing. I miss her still and whilst no prayer or picture can bring her back, I get some comfort from having an icon to her on my arm.

My early twenties, the hangover years, I established residence in the tattooist’s chair. Travels were logged with latitudes across my biceps, braille dots and dashes meander staccato across my scapula, runes rising up my vertebrae to ward off harm.  My first real job celebrated with my biggest work yet: a mermaid leaping from the base of my spine, naked breasts and faceless. Her scales meticulously shaded, shedding water and light and the mistakes of my past.  Four hours she cost me, four hours of teeth-gritting, chair-gripping, toe-clenching, breathing in, then out then in again. Focus on the pain, feel each individual tine insistently biting at my flesh. Focus on the breath, the lightbulb, the artist’s n-on eyebrows, anything outside my body inching away from the compelling sting.

“The bird lasted longer than the boy and the memory of the needle stung longer than the ache in my heart.”

Another heartbreak. This time a real one, or so it seemed at the time. No lyric could say what I needed, words were not enough to render the hurt impotent. Again I forced myself to breathe as my clavicle proclaimed that ‘Love will tear us apart’.  It wasn’t love that broke us but something more mundane, the bitter furies of temper and jealousy and frustrating misunderstandings.  Flooded with endorphins, the pain relieving proteins bind to opiate receptors in my brain and heal the hurts of betrayal. As the gun pierced the dermis, each hit felt like a tiny reward. Every pain a tiny victory.

By my thirties I was running out of space, or so it seemed. I met a boy who occupied my time, and engaged my mind.  He brought with him quietness, my search was stilled.  Finally, an anchor on my arm was etched to sing of strength and stability. My heart held fast and sure, my body held in place and acknowledged, sacrosanct. He traced the lines from one picture to another,  laying out a sacred geometry, securing our love. I tell him my stories, the blots on my bodily landscape becoming part of the narrative which binds us together.

Eventually, just as we thought it might never happen the way nature intended, pregnancy forces a pause in my doodles.  The latest work, a seed and tree for those who did not take root is barely healed, the edges still showing the brightest colours of brand-new work. The spreading of my belly changing constellations to galaxies as alien footsteps dance ripples under my flesh.

The baptism of childbirth is much like getting ink; again I focus on the breath as I inhale air full of the common scents of hand-sanitiser and latex. I tip a familiar nod to the fight or flight of adrenalin, encourage the good endorphins, get the oxytocin flowing. I work, longer and harder than I ever have in the tattooist’s chair, until flesh pure and bright and unsullied, is rent from my body.

Pregnancy has rendered marks of its own, no less fine and no less permanent.  Tiger stripes of purple fire alight my hips, silver flashes streak across my belly. Our cells are mingled, the boundaries blurred.  Her cells slip into my body as mine circle back into her.  Traces of DNA from my daughter are knitted into my body and bones and brain and my entire person is changed.  She and I are chimeras, forever harbouring little pieces of each other. My graffitied stomach is now yielding and warm. The intersection of bone and muscle where once I carved renditions of the past has become a cradle to nurture the smallest hope for a brighter future.  My daughter laughs at the pictures on my arm and I tell her that one day I will draw one for her but no reputable artist will work on the body of a breastfeeding mother.  So for now I am in stasis, my body a notebook I can never lose. To be celebrated and beautiful, I am forever altered.

Alison Bond McNally | @aebmcn |

Alison is a librarian, runner and compulsive volunteer. Most of her writing is done in the dark whilst shushing and patting a sleepy baby. She almost never reads books for grown ups and loves a parade.

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