1. a loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970’s.
2. a worthless person
“What does it say?” she asks, pointing to the tattoo on my neck.
“Just ‘Punk’,” I tell her, pulling the collar of my jacket down so she can see the letters stretching from my Adam’s apple to my right ear. She leans in close, although the letters are big, and I can smell lavender in her perfume.
“It looks angry,” she says, turning to stare through the window and out onto the runway. It’s stopped raining but the wet tarmac reflects the lights of the terminal in the early morning darkness. Our is one in a long row of A320s waiting to leave London. Inside the cabin, it’s bright and it’s cold. We’re in the front row, in the business class section that’s big enough for us and a young couple across the aisle huddled over a phone. Behind us, the main cabin is full and noisy. An attendant pulls the curtains as he passes and I’m glad to be on this side of it. I take the silver hip flask from the inside of my jacket. I unscrew the top and take a long drink and then slip it back into the pocket. The lady next to me watches, but she doesn’t seem to care. I don’t think she recognises me. She’s older than me. Her bobbed hair is all grey while my hair still has some colour. Her face is thin, maybe with age, but her eyes are bright. She pulls the blanket from its plastic bag and unfolds it over her knees. It’s green with a yellow shamrock woven into the corner.
“I’ve got a love/hate relationship with it,” I tell her. “I love its story, but…”
“Oh, tell me its story,” she says, turning back, and then rolling her eyes as the safety briefing starts over the speakers. A hostess stands just in front of me holding a lifejacket and a buckle. She smiles awkwardly, showing us how to put the jacket on and find the whistle. I wait for it to finish, wondering why I want to talk. I’ve spent my life avoiding pointless conversations, but I want to speak to the lady next to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last seven days locked at home drinking. Maybe I need a break from being alone and angry.
“It was a late-night tattoo parlor in the west of Sydney,” I say. “Opposite a bar called The Subway where I’d just played my first gig. The girl was barely older than me and she was asleep in the chair when I burst in, probably stinking of cigarettes and tequila. She had trembling hands…”
The hostess passes. “Excuse me sir. Please can you fasten your seatbelt?”
I glare up at her, and then decide against making a scene. She watches while I fumble around, and waits for me to click it in. It’s the first flight of the day and she looks like she’d rather be in bed. There’s a jerk as we start to taxi.
“Carry on,” says the lady next to me.
I turn back.
“…but she still tattooed me perfectly, and shaved my head for an extra five bucks and then kissed me on the skull.” I can’t help but grin, thinking about that moment and the way my heart jumped.
“She made me feel like a different person when I walked back into the club two hours later. It’s that feeling I still remember. Even now, after thirty years. Or more.”
“I like the story,” she says, smiling with me, and then we sit lost in our own thoughts until we’re in the air. I have another drink from my hip flask and a hostess sat facing us sees me. I raise it to her and wink. The lady next to me turns to glance back every now and then and stretches her legs out with a smile. She doesn’t have a strong face. She looks fragile.
“Do you have more?” she asks me eventually. “Tattoos, I mean?”
“Lots. I never finished a tour without another decoration.”
“Another scene in your warp and weft?”
I haven’t heard that phrase since mum. A long time ago. A long way away. In the fever that was a Western Sydney summer. Maybe that’s it. Maybe she triggers a memory of Mum. She would have been about the same age, I think.
“I got my first ones at twelve,” I tell her. She looks shocked. “I tattooed my own knees, with a sad face on one and a smiley face on the other. I used a school compass and a Bic pen. My teacher went mad when she found me under the desk. I guess she thought she’d be blamed for the tattoos or the blood on the floor.” I laugh, remembering. “She needn’t have worried. No-one cared much.”
“Let me see.”
“Why not?” she says with a cheeky grin, “You never showed anyone your legs before?”
I struggle to pull my jeans over my knees and show them to her. They’re so faded and blurred after all these years that it’s hard to tell which is the happy face.
“Show me another,” she says.
“OK. A few years ago, I persuaded two of my musical heroes to tattoo their names on my chest. Even though neither had held a tattoo gun before. One of them was so drunk she could barely stand, but she still did a good job. The other…not so much.”
“Oh, who was it?”
She guesses, and I lift my shirt and show them to her, and she laughs because she’s wrong, but she recognises the names. The couple sat across the aisle look over and he shakes his head. I stopped caring what people think of me a long time ago, and I’ve spent half my life on stage with my shirt off. I give him the finger and he turns away, muttering.
“Which one’s your favourite?” asks the lady next to me.
“Easy.” I take off my jacket and lay it on the floor at my feet. I twist and pull my shirt up to show her my back. There are lots of tattoos on there. Lots of scars to cover.
“The two hoi, one swimming up, one swimming down. It’s called a tebori. It’s unusual; they’re normally much bigger.”
“That’s beautiful,” she says. “What does tebori mean?”
“It’s a Japanese style. The artists are called Irezumi. They use a wooden stick called a nomi.”
I stab at my arm with an imaginary nomi to show her.
“He was blindfolded when he did it. Honestly. I love it so much. The hoi symbolise long life, bravery, and success.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
I consider it for a few seconds. I straighten my shirt and put my jacket over my knees.
“Well, I’m still alive. Bravery and success mean different things to different people.”
She crosses her hands on her lap. I can see that her fingers are trembling just a little and I wonder if she’s scared of flying or if it’s just age. My hands are no steadier, but I know they’ll settle after a few more drinks.
“I suppose they do,” she says sadly, after a moment. “Do you regret any of them?”
“No. But I did have one crossed out.”
“Sounds like you regretted that one.”
“Not at all. I’ve got the name of every song I ever recorded in a list all the way down the back of my left leg and it’s working its way much more slowly back up my right. Some of them I’m even proud of.”
I sigh and close my eyes for a moment while she waits.
“I had one crossed out,” I say, eventually. “Just after my wife and I separated. But I didn’t have it removed. I put a line through it. I was drunk, as usual. It was called Roisin.”
“Ah. I’m sorry,” she says and pulls the blanket up over her tummy. I notice the texture on her blouse is worn away in places.
“That’s like life, isn’t it?” I say. “Hundreds of moments; hundreds of tattoos. They should be appreciated for their beauty. Even the ugly ones.”
She nods and her eye falls on my Punk tattoo again.
“But only fleetingly, Bourbon. Never dwelt upon. Don’t get lost in them.”
So, she does know me. She takes her glasses off and hooks them over the top of her blouse. She looks me straight in the eye.
“Never be bedeviled,” she says, and she smiles and lays her head back and closes her eyes.
I stare past her, through the window. Thinking about what she said. We pass into the clouds, and the plane shakes until we clear them, out in the open sky and the morning breaking above.
She must have recognised the tattoo. The one that everyone remembers, now faded and blue and soft at the edges. Just like me.
The days I hate the tattoo are the days I want to pass by unnoticed. They’re becoming more common the older I get, and this morning in Dublin is one of them. My clothes hide the other tattoos, except the tail of a desert taipan which slithers beyond the leather cuff of my jacket onto my knuckle. I have hair again now, greying but thick, and I’m unremarkable enough to look at. A little worn around the eyes; a little thinner than I should be. More tired than I’d like. But I could be any old biker. Perched on a sparkling Harley Davidson Glide outside a row of car rentals, with a car park full of white Toyotas in front of me and a map of Dublin spread out on my knee. Taking a moment to enjoy the scrap of sun that has fallen from the leaded sky onto the concrete and bitumen. No-one would know that I’m an over-the-hill rock star. The Punk Poet. But the tattoo gives me away.
It’s awkward. Three kids are leaning against a sagging wire fence, staring at me while pretending not to be staring at me. I try to ignore them. A plane takes off from the runway behind them, and for a moment everything is drowned by the roar and the smell of kerosene. The boys cover their ears. One of them, a tiny thing with a mullet and beady eyes, has been absently pulling the edges from the Aer Lingus sign hanging from the fence, while the other two argue in whispers. I can read the “who?” on the lips of the gangly ginger kid wearing a Coldplay t-shirt. The other one is telling him as if it should be obvious. He’s immediately my favourite.
It’s been like this for thirty years. When all of our peers disappeared politely into a hazy fog of yesterday’s fame we stuck around like gum, shriveled and hard and going nowhere. Fionn playing with bands young enough to be his kids, me getting into fights and telling people things they didn’t want to hear. One of our earlier songs called ‘Dangerous Situation’ got remixed to a pop tune last year. It was huge everywhere, and the footage they used of us fighting on stage went viral. Without trying we just keep on staying a little bit known.
I sigh, fold the map away and wave them over.
“What you doing here, Bourbon?” the one who recognised me asks in a thick Dublin accent.
“Just having a break,” I tell him. “Going for ride across Ireland.”
“You going to see Fionn?”
I wince outwardly at the question and decide to ignore it. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m going to see Fionn, and I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there.
“You going to write some songs?” asks the kid with the mullet.
“Probably will. I always do while I’m riding. I wrote ‘Kill the Politicians’ riding across Australia.”
I reach over to my helmet, hanging on the mirror. It’s a favourite I brought over on the plane, custom painted with guitars and knuckle dusters. It says BJ 66 on the back. My initials and the year I was born.
“You guys want anything signed?” I ask them, pulling the helmet on. They all nod and rummage around in their pockets for something. I get a Pokémon card, a receipt, and a crumpled-up shopping list.
“Can you do it on the back of that please?” the skinny ginger kid asks, jabbing at the shopping list. “Only, if I miss anything off the list my mum’ll kill me.”
“Listen to your mum,” I tell him, as I’m scrawling on the back of it with a Sharpie I pulled from my pannier. “Fuck the police but listen to your mum.”
They take the autographs happily and wander away through the car park. I swing my leg over the bike and start her up. I rented her for a week, not really knowing how long this would take. Her tank and faring are a brilliant blue that I love immediately, and her footrests are worn where others have rested their boots before me. She has deep leather panniers that I’ve stuffed my clothes in with room to spare, only the handle of my baseball bat sticks from the top of one, in between the steel buckles. She’s big and comfortable. Every bike should have a name and I’ve decided to call her Delilah. The song has been stuck in my head for days.
‘Forgive me Delilah, I just couldn’t take anymore.’
I clip my phone on the handlebars. The screensaver I know I need to change appears. Roisin sitting next to me on our bridge smiling that half-smile. I reach out to brush the curls away from her eyes, but the screen fades to black.
I have a thought and pull out the map again. I find the most easterly point of Dublin and draw a circle with the Sharpie around Howth Head. I’ll take a quick detour to look back at England one more time before I head west.
It was a week earlier that I saw them. My separation from Roisin was two years old that day and seemed as pointless to me as ever. I still couldn’t comprehend how something so right and so strong could be broken by something so small. How quickly the cracks could flow from the tiniest of breaches. But as the dawn haze was warmed away by an unexpected morning sun, the truth had become clear. With all its sharp corners and its base colours. While hand in hand they strolled, taunting, along Portobello Road.
I walked home to the Bridge in a daze, taking the long route along the empty railway line. I usually loved to see it appear as I rounded the corner half a mile away. My house, built across the rail tracks; three levels high with the road bridge ten feet above it, and the canal crossing in between. But I wasn’t in the mood for loving anything today. Long before I reached the timber and steel of my studio doors, with the rail tracks running onwards through them, I’d decided to spend the day drinking. I climbed the stairs outside, up the embankment, stopping in the living room for a bottle, and then up again to the bedroom.
Maria was there, like she was most Sunday mornings. She sat up in bed when I walked back into the room. In the spot that used to be Roisin’s. Under the cotton sheets that Roisin had chosen. In the room that she’d decorated with bare brick walls painted white and rope carpets and old timber chests. Maria’s hair was cut into a bob which she ruffled, and which fell perfectly into place. Roisin always had long hair.
“Bourbon. It’s not even nine o’clock,” she said, pointing at the half-bottle of tequila in my hand. I ignored her and slid open one of the huge glass doors looking out onto the Grand Union Canal. The air outside was warm and still, and the hum of London traffic was always calmed by the water and the brush on this level.
“Bourbon?” she repeated.
“I know what fucking time it is,” I snapped, and immediately felt bad when I saw her face drop. Her cheeks were soft, and her face was shaped liked a teardrop. Maria never said a hard word to anyone. I stepped outside onto the bank of the canal and sat on the grass with my boots dangling over the water. I closed my eyes and for a moment I hated where I was. But I always came back to this spot. Where the waters of the canal reflected the clouded sky of London, flowing in between my two bedrooms in a great iron trough twenty feet above the ground. Above me the Great Western Road throbbed across the highest of the bridges, and then beyond, the distant chain of Heathrow traffic dressed the sky. Below me on the lowest supporting bridge, our garden had overgrown. And then finally the rusted railway lines. The place I built called the Bridge that was three bridges with a home wrapped in between. Never a place more journeyed, and yet always the place I stopped. And sometimes the place I thought about dying.