In those days we didn’t even have our own office. We rented a tiny space not far from the city centre, on the ground floor, which we shared with a tattoo studio. Actually, at that point they weren’t called studios yet – it was only a couple of years later that everything would be transformed into parlours, salons and studios. It was simply called ‘Tattoos’. We were called ‘Travel Agency’. Those were pioneering days, and we, like all pioneers, were naïve, unsophisticated and rather childish. We pretended that our hands were trembling with eagerness, yet for most of us the trembling was purely from good old fear.
The guy in charge of ‘Tattoos’ was called Skin and, at first sight, this nickname didn’t seem particularly subtle, given that Skin was indeed bald as a coot and regularly attended to his baldness with an ordinary disposable razor. He often shaved in front of me – that is to say, he shaved his head, never his face. I don’t know, maybe at the time he couldn’t grow facial hair. There was a washbasin in the tiny back room, but our only mirror was in the front room (closer, in fact, to my desk than to Skin’s), which was why his shaving routine usually involved him traipsing back and forth in front of me. He would dip and rinse his razor in the back room, then he’d come over to shave, performing peculiar twists and turns in an effort to see the back of his head in the mirror. He refused to accept that this just cannot be done if you’ve only got one mirror at your disposal. Besides these contortions, his other technique was to run his hand against the grain of his shorn hair. But more often than not, he still ended up asking me to reshave his scalp here and there. I would make him follow me to the basin in the back room, where I would do a few touch-ups. Looking back, I think he shaved in the office on purpose. He probably didn’t have anyone to clean him up at home.
All the same, Skin and that nickname of his were quite suspicious. What fascinated me most was the fact that among the so-called mates who came to see him virtually all were skinheads, but evidently only where Skin was concerned did a spade get called a spade. In their eyes, Skin’s way of being a skinhead must have been superior or primordial somehow. Their shaved heads were imitations; his was original and natural, even if it was forged over a chipped sink in a dingy cubbyhole with the help of my none too dextrous hand.
Did he actually do any tattooing there? I can’t remember. He certainly had tattoos – as did the others. Every now and then he’d be sketching something (a ‘pattern’ – nobody used the word ‘design’ back then). But did he tattoo anyone? Not in the office, at least. It’s possible that he only took orders there, performing the actual work elsewhere. Though I do remember some equipment for cosmetic torture lying around in the back room. So maybe he did? But how much of all this do I remember? It was probably an ordinary money laundering business. That’s what we’d call it now, but what about back then? There was already money around, I think (though it was still the kind that showed Copernicus, Chopin and the like). But was there dirty money yet? I don’t know.
There were still Russki tanks around. And even if there weren’t, they’d only have left recently and could still have returned at any moment. That was our free market – in the shadow of Russki tanks. People only breathed a sigh of relief when the man in the red pullover became president; the same man who had, just a short time before . . . Everyone breathed a sigh of relief because when he, of all people, became president, and the tanks still didn’t come back, we could tentatively begin to think they might never return at all.
But that wasn’t until a few years later, when our office had long ceased to exist. We lasted about six months. Then the headquarters in the capital went under, and so, as a matter of course, our branch went under too. I don’t know how many tours I sold in those six months. Five? Seven? Lots of people came into our office, but they only came to ask if it was true that you could just up and go to Paris now. Yes, you could. And by coach. In those days people went everywhere by coach. Paris, Vienna, Italy, England, Greece, Spain. Twenty-four hours, forty-eight, seventy-two. Without air conditioning, without a toilet, but with meat loafs and jars of pickled gherkins down in the baggage hold. There was also a kind of soup in a carton, which was supposed to warm up mysteriously when you shook it. I don’t know how it worked. I don’t know if any of it worked at all – the soup or those famous tours. I never shook a soup carton, and I never went on a coach tour.
The coach would set off from the capital, arriving in our town a couple of hours later. They always started their journeys in the evening, in order to avoid losing a day – some tomorrow or day-after-tomorrow in Paris. As a result, the coach usually arrived here at some ungodly hour, like 4.30 a.m. Today, those rare holidaymakers would probably have been calling me in the middle of the night, but back then no one called, because there weren’t any telephones yet. I mean, people had telephones, but at home, not in their pockets, and that’s quite a different thing.
So there were no phone calls, and hardly any holidaymakers either. Everything worked according to the same plan in those days: you’d walk into a place, ask if this or that was possible, then you’d hear that yes, indeed it was, but in the end you wouldn’t go for it anyway, because . . . well, how? Where? What? Who are we to show up like this? With our pickled gherkins? In Paris? So you’d walk in to see what was on offer – because everyone was asking if you’d already been – you’d put on the face of an expert, look around in disdain and walk out empty-handed. The saleswoman wouldn’t even bother to get up. She’d be used to it. Sex shops were going under at lightning speed.
In other words, I had a lot of custom that led to nothing, while at Skin’s custom was lousy but much more substantial. Skinheads would always come to see Skin on some business or other. They would leave immediately, taking him along with them, and soon after another pair of shaven-headed blokes would appear and ask if Skin was in. I would reply that he’d just left with two guys. ‘With two skins?’ they’d ask to make sure. I’d say yes, and they seemed to know who was who. They had their own codes. They managed without phones.
Skin and I had this agreement that if any customers came to see him when he wasn’t there, I would show and explain everything to them, and he would do the same if it was the other way around. Only there was no other way around, because I was always there, while Skin was often out. I had no flair for business, and was simply being swallowed by a bigger, hairless fish in the Darwinian lake of early capitalism.
Anyway, Skin went bankrupt a few months after we did. He didn’t make enough money to cover the entire rent once our contribution was gone. There was no one to look after his office, or to tidy up the back and top of his head with a blunt razor over a dirty washbasin.
But until we duly wound up both our businesses, we had that one-sided gentlemen’s agreement, and I even photocopied Skin’s price list so I wouldn’t have to keep running to his desk – though, honestly, I wasn’t going to have much running to do. There were photocopiers already by then – the people upstairs had one. You’d insert a sheet of paper at the bottom, making sure it went in straight, and on top you’d slide a huge flap across. Like in the underground – a duplicator.
All this happened somewhere near the beginning. When the old system collapsed, I wasn’t quite twenty. At the time, the catch was you had to be at least twenty to be anyone – if you were over twenty, you could be a company chairman, or a deputy minister. But if you weren’t, you ended up in an office with Skin.
I divided my time into two parts, spending one half telling pensioners that yes, it was possible to go to Paris, and the other half dealing with Skin’s eternal stubble. That’s all I have to say about how I spent my time. But there was also the time-in-between, which usually stretched into long hours. With no Skin and no pensioners around, I’d immerse myself in this time-in-between, mostly reading the classics. I read all of Dostoevsky on that watch. A poor choice.
Besides reading the classics, I was also busy waiting. The whole country was busy doing the same thing. It was as if we weren’t living life to the full, but with one foot on the brake. We were waiting for something, but for what? It was clear that everything around us was temporary and transitory, that something else was bound to emerge from it, that it had to transform into something else. No one knew if the Russki tanks would return or if we’d build a new economic superpower instead. But we knew that everything around us was a cardboard stopgap that would soon fall to pieces, one way or another. And so we were waiting, shirking life, convinced that life was yet to come; for now I must sit it out in this anteroom with Skin, but later I’m sure to be admitted to the ball.
And as far as life, macroeconomics, travel and tattoos were concerned, this turned out to be essentially true. But literature? What about literature? In those days I believed that we had to read the classics and dig through the tunnel of the transitional phase, bore through the Urals from Asia into Europe, stick it out until the time when we’d have nice clothes, nice interiors and exteriors, when it’d be like Paris over here, with croissants, wine and blue cheese, and we’d be sitting in a garret overlooking the Seine, which would by then have emerged from the Vistula . . . we’d be sitting there churning out novels, just like that.
But today I think that those were exceptionally novelistic times. Perhaps it was impossible to write without that garret, but we should have been taking notes. There was a novel knocking at our door in those days, knocking and banging at the gate, like in Macbeth, climbing into our bed of its own accord. And not just one novel either, but entire trilogies, tetralogies and sagas – entire libraries, epochs, genres, milestones, Prousts and Nabokovs. And I don’t mean that we should have been writing about those times, singing the praises of the political, economic and cultural transformation. I don’t mean we should have been writing about that turmoil – that’s what I’m doing here, and no novel seems to be emerging. The point is that we should have been diving into it. Because that was a time of heightened perception, a sort of superreality. We thought it was a time of suspension, but in fact it was a time for suspending. The walls were empty, with naked hooks protruding, and we should have been putting up one picture after another. Other fields weren’t obstructed by similar delusions and inhibitions, which is why today we have, for instance, cars (or tattoos), but no novels. We missed our moment, reading the classics in semi-virtual travel agencies. It never came, but it went. The planets won’t align like that again for another hundred years.
But what if I had to choose one unexploited situation – out of all the missed opportunities that haunt the dreams of a sluggish striker? One girl I failed to follow off the bus? One novel that came knocking at my gate?
I think I would choose one that came knocking not at my gate, but at Skin’s – which actually boils down to the same thing, firstly because I was working as Skin’s porter at the time, and secondly because Skin probably wasn’t waiting for that kind of knocking with particular eagerness. Now that I think about it, if anything he was more likely to have been afraid of any sudden knocking.
‘Hey, listen, if I happen to be out somewhere and a novel should need to be written, you’ll deal with it, won’t you?’ Skin never told me to do that. But would he have needed to?
Skin was out. Into the office walked an old man, wearing a really stupid outfit. It suggested pre-war elegance, but was cobbled together from Communist-era ingredients. He had a hat, naturally, as well as a suit and tie (or perhaps it was a cravat – no, actually, I don’t think so). But all of it was ugly and cheap, made from indistinguishably dull, greyish-brown fabrics, factory faded for lack of dye.
‘I came to inquire about tattoos,’ he said.
‘My colleague is out,’ I said. ‘But I have his price list and catalogue somewhere here. Would you like to take a look?’
‘The price list, please,’ he said.
I showed him the list, which he studied carefully (while I studied him), but then he said, ‘The item I was looking for isn’t here.’
‘What are you looking for? Are you thinking of getting a tattoo?’
‘I have one already,’ he said. ‘When will your colleague be back?’
‘I don’t know, to be honest. But I can pass on a message. We have an arrangement, you see. I run this travel agency. If you wanted to go to Paris, for instance . . .’
‘I’ve been to Paris,’ he cut me short.
He’s got a tattoo. He’s been to Paris.
‘So what can I, or rather my colleague, do for . . .’ I tried again.
‘It’s not on the price list,’ he said, ‘but I know that it can be done these days. I’d like to have a tattoo removed. Would you ask your colleague if that’s possible?’
‘Yes, of course. How big is the tattoo?’
‘I’ll show you,’ he said, and started to unbutton his jacket.
‘Is it in a private place?’ I asked, just in case.
He unbuttoned a shirt cuff and started to roll up the sleeve. Five digits on the forearm. A low number. He must have been in there for a long time.
‘Do you know what that is?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I do.’
‘I wanted to make sure,’ he said, and I thought he was quite right to do so, because a guy like Skin, for example, definitely wouldn’t have known. And perhaps it would have been better that way, if he were the one removing the tattoo.
‘I understand,’ I said.
‘When my wife was still alive,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t do it. She said we must remember. But as you might imagine, I remember perfectly well in any case. The thing is, I don’t want to be buried with it. I’d like to stand before Saint Peter the way God made me, not the way Heinrich Himmler did.’
‘I understand,’ I said again.
‘I doubt it,’ he said, buttoning up his shirt and putting on his jacket. ‘Please do ask your colleague. I’ll drop by in a couple of days.’
‘I will,’ I said.
‘I wish you good day,’ he said (he couldn’t have been a local), bowing slightly, and moments later he was gone.
And that’s supposed to be a novel? No, not yet. The novel wasn’t born until the following day, when I related the whole incident to Skin, and he, with the naiveté of a noble savage, handed me the missing piece of the puzzle. Because there’s no such thing as an idea for a novel. To write a novel (or a short story for that matter), you need to have two ideas – both equally strong, equally developed – only then does it turn out to be just one idea after all, one bipolar foundation.
I’d guessed right. Skin had no clue. Skin had seen nothing, which was why he was so authoritative. But in this instance he was my porter, not I his.
‘What?’ said Skin. ‘Couldn’t remember his old girl’s phone number?’
‘But it was only five digits,’ I said. ‘That’s too short.’
‘But you said it was an old guy, right? ’Cos before the war, you see,’ he lectured me, ‘hardly anyone had a phone, and that’s why the numbers were short. Grandpa probably made a bet when he was pissed, and now he’s having regrets. That’s how it always ends. I have a rule that says I don’t do it under the influence. I mean, I can’t be drunk, and the client can’t be, neither. Some people want to have a stiff one beforehand, but I won’t have it. No way. ’Cos afterwards we don’t give them their money back.’
‘But can it be removed?’
‘Not really. There’s some sort of stuff you can inject, some sort of milk. It lightens it a little, but it won’t go away completely. It’ll show. He shouldn’t have gone drinking. Besides, if it’s well done, he can’t ask for his money back. He should have had it done at a studio’ – I guess we did have studios in those days – ‘and not in someone’s back room. Do you know if the old boy got it done professionally or, as they say, under field conditions?’
‘Professionally, but under field conditions.’
‘Well, then I don’t know. Tell him nothing can be done. He’s old, so what does he care? He won’t have to carry it around for too much longer. And he won’t be going to the beach, eh? Anyway, I don’t remove tattoos. No one’s ever asked me to do that. No wait . . . one guy did. And guess what. It was another old geezer. In Germany.’
‘You went to Germany?’
‘Yeah. For work. And there was this old German, a pretty decent guy. As soon as he saw my tattoos he asked me who’d done them, so I told him I did them myself . . .’
‘You speak German?’
‘No way! His Polish was top-notch. The only thing I can say in German is “Heil Hitler!”,’ said Skin, waving his hand not exactly like those people did, but in the end it’s the thought that counts. ‘And then he tells me he’s got a tattoo too, but he wants to get rid of it.’
‘Did he show it to you?’
‘Yeah. He had some piece of shit near his armpit. Two letters, A and B. I told him you could hardly even see it, but he said they’d see it in the morgue, and he didn’t want any fuss about his estate. Search me – it must have been someone’s initials . . .’
‘His blood group,’ I said. ‘A rare one, too.’
‘Yeah, but what’s the problem? And what estate? Can’t a guy get a fucking tattoo? I know this one bloke, he’s a company chairman now, and he’s got a little pig on his arse, you know, the one from the Muppets, or the Moomins.’
‘What did you say to that German?’
‘I told him it can’t be removed, but I could add a couple more letters from the alphabet, as a sort of cover-up, in case it was his first wife’s initials or whatever.’
‘Did he go for it?’
At this point I should have got up and left, instead of staying there with Skin, waiting for bankruptcy. I should have said: ‘Sorry, Skin, I’m out and unavailable. If anyone comes to ask if it’s possible to go to Paris, tell them that it is, but that the Baltic coast is also very nice. I’m off. I’m off to look for that old guy of yours, and mine, too – not physically of course, but with a pencil and my notebook. I’ll be back in three to five years. And as for you, why don’t you go ahead and go bust, and deal with your own stupid hair, you shitty, badly-shaven crook!’
I should have left, instead of waiting for the old man to come back, because of course he never did. He wasn’t local. Perhaps he got it removed somewhere else. Or perhaps he died. It does happen sometimes.
Oh, yes. Today tattoos can be removed by laser. In Germany they must have been doing it for years. Without a trace. Only it’s better to have it done by a doctor, not by Skin. I saw Skin in the street the other day. He’s still bald, in case you’re wondering. But what sort of novels are being written today, and what sort are knocking at the gates, that I don’t know, and I probably never shall.
Tul’si Bhambry’s translation of ‘The Tattoo’ is the winner of Harvill Secker’s annual Young Translators’ Prize 2015.
Photography © Ludovic Hirlimann