Doreen Duffy – Tattoo

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Tattoo, short story by Doreen Duffy

Doreen Duffy studied creative writing at Oxford University online, University College Dublin & National University of Ireland (NUIM) Maynooth. She is a member of Platform One Writers. Her work has been published internationally. She won The Jonathan Swift Award and was delighted to be presented with The Deirdre Purcell Cup by the Maria Edgeworth Literary Festival. Doreen is a Creative Writing tutor with Creative Writing Ink. 

The Francis MacManus Short Story Competition was established in memory of the writer and RTÉ radio producer Francis MacManus.  It has been a critically important launchpad for new and emerging writers since its inception in 1986 in Ireland. Past winners have gone on to receive national and international acclaim, including Claire Keegan, Molly McCloskey, Anthony Glavin and Nuala O’Connor. Doreen Duffy was recently shortlisted for this competition; you can also listen to her short story ‘Tattoo” by clicking on the link –

Tattoo short story by Doreen DuffyShe held her arms around herself, y’know, like she was comforting herself. She was good at that, my mother, when it came to herself.

I went upstairs to my brother’s room. Robin’s room, it said on the door. Everything was exactly the same, the guitar slung to one side on the stand, as if it had just been left there, the bed slightly crumpled, like an impression of him had been left on this earth.

I walked over to the window and looked out. The view outside was dull grey houses. A watery sun was dipping below the roof of the last house on the road, Bradley’s house. I went back downstairs. Bradley was pretending to look through a magazine. He looked good in his suit. The room went quiet. Bradley came over, stood beside me. I thought he was going to put his arm around me but he didn’t. He got me out of there though, away from all those sideways glances from ‘family and friends’. Well that’s what they were called on the cards. They read, ‘The Atkins family announce with sadness the death of Robin Atkins’.

Bradley went over and said something to my mother, quietly; he leaned in close to her ear. Too close. I saw some of the ‘family and friends’ watching.  She looked me over for a minute then nodded.

We took off, climbed over the fence at the end of our road and squeezed through the gap in the hedge. He’d stopped then, looked awkward, pulled his fingers through his hair.

“Ah, you okay to come up here Suze?”

I liked the way he shortened my name. It made me feel special.

“Sure. Of course,” I added so he’d know he’d done nothing wrong.

He looked pleased then and broke into a run. I was out of breath trying to catch up with him. It felt good to have my lungs full of air till they hurt.

By the time we’d got to the edge of the lake the light was really coming down. He put his hands on the outside of my arms and rubbed hard.

“You’re cold.” He told me.

I told him I couldn’t feel anything.

“Not anymore anyway.” I said.

But I knew I was just trying to make him feel sorry for me.

I hadn’t felt sad about Robin, not once.

All I could think of was that day at the lake when I’d sneaked after them. I wanted to see what was so great that they spent so much time together up there.

For the first while they just stood at the side scuffling their shoes in the gravel, skimming stones. It was hot that day, Brad said they should swim. He took off his shirt. Robin said he wasn’t in the mood.

I wondered why he lied. Robin hadn’t ever learned to swim. All those swimming lessons, he just sat at the side of the pool scrolling through stuff on his phone. He used to buy sweets for us on the way home with his money.

Robin had tried to walk off when Brad started laughing at him.

“C’mon what have you got to hide Robin Atkins?”

He’d started pulling at Robin’s shirt until they were both on the ground; it turned into one wrestling the other. Dirt was getting kicked up. Then suddenly they were both completely still. Bradley’s hand was on Robin’s face, stroking fingers. I could hear them breathing hard. I heard Robin say he was going to get out of this shitty place, his voice got stronger,

“Brad, you should come with me, there’s nothing to keep you here either.”

They started making plans, they were going to steal a car, get as far away as possible.

Bradley reached over and laid his lips on Robin’s mouth for the longest time and Robin let him.

I left when I knew they wouldn’t see me.

I didn’t know for how long I’d been in love with Bradley. They hadn’t been living there long when I heard my mom telling Robin not to hang around with him. She said he was wild, later she called him ‘a born liar’. That’s what she said.

“He’s a born liar Robin, you stay away from him.”

But he didn’t.

“Mom’s a psycho,” he said to me when I asked him about it.

So I looked that up. I reckoned he was right.

I was good at swimming. Coach said so. He called Robin over one day at the end of my lesson and asked would our mom be coming to collect us any day, said he’d like to talk to her about me joining the swim team.

He never did tell her what coach said though. When we got home that night the chain was on the door, there was a chink of light between the top of the front room curtains.

Robin pushed against the door, kept his thumb on the doorbell; it was loud, even outside the house. I saw the light in the front room switch off, we heard a lot of scuffling and then the back door shut.

Mom came through the hall then. Robin had stopped pressing the bell. She asked him what was his problem making all that racket.

“No need for it,” she said

She pushed the door then took the chain off. She was wearing her blue silky dressing gown and she had nothing underneath. Robin ran past her up the stairs and slammed his door.

“Put your stuff in the wash and get to bed,” she called back to me.

She tied her belt around her more tightly and took a cigarette out of the packet on the counter. Her eyes were kind of glassy looking in the light as the flame flickered and caught the tip of the cigarette; she folded her arms and smiled to herself.

I pulled my togs and stuff out of my bag and shoved them in the machine, put the soap in the drawer and switched it on.

“Night Mom,” I said, but she didn’t answer.

I went through the front room on my way to bed; the couch was pushed back too far. I went to fix it. There was a pen on the carpet. I picked it up and thought for a minute. I tucked it inside my pillow case.  I knew I’d seen that pen before, it was Bradley’s.

I saw mom check her reflection in the mirror before she went to answer the door one day. She’d spent all afternoon with her music playing loud. She was topping up her glass,

“Well I don’t mind if I do.” I could hear her say to herself every now and then.

She was trying out make up, cleaning it off and starting again, fixing her hair, but she still hadn’t got dressed properly. Sometimes she’d stay like that and the next morning her pillow would have black streaks from the print of her face beaten in to it.

Mom knew Robin wasn’t home that day, but she’d asked Bradley in anyway, said she was making coffee, asked would he like some? Or would he like something stronger she said pointing to the near empty bottle. She was talking to him like he was her own age. It was weird. I was in the dining room, doing homework. Bradley was sitting at the table one foot hooked through the other he was turning the pen between his fingers. Her dressing gown fell open a little, and she laughed, lightly, a laugh I didn’t recognise. Bradley didn’t blink. He just kept his stare. I saw her step in front of him, the steam rising out of the coffee. Her hand reached out and stroked his arm, she pushed back his sleeve. The tattoo was dark ink but all around the edges were pink. She barely brushed her fingers along it.

“It’s new,” he’d said wincing.

“I love it,” she said.

I felt so hot I thought I was going to be sick. She sat beside him and asked him to draw something for her. We all knew he was brilliant at art, there were loads of drawings rolled up in the corner of Robin’s room. He’d held her wrist and traced the pen along the inside of her arm but when he reached the soft skin in her pit he brought his hand up and I could see his fingers press into her flesh while he drew. My face was burning; I crept through the front room and left the house.

I sat on the school wall and waited to meet Robin. He’d brought a note home yesterday to say he had detention, something about a fight in the yard.

I think it was only when I saw him coming towards me swinging his bag looking like he hadn’t a care in the world that I had the idea.

I told him mom was passed out on the couch and said we could go up to the lake. He looked at me, squinted for a second, like he was trying to read me.

“I’m going to teach you to swim.” I said.

“No way. Forget it.”

“Seriously Robin I know I can do it. It’s coming into summer. What are you going to do all day while Bradley an’ all are at the lake swimming; you’ll look like an idiot.”

“Right then, we can go up there, but I’m not promising anything. It’s only ‘cos I don’t want to go home.”

Robin was hopping on one foot trying to get his jeans off. I slid into the water. When he stripped down to his underwear, the outline Bradley had drawn on him was faded, like shadowy veins running all over his body.

It was a good hour or more before I could get him to leave the shore. I showed him where the water was up to and I was shorter than him. I kept my arm beneath him and started to wade out. Coach had showed us at lifesaving how to move someone. This time I took him all the way to the middle. His eyes were closed. I kept talking. I could feel the reeds below the water waving against my legs. I was treading water now and the cold blackness felt good. I told him then I’d seen Bradley put his hands all over mom and how much she liked it. His body dipped and he flipped away from my arm, his mouth filled with water and he gurgled and spluttered while he reached out for me. He was really struggling now his head mostly below the water, his face screwed up lips clamped shut, his eyes staring when he managed to bob up for a second or two and then he seemed to slide down and away from me. I waited there, treading water for a while and then swam for shore.

I wondered when Brad was going to ask me to go with him. I’d help him steal the car; I’d be good at that. I had determination, that’s what coach said when he found me swimming laps until I puked.

Bradley pulled me down beside him. The sound of the lake lapping at the edge made me feel calm. I imagined telling him what really happened that day. He’d understand, we were alike me and him, we knew what we wanted and how to get it. I reached into my pocket and took out his pen. I stood in front of him and peeled off my clothes. He kept his stare. Draw something for me I said as I lay down and laughed lightly as he started to draw on my skin, long sweeping strokes at first the entire length of my body and then swirls in and out connecting without ever lifting his pen. My eyes were closed but I knew what he was drawing, a tattoo, my skeleton, but on the outside, every bone bared for all to see.

© Doreen Duffy