A History of the Body in Ink

Sometimes people are surprised I have tattoos; they didn’t think I was the type. Sometimes people assume I got them as a teenager and now regret them. When I was newly divorced and playing online dating, the two most commonly ticked ‘No’s were kids and tattoos which handily ruled out a whole swathe of the male population I wouldn’t want to date either, so there. To be a man without children or ink is perfectly fine but to be a man who wouldn’t even consider having dinner with a woman who has either is quite a different matter.

Very soon after I had got married, which was very soon after my father died, I was a victim of identity theft. I don’t know who stole it, perhaps I just gave it away, but I no longer knew who or if I was anymore. I thought that maybe drawing on my body might enable me to reclaim some sense of self again. One by one I acquired eight small animal tattoos in black ink. I like animals - I am one after all - and they each reminded me of some aspect of myself. 

On my ankle there is a small hare sheltering under a gnarled, old hawthorn bush. To be precise it is the hare from an old Irish threepence which my sister gave me as a silver pendant when I was little. I occasionally talk about my sister and, when I do, someone who hasn't know me since childhood always expresses surprise at her existence because I make much mention of being an only child. I am an only child in that my parents had no others together, I was raised alone and I bear the appropriate character traits: I like my own company and way. But I do have half-siblings. This was always most unsatisfactory at school as no-one in the Home Counties had ever heard of the phrase 'half-sister' in those years before everyone had a blended family. My own kids are technically half-brothers but never use the term either; they are just brothers and have always been together. My (half-)sister was almost an adult by the time I was born, and had never lived with me, so it wasn't as clearly a sibling relationship. I very much liked having that hare necklace because it was proof that I did have a sister. Now I don't really need that proof anymore because our relationship has become very much like it would probably have been if we had grown up together. We both like walking holidays, stalking red squirrels, cake stops at teashops and Radio 4 on in the car. We both have giant teenage sons who don't want to come with us.

On the top of each foot there is a starfish surrounded by seaweed. Having your feet tattooed can be tricky because the needle triggers an involuntary reaction that makes you repeatedly kick the tattooist in the head. And you really don’t want to piss off a tattooist who is bent over you with a needle full of ink. The starfish are probably the most visible of all the pieces since even when I have a long-sleeved jumper on, which is all year round in Scotland, I am often barefoot. These days I don't go shoeless beyond the garden or beach that we live by, but as a schoolgirl I used to walk barefoot all over London. My kindred spirit, Nadine, had impressive dreadlocks and was later to live in a tree but whilst we were still confined to our parental Surrey homes we trod the well-worn truant path between Brighton and London with our German army boots slung over our shoulders by the laces. We wore long, silky dresses we bought in charity shops, or feather boas and tutus we made ourselves. Nade favoured 100% nylon seventies swirls in orange and brown that would have rendered her invisibly camouflaged on my parents’ living room carpet. We called them ‘Margot dresses’ after Tom and Barbara’s better-heeled neighbour in The Good Life.  I had a preference for Laura Ashley nightdresses with fag burns on the hem. On protest days – it didn’t really matter what protest, we were against everything - we danced in the fountains at Trafalgar Square, holding our skirts up. It's a wonder I haven't died of something or been locked up.

Over my rib cage there is a five-lined mabuya curling around an impala lily. It shouldn't really be a five-lined mabuya but I was foiled by my own insistence on black ink. There was a cerise and indigo lizard we used to see in east Africa, where I backpacked with my dear friend Hugh after finally dropping out of school, and I loved it. I thought maybe it might be called a rainbow skink but when I looked up that species it was less colourful and striped with five black lines, hence its other name: the five-lined mabuya. Lines seemed like they would be easier to render in monochrome than cerise and indigo would, so I went with the mabuya. Eventually David Attenborough told me that the lizards I had seen were rainbow agama. The mabuya still reminds me of Africa though, which was its purpose. I had spent all of my Britain-bound childhood wanting to go there and what little I was able to visit didn’t disappoint. We saw mountain gorillas in the rainforests of the Congo from a few feet away. Love and birth aside, that is as amazing as life gets.

Under my right knee is a frog on a lily pad. In Poland there is some pied piper-like story about a plague of frogs. I love frogs. I have actually, when single, picked one up and kissed it. Poland is special to me because of my beloved Magdalena, a penpal I went to visit when I got back from travelling in Africa. We attended a bat study camp with biologists, walked in the mountains at night looking for bears and hitch-hiked to Hel and back. I came home to get an English teaching certificate so I could return and work there with her, but conceived something else entirely. I went to Poland again while pregnant, on an inter-railing trip around a dozen countries with the baby's father. Years later, after we had gone our separate ways, I introduced him to a friend of Magdalena's which began an era of involvement with Polish women for him. The frog was drawn from a little ornament my son brought back from Torun in Poland after a road trip there with his father.

On the back of my neck is a moth, not a butterfly. An emperor moth, to be precise, which is daytime flying. I’ve always been a morning person. Next to it is a sprig of Scottish heather, one of its favourite foods. I - an Englishwoman - moved to Scotland when my firstborn son was four weeks old, having been born on my twenty-first birthday. In Africa, fellow travellers from Australia and New Zealand spoke dreamily of the Highlands and I was embarrassed to be exploring another continent when I hadn’t even visited all the countries of the island on which I had spent my entire childhood. I only entered Scotland for the first time a couple of months before the birth, to view an Edinburgh tenement with a view to living there. A crafty friend called Gaia - who wore wings and made everyone she knew sequinned boob tubes in different colours - had been looking for flats for me amongst many other Fairy Godmother good deeds. Gaia and Suz, my schoolfriend of very nearly thirty years, were both at university in Edinburgh and I knew no-one else there except my son's father. While he was at work, I spent my days walking the old wynds, the Georgian squares and the 650 acre royal park with the baby in the sling. I breastfed in museums and glasshouses and on top of the mountain in the middle of the city: Arthur’s Seat. Maybe it was all the oxytocin but I fell completely in love with Edinburgh. When I was pregnant, I had planned to home-educate my son so that we would always be free to live on the road, but then I found a home and barely left Scotland for the next two decades.

Over my left shoulder is a flock of geese flying in the shape of a heyiya-if behind some branches of cherry blossom. The heyiya-if is a sacred symbol to the fictional Kesh people in the Ursula K. Leguin book Always Coming Home that Magdalena made me read when we were nineteen. It is faux-anthropological so resembles the non-fiction I prefer. I still have the copy from a Charing Cross second-hand bookshop that was given to me by Gaia the same year; it has a lovely poem about travelling, from which comes the title of the book. As a newly single mother, I thought I was ready to start travelling again and was dreaming about a trip to Indonesia and the Northern Territories of Australia with my little boy. Then I met a man and dropped all other plans. We were happy for years and I was eight months pregnant with his baby – another son – when my father died suddenly. I had never wanted to get married before but a few weeks after the funeral, I was breastfeeding at the Registry Office with my silver sequinned wedding dress hanging off one shoulder.  By the time I cut into the smiling faces on the first birthday cake, I had absolutely no idea who I was anymore. I started writing, online, to try to work out what my husband couldn’t. One of the first people I met had a screenname from Always Coming Home and I started to remember stories about myself, and illustrate them. Entering my thirties, as a single mother again, I went on to meet a lot of other inspiring people online including, eventually, my second husband who is not only accepting, supportive and loving of everything I am and everything I do, but is also 6'7". That's six feet seven.

On my wrist, where one might wear a watch, is a tiny water spider and its oxygen bubble, with some native pondweed. I used to have mild phobias of water, spiders and, freakishly, wrists but if a person can manage to extricate themselves from an irretrievably broken marriage - especially when young children are involved - and come out with everyone alive, thriving even, and still be able to give themselves to someone else, then that person has no business being afraid of water or spiders or wrists anymore. Having removed giant arachnids from my flat, single-handed, and let a man scrape at my wrist with a needle for a couple of hours, I decided to tackle water. I experimented with floating on my back and putting my head under in the local swimming pool, before deciding I was ready to move on to a sea kayaking course on the Firth of Forth. If it had been on the shallow waters at the beach where I live, I don’t think I would have had any problems at all, but it was under the Forth Bridge, in one of the world’s deepest shipping channels, regularly ploughed by oil tankers. As the date grew nearer I sought advice from anyone I knew, or saw, with a sea kayak: what will I do if I capsize? The advice was exactly the same every time: you’ll be fine; just don’t panic. Don’t panic when you’re stuck upside down, underwater, in a plastic coffin, with an oil tanker coming towards you? I cancelled the course. Suz – calm, confident, Suz – went and was the only one in the group who didn’t capsize. I have no regrets. I’m not afraid of water, I’m afraid of being stuck upside down in a plastic coffin, on a shipping channel. That’s not a phobia, that’s sensible.

Lastly, on the back of my right shoulder there is a weedy seadragon and more seaweed. I had never heard of seadragons until Suz and I went to the Brighton Sealife Centre and saw them when my kids were little. They were fantastical creatures that I hadn't even known existed until that moment and the other unknown possibilities they suggested made them emblematic for me. I wanted one drawn on my back forever, next to the birth mark that looks exactly like a love bite. It’s the only piece not done by the same tattooist as the others, the tattooist I think of as my tattooist. Unlike all the others, you can trace it on my skin like brail, it’s so deeply ingrained. It's become my least favourite one purely because it's black and weedy sea dragons should be bright yellow and electric blue. Once I'd started living again, and added colourful flora to the fauna, painting a weedy sea dragon black just seemed wrong. But then neon doesn't really become me either and I am, evidently, a fickle witch who now prefers the more muted and nuanced leafy sea dragon, a tweedy sea dragon, if you will. This is why you shouldn't get tattoos, kids.

However, if you can live with yourself and your mistakes and wear them on your skin like scars, then ink can tell the story of your life on your body just as effectively as it can on paper. But tattoos are as much about protection as they are about vulnerability: you are never really naked again once you've had them. Sometimes I miss that, but there's no going back.


So I had this fringe cut
to hide the tramlines
on my forehead (because,
like Edinburgh’s, they are  
unsightly and regrettable
but too costly
to remove at this stage.)

The fringe, however, has a life
of its own, by which I do not
mean a kink, a cowlick,
a tendency to stick
up or out, but rather that
she has her own pursuits belonging
not to her roots – they are the same
as every other mousey brown
hair on my head – but to her tips,
snipped, at eye level.

First she demanded I tease
out and tweeze out
the No Parking zig zags
she deemed offensive not for
the white of them but for
their coarse, wiry waves.
An act of unprecedented vanity.

Next she required mascara to
separate my lashes from all
the other hair now there.
“I don’t wear make-up”, I said.
“Well, I do”, she said.
Which is true since
the wand in my shaky hands
magically turned everything charcoal.

“Mmm, black. Like my coffee.’
She approved. This
was news to me, having previously
favoured a decaf soya latte
with sugar-free hazelnut syrup.
“Non”, she said (did I mention
She was French?) “I cannot
hang over that. Black.”
I sipped tentatively at first,
no real thirst
for change, but I’ll admit
there was something in it.

Soon we were skipping
breakfast and lunch for tiny mouthfuls
of silky ink that opened up the sky like Christmas.
Then we wrote for hours:
she dictated; I typed.
In the evenings, after a three course dinner,
I would rest my head against my husband’s
chest and she would tickle my ear and whisper
One finger between us in a jar that used to hold
Nutella. I have never drunk whisky in my life.
“Is not you, is me” she giggles coquettishly.

And afterwards, of course,
she wants a Gauloise.
I draw the line
straight across from the far corner of one
made-up eye to the other.
She falls limply to my nose, knows
that she could be back in a ponytail
by next year if she pushes her luck,
running 5k for a kale smoothie.
She soothes me, “No smoking, cherie!
Only joking, mais oui!”
And I stroke her back,
grateful for small mercis.

My Father's Kidneys

Along with big calf muscles and a temper, kidneys were an inheritance from my father. Never devilled and never for any meal but breakfast, my dad gave me a love of fried lamb's kidneys next to the sausage, bacon, eggs and fried bread of a full English. The cooked breakfast was always his culinary domain and, counter-intuitively, only served on days such as Christmas and Easter, when it would rapidly be followed by several pounds of chocolate and an enormous roast lunch.

The giblets from the Sunday roast and Christmas turkey were also my dad's department and, after depositing the gizzard in a little pan for the gravy, he would carefully fry the heart in butter and put it whole into my mouth. Heart is different to other offal – clearly a muscle, chewier from the effort of beating – and as delicious as steak. These days I request braised heart as my Valentine’s Day dinner, preferably from a wild deer like the one the huntsman brings back to the wicked queen in Snow White. The only offal I didn't care for as a child was liver, which fell under my mum's every day cooking jurisdiction and was tough as the sole of an expensive brogue. Later I would learn to buy it cut thickly and eat it rare and moussey like ready-made pâté.

Although no gourmand, my father had a lifelong love of, and curiosity about, food and insisted I sample everything available to lower middle class seventies suburbia. I never once recall eating from a children’s menu in family restaurants; my dad cast them aside in disgust. I do remember waitresses double-checking if the little girl was sure she would like the pink lamb cutlets, the Ardennes pâté, the shellfish? But he was no snob. As an older father on his second family and frequently mistaken for my grandfather, he was determined I would not miss out on anything modern. In addition to taking me on every roller coaster at every theme park he was always keen to try novel foods.  The first American fast food joint to open in our green belt suburb was southern fried chicken; sucking the bones of recognisable animal parts appealed to him far more than any other junk, so a bucket was always the take-away of choice. Even now, I have an emotional attachment to the smell of greasy, industrial, fried chicken, much to the horror of my foodist peers.

Shellfish were a traditional favourite he was eager to pass on to me since my mother was an unenthusiastic participant in Sunday afternoon winkling sessions. This was seafood à la East End, not platters of fruits de mer. After a visit to the white van that used to appear outside the local pub on weekends, my father and I would begin the slow and largely symbolic ritual of using a pin to painstakingly wind out a minute smear of what can barely be called meat, from each tiny winkle shell. When I was able to defer the questionable pleasure, I would collect a few dozen on a slice of buttered bread to eat in one go. I much preferred sucking the sweet white flesh from crabs’ legs and pulling the heads off fat, pink prawns. Years later, after my uncle’s cremation and looking for somewhere outside to eat with my retired racing greyhound, we went to Southend Pier and had pints of vinegary cockles and brown shrimps from the seafood stall: a proper Essex funeral.

My dad’s greatest culinary passion was wine-making and he made wine from anything: gluts of soft fruit, windfall apples, tea bags. The best was always from the enormous quantities of blackberries we picked down the lane each year, ripe to the point of perfume and bursting with purple blood. I was allowed to drink a half glass of homebrew with Sunday dinner even as a young child and as a teenager was notorious at local gigs and festivals for having the pockets of my German army parka full of clinking bottles of lethally strong fruit wine that was passed around friends and band members. Although he had assembled a complete wine-making kit for me one Christmas, including huge fermentation bucket and demi johns, I could not be persuaded to make my own and continued to drink his up to, and probably including the night of, the conception of my first child.

My relationship with my father became, and remained, fraught and difficult, as soon as I began to emerge as a second controlling, dominant, angry member of the family. Around the time of pre-pubescence, I turned vegetarian, then vegan. It only occurred to me recently what a rejection of my father's internal organs this was. I remembered how, years later when I was skeletal and depressed, he got an allotment and started to grow vegetables, asking me again and again – unsuccessfully – to come with him and dig the earth and get better. He made me every kind of vegetable soup, because I wouldn't eat chicken. I resumed eating meat when I became pregnant, just after leaving my teenage years, and rediscovered an insatiable hunger for offal. I didn't start raising my own poultry and gardening until after my dad died. I was eight months pregnant with my second child when the phone rang in the middle of the night: my father had suffered a fatal aneurism. 

 A decade after our dad’s death, my half-sister found a bottle of fifteen-year-old cranberry wine in her garage and we drank it like Holy Communion. My husband had never got to meet my dad and yet he got to drink his wine. When the honey from my husband’s hive fermented last year, I immediately suggested mead. It turned out very well and when the few bottles had been drunk or given away as special gifts, I started to think of all the fruit I grow that only gets made into jams and jellies. I’ve never been a fan of most fruit puddings but currants, gooseberries and rhubarb were integral parts of my edible forest garden and, suddenly, obvious wine fodder. Standing in the brew shop, befuddled by dozens of different sachets, I sought comfort in the familiar shapes of my childhood – demi johns and airlocks – and wished I still had that Christmas kit, that father.

Heart-Shaped Tupperware

 Day 1

Palms crossed red from the thin, string
handles of the mesh bag,
I carry home ten pounds of marrowbones.

Day 2

Roasted, then anointed with vinegar,
and herbs I grew from seed specks
that lodged in the farrows of my life line,
the marrowbones simmer for twelve hours -
bubbling babies in a soupy womb -
while my cats drink the thick, rich air.

Day 3

In the morning, the fat
is a full moon which lifts away
like ice from a pond,
leaving only the bones of the broth.
From this comes all life.
And stew.

I chop the Holy Trinity
of onions, carrots, celery
and sear the steak and kidney,
then baptise all in liquor.
Another three hours of
wet window pane and
she is born.

But you, my oldest, are not there.
You are at McDonald’s.

Day 4

The better for sitting
in its thickening juices on the fat-
flecked stove top,
the meat has given up -
given itself up -
and collapsed,
languidly, into the liquid.

You didn’t see it there.
You already ate.

Day 5

I spoon the tender beef and gravy
into a cracked china bowl,
stretch plastic across the top
and write your name in
purple marker pen
with a little kiss
like this:

Day 6

I reach inside my rib cage
and slide out the heart-
shaped Tupperware there;
pour my meat and my bones
into it.
Snaplock it shut,
tuck it in your rucksack.
Perhaps there is a microwave at college?

Day 19

In search of mugs,
I find my heart,
my flesh,
my blood,
under a gently steaming pile of lycra
in your room.
It blooms
blue and white and green
like a Mother’s Day bouquet.

I made this.


Just as the big hand and the little hand joined together to kick midnight into my twenty-first birthday, I tried opiates for the first time. What's worse is I was pregnant. I couldn't shoot up myself because the needle was going into my spinal fluid, but I slurred, 'Thank you for my birthday present, baby!' at the anaesthetist as the epidural flowed. I had been inhaling nitrous oxide for some while previously.

Six hours later, as the sun came up, this enormous slippery goldfish swam out of me and, after a flurry of paediatricians' cleared its airways, a midwife dumped it in my arms wrapped in a gown printed all over with 'hospital property' like a tiny convict: my son. I recall very clearly thinking, 'It is huge and ginger and covered in crap and I suppose I shall love it.'

An hour or so after that, the two of us alone on an empty ward, I found it oddly difficult to look away from him, to be away from him. I thought the nurse was insane when she asked me if I didn't want to shower the blood off myself yet. That evening, having been picked up by my parents and taken to my childhood home for birthday cake, I lay next to him completely and utterly consumed with love, telling anyone who would listen: 'This baby is the most beautiful thing that has ever existed. Look at him. Look!'

Not once in the first two decades of my life did I ever want a baby. As a child I never had dolls, only toy animals followed by a menagerie of real ones. I'm sure the desire to procreate would have come in time, prompted by that delicious combination of rolled shirt sleeve, wristwatch and dark hair on some man's forearm which demanded a level of union beyond recreational sex, but my ovaries pre-empted it with a little help from an imperceptibly torn contraceptive.

I was at college training to teach English abroad but, rather than a disaster, pregnancy suddenly seemed like a much bigger adventure. As an only child I had always felt alone - it was why I collected stray animals and had amassed a dog, a rabbit, numerous rodents, a budgie, two tortoises and a tank of fish by puberty. Now I had someone with me, inside me, all the time. What was in my womb did not feel anything like other people's snot-dripping, sticky-fingered brats; what was in my womb felt like an animal. I felt like an animal. I had an insatiable appetite for the first time in my skeletal life and – at last - I had breasts. Oh yeah, I was keeping my baby.

All my life has been spent craving, pursuing and mourning an utterly consuming, physically exhausting, unconditionally eternal love. Only very recently did I realise that my children are the true loves of my life. Perhaps that's just what happens when you reverse the natural order of things; not since I was a teenager have I been able to tell a boyfriend that I loved him more than anyone else in the world. It is fine to put your husband first when your husband was there first, but my husbands have only ever had the number three slot available to them.

Love is not a finite resource but attention is and no man has ever had mine fully, which is probably for the best given its scorching intensity. I never used to think it made a difference anyway, until my friends started marrying and I witnessed their oddly exclusive unions of two. A few weeks after my twentieth birthday, I became us and every single choice I have consciously made since has been for the indivisible unit of me and my kids. Nobody and nothing comes between us; we are a triad that occasionally lets a brave and strong man in.

Now, as most of these newlyweds are becoming the first people ever in the world to have babies and I roll my eyes at them, I am becoming the first person ever in the world to raise a man. It is one thing to hold a newborn baby and marvel at having given it life, but a whole other level to look at your 6'2" son and think the same thing. Especially when you have been told by strangers all his life, what a truly, exceptionally, amazing human being he is.

If I could doubt his maternal parentage I would but I never let him leave my sight from the second his nine pounds swam into the delivery suite twenty years ago today. He is everything I am not except for tall and pale with freckles. He is the most effortlessly sociable, confident, laid back person I have ever met. He has been looking people in the eye and introducing himself from the age of two, negotiating romances from the very start of his teenage years. He is clever, funny, talented, athletic and can cook. I'm not making this up; I'm as shocked as you.

Now he is the age I was when I became pregnant with him and I have true twenty-twenty hindsight. I hope that he too can better understand the mistakes I made because, for all the love, I was often a lousy parent. When women my age tell me they didn’t have children because they knew they would have been terrible mothers, I am doubled with guilt. I was too young to be that selfless; I thought love would be enough. Parenting takes so much more and I have always been short of patience, tolerance, confidence and fun. I can honestly say that from the moment those two blue lines swam up, there has never been even one tiny flash of another life in which I regretted having them, but I wish I could do it all over again, better.  I wish I could go back and pay attention to every little thing they said, everything they were trying to show me, while they still wanted to. I wish I had laughed more, been paralysed by fear less.

My younger son - who is every bit as incredibly wonderful as his brother, in ways more genetically familiar to me - is six years behind him so I have a while yet before I need to start transferring my energy into something else for the first time in my adult life. I have never had a career or more than forty-eight hours alone with my husband. I have certainly never had a room of my own. Part of me thinks that the day the last son moves out, some latent tumour will raise its head and bury me: job done. If that turns out to be the case then I want it to be known that I have loved my boys, and loved having my boys, so much more than anyone could possibly have loved anything, ever.

Still Life with Collander

Draining potatoes,
a hundred tiny suns are
eaten by the moon.

Partial eclipse, March 2015, Scotland