Leo believes he is working in the Regency Café because of his strong loyalty and a desire for the simple life; in fact it is because the owner buys the same brand of toilet cleaner as his grandmother used. The smell is so associated in his mind with security and love that whenever he thinks about leaving the café, even when mopping the floor on a dim January morning, Leo feels terribly sad.
‘Black Americano, please.’
It’s a familiar face, but on an unfamiliar head and body. The young customer is called Victor. Leo has flirtatious and possibly meaningless exchanges with him every couple of days. Victor shambles about in cord trousers. Now he’s transformed; slotted into a suit with his flopping hair crisply trimmed.
‘Nice haircut,’ Leo remarks.
Victor is straight, and Leo shouldn’t flirt with the customers, or read so much into small conversations.
‘I got a job interview,’ continues Victor, and smiles. ‘You make lucky coffee.’
Leo shares a wordless rapport with Victor, and they will fall in love and move in together.
‘Sit down, I’ll bring it over.’
Leo wonders if he is prone to fantasies and mood swings because his job is very dull. He swings the levers on the coffee machine, hoping it looks like dangerous, complex work.
The back of Victor’s head where it slopes into his neck no longer has hairs. The skin’s a greyish tinge that resolves, close up, into countless bristles. There’s a little dark spot, a curl that has survived the devastation. Or a smudge, or a mole, or a fly.
‘You’ve got something in your hair,’ Leo remarks, setting the cup down on the table.
The man’s hand shoots up to cover the spot. He scrambles from his seat and bolts for the café‘s small toilets.
After five minutes Leo goes to check he isn’t ill, and finds Victor shivering on the back patio among a jumble of rain-wet plastic furniture.
‘I need your help.’ Victor turns his back on Leo and lowers his hand. ‘I need you to help me cover this up.’
Leo looks closer at the errant curl. It is a daddy long legs, a biro doodle. It is a tattoo; a spindly single-line effort, the right-angles not too precise.
‘Yes. Yes. You need to cover it up.’
Leo walks back into the café, making each step as slow as he dares. He finds the handbag of the other café assistant and rummages in it, retrieving a small tube.
‘Got some cover-up. Make-up stuff,’ he says to Victor.
‘Good. That’s good.’ He turns his back again. Leo tentatively rubs over each of the lines of the tattoo with the pinkish paste. But it sticks to the hairs, it won’t cover the skin without leaving deposits on the bristles.
‘It isn’t working. I’ll get something else.’
Leo is lying. He has no idea what else to try. He has been utterly disrupted by the sight of that icon. Where do you ever see it? Drawn on a pencil case in school, confiscated by a teacher. Late night on a history documentary. How has it ended up etched on the scalp of this man?
‘I’ve got an idea.’
Leo holds up a black marker pen.
‘Turn it into a different tattoo.’
‘I can’t cover it. If I use this I can make it look like something else.’
Leo sets the pen against Victor’s scalp. Black ink flows smoothly onto the pale skin. He doesn’t want to use his other hand to steady Victor’s head. Leo sketches in four solid strokes in a square, then a cross in the centre.
‘What are you drawing?’
‘It’s a square of four squares. I think it’s the Chinese pictagram for ‘field’.
‘It’s the only design I could think of that covers up all of the—the other one.’
Victor is still greenish-white when he leaves the café into the January drizzle. A man in a grey suit with a tattoo, like dozens of others in the town.
For the rest of the afternoon, Leo can’t stop thinking: why would that ever happen? Maybe it was done while Victor was asleep. No. Maybe he had a really difficult adolescence. Maybe a young impressionable Victor had crushed down his desire for men by hanging out with right-wing skinheads. Maybe he was torn for months between desire for their manly camaraderie and disgust for their views. Leo is swabbing off the draining rack when he thinks of that explanation. He realises he is looking for ways that the tattoo might demonstrate that Victor is definitely gay.
Leo calls in on the way home to see Suzi at Tribal Tattoos. He takes with him a box of Maltesers.
‘Could he get laser treatment? My friend.’
Suzi is short and fierce, like a solid fighting dog, but she’s kind to Leo. ‘It might be difficult if he’s been tattooed under his hair. The laser could kill his follicles as well as removing the pigment – he could get a bald spot.’
‘He might be better off with a bald spot.’
Suzi swallows another handful of Maltesers and lays her thick, ring-decked fingers on Leo’s arm.
‘I want to show you something. You haven’t got any tattoos, you might not understand. I don’t want you to be too harsh on him.’
She rolls up one leg of her combat pants.
‘You see, the thing is, lots of people want a tattoo, but they don’t really think about what they want. So they end up with something that doesn’t represent them at all.’
’...drawn on their head.’
‘Head, arm, arse, anywhere.’
‘Wouldn’t it mean they were really attached to—whatever it is they get drawn on them?’
‘Might. Might not. Plenty of times, not. They just choose it off the wall at the tattooists’.’
Suzi points to her calf. It bears an intricate cloud of spiralling spots.
‘Do you regret getting that?’ Leo asks. ‘It’s beautiful.’
‘No. I regret the thing that’s under it.’
Leo tries to think of a way in which Minnie Mouse is in any way ethically comparable to Victor’s tattoo.
Victor came back to the café after a fortnight, wanting another cup of lucky coffee to celebrate his new job. Leo had wanted Suzi the expert to acquit him, to give him permission to forget the tattoo as easily as Victor’s hair had re-covered it. And she had, but he couldn’t. Leo couldn’t talk to Victor about anything except why he had the tattoo. Leo couldn’t ask Victor why he had the tattoo. Leo’s employer started buying a different brand of toilet cleaner and Leo stopped working at the Regency Café.
By Esther, 10 May, 2006; direct link.