Tales and tattoos

1 Feb 2016, 8:55 p.m.

As I mentioned in my 2015 wrap-up post, one of the very last things I did last year was to get tattooed with my best friend Fox. This is the story of what we did and why.

Way back in the very beginning of our lives, when our houses were a few streets apart and we lived in a shared dreamworld more than in the mundane one, Fox's and my favourite book was an old paperback called The King of the Copper Mountains. (All the covers are lovely, but that is the edition we had and I think it's the best. The dragon's body wraps right around to the back cover!) We read that book, or had it read to us, hundreds of times. It's a collection of stories with a frame around them: the story of King Mansolain, who has ruled the Copper Mountains for a thousand years, and his last, loyal servant, the Hare.

King Mansolain's heart has started to fail and the Hare, in desperation, asks the Wonder Doctor what he can do. The Wonder Doctor replies that he can make a remedy — but to get the key ingredient requires a long journey, and Mansolain's heart must be kept going until he returns. Promising to send along anyone he meets along the way who has a story to tell the King, he leaves, and the Hare tells the first tale. Of course, while the Wonder Doctor is away, more and more characters arrive at the castle under the mountains with their stories. The Hare opens up long-shut rooms to find places for them all to sleep, and by the time the Wonder Doctor returns, the castle is more lively than it has been in centuries.

Fox and I were children who loved stories to begin with — telling them, hearing them, writing them, and acting them out with our smaller siblings — so it's no wonder that we loved this book. Many years later, when one of us (who can even tell which one?) first floated the idea of getting tattoos together, it seemed obvious that we should get something from Babs van Wely's beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations from it. Then ... nothing else happened for many more years. Fox travelled the world, got a degree and a master's and became a published author. I got my degree, spent a while as a scientist and then landed up in Switzerland. Somehow we were never in the same country at the same time, at least not when we were both flush.

This year, David and I spent the Christmas holidays at my mum's house in Essex. It was a short trip and almost every minute was accounted for with family events (or seeing our other best friends, Hayley and Miguel), but if we both squinted and rearranged things, it looked like there just might be one free day... We exchanged a lot of excited texts. I got in touch with my sister-in-law's sister* in London, Lain, and asked if she could possibly fit us in. Against all probability, it was finally going to happen!

This is the picture I wanted: the Hare turning a happy somersault in his (and my) favourite room, the one with a lawn of four-leafed clovers.

These are Fox's pictures: King Mansolain on his throne, with the animals by his side and in his beard; and the Hare leading the Bees with a lantern.

Lain was the perfect person to have these tattoos done by. We'd more-or-less decided what we wanted (I realised about an hour before our appointment that my illustration was perfectly shaped for my upper arm) but she spent a lot of time and care to make sure they fit perfectly and would age well. She was the only artist working at the studio that day and had only one other customer, a walk-in late in the afternoon, so we had all the time and space we needed.

Fox reading The King of the Copper Mountains while Lain works.

The tattooing itself was quick and relatively easy, for me at least, thanks to both Lain's light touch and the nice fleshy location. Fox's wrist tattoos were a bit more painful. Once we were done, we met up with my brother Joe and sister-in-law Becca and the whole group, including David and Lain, went to Bibigo for a delicious Korean dinner.

My healed tattoo, with Sinister the cat in the background.

Fox's fresh tattoos.

As Fox wrote on their blog, their tattoos are a permanent reminder of the power and importance of stories. A reminder to keep going, because the next story might just keep somebody’s heart beating good and strong. I see mine as such a reminder and also as a reminder of the existence of joy: the Hare in the room of clovers has been for years the happiest image I can imagine.

Bonus: this is the ridiculous Christmas present Fox gave me.

Extra bonus: we showed up as palette-swaps of one another.

*Apparently the term for this relationship is also 'sister-in-law', but I keep feeling like I have to explain it in case that's unclear.