It was the day after I was 18. I walked up to the dark, little parlour, sandwiched between a take-away and a Thai Massage Parlour (probably a knocking shop) and stared for a moment, bewitched by the overwhelming number of images in the window and a little over-awed by the enormity of what I was finally going to do. But it was a memorial I’d committed to several years earlier.
I gathered together the threads of my courage and marched in, asking the burly, skin-headed, leather-clad guy behind the counter for a tattoo and a job as an apprentice artist.
He laughed, but nicely, and invited me to show him what I wanted. I asked him for a piece of paper and a pen, swiftly devising in red biro the image I’d been working on for so long. He looked at the boldness of the design, understood how much I’d practiced, and gave me a considered stare.
I sat in the chair and held my breath as he traced the picture onto the place I’d long planned and reserved for it – right over my heart. My skin goosebumped with cold, and the anxiety made me shift uncomfortably against the vinyl chair. Then that awful buzz started up and I knew that this was it – my silent promise made years ago was about to be fulfilled.
It hurt bad. It bled, but I kept my face impassive and treasured the pain, after all, the cycle was going to be complete and I could begin to move on – moving the memory from my mind to my skin, to hold it forever without needing to constantly revisit the feelings and images which flashed before my eyes each time I thought of it.
When I was 11, a new boy started at my school – Willen. He had a funny name, odd clothes and wild eyes. His hair was always messy, but he had such charisma that he was instantly the most popular kid in the playground. He’d do stunts and show off, often getting hurt in the process, but never crying – instead a strange, dark smile would cross his face along with the fleeting pain as the crowds around him gasped in awe at his bravery.
I used to watch him in class out of the corner of my eye. He would doodle small nothings on his book and do no work at all, yet if he was asked a question, would instantly offer the right answer in a bored, sarcastic tone that drove all the teachers crazy. He caught me watching him once and winked at me, grinning as I turned bright red and tried to pretend I was concentrating on a poster on the wall beyond him.
I never plucked up the courage to speak to him, but gradually saw more of his weirdness – he’d stick needles into his arms in sewing class and wait to get sent out, looking like a silvered porcupine. At break time he’d catch flies and pull off their wings, making them race and taking bets in the form of biscuits and crisps from the other kids. He was somehow magnetic – repellent, yet fascinating.
After school, he’d perform for his followers until the last ones left. I began to trail behind him at a distance to see where he went. I couldn’t imagine what kind of life this charismatic, strange boy must lead. I usually lost him when he ducked into an abandoned factory I’d long suspected was haunted (that was the legend – that it was abandoned because someone long ago had been sucked into a machine and killed, and their angry spirit haunted the place until the workers all left in terror) but realised was probably just unsafe and dilapidated.
One night I screwed up my courage and followed him in.
It was disgusting. There was litter, dirt, small animal carcasses, animal crap, broken down machinery and half-crumbled walls all around. He walked through, seeming to stop every so often in dark corners to check something low down. Once he grinned and suddenly stamped down hard on something. I ran away.
I returned in the morning and looked in the corner he’d stopped in. A small, grey loop of fishing line hung down between two large bricks. On the floor was a brown mess that seethed and buzzed with flies. I was baffled.
I managed to follow him all the way home, to an estate on the outskirts of town. After that first success I grew bolder and trailed behind him repeatedly. The lights were never on in the house he entered, and once he was indoors, there was no point waiting – he didn’t come back out.
A few weeks after the puzzling brown mess, I was following him again, watching him poke into his (now usual) corners of the factory, when he stopped short. I froze behind a wall, peering round.
He reached down, then suddenly withdrew, as if hurt, shaking his hand and cursing with rich swear words I’d never heard of. Then he delivered a swift, vicious punch to whatever was down there, fiddled with something for a moment. And dragged it out, small, struggling and bedraggled. I could see even from this distance that it was a tiny kitten.
He held it at arms length and shook it, then tossed it high into the air and caught it a few times. My heart flew into my mouth as the small creature was flung higher and higher each time, then I let out an involuntary squeak and jammed my hands to my mouth in horror as he intentionally missed the catch, his eyes fierce wells as he watched the kitten struggle back to its feet.
He picked it up and threw it at a wall. I was frozen to the spot. I wanted to scream at him to stop, to run as fast as I could and get a grown-up to help. But the concentration and fascination in his face were compelling, and I knew that I’d never be able to dissuade him or get help in time.
I watched, appalled, as he threw the kitten again, this time straight into a wall, where it hit with a soft thud and fell to the floor, mewling pitifully.
He poked it with his toe a few times and then skidded it along the floor towards a pile of bricks. It rolled pathetically, its pink mouth opening and closing with each mew.
It lay still, barely struggling as he took a brick and placed it none too gently on top of the kitten, then added another and another and another. Tears started pouring down my face and the inside of my head grew white hot as I realised what he was doing. The kitten was struggling now, as hard as it could, its tiny legs scrabbling against the concrete but finding no purchase. I slid down the wall, holding on for support, unable to look away.
Then, without warning, Willen left. Just abandoned the kitten and walked away.
It seemed to be looking at me.
I crept forward, scared that he might return, terrified of being close to that small, beaten bundle of fur, yet transfixed and unable to leave it.
On closer inspection I could see the extent of the damage, even from under the bricks. It had deep wounds on its body, and I could see the muscles and a grey thing pulsing in the shadows which might’ve been its guts hanging out. One of its front legs was broken and the ends of the bone were poking through, the red smear on the floor showing where it had been thrashing around. It hissed in terror and pain, a tiny, angry, protest. Its eyes were wide, but fixed on me. It was shivering, presumably with pain.
I tried moving the bricks off it, so carefully, to try not to hurt it further, making a pile next to it, so intent on my task that I didn’t see the blur which came charging back out of nowhere, landing a storm of blows on my head, sides and bent back, with a voice screaming wildly, those terrible swear words, over and over.
Dizzied and in pain myself, I crouched, trying to protect my head, trying to stop him stepping on the kitten. My hand on the floor, he stood on it as hard as he could, trapping me, ignoring my yelps of pain. He held a brick in his hand, and pressed it into my free one, holding it there with the iron grip of a boy possessed. My heart quaked as I guessed what was coming next.
Up went the brick, stretching my bruised body further than it could manage, and down with every bit of force in his furious body, in spite of my resistance – a relentless, crushing force, pounding down again and again, splashing his legs and my whole body with a mixture of dust, flecks of red, and pieces of black fur, which began to float, getting into my eyes and up my nose.
He finally stopped, spent, and kicked me hard, winding me, then running off, leaving me face down next to a vile, red-and-pink, crunchy mess, already being investigated by those ever-present buzzing flies.
I lay there until I got my breath back. Then I stood up rapidly, vomited ingloriously all over the mess I’d just helped to make of a once-living creature and scrambled away on shaking legs, crying all the way home.
But not before I mentally promised the mashed pile that was the kitten, that I’d never forget it.
When I got home and explained, I felt like I was a hundred years old, my childish innocence forever lost.
My parents made phonecalls and I never saw Willen at school, or out, again. I learned how to draw though, making thousands of tiny black kitten memorials on every available scrap of paper, losing as many as I drew.
I learned the value of being able to create an image which would last forever and as I grew, decided on a way to make this come true for me, for the kitten, and to be able to help others keep their most precious memories ever present.
The buzzing drilled into my mind and I was brought back into the present in time to see the tattooist make a last couple of careful marks, a quick wipe, and a dressing, and I was done.
Finally we were done. And after a brief chat I walked away with a lighter soul, an empty mind, a job and a small, black kitten perched over my heart.
Disclaimer: No animals were harmed in the making of this post.
The ‘Making You Feel‘ series has been a varied thing to write for so far, and appears to have been a resounding success, but I feel that this time (given the content) I’d like to offer a little clarity into the thinking behind publishing it (and believe me, it wasn’t done lightly). The point of the exercise is to test and expand my ability as a writer to elicit an emotional response from my audience. I tend to take a word or two and build around them deliberately in order to provoke. In this case, the word I began with was ‘revulsion’.
At some point I’d love to get into the subtleties of emotion, maybe even a few positives – as yet I don’t think I’ve sufficient talent to write them well, so I’m working up to it, posting ‘blunt tools’ rather than ‘precision instruments’.
If you can bear to, I’d love to hear your feedback.