I Rose Tattoo

Rose Tattoo
I’ve got the jitters. I’m pacing up and down the departure
lounge, past all the bleary-eyed business people on their phones
and laptops. There’s an announcement that I can’t make out,
but I think they said ‘Auckland’ and people get up and go over
to the gate. I follow them, hoping it’s right. As I’m about to go
through, I notice a man running towards us, jacket flapping,
arms flailing. My stomach lurches. I’m about to run, although
I don’t know where I’d run to, when I realise it isn’t him, just
someone late for a flight.
You’re supposed to press your boarding pass against the scanner, but my
hands are shaking too much. e Air New Zealand woman takes it from
me. She’s realised there’s something wrong. ey’re going to stop me from
boarding. But she just scans it for me and hands it back. And I’m through,
following the other passengers out the doors and across the tarmac, towards
the plane. A seagull glides above us in the clear morning sky, its feathers
brilliant white in the sunlight. As I climb the steps to the plane, the wind
tugs gently at my hair, filling my nostrils with the smell of the sea.
e roads and houses grow steadily smaller as the plane climbs. I think
of him down below, shrinking into nothing. And there’s Peacehaven on the
hill, with its red roof and the patio where Rose used to sit. Tears suddenly
start rolling down my face. ere are some tissues in my handbag and I
reach for it under the seat in front of me. Before I put it back, my fingers
feel for the envelope in the lining pocket. I unzip it a little, so I can see it,
dog-eared at the corners now, my name written on the front in unsteady
I WASN’T SURE what to make of Rose at first. Not that I had much to do
with her. Her room was in the West Wing and I usually worked in the East.
But Rose was the kind of person that you noticed. She looked different for
a start. She didn’t wear the usual old lady type of clothes – you’d never see
Rose in a shapeless floral dress and slippers. Her clothes were stylish, but
old and faded, as if they were le over from another part of her life. ere
was something about her manner, too, the way she would pause when she
entered a room, looking around as if she expected everyone to be looking at
her and her gestures, which seemed more extravagant than they needed to
be. She didn’t mix much with the other residents. Sometimes she played
cards with a little group in the lounge, but I never saw her in the TV room.
On fine days, she would shuffle out to the garden, gripping her walking
frame with her veined hands. She would sit alone, puffing away at a
cigarette in a polished holder, looking out to sea. She always wore
sunglasses outside and if it was at all breezy, she would wear a silk scarf tied
over her bob of white hair. I thought she was a bit stand-offish. I knew she
was English and we had another English lady once who thought she was
better than everyone else. But Rose wasn’t like that at all, once you got to
know her.
She was a bit of a mystery at the home, as far as I could tell, not that I
was one for gossiping with the other staff. No one seemed to know much
about her. She never had visitors. Peacehaven was one of the more expensive
rest homes in the area so she must have had money. I felt sorry for her. It
Takahē 73
Louise Slocombe
“For me, writing opens a
door into a world of my
own imagining.
As a
writer, my challenge is to
take the reader with me on
this journey through the
looking glass and on into
territory unknown.”
Louise Slocombe has had
short stories published in
New Zealand and the UK.
Originally from the UK,
she now lives in
Wellington, where she
loves the views and is
learning to love the wind.
was sad to end up like that, I thought, alone in the
world and dependent on strangers to look aer
But then they moved me over to work in the
West Wing. e first day I went to help her
shower, she was waiting in her armchair wearing a
bathrobe printed all over with huge crimson
butterflies. She looked tiny, marooned among the
cushions and the overstuffed wings of the chair.
“You’re not Barbara,” she said. “I was expecting
Barbara.” Her voice was strong with a hoarse edge,
no doubt from the cigarettes.
“Sorry, I’m Janet,” I told her. “Barbara’s doing
aernoons now.”
“No need to apologise for who you are,” she
“Sorry,” I said again, without thinking. “I
And then I noticed her room. It was practically
empty. Where were the knick-knacks crammed
onto every surface, the photos of the grandkids,
the flowering pot plants? She seemed to have
nothing, just a few bits of makeup and a fancy
hairbrush on the dressing table and what looked
like a seaman’s chest tucked at the end of the bed.
“Can’t be doing with clutter,” she said. “I’ve got
my own way of remembering.” She laughed and
then wheezed.
She waited as I ran the shower.
“I can manage on my own now,” she said, once
I’d checked the water.
“No, you can’t,” I said.
“Oh, well,” she said. “Here goes.”
I went to help her with her bathrobe, but she
shrugged it off herself. It slithered down her tiny
body and she kicked it away with surprising grace.
I gasped and clutched at the handrail. She was
covered in huge bruises. But then I looked again
and saw they were tattoos, all over her wizened
body. Big blue ones, blurred with age and
distorted with the sagging of her skin. ey
weren’t the kind of tattoos you see nowadays.
ese were sailor tattoos - mermaids and anchors,
and hearts with daggers.
“So are you going to help me or not?” she
Aerwards when I was drying her, I asked her
about the tattoos. Funny that I’d thought they
were bruises.
“I used to collect them,” she said. “I’d get one
whenever I went somewhere new.” She held out
her arm from under the fluffy white towel to show
me a faded merman. “I got this chap in
“Marseilles? Where’s that?”
“South of France. I used to sing for a living and
I had this job on a millionaire’s yacht for a while.
We cruised round the Med for months, parties,
champagne, the lot.”
“Sounds very glamorous.” I helped her put her
bathrobe back on.
“It was,” she said. “But then we got boarded by
the police at Marseilles. We all knew Gianni, the
millionaire, was involved in something dodgy, but
we took care not to find out too much about it. So
Gianni gets arrested and we’re all without a job, no
way of getting home. I was pretty good at fending
for myself in those days though.” She winked at
As I took her back to her room, her mood
seemed to change.
“I hate Sundays,” she complained as I helped
her dress. “Visitors coming and going all day long.
Can’t get any peace and quiet. And it’s too wet to
sit outside today.”
She asked me to open the window for her and I
knew she was going to smoke out of it, but I didn’t
say anything.
BUT THAT’S WHAT SHE was like. She could
change moods instantly and she was never the
same from one day to the next. Sometimes she
would be morose and silent, and other days it was
hard to get away from her. She would tell me
about her tattoos. Each one had a story and she
seemed to have a tattoo for everything she’d done,
as if her whole eventful life had been charted out
on her body. She’d get me to tell her which tattoos
were on her back because she couldn’t remember
anymore and couldn’t twist round to look in the
mirror. ere were stories about men, about love
and fights, about singing in ports and on ships all
over the world. I wasn’t sure I believed them all,
but they were always interesting.
She asked about my life once, and I told her
how my two were grown up now, both living in
Sydney, no sign of grandkids yet, just me and him
at home these days.
“Is he good to you?” Rose asked. She was
putting on her makeup at her dressing table.
“Who? Your husband, of course.”
I laughed and then stopped. “Not really.”
Rose put her lipstick down and turned around.
“You shouldn’t stay with a man who isn’t good to
you,” she said. “I never did.”
“I used to think I’d marry a sailor,” I told her to
change the subject. “And sail away to sea.”
Rose snorted. “Good job you didn’t. Sailors are
the worst husbands and I should know, I married
four of them. My Jack was the only one who was
any good.”
Jack was immortalized with a heart on her
lower back. He was her last husband, a New
Takahē 73
Zealander she’d met on Brighton pier one
summer. at was how she’d washed up here at the
ends of the earth, as she put it, following Jack back
home. He’d died five years ago.
“at was my last tattoo, that love-heart,” she
said. “He didn’t much like tattoos, didn’t Jack.”
Not all the tattoos were things you’d think
she’d want to remember. She told me once that a
homemade dagger above her le elbow was done
when she was ‘inside’ by a lifer named Carla.
Another time I reminded her about two names on
her right shoulder.
“My babies,” she said, but she wouldn’t say
anymore. She got weepy aer that.
“I haven’t got anyone,” she snivelled, as I was
doing up a pleated crêpe de Chine blouse for her,
slightly faded along the lines of the pleats.
“Don’t you have any family here?” I asked.
She shook her head and blew her nose. “Only
Jack’s lot. And they don’t give a stuff about me.”
Later that aernoon, I saw her playing whist
with a group of old boys in the lounge, passing
around a hip flask and laughing as she slapped her
cards down on the table.
WE HAD A PIANIST in one aernoon who
played the usual sing-along tunes they all like, the
wartime songs, sentimental stuff. Towards the end,
one of her card-playing friends stood up and
announced that Rose was going to sing. At first,
Rose shook her head and flapped him away. But
she didn’t take much persuading. She stood up and
made her way slowly to the piano. I’d noticed that
recently she’d started moving more hesitantly and
she was coughing a lot, although it didn’t seem to
put her off smoking. She said something to the
pianist and turned to face her audience.
“is is a French song called ‘No Regrets’,” she
e pianist played a chord and she nodded. She
took a breath and seemed to straighten, even
though she was still holding her walking frame.
She started singing, quietly at first then steadily
building up. Her voice was amazing. It was ragged
and hoarse and wobbled on the long notes, but it
seemed to come from somewhere deep inside her,
resounding round the room. I could imagine her
in her younger days, singing late into the night in
smoky bars. When she’d finished, she basked in
the applause, bowing to the room and thanking
the pianist, before shuffling back to her chair, a
little old lady once more.
It stayed in my head for a long time, that song. I
don’t know a word of French, but it still made
perfect sense. I envied her. No regrets. I wished I
could say that about my life.
“YOU SHOULD HAVE a regular spot,
entertaining the residents,” I said to her the next
day. She was sitting on her usual bench in the
Rose shook her head. “Takes it out of me too
I followed her gaze out to sea. It was a beautiful
spring day and it glittered in the sun like a net of
She took a puff on her cigarette. “I could never
live where I couldn’t see the sea,” she said. “I’d feel
“I’ve only ever lived here, so I don’t know if I’d
miss it or not. I’m not a traveller like you.”
“I was never one for staying put. Except for
now when I’ve got no choice.”
I looked away from the sea. It was starting to
hurt my eyes.
“If you don’t stay put, how do you decide where
to go?” I asked.
“Follow a whim. Or things turn up that set you
off on a particular path. You get the hang of
spotting them. And if all else fails, you leave it to
She opened her handbag and brought out a
small leather pouch. She shook a couple of worn
yellowed dice into my hand. “Roll the dice and see
where they take you.”
I closed my hand, shook the dice and let them
roll off my palm onto the bench. One of them
kept rolling and clattered down onto the path.
“Doesn’t count,” she said. “You’ll have to roll
them again.”
I reached out to pick it up.
“What’s that?” she said.
e sleeve of my uniform had ridden up as I
stretched towards the dice. I pulled it down but
she grabbed hold of it with a quick movement and
pulled it up again. e triangular shape of the
burn was livid against my pale freckled skin where
he’d held the iron against it.
“Caught my arm on the oven,” I said.
“at’s a funny shaped oven you’ve got,” she
said and let my sleeve go.
I handed her the dice and stood up.
“You shouldn’t ever stand for that,” Rose said.
“No man is worth that much.”
It made me laugh, the thought that he was
worth anything at all.
THAT NIGHT when he was asleep, I locked
myself in the bathroom. I took off my nightie and
looked at myself in the mirror under the cold
striplight glare. It’s not just tattoos that can tell
your life story, I thought. My body had stories to
tell. But mine were nowhere near as interesting as
Takahē 73
Rose’s. I put my nightie back on. It was all very
well for Rose to tell me what to do, but what did
she know? I couldn’t up and leave just like that. As
I went back down the dark hallway to the
bedroom, it was my mother’s voice that I heard.
She would probably be the same age as Rose, if she
was still alive. You’ve made your bed, you’ve got to
lie in it, she used to say.
I GET THE JITTERS again when we land in
Auckland. I’ve made a mistake and now I can’t go
back. I think about what the kids will say.
Everyone seems to be looking at me as if they
know. I walk out through the glass doors and the
air feels warm on my skin. I can see pohutukawa
trees, heavy with crimson flowers. ere’s a queue
of people with suitcases waiting at a bus stop. I
take a deep breath and join them, trying to look as
if I know what I’m doing. Sitting on the bus, I
check the envelope yet again. e manager gave it
to me the day they cleared out her room. I knew
she’d been getting frailer, but I hadn’t expected it
to be so sudden. Stupid to get attached to people
when you work in a rest home. I’d no idea what
was in the envelope. When I got home, I locked
myself in the bathroom to open it. It was stuffed
full of dollars. At the bottom was the leather
pouch with the dice in it.
When I step off the bus, I know it’s going to be
all right. He won’t come here. I can’t imagine him
among these tall glass buildings and the busy
streets. He’d be lost. He’ll be lost without me
anyway. He never was any good at fending for
himself, but he should have thought of that. I’ve
got an address of a place I can go to, but I decide
to stay in a hotel instead. I want to have a room
where I can close the door and sit in bed watching
TV on my own and where someone else will clean
up aer me. Just to see what it’s like. I find one by
the harbour. From my balcony I can see boats
bobbing on the water and it makes me think of
her. I could sit here all day, watching people
coming and going, but there’s something I need to
do. I take a few notes out of the envelope and go
back out.
For a long time, I walk around, trying to build
up my courage. In the end, I pick the one that
looks cleanest from the outside. ere’s a sound of
buzzing as I walk in. A girl comes in from the back
as I’m looking at the designs on the walls. She’s got
piercings all over her face and her arms are covered
in green and red swirls up to the sleeves of her tshirt.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“I’d like a rose,” I say.
Takahē 73