March 2024

Back to Issue 15

Forging an identity

By Ian Douglas Robertson

I’m on the train from Southampton to London. There’s this bloke sitting opposite me. I can’t keep my eyes off him. He saw I was looking at him and seemed quite pleased. I then realised that what I thought was some horrific birth mark is in fact a tattoo or, should I say, many tattoos. They’re creeping up his neck and into his scalp. Why would anyone want to disfigure their body is such a drastic manner? And so ineradicably, too.

     I’m trying to read a book but my eyes keep veering towards the tattooed figure. What do those tattoos mean to him? In my snatched glances in his direction, I try to interpret his body. Are they stars, tears or raindrops spattered on the side of his face? I think I can make out the face of Jesus on the back of his shaven head. I wonder whether he’d mind if I asked him where he got them done. He doesn’t seem particularly affable but the worst he can do is tell me to mind my own business.

     Might he belong to some London equivalent of the Japanese mafia, yamuza? Is that what they’re called? So, I’d better be careful.

      “Very impressive tattoos,” I say.

     He looks at me quizzically as if he isn’t sure that I’m addressing him. Not that I can see any other passengers with such a mass of tattoos.

     “You’re into tattoos then,” I say, for want of a better way to start a conversation.

     “Yeah, mate, I am. Got a problem with that?”

     “By no means. It’s just the whole subject of tattoos fascinates me. And you have a particularly impressive array of them. Where did you have them done?”

     “In my shop in London.”

     “What kind of shop do you have?”

     He looks at me as if I’m a total gawp.

     “A tattoo parlour, mate.”

     “Really!” I say, rather forcing the issue. “How interesting!”

     “Thinkin’ of havin’ one done then?” he says with a sardonic half smile.

     “I’ve never really been tempted.”

     “You think it’s a bit lower class, do you?”

     “Oh, good heavens, no! Everyone under thirty has got one these days. I’m a bit old for it, I think.”

     “Naw. You’re never too old to ‘ave a tattoo. I ‘ad an old gent of seventy come in the other day. ‘e said, ‘I’m in love. ‘er name’s Samantha. I want it right down me left arm in royal blue with a lion on both ends.’ ‘That’s a long name,’ I says. ‘Especially when it’s got lions on either end. Sure you don’t want to just call her Sam?’ ‘No. It must be Samantha. I wouldn’t want to demean her like, you know.’ ‘Sure, mate, but Sam has only four letters. Samantha has eight.’ ‘I love ‘er, mate. Money is no object.’ ‘All right, suit yourself. Why the royal blue and the lions?’ He looks at me as if I’m from another planet. ‘Chelsea, mate. What else? You’re a Londoner, ain’t ye? Sound like it anyway.’ I take my job very seriously so I do. So, I said to ‘im. ‘Aren’t you confusin’ things a bit ‘ere, mate? You want your girlfriend in royal blue with two lions. Is it the bit or the team you want to commemorate?’ ‘I been a Chelsea fan all my life. Love the fuckin’ team, mate. It would be disloyal to forget the team just for the sake of a piece of skirt, now wouldn’t it?’ ‘Suit yourself,’ I says, and got down to work. You see, you’re never too old to ‘ave a tattoo.”

     “Well, yes, you’re probably right. But why are people prepared to go to such lengths to imprint images on their bodies?”

     “You’re out of touch by the sound of it, mate. It’s all the rage now. All the old taboos have gone. Now people can express themselves however they please.”

     “Yes, I understand that. But I can think of hundreds of other ways of expressing myself but in a less permanent fashion. I mean, what happens if you get tired of your tattoo?”

     “You can ‘ave ‘em removed. It’s costly and painful but it can be done. But most people get a tattoo for life.”

     “Well, let’s suppose that I want to express something really important, I wouldn’t know where to start. It just wouldn’t all fit on my body.”

     The tattoo artist sniffs and wets his lips. I can tell he’s about to deliver a lecture to the uninitiated. “It’s like this, mate. It’s all about identity. Now most people don’t ‘ave any. So, you’ve got to give it to them, right? Take this bloke that came in to me the other day. Big fat slob, as dozy as they come. No personality. Nothing. Just blubber and saggin’ muscle. I could tell at once that ‘ere was a challenge if ever there was one. I says, ‘What do ye want me to do for ye?’ ‘Don’t know,’ he says. ‘Something scary.’ ‘Somethin’ scary,’ I says. ‘You’re scary enough as it is, mate.’ ‘I want respect.’ ‘Now, you’re talkin’,’ I says. ‘Bein’ scary don’t mean you’ll get respect. You want real respect, not fear.’ You see, I take my job seriously. I don’t let my customers make ‘asty decisions. I says, ‘I’m goin’ to give ye an identity. You know what that is, mate?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, I’m goin’ to give it to ye anyway.’ ‘As long as I get some respect that’s all I care about.’ ‘Mate, by the time I’m finished with ye, the ladies won’t be able to keep their ‘ands off ye. And the gents, well, they’ll take one look at ye and they won’t dare put their ‘ands on ye. They’ll say, now ‘ere we ‘ave someone of magnitude and not just physically. ‘Ere’s a man to be reckoned with, a man what thinks about life. ‘e ‘as an opinion. Can’t mess with ‘im. ‘e might know people.’ Well, let me tell ye, that pea-brained dummy began to brighten up as if someone ‘ad turned a light on in ‘is ‘ead. ‘So, do ye give me a free ‘and?’ I says. ‘Well, they told me you was good. That’s why I came ‘ere, isn’t it?’ ‘Is that what they said? Good. I’m fuckin’ brill, mate. I gives people identities every fuckin’ day, mate. They come in ’ere non-entities and go out entities. See what I mean? I give ‘em an entity. ‘ow much money you got?’ ‘Oh, I’m not rich, if that’s what you mean.’ ‘’ow much are ye prepared to pay for an identity? Remember, it’s not a fuckin’ car that ye need to change every twenty years. It’s for life. An identity is for life, mate. And it’s not somethin’ you can buy in Woolworth’s either, now is it? Over the counter like. No, an identity, mate, is worth a fuckin’ fortune. Now, I’m not ‘ere to take yer money, mate. I’ll be ‘onest with ye. Ye can go down the road and get a second-rate identity for ‘alf the price. But you stay ‘ere and I’ll give ye an identity that’ll stun the world. That’s what you want, isn’t it, mate?’ ‘Yeah, I do, I want to walk down the street and see ‘eads turning.’ ‘When I’m finished with yer, mate, there’ll be fuckin’ pile-ups all over London. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, car drivers, ladies pushin’ buggies, they’ll all be turnin’ their ‘eads to look at this ‘andsome bugger with a gigantic identity. So, do ye want it or not?’ ‘Yeah, I do.’ ‘’ope you’ve got a few hours at your disposal, ‘cos we’ll need it.’ Now, I don’t want to impose my identity on the bugger, do I? I’m a bit of a psychotherapist, see. I want it to come from ‘im. So, I asks him a few questions about hisself. ‘Tell me a little bit about yerself, mate. What do ye like?’ ‘Ansbach and ‘obday.’ ‘I’m not talkin’ about beer, mate. What’s yer philosophy of life?’ ‘I don’t think I ‘ave one.’ ‘Of course, you ‘ave,’ I says. ‘Everyone has one. You just don’t know it.’ ‘Do ye believe in anythin’?’ He started to giggle. ‘I believe in pussy, mate.’ ‘Right. Now, we’re talkin’. How about a fuckin’ cunt right ‘ere on your cheek?’ He looked doubtful. ‘Well, maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea.’ ‘You ‘ave a point, mate. It might not go down too well with the ladies. Do ye believe in a God? Jesus? Mohammad? Buddha? Lady Gaga?’ ‘Yeah, I love Lady Gaga. I worship ‘er, so I do.’ ‘Good, now we’re talkin’. So, ye worship Lady Gaga. How do ye worship ‘er?’ ‘e suddenly went all bashful on me. ‘Well, I wouldn’t like to say. It’s a bit personal.’ ‘But that’s what we’re after. The personal. Apart from Lady Gaga, who’s the person you love most in the world?’ He thought for a bit. Obviously couldn’t decide. ‘Well, I think it’s me mum.’ ‘Good now we’re talkin’. So, ye like Ansback and ‘obday. Ye worship Lady Gaga – we’ll forget how. And ye love yer mum. Now, we’re gettin’ somewhere. We’re buildin’ up an identity, see. What do ye do for a livin’?’ ‘I’m in Sanitation and the Environment.’ ‘Which is it? Do ye collect rubbish or unblock drains?’ ‘Collect rubbish. I’m a sanitation engineer.’ ‘Right, now we’re talkin’. You’re an engineer. Which university did you finish?’ ‘I didn’t go to university, mate. I’m a rubbish collector.’ ‘I thought you said you was an engineer.’ ‘That’s what they calls us. But we’re not really engineers.’ ‘Oh, is that right? I wouldn’t ‘ave believed it.’ So, ‘ere was I desperately tryin’ to find an identity for this bugger but all I got was the name of a beer, a pop star, his mum and an unappealing profession. What was I to do? I’d promised  ‘im I’d ‘ave ‘eads turnin’. I’d ‘ave ‘eads turnin’ all right, for the wrong reasons. I’d ‘ave Lady Gaga enthroned on a pile of garbage with an ‘alo around her ‘ead with ‘is old mum raisin’ a bottle of Ansback and ‘obday to ‘er very good ‘ealth. So, I took a different tack altogether. I decided to reach out for the metaphysical. ‘So, mate, I says, if ye could be anythin’ in the world, what would it be?’ No hesitation this time. ‘As rich as a fuckin’ Arab.’ ‘All right, now we’re gettin’ somewhere. With ten or fifteen wives as well, I don’t reckon.’ He laughed, or grunted more like it. Ye know, a kind of huh, huh, huh, like a donkey gettin’ ready to bray. ‘Yeah, a fuckin’ Arab with ten wives, one for each day of the week.’ I didn’t point out that a week has seven days. I didn’t want to insult his intelligence. So, I says, ‘Yeah, mate, one for every day of the week and two Friday, Saturday and Sunday.’ ‘Yeah, I’d like that.’ ‘And I suppose you’d live in a palace and have a Rolls Royce.’ ‘Naw, they’re too big.’ ‘I see. You’re a man with discrimination. So, what car would you want then?’ ‘A Ferrari.’ ‘Now, we’re gettin’ somewhere.’ So, anyway, to cut a long story short, I constructed an identity for this non-entity. Well, he left my parlour lookin’ like a fuckin’ Sheikh. A Ferrari on one arm. A ball and chain down the other. Lady Gaga on one cheek of his arse and his mum on the other. And the two of ‘em swiggin’ a bottle of Ansback and ‘obday. He went away as proud as punch, feelin’ like the richest man on earth, loyal to his mum and Lady Gaga and them all enjoying his favourite beer.”

     “So, you create identities for people,” I say.

     “That’s the business I’m in, mate. I give people back their pride and self-respect. That pea-brained rubbish collector no longer needed to call ‘imself a Sanitation Engineer, ‘cos he could now consider himself a Sheikh, with a Ferrari, Lady Gaga and his dear old mum safely imprinted on various parts of ‘is anatomy. For the first time in ‘is life, he felt like someone, not just some dozy loser from east London. Get it?”

     “Yes, indeed. So, is it your opinion then that people incise images on their body simply because they have little self-esteem?”

     “Well, they certainly want to en’ance it. Give themselves a bit of a boost like, ye know. A plain body don’t say nothin’, do it?’

     “Well, I disagree. I love a plain body. It’s unadorned. Unpretentious. I want to see the real person, not the person they would like to be.”

     “You don’t get it, do you? Why did I tell ye the story of that pea-brained bruiser what came in the other day? ‘Cos ‘e don’t ‘ave a personality. ‘e don’t ‘ave nothin’. I ‘ad to give it to ‘im.

     “All right then, let’s get personal. do you think I lack personality or an identity?”


     “You mean I don’t have any personality or identity.”

     “Not in the slightest, mate. I wouldn’t look twice at ye. I could walk up and down this train and find five other blokes what look identical to you. You ‘ave no markings, no distinguishin’ symbols. It’s like drivin’ around in a car with no number plates.”

     “But I have my natural features, those that I inherited from parents.”

     “Don’t want to cast aspersions on your parents, mate. No doubt lovely people. But it’s obvious they weren’t much to look at. You’ve got a mole on one cheek that says something I suppose. And a Robert De Niro wart just above your upper lip but that’s ‘ardly very flatterin’ now is it?” 

     “But it’s me.”

     “Well, if you like bein’ a non-entity, I’m very ‘appy for ye.”

     “But I’m not a non-entity. I… All right then, guess what I do?”

     “Somethin’ borin’ I know that. I’d say you’re a rep. Suit and tie. Very respectable. And you got a case full of samples in that bag over there.”

          “Well, actually you’re right. I represent a pharmaceutical company. I would make a very bad impression if I had tattoos up my neck and down my arms.”

          “That’s where I think you’re mistaken, mate. They’d take one look at ye and say ‘ere’s a bloke what ‘ave a mind of ‘is own. ‘e got personality. ‘e got an identity. Then, they’d respect ye. Look up to ye, instead of treatin’ ye like some dog’s body. I’m right, aren’t I?”

          “I’d probably lose my job if I came into work covered in tattoos.”

          “Well, that’s what ‘appens when you’re owned by your job. They want to crush your true identity. They want to mould you to fit the company image. You’re no better than a fuckin’ slave, mate.”

     “They used to tattoo slaves.”

     “In your case, they don’t ‘ave to. You’ve got slave written all over ye.”

     By the time we reach London I’m feeling very disturbed. He has opened my eyes to what I was, or wasn’t. He has told me I’m a slave to my job and that I totally lack any personality or identity. And it is obvious he isn’t doing it just to win me over as one of his clients?

     “So, if you were to give me a tattoo, what would you choose?”

     “Somethin’ that expresses ye, mate. What makes ye tick? And don’t tell me ye get off on sellin’ pharmaceuticals, ‘cos if so I’ll call ye a fuckin’ liar.”

     “Well, I’m a bit into Eastern religions and yoga and stuff.”

     “Now, we’re talkin’. Now we’re gettin’ close to the true you. Sorry, mate, what’s yer name?”


     “Irish, are ye?”

     “Of Irish origin. My grandparents.”

     “Mine too. Nice to meet ye, Joe. Aloysius O’Reilly. Just call me Al.”

     “Aloysius is such a nice name. Pity to shorten it to Al.”

     “Can’t ‘elp that, mate. Aloysius sounds a bit precious, don’t it? It means famous warrior. So, to get back to your tattoo. I could give ye a Lord Vishnu. Very popular with young people. Some think it’s a bit vicious. The two teeth and all and the tongue stickin’ out. No. I don’t recommend that for you. No I’d give ye a lotus flower. Grows out of mud, ye know. It symbolises divine beauty, purity and enlightenment. Now, I reckon that’s just what you need. Don’t ‘ave to lose yer job over it. Ye could ‘ave it on your back or even on the cheek of your arse, if ye want to be even more subtle. The missus’d love it.”

     “You don’t know my missus.”

     “Oh, one of those, is she? Well, then surprise ‘er.”

     “It would be grounds for divorce.”

     “It seems to me, mate, that you’re not just a slave to your work. You need to liberate yourself a bit. Now, a lotus on your bum would give you a big boost, I can tell ye. No one except the girlfriend would see it, but you’d know it was there, see. You’d say to yourself. I’m not just some ordinary slave to my job and my wife. I’ve got a lotus on my bum. And a very original lotus too, done by none other than the award-winning Aloysius O’Reilly.”

     “You’ve won awards for your tattoos?”

     “Ave I won awards ‘e says? Hundreds, mate. ‘ere’s my card.”

     “I see. Islington. Well, I may pay you a visit one day.”

     “To avoid disappointment, best to call in advance to book a time. But I won’t forget me mate Joe … what was that now?”


     “Me mate Joe Cavanagh. We only live once, Joe. We only get one chance at havin’ an identity. Pity to spend all your life as a non-entity.”

     “True, Al. Well, I’ve got your card. By the way, why were in Southampton?”

     “Tattoo conference, mate. Gave a speech and did some demonstrations. Thousands of people came. Tattoos, mate, they’re big. Well, ’ope to see ye around.”

     “Yes, I may drop by your parlour sometime soon.”

     “Love to see ye, mate. Bring the missus. I might be able to persuade her to ‘ave a discreet little flower just above her fanny. Now wouldn’t that be fun?”

     “Er, well, yes, I suppose it would. But as I said she’s not the type.”

     “Not yet, mate. But she ain’t met Aloysius O’Reilly, ‘as she?”

     “No, she hasn’t.”   

     As I take the tube back to Highgate, I can’t help mulling over the conversation I had with the tattoo artist. Am I so dull? I’m forty-five years old, a pharmaceutical rep, just like all the other hundreds of pharmaceutical reps, roaming the country, spending lonely nights in impersonal cheap hotels. What do I have to show for my life? Not much. Aloysius has made me question my whole existence. But would a tattoo make so much difference? It would certainly make me feel different. How many of my doubles on the train would have a tattoo of a lotus imprinted on some part of their anatomy? Divine being, Purity. Enlightenment. How would Lilian take it?

     “No need to ask, mate. She’d have a shit freak,” I can hear Al saying.

     I enter the house. It’s late. I’m tired. Hopefully she’ll have something ready to eat. Otherwise, I’ll have to grab something out of the freezer.

     She’s in the conservatory having a drink. She’ll have had time to loosen up a little.

     “Hello, darling. What a week!” I try to sound jolly. Don’t want to impose on her quiet time.

     She looks up briefly. “Ah, you’re back.”

     “Yes, got into Waterloo around 6.00.”

     “Have you eaten?”

     “No, actually. I was kind of…”

     “Darling, you can’t just turn up and expect to have a meal waiting for you? I’ve had a tiring week too.”

     “Yes, of course, darling.”

     “Couldn’t you have grabbed something at the station?”

     “Well, as we haven’t seen each other for a few days, I thought…”

     “All you think about is what you want. Never consider my feelings.”

     “I just thought …”

     “Well, you’ll just have to make do with a frozen pie.”

     “Yes, that’s fine, darling. I’ll just grab a drink first.”

     “Yes, good idea. It’ll put you in a better mood.”

     “But I am in a good mood.”

     “Are you? I got the distinct impression you weren’t.”

     I help myself to a strong whisky.

Our marriage has become so humdrum. We haven’t seen each for five days but we have nothing to say to each other.

     No point in beating about the bush.

     “What would you say, darling, if I got a tattoo?”

     That caused a bit of a reaction.

     “You’re not honestly thinking of…”

     “Well, I met this chap on the train. Fascinating fellow.”

     “Over my dead body.”

     “Would you really care?”

     “I wouldn’t be seen dead with you in public if you were sporting a tattoo. Everybody would think I’d married a sailor.”

     “Everybody has a tattoo these days. ”

     “It’s so lower class.”

     “Angelina Jolie has tattoos.”

     “Well, her mother was Tahitian. What else would you expect?”

     “And David Beckham.”

     “He’s a footballer.”

     “Well, I’ve been doing some research. Now you’d hardly consider Sir Winston Churchill lower class?”

     “Winston Churchill? He can’t have had a tattoo.”

     “Well, he did. Of an anchor on his arm. And lots of other people too. Johnny Depp has ‘My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story’ written on him. Jennifer Aniston has the name of her beloved dog on her back. Julia Roberts has the names of her children and her husband on her back. Both Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett have tattoos.”

     “They’re all famous, darling. They can do whatever they like and afford to have them removed. So, are you planning to have my name tattooed across your chest?”

     “Actually, darling, it hadn’t occurred to me but if that’s what you’d like…”

     “I was only joking. It would be quite hideous. And then I’d have to have Joe tattooed over mine. And what if we were to split up?”

     “Well, let’s not be…”

     “Far too risky.”

     There is a moment’s silence. She goes back to reading her book. Oh, this drink is making me feel quite light-headed. It’s been an exhausting week.

     “Do you think I’m a non-entity, darling?”

     “What did you say?”

     “Do you think that I have no distinguishing features?”

     She has to think about it.

     “Are you asking me whether you’re good looking?”

     “No. Just do I stand out in a crowd?”

     “Sorry, darling. No.”

     “Well, why did you marry such a non-entity?”

     “Is this a serious question?”


     “Oh, all right. I married you because you were nice.”

     “Nice. Is that the best word you can find for me?”

     “What do you want me to say? That you were a sexy hulk. That I couldn’t wait to jump into bed with you?”

     “No. I was hoping that you found me interesting, funny, good company.”

     “Darling, I really think we should discuss this some other time. We’re both tired and we might end up saying something we’d regret.”

     “It’s never the right time, is it?”

     “Okay, if you insist, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. I married you because you were uncomplicated.”

     “You mean, uninteresting.”

     “I didn’t say that. You did. And I felt that you were unlikely to be seduced by someone at the office.”

     “Because I’m not sexy.”

     “Because your body doesn’t cry out ‘I’m available. Come and get me. I’ll give you the time of your life between the sheets.”

     “Is there anything about me that you find in any way exciting?”

     She has to think again.

     “No, darling. You are one of the least exciting men I know.”

     “So, it must be horrible being married to me.”

     “Not at all. I get all the excitement I need at work. At home I want a quiet presence.”

     “So, I’m a quiet presence.”

     “Well, you have been up to now. But you are going on a bit tonight. I really don’t know what’s got into you!”


     “You’re not talking about the saint, are you? Oh, my goodness, you’re not going to go all religious on me, are you?”

     “No, but like Aloysius Gonzaga, I have had a spiritual awakening today.”

     She looks genuinely worried. “You mean you’re going to leave me and join the Jesuits. I always thought you might end up going in that direction.”

     “You mean you wouldn’t mind.”

     “Of course, I’d mind. We’d become the talk of the town. Imagine what they’d say, ‘She left him to become a priest.’ How embarrassing!”

     “Well, I’m not.”

     “Not what?”

     “Going to join the Jesuits. I’m perfectly happy with my yoga classes and my Asian philosophy studies.”

     “That is a relief.”

     “But I’ve made a very big decision.”

     “Oh, here we go.”

     “I’m going to have a tattoo.”

     “Darling, having a tattoo is not going to suddenly make you into a film star.”

     “No, but I’ll become an entity.”

     “You are an entity.”

     “I mean not a non-entity.”

     “Where do you plan to have this tattoo, if you don’t mind my asking?”

     “Just above my buttocks.”

     “And what will it say?”

     “It won’t be words. It’ll be a lotus.”

     “A lotus.”

     “Yes, a lotus. It’s symbolic of divine being, purity, enlightenment. It’s all the things that I have been striving for all my life. It expresses me.”

     “It doesn’t bother you that only I will see it, unless we go swimming in some exotic place.”

     “I think we should. Then, I’d be able to show it off. And I was thinking that you should have one too.”

     “And are you going to give me a flower too?”

     “Why not? What’s your favourite flower?”

     “Don’t you know?”

     “Should I?”

     “We’ve been married for fifteen years?”

     “The tulip!”

     “Oh, well done, darling. And where would I have my little tulip?”

     “I was thinking just above your fanny.”

     “Well, I suppose it might add a new dimension to our sex life.”

     “So, you agree?”

     “I didn’t say that. I said we’d talk about it in the morning.”

     “You didn’t say that.”

     “Didn’t I? I meant to. Now, darling, why don’t you heat up a steak and kidney pie? Eastenders will be starting any minute.”

     “All right, darling. Shall I heat one up for you?”

     “God forbid, just the thought of another frozen Marks and Sparks steak and kidney pie makes me feel quite nauseous.”

     “I’ll eat it in the kitchen, darling.”

     “You do that, Joe. And close the door while you’re at it. Watching you eat a steak and kidney pie is almost as bad as eating it myself.”

     I go into the kitchen, take the steak and kidney pie out of the freezer and stick it in the oven.

     I pour myself another drink. It’s peaceful in the kitchen with the door closed. All I can hear are the familiar voices faintly yapping away in the background.

     I sip my drink and dream of purity, divinity, enlightenment.

     My lotus.