I find tattoos fascinating. I’m intrigued by the idea of submitting to pain in order to create beauty. And I’m baffled by the idea of submitting to pain in order to create some kind of hideous blue splodge or gammily scrawled acronym on one’s arm or likely as not, one’s face. And then having to live with it - forever.
Let’s face it, the good ones are beautiful and the bad ones are moronic. My friend Cindy has a skull tattooed over her entire back. That may strike you as repellent but in fact it is a work of exquisite artistry. In a bikini Cindy is a subversive masterpiece. It takes vision and courage to transform oneself in such a way. Another friend, Lucky, is covered in tattoos. Literally. When I first met Lucky he billed himself as ‘the world’s most tattooed man’ and he was. He even had tattoos inside his lips. Interestingly, he is a very sweet, reticent man. Then, over the years he added more tattoos on top of his tattoos. And more. The last time I saw Lucky he was completely blue.
Most people though, get an innocuous flower or some Chinese writing (why?) tattooed in a discreet spot and then watch it fade, stretch and become irrelevant as the decades roll by.
I have on occasion toyed with the idea of searching the world for the ultimate Zen Tattoo Master who will etch a delicate yet powerful image of a phoenix over my lower back. But I have never had the gumption to actually do it. So I have chosen instead to have no tattoo at all.
Today I’m at the Harley Street Clinic for Radiotherapy planning. This is when they take precise measurements in order to work out exactly how to administer the radiation. Apparently the rays are sent into one’s breast at a very oblique angle so as to penetrate only as deeply as is strictly required. If they simply blasted one front on the radiation would cook one’s heart and petrify the lung. And we don’t want that.
Rather than wait in the boring old waiting room I go into the Macmillan Centre and help myself to a cup of tea. The Macmillan Centre is full of life and fun. People drop in to chat and read the papers. Anna, who runs the centre, gives me a big hug. Sandra comes in, “Don’t forget to book in for massage while you’re having your radiotherapy” she reminds me. Oh bliss. I’m entitled to four one-hour treatments, either Aromatherapy, Massage, Reflexology or Reiki. I honestly think that I will miss this hospital when my treatment ends.
In the basement Diane, a Radiographer, greets me. She hands me a pack of leaflets to add to my extensive collection. These ones are all about radiotherapy and its side effects. There is also a schedule of twenty-five appointments, one every weekday for five weeks. I sign yet more papers exonerating everyone from everything in the event that I peg it on the table. After taking a routine MRSA swab, Diane leads me into one of those lead-lined rooms and asks me to strip to the waist. I assume this means wig and all.
I lie on a bench whilst Diane and her colleague Sam position my limbs and then make pen marks all over my torso. Diane and Sam are both Antipodean. I wonder if the hospitals of Sydney and Auckland are overflowing with British and French medical professionals? The Radiographers shine some green laser beams on me. Diane makes mysterious calculations and calls out the results: 11.4, 109 and so on. Next, Dr Carmel Coulter bustles in. She asks me to confirm which breast they will be irradiating. I appreciate that kind of belt-and-braces approach to safety. Then everyone leaves the room and my body slides into the giant doughnut of the CT scanner. The scans will show the precise shape of my chest and ribcage, where my lungs are and so on.
Scan complete, Diane returns. “I’m just going to spot some ink onto you and then prick it in with a needle,” she informs me. “OK,” I say, “but why?” “The marks will enable us to line up the radiotherapy in exactly the same way every day,” she explains, “They are very small, like tiny blue freckles. But they are permanent.”
I can’t wait to tell Cindy.