The Subtext of Skin

I stood in Fred Bone’s workroom. On the walls, all around, were photos of exposed body parts. One showed a tuft of pubic hair, dyed green, above which was tattooed Keep off the Grass. He saw me looking at it.

‘I used to paint once,’ he said. ‘Portraits, landscapes, still life.’

He scanned the room mournfully. I could see close exposure to the human form no longer engaged him, if it ever had.

‘How do you make sure no-one gets infected?’ I asked. HIV, for one thing, had just returned to the news, and I’d heard of people getting hepatitis.

‘Each needle comes in a package.’ He picked out a specimen from the cabinet to his right and dangled it meaningfully between thumb and forefinger. ‘I open it in front of them.’ He pointed to a framed warning on the wall. ‘And they have to be completely sober, otherwise we don’t start.’

When I’d entered he’d remained seated on the stool beside his couch and I stood looking down at him. He had a distant, resigned presence, offset by a certain amiability, as though he knew the world would always disappoint but saw no point in bearing a grudge.

‘Do you get plenty of work?’ I asked.

‘Enough, but you need to stay on top of it.’ He nodded his head towards four smaller frames which each displayed a qualification. ‘Someone’s always coming up with a bright new idea, or at least they think it’s new. I had to fly to Boston for a seminar the week before last.’

‘Boston?’ That put a new slant on things. The workroom was located down a cobweb-ridden passage behind a barber’s shop in Acton. Fred and the barber shared the shopfront, which was why I was there.

He shrugged. ‘You can’t go stale, and hardly anyone trusts freehand anymore. Shall I show you what I want?’

He stood up. He was taller than I expected with thin, akimboed arms, probably the legacy of hours spent stooping over the less accessible sections of his clients’ anatomy. In the corner stood a heap of white boards, pinned to which was an ageing selection of rubber iconography: skulls, demonic masks, attenuated lizards and a shamanic figure brandishing the head of a snake. He walked over and prodded a board with his foot.

‘Really it’s just a question of displaying this lot to best effect.’

‘It’s all a bit Goth,’ I said. ‘Are people still into that?’

He inhaled as if he was about to sigh.

‘That whole thing went niche years ago, but it’s still how people think of us. Become a sort of trademark, really.’ He stared at the boards as if they were promising kids who’d gone on to fall short.

‘What do they want now?’ I looked at the photos again. Together they displayed a motley array of limbs and torsos, pallid beneath darkly tinged clumps of imagery and lettering.

‘You can never be sure.’ He considered his own forearms which were bare and hairless. ‘But what they ask for always tells you something.’

I would have liked to know more but sensed it was time to focus on the business at hand. I lifted the boards and set them side-by-side so I could inspect them, then picked out three that seemed most likely to engage a passer-by open to self-embellishment.

‘I could build frames around these, then hinge them and set them vertically like a triptych,’ I said. ‘There’d be room to make a display of the rest on a panel underneath as well. It will need some sort of stand too, although that won’t be seen from the street.’

It wasn’t a great job, but I was glad to have the work. Desperate more than glad, really.

‘How much are we talking about?’ He looked at me through rheumy eyes and for a moment I felt like human nature itself.

‘Say two-nine-five including materials?’ It was a guess, and even as I spoke I realised that yet again I’d hopelessly under-quoted.

He inclined his head, and for a moment I thought he was going to suggest something. Instead he nodded.

‘Okay. When can you do it?’

‘Next Monday or Tuesday if that’s alright. I should have the frames and stand made by then. It would be best if I come in the evening when the barber’s closed. I’ll be in the way otherwise.’

Fred rummaged in his pocket and pulled two keys off a ring.

‘Take these,’ he said, and turned to sit down again.

The conversation appeared to be over so I spent a further few minutes taking measurements from the shop front then loaded the boards onto the back of my S-reg Bedford Rascal. As I drove away I could still visualise Fred’s face: pale, spectral and unexpectant – the face, I thought, of someone who’d died and been resurrected, but without it coming to anyone’s attention. I realised for some reason I was keen not to let him down.

Our exchange kept coming back to me over the next few days. My workshop was a shed I’d built myself. I couldn’t afford machines except a lathe, and even my power tools were of the cheapo variety. But I liked making things – too much really – my creative self always trumped any business sense I might have hoped to prevail. Fred, I began to conjecture, might be a kindred spirit. He’d probably gone through the same dilemmas before capitulating: a Leonardo diminished to the stencil, still an artist somewhere deep in his soul.

Or had he capitulated? I was beginning to tire of baked beans on toast. Hanging from the rafters above me were a dozen relief carvings that I’d hawked unfruitfully round various art stalls and craft fairs. Maybe Fred was the realist I had yet to become, a man with the wit to transfer his skills to something marketable.

Stacked lengthways against a wall I had a teak work surface, scavenged from a tip outside our local school. I’d cleaned it up and hoped to keep it for a posh job, but suddenly it seemed right that Fred should have it. Its sombre grain would sit well around the white melamine boards and add a little dignity to the grubby objects displayed thereon. I cut and planed it to size, routed deepish rebates, and when the frames were ready to assemble, used ash wedges to give a contrasting decorative effect to the tenons. Finally, I ran a moulding round the outer edges of the centre and side panels. I stood back and admired the effect. I wondered if, even now, Fred ever allowed himself a few moments of craftsmanlike satisfaction.

In the clear light of my workshop I could see the boards were flecked with grime, so I spent a while cleaning them before setting them in the frames. As I did so I recognised a certain zeal infiltrating my psyche, as tended to occur when the making process was going well. Though it would only be visible from the shop, I decided to construct the stand from teak too. I would work all weekend and be ready to go in on Monday evening.

Overnight on Sunday the weather turned. It had been cool for late June but by midday on Monday sauna-like conditions prevailed. By the time I stepped into the barber’s shop it was like entering a shampoo-scented greenhouse, and I only had to move to be soaked in sweat. I was wearing shorts and my T-shirt was drenched so, no-one being around, I took it off.

Because the parts were already constructed all that lay ahead was assembly, which I reckoned would take less than a couple of hours. I’d not long started when I heard a tap on the shop window. A small, rather beautiful woman, maybe Polynesian, was gesturing for me to open the door. I went over and unlocked it, wishing I still had my T-shirt on.

‘Hello.’ She bustled past me, smiley-faced. ‘I’m Mrs Fred. He’s asked me to look in and bring you these. He thinks you’ll appreciate them.’

She pulled a large bottle of Coke and a hand-wrapped package out of a plastic shopping bag and set them on the Formica shelf that ran along the wall to my right.

‘He told me he sees himself in you.’ She unwrapped the package to reveal a healthy stack of sandwiches. ‘He said he never ate properly at your age either.’

‘Thank you.’ For a moment I felt both confused and strangely emotional. It occurred to me that Mrs Fred must be far nearer my age than her husband’s. Perhaps something showed in my face because she suddenly looked fierce.

‘Fred is very sensitive. He understands people.’

‘You mean he sees beneath their skin?’ The moment I said it I wished I hadn’t.

Her eyes held mine.

‘He does exactly that.’

It was one of those statements that hang in the air, enigmatic and unchallengeable.

‘It’s very kind of you both to think of bringing me these,’ I said eventually, pointing to the Coke and sandwiches.

Her face softened.

‘You’re welcome.’ She nodded graciously. ‘Now I must let you get on.’

She turned and as she reached the door I noticed a small rose tattooed on the lower part of her left calf. It was just a glimpse, but I could see that its petals framed the letters F and B.

Normally I didn’t much like Coke, but in that heat the ice-cold sips tasted sublime. Mrs Fred had obviously thought to put the bottle in the fridge. I covered the sandwiches so I could take them home for dinner, grateful for the rare moments of variety they would offer my diet.

The display went together easily, and when it was finished I gave myself a minute to stand outside the shop and inspect it. I hoped it would bring in punters – it was certainly eye-catching in that plain little street.

The following morning, as agreed, I returned to see Fred. He was seated at his desk flicking through some stencils. He looked up and nodded as I entered, then gestured to the only other chair and turned towards me.

‘Top job,’ he said. ‘Should do the trick.’

‘Thanks,’ I realised I felt a mixture of elation and relief. ‘I’m glad it’s what you were hoping for.’

‘Better.’ His pale, evaluating eyes rested on mine. ‘You’ve got a decent pair of hands.’ A pause of several seconds. ‘Which is a start.’

‘Thanks,’ I said again, though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. There was another pause. Driving over I’d wondered if he would refer to his wife’s visit the previous evening, but sitting opposite him it seemed he didn’t intend to. Instead he pulled an envelope from the drawer in his desk and passed it to me.

‘Better count it,’ he said.

I did. He’d put in an extra fifty pounds.

‘That’s halfway towards what you should have charged.’

‘Thanks,’ I said once again. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Then something occurred to me.

‘You said that the type of tattoo your clients ask for always tells you something. Do you mind me asking what sort of thing?’

He looked at the ceiling for a moment and then at me in a way I recognised from our first meeting. For a moment I felt like all the fallibility of mankind rolled into one person. He took a breath.

‘It tells you what they hope for. It tells you what they think will happen. It tells you who they think they are. It tells you who they’d like to be. It tells you who they’d like you to think they are. And most of all it tells you whether they have limited imagination or none at all.’

‘Christ,’ I said.

Fred just shrugged.

‘That’s how it is. Now I need to get on.’ He stood up and we shook hands. His palm was dry and his grip unexpectedly strong. I took my envelope of notes, remembered to hand back his keys, and left, grateful for his tact in giving me cash.

In the months following I simply carried on, making things, living week-to-week, trying to be hopeful. Then, just as autumn turned to winter, I received a phone call.

‘Is that Peter?’ a voice I didn’t recognise asked. When a conversation began like that I’d learned to expect an enquiry about work.

‘It is,’ I said. ‘How can I help?’

‘A while ago you did some stuff for Fred Bone. I’m the barber he used to share the shopfront with.’

‘Used to?’ I said. ‘Do you mean he’s not there anymore?’

‘No, he’s relocated to California. Went last week. He asked me to call you about the display you did for him. He wondered if you could reuse the wood.’

‘Well, possibly,’ I was trying to think quickly. ‘But why has he gone there?’

‘He’s been offered a contract after he did a stint for a film studio. Apparently he does the tattoo then gives a character reading based on what he can tell from the skin tone or something. His clients are all film stars. He reckons he’ll be raking it in.’

‘I see.’ I didn’t see, but that was what came out. I was trying to think quickly. The frames and stand would be of no further use, but perhaps that wasn’t the point.

‘When could I come?’ I found myself saying.

‘We’re quiet midweek, you can come now if you like.’

I’d been planning to continue with a carving project, uncommissioned and probably unsellable.

‘I’ll be over in half an hour,’ I said.

When I got there the shop was empty except for the barber. He was lounging on the faux-leather seating where in busier times customers would wait for his attention. He looked up from the magazine he was reading.

‘Hi,’ he said. ‘That was quick.’

‘I live near.’ I felt the need to justify my availability. ‘This won’t take long – I just have to disassemble it.’

He stood up and yawned.

‘To be honest you’re doing me a favour. I think it put some people off having their hair done.’

‘Didn’t you and Fred get on?’ It seemed a fair question.

‘Oh no, we got on alright. Never had a cross word really. If he liked you he liked you, and if he didn’t, he didn’t. As it happens he liked you.’

‘I’m surprised he even remembered me.’

The barber scratched his gut philosophically.

‘Well, he would.’ He gestured at the display. ‘For a start he saw that every day, and for another thing he said his business increased by fifteen percent after you installed it.’

‘Wow.’ I remembered Fred’s enhanced payment and his comment. ‘I had no idea that would happen. You just make something then go on to the next job really.’

A customer came in at that point, so I started taking the display apart and loading it into my van. It was something I’d had to do a couple of times before, and like then it felt like disassembling a small piece of my past. It was a strangely private few minutes, as the barber and his customer chatted away, their attention elsewhere. When I’d finished I waved my thanks and was about to leave when the barber put down his scissors and picked up an envelope from the shelf in front of his mirror. He came over and handed it to me.

‘Fred told me to give you this.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t expecting anything.’

‘Then you won’t be disappointed.’

I nodded, went out to my van, and drove away. My first thought was that Fred, in the light of his circumstances, might be sharing some of his new largesse, but the envelope was too thin to contain cash. I decided to open it when I got home.

Once I was there, however, I found I kept putting it off. Perhaps my brain was hardwired for disappointment by then: certainly I was learning to distrust the thing I once called hope. So when that evening I eventually picked it up I started by feeling round its edges, as if groping a plain oblong of folded paper could lessen any sting its contents might contain. In the end I simply reached for a wooden paper knife I’d made and failed to sell, and slit the top open.

Inside was a card. On it, in symmetrical gothic lettering was handwritten: Regret vanishes. Lose or gain, Stop worrying. Going forward: good fortune. Nothing is unfavourable.

Despite everything I felt let down. What sort of game was Fred playing – sending me an I Ching quote he’d probably tattooed on someone’s arse? I tore the card in half, but as I did so I noticed more writing on the other side. I pieced the halves back together and saw they contained a sequence of digits: what looked like a mobile number with an international code at the beginning. It was written in block numerals in biro and was followed, after a space of about a centimetre, by a question mark. The question mark was underlined, rather emphatically it seemed to me, twice. I sat staring at it while my thumb began easing along the frayed edges of torn card, until, at a certain point, I had made the two sections interlock, as cleanly and precisely as possible.

Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His stories ‘Breath’ (Fictive Dream), and ‘Blurred Edges’ (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’ (Cōnfingō), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, ‘The Violet Eye’, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. His website: His Twitter: @polyscribe2.

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1 Response to The Subtext of Skin

  1. Engaged me from beginning to end.

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