An extract from Nick Mulgrew's collection of short stories The First Law of Sadness
Words: Nick Mulgrew | Illustrations: Nena Maree
When he first walked in, he put down a wallet of numerable thousands. Blue Mandelas, leopard Mandelas, as if this was the sort of money someone handled casually, as if this was the sort of thing he did every week.
“Can we just get the first session over with now?” he said more than asked, unbuttoning his shirt in the reception area without a prompt. He refused a free consultation, wasn’t interested in a future appointment. “You don’t seem busy anyway.”
He was right: nowadays only her friends and their daughters stopped by, and usually only after work, usually only for manicures, facial waxes. It was 3 pm. The dead hour in the east city, in the colony.
So: back room, a curtain. His business shirt, thick with starch, folded over the back of an imitation Eames chair. Recliner, strip lights. Six pack, shag lines: her eyes grew wide. Something pulsed inside her. Panpipes on the stereo. Jasmine incense.
“Here’s the job,” he said, rubbing his hands over himself. A body inked like a high schooler’s backpack: symbols, names in jagged writing, objects poorly rendered, shapes barely recognisable. Muscle graffiti.
He said he wanted to be skinned like a buck, to bleed out, to have his pelt burned: “I want this to be only a memory.”
“And here’s the problem,” he continued. “The ink, it’s not the usual stuff. It’s –
it’s, uh … it’s melted plastic.” Melted bin lids, mixed with spit and crushed brick and mortar, cut and pressed into him by carpentry nails sterilised by candleflame.
At first she shook her head, unsure of what she was looking at. “What sort of
artist would tattoo you like that?”
“Sweetheart,” the charmer said, “they’re tjappies.” Prison tattoos – gang tattoos.
Eyes wider. The panpipes now a dim hum.
“I’ve tried to stop myself from coming in here before,” he said. “It’s on the walk home from the office, but I couldn’t trust a ‘beauty therapist’ to remove these.” He ran his hands down his torso again, skin sibilating like sandpaper. “But then I saw you sitting at the desk when I walked past yesterday evening. And I realised the sign didn’t mean a therapist who does beauty, but a therapist who is beauty.”
Her throat, thick with blood. Ears atwitch like a terrier’s. But that body, an envelope of experience, a cocoon engorged. She bared her teeth – in a smile, she hoped – and said that was nice of him to say.
He sat up on the recliner. “But seriously. I heard you were the best to do this kind of job.” She nodded. That’s what the flyers said; the ones advertising her advanced treatments, which she had wood-glued on all the substations, over the posters for abortions, halaal biltong.
“I tried to remove them myself,” he said. “Stubbed myself with cigarettes until the skin fell off, scrubbed myself with steel wool.” For a moment, miming, he was a little boy in a bathtub. “But all it made me do was bleed.” She looked over him again, the scars, tabulating what this job would entail, how many sessions, if the cash he had would cover all of the sessions, at a half-thousand per two hours, warmth rising from the crown of her head. She began to speak: “I’m not too comforta–”
And then he took her hand. “Feel”, he said, before she could recoil. The black
lines were all raised, like they had grown infected, then decided to wear their swelling with pride. He traced an open book traced on his right pectoral, flung open and scarred with two digits, backed by a rising sun. “Please,” he said, locking eyes with her. “I need this off of me.”
And something rose in her too.
“Slower than the Second Coming,” he complained when she said how long the job
“You’re lucky your tattoos are amateur,” she said. “Otherwise it’d take twice as
long.” She made him sign an indemnity, then she got to work.
She divided his body into thirds: right-side top, right-side bottom, left-side. He
had more tattoos on the right-hand- side than the left. “Only moffies get tattooed on the left,” he said by way of explanation.
She catalogued, more tattoos than there was space in her notepad. Burns and
abrasions, a torso like a schoolboy’s desk, compass-gouged varnish. Two hands with their thumbs up, stick-and- poked, like claws scratching at his sternum. Clutches of dollar bills. MUM underneath his left collarbone. Numerals, XXVI, dug too deep, ridged like old stone. More script along the forearm. “SON”. Unreadable blurs, stipples across his stomach. On his right bicep, two dice, their perspective surreally skewed; on the other, an aphorism. LIFE IS GOOD AND BAD AT THE SAME TIME.
Her professional recommendation would be a skin graft, but she couldn’t perform it. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure if she could perform this kind of removal, but she wasn’t in the mood to scare away this much money.
“So, you have kids?” she asked, applying anaesthetic cream to the striations of
muscle below his pectorals. An attempt at polite conversation, a prayer for the relief of a family portrait extracted from a wallet.
“What gives you the idea I have kids?”
“Just the tattoo. ‘Son’.”
“No,” he laughed. “No, no, no. That’s not what that means.”
“Oh.” She lathered on. “What does it mean?”
He said nothing.
She walked to the sink, washed her hands. Two baby-blue latex gloves, hospital-
fresh. A black tube, attached to a thick black wire, plugged into a short black box,
plugged into the wall. A switch, a metallic hum. The lowest light frequency, the laser Alexandrite. She handed him sunglasses, readied sterile swabs.
Cringed eyes, set jaw. It was like powerwashing an old brick wall. But it seemed
he knew what he was in for. Better a couple hours of pain than a few lifetimes’ worth of misery; your own long shadow tight on your skin. She started with the sternum tattoo, the two claws, then moved to the right. The light, nanoseconds on a millimetre of skin at a time. The ink vaporising; the skin exploding around the fragments. White welts, rising in concert. She passed over the digits, the pointed nails. A rash, a river of blisters.
A soft clicking came from the machine like the rotating spokes of a bicycle. In
the air, small releases of the smell of burned plastic, trapped for seasons, some sanguine humidity. The small sounds of agony she was used to; the rivulets of blood dripping between the strings of seared skin, caught by a blanket of cotton under him.
She smiled as she dabbed at the fresh scars on his chest. “Is it hurting?” she
asked. EE“Oh ja. Ja, it’s terrible.”
“In my experience it’s worse coming off than it is going on.”
He shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “No, not at all.”
Nick Mulgrew, extract from Therapist, First Law of Sadness (David Philip Publishers, Cape Town, 2017)