Family Brand

At a book launch at New Zealand House in London, an official solemnly concluded his speech with a quote from "the great writer, el Doctorow". Next to me a British poet registered the mistake with a raised eyebrow. I thought of el diablo, el Dorado: the devil, the City of Gold. Beyond the windows the great city was sunk in a brown haze, lights blurred in the gloom, raindrops snaked down the windows. Inside it was hot and crowded and the light was harsh. I was in a mood to pay close attention: el diablo was in the detail, and the conversations all were gold. We were talking about family. A woman told me a story: when she was a student she stayed in a small town in Italy and fell in love with a young man. She grew close to his family, and thought seriously about staying. But her father, who had a mysterious job in the UK government, had the young man vetted, and discovered his family was the centre of a powerful mafia clan. The father didn't share E.L. Doctorow's view that "Like art and politics, gangsterism is a very important avenue of assimilation into society." He took action against unacceptable risk. And who knew what powers the Italian family possessed to vet him in turn, and decide that his daughter, with her connection, presented just as much of a risk? Briefed urgently and out of the blue by Daddy (I imagined him materialising in the crowd at the local market, or emerging from the shadows in a dim village church) she packed her bags, tearfully fled the Family and returned to the family. She told the story, I listened, paying close attention, noting every detail. London, unreal city, city of fictional gold.

Asked about my family, I told her that my daughter, now a university student, had come up with a new idea: matching mother and daughter tattoos. She wanted us to be inked in the same place (right leg), with exactly the same design, as a mark of our familial bond. She'd got the tattoo idea from her school classics teacher, a racy boffin who has the Owl of Minerva inked on her foot. "What do you think of that?" I said.
We'd been joined by some other women. There was a burst of comment. Everyone had an opinion. "That's so flattering," someone said. "Most girls want to be different, to run a mile from their mum." I agreed; it was a lovely thought. "But will you say yes or no?" I was asked. So far I'd spent my life completely un-inked, but was I going to refuse? In all matters of love, I thought, the best answer is usually yes. You regret the things you don't do, not the things you've done. And anyway, a new experience was in the interests of journalism. "I'll do it as soon as I fly back to Auckland," I said.
Love and travel, two great forms of madness that broaden the mind and lead us on, and play such funny tricks that we find ourselves jetlagged, mirthful and holding our daughter's hand in an upmarket tattoo parlour on Karangahape Rd (it could have been a hairdresser, with its designer trimmings) while a heavily inked young man scowls over her exposed leg, the needle menacingly whining. I wondered how far north this lay on the scale of bad parenting, somewhere towards the Pole no doubt, and then thought, But she's such a good girl, and I couldn't have stopped her anyway. Before we began I'd insisted on an inspection of the autoclaves and the sterile gear and then delivered a monologue on "being sure you want to do this" that went on so long it bored everyone within earshot, including us.
The needle stopped whining. She inspected the neat little picture on her leg, and declared herself well pleased. The young man changed his equipment, then it was my turn. "You've got nice skin," he told me. He was very sweet, and had tattoos on his neck. "I don't mean that in a creepy way," he added. Half an hour later I sat up, and declared myself relieved. There we were with our identical marks, skins changed, changed utterly, branded forever, family.
We limped outside, our legs wrapped in cling film. I had an idea for a story about reinvention and love and regret. And here was another nugget from "the great el Doctorow": "Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book, your composition of yourself is at stake." There we were on K Rd, hazarded, branded, recomposed. The important thing was love, so no regrets.

First published in Metro Magazine NZ