This tattoo has gone so deep it’s on his bones, it’s on his liver. His heart beats one out for the human race, while his hand leans against the wall.
Down the street, Jimmy Ju Long’s tattoo parlour is nothing but the red dragon neon outside, lost in the harbour mist – like that dragon is breathing fire. It catches a rhythm with the fire on his ribs, where the bandages and tape are sliding off, covered in blood.
There’s an old man right here, picking through garbage and cans. He tosses away a plastic bottle in disgust, but when paraffin slops out, he smells it – a strong kick to the face. He picks up the bottle and slides a dirty fingernail around the rim before taking a swig.
Deshi is more taken aback by the filth on that black, cracked nail, than he is that the old man is drinking turps. Seems to like it too – has a look on his face that says, ‘that shit is sweeter than plums’.
“Hey, you sticking in my light,” says the old man.
“Shit, sorry,” says Deshi and staggers off trailing shreds of red like a communist parade.
“What’s up with you?” shouts the old man after. “You have an accident?”
Deshi says nothing and just shakes his head, while red knives chop up and down on his spleen.
“Yeah, you better run,” calls the old man.
“Poq gai,” shouts back Deshi. Then regrets it – the old man really will die in the street.
The El Train rattles past, causing a massive ball of fog to well up around it and roll down the road like bat wings. Deshi tries to duck as the swirl passes overhead, but can’t get far, what with the pain. A coloured lantern and a few phone wires bob around.
Two kids run past, one says, “You ain’y gonna get into my mamma’s for supper!”
Deshi waits for the hard-core sarcasm, or the punch in the gut, but the kids keep running. Good, they’re following the train – gonna stick gum on it, or something, from a footbridge further down the line.
“What is it? Whadya get from that old hatchet merchant?”
It’s Mamma Xu, out for a ride. Her bike has an old carpet hanging over the handlebars, and she has trouble stopping with the weight. There’s a scrape of Chinese plimsolls on the tarmac as she judders and scrapes to a halt. The bike almost tips. “Shit!” she hisses.
Her grey hair is smoothed back into place. Teeth all angles. “So why the tattoo?” The ‘s’ on ‘so’ catches a high rat’s squeak.
“Yeah, well, I thought it was a good idea. I got the one my wife wanted.”
“She wanted you to get? Or you wanted?”
“You can guess – just to piss her off.”
“Uh,” said Mrs Xu. “You going up to the old bell? The old temple?”
“Maybe later.” There’s fire down here, and here, and all over – as if the old man had just poured the turps on, or the kids had punched him after all.
Mrs Xu shakes her head, “Why you do it. It’ll not come off – not on this side, anyway.”
A car rolls up, bottle-green, long and flat like a kid’s Matchbox car. Do’hip is at the wheel, looking stern. But he stops long enough to wind down the window, cranking like a cob, and saying – spit out the window – “Ni Gan Ma? What have you done there? Eh?” He pushes back a pair of shades onto his head, to get a better look.
Mrs Xu leans in the car.
“Hey, I got a pair of glasses just like that free with my weekly.”
“Get your shit-bird shit-hands off,” he says, swatting away her long, arthritic fingers.
“Hah, hah,” she says, as she knocks the shades off his head and down under the seat somewhere.
“Yeah, thanks a lot,” he says, one hand on the wheel, foot accelerating, other hand under his ass, searching the polystyrene cups and discarded newspapers. He roars off, and a hubcap plinks off at the first intersection and rolls off up the hill, sparkling in the sunlight that’s starting to come through.
Back at the shop is the land of mists and eagles. Back here, on the concrete sidewalk, it’s Mrs Xu smoking a black, saggy cigarette and telling him he’s a fool.