I’ve worked in the tattoo parlour on Doyle Street for the past three years. As expected, it’s dark and dingy inside, and most of the employees have dreadlocks and uncomfortable-looking piercings. I have clients who have only visited me once, and I have clients who show up regularly. That seems normal – some people can take the pain, and some can’t. I’m just there to get my job done and receive my pay check. Usually, the days pass quickly. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. But recently, probably in the last month, I got a new regular client.
He looks like he’s in his late thirties and he has more hair on his face than he has on his head. His eyes are dark – so brown that they look black. Almost like they hide secrets that no-one should ever find out. The first time he came in, he looked like he was in a hurry. He walked right up to the counter, waved to catch our attention, and got very impatient when we took too long to get to him. When I finally sat him down, he pulled up the sleeve of his shirt on his right arm, revealing something quite strange.
Rows of tally marks were tattooed in a line across his skin. There were about ten of them.
“One more,” he told me, motioning to the tallies.
I frowned. One more? Why on earth would he need another one? When he caught me staring, he quickly pulled down his sleeve, covering the tallies.
“If you’re not going to do it, I’ll go somewhere else,” he snapped.
I quickly apologised, convincing him to pull up his sleeve again so I could get to work. Poising my needle above his skin, I glanced at the man. He seemed to be watching the wall clock, his eyes flickering in panic. I asked him if he was alright, and he tore his eyes away from the clock, nodding and telling me to hurry up.
He left with eleven tally marks that day.
One week later, he showed up again, asked me for another tally mark, and left with twelve. He’s been back twice since then. That makes it fourteen.
Today is Wednesday, which means I’ll be seeing our strange tally-marked visitor again.
As usual, our visitor walks in as the clock hits ten forty-five. He always shows up at the same time every week – no earlier, no later. There’s something weird about him today, though. I mean, he’s normally angry, but today, he seems extremely angry. His face is red, his eyes are raging, and his fists are clenched. He storms up to the front desk, bangs on the counter, and glares at me as I walk up to him.
“I need another…”
“Tally mark,” I finish for him. “No need to say it again.”
He stares daggers at me before I guide him into my room, motioning for him to sit down as I get my needle ready.
“Hurry,” he growls as I take a seat next to him. “I only have ten minutes.”
Looking at the clock, I notice that it’s ten minutes to eleven. He always tells me to hurry at this time. Always ten minutes to eleven.
“What’s so important about eleven o’clock?” I joke as he lifts his sleeve, once again revealing his clusters of tally marks.
He stared at me as if he wanted me to drop down dead. Deciding not to speak anymore, I get to work. By the time I’m done, it’s ten fifty-nine, and my visitor is not happy.
We walk back to the counter and he hands me the card. I begin to write down his next appointment – Wednesday, 15th of May, 10:45 AM – but he stops me mid-sentence.
“I won’t be needing another appointment,” he says, glancing at the clock again.
I look up at him, surprised. Scribbling out what I just wrote, I tell him to swipe his card. He nods his head goodbye as he walks out the door, and I suddenly have a thought. I can’t let our strange visitor get away! I had to find out why he needed fifteen tally marks tattooed on his right arm, and what they were for. Grabbing my handbag and a jacket, I run out of the parlour, searching the streets. I see him, a few metres away from me. His bald head catches the sunlight, so he’s not hard to spot. Slowing my pace, I try to stay out of sight. I follow him for about five minutes, and just when I start to think that this is a waste of time and I should get back to work, he turns a corner and I find that we’re standing in front of the hospital.
I drop back a bit now because there are less people around us, but keep following him as he walks through the hospital parking lot and enters the building. I silently rejoice that he chooses the steps and not the elevator, otherwise I would lose him. I follow him up six flights of stairs until we reach the third floor. We’re now standing in the hospital reception. I quickly sit down in the waiting area and pick up a newspaper – the only thing between him and I that’s keeping me out of sight. I watch over the tip of the paper as he reaches the front of the line and begins talking to the receptionist. When he’s finished, he turns around and walks towards the exact place I’m sitting. I try to take deep breaths and stop my heart from racing as he sits right next to me. I pull the paper close to my face, waiting in silent panic for what happens next.
Peeping over the top of my paper, I watch as the receptionist waits for the person called Jim Moreton. Suddenly, my visitor stands up. He begins walking towards the receptionist, so I lower my paper, but as I do, he turns towards me and looks me straight in the eyes.
“Well, you’re here anyway,” he says gruffly. “Might as well come along with me.”
Utterly confused, I look around to make sure he’s talking to me, and then stand up, cautiously walking with him up to the counter.
“Room 214,” the receptionist tells him, and together, we walk down the corridor.
I feel very awkward. I don’t know what to say or do.
“I figured you’d be curious,” my visitor – Jim – growls. “Most people are.”
I look at him. “I didn’t mean to…I’m…um…sorry,” I splutter.
Jim only shrugs without looking at me.
We reach room 214 and the doctor walks out to greet us. “Hello, Jim. How are you doing?” Then he sees me. “I see you’ve brought a visitor today. Who might this be?”
“This is my sister,” Jim says quickly, making eye contact with me for only a second.
I stick out my hand for the doctor to shake it, wondering what on earth is going on.
We follow the doctor into the room. Jim takes a seat on a hospital bed in the corner of the room and I sit down in a chair near the doctor’s desk.
“How’s everything been?” the doctor asks, turning to Jim.
“Everything’s A-Okay, Doc,” he says.
The doctor smiles. “You’re in an awfully good mood, considering everything you’ve been through. I love seeing that in my patients.”
I sit there, listening to every single word. Jim? In a good mood? Is he sick? If so, what did the tallies have to do with this?
“So, Jim, as you know, today marks your fifteenth treatment.”
Jim glances at me before nodding.
Fifteenth? That was a familiar number. But what treatment was the doctor talking about?
“And as we said at the start of the year, we were only going to put you through the treatment so many times before we would stop. We’re in May now, and you’ve already had it fifteen times. I think it’s best if we don’t go any further. If the chemo isn’t doing what we thought it would, the only thing we can do is wait and see what happens.”
I stifle a gasp. Chemo? Jim had cancer! He had had chemo therapy fifteen times. That’s why he came in weekly to get his tallies marked. Fifteen chemo treatments. Fifteen tallies. That also explained why he was bald. He obviously had an appointment with his doctor every Wednesday at eleven o’clock. That’s why he was always anxious to get out of the tattoo parlour – he wanted to get his results. And that’s why he had been so agitated today – it was his last time getting chemo therapy. It was literally a matter of life and death.
I sink into my chair, immensely embarrassed.
I learnt a very important thing that day. No matter who you meet, where you meet them, and what they’re like when you meet them, you can never judge a person on the chapter of their life that you walked in on.