They have bags of ‘tennis ball’ bubble gum at the Go Local shop just along from where my dad lives. They look like the little knobbly bubblies from an old bubbly machine. I loved those. 2p (or 5p. 70s Inflation hit us kids hard in our pocket money stakes) and you got this rock hard ball that you stuffed in your mouth, then crushed and sucked, turning the almost chalky inside into a pulp until your jaw ached and you could mould the resulting putty around your tongue and blow bubbles that would produce a satisfying pop and stick to your face, to be shovelled back in again with gummy tongue and fingers, for more chewing, more moulding, more blowing. Honestly, it was the best fun.
And some bubbly machines also had little toys in the mix, the most exciting of all being the tiny book of tattoos. Oh yeh, if one of those fell out when you’d put your 2 or 5p in and held your breath and prayed to Jesus (who was an actual kid once so might just be on your side – Mary and God would probably not approve) then it was just incredible. Your scalp prickled, this was IT.
They were tiny and blurred, these temporary water-based tattoos. You had to remove each small rectangle of cardboard blotting paper they were printed on, then wet your arm, leg, forehead, wherever, and splat the printed card on. The slightest movement smeared the already fuzzy image even further, but excited little hands can’t help themselves.
‘It’s a butterfly,’ —me, pointing a grubby forefinger to my bicep. ‘That one’s an anchor,’ poking my forearm, ‘and’, waving a finger at my shin, ‘that one’s a…cat’. I was carried away, plastering them all over.
I felt incredibly grown up, sophisticated, and transgressive all at once. I was tough, cool, I had lived a life that had earned these tatts. Six rockin’ years.
‘Are you sure it’s a butterfly? Looks like a smudged smurf. And that’s not a cat that’s a splash of mud, have you been paddling in the river again? What have I told you…’ my mum’s words would echo as I scooted off round to my best friend Claire’s to show her my fabulous body art. And almost certainly let her have one or two from this thick little wadge of blotter paper. A mermaid, a love heart.
As an adult, I have decided that I am not cool, sophisticated, or transgressive enough for tattoos. Mostly it’s that I am far too temporary so whilst the ‘dab on wash off in the bath’ version suited me fine as a kid, the idea of something permanent makes me feel claustrophobic. And then there’s pain. I never volunteer for that, no matter how amazing the outcome might be.
When Dan died, I wondered about getting a real tattoo. I would not feel temporarily bereft. This was forever. But it was a short period of consideration because, pain. So, I had some of Dan’s ashes incorporated into a sparkly pendant and I can wear it or not wear it as I see fit. But others have been far bolder than me. There are at least three people with tattoos that symbolise Dan. And I can’t tell you how much that touches me, right in the heart. Three people who wanted an everlasting reminder of the boy that touched their lives. I know tattooing is normalised these days, but still, to mark your body in permanent ink in a way that each time you see it reminds you of another person – that’s deliberate, and has great meaning. In the tradition of tattoos on sailors, where the inks carried stories of their lives, Dan is remembered amongst the hearts, roses, words. and colours that tell the life stories of his close friends and even his organ recipients. No blurry butterflies, just blurry tears from me when I think about them.
I have a permanent reminder on me anyway, a faint scar from the emergency caesarean section at Dan’s birth. It is my proudest scar, though there was zero pain involved in acquiring it, as I was so off my trolley on drugs (prescribed, obviously) at that point. But it’s still there, nineteen years on.
You don’t really see bubbly machines any more. They used to stand mostly outside corner shops and newsagents. I’m sure at some point a grown up realised that children with 2ps, easy access to these machines, and little regard for danger were busily choking themselves on rock hard bits of gum far too frequently and ‘something had to be done about it’. By the time Dan would have been old enough to choke on his own bubbly, the machines had become siphons for pound coins and endless bits of plastic wrapped in screwable plastic orbs, with long strips of paper with unreadable safety warnings about not eating the contents and being under adult supervision at all times. I have contributed to my fair share of landfill purchase just to get Dan and his best mate Jay round the Co-op without too much fuss: ‘if you promise to walk nicely and stop hitting each other and crying then you can each have a toy from the machine. Just let me choose my wine in peace for five seconds.’
There would sometimes be fake tattoos in these new machines, but they were worlds away from the cardboard versions version we had. Ours could have easily doubled as acid tabs (I’m now wondering if the tattoo books were some sort of by product/cover for the drugs market of the day; ‘Here, Brian, how can we make our purchase of grey blotting paper on an industrial scale look legitimate?’ ‘Kids tatts for bubbly machines, Ron, kids tatts’). The 21st century temporary tattoos from vending machines were large, colourful, with peel off backs and took weeks to scrub off in the bath. Dan and Jay loved them and would proudly display their vibrant skulls with snakes, knives piercing hearts, and devilish faces, on arms, necks (well done Jay) and chests. Teachers felt less pleased about these tattoos, as if they were not just agents of fun but direct acts of rebellion designed to undermine the rest of the class’s ability to learn. So mostly we saved them for holidays.
There’s no bubbly machine outside the shop now, no evidence of the scrubby girl with wonky bunches and homemade shorts crouching down, feeding 2 or 5p into a slot and hoping, praying, for some tattoos to fall out.
Now, there’s just a scrubby, wonky pony-tailed woman hurrying back from the store with Dad’s newspaper under her arm, wishing she could share a bag of tennis ball shaped bubblies with Dan and tell him these stories about when they were both little and loved their best mates and wore temporary tattoos.