Tattooed Ladies

Janis Freegard


The Meeting of Ethel and Hauk

My grandmother, Ethel, was a tattooed lady, traveling round 1930s Europe with a circus. It was how she met Granddad Hauk, a Norwegian sailor in the German port of Bremen. He was in awe: roses twined around her shoulders, birds of all description peeped out from behind her decorous bathing suit, and when she lifted her long, onyx-black hair, ancient pyramids appeared down her back. These were Hauk’s favourite. He returned to the circus night after night, applauding rapturously when Ethel walked on-stage. There were rumours that Ethel and her decorous bathing suit would part company for a small fee, but Hauk did not avail himself of this service.

The night the circus was due to leave town, he appeared outside her dressing room door with a dozen red roses and an engagement ring. This did not take Ethel by surprise. Madam Zola had seen it in her crystal ball the week before. “You’ll meet a stranger,” she’d declared.

“Tall, dark and handsome?” Ethel had asked, hopefully.

“Just strange,” Madam Zola had replied.

“Ethel, I could look at you all day,” Hauk told her, in the sing-song Scandinavian accent she would fall for. “You carry the whole world on your skin.”

Granddad Hauk saw things in a different way from most people. He was quite convinced, for instance, that spacemen were about to invade the Northern hemisphere. He planned to migrate south, with his sights set on Australia — surely sufficiently far away to be safe. “They’ll never bother coming all the way down there,” he explained, right before dropping to one knee and inviting Ethel to make a new life with him.

Australia sounded like a bit of an adventure and Ethel was always up for adventure. However, she waited until they’d slept together before accepting Hauk’s proposal. Her mother had warned her not to risk spending her life with a man who had no passion — ‘Try before you buy’. Ethel tried and was well pleased. Pleased enough to marry Hauk the following morning. She’d found that she received plenty of propositions as a professional tattooed lady, but not too many proposals. Hauk was not an especially handsome man, having a hooked nose and eyes that didn’t look quite parallel, but he had chosen Ethel and Ethel knew she would be adored her whole life. Madam Zola came along to throw confetti. Ethel thought having her there put a stamp of approval on the whole affair.


Ethel and Hauk emigrate; a baby is born

The day they left Germany, Ethel pricked her thumb on a briar. I’m pregnant, she thought. It’ll be a girl.

They settled in Sydney. Hauk found work on the docks. No-one could have been more elated when baby Briar, my mother, was born. Hauk found her as perfect as his lovely wife.

If Ethel’s home decorating was a little eccentric, Hauk didn’t complain. Ethel liked to cut pictures of roses out of magazines and stick them on to the walls. When Hauk came home one day with a couple of rolls of rose-patterned wallpaper, Ethel was delighted. She cut out all the wallpaper roses and stuck them up with the others.

‘You make the home as beautiful as you,’ said Hauk.

When my mother was old enough to occupy herself in a play-pen for an hour or two, Ethel found she could supplement Hauk’s income through an arrangement she came to with the landlord, Mr. Spiggs. Mr. Spiggs had friends who would come round to the house to watch Ethel disrobe. She was a circus performer after all: she enjoyed an audience. Hauk never questioned why they were living off steak even when he was out of work, nor did it occur to him to wonder how Ethel paid for her silk dresses and silver teapots. He assumed he was a good provider and that Ethel was careful with money. They both thought themselves lucky and Briar was doted on.

Sadly for Hauk and Ethel — though not for Briar herself — my mother was an only child. Ethel had three miscarriages over the years and each time she was devastated.


Briar grows up

Around the age of thirteen, my mother started hearing voices. Ethel was delighted. “She’s got the second sight,” she told Hauk proudly. “She’ll be another Madam Zola.” Sometimes the voices told Briar to do something odd, like run down the street naked, but Ethel was unperturbed.

“There are angelic voices and impish voices,” she told Briar. “You’ll have to learn to filter the mischievous ones out.” Over time, my mother developed more control over her abilities, and the neighbours began seeking her advice. Often they’d bring her their new-borns to learn their destinies. Briar learned to weed out the positive information from the negative, declaring for example that a certain baby was likely to become a banker, but not mentioning to his proud parents that gambling debts would lead him one day to prison.

People were a little afraid of her, so Ethel was somewhat taken aback when Briar started showing signs of pregnancy. She refused to name the father, saying only that the baby was a gift from the Universe. Hauk had his suspicions that a spaceman was involved, and insisted that the family move further south. They packed up and left for New Zealand within the month.

“My baby will be artistic and will journey to foreign lands,” Briar told Ethel, on the ship that would deliver them to Auckland.

“Perhaps you’ll do some more journeying yourself,” suggested Ethel.

“I think not,” said Briar and she elected not to speak for the rest of the trip, preferring to stand on deck alone, gazing out to sea. But she hummed to me, as I grew inside her.


I am born

Hauk had a hankering for a rural home. Through the generosity of Mr. Spiggs and his friends, Ethel had put away enough for a deposit on a little house in the Wairarapa. That was the house I was born in. Sadly, Briar died giving birth to me. Hauk was all for building a pyramid in the back garden, to be her tomb. He thought her spaceman lover might turn up to claim her body and revive her. Ethel had her way, however, and Briar was buried in the local churchyard. Ethel planted a white climbing rose on the grave and visited her daughter weekly. It was thus left to Ethel and Granddad Hauk to bring me up. I could not have asked for better grandparents.

I was born a hermaphrodite. Intersexed, as they say these days. The doctors offered surgery to make me look more like one gender or the other, but thankfully Ethel and Hauk wouldn’t hear of it, so I was spared the years of painful surgery and lack of future options that so often accompany such circumstances. We were a family that celebrated individuality.

They named me Andy, short for androgyne. For social convenience, I was brought up as a girl. Aware that I looked a little different from other girls, I covered my body under a towel in the changing rooms and was thought somewhat coy, but no more so than the Brethren girls. I was considered a typical tomboy and played with the boys as often as with the girls. I was never lonely.

Hauk had discovered a talent for making furniture and his work was selling well in local shops. Ethel turned her hand to raising chickens and sold eggs. I would sometimes scrub her back for her when she took her bath and loved to trace the roses on her shoulders and the ancient pyramids down her back.

“Do you ever miss the circus?” I asked her once.

“Life’s a circus,” she replied. It seemed that as she grew older, Hauk was the only audience she needed.

At puberty I started to grow a little facial hair. Granddad Hauk lent me his razor and taught me how to shave. Confiding in me his suspicion of my father’s origins, he bought an old telescope and we would look up into the stars together wondering which planet was mine. Ethel took me aside one day and said it was more likely my father was an Italian boy she’d seen with my mother in a café in Sydney, but I wasn’t to tell Hauk that.


I seek my fortune

I left school the day I turned fifteen. “Grandma, Granddad, I’m going to become a tattoo artist.”

Ethel clapped her hands. “That’s marvellous, Andy! How exciting!” Granddad Hauk, who had never been tattooed himself, immediately volunteered as a human canvas.

“I’ll need to learn my trade first,” I told him. I set off soon afterwards for Auckland, where I was sure there would be plenty of studios.

After a quiet, rural childhood, I was glad to be in the hum of city life. I knocked on doors until I found a tattooist willing to take me on. In a new town with a fresh start, I thought it was time to explore the more masculine side of my nature. It was liberating dressing as a boy. I found I looked no more feminine than many other boys my age. My breasts have always been small and were easily concealed under loose-fitting shirts. I had been tallish for a girl and was now shortish for a boy, but not so short as to attract attention. I watched other boys carefully to adjust my walk and the way I moved my arms. I stopped shaving.

Jake, the tattooist was a kind, quiet man who had learned the trade in his years at sea. He asked me few questions, which suited me well. He was fastidious in keeping his tattooing equipment clean and had an artistic eye and a careful hand. I learned by watching, and was sometimes required to spread the client’s skin to provide Jake with a tauter canvas. Most of our customers were young men, who wanted a naked woman or a cartoon character on their upper arms. A few came in for a whole back or complete body tattoo. These were what fascinated me most, watching the vista unfold under Jake’s steady hand.

I settled into a new home, boarding with a retired prostitute called Miranda who wore a great deal of make-up and drank a great deal of gin. She cooked for me every evening, unless she was already too drunk by the time I got home from work. On those occasions I’d fetch fish and chips from Tick-tock’s takeaway bar and Miranda would turn up her record player as loud as it would go and dance around the room waving pieces of battered shark in time to the music.

I have never been especially house-proud, but Miranda’s house was filthy. “That’s it!” I told her finally after I’d tripped over the pile of empty bottles and ancient newspapers in the kitchen once too often. “I’m cleaning up.” Miranda grumbled for the rest of the week, but I knew she was grateful, really. Her eyesight was failing, but she refused to see an optician. She was almost seventy.


My first tattoo

Miranda and I were pleasant company for each other, for the most part. I was sometimes woken by her drunken singing in the middle of the night, and she would complain when I used up all the hot water scrubbing tattoo ink off myself in the shower, but mostly we co-habited amicably.

I spent my leisure time practising the skills I was learning from Jake, sketching out designs on my own body with a fine fountain pen, learning to draw a sure, unbroken line. My first tattoo I etched into my own forearm: a briar rose, for the mother who hadn’t lived to meet me. “You did good,” Jake told me when he saw it and he let me loose on the customers. I started by colouring in the outlines he had drawn, then progressed to simple designs: anchors and birds.

When I thought myself proficient enough, I returned to the Wairarapa, ready to give Granddad Hauk his tattoo. He asked for a spaceship on his right shoulder. I managed a reasonable facsimile of the Starship Enterprise and Hauk grinned for the rest of the day. He declared that the spacemen were no longer so much of a threat and it was probably safe for me to travel to the northern hemisphere.

“You’re artistic, just like your mother said. Next you must go on your long journey.” He urged me to visit the pyramids I’d always admired so much on Ethel’s back. Ethel sighed and said she’d always longed to visit Egypt.

“We’ll go there together some day,” I told her. “You, me and Granddad Hauk.”

“It was the spacemen who built the pyramids,” said Hauk. He seemed to have made his peace with them.

Ethel told me how handsome I was looking now I’d grown a moustache. “I’m pleased to see you go,” she told me. “As pleased as I was to see you arrive. Not because we don’t enjoy you being here, but because it makes us happy to know you’re out in the world doing something you love.”


My life changes

I worked for Jake for two years before I decided to branch out on my own. With his blessing and some of his old equipment, I opened a small studio in a back street. It took a while for business to build.

Miranda was very generous. “You can have a rent holiday, dear. Just for a few months until you find your feet. Reckon I can send a bit of business your way too. Some of the younger working girls.” Mostly they wanted birds and butterflies. Occasionally someone would ask for a rose like the briar rose on my arm. I always refused, explaining it was in memory of my mother.

I returned to Ethel and Granddad Hauk every few months. Each time, as I left, Hauk would wink at me and say, “Don’t forget the pyramids.” I assured him I wouldn’t. The business was starting to make money and I managed to save a little, whenever I could. I drew pictures of the pyramids, from my memory of those on Ethel’s back and hung them over my bed.

After one of my visits to Ethel and Hauk, everything changed. I arrived home in Auckland early in the morning to find a young woman in my bed. She had short, blonde hair, an upturned nose and smiling, blue eyes. I don’t know which of us was more startled.

“I’m Miranda’s niece,” she told me, pulling up the duvet with one hand and extending the other to shake mine. “Rosie. I’m over from London.”

“Miranda didn’t tell me you were coming.”

“I wanted it to be a surprise.”

She was staying for a few weeks. I offered her my room, but she insisted on moving to the couch in the lounge. When she found out what I did for a living, she begged me to tattoo her. We stayed up late at night drinking Milo laced with rum while I drew up the designs she wanted. It was an ambitious project. Her plan was to have the Norse pantheon across her back: thunder-god Thor with his magic hammer Mjöllnir, the lovely Freya, in her chariot drawn by cats, Odin the All-father with his one eye and blue cloak. Granddad Hauk had told me the stories many times.

Some days later, when the drawings were completed to our mutual satisfaction, we went out to celebrate. I took her for dinner to an intimate French restaurant I’d always wanted to try but had never had anyone to bring to. We ate French onion soup, snails and duck á l’orange and drank a bottle of good French wine. Looking into my eyes, Rosie said, “You’re not like other men.”

“No,” I said, “I’m not.” And I told her.

Rosie moved into my room with me and I soon knew that she loved me as much as Granddad Hauk loved Ethel. Miranda couldn’t have been happier for us. During the days, Rosie came to my studio and we worked on the Norse gods and goddesses. I drew Freya, who is after all the goddess of love, to resemble Rosie herself, and I drew the trickster god Loki, who can take both male and female form, to look like me. When the time came for Rosie to return to London, I asked her to stay. She agreed and enrolled in a travel agent’s course. “I’ll be able to get discount fares,” she said, eyes fixed on the pyramids above our bed.

With Rosie’s tattoo complete, I surprised myself by offering her another: a briar rose, identical to my own. She accepted with tears in her eyes and I knew she was mine for life.


Tragedy strikes

Nothing stays the same forever, however much we might wish it would. “I’m dying,” Miranda announced one day, after half a bottle of gin. “Quack says three to six months.”

Rosie and I were shaken to the core. Miranda’d become as much like family to me as Ethel and Hauk. I found it hard to imagine life without her. Her doctor estimated only another three to six months.

In true Miranda style, she decided to throw her own funeral. (‘Why should you buggers have all the fun after I’m dead?’) It was a colourful party, well attended by Miranda’s former clients and colleagues. The gin flowed late into the night as we sang along with her to her favourite songs. As the last guest rolled out of the house at five o’clock in the morning, Miranda summoned Rosie and me over to the couch where she’d half-collapsed.

“I’m leaving you the house,” she declared. “And start packing your bags — we’re going on holiday. Get me some of those discount fares, Rosie, I haven’t got long. And you —” stabbing her finger at me, “you’re bringing Hauk and Ethel. It’s about time I met them.”

“Sly old fox,” said Rosie, wiping her eyes.


Another journey is taken

A short week later and against the advice of Miranda’s doctor, the five of us made the long journey to Egypt. I didn’t know it then, but only four of us would make it home. Miranda knew. Afterwards, we found a stash of blood-stained hankies in her handbag.

She was pale at the airport when we arrived, the smear of rouge across her cheeks failing to convey an impression of health. “Don’t give me that look,” she snapped. “The funeral’s already been.”

Somehow we made it through the rattly coach ride to the pyramids of Giza, Miranda included. My memory of that day is one of the happiest of my life, spent in the company of the four people I loved most in the world. I stood a long time in front of the royal necropolis, Rosie’s hand in mine. Five thousand years of history, two million blocks of limestone. It seemed to reach the heavens. Our awed silence was broken only by Granddad Hauk. “They’ve got nothing on yours Ethel. I’ll take yours any day.”


I undergo another change

Even the house seemed to miss Miranda. I couldn’t face work in those first few weeks. Rosie would come home each night to find me sitting in the dark, listening to Miranda’s old records.

It was more than grief, though; there was something else. Apart from the loss of my dear friend, I should have been happier than ever. I had everything I could have wanted: a job I enjoyed, a woman I loved, a home that felt like a home should feel, people who loved me. Why then, was there an underlying dissatisfaction to my life? Was it just some kind of existential ennui? Was I expecting too much?

It was Miranda who figured it out for me. I decided it was time to sort through some of her things, while Rosie was out one night. I brought down two ancient suitcases from the top of her wardrobe and forced open the rusty locks.

A wealth of colours, textures and Miranda’s memories cascaded out. Some of her favourite pieces of clothing and jewellery were in those cases. I could almost feel her at my side, exclaiming in pleasure at each rediscovery, “My Oroton earrings! My white feather boa! Oh! My taffeta dress. I loved this dress.” I held it out in front of me. It was stunning indeed, midnight blue with a square neckline and figure-hugging skirt. I could see why it had been a favourite.

I could imagine a sly look creeping across Miranda’s face. “Go on. It would fit you perfectly.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” I said out loud. “I mean, it’s not really me.” But when I touched the lush fabric, I was no longer sure. Would it be right to deny the request of a dead woman? “Go on then,” I said, picturing Miranda’s impish grin.

When I smoothed the dress over my hips, I felt a completeness I hadn’t felt for some time. If Miranda had been there, she would have clapped her hands and said, “It’s you, you look gorgeous, you must have it.”

I was still wearing it, along with the Oroton earrings and feather boa, when Rosie came home. “Well now, who have we here?” she asked. She seemed a little surprised, but so was I when she flung her arms around me and covered me with kisses. “I’m so proud of you, my love,” she was saying and I could see she was; it was shining out of her. “So proud.”

Janis Freegard was born in England, but has lived in New Zealand most of her life. She writes fiction and poetry and is a past winner of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award. Her poetry collection, Kingdom Animalia: the Escapades of Linnaeus, will be published by Auckland University Press in May 2011. She blogs at