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Deeper than the Skin of our Tattoos

Updated: Mar 31

The water glistens as the mid-day sun shines on the river. It is quiet, so quiet I can hear myself breathe. I wipe a bead of sweat that trickles down my forehead with my hand, or what is left of my hand. I can use it now to do all sorts of things. It’s not a handicap anymore, a talking point if anything, that is if people dare asks what happened. It doesn’t hurt anymore, physically or emotionally.

The surrounding fields are brown, but where I sit on the bank of the river Barrow the grass is green, I assume they river keeps it fertilised, while the surrounding land is burnt, parched land crying out for water. The temperature is unbearable. Taking off my shirt, I place it on my head as my thinning hair offers my head no protection from the sun. The scene is beautiful. so removed from my days in London, my only reminder now is my hand and the tattoo on my right arm.  I hadn’t thought of those days for a long time. I trace my fingers around the tattoo,  Lone Wolf.

Those lonely cold days in London are thankfully long behind me. Living under the bridge for two winters, and I was getting sicker. It was fine during the summer months even offering shade in the summer heat, but during the winter it was a wind tunnel. Every day I sat beside the mobile coffee van near the entrance to the Elephant and Castle tube station. Mario’s Delight – the best coffee in town. It had been a good begging place, people would often throw the change from the coffee or sandwich.  Or, on their home from an after-work drink. People were more generous after a drink and especially at Christmas, their generosity born from guilt and alcohol. Maybe some like me had nobody. I once had friends a family, not blood family but in the army,  we were family, we’d have died for each other, but that’s all gone.

Now, the nearest I have to a family was Mario. Every morning I would wake to the smell of coffee he left beside my sleeping bag, and in the evenings, he would give me a sandwich on his way home. Home to his wife, his fat wife. I know that because he told me all about his wife.

‘She is so fat she can hardly move,’ he said.

I looked at Mario and thought she must be huge. The buttons on his white shirt strained as his stomach tried to escape as it hung over his trousers. His eyes were like little raisins pushed into a large puff pie he sold in his coffee van. The rolls of fat on his sausage hands were dwarfed by his 6ft frame so that he looked out of shape.

Mario opened his mobile coffee van at 6am. Shortly after that I would wake to the smell of fresh coffee Mario left me, and then the tinkle, tinkle of a few coins, and as the commuters increased so did the pace of the tinkle, tinkle.  Fridays were quiet for him, most workers went to the pub with their mates. On those evenings he would chat for a while, especially during the summer.  He would sit on the wall beside me, and talk. He never asked me about myself, just chatted about his dog, his cat, and his fat wife. He never mentioned my missing hand, anyway I didn’t want to talk about it then, the memory still too raw.

In the warmth of summer, the pain would ease, not the emotional pain, just the physical. I would sit in the sun with my shirt off to get heat into my bones before the winter. Often we sat in comfortable silence on those summer evening. He once bought me a can of cold cider from the supermarket when the heat was unbearable, but I didn’t drink it. I’d had enough artificial anaesthesia over the years, I heard of too many people dying from it. I still had nightmares, waking up in a pool of sweat, sometimes my screams woke me with the images burned in the flesh of my memory, in time the flashbacks diminished.

Two Christmases ago I woke, my toes frozen in the cold. Hot coffee was not in its usual place beside my duffle bag. I didn’t move as I watched my breath mingle with the cold air, rising like fighters, wrestling in the air. As I lay in my sleeping bag and watched feet pass me. Few people gave me change they didn’t have time to search in their pockets the cold preventing them from stopping too long. I waited for my coffee, but it never came, and neither did Mario. The van sat idly under the bridge. Few people threw money in my cap, they rushed to their trains, heads bent in the cold.  When Mario didn’t open the coffee van after a week, I thought maybe he took an early Christmas break. I wasn’t too sure of the date, but businesses were still open. I missed my coffee, and I missed my chats with Mario.

Tinkle, tinkle my cap filled with coins after lunch and the office lights were turned off early, so I assumed it was Christmas Eve. I looked at Mario’s van, maybe he had retired, and I noticed a sticker on the door that had not been there before. I wrapped my sleeping bag around me as I tried to read it. My eyesight was getting worse.

Mario Lanzo passed away peacefully in his home.

Reposing at Johnsons Funeral Parlour, 323 Lambeth Road, SE1


I didn’t know when that was put on his van, but the address wasn’t too far away, ten or fifteen-minute walk. I gathered up all my belongings, a green army bag and my army sleeping bag to find the funeral home.  Fifteen minutes later I stood outside the funeral home and the lights were on. In the foyer, a sign said Mr Mario Lanzo and beside it was a picture of Mario. He looked slimmer and had more hair, and the smile was the same. A wide, friendly smile. I followed the voices into a small room with a coffin in the middle and chairs beside it filled with women who bore a resemblance to Mario with dark skin and large bellies.

As I approached the coffin, a woman said, ‘That’s his son Marco,’ ‘He was so proud of him.’

The photo was of Mark, my friend Mark. Her tears fell as she looked at Mark. He looked directly into the camera, Sargent Lieutenant Mark Lonzo, 3rd Platoon. I was the only survivor in the platoon. A landmine. They had discharged me. No army pension, nothing, all my brothers gone. All I was left with was nightmares.

‘Mario loved Marco, he was so proud of him.’

I touched my arm; the tattoo burned my skin. We had got matching tattoos in a drunken stupor on leave in Singapore. ‘Blood brothers,’ we said and raised a glass of Guinness to our impenetrable bond that was sealed with ink.  Lone Wolf was the badge of our platoon. When I lost my hand, I checked my arm to see if my tattoo was intact. Mark had thrown his body to protect mine when the landmine had exploded, I owed my life, but he lost him shortly after that.

‘Sir, would you like to pay respects to Mario’s wife?’ an usher asked me.

‘No, I..’ I stumbled towards the exit, lost for words, Mark, Mario. I thought back to the day in the heat of summer when I thought that Mario had stared at my scars when I removed my shirt, but it wasn’t my scars, it was my tattoo.

‘Sir,’ the same usher quietly said, ‘Mrs Lonzo would like a word with you.’

She sat in the chair which I imagined strained under her weight. I had combed my hair, but thick with grease and dirt, I knew I smelled.

‘All right, I’m going,’ grabbing my duffel bag with my left hand threw up over my right shoulder. My head hurt, memories flooded back, memories I tried so hard to forget. The usher whispered again, ‘Sir, Mrs Lonzo wants a word, it will only take a second.’

I didn’t stand to close to her, I had some respect, I knew I smelled. The beckoned me nearer. I moved closer, she leaned forward and taking my stub in her hand. She rubbed it, ‘You were Marcos friend. Mario told me all about you, he knew he didn’t have long left.’

She handed me an envelope, ‘He told me to give you this, he knew you would call.’ She sat back in her chair breathing heavy as if she had run up two flights of stairs.

I left the room as bombs fell around me, running to the nearby park only stopping to sit on a park bench. I scratched my head pulling my hair, PSTD the doctors told me.

In my hand, the white envelope had my name pencilled on the front, Pte Jake Walsh. Mario knew all along, but he never said anything. I tore open the envelope with my teeth, my heart stopped when I saw the contents and counted it quickly and pushed it into my duffel bag.

£3,500 that is the amount that had been in the envelope, and a solicitor’s name in Graignemangh, Co, Kilkenny Ireland. I bought a ticket to Ireland. Comerford’s in Graignemagh weren’t hard to find, they were the only solicitors in the village.

‘Mr Walsh, I have been instructed by Mr Lanzo to give you the keys to the lock house along the river Barrow.

I opened and closed my mouth, finding no words. I searched my memories if Mark had said anything about a family in Ireland.

‘Mr Lanzos wife’s wanted you to have her family home here in Kilkenny.’ Mr Comerford ruffled through some papers on his desk. ‘Mrs Lanzo,’ he said squinting over the rim of his glasses as he tilted the paper towards the desk lamp.

‘She told my secretary all her relatives are dead, it was left to her son, he paused to rub his chest like he had indigestion. ‘You are to have it,’ and he slid a set of keys across the table.

Now the sun has lowered in the sky, but the day is still warm, the nearby farm is quiet the animals too hot, and the bees happily buzz making honey while the sun shines.

Tourists pass me with a nod. They usually adopt the Irish custom of acknowledging every person they meet as if they knew them for years.

From a distance, I hear, ‘Daddy, daddy,’

A woman runs after the boy, ‘Slow down, you’ll fall.’

She’s right, he falls but gets up and gathers speed, his little legs hardly touching the ground as he runs. I stand, and he runs into my arms, ‘Daddy,’

I scoop him up and kiss his curls. ‘You shouldn’t run away from your mother like that, remember the last time you nearly fell into the river.’

His mother, my wife, grabs him from my arms laughing, ‘Mark you little rascal you will be the death of me.’

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