Pause for Affect
As the tram passed through Nottingham I saw a young woman sat waiting at the railway station tram stop. As the tram idled beside the platform, people bustling away in the dawn hum of a lively thoroughfare, I noticed that she had a comma, roughly the size of a headphone earbud, tattooed on the inside of her wrist.
Why a comma I wondered, the unassuming punctuation mark flashing at me between sips of her morning coffee. Was this just a trend or did it have some symbolic significance of its own? Of all the punctuation marks at her disposal, why the comma and why not an enthusiastic exclamation or even a pretentious semi-colon? Perhaps it held some symbolism between friends, who when assembled could sound off “comma”, “ellipsis”, “full-stop”, like a grammarian version of the Powerpuff Girls.
I continued to contemplate the hidden meaning of the tattoo as the tram trundled its way into town. Maybe it signified the need to take a pause amongst the helter-skelter of modern life, a restorative inward breath as it were. My secondary school English teacher would tell us that a comma should be inserted at any point in a sentence where you find yourself needing to take a breath, as if all English is meant to be spoken aloud and that a person’s deteriorating aerobic fitness could play havoc with their ability to punctuate a sentence.
Despite knowing how unhelpful this instruction actually is, it remains one of those odd leftovers from childhood that refuses to sit quietly at the back of my mind.
I asked a colleague at work about this, and whether, if pushed, he could ever be persuaded to immortalise a punctuation mark on his skin. We both pondered this for a moment, grateful of an any excuse to delay the opening of Monday morning email.
“Seems like everyone has tattoos these days,” he observed. “Maybe punctuation is all that’s left?”
I recalled an old girlfriend who liked to boast that she designed her own tattoos. Things soured when, following her latest trip to the parlour she lifted her shirt and peeled away the protective clingfilm to reveal a freshly etched abdomen. At first glance the design was rather indistinct – a yellow sphere dappled in frosty whites and auburn shards with an azure streak running in a horizontal line directly underneath. Without pausing to consider the potential long-term consequences of an indelicate comment, I considered the artwork for a moment before praising the daring originality of opting for, of all things, a fried egg. “Can’t be too many of those about,” I offered, “it’s certainly a good conversation starter.”
“It’s not a fried egg, arsehole! “It’s an Ibizan sunset!” she snapped, angrily pulling down the curtain on her artwork and, as it turned out, our relationship.
In truth I have no strong opinions about tattoos or their owners, but even with the most generous benefit of the doubt an eggy sunset, Ibizan or otherwise, was an objectively bad tattoo, but weirdly enough only my second egg-themed one. The first was recounted to me by a friend who along with several other members of a mid-life Glastonbury party had tattooed a scotch egg on a discreet hard-to-see corner of their body after everyone fell deathly ill with food poisoning courtesy of an ill-advised encounter with an unrefrigerated box of this iconic savoury treat. It’s a story that always makes me smile, and I doubt there’s a time when these friends are together, perhaps welcoming the partner of a longstanding member, when the scotch egg story doesn’t make an appearance. That’s a group I’d like to belong to.
With regards to my own epidermis, I can’t say that I have ever felt compelled to tattoo something on my body, but if I did I would hope that there was a good story behind it, preferably a funny one. Many of my friends have found their way into the tattooist’s chair at one time or another, with several embracing it as something approaching a lifestyle, spending thousands on elaborate “sleeves” and complicated designs that seem to constitute a kind of highly personalised Bayeux Tapestry.
It’s not the fear of needles so much that puts me off, although that’s definitely a factor, it’s more that there’s nothing so constant in my life, no interesting quote or memorial date so significant that I feel like I need to make it a permanent feature. For some it’s a case of marking an occasion or important milestone with a tattoo, although there are times when it seems the tattoo itself is almost incidental to the act of bloodletting, where the act itself, the process that is, that is most important, a kind of ritualistic cleansing.
I’ve since learned that what I saw that morning on the tram into town might have been a semicolon which signifies solidarity with those affected by suicide. Stumbling onto this this new information is rather sobering and makes my initial reaction come across as cynical and shamefully ignorant.
In grammatical terms, this most slippery of punctuation marks represents the point where an author could have chosen to end a sentence but chose not to because the thought - the clause - was incomplete but also contingent on what followed next. Without the conjoining intervention of the semicolon the line remains broken. The allusion to drawing one’s life to a premature end then becomes a subtle metaphor.
Repurposing the semicolon in this way is a powerful reminder that language can be woefully insufficient when it comes to trying to decipher the complex and often contradictory states of mind that can take us hostage, and yet it remains our shared system of signs through which we connect with each other. Even a small black dot partially concealed beneath a shirt cuff on a drizzly station platform can flutter into your consciousness and leave an impression.