The tattoo I got at 25 was a source of embarrassment for many years. I’d love to put it down to a drunken mistake, but I was stone-cold sober, trotting down London’s Portobello Road with my friend, who, as we passed a tattoo studio, dared me to get one.
She was joking, but the challenge was out there — and I have never been one to turn down a challenge.
I had a bit of a thing for dolphins at the time. I had been to Dingle Bay in Ireland, and written a story about swimming with the famous dolphin who lived there. It wasn’t so much swimming, as me being absolutely terrified, jumping off a tiny fishing boat into the freezing November Atlantic, as an enormous shadow swam below me. But later that day, in shallower waters, the dolphin and I came face to face, and I was struck by the profound gentleness and peace in its eyes.
Also, Mark from Take That had a dolphin tattoo on his well-sculpted abdomen. So at that moment, when Annie dared me, I marched us into the tattoo studio, where I proceeded to get a pretty awful tattoo of a small blue dolphin on my left ankle.
I was nervous about the size, but not her ability. All of her tattoos are beautiful, fine-lined and expertly shaded. And so I have ended up with a much larger tattoo than I’d expected — about the length of my hand
Six years later, married and with a baby on the way, I hated that tattoo. I was embarrassed by this ugly mark and, if I went to something dressy, I’d cover it up with make-up. I wished I had never had it done.
When we moved to the U.S. later that year, I discovered there were new lasers that promised tattoo removal. Several hours, and a few hundred dollars, later, the outline of my tattoo had gone, leaving only a vaguely dolphin-shaped blue smudge.
Apparently, the lasers then had no way of removing blue ink, so I would have to live with it. More fool me for pretending to be cool the day I had accepted that dare.
I was one of very few people I knew who had a tattoo. When I moved to suburbia, tattoos were not a thing and none of the young mums who became my friends would ever have dreamed of getting one.
I rarely thought about mine and people had stopped noticing it, as I’m almost always in trousers. Occasionally, some eagle-eyed observer would ask, ‘Is that a tattoo?’, always surprised that someone like me — well-spoken, well-dressed — had such a thing.
I felt a bit silly as I tried to laugh it off as the residue of a misspent youth.
But then, tattoos got trendy. And not just trendy, but beautiful. I started seeing women like me with small, delicate tattoos.
Rather than the preserve of rock stars and motorcyclists, tattoos had become a form of artistic self-expression for anyone chafing against society’s stereotypes, a way of saying: ‘I’m not who you think I am; I may look like a suburban housewife, but I’m a rebel!’
I like being someone who has got a tattoo at this age. It makes me feel like I’m not plummeting into the afternoon of life quite as quickly as you might think — I’m still someone who has the tiniest modicum of cool
And so, I fell back in love with the idea of getting another one. The dolphin-shaped smudge carried no sentiment for me, but what if I thought of something beautiful, with meaning, something that spoke to my life today?
I dreamed of constellations, delicate galaxies, a sprinkling of stars.
‘Absolutely not,’ said my husband, who hates inkings.
Yet I started following fine-line tattoo artists — who specialise in delicate, pen-style drawings rather than gigantic swirls or stamps — on Instagram. I coveted something by celeb favourite Dr Woo, who has tattooed everyone from Cara Delevingne to Brooklyn Beckham.
Black and white, I thought; dainty. I would have something discreet on the inside of my wrist, something I could choose to show, or cover up with bracelets.
I would probably not tell my husband, although I am a terrible, terrible liar, and he always knows when I’m up to something. I would ask for forgiveness rather than permission, I thought, when I get my tattoo. For I knew then that I wanted one; I just had to wait until I knew what it would be.
In April of this year I published Sister Stardust, my 20th novel and my first work of historical fiction. It is the story of a woman called Talitha Getty, who was married to John Paul Getty Jr, the son of one of the richest men in the world at the time.
This was the 1960s and the pair of them lived an impossibly hedonistic lifestyle in London and Marrakech.
Talitha’s story has haunted me my entire adult life. She died tragically young after taking a heroin overdose in her husband’s apartment in Rome. Because possession of heroin carried a mandatory sentence of ten years in prison in Italy then, and because her husband may have been culpable in some way, there has been very little written about Talitha, then just 30.
And yet, more than 50 years after she died, her style was so unique, so progressive, so exquisite, that many fashion people, from Kate Moss to Phoebe Philo — the British former creative director of Celine and Chloe — continue to call her a muse.
I travelled to Marrakech to explore the world Talitha created, a world that embraced anyone who was anyone in the late 1960s, from the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull to Gore Vidal. All of them spent time lounging under the stars on the rooftop of her Marrakech palace, sipping mint tea, eating mahjoun — an ancient delicacy of dried fruit, nuts, and hashish. Also on offer — although not everyone partook — was opium.
Of course, my Marrakech was not filled with psychedelics, but like Talitha I fell in love — with the city, and with the 1960s.
Suddenly, I knew what tattoo I wanted and sketched it out. It would be a tattoo to mark the new me.
Four years ago, when I turned 50, I’d had something of a rebirth. I realised then that I needed to figure out exactly who I am, that I wanted to reinvent my life, stop pleasing other people, stop desperately trying to fit in. Rather than a midlife crisis, I was having a midlife awakening.
I had also developed a newfound fascination with snakes. Talitha wore snake jewellery; her friend and neighbour, the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, regularly drew snakes on cards to friends, and, indeed, she lived in a house called Dar El Hanch, house of the snake.
Snakes, I discovered, signify rebirth and the shedding of skins. Which feels exactly what I’ve been doing.
The tattoo also needed poppies — ones inspired by an illustration drawn by Anita Pallenberg, a muse to the Rolling Stones and another of the Gettys’ regular visitors.
Poppies have long been my favourite flower — not the red ones, but purple. I love their beauty, the seed pods that form, their fragility and determination.
Plus, the fact that opium is derived from poppies and Paul Getty planted a field of poppies at their Marrakech home, meant that in order to truly capture all I wanted to take from that time, I’d need poppies as well.
I drew the poppies, and the snake, one that Yves Saint Laurent had drawn — and then ignored everything I knew to be true about getting a tattoo. Instead of waiting for an opening with a tattooist whose work I loved, once back home I decided, on impulse, to get this done at a local tattoo parlour in a nearby town.
The man seemed to do some fine line work. I figured it would be OK. I showed him my watercolour sketch of lilac poppies and a snake threading through it and he printed the outline and placed it on the inside of my right wrist. I sat in the chair, hoping the result would look like my magical picture.
It doesn’t. The £170 tattoo he gave me is . . . fine. If a little . . . unfinished. I think he got bored halfway through and decided to quit.
Frankly, I was relieved. I hadn’t been able to watch the needle and, by the time I’d mustered up the courage to look, I realised the colours he’d used were completely wrong. Instead of the poppies being pale lilac, they were a bright bubblegum pink. And there were gaps in the petals through which my skin appeared.
Also, it was so painful, I’m not sure I could have taken it any longer. Though it took about an hour, it felt like three.
When I got home, my husband thought the tattoo was fake. He had a confused smile on his face as I extended my wrist, convinced it would rub off.
I think, as he saw how unfinished it was, he realised it was real.
‘My wife,’ he sighed, sinking his head into his hands.
Over the next few weeks, I decided the tattoo looked little like my drawing and wasn’t what I’d wanted. Yet though it needed more work, I loved having a secret tattoo on my wrist, one I could hide or show off at will.
I found another tattoo artist to fix it, then felt guilty about asking her to fix someone else’s mistake. Perhaps I ought to ask her to give me a new tattoo before correcting another’s work? That was the right thing to do — allow her to express herself before a repair.
I found an illustration of a snake I liked and took it to Rebecca Bettz, an artist at Rebel and Rose, a local tattoo parlour. The size I wanted — about two inches — was too small to look good, she said. We added four poppies and a seed pod, a Moroccan six-point star on the snake’s head and a sprinkling of stardust for my novel. I also gave her the OK to go bigger.
I was nervous about the size, but not her ability. All of her tattoos are beautiful, fine-lined and expertly shaded. And so I have ended up with a much larger tattoo than I’d expected — about the length of my hand.
It cost me around £370 and I find it tremendously beautiful. I can’t stop admiring the new illustration on my arm, but tiny it is not.
I like being someone who has got a tattoo at this age. It makes me feel like I’m not plummeting into the afternoon of life quite as quickly as you might think — I’m still someone who has the tiniest modicum of cool.
My husband doesn’t like it — he is a very elegant man who enjoyed having an elegant wife, and tattoos are not elegant.
But he, at least, appreciates the artistry of this new one.
My friends mostly think I’m a little bonkers. Two of my children think it’s cool; two of them just rolled their eyes.
I like to think this tattoo signifies my mid-life awakening, the inner rebel that I thought I had left behind when I got married and had children.
I am going back to Rebecca to get the bad wrist tattoo fixed, overlaying the bubblegum pink with lilac and filling in all the gaps where my skin shows through. But after that, I’m pretty sure that will be it for tattoos and me.
Although, I did see a very nice simple line of script on someone’s arm the other day . . .