The Perfect Tan
Fishing and tanning have a lot in common. For example, both can be long, boring, but ultimately with great rewards. So when most fathers took their sons fishing, Dad taught me the art of tanning. I was five years old, and we'd emigrated to sunny southern France- later, I learned, for the sunshine. And one day I asked him, "Daddy, why are you so orange?"
He grinned that great bear grin of his, clapped his hand on my shoulder. "August," he said, "we all have to have something to strive for in this life, and this is mine; the perfect tan. And lemme' tell you something else for when you're older; the ladies love it."
So that forever afterwards, I always had something to strive for. The other children announced their ambitions. Traindriver. Nurse. I stood up and declared for my quest for the Perfect Tan. When I spoke to Dad about it, he roared with pleasure. Told me it was a noble quest, just like King Arthur and the Holy Grail. I thought the Grail was a kind of gravy, he thought it was the mug he bought from Disneyland, emblazed 'I (heart) Camelot'.
At this age, he and I were a lot alike; he laid down false facts- mostly from pub quizzes- I gobbled them down like gospel. He used words like bourgeoisie and proletariat, even though he wasn't a Marxist. He spoke of the illuminati, the New World Order, even though the biggest conspiracy he believed in was that the chippy did haddock for £1.90 on weekdays and £2.50 on bank holidays. He slammed his heavy fist down on the counter—bam! It was an outrage.
"And have you seen what Next Door pay for their groceries?" Mum asked conspiratorially. "I was behind them in the checkout at the Co-op. Half price! It's because they're Free Masons, you know."
Dad nodded solemnly. Later he said to me, "Funny. Never seen him down the quarry; I always thought he worked in stock."
There's no romance better than the story of your own parents. When Dad was passionate about something, his voice got louder and louder. When he proposed to Mum, he was shouting. She said yes because now everyone was watching, and anyway, she'd always thought it would be sensible to marry a knowledgeable man… I was named "after Augustus, the great Greek Emperor," Dad announced. I suppose their divorce, fourteen years later, shouldn't really have come as such a surprise. Bjorn told Mum that the Swedish Dad had been teaching her actually came from a Swahili phrasebook he picked up in Argentina. Mum's always begged me to try and get on with Bjorn, but frankly, I'll never be able to trust a pale man…
Even at that age, I'd never been able to give up my worship for my father. I guess it was because there was always something mythical about him; you see, by then we were back in Manchester. The sunshine had gone, but somehow Dad never lost his glow. When my skin was salmon pink, his was a glowing bronze. Walking side by side, a scrawny pale boy and a smiling sun god. Can you see them?
On my thirteenth birthday, he initiated me into the ways of the world. Where in other countries, men take their sons to the brothel, mine introduced me to the tanning salon. The receptionist had bleached blond hair in a beehive and chipped pink nails. Dad put his arms around my shoulders as we approached; he was emanating with pride.
"It's his first time," he said, and his chest was puffed, his cheeks broad.
She looked up. Stared at me. "Ah," she said, her mouth opening like an oyster, displaying wine-stained pearls. "Fresh meat."
Girls sat in the waiting room in cheap plastic garden chairs, dressed in gaudy beach clothes, despite the squall running off the gutters outside. One girl, shifting perfectly tanned legs, almost sent me into cardiac arrest. I couldn't help it; I'd been noticing girls for a while now, and I don't think I could have been more excited if Dad had actually taken me to a brothel. My jaw dropped and I openly stared. But they stared back, scanned my white body with scrutinising eyes, rolled them, sighed, looked away. I felt the red rinse of shame creep over my body. Ah! But if I thought embarrassing enough thoughts, maybe I wouldn't look so pale. I concentrated and scrunched my eyes up hard. Dad became concerned, and leant in to ask whether we should drop by the pharmacy for some ex-lax later. I turned even redder and stopped concentrating, started gnawing on the inside of my cheek instead. I think Dad saw I was nervous, so he started to tell me a story.
I said everyone adores the tale of their parents' romance. Well this was my father's love affair with the tanning salon;
"I hadn't met your mum at the time and I was going out with this little Spanish girl. Tiny. Name was Bella. Don't mention her to your mum though, eh? Picked her up trying to hitch hike to Madrid. Well you know how I feel about girls doing stupid things like that, don't you? We spent two months in Madrid and she decided she wanted to see the sites round England; Buckingham Palace and all that. So I took her back here and showed her how the laundrette worked. She started missing the place though; she said she didn't feel like herself. Most of all, she missed the sun. So for a romantic treat I found this little salon that had opened in the east end- they were a new thing back then. I remember it now… 11.15 on the second of May… fifteen minutes. She said it wasn't the same; it wasn't the tan she missed. But by that time she'd already dumped me for spending more time at the salon than with her. I hardly noticed. I'd already found a new love…"
It was the same story with me. Once you start you can't stop. Once you've tried brown you can't go back. The assistant tapped me on the shoulder and led me into a brightly lit room that illuminated every spec of dirt. The florescent lights were coffins for moths trapped under the plastic, ocean blue paint peeling off the walls. In the centre of the room was a sun bed, just like in the rooms I'd passed on the way, reaching onto the tips of my toes to see girls incubating in humming sarcophaguses.
The woman shoved a pair of goggles into my hand. I frowned at them; they looked like swimming goggles.
"Cuts," the assistant said. "Folks go on those pound flights to Spain these days. Think they're too posh for the salon." She tutted, turned on creaking, weary high heels, and tapped out of the door. Left me to figure out of the rest. Looking round hesitantly, I pulled off my clothes. Threw off my pants and dived in. The roof came down, the heat surrounded me, and I was submerged.
All my childish ideals were burned away under electric bulbs; finally, I felt like a man.
The years flash by in a collage of different spray tans and moisturisers. Sun cream and aftersun. Behold now, as Hyperion steps down from his throne. Ascending, radiant, is Apollo.
When I was eighteen years old, I met Emily. I was staying at Dad's place, his own bachelor pad complete with disco ball and hypno disk. I'd spent the week hiding in the box room from my mates. According to them I was in Malta. I'd learnt my lesson from the last time, when Daz had caught me in the laundrette tumble drying my underpants. I fumbled out a fib about returning early because of killer bees. Thankfully Daz has never been the sharpest powder in the box. I even booked time off work. My postcard collection was getting low; next time I actually did go to Malta, I would have to stock up. The day before I'd dashed out like a Russian spy under last Halloween's vampire cloak. Dunked the correspondence into the post box, super slam style, and sprinted the hundred metres back to Dad's shag pad. I think old Mrs Kenelly was rather shocked.
Sure, all this probably seems like a lot of work. But damn, it was worth it. I stood in my string thong by the full length mirror on the landing admiring my tanned muscles- because by this time I'd been regularly hitting the gym. Flexed them, turned round to admire perfectly bronzed buttocks. And here's the clincher; everyone thought it was all au naturale.
The same girls that had rolled their eyes at me now looked approvingly. That magical place where I saw my first pair of breasts; unruly, lolling out from an unclasped bra, as she slid into the time machine… It was now a place I both loved and hated. Dad guffawed that it was like a wife; gorgeous at first, but quickly losing her charms. All the same, you're dependant on her love and care. I kept going back; once a week, twice, every day. I started using the lingo; like an Indian chief, everyone else was a pale-face. By the time I was fifteen, I discovered the Perfect Tan. I had my own tanning goggles, a tanning blanket. I was particularly fond of L'Oreal's Extra Orange. And the girls in the salon flocked to me like bees around honey. It had nothing to do with being the only male there; I don't mean to be vain, but I was irresistible. Hair like solidified sunshine and a body to match, I was my father's miniature. And Dad was no longer in his prime; he hadn't taken well to Mum running off with the Abba tribute band frontman. There were bags under his eyes, creases where his skin had been taut. And for some reason, in places it had begun to crack. He shrugged and said a bit more sunshine would clear it up. We wore matching Speedo's.
An orange girl in a lime green bikini on Brighton beach licked her lips, but I averted my eyes. I had no time for fakers. Flash and Daz laughed at the girls with fake tans; I laughed with them. And moved my collection of spray tans to the back of the bathroom cabinet. I was consistently on edge, ready at any moment to dive as though for my life should any of the salon girls come by to betray my deadly secret.
One time fellow regular Katy yelled at me from across the high street, "Hey August, you coming today?" I scrabbled away as fast as I could. When my girlfriend Em caught up with me, I told her I'd been seeing another woman. She hit me clean across the face and dumped me on the spot, but I thought it had gone quite well, considering.
However, everything changed when I met Emily. Until that point, all my birds had been bronzed, buxom beauties. Emily was a pale face. Our first meeting was like Romeo and Juliet, except Romeo was much more tanned and Juliet thought he was a plonker. Not that it matters much; I always thought they met through a fish tank.
Emily was Roz's cousin, and it was the first time I spent more time staring at someone else than myself. She was thin as a twig with long red hair and red lipstick, and the way she always wore baggy dresses made it look like she was wearing a pillow case. There was always this little black book of poetry wedged under her arm pit, though I never once saw her show it to anyone else. On that day she walked out of Wetherspoons towards Roz and saw me staring at her legs- because believe me, these were some fine legs. She turned straight at me and asked if I worked in TV. Obviously, I was flattered.
"Perhaps one day," I said, trying to be modest, flashing her my sun god smile. "I hope to try out for Mr Universe next year."
She didn't even crack a smile. Instead moved a finger to her painted lip and said, "Actually, I mean because you remind me of David Dickinson. Have I seen you on the Real Deal?"
I was stunned. Emily had this way about her that I could never tell if she was serious or teasing. I laughed hesitantly, covering my embarrassment with booms of laughter. Emily, however, became distracted; she watched as Paul the Pillock waltzed past.
"Ha, she's right. I never noticed, but you do look rather like a tangerine," Roz giggled. I had to salvage the situation.
"I'm August," I said quickly.
Emily looked back. "August? Like in the month?"
Now was my chance. I puffed up my shoulders and raised my voice. "Short for Augustus. Named after the great Greek Emperor."
She clapped her hands to her ears. "You don't need to shout," she complained. I deflated. The corner of her mouth twitched. "And you mean the Roman Emperor, right?"
"The first Emperor of Rome was Augustus. You're named after him and you don't even know?"
"I-" I was flabbergasted. "I mean-" I couldn't even think what to say. Roz was near to tears with laughter.
"August, speechless!" she exclaimed, but Emily shushed her.
"It's not nice to make fun, Roz," she said, and taking her arm started away down the pavement. I wanted to shout after her, say anything, but my lips were dry. I wondered, do dry lips mean you're in love?
I waited outside of Wetherspoons every night for a week, but she didn't come back. I rang Roz, but she wouldn't give me Emily's phone number. Finally, she let slip that her cousin liked to spend sunny days in Victoria park. I crept through the undergrowth looking for her, until at last the greenery vanished, and she was there. Sitting on a bench by the duck pond, with her legs underneath her and scribbling in her little black book. I didn't even think, just jumped out at her, narrowly missing the pond.
"My love!" I said, trying to remember my best chat up lines. "If I am Apollo, you are Daphne. My passion for you burns like the power of a thousand suns. So why don't you go out with me?"
She stared at me. Just stared. And then asked, "Who are you again?"
In our first few meetings, Emily treated me like a lilo that had to be packed away. Because she stamped on my soul and deflated my vanity a little more each time.
"August," I mumbled, despondent.
"Oh," she said. "David Dickinson. Yes, I remember. What do you want?"
"I'm asking you if you want to go out with me."
"Well I'd try a different approach if I were you. You have a problem with facts; Daphne was afraid of Apollo and transformed into a tree before he could get to her."
"Maybe some people are into kinky stuff like that."
Emily rose to leave.
"Wait!" I said.
"You're a poser." Another knife. Directly into my soul. This time it really hurt.
"Well," I blustered, "so are you. You carry around that book all day hoping someone will ask you about it."
Finally I had a reaction; she turned bright red with indignation. It was as though her hair was leaking into her skin. "Have you ever heard the story of Icarus and Daedalus?" she said hotly. "His father made Icarus wings made of wax and fathers. But he was so arrogant and stupid that he thought he was master of nature. He flew so high that his wings melted in the sun. You're just as stupid as him." She turned and stomped away.
Angry, and muttering under my breath and I made my way to the salon for my 1.00 slot. I threw off my clothes and slammed the roof of the sun bed down. I decided Emily was a waste of time; what did she know about anything? It was my own fault for pursuing a pale face. What a stupid know-it-all.
After my twenty minutes were up I grabbed the handle to climb out. It didn't budge. I pushed harder, kicking the roof with my feet. I swore at it; I must have broken something when I slammed the lid. The salon had fallen on hard times recently. The sun beds hadn't been serviced in years.
"Help!" I yelled. "I'm stuck. Let me out!"
Four hours later, I was prised out of the sun bed by firemen. A mushroom cloud of smoke billowed out. I emerged, a red steamed lobster. My skin felt hot and cold at the same time. I felt woozy. I wobbled out and collapsed onto the floor, a dead faint. I had to quit my job, and was tucked up in bed with sunstroke for a month. Everyone learned what had happened. My secret was out. Flash and Daz laughed for hours. The local paper printed an article about the dangers of excessive use of sun beds. Though of course, this was no use to me now. I'd taken my humble pie and eaten it. My skin was blistered and peeling, red as a tomato. Around my eyes where the goggles had been were patches of stark white.
When I finally staggered out from the ward of my bedroom, I didn't want to see anybody. I didn't go to the pub, and I didn't play snooker at the club. Instead, I went to Victoria Park and considered what loneliness really was. Snickers followed me around like homing missiles; I couldn't escape the laughs. Even the ducks stared at me; they probably thought I was a new species. Then, to my surprise, Emily sat down on the grass by my side. "Hey August," she said, very softly.
I couldn't believe my eyes. She couldn't either, the way she kept staring at them.
"What?" I said defensively. I was still very tender; and not just physically.
"You look one of those strawberry panda's from the drink bottles," she said, gawping.
"If you're here for shits and giggles you can fuck off," I said, breaking eye contact with her and glaring at the groundskeeper. "I've heard enough laughs."
Silence. And then, "I'm sorry August. I know I haven't been very nice to you… Roz told me what happened."
"I expect she's laughing her head off," I mumbled, sulking now.
I heard the sound as Emily popped her lips. "I told her she shouldn't," she said, by way of apology.
"I'm never going to tan again."
I looked up. Emily was blushing. She hesitated, and hurriedly handed over her little black book. She opened it on my lap and looked down. "You were right; I was waiting for someone to ask about it. They're mine. I mean, I wrote them. But I always get a bit… what I mean is-"
"Looks cool," I said, reading the second stanza. She positively beamed. The change in her face stunned me; she was glowing. She didn't have a tan, but she was glowing.
Suddenly, she reached over to hug me, but it hurt so much I screamed and she let go. She winced in sympathy; "Sorry," she said, and she smiled wryly. "I guess it's true. Fly too close to the sun, you're gonna get burned."
Notes; Any critism is very gratefully recieved. I'm not too sure on August and Emily's cheesetastic relationship. Do drop me a line if you've got any ideas.