The Space on the Page: Cloth Against Skin

My story Cloth Against Skin was accepted by an online magazine last December. I was really pleased. It was obvious from the finished issue that care was taken in the selection of stories, that the editors had been thoughtful when considering how they would fit together. The image they chose to accompany my story was perfect.

I wasn’t anticipating that the layout of my story might be changed. The story is short, under 1,000 words, but the format of it is very important to me: the separation of paragraphs and the italicisation of some sections is there to convey and emphasise the theme and meanings.

With the loss of formatting, I feel that the story lost some of its power, so I’ve decided to post it in its original form here.

 

Cloth Against Skin

I arrive in Southampton from Port-of-Spain hoping that I’m suitably dressed for an English summer:

An iris-yellow dress cinched tight at my waist.

A white pillbox hat with a little net shading my eyes.

White kitten-heeled stilettos that lift my feet off the ground.

The breeze, though, is unexpectedly cool; it embraces me like a shawl. I’ve heard about the cold of winter that drains the blood from your fingers and toes, but I haven’t felt it yet.

I take the train to London where my cousin Rita is waiting for me at Waterloo station. She lives in a house with two bedrooms, one for her and Alan and one for their son Errol – no spare room, but she said I could stay.

At night I sleep on Rita and Alan’s settee and dream of being adrift in the Atlantic, but when I feel furtive hands creeping across my skin I am wide awake, holding my body rigid. I keep my eyes squeezed shut and wait to be left alone.

In the morning, sitting at the Formica table in Rita’s kitchen, Alan’s eyes won’t meet mine. They are blue and fathomless like the ocean that separates me from home.

*

I meet a man called Patrick. He buys me a pearl-pink glass vase and a weekly supply of carnations until I agree to marry him. On the day of the wedding, Calvin, Patrick’s best man, whispers in my ear that I am making a mistake, that I should go away with him.

I say yes to Patrick anyway.

Seven months later, Mia is born. She is such a dry-eyed, hushed baby. Sometimes I feel like tipping her out of her cot just to make her cry. Every day I hand her over to Esme to be looked after I feel so relieved. I leave Mia sitting in a room full of other babies, mute while the others gurgle and scream.

I catch the bus to work, sitting close to the open platform. I am unable to blend in with my surroundings but I’m used to the stares of Londoners now, their faces as bloodless as a winter sky. This is what they must see:

 My stiff paper cap perched on my head, brown leather brogues on my feet.

 My pale-blue dress with a starched white collar, thick black stockings.

  My navy wool cape keeps me warm.

My nurse’s uniform protects me, tells them who I am.

*

Mia drapes her coltish body across the bed and watches me get dressed for a party. I have been promoted: I am a ward sister now. I stand in front of the mirror, but she is behind me stealing its attention, her face morphing from smiles to pouts to frowns. My daughter is nothing like me. She thinks being able to suck her teeth diverts attention away from her East London accent, her love of Marmite and Top of the Pops, her knowledge of no other country but this one.

  I still relax my hair into waves and curls.

 I still dust my cheekbones with powder that shimmers like moon dust.

 I still paint my nails wine-red with lipstick to match.

My dress wraps around my hips and clings just so. With cloth against skin, I make myself visible.

*

After twenty years, Patrick breaks the strained politeness of our marriage to pursue a girl not much older than Mia. His body is distant and heavy with answers to questions I dare not ask. When I leave our home, Mia chooses to stay with him.

*

 I retire and rent a house in a seaside town. I don’t have much to do except please myself, so I re-read all the books I own, drink strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk, and flick through my old records, returning to my favourites: Bessie, Ella, Billie, Sarah. I sing along. Sometimes I dance, awakening muscles that are usually quiet and still.

Every morning I wrap myself in an oversized parka that once belonged to Patrick, and I walk down to the sea.

My jeans are so worn the denim has washed away.

My hands feel snug in sheepskin mittens; they recall my first English winter.

My green wellingtons crunch the pebbles on the beach with each step.

Sometimes I think about going home – I wonder if I’ll die before I’ve made up my mind? My mother and father only exist in my memories now, and our house will be in ruins. Bats and birds will be nesting in the gaps of the galvanised roof, and green lizards will skim-skitter across the veranda where I used to sit and dream of coming to England.

*

It’s morning. The nurse comes into my room. She leans over me and her hands roll away the waves of sheets and blankets. My nightdress is unbuttoned and removed as if being unpegged from a washing line.

She says, stand, but I can’t – the frame won’t catch me if I fall.

She says, hold, and my fingers curl into my palms because of the pain.

She says, wash – my skin recoils from the tepid water filling the basin.

The nurse immerses a flannel and wrings it out briskly. She scrubs me as if she is cleaning a window. I am dried, and fresh clean clothes pulled on to my body. I have not chosen them:

Disposable knickers and a grey polyester vest.

Navy linen trousers, elasticated at the waist.

A moss-green jumper, its woollen folds nestling against my skin.

I’m strapped into a wheelchair, pushed into the lounge and given warm grey porridge for breakfast. The sour milk bleeds into the plastic tang of the beaker.

Afterwards, I am moved to the bay window where glimmering sunlight burns through the glass. I sit here for hours, and I can almost feel the catch-fire heat of the sun on my skin, inhale the sea breeze so it fills my lungs.

On days like this, I am no longer four-thousand miles from home.

 

 

 

Invertebrates

From https://pixabay.com/en/spider-crab-spider-1054740/

 

When I first started this job, Ged said to me, What do you want to work here for? You should be out taking drugs and clubbing and fucking. I looked down at my clothes: too clingy, too red, too much boob, ass, leg? He struggles to look me in the eye. Rather than show me how to work the till, the first thing Ged did was to ask me where I’m from. I said, Cockfosters, and can you believe he actually said, no, where are you really from? I said again, Cockfosters. He thought I was being facetious.

I am on probation.

I was so bored in that dead hour before the shop closes that I was looking up pictures of spiders on the internet. I found one that’s the absolute spit of Ged – admittedly, Ged has fewer legs – but he’s the closest any homo sapien has come to resembling a Crab spider: a blob for a body, spindly legs, milk-white. The website states, helpfully, that they stalk their prey by jumping on unsuspecting victims. Spiders do what they must.

It’s one minute to nine the next morning. We’re not open yet. The phone rings. I say, Paul, can you get that? Paul says, no, you get it. I cajole, oh go on Paul with the professional voice, please. Then I feel Ged’s eyes boring into me across the shop floor, so I pick up. A voice is competing with the sound of traffic. His tongue curls around vowels, stretches them out. The voice is spilling out of the mouthpiece of the phone. I want a tri-band router. A ZT-5300 ZonePro Tech ethernet router. Can you hear me? I say, I’ll check, hold on a moment. In a thick-tongued, bristly brogue, I say to Paul, yooou got a ZT-5300 root-orrr in stuck? Paul shakes with silent laughter as he checks the shelves behind the counter and nods. I take my hand off the mouthpiece. Hello? Sorry to keep you – hello? But the voice has gone. Ged takes one contemptuous look at me and marches upstairs to his office.

A week later, and I’m in Ged’s grubby office sitting opposite a regional manager in an ill-fitting blue suit, an HR consultant from Head Office, all padded shoulders and bootcut trousers, and Ged. I’d half-expected the latter’s monotonic lecture about my unsatisfactory conduct – but then he uses The R Word: the one I use to describe my ex-boyfriend’s Dad who wouldn’t have me in the house; the one that sums up my maths teacher at school who outright called me thick, like the rest of my lot. Not to mention the people who moan and say the country’s full! I look at the faces opposite me: Ged’s, narrow and treacherous; the regional manager, his smile oily with schadenfreude. I listen to the HR consultant as her scarlet lips extol the virtues of training that will improve my cultural awareness. That’s when I begin to laugh. I laugh for so long that the muscles in my gut ping like overstretched elastic. I laugh myself out of the office, out of the front door of the shop, and out of a job.