Skin – Part Three

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Skin – Part Three
May 2011

Ten minutes later Aletheia rounded a corner and turned onto the street where her office building stood.  It was tall and like all the others it was fronted with glass.  One side of the street was in shade, but heat still radiated off the walls as she passed.  On the other side the upper halves of the buildings, which were in direct sunlight, blazed with reflected radiance.  Aletheia squinted, following the windows up with her eyes to the rooftops which seemed to shimmer and melt into the bright sky.

As she crossed the road she heard a noise like a scream.  It was short and quiet but unmistakably there; a frightened voice.  Nobody else seemed to have noticed.  Aletheia reached the pavement and looked around as she walked.  She passed an office building a few yards down from her own.  At the side of this building was a narrow alley, dirty and heavily graffitied.  Aletheia could not see far into the gloom – dabs of coloured sunlight clouded her vision – but she could see that the dimly lit opening of the alley was covered in lines of black spray paint, pictures of mangled doves snared in barbed wire, and pairs of staring painted eyes.

She paused only briefly as she walked by but it was long enough for her to vaguely make out the shapes of two figures.  One seemed to be standing over the other, which was pressed with its back against the stone wall.  She heard a low, threatening murmur followed by the other voice – more high-pitched and breathless – of the figure that must have quietly screamed.

Aletheia kept walking.  She had heard stories about the city’s shaded alleys and the people who frequented them.  Dangerous, illegal acts were carried out in these passageways and backwaters; people hid there from the law, or from each other, or from the hospitals and their duty as citizens.  Such squalid places as these were threaded all over the city, opening out into sunlit streets and next to mirrored everyday buildings; existing, mockingly, under the noses of the city authorities.  Nonetheless, a curious prowling cat sprang onto the small of her back.

As she reached her building and the glass door hissed open, Aletheia turned and looked back along the street just in time to see a woman emerge from the painted alley.  She was dressed smartly in clothes similar to her own, and Aletheia recognised her as a woman from her office.  They had occasionally been in the same meetings, their cubicles were not far apart, but Aletheia could not remember her name.  The woman looked up as she pulled her ruffled hair back into a neat ponytail and briefly caught Aletheia’s eye.

*

The sunlit tiles of the ground-floor glass lobby were crisscrossed with the shadows of window frames and passing clouds, and Aletheia wove between them to stay in the light.  She tapped her fingers against her leg of wind-spun leaves and watched the movement of shade across the expansive floor.  A particularly fast moving cloud-shadow caught her attention and her eyes followed it as it sped away from her towards an approaching pair of sandaled feet.  Open-winged butterflies leapt onto her stomach as she looked up and saw Amin coming towards her across the replicated monochrome sky.

He had numbers and nests all over his wide chest; there were padlocks on his heels and chains wrapped around his calves and thighs.  Both arms depicted a dense forest of tall trees and creepers, and she watched as sympathetic butterflies drew themselves onto his torso.  A bright sun in the centre of his forehead was partially obscured by a cloud.

She wanted to pretend that she had not seen him, but he raised his hand and she made herself stand and wait for him to reach her.  Loops and whirls coiled up her right leg and sprouted flowers on her thigh.  A man with a thunderstorm on his back stopped Amin to show him a piece of paper.  Amin caught her eye and she nodded; she would wait.  As she stood the woman from the alley passed close by her; she did not look up but Aletheia watched her quick steps across the dappled floor until she disappeared into the stairwell.  On her back the cat’s eyes widened.

*

Aletheia looked down at her flowering legs and rubbed at them, as if it would make a difference.  Her skin was responding to Amin as it had the first time they had met, at a mutual friend’s People’s Day party, three years ago in October.  They had been introduced and left to talk, and as they sat on the balcony she felt her skin blossoming under his gaze and the moonlight.  Her stomach adorned itself with a tranquil lake and wherever he touched her, on her arms and face, tropical flowers bloomed.  He told her she had the most expressive skin he had ever seen; she thanked him and said that usually nobody noticed.  When she went home that night she saw, for the first time, the little red heart throbbing under her clothes.

On their first date an enormous tiger stalked along his shoulders; on their second it was there again, lying down.  Every time she phoned him she wondered what his skin was doing, on the other end of the line.  On their first anniversary she teased him when she spotted a cosy bird’s nest filled with eggs under his arm.  He brushed off her taunts and looked at her with serious eyes; she laughed so she did not have to meet his gaze.

To Aletheia he had always been disconcertingly easy to read; the symbols that appeared on his skin seemed to shout their meaning and she longed for him to keep her guessing.  He told her about his family, how he had cared for his father until he died and then helped his mother to raise his younger siblings, even though he was still essentially a child himself.  All he wanted was to recreate the family he had had before his father’s death; to resurrect the happiness he had lost.  His body showed cottages with smoking chimneys, open hearths, more and more nests and, one day, after they had been together for only two years, Aletheia found a stork cradled in the crook of his arm.

“What’s this?” she said.

“Isn’t it what you want?”

She looked at him.  For her the word family was synonymous with control.  The only enduring lesson she had learned from her parents was how to be submissive.  Her ex-husband had exploited this quality in her, but Amin had saved her: if she had not met him when she did she would have gone back to that man.  Over and over again.

“One day,” she whispered.

They did not crawl under the bedcovers until the first warm lances of sunlight were piercing the gaps in the curtains.  He fell asleep facing her, but she lay awake and looked at the engagement ring on her finger.  This was not submission, she told herself, this was merely compromise; healthy, adult compromise.  She turned and turned the ring in the dawn-light; its weight felt alien and it was still a little cold.  She rolled over and saw that he was dreaming about weddings: his arms were covered with ribbons, flowers and confetti.  The stork was gone, for now.

*

The man with the thunderstorm walked away smiling.  Amin approached her.

“You didn’t call me.  Not once,” he said.

Aletheia looked away, around the atrium.

“I didn’t know what to say.”

“I need some more clothes.  Can I come tonight?  I’ll be quick.”

“Come home.” she said.

He sighed and held out his hands in a gesture of helplessness.  There was an eagle on his palm, talons raised.

“It’s not up to me,” he said.

“What do you want me to say?”

“You know what.  There’s no point in … this,” he touched his wedding ring, “if there’s no future for us.”

“What if I’m not ready?”  The thorns from her dream were beginning to come back, buried in the corners of her mouth.

“When it happens you will be.”

“I need you.”  Under her chin a pair of unbalanced scales scored into her flesh.

“Then promise me.”  There was a mouse in the talons of his eagle now; she could not quite remember if it had been there before.


Read Part Four.

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