Skin – Part Four

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Skin – Part Four
May 2011 

Liela

Liela reached the third floor and kept walking up the stairs.  She relished the throb of her heart and the perspiration forming on her face and under her arms.  She forced herself to walk faster until her legs burned and her breath came in long heaves.  It felt good; she was conscious of every fibre of her body and she controlled them all.  As long as she kept moving nobody could touch her.

The full force of the light stopped her for a moment as she opened the door and stepped onto the roof.  The door was made of metal and as she pushed it closed behind her the outer side, which had been exposed to the sun, burned her fingertips.

There were a few plastic deckchairs and a table up here, and two other people.  One was smoking, the other leaning over the edge looking down at the street below.  Liela pulled out a cigarette from the pocket of her shorts and asked the other smoker for a light.  She stood a little way off, turning her face up to the sky and inhaling the hot smoke.  Why hadn’t somebody invented cold cigarettes?  God knows they’d come up with virtually everything else.  Not quite the ‘perfect society’ yet, not until there were cold cigarettes and nobody talked about duty.

Eventually the other two people left the roof and Liela was alone.  She stamped out the cigarette and walked to the edge.  Most of the other buildings nearby were a similar height and they all had roof spaces like this; a place for the masses of paper-shufflers to sit, eat, socialise and smoke.  Look out at the city and see their place in it.

Ahead of her – it seemed further away up here – there was a gap in the sea of rooftops.  A thin, gorge-like gap: the alley.  Liela lit another cigarette and leaned on the surrounding wall with her elbows, staring at the top of the alley.  It was dark, like a scar.

Stephen had been waiting for her there that morning and when she passed he grabbed her arm and pulled her roughly into the darkness.  She was so surprised that she screamed.  He demanded his money.  When she said she didn’t have it he pushed her against the wall and said if she didn’t give it to him by five o’clock he’d make the phone call.

Stephen’s hair was long and greasy, his eyes so dark they were almost black, and he had a thick beard.  Today, on the bridge of his nose, he had a third open eye.  It was sharp blue and piercing.  He told her through decaying teeth that he had waited a month longer than originally agreed and he wasn’t going to wait any more.  He grabbed her hair, pulled her head back so the swallow on her neck was exposed and said she knew what he could fucking well do to her.

Liela rubbed her neck and looked down at her body.  Mornings were always uncomfortable – whilst everybody else was half blank, she was covered in shapes.  There were always circles on her arms, lines and spirals on her legs, a bland ring around her navel.  She would add to them during the day, but the mornings were spent in tension, hoping that people would not notice her or, if they did, merely think her simple-minded.  Liela talked to others as little as possible and nobody had questioned her about her skin yet.

She looked over the edge.  There were a few people walking along the street.  She could see only the tops of their heads and could hear their footsteps, echoing up between the glass-fronted buildings to where she stood.  Their feet made hard little noises on the pavement.  She took the cigarette out of her mouth and dropped it over the wall.  It spiralled as it fell.

*

“I’m sorry Madam, but we are unable to loan you the amount you require at such short notice.  If you make an appointment and come to speak to us next week we will try our best to organise something for you.”

“Please.  Next week is too late.  I have an excellent credit history and…”

“Madam, I’m sorry.”

Liela put down the telephone and dug the heels of her hands into her eyes.  She felt tears stinging behind her eyelids and did not remove her hands until she was sure they would not fall.  The circle on the back of her right hand was now a rose; all the circles on her arms and shoulders had become different flowers.  They were not appropriate for the day; they should be withering.  She picked up the phone again and began to dial a number, but hung up before she typed the last digit.  She took a lighter from her desk drawer and cursed under her breath.

*

The sun was lower when Liela stepped out onto the roof for the second time that day.  She looked up at the sky; it was almost entirely cloudless and the earlier heat had lost its edge.  She lit a cigarette and walked towards the surrounding wall, but as she passed one of the deckchairs she jumped.  There was somebody sitting in it with their back to the metal door, looking at her.  It was the woman Liela had seen earlier when she came out of the alley; she had looked at Liela as if she knew what had happened in the shadows.  The woman sat up as she passed and ran her hand over her eyes.

“Sorry to scare you,” she said.

She stood up quickly but did not leave.  Instead she fidgeted with her hands and looked at the floor.  Her eyes were red and she had thorns at the corners of her mouth.

“Cigarette?” said Liela.

“Oh, no, I don’t smoke.”

“You look as though you need one.”

The woman wore a ring and she twisted it as she gave Liela a weak smile.  One arm was patterned with a remarkably intricate desert; a single cactus grew from her wrist.

“I’m Aletheia,” she said and extended her hand.

“Liela.”

They shook.

“It’s funny, we’ve never really spoken,” said Aletheia.  “I mean, we work so close together,” she paused, “and when I saw you earlier…”

“Problem with your husband?” interrupted Liela.  She pointed at Aletheia’s hand.  “You keep turning your ring.”

Aletheia squeezed her hands together self-consciously.

“He wants me to do something that I don’t want to.”

“Oh.”

“He wants children.”

“And you don’t?”

“No.”

“So tell him.”

“He’ll leave me.”

“You’re not going to have kids just to make him stay?”

Aletheia turned the ring again and her lips trembled.  Liela flicked the cigarette away and raised her eyebrows.  Wow, she mouthed to herself.

“What were you doing in that alley?” asked Aletheia.

“What alley?”  Liela looked up at the sky.  A shadow had fallen on the roof; a cloud was above them, borne on the upper air.

“This morning, I saw you.  It looked like someone was threatening you.”

Liela felt a drop of water on her shoulder and wiped it away without thinking.

“I have to go.”

“But…”

“Look, it’s starting to rain.”

Panic rose in Liela’s throat and she hurried for the door.  Aletheia followed her but Liela walked quickly and reached it before her.  A few drops had fallen on the warm metal and held there.  She opened the door and Aletheia called after her.

“Wait!  Your shoulder.”

She looked.  The anemone on her shoulder was smudged and there was an inky smear on her fingers.  She shut the door behind her before Aletheia could reach it and took the stairs two at a time.  The other flowers were beginning to run.


Read Part Five.

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