john-towner-125995
10 min 
Fiction & Issue Three

Skin

By Charlotte Duff

 

Oscar must be outside. Normally he’s at her by now, nuzzling at whatever part of her body happens to be protruding from the edge of the bed. A cold nose or a nibble on her big toe isn’t the nicest way to wake up, but there it is. And then those brown doggie eyes looking up at her. So she’ll get herself out of bed, bare feet on cold linoleum, to drop some more biscuits in his bowl.

But not this morning.

Now Becca is fully awake she can hear small sounds. The house ticking. The sudden hum of the refrigerator turning itself back on. She moves her foot to the cold side of the bed. She still isn’t used to it. Two years and she still sleeps on her side, rarely spreading herself out to take up the whole bed. She’d tried putting her pillow in the middle of the bed, positioning her body so she lay straight down the centre. But it felt like the slightly raised part she was lying on wanted to buck her off. She moved her pillow back towards the edge and clutched the blankets around her.

She listens for scratching at the front door or the slap of the doggie flap from the back door, but hears nothing. She decides to spend five more minutes in bed.

Becca wakes with a start an hour later. A spot of sunshine has made its way through a gap in the blind and is shining right in her eyes. Dazed, she looks for the time. 8 o’clock! She slowly peels back the covers, rolls onto her side and pushes herself upright, moving her bones gently, giving them time to catch up. When she reaches it, the kitchen still has murky corners despite the sun having burnt off most of the morning fog outside.

Oscar’s bowl is empty and so is his bed. He’s never gone out for long on his own before. Maybe he’s just having a wander, she thinks as she fills the jug. A cuppa is what she needs. That’ll clear her head.

6 am used to be a sleep in. Back on the farm, of course, but also here in Melbourne. Jim always seemed to have the early shift at Ford, and then Patrick came along and he was an early riser, too, full of smiles when she walked in to get him from his cot. Now Patrick complains he never gets enough sleep with his new baby and job in Sydney. And she only has Oscar to bug her, under her feet in the kitchen or wanting to jump onto her lap the moment she sits down.

As Becca reaches to switch the whistling kettle off, hot steam in her face, she thinks about calling Patrick. Maybe he’s thinking of bringing Susan and baby Jason back here for Christmas.

She finishes her cup of tea, still without hearing Oscar at the back door or the click of his nails on the floorboards as he pads up the hallway. Nothing for it, she thinks. She’ll have to go looking for him. Who knows what sort of trouble he’s got himself into? Or more likely he’s fine, scratching up garden beds and smelling the roses, but she should make sure.

Becca peels off her old dressing gown and looks for a moment at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. On impulse, she decides to put some lippy on. She doesn’t usually worry about make-up anymore — never did, really. But a bit of lippy always makes her feel better.

Her legs and arms are usually as naked as her face. Even in winter, she wears a skirt with shoes and socks rather than worrying about tights. And everything exposed — her face, her arms, her legs below the knees — are tanned deep brown. Mostly she puts this down to all the walking she does, but really she thinks her skin just won’t forget all the time she spent on the farm. Days spent outside, working or playing. Helping with the harvest or jumping in the creek.

‘Nuggetty brown, the lotta ya,’ her mum used to say. She’d look at Becca and frown. ‘You’ll look ridiculous in a dress!’

Becca pulls on a cardigan and extra thick socks because of the chill in the air. Her wool skirt itches the bottom of her knees. She’ll warm up once she gets going, toes and fingers tingling. She decides to go first to the park by the train station where she often lets Oscar off the lead. He’s probably there now, she thinks, barking at the two big dogs behind the fence of one of the houses that back onto the park. She’d pushed him away last night, when he’d tried to jump on her lap, and he’d yelped as he landed. But he was a sook. She was sure he was fine. He’d just gone out for a run.

Jim had always been around, back at the farm. In and out of the house, running around with her brothers. Becca used to join them more often than not. Their property faced bushland and there were miles of dirt track through the scrub, leading down to creeks or suddenly breaking out to rocky outcrops. She ran barefoot with the rest of them, dirt silky between her toes and long grass cutting her shins, travelled the dirt tracks on bicycle once they each had one. She’d always been the shortest, remaining compact and slight even as she grew older. But she’d been fast. She could beat any of the boys over 100 yards. She remembers her speed, even now, when her legs and feet are so slow to move in the mornings, and people pass her so easily on the street.

She misses a lot about Jim, but mostly she misses his touch. The warmth of skin on skin. She has a hunger for another’s skin that she never could have imagined as a woman living comfortably with her husband for 50 years. He was just Jim. She’d been happy to lie next to him, accept his cups of tea, give him a pat on the shoulder, make sure he had his slippers on a cold morning. His death had been relatively quick and, when she looked back on their life together, she could see moments of joy; pick out pure happiness within the struggle.

She should have realised the importance of his simple presence. The hand she could reach out and hold, palms rough against hers. The cheek she could stroke. The lips she could kiss. This presence, him just being there, was what she missed most now.

These days her contact with another’s skin was mostly random. Grabbed at when she gets the chance. She still goes through the regular checkout at the supermarket rather than the new self-serve options. It was easy, as an old woman, to be allowed to avoid changing your habits. And she needed the touch of flesh as she put her coins into an outstretched palm, probably touched the hand more than was necessary. But it was likely to be her only contact with skin all week, this soft touch of another, the connection of the pumping blood so close beneath it. She rarely needed to go to the doctor or the bank, and she couldn’t be bothered with buying the newspaper. She had been going to the vet more recently, but there the focus was always on Oscar. He’d developed some sort of skin condition and, while the vet was trying to work out what was going on, Becca was supposed to rub cream into the affected areas, morning and night. Oscar squirmed whenever she tried and his red, rough and scaly skin, a grotesque distortion of the skin she craved, turned her stomach.

Some days she’d put on her pink lipstick, pass a comb through her short, curly hair, and just go for a walk, smiling at passersby.

‘Hello!’ she’d say. ‘Lovely day for the middle of June, isn’t it?’

And people would, mostly, smile and nod. But on they’d walk, busy about their day. Not that she blamed them. She’d been exactly the same.

Becca walks as quickly as she can but a woman with a pram, heading in the same direction, squeezes past just as the footpath narrows.

‘Sorry, love,’ she calls after the woman. ‘Here I am, taking up the whole footpath!’

The woman looks back and waves without slowing her pace. ‘No worries!’ she calls.

Becca waves, still smiling. She wishes she’d got to see the baby.

When Oscar had tried to jump on her last night, she’d only just managed to get some cream on him and she hadn’t wanted him near her. It wasn’t just the raw, thick patches of angry and exposed skin. Lately, his hair felt too oily and coarse, and she didn’t like the residue it left on her fingers. She’d kicked at him, perhaps too roughly, and he’d yelped. He hadn’t gone near her for the rest of the night.

As she climbs the slight rise to get to the park, her breath building, Becca can see a large man sitting on one of the benches, holding a white, fluffy dog.

‘Oscar!’ she calls, hurrying as best she can.

The man looks at her, smiling, but she is scared now. Her mother’s voice comes out. ‘What are you doing with my dog? He’s mine. Don’t you—’

‘It’s okay.’ The man releases Oscar, but the dog stays on his lap. ‘He just wanted a cuddle.’

Elastic, impenetrable skin so good at growing and stretching tight over a belly big enough to hold a history. She’d never thought of it needing to retract, to draw back in on itself like a rubber band released. To cover so little, legs and arms as thin as a child’s.

Jim’s skin, so used to the sun’s rays, was almost washed away by the end. Not even mottled, just pale as a beached bone, thin as paper beneath her hands as she pulled on the compression bandages; loose, almost fluid where she pressed on the plasters to protect this still-precious skin from bed sores. Still firm enough beneath the kiss of the morphine patch as she pressed it onto his shoulder.

Cleaning Jim’s skin was the last thing she could do for him before they came to take his body away. She’d peeled off the bandages, plasters and patches, and got some warm water and the softest washer she could find. Gently, as carefully as she used to dry Patrick when he was newly born, she washed Jim clean.

Becca stops in the shade, looking over at the man on the bench. He’s a big man, middle-aged, with a belly that juts out in front of him. He’s wearing a beanie and a jumper with a hole in the cuff, and he’s smiling. It’s a small bench and he’s sitting right in the middle of it.

Becca clutches her cardigan tight around her, looking at the man in the sunlight. She pulls herself more upright and marches over to the bench, sitting down next to him.

She reaches over to give Oscar a pat. The man snorts out a chuckle as Oscar stretches his belly and Becca chances a sidelong glance, taking in the way his body is spread over the bench as if it’s a bed. He’s laid himself out without self-consciousness or apology.

Becca turns her face to the sun. The crispness in the air and the touch of warmth from the sun reminds her of sitting by the creek at the farm, when everyone was back at school and the days were getting shorter. She’d chance a dip even though the water would chill her to her bones and afterwards she’d sit in the sun on the dark, silty bank—goose pimples on her arms and legs—and slowly warm up.

Becca relaxes into the bench and her shoulder touches the man beside her. Her leg lines up with his, and the warmth of the touch, of thigh against thigh, not pressing, not insistently firm, just there, feels good.

She smiles, Oscar’s head dropping into her lap, her hand resting next to the man’s, warm on the bench.

Image by John Towner