by Philippa Barker
Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2017
The body’s largest organ, it packages nerves and blood vessels, wraps muscles, organs, limbs in a smooth protective casing. It will shield the soft inner chambers from heat and light, fry silently under a midday sun; a shell, a personal armour. Layer upon layer, paper thin, it defends against the threat of infection, cushions injury by encasing every inch, elastic and alive.
Cadmium red, yellow ochre, soft pearl; I mix colours on the palette trying to capture the exact milky shade. The blush that grazed your cheeks, the smudges that slept in the corners of your eyes, I seek them all out, not one crease of skin escaping my brush. I know the tucks and folds of your body, where the curves sit, the shadows hide. Your skin is like an atlas, the marble of veins pumping just beneath the surface.
I ring the gallery at nine to let them know I’m not coming in. Georgia answers and I can tell by the way she lets out a long sigh before she replies that she is rolling her eyes and pursing her lips.
‘What, are you telling me you’re ill again?’
I force a cough. ‘Yes, really.’
‘Zac, this is like the eighth time this month.’
The clack clack clack down the line tells me she’s drumming her plastic nails on the counter. I do my best to make my voice sound tired and croaky, though it isn’t hard, having spent the night bent over the easel inhaling vermilion and French ultramarine.
‘I think it’s only the third –’
‘No, it’s –’
‘Or the fourth, maybe.’
‘Zac, this is definitely the eighth time.’
I stand with my head pressed against the cool of the refrigerator door.
‘Georgia, I’m dying here. I’ve been up all night. I’ve had no sleep. I’d honestly do more harm than good coming in.’
‘Oh really? How’d you figure that one?’
‘Well, I’d be coughing around the customers, sneezing all over on the screen-prints.’
I force another cough and for a moment she is silent.
‘Zac, if you’re struggling… I mean, if you need some more leave, you just need to tell us.’
‘I’m not. It’s not that.’
‘I’m sure. It’s just some bug I’ve picked up.’
She sighs again. ‘Fine.’
‘Georgia, you’re a star.’
‘Go to the doctors.’
‘I want you in tomorrow, okay?’
‘I mean it, Zac. We’re really short-staffed at the moment. I haven’t had a day off since –’
I hang up and flick the coffee maker on. As it rumbles into life, I stretch, bones cracking as I flex my fingers. They look bruised, covered in smudges of Prussian blue, flecks of paint crusted under the nails. Wiping them on a tea towel, I reach for the box of cornflakes on the top shelf, scooping handfuls from the box as I return to examine the night’s work.
Camera obscura made flesh, they are small and socket sized. Irises like polos, pigment punctures sclera white, colour pooling in two neat rings. Light permeates transparent domes, tunnelling pupils that constrict in the flare. Twisted and bent under a crystalline lens, the image is projected on to the retina, caught on film.
Do you remember the day the light went out? Piercing your veins, they hooked you up to their machines, pumping you full of drugs they said would make it all go away. But it took you instead, debris clouding the lenses, sea green draining to murky estuaries and casting shadows on the retina.
I paint them as they were, smooth as bottle glass polished by the waves. I try and capture the glint, get so close I can almost taste the colour. Viridian, apple, lemon yellow; the colours blend as I search for a trace of your soul on the canvas.
I sit down to work as the sun casts shadows over the yard out back. As darkness creeps through the flat, I clamber over easels and jars of murky water, flicking switches and drawing the assortment of lamps closer. The bulbs glare yellow, artificial, unnatural in comparison to the light that floods the room in the daytime. Yet what was natural about the way you were taken? What was normal in the chemicals they flushed through your body?
Dawn peers through the kitchen blinds and you stare back at me like no time has passed, like it was just another night; you, me and the hush of the moonlight. But how long since it was just the two of us? Like damp, like poison ivy, it crept upon you silently, snatching one tissue, one cell at a time. The pill bottles sat with your perfumes on the dresser, clear plastic and coloured glass casting shadows up the wall.
It is almost rhythmic, the in-out of breath, the filtering of air to make it warm and soft and humid. The entrance to the respiratory tract, it is the home of the olfactory organ, mediating the sense of smell, specialist cells trained to seek out specific odours.
Your scent is fading now, turps bleeding into the wallpaper, chemical clinging to my clothes. The heavy smell of cadmium and cobalt lingers in the kitchen, mingling with coffee and takeout and the singeing of crumbs from the toaster.
I slide open a window, breathe in the crisp October morning as it bathes my skin, unwashed and stained with raw sienna. Hunting for my phone under the wads of crumpled kitchen roll and overalls on the sofa, I push my hands down between the cushions ‘til they fix on the familiar plastic. As I dial the gallery, I try and remember if I called in yesterday, or the day before, running my finger down the calendar on the fridge, unable to place the date.
‘Good morning, Hayward Gallery.’
I breathe a sigh of relief at Kyle’s voice.
‘Hey mate, it’s Zac.’
‘Zac, where’ve you been?’
‘Why? She’s upstairs.’
‘You’re sure she’s not about?’
‘Yeah, she’s sorting the new exhibition space.’
‘Alright, well, I’ve been working.’
‘That was last week.’
‘A new piece?’
‘Yeah, oils. I got myself a set of Senneliers.’
‘Nice one. How’s it coming?’
I grin. ‘It’s like painting butter.’
‘They’re that good, huh?’
‘Mate, it’s beautiful.’
‘No.’ I turn around, chunks of white space glaring back at me from the canvas. ‘No, not yet.’
‘Georgia’s not happy.’
‘You can’t rush these things.’
‘She knows you’re not ill, you know.’
‘Then convince her I am.’
He sighs. ‘I’ll try.’
‘Tell her I sounded proper rough, like I could hardly talk.’
‘You know I can’t lie.’
‘I know you’ll do your best.’
He laughs. ‘So, come on then, tell me. What’s it of?’
I stare at her face, at the broken patches of colour. ‘Natalie.’
There’s silence on the other end of the line.
‘Zac, I –’
‘I’m not asking for your approval.’
‘I just think it’s… Well, it’s not healthy.’
‘I’m allowed to paint my wife.’
‘I’m not saying you aren’t. I’m just saying that this is, what, the sixth one this month?’
I look at the canvases propped against the sofa, stacked like plates on the kitchen table. I’ve lost count.
‘It’s great that you’re painting again. Really, it is. But you won’t help yourself by –’
‘I’m not going to forget her.’
It is the beginning, the first segment of the alimentary canal, channelling food down shadowy interior caverns. The lips mark the entrance to the palatine cave, blood red, the transition from skin to walls of mucous membrane. Though the voice begins in the throat, the tongue, lips, jaw are needed to craft speech; forming words, composing sounds.
I still think of how we met, sat opposite on the 8.34 from Camden to Waterloo. Thumbing through the paper, you didn’t notice me at first, foot tapping as you skipped from News to Style. I’d see you every day, would try and squeeze into the same carriage, hoping to brush your hand as we moved for the same overhead handle in the clammy press of people. Cracking gum at intervals, your mouth moved as rhythmically as the wheels down the track, your gaze holding mine as we passed beneath the city.
Every anniversary we’d return to the franchise at the top of the escalators. Weak coffee and standard décor, yet it was somehow sacred to us, the place it all began. You watched the commuters and I watched you; your redcurrant lips as they moved towards mine.
Last time a visit was due I proposed we postpone it, re-enact the outing at home with quilt and a home brew instead. But you were unyielding, adamant you wouldn’t let this be taken from you, so what could I do but wrap you up and make the fragile journey underground? Your mouth sore, raw with ulcers, you sank into a scuffed leather sofa but pushed your mug away. Complaining of a metallic taste that stuck to your gums, teeth, tongue, I watched you pick the sprinkles from a cupcake, one by one by one.
Rinsing the brushes, I jump at the sound of the doorbell as it rings once, twice, echoing through the flat. I pause, stand motionless, feeling the weight of each second drag past before it rings again.
The letterbox creaks open.
‘Zac? It’s me. It’s Kyle.’
Still I don’t move.
‘Mate, I just wanted to check you’re alright, that you’re…’ He fumbles for the words. ‘We’ve been… We haven’t seen you in a while.’
While I’m grateful the hall is dark, in the kitchen the lights are on, the cluster of lamps gathered about the easel like an audience.
‘Zac, I know you’re there. It’s ok if you don’t want to talk, I just want to know you’re ok.’
I picture him kneeling on the other side of the door, doormat prickling his knees as he lowers his mouth to the letterbox.
‘Hello?’ He waits, sighs. ‘Look, you’ve got my number. Don’t be a stranger, ok?’
I exhale as the flap snaps shut, though it’s a full fifteen minutes before I move, your lips smiling back at me from the canvas; crimson alizarin, cherry red.
Sprouting from follicles in the dermis, it is a filamentous biomaterial composed of the protein keratin. Terminal and vellus, it is only the back of the ear, the sole of the foot, the palm of the hand, the lip and scar tissue that escape.
You cried when it came out in clumps, strands of raw umber coming loose in the shower, curls abandoned on the pillow come morning. Handing me the kitchen scissors, we cut it short over the bathtub, chopping inch after inch of your old self away. You said you felt bare when I’d finished, what remained just brushing your jaw. Soon you had me take down the mirrors, scared of the reflection you didn’t recognise anymore.
We spent hours at the markets, scouring cottons and polyesters, silks and satins. Indigo, apricot, evergreen; I sat with you cutting fabrics. Cranberry, olive, cerulean; running seams and darning hems. Into the early hours you stitched those scarves, thread by thread by thread. Helping you wrap them round your head was like swaddling an infant, like binding a wound.
They lie as you left them, in the second drawer down. Sometimes I take them out, smoothing out the creases, hoping to find a single thread of hair hidden in the folds of cloth.
Lacrimal, mandible, inferior conchae, maxillae, palatine, nasal, vomer, zygomatic. It is one complex puzzle piece, the fourteen bones that slot into place. The central sense organ, it encases the front half of the skull; forehead, eyes, brows, lashes, cheeks, nose, mouth, ears, chin.
They broke you down, page by page, a clipboard of medical records shackled to the end of the metal bed frame. They thought they were piecing you back together, scan after scan, running their fingers down figures in monotone print. But you grew tired of those four walls, skin pale as candle wax, pallid in the stark yellow lighting, and so they let me bring you home wrapped in blankets and plastic tubes.
Sitting at your bedside whilst you slept, I traced the curve of your brow, the length of your cheekbones, the oyster white tip of your nose. When you woke you asked for the photo albums, made me turn the pages as you conjured each captured moment in your mind. Your soul pixelated on the glossy 6x4s, I remembered the way we were.
I break you down on the canvas, painting each freckle, the chicken pox scar, adding the creases in the corners of your mouth. Your face embalmed in my memory, I paint you, bone white and mortal.
Portrait was Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2017, as chosen by Adam O’Riordan.