Skinning

i.

I fear the thoughts I can get locked into; today, it was having my skin peeled from my body, bit by bit. I had just eaten two bacon rolls.

I was in a cafe, deciding what to do, when all of a sudden I had the impression of something clamping, pulling, then tearing my skin away from me. It was a brief thought, but an uncomfortable one nevertheless. But like all uncomfortable thoughts it soon became apparent to me it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.

The image itself clamped to the inside of my brain and stayed there. My skin began to crawl. I wanted to shake it, to shake the image entirely. But its cycle had begun. I looked around me at all the people and thought: do they think things like this? Or are they simply thinking about their coffee?

Small metal clamps would pinch at me. Thin chains would then pull them away from my body. I would watch the skin stretch and then thin out. It would become taut and then it would start to tear at one corner, before slowly the tear would get larger and larger until a whole continent of flesh had been pulled from me. I shivered at what the bloody mess might feel like beneath it. A long, broad sting.

I imagined cold wind against bloody muscle, the creeping pain and shock building and building. I thought of flaps of skin tossed away before more was pulled off. Awake the whole time I would see my body go from the pale pink of skin to the pus-filled red of muscle freshly exposed, sinewy and shining as if covered with water.

No matter how hard I tried I could not let the thought go. I tried leaving it altogether by reaching for a book, but no, that didn’t work. What if I could take the thought from the physical horror of the present to its root instead – surely, it had a root? I just needed to take it somewhere other than where it was.

ii.

The cold sensation against exposed flesh felt familiar, as if I’d experienced it before. As a child I’d fall over all the time, but had I ever actually torn that much skin in a fall? Enough that I’d know that sweeping gesture of a breeze that moved like fingers along exposed flesh? Not that I could remember.

Then it struck me. Fifteen years ago or so my family were staying in Venice for a long weekend. Dad was a guest speaker at some conference or other, and the family got to go along for the ride. We didn’t stay in Venice proper though, but just across the water on the long thin finger of the Lido.

The ocean side of the Lido was a long, white beach. There were big waves one day and the sun was shining bright in the deep blue sky. My brother and I spent hours in the water. I obliged my mum’s calls for putting sun lotion on, but only once. It wasn’t uncommon of me to completely disregard any advice given to me. I think I thought I was immortal. Or I was just a prat. Anyhow, no doubt the lotion washed off in no time.

I was a lobster by the evening and in immense pain. After a rough night I awoke in horror. My skin was covered in tiny white blisters. My arms, my chest, my legs, my neck, my face. All covered in blisters. On top of that I felt nauseous and dizzy. There wasn’t anything to be done other than grin and bear it as we were leaving that day for the long drive back to England.

Later on, as we approached the Alps, I peeled skin from my body in palm-sized sheets. There was something disturbingly enjoyable about it. Despite the pain and discomfort, I liked watching the white skin come away from my body. Like peeling the skin of an apple I wanted to try and get the largest piece possible, perhaps even shed all my skin in one go. Mostly it was scraps but sometimes there was the satisfaction of seeing something larger; something I could roll into a squidgy ball on my palm and flick out of the window.

But there was always a thin line between slight discomfort and serious pain. The times that I took off a piece that wasn’t ready yet to come away – now, that was horror. But I felt a curious pleasure on that edge.

And the more I pushed the edge the more I felt alive.

iii.

Was I bored of my life? I could have been reading The End of Eddy or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I could have been on my phone checking my notifications. There was a thick slice of carrot cake right in front of me that I could have been getting my teeth into.

Instead, I was sitting there wondering what it might be like to have my skin torn from my body in large, wet chunks. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised there was an element to my experience oddly akin to pleasure. Not so much the experience itself, for that could only be immense pain, but the fact that I was thinking it in the first place.

Even though I shivered in discomfort, perhaps there was a part of me that wanted to be locked in to that moment, for want of feeling alive. For want of being on some kind of edge as opposed to the safety of the brown leather sofa that cradled me like I was some kind of overgrown newborn.

I needed to shed my skin. That’s what my fantasy was telling me. Shed something, even if it hurts like hell, and start anew. Feel the pain of aliveness.

I moved onto the carrot cake with gusto and soon lost the thought.

Tense

Why is it that some memories seem to want to continue to exist in the present tense whereas others fit comfortably into the past?

I wonder if it is something to do with whether conclusions have been made or not. There are memories of mine that feel fully rounded, and like any finished product can be passed on or put aside. But others are vague and require revisiting, often right from their source. They call out to be inhabited again, reworked and relived. Living is of course done so in the present tense.

There are active memories: memories of movement, of taking a walk somewhere, of swimming in an ocean. Others are more static, like a view across a valley, no doubt isolated between two forgotten active memories. How you got there, how you left.

Who can resist the temptation to dive back into an active memory again? To climb back into that childhood adventure and take part in it one more time. I throw the baseball to my brother. The sun is going down but we keep throwing until the ball is a dangerous blur in the dusk. When we are done we walk home in moonlight. Soon we are out on the deck drinking iced-lemonade and dad is smoking a cigar. My arm aches and I like that it aches. Can we do this again tomorrow? 

Other memories may require diving back in, yet the wish to do so may not be quite so tempting. There is the possibility that a memory requiring an active, present tense participation is perhaps a memory of something not quite processed on a psychological level. A trauma might be easier to visit from a distant and safe past tense, but in order to fully engage with it, in order that it might be overcome or fully integrated, would it not suit to live it again, in the present tense, but from a place of safety? Later that evening I put down the phone, and as I walk down the stairs I try to compose the right words, but what are the right words? She killed herself, I say to my mum at the bottom of the stairs. I feel that the words come from someone other than me, like I’ve been split in two. 

I enter a memory in present tense when I simply can’t remember the whole thing. It feels like the best way to draw things away from the forgotten shadows by being there. As close to them as possible. It feels a little like archaeology.

There is something, however, that feels a little restrictive for the reader when faced with present tense. And a little unreal, contrived even. Hold on, the reader might think, this is not happening right now because if it was, it wouldn’t yet be written. Often, I write a first draft in the present tense, but then edit it through so it reads in the past.

When I sat down to write To the Pines I had these characters in my head, and the sense that a story existed there. But the only way to find the story was to chip away, and that meant inhabiting the story and its characters, as it happened, in present tense. And that’s where I chose to leave it.

Chap Cotham (part of a novel)

i.

Chap Cotham arrives at Southampton train station and takes a taxi to Ravenswood. The driver will return at the same time in a week to pick him up. His sister, Anna Cotham, will meet Chap at their cottage the day after his arrival. This is how they’ve done it for years. Overnight a storm rages and takes the phonelines with it and of course branches most likely fall to the roads because the house is very deep in the woods where the trees have always appeared both too slender and too tall.

In the morning Chap stands with a mug of coffee at the kitchen window and outside the day is cold and leaden-skied where recent mayhem has left the immediate landscape in shock. The winds have churned up the water in the pond to make it the brown of clay and on its muddy surface amongst twigs and clusters of leaves he sees a length of black hair lying flat along it like a crack in scorched earth or like a black snake in wait. Things are never just good or bad, Anna many times told him, there is always good in the bad and bad in the good. But this is only bad, he thinks, and her words mean nothing now. He knows it is her hair that lies there and her body unseen beneath the surface, for that is unmistakeable.

Chap pulls his sister from the pond. He lays her out on the grass and presses his mouth to hers. Perhaps it will wake her like in the black and whites. His lips become numb as hers so he keeps them just where they are and soon the cold welds them together which of course feels very natural to him. But then he starts to panic and it is only through breathing piston-like through his nostrils that he is able to warm them apart again. They split in a fog of cold steam but there is nothing from her lips, nothing at all, the breath in the air his and his alone.

He looks up from her and to the dreary banks and bare trees like moss-covered matchsticks for someone that might help but there is nobody and of course that has always been true but for the first time that brings him no comfort at all. He is soaked through with clothes clogged heavy with water and he trembles right through to the inside of his bones. Chap had to dive into the pond through water a degree or two shy of ice to get to Anna and soon he will likely die as well but from hypothermia and not how she had gone. Get her to the cottage, light the fire for warmth, hope that it might tempt a stir from her.

He clips some dirt from the edge of his mouth and without giving her too much of a look plants both his hands in her bare armpits and lifts. It is like the water has seeped in and doubled her weight and now she is difficult to move and no longer has the grace that had been hers and only hers to the last. Her skin is now an ivory white rather than a pale eggshell and contains a siege of lilac veins not far behind and he knows it will only get worse. He pictures her body ensnarled by tangles of veins like roots as she is dragged back into the pond. He pulls her further away. and feels she will bruise at a touch a lilac that will become purple will become black, but perhaps he can slow it all down. Anna had a hand in every scene of her life but now in death she can no longer direct and nature will reduce her to dust.

In the kitchen Chap lifts her onto the table. He knows it will be the exact length of her. He measured the timber for the table a few summers earlier with Anna lying on top as he drove the saw a breath away from her feet. She urged him to cut closer – closer, closer – as she teased her delicate soles towards the violent teeth of the saw and warm dust clouded the air a yellow pine. But now her ankles bruise plum from where the ropes had been tied and she stares with absence at the ceiling a bit like in the black and whites though she never featured in any of her own. She is naked and he knows her every inch.

A collection of logs burn furiously in the open stove where they glow like hearts but an inspection of her usually warm parts yields no change to her temperature. He hopes the heat might bring some kind of reversal but she feels like the pond even though she is now dry. He presses against the hollow beneath her ribcage with a couple of fingers. How it is the blood beneath her skin feels more like water he does not know but it does and she seems to already be becoming something else. Chap crouches and prods at the fire because he fears sitting still especially beside his sister as she is now. Sparks vanish into the throat of the stove and he closes the door on them as the pipes in the house gasp then yawn. He fears the decisions he will have to make and he fears what he might do in order to avoid making them.

From experience he knows it could only have been minutes that had passed but the silence closes in like a sudden intake of breath. It is like two hands pressed against his throat as the air slips from the room and the walls shift inwards. He senses for a moment the rotting has already begun but perhaps it is just the lurk of the pond water in the stove-heavy air mixed with what imagination he has so he shuts his eyes tight as a child does to concentrate but nothing changes. He is alone and trapped. Rabbit in the headlights, Anna would say. Often she would see her brother like he is now and mock the look of shock as it laid claim to his features, his dark eyes, the timid gape of his mouth, the papery complexion of his skin, the forever childlike expression of awe and fear.

He needs something to change and so he returns his gaze to the room with what to him feels something like bravery. Seen from the corner of his eye is her bare belly and beneath that the tuft of brown at the v and he turns from her like a traitor. He will look in the cupboards for they are kept well stocked with what he needs. What we hide in the world out there is welcome in the open here, Anna had said and he liked that. Chap will relieve himself of the chasm and then attend to his sister because in the heat of the stove he knows it will only be a matter of time before her body bears bacteria. He whispers, stay there Anna, stay there whilst I fetch a few things. Even though she is dead he feels she can on some level hear him but it feels more like her voice that speaks the words, like something she would have said. Stay there brother, stay there whilst I deal with it. Deal with whatever it was, it was always her that would do the dealing with, as he would wait and stare, longing for her return.

He has only to go a few yards over to the cupboards that ring the dark-panelled kitchen walls stopping only for the window that looks out over the pond when he feels as if his heart is caught by a hook and tugged harder the more he goes the other way and instead of a fishing rod at the other end there is the line wrapped around her fingers. I will not be long, he whispers, and he feels that rather than blood there are tears pumping through his veins but none as ever at his eyes. Rabbit, Anna would call him. Headlights.

A film of murky green pond water lies on the brick-tile lino flooring at the foot of the table. Beyond that is the kitchen area where there is enough space for one to move relatively freely or for two to constantly brush or caress or wrestle with each other. Dried flowers hang at the window, lynched tightly by brown string. He looks at them and in their nature sees something of the present that he cannot understand although of course he tries. He tries the phone but there is only the silence of a dead line and in his mind he sees himself walking the long road for help and it is as if a fist clamps to his heart at the thought for it would be like consciously walking out of true love for reasons unknown.

Outside there is rain and it falls to the pond like reams of thread or stray cobweb. The line to his heart tugs again and he goes for the cupboard which is his as he has done since Ravenswood became theirs. He opens it and sees that there is nothing. Each shelf is empty and each corner and the depth of each shelf to the wall is swallowed up in darkness and absence. He stretches an arm in and presses his palm to the back. He slides his hand around and feels only coarse plywood burning his palm as a film of sweat breaks out from his spine. He pulls the lining up which is just thick mud-brown wallpaper and sees beneath it only the odd crumb. There is no tate & lyle, caster nor golden. There is nothing, so he flees to the bedroom.

In there the two single beds that had been drawn together to make a double have been split apart and he sees the space between them pronounce itself to him as an open wound. At the window the curtains have been shut, the material a mock sky blue forced into a nothing grey by the darkening sky on the other side. By this time his jumper is soaked with sweat and he wipes his eyes and feels the tremors set into his body like a virus. He pulls the curtains apart. The window has been cleaned only recently and he sees through it the woods filled with a darkness like permanent-dusk and all the while rain smacks the panes like seagull shit on greasy spoon windows overlooking the ocean. He stays there gazing into the thick trap of branches and trunks the brown of tire-crud as they wrench this way and that with the wind and he tries to make sense of what is happening but of course his thoughts cannot collect like that. That is her ability and not his but he tries and remembers that she would say things are always simpler than you think, that they have an order to them, a succession of events, cause and effect, and so he tries: through the cottage to the kitchen my sister, Anna, is a dead body that looks up at the ceiling through absent eyes and the kitchen usually stocked with sugar and alcohol has been cleared as if prepared for sale and through into the bedroom where I am is our bed split down its centre like an axe through wood.

He does not understand. For a moment he has the sensation the cottage is not theirs but the sensation vanishes as quickly as it shows up. He feels the need to prolong time to see clearly inside it and of course that means preserving her body as best he can. The rain falls so hard upon the roof it is like it has come through the roof and into the attic and he imagines damaged cobwebs sliding like spit over worm-eaten wood, and then over her face. He goes into the kitchen and tries the phone again. Still silence. He places some more logs onto the fire and then sits down beside her. Her body has settled to an off-white though it is cast with a veil of burnt-orange from the glowing stove. It is becoming easier to settle his gaze on her as the light fades outside and the coming night bleeds into the room snuggling first into the corners and in turn ensconcing the two of them like something from a simple one act play.

Anna’s hair has fallen to the wood and has dried to its almost-black. Her mouth is open a fraction and her cheeks are freckled hollows below the broad protrubence of her cheekbones. Above are her eyes with their dark pupils sitting atop oval planes of shocking white. And in the details of eyelids and nostrils and earlobes and chin is the spectacle of decay, a pinkish green, now bruising her every feature with a steady and punishing slowness. But actually it is not that slow, it has only been a few hours, and already nature has found a way inside. Still are her eyes and to the ceiling and beyond they pierce. It is too late to close them perhaps, and as the seconds and minutes pass Chap feels less and less like he can touch his sister again and of course this makes his body tremble and he pulls his chair in closer. Then he speaks, he asks her what to do.

Dillard Days

i.

I don’t have much time. I’ve stared the wall over and now the day, or at least, the light of day has passed. Now the dwindling decline, long past the hour of creativity. There is a car lurching outside. I wonder who mans or womans the wheel, but I don’t really. I couldn’t care less. All I have is the bare wall I’ve bored with my gaze all day and the computer screen filled with half-finished documents and a deadline for a not-too-far-in-the-distance dissertation that I haven’t got the heart nor muster nor thrust to write. There’s just the long blank white, that I have wretched upon, again and again the day through.

ii.

Now that the sunlight is a memory, and returns only tomorrow for another go-around I have nothing but the darkness falling, the darkness staying, nothing but the darkness now to turn my mind to and hope to some extent it carries some other shade I can nip myself into, burrow a little space for to burn some hope, to hold my hands around – to warm, to feel. It’s been a while since I wrote anything of any sense, nor anything that was even half-good; and this feels like only reaching, reaching for that goodness and that clarity that always feels beyond, somewhere in that vacant space, somewhere in that long white wall beyond the foot of the bed.

iii.

I am in bed, have I said that? I’m lying in this bed, duvet over my legs, quite warm. I’ve been here for hours. And I’ll be here for days, forever. I don’t know you Annie Dillard but I know enough to know you as a truth person – when you said that how we spend our days days is of course how we spend our lives, I felt I would carry that around forever. And forever I have, but it’s been more a noose to me than a call to arms. As the day splits beyond its zenith and I’m lying in bed staring at a white wall, my fingers unmoving above the keys, I see only that my life is spent like this because my days, my days are, my days are spent like this, and your ever-so-perfectly-spot-on truth reminds me I’m sleeping through it. Soon it will actually be time to sleep, but I won’t. I will only breathe the air dying slow.

Albuquerque Mama

She asked what we did for fun where I lived because in Albuquerque where she lived it was pretty boring and incredibly poor so they just stuck to booze drugs and shooting guns in the mesa before rolling back into town beneath the fire of morning skies to tattoo each other only to wake in the afternoon with forgotten moments now made forever as fuck. I told her I knew no fun, no fun like that anyway. She said it wasn’t fun because it got boring and caused infections but next week they’d do peyote and fuck knows what direction the ink would go after a night of that shit but you for sure, she said, you for sure would stare at the sky like it had all the answers and end up the next day with a bunch of regrettable hand-poked stars on your knuckles and that shit tires swift as life. Fuck you, I said, I’m so down for that. All she said to turn me off turned me on so I quit what I was doing which wasn’t much anyway and bought a ticket to my death.