Entertainment Books

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Hennessy New Writing: Skins

Sheila Armstrong

Published 25/01/2014 | 02:30

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Book shelfs in children's library.
Could you be the next JK Rowling? An app will now tell you.

Martha Lucker thought a lot about barriers, about boundaries. When she watched her hands, they would speak to her. Not literally, of course, but they told her something; of a map, a path that led back to her brain; they highlighted each and every synapse that had fired, every flicker of muscle, every pulse of blood, every damn-tiny thing that caused her hands to be there, in front of her, alert. And when she moved a finger, just a few millimetres or so (or half inch, because she still sometimes thought in Imperial), they would scurry to reorder themselves, to redraw the map.

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And so she held in her a sloshing, twisting, forming and reforming tirade of information, of little battle reports; sergeants of her limbs, lieutenants of her organs, privates of her privates, all desperate to report back and inform her of what exactly was going on within her body. So, while at work, she tried to move as little as possible, to maintain a proper posture and allow her fingers to move only from the knuckles as she typed.

Everyone in the office said Martha Lucker was a real looker, and laughed at their own joke. A good fucker, a good fuck-her.

An email alert; a spot of reddish-pink that signalled a connection, however curt or fleeting. How nice. Kevin had turned off the sound because the ding-ding annoyed him, infuriated him if it happened too often. He hoped it was a chain mail from the Noughties, something to allow him to wince internally at the ineptitude, idiocy, inelegance of his colleagues. It wasn't.

So he scrolled through his inbox and pondered the two letters that squatted at the bottom of every one of Martha's emails – M. L. – said them out loud, rolled them around in his mouth, put strains on different parts of them, sped up and slowed down their component half-sounds until they lost all meaning and turned to mush. When he watched her, sitting at her desk, he could almost see her throbbing; almost knew about all her little pulses and squirts of chemicals.

But mostly he looked at her titties.

The morning after, he invited her out for lunch. She said yes, or at least he assumed the slight raising of the eyes was an affirmative; a genuflection of the chin that was just discernable from across the room. Just yes – no disclaimer, no qualifier – just yes, then turned back to her screen to read a report ferociously, tearing the words off the screen and crumpling them away into the ether.

*****

As they walked down James' Street, Martha found that Kevin had the most irritating habit of veering a few degrees off centre, of pushing into her personal space by a few fingers or so. She knew that two parallel lines should spin off in tandem towards the vanishing point, creating that phantom known as perspective, the one that pretends that far away doesn't mean small, when in fact the opposite is true. And so it annoyed her that he insisted on converging.

She, on the other hand, seemed to Kevin to be vibrating at a low frequency, not shaking, exactly, just humming at a tone that was just high enough to collide with the rhythm of the passing cars; the sounds like two infinitely long glass panes meeting at a perpendicular angle, scraping, sliding past each other.

Election posters were everywhere, lining the streets, creating little umbrellas of ideology that one entered at one's own risk. One of them flapped loose from its restraints at one corner, creating a whap-whapping sound that made Kevin uncomfortable for some reason, but he didn't care enough to consider his unease further. Someone had written C**T in a speech bubble beside the prospective TD's head. He didn't know if this was to indicate that the politician himself was a c**t, or that he thought his constituents were, or if he was just fond of the word. The man did look like a c**t, to be fair, one of those fresh-out-of-students'-union boys, with his tie done up tightly and his hair cut short in an effort to age himself slightly.

They turned a corner, awkwardly, the pavement disjointed and grey beneath their feet, the greyness causing a sense of vertigo, of undifferentiation, which made it hard to tell where the walls began.

The traffic accident was already cleared by the time they reached the pedestrian crossing. There were only faint traces left, reverberations of screeches and shouts hanging in the air. The leftover waves of an action, rippling out, pushing their way through reality until they faded and never were. A black skid mark, a half-handful of shattered red glass; a brake light that hadn't done its job and so was doomed to be crushed to powder under howling tyres and bored feet until it was ground down to a single molecule of shame.

Martha could see from the slightly askew window blinds – just a few slates angled away from the plane, enough for two probing fingers and a pulsing eye to fit through – that the neighbours had found some diversion in the spectacle that had so recently been cleared. Was anyone injured, she wondered, and replayed the scene in her head. Two cars, or maybe three. Speeding from the near past into the near future. A sound, so unfamiliar as to be disembodied, a crunching, scree-ing sound that dented metal and bone with its forcefulness. When visiting sites of horror, places where things that should never have happened had happened, she found herself thinking things like how much could a fragment of a child's skull hold? Was blood water-soluble or fatty? Did it stain, or just grasp deceptively tightly to surfaces? What was the breaking point of bone? In torques, precisely?

Kevin wondered if there had been much damage. If the cars were nice, worthy of sorrow over beauty lost, dinged paint, or if they were old bangers driven by old bangers that should at the very least be forced off the road. He wondered who had the insurance policies, and whether it would end up in the Circuit Court. Whiplash, emotional distress. Fear of driving, fear of flying. Summonses and post-its. Perhaps an undercover PI, snapping shots of shopping bags lifted, yoga classes attended, spines or souls certainly not damaged. The PI would have a degree in something intangible, Communications, maybe, and dream of bursting into the world of investigative journalism with a scoop that would fall neatly into their lap. But for now, just for now, they would follow welfare frauds and ambulance-chasers, just until that big break came along.

They kept walking. Often, in the city, they met the big other like this; bumped into it in traffic accidents and streetlamps and arguments, in words that lit up in neon and faded to grey in simple print. Noticed it lurking in nametags and dog shit and shifting alleyways. The other was weaker, then, when they spotted it for what it was, and could take it apart with the inexpert tools of their eyes, see the chunky shapes that pretended to create language; order. But mostly they looked away.

*****

Kevin was kind; he held the restaurant door open for her, but didn't raise his arm quite high enough, so she was forced to duck her head just a little to fit in between his forearm and his armpit. He smelled fresh, of something that, when bottled, would surely be called Memphis Musk, or A Touch of Wild, or Arctic Blast. That was a relief, because despite his best efforts, and to his eternal embarrassment, Kevin was prone to spots of perspiration that would begin in the exact crease where his arms met his torso, and spread, in a narrow oblong shape that would shriek to all around him that he was unfit, unclean, unworthy of respect.

They both ordered the carbonara, in a jumble of words that came out too simultaneously to avoid a mutual trailing off and an awkward laugh. The waitress looked at them in a oh-aren't-you-cute way and Martha wanted to snap the supposed knowledge from her face, throw it to the ground and scrub it with her feet until it tore in the centre, ripping like a wet newspaper.

There was graffiti art on the restaurant wall. Kevin quite liked it. It was something modern, all lines and slashes of colours. A thought formed with a throb-throbbing; pushing itself forward, bloating, distorting his skull until it seemed he had a knobbly, pulsing tumour of an idea protruding from his left temple. He imagined the artist carving each block of colour separately, sanding them down, softening edges, putting them together in a jigsaw, before running the whole thing through an industrial press to smother the third dimension and give it that real rough-to-the-touch texture.

Martha looked at the table instead, at the red and white checked pattern that squeaked under her fingers. She could feel her fingernails growing and pressed down on each one to make sure they stayed attached at the nail beds; watched as they bowed under the pressure and turned from pink to yellow and back to pink again. She didn't want to look up. She was repulsed by the smattering of freckles on his back that she had seen when he had risen to put on his boxers. She knew they were there, hidden under Kevin's crisp shirt, a score of tiny brown flaws that sickened her with their intimacy. She wondered what part of her was so softly sadistic to have allowed him inside her.

Kevin had been eager to see hers; to peel away her layers, but now he wished he could put them back on, wrap her up again, pat her on the head and send her on her way, out of his sphere of attention forever. He tried to make conversation, to put her at her ease, but really he wished to return to work, to set aside this encounter as a done deed, to release the nervous energy he had swallowed that morning in one great belch. He played tic-tac-toe in his head instead, winning the first game and losing the next.

Their food came. Time passed, moments falling into a line one after the other with a vulgar repetitiveness, styling themselves in linear when they could have been trying on the fashions of the quantum. It worried Martha, sometimes, that all the clocks would realise at the same time, at the very same time, that their pointing fingers and digital dashes meant nothing, that they didn't really record, or measure, just frame events in a manner that let them be broken down and swallowed. Would you move through time in miles per hour? Or should it be hours per mile? Seconds per seconds, maybe. Time felt versus time passed, she presumed. If the ratio moved from 1:1, something was very wrong. And now it dragged.

But when she next looked up, the clock above the semi-frosted mirror stated that it was time to return to work, to end this mildly excruciating meeting of skins.

Kevin offered to pay.

*****

When he had come, she had felt the wetness drip down her thighs at first, but then she had gone blank; tuned herself into an ancient channel that was not broadcasting and would likely never broadcast again, its audience dead and in their graves. It was only an hour or so later, when he had slept (or pretended to sleep), that she had felt a crawling on her thighs, and up between her legs. She had waddled to the bathroom in a half squat, praying to gravity that the scrubbing, and scrubbing, would be enough to erase him from her, to re-establish the barrier between her and him. She felt permeable, like she could push herself through anything – not pushing too hard, not enough to warp and mangle, just a kind of relaxed clench, enough to convince the rest of the atoms and particles that she wasn't really there, just passing through, no trouble to anyone.

But then it all collapsed into one and she couldn't tell where her movements or thoughts were coming from, and she felt untethered, unsure whether she was differentiated from her surroundings or part of them, or if it was important in the first place.

Her nighttime mind – the one that leaps to life after dark and thinks of things that flap at the seams – wondered what the rules were, and when they would eventually expire. If the cogs and pistons of her body were already tired, worn through like a door saddle that sags in the middle from a lifetime of gentle exertion, from jumping off fractal cliffs into fractal troughs, riding their hooks and twists and caves. It would all break down, eventually, when the energy ran out.

She had fallen asleep in the shower, something she had thought impossible, a turn of phrase that did not understand or accept the inability of the mind to switch off in a place not nearly safe enough. But still, her body did it, lulled into a doze by the damp haze. The steam was red-tinged and blushing; the dregs of four-and-a-half glasses of wine weeping from her pores, clinging to the air, the water tension pressing against the crimson taint before merging, then drifting up and over the shower rail and away.

 

About Sheila Armstrong

Sheila Armstrong grew up in Sligo and attended college in Dublin.

She now lives in the city centre and works as a freelance editor. She is 25 years old and is working on her first collection of short stories.

Irish Independent

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