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Sarah Alexander
Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander is an editor and writer. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in 2013. Her short story 'Paradise' was published in The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 10. Her debut novel The Art of Not Breathing is being published by Usborne (UK) and HMH (US) in 2016.


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Moving Skin


On Tuesdays I take Belle to the mother and baby group. We watch from the side because Belle isn’t used to people yet. The other mothers turn to me occasionally but they don’t wave me over. They whisper a lot. If I see them in the village they cross the road, as if they might catch something. There aren’t many places to escape to around here, there’s only one road and hills loom either side for miles upon miles.
          I hold Belle gently in my arms and concentrate on supporting her head. Out of the corner of my eye I see tissues and wet wipes flying about. I hear, ‘shhh, shhh,’ and ‘ah look at his teeny tiny toes.’ I hold Belle’s teeny tiny toes in my fingers as she sleeps.
          Ten Green Bottles is the song this week and the mothers kneel on the floor holding their babies out in front of them, making them dance like monkeys. And after, the mothers groan and complain about pins and needles and how their bladders aren’t what they used to be.

 

* * *

 

‘You’re OK with all this, what he does?’ my mother asked when I told her about the man I would marry.
          ‘Does? You can’t even say it,’ I said.
          ‘Don’t be like that. I’m trying to help.’
          She’s dead now which is more helpful.
          ‘But the smell of that stuff, does he smell of it?’
          ‘It’s a clean smell.’
          My mother turned her head in disgust, as though he offended her, as though I offended her.
          ‘But remember when Fluffy brought home that dead mouse? You fell down right next to me. How are you going to stand it?’
          ‘They won’t be in the house,’ I reassured her.  But I had forgotten to check this.
          ‘Poor Fluffy,’ my mother said.
          ‘Poor Fluffy,’ I remembered.
          And even on our wedding day my mother said, ‘I’m not happy, Lauren. Find a normal man, an accountant or something.’
          I didn’t know any accountants. I think she wanted me to be alone and childless forever. I married him. I didn’t want to be childless and alone forever.

 

* * *

 

I need eggs and flour to make pancakes. Sometimes on Wednesdays I make pancakes. Two women stand behind the till at the village store.  The store to be a Spar but now it’s a Costcutter and a long time ago it was something else. The staff remain the same, though, only the colour of their tabards change. One of the women licks her fingers and separates the plastic bags, the other rearranges the cigarettes.
          ‘Hello, Lauren,’ the bag lady says, tilting her head. ‘So sorry to hear about …’
          She stops and shakes her head a little. ‘You poor thing. Send him our love won’t you.’
          The cigarette lady nods and keeps nodding as though there’s a spring in her neck. Her eyes bulge from their sockets.
          As I scoop out the coins from my purse I see them both trying to peer at Belle through her blankets. I pull her to my chest.
          ‘I’ve forgotten the lemon,’ I say and scurry off down one of the aisles adjusting Belle’s blankets as I go.
          Back at the till I pick up some mints, the sugar free ones that are shiny and smooth on my tongue.
          ‘Let me help you with those bags,’ says the bag lady.
          ‘I can manage, thank you.’

 

* * *

 

The day I met the man I would marry was the day of my father’s funeral. I could barely stand upright and my legs gave way inside the church, collapsing like hollow rotten branches. My mother bled silent tears that stained her cheeks and every now and then she howled and grabbed my wrist so violently I still had her finger marks on my skin the week after.
          When all the mourners had left our house and my mother had been taken up to bed by my father’s brother, I returned to my father’s burial spot. I scrabbled at the earth calling my name searching for the bit of me he took with him. I couldn’t bear the thought of being buried. Withering and peeling away for years and years. I wanted to live forever.
          I rocked back and forth on my knees, my fingers worming deeper and deeper into the soil and over my own heavy breathing I could heavy paw steps and panting, Creatures were darting about behind the gravestones. I was up to my elbows in sticky clumps of sod when a foot landed softly beside me. 
          Even in the dusky hues of nightfall I could see the man’s eyes flicking from side to side as he watched me clench soil in my fists and sob. His skin was smooth and baby-like, but his nose was pointy and his eyebrows were too heavy for his delicate face. He knelt down next to me and a smell wafted into my nose that made me recoil but when he touched my hand my heart shuddered inside my ribs. And as I breathed him in I smelt toil of the day infused with something sterile. I sat back and let him attend to me. He wiped the mud from my fingers on his clean white shirt and from his suit jacket pocket he produced a handkerchief to mop the saliva from the corners of my mouth. I only noticed the tiny stones embedded in my knees when he began to gently remove them one by one with his fingers.
          We walked back to mine with his arm around my waist holding me upright and when I fell down he scooped me up before I reached the ground.  On my doorstep he kissed my hand and smiled gently. I invited him in for a coffee. He declined, at first, shifting from foot to foot, but then I turned my head to the side and mimicked his the way his lips curled at the sides and he followed me into the hallway.
          It was rough and urgent, he panted loudly in my ear. He had long nails and puffy red lines appeared on my skin when he ran his fingers over my body. His manner was familiar, I knew what he wanted. I gave it to him. I gave everything I had in me and howled like my mother had done. I didn’t know his name and even though my insides were buried underground, I had never felt so alive.

 

* * *

 

It’s chilly outside now but Thursdays are good for shopping. The market stall is there until midday. The grocer winks at me when he puts my cherries and plums in a bag, and I hold onto the wink. I’ll think about it later when I’m alone. I mainly just window shop, now there’s not any money. But we make do, surviving, recycling. I put some of his clothes into the cancer shop in the village and the ladies in there recognise me and interrogate me. They want to know how I am, if I’m coping. They say he might want his clothes again when he gets better. I tell them he won’t need them again. Eventually they say OK and shrug and drag the plastic bags over the counter.

 

* * *

 

In his arms he carried a box and he set it beside me as I lay on the sofa, absorbed in my loneliness with a hand on my empty belly. I sat straight up when I saw the fur, it looked so soft and silky and I reached out to touch it. He held my arm back.
          ‘Wait,’ he whispered, and a grin spread across his face.
          I couldn’t believe he’d actually got me a kitten. I imagined the pleasure of having something warm on my lap. He scooped the tiny animal from the box and placed it on the arm of the sofa.
          ‘Doesn’t it look real?’ he said, and gazed proudly at his handiwork.
          I inched away from the animal, the thing, not daring to look at it for a moment longer.
          ‘I thought we weren’t going to have them in the house.’
          He caressed the soft fur, his head bent down so close that the fur moved when he spoke.
          'Silly woman, you said you wanted a cat. Look, I’ve got you a cat!’
          He didn’t take his eyes off the thing.
          ‘A real one,’ I said.
          ‘But look, it’s so still, lifelike but so still. Isn’t it delightful?’
          He laughed and left me alone with it. I couldn’t touch it but later I smiled at him and said thank you.
          The next day he brought home another one. The two kittens lay on the windowsill and passers-by often stopped to admire them, until they realised and quickly moved on. One day I put on gloves and took the kittens into the garden. It rained that night and I heard him outside wailing. Out of the window I saw him doubled over with the kittens in his arms – water dripping from their sodden tails. After that I just covered them up with old curtains when he was out. Soon there were dogs and badgers in the bedroom, curled up on the foot of the bed or scratching at the wardrobe, a silvery rabbit with a huge fluffy tail in the bathroom and an owl with long droopy feathers in the kitchen. Eventually, I stopped covering them up and began to await the next arrival. I would stare into their eyes, wondering if they might come alive.
          My husband spent his time at home gazing at the animals, stroking them, rearranging them. I wanted him to stroke me.

 

* * *

 

Fiona is always smartly dressed when she comes for lunch on Fridays. She never eats lunch, though. She drinks tea and sometimes has a biscuit. Fiona doesn’t like babies much, but perhaps she’s just scared. I used to be scared too, before I had Belle.
          ‘What did you do this week?’ Fiona asks as she sips her tea from one of my china cups.
          ‘This and that, same as always really.’
          ‘Anything in particular?’
          ‘I don’t like the staring.’
          Fiona nods. I know she understands. The skin around her eyes sags a bit and sometimes she has blotchy red marks all over her collar bone and her neck. She must see some crazy things in her job. That’s probably why she’s never hungry. I don’t know how she’s so tall when she never eats.
          ‘You can’t start the grieving process until you let go,’ she says.
          ‘He’s not dead yet!’
          Fiona says some horrible things sometimes.
          ‘I think you feel very frightened of being left alone.’
          ‘I will never be alone.’
          I reach down to Belle who is in a basket by my feet and Fiona tells me to leave her.
          ‘Leave it’ she says, with a wobbly voice. I suppose she doesn’t want baby sick on her suit.
          Fiona wants to go upstairs and see my husband. She’s never met him before. People like to get involved when there’s an ill person about. I show her all the food in the cupboards and all the leaflets I’ve picked up, in case she thinks I’m not capable. She’s had a difficult marriage too, I think, but she’d never say. She’s always playing with the ring on her hand, unless she’s not wearing it at all.
          ‘I’ll have to get going soon,’ she says stifling a yawn. Her eyes water. She’s only just arrived.
          She writes something down and then stands and shuffles her papers, her fingers fumbling to get the edges to match up.
          ‘Why don’t you try and think about how you might feel if you were to be alone. We can talk about that next time.’
          ‘Are you coming tomorrow?’
          ‘Here’s the emergency number in case you need it.’
          She never answers my questions.

 

* * *

 

I lay in bed and waited for him, naked but under the covers. When he came in to the room he wriggled in beside me, still fully clothed and began to nibble at my skin. I lay still, knowing I couldn’t move, knowing I shouldn’t move, just waiting for him to take what he wanted. I tried not to feel his teeth on my legs and the flick of his tongue. Every now and then he let out a throaty groan. I didn’t move I just breathed quietly, waiting, keeping still. His hair tickled me and gave me goose bumps and although I tried so hard not to move I flinched and kneed him in the shoulder.
          He leapt off, and colour dappled his cheeks. His lips were glistening and even though he still wore his suit I could see him throbbing. He eyes were filmy, he didn’t seem to see me, even though he looked right at me.
          ‘You’ve ruined it,’ he grunted and turned away.
          ‘I’m sorry,’ I told him.
          I remained under the covers while he disappeared into the bathroom. When he came back, he pulled me close and while stroking my hair told me he’d like to turn the shed into a workshop. I wanted to make him happy.

 

* * *

 

The bath water drains away beneath me, tepid and grainy. I’m aware that my husband and Belle are just a wall away in the bedroom. Fiona’s husky words from yesterday play over and over in my mind. I do not want to be alone. I let go of the plug and watch the chain slide toward the hole with the rest of my debris, then I climb out.

 

* * *

 

He was patient at first and told me not to worry. He came home from work with tiny clothes, a cot, blankets and a highchair. They all remained in our bedroom unused for three years. Every morning I woke to the sight of an empty cot and when he saw me looking he would pull my head away and cradle it under his arm and for a moment he would stroke me like one of his animals.
          But he spent more and more time at work or in his shed, often leaving a trail of feathers in the hallway. I found a three-toed claw in the sink along with the tea cups and cereal bowls. One evening I emerged from our ensuite bathroom, drained and weak with blood loss, and when he saw me shake my head he shoved me onto the cot so the top rail pushed up under my ribs. Inside the cot was small tuft of fur.
          ‘Please don’t leave me,’ I gasped.

 

* * *

 

I sway in the living room, as I do the ironing, swinging my hips from side to side, listening to Sunday Mellow on the radio while the rain pours outside. It’s out of habit that I still iron his shirts.  There’s not much on the television and Belle is asleep in her basket. I pour myself a little wine and eat a few cherries for dinner. Later, I sit with him and hold his hand. I can feel him fading away.

 

* * *

 

He ran straight past me, even though I was holding out a cup of tea that he’d asked for. He scampered on tiptoes into the garden, his arms at right angles to his body, flapping. A vulture, I thought, as I watched him swoop down and trap the fox between his legs. A scream that swallowed the night tore the cup from my hands and it smashed on the kitchen tiles I’d just mopped. Tiny shards of china flew into my bare feet. I saw my husband wrestling with a possessed fox. The fox was yapping at his face and they writhed and tumbled in the bushes, almost as one. All I could do was cover my ears. People miles away must have known what was happening in my garden.
          He came in through the back door with the fox over his shoulder leaking onto his shirt, and his forehead was streaky red. A knife dangled in his hand.
          ‘Is this my blood or yours?’ He examined his fingers. I didn’t know if he was talking to me or the fox.
          ‘Yours, I think,’ I replied anyway. I took the knife from him and let the blood cover my hands, too.

 

* * *

 

I scrub and scrub and scrub until the cloth disintegrates in my hands but the marks never fade. My fingers are shrivelled and papery. The sideboards in the kitchen are stained the colour of weak tea. There’s still a large brown patch from the leaky fox and it will never go away. I’m sure it’s spreading, seeping into the grout and channelling through the walls.
          Something rumbles outside. I realise it’s Monday and I haven’t put the rubbish out. I get a new cloth and a fresh bottle of extra thick bleach from under the sink.

 

* * *

 

I was swollen, heaving and full of life. He put his ear to my belly and murmured about how everything would be OK now. Every day he wrapped a measuring tape around my stomach. He listened, he watched and he talked to the growing child inside me. He stroked me. I had given him everything.
          Belle was born in the early hours of the morning and we held her, together. He watched over her night after night while I rested and he never left her side but then I began to dream bad things. I was so afraid she wouldn’t stay with us. I woke every hour with a twisted gut and pounding in my chest and reached out until I felt her warm, fragile breath on my hand. I would not sleep. I would not let her leave us.

 

* * *

 

The grass was squelchy with dew as I crept down to the shed and the key numbed my hand. It turned easily in the lock but the door was stuck. I had watched him swing his weight into the door before. I tried and felt sore. I kept trying, smashing my hips and shoulders into the door until it gave way. I landed on a box of glass eyes. I picked some up and watched them roll around in my palm. They were the same eyes that followed me around every room in the house but in my hand they reminded me of the pretty coloured glass stones I used to collect. A squirrel lay on its back in a vice, its hands clasped around an acorn and its mouth fixed open. There were two dark holes in its face.
          I pursed my lips together and blew out, just as I did in the antenatal classes. One at a time, I opened the drawers under the workbench. Spare parts. Tails, some with scales, some long and hairless. Beaks, wings, claws. Paws. Teeth. I touched them. I felt them. In one of the drawers were tools and instruments. Needles, hooks, wire and things that looked like they would be used in an operation. There was a bottle of formaldehyde on the top shelf and jars of coloured paints. My skin began to itch. I opened one more cupboard and the cold air smoked into my lungs. I saw the heads and slammed the door shut. The cold air stayed in my chest.
          Belle was crying and my bulging breasts ached. I stepped outside and sunk into the soggy grass. As I turned to lock the door I took one last look at his shed. The fox was under the work top.  One leg was poised in the air and its tail had been removed and placed along the bottom of the small window, as though blocking the draught.

 

* * *

 

I sit on the toilet at the mother and baby group holding Belle in my arms, rocking her. The other mothers have just finished singing Incy Wincy Spider. I hear people enter the bathroom and their voices echo off the ceramics. They talk about milestones, whether Tommy is grasping yet, whether Evie is crawling yet. I look at Belle and she doesn’t do either yet but she is still perfect. The ladies talk about Debbie, how neurotic she is, how she called an ambulance when the baby had the hiccups. They talk about Natalie who’s having a really tough time because Tim doesn’t want to get married. They talk about crazy Lauren and I realise that’s me. I remain on the toilet, shivering, jiggling my legs to keep warm and they say something nasty about Belle.
          I unwrap her from her blankets. Her blonde hair is thick and wiry and falls in front of her glassy eyes. Her skin is sallow but her reddened lips are formed into beautiful smile. I run my finger over the faint scar on her throat where she was stitched. I stand and place her on the toilet seat so I can smooth my skirt down and untangle my hair with my fingers. She lies there silently, peacefully, delightfully still.
          With her in my arms again I open the cubicle door. I view the two ladies in the mirror, they turn around to sneer at me but their eyes fall upon Belle. Their bodies arch back against the sinks.

 

* * *

 

I dream about the freezer full of dead animals waiting to be resurrected. I imagine that my husband breathes air into their lungs and in the middle of the night foxes and badgers scratch down the door of my bedroom, clamber onto my bed and devour my daughter, their teeth sinking deep into her flesh. And after, when all that’s left is her bones and teeth, they begin to lick my face.

 

* * *

 

Belle was crying when I woke up, and the space next to me was empty. I silently stepped into her room and picked her up. She felt heavy, full of my breast milk. We swayed together to The Lullaby Song but she would not stop wailing. In the dark I could only see shadows on her face, I couldn’t make out her eyes or nose or lips. Searching with my fingertips I located her delicate features and continued to rock. I sang to her, I told her about the grandmother she never met, I whispered to her how perfect she was, how happy she had made us.
          Finally she was quiet and I felt her lips, cold, beneath my palm.
          My stomach lurched and I shook her.
          ‘Wake up.’
          She wouldn’t wake up and I rubbed her chest and breathed into her mouth and she wouldn’t wake up and I kept breathing for her and pleading with her to wake up.
          ‘Don’t leave me, Belle. Please don’t go anywhere.’
          My throat was constricted, I couldn’t shout, I couldn’t breathe. I carried her to the landing and peered out of the window. The light was on in the shed.  I didn’t want anyone to take her away. I grabbed the box hidden under my pillow and I hurried to him. I heaved open the door and put her on his workbench.
          He looked at her wide-eyed.
          ‘I didn’t mean to,’ I whispered. ‘Make her better.’
          He scooped her up and shook her, tears poured down his face while he shook her and I yelled for him to stop shaking her. He held her up to me with her head lolling down and I took her back. She was even heavier now. He paced up and down with his hands tugging at his hair and sometimes tugging at my hair, muttering, ‘What have you done? What have you done?’
          ‘Make her better,’ I whispered again, my voice hoarse and squeaky.
          ‘It’s too late.’
          ‘No. You can make her better.’
          I opened the box and showed him the knife with fox’s blood on it, I held it to his neck. He opened his drawers and he reached for the jars. I observed, noted, remembered.

 

* * *

 

   ‘Hello darling,’ I say to my husband when I get home on Tuesday.  ‘I don’t think I’ll be going back that group.’
          He stands behind the bedroom door and I hug him, breathing in his fibres and smoothing his bushy tail. His brown, glossy wings still exceed my expectations as I trace the feathers with my fingers to their pale tips. There’s a small tear where the wing joins the shoulder.
          His featherless narrow head is consumed by his shiny beak, which curves downwards and hooks into a sharp point. The overhanging skin above his eyes pulls his face into a frown. There is a shiny glaze across his hard, unseeing eyes.
          I close the door and slide down it, I have nothing left. As I slowly turn my face away from him I’m certain I see the flick of an eye and a twitch of his tail.

 

**************


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