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I’m in the shower when I see it: a black dot, just above my elbow, static under the suds slithering down my arm. I assume it’s biro and carry on soaping my shoulder, thinking what an idiot I am, drawing on myself. But when I reach for the towel, I notice it again. This time I raise and twist my arm to get a better look, completely forgetting I can’t see close up without my glasses. Squinting in frustration, I pinch the surrounding flesh. Colour drains from my skin, but the mark doesn’t change. A splinter, perhaps? I rake a fingernail over it and find the area’s smooth, no different from the rest of my skin. It must be a mole.
As I wrap myself in the towel, I start wondering if any other new moles have appeared over the winter. The only full-length mirror is in Mum’s room, so I go in and stand with my back to her old wooden cheval. I don’t use it normally, because the glass distorts things, but Mum loved it. If I threw it out, she’d never forgive me. Taking a deep breath, I drop the towel and peer over my shoulder.
My reflection peers back. We regard each other with distrust, like warring siblings. I remind myself what I’m seeing isn’t really what I look like, but it’s hard not to turn away. The reflection’s pastier than I am, and a stone heavier. From the waist down she’s wider and rounder, and dimpled with cellulite. The sight of her makes me want to cry. The only good thing about my mirror-sister is her lack of moles.
Sally announces she’s holding a barbeque at the end of the month to mark Perfectly Groomed’s five year anniversary. I tell her I always visit Mum on Sundays, but she won’t accept any excuses because, even though I haven’t been there long, she wants everybody to celebrate. Then Sally says she realises how hard parties are when you’re shy, and offers to arrange for someone to give me a lift. In the end, she makes it so hard to refuse that I agree to go, even though it means not putting out fresh flowers until the following weekend.
The day before the party I rummage through my wardrobe for a dress that still fits, and squeeze into an old halter-neck. While I’m checking its effect in the mirror, I catch sight of my new mole. I can’t be sure but it seems bigger, more of a heart than a dot. Not something that could be mistaken for biro or dirt.
Vaguely concerned, I do what I should have done weeks ago and Google moles, comparing my arm to the magnified images on the screen. The cancerous moles are irregular and gingery. They sprawl and blister as they enlarge, groping their malignant way over the skin’s pores. But my mole’s dark, and a nice shape, delicate and precise. Even if it is bigger, it’s still no more than three millimetres across. I skim through the text – about sun damage and foreign holidays – but none of it applies to me. My mole’s nothing to worry about.
The summer’s long and hot, and the girls at work organise a trip to the beach for the Bank Holiday. I think Sally has a quiet word with them about including me, because I don’t get an invitation until the day before. And, when they do ask, they make sure she’s in earshot. Not being able to think of an excuse quickly enough, makes me so flustered that I squirt shampoo into Mr Conway’s shih tzu’s ear. It wriggles and shakes, and over its barking I hear myself saying that I’d love to go.
While they all sunbathe or cool off in the waves, I hide under the parasol and keep my cardigan buttoned. I tell them I’ve got eczema, but I can see by their eyes they don’t believe me. They think I’m too old for a swimsuit. And they’re probably right – I know Mum would agree – except being over the hill’s not the real reason I need to cover up. But I keep quiet, let them think what they want, and accept their fake sympathy for my fake illness.
The mole didn’t stay a mole. I don’t think it ever was one. Within days of going from dot to heart it opened out like blossom, then started changing. Stretching, flattening, morphing, like a foetus taking shape. Every stage seemed intentional, controlled, as if the original dot had been just a fragment of a blueprint. It never sprawled though, or blistered. If it had I might have mentioned it to someone. Instead I dithered, and ended up doing nothing.
Tendrils emerged from its core, stubbly at first but soon elongating into graceful antennae that danced above the veins in my forearm and climbed the steep slope to my armpit. Spikes grew from the tendrils and matured into shoots. To begin with their changes were subtle but, as they developed in width, their outlines became fluid. Fascinated, I began thinking of them as silhouettes which fluctuated between flora and fauna. As the design unfurled across my skin I became enamoured. Single cell organisms developed into complex
life forms. Insects, fish, lizards, rodents evolved from the shoots. And all the while, dense foliage, tinted green, red and yellow, sprang from vines which threaded their way amongst the creatures until I had a shoulder-to-wrist sleeve of colour and movement. Beautiful, but more tattoo than mole.
I never understood the attraction of tattoos before, especially on women. I thought they looked common. Tarty, Mum called them. So I was surprised when the Guildhall held a Tattoo Convention last winter. A flier came through the door about it and, for a while, I saw leaflets everywhere. One rose up on an eddy of wind as I walked to work, and caught on my arm, wrapping around my elbow like a cuff. Its main picture was of a man with a skull tattooed over his face. He looked inhuman, like Death.
While my arm’s transforming I carry on as normal, although knowing what’s going on under my clothes makes it hard to concentrate. At work I go into the toilet whenever I can to check how much the design’s changed. When I’m challenged about leaving Mrs Griffin’s poodle half-way through its lion cut I claim to have IBS. Sally tells me to take sick leave and says I’ll need a doctor’s certificate if things don’t improve. Being signed off would make life easier, but how could I explain my arm’s shifting patterns to a doctor? Medics would want to prod and poke at it. They’d hurt it. My design needs protection.
I stay home for two weeks, but when I go back I can’t even clip nails without breaking off to look at my arm. In the end, Sally she says she’s done her best, but if I won’t help myself there’s nothing else she can do. If I won’t produce a doctor’s note, she says she’s no choice other than to let me go.
With my days free, I spend hours watching my skin. When my arm’s full, the vines send out creepers which snake their way along my collarbone and between my breasts. They cling to my ribs and circle my middle. A conspiracy of lemurs clusters around my right shoulder, waiting until the stems are strong enough to support its weight. Once they deem it safe, they travel along the vines, emigrating over my torso and across to my left arm. After that the design moves down, spreading over my hips, thighs, knees and shins. Every space becomes inhabited. It’s beautiful.
I wonder how I ever put up with being pale and blank. Bland and boring. I’ve no idea how or why the design came, but I’m so glad it chose me. Mum’s money won’t last forever, but I’m confident everything will work out. Sometimes I lie in bed stroking my skin, hoping the design knows how happy it’s made me.
When the first tendrils appear on my neck I feel betrayed, as if an agreement’s been broken. I plead for things to go back to the way they were, but fresh shoots edge towards my ears.
During November I wear high polo necks, which no one thinks strange. By the end of the month, though, concealer won’t cover the green veins stretching along my jaw, and I stop bothering to wear make-up altogether. After that, I can’t bear to leave the house. I don’t even go to the cemetery.
The design’s a parasite. I can’t control it. I realise now, that the beauty I admired was a trick, a visual anaesthetic to ensure it was nurtured while newborn and vulnerable. I should have had it removed the moment its tiny heart began to pulse.
I stop answering my phone, pretend to be out if anyone knocks and shop online, giving instructions for deliveries to be left in the porch. I hang a blanket over Mum’s cheval, take down the hall mirror and smear every other reflective surface with Windolene, which I leave to dry into pink powdery swirls. I start getting panic attacks when I undress, so I bulk buy onesies, which I wear day and night, and only get changed in the dark. I give up showering too. Instead, I make a floor length poncho from an old sheet and stand by the sink, washing with a flannel.
In December a flier comes through the door: the Tattoo Convention is back at the end of the month. Seeing the skull-man’s picture again quickens my pulse and brings a lump into my throat. I swallow it down, and push the hateful paper back through the letterbox.
Thanks to carol singers, I spend Christmas Eve wedged under the kitchen table with all the lights off. Most give up after a chorus of Jingle Bells but others warble on and on, as if they know I’m home and are carolling out of spite. Inside my onesie, pins and needles deaden my feet and creep up my legs. Just as I think it’s safe to crawl out, there’s a knock at the door. The bell rings, once, twice, three times and knuckles rap the door again, but there’s no singing. For a breathless moment I think it might be Sally, wanting me to come back to Perfectly Groomed. Then, I hear footsteps, and am so intent straining to hear more, that I only catch a flash of something, someone, flit by the kitchen window.
I freeze – should I grab a bread knife, or reach for the frying pan? As it is, I manage neither. Just bite my lip, hold my breath, and wait for the door handle to twist downwards.
Biting … holding … waiting …
The handle doesn’t move, but a sheet of paper appears under the door. I puff out my held breath in surprise. With my legs tingling, I slide from under the table and along the lino until I reach the paper. It’s a flier. Even before I’ve turned it over I know it’s for the Tattoo Convention.
In the moonlit kitchen, the black and white contours of the skull-man’s face seem three dimensional, as if they might move across the paper in the same way my design moves across my skin. The feeling we’ve a connection nags at me.
I run my fingers over the image and try to imagine the man browsing in a library, pushing a trolley around Asda, or as a groom waiting at the altar. Tracing around his blackly defined cheek cavities I picture him working as a teacher or dressed as a surgeon scrubbed for theatre, only the dark hollows around his eyes visible over his mask. The images are strange yet somehow familiar. I visualise the deep rooted teeth that edge his jaws puckering to kiss a toddler goodnight. Then think of him older, embracing grandchildren, buying ice-creams, feeding ducks, with wrinkles scoring his solid white cheekbones. And, as I imagine the skull-man leading a normal life, I work out what’s so familiar. It isn’t him. It isn’t the tattoo. It’s what we share. Humanity.
With my legs still numb, I grab the door handle and hoist myself upright. My feet are heavy and clumsy as I climb the stairs, walk across the landing and push open Mum’s bedroom door. The curtains are drawn and the mirror stands shrouded in the corner like a ghost. For a moment I lose my nerve. The flier drops from my hand and lands in the shadows by my feet. His picture’s hidden, but I can feel the skull-man watching me, urging me forwards.
I flick on the light and get a surge of adrenaline as I walk towards the mirror, take hold of the blanket and rip it from the frame. Dust spirals upwards. I shut my eyes before they can focus on the glass, and tug at the zip of my onesie. My heartbeat fills my ears, shakes my legs, threatens to overwhelm me. The fleecy material slides over my shoulders and falls to the floor.
The air prickles my skin into goose-pimples and the creatures, unused to exposure, chatter and scurry into the warmth of the foliage.
I swallow, mouth dry, and open my eyes.
For the first time in my life, I look into a mirror and don’t see my reflection. I see myself. Roses bloom across my cheeks and my eyes are edged with an exquisite golden filigree that extends over my forehead and down my nose. I smooth my hands over my stomach and allow my gaze to linger on parts of my body which I refused to acknowledge before. Its lumps and curves look natural. Normal. I twist to view myself from the back. I’m womanly. Rounded. The backs of my legs ripple with cellulite but, it’s me.
The doorbell and the first lines of Good King Wenceslas interrupt my thoughts. I turn to the window but the song’s already breaking up, the voices dissolving into the night. When I look back into the cheval I’m no longer alone. The skull-man stands behind me, reflected in the glass.
I don’t move as he takes off his jacket and unbuttons his shirt. Geometric patterns run the length of his fingers. On his stomach a white stallion rears up under a star-filled sky. A Chinese dragon, mouth aflame, curves over his chest and a scorpion crouches on each shoulder. He turns to lay his clothes on the bed and I see tiger eyes straddling the base of his spine, the vivid orange and black fur around them camouflaged by leafy fronds. A snake, its scales creating iridescent zig-zags of venomous colour, coils around the gnarly tree trunk that encases his spine, and a jungle canopy hangs between his shoulder blades. Above it, a solitary bird rises in flight, its beak skimming the hair at the nape of his neck.
He rests his hands on my shoulders. The animals on my body stir, and the scorpions on his shoulder begin to dance, their tails stiff. When he kisses my neck, honeysuckle blossoms open under his lips and fill the room with their sweet fragrance. Our designs blend, making me shiver with pleasure. Vines loop around his fingers; my back tingles with the heat of his dragon’s fire. Without turning from the mirror I lift my hand to his face and feel the warmth contained in his monochrome features. Acceptance floods through me. The decoration that swathes our bodies doesn’t mask or change anything. A caterpillar is always a butterfly. We are who we are.