‘You’re like the surface of the moon,’ my husband says, picking up my wrist, inspecting the small blue dot that has appeared in the hollow between the knuckles on my left hand. ‘Very strange.’ His breath is warming the circular spot: no bigger than a one euro coin. ‘When did they first appear?’
I shrug my shoulders, gentle enough so he won’t lose his grasp.
‘Maybe it’s something tropical,’ I say. ‘Maybe all my skin is going to fall off piece by piece.’
He loosens his grip.
‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ he says, brushing his fingers firmly against his jeans. ‘We’ll go see someone if it gets worse.’
I smooth my skirt out along my thighs, watching the small blue dot move along the cotton, catching the light coming from the doorway of his studio.
‘I went to your gallery today,’ I say.
‘You’ve been before.’
‘I guess I haven’t tired of it yet.’
He walks over to the window, leaning out into the cooler air.
‘You can see Sacre Couer from here,’ he had said when we first arrived, standing there on a book-filled box underneath the window frame. The boxes had filled the room, scattered amongst the canvases he had carefully entombed within inches of plastic, pressed tight against their skin. We had spent the following week slicing them open and inspecting their insides, deciding in which room to place the pots and pans and paperbacks, slowly assembling a life.
And there he stands now. The domed mound of roof lies like a crown upon his head, blazing white under the industrial lights.
‘I’m sure it’s nothing,’ I say, and he shifts his weight from one leg to the other, slowly moving his head against the night.
The doctor is a young man of about thirty. He has a picture of his wife and child on his desk in a silver frame. The child is holding an ice-lolly, and there’s a faint ring of red around his mouth and on his chubby fists, clutching the wooden stick.
‘Visited anywhere overseas recently?’ he asks, the English vowels wrestling with his tongue. I fiddle with the paper gown he made me wear; it’s a deep navy blue, pocked all over with tiny squares.
‘Not recently,’ I reply and my husband nods softly, staring intensely at the poster of human anatomy over the doctor’s desk.
The doctor writes a prescription for some creams and hands me the piece of paper. I look over to my husband, who is still staring at the picture of the woman; observing how the mammary glands attach to the tissue, how the pelvis holds up the spine, how the feet connect to the floor. Watching the woman with eyeballs exposed peer off wide-eyed into the distance. What could she be looking at, that skinless wonder?
The escalators carry us down into the Metro. We pass through tunnels lined with posters for operas, concerts, and exhibitions. In there somewhere, amongst the colour and the glue, is a picture of my husband—his arms folded, his face forward—standing in front of his paintings, watching the passers-by.
As we board the train I wrap the scarf tighter around my neck. I like to feel it press against my skin, challenging me to breathe.
I overhear a mother beside me, her son folded over her lap. She is holding up her watch and asking him to decipher its face: how many minutes until this, or that? How many minutes until home?
‘Maman,’ he says, in the clear, small voice of a child. ‘Quelle heure est-il?’
‘Regardes,’ she replies. ‘Help me follow the hands.’
At Pigalle a tramp enters the carriage and stops between the facing doors. She stands firm against the swaying of the train, drowning in her coat. In her fists she holds plastic shopping bags, with the logo of the store printed on the outside; the colours faded, the edges torn. Images of shining fruit and pearly teeth wrapped around her dirty clothing, her used boots, her bits of paper and string. Her skin is lighter in strips where the handles of the bags cut into the flesh of her hands.
She raises her head and shuffles towards us. My husband stands, brushing against a man clutching a briefcase tight against his chest; one hand against the rail, one stretched across its smooth dead skin.
The tramp mutters merci as she presses her body down onto the plastic. Threads of her hair drift outward, catching the warm air pushing through the small rectangular window along the top of the carriage.
The train slows and my husband moves towards an empty seat. As he passes I reach out for his hand.
‘Is it the next stop?’
‘It’s not for a while,’ he says, and continues down the carriage.
As the train shudders forward, the tramp beside me begins to moan: a low, strong hum coming from the middle of her throat. The man with the briefcase shifts arms. The mother and son keep softly talking, his small fingers tracing the path of the hands along the clock face. And she sings on; eyes closed, chin lifted towards the blinking lights, as the rain-speckled streets of Paris turn above our heads.
I feel she is singing for me.
A voice travels through space from the other corner of the world. ‘You still there?’
‘Yeah I’m here.’
I hear her sigh. ‘It’s fucking hot here. They split an egg on the road and it cooked through. They showed it on the news.’
I smile. ‘They do that every year.’
I fiddle with the extension cord, shoving my fingers through the loops.
‘I guess they do,’ she says. ‘Doesn’t make it less fucking hot.’
I tell her about our life in Paris: how beautiful the boulevards, how sweet the bread, how dirty the Seine.
‘It’s been so long,’ she says. ‘I can’t believe I’m only speaking to you now.’
I pull my jumper down over my hands. The dots have grown brighter. They are everywhere now. It’s like they breed during the night.
‘I’ve heard great things about the exhibition,’ she says. ‘David must be thrilled. And you’re …’
‘Just along for the ride,’ I say, causing a sharp laugh to burst through the static, falling into my open ear. A car pulls up in the driveway, her dog barks in the other room.
‘You’ll never guess what’s happening to me,’ I say.
There’s a murmur on the other end of the phone, as the receiver moves against her cheek. She’s kissing someone. Hello … I’m on the phone … put it down over there.
‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘What were you saying?’
‘I’m turning blue.’
A pause. ‘You mean you’re depressed or something?’
I pick at a scab on the corner of one of the dots.
‘I don’t know.’
An offstage voice fills the phone. Come on, Sarah, for God’s sake. The car’s running.
‘Look, I’ve got to go. Please write.’
‘I will,’ I say. She hangs up, the phone clattering against its plastic casing somewhere back in Australia, on a kitchen table filled to the brim with summer heat.
‘They used to guillotine people here, you know,’ says Julien. A mutual sometimes-friend. Not one of mine, one of his. He has friends everywhere, in all the folds of the earth.
I take a sip of the whisky in my glass. The cubes of ice butt against my teeth.
‘Seems like an odd place to build a bar, then,’ I reply.
He doesn’t seem to hear. ‘Right over there.’
He points to a corner of the room. There are shackles hanging from the walls; brown iron rings, rounded like hands meeting for prayer. ‘They would wait in here until…’ He drags his fingers across his throat, letting air pass through his lips. ‘The stone blocked out the sound.’
I turn a coaster over in my hand, tapping it against the table. The name of the bar is stamped across the small square of cardboard: ‘Le Caveau des Oubliettes’. The cave of the forgotten.
He smiles and leans back in his seat, returning his eyes to the stage. His face is nodding to the music, his lips pulled downward by his jowls, which hang beneath his chin, rippling slower than the rest. He looks like one of those bobble-heads you keep on the dashboard of your car. One swipe can take him out; out onto the road between the whirling wheels and cracking tar.
There’s a dip in the music. People begin to stir. Talking to friends, looking around them, as if suddenly aware of all the darkened faces crushed into the stone-lined room.
I realise Julien is looking at me. I try to smile, but my lips are stuck. I reach up to feel for my scarf, to check that it’s still there, hiding the hideous dots that litter my skin. Julien’s brow furrows. His face is arching downwards, as if dripping from his skull.
I open my mouth to speak, but there is a noise coming from the middle of my throat. I can feel it stuck halfway down. It has weight, like I’ve swallowed a stone. Julien reaches his hand over, thumping it down onto my shoulder, trying to silence the hum. I try to look around for my husband but the faces blend together in the dark room, until I see only eyes and mouths sneering back at me, sucking all breath from my lungs, pinning me down to the floor, pushing me under the stone to where all the bodies with severed heads lie rotting below, trying to breathe through water.
My flesh is still raw from where the knife bit. There’s now a pad of white covering the hollow I made in it, around the perimeter of the small blue dot. The first one, between my knuckles. My husband is muttering how difficult it is to bandage, holding my hand in his, calming my quivering nerves. I want to lean in close, to press him against me, to feel small again against his chest.
‘It’s going to be alright,’ he says, laying a kiss softly on my fingers.
He runs me a bath. They make a small hum, these dots, and the water drowns them out.
‘Do you think they’re fading?’ I say to him, sinking into the warmth.
‘Yeah, a bit,’ he says, resisting the urge to flinch, to turn himself to stone. ‘I’ll be in my studio.’
He stands to leave, and I’m alone beneath the water. Holding my breath I hear the humming of the dots, the beating inside my head, the faraway clacking of his brushes against the glass jars, the scratch of paint against canvas. Bubbles from the sides of my mouth run towards the surface, breaking upon impact, slowly dissolving into the humid air.
I wake to the sound of the breathing of my husband and the humming of my skin. The light from his studio falls through the open door. I push my feet through the air onto the ground, paddling towards the light. I cross the threshold, through the doorway, across the mounds of paint cans and paper and sticks and stones and brushes.
There is someone staring back at me from the painting on the wall. Someone from a dream, or that space between waking, with cold eyes and prickled flesh, curling her long body around a young fawn, caressing his face with her tail, running her tongue along his dark brown hair. There’s a pattern on her skin; small blue dots freckle her spine, casting their shadows along her body.
The jungle behind her head exists only in outlines; strokes of pencil faint against the canvas. But I can feel the heat; I can hear the pulsing of the birds, the vivid life trapped beneath the green.
Her eyes meet mine. I raise my hand. The bandage is brown and stiff with blood. She smiles at me, and reaches down, softly peeling off the darkened cotton, watching it fall between my feet. She raises my hand to her cheek, careful of the patches of damp, drying paint. Careful of all the delicate layers of her skin.
Read the other stories in 218.5: Autumn fiction: