by Keith Brooke
I didn't want to see Laura today.
I have times like this, times when I know everything I say will come out wrong, everything I try to do will be clumsy and open to misinterpretation. Usually I can tell when I am in such a state and this morning I duly recognized the symptoms.
I cope, though. I have learnt to. But I didn't want to see Laura.
I am faltering already. I am not accustomed to writing in this manner. Today I rose, washed, breakfasted and knew that I couldn't leave my bedsit. But at the same time I knew that I must. I had my washing to do . . . I can't let myself give in.
I made myself unbolt - top, middle, bottom - my door and hurry out with three Tesco bags stuffed full of sheets and trousers, items I cannot cope with in my room's small corner basin. The man from across the corridor was also leaving but he barely glanced in my direction. He is like that, for which I am grateful as I have no need to respond.
The launderette is only a few minutes away by foot but there were people everywhere and my skin was flushed long before I saw Laura, ahead of me with her hessian sack of clothing (lettered with the words TOG BAG; an unwanted Christmas present, she once told me).
I almost turned back but I fought my panic down and continued, despite the dark feeling that today was rapidly living up to my initial sense of foreboding.
We walked, one ahead of the other, for over a minute although it felt like many more. We met six months ago in the launderette and now Laura is one of the few people who will talk to me. Maybe that's why I am scared of her: she tries to penetrate my barriers.
Laura is about five feet two with lank gingery hair. This morning she was wrapped in a big quilted coat. On her head was a woollen hat and she wore gloves, scarf and a pair of street-dulled blue and yellow snow boots. I was also warmly clothed against the cold but I noticed with some surprise the number of people who passed me by in the street, coatless and wearing only light clothing. Two weeks ago, Laura commented that this decade is expected to be even warmer than the 1980s but, to my own senses, that can not be the case. As I walked my breath steamed and I was glad of my protective layers.
Thankfully Laura did not wait for me when she turned onto Magdalen Road, but when she entered the launderette she held the door open and smiled as I passed within. I loaded my machine with clothes, powder, coins and then sat with my back to the window, staring at the floor, aware that people were looking.
My face was warm and sweat was breaking out on my forehead so I loosened my scarf and my coat and tried to think peaceful thoughts. Laura sat beside me and my skin grew even hotter. Sometimes it is as bad as this. Other times I can confidently meet the inquisitive looks, seeing them as mere uninterested glances, knowing that it is all in my own head. Some days I don't even care.
Laura tugged at her coat, stood and removed it, then pulled a thick brown jumper over her head and dumped it at her feet. She smiled, for the second time. "Aren't you warm?" she said.
I said nothing.
"Did you see the news?" asked Laura, knowing that I would not have done so. The news is for others, for those with worldly cares. My day-to-day is not affected by current affairs. "The Bulgarian jihad is over," she continued. "The ethnic Turks decided Allah didn't want another slaughter on His hands. The Civic Renaissance have turned Popular Palace into a mosque as a gesture of goodwill. You should have seen the pictures: you've never seen so many happy people. It's beautiful. Really." Then her words faded, as they do when she realises she has been speaking for some time. Laura is like that. Maybe she sits with me because I am even more paralysed by shyness than she. Maybe if I read a newspaper I would gain in confidence: it would give me something to talk about just as Laura's television is a prop to her own conversation.
We sat for a long time in silence; perhaps she sensed my mood. Although the morning did not appear as bad as I had anticipated, I still wished that I had allowed myself the luxury of staying at home.
There is a wasted old woman who appears to spend a lot of time at that particular launderette. Her name is Mrs Saxley, which I know because she is the kind of person who introduces herself and tells you bluntly what she thinks of you and of the world, regardless of all propriety. Nobody seemed particularly bothered today when Mrs Saxley stripped to her underwear and put her clothes in a machine, mumbling, "Hot wash, hot wash," under her breath. Laura noticed and she broke our silence by whispering, "Just like the old advert," but that did not clarify things for me. Strangely, instead of cringing and breaking out in a flush of embarrassment I merely returned my gaze to the cracks in the floor. It is only now that I can look back and recognize the incongruity of it all. Mrs Saxley sat right next to me and took up her knitting and I didn't even care.
Maybe the whole thing was in my mind.
Sometimes my imagination can be cruel. My dreams feature torture and death and there is nothing I can do but bow down and subject myself to the machinations of my own subconscious. Maybe I didn't go out to the launderette at all today, maybe my mind has constructed this warped fantasy to hide from myself the embarrassment of succumbing to shyness. But this has never happened before and, as I have said, I cope: why should my mind respond in such a fashion now?
My father used to say that it's a strange world; if today can be used as evidence, it is growing rapidly stranger.
These last few weeks have been like an oasis set against the rest of my dried out life. It took me several minutes to craft that sentence and it still appears clumsy, but it is true, within the limitations of my existence. There has been nothing revolutionary in my lifestyle, I have not managed to find myself a job or anything like that. But I cannot recall a particularly bad day in at least two months. My nerves have been . . . if not calm, then constrained. I have been able to go about my day-to-days in a fairly normal manner (if the word normal can ever have any real meaning). I do my washing, my shopping, I cash my Income Support.
I saw Laura today. There was a time, a few months ago, when we would meet often, but recently this has not been the case. Perhaps she has started using a different launderette. Maybe I will ask her about that if we meet again - I feel that I could, that even now I would not tongue-tangle my words and trail off into a skin-burning silence.
I was in Chapel Field Gardens, enjoying the daffodils and tulips. I felt relaxed. Out of doors and relaxed! There were people around but that didn't bother me because the grass was green and springy beneath my feet.
"You're still feeling the cold?"
I smiled and turned, lowered my face from Laura's gaze and said that, yes, I supposed I must have been. Laura has changed since I last saw her. The muscles of her face have always been taut, her eyes moving rapidly from side to side as if she was constantly fearful of entrapment. But today her face was relaxed, and her eyes were steady and sparkling in the low Spring sunlight. She was wearing a mustard-yellow sweater and jeans. I was still wearing my winter coat, although only this week I have progressed to my lighter-weight jumpers in anticipation of milder weather.
I am not generally a person to take note of passing fashions in clothing. It is not my concern. But, this last week, the subject has forced itself upon me. To me this Spring has started no warmer than average but the cult of clothing has, apparently, ruled to the contrary. Even on two-jumper days I have seen adolescent boys strutting like roosters in their golden shorts and similarly bright-coloured tee-shirts and (as Laura appropriately called them this afternoon) muscle shirts, the type that reveal the shoulders as well as the arms. Women, too, are wearing outfits that would normally make me blush. This trend is not restricted to the nation's youth, as I had always thought such things were. Only today I saw an elderly man wearing high-cut shorts and a muscle shirt and the smile on his face was incredible; maybe it's the new drugs they give them, I don't know. I find it all vaguely disturbing, but then I only have to think back to the punk rockers of my own youth to see that this fad is likely to last a year at the most.
Still, it was a relief to see that Laura echoed today's fashions in only the colour - and not the cut - of her clothing. I pulled my coat tighter and we walked on through the spring blooms, earlier and fuller than I have ever known them.
Laura talked, as she does, but today she did not simply recount those stories she remembered from the television news. Today she talked about the flowers and about the swallows, already skimming low over the grass; she mentioned people she has never mentioned before, friends I never knew she had, some who she appeared simply to have met in the street and talked and laughed with - she didn't know their names. She had even been to see her mother in Aylsham for the first time in six years. They had spoken about the past, about things they had never been able to discuss before and which Laura didn't explain to me today; the visit has clearly lifted a great weight from her.
As we left the Gardens and headed back along Theatre Street, Laura stretched and then pulled her jumper up over her head and off each arm in turn. Underneath it she was wearing nothing. My eyes fixed on her nipples, hardening in the chill air, then I caught her smile and looked away, barely registering that she had discarded her jumper on the pavement behind us.
I wasn't embarrassed, though. I wasn't even scared. Perhaps a little curious but that was all. Again, it is only in retrospect that I can see anything strange in the events of today.
Actually, I felt rather good as we emerged on Brigg Street. I even undid my coat. Looking around, I noticed that almost everybody was dressed as if for a heat-wave. There were shorts and tee-shirts, bikinis and thongs, many of the men and women went topless, and most wore no shoes or socks. I removed my coat and slung it over my arm, walking on slowly, enjoying the gentle mood of the city centre. I left Laura on Fye Bridge and returned to my bedsit alone, strangeness seeping into my skull. As I fumbled with my shopping and the key in my lock, the man opposite returned to his room, its door now artistically graffitised with the words DANNY'S DEN in various styles. He grinned at my clumsiness and said, "Hi. D'you wanna hand, mate?" My mouth sagged open and the key finally turned. I hurried into my room and slammed the door behind me. My neighbour had come in off the streets completely naked. And then he had spoken to me for the first time. What is happening to the world?
I have calmed down greatly, now, but I still feel a little disturbed by this recounting of my day. Maybe it's just me: nobody else seems to be bothered. Tonight, before I retire, I think I will pray for the first time since I left home. It seems the best thing to do.
I feel oddly calm, now, although I know I should not. I must start at the beginning and lead you (whoever may read this) through.
I did my washing today. It's easy these days, no waiting for a machine or a drier, no having to stand because you're too embarrassed to sit next to a stranger. Most people don't bother with clothes these days. I even saw a policeman this morning, wearing only his helmet and a grin.
It's funny how rapidly you accept things. I don't feel comfortable when I am out amongst them, but I cannot really say that I feel any worse than I did in previous years. I no longer believe that this is a passing fad - how could I ever have believed that?
There are still those individuals, such as myself, who clothe themselves. They all have a furtive look, embarrassed, ashamed, so terrified of standing out that they do not dare change their ways, so they stand out all the same. Am I really one of them? I know that I am and it hurts me, but, like them, I am too terrified to change.
Sometimes I wonder what the rest of the country (or the rest of the world?) must make of all this. Has it happened there, too? Nobody seems to work any more, nobody seems to care about old ideas like property and decency any more, but somehow the world keeps turning. I can't bring myself to listen to the radio or read a newspaper, although I know that I should. I think the idea of discovering the real extent of this little revolution scares me too much. I never have been a one for current affairs, in any case.
A heat-wave to match the new dress codes has finally descended. Wrapped in my winter coat I found it too hot in the launderette so I stood outside on the pavement, watching the happy faces and the assorted bodies as the world passed me by.
Over the road, by a remnant of the city wall, a small group laughingly split up and departed by their ones and twos and threes.
One of them was Laura.
Naked, like the rest of them, she crossed the road and stood in front of me. "Time no see," she said. I think she gets her idiom from the television, or perhaps her new friends. I just nodded and looked away. "Come on," she said, and took my arm, the first time she has ever touched me. I flinched but she persisted and began to lead me away up Magdalen Road. "What about my washing?" I managed to say, but that only elicited another smile. I shrugged and gave up all resistance, thinking that - if there ever had been - there was certainly no longer anybody who would want to steal my clothes.
"My house," she said, when we had walked for about ten minutes. An ordinary terraced house, typical of this city. The front door was open; at some time - fairly recently, by the look - it had been painted in various swirling shades of yellow, matched by the window-frames and the lower reaches of the front wall. As she led me inside, a man and a woman hurried out and collapsed in a joyous heap on the pavement.
She led me upstairs to a room where the only furniture was a mattress and a carpet remnant. The walls had been painted in primary colours which I found quite disturbing. I looked, instead, at Laura's uplifted face.
"Don't you think it's all so . . . so beautiful?" she said. Not knowing what she meant, I chose not to respond.
There was a certain peaceable atmosphere to the house and I felt myself being seduced by it. "Come on," said Laura. "You don't need a coat like this in the heat-wave, do you?" She stepped towards me and I retreated until I felt my heels pressing against the mattress. "Come on." She reached for my coat and I stayed where I was. It was one of those positive moments when you feel that maybe you can actually do it, be like the rest of the crowd.
She tugged at my coat and I let her pull it from my shoulders, from my left arm and then my right. "Good, good," she clucked, as if I was a child. "Now - " she grinned and folded her arms " - now for the rest."
I almost ran then, but I fought it. I still felt that I could ride the crest of that moment and then I would feel myself transformed. I felt good, I felt a strange energy buzzing through my body.
I didn't offer her my clothes, but neither did I resist when she pulled my jumper over my head, when she unbuttoned my shirt, when she released the clasp of my belt.
Naked, finally, I felt free. I felt like I had really done it, thrown off the inhibitions of my past, rejected my passions, my possessions, my bonding to the world of my parents. It felt good.
We sat on the mattress and stared at each other. Laura in satisfaction at her success, myself in sheer wonderment. I didn't know what I should do next, I didn't know the protocol, if there was ever such a thing.
"Can you see the beauty now?" she wanted to know. I still didn't understand. I certainly felt that I was a new person and, thinking about it, I even believed that I would be able to walk out into the streets, naked as I was. But beauty?
"Come on," she said, "there's more. Lets do it together. Come on." Then she seemed to see, all of a sudden. "You don't understand, do you? You can feel it, but you don't know what it is, you don't see what's right inside of you. Not yet."
She stood and looked down at me. "But there's nothing to fear. The beauty is in us all, struggling to get out. All you have to do is believe. All you need is the confidence."
She raised a hand to her face, ran it over the flesh, caressing herself, moaning slightly. "All you need is to . . . " She gasped. She seemed to be glowing from beneath her skin. "To . . . believe." She seized the skin under her left jaw and pulled. There was a tearing sound and, slowly, the skin began to come away.
Up across her face, she pulled it. "Beautiful," she kept murmuring. "Beautiful." And all the time, more skin parting. Even when she had torn her mouth away the word kept repeating itself. "Beautiful."
At first I experienced a most terrible feeling of disgust and then I saw what lay beneath, a swirling mass of yellows and ambers and reds; it was like looking into another dimension that was dancing, ever-moving to the rhythm of that word. "Beautiful." Then I realised that there was a disturbing beauty to it all and I felt drawn, entranced, as I watched Laura peel her skin away, her hair falling in clumps to the floor.
When she had finished she hung before me, still swirling, still in the approximate form her body had once taken. Then an arm reached out from the twisting mass. Come on, it seemed to be saying, although I don't think I could hear her words by then.
I flinched and stood, suddenly scared by what had happened. She had said that there is beauty in us all but what if there is not?
She moved towards me, an amorphous mass of light, solid yet steadily fading from this world. An 'arm' reached out and brushed coldly across my right cheek and that was all it took. With a feeble yelp I grabbed for my clothes and fled down the narrow staircase and out of the front door.
You have to understand. I sensed the beauty, the temptation. For a moment I actually believed. It wasn't that that made me run. I just couldn't. Couldn't face the change, the fear of the unknown. I was terrified by the joyous atmosphere of that room in Laura's house. I couldn't do it.
I was back in my own bedsit before I dared to stop and look at what I had managed to recover from Laura's room. In snatching at my clothes I had only managed to pick up a shirt and something flexible and warm and . . . I dropped Laura's sloughed skin as soon as I realized what it was. I stared at it, at first in disgust and then in curiosity. Eventually I reached for it. It was still warm. I pulled at it and smoothed it out, stared at Laura's ghost. The skin was very elastic.
I found the tear she had made. Tentatively, I pulled her right foot, sock-like, over my own. Then the left. The fit was tight, but already I could feel the skin stretching itself to accommodate my own awkward form. I pulled her legs up over mine, smoothing them out, stretching them. I pulled the skin over my crotch and up over my stomach and chest, feeling it mould itself onto my own epidermis.
When I had sealed Laura over the top of my head (my short hair already pushing its way through) I ran my hands wonderingly over my new, smooth skin. I craned to look myself in my room's small shaving mirror and then, feeling completely secure for once, I curled up on the floor and slept peacefully until late the next day.
There weren't many people in the city today. Most of them have gone away. Those that remain have an expectant look to them, although that may simply be my own imagination at work. I went to the cathedral this morning, even though there would be no service today. It made me feel peaceful, which I appreciated as my nerves have been getting worse again of late, even though there aren't many people around to scare me. On my way home I found another five discarded skins, drifting on the breeze. I have them by me as I write this. Last week I was finding them by the dozen, far too many for me to cope with.
Walking around with all this skin grown onto my body, I feel as if I am carrying the world's burdens across my shoulders. Maybe it's some kind of sinner's wage for inheriting the Earth. I don't think I'll be writing much more in this little notebook. In a few minutes I will put on these five skins by my desk and then I think my fingers will be too thick to hold my pen and move it across the page. It has to be done, you see. I never really had an alternative.
First published in Peeping Tom in 1995
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