Thick Skin – Solstice Short Story by Natasha Kindred
Read ‘Thick Skin’, a short story to celebrate the solstice by Natasha Kindred.
I like everything about him, everything. He’s so funny and very clever, his hair is fox red and he smells of juniper and ozone and when he smiles something catches under my ribs like a tiny needle has flown out from his lips and started stitching a cartoon heart in red thread across my real heart. My whole body feels like a secret aviary full of singing birds. I keep thinking I’ll tilt my head back to laugh at the dinner table and a lark will just shoulder its way up my throat and escape in a tangle of feathers and music.
They’re already laughing at how naive young love is, rolling their eyes at my non-stop praises, like hymns sung over glasses of translucent wine. I know they’re jealous. Chloe is two years older than me and thinks she’s some weary femme fatale done wrong by all men, smoking cigarettes in sunglasses and staring pensively at the extraordinary turquoise rectangle of the pool, a jewel set in scratchy green cotton.
She says that twenty-five is still a baby, that I will need a thicker skin than this to survive a man. I ignore it – my skin has already been burned away by the midsummer sun and his blue, blue eyes. I am just a glittering aura full of promises. They’ll understand when he gets here.
God, this is bliss. The fields here are full of lush green vineyards and horses lazily flicking the flies away with their tails. I wonder what England looks like right now. Elder trees frothing with blossom, liquid lunches on restaurant pavements, I love walking past people eating outside, it’s like walking past a group of starlings or a beehive; a soft, communal chatter that puts me into a kind of trance like an urban lullaby.
The sun is so strong today my shoulders turned a tender pink after just half an hour in the market and now Chloe has put some aloe vera gel on them, it’s supposed to be a miracle with sunburn. I hope so, I look like a crab freshly plucked from bubbling waters, as though all the men in town who stared hungrily at my long legs and blonde hair could just crack me open and get at all that sea-salt flesh inside.
That sounds very sex/death doesn’t it, maybe I’ll be one of those women full of morbid sensuality who writes. She, naturally, hasn’t burned at all and looks like Cleopatra. Is there something missing, Diary? I’m trying not to write about HIM.
This time tomorrow he’ll be on a plane. I hug the thought to myself and feel it sink in like the sunlight, warming every hidden corner of my body. We’re going to the Midsummer ball at a Chateau just over the hill from this villa tomorrow. Apparently they’ll have fires and masks and drums and dancing and it all sounds delightfully savage.
Not much for lack of time. He’s here and I’m so happy I think I will just split like a pomegranate and all these tiny sweet rubies will tumble out. Even Chloe is silenced. They can all see it, my hair feels like it’s lifting away from my scalp, the way it does with static electricity. My heart is a baby rabbit’s heart tripping overtime. My bones are glowing.
Have you ever really looked at the underside of a mushroom? Those delicate, fraying pearl-grey petticoats with that living earth smell. I have a little green box of them on the table in front of me. Still waiting for him, pot of tea here with chamomile steam rising through the spout like a doll’s house chimney.
This morning I sent my CV off to the publishing place and I’ve got a good feeling, actually. It’s best to think positive… See? Even in the grim depths of winter I cling on to the sun! I like this time of year, although David hates it; I think he gets SAD or something.
I love the winter air, like a clean blade right in the lungs, assassinating complacency, and how crisp the frost is and thinking about all the sleeping seeds underground. I imagine them turning over at the solstice in minuscule beds. He says there’s something horrifying about bare branches, how skeletal they are.
I love skeletons, I still think it’s amazing that under all this hot flesh my own bones are moving. I once cut my hand opening wine and it went down to the bone and I was shocked at how pure it looked, how white under the smeared blood. The fat was what horrified me, pale yellow when I’d been cleaned up in hospital. Something about it was infinitely distasteful.
I said we should have a bonfire tomorrow to mark the turning of the year, especially because the last solstice was the first time I cast my bones into his bed.
‘Why don’t we just do it again in the Summer? Then it will be a proper anniversary.’
I told him that’s not how it works, that the year has two tipping points, two magical razorwire times when our weather-drugged blood drums irresistibly and we fall into light or darkness. I said he should be pleased, that from now on the days start to pale like washing rinsed again and again until the dye fades to a bobbling memory of colour.
I remembered the whites hung up to dry at the villa, how bleached they were by the high sun, how it dazzled everything. Here, the mold is coming back, creeping across the bedroom walls and into the cupboards like a slow burglar, or maybe an extra, silent resident. David christened the fuzziest clump of it Albert, raising a glass of cornershop Chianti before we drowned the spores in vinegar.
Even as I make the phone calls about tomorrow night, I fold his words away and tuck them into the scrapbook of my heart. A proper anniversary, that’s what he said! A proper anniversary, with me!
Spiced rum is the best thing since spiced bread. I am possibility a little drunk still but what a night! Neighbours were a bit funny towards the end but okay once we’d stopped Jon howling like a wolf and got his clothes back on. David is asleep beside me as I write, long pale back catching the moonlight, hair mashed into the pillow. He’s been growing it longer and looks like some romantic Celtic warrior thrust into our trite age.
It’s 4 am, did I tell you that already? I feel so warm and peaceful, like you do on Christmas Eve when the fairy lights are twinkling. Only a few days away, our first Christmas together. The sun is reborn and in a few days the other light of the world associated with this beautiful bleak midwinter will be born as well. David would say it’s nothing more than opportunistic syncretism, but I think it all works out somewhere.
Chloe brought the mask she wore to the Midsummer ball in France. She went as a temple dancer or a courtesan or something, all sensuous tanned skin and clanking bangles and green trousers billowing like the kind worn by ancient harem girls. She had a beautiful mask across her eyes in matching pale green silk with carnelian beads dripping from the edge like drops of careful, crystal blood. I ran my fingers over the silk and remembered.
She didn’t drink much and ate practically nothing. I’m sure she’s trying for a baby. In fact I’m certain she was about to tell me something big like that when Jon interrupted us, he had a piece of holly tree in one hand and oak in the other, he leapt over the embers of the dying fire shouting ‘The King is dead! Long live the King!’
This morning I listened to the birds and David’s cough. I wish he’d give up, he always says he’s proud of me for doing it. Or perhaps I don’t wish that, there’s something awfully perverse in me these days that smiles at the hacking crow’s sound coming out of him. The curtain sways at the window like a thyme-scented phantom, but then this place is full of ghosts. Spirits made of lingering perfume and caught in empty wine bottles. Year after year…How long have we all been coming here?
The sun is a punishing wall of heat this summer. It throws itself back from the saffron stones in a roar that makes my head spin. I can hear voices from the kitchen with its frame of jasmine flowers, past their best now, but aren’t we all? I sound bitter, I am bitter, the taste of my world is bitter.
Don’t be stupid, I rant at myself. You’re twenty-nine and life stretches out ahead of you, the whole dazzling circus of the world. I feel like missing the hand of my partner on the trapeze, like plunging into a circle of upturned, admiring faces. What would they think of my act then?
The clink of glass. I peek out of the window and Chloe is setting the table for lunch, a box of blushing wine in her arms. As I watch, David comes out into the glare holding a bowl of red tomatoes and green coriander leaves. They are so bright it looks like a salad of garnets and emeralds. Over lunch I watch her as she fiddles with her birthday present, a beautiful faceted gem of smoky quartz, the same ambiguous watercolour as the ring around her irises. She said it came from an admirer, and David raised his glass to this mysterious gentleman, laughing.
They don’t know, either of them, that I know.
‘I was on a plane this time last year.’
I told him it was the twenty-first, because the day is etched on me somewhere; I think it must be my lungs, because whenever I think about it I can’t breathe. The oxygen is stolen from me, as he has been stolen.
He has gone out to the fields to help dig over the baked iron of the soil. I can see his shoulders turning reddish brown. There are golden highlights in his red hair now, brushed in by the sun. I want to shut out all the brutal bounty of the midsummer sun, I keep to the house with its stout, dependable walls.
I help Chloe cook lemon chicken. It never stops being incredible to me that I can carry on a normal, cheerful conversation with her. The woman who rubbed aloe vera into my burning back, who told me I’d need a thicker skin to survive a man. She never told me how armoured I would need to become to survive her.
We are not going to the Chateau tonight, although we can hear the drums over the long canopy of pine trees. I light up a cigarette and he looks at me as though he’s never seen me before.
‘But you don’t smoke.’
‘Perhaps I do again.’
I wondered; if I suddenly grew taller, would he say: ‘But you don’t have a spine’? And I would say exactly the same thing to him then. With glee I watch Chloe take in his consternation; the high sun has kindled something within me after all. There are crickets competing with the shrieks of revelry across the hill, the salmon lies on the table like a slab of wet pink silk. I note everything with the detached ferocity I’ve heard people feel on their way to the gallows.
The sun is beginning to set, throwing dusky fingers out across the long grass as though he can cling onto the stems and grant himself a few more hours. I wonder if the turn of the year comes as a shock every time, or if the sun always knows that dying is his destiny.
I watch the smoke curl into the leaves of the oak, smiling. Something in my chest stops working, but I don’t panic. That’s how it should be; let the heart slumber like the soil as the light drains, until I might be filled with the wild courage of spring. Let it fall in the hope of resurrection. Let it sleep until the king is dead.