Read by Claire-Louise Amias
I sit on the balcony of a holiday apartment, five stories up, looking out to sea. Tom sits at my side with his hair gelled into spikes and a small tattoo of me on his right upper arm. He brushes his lips with the back of his hand and wipes something away from the outer corners of his eyes. I catch him looking my way then averting his gaze.
I have my legs straight out in front of me resting on a sun-lounger; there is a blanket over them. They are alien; white, translucent, marbled with deep blue veins. My toes are sticking out, nails painted scarlet. I let out a long and mournful sigh.
Tom has his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. He studies the concrete floor and glances my way again with oceanic eyes. I lick my lips tasting salt. Such discomfort, even my belly has a pulse. On the horizon I think I can see a school of dolphins perform and almost hear the sweetness of their calls. My heart skips a beat. I make a visor with my hand but my vision is no clearer.
An arid, warm breeze blows a group of palm trees to the west. They stand neatly in circles of depressed, grey earth, cut out from thick blades of well-manicured grass. They line a path that leads to a swimming pool that shimmers in the sun like a diamante dress.
Tom leaps up. My lower half curls sideways as my head snaps in the opposite direction. He walks through the French doors into the lounge and I notice the plastic chair rungs have made red wheels on the hairy backs of his thighs. The door rumbles on its hinges as he closes it and leaves me alone.
When he silently returns I flinch at his touch on my shoulder. In his other hand is a cereal bowl and in it a sponge submerged in water. He sits down next to my covered knees, wrings out the sponge and gently dabs my chapped, opal lips. My tongue flicks outwards, desperately wanting to feel the texture of that bloated creature against its tip. My eyes hold his.
‘Don’t treat me as if I have some terrible disease,’ I say.
‘I don’t care.’
‘We haven’t talked. We should talk,’ he says.
‘I don’t want to talk.’
He stands with his arms resting on the railings looking away from me. The cereal bowl is abandoned on the white plastic lace tabletop.
‘You’re too sensitive for a man,’ I say.
He doesn’t turn round or answer. Thank goodness. I do not want to witness his tears. My cheeks are wet enough from my own, the dampness awarding me some pleasure amid the pain. The scent of ozone grabs me.
‘I’m homesick,’ I tell him, as if this explains it all.
Tom is English. I met him here, in Tenerife, a year ago. I was spending time at the rock pool, perched on the lava stone and rubbing dried salt crystals off my weather-beaten skin. I spotted him at once, walking down the stairway wearing a royal blue sarong with a pattern of a radiating yellow sun. Behind him were his wife, a lithe, blonde lady and two very young children, a boy and a girl.
All afternoon, I watched his offspring filling up buckets with starfish and crabs, screaming with glee when they leapt into cold emerald waters and shivering when they climbed out, only to jump in again. He and his wife sat on damp towels and hugged their knees, each one gesticulating wildly with their arms when they spoke. I might never have met him if Anthony, their son, hadn’t left his goggles decorated with seaweed on a black, slimy stone. When Tom returned I was twirling their rubber strap around my middle finger.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I think these are your son’s.’
‘Thank you, very kind,’ he replied, his face as pink as coral.
‘It’s no problem,’ I told him getting ready to make my exit.
‘How did you know they were Anthony’s?’
‘I’ve been here all afternoon,’ I said. ‘I come here a lot. It’s close to my home.’
‘Strange, how could I have not noticed?’ he asked and when he smiled I just knew I would see him again.
He came back every day. It was his ‘constitutional’ whilst his wife fed and bathed his children back at the hotel. He brought me presents. A necklace made of cultured pearls and a gold ring shaped into his initials. We sat upon the rocks and watched the sun go down and then, after about three weeks, he stayed all night and we were silhouettes against a large full moon.
‘Don’t you have to get back?’ I asked.
‘Something’s happened to me that I can’t explain.’ He looked at his watch. ‘My family are on their way to the airport. I’ve decided to stay out here. I don’t know for how long.’ Then he changed the subject. ‘I don’t even know what you do with yourself all day. Surely, you can’t only come here,’ he said.
‘I fish, I deep sea dive, what did you expect?’
‘No, you’re right. You don’t mind; me staying behind?’
I contemplated my answer for a very long time. I had met men like him before; men with desire for my obvious femininity; men whose mouths went dry from the fragrance of my sexuality; men who contemplated the impossible taboo, who clearly want me to be something other than what I am. I tossed a lock of auburn hair over my shoulder. A strand caught on my nipple ring. My breast was hard and pert.
‘I can’t leave here.’
‘Yes you can,’ he assured me. ‘You don’t know what you’re missing stuck away in one corner of the world like this with nothing much to do.’
‘If only I hadn’t fallen in love with you,’ I tell Tom.
‘Ah, she speaks.’
‘There’s no need to be like that.’
‘That’s the point, I don’t know.’
He turns around and I catch my breath.
I wanted to go with him. I felt like I wasn’t really there. I kept passing out. He ran as he carried me in his arms through empty streets to the hospital. The wind felt cold and cut into my flesh. I sensed fear in the rigidity of his muscles. I remember his relief when the doctor spoke to him, reassured him that I would be okay if I had the procedure. I agreed. I was too weak to even care. It felt like a dying wish.
‘You’ll be a real woman afterwards,’ he said, holding both my hands and smiling down at me on the hospital trolley. I wanted to smile back but my skin was too parched. ‘It’s just amazing what surgeons can do nowadays,’ was the last thing I heard him say before the ether overwhelmed.
‘Please, let’s not fight,’ he says.
‘We should be civil.’
‘At least, we should acknowledge that it has not worked.’
I am quiet for a long time.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Of course.’
The phone rings. It is bound to be his ex-wife.
Oh God, he thought it was a success. The fact that I could breathe again and we could make love like a normal couple. We went for walks. He took me to a Japanese restaurant, ordered raw fish and seaweed to celebrate the miracle.
‘It’s just amazing what surgeons can do nowadays,’ he said again.
I half-smiled, twirled a bottle of soya sauce around the table with my fingers and cupped my chin in my other hand.
‘Look, look over there,’ he said, pointing with his chopstick. ‘What do you see?’
I turned and saw nothing, only a room full of diners.
‘That woman,’ he went on. ‘Over there.’
I saw her. She had cheeks blown out like a puffer, the lips of an angel, and bug eyes with a saggy neck and candyfloss hair.
‘How old do you think she is?’
‘I don’t know, sixty-five.’
‘She’s eighty-five. I’ve spoken to her personally. She was staying at the hotel last year. No wrinkles. Just smooth skin at eighty-five; it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, don’t you think?’
‘Stunning,’ I said.
It is becoming a little chilly. I pull the towel up to my shoulders. My legs are darkening with a hint of black.
‘I’m sorry, I think I’m going to need you to take me to the bathroom and run me a cool bath.
Tom is annoyed because I told him the truth last night. I told him that I had wished for the operation to be reversed, and that my body was doing it rapidly; obeying my command.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he said, but I know he sees what’s happening as a betrayal.
Once again he is carrying me. I am kicking what is left of my translucent legs. I can hardly wait for him to lower me into my own element. He uncovers me and I catch a glimpse of disgust upon his face. When I am bathing, he walks out and slams the door.
I must think. I must tell him what I’m thinking.
‘Tom! Tom!’ I call.
I wait a while, eventually he returns. He sits down on the toilet seat, his body turned away from mine.
‘The surgery couldn’t change who I am. What I am. It was just a façade. Whatever happens, I will always be me…’
‘Have you finished,’ he says. ‘Have you finally finished?’
‘Take me back to the rock pool. I need you to put me back where you found me. I need seawater. It’s where I belong.’
He stands up, rubs the back of his neck for a very long time.
‘Otherwise I die.’
I look down at my body, at my milky-pale chest. At what was for a short period of time, my groin, and I witness the baby softness of new silver scales. My thighs are merging. It is almost impossible to separate them now. Blue veins form an outline for future fibrous flakes. I try to hide it from Tom but the corners of my lips curl upwards.
In my mind, I’m already swimming, diving through briny waters that fill up my ears and mix harmoniously with the liquid in my eyes. I go deeper and deeper, to the bottom, where I kick up sand and flit into my cave, whilst marine plants sway as if waving me home.
© Michelle Shine, 2012
When her novella was longlisted for the Cinnamon Press Novella Award in 2007, Michelle Shine decided to take writing more seriously. Since then, she has completed a full length novel and achieved an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck. Her work appears in this summer's edition of Grey Sparrow Literary Journal.