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Juliet’s husband oinks in his sleep. Or rather, he makes the noise a person makes when they’re imitating an oink, like hawking phlegm. A lot of phlegm, from deep inside.
She slides out of bed and pads naked into the bathroom for a glass of water. She peers at the mirror, but in the darkness can make out no more than a pale shape in the glass. She pinches herself on the arm; again, harder. She can feel her own skin between her fingertips, warm and smooth, but there is no corresponding sensation in her arm, no tug, no pain, as though her flesh were clay.
She feels her way to the landing and floats down the stairs, her eyes fixed on the silver-blue transom light at the bottom. She’ll need protection, if she’s going out. She opens the hall cupboard and reaches above the humped coats to the hat shelf, rummaging until she finds it: Tom’s fencing mask.
It’s quiet outside, few lights showing even in the bedroom windows of her neighbours’ houses, but at the end of her street is the main road, and Juliet knows there will be life there. Indeed, as she rounds the corner a car slows and honks, and she hears yelling as it passes her, although she doesn’t catch the words. The night breeze flows over her bare skin; a tremor ripples through her and she discovers she is shivering. Spilled on the pavement ahead is a cross-hatched rectangle of yellow light, and now she can hear voices like waves breaking on the shore.
She pushes open the pub’s door and is drawn into the press of standing bodies as though by roller wheels, spun from shoulder to chest until she reaches the bar. The barman is young, blond as Battenburg, and he stares at her chest while a pint of caramel beer overflows in front of him. Behind him, in the bottle-bright mirror, an alien with a gleaming blank oval for a face is also staring at her.
Oh. It’s me, without my face.
The silvery mask is expressionless and smooth, and she finds herself gazing instead into her own breasts.
While she watches, a hand snakes up to tweak her nipple, twisting it until it comes away with a pop. She turns her head to see the man beside her toss it into his mouth like a peanut. She tries to catch his eye, but his gaze, too, slides away from the mask to map the curve of her shoulder. She looks down at her breast and sees a scarlet indentation, speckled with white, where her nipple had been. She brings a finger to it. It is dry to the touch, and utterly devoid of sensation.
She lurches, pulled off balance, as her hips are grabbed from behind. She twists to look over her shoulder. A man has dropped to his knees, clutching her, and is snuffling between her buttocks, chomping at them with snorts and grunts and little mews of pleasure.
No, I can’t spare that. How will I ride my bike?
She rips from his grasp and feeds herself back into the roller-wheel of bodies, squeezed and squirted through their sweating, slapping hands back to the door. Back on the street, she tears off the mask and begins to run, oblivious to the rasp of concrete on her bare soles, heading for the bridge at the end, and the river that churns thick and green under it.
–Here! Hi, in here!
She slows as she approaches the night shelter, and the man at the door who is calling her. He wears a dog collar, and his hair is pasted to his head. His eyes measure her body as he takes her by the arm and leads her inside. –I’m glad you found us. I think we can help each other tonight, don’t you?
None of the grey people slumped over their plates look up as she passes. The priest, or perhaps he is a curate, takes her into a kitchen at the back of the hall and hands her a large knife. –We don’t ask questions, here. We’re just grateful for whatever people can give. He nods at her hand.
Juliet flattens her palm on the counter and puts the knife’s point to her index finger, above the knuckle. The blade glides through her flesh without resistance, clicking against the Formica surface beneath, and her finger rolls free. Quickly, efficiently, she slices it into roundels like Sunday carrots, repeating the action on the remaining fingers and scooping the pile into a pot bubbling on the stove beside her. She places her now-denuded palm again on to the counter and chops quarter-inch strips for a fine dice, adds the little cubes one-handed to the pot. Stir and sniff, ladle and offer to the curate who sips and nods. –A little salt, perhaps.
She is serving behind a long table at the side of the hall, ladling out bowl after bowl, when her husband bangs in from the street and spies her. –Juliet! He rushes to her, removing his jacket as he comes, wrapping it about her shoulders. He tries to button it but it won’t close, so he makes her put her arms through the sleeves and wear it properly. He isn’t much taller than she is, and the jacket stops just above her pubic hair. Her stump noses out from the cuff.
He puts his palms over her ears and wobbles her head. –You goose, what were you thinking? He leans in to kiss her cheek, and Juliet sees the tip of his tongue dart out as his lips connect with her skin. –Come on, let’s go home.
In the hallway he helps her take off the jacket and calls Tom to bring her robe.
–Mummy! You’re back! Tom throws his arms about her waist and presses his face into her stomach.
Juliet’s husband nuzzles her neck from behind. –Aren’t you glad to be home? He gently nips her earlobe.
She looks down at Tom, and sees that his jaws are working. –Tommy...
–I love you, Mummy. His words are indistinct. He swallows.
–I love you too, darling. Juliet smiles, and closes her eyes.
About the author: Jo Barker Scott was born in London, but spent most of her childhood overseas, in Kenya, Pakistan and Iran. In 2009 Jo won Best Novel Opening at the Winchester Writers' Conference, and her work has since been longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize (2010) and the Mslexia Novel Competition (2011). Her story 'In the Service of the Demon' will be published in the Willesden Herald's New Short Stories 6 anthology due out in April.
Jo's website: www.barkerbarks.com
Photo: Danny C. Jackson