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Nicci French

Beneath The Skin

In the summer, their bodies catch heat. Heat seeps in through the pores on their bare flesh; hot light enters their darkness; I imagine it rippling round inside them, stirring them up. Dark shining liquid under the skin. They take off their clothes, all the thick, closed layers that they wear in winter, and let the sun touch them: on the arms, on the back of the neck. It pours down between their breasts, and they tip back their heads to catch it on their faces. They close their eyes, open their mouths; painted mouths or naked ones. Heat throbs on the pavement where they walk, with bare legs opening, light skirts fluttering to the rhythm of their stride. Women. In the summer I watch them, I smell them, and I remember them.

They look at their reflections in shop windows, sucking in their stomachs, standing straighter, and I look at them. I watch them watching themselves. I see them when they think they are invisible.

The ginger one in an orange sundress. One of the straps is twisted on her shoulder. She has freckles on her nose; a large freckle on her collarbone. No bra. When she walks, she swings her pale, downy arms, and her nipples show through the tightened cotton of her dress. Shallow breasts. Sharp pelvic bones. She wears flat sandals. Her second toe is longer than the big one. Muddy green eyes, like the bottom of a river. Pale eyelashes; blinking too much. Thin mouth; a trace of lipstick left at the corners. She hunches under the heat; lifts up one arm to wipe the beads of moisture from her forehead, and there is a graze of ginger stubble in the scoop of her armpit, maybe a few days old. Legs prickly too; they would feel like damp sandpaper. Her skin is going blotchy; her hair is sticking to her brow. She hates the heat, this one; is defeated by it.

The one with big breasts, a squashy tummy, and masses of dark hair, you’d think that she’d suffer more-all that weight, that flesh. But she lets the sun in; she doesn’t fight it. I see her, opening out her big soft body. Circles of sweat under her arms, on her green T-shirt; sweat running down her neck, past the thick, straight braids of her hair. Sweat glistening in the dark hairs on her arms, her strong legs in their high shoes. Her underarm hair is thick; I know the rest of her body when I see it. She has dark hairs on her upper lip, a mouth that is red, wet, like a ripe plum. She eats a roll that is wrapped in brown, waxy paper with grease spots on it, sinking white teeth into the pulp. A tomato pip is caught on her upper lip, grease oozes down her chin and she doesn’t wipe it away. Her skirt catches in the crease between her buttocks; rides up a bit.

The heat can make women disgusting. Some of them get all dried up, like insects in the desert. Dry lines on their face, stitching their upper lips, crisscrossing under their eyes. The sun has sucked away all their moisture. Especially the older women, who try to hide their crepey arms under long sleeves, their faces under hats. Other women get rank, rotten; their skin can barely contain their disintegration. When they come near, I can smell them: Under the deodorant and soap and the perfume they’ve dabbed on their wrists and behind their ears, I can smell the odor of ripeness and decay.

But some of them open like flowers in the sunlight; clean and fresh and smooth-skinned; hair like silk, pulled back or falling round their faces. I sit on a bench in the park and look at them as they walk past, singly or in groups, pressing their hot feet into the bleached grass. The light glistens on them. The black one in a yellow dress and the sun bouncing off the shining planes of her skin; rich, greasy hair. I hear her laugh as she passes, a gravelly sound that seems to come from a secret place deep inside her strong body. I look at what lies in the shadows; the crease in the armpit, the hollow behind the knee, the dark place between their breasts. The hidden bits of them. They think no one is looking.

Sometimes I can see what they are wearing underneath. The woman with a sleeveless white shirt and the bra strap that keeps slipping onto her shoulder. It is gray-colored, stained by wear. She put on a clean shirt but didn’t bother about her bra. She thought no one would notice. I notice these things. The slip under the hem. The chipped nail varnish. The spot they try to cover with makeup. The button that doesn’t match. The smudge of dirt, the grimy rim of the collar. The ring that’s got too tight with years, so the finger swells around it.

They walk past me. I see them through a window, when they think they’re alone. The one that is sleeping, in the afternoon, in her kitchen, in the house down the quiet street I sometimes visit. Her head hangs at an awkward angle-in a minute she will jerk awake, wonder where she is-and her mouth is slack and open. There is a thin line of spittle on her cheek, like a snail’s trail.

Getting in a car, the dress hitched up, a flash of underwear. Dimpled thighs.

The love bite under the carefully arranged scarf.

Pregnant, and I can see the tummy button through the thin material of the dress.

With a baby, and there are milk stains on the blouse, a tiny patch of vomit where the baby’s head lolls on her shoulder.

The smile that shows the swollen, receding gums; the chipped front tooth; the porcelain cap.

The track of brown down the parting in the blond hair, where the dye is growing out.

The thick, yellowing toenails that betray her age.

The first sign of varicose veins on the white leg, like a purple worm under the skin.

In the park, they are lying on the grass while the sun beats down on them. They sit outside pubs, froth from the head of beer on their lips. Sometimes I stand among them in the underground; the press of hot flesh in the stale air. Sometimes I sit beside them, my thigh just touching theirs. Sometimes I open a door for them, and follow them into the cool interior of a library, a gallery, a shop, watching the way they walk, the way they turn their heads or push their hair behind their ears. The way they smile and look away. Sometimes they do not look away.

For a few weeks more, it is summer in the city.

PART ONE. Zoe

ONE

I wouldn’t have become famous if it hadn’t been for the watermelon. And I wouldn’t have been in possession of the watermelon if it hadn’t been for the heat. So I’d better start with the heat.

It was hot. But that may give you the wrong impression. It may make you think of the Mediterranean and deserted beaches and long drinks with colorful paper parasols dangling out of them. Nothing like that. The heat was like a big old fat smelly mangy greasy farty dying dog that had settled down on London at the beginning of June and hadn’t moved for three horrible weeks. It had got sweatier and slimier and the sky had changed day by day from blue to a sort of industrial mixture of yellow and gray. Holloway Road now felt like a giant exhaust pipe, the car fumes held down at street level by a weight of even more harmful pollutants somewhere above. We pedestrians would cough at each other like beagles released from a tobacco laboratory. At the beginning of June it had felt good to put on a summer dress and feel it light against my skin. But my dresses were grimy and stained by the end of each day and I had to wash my hair in the sink every morning.

Normally the choice of books that I read to my class is dictated according to fascist totalitarian principles imposed by the government, but this morning I’d rebelled just for once and read them a Brer Rabbit story I’d found

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