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Summer Fiction: Skin

Su Blackwell

Read 'Skin,' our exclusive summer fiction by Richard House

Artwork by Su Blackwell. Photograph by Colin Crisford

Richard House is the author of three novels, including 2013's The Kills, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His intricate, multi-layered style involves writing myriad backstories for his characters that do not make it into the final novel, but provide clues for dedicated readers looking for illumination. In this story, Buzz -- a character that will feature in House's next novel -- finds his attention distracted by a tattooed American tourist in a museum in India.

The video can be found online. Striated, gray footage, shot from above on a security camera. The simple, granular tones of a woman and a man leaning toward each other in a conference hall, or a gallery. The woman wears a light coat, the man a dark suit. The man appears impatient, and there's a sense that the woman isn't welcome. Their closeness hints at threat, a disagreement, not intimacy. This much is clear. She might be asking for an explanation. The man leans forward, slightly tippy, mouth open but not talking, as if she has caught him with a question. Thirty seconds into the clip (and this is the reason the video is popular) the man reaches into his jacket and hands the woman a pen, which she stabs into his neck.

On review the action is not so simple. The man hands the woman a pen (ballpoint), which she accepts with her left hand, then passes to her right hand. It's this transference, a switch in grip, that changes the pen from a simple utensil to a weapon. There is no suggestion of intention. Before she stabs him, the man turns to speak to another person, who is out of frame. You see him turn, three-quarter, oblique, straining to listen, so that he appears to offer her his neck, and once his head is fully turned you see her raise and lower her right arm in a simple chop, and lodge the pen into his neck. The action is efficient and autonomic, undertaken without savagery. By the time it occurs to the man to move, he's too late. Unbalanced, he falls out of frame, arse first, hand to his neck. Two suited men approach the woman and the clip ends.

This would be an entirely different document had she struck him harder, or if the pen had penetrated five centimeters to the right, three centimeters deeper.

Buzz checks into a hotel on the main road, four lanes of traffic flanked by arcades and fabric shops, which lead directly to a stumpy clock tower and a surrounding bazaar. At this point there is a slight sorrow to everything he undertakes. The weight of last things.

There are habits he no longer notices (how he crosses his arms when he speaks to strangers, how he always takes a step back, speaks, literally, at arm's length).

There's a lightness to the air, a mountain or desert clarity, thin and breathable. The city is nothing less than the guidebook promises, an old center rimmed by a modern sprawl. Buzz asked the rickshaw drivers the direction into town, and one indifferently pointed him in the wrong direction. The man's teeth were rotted through, the incisors, top and bottom, gone. He understands this malice, the wish to misdirect. How funny it is to casually mistreat strangers.

The Rajasthan Hotel is small, impeccably clean. A black marble foyer, nicely cooled. When the clerk drops his pen he bends down and mutters, "Jesus H. Christ." Buzz likes to hear a man swear.

There's nothing to do. The room is clean, the linen fresh. The TV, shower, and toilet work. The window holds a view of other hotels and other similar windows. There is no reason to stay indoors, where the day will only drag.

A walk through the market is surprisingly hassle-free. The vendors aren't overly insistent, and the stalls are busy with displays of handcrafts, fruit, vegetables, felt toys and throws, heaps of colored dye. The traders, impossible to avoid, approach Buzz as if a confidence needs to be shared or some matter discussed. One rubs a pinch of spice between his forefinger and thumb, and while it's familiar, something in the range of nutmeg or cinnamon, it is remarkably fresh, and the surprise of this carries with him as he continues through the market. It's here, now, preoccupied by this scent, that he notices the man for the first time -- a tourist in long, tan shorts and blue T-shirt, with ruffled hair. American. Has to be. The man's head lightly bobs to music on a set of headphones. The end of a tattoo, a snake's tail, curls down his calf and ends above his shin.

Buzz has only one afternoon to see the sights. One afternoon.

The rickshaw to the fort is so slow that the traffic easily overtakes them. The driver responds to every car, scooter, rickshaw that passes by pumping his horn, which gives a frail, choked warble. The road shines in the sun, a snake-like curl rimming the slope from the heights to the old town. As they rise Buzz can see how the city sits in a bowl, the rooftops and walls painted an intense, unfixed blue. The journey takes such a long time that Buzz begins to doubt he's asked for the right place. At a steep turn, a woman with a basket hitched onto her shoulder, hair oiled back, walks faster than the rickshaw.

The fort and palace surmount a bluff two or three times the size of the massif at Gwalior. The fortress wall runs about the crown of the promontory -- and while it's impressive, in fact spectacular, the view doesn't quite catch Buzz. His eyes search instead for the reservoir, a small green square in the center of the old district. Beside it, a warehouse with the blue PharmaCorp logo. At the fort the road curves through eight entrances: outer walls, inner walls, inner gates, one mounted above the other.

They strapped him to a stretcher, bound his hand over the wound to keep constant pressure. Talked to him carefully, as if he were stupid. As if these might be last words. They cut the collar off his favorite suit. Asked if there was anyone they should call. Told him not to speak.

And there he is inside the fort, the tourist with the headphones. The handsome American. The man ambles at the same pace, so they continually cross paths. Buzz notices him when he leans over a cabinet to inspect an engraving of flowers and hummingbirds on a small water pot. The headphones isolate him, and he stands close enough for Buzz to catch the fluttering beat. The light rebounding from the display captures their faces, side-by-side -- a slight distraction in the man's expression, as if the effort of looking wasn't quite worth it. He's wearing a scent, faint, nutmeg, cinnamon, maybe clove, which could simply be deodorant. He's standing that close. He must be in his late 20s, with a body made compact by sports, a gym. His face is sharp, his hair light, sun-brightened. Other visitors meander from object to object. Buzz and the tourist take the same drifting path.

Another display, another room. This time knives and swords. The blades fashioned for their purpose, some curved or barbed, some with decorated hilts. One set, designed to be pinched so the blade can snap open, scissor-like, to broaden a wound from the inside. Beside this a whisper-thin knife with a lion's head hilt. Steel or silver. Buzz leans close to the cabinet. The man with the headphones stops beside him and folds his arms. A note explains that the knife is used for skinning people. They read and recoil at the same time. The man walks away, arms folded. And on.

They pass through a reception room with deep red and blue glass windows, a fussy gold ceiling, through to a display of miniature paintings. The man, again, stands beside Buzz. It's no accident. He's unshaven, with a couple of days' blond growth, a tight jawline, a stitched outline of a dog on its hind legs on his T-shirt. They both look at an image of a palace, the same palace as the one they stand in, their faces again held in the glass as they scan courtiers and princes, blue-faced devils with bulbous yellow eyes, white tusks. A god astride a desert, her sword pointing to the fort. The man chuckles at this, then softly apologizes. Bodies lie beneath the battlements, heaped, bloody, deflated.

And more such rooms. Courtyards with balconies and delicate stone tracery disguising the rooms behind, each different. The man stops to lean back, head turned to the sky, his T-shirt rising to show a softly furred stomach and what might be another or the same tattoo. Buzz envies his poise. The man knows he is being observed.

They packed the wound. Even now it feels larger than it is. For months the wound wept, scabbed, wept, leaving him with a dimple. A navel-like vortex, which he can stretch with the tip of his little finger. People now speak to his neck, they don't make eye contact.

He loses the American. Finds him on the battlements surrounded by a group of young Indian men, smartly dressed. One of them is loud, and as the tourist passes through them the youth shouts after, Nice photo. Yeah. Nice photo. The other men snicker in jackass bursts. Buzz isn't sure if they are flirting or mocking.

The man takes his time to look over the city, at the blue rooftops and walls, the hectic, angular spread of white bungalows. He lies on the wall to take a photo, T-shirt hitched over the small of his back to show more of the tattoo, a thick snake coil, Japanese in style, colored in peacock blues and greens and black, wrapped about his torso.
Su Blackwell
Preoccupied by the man and the snake tattoo, Buzz follows a path down to the old city, distracted. At two junctions the streets are cordoned off by gangs of boys on motorcycles and scooters. The fumes cloud the small squares. Strings of lights overhang the streets. He walks until it is dark. Tomorrow he travels to Jodhpur, the day after to Udaipur. Hungry now, he returns to the foot of the escarpment and finds a hostel with a restaurant, the JoJo.

Five stories high, the JoJo overlooks the souk, and from the rooftop restaurant there are views of the fort, now illuminated. The promontory is much larger than he thought. Houses squat on the lower slopes beside boulders of equal size. A little higher and the slope becomes steep, then suddenly vertical. The bare rock blends into the smooth ribbon of man-made fortifications.

The restaurant isn't a bad choice at all. The shaded table-lights make private areas in an open series of terraces. There's a small fountain. Musicians huddle beside it, all men, instruments on their knees. Behind them, an area with four low couches, stretches an incomparable view of the strip-lit souk. The air is scented with clove and nutmeg. There are few people here, most of them young and European, most of them in couples.

Stretched out, alone on a couch, the young man from the fort -- this time without his headphones. His hair, damp and combed, his white shirt, his attitude, make the encounter seem expected. He draws in his legs and taps the seat, inviting Buzz to join him. He wants to apologize for laughing. Earlier. At the museum.

Buzz isn't sure what he's saying.

Every time I stood beside you, you did this thing.

The man flinches. It's a gesture, small, observed. An impression of Buzz.

I flinched?

You did. I didn't mean to laugh.

Between his fingers a hand-rolled cigarette. He offers it. It's not dope. His voice is a soft, lilting American. I'm not even sure what it is, but it gives you a nice buzz.

It's good to hear his name, however unwittingly spoken. It might be cinnamon, clove blended with the tobacco. Rich, woody, and pleasant.

Buzz says no, but thank you, and admits he likes the smell. The man holds up his arm, tells Buzz it's the weirdest thing, but his skin and sweat have taken on the scent. Ever since he started smoking.

And the fort? The man is loose, relaxed. You liked it? Thing is, you get blind to all of this. I go there every day. I'm here with my girlfriend, but she's sick. He makes a face, then shrugs. Two days puking. No idea why. We've eaten the same food from the same places. He takes a drag and sniggers. She hates the smell. Which is too bad, because this stuff is great for fucking. He leans back, chuckling, eyes in shadow. His name is Paul.

Paul holds out his hand and keeps his grip as Buzz sits beside him.

So I flinch?

In the museum. At the market. The guy with the spice. Sure. You flinch, and you step back. It's a thing you do.

Buzz has his habits.

You were watching me?

I picked you out. People are interesting. It's a game. I follow people I want to fuck. He takes a draw, narrows his eyes. With. People I want to fuck with. There's a distinction. He tangles his hands together. Not fuck up. You know what I mean? With, as in together. You know. He turns to Buzz. So how about it?

Buzz thinks he should leave, the man is laughing at him. But he doesn't want to leave. He wants to eat. He wants to ask the man about the tattoo. He wants to flirt, although he's useless at it, and this, already, has moved much further than a simple exchange of feints and teases. Either the man wants to fuck or he is being mocked.

So? How about it?

Buzz asks about the tattoo. The snake tail.

Paul draws his hand from his stomach to his shoulder. You're serious? The tattoo?

OK. It's a python. Goes all the way round. What else do you want to know?

Buzz has no other questions.

Come on.

Paul tugs his keys from his pocket. Gathers his lighter and tobacco. Tells Buzz to follow him.

They duck through a doorway to a narrow staircase. Paul leads Buzz down to a landing, a corridor, and down again to a small door. He holds the end of the cigarette between his lips, eyes narrowed as he unlocks a padlock and opens the door. He welcomes Buzz into a small, square room with rucksacks on the floor, a bed dead center.

Paul shuffles by the bed to turn on a table lamp that's tipped on the floor. Most of this is Anna's. She's with her friend in another room. I'm not nice enough when she's sick. He's matter-of-fact. He holds the cigarette to Buzz's lips.

You're interested in the tattoo? He stands on the bed and draws his T-shirt over his head, unbuckles his shorts. Lowers the shorts and boxers with his thumbs. Stands naked on the bed, arms up, and turns.

The snake, a python, thick as a fist, slides out of a scar across his abdomen, runs about his side and over his back so the head rests between his shoulder blades. There is another scar, on his back, out of which comes the tail, which slips over the small of his back, along the ridge of his ass, and curls under his thigh, twisting to his calf.

Go on. Everybody wants to touch it.

When Buzz hesitates, Paul reaches out, takes his hand and traces the snake's length.

His skin is smooth, a little clammy. He braces his shoulders and the snake also braces, the scales appear to tighten.

Eastern Europe. Three days traveling in snow to this wreck of a village. They do the best work. Pain you wouldn't believe. It's an experience, he says, to have a man draw into your skin. To straddle a chair, and bleed and sweat and suffer for two whole days.

He leans forward and kisses Buzz on the mouth. Softly. Lips brushing. The ghost of a kiss.

Just let it happen.

Paul strides across the bed, the snake moves, independent. Leaning over a small side table, he opens a black box and takes out another hand-rolled cigarette. Like I said, he chuckles, this shit is great.

He tells Buzz he saw him at the station, and maybe also Varanasi. Was it last week? I don't mean anything by that. I just thought it interesting. Head back, he blows up smoke, his throat taut, a severe jawline. He leans back and tightens his stomach. Don't you love that about travel? How it goes from something to nothing. Thousands of miles and you see the same people?

Let it happen.

Paul runs his thumb across Buzz's mouth, he leans in for another kiss. This kiss holds intent, wet and open-mouthed. Paul is gentle and slow, present and definite. Everything, he says, is about what you're doing now. Not what you've done. Not what you're going to do. But now. He tells Buzz to get out of his clothes.

In the ambulance, the medics asked about the pen. A pen? A biro? What was it, a Bic? Of all things. Mightier than, ha-ha-ha, he's heard this a good deal since. They guessed it was evidence, although the entire event was caught on security cameras, and from what they heard it wasn't like she was denying anything.

When he fell to the ground he heard the woman apologize. A whispered fuck-fuck-fuck. Meaning, here it comes. Meaning, why? Meaning, how did I? A person familiar with trouble. Fuck-fuck-fuck. She said she was sorry. Hands up. What can I do?

Paul curls beside him. He's shorter, so they fit, skin lightly sticking to skin. They speak in whispers. Buzz wants to know about the tattoo. Paul shuffles onto his back to answer. Legs entwined, one hand at Buzz's thigh.

The snake? No idea. The tattoo was a way to figure out a history, turn it into something else. What you do when somebody makes something of your body you haven't planned?

And the scar?

What of it? There are three stories. Which one does he want?

The truth.

OK. Paul draws in his breath. When I was 14 I was attacked by two men in a park. I was with two people, two friends. We had our boards with us and these two guys just came at me. They knocked me down. One sat on my head, one on my legs, and they cut me open.

Paul draws his finger across Buzz's stomach. Actually, what they did was saw. With glass. It took a while. Sunday afternoon. A public park. Two guys with glass from a bottle. There wasn't any reason. Nothing that makes sense. Paul laughs. Shit. That sounded real. Didn't that sound real?

The truth, Buzz says, tell me the truth.

Paul laughs again. OK. An accident. Car hit at a crossroad by a lumber truck. Pierced through and through by a metal rod. Family wiped out. Mother (father long since gone), younger sister. They had to cut him out of the seat.

Buzz says he prefers the first. The third?

The third? I did it to myself. I cut myself open.

Buzz doesn't believe him. Paul turns to face Buzz and asks if it matters. What you tell someone. What you tell yourself. All that baggage. Something that happened to you, way back, that has nothing to do with who you are now. A history that does nothing but tie you down. And you? You ever talk about your neck?

Buzz hesitates. He draws his hand to his throat. It's a long story.

Paul doesn't want to know. I'll make something up. It's never about what we say. It's only -- ever -- about what you do. Whatever happened was a long time ago. I won't be bound by it. Pity, regret, and people telling you you're lucky. The more you tell your story, the more you let it hold you down.

In the pause, a dip between the lift stopping and the doors opening, there's enough time for Buzz to feel uncomfortable. He has Paul's watch, Paul's shorts, Paul's flip-flops. Paul's T-shirt -- it's a tad tight -- with the stitched dog. They've swapped clothes. His skin smells of cinnamon and another man's sweat. Paul has drawn a star about his scar, in black biro. Tell people you were shot, Colombia. Tell people scorpions hatched under your skin. Tell people anything.

Buzz checks himself in the mirror -- and finds a face that's satisfyingly red-cheeked, somewhat drawn from the lack of sleep. His lips are a little numb. He tugs the skin to see the drawing. He needs a name.

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