She was waiting for him outside his front door, wearing one of his old hoodies she’d purloined in the early days of their relationship. Her hood was up, face in shadow, fingers curled into the sleeves.
“Hi,” he said, and even though he knew he should be angry he couldn’t help his tentative smile.
The blossoming jolt of relief froze when she didn’t look up. “We need to talk.”
Her voice was flatter, deeper than he remembered. But she’d been gone for so long that maybe it was his memory at fault.
He unlocked the door and waved her through, found himself staring at her slim black jeans and picturing the legs beneath. Remembered them wrapped around him. She led him into the kitchen — neutral territory — and leaned against the counter with her arms crossed, head down.
He decided to make her wait just to show that he could, and grabbed a can of Coke from the fridge before sitting at the kitchen table. He snapped open the can and for a long moment the only sound between them was the hiss of releasing pressure and the roar of passing traffic. Part of the joys of living near the M1: never-ending noise pollution.
“You’ve been gone weeks,” he said when she didn’t speak.
She still wouldn’t look at him. “I’m not sure how to tell you what’s happened.”
He took a long swig of Coke, wondered if it was the bubbles or the anger that was making his stomach churn. “You didn’t answer my calls. You just… disappeared. I went round to your house and your flatmate said you’d gone on holiday. Holiday.”
“I’ve been in hospital.”
“Yeah, and I’ve been in Canada.”
She sighed, turned to look at the raindrops dappling the window pane. Outside the sun was setting through a layer of uncertain clouds; English weather at its finest. But all he could look at was her, with her figure shrouded by the hoodie. He wanted her to take it off, wanted to remember the curve of her arms. When she turned back towards him he caught a glimpse of her cheek. It looked different. Paler.
“It started…” Her voice faltered. “It started,” she began again, “as a scattering of white flakes across my feet. I rubbed my heel, watched snowflakes of dry skin swirl gently to the floor. Thought nothing of it because I’ve always had hard skin.”
He opened his mouth to speak but she beat him to it.
“Then it spread to my legs. I began to moisturise, exfoliate. Every evening I’d peel off my jeans and watch a shower of skin drift to the floor.”
“I know, I remember,” he said. “What does this have to do with anything?”
She continued without missing a beat, her voice so measured it was riling him up. “When it spread to my chest I went to the doctor. He thought it was a severe fungal infection. He gave me creams — “
“I put those creams on you.”
” — but they didn’t work.”
He spluttered into his Coke. “You said it was getting better!”
Finally, her calm broke. “I lied, and a decent boyfriend would have noticed. It’s been the hottest summer in years and I’ve had to find excuses to wear long sleeves and maxi skirts, and yet more excuses to put you off the only thing you ever seem to think about.”
He stood. “I knew it. You’re always going to hold it against me, aren’t you?”
From the shadows of her hood came another sigh. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. Can I just… finish what I need to say?”
“When it spread to my face I was admitted to hospital.” Her voice was so small and quiet now he had to strain to hear her over the traffic. “I got sick leave from work, and told you I was going back home for a while. I didn’t think I’d be in there for that long, kept in isolation, tested and studied as every inch of my skin flaked off in ever-increasing chunks. Near the end of my infection, the entire top layer of my skin decided to separate from the rest of me. I was shedding, and as I peeled off the skin of my foot I decided I was losing my mind.”
Guilt constricted his throat. He sat back down, gestured for her to join him, but she stiffened.
“You’re better now,” he said. “You’ll be okay. I promise.”
“I am better. But I’m not the same.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When I was in the final stage of infection, the doctors noticed something strange. The skin underneath wasn’t raw or damaged. It was new. And it was different.” She edged forward, taking great care to sit without exposing so much as an inch of herself. “As the old skin fell off I began a patchwork of skin tones, brown and white.
“I could feel my face peeling so I asked for a mirror. They wouldn’t bring one at first but I begged and begged… The one they brought was only tiny, a handbag mirror barely the size of my palm. I could just about see half my face at any one time, and most of it was still covered in old skin. When they weren’t watching, I picked at a corner and tore off the old skin, and… and — “
She reached up and pushed back her hood, letting it fall to her shoulders. ” — and then I was you.”