Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Itch - a story

Martin couldn't say for sure when the itching had started. There'd been a warm tingling sensation in his left arm most of the day, but he'd put that down to too many hours sat awkwardly in front of the computer, fingers hovering over the mouse. He remembered feeling more uncomfortable than usual during the Monday afternoon team meeting; he was used to the aches and pains that came with age, but as he'd sat there with the edge of the chair digging into his back, he'd felt an almost irresistible urge to writhe against the hard plastic like a horse on a rubbing post.

By the time he got home he felt hot, and the tingling had intensified to a pricking sensation as though he were being hit with a wire-brush. He took an antihistamine, just in case it had been an allergic reaction, and headed upstairs for a cool shower. In the bathroom, he twisted in front of the mirror and was surprised to see the rash that had formed between his shoulder blades and down his spine, the skin almost raw.

He didn't sleep well that night, couldn't quite get comfortable, and more than once he woke to find himself scratching furiously. In the morning he sat at the foot of the bed, slowly examining different areas of his body. It was no longer just a rash; pink angry circles had appeared on his legs, as though he'd been branded. He washed and dried as gently as he could, scared of either spreading what seemed to be an infection, or worse, rubbing it too hard and taking the skin away.

At work, Martin felt the skin on his arms tightening. Dreading what that might mean, and keen to avoid the judging stares of his colleagues, he kept the long sleeves of his shirt buttoned, and resisted the urge to inspect the skin beneath. As soon as he reached home again, he rushed upstairs and carefully peeled off his clothes. It had got worse; the rash had spread across his chest and up towards his chin, the circular marks had multiplied. He felt that if he stood there long enough, he'd see more and more erupting. And oh, the desire to scratch was so hard to overcome. He searched for some nail scissors in the drawer of the bedside table, and cut his fingernails as low as he could, carefully removing any jagged edges that might snag and tear his skin.

He was miserable. He felt dirty, almost seedy, as though the soreness was his own fault. He hated the idea that people might think he didn't wash properly, that he'd become one of those old men that people moved away from with a look of pity. He couldn't eat, he couldn't sit still. He found a pot of moisturising cream and rubbed handfuls into his arms and legs, reaching as far as he could across his back and chest. It eased the itching but the relief was only momentary, and as Martin lay down on the bed, he promised himself he'd visit the doctor the next day.

When he woke, he was surprised to find the room still dark. He looked towards the window, where the early morning light should have been starting to show through the curtains, but there was nothing; no daylight, only darkness.

He tried to reach out and lift the clock from the bedside table, but he couldn't lift his arm, it felt as though it was somehow tied to his side. Perhaps it was still night, maybe he was dreaming. Martin thought he'd get up and go to the toilet and then try to get some more sleep. He strained to swing his legs over the side of the bed, struggled to manoeuvre into a sitting position, but found he couldn't. His skin had a new tightness that was holding his joints stiff. Like rigor mortis, or maybe like a chrysalis, he thought, perhaps I’ll turn into a butterfly. The idea made him want to smile, but he realised he couldn't.

The constriction of his skin was holding him to the bed and then he realised, that the darkness wasn't the night; it was the skin that had closed over his eyes, blocking the light, holding his eyelids shut. He lay there in the darkness, listening for the birds outside, but nothing. Had his ears closed over as well?

Martin started to panic. He was finding it harder to breathe, his mouth was already closed, and now it seemed as though his nose was beginning to fill.

All alone in the house, there was no one to call and even if there had been, he didn't seem able to make any sound that could be heard. Like a mummy in a coffin, he could die lying there, unable to move, to eat or drink. He had no idea how long it might be before anyone would come looking for him. He fought back the idea that nobody would.

As he willed himself to move, to break free from the skin, he tried to understand what had happened. He'd never heard of a skin disease like this, something that could spread so quickly, so completely. He went back over the events of the last few days, wondered how and when he'd caught it. No one at work had seemed ill or in discomfort; and he hadn't really been near enough to anyone else to pick up an infection, well unless you counted other passengers on the journey to and from work.

He thought of the woman who'd sat next to him on the tube two days ago, before all the trouble with his skin had begun. She’d been properly beautiful, with long red hair, and clear grey eyes. She'd made her way towards the empty seat next to him with a graceful elegance, that made him feel clumsy and old. But as the tube picked up speed she'd lost her balance, then she'd reached out, gripping his arm until she regained her footing. He remembered that touch on his arm, the warm tingling feeling her fingers had left.

Martin felt a surge of self-pity. He tried to move again, but couldn't. It was pathetic, he was pathetic. And then he began to cry. He wondered what would happen to his tears; he could feel their dampness, caught inside the mask across his face. Perhaps he’d end up drowning in his own salt-water pool. But then, as quickly as the panic had come, it was gone. The tears seemed to be melting the covering on his eyes, he could blink again, he could almost see. Martin began to gather saliva in his mouth. He spat it forward, suddenly knowing there was a way out of the imprisonment of his skin.

He spat and licked, spat and licked, until his face and then an arm were free. There was a glass of water on his bedside table, he reached out and lifted it carefully, anxious not to waste a single drop, then he poured the contents over his legs and body until he had enough freedom of movement to stand.

The journey to the bathroom was difficult, he banged his hip on the doorway, but he’d never been happier to know there was a walk-in shower just a few steps away and soon he was standing under the warm liquid, hearing the sounds of water, sensing everything falling away.

Martin was suddenly keen to be in the world outside. As he pulled on his clothes, he could feel the energy rushing through him. It had been a long time since he’d moved with a spring in his step, now he wanted to hear London coming to life and feel the air on his skin. He set off, looking around, determined to miss nothing.

A group of teenagers stood at the bus-stop, as they did most days. He’d heard the snarling sarcastic way they talked to each other; normally he’d avoid making any eye contact, but today he chose to look. The tallest one stood watching him, then nudged one of the girls, and whispered in her ear. She turned to look at Martin, and then one by one each of the group turned to stare.

On any other day, Martin would have told himself to just keep walking; head down, keep walking, they won’t bother with an old man, you’ll be ok. But today wasn't any other day and so, as he passed the group he looked at them and smiled and the strangest thing happened, they each smiled back. Not a taunting dangerous grin, nor a sly grimace, these were real smiles, broad grins, sparkling eyes. ‘Hey’ said the tallest one. Martin nodded and walked on.

As he took the escalator down into the tube, he looked across at the people riding up. Some seemed to be looking towards him from the very bottom, others turned towards him as they drew near. And as they passed, they too began to smile. Absorbed in wondering why, Martin didn't notice that people made room for him to board the tube, he didn't see how they hung back until they were sure he'd got a seat, as though it was something he deserved. He didn't spot his reflection in the dark window opposite, the mirror image of a beautiful, smiling young man.

As the train pulled into his station, Martin stood to get off. The train was crowded now and in front of him an old lady was struggling to make her way through the other passengers. Her quiet ‘excuse me please’ ignored by the standing commuters. The doors were already open and if she wasn't a bit quicker the train would move off before either of them got there. ‘Lady coming through,’ shouted Martin ‘let the lady off please.’ He expected someone to complain, to moan about pensioners getting in the way of people who needed to get to work, but at the sound of his voice, the passengers stepped back, leaving a clear pathway to the door.

‘Better get going then,’ he said and grasped the old lady’s arm to steer her towards the exit. As he walked through the carriage and looked at the smiling faces of the other travellers, he didn't pause to wonder how he’d suddenly become so effective; there was something else beginning to disturb him. His fingers were touching the thin loose skin of the old lady’s left arm, and he could feel a warm tingling sensation spreading through his hand. As they stepped onto the platform, he let go quickly, wondering if she'd felt it, but hoping she hadn't noticed. ‘Thank you my dear,’ she smiled up at him and turned to walk away. 

As Martin stood and watched her go, he realised that she was scratching her arm, just where his fingers had been.


Anonymous said...

Oh man how I wish that guy would touch my hand...I could use a shot of 'youth'.

Linda Myers said...

Wow! What a story! You held me until the very end.

Elephant's Child said...

Powerful, and unexpected. I wonder whether it lasts...

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Oh, my. Great story that made me squirm, and then soar. Nice work!

Unknown said...


Jan said...

Outstanding story. I love it. I'm glad I went back and looked for this. - @ibgeronimo

Sharon Longworth said...

Delores - Oh wouldn't that be great!

Linda - thank you, I'm really glad you liked this.

Elephant's child - I'd like to think it lasts :)

Sharon Longworth said...

Blissed-out Grandma - thank you! I'm sorry for the squirming, but very glad you stayed with it to the end :)

Unknown - thank you.

Jan - thank you for taking the trouble and I'm really please you liked it.

Bill Dameron said...

This was so effective and engaging Sharon. I have to admit, I was squirming and scratching just a bit while I read this. I love how you took this virus and turned it into something beautiful.

caterpillar said...

Oh wow...that story kept me riveted till the end....

Sharon Longworth said...

Bill - thank you! And I'm really sorry for the squirming:)

Caterpillar - hello, it's really nice to know you're still around - thank you for leaving a comment.

Lena Lawson said...

Sorry, let me try again! I just wanted to (finally) say that I love your style of writing. It's always so real and easy to relate to. I have recently begun 'publicly' writing as well, (although my blog is mainly an online journal) and often find myself reading and re-reading your posts as inspiration or some kind of creative-fix. Your writing is like poetry or something equally spiritually moving and I sincerely want to thank you for the inspiration you give me, simply by sharing it with us.

Anne Dolotallas said...

Great story! I'm really hooked up until the end. Check out my stories here: I'd love to hear your feedbacks!