The first time she ran into her old-self she was home for the weekend.
The day had started with a burning smell. Standing outside the station, Abby was finishing a cigarette when she smelt her mistake. Her training kicked in. She dropped the stub, shaking her fingers before sucking the burn. She was an actress of the ordinary. She could replicate the hiss and hopping of a stubbed toe, mimic pains and feelings she had never experienced. At age eight, she gave a searing rendition of the shock and howls from falling off the jungle gym that brought several mothers to the rescue. All to avoid the frowns and suspicions from people like the old lady staring at her right then. The hook of questions formed in the old woman’s mind, creasing the skin around her eyes. Abby smiled at her, lips still closed over the wound. Comforted, the old lady bought the lie and shuffled away.
By the time the train pulled out of the station, the skin had turned raw and radiated a bright red, and Abby forgot all about it. On the other side of the window, the landscape shifted from tower blocks and terraced houses to green fields and grazing cows until the horizon filled up with the shimmery flint of the ocean. She had reached the end of the line and the land.
At her parent’s house, the hallway with its familiar pastel green wall greeted her. It’s a calming colour, her mother had said, when she had chosen it; Abby thought it made the house look sick. Standing by the kitchen door, she was met by the usual smell of boiled cabbage and custard and her mother wiping her hands on her apron.
Hello darling. Her mother leaned into her and gave her a vague distracted hug, shoulders the only part of their bodies connecting. Abby was never sure if she meant to embrace her or merely have a better view at what was behind her.
They sat at a table with babyproofed edges in a kitchen with worktops with babyproofed corners, eating tepid cabbage, before a lukewarm apple crumble and matching custard, everything dulled for her safety — the whole house a testament to her difference, even thought she no longer lived there. They ate in silence. Her mother didn’t believe in discussion at the dinner table, she didn’t believe in a lot of things — Abby included.
Are you going out tonight? her mother asked. Abby nodded in response. What time —she paused — will you be back? There were always silences between her mother’s words Abby could never interpret.
Meeting Fran for a drink in town, Abby answered. Don’t wait up for me, she added, slipping through the front door. She didn’t bother waiting for her mother’s answer.
Hands buried in her coat pockets, she headed towards the town centre. Up ahead, a younger version of her mother and child-Abby walked down the street. Her mother’s hand a weight on the child’s shoulder, steering her rather than a warmth against her younger self’s palm. But it couldn’t be her a few steps ahead, she was no longer a child.
A gust of wind slithered under her coat, and Abby lengthened her strides swallowing the ground until she left far behind the bit of her past which had strolled down the pavement.
By the time she got to White Hart, shouts caught her attention. She glanced at the window, and the scene unfolding on the other side of the steam glass stopped her. Her plan for drinks with her friend forgotten, she went in.
Up on the bar. It was her, just a younger version: the red hair, the toothy gap and the thick fringe from her teenage years. She danced, hair wiping around her face, her hips popping out following the rhythm of the cheers under her and the names they shouted at her. Her clothes moved like a magician’s assistant, a slinky distraction so people wouldn’t look too closely and see the trick. A time in her life where she wouldn’t feel pain if she fell but she would feel everything else — the firmness of the arms that caught her, the tickling beer foam dissolving on her tongue. There she was. Her eighteen-year-old self, still twirling in pubs. Her younger self jumped off the ledge as she sang too loudly along to Bon Jovi. Abby stood in a recess by the cigarette machine out of sight. Watching, her breath caught in her throat and she heard it change like during sex. She knew which man would catch her young self’s eye, the one she would pick. She remembered that period in her life when every moment was like the edge of a knife slicing her open, spilling into bars and the arms of men and women alike.
When she finally stepped inside The World’s End, Abby had almost expected some other version of herself — the reliable one — to be there already drinking while listening intently to Fran the way she used to during their college years. But her friend sat at a table with, for only company, a pint of larger.
Where were you?
I took a wrong turn down memory lane, Abby replied.
They took turn buying rounds at the bar, Fran talked, and Abby nodded.
You’re so lucky to be living in the city, Fran said, dancing from one leg to the other as they smoked a cigarette outside. Their coats waited for them inside, so nobody would nick their table. Everything’s so boring here, she added, gesturing around. I would kill for a job and a flat like yours in the city. She punctuated her statement with a long drag that turned the ember of a cigarette into a bright orange full-stop.
A couple of lads wandered over asking for a light before inserting themselves in the conversation. She half listened, the bitter cold occupying most of her attention. She watched their mouths move while rubbing the burn on her finger.
Before getting dressed for her night out, she had stood naked in her room, stared at her body. Her skin, a map of her condition; her eyes and fingers read all the scars that chartered her history — the cuts that didn’t hurt, the burns she didn’t feel, the break of bones that didn’t register. The last stop was the red stripe where the cigarette ember had seared her skin. She got her ledger out of her bag and wrote down the date, location, circumstance and the type of injury. She kept a log of all the instances when she got hurt. Pain left an imprint, a memory of what happened but not for her. After acknowledging each one, she buried them again under layers of clothes.
At the end of the night, Abby and Fran swayed through the streets, their veins warmed with lager and steams of giggles escaping from their mouths. Passing the White Hart’s window, she glanced inside. Her younger self laughed head tilted back, hand at her throat, the centre of attention to a group of lads.
She ran into him at the corner of Capel Street and Victoria Road. She was on her way to find her younger self again, and he was rushing towards a big screen that would be showing the England game. Of course, the fall didn’t hurt her.
Are you ok?
Observing her were eyes the colour of the offing, holding such intensity she watched her words drown in them. After wiping his palm on his trousers, he offered her his hand and pulled her to her feet, his skin warm and clammy under hers, nails rimmed with crusts of dirt.
Sure, she replied. Under the shock, she forgot to arrange her face in a suitable expression of distress.
Turning her hands around he exposed the scrapes that should hurt. Let’s get you clean up, he told her, as he lassoed her wrist with his fingers to lead her to a nearby pub where he insisted on buying her a coffee.
Finlay, Fin for short, he said. His name and hand sliced through the air, coming right at her. She shook his hand and folded his name in a corner of her mind. In her head, she fast-forwarded to the moment she would get home. Getting her ledger out, she would write a new entry about her scraped palms in her ledger with the note ‘day I met Fin’. She was still day-dreaming about cursives in lavender ink when she noticed Fin’s lips moving soundlessly, reminding her to unmute him.
You smell like a sunset.
She blinked at the idiosyncrasy of his statement, unsure how she was supposed to answer.
I have this condition, he continued, I see smell as colours. I smell you and I see deep yellow and burnt oranges like a sunset over the water.
I can’t feel pain, she blurted out. She hadn’t told anybody in years about her affliction, tired of watching the shift in people’s eyes. Nobody even knew at her office. Still she’d just told Fin, and the light in his eyes didn’t change.
Fascinating, he said, and didn’t ask a single question after that. He didn’t turn her into the reluctant subject of a thought experiment, an endless ‘what if’ of random accidents and injuries probing the extent of her immunity.
He beamed a smile and she felt the seams coming loose as his warmth split her open. Where do you live? she asked.
She hovered by the tall sash window inside his flat, more of a bedsit — one large room with an unmade bed in the centre, an old armchair — clothes strewn on their surface, listless flags marking his territory — and even older wardrobe with a door that didn’t close properly. In one corner a table crowded with several jigsaws. She had no idea how she got there. She knew the web of streets they walked, the turns and pedestrian crossings they encountered along the way, but she had no idea the route her mind had taken to bring her to stand in her spot on the worn-out carpet of a stranger’s home, when her instincts would have normally driven her to the point the furthest away.
The whole place smelt of him, old and familiar like the charity shops on the high street. Eyes closed, she breathed in deep and let the aroma climb into her lungs. Eyes open, he stood inches away smiling. She pulled his jumper over his head. He wore nothing underneath and his nakedness surprised her, so much of him so close to the surface. He scattered the layers of clothing protecting her, unearthing her skin. Before kissing her mouth, his lips kissed every scar and burn on her body starting with the fresh scrapes on the heel of her hands. In that moment, she loved him completely and irrevocably.
They kissed, and she closed her eyes, the light shining through her lids turned the darkness pink and she wondered if this was how he saw the smell of their kiss. The pressure of her mouth gently pushed him backwards until they stumbled into the armchair where they had sex. She wasn’t ready yet for the intimacy of his bed.
Where’s the bathroom, she asked afterwards.
Outside, on the landing, he told her as he picked up his jumper from the floor and tossed it to her. The blue door, he added.
Pulling it over her naked body, she enjoyed the feeling of the scratchy wool on her skin. Surrounded by his warmth still trapped in the stitches and his scent on her fingers, she felt even closer to him than when he was inside her. She decided there and then this jumper would be the part of him she’d never be able to let go. She felt more at home inside the knit than any other places her body had resided in.
Back in the room, Fin busied himself in the corner that served as the kitchen. She wandered towards the table. She studied the jigsaws — a kitten with a missing eye, a ship with sails like Swiss cheese, the Taj Mahal with a hole in the roof.
How come none of your puzzles are finished? she asked, looking at a puzzle of Big Ben missing the number twelve.
It’s finished. Bought it that way, he replied while filling the kettle.
She narrowed her eyes at him. You bought a jigsaw with missing pieces? He nodded to her. But why? she asked.
If I didn’t then who would?
He cooked scrambled eggs. They ate straight from the pan drinking black coffee because the milk in the tiny fridge had gone off. She loved his crumpled face when he smelt how spoiled it was.
No good, he said, smells a mossy green.
The grease from the eggs glazed their lips and when they kissed, their mouths skidded a little.
Sometimes she wondered if he had existed prior to them running into each other. It happened when he scrambled eggs on his hot-plate, or when he kissed her bare stomach. Sometimes her attention drifted from a conversation as she tried to picture his life before they met.
Where did you go just now? he asked her.
I’ve got to get back. Work tomorrow, she said.
Back next weekend? Fin asked as she fastened her skirt. He didn’t ask for his jumper back.
Back in the city his absence only exacerbated the dullness of her life. Each day lasted a week. She languished at work, staring at her computer, drafting mails and memos high speed fibre optic delivered to people she didn’t know, or answered disembodied voices carried by electricity into the receiver of her phone.
She spent her evening in bed with books, but words had lost their shapes. They blurred, and she read the same page three times; still they didn’t stick. The escape she yearned was most likely cooking eggs on a hot plate in a bedsit with a charity shop smell.
On Wednesday, the rain drummed against her windows, echoing throughout her flat. The deafening raucousness drowned the sound of the city until nothing remained. As if the world beyond her walls had disappeared, and she was the only piece left of it. Acutely aware how alone she was, she pulled on his jumper and masturbated in bed. The next day she called in sick. Courage abandoned her when she planned to call him so instead, she sent a text which read, ‘coming tomorrow’. Three dots danced at the bottom of her screen; her heart drummed to a new beat when the words ‘scrambled eggs?’ materialised.
In the morning, packed and ready, she turned around to say goodbye to her flat and the possessions she didn’t need anymore. Tucked in bed, her former-self slept, the one who would wake up in a few hours head to work and carry on with this life comforted by its lack of danger.
Lying on his back, he slept next to her while too many thoughts ran through her head. She stared at his hands calloused from working ropes and shifting boxes. She enjoyed their roughness on her skin when the rest of him was so soft. His fingers twitched in his sleep and the movement woke up an irrational fear.
Another pair of hands in her life that would mould her into a new version of herself whether she wanted it or not. The urge to fling back the sheets, run away overwhelmed her, but she didn’t move. It was too late already, even just lying next to him now she could feel her molecules rearranging themselves into someone new. He’d already made her irrevocably different. Maybe, she might like this new version of her.
Around them, the floor disappeared under bags, suitcases — pieces of them they would take up North where a new life waited. The email had come a week before; Fin he had secured a job on a trawler which came with a cottage with blue shutters.
He walked through the door amid a spill of warm air, back from a week at sea. After struggling out of his wellies, he found her standing at the sink, hands submerged in soapy water, wearing nothing more than his jumper.
What is this? He nodded at the rectangular shape on the table shrouded in layers of pink tissue paper.
Welcome present I got for you. Nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine pieces, she replied. Something they silently agreed they could enjoy putting together later.
Wrapping his arms around her waist he eased her out of her only clothes. The stubble on his face grated the palms of her soaked hands. His body and clothes reeked of his absence, of camaraderie — the ripeness of men stuck together in a confined space for weeks, but she was ready to reclaim him, slather his skin with her smell and the lemony aroma of washing up liquid.
Kneeling in front of her, his fingers felt cold on her hips, a shiver followed the chill of his lips on her skin. The brine of the ocean had tousled his hair and she knotted her fingers in strands stiffed with salt as he kissed the white phantom of stitches in the cradle of her hip close to where her hair curled.
How do I smell? she asked.
You smell silver, he said, nested his words in the oval of her navel. The iridescent kind.
Eyes unfocused, her gaze drifted across the room until one object tethered her. On the shelf her ledger stood wedged between a dictionary and the brick of a Russian novel. It had lived there untouched since they unpacked their boxes. No new entries for weeks, she didn’t need them anymore, his skin rubbing against hers told her she was not the sum of her scars. He wrote the memories — old and new — on her skin, kissed the words and the wounds they came from. Breathing deep, she smelt it too, the silvery silver; it was everywhere.
Laure Van Rensburg is a French writer living in the UK. Her short stories have appeared in various publications and can also be found on her website www.laurevanrensburg.com. She has been longlisted for the 2018 & 2019 Bath Short Story Award and shortlisted for the 2019 Storgy Magazine Flash Fiction Competition.
She is an accomplished librocubicularist.
Twitter Handle: @Laure0901