John Ewen

White on black takahe

A Hagley Writers’ Institute graduate, John Ewen writes short stories, poetry and plays, as well as non-fiction. His work has been published in takahē, Catalyst, the UK online literary magazine Five Dials, and in anthologies; and broadcast by Radio NZ.


These past months I haven’t had have much time for anything outside work. I’ve grabbed any overtime that’s offered; we need the money – the mortgage, the bills, the usual. Sue complains sometimes that she doesn’t see much of me, but then I think that much of the time I’m just part of the furniture. She’s not one to notice things, my Sue, other than how she’s looking. She is a good looker, in a pixie sort of way; someone once said she looks like Audrey Hepburn, a film star away back.

When you get married, you discover things, all kinds of surprises. My Sue – and I’m still crazy about her – spends hours in the bathroom. I know she has to look attractive for her front counter job, but it all seems over the top to me. She might have been different if we’d had kids, but that never happened. Me, I’m a man, I’m into the shower with my basic soap and shampoo, get washed, dried and dressed, and away. Not Sue. I don’t know what she actually does in the bathroom, but the clue might be that all the horizontal spaces in there – the window sill, the bath surround, all the shelves in the vanity unit – are covered in jars and bottles and tubes. It’s like being in a chemist’s shop. All those miracle preparations promising amazing changes to her skin (that it doesn’t need) and sprays and brushes and pads and applicators and cotton balls and buds. And so on. I have part of one narrow shelf in the wall cabinet for my stuff, and the mirror on the cabinet door does me; Sue has a double-sided magnifying mirror she takes everywhere with her, and the full- length mirror on the inside of her wardrobe door.

Maybe I hadn’t looked at myself very closely recently. We men don’t, do we? When we’re shaving, we’re focused on bristles, five o’clock shadow, not our whole faces. And we’re seeing our bodies but not really looking at them when we’re showering, just rubbing the soap everywhere. So it was a shock when I noticed.

The skin between my fingers and my toes was growing.

I thought I was imagining it, and then I began measuring. It was growing slowly, at about the same rate as my fingernails, but it was definitely filling in the spaces. Flat, leathery skin. It was creepy. I couldn’t tell Sue because she’d throw a real wobbly. I mean, she worries about everything already: the weather, dust mites, the future of the planet, getting old (she’s 27). But most of all, she worries about what other people think, even people she doesn’t know and will never meet. And appearances. Of course.

I kept my hands in my pockets whenever Sue was around, but she said I was looking slack and round-shouldered; slovenly. So I balled my hands up into fists. Like I said, she’s not very observant. But eventually, even she wondered if something was the matter.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, as wives always do.

“No, of course not,” I said, as husbands always do. “What’s worrying you?”

“Nothing. What are you on about?”

“Arnold, you’re upset about something!”

“Woman, you’re making me upset, going on and on like this!”

“You’re clenching your fists.” So I shoved my hands deep into my pockets, and then she said, “You would tell me if there was something wrong, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course dear,” I lied. I wouldn’t tell her even under torture. Of course I lied; lies are the cornerstone of a contented marriage.

But I did go to see a doctor in my lunch hour. Forties, bald, beautiful suit.

“Interesting,” he said to the blank Patient Record on the screen in front of him, while I looked at the gross pictures of human insides in bright colours on the walls. “No family history, and it’s started now at 29? Hmm. Really interesting. You see,” and here he swivelled around abruptly on his Hydra-Slide, pump-action chair, “yours are real webbed feet and hands. Webbed feet like ducks.” I didn’t much like being in the same club as ducks, but I didn’t say anything. “Ordinary webbed feet and hands are not really webbed, not like yours. It happens before birth; fingers or toes stuck together; almost always the second and third fingers or toes. Runs in families sometimes. But it never starts later, and never real webs like you’ve got.” He swished round smoothly back to his desk. He loves doing that, I thought. Us men and our toys. He spoke to the Patient Record again. “How long have you been at the Hyde Road factory?”

“Nine years.”

“Do they do health checks at all?”

“No. What kind of checks?”

“Check your physical condition. Heart rate, respiration, blood tests. A lot of firms do it these days. Just taking care of their staff. Being good employers. Anyway, you seem quite healthy. We’ll do a blood test. Look, if the appearance bothers you we can remove them, here in the surgery. Yes? OK. Make an appointment.” I paid fifty dollars at the counter.

That night, I persuaded Sue that it really was a long time since she saw her sister in Te Anau,
she had holiday leave overdue, and she should go and stay for a week or two. She was suspicious. Usually, I don’t throw money around that readily. When she said she would ask Mrs McCracken next door to keep an eye on me, and I was quite happy about that, she relaxed. Relaxed, that is, apart from remembering all the accidents there’d been involving tourists.

“Just keep away from tourists,” I said.

When she was gone, I had the webs cut out in
my lunch hour. By this time they’d grown up to the first knuckles. There was no blood to speak of – the doctor said how tough the skin was to cut – like old leather, he reckoned, and I made him use those see- through bandages so they hardly showed when I was back at my machine.

Old Hec was on to me, though. Hec maintains the grounds and the outside of the buildings. Comes inside for smoko, and always sits with me. Just us two at the far end table away from the rest. We can’t be bothered with the younger ones; they’re always noisy, on about how drunk they got, the girls they reckon they’ve had, and so on. But not Hec and me. We have more interesting things to talk about, like who should have won the footie; Hec pontificating while his old chrome chair balances precariously on its back legs.

This time, however, he leaned over and said quietly, “So you had them off?” I was so off-guard, I just nodded, feeling my mouth hanging open.

“It’s all right. No one else noticed them. I suppose I did, though, only because of Max.”

“Who’s Max?’

He used to work here. Nine or ten years ago, I suppose.” He swigged his tea.

“Come to think of it, he was on your machine, or the one next to it.”

“What about Max? What happened to him?”

“Don’t know for certain, son. He had flaps on his hands like yours. Some of the others called him a freak. Not to his face, mind. He was too big a guy to try that.”

“Yes, yes, but what happened to him, Hec?” “All I know is what it said about the Coroner’s Court in the paper. A fella fishing off the rocks at the end of the beach at dusk saw a big guy, sounded like Max, come along, strip off, drop all his gear at the edge, and head into the water. He watched him swim, really powerfully he said, until he was out of sight. He wasn’t seen again.”

“So what was the verdict?”

“Dunno. Never saw it. They had no body to prove he was actually dead. It’s a bit of a business without a body.” Hec dropped his spoon inside his mug and stood up. “Didn’t want to trouble you, but when I noticed I thought you should know.”

He left me sitting there. The hooter went, the noise somehow clearing my head; I’d see the boss, confront him. But I didn’t want to put Hec in the gun, or even the doctor. Not in a town of this size. I would have to handle it diplomatically.

The boss’s office was just buried in paper; files and folders stacked everywhere. He had his head down, giving me the full panorama of his shiny dome with a few grey strands carefully spread over it like spider’s threads. Without looking up from his figures, he said, ‘Yes?’

Being diplomatic, I said ‘Hey, what’s the story with these chemicals we’re using . . .?’

His head shot up so fast I thought he’d snap his scrawny neck. ‘What about them?’

‘Have they been tested? Are they o.k.?’

‘Of course they are! Been used for years around the world! Our parent company has a worldwide reputation! There’s no way it could risk anything dodgy!’

‘I bet someone said that about Thalidomide.’ ‘What the hell are you on about?’

‘Just thought I’d ask . . .’
‘Well, keep your wild ideas to yourself, y’hear?

Or you’ll be down the road, and probably sued for damages as well! Y’hear? Just get back out there, and get that machine running.’

So I did. Waste of time speaking to him. He was just the little local boss for the big multi-national, scared they’d close down their little factory in a hick town and go off-shore to some cheap labour country with no safety checks. And I wondered if he’d noticed my hands.

Two days later, the bandages were hurting and I tore them off. They were being pushed aside by fresh smooth webs. Within two days, they were back to where they were before the surgery, and after a week, they were all the way to my second knuckles. Maybe the cutting made them grow faster, like Hec once said some trees and shrubs shoot away after being pruned. They would be right to the end of my fingers in no time! I went back to the doctor.

‘Interesting,’ he said again to the screen. ‘You say they’re not painful, just the appearance. You’re healthy, your blood test seemed normal. You may be what’s called a keloid type of person; their scars continue to grow after injury or surgery. I don’t know what else to recommend. I bet some researchers would be interested in you.’

‘There’s no way I’m going to be someone’s Elephant Man!’ I said. ‘I just want it fixed.’

‘Maybe you need to have them cut back right into, ah, normal skin, remove all traces of them that might grow back. I could refer you to a plastic surgeon but they don’t like operating on keloid people. It’s rather tricky.’

I told him I’d think about it, and left. I could have told him that the webs must have grown from ‘normal’ skin in the first place, that I didn’t feel like getting a second mortgage on the house to keep up some high-priced plastic surgeon’s lifestyle. But I said nothing; just paid another fifty dollars at the counter.

Then the next Monday the boss came up to our table. ‘I’ll see you two in my office after smoko.’

He didn’t mess about. ‘Our sales are down, and we have to cut back, cut our costs. I’m sorry, I’m having to let you go.’ He didn’t look all that sorry. I’ll pay you to the end of the week. Pick it up from the girl at 4.30.’ And that was that.

‘I’ll be right,’ said Hec. ‘Only a year to the pension, and I can go on a transitional benefit till then. I’ll pick up some gardening work. Better call myself “Turf Maintenance” or something – no one just mows lawns anymore.’

‘It’s my fault,’ I said. ‘Opening my big mouth. Got you in the gun as well. Just because you sit at the same table.’

‘No, I’ve seen it coming, Arnie. He’ll pay a school kid a few bob to cut the grass, and leave the buildings to fend for themselves. He’ll wait a couple of weeks and put a new young one on to do your job at half your pay. Kids’ll take any kind of job.’ He looked down. ‘Someone with ordinary hands. You won’t find it easy to get a job round here, even if your hands were o.k.’

I knew he was right, but I signed on at WINZ, with my hands below the top of the desk during
the interview. I did a few things around the house – cleaned the spouting, replaced the putty on some windows, not getting close to Mrs McCracken’s side, wondering what I was going to tell Sue when she got back. Then a week later, I’d done enough for one day, and I was in the shower when Sue arrived home. I was aware of the bathroom door opening, and I turned in time to see her smile dissolve, her face just sort of collapse, and she backed away screaming. I put my hand out to her, and she screamed again and again until she was out of the house. I was shattered. My hands weren’t that bad, surely?

I sat, dripping, on the edge of the bath, thinking. She’d started screaming before she’d even seen my hand. I’d had my back to the door; there was something else. In the bedroom, as best I could, I twisted around in front of her wardrobe door mirror to look. Somehow, I caught my balance before I fell and I held on tightly to the door until I felt I could make it to the edge of the bed. Then I willed myself to sit still and take deep breaths before getting up for another look. It was still there. Down the length of my spine was a long low fin, black and rubbery-looking.

Sue’s bag was gone, but she hadn’t stopped long enough to pick up anything else. I had no idea where she might have gone. She was all I had. What the hell was I going to do? No wife, no job and a mortgage to pay. No chance of a job, looking like this. I looked down at my hands and feet. They were bad enough, but my back was something else. I really was a freak, and I’d scare anyone who got a decent look at me. What could I do? Hide myself in some kind of a special Home for cripples or something? I couldn’t get at the multinational; I couldn’t prove anything, and if I tried, the publicity would crucify me. The TV channels already had regular freak show documentaries from overseas; they’d love something like me. Cameramen and reporters would be all over my place, if they heard about me.

I lay on top of the bed, the big empty king-size, and thought about Sue. The place was full of her stuff, full of her but without her. I listened to the rain on the corrugated iron. In the quiet stillness, I was sure I could feel the fin on my back growing, tugging at my body, like sometimes your body starts to pull on stitches when a cut is healing. It would be nice to feel the rain on my face, I thought, so I stepped outside, onto the grass, soft like wet velvet fondling my bare feet. As I walked up and down the lawn, the wet webs seemed to take on a life of their own, enjoying pushing against the wet grass. And that made me need to go to the sea and paddle along the edge, just deep enough to cover my feet.

At the beach, the sky and the crests of the waves were already glowing pinkly. The water was cool, but pleasant on my feet. What a wonderful element water was, I thought; refreshing, supporting and supportive, the Great Mother for a another world of life. I envied the dolphins and the porpoises, the seals, all the mammals who were so at home in the sea; their ease of movement, their speed. There was such a sensation of pleasure from the webs between my toes as they pressed at the water and it surged and ebbed over them. The great fin down my back was struggling against my clothes. I had to get out of them, and immerse my whole body.

I dragged the clothes off and faced the waves. Somewhere out there was Max; there would be others too. This was what I was made for. I could see myself cutting cleanly and quickly through the water, surging through the breakers, going wherever I was destined.

I stepped forward …