When people shed their skin every seven years, it’s just a fact of life that we will cast off all the attachments of our old life. And when our loves are part of us, those memories of love can be bought, if you know the right people. Introducing the new drug, Suscutin, that will prevent the moult. Now you can keep your skin forever. Now you never need to change who you are…
We’re excited to share the cover and preview an excerpt from Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin, publishing in June 2020 with Titan Books!
Some people burn love and some people bury it. Some keep it locked up, or push it far under the bed. Some sell it.
The awards ceremony is over and Max didn’t win.
That is fine with him. ‘It wasn’t my best work,’ he says into the phone, on the drive to Sussex. He sprawls in the back of the limo, beside me. ‘I can do better. I want to feel like I earned it. I might try directing.’ Then he shrugs, and says, ‘Well, yeah, I know. But I can’t run away from Daddy’s shadow forever.’ He has long conversations on the phone with his psychiatrist about his father, and what it means to be a success in a world where money no longer has meaning.
When he puts the phone down I tell him, ‘You did deserve it. You just didn’t get it. Different things.’ We squeeze hands.
Awards. Weights and measures, women and men, prizes and parties and perfection. It’s late, and I’ve watched Max all day in a professional capacity. Now I can watch him in my own time, and he is a sight in that suit, the lines cut sharp over his shoulders, the shirt so white; I want him, and so much more than that. Chemistry is one way of describing it, but underneath that there is love. I don’t care what the science books say; love doesn’t only have to be as deep as this layer of skin. It can survive. When it feels like this it must survive.
At the house, Max walks ahead of me to the bedroom, and I follow with my eyes on nothing but him. He knows it. He loses the jacket and throws it over the tall Greek vase. He strips the bow tie from around his neck and drapes it on the frame of the Pissarro. The cufflinks he deposits on the neon fish tank. It’s a running joke that this estate of his, decorated by some professional idiot, should belong to a Colombian drug lord.
He stops at the double doors and raises his eyebrows at me. I put my hands in his hair to muss it, to shake out the public and make a private mess for myself.
‘Did you see Billy’s face when Tom won? He’s such a bad actor, he couldn’t even hide it for one close-up. I hope the camera caught it.’
‘Your look was good.’
‘Do it now,’ I tell him. He likes me to give him commands, sometimes.
He makes the losing face, giving it a hint of the best man won, and I laugh.
‘You’re too good,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll go shoot the others and get that award for you.’
‘I’m so glad I employ you,’ he says. He fiddles with the top button of his shirt. ‘These are so small. Jesus, help, I’m trapped in this thing.’
But talk of the job has cut through the come-ons. ‘I’ve got to do a sweep first.’
‘And bring the meds.’
‘Bloody Americans, with your meds. Pills, love, we’ve got to take the pills.’
‘So do it.’
To show him that I can, I walk away, but he knows he owns me. He has since Paris, the city of love, where the skin traders lurk on every corner from the dingy market stalls on the banks of the Seine to the Galleries Lafayette. Love comes in all price ranges.
No, not Paris in my thoughts now—I need a clear head. I bring out my baton from the inside pocket of my jacket. It puts my brain in the right place to make my sweep. From room to room, quick and quiet. I go outside for a word with the perimeter guard. Mike’s on tonight, monitoring the screens from the booth by the main gate. He’s good; he’s a safe pair of hands. After our conversation I stand on the gravel driveway and look west, out over the Downs, and all the land Max owns. These are protected grounds where a deer herd is managed, and three full-time rangers ride their quad bikes like it’s a racing track. I raised it with Max once and he said, ‘I’m getting an easy ride, so why shouldn’t they?’
I get it. I really do. But the people that feed on him make me angry. I make myself angry, sometimes, for being yet another parasite. But not tonight. The stars are out and the cold slice of the air upon my lips makes me want him more.
So I go back into the house and fetch the pills in the bathroom that’s the size of my aunt’s bungalow in Bristol. The pills are orange and tiny; they’re another reminder of Paris. The guy who sold them to us looked over his shoulder the entire time. He didn’t open the envelope to check the money Max gave him. He just pocketed it and scuttled back into the shadows of the Sacre Coeur. I suppose he thought he knew where he could find Max if he’d been ripped off. The whole world thinks it knows where it can find Max.
Only I know where to find Max right now. Through the cream double doors, and he is laid out on the four-poster bed with black silk sheets. Ridiculous, and mouthwatering.
I hand him a pill, and we swallow them down together.
The bodies, bodies together, are not love. Sex is not love, and I am not stupid. But we were in love before there was sex between us and surely that means something. It had built to something real before there was even that first tentative kiss. The body is just the instrument of the emotion; how can it be only in those cells and nowhere else? I’m overcomplicating this so I take off my clothes and leave the baton on the bedside table. I fold each article carefully before placing it on the ornate chair that must be worth more than a hundred skins.
‘Any time,’ Max says.
‘I’m too tired tonight.’
He fakes a snore. His eyes are closed. We know this game. I tiptoe, and pounce. He’s ready for me, he wraps me up, he says, ‘I love you,’ on an exhalation, like the words escape from inside him. ‘Let me,’ he says, and we roll so I’m lying on my front and he can stroke my back. He likes to touch more than to be touched. He makes love, breathes his love upon me. I feel it. As the moments pass, I feel it in every place where he puts his fingers and his mouth.
‘Tell me about your first kiss,’ he says.
I shake my head against the pillow.
‘Just give me something. Some piece of you.’
He begs me on the bad nights, but I won’t ruin this with the past. ‘I do give you everything. Everything that’s right here and now is yours.’
‘I feel like I don’t know you.’
‘You know me,’ I tell him. ‘You’re in me.’
Afterwards, he sleeps, and my skin starts to itch.
My skin is loosening.
It’s starting to fall away.
I get up.
This can’t be happening, it wasn’t meant to happen, the pills—a last hope—to the bathroom, for more pills, and I take one, then two, then all of them in mechanical movements. I don’t know if I’m trying to stop the process or stop myself from moving on.
I lie down on the tiles, so warm from the underfloor heating. It’s easy to be still. The sensation of itchiness builds as my top layer of skin separates, starting around my stomach until it is a loose flap in which fluid moves, like a blister. It’s so quick this time. The need to scratch cannot be ignored any more. The pills do nothing, I have to face that now; they neither kill me nor save me. What a waste of money. What a waste.
I rub myself against the tiles in a frenzy of itching until the skin splits, spilling forth fluid, and I can wriggle free of it. Then I know no more until morning.
Excerpted from The Loosening Skin, copyright © 2019 by Aliya Whiteley.