New Writing

A selection of upcoming works

Skin (Radio Version)

Tobias Hill

T  his is a condensed version of the title story from my collection, Skin. It was written for a fifteen minute BBC Radio 4 slot in 1995, and was read by James Laurenson and produced by Angela Dalton. These days I prefer it to the longer version.

He got out of jail and headed for Hokkaido where the sky is wide. From the bullet train he watched the hunchbacked farmers, and a colt learning to run to the sound of wheels. He telephoned his old office from a pachinko parlour in Sapporo. A machine with no recorded welcome took the call. He listened to his own breathing, cradled the receiver without leaving a message and moved away through the chrome roar of the pinball games. In the street he slipped on the impacted snow, got up, and kept going.

There was money waiting for him and he bought land near the city and set his land in order. He lived in a trailer home on the sour earth of old factory ground. When it rained he stood outside and let it fall against his upturned face and thought of Tokyo at night. In prison, he had thrust his hands through the window’s grille, catching the rain’s cold movement on the tips of his fingers.

He waited for instructions. He had become old in captivity, and the disorder of freedom amazed him. He slept in the afternoons and lay awake in bed until morning, his tattooed skin flat and colourless in the dark. Often he forgot to eat. After three days the company men still hadn’t come for him and he wondered why, until he remembered that he had left no directions for them. He wondered if they would let him retire.

In the mornings he ate breakfast outside. He had never learned to cook, and the rice was always too dry or flabby with excess water, but he ate it all slowly and with pleasure, enjoying the freshness, the tastes of raw egg and salt miso soup. He thought about women when he cooked, mostly out of lust, but also from a simple love of their sounds and movements. At night the office girls drove home from a Mitsubishi plant nearby, and he watched them from the unlit windows of his minikitchen. No one came to see him. The trailer home lay as if abandoned in a wilderness of rice paddies and warehouses, dwarfed by the monotony of the waterland.

For a month he walked stooped, with the short steps of the exercise yard. The spring came and the sun pushed him upright and lengthened his stride. He felt younger again and planted soybeans in the sour earth. Lotus flowers grew in the oily ditches and he dug up their roots and ate them. As the flowers died their heads rotted and turned the colour of soiled linen.

He realised he was changing and wondered why and if it was a good thing. Birds came to his allotment, tiny and green with white-ringed eyes. He found he wanted to know their names and was surprised at himself. Sometimes he stopped abruptly at water or glass, staring at his reflection. In half-shadow, his face looked as cruel as a Kabuki mask. There were blue spiders inked indelibly into his forearms. They began to fill him with a horror of his own skin. He stood under the cold trickle of the shower and scrubbed his illuminated chest, his feet, until the flesh was raw and pinked with capillary blood.

He waited for the company men. When he had to go out he avoided people, as if he were ashamed, or outcast. He realised he was both. One night each month he walked along the expressway to the Circle-K for food. He bought plastic sacks of rice, and rice wine in two-litre bottles. He listened to the yard dogs barking on their chains. When summer came, bell beetles filled the dark with a sound like telephones, and frogs sang in the high green tide of rice paddies. Once a dog on a frayed rope followed him home. It had hair the colour of Chinese noodles. He fed it on offal and pork bones. It slept under the trailer in a nest of old blankets.

Many days he did almost nothing except look at his tattoos in the gloom of his bedroom. The faded illustrations covered him like the clothes of a farmer in summer - an open-chested shirt and short trousers. A design of Sanskrit letters crossed the bare strip of his withered chest.

His ribcage was an oasis of flowers. Dwarf-maple leaves fell across his shoulders. Chrysanthemums the colour of birthmarks spotted his sides. Carp leapt waterfalls from thickets of lotus. The entire design was edged with peonies. Waves and spindrift rimmed his thighs, and on the flat canvas of his back a fanged demon loomed in a flaming gateway. The creature’s skin - the skin of the man - had faded from cobalt blue to the colour of arteries. Near his armpit was the tattooist’s signature, Horicho III of Kobe, whose grandfather had worked on the Tsar of Russia and King George the Fifth of England. He remembered the man, thug-fat, leaning over bodies like a fisherman gutting tuna.

In summer the man’s skin, its pore system destroyed, was sweatless and cold as the belly of a fish. Digging for lotus roots, he would pause, gasping for cool air. The designs under his skin felt entirely alien; parasitical. He repressed the urge to run. He could not escape himself.

One evening, clearing deadwood, he cut himself across one many-coloured forearm, and watched with a kind of joy as blood obliterated the coils of a Chinese dragon. He examined the wound for hours in the blueish striplight of the kitchen, noting the layers of skin, the shallowness of the ink’s penetration.

He dreamed frequently, but remembered little. Once he woke crouched under the trailer in the warm summer mud, the dog barking him awake. He had a kitchen knife in his hand. He recalled running, the demon on his back hunting him. It’s name was Fudu, guardian of Hell, bringer of Justice. It roared behind him like a typhoon. He traced the creature’s feature’s across his shoulderblades, in its hands a rope to trap the guilty and a sword of fire. Punishment.

He understood then that he was hiding from the company: that he had run to ground. At night he drank Sapporo beer on the trailer steps, the dog curled around his bare feet. He stared at the moon’s face, where his mother had once shown him the shape of a hare. It had leapt from the arms of a god, she had whispered, her lips warm against his ear: it had been running forever.

He remembered a killing just after the war in Korea. A young employee had married and then washed his feet - divorced himself from the company. His name had been Shinzo - Heart - and they had both been twenty-two. They had clubbed him to death in a mah-jong room and disposed of the body in black sacks hidden on the huge garbage mounds of Tokyo. Rainbow Island, the place was called. Many of the bodies had been disposed of that way. Every few years a worker would find something, teeth or the small bones of a foot in the mountains of plastic, rubber and fish. Sometimes a company man was caught, even convicted. Thirty years ago it had been him. The tattoos itched in him, half a century old.

He went back into Sapporo for the first time in seven months. Lamplit airships rolled overhead, advertising Hokkaido milk and karaoke bars. The man flinched at the dance of neon across the mirrored walls of love hotels. Between a Korean restaurant and the service doors of a department store, he found a shop window displaying the machinery of the tattoo trade: traditional bamboo needles, electric rotary blades. Standard designs based on Hokusai’s paintings. Beryllium laser tools.

He hammered on the shop door until a man answered. He wore white undertrousers, no shirt or shoes, and he smelled of pizza. His face was stubbly, Mongol-featured: an Ainu, the old people of Hokkaido.

“How much for those? The lasers?”

The man’s voice had no strength in it. It had been so long since he had spoken. He sounded like an old man and it shocked him.

“For you? A gangster, ain’t you? A Yakuza. You ain’t the first. From Tokyo?”

The Ainu shook his head and spat off to one side.

“Why would you want the tools? To clean yourself, I’ll bet. You ain’t the first, you know. Shit, even your arse’s tattooed, isn’t that so? You want to clean yourself with lasers? Ha!”

He went back into the unlit shop, opening plan chests and cupboards. The man followed him. The place smelled of ink and fried shrimp.

“Yakuza. You people. Well, you have no power now, do you? Just your shame. Do you feel shame? You think you can pay for my lasers? Ha. And if you could, if you did, you know how long it’d take to clean your filthy skin?”

He stumbled back into the man, leering up at him.

“Rest of your life, old man. Here. Take them, go on.”

He was pushing two ceramic flasks into the old man’s hands.

“Acid. Spread it thin. One drop at a time. No skin, no shame. Just you. Two hundred thousand yen, and no one saw you here. You’ll heal. Old men heal good, you know that? Now pay me and get out.”

He practised erasure in the long afternoons of August by tattooing the skins of white radishes, then burning out the designs. The acid wormed and steamed. The trailer stank of it and of burned radish skin.

By the end of summer, the mosquitos filled his dreams with images of blood, air raid sirens and the face of a girl child he had once saved to bring up as a whore. He wondered if it would be heroic to burn off the tattoos. He sat on the soiled sheets of his bed and wondered if it was possible to be a hero in the cause of violence.

Still half asleep, he went into the kitchen. From the ice box he took a bottle of fortified wine and the two white flasks of acid. He opened the wine and poured into a chipped blue mug. He set the mug and the bottle between his feet and opened the first flask. It was half full.

Outside, then, the yellow dog began to bark and the headlights of a car scoured the walls of the trailer through the small windows. The man felt Fudu the guardian on his back, gripping him like a contract, always out of reach. He heard the monster’s rope snicker; a car door closing.

The dog stopped barking abruptly. The man could still hear it panting, somewhere beyond the door. He lowered his head and let the flask empty itself across his back.

For a moment there was only the sour sweet smell of it, and then his ski ignited.

“Make me naked,” he whispered.

There was a shuddering against the kitchen door, as if a storm was passing, and then the room was full of faces and pain. He stood up, and felt his muscles move under their sheathes of skin.

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