Placid gloss of colour known only as 'flat' and under it the face and body of Martha, invisible, she knows, and with very little hair. There is only one dimension and with her eyes open there's only blank and in her ears there's only heartbeat and a hiss that is probably blood-air moving fast or maybe only the sound of nothing. These things Martha does not know but the hiss gets loud when it's time for a breath and up to the surface the mouth of Martha puckers, level bathwater undisturbed except then the unfortunate inhalation of a drop or two and Martha explodes from the bath, cough, spit, the world all up in her face and she's slow to sink back down.
Voice of Martha's mother itchy red. Martha hears the feet shuffle across the corridor; she knows the ashtray has come along because it bumps against the wall as the slippers approach. The bathroom is a tiled box and the echo of the bump mocks the secret one-dimensional heartbeat. The crackle of her mother's cigarette, the tinkle of her dropping ash. The whole apartment, the whole building, now vibrates in the tub, fridge buzz static TV cockroach ticker thump somebody's bed-frame and some greasy baby screaming. Martha frowns, skin slides from her chin.
"I slipped mama it's fine go back to your show."
Martha's mother's dressing gown rasps against the door, fingers anxious behind the lock.
"Martha are you sure? I hear a lot of splashing."
"I'm having a bath ma that's all."
At the retreat of the slippers Martha rubs her skull and tries to re-submerge to the moment before the water-suck but it has cooled, the apartment has violated the bathroom, a sitcom ringing is in the taps. The floral tiles and their offensive slip of condensed steam. Hideous porcelain gloss. Martha stands, drips, hair clumping in the towel curly grey. Into the towel a sludge of skin dries audibly into the fibres of the cloth, sediment as she dabs her armpits, crotch, betweens of fingers and toes. Grey crackles. A slathering of heavy cream that smells of heated plastic, a buttoning of flannel nightdress. Martha pulls the plug, water roars, goes away, sad opacity full of Martha's shedded bits.
"Martha, finished?" from the sofa.
"Martha, go eat. You are starving." Clink of tea glass. Click and gush of lighter, flame burst, wheeze.
In the kitchen Martha piles refried potatoes on a plate, digs a pork cutlet from a pan of brown grease and spoons up a mush of cucumber and sour cream salad. At the table pours black pepper on the shapelessness, tongues it, mashes, finds it all thicks, globs, congeals against her teeth, her cheeks, goes all hard and dry. Rock and dust in Martha's mouth. It is useless, the gulps of tea, drier, burned by hot mouth. Martha's hand sets the fork down, takes a cigarette.
"Martha?" from the sofa.
Martha, the grey smoke, the arid tea and the space beside her mother seated before the TV. Dressing gowns. Martha in old pink, Martha's mother in greyed green. Two pairs of knots for ankles, two pairs of troubled slippers, two mouths sucking smoke through yellow fingernails.
"Is your skin better, Martha?" Martha's mother's eyes squint at Martha's wrist, pink glossed raw with cream. "Did you pee on it like I said?" It is a floppy tea bag, her mouth. Her eyebrows lift, a mole gets sucked into the folds of her face.
"Mama you know I can't use my pee I have to go to work people can smell. How's the show?" she nods to the blinking box with its tiny laughing people. Martha's mother gurgles, deposits dark bubbles in the hard folds of a handkerchief she's pulled from somewhere. Martha's head shakes, sour-shaped mouth, her hands try not to clutch the currents of itch zapping across her body. Her left hand absorbs its cream and is an electric dragon again, glitter flitting from the knuckles. The fingers have been shrinking with each layer lost, narrowing, thick dermal scales dropping away.
Martha had tried urinating on wads of toilet paper as her mother suggested, dabbing the most sensitive and visible areas – hands, neck, face. The urea is supposed to be good for troubled skin but unfortunately for Martha it hasn't fared well for co-workers and customers around her cashier's station in the Safeway supermarket. The odour clouds the plastic carrier bags, the produce approaching on the automatic belt, the credit cards, the coins. It turns on the air with Martha – every wave of her arm, every twist from the cash drawer to the groceries.
"What....is that?" The crinkled faces. Shrugging Martha.
"Unpleasant, isn't it? I've only just got on shift, it must have been some drunk, they come through a lot, I'm sure management is taking care of it right now." Over and over again. The other cashiers looking away.
The other problem was that as Martha's skin became drier and drier and her body smaller, she began to run out of urine. Barely used the toilet. Desert inside and out. The beeps and beeps and beeps and the screech of plastic bags and the shopping trolley earthquakes daily, daily, fingernails, teeth, skin whispers all inside Martha's body: hollow space but dim acoustics. During the first few days when it started, Martha was so thirsty she would look with desperation to the little blue sponge crouching moistly in its Petri dish by the carrier bags. Every time she used it to wet her fingers she longed to bend over and press her tongue to it, soak up its tiny oasis. Once peeled a bag open and quickly ran the finger over her tongue. The customer saw.
"What about the buttermilk? Did you put the buttermilk like I said? It's good for skin, Martha. Soft." Martha crosses her legs tight against the burning at the top of her thighs. She can longer wear underwear – even at work she goes bare beneath her uniform skirt, stockings worn only while on-shift to keep the skin in place, but she suspects she shows at bit when she walks. Everything chafes, suffocates. The skirt is getting bigger. She watches the floor, nibbles at the loose pieces on her upper lip.
"Mama shhhhh you're missing what they're saying."
"Did you know," cough, "I used the buttermilk in the bath when I was young and it made me beautiful. Natural, the buttermilk."
"Ma. Ma the doctor didn't recommend that either you know I have to listen to what he says or I won't get any better and this is not a farm this is the city people can smell. Pass me the ashtray mama you'd better use it too, look you'll burn the sofa."
Martha's mother looks at the column tilting in her fingers, reaches to the ashtray on the table and the column untwists, shatters, flutters to tiny. Flakes spray across the dressing gowns, the carpet, the cluttered table, the air all round. Martha's mother doesn't notice, flicks her cigarette anyway, floats the ashtray towards Martha. Martha does not move, ears burning red itchy outside, glowing white with noise inside. The ash snow and black, the shards of bathwater, the dermal slough.
Martha does not actually care what the doctor and his terrified needles said. She has been adding buttermilk to the bath, finding other drops and oils ineffective. Nutrients, yes. Pouches of oatmeal although when bursted they become indistinguishable from floating skin. Martha pours two cups of buttermilk, pre-warmed on the stove with honey. Sometimes fruit – usually apples are all they have. And cooking oil. Martha's mother is not wrong – the vitamins, minerals, fat, all that glistens with edibility because Martha couldn't eat. Everything was dust. Swallowing impossible and jagged and too loud. The doctor said depression, proclaimed eating disorder, psoriasis, gave the tablets for the stress and hair loss, the corticosteroids – topical and injected – sleeping aids, all these things Martha couldn't afford. The list embarrassed her. She was getting smaller.
Martha grinds the ashtray, doesn't feel the embers on her fingertips, skin so hot a burn is cold. Martha picks at a thick scale protruding from the back of her hand, pulls it between her fingernails til it tugs at a pink area, a point where skin still lives. She lets her nails grow long though they get in the way at work and she paints them dark to hide the grime caked beneath them. Fingers, elbows, backs of knees have open fault lines, small new ones break out by the hour across her body – little red eyes blinking open.
But today some of the eyes have clouded. Not healed. Opened wider, revealing more dead skin beneath. They get deeper, sockets, cavity, watching from inside. Martha looks to her knees, freshly exfoliated, not pink but slightly crumbled and like the outer layer of an aged cheese. Martha's hand rubs a slow circle round her knees with the sleeve of her dressing gown and coin-sized flakes fly off, snowing with the ashes.
"Martha, did you eat? I made cutlet. Go eat." Martha's mother's head bobbles, does turtle moves. Martha reaches to smooth the blanket on her mother's lap, trailing bits in the wool.
"Look you want the channel changed mama? I have to sleep I work a double tomorrow." In the kitchen Martha scratches in her shoulder blades, parting skin on either sides of fingers and the apartment seeps through and shakes the air-blood and all of her dermal casing moves and pulls from the bones. So the remaining cutlets, the rice pudding and jar of pears from the fridge. A side plate of cold shredded beetroot and spoonfuls from the used lard bucket under the sink. Items from the freezer. Bruised apples. Half carton buttermilk under one arm. She takes no cutlery.
In the bathroom Martha runs a bath, hovers over the tub rim and squeezes drops from her urethra. In the mirror Martha's mouth opens closes opens, sticks. She clenches unclenches the remaining disc of flesh around her anus, pokes at eyelids near-gone. She may have to call in sick tomorrow. Her skirt will not stay on.
Bobbing in the water the beetroot the pears the guts that disappear from Martha's inside, buttermilk cloud, the cutlet the pudding curdle and the useless eggs and strips of tripe, and hard she steps skeleton toward the water, grey somewhere dissolved, wants to eat wants to drink. Into air dissolved and underneath the sound is gone, the placid gloss a-clumped with floating innards and the face and body of Martha invisible, with very little hair, with very little mouth and millions of angry eyes released from their home above her bones. Shed face in scales at the surface, desert at the bottom. Black and white it has no need for air it curls and ups like smoke and ash and enters the apartment.
's most recent publication is the poetry sequence Down you go, or, Négation de bruit
, 2011). Other recent poetry can be found in the anthology Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets
, 2010). She lives in London.