We're delighted to present an extract from Skin, the new novel from E.M. Reapy, winner of the 2017 Rooney Prize for her acclaimed debut, Red Dirt.
This pertinent and compelling exploration of the relationship we have with our own bodies opens in Bali. Natalie, its protagonist, is uncomfortable in her own skin. Her most recent relationship is long since over and she's become disillusioned with her career as a teacher - adopting a tried-and-tested attempt at self-discovery, she packs her bags to go travelling. Natalie travels to Bali, New Zealand, Australia, Dublin, rural Ireland and the Netherlands to try and find her place, but her isolation abroad only heightens her sense of unease...
The humid air coats my skin. Stalled traffic has snarly wolf-like energy. Motorbike drivers rev, petrol fumes smog behind them and the noise from their unsilenced exhaust pipes makes my whole body vibrate, makes my ears want to bleed. I keep going.
'Hey Miss, Miss Miss Miss. Massage? Dancing? Taxi? Restaurant?'
‘No. No. No.’
Sometimes I smile at the people but mostly I try to ignore them.
Bony dogs rove in packs, looting overflowing bin bags and cardboard boxes discarded on the sidestreets. I breathe through my mouth to avoid the open sewer stench. The sun is merciless.
‘Yes?’ A broad-smiling waiter wearing a red batik bandana stretches his menu out as I advance. His eyes roam my body and he wiggles his eyebrows. ‘Yes, Miss, you will like?’
The footpath is uneven. Going soft through the markets. The people yell. Joke. I see open mouths and cracked white teeth. Goosebumps prick my arms.
Unwashed fruit is piled on tables, rotting in the sun. Mangoes. Pineapples. Oranges. Lychees. Bananas. Snakefruit. The pungent durian. Flies hover.
I pass trays of eggs. Mountains of eggs. Caged cocks and hens. On melting ice, undead fish gulp air. Crabs and crayfish clack their claws. Little sarcastic one-handed claps at my attempts to stay calm. I trip over a blue bucket on the ground. It’s filled with bloody water and beheaded eels snake around each other.
‘Sorry,’ I say.
I have just apologized to a bucket.
At another stall, black and yellow coinlike shapes float at awkward angles in a plastic bowl of water. They are mesmerizing. I squint, trying to figure out what they are.
The stall owner rises from his wooden chair to wave a hand over them. ‘Fish eyes. Good for you, Miss. Eat and see.’
‘Oh god, no. No thanks. No.’
‘Come on. What do you want, Miss? Anything you want?’
If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t be here.
They sell rice grains by the bag. Volcano magnets. Hand fans illustrated with temple dancers. Inflatable water toys. Paintings of Ganesha, the elephant-headed multi-armed deity. I push the hanging beach towels out of my way. Their colours bolder in the light. Electrifying blue. Raging fuchsia. Blinding yellow.
The beats, music, from somewhere, from everywhere. Gamelan gongs. ‘Gangnam Style’.
I am shrinking.
Something burns. Sizzles. A slaughtered chicken. Its limp yellow foot dangles from a grill. Black meatsmoke.
I put my hand on my throat. I slow down to wipe my face but I’m shoved forward. Move, the crowd implores. Move. Sweat trickles on my skin. My sweat. Their sweat.
I can’t take anymore. The stinking, deafening, teeming life of it. I duck into the restaurant on the corner, a vegetarian place with air con and teakwood tables, and take the nearest free seat. I place my hands on my ribs, try to compose myself.
There is one way to make the panic stop, if only for a while.
Listen: E.M. Reapy chats about her second novel Skin to RTÉ Arena
In the guesthouse courtyard, a woman with white-blonde hair sits on a deck chair, her head turned to the sun like a daisy. I recognize her as the one staying in the room directly across from me, the one who comes home at breakfast time with oversized shades, blearily bypassing the guests and banana pancakes to stumble to her room.
‘Hey,’ she says without moving her head as I pass. Her tanned skin glistens.
I mouth a hello and rush to my door. I search through my handbag for my key but can’t find it. Shit. I move the stuff about, spilling gum sticks and receipts.
I glance up to see my neighbour watching.
‘Damn it,’ I hiss and tip the contents of the bag on the plastic white chair outside my door. I rifle through everything. It’s not there. I pat myself down, sadly lingering on my stomach and sides, at the new kilos, at the bloat from earlier, but I don’t have time to start on myself. I shake my head and check the bag with the food I brought home from the restaurant.
‘Locked out?’ the neighbour shouts.
‘Stop stressing. It’s no big deal. They have spares. I’ve lost mine twice already. They’ll give you another. Ask the grandmother.’ She points to the guesthouse owner’s mother who’s
further up the courtyard, making offerings to the statues. ‘You’ll have to wait till she’s done.’
The old lady chants and burns incense, gifting little sweets and colourful flower heads to her cement gods.
I put everything back into my handbag and hold it in front of my stomach.
The grandmother keeps doing the rounds, devout, her hand waving with the smoke. Frangipani scents the air.
‘Don’t stand there. Grab your chair, come over here,’ the neighbour says. ‘What’s your name?’
‘You’re travelling alone, aren’t you, Natalie? Me too. I’m Maria.’ She beckons me again.
I hesitate, doing a tiny to and fro in my head. Look at her. Totally perfect. I don’t want to be seen beside that. But I can’t not go. If I said no, what would I do? Sit in front of the door and look at her from here?
That would be even more awkward.
I drag the chair across the yard and plant it beside Maria’s. The sun swelters.
She passes a bottle of factor 10. I squirt some of the coconut-smelling cream onto my palm, dab it on my face and the parts of my arms exposed to the sun.
Maria is taut and confident in her green bandeau bikini and black high-waisted shorts. The buttons of her shorts are open and the material is folded out to show the top of her matching green bikini bottoms. Her stomach has muscle definition, lines and dips, even as she sits.
In my grey V-neck T-shirt and long cheesecloth skirt, I am drab and overdressed.
‘You not too hot?’ Maria asks, mindreading.
‘I don’t like to attract attention on the streets,’ I reply and instantly regret it.
‘You think you blend in like this? We don’t blend in, I’m afraid. We are never going to look like anything here other than rich white bitches.’
My cheeks blaze under the sun cream.
‘You here for a while?’ she asks.
‘A stopover. On my way to Darwin, staying with an aunt for a bit and then going on a working holiday in New Zealand.’
‘You liking it here?’
My shrug is barely perceptible.
Maria raises her eyebrows. ‘What’s wrong with you? This is heaven.’
I clear my throat before I speak and scratch the back of my neck. ‘I never really travelled before. I was so excited about it. Told everyone. I didn’t expect the place to be like this.
‘I’m here on a visa run from India. If you think this is…’ she copies my pause, ‘you should see India. You have to accept things here.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You probably had all these expectations and now nothing looks like it did in the brochure and you don’t feel like you thought you’d feel. Wah wah usual Westerner first time in the Third World story.’
‘But I’ve been getting these panic attacks. And the mosquitoes. It’s horrible.’
‘I can see you’ve been annihilated.’
‘The spray isn’t working. They’re biting me anyway.’
She nods sympathetically.
On my first night, I fell asleep without closing the net. Too exhausted from the trip, cold Dublin rain forgotten as I disembarked in soupy Denpasar. I stayed in a hostel near the airport and passed out. I came to, remembering the whine of one mosquito. Dreamily, I swatted at it but fell back to unconsciousness.
One fucking mosquito.
It devoured me. I have eighteen bites on my face alone.
The old lady gets closer, softly humming to the gods.
Maria taps her bottom lip with her index finger. Then she puts her hand down and asks, ‘Do you have a husband at home, a boyfriend, that type thing?’
‘Not for a long time, no.’
‘Okay, this evening, you join your new friend Maria. We’ll go and watch the sunset and get some beers. It’s really fun. Loosen up. All this,’ she says and sweeps the view, ‘is yours.’
The old woman is confused at my request. She smiles though, showing her missing teeth.
‘For the door,’ I say. ‘The door.’
She continues smiling but shows no sign of understanding.
‘No English at all?’
I wonder what I’d do. Sit outside forever? I had enough food inside me to do me this evening, maybe enough reserves to last a few days, a month maybe. Then seasons, years would pass, me leathering and fading in the sun, skeletonizing and eventually dying there, a long hot drawn-out starvation. Vultures would swoop in and peck at my crispy skin.
I take a deep breath and mime putting an imaginary key into an imaginary door, unlocking it and stepping over the imaginary threshold.
The old woman mirrors my hand and wrist movement.
‘Yes. A key. I need a key.’
‘Ah,’ the grandmother says and speaks in Indonesian before laughing. She gestures for me to follow her down a path, past wind chimes, past lush orchids and hanging baskets of pink and white hibiscus, past banana trees with limegreen stalks.
In their small thatched hut at the back of the compound, the guesthouse owner’s wife is plaiting palm leaves and breastfeeding her baby. A loud chat show with people arguing plays on the TV in front of her. The grandmother disappears into a room further on. The woman mechanically trims a piece of leaf, braids it and pins it together to make a tiny tray. She hoists the baby back to her breast and begins again.
I am mesmerized as her hands deftly move – she’s already made four of them while I stand there, neatly stacking them on top of each other. The woman keeps doing a flickering rotational glance, an owl-eye on her baby, the TV, her stitching and the big white tourist not sure of how to hold herself while waiting.
The grandmother returns. I try to display my admiration for the work of the woman by opening my eyes wider and smiling, putting my thumbs up. The grandmother picks a bit of the leaf and shows me, in slow motion, how to pin it. I attempt it but my fingers fumble. She is patient. I try again, pinning it. It is oversized but comes out okay.
She holds the key in the air with one hand and with the other she makes a gesture with her fingers splayed.
‘Yes, yes, I know. Of course. Five dollars. Here,’ I say, before returning into the vivid light of the day.
In my room, I switch on both fans and aim them at myself. I sit on the single bed I’ve been sleeping in across from the double bed that I’ve been using as a wardrobe. My rucksack is unpacked onto it. I look into the plastic bag with the takeaway food, the duty-free size dark chocolate bar and the garlic bread roll, but shut it again. Tonight there’s something to do.
Skin by E.M. Reapy (published by Head Of Zeus) is in bookshops now.