Backfoot

Backfoot
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It was ridiculous, Meg knew. At the same time it was the only space she could think of that was completely private: no Alexa, no Siri, no incidental street camera, nothing but white tiles, grout and the toilet. She had the sock peeled off her left foot, which was balancing on her right thigh. No matter which way she angled herself she was blocking the light. She hissed, probably too loudly, but she was beyond giving a shit. She would not risk getting her phone out to take a photo. She just needed another minute, another twist. The door banged, sharply. She jolted. Her foot slipped. Someone shouted, Come on!

She didn’t shout back. Instead, repositioned herself under the light. Breath heavy and loud. There were so many lines on the sole of her foot. She took another breath, smoothed out her skin with her thumbs, holding the foot as flat as possible so she could read the number lined in the arch between ball and heel. 29 11 20 27. Twenty-ninth of November 2027. Two years and one day from now.

The door handle cranked down then up, twice.

“Just a minute,” Meg tried a singsong casual tone. “I won’t be a minute.” She spread the skin flatter. Is that what it read? There were so many wrinkles. She could imagine anything in this crap light.

A fist banged on the door.

*

“Sorry.” Meg didn’t look at the man waiting outside the door as she passed. Instead she spread her weight across both feet as she descended the stairs to rejoin the party.

There she was grateful for low energy bulbs. With so many people packed into the two rooms, everybody was more haze than feature. She couldn’t see Karl, and headed to the booze to pour a large shot of cloudy liquid. She knocked it back, not caring what it was. Two years one day left. Why had it changed so much? It had been stable since she’d been nineteen. Now, thirty years lost – just like that. Well, perhaps not just like that, since she couldn’t remember exactly when she’d last checked before her whim in the bath that evening. It could have been six weeks, longer. She’d got complacent. Was it cancer? A tumour? She needed to get home. Leave Karl here. Give herself time to get all the lights in one room.

A hand waved in front of her face. “Meg! Hey.”

Meg focused, stifled a scowl. It was their neighbour. She couldn’t remember his name.

“Meggie.”

Do not call me that, Meg did not say, nor did she smile.

“I wanted you to meet Theo.”

The skinny man in front of her appeared as underwhelmed by the introduction as he felt. Maybe they could cut a deal and get out of there.

She did not say, Why? She did not say, This is not the time. She did not apologise. She stood, double-checking the calculation in her head: It was the twenty-eighth of November 2025, yes, two years one day. She didn’t have time for small talk, and made to turn away from this Theo.

“Are you okay?” He rested his hand on her arm.

She looked at it, looked up at him. He felt both concerned and invasive. “I’m sorry,” she began.

“You look as though you’ve had a shock.” Theo leant, millimetres closer. She could smell something coppery about him. Too close. “Do you want a seat?” His hand cradled her elbow.

Meg detached herself. “No. No. I’m just leaving.” She didn’t move. There was something about how he was looking. Something intense, hungry, knowing. She was furious with herself. Felt tearful, fearful. She didn’t know. She wanted to say something. Didn’t know what to say. Stood there, looking at him looking at her.

“Well,” he smiled, “that’s a shame.” He was hovering, like a kestrel with his beaky face. She kept staring. He didn’t blink. Nor did she.

“I’m sorry. Yes.” She was spluttering like a teenager. Inside she was seething, despairing.

“Well, should you ever,” he leant in again, handing her a card, “you know.”

She didn’t know, but took the card. Scrunched it in her hand.

“Meg! Sweetheart! I’ve been looking all over!” It was Karl. Inserting himself between her and the tall guy, he kissed his cheek awkwardly. “What’s that?” He was looking at the card.

“I don’t know,” she said, pocketing it. “Nothing.” She tried to smile at Karl, then looked beyond him to the guy who was no longer there. “Look, love, I need to go home. I feel crap. You stay. Get a taxi back.”

“A taxi?” Karl laughed. Then looked at her with concern. “I thought we’d used up our quota? I’ll come home with you. I’m wiped anyway.”

“Honestly, love. I don’t mind.” Finally Meg managed a smile. Verging on snarling. The card was crackling in her pocket. Its text coalesced into words in her mind.

Karl produced his coat. “It’ll be freezing out there.” And hers.

Purple italics: Society of Sole Mates. A phone number. Or her sole date. She couldn’t visualise it.

*

Karl was asleep within minutes of getting into bed. He was good at that. Tonight it irritated Meg more than usual. And he’d been right about the weather. As he snored lightly, Meg lay there, stiff, trying to decide whether to check the card or her foot first. The bedside light was the brightest in the flat but she couldn’t pull the lead free with Karl asleep.

She moved as gently as possible, folding the duvet over Karl’s splayed body, then bending her right foot up towards the light. Karl groaned. She glanced at him, catching sight of her shadow thrown onto the walls of their tiny bedroom. It presented a huge and deformed silhouette across the corner of two walls. The sight enchanted her. A thrill pulsed through her, reminiscent of an earlier life, a dream, an aspiration. It didn’t matter which, she could feel it now. She tried to reach into the surge, but it had already dissipated, leaving her hunched over her foot, trembling. Her thumbs were stretching her sole as flat. An automatic pressing against her foot. Her breath constricted. It was odd to touch her sole and feel her tongue prickling, tasting that thing that was both unfamiliar and absolutely inevitable. Like seeing her shadow, she was straddling two selves, and the sensation, disconnecting and reconnecting her, made her feel she somehow slipped between layers of her feeling-body. It reminded her of the first time her mother taught her how to trace the lines with her finger, whispering the numbers slowly, close enough to feel her warm breath as much as hear her voice, all the time feeling her finger curl across her sole, etching out the numbers. They’d never been so close again.

Meg’s eyes watered with the strain of keeping them open to focus on the lines amongst wrinkles, with the memory now occupying her. Yes, definitely 29 11 20 27.

She felt thin, transparent. It made absolutely no sense. She ate as well as she could. she worked out. Stopping smoking had finallysettled her adolescent fluctuations completely. All those years of reassurance rewritten into a scribble of uncertainty. What had happened? Had she always read what she’d wanted to? She’d expected the same long life as her parents. Of course her mother hadn’t shared her sole date, but she’d never suggested any disparities.

Meg pored over her upturned foot again, trying to see any remnant of her previous date. She couldn’t, released her foot and leant to the bedside cabinet, for her notebook.

Amongst the phone numbers and passwords was her previous sole date. That numerical invocation of life she’d chanted over a decade: oh two one oh two oh five seven: second of october fifty-seven: oh two one oh two oh five seven. She could still hear the tiniest of strains of her mother’s voice in the way she stressed the numbers; how she clustered them. That sense of her being there soothed her, gave her a sense of life lasting longer than the body. More compelling though was the trajectory she felt in the mantra: the arc ahead disappearing beyond any conscious horizon. Meg never made any plan beyond a few months ahead. To know she had years beyond any speculation meant her potential was still unfolding. She still had a chance.

When the number had first settled her recitation of it had been daily, then slowly, as she began to trust what she intoned, she would recall it weekly and then only a monthly check on her foot, and before this evening that had slipped. Being with Karl had distracted her. Scribing had been a potent ritual: tracing, speaking and signing her date. She’d added totems – a felt cloth, three black candles, lavender oil – timing the trace with the waxing moon, and, of course, when Karl was out for the night.

He was still fast asleep, oblivious to how everything had changed. Sprawled on his back, hair thrown around his face. Meg had been drawn to his calmness, confidence in dealing with whatever happened. Except of course he’d never admitted to knowing the real consequence of everything. He must have been looking at his date and not telling her. Pretending to embrace difficulties with the belief it would teach him something, while actually knowing he was safe. She’d already fallen for him by the time he told her he didn’t engage with his sole date, didn’t want to know hers. It hadn’t seemed such a big deal then. She didn’t expect to share everything. She convinced herself some distance fed the relationship. She shuddered, feeling that slippage between her two bodies again: one living, one dead weight.

Meg sidled down the bed, until her face was level with Karl’s foot then lifted the edge of the duvet. It was dim, but she didn’t dare move the light. She held her breath and stared at his exposed sole. So many lines. She squinted. Slowly numbers formed out of the striations: 27 02 20 61. She twizzled back to the notebook now lost somewhere in the folds of the duvet. She needed to find it quickly. She needed to spit the numbers out of her mouth. She needed to not “Fuck it!”, not to fist something. She knew those numbers as well as she knew her own numbers. The numbers that were no longer hers. His, of course, had not changed.

Jerking upright, jaw clenched, she couldn’t focus. The darkness fuzzed and hummed around her. Her skin had a charge to it. It would make absolutely no fucking sense at all if she knew what sense was. Nothing made sense. Her sense was unravelling around her into this dark humming. One way to stop it would be to press her hands against his throat, feel the tension of his cartilage against her fingers, the constriction of his breath and watch his sole change date, watch how quickly it responded. How quickly he would respond, and how eager he would be to know his date, share it with her. Know hers.

Her sobbing broke the thought. Her hands were limp. Heat from her body drained into the duvet. She gathered up the cotton cover and pulled it back over his legs. He’d tuck himself back under. She didn’t want to touch him, didn’t trust herself.

There was no point seeing a doctor. She’d only be given one of those stupid Dying Well leaflets. If she couldn’t prove pain, she wouldn’t even be given a paracetamol. Plus the whole insurance implication wasn’t worth thinking about. She hadn’t taken any photos. There was no digital trail. Nobody would be asking questions, although she had no idea when her next screening was due. They kept them random, for obvious reasons.

The ground floor electricity wouldn’t be on for hours yet, but she took her jeans downstairs anyway and pulled out the business card. It felt shiny, rigid. Untrustworthy. Or maybe it was meant to be reassuringly expensive. Meg almost amused herself except for the worry of her phone not having any charge. She powered it up. One battery bar left. Its screen lit up the card, making its wording and number legible. She texted: It’s Meg. When Where is Soc of Sole Mates? The phone light died before she could press send. She did not throw it at the wall. She squeezed it, as hard as she hadn’t squeezed Karl’s throat.

*

The power did not come back on the following day. This was not unusual, especially at weekends. The flat was well insulated and the weather warmer, no wind, no rain for once. Karl enjoyed these power-free days, enjoyed the camp cooking, the foraging, dominoes and early nights. Meg, usually able to rise to the alternative occasion, could barely bring herself to speak to him. She told him she felt worse, and needed solitude. And she did. She was sweating more than in the heat of last summer, but not the same at all. She carried a small towel around the house. Her palms were sticky with wet. Her trousers stuck to her and needing changing after a few hours. Her mouth, though, was so dry she couldn’t drink enough to keep it moist. It was like spooning peanut butter rather than breathing.

Karl was being sweet. It didn’t suit him. She, short-tempered and aloof. Angry at her inability to say anything. Terrified to think anything. She banged about the kitchen until he shooed her out, offering to make a broth. Meg wanted to scream at him, it wasn’t broth she needed. She needed a new date, amputation, medicine, she didn’t fucking know what she needed. Her head was hot and sweaty. She needed no hair. It stuck to her scalp, moisture beaded around her eyebrows, trickled into her ears. She drank glass after glass of water. It seemed to gush out of her, except she couldn’t pee. She was dry as sandpaper down there. Itchy and dry. Like her tongue, her lips. Even behind her knees was damp.

“Why don’t we ring the health line?” Karl offered her a new towel. “You’re clearly not right.”

Meg wondered about asking him if she could borrow his mobile. She didn’t need to say who she wanted to phone, she could lie, although she couldn’t think of anyone she’d plausibly want to speak to right now. She glanced at the window. If she could catch the neighbour she could ask him about his friend from the party, suffer his smirking, his raised eyebrows, his faux innocent questioning. What the hell would she be asking him? Why hadn’t she just looked at the card when he’d given it her? Why hadn’t she just been friendly, casual, open, like a normal person? He might have been able to help, or know something. He might have at least listened. He might have arranged to meet her. She’d fucked it up, just like she’d somehow fucked this up, not even realising how. “Karl, please, look at my foot.” Meg, sitting on a bath towel on the sofa, raised her left leg, stiffened it as if readying to pull back and kick something. “Please.” Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, silencing her. She couldn’t draw any spit to free it. Sweat, meanwhile, slipped around her palms. She tried to smile. Her eyes felt flat, heavy. She couldn’t look at him. She tried imagining him cupping his palm around her elbow, asking her if she was okay.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Karl stepped back.

“It’s just that…” Meg wiped her forehead. Snatched the towel from him. Used it to mop her forehead.

“It’s, it’s private. We ought not to know.”

“But I do.” Meg rung her palms in the towel, already too damp to be effective.

“I don’t know how you can be sure what the lines say, anyway.” Karl tugged at the towel.

“You could check.”

“I can’t. I can’t.” He staggered back as Meg suddenly released the towel. “I’ll get you a new one.”

As soon as he was out of the room, Meg tugged at her sock. There was no such thing as privacy any more. How could there be? Her wet hands made rolling the sock off difficult, dampening it as it hitched and runkled against itself. Finally it was off. It wasn’t exactly privacy they lacked, rather isolation. Her foot cold in the unheated air. Clammy and sore. Too wet. She hadn’t realised her feet were sweating too. It’d be a breeding ground for bacteria, some fungi or verruca. Everything spread into something. Maybe she ought to stop drinking. Maybe she was drinking too much despite her dry mouth. And that was why she was so sweaty. Oddly sweaty. As if parts of her body weren’t parts of her body. Her chest felt fine. Her armpits normal. No nausea. It was just her head, her hands, the backs of her knees. Now her feet. Hence her mouth so dry. Sweat trickled into her eyes, blurring her vision. Her hand couldn’t grip her foot enough to get it on her thigh. She used her sock as a sling. Wiped her eyes with her sleeve. She wouldn’t drink for a while. She needed to regulate. She was out of balance somehow. Maybe Karl had something to with it, carrying a virus. She wiped her sock over the sole of her foot, over her eyes. She could barely see anything. The sky was deepening. He was probably rooting around for the candles. Her body burning and sodden at the same time. Her feet, her hands, prickling with dampness. Her chest and thighs so hot and dry her skin crackled. Skin along her arms flaked under her shirt. Scratching under her sleeve, pulling dry skin off, it clicked, she wasn’t imbalanced. She was absolutely in sync, feeling it all. Everything playing out in her body. She’d slipped between the disconnect of herself alive and herself dead, she here and her mother there, between power consumption and power outage, flood and drought, to become the circuitry. Inevitably fused in her compensation. The room around her shimmered, the table reflected the last of the afternoon light. Next door’s cat jumped onto the window ledge, stared in. Under the window, the armchair rumpled. She sweated and thirst, resisting the last of her water, searching for what might be offset in the folds of the curtains, the light in the corner, the children’s voices outside, and, eventually, the sole of her foot, where her skin glistened under a film of prickling sweat making the number unreadable.

Sarah Hymas

About Sarah Hymas

Sarah Hymas is primarily a poet, as well as writer of fiction and nonfiction, a performer and artistbook maker. Her writing has appeared in print, multimedia exhibits, dance videos, lyrics, pyrotechnical installations, on stage, as an improvised opera, on radio and in magazines. ‘Host’, her poetry collection, is published by Waterloo Press (2010) a second, 'melt', is due in Autumn 2020. Her artistbooks have been featured in national broadsheets and are held in the National Poetry Library, London. Since 2014 she has written site specific pieces told through geocaching, augmented reality, micro print, performance and audio in England and Scotland. In 2014 an audio walk was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize; 2017 text from an artistbook was shortlisted for the Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Experiment; 2019 a poetic prose piece was shortlisted in the Hinterland Competition, and a poem highly commended in the Forward Prize for Poetry. www.sarahhymas.net

Sarah Hymas is primarily a poet, as well as writer of fiction and nonfiction, a performer and artistbook maker. Her writing has appeared in print, multimedia exhibits, dance videos, lyrics, pyrotechnical installations, on stage, as an improvised opera, on radio and in magazines. ‘Host’, her poetry collection, is published by Waterloo Press (2010) a second, 'melt', is due in Autumn 2020. Her artistbooks have been featured in national broadsheets and are held in the National Poetry Library, London. Since 2014 she has written site specific pieces told through geocaching, augmented reality, micro print, performance and audio in England and Scotland. In 2014 an audio walk was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize; 2017 text from an artistbook was shortlisted for the Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Experiment; 2019 a poetic prose piece was shortlisted in the Hinterland Competition, and a poem highly commended in the Forward Prize for Poetry. www.sarahhymas.net

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