Sometimes, when skin is more than forty years old, it becomes invisible: hidden under worry and smoke particles and more skin, old skin, skin that can’t fall off fast enough, embarrassed skin hiding behind itself, behind acrylic knit sweaters, jaunty patterns and ponchos. But not hers. Her skin gleamed. It danced with freckles, all open-mouthed and joyous against the bright clearness of her back. Sprinkles. Confetti. They fell in constellations, and he prayed for enough time to memorise them.
If he were to press his thumb to the surface before him, it would feel instantly warm and yielding, like a fresh doughnut, or the skin of his mother’s cheek when it smiled. You can’t touch people like that, Wellington, she used to tell him. Only me. And only things, not other people.
That hair, fine as silk, was trying hard to work itself out of the messy twist high on her head. Around her neck snaked the finest of gold chains. From the clasp hung a circular charm engraved with the letter U and an asterisk. It could have been the symbol of a horseshoe. A blind smile. The conveyor belt juddered forward. One of her upright bottles fell backwards onto his items. He felt himself stiffen.
‘Gosh, I’m sorry,’ the woman said as she fumbled to catch it. He felt her eyes find him for a second. He imagined her crouching like a fox cub by the roadside. What he replied with was part-grunt, part-word, as if an engine was revving at a junction. He could no longer look at her, and when she finally paid and left, he could breathe normally again.