A man named Alistair was caught in an atomic explosion. It had happened on the day he found out that his wife thought him lacking, and preferred another man. On stepping outside of the house, the final words of their argument still buzzing in his ears, he had found himself suddenly caught up in a melting blast of whiteness that lifted him from his feet and caused his eyeballs to trickle down his face.
Following the explosion, he had sat for a while on the pavement, blinded but otherwise conscious and quite coherent. He was startled at how calm he felt. Neither was there much pain, only a thin, dull headache. Slowly, fumbling at the garden wall for balance, he rose to his feet.
He had been able to find his way to the doctor’s surgery, tracing his fingers along fences and feeling for the edges of the pavement with his feet. They fixed up his eyes as best they could and then worried over him, probing each part of his anatomy to see if it hurt and prescribing every kind of medication.
“I’m fine,” said Alistair, until the words became a flavourless refrain. “I’m fine.”
They let him go home. His wife had packed up and moved in with the other man. She had left Alistair half a pint of milk in the fridge and a note asking him to please water the spider plant. Her clothes were gone from the wardrobe and her shoes were gone from the hall. He sat and stared at the blank television screen until his eyes hurt, and then went to bed.
He dreamed about the A-bomb, and woke just as the melting whiteness threatened to completely disintegrate him. He found that he had turned over as he slept, rolling onto her empty side of the bed. Blearily, staggering about his darkened room searching for his trousers, it took him a while to realise that the skin of his right hand had slipped off like a glove.
Alistair swore, staring at the damp raw pink of his skinless hand. He became aware of a sickly stinging sensation that deepened the more he gave it his attention. Turning the light on, he found the missing skin between the bed-sheets, thin as a surgical glove but far more delicate, still in one piece. Feeling queasy, he picked it up between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand and threw it in the bathroom bin.
Shaken but doing his best to push the incident to the back of his mind, he put on his driving gloves to hide the damage and went to work. But sitting behind his desk, he found that he could not hold a pen with his skinless hand. It slipped from his raw grip and fell clattering on the floor, and he bit hard on his lip to stop himself crying out. He tried hiding his hand beneath the table and typing one-handed, but it was slow work and he kept making mistakes. At the end of the day he slunk out to his car, shivering as he cradled his hand in the crook of his elbow.
He slept badly, again. His wife’s empty side of the bed seemed to gape, wide and white and cold, and the thought of rolling into it again made him sweat. He woke, too, whenever the covers brushed roughly against his sore hand. It was puffy-eyed and on the brink of a spectacular headache that he rolled out of bed the following morning and stumbled into the shower.
He registered dimly that in the jet of hot water, a sheet of skin from his chest had peeled off and slipped down to block the plughole. He shifted it squeamishly out of the way with his toe, but had barely done so when all the way from elbow to wrist, the skin of his right arm followed suit. He leapt from the shower cubicle, water spraying everywhere, and sank quivering onto the bathroom mat.
The exposed muscles overlaying his ribs writhed and oozed like undersea creatures.
“What’s happening to me?” he whispered.
He went for a quiet drink with a friend who shot nervous glances at him as they ordered at the bar. They sat at a table in the corner and Alistair lifted his beer gingerly in his left hand. He was careful to keep his sleeve rolled down and his right hand under the table.
They watched the football. The friend bought a packet of peanuts and ate them all one by one before finally, reluctantly asking “So - how are you?”
“I’m fine,” said Alistair. “I’m fine.”
“She called me yesterday,” ventured the friend. Alistair looked into his beer. “She asked me to check up on you. She hasn’t stopped caring, you know. She’s worried about you.”
“I’m fine,” he said again.
“She said you might bottle things up.”
“I’ve got the house all to myself. It’s great.”
“She said she would call you in a few weeks to talk about a settlement. It’s been…twelve years, Alistair, I wouldn’t surprised if you were…” He trailed off unhappily.
Alistair rubbed his forehead. And as he did so a fine film of skin came away in his hand. He felt it lift from his face intact, like a polythene bag.
The friend stared. And stared.
Alistair hurriedly wrapped his skin in a tissue and pocketed it. His heart was thundering in his raw chest and he felt as though he might vomit into his empty pint glass. He did not need to see the damage to know that this time, there would be no covering it up.
The friend opened his mouth and closed it again.
Alistair crawled under his duvet, head and all, and pressed his smarting face down into the mattress. The urge to go to ground like some wild nocturnal thing was almost irresistible.
In the morning, gritting his teeth, he braved the mirror. It was worse than he had thought. The flesh of his face was exposed from his forehead down to his cheeks, eyes darting horrified over the sight like maggots in meat. Tendons glistened in his jaw. The skin that remained, covering his chin and surrounding his mouth, had gone unpleasantly yellow and ragged at the edges.
Absentmindedly, he picked at it, and before he knew it found that he had accidentally peeled away a new strip. The effect was so messy, with nail marks visible, that he was forced to clean off the lot, systematically scraping away until his whole face was bare from the neck upwards. Hands shaking, he washed the flakes and fragments of skin down the sink. Then, with a heave that took him entirely by surprise, the contents of his stomach promptly followed suit. Weakly he rinsed and spat, rinsed and spat.
He contemplated calling in sick, and got as far as picking up the receiver and dialing most of the numbers before he changed his mind. If he didn’t go in today he knew he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to go in tomorrow, or the day after.
On his way to work he saw pedestrians doing double-takes and other drivers swerving in alarm. A little girl in school uniform holding her mother’s hand began to cry. A man waiting at a zebra crossing dropped his briefcase, scattering papers which the wind picked up and flung across Alistair’s bonnet and windscreen.
He tried to slip into his office with his face averted, but he wasn’t quick enough. He heard gasps and mutterings, a sharp intake of breath. He closed his office door and sat down at his desk, but remained motionless there, not even taking off his coat. His shoulders sagged. Against the inside of his left trouser leg he could feel more skin coming loose.
Shortly before lunchtime a shadow hesitated outside his door. “Alistair?” There was a soft knock, and his boss stepped awkwardly inside. “Alistair, don’t take offence, but I have to ask. Are you…feeling quite alright?”
“Yes,” said Alistair. “Thank you.”
“Only, it’s come to my attention that you haven’t been quite yourself. These past few weeks. Your quota has gone down substantially. Is everything -?”
“I’m a little tired,” said Alistair.
“Yes, yes, I thought… you do seem… well, anyway. The board and I have had a little chat and we think it might be best if you were to, er, have a rest. Just for a little while. Go home and put your feet up, however long it takes…”
“Just for today?” asked Alistair stupidly.
“Well, actually we were thinking, on more of a long-term basis…”
His tiredness dissipated with a jolt. “Are you firing me?”
“Not at all, not at all, we are merely recommending -”
“I don’t need a rest. I don’t need to go home. I’ll make up my quota.”
His boss leaned in towards the desk. He seemed about to put a hand on Alistair’s shoulder, but he hesitated and drew it back.
“Alistair,” he said firmly, “please leave. You are frightening people.”
At home, he watered the spider plant. He hung his coat in the bare wardrobe. He took off his shoes and socks and found that the skin from his feet came off with them. Putting pressure on the raw flesh of his soles was deeply painful. He hobbled to the bathroom and fumbled in the cabinet for bandaging, sitting on the toilet seat as he attempted to bind his feet. But without the use of his right hand it was impossibly fiddly, and the skin of his left was beginning to come loose too, sticking to the bandages and flaking away like dried glue.
His head drooped.
Trailing bandages and ragged strips of skin, Alistair limped back into the bedroom. He closed the curtains. Even sitting down on the edge of the bed was painful, and he was forced to shift his position every few minutes. Slowly, one by one, he removed each item of clothing. His body was a patchwork of exposed flesh and scraps of peeling skin. Even the skin that was left was now beginning to look deadened, greyish, covered in tiny speckled hemorrhages.
He pulled open the wardrobe and looked himself up and down in the full-length mirror. He had to press his skinless hand over his skinless mouth, much as it stung.
Unable to face the discomfort of clothes against his raw flesh, he made a loose sort of loincloth from a pillowcase, and left it at that, along with the bandages on his feet. The sight of himself in the mirror would have been comical if it had not been so utterly nauseating.
Over the next few days, he drew all of the curtains in the house and switched off most of the lights. Dimness was gentler on his eyes, and reduced the chances of catching sight of his reflection. He slept on top of the bedcovers, dozing fitfully and getting up at regular intervals to swallow crushed painkillers. In the daytime he shuffled from room to room like a Neanderthal. He liquidised his meals.
He lost his hair, along with the skin from his scalp. The hair came out in clumps, even when he stopped combing it. He woke up each morning to find himself spitting it out and picking it off his pillow. His unprotected flesh was growing increasingly sore, leaking yellowish fluid wherever he put pressure on it.
He dreamed of the A-bomb, the A-bomb side of the bed. Every night he melted in it. He flung wide his arms and melted away as all the breath streamed from him and his eyes trickled down his face.
The shrill sound of the telephone woke him abruptly and snatched him from the dream. He wrapped a length of cotton wool around the receiver and slowly, painstakingly, lifted it to his ear.
“Alistair?” It was his wife’s voice. There was a pause. “Alistair, are you there?”
“Yes. I’m here.”
He heard her draw a shaking breath. His hand gripped too tightly at the receiver, and he winced.
“How are you?” she asked tentatively.
“Holding up,” he said.
“John said you haven’t been at work.”
“They told me to rest.”
Silence, again. He didn’t help her, not out of spite, but rather a baffled inability. The room felt unsteady.
“Alistair,” she said at length, “I miss you. I do.” She was crying. She sounded very far away. “But you’re not…I can’t…”
“All my skin came off,” said Alistair. He heard her crying falter. “I was caught in an explosion,” he said. “An A-bomb.”
“Oh,” she said faintly.
“I think I have to go now.”
“Oh,” she said again, and the wideness and the whiteness covered everything.