FICTION (November 2018)
Wash The Sins… Not Only The Face
by George Aitch
THE pictures were already up on Facebook before Ella’s flight touched down.
Constantinople had been mild and pleasant. Contrasting this to the damp English winter was unbearable. Shivering outside arrivals, she flicked through her phone, untagging herself from Stan’s photos. Ben would be here to collect her soon and he might be checking his phone too. Stan was being reckless; some of these poses looked far too couple-y not to arouse suspicion.
Her attention was caught by one taken in front of the Hagia Sophia.
Both of them were grinning at the American tourist behind the camera. Her blonde bob tucked behind designer shades. Stan’s hairy hand snuck around her waist. His other arm resting on a font inscribed with ‘νίψον ἀνομήματα, μὴ μόναν ὄψιν’ (an ancient palindrome; wash the sins not only the face). Nobody who saw that photo could possibly be convinced that they were just friends.
Hastily, Ella tapped at the screen to de-incriminate herself. The photo disappeared from her profile just in time for her husband’s car to roll up. Ben popped out to kiss her and began loading luggage into the back. He’d have been less cheerful had he known what his wife had been up to this weekend.
“How was the conference?” he asked her as soon as she was in the car.
“Oh, same old same old. Bunch of white old men hectoring us on typeface and arguing about the decision to go digital.”
This ‘conference’ had been a cover for her city break. Working for a publisher lent her the opportunity for certain alibis, as well as certain encounters. She relaxed at his questions; it was obvious that he didn’t suspect anything.
The conversation was interrupted as a scooter cut them up while they were pulling up to the exit of the short stay car park. Ben muttered to himself, his flow broken. Beeping his horn, he wound down the window to yell at the young man astride the scooter.
“You moron, be more careful!”
The helmeted head didn’t turn around, but an arm swivelled and extended a single gloved finger. Fuming, Ben blasted the horn again. His knuckles white, gripping the stick,
Ben put the car in gear. He was red faced until they left the car park and were speeding down the dual carriageway. Ella wasn’t alarmed to see this ordinarily placid man transform into an ape caricature. Road rage was one of Ben’s many faults. At least he was showing passion toward something.
At home she unpacked and readied herself to be back at work. They spent the evening in their drab flat overlooking the waterfront. He watching the football, she catching up on client emails. The television flickered in the background. While the sun set, its cool light grew to fill the room.
The newscaster was still spewing forth at breakfast. Ella was half paying attention as she waited for the toast to be done.
She leaned against the kitchen counter, scratching a spot on her forearm; an insect bite most probably.
After the weather and the finance discussion, both of which droned and bored her to tears, the readers returned to the headlines of the day. They mulled over the latest Brexit ruminations and the Trump presidency. As a close, they quickly skimmed through a piece about a streak of skin complaints causing visits to hospital.
Ella glanced at her rash. It was so easy to get caught up in these things. You heard something on the news or an advert somewhere and it became all you could think about. These obsessions were designed of course. That was part of her job, a segment of it at least. It was all an effort to attract views or sell something. People loved to panic.
By the time she reached her car, it was already out of her mind, replaced by the usual grumbles of commuter traffic and awful drive time radio DJs.
At work, things were no different. Gabby came over to hear the gossip about her Turkish excursion over lunch. The two ladies were waiting in the queue for coffee as Ella brought her friend up to speed, worrying the rash while she did so. Catching herself doing it, she slapped the patch of fabric overlying the area. She was about to apologise for the distraction when something caught her eye as she looked up.
“Gabs, did you go out last night?”
“No, why?” Gabby caught her peering at her neck.
“Someone’s written something on the back of your neck.”
“What? What does it say?” She craned to peer at the writing. Ella leant over to lift back the nape of Gabby’s dress. Emblazoned in red against her shoulder were four letters.
The markings weren’t raised, merely flushed with blood. Like a rash.
“What is it?” Gabby asked “I’ve had something bothering me there all day. I bet it was Mark from upstairs. He’s always—”
Her words died as both of them realised that everyone in the queue had gone silent. Each was inspecting either themselves or the person stood next to them. Collars were loosened, jackets removed, socks were peeled back to reveal the bare skin underneath. Each time, the message was the same. LIAR.
The calm gave way to a rush of hubbub as everybody took turns to stare about the room and recognise that this was a mutual accusation. Nearly every person waiting for a coffee had that single word, emblazoned in red, somewhere on their body. As each began to protest and then bolt for the bathroom, Ella rolled up her sleeve. Sure enough, her rash had congealed into that same word she saw on the Gabby’s neck.
“How?” she started.
“Is this a joke?” Gabby asked. “Is it because I work in marketing? Who hasn’t told a lie once or twice?”
Her phone buzzed. She answered while her friend ranted. It was Stan.
“Hi babe. Did you play a trick on me with my sun cream?” he asked. “Only, this burn’s come up on my foot. It’s in the shape of some writing. Did I do something to upset you?”
Her mouth dried up. “I’ve got one too.” She stammered. “What does it say?” She already knew the answer. Skin irritants or otherwise could explain a local phenomenon. Some brattish office prankster. But Mark, he worked in the City. It shouldn’t be possible that iome joker had gotten to him too.
She hung up.
The rest of the day sped by in a blur. Half of her mind was on work, the other half scanning the internet to confirm that this was happening… worldwide.
At five, Ella crammed everything into her bag and raced home. Ben was there already, washing some greens for later. By the way that she burst in and ran upstairs to check herself, he spotted that something was wrong.
“Alright love? Got a tummy upset?”
She stood in the kitchen, teetering on tiptoes. She had to show him; he would find out eventually. Holding her breath, she held up her arm to him. He took it in his damp hands with eyes squinting.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. But everyone at work had one. Also…” She stopped herself. Revealing any more might drag Stan into this. She wasn’t ready for that conversation, not today. It meant more than anything to her to keep the affair a secret. The mark had begun to fade, but it was still legible. “Do you have one?”
He shook his head, but that wasn’t enough for her. She popped the buttons of his collar and lifted his shirt over his head as he laughed, thinking that this was a game. There was nothing funny about what she found. Those same letters written across her husband’s sagging belly. He was shocked.
She stood back, arms folded. “What have you lied about?”
“You first,” Ben spluttered.“You’ve got it too.”
She pinched her nose and thought quickly. “It was to a client. She wanted a layout which would have been a lot of work for me, so I lied to her and said that it was unavailable.”
She hid her gasp as her mark burned. Folded behind her back, she could positively feel the offending arm glowing. When it passed, she turned to Ben.
He mumbled something about the bookies and a guilty flutter.
She slapped him.
“No more gambling. You promised me, Ben. You promised.”
Of course, it was on the news. They both sat glued to the television as analysts broke down the writing. Nobody could offer an explanation. The script had appeared on most of the world’s population at roughly the same time.
The kooks said it was a judgment from God on a growingly dishonest society or a manifestation of psychic guilt. Ella paid particular attention to how many turtlenecks and long-sleeved shirts appeared in the newsroom studio that evening.
The next day at the office was charged. Some had absented themselves; choosing to work from home. As midday approached, people glanced from their computer screens expectantly. But nothing changed. Ella’s writing was still there. It had faded to purple much like a scar. It no longer itched but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t bothered by it.
Throughout the afternoon, things became more settled. She had a short meeting where people walked over eggshells not to discuss anything to do with each other’s skin. Nobody wanted to know. Ella had just put down the phone to arrange a meeting with a client when a scream tore through the cubicles.
Josh, the temp, his shirt undone, raced towards the breakroom. He was followed by a curious few who were disappointed to discover that he had barricaded himself inside and covered up the hashed window.
His faint sobs permeated the desk space.
Ella swivelled her chair around to ask Gabby the question on everyone’s lips; what did it say?
She would find out later, at home. Ben had another mark too. He’d tried to unsubtly hide it with an assortment of plasters. She tore them from his cheek to reveal the crime underneath; WRATH. They sat down together and tried to reason through it, determining that this visitation referred to his anger behind the wheel. They ate in silence and Ben got an early night. He’d been more subdued since the gambling reveal.
The tension grew.
Ella awoke to find herself labelled as a CHEAT – she presumed from copying her friend’s coursework back in college.
Not being able to face work, she spent the next days at home, arranging matters via teleconference with one eye on the muted tickertape of the news to watch it unfold. An MP taken into custody with ‘PAEDOPHILE’ scrawled across his face. A man beaten to death at Borough Market because the word ‘RAPIST’ was written on the back of his hand. Still no answers or agreement came on who or what was judging them, with those so far few unblemished community leaders appealing for calm.
On Thursday, Mark called. Ella was alone in the house; Ben was still going in to work at the site with GLUTTON visible on the small of his back. We already knew that one. Over the phone, she was eager for comfort, some rock to cling to as everything seemed to fall apart. Only, he thought it best that they not see each other for a while. Staying away seemed like a good idea at the moment.
She listened, disappointed, and wondered what it was that he had on his skin which he wanted to conceal from her.
The streets emptied. In shame, most hid indoors. For others, it was entertainment. On her walk down to the shops for some milk, she passed a tramp with a three day old scar letting the world know she was an ADDICT. The boy behind the till had today’s special branding his collarbone; THIEF. As he handed Ella her change, he wouldn’t meet her eye.
Two weeks to the day that the first ‘LIAR’ had appeared, Ella noticed a developing mark as she got out of the shower. She had grown accustomed to small insults appearing over her with some regularity, but as the font swam into view, it was enough to dwarf all others. Etching itself across her face and down her neck, the sickly familiar red writing appeared like a developing photograph.
As soon as she saw the A, Ella knew what it would read. A knot formed and then twisted in her stomach. She screamed at the mirror in denial. The A spread to meet a D and end in a Y the tip of which tickled her sternum. ADULTERY. No matter how hard she towelled it, the accusation was as bright as day.
In desperation, she clutched a nail brush and scrubbed at her bare cheek until it was nearly raw. Still the script bore witness.
She collapsed in tears onto the bathmat as her husband, drawn by her cries, padded up the stairs.