So – this is a story I wrote aaaaages ago, and completely forgot about until I just found it by accident. It’s one of the weirder stories I’ve written, and if I remember rightly, my friend Joe’s sole feedback at the time was: ‘I think you and the male gaze need to sit down for a good long chat to see if you can resolve your issues’. But anyway. Here it is.
Arabella Winterbotham had never been a cheerful woman, but it was a chance exposure to a re-run of 1970s British sitcom The Good Life that finally terminated any lingering traces of joy within her.
It was a rainy afternoon in February and Arabella, who worked part time in the dreary silence of an underused library, had planned to use her day off to take her young son Quentin for a stroll.
She enjoyed these afternoons with Quentin, who, despite being nearly three, couldn’t speak, rarely cried and generally expressed little interest in interacting at all. But today, Quentin had a sniffle – picked up, no doubt, from that noisy, disordered nursery – and Arabella thought it prudent to keep him in from the cold.
And so it was that Arabella found herself, for the first time in years, sat in front of a television, watching something… frivolous.
Unused to being amused, Arabella found that the mild 70s humour drew from her throat a violent burst of hilarity for which her body was entirely unprepared. Her jaws, wrenched from their default position, jerked out of place and locked firmly apart.
When Mr. Winterbotham returned home, he discovered his wife cowering in a darkened room, weeping with mortification as she dribbled, helplessly, into a scarf.
A trip to hospital fixed Arabella’s jaw, but not her mind. She descended into a state of morose, twitching severity, determined never to laugh again. She stockpiled misery like ammunition, stashing every ugly memory, every harrowing news report, every aching disappointment into an expansive mental storehouse, ready to obliterate every glimmer of light that encroached on her life.
Alas, it was all in vain. Arabella couldn’t know, then, that the greatest threat to her peace was not the outside world, but the microscopic invader already unfurling, undetected, in her womb.
This pregnancy could not have been more different to the first, which had barely stirred the waters of her existence until the bump gave way in an uncomplicated birth.
When Arabella’s daughter moved, it was like the aftershocks of a distant earthquake, the echo of a stampede. As the embryonic blob grew and spilled out in a glorious flourish of limbs and digits and vital, beating heart, it sent ripples of vibrancy through her mother’s blood and skin and gut.
This was no Quentin, she was sure, born of her own flesh. This was a foreign specimen, an alien, an unknown. Arabella steeled herself. A war had been declared.
Her heart slowed, bitterness flooded her bloodstream, pulsing from her arteries into the soft, porous belly of her formative foe. For nine long months, the natural vitality of the foetus fought and fought, choked by the malicious waves that clouded its freshly formed veins. When the new born emerged at last, her tight fists and pursed little mouth announced, wordlessly, that her mother had won.
Won the battle, that is – but not the war.
Recoiling from the idea of diminished self-control, Arabella had opted for a natural birth. It was not an easy one, and too much for her timid husband to endure.
Unable to shake the image of his wife chewing through her own lip rather than risk her jaw with screams, Mr Winterbotham spent the birth and ensuing fortnight excavating a succession of whisky bottles. Finally, left in charge of the paperwork as his wife lay traumatised and insensible, he indulged in a spontaneous, catastrophic act of rebellion.
Three weeks after her ordeal, Arabella emerged from her trance-like state for long enough to be handed her daughter – and told her name.
Not Agnes, that they had agreed. Not even Emma or Jane or Sarah or some unassuming name to let her slip through life without an eyebrow raised.
Mr Winterbotham had named their daughter Aphrodite.
With a shriek, Arabella launched the child at a nearby nurse.
Arabella was ruthless in her retribution.
Severe sanctions were imposed. Birthday celebrations were out of the question. She abandoned all forms of communication with her husband – a delicate man who withered quickly in adverse conditions. The house was like the inside of a tomb.
After three years of silence and failed entreaties to affection, Mr Winterbotham found himself standing at the kitchen table, preparing to cut the first slice of a stale birthday cake that he’d bought Aphrodite in an act of defiance and then concealed for a week in the shed.
He paused to survey the tableaux presented before him. The twin peaks of his wife’s glacial shoulders. The bovine self-absorption of his son, engaged in the methodical licking of a paper plate. The impassive eyes of the otherworldly creature he called his daughter but hardly knew. His own reflection, smeared like a grubby fingerprint in the little mirror on the wall.
After a moment’s contemplation, Mr Winterbotham dropped the knife onto the tablecloth and strode, unchecked, through bleak streets, onto the soft electric hum of the railway lines. Strode consciously, directly, purposefully, into a fatal collision with the 14.56 Fast Service to Southend-on-Sea.
Within months, the house was cleared of any reference to Mr. Winterbotham. Only a yearly trip to his grave, on Aphrodite’s birthday, served to remind the family that he had ever existed at all.
Apart, of course, from Aphrodite’s name.
Aphrodite’s name was a constant source of despair. Not only was it audacious, ridiculous, absurd to Arabella, it carried with it a powerful and peculiar legacy.
Despite her nervous demeanour, her anxious face and determination never to upset her mother, Aphrodite glowed.
She had a vibrancy about her that could not be repressed. From birth it lingered just beneath the skin, but by late puberty it flared up beyond control. She seemed to effuse sexuality. It rose from her skin as she moved, like perfume. It lurked in the blackness of her pupils. It traced the curves of her lips. It was uncanny. And Aphrodite, oblivious, could not control it.
Arabella hated it. Hated it beyond expression. Hated her.
Why, she thought, could she not have been like Quentin? Small, lethargic, devoid of curiosity? Multiple teachers and nurses had gently recommended that Quentin be “tested” – for learning disabilities or cognitive delay or whatever the appropriate terminology was deemed to be. But to Arabella, he was perfect, just as he was: pottering, tranquil, disinclined to make any noise beyond the soft churn of his teeth on a corner of cushion or carpet.
More importantly, Quentin made her invisible. Wherever she took him, people politely avoided her eyes. They ignored him. They made it a point not to stare. By making the world uncomfortable, he was her buffer against the world. And that suited her just fine.
Aphrodite was the opposite. No matter how badly Arabella dressed her, how severely she cut her hair, how thick and ugly the glasses she made her wear, Aphrodite drew a chorus of admiration from neighbours, strangers, shop assistants, bus drivers… all descending with squealing compliments upon the child and her mother.
Arabella could only recoil in revulsion, stuttering and shielding Aphrodite’s lovely eyes and cupid’s bow mouth that insisted upon being so unnaturally, inexorably, intolerably, red. Quentin was the uncontested favourite.
And then there was Aphrodite’s spirit. Try as she might to be melancholy, the little girl’s natural inertia wound itself tighter and tighter until she quivered from the strain.
There was no chance of release in her silent, suffocating home, and she did not have friends, being so being odd and introspective and at the same time so intensely charged that it was impossible to relax around her.
Her own birthday being such a dismal affair, other children’s parties sparked an unbearable conflict inside her. Torn between terror and the dizzying prospect of fun, her nervous surge of excitement would give way to an inevitable regurgitation of her breakfast. In Aphrodite’s infant vocabulary, the word ‘Party’ came to mean soiled polyester and the acid burn of rising bile.
To begin with, she had occasionally been asked back to a classmate’s house to play – usually by parents curious to know more about this strange, sorrowful, miniature beauty. The invitation was never extended twice, however, due to Aphrodite’s tendency to answer questions about her family with disconcerting honesty and, occasionally, to exhibit a hysterical terror of organic vegetables, due to a bizarre but unshakeable negative association with a 1970s sitcom called The Good Life.
Shortly after Aphrodite’s fifteenth birthday, the crisis reached its peak.
By now, she barely communicated with anyone but a loner called Beth, who sat next to her in Maths, rarely spoke, and seemed immune to her aura. In this, Beth was unique: Aphrodite fascinated and intimidated her classmates in equal measure, although they largely left her alone.
So, it came as rather a shock to Aphrodite when Beth passed her a note during class on a Friday afternoon, abruptly announcing that they were going to a party that night.
Appalled, Aphrodite had only half-formulated a response when Beth scribbled the address on a post-it note and turned back to her quadratic equations.
Aphrodite sat a while in thoughtful silence, weaving the folded note between her fingertips. To her infinite confusion, she didn’t feel nauseous. There was something twinging in her stomach, it was true. But it was something very different. It was – it was curiosity.
Out of politeness to Beth, she reasoned, she would go, but she wouldn’t stay. She would show her face for a moment and then, so as not to worry her mother, she would go home.
That evening, after hours spent staring into her own eyes in the bathroom mirror, preparing herself for the ordeal, Aphrodite found herself standing outside a house she had never been to, with a girl to whom she only ever spoke to ask for an ink cartridge, wondering what had possessed her.
The music inside was loud and abrasive, but there was a girl vomiting out of a window, which comforted her somewhat. She ventured inside, ignoring the stares that followed her every step, refused a drink and picked a spot on the floor, watching the room fill with people who drank and laughed and squealed and fell over and kissed and fought over the music and fell over again.
She watched until the cigarette smoke made her drowsy and she drifted to sleep, her head against the sofa and a cushion clutched protectively over her stomach.
When she awoke, it was because there was something moving on her mouth.
Something damp and alcoholic and breathing, although she couldn’t see more than that because the lights were out and the room was a murky landscape of bodies, slumped on all surfaces at all angles and all over each other. In the muddled moments that followed, Aphrodite was aware that she was being kissed.
Aphrodite had never consciously considered what kissing might feel like, but she noted with surprise that, in fact, it didn’t really feel like anything. There was no desire, but there was no disgust, either. The experience left her nonplussed.
And so it began. Strange, beautiful Aphrodite, who rarely spoke and never smiled, was invited to parties, turned up to parties, and spent her nights, eyes clamped shut, kissing strangers.
Some nights there was a queue, both of girls and boys, and some nights, if she was not too sleepy to follow, Aphrodite would let herself be led upstairs by one or more or them.
While she had no stirrings of her own, Aphrodite found that sex was less confusing, more predictable, and generally less painful than talking. Just as her attempts to be a model daughter caused her mother only disappointment, any attempt at conversation with her peers left her with the feeling she’d failed in some mysterious way. But with sex, she knew exactly what others wanted from her and, for once, was able to oblige. It felt like a relief.
Aphrodite was now seventeen. She had arrived tonight, as always, a little bored and there was, as always, a group of hushed, excited school friends crowding around a sofa that had, as always, been reserved for her.
Aphrodite was dimly aware that the constituents of this impatient assembly were familiar to her, although she would have struggled to point any out in a crowd. But tonight, as she entered the, she found herself noticing – for the first time – another person’s face.
It was a beautiful face, the most beautiful thing she could recall having seen. As Aphrodite’s eyes scanned over and beneath it she saw that it had a beautiful body attached to it, too.
It occurred to her that, in fact, she had never really noticed anything to be beautiful before – something which now seemed incomprehensible. An exquisite, unbearable sensation spread outwards from her ribcage to the pit of her stomach, washing over the tiny voice that cried out warnings as she willed, as she begged, as she commanded this mysterious person to turn meet her gaze.
She realised, suddenly, that this was desire. This was the feeling that lurked in the eyes of everyone in this room when they looked at her. This was what that felt like! She felt herself glow with an intense, pulsating heat that threatened at any moment to combust. If only they would look at her and meet her eye, the beauty would no doubt follow her upstairs, as had everyone else she had ever known. She needed that lovely head to turn. She needed it to happen, now.
And then, just as she feared she would collapse from the force of it, the beauty glanced up, caught her gaze – and held it.
For the first time, Aphrodite felt a shock of electricity spark along her spinal column from base to neck and pinball around the synapses of her brain. For the first time, she heard her blood pumping in her veins and she sensed her pupils expand with nuclear force. Her lips tingled. The breath stopped in her lungs. The room crumbled away, a trickle of dust at first and then, with rising force, with huge crashes of walls and furniture and ceilings and foundations. Her body, too, seemed to fall away. Nothing remained but the two wondrous eyes that relentlessly fixed her own.
And then – the beauty turned away. Turned away and carried on their conversation, as if nothing had happened. As if nothing had happened at all.
But something had happened to Aphrodite – or, at least, to what was left in the space where she had stood. With tremendous effort, she regained control of her limbs and fled upstairs to the bathroom, ignoring the voices that cried out after her.
Locking the door, she crouched in the darkness, clutching her skull to stop it crumbling into the vacuum where her sense of self had once, however dimly, flickered.
Time passed. The banging on the door subsided. Aphrodite drifted on the peripheries of consciousness, hearing the air move in and out of her lungs, listening to the hollow hum that seemed to emanate from inside her.
At last she became aware that her legs were numb and heavy from leaning on them so long; by the blade of light beneath the door she saw that the floor glistened with thin vomit. She dragged her toe through it. It was cold.
Aphrodite edged from her seat and stood, shivering. She switched on the light, flinching at the brightness. She eased her way across the room and raised her face to the bathroom mirror.
She let out a cry.
Where her reflection should have been, there was only a hazy smear; her features were entirely indiscernible. She shook her head and blinked to clear her eyes. But still the glass showed nothing. She touched her face. She could feel it – she thought she could – she was sure it must be there. She splashed it with cold water and dried it with her shirt.
But in the mirror: nothing.
Her face was entirely gone.
Aphrodite paced the room, tapping the walls with the knuckles of one hand, her nails forcing deep red crescents into the palm of the other. She was trapped. How could she show her face, without – she laughed frantically for a second, then stopped herself short. She had never cared much for her face but it was, after all, the only one she had. She imagined she would be lost without one.
She looked down to her hands, her limbs. All intact. The room around her was clear enough, too. Sink and bath and toilet and mirror, all were present and correct. The whispers outside the door were very, very audible. And the face of the beauty downstairs glowed hotter and deeper in the empty space that burgeoned in her hollowed-out mind.
She looked back to the mirror. Nothing. Digging around in an abandoned makeup bag, she found another. Again, only a haze, a fleshy, formless cloud, followed her in the glass as she moved back and forth, squinting in confusion.
Very calmly, she opened the bathroom cupboard and emptied its contents. She took a razor blade from its packet. Raising it to where she was fairly sure her face should be, she cut lightly into her skin. At once a crimson line splashed up in the mirror. Relieved, Aphrodite paused to admire her handiwork. She brought the razor to where she felt her mouth to be, and traced around the lips, slicing a little deeper this time. Blood splattered into the sink, but she could see, perfectly, a sketch of a mouth in a childlike scrawl.
Next, her nose. Around her eyes. Two eyebrows, sliced in, in bright, bright red on the cloudy canvas in the glass. Red had, at least, always been her colour.
Wiping a trickle of blood from her chin, Aphrodite returned downstairs, past the bodies sleeping on the landing, through the room of devotees which fell silent as she appeared, past the beauty who still – still! – didn’t see her, past the girls who screamed in the doorway, through the quiet lilac morning and at last, at very last, to home. She fingered the key in her pocket, but some superstitious imperative stayed her hand. Instead, she knocked.
“Mother” she said, as Arabella opened the door, raising her eyebrows in apprehension. “I can’t see my face. I think I must have lost it. I’ve made a new one – do you like it?”
Arabella Winterbotham stared for some time, wondering whether to wonder what to make of this. At last, taking in the full impact of her daughter’s ruined, bloody face, she smiled. A warm, genuine smile. A smile that had not been seen for eighteen years.
“Yes”, she said, drawing Aphrodite to her. The blood soaked through the fabric of her nightdress and warmed her skin. “Yes, I like it. Go and sit with your brother. I like it very much indeed.”