At thirteen my skinny body peeled apart. My throat closed up, cleft with ulcers; my mouth and tongue foamed and blistered. The tip of my penis bubbled then scabbed over.
This was the month of blossom pinking trees, of schoolmates necking by the fences; the month the ships pushed southward.
My skin, layers of skin, had separated. And because my lungs were tacked with phlegm, since I hadn’t peed for days, the next recourse was hospital. I peered through the ambulance’s tinted doors; gazed from my isolated room at children hooked to limpid bags and tubes.
I watched a TV screen that moved and moved with grey-green sea.
I kept to a course of manageable things: lucent jars of Vaseline, spittoons (a physio came to beat my back like skins), and cups of medicine to light my throat.
One morning, medics crowded round the glass. Two clinicians pitched up to snap my eyes and mouth. The black Sister who wandered through my nights must have known, could have recalled, some faraway island pummelled by storms.
When the young doctor breezed in to check my notes and said ‘So many cards – lots of hugs and kisses?’ I thought of an untouchable girl: lip-gloss and freckles. Everyone, it seemed, was dreaming of a sweetheart they’d left behind.
The sickness was leaving me, though one afternoon I started to yammer and wouldn’t shut up. Maybe it was horses thump-circling on the box. Maybe it was the infection riddling everybody’s blood, that springtime fever. Maybe it was because my scabs were crumbling, my rank mouth firming back into a mouth.
Just as my dermis and epidermis were melding back together, just as my sores were healing over, I watched men on TV being flayed by fire.
On board the Coventry, Sheffield, those who met the blasts must have crackled black. What footage showed were boats carrying the badly burnt; padded bandages making up large and useless hands: so much singed and weeping flesh. Blokes looked wide of everyone, amazed at how flimsy they’d become.
My thirteen-year-old self, scoured and picked as I was, could comprehend the body’s vicissitudes, could gauge the absolute waste of skin.
‘Skin’ appears in Chris Jones’s second collection Skin. Watch the short film of this poem (with photographs by Karl Hurst):