Sheets of rain veiled the station as Vincent’s umbrella splayed above him, its twisted spokes and black cloth now flapping in the wind. His new tasseled leather moccasins were soaked and he was worried that there would be no saving them.
He had never experienced rain like it. He was used to English drizzle or murky, metallic downpours, but nothing as violent as this. It came down with such force that raindrops jumped up from the pavement, a rain so heavy that it seemed as though the entire city was under attack.
He stabbed a bin with his umbrella, its handle protruding at an angle as he walked away, his clothes saturated and heavy, his fine cashmere socks squelching within his shoes.
Not that his raincoat was doing much to help. Marketed as 'weatherproof', the fabric allowed water to seep through its every pore and soak his suit underneath.
After a flash of lightning the thunder clapped so suddenly that Vincent was convinced he was standing right beneath it, a lone, drenched man, walking helplessly through the suburbs of the city. The next flash and clap cracked the sky in two and scared the little man down below. He was the only one out there, the only one to be so foolish as to walk through the slick, empty streets.
All he could envision was a bolt of lightning striking the top of his head, deleting him mid-step and burning him to a crisp. He saw a pair of rain-soaked tasseled moccasins with trails of smoke emanating from them.
That would just be his luck, to be hit by lightning. At least, he thought, that would provide a very swift and definite solution to his problems.
He quickened his step until his walk verged on a run.
His keys jangled as he attacked the lock of his house and he was soon standing inside, dripping on the doormat.
He was surprised to find the home in darkness. Anna should have been back ages ago. He was starving and he was hoping dinner would have been underway already. Chicken Kiev, perhaps, or a tangle of spaghetti. Unfortunately, they had a rule: Whoever Made It Home First Made The Dinner.
‘Anna!’ he called, just in case. There was no response.
That made it his turn tonight. Damn.
He kicked off his soaked leather moccasins and immediately stubbed his toe on one of the many cardboard boxes of Juiced cans that were piled up in the hallway. The damned things were taking up too much space and his throbbing toe was a painful reminder that he had to get rid of them. Now that he was no longer on the account, he had little use for them.
He padded up the stairs in his wet socks, pulling one off halfway and the other on the landing.
His dressing room had become an impressive shrine to his fashions. He had display shelves installed for his shoes, as well as a special table set up solely for buffing and shining. His wardrobes had clearly-delineated areas for his shirts, jackets and trousers. He prided himself on the room looking like a boutique of which he was its only, exclusive customer. The only problem was that there were now books piled around the room. Anna’s ever-increasing collection had started to take over the house. Not only were the living room and study lined with heaving bookshelves, but piles were now forming in the hallways, dressing room and bathroom; those novels had already been warped by steam.
Not that Vincent understood any of it. He saw Anna’s books as a burden that encroached on his space. He had never been curious enough to open a single one, had never asked her about them, hadn’t even ever touched them. In fact, he hadn’t read a book since school and even that one remained unfinished. Why would anyone want to read about events that had never happened? Isn't something that isn’t true also known as a lie? He knew Anna had tried to even write one once but nothing came of it. He had never given it much thought.
There was nothing he could learn from stories plucked from the air. He depended on, believed in, relied upon, cold, hard facts, on statistics, numbers and other heartless data such as percentages, odds and ratios. He would rather study profits than poetry.
He stuffed his drenched moccasins with newspaper and sat them in the corner of the room to dry. He peeled off his raincoat and his suit, and hung them outside his wardrobe. This navy suit was one of his favourites and it distressed him to see it so darkened by the rain.
Failing to get re-dressed, he walked downstairs in his pants and into his dark kitchen. The opening of the fridge sent an icy glow of light into the room. There was nothing to eat in there except for a half-empty jar of pickles, an almost-empty jar of pesto and an almost completely-squeezed bottle of tomato ketchup. Except for eight cans of Juiced which took up all the space in the door.
He hoped that Anna had picked up something on the way home otherwise it would be another fish-fingers-from-the-depths-of-the-freezer evening. He wondered whether he could sweet-talk Anna into ordering a pizza, a hot, gooey, cheesy wheel that he could lose himself in. But they were banned ever since the ‘diet’ had been thrust upon him. Not that he had really been sticking to it. He had the remarkable talent for eating whatever he wanted and not putting on weight. At least, that’s what he told himself. In actual fact he hadn’t quite realised how far he’d mastered the art of sucking in his stomach.
The fact was he had a secret that only Anna knew about, and it was something she had to figure out for herself when they first started going out, had to piece together the clues, the fact that Vincent secretly, quietly, never ate anything remotely approaching a vegetable. It was something he also hid from his colleagues, his neighbours, his family, in his attempt to come across as a mature, functioning grown up. But in reality he maintained the diet of a ten-year-old: anything deep fried or breadcrumbed spoke to him, not to mention cakes, biscuits, chocolates, sweets, croissants, muffins, children’s cereal, and piles upon piles of crisps. Lately he had also been drinking a hell of a lot of Juiced. For professional reasons only, he told himself.
He thought, since the fridge door was open, he might as well have a can at that very moment. From a selection of Amazin’ Apple, Outrageous Orange and Bangin’ Blackberry, he chose Bangin’ Blackberry. He cracked it open, stuck his lips on the mouth hole and glugged it down, instantly feeling the intensive pin-pricks of fizziness in his throat. Bangin’ Blackberry didn’t really taste like blackberries. It was the kind of blackberry flavour you would get if you left its creation to a software algorithm, which this was. It tasted less like blackberry and more like very salty bacon. Or maybe it was the can he was tasting, which he knew had been shipped from China at a cost so inexpensive that they verged on being totally free.
Surely no one had given as much thought to a soft drink as he had over the past few weeks. And even though he was very definitely not on the account anymore he still found himself compelled to drink the stuff. One Billion Bubbles.
By the light of the fridge he read the ingredients: ammonium ferric citrate, sodium benzoate, ponceau 4R, whatever the hell that was, and it was only once he had got to aspartame that he realised the purple of the can was seeping through his flesh. He looked closer and realised he could read the ingredient acesulfame K even though it was covered by his thumb. It wasn’t easy to read—he had to strain his eyes to see it—but somehow the text floated up through his skin, his muscle and his bone.
When he looked down he was convinced he could see the faux woodgrain of the laminate flooring through his bare feet.
He held up his other hand and stared at it and when he allowed his eyes to adjust, he could see his entire kitchen through it.
He rushed to the mirror in the hallway and looked at his face. It wasn’t entirely obvious at first, he had to concentrate to see it, but soon he could see the photo hanging on the wall behind him through his own skull. The irony was that the portrait he could see through his face was of that very same face. Anna had insisted on hanging in the hallway.
He ran upstairs to the bedroom and looked at his near-naked body in the full-length mirror. Through his stomach he could make out a shadow that looked a lot like the bed behind him.
Every inch of him was suffering from the same unusual condition, not just his arms and legs and chest but also his hair, his teeth, his eyeballs.
He patted, pressed and pinched himself. He was still solid, still fleshy. Only problem was that he was just a little see-through. How big of a problem could that be? The pounding of his heart and the shortening of his breath told him it was a problem, a pretty big problem. If he thought he was worried before, now he was petrified.
At that moment he heard the front door opening downstairs and Anna calling out to him.
He instinctively ran to the bathroom and locked the door. He needed time to think.
Anna dropped a tote bag full of essays on their Home Sweet Home welcome mat, the same essays she was going to have to stay up late and mark. She was dreading it.
‘Are you ready?’ she asked as she jogged up the stairs to find the bathroom door shut. ‘We’ve got to go in five minutes,’ she called through, before hurrying to the bedroom and draping her work clothes on the chair and putting on her fitness gear. Once her trainers were laced up, she banged on the bathroom door. ‘Hurry up or we’re going to be late! Have you changed?’ She waited for a response and all she got in return was a feeble, ‘Not yet.’
‘What do you mean “not yet”? If we don’t leave in the next minute we’re not going to make it.’
‘I don’t think I’m going to go today. You should go on your own.’
‘We promised each other. No excuses. We’re really going to have to attend every class if we want to hit our target.’
‘I’m not in the mood today.’
‘Not in the mood?’ He was being ridiculous again. She didn’t like it when he was ridiculous. ‘I’m coming in.’
She grabbed the handle. Locked. It was never locked. ‘Open the door!’
‘I’m not feeling very well,’ he said. She was instantly sceptical. She had long-since learned to identify when her fiancé was making an excuse. He always used that feeble tone.
‘I’m not sure. It must have been something I ate.’
‘Did you get the shopping list I emailed you?’ Even though he did get it, which he only now remembered, it had instantly floated away from his mind and into the outer hemisphere. It had been erased from his memory until this very moment. He was in no mood to take the blame.
‘It was your turn to get the dinner tonight.’
‘Absolutely not! I emailed you the list of things to get.’ She had a habit of doing that, of delegating tasks to him via email. He was just going to have to pretend he had not seen any email.
‘The email I sent you.’
‘Why can’t you get it? I always get it.’
‘You pass a supermarket on the way home. I don’t pass a supermarket. What do you expect us to eat tonight?’
He thought for a second. His mind wandered through the contents of their freezer. A solution presented itself.
‘We can’t have fish fingers again. We’re supposed to be on a diet! What’s the point of doing an hour-long spin class and then undoing it all by eating fish fingers?’
‘They’re good for you.’
‘They’re not good for you. Breadcrumbs are not good for you.’
‘We could order a pizza,’ he said, as though it were the first time he had thought of it.
‘We are not having a pizza. Now put your gym clothes on and hurry up.’
He was staring at himself in the mirror, trying to see if the situation was improving. Perhaps it was just a hallucination. A bog-standard, every day hallucination. After all, he had eaten some very suspicious sushi for lunch. It was kind of silvery and it really glinted in the light. Maybe he was experiencing the hallucinating effects of some particularly weird fish.
He splashed water on his face but that did nothing to shake him out of it.
‘I’m not well, Anna,’ he said.
‘Are you on the toilet?’ She hoped he wasn't using up all the toilet paper again. He got through that stuff faster than a pack of Andrex puppies.
‘Then what is it?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Open this door right now.’
‘I don’t think I should.’
‘Open it!’ she said, knocking angrily.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’m going to open the door but do you promise not to be alarmed?’
She didn’t have the time or energy to deal with him right now. ‘Just open the door.’
He reached out for the lock, twisted it, and swung the door open wide. She looked at him for a moment.
‘Why are you in your pants?’
‘Don’t you think I look strange?’
Her eyes probed him up and down.
‘No stranger than usual,’ she said. ‘Get dressed.’
‘What do you mean? Look at me.’
She did so.
‘You don’t think there’s anything… weird about me?’
‘You look perfectly fine.’
‘Put your glasses on.’ She didn’t wear her glasses to the gym.
He grabbed her hand, took her into the bedroom and delivered her her glasses. ‘Now look at me… closely.’
She thought he was acting really oddly but thought she would humour him. She put on her glasses and stared at him and he watched how her face journeyed from cynicism to a kind of mild bafflement.
‘Now do you see anything?’ he asked.
‘I can’t be sure but there is something… something… You don’t seem as… solid as usual. It’s hard to tell. If I turn away and look back,’ she said, turning her head away and back again, ‘you look okay at first but then, if I look a little longer, you start to turn slightly…’ She flipped through her mind for the right word. And found it. ‘Translucent. Did anything strange happen to you today?’
The enormity of this new, emerging problem hit her. ‘The invitations are ready to go!’ That was true. They were stacked up on the kitchen table, sealed, addressed, but yet-to-be-stamped.
He knew it wouldn’t be long until she brought that up.
‘Is that all you can think about?’
‘You can’t look like that on the day.’
‘Why, because of the photos? I’m really more concerned about my health right now.’
‘Everything is set, everything is in motion.’
‘Don’t you think I know this?’
‘We have the most important event of our life coming up and you become translucent. I knew you’d do something like this.’
‘I didn’t do anything. It just happened.’ She looked disappointed in him.
‘I knew it would do this to you.’
‘Not eating vegetables. I knew this would happen.’
‘This has got nothing to do with me not eating vegetables!’
‘Then how do you explain it?’
‘I can’t explain it. I’m sure it’s just temporary. It’s bound to fix itself.’
‘Remember that problem you had with your willy? Did that go away by itself?’ He didn't want to dignify that question with an answer. ‘If you are see-through on the happiest day of my life then it won't be the happiest day of my life.’ She checked the time on the fitness tracker strapped to her wrist. ‘Oh, great, we’ve missed our class.’
‘You can’t expect me to go to spin class translucent?’
‘You’d do anything to get out of going.’
‘I think this is a pretty good excuse.’
‘Do you not want to fit into your suit on the day?’
‘Of course I do! But I also don’t want the sun to shine through my head.’
‘You know the stress I am under… this is the last thing I need.’
‘It’s not like I’m doing this just to irritate you, you know.’
‘Then whatever you did, undo it. Just fix it. Remember when the venue called and they were double booked? I fixed it. Remember when you ordered the wrong suit? I fixed it. Remember when the photographer called to cancel? I fixed it. I’ve spent the past twelve months fixing everything. Now it’s your turn to fix something. Just do whatever you need to do, but get it fixed.’
Anna briefly left the room. When she returned she had her phone pressed to her ear.
‘He’s right here…’ she said, thrusting the phone out at Vincent. ‘You have to talk to him,’ she said, forcing it into his hand.
‘Who is it?’
‘He’s from the helpline.’
He stuck the phone to his ear. A man’s voice appeared on the other end.
‘Your fiancée says that you are in distress but she is having trouble describing the symptoms.’
Anna stared at him as he spoke, willing him on to answer her questions.
‘Well… I’m looking a little faint.’
‘You mean you’re feeling a little faint?’
‘No, looking a little faint.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I can’t help feeling that I’ve turned a little transparent.’
‘Yes. If I look closely, I can see right through me.’ There was a long pause on the other end.
‘I am going to take you through a quick questionnaire to see if we can help you with your diagnosis.’
‘Are your symptoms connected with the stomach, bowel or bladder, accidents, wounds or injuries, male or female sexual or genital health, rashes or skin problems…’
‘It’s a kind of skin problem.’
‘Okay. Now are your symptoms connected to bites, stings, wounds, burns, scalds, rashes or general skin problems?’
‘General skin problems, I suppose,’ he replied.
‘Has your rash or skin problem emerged after being bitten or stung?’ He thought hard about whether he had been bitten or stung that day.
‘Nope,’ he said.
‘Do you have any swelling of your lips, throat or tongue?’ He wiggled his tongue around inside his mouth.
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Have you developed any new or increased difficulty in breathing?’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘Is the skin on your arm warm or cold when you touch it?’ He touched his arm.
‘Kind of in between.’
‘You have to pick one. Warm or cold?’
‘I’d say more warm than cold.’
‘Are you currently experiencing any of the following symptoms? One: a headache that’s so bad you can’t do anything, two: you can’t move your chin down to your chest, three: you are feeling drowsy or confused.’
‘Confused. Yes. I am definitely a little confused.’
‘Do you have an area of skin that has blue or purple colouring that looks like a bruise or bleeding under the skin?’
‘No, it’s all flesh-coloured, just slightly see-through.’
‘Well then may I ask you one question?’
‘Have you been drinking?’ He couldn’t tell if he was being serious. ‘I would like to remind you that this is an emergency helpline. Prank calls are an offence.’
‘This is not a prank.’
‘If it is not a prank then I suggest you visit an optician and get your eyes checked.’ The line suddenly went dead.
‘He hung up on me,’ he told Anna.
‘What did he say?’
‘I really don’t think they’re trained for this scenario.’ Anna shook her head and reached out for her phone.
‘I can’t deal with this right now. I’m going out,’ she said.
‘But you’ve missed the class.’
‘I don’t care. I have to clear my head.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Out. Just out.’
Vincent listened to her footsteps as she hurried down the stairs, and to the sound of the front door as it slammed shut.