Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2013 Results




Sunburn

Copyright © Sue Braint 2013


The following story is rated M for a mature audience. It contains nudity and adult themes. Thought you’d better know, since we have to be protected from unwarranted displays of sex and violence these days. To be honest, I’ve never understood why nature documentaries don’t carry a similar warning. I find graphic couplings of green tree frogs quite disturbing and strangely rousing. Hump, hump goes the little fellow on top, his green splayed fingers tightly gripping his bride. I would have thought it entirely appropriate to be forewarned of such in-your-face -- in a manner of speaking -- sexual activity.

Yeah, OK. I’m getting off track. Something I do more and more often these days. Blame it on age, degenerative brain cells, living alone, excess drinking, overweight, smoking, being jobless, having a penchant for wearing headbands and sixties’ pink shirts (still to be found in op shops if you’re prepared to fossick). Tick one or all of the above.

Myself, I put the blame fair and square on my erstwhile mother-in-law.

Note that ‘erstwhile’. I am no longer conjoined in any kind of formal relationship. In the words of my ex (who unlike me has the knack of putting things succinctly), my mother-in-law and I are yesterday’s breakfast. No longer an item. Just in case you’re raising your eyebrows and beginning to tut-tut, we never were. But my ex saw the ‘evidence’ in front of her eyes. She’s told me so a dozen times and every time I flatly deny it, telling her in my most reasonable voice that perception is deception.

It’s got nothing to do with reality, I insist. It’s a question of how the brain interprets the info. And lady has your brain got it wrong.

Having made that clear, I have to say that what follows is not an edifying story. I’ll be the first to admit it. But then, in my defence, neither is it a wild orgy. Not even a mild orgy. If you have time to spare for nit picking, you might decide that it doesn’t qualify as orgy at all. All I’m trying to do in telling it is to exonerate myself. Nice word that. I picked it up from the court proceedings for my divorce.

Pleased to report that exonerate myself I did in that particular case, even though legal fees sent me into bankruptcy. Hence the pink shirts from op shops. A cheap but flamboyant gesture to let the world know I don’t give a damn.

The story then. Red, raw and blistering.

It began, as so many stories do, on a cloudless summer day. My wife of two years liked to think of herself as something of a sports-model cum sailor when she wasn’t designing skimpy underwear and swimsuits. At least, she called it designing. I pointed out there was so little actual material required to make said garments, it would be more accurate to call it patching. She sulked for almost a week and I learnt to keep my big mouth shut.

So when she suggested we spend the weekend on the Peninsula with friends of hers who own a yacht, I kept quiet about my dislike of nautical exploits in any shape or form. Not to say my unsuitability for the sporty bronzed look, being Irish fair and freckled.

I won’t go through the tedium of those two days. Messing about in boats has never been my thing. Most of the time is spent on furling and unfurling sails, reading the wind and discussing whether to head out this way or that, or somewhere else altogether. The rest of the time involves stowing foodstuff and baggage away in a cabin the size of a sardine tin and squeezing bodies into bunks made for midgets. Getting everything shipshape, as they like to say.

Let’s be honest, I’m not a good sailing companion. As the hours pass, I become more and more morose, preferring to lie below on a bunk, reading or sleeping, to leave the straining on ropes, the jibing and cleating and about-turning to others.

Unfortunately on the second day, even hotter than the first, her sailor pal Matt (the only one on board who had any idea of what he was doing) fell hard, sprained a wrist and twisted his ankle, leaving the two women to get us back to shore. Fat chance of that. I was called upon in mid ocean to become a reluctant mate, hopelessly unprepared in shorts and a tank top, but at least sporting a dashing yachting cap.

Just after Matt went out of action, the wind picked up and everyone became more anxious and flurried than usual. Sailing is responsible for more acute anxiety disorders than any other sport in the world. I’m not even sure it qualifies as ‘sport’ and not as an obsessive/compulsive pathology. But under Matt’s instruction we managed to turn about with only one ‘untoward event’ (my dear wife’s words) that happened to be me being clobbered by the boom because of tardy footwork. And so we began to tack back to shore.

At least, he called it tacking. I thought we were messing about going forwards and backwards, getting nowhere slowly, and couldn’t understand why we didn’t simply get on with the job and head straight for home and a slab or two of VB.

It only took us two hours. Followed by another half hour tying incomprehensible knots, bundling up sails, stowing gear and mopping up the odd spot of vomit where I’d missed the rails.

***

My mother-in-law was blonde, trim and botoxed. She was fortyish going on twenty. She liked ‘boys’ and ‘fun’. Unfortunately she also demonstrated a penchant for strapping young Irishmen (me). She flirted so outrageously I couldn’t possibly take her seriously and assumed (dangerous word) the same for anyone else. I mean to say, when she crept up behind you at breakfast and clasped her hands around your chest, her breasts nestling warmly into your back, what could you do except mutter, ‘Will you get me another coffee, Gloria, if you don’t mind?’ while gamely shovelling bacon and eggs down the gullet.

With luck, she’d move away. But not before her hand had lingered several moments too long on the back of my neck.

On a good day, a cup of coffee would materialise in front of me. ‘Just how you like it, darl. Black and strong with two sugars to keep you sweet.’ And she would take a seat opposite, so she could make mou-mou mouths while I finished my toast. On a bad day…you probably don’t want to know. Bad days occurred when my wife Julia wasn’t around and I had to fend off what at times felt like the overtures of a sexually avaricious predator lunging out of a steaming jungle on the scent of prey. The word raptor comes to mind. I’m not sure what it means, but it hits the right note.

You can probably see where this is heading. You’re no doubt rolling your eyes and pursing your lips by now, just like my lawyer. That’s if you’re not already gagging. But you must see that I was the innocent party. Or to put it another way, I was the victim. When I said that to my wife she snorted so violently into her coffee it began to dribble back down her nostrils.

I admit to any number of faults in the way of not performing domestic duties and lying around on the couch to watch the footy. I am a man after all and indulge such manly pursuits (as long as I’m on dry land). I’m informed I drink too much and exercise too little. ‘You’re hunky going on chunky,’ was one of Julia’s witty barbs. This time, however, I was absolutely blameless. A poor bloke trying to preserve what was left of his virginity.

***

I blame the sailing. Man was not made to plough the waves beneath a malevolent sun. By the time we berthed (note my proficiency in nautical terms) I could feel my face and shoulders, and the backs of my thighs in particular, starting to tingle in an unpleasant way. By the time we reached home I was glowing.

‘Your poor red hooter,’ my wife said as I stumbled out of the car. ‘Who needs electricity with you to light the way?’ She gave her inimitable neighing laugh while I did my tight-lipped imitation of Queen Victoria. We were not amused. I wanted sympathy and TLC, not ridicule. After all, I would never have gone out in the first place if it weren’t to please her. And I would have stayed below in my bunk reading The Pursuit of Happiness if it weren’t for her wretched pal Matt and his weedy ankle.

I could have been snug on the couch at home all weekend with a beer and a pizza watching the cricket. Then none of this would have happened.

There was only one option open to me when I got inside. Bed. Lying on my front, groaning with the occasional whimper. OK, so the wife did put in a brief appearance to ask if I needed anything but I waved her away, unwilling to have to beg for the soothing touch, the gentle kiss on the brow. Or anything really that might show me I was mistaken in thinking she didn’t give a damn .

That wasn’t Julia’s way. ‘Don’t ever expect me to be a little wifey wife,’ she told me once. ‘It is not in my nature.’ At the time I didn’t really understand what she meant, although I soon learnt not to expect endearments or cosy cuddles together. There were moments when I was tempted to tell her that a little tenderness could go a long way, then backed off because I feared a jibe about masculinity. But the sex was good.

So imagine me there stretched out on the bed in my underwear. Even the feel of my shorts was unbearable. And I must have dozed off because I dreamt I was in a cool bath attended by a gorgeous blonde whose administrations were potent to say the least. I woke to feel soft fingers smoothing some kind of gel onto my inner thighs and what with that and the dream the results were predictable and fairly obvious.

‘Ahhh,’ I murmured, ‘that’s just what I need, Julia.’ The laugh that ensued was not my wife’s neigh and the voice assuring me I would soon be fighting fit was definitely not hers. Awkwardly I turned my head to see my mother-in-law kneeling between my thighs, a pot of Sunsooth in her hand, a lascivious grin on her face. Panic. ‘What the hell…’ I started to say, when the door opened and Julia let out what I can only describe as a feral roar. The mug of coffee she was carrying dropped to the floor and smashed. And that was only the beginning.

***

Need I say more? The scene that followed is not pretty. It shames me. Emasculates me. I wanted to curl up like a foetus in the dark of the womb so I didn’t have to endure the sight of Julia forcibly evicting her scantily clad mother, or listen to her vitriolic outpourings. I’ve tried to delete the scene from memory, but it returns day and night in all its technicoloured glory.

My skin healed nicely. The scars are hidden. I saw a counsellor after the divorce, a kindly middle-aged woman with a thick plait over her left shoulder. She agreed that life was unfair and suggested in the nicest possible way that perhaps we were not a particularly well-matched couple since we appeared to hold quite different values and interests. There was also just the tiniest hint of reproach that we hadn’t taken counselling together earlier. I could just imagine the look on Julia’s face at the idea.

However we have moved on, as all good counsellors advise. Julia to the consoling embrace of Matt (I should have seen that coming), her mother to a tanned young buck from Texas with a fixation on ‘the older woman’, as he informed me without shame on the only occasion we had the misfortune to meet, and me to the solitary pleasures of life in a one roomed ‘apartment’ designed for munchkins.

The image of that bedroom farce continues to haunt, still causes a blush that is all too reminiscent of burning skin and the humiliation that followed. The other week I picked up a novel by Graham Greene from the op shop because the title appealed. A Burnt Out Case. It sums me up nicely.