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I have my Grandmother’s skin. Problem skin. My Mother buys me witch hazel, calendula, aloe vera, claims she knows a woman who drinks collagen every morning with her tea.

‘It’s just your genes,’ she says. ‘Stop picking at it.’

My Mother’s skin stretches over the bones of her face like gloss paint poured from a palette. When she dips a finger into the pad of her cheek, I half expect it to come away wet.

Our bathroom shelves are a graveyard of bottles  –  discarded jars and lotion pumps left to clog at their necks and nozzles, ointments used for two weeks and then abandoned. My Mother buys special sloughing tools, face masks and tinctures from the chemist. Our neighbour, Mrs Weir, is an Avon lady and I suffer one long afternoon of being daubed with honey cream at the kitchen table as she blithely assures me it’s supposed to sting.

‘It’s a funny one, isn’t it?’ she says to my Mother. ‘Not quite eczema but not quite acne either. Psoriasis or vitiligo or something. Sort of like when my Jonathan had that reaction to the moules at Il Mare and had to have his stomach pumped. Or –  hell –  what’s that syndrome with the bits that go black—’

‘It’s hereditary,’ my Mother says, assessing her reflection in Mrs Weir’s make- up mirror after applying a different colour shadow to each eyelid. ‘Difficult puberties.’

‘–  what am I thinking of ?’ Mrs Weir burbles on, twisting the cap on a tube of cream like the wringing of a neck. ‘The poor people you see in the movies with the skin. You know? The ones with the bells.’

‘You’re thinking of leprosy,’ I say and reach for a pot of shimmer. Mrs Weir snatches it away.

‘Not that one, sweets, that’s not your colour. You know what I do have is a lovely piece of kit that’s technically meant for stretch marks, but it might do as cover for you. Look here. The burn victims like this one, see.’

In the event, my Mother buys herself two shades of eyeshadow and spends the evening doing my make- up. I sit still as she mirages me a pair of cheekbones, streaks dark gel across my temples, crimson stain on my lips. Her porcelain concealer comes out velvety on her fingertips and she applies it to my cheeks in slices, rubbing circles through the surface as it blends. My skin peels into the bristles of her make- up brushes and I wind up like Baby Jane beneath the powder. A smoothing of white paste over something sickly, a crusting in the corners of my mouth.

‘Mrs Weir’s husband isn’t allergic to shellfish,’ my Mother says later in confiding tones, filling my sparse eyebrows in with softened pencil.

‘Allergic to chattering old hags, is more like it. Allergic to bad company.’ She holds the pencil up, triumphant.

‘There we go. Red- carpet ready.’

I shift my head to glance into her compact mirror and scatter a confetti of myself across the floor


This is an excerpt from the 2019 shortlisted book by Julia Armfield.  Read more

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