I danced in a field at a music festival, twirled so my dress billowed like a pom-pom puffball. It felt like the tickle of tinsel or the caress of a squirrel-hair brush, no odd tingling sensation, no prick of a needle or tug of a thread through thin, pink skin. That’s how I remember it.
At home, I take a shower to wash out the old cow meadow smell. It’s a struggle to take off the dress. The chiffon knots at the shoulder are caught. I pull.
“What do you think it is?” I say to Billy.
He swigs on his Stella, strums his guitar and shrugs. “Since when did you care what I think?”
“The dress. Look.”
He glances up from the TV football game. “Very pretty.” He strums again and wiggles his eyebrows.
“It won’t budge.”
“So now you want me to help you.” He sighs, tries to heave himself up but collapses back against the sofa with a belch.
“Stay there. I expect it’s just snagged.”
The dress is pink and yellow with a deep blue background. You hardly notice the flower print. Not expensive, but short and floaty. I bought it for the music festival because it looked good with heels and also barefoot.
Maybe the knots have rubbed into my shoulder; grafted like a cherry to a Victoria plum. In the bedroom, I twist round my head, curve my shoulder forward and try to lift the straps. The knots are smaller than a wren, more like a stag beetle hovering on each shoulder. Except of course they aren’t hovering, they’re perching. I prod the knots. They flop like loose buttons but they’re definitely fixed because the skin pulls like a nasty pinch.
“Billy,” I yell. “Do we have any superglue left?”
“In the kitchen drawer, like always.” He sounds normal, not up to some childish practical joke. I check the drawer. It’s there, unopened. I look into the living room. He’s nodding off, eyes closed, chin down, like he should have a baby nestling on his chest. I shouldn’t always suspect Billy.
I slip off my underwear and shower. I rub soap into the knot and afterwards, I drip onto the bathmat and tug. If anything, the knots are more firmly fixed than before. I pick at the skin with my nail until it bleeds and hurts like I’ve rubbed my knuckles against a rough brick wall.
I wish I’d left it alone. I dry myself shivering on the bedroom rug. Outside, the rain patters on the window. Billy snores in the other room. I use my hair drier to blast hot air onto the dress. The blue background dries quickly but the pink and yellow flowers take twenty seconds of full-power heat each. When I’ve finished, I tug the fabric once more. Every flower in the pattern has rooted firmly into my skin.
Every blousy, bloom is blossoming all over my chest and stomach, back and waist, bottom, thighs and legs.
I scream some more.
“What the hell? Jess …” Billy staggers into the bedroom.
“It’s stuck on me.”
“The dress. It’s growing on me. All over.”
“Probably something they put on the field.”
“Spray. You’re allergic to some chemical fertiliser or something. That’s all. Don’t panic.”
“Spray? What do you mean, don’t panic?”
“You always overreact.”
“You’d panic if your clothes started to grow on you. What if it’s some genetic modification like tomatoes?” But he’s gone back to the TV.
I take hay fever tablets and soak in the bath. It doesn’t make any difference and when Billy wakes, I send him back to his house.
“See you again,” I say.
“Soon?” He hangs his head. “Are you sure you’re going to be ok? Is that dress problem sorted?” He checks me over. I’ve put a baggy top over the dress and pulled jeans underneath.
“I’ll phone. I promise.” I close the door.
Over the next few days, I buy a packet of Marlboro and blow smoke at myself. It’s a stupid idea, but they use smoke to drive out hornets and vermin and didn’t someone say that it’s an antiseptic? No, that was probably Billy when he was fighting the smoking ban. I rub myself in white spirit, then baby oil. I smear myself with body butter. I search the Internet for solutions. Nothing works.
Back at New Look, six of the dresses still hang on a rail, discounted and the cashier is wearing one.
“Have you sold many of these?”
She shakes her head.
“Mine’s not right.”
“Have you got the receipt?”
“Have you worn yours much?”
“Twice this week. It’s a promotion.”
“And nothing’s happened?”
“Has the dye rubbed off? That sometimes happens.” She looks at the queue.
After that, I worry about my other clothes. I worry about the growths spreading so I cut away the sections that aren’t welded to my skin, mostly around my neck and chest. I throw out all my florals and switch to wearing plain fabrics.
At work, I don’t even tell Alli because she’ll tell everyone else. I sit at my desk, prod the keyboard and wait for the phone to ring. I’m a mutant freak but no one need know. Then one lunch break, sitting on a park bench, Alli offers me some salad. I shake my head.
“You look hot,” she says.
It’s true. We’re in a heat wave, the grass has dried to a dusty brown, the leaves are turning crispy on their branches. Alli’s wearing a candy stripe skirt and matching pink strappy top. I’m sweltering in a trouser suit.
“Why don’t you take off your jacket?” she says. “I think you’re getting a heat rash.”
“It’s nothing. I probably rubbed too much sun cream into my neck that’s all.”
Alli peers closer. “Could be hives. Maybe you’re allergic. My nephew’s allergic to cat pee. The specialist gave him a diet.”
“Look at all those clouds,” I say. Distraction always works on Billy.
“What clouds?” She can be very annoying.
“It’s going to get chilly. We’re due for a drop of rain.”
“I can’t see them.”
“Stripes remind me of strings round a parcel, cheesewire round a finger.” I want to tell her everything. “What if those stripes grow into your body and then tighten and pucker you up like a drawstring. Ever thought of that?”
Alli picks at her salad and ignores me.
The next morning, I inspect the dress. The fabric isn’t becoming my skin, which is a comfort, but the material has changed. The parts of the pattern that had been buds are blooming and the big, pink and yellow blousy blossoms are losing their petals, their stamens are wilting. I phone in sick, sit in front of the mirror all day and watch my skin.
It’s a slow process like the changing of a tide or the passage of the moon. I turn myself down like a volume control and listen. I hear my body crackle ever so slightly. I feel my skin tingle like someone’s blowing lightly into my pores. I smell the changes of a season, the musty whiff of a beech twig as it releases a single leaf into the breeze. I watch a fabric flower go to seed and form a ripe, red berry, larger than a cranberry, smaller than a rosehip, elongated to an oval like an egg.
I pluck one berry, then two, three, more and more. If I shake, the berries drop to the floor around me. In their place, my dress turns the colour of an autumn oak leaf, the winter coat of a doe. I am overcome by the greatest urge. I long to eat a berry. I gather them up and put them in a Tupperware container in the middle of the fridge. Madness? Maybe.
I try to stay normal. I text Alli for the name of her nephew’s allergy specialist and as soon as she replies, I make an appointment.
I look at the berries hanging like bunches of beautiful, bright red ovaries. I put one on a side plate and slice it in two. It is like the interior of a tiny pomegranate except that dozens of jelly-eyed spawn are packed into a heart-shaped husk. I pull out a Christmas cactus that has been growing on my windowsill, and in its place in the pot, I plant a seed. I roll another between my thumb and forefinger. The juice soaks into my skin. I touch the tip of my finger to my tongue. It’s the sweetest of sweets: blueberry ocean spray, sun-soaked raspberry, the shine of a buttercup, the greenness of grass. If the perfumers could bottle it and the confectioners preserve it, it would be the only sweet ever needed. But I mustn’t.
A few days later, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Billy. But Billy never knocks.
“Oh Bill,” I say. “It’s such a relief you’re back.” But he doesn’t look me in the eye.
“I’ve come for my stuff.”
“You wanted me out.”
“I’m in trouble. There’s something not right with me.”
“Is that some sort of freak show you’ve got going on?” He looks at the dress stuck to my skin; berries popping from clumps of moss and patches of bark. He wrinkles his nose. “How did you do it? “
“No. You’ve got me all wrong.”
“You always were weird.”
“I’m going to see the doctor about it.”
He collects a box of stuff. I try to help him but I notice that in the cactus pot where I’d planted the seed, a strong, pointy, green finger like a hyacinth shoot is sprouting.
“I’ll be off then.” He stands in the doorway, glancing at me then down at his box of things.
“Let me know what happens with the doc.”
I cry when he’s gone and hope that my tears don’t seed some awful bindweed that fills up the room and locks me in.
I pull myself together enough to go to the doctor. The receptionist is dressed in white.
“Do you want a cup of coffee? Have you taken time off work? Traffic’s terrible today.” She twiddles her pen. A man in the waiting room has bad acne; I sit next to him. The receptionist smiles; I smile back. It feels good to be somewhere friendly. She gives me a form but I can’t concentrate enough to fill it in.
“Never mind. You can do it when you come out.” She opens a door.
The doctor wears a blue pullover, glasses and a pointy beard. I show him my dress, my skin.
“Do you have a history of this kind of thing?”
“Have you burned yourself, cut yourself?”
I shake my head.
“Purposely I mean.”
“It’s not like that.”
“In cases such as this…”
I smile at him. It takes a big effort. “I spilled some glue, that’s all. Do you have any suggestions?”
He looks at me suspiciously. “You could try the burns unit.” He gives me a card. “Lydia will make the appointments for you.”
The receptionist is busy with the acne man, so I leave and smile all the way home until it gets dark and I’m sure no one can see me.
By the time I return, the shoot has grown into a small tree with a pom-pom of greyish silvery leaves. I plant it in the backyard and sow some more.
At work, I feel like a Christmas tree shrivelling and drying in the corner, past its point, ready to be burned. At home, the silvery-grey, pom-pom tree is burgeoning with pink and yellow blossoms. I collect the berries as they ripen until heaps of berries fill my fridge and freezer.
One day, I come up with a bright idea. I buy a red umbrella and some paper bags. I go to market, sit beneath the umbrella and sell bags of berries for a great deal of money. The next week my customers return bright-eyed, perky, looking me in the eye like they’re in love. Every week I gather more. Every week my customers return even happier. They pay exorbitant amounts for my berries and they adore me. I’m invited to parties and concerts. I parcel the berries in pink and white boxes and go global. Overseas clients adorn me with pearls and diamonds instead of cash. I’m asked to marry rich men and women. Of course I refuse. I wear glamorous gowns and elaborate hairstyles. I feel like Marie Antoinette, nothing’s too grand for me. I’m chauffeured everywhere in a berry red Roller.
I’m worth every penny but the thing is: I believe that if I taste my berries, it will all dissipate, fritter into the ether. Not that I care for riches and adoration, that’s not the point. My berries are too sweet, too good. I have sent my berries out into the world. That’s enough.
When I next see Billy, I invite him to join me in my new life and share my plans for a future of fruitfulness. He does this with great pleasure.
I am a woodwind teacher and writer living in the Uk with my husband, three daughters, three dogs and two cats. I first started writing as a little girl when I would hide in the rhododendron bushes and watch people in the car park next door. A great many stories emerged. The downside: dogs would sniff me out but I squirted them with a water pistol and they usually left me alone. I have since found that I can write without hiding. My most recent successes include work being shortlisted for the 2012 Mslexia Prize, Highly Commended in the 2012 Yeovil Prize and longlisted in the 2012 Fish Memoir Prize.