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Finding Skerryvore

* Story contains bad language

I was paddling in the sea with Felicity and Jamie when I noticed it; a faint indentation, the thickness of a hair, running around my upper arm. I thought it was nothing, dismissed it, but the next day Jamie and I were building a sand palace for Felicity's Barbie and I was putting the finishing touches to the low wall around the moat when Jamie said, 'Dad what's that funny line on your arm.'

'What do you mean?'

'Look.'

What had been a line no thicker than a whisker was now a shallow groove running right around the whole circumference of my arm, just below the shoulder. I touched it, ran my palm along it. Then I squeezed my fingertips into the hollow. It was like a deep wrinkle. Maybe that's what it was; a wrinkle. I stretched my arm to see if the furrow would disappear. It didn't.

I continued to build the palace for Felicity's doll. The Barbie came with a purple horse and this meant stables and an exercise field, as well as the ten-roomed building she had specified, so we had a lot of construction work to do. I decided to ignore the blemish on my arm. When you notice something odd about your body it becomes all enveloping - like when I was a kid and obsessed that my ears stuck out like monstrous flaps and slept with a heavy book on the side of my face.

I splashed water onto the sand, scooped up a handful, and poured it onto the palace walls to make smooth concrete whirls. Jamie and I set about moulding the runny sand into shapely turrets and balustrades while Felicity marked out the horse's field. Then Georgina came over with ice creams.

'Mum, has your arm got a line on it like Dad's?' Jamie said.

'I don't know darling. I don't think so.'

'See?' Jamie poked my arm, showing the groove to Georgina.

'That's funny,' she said. 'Maybe it's how Daddy's been sleeping. Have you been leaning on something?'

I brushed sand from the wrinkle. 'I don't think so. It must have always been there.'

'Come here.' She, like me, pressed her fingers into the wrinkle then followed it round my arm like a needle in the groove of a record. 'Does it hurt' she said.

'No.'

'Has it been bleeding?'

'No'

'Have you fallen, or cut yourself or bumped into something?'

'No.'

'Its almost like there was something tied around your arm and then it's been taken away and left a wound. But you say it doesn't hurt?'

'No. It's not sore. But I think I'll put my shirt back on - this sun is scorching. Must have been there since I was a kid.'

On the way back we passed Hooch sitting outside her caravan scratching numbers into her ledger. Hooch was the odd job woman and had the caravan next to ours. She looked after everything - changing gas bottles, fitting light bulbs, unblocking drains, and organising engineers for the more technical problems. She was a skinny, unclean woman with long straight black hair, a severe fringe and lipstick of a dark red colour which made her teeth glow margarine yellow. But you seldom saw them because she never, ever smiled.

She had few callers and there wasn't a man. The solitary nature of her job seemed to give her pleasure. In the evening she sat outside her caravan filling in a ledger. We knew what she was writing about; the flickering light in number 46, the leaky shower tray in number 49. We were familiar with her business transactions, because we heard her on her mobile phone. Often she would be dealing with complaints - usually from irate customers at a remote site called Camping Girasol. She dealt with every complaint in the same way - by repeating her solution over and over again. 'Mr Johnson, I can get someone out to you within three days.' Then a silence and we would hear her say, 'Yes. Yes I see, I understand, yes. Well, Mr Johnson, I can get someone out to you in three days,' followed by more silence then, 'Yes, I see. I know it's difficult, Mr Johnson, I can get someone out to you within three days,' and so on, and so on.

Hooch had slung a hammock between the caravan and an adjacent tree, and when she'd finished writing in her ledger and repeating things down the phone to people at Camping Girasol she clambered into it to read her book. Always a biography, and always of a sporting figure. We used to sit outside our caravan a few yards away from her, drinking cheap wine and looking at the stars. She was a restful presence and some kind of companionable relationship between us developed which was hard to describe. When she wasn't there we felt somehow incomplete.

'Hiya, Hooch,' I called out. She lifted her head from Tennis Ace - The story of Chris Evert - and pointed her ferocious little eyes at me. Her hair looked greasy and held the tracks of her comb.

'Hummph,' said Hooch.

'Hooch, we have a small problem with our fridge. The door won't close properly and I was wondering whether - '

Hooch held up her hand to stop me then reached under the table from where she produced a polythene bag with a plastic device inside. 'Use this to click around the door,' she said. 'I knew about that problem.'

'So you had that ready for us?'

'Yes,' said Hooch.

'In case we asked?'

'Yes.'

'But what if we had just struggled on and didn't ask?'

'It's up to you,' she said. 'I don't interfere, I just help when I am asked.'

I looked at her for a moment. There were times when she seemed half buried in some sediment of despair.

'But you knew about - oh never mind,' I said. 'Enjoy your book, Hooch.'

That night we went to the campsite bar. It was kids' karaoke and Jamie wanted to do Stan by Eminem cos he had learnt all the words, including the swear words. We said he could do it, but he had to do the radio edit with the gaps for the bad words.

Earlier in the shower I had a really good look at my arm. There was a groove all the way round, a definite groove. It seemed even deeper than before at the beach. I could get the tip of my thumb right inside and trail it round the whole circumference.

'Ladies and gentlemen, Jamie Crowther,' the compere said and little Jamie with his gelled-up hair began to holler the words to Stan while the Dido track warbled away.

We watched, utterly rapt. Georgina gripped my knee. 'Look at him,' she said. 'I can't believe he's ours.'

'I know,' I said, and squeezed her hand, grinning like an idiot.

When I woke up the next morning the first thing I did was feel my arm. I sat upright in shock. It was definitely worse than yesterday. My finger went in deep, up to the first knuckle. I lifted it to see whether there was any effect on my movements, but there didn't seem to be.

I made a cup of tea and sat on the step of the caravan. Six thirty. People were assembling for that day's trip. A melon farm? Or was it a pearl factory? I lifted the arm above my head. No problem. I went over to the terrace table and tried to lift the parasol holder, which was anchored by a heavy container of water. I could just about shift it, the strength in my arm didn't seem to be affected. Whilst holding the parasol aloft I caught a glimpse of Hooch at her window, washing a glass at the sink. She was looking at me and frowning more than usual. If it wasn't for her thick fringe I imagined I would have seen deep furrows in her brow like dark canals.

When Georgina got up I told her I was worried. 'The situation with my arm', I called it and she laughed.

'The situation,' she said back at me.

I told her that I definitely hadn't had it since I was a kid, that it was something new. Again she asked about pain, and infection, and cuts and accidents and again I told her no.

'Well,' she said, 'I think it's nothing to worry about but maybe you should go to the campsite health centre and see what they say.'

I stopped at Hooch's hammock. Her bare feet were hanging over the end. Hairs grew from her big toes.

'Do you know anything about the campsite doctor, Hooch?'

She looked up and swept her eyes from my heels to my scalp, instantly bored by the query.

'What's up like? You got a cold or summat?'

I smiled. 'I need to see the local sawbones. You're not in charge of our physical health as well as our gas bottles are you, Hooch?'

Her expression didn't change. 'No,' she said. 'Just repairs to the caravans, like.'

'I know,' I said.

Her face under the stiff line of her fringe showed no flicker of emotion. 'People think they're funny, like,' she said. 'Dead funny. You know what? Nobody's funny nowadays, that's the truth. You need a doctor like? Uh?'

'I could do with seeing one today.'

'The doctor's surgery is from nine till eleven, thereabouts. He'll see you and he'll give it to you straight. But you have to have your green slip.'

'Oh, I've got the green slip.'

'At least you've got a doctor,' she said. 'Back on Skerry, where I come from, there's nothing, nothing for miles.'

I thought I saw the flicker of a smile before her face resumed its default position of an aggrieved grimace.

The doctor was a young Spanish man with excellent English who listened carefully and nodded seriously as I described the opening that had appeared from nowhere on my arm.

'Have you been OK otherwise?'

'Fit as a fiddle,' I said.

'OK, let's have a look.' He moved me over to the examination couch. I sat on the edge and removed my shirt and he looked at the strange aperture, inserting his fingers just as I had and checking to see how far round it went. 'Just move your arm a little for me,' he murmured, and I worked my shoulder up and down. The split opened and closed like the sucking lips of a horrible shell fish.

'You can put your shirt back on,' he said. 'And sit back down over there.' I did as he asked and he looked at me and tapped his pen on his pad of paper. 'You say it appeared yesterday?' he said.

'Yes.'

'Well, it looks to me like it's always been there. It looks like it's healed perfectly, but that at one time it was some kind of wound. Maybe from tying something tightly around it. Have you had anything tied tightly around it? Some sort of ligature?'

'No.'

'Can you use your arm? Can you lift and stretch?'

'It feels fine.'

'Do you use any drugs. Anything like that?'

'Not really.' The fact was I smoked spliffs most weeks - most days if I was honest - but I didn't see how that was relevant. 'The odd glass of wine.' Bottle more like.

He looked to the side for a beat. 'Any mental health problems - depression, anxiety?'

'No more than any one else. We all get down from time to time.'

'That's true. Well,' he said, putting down his pen. 'If you can use the arm and you're in no pain and there's no sign of infection I don't think there's much we can do. Just keep an eye on it and come back if it gets any worse.'

Georgina and Jamie and Felicity were waiting for me when I got back. I had promised that we would drive in to the local town where there was a market and fairground rides.

'Everything OK?' said Georgina, flapping her arm like a chicken.

'He said to keep an eye on it.'

'Let's do that then.'

As we packed up the car I saw Hooch looking at us out of her caravan window as she watered a plant. She raised her eyebrows in a peculiar way.

I wandered about the local market, making a conscious effort not to check my arm. My hand wandered up there once or twice but I corrected it. I knew the problem would seem worse if I kept checking all the time. I vowed to leave it alone for a whole day then check in the morning.

The market was crawling with tourists in combat shorts and those lumpy off-road sandals the middle classes wear. I could never see the attraction of markets. We have markets at home and they are colourful and exciting too, but we never go to them. The stalls were stocked with oddly shaped cheeses, glossy vegetables, olives, and big ugly dried fish. Jamie and Felicity liked a stall that sold dogs, rats, and live chickens and we spent a long time hanging about there. After a few hours I had completely forgotten about the situation with my arm. Jamie bought a miniature kite and Felicity a wooden parrot which flapped its wings when you pulled a lever.

When we got back to the car she gave me it and I yanked on the lever. 'Squawk squawk, hello Felicity, where's Jamie?' I said. But operating the toy parrot made me aware that the arm felt quite a bit different now than it had the day before. It felt much longer than the other arm, like it was heavier. I returned the parrot to Felicity and went behind the car where I pretended to check something in the boot. I lifted up my shirt sleeve. When I saw what had happened I said, 'Oh,' as if I had been struck. I trembled. I felt faint. The opening had grown much larger, to such an extent that it wasn't a wrinkle or an opening any more. It was as if a huge chunk of flesh had been gouged out of my upper arm, as though it had been turned on a lathe the way you make the indents in table legs. The space was now the width of three fingers and the piece connecting my arm to my shoulder the thickness of a broom handle.

'Georgina, come here a minute.' She got out of the passenger seat and came over to where I was sitting on the lip of the car boot. 'Look at it now,' I gazed up at her imploringly. I must have looked like a sick puppy.

She looked at the arm and I saw panic flash across her face. But then she calmed herself. 'Is it hurting?' she said.

'No'

'And you can still use it?'

'Yes. Look.' I lifted the arm and touched her hair. I sensed her flinch a little as if she was afraid, as if my arm was some kind of monster.

'What's wrong?' I smiled at her. 'I don't think you can catch it.' For the first time Georgina looked worried, and for some reason this made me feel a little better, as if I had passed some of my fear on to her.

'Maybe you should, sort of, have it up in a sling? Maybe you should rest it and then the flesh will, I don't know, grow back?' She looked at me for a long time. 'Oh Roger,' she said finally. 'What have you been doing?'

'Doing?' I said? 'What could I have been doing that would cause this?'

'Mum,' said Felicity from the back seat. 'Can we go back now. It's little Mr and Mrs Universe tonight and me and Jamie have entered. Come on.'

'Will you be able to drive?' Georgina asked me

'Yes,' I said. 'It feels fine. Just the idea is a bit weird, that's all.'

Hooch was sat outside talking into her mobile when we got back, with her ledger open in front of her. She stopped talking and switched off the phone as we walked past and looked at us with no expression.

'The fridge is fine with that clip holding it shut.' Georgina said to her. 'Thank you.'

'That's what it's for,' said Hooch.

Georgina stopped at her table and said. 'Do you ever miss home, Hooch? It must be a long season.'

'Five and a half months. It's what I do. It's very cold at home. Scotland is very cold. I like to be outside, like.'

'Did you do the same sort of work in Scotland?'

'No'

'What did you use to do?'

'I was a social worker.'

Georgina nodded and followed the rest of us into our caravan.

'She's a miserable bitch,' she whispered to me.

'What's a social worker?' said Felicity.

'It's like a life coach for poor people,' I said.

I was carrying a tray of drinks back from the bar when I noticed that the arm with the situation was hanging down much longer than the other one. We sat in silence and watched the Mr and Miss Universe competition. Jamie had dressed himself up as Tarzan and Felicity was a fairy and after the competition they danced on the stage to the latest summer disco hits which all involved regimented dance routines that every kid knew. Georgina and I sat looking at the gyrating children and hummed along to the cheesy pop. We drank a carafe of cheap red wine and I said I wanted some more and she said, yes, so we drank more. If I were honest I wanted to be drunk so I would be sure to get to sleep. I didn't want to lie there worrying about my arm.

Hooch was outside in her hammock, drinking a glass of something amber coloured and reading the life of George Best by the light of the caravan. She was smoking a cigarette. I mumbled 'Evening, Hooch' and a grunt came back.

Inside the caravan I wrapped a towel around the affected area and went to bed. I had a vague idea that the newly exposed flesh might need protecting or that maybe the warmth would encourage it to grow back. I fell asleep and dreamt of diseased bodies and hideous limbless creatures.

The next day I sat up in bed and immediately unwrapped the towel. My arm flopped out and dangled down. It seemed to hang much lower than it had yesterday. I looked at my shoulder and saw that it was now attached by only a sliver of flesh, no thicker than a pencil. I was afraid to let this fragile looking thread take the weight so I held the arm with my other arm and went and sat on the step of the caravan, nursing it like a baby. Fear came down like a cage. I wished I was at home. My own doctor, Dr Brazenose, would know what to do. These foreign doctors, maybe they weren't as up to date as ours. Or maybe it was some sort of Spanish condition. The doctor didn't seem so surprised about it after all.

I looked over at the dark windows of Hooch's caravan. I could hear the faint murmur of her radio. She listened to the World Service a lot - fat plummy voices growling on and on about foreign uprisings, dysfunctional economies, and obscure election results in former Soviet states. I heard Jamie and Felicity scuffling about and Jamie skipped over and jumped on my back. 'Careful of my sore arm, darling,' I said.

'Let 's have a look. Have you still got a hole in it?'

'No, it's OK,' I said. I didn't want him to see it like this.

'What time are we going to the water park?' he said.

'When Mum gets up. I'll go and see if she's awake.'

In the bedroom I shook Georgina. 'Georgina, look at it now,' I said. 'Look.' I let the arm dangle down. I could still move it, although it did take a bit more effort, but it was now a good six inches longer than it should be.

She sat up and reached for her spectacles. When she put them on she gasped. 'Oh my God, Roger, what did you do?'

'I didn't do anything.'

'What did you do?' she repeated. We both stared at the arm for a long time. Then she said, 'Come here,' and she hugged me. Don't worry, We'll take you to the town. There's a hospital there. A big one. They'll know what to do'.

'What if…' I said.

'Don't be stupid,' she said. 'That's not going to happen, have you ever heard of that happening to anyone?'

I got into the shower and gave myself a really good wash ahead of the hospital visit. I was using the affected arm to wash under my other arm when the situation got much, much worse. There was a kind of twang at my shoulder and the arm fell away, the upper part hitting the shower floor, the hand falling to rest against my thigh. 'Shit,' I cried. 'Fuck. Oh No.' I looked at the shoulder expecting to see blood. But here was nothing. I stood with the shower gushing and steam gathering around me. I bent and gripped the arm by its hand. Then I rested it on the floor and with my good hand examined the place from where it had fallen. It was completely smooth, as if the arm had never been there. I bent down and felt the severed end of the detached arm too and it was smooth as well.

I turned off the shower. How was I going to explain this to Georgina and the kids? I felt as though it was my fault and waves of guilt and despair swept through me.

I wrapped the arm up in a towel and set off across the site to the main gates. I walked and walked, holding the arm close to my chest, tears burning my cheeks. I walked for about an hour but eventually the heat got too much and I collapsed on to a bench. I unwrapped the arm and looked at it. It didn't look any paler then the rest of my body. I touched it. It didn't feel cold, like a dead thing; it felt the same as before. I interlocked the fingers of my good hand with the fingers of my severed arm and sat there. Cars swished by on their way to the beach. I closed my eyes against the scorching sun.

Some time later there was an angry crump of gravel followed by Georgina's voice, sounding tight and clenched. 'Roger! We've been looking for you everywhere.'

I climbed into the car sheepishly 'It's my arm,' I said. Georgina looked at the swaddled bundle then at the stump at my shoulder. 'Oh Roger, grow up? Are you ill?'

'Well, no,' I said.

'Well, if you're not ill you're just going to have to get on with it, aren't you? Sometimes your self indulgence is so pathetic. Don't ruin everyone's holiday over this.'

Felicity and Jamie were quiet all the way back. But I heard Jamie say quietly to Felicity, 'Dad's arm's fell off,' and I heard Felicity giggle.

Hooch was standing outside our caravan when we got back

'You've got a blockage,' she said accusingly.

'Oh,' said Georgina.

'It's affecting the others on the row so I will have to fix it, like.' she said. 'Do you mind if I turn you off for half an hour?'

'Well, I was just about to cook,' Georgina said.

'Well, you've got a blockage and it's affecting the others on th-'

'I know I know, all join in after three - one two three,' said Georgina.

Hooch stared at her, unsmiling. 'I'm doing my job.' she said.

'So am I,' said Georgina. 'Mine's chief awkward sarcastic bastard.'

Hooch fixed the blockage then lay down in her hammock to read. We didn't go down the bar that night. Jamie and Felicity went to the playground on their own. They were upset to see the arm so I agreed to keep it wrapped up while they were around. But I kept it nearby so I could see where it was. We sat outside and drank wine and looked at the stars. You could see Venus. Mercury too. When it became time to go to bed, I unwrapped the arm, pulled back the covers and lay it on the sheet on my side of the bed.. Georgina looked at it in horror. 'What are you doing?'

'I'm going to bed,' I said.

'With that?' she said.

'But it's me. It's my arm'. I didn't want to be parted from the limb. I had a vague notion that during the night it might rejoin my body in the same way it had strangely become detached. I got in next to it and cuddled it close. It felt like a cold and clammy hot water bottle.

'If you are sleeping with that arm then I am sleeping on the sofa.'

'Fine,' I said, and rolled over.

The next evening Georgina told me that she was going to stay with Hooch for a few nights. 'This. . . you know. . .this arm thing . . it's a bit …eeeuch. You know how I am with snails and things like that.'

'Hooch?'

'Just till the end of the holiday.'

'I can't imagine you staying with Hooch.'

'You can't imagine me? You don't imagine me, I'm just there.'

We looked at each other for a few moments in silence.

'Snails?' I said.

My face burned with shame and anger as I watched her drag her suitcase through the gravel to Hooch's caravan. Hooch was at the table doing her ledger and she didn't even look up as Georgina lifted the case up the step and into Hooch's home.

Georgina stayed with Hooch for the last three days of the holiday. We were about to set off for the airport when Georgina discovered I had packed the arm into my carry-on luggage.

'Roger, I can't believe you still have that. You can't take it home with us.'

'Well, I'm not leaving it here. What would I do? Chuck it in a skip?'

'You know what they said at the hospital. They couldn't reattach it. The nerves were all dead, like it had never been attached. You're so sentimental, Roger. It's an arm, that's all. The human spirit is not present in that piece of flesh. There's nothing of you, the man I Iove, in that arm.'

But I was adamant. 'The arm comes with me.' I said. 'I don't care what anyone says.'

At the airport it showed up on the x-ray and they took me into a special room. The police became involved. It took a long time, but eventually they were made to understand that there was no crime involved. But they wouldn't let me take it on the plane. They spent some time deciding on its classification. It wasn't a dead body, so what was it? They eventually decided it was meat.

'My arm is not raw meat,' I said.

'For our purposes it is, and as such is subject to strict controls. It can travel only as a special package and you will need a special licence for which there is a cost.'

'Fine,' I said. 'Here's my address and credit card.'

I was tingling with the excitement and anticipation of meeting a much missed lover when the postman handed me a long polystyrene box. I peeked in and there it was, packed in ice. When I got it home I lifted it out and lay it across my lap. It didn't look like it had deteriorated at all. It looked fine.

I sat like this, alone in the living room with my arm, for several days. Now and again I looked at the space where it had been; a tantalising empty shape seemed to remain, almost, but not quite, defining the idea of the arm it once held.

Georgina and the children had been gone three months now. I couldn't understand why they'd left. Don't come looking her note said. Please, Roger. We love you. Sorry.

Then one day I was going through her drawers, rubbing my fingers in the gritty dust which still smelt of her perfume, and I found a scrap of yellow post-it note with one word on it.

Skerryvore.

It chimed with something I remembered Hooch saying. Skerry. The island where she lived in the winter.

I looked it up on the Internet. Skerryvore: island off the coast of north west Scotland - twelve inhabitants.

The ferryboat took over an hour and ferryman, a spruce, polite Scotsman, said he'd wait for me.

It was bleak and rocky. Nothing grew apart for a few stumpy skeletal trees, twisted into manic shapes by the elements. Seagulls called - wild, haunting - and a bitter wind roared. The whiskered heads of seals bobbed about near the shore.

Felicity and Jamie were in the garden playing on a rusted swing. Their faces were covered in jam. They looked horrible and rural, as if they were no longer mine.

I sneaked past them and into the house. I don't want them to be upset by the scene I was about to cause. They were better in the garden, well out of it.

I stood in the kitchen for a time. I could hear the soft burr of voices above me in the bedroom. An overfull fruit bowl on the table suggested squalor rather than abundance. Next to it was Hooch's toolbox. I selected a large hammer and set off up the stairs.

I pushed the bedroom door open quietly and there they were - their bodies fused into a delirious, slurping kiss. The world stood still. The wind stopped. The seagull's mewling froze into a uniform drone. A lifetime of wasted love crashed down on me.

I coughed, they parted abruptly, and when Georgina saw me she leapt out of bed, keeping herself covered with a sheet. I looked into Hooch's empty black eyes.

'I wondered if you'd find us.' she said.

Then I lifted the hammer.

Hooch's expression didn't change. Her eyes stayed locked on me throughout as I smashed and smashed. A long plume of blood shot up, brown, arterial, but I kept on battering, kept on until her head caved in, her mouth folded up like a toothless old man's, her hair flapped up like a fright wig, her right eye swelled, boiled, burst, then spread down her face. Skull crumbs rattled against the wall like grapeshot.

When I stopped for breath, my heart was pounding in my chest. There wasn't a sound in the room. Then I looked down and saw that there was no hammer and there was no blood and there was no shattered skull.

Because there was no arm.

And the wind howled under the door, the seagulls shrieked, and Georgina whimpered sorry, over and over again.

Hooch's face was quivering, her eyes still locked onto mine.