Short Story Winners 

2024 inaugural Ennis Book Club Festival Short Story Competition1st place 

Skin Care
by Susan Elsley

Seven weeks before she arrived at the house in the hills, Rona woke up shivering. She rubbed her body to warm her skin which had become translucent and too soft. She knew she had to do something, or she would evaporate. Disappear.

She began by reading a book about a place where trees dripped with lichen and birds flitted through their branches. She drank tea for a hundred pages then changed to a bottle of red and finished the book at three in the morning. When she woke, the duvet was on the floor, and her skin had a sheen of dampness.  It felt like progress.

It was the only book in the flat. The others had gone with most of the furniture. She had been left with the bed, a table stained with mug rings and a sheepskin cushion. Stretching out on the floor, Rona realised she was grateful that the remnants of the last two years had been tidied out by someone else.

In the charity shop, she bought two books. The novel with the stormy sky on its cover told a tale of a worse relationship than hers but she flinched at the reminder, and it went into the bin. The other, a collection of maps, stayed next to her bed. She skimmed through it, following the courses of rivers and contours of hills with her fingers. It was like being buffeted by a gentle breeze.

The next week she decided not to go back to work after a month of sick leave. Instead, she walked to the bookshop that she’d never visited. When she opened the door, there were twinkling lights draped across the ceiling and a smell of joss sticks.  She picked up a book about living with wolves. Perhaps a little too esoteric, she thought.

‘Esoteric? I haven’t heard of that one.’

The book slipped out of her hand, and she caught it by its corner.  A man sat behind the counter with a laptop on his knee.

‘Sorry. I was talking to myself,’ she said.

Embarrassment squeezed her voice into a whisper.  Words had started popping into her head in the last week. Now they were falling out of her mouth.

The man lifted his hand in greeting. He had a tattoo that stretched up his arm, a tree with branches that curled and ended in a cluster of leaves. Mesmerising, she thought, putting a finger against her lips.

 ‘I’m Cal. Yell if you want anything,’ he said, and turned away.

She flicked through a book lying on a table. A compendium of clouds.  When she bought it, Cal nodded as if it was the right choice.

Rona read a few pages in bed. In the morning she read them again. When she went to the window, she could name the clouds scudding above her. Cirrus. Cumulus. Altostratus. Her fingers tingled. The world had got higher.

She went back to the bookshop the next day and most days after that. She poured a mug of coffee from the flask on the counter, folded herself into the armchair by the window and looked through the pile that Cal handed her when she walked in the door. Books on mountain hares, migratory birds and rock formations. Often, she read for an hour and said nothing. The other customers picked their way around her.

In the flat, the books piled up around the sheepskin cushion. At night she ate takeaway meals with the latest book in her hand and repeated words out loud. Anomalous. Metamorphic. Tundra.

One day, when Rona was drinking coffee, Cal leaned across the counter and slid a book towards her.

‘When are you going?’ he said.

‘Where?’ she said.

‘There.’ Cal pointed to the map behind him. ‘North.’

‘Sometime.’ 

That was a lie. She’d never thought the silver thread of possibility was for her.

‘Go now. Sap’s risen, spring light. You haven’t been reading those books for nothing.’

‘Nice idea, but no,’ she said.

‘Don’t move,’ he said, and disappeared into the back of the shop.

Rona perched on the arm of the chair and flicked through the book. She stopped at one page and whispered out loud, ‘walk through the ancient Caledonian forest of Scots pine, birch and juniper.’ 

Her fingers stroked the photograph, and she imagined lying on mossy earth with her face turned to the sky and her fingers pulling at tufts of grass.

When Cal returned, he was whistling. He held up his phone, and Rona glanced at the screen which showed a house with a green door surrounded by the curves of hills.

‘My Auntie’s house. She’s off on her travels. Yours for as long you want,’ he said.

She pushed the phone away.

‘I can’t.’

‘You can. Easy peasy.’

He reached behind the counter and brought out a bottle of whisky. He poured a slug into each mug and held one out to her.  They clinked, and the warmth flooded into her stomach.

‘Precipitous,’ she said.

He shook his head. ‘Serendipitous.’ 

***

The house in the woods unsettled her. She didn’t notice at first. It took two days before she realised that her toes gripped the floorboards as if the house was going to tip sideways and throw her onto the faded blue rug with its scatter of moth holes.  Cal had said the place wasn’t fancy, more like a well-worn sofa and she would love it, but Rona wasn’t used to this kind of comfort. She’d had a lifetime of not feeling at home. There had been a bleak, white bungalow in childhood, an uneasy house share at university, and until last week, an innocuous modern flat, the backdrop for a relationship in freefall.

On the third morning she picked up a guide on birds of prey and sat at the kitchen table. When she looked up, she still felt out of place.

‘Disorientated.’ Her voice sounded loud in the kitchen against the whirring of the fridge.

The word stuck. Perhaps it was because the house was strewn with others’ memories. Each wall was covered with photographs. Family groups that tripped back years but always with the same format. A group of people smiling. Adults and children with their arms round each other. Cal was at the centre of the biggest picture, bearded and holding a terrier. The others pointed to him, and a small child clung to his leg. Cal looked at ease in his old rock band T-shirt and lace-up boots. Like he always did.

Bookcases filled the spaces in between the photographs with shelves crammed with books and magazines stacked on top of each other. Each row had a theme. Wildflowers and mosses, birds and mammals, mountains and moorlands.  It ought to have been a delight, but on the third night she woke at dawn with her throat tight as if she’d forgotten to take a breath. Rona pushed away the sheet and pulled on her clothes. In the kitchen, she filled a flask. Outside, she sucked in air until her heart slowed.

The map in the cottage had the place marked with a red cross. She followed the path and turned left to cut across tussocks. She found a way through a thicket of gorse, raising her hands to avoid the thorns until she came to a spit of sand surrounded by trees.

The loch was a tongue beneath the hills. A haze of early mist drifted towards the shore.   She sat on a boulder and bent down to trail her fingers through the water. The ripples sent up blooms of sandy earth.

It was playfulness at first. Something to stop the drag on her thoughts. She stooped amongst the bushes and pulled fallenbranches out of the grass before carrying them to the clearing. When there was a pile of tangled wood, she ate a flapjack, throwing the crumbs towards ducks which glided from the reeds.  Afterwards, she arranged the branches by size, stripping off old, crisped leaves and binding twigs together with straw grass. The sun dropped and the hills became dark. The day had passed, and she hadn’t noticed.

When she got back to the house, she ate pasta from a saucepan while sitting on the bench outside the front door. She stayed there till midnight with her head tipped towards the stars. 

The next morning, she woke at six and drank tea on the way to the loch. In her pack was a roll of twine, a penknife and a saw she’d found in the shed. She came back when the light had gone. In bed, she kneaded the muscles in her arms and scratched lumps where she had been bitten by midges. There were five missed calls and four text messages from Cal.  She texted ‘ok’ and switched off her phone.

By the third day, she had finished what she hadn’t planned. Each branch of the den was lashed to another with weaves of grass pushed into the gaps. She crawled inside. With her arms behind her head, she could see the silhouette of the hills across the loch.

‘Phenomenal.’ The word drifted across the dusk air. 

Back in the cottage, she couldn’t sleep. At five in the morning, she tugged the blanket off the bed and pulled on her trousers and a jacket. Her feet found the indentsshe had made over the last three days. By the gorse, something flitted past and disappeared into the trees.

The den was a low shadow against the shimmer of water. She slid in beneath the branches and pulled the blanket over her body. When she woke it was late. On the other side of the loch, children shouted and splashed in and out of the water. Today she’d pick up a book on insects, she thought, brushing away a beetle running across her stomach.

Rona slept there that night and the next. She found a camping stove in the cottage and cooked tins of beans and rice. No one came near but she could hear people across the water and sometimes there was smoke from a fire. Once she heard a scrabble and urgent barks, but the dog could not find its way through the thicket. When the loch was in its pre-nocturnal stillness, she swam, floating on her back and watching clouds cover and uncover the dipping sun. Her skin felt as if it was being stroked with watery brushes.

Every day she went back to the house to pick up food and clothes. The bed was made up as if she had never been there and her phone was in a drawer. When she had finished one book, she chose another from the shelves. In the den, she read about fungi and lichens by the light of a head torch. On the fourth night an animal sniffed at the oilcloth apron she’d hung over the opening.

‘Unperturbed’, she whispered, as it moved away. Later there was a silky splash as something disturbed the water. She closed her eyes and slept until nine.

At the end of her week in the den, and early enough for the deer to lap at the water’s edge, there was the snap of twigs. A second crunch and the sound of footsteps. She pushed aside the blankets and waited.

‘Rona, are you here?’

She tugged on her trousers and crawled out. Cal stood next to the boulder, in a hat with a feather that she’d seen hanging in the cottage.

‘How did you know?’ she said.

‘I followed your path.’ 

He walked round the den and bent down to look inside. He picked up the book on shooting stars that she’d read when the moon shone on the water.

‘Impressive,’ he said.

He looked at her and she wondered if he noticed the difference. Her skin speckled with freckles and burnished by the sun.

‘Tea?’ she said.

He nodded, and she dipped the saucepan into the loch and lit the camping stove. She poured boiling water into two mugs and passed one to Cal.  She held out her mug and he clinked hers.

 There was a screech and they both looked across the loch to where a handful of birds were taking off, skimming the water before flying low towards the rocks.  Words hovered in her mouth like summer flies. Later, she would let them fall out. One after another.