The Year Of The Itch

In this first summer night in the year of the itch, I watch the rain clouds collide and part in a dance as old as memory, and I stretch out my hand towards the shrouded moon, the skin between my fingers once again as smooth and translucent as that of a newborn.

* * *

It started with an itch. Not a big one, not one that made you want to scratch yourself to the bone. More like the remnant of a mosquito bite — irritating, but soon forgotten. A brief scratch was relief enough, and I thought no more about it.

But then the itch grew more insistent. And when I scratched, I drew blood. Soon, even that no longer satisfied.

“Hey Joe, got fleas or something, mate?” Tony grunted as he hoisted a panel of pearl oysters on board for cleaning.

“Bloody hope not,” I said, reaching inside my t-shirt to scratch a spot close to my right armpit. The itch migrated down my right side, around my back, up my left side, stopping just underneath my heart. This was crazy. Maybe miniscule biting insects were invading me. It itched so badly I longed to stick my arms into the cleaning machine and let the brushes rub me raw.

I had lived in Broome all my life, first playing in the shallows of Roebuck Bay with my mother, then chasing mud crabs with my friends in the mangrove flats. Later, I starting working the boats, hauling up oysters for cleaning or turning, or going out in prawning trawlers — doing whatever work I could get that involved the sea, because that was what I was bred for. I followed my ancestors by choosing the life they knew, a life that brought them together, whether they were Malays or Japanese, Manilamen or Englishmen, whether they were masters or servants, dirt poor or pearl wealthy. Their blood ran through my veins and showed on my skin.

At lunchtime, when our oyster cleaning tender was tied alongside the main boat, I went to the bathroom and took my shirt off in front of the mirror. The skin on my torso was a mottled red. Inflamed patches alternated with pale spots several shades lighter than my normal color.

Tony lumbered in, smelling of sweat and engine oil. “You look like you fell into a pit of bull ants.”

“Never had this before.” I squirted a dollop of sunscreen into my palm. Our employers were sun conscious, dutifully depositing bottles of sunscreen in various locations all over the boat. Hardly anyone used them, apart from the pale college kids from the south who came to work the boats during their vacations, lured by the spell of balmy, booze-filled nights in this Australian pearling town by the Indian Ocean.

The sunscreen stung my skin. I washed it off again.

* * *

“You’ve got a sun allergy,” the doctor said, scanning my body through the bottom of his bifocals. He told me to use a cream I could buy over the counter in the pharmacy.

But the cream did nothing. The next time, the doctor gave me a prescription ointment. Then an injection to stop the itch. I no longer had the urge to scratch, but my mottled skin didn’t improve. Instead, it erupted in blisters, then raised welts that looked like corrugated burns.

“You’ll need to stay indoors,” the doctor said. “Especially now that the rains are over, and we’ll be getting more sunshine.”

“How am I supposed to do that? I work on a boat.”

He shrugged. “Change jobs,” he suggested. “Or move somewhere else.”

I thought of Michelle. I couldn’t imagine her being anywhere else but here. She was a true child of this town, just like I was. But I was growing allergic to it.

* * *

“Holy Mother of God.” My grandmother crossed herself when she saw me. Her Irish brogue was still strong after spending almost half a century on the Antipodes. “What have you done to bring this on you?”

“Nothing,” I said.

The milky blue of her eyes darkened behind her glasses. “This is a punishment from God,” she said firmly, as if daring me to contradict her. “I knew it would come sooner or later.”

My grandmother was a hard-bitten Catholic, the kind that believed they could teach the pope a thing or two. She probably could have forgiven her daughter almost anything, even marrying my father, had I been brought up “in the faith,” as she called it. But my mother was not religious ; it was bred out of her, she said, by years of sneezing at incense and contracting calluses from unpolished wooden pews. She tried to make amends by giving me a proper Catholic name — Joseph — but my grandmother wasn’t appeased by this gesture.

My grandmother didn’t attend my parents’ wedding on the beach, next to a specially built torii, among blazing torches and the drone of didgeridoos — elements of my father’s heritage combined in the inimitable Broome way. A union not sanctified by the Church, she told her daughter, was little better than living in sin.

My mother just laughed. She often told me that if she had been struck dead on the spot, her own mother could have grown old comforted by the satisfaction that her view was ratified by the highest authority. As it was, my grandmother continued into old age nursing her grudge towards a town she had never taken to her heart.

My father refused to argue with his mother-in-law. Only once did he openly assert himself against her. When I was around five years old, my grandmother carted me off to her priest and asked him to baptize me there and then. The priest, knowing our family history, called up my parents to check if they had consented. My father showed up at the church door, just in time, he said, before my grandmother succeeded in browbeating the man of God into submission. With relief, the priest handed me to my father and fled.

Her plans thwarted, my grandmother drew herself up to her full height — at five feet eleven, she easily towered over my father — and harangued him, declaring that his heathen state would soon be the death of him. And of my mother. And of me.

When my parents sailed off on a fishing trip during cyclone season and never returned, my grandmother locked herself into her house for two weeks. When she emerged, her eyes were dry and riddled with bursts of blood. She grabbed me by the arm. “This would never have happened if your mother had listened to me. It’s God’s punishment for their sinful state.”

I laughed then, and she never forgave me for it.

As my grandmother peered at the blisters on my arms and my face, I could have sworn her eyes lit up with a subconscious gratification she herself would never admit to.

“What are you using for it?” she said.

“A whole lot of different creams, but nothing helps.”

“You haven’t been trying any of that native rubbish, have you?”

“No.” I was going to add not yet, but I didn’t feel like picking a fight with her.

“Good. It’s just superstitious nonsense,” she grumbled as she opened a kitchen cabinet. She took out a bottle with a sticker of the Virgin Mary on the front. She held it out to me, but changed her mind and put it back into the cupboard.

She was very careful with her holy water.

Michelle’s fingers hovered over my chest.

“Don’t touch,” I said, my muscles tensing in anticipation.

She dipped her hand into the bath water, letting her fingers float over my stomach, and further down. When I first met Michelle about ten years ago, back in high school, she seemed just like any teenager from these parts. But she had a rebellious streak that touched me, perhaps because it reminded me of my mother. In turn, she told me that she was drawn to my laughter, to my eyes that crinkled up like my father’s.

I looked warily at her fingers. The very thought of her hand on my skin made me ache with longing — and anticipated pain. “Don’t even think about it.”

“You can’t go on like this.” She sat on the edge of the bathtub, her eyes trailing up and down my body.

“It’ll get better.” I sank further into the tepid water.

“It’s not getting better. You look awful.”

“There’s a new cream I haven’t tried yet.”

She shook her head. “It’s not going to work. They’re just throwing everything at you, hoping something will do the trick.” Her finger plowed figures of eight in the water, just above my belly button. “You’ll just have to do what the doctor says,” she said, watching her finger go round and round, like a toy car on a toy track.

A strand of dark hair fell across her cheek, and she inclined her head so I couldn’t see what her eyes held.

* * *

“The doctor told you to do what?” Auntie Mary looked up from the boab nut she was carving, the tip of her knife suspended in the air. “He really thinks you should leave?” She bent back over her work, plowing the carving knife through the hard surface of the seedpod, chiseling a path that would turn into a snake, or a frog, or perhaps a sea turtle. Auntie Mary’s workshop took up the whole front room of the tin-roofed cottage she lived in. The only place to sit was around the perimeter of the room, on the floor, since all other surfaces were covered with materials she needed for her craft.

Auntie Mary wasn’t really my aunt. And although she carved Aboriginal motifs into boab nuts and painted them onto emu eggs, she wasn’t Aboriginal, either. No one knew for sure who Auntie Mary was married to, because she referred to all the men she had lived with as her husbands. Her brief dalliance with my grandfather entitled her to consider herself my “auntie,” a title she never relinquished once she laid claim to it. She was one of the most prolific aunties in Broome.

“Either that, or I can turn nocturnal. Sleep during the day. Get up at night.”

“And do what?”

“I don’t know.” I didn’t want to live at night, not on my own. But I didn’t want to leave, either.

“Living upside down no good for your blood,” she said. “You could turn into a ghost.”

I thought about how it would be to live in the dark, never to be blinded by the sun reflecting off the ripples in the water, never to watch the colors of the ocean change through the day. And never to see Michelle throw back her head and turn her face to the sun.

“You still going with Michelle.” Auntie Mary said it as a statement.

“Of course.”

“I don’t want you giving her bad blood. Wouldn’t be natural.” Auntie Mary was Michelle’s “auntie” as well.

“So you’re saying I should leave.” I meant it as a question, hoping she would tell me to stay, that she’d say she knew of a cure.

Auntie Mary blew dust from her chiseling knife. “Where you off to, then?”

I had an answer, just in case. “Melbourne, I guess.” Melbourne in winter, where the sun was distant, veiled by layers of mist and cloud like a forbidding goddess, and the skies were low with rain. The kind of weather my skin needed.

“What you gonna do there?”

“I was thinking of getting work with Mick Bryant. You know, the bloke who left for Melbourne a couple of years ago. Michelle said he’s running a night club there. Maybe he can use an extra pair of hands.”

Auntie Mary nodded and went back to carving her boab nut.

* * *

Michelle squatted on my bedroom rug, watching me pack. “I don’t think you should go,” she said.

“Everyone else wants me to.”

“I don’t.” Her eyes were downcast, her palms resting on her thighs, facing up, as if she were sorrowing for me.

“I don’t have a choice.” I averted my gaze.

“What’s wrong with a nocturnal existence?”

“You would share it with me?”

“Of course. We could work together, open a restaurant, perhaps. We have some money. And we could get a bank loan for the rest.”

“I don’t know anything about restaurants. Nor do you.”

“Or start a night fishing business.”

“You’re just saying that.” In truth, I had no reason to doubt that her intentions were genuine. But I didn’t think I could handle living in the shadows in my own town, always running from the sun.

“I want to be with you.”

“You could come to Melbourne with me.”

“I could. But want to be with you right here. In our place,” she said, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “And I know you want to be here, too.”

I looked at her, at the determined lips of her Timorese mother, the freckles of her Scottish father. I wanted to believe her. But my eyes grew sore.

* * *

My skin felt good in Melbourne. The welts subsided, the blisters calmed. At nights I worked in the club serving up drinks and grilled calamari to those who wouldn’t sleep. I often thought how lucky they were to be able to choose when they wanted to do their living.

Most days I slept past noon, waking in time to see a few of hours of daylight, grayed by the winter sky. I walked the asphalt pathways next to the Yarra River that divided the city in two, and I thought of the red sands of Broome and the bands of turquoise in the calm morning sea, colors I saved in my memory.

I thought of Michelle incessantly, how her hair was washed with ochre when the sun shone on it, the grey-green flecks in her eyes, the way the hairs on the nape of her neck quivered when I blew my breath over them. And the scent of her skin in the monsoon nights.

She wouldn’t come to Melbourne. She said she was staying where she belonged, where I belonged, and if I loved her I’d come back. We fought on the phone, angrily avowing our own love and doubting that of the other.

They treated me well at the club. I couldn’t complain. My employer never spoke of Broome, preferring to forget the bitterness of its old secrets, false affections, and forbidden loves, and he advised me to do the same. My skin was healthy, my life ordered. But before the winter was over, I packed my bags.

* * *

I’m not sorry I returned. And I’m not sorry I left again. As I stretch out my hand towards the moon on this first summer night in the year of the itch, I am reconciled to a life in the shadows, no longer hoping for a love stronger than the pull of the sun.

And I marvel how good it feels to lie here, on this damp patch of grass, unencumbered and without pain.


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.