‘What happened to you?’
I remember the old Spanish woman in the corner of the ward. I woke to see her bending over my bed, rosary beads slipping rhythmically between her brown spindle fingers. When she saw my eyes crack open, she stopped her prayers to ask, ‘Was it an acid attack? Were you in a fire?’
The fire is in my body. I have had an allergic reaction to some new medication that is burning my skin off from within. Wisps of thinnest tissue are weeping clear fluid, I am shedding myself; a serpent thrown into boiling mercury. I am 23. They tell me I might be about to die.
My face is so deformed by the swelling that I am unrecognisable. I wake in the night, the heat from my dying skin has dried my tears in my sleep. I was always terrified of fire as a child, of burning alive, trapped in a building. Now it is finally happening, inside my own windowless, bony house.
In the chapel, there is a prayer board.
For Sandy, For Colin. For Mum. For my little boy. Please, God. Thank you, God. Please.
I scrape through the days. They pump pints of water into my drying husk at night along with pink steroids. A vase of white roses appears by my bed, ghosts going brown around the edges.
Later, they take pictures of me for their textbooks; my feet planted a hips-width apart, my arms outstretched; so that young doctors can examine in detail my raw Vitruvian form; the skinned snake with a fearful heart exposed.
When it is certain I am going to live, I go home. I cannot lie on the bedsheets. I speak in shocked monosyllables. I eat slowly through the scarlet mess of my lips. The fire dies to a mere smouldering ash in my lucky bones. I remember the clicking of those white beads in the dark, again and again.