Support BHQ
Buy books at Blithe House (in association with

Skin : Michael Langan

Mine is not a coming out story. It’s a going in story.

If you develop enough skins, no one can harm you.

If you develop too many skins, no one can touch you.

It’s a delicate balance and, I’m afraid, I never got it quite right.

Skins can be shed though.

The telling of a story is the shedding of a skin.

Let’s try that.

I spent my after-school hours at the local flea-market. It was like a gigantic attic, filled with dusty objects piled in precarious heaps or spread across tables. I could wander through its network of stalls and shops for hours, comforted by the smell of baked dust, old paper and dead things.

One week a new shop opened: a rare occurrence. It was called The Source. A bead curtain, threaded with little shells and glass beads, swayed gently across its doorway. I brought my hands together and closed my eyes as if in prayer and pushed through.

I smelled dry spice, incense, a hint of chocolate, other worlds. Opening my eyes I saw I had entered a dark, wooden labyrinth, bordered by massive dressers, their deep shelves providing the backdrop for large plates glazed deep blue and decorated with orange zigzags, bird-shaped jugs painted with spots and stripes, and bright yellow dishes like miniature suns.

Swathes of fabric in lime green, burnt orange, canary yellow and shrimp pink covered the walls in heavy pleats, printed with turtles and dolphins, monkeys and cockatoos, jungle fronds and extravagant flowers. Painted wooden parrots, their wings spread, dangled from the ceiling above carved masks with huge eyes and beaks open, tongues sticking out. It was many countries and continents at once, the best parts of the world squeezed into a shop and dropped in my dreary home town.

I span round, dizzy with it all and staggered towards a gap in the furniture.

In a small clearing a man sat on a stool overlooking a glass counter. He was young, twenty at most, and his face, the colour of vanilla fudge, was elongated by dreadlocks tied at the crown of his head. He was immersed in a book, held in his long, delicate hand. He was the most beautiful object there.  

He looked up,  pistachio-coloured eyes peering out from deeply pronounced lids. ‘Let me know if you need any help,’ he said, his voice light and gently Caribbean.

I nodded my thanks and smiled awkwardly. I withdrew, face burning, taking a different route back, through tables of cherry red, chocolate mahogany and pale walnut patterned like pressed coral.

Each surface held a bowl carved from a slice of tree, a burnished ebony curve cradling carved animals, silver charms, glass beads and tiny wooden dolls. I ran my fingers over them all, wanting as many sensations as my skin could take.

I looked up and halted in front of the spider.

It was huge, encased in wood and glass like a dangeropus weapon. Its long, bristly body had been divided in two; the front section a shimmering black disc and, at the rear, a fat, black pod with long spinnerets jutting from the end, like guns.

The legs, subtly jointed and brushed smooth, tapered to cotton-bud points.  

Two rows of black bead eyes decorated the head.

The massive fangs, black and sleek, were tucked under like disengaged missiles.

It was pinned to a card printed with its name: Blue-Black Bird Eating Spider, Peru.

I saw a movement and jerked back.

‘He’s a beauty, isn’t he?’

I nodded.

‘Look there.’ He bent down and touched the glass with his little finger.

We leaned forward together.

He was pointing to a pair of small appendages at the front. ‘They’re his palps. He uses them to mate.’

I glanced up at the man’s face; it was as impassive as the masks on the wall behind him.

‘He sucks up his sperm,’ he said, ‘and places it inside the woman spider. They’re nice and long so he doesn’t have to get too close. He doesn’t want to get eaten now, does he?’ He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. ‘This one is forty pounds. I suppose that’s more money than you’ve got?’

‘I have my savings,’ I said. ‘But that’s only twenty three pounds.’

‘Well, maybe you could save some more? If you want him?’

I did.

‘I’ll look after him in the meantime. You can come and visit whenever you like.’


‘Wait a minute.’ The man pulled the little price tag off the case and disappeared.

Left alone, I suddenly felt scared. I could have made a break for it, but instead I stared into the glass case.   

The man reappeared from a different direction, as if he had circled me. He peeled a small red dot from a little page of stickers and placed it on the corner of the glass case.

‘Sold.’ He broke into a wide, dazzling grin and offered his hand. ‘What is your name?’

His palm was cool, dry and slightly rough. It was only the third man’s hand I had ever touched, after my dad’s and Craig’s, and Craig wasn’t a man, Craig was a boy. Only the second man’s hand then, and I would happily have never touched another.

‘Simon,’ I said.

The man said it, drawing out the first vowel long and low and soft, transforming it: Sigh-man. Like that. I caught the smell of him - so shocking I stopped mid-breath: toffee.

‘Simon. Then this is Simon’s spider,’ he said, caressing the glass case with his long thin fingers.  ‘Yes, Simon’s spider. My name is Arturo.  Ar-tu-ro.’

Ar-tu-ro. I repeated it quietly, hesitantly. I had never heard a name like that.

That night, as I drifted off to sleep, I whispered his name like an incantation, lengthening the middle vowel in imitation of the accent and rolling the rest around my palate; Arturo... Artuurrro... Artuuurrrro... I wanted to taste every bit of it, savour it, eat it.

I dreamed I was a Simonspider, a blue-black Simonspider, stalking a jungle floor, powerfully, gracefully. I heard the call of a bird; turro... tuurrro... tuuurrrro... and came upon a vivid, green-eyed finch.

The bird ceased its singing and cocked its head to one side.

    It was about to take flight but I, the Simonspider, pounced and took hold, its flickering heartbeat, enclosed it in my blue-black arms.

The bird fluttered beneath me in a breathless, feathery panic: turr... turrrrr... turr... 

I lifted my head. I brought out my Simonspider fangs. I stroked the bird’s cheek with my Simonspider fangs, and,  with a sudden jerk, I pierced its brightly coloured breast.

Its blood pumping from it and into me, so much that I could hardly breathe.

Then I became the bird, held in the spider’s strong, hairy limbs. Its eyes were light green beads, and I struggled and twittered against the dry heat of its embrace.




My heartbeat slowed and, with a final, short spasm, the last of my life shot out and into the spider.

I woke, hot and sweaty, heart racing.

I pulled the duvet away and felt a cold wetness at my groin. Was I bleeding where the spider had bitten me?

I switched on the light. My sky blue pyjamas were stuck to my groin and there was a dark patch of sticky wet there. My flies gaped open and my penis, aching slightly, glistened in the lamplight.

That summer was long and hot. The Source, cool and dark and dry, became a refuge. Whirring fans waved and rippled the woven hangings. Painted parrots circled slowly overhead and bamboo tubes jangled their muted chimes.

Every time I went there I visited my spider, the little red dot on the corner of the glass case fading to a pale orange-pink.

The spider became my secret totem, a symbol, and I spoke to it when Arturo wasn’t listening, shared with it my fantasies of touching the smooth, matt expanse Arturo’s chest that I had glimpsed through the deep V of shirt.

Arturo spent the hot days oiling the parched and dusty wood of the dressers. He stroked the shelves with broad strokes, his long, thin fingers pushing oil into the corners. His hands that summer seemed permanently burnished, like leather.

‘These pieces,’ he said, ‘they still have the forest in them. When there’s no rain they are thirsty.’

He held up the bottle of oil, cradled my hands and poured a little pool of the clear, yellow unguent into each.

I rubbed my hands together, the oil threatening to drip onto the floor. I placed my hands on the side of the dresser and rubbed it in small circles. The wood sucked the oil in. Arturo poured more and I applied it again. This time it stayed on the surface, shiny and slippery as I caressed the wood. It felt beautiful.

Arturo nodded his gentle nod. Good, ah? He moved to the back of the dresser.

I caught glimpses of him as he poured oil at the top of the wood, allowing it to trail down in thick, glistening rivulets. He used the whole stretch of his body to cover the surface, spreading his fingers and sweeping his hands in wide arcs.

‘I’ll tell you a story about your spider.’ His voice came through the wood and I felt it tingle on my hands. ‘Your spider is a fragment of a God: the spider God, Anansi, the trickster. Did you know that?’

‘No,’ I said, sending the words back into the wood.

‘Anansi stole the stories from the gods and, to punish him, they threw him out of the sky. When he hit the ground he shattered into millions of pieces and every spider you see, from the biggest to the smallest, is a little bit of Anansi, each one carrying a story.’

    Arturo took a step away, his hands still on the wood, forming an archway for me to crawl under. I glanced upwards into the dark recess of his armpit, imagined its sweet basil taste.

I set about applying the oil to the bottom of the dresser. I could feel Arturo’s body behind. I inched backwards as I worked, as if a thread were pulling us together.

‘And the universe is a giant web woven by the Spider Mother,’ Arturo said. ‘Spiders are the messengers. When they lower from their webs, they have come to tell you a story, or bring a message. They can take messages back up again, but what they really exchange is the stories. You can tell them a story and they carry it back to the gods.’

I stopped. I suddenly understood why I like staring up at the sky: it was willing to accomodate me and somewhere it contained my story. And when I talked to my spider it took my words back to the gods. But I felt also the pain and injustice of what had been done to Anansi.

‘Why did they punish him like that?’

‘I think they were frightened of him. Stories have all the power of creation. They were scared of him holding that power in his hands. All eight of them.’ Arturo’s face was fixed in concentration. ‘We’re all just stories Simon, like the spiders. We think we are in control of our lives but all we have is limited choices; narratives laid down for us, lines, radiating out, or running parallel to each other, sometimes taking a turn so they cross over. That’s where people meet. Like me and you.’

I wanted to touch this man with the milky brown skin that smelled of toffee.

I wanted to touch him where the denim of his worn jeans bulged in a gentle curve.

I wanted to press my face against the flat of his belly, bury myself in his toffee fragrance.  

I wanted Arturo to touch me.

I wanted to become part of his story.

I concentrated on making Arturo bend down and lift me up into his arms. I focused on our lips touching and our bodies pressing together. I felt the sweet sharp ache of my dick growing in my shorts, rubbing against my waistband.

Arturo was still talking, his shining hands held away from his sides. ‘Stories are what tell us who we are and what we are. But we can’t always control them - the stories we tell and the stories that are told about us. They mark us out. But they can trap you as well. They can trap you until you believe them yourself and become the characters in them. What people call fate is really just a story you become trapped in. Even when you think you have free will, all you’re doing is choosing one story over another.’ He looked at me. ‘Why’ve you stopped?’

I held his gaze, then stretched out my hands for more oil.

Arturo poured more oil into my cupped palms.

I rubbed vigorously at the foot of the dresser where the wood was rough and lumpy, my face hot and red. I could feel Arturo watching me, those green eyes fixed on the back of my head.  

There was a stabbing pain in my hand. I pulled back sharply and sucked in my breath. Blood trickled in strange, crimson globules into the creases of my oil-slicked palm.

‘What have you done?’ Arturo said.

He took a large handkerchief from his pocket and, wiping away the mix of blood and oil, peered into my hand like a fortune-teller. There was a long, brown line, under the skin.

‘It’s a splinter,’ he said. ‘A big one. You hold still.’

Resting my hand in his palms, Arturo pressed down with his two thumbs together. The tip of the splinter pointed up and out of my skin. Arturo pinched it between his thumbnails and pulled gently, but it broke halfway. He sucked his teeth in frustration.

‘Hold it out straight.’

I extended my arm and Arturo plunged his mouth onto my palm, sucking at it, then lifted his head and spat.

Arturo peered into my hand, rubbing the palm with his thumb.

‘It’s all gone,’ he said.

I couldn’t believe what he had done. He had crossed a line drawn by everyone around us and, even as it was happening, I knew that this was the most important moment of my life so far. He had given me a signal, a message.

I leaned up and placed a quick, dry kiss on the corner of his mouth.

Arturo stepped back. His face deepened in colour and flickered, his pulse ticking in his cheek. He looked past me, through me. He spoke quietly. It’s time to close. You’d better go.

I wiped my hands on the back of my trousers. My palm was stinging from the splinter and I looked down at it, at where Arturo had put his mouth. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to.’

He placed his hands on my shoulders and gave them a quick squeeze. ‘You’re fifteen and at school, and I’m five years older than you and not - not from here.’

‘But, that’s why I like you. I don’t like the people from here.’

‘Simon, you have to put this out your head.’

He turned me round and led me through the shop to the door.

I let my head fall back to rest against his chest and took a deep breath of him, the smell of oil and toffee drifting down into my constricted throat.

‘Oh, Simon,’ he whispered. Sigh-man. Like that.

I stayed away for a week, replaying the kiss over and over in my mind, doubling up in shame. How could I have thought that he would want me?

The following weekend I decided that I must go and apologise, that we could stay friends, that I would never do anything like that again.

The shutters were down at the shop. I peered through the letter box cut in the corrugated metal. It was too dark to see anything.

One of the men from a stall opposite shouted over: ‘He’s gone, lad.’

Gone early?

The man shook his head. ‘Packed up all his gear overnight. Done a runner. Not surprised really. There’s not much call for that kind of stuff round here.’

I took a step back, dizzy, lost, and sat down.

There was a plastic bag leaning against the shutters with something in it. I reached in and immediately recognised the spider’s wooden case.

Arturo had left it for me.

I lifted it out and held it to my face, peering beyond my reflection, examining the spider closely, trying to decipher the markings on the body, the hairs on the legs.

I concentrated hard, willing a message.

I wanted the spider to tell me where Arturo had gone.


I took the spider home and shoved it under my bed, pushing it as far back against the wall as I could, hiding my thoughts of Arturo there with it.

I had no way of finding him so I hunted for them instead: the spiders, the messengers, the stories. The garden shed was a mini out-post of the barn. I saw candy-floss orbs circling in on themselves, darkening to perfect black holes from which, occasionally, brown spindle legs poked out.

I began to write stories, curled up in the corner of the shed, beside the cobwebs hanging from the wooden beams like ancient lace, tasselled with the empty husks of old prey. I wrote down anything I could to stop myself thinking of Arturo. I thought about the spiders instead. Where did they come from? Why did I never see two together? What led them to abandon their homes and build homes elsewhere? These questions occupied me and my notebook for whole days. Everytime I discovered a new spider I would draw a little sketch of it, alongside its name if I knew it and write a story to accompany it, all to avoid thinking about myself.

I woke early to examine the garden bushes laden with radial after radial of dew-dropped webs, a bejewelled garden spider, fastened like a brooch in the centre of each. This spider (Araneus Diadematus - I looked it up), had been an object of veneration, marked as it was with a white cross. Now, people seemed indifferent to them, unless confronted with them. Except me. I noticed them everywhere.

I went back to the barn. It became my hidden place, somewhere I could be alone with my writing and with the spiders, though I rarely saw them. Sometimes I heard little ticking noises, or faint clicks. Occasionally, something fell from the web ceiling, flickering in the shafts of light. I collected the furry fragments of moth, the dulled, dry abdomen of a wasp, caught the transparent wing of a dragonfly as it spiralled to the ground.

In the house, spiders tucked away in corners guarded little hammocks gently cradling wrapped insects. Once, I saw one in the living room and crouched next to it. It darted away in a line along the skirting and I scuttled after it on my hands and knees. When it stopped, I stopped, the spider curled up beside me. It knew I was there, could feel me moving in the air beside it.

I crept up slowly and leaned towards it, focused on the different shades of brown and a vague mustardy yellow, the hairs on its legs and body, the eyes sparking black. I touched it with my nose and it curled up tight. I sniffed at it but there was no smell.

Did it know fear, outside of instinct? I wondered, what is the spider word for fear? It was strange that people were frightened of spiders. What is the spider word for people?

The spider slotted itself through a small hole in the skirting. I put my eye to the hole but there was only a dry blackness I couldn’t penetrate and a faint draught, that made my eyes water. I put my ear to the hole. The air made a thin, rasping sound, like a throaty laugh. I understood what it meant.

I had put Arturo’s spider under my bed like a secret, so far back that I had to crawl flat on my belly to reach it, stretching out my fingers to catch the corner and pull it towards me. As I touched it, for the first time in months, the thoughts of Arturo, thoughts I had tried to put away, came back to me. The spider was my story of Arturo, a fragment of Anansi, closed in the box. I had to free him.  

I prised the metal staples from the rear of the case and the plywood back came away. The spider was attached to the cardboard mount by three small pins. I pulled and twisted at the first one carefully, afraid the carapace might come away with it. The others, beneath the abdomen and between two of the legs, were easier.

I tilted the cardboard and slid the spider onto my hand. It was dry and bristly stiff, so light it could have been floating above my palm.  

Then the message came: it was my fault that Arturo had left. I had seen the fear in Arturo’s eyes for myself when I had kissed him.

Arturo was frightened of me like the other boys were.

I had chased Arturo away because I had wanted him.

It would be easier to be by myself.

My spider life had begun

If you develop enough skins, no one can harm you.

If you develop too many skins, no one can touch you.

It’s a delicate balance and, I’m afraid, I never got it quite right.

Skins can be shed though.

The telling of a story is the sheddding of a skin.

Mine is not a coming out story. It’s a going in story.