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Shortlist Saturdays: Onesie by JP Relph

She’s trapped in a crush of clothes at the front of the thrift store -“JUST IN!”, like snippets of breaking news. War and scandal, kidnapped kids. She’s being cruelly squashed by a wool coat – confident-green like stinging nettles, arrogant almost, summer rages outside. A lapel brooch; ratty hare’s foot like mothers wore on their too-tight dresses, sickly with Anais Anais. I yank the coat away, expose her fully. A perfect human skin.

Small feet trail on the grimy floor, dust greying the pink-painted nails. A trouser hanger gouges metal teeth into her shoulders. I wince, unhook her gently, rub over the teeth marks with the heel of my palm. Filtered sun makes her unmarred skin glow almost-orange. She has a small bust and a ferocious triangle of gingery hair which makes me think she’s vintage. Her empty head lolls backwards, ponytail trailing copper, as her eyeholes stare beyond the door. I’ll take you there, shall I? I stroke a flat cheek, feel a name push from the past, shaking off dust and mothballs. Reaching.


Her mouth hole spilling citrus liquid - she answers with sun. I envy her: my innards all winter thorn and bite, frost-burned. She’s achingly smooth; I inhale her freckled décolletage. Milk and lavender.

* * *

“What would you call this?”

The checkout man shrugs, folding Sarah badly, trying to flatten when she longs to bounce, dance. “Onesie?”

He’s insolent. Hair like ropes of seventies carpet. Matted with toenail clippings and old tobacco, dog hairs reeking of age and incontinence.

“We don’t do returns,” he mutters, handing me Sarah in a nasty donated bag.

“That’s fine.” I snatch, raging like summer. “Neither do I.”

* * *

Sarah bobs in bathwater. I searched for a way in – a zipper of stitches maybe – in vain. She is whole. The how of her, the why of her, hidden behind lather-pearl eyes. I take her out before she prunes, drape her over a clothes airer. Midge sniffs the drippings from a delicate toe, sneers in that utterly judgmental way of cats. When Sarah’s dry, I rub in lavender lotion until she’s glossy-supple-silk.

* * *

Sarah hogs the pillows. Red hair feathered like blood across white cotton. I laugh, nudge her over. She’s slippery, creamy, warm from heavy covers. Midge settled like a shadow on her feet – mine too sweaty, too lumpy – rumble-shushes in his sleep. In the darkest part of the night, I find Sarah’s hollow hand, long to slip mine inside, wear her like a glove. I lay it on my sticky belly instead.

* * *

Sarah drops from the bedroom window. Leaning too far, wanting too much. Fearless and trusting: dangerous bedfellows. Midge wails. The sun thumps hot fists as I lurch into a garden stinking like boiled vegetables. Sarah’s buried. Drowning in rotting shrub clippings. I grab her ankles. They slip from my wet hands. My eyes are veiled in salt spray. I grip, pull hard. The branches still have scratch; they stain her. Sarah lands on me, arms flung round my neck. She’s harsh with mold. The slime of decay.

* * *

I select Delicates, stand mesmerized as Sarah tumbles and bashes in scalding Tropical Breeze brine. Time ticks like hunting insects. Like a phone off the cradle. When the machine starts to rattle-spin, I retreat to the sofa, huddle under blankets. Midge castigates with slitty, sungold eyes. I try not to picture Sarah’s O-mouth, stretched and blurred into a black hole against the bulbous window.

* * *

I weep onto Sarah’s fuzzy scalp. Her tiny hands now fold entirely into one of mine. I nudge a pinky-tip into her bud mouth. Her skin scoured beyond clean, is bright with jungle flowers, hairless. Midge mewls in torment; his eyes are too much. Like cameras snapping. I can fix this. I can fix everything. I gather my sewing kit, my best shears. Gather myself.

* * *

Sarah flops under sunlight’s tarnished blade: the stitches tug, reveal a little shadow-black. The truth of her now. The kitchen is mushy with boiled fish for puree. Winter’s in the tiles, my feet shiver me to the coatrack. Nettle-green wool coddles me. I feel confident. Arrogant almost. The hare’s foot brushes my cheek, I salt-kiss the fur.

Sarah rolls in tepid yellow, unsettled. The base of her spine pulses, rolls, like a snake is struggling beneath. I pat her gently; smelling milk and lavender. Sungold eyes narrow, her skin growls beneath my palm.

“Shush now baby, there there.”

I don’t want her getting cold. I’ll go into the attic, the boxes under the eaves, and find the perfect onesie.

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