CUT TO THE BONE  

To cut; to open up or incise a person or thing with a sharp edge or instrument.
To trim or prune.

The earth has a skin and that skin has diseases. One of its diseases is called man.

Friedrich Nietszche

PART ONE

Floating and Falling

PROLOGUE

His clothes soon fill with the dark, salt sea, dragging him beneath the vessel’s churning wake that hides the sky as he holds his breath, still hoping for even the smallest hook, a rope, even a barnacle or two. But no. There’s nothing to cling to in this hostile world, unlike a different fluid which nourished and sustained him for nine long months.
His God has gone, he knows that now, and his chest hurts to its core as he drops into Hell’s quietude, where, from the corner of his half-closed eye, a strange, dark shape drifts into view. No genetically modified fish this, but something else altogether, spinning and turning in slow motion on the current.
It won’t feel his weight or complain as he grabs the thin hair, the neck, to deny gravity’s pull; to save his own losing life, mingling amongst other floating flotsam. But the stray corpse bears him downwards into a palaeolithic forest of sewage-encrusted ferns until all bubbles shrink and die, and a passport to nowhere floats from its ingenious hiding place. A smartphone too, no longer taking calls, while those eager fronds waft and wave their welcome.

Saturday 9th August 2008.

The late night television forecast couldn't have been more wrong. "Midlands and east will continue fine and bright with a moderate westerly breeze and temperatures above average for this time of year... " the white-suited Weather girl had said with a smug expression on her face, before turning her attention to the North.
"Liar. And the rest of them. Look at this rain." Rita Martin reversed her husband's WINDOWMAN van out of their home in Holly Road, Briar Bank, into the crush of Saturday morning traffic heading for Coventry city centre. He’d stuck on two temporary L plates for the occasion, as her six driving lessons had so far gone well. But she was tired. Had been up since dawn getting everything packed just so, including the dog's stuff. This was not a good omen.
"Sod's Law it is," said Frank Martin alongside her, staring out at the gloomy scene. "Typical."
“Too right. You'd think just for one week out of the whole year, whoever it is up there'd give us a break. But oh no. The first seaside holiday we've ever had as a family is coming up, and we'll be indoors all the time."
She glanced in her mirror at their three kids squashed together on the back seat. Ten year-old Jez, the eldest, with his tin of farmyard animals, was sandwiched as referee between Kayleigh, six, cuddling her new doll, and Freddie, eighteen months, with his dummy firmly in place. But her gaze rested on Jez, who often knew what she was thinking. Who'd arrived safely, but underweight into the world after her late and painful miscarriage. He also looked the most like her with his red hair and bright blue eyes, possessing an innocence she’d do anything in her power to preserve.
"It won't matter, Mum," he piped up. "We can still go out. What's a bit o’ rain? Anyhow," he half-turned towards the rear of the van where the lurcher was trying to leap over the seat to join them. "I'm gonna teach Jip to swim."
"’E don't like water, son." Frank reminded him sternly, then softened his tone. "’E’d drown in a bleedin' puddle, that one."
"Well, Sharon then." Kayleigh held up her doll. A birthday present from what was probably Frank's last proper wage packet as the most experienced of Alf Bassett's team of window cleaners. He'd claimed he'd fallen over and badly twisted his ankle while taking rubbish to the tip, but had refused to see the doctor or Accident and Emergency. He didn’t want anything on his medical record that might make him unemployable and, despite Rita's nagging to get his bad foot seen to, he'd kept limping along at work sometimes with a walking stick so he could pay for this holiday.
No way was he going to be some dole scabber, he'd bawled at her only last night. No way would the state pay for what he should provide and, come Hell or high water, he'd keep their fucking landlord happy too.
But Windowman’s boss knew his best worker had slowed up, was taking twice as long especially if a ladder was involved and, according to Frank had given him two weeks off to see if things improved.

Rita glanced at her husband as they joined the M45, her wipers on full even the fog lamp, as the sky had turned black and traffic was little more than a blur...
"You OK?"
Frank nodded, lips drawn together. His frown deepening.
He still seemed in pain. Unable to make that right foot comfortable, and yet at odd times, when he'd not seen her looking, he'd walked on it normally, just like his old self. Then the traitorous thought had occurred to her - what if this so-called ‘injury’ was all a con? That something else was cooking? And, knowing him of old, no way would he ever let on to her.
"Maybe the sea water'll do it good," she suggested. "Ease the joint a bit."
"For fuck's sake, woman, I'm not some bloody race-horse."
"Dad saying bad words." Kayleigh gloated from the back. She leant forwards to give his shoulder a playful smack.
"Well, you'll have to do something," Rita added. She refrained from saying ‘or we'll have to get re-housed with the Council.’ Not with the kids listening. Not today. In fact, she didn't even want to think about leaving their neat, rented semi in Briar Bank, with its cared-for garden. All its memories. Didn't want to think his boss might be just stringing him along.
"Hey, will there be driftwood where we're goin'?" Jez asked suddenly, opening his farmyard box and fingering the various plastic hens and sheepdogs lying on their sides. His art teacher at the Primary School had brought in two carvings she'd made after a trip north to Bamburgh Castle. A horse's head and something that looked like an old man, all bent over. Their strange, smooth forms had magnetised Jez, and he'd talked of nothing else for days.
"I doubt it, son." Frank winced, trying to turn round. "Folks don't leave bits of wood lyin' around for long these days. Anyhow, why you askin'?"
"Dunno really. I fancied doin' some carvin' of me own... "
"Carving?" Rita smiled as she negotiated a busy roundabout on to the M1.
"More to the point, mate, you can carve the Sunday roast if you like." Frank added.
Jez sunk back in his seat unaware that Freddie's dummy had slipped to the floor and the eighteen month-old was cramming his fist into his mouth instead. He was also oblivious to Kayleigh fidgeting trying not to wee, for in his mind he was already searching for the ideal piece of driftwod with which to make a swan. His favourite creature out of everything, and sometimes on Sunday afternoons when the family had taken the van to the river Avon near Warwick, he'd watched in awe as they’d floated by then strutted up the bank for titbits. They were bold, fearless - everything he wasn't. Even Jip had run a mile.
Jip, not much more than a thin and wormy pup, when Frank found him in North Barton a year ago, had followed him everywhere. In the end, as there was no collar and he’d looked so neglected, Frank had brought him home. Now he and Jez shared walking him, feeding him. He was a man's dog, they'd decided, even though Rita always felt safer when he was around.

The M1 became clear past Northampton, and the rain from a flat grey sky eased to a drizzle. They stopped at the Newport Pagnell Service Station where Jip leapt so fast from the back of the van that Jez lost his grip on the lead and the dog nearly went under the wheels of an Eddie Stobart lorry.
"Did we have to bring him?" Rita struggled to free Freddie from his car seat while Frank stayed put. "'He's going to be one trial after another."
"I'll sort it, Mum. No worries." Jez kept the dog close now, waiting as he cocked his leg against a litter bin.
"No worries." Imitated Kayleigh and got a thump from her brother.
"Now kids, behave." Rita turned away from Frank and counted out the contents of her purse. With Frank's contribution she'd got just enough for a Coke and crisps for everyone except herself and, five minutes later delivered the kids and the snacks back to the van.
"What about you?" Frank saw her empty-handed.
"You're tight, that's what." Jez proffered her his open packet. "Have some o’ mine, Mum."
"We've a week to get through, son. It ain't been easy... " Said his father.
"I’m on a diet," Rita lied.
"Don't be daft. You can't get much thinner." Frank tipped some of his crisps on to her lap. "Stand sideways and we'd lose you."
"Would you care?" she said, passing Freddie a rusk.
Frank leant sideways and planted a stubbly kiss on her cheek.
"You forgotten what day it is today?"

“Tell me."
Frank dug in his donkey jacket pocket. The one garment that had almost become part of his skin. He extracted a tiny blue leather box and handed it over.
"What on earth?" Rita's eyes widened as she stared at it. Then, as she opened the lid, her mouth fell open. The gold label inside said ASPREY. Bond Street, London.
"Jesus, Frank... "
The ring was a thicker gold band than her wedding ring, with a single aquamarine inlaid at the front. It looked worth a bomb. At least a grand.
"It's our anniversary, innit?" he said. "Remember Tottenham Town Hall?"
"Course. I clean forgot, what with everything else to think about. So what's this, if we're already married?"
"An eternity ring."
Jez's bright eyes fixed on it through the gap in the front seats. "Eternity. That's cool."
"Cool," imitated Kayleigh pulling Sharon's dress over her head.
"It's really lovely, Frank." Rita felt hot, tired tears begin to sting, and she tried not to let the kids see how moved she was. How bad she felt for doubting him. "It must have cost you your arms and legs, never mind your bad foot. Oh Lord."

She pressed the ring to her lips. It felt cold against her skin. "I can't take it, though," she said suddenly, returning it to its beige, velvet bed and passing the box back to him.
"What d'you mean, can't?"
"Not the way things are." She started the van's engine. "We don’t have that sort of money, you know that. Be different if I trusted that boss of yours."
Frank scrunched up his crisp packet and shoved it in the glove compartment while overhead, a pale sun intervened in the greyness. It caught her own paleness, her anxiety, and in that moment, Frank knew she was serious.
"Look," Rita went on, following signs off the motorway for Bedford and Cambridge. "Give it back, eh? Say I've died. Anything. Then we can get Jez that bike he's been going on about, and pay off a few bills..."
"I didn't buy it."
"What d'you mean?" A car overtook and cut in again, much too close. She had to brake hard.
"I did someone a favour. So I 'ad a choice..."
"Choice? Of what, for God's sake?"
"Either this or a load of computer stuff."
"How come?" She took a bend too tight and the three kids lurched together to the left, while Jip barked and leapt about, rocking the van even more. The road was unrecognisable from when she and Frank had travelled along it towards their brief honeymoon. Then there’d been fields dotted by the odd pretty village. Now they were lost amongst urban sprawl. "What favour?" She asked him, knowing that was a waste of breath.
Frank duly placed a finger across his lips and Rita felt as if a heavy stone had settled in her stomach. This man who'd always opened his mouth and put his foot in it, who went round with his heart on his head never mind his sleeve, was playing a different game now. But for the sake of the kids and this precious holiday they'd been looking forward to, she kept her own mouth shut, as the road ahead opened out to a dual carriageway, heading for Essex and the coast.

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