Read the 2nd Prize Winner 2024 - The Sleeve by Julie Evans

 The Sleeve
Julie Evans

The tattoo, from a distance, looks like a skin disease. Leprous. There’s no warning bell around his neck, but there’s a gold chain. Very 1970s. Even a few dark chest hairs poking from the top button of his short-sleeved shirt. I’d imagined a boy like the ones Becca was at school with, all hormones and false bravado…or maybe a bit cooler than that, but still awkward. Isn’t everyone awkward at nineteen? But surely he isn’t nineteen. He looks like a man. 

            Mum, this is Noah.

            His handshake is firm, confident. 

    Pleased to meet you, Mrs Williams.

            Emma, please. 

    I can’t stop looking at that arm. The tattoo disappears into the shirt at the top and ends with a sharp-edged cuff at the wrist. It’s one arm only, and the other just seems to hang there, unadorned, apologetic. The forgotten twin. The asymmetry seems as much of a statement as the tattoo. 

            I ought to say something. 

            Welcome, Noah.

            Christ, I sound like the organiser of a self-help group at the door of a church hall. Welcome – who says that? It’s too formal, too territorial. 

            He slings a battered rucksack into the corner of the kitchen.

A week, Becca said. Can he come for a week at the end of term? It’s the only time we’ll get to be together in the summer vacation. He’s going home for nearly three months. 

How can he have enough for a week in that small bag? Is he expecting me to wash for him?

            Come on, I’ll show you my room, Becca says.

He lets himself be pulled away. My room. Not your room.

 I’ve just set up the guest room with the new duvet, fresh towels. Will he be creeping along the corridor in the night, like Mark did when he was staying at my parents’ house? What’s the point? I’m okay with them having sex. I’m no prude. Mark and I were at it like rabbits at university. I can’t imagine what possessed me to iron that white 800-thread count cover and spray lavender linen scent across the guest room pillows. But you don’t like to assume, do you? Or encourage. Well, their arrangements are nothing to do with me. I’ll mentally shut the door on it, like I do on the mess Becca brings home from university, the unwashed clothes still in her suitcase, papers spilling from overstuffed files, the trip-hazard trainers she leaves around the house. 

I can hear them laughing, movement on the floorboards above. The dog barks. Becca’s voice: Chester, be nice! The clunk of the bedroom door closing. Chester comes slinking downstairs, snout out of joint. He’s Becca’s dog really. He’s only allowed upstairs when she’s home. Sleeps on her bed. But now he looks forlorn, none too fond of the stranger who’s usurped him. 

I bend down and stroke behind his ears. Don’t worry, boy, he’ll be gone soon.

But he won’t. Not for a whole week. 

She’s brought boys home before, of course - admittedly, local boys who never stayed overnight, were usually just passing through on the way to a party or a sports match. I barely noticed them. They were never described as boyfriend though… but maybe they were? Becca can be secretive – she only told us about Noah over the past few weeks; but then, it was like the floodgates had opened, as though she needed to spill it all out. Every sentence of her texts and calls since has begun with his name - Noah says…Noah thinks… Light on the biography, of course, despite my asking the sorts of questions a parent ought to. He’s opinionated. Strong. And really quite handsome. Is Becca infatuated? In love? It’s unsettling. Maybe I just have a normal parental concern that my daughter’s heart will get broken,  but until that moment when he walked through the door, I didn’t really feel so… well, what would my mother say?... Discombobulated.  




It’s a beautiful day. Lunch in the garden, I say, under the apple tree.

 Mmm, delish, Becca says. She plonks herself down at the table under the sun umbrella and pops a grape into her mouth, then pats the cushion on the seat next to her for him to sit, runs her hand over his back. It’s a gesture of ownership. I’m trying not to look at the tattoo, distracting myself with the tossing of salad leaves, the slicing of a French stick into neat diagonals. 

You have a beautiful home, he says.

There’s something so American about that statement. I follow his eyes as he looks around the garden. The flower beds are in early summer bloom, the lawn still has traces of Mark’s weekend signature stripes and a wood dove is cooing in the copper beech. 

Thank you. Have you ever been to this area before? 

God, I sound ridiculous. Smug, housewifey. 

Just once, he says. Family friends.

Noah’s Mom was born in Richmond, Becca says. 

 Mom.  She’s already talking like an American. His accent is catching. Such different words, Mom and Mum. One lousy vowel, but Mom is quite a different creature, sounds wholesome. The down-at-heel u dowdifies Mum. 

Help yourself. 

I gesture to the food laid out on the table. Maybe I should  have asked if he has allergies? Too late now. But he eats enthusiastically, helping himself to the salami and thin slices of Parma ham that sit pinkly on the wooden board next to the cheeses. 

We’re going for a walk later. To the Tarn, Becca says. You can come if you like.

 It’s okay. I’ve stuff to do.

 The very idea of it, trudging behind the lovebirds.

I can see the tattoo properly now. It covers his whole arm, one image juxtaposed against another. It’s all black and grey, no colour, which I prefer to the ones footballers often have, those perky pinks and pale purples that look, from far away, like patches of eczema and angry bruises. I’ve never really seen a tattoo close up before, unless you count that thin flower chain around my sister’s ankle – not very skilfully done, but I suppose it’s a distraction in a pair of sandals from the ugly familial toes we were both saddled with. I glance under the table. Becca didn’t get those toes. Hers look quite pretty in her flip-flops. Big feet though. And him? Yeah, very big feet. And you know what they say about a man with…? Good lord, I’m sexualising him. And he’s nineteen, isn’t he? Is he? Becca never actually said. Just that he’s a student. Maybe he’s a post-graduate, one of those Rhodes Scholars? Maybe he’s older?

He's from New York. Have I been there? 

No. I’ve only been to America once, I tell him – Florida, when the kids were young. Disneyland, Universal Studios, all that. I didn’t much care for it. 

That was quite dismissive. Did I offend him? Though he hardly seems like a Stars-and-Stripes patriotic type. But oh, that dull suburban Anaheim house, the endless, bloody endless queues for rides. 

How do you read an arm?  Top to bottom or bottom to top? The images seem random. A man’s face – very soulful, extraordinary eyes – on the bicep. It’s incredibly well done, I have to admit. Then a cascade of flowers, a playing card, a timepiece, and below the elbow, an Oriental-style trellised bridge over waves that reminds me of the willow pattern china tea-set Grandma left me.

Mum! You’re staring! says Becca. She looks embarrassed. 

Oh, sorry. It’s… distracting.

Noah stretches out his arm. Do you like it? He looks amused, provocative.

She won’t like it, says Becca. 


Becca raises her eyebrows. You can be honest, you know. We’re totally into that… honesty. She says it like it’s a thing they do, just the two of them. An activity, like kintsugi. Or bondage.




Mark doesn’t seem to mind Noah. He shrugs when I say he looks older. So what? Look at Paul and Alani. Fifteen years and an entire culture between them, and they’re happy enough. Anyway, we’re not talking marriage yet, are we?

What about the tattoo? 

Well, haven’t half the kids got them these days?

Maybe… but the whole arm!

So what?

Mark has mellowed. I always thought he’d be the patriarchal type that any boyfriend of Becca’s would be quaking in his boots to face. But since the kids grew up, he’s almost absented himself. Job done. It seems like longer than three years since the twins left home. I never expected Mark to be clingy with them; he always treated the boys differently. But Becca, the baby? His lack of protectiveness surprises me. Or does it? Is it not how he is with me now too - just not that bothered? 

It's 4:30 in the morning. Sometimes when I wake this early I can get to sleep again, though it isn’t easy when Mark is snoring, as he is now. The dawn chorus has begun outside. A blackbird is singing on the flat-roofed extension beneath our bedroom window, a fine solo Albert Hall performance. I can imagine him fluffing out his feathers in a rush of morning hormones. Is she listening, the plain brown female, pecking at her early worm on the lawn? Is she making a scientific assessment of his repertoire? Range of notes + volume = paternal value (r+v = pv). Or is there something beyond the enticing prospect of a clutch of eggs in the hawthorn hedge? Is there such a thing as female avian desire? 

It's no use. I pull on my dressing gown and head downstairs, click on the kitchen light, fill the kettle.

‘Good morning.’ He stands up suddenly, rising from the rattan chair beside the French doors. Good god, what do I look like! Not a scrap of make-up, hair all mussed up, not to mention the state of this gown. I pull the silky material tighter across my breasts, fasten the belt with a double knot.

Let me make that, he says. Tea, is it? English Breakfast?

You don’t need to...

I know.

You gave me a shock.

I’m sorry. I don’t sleep well. I’ve been watching the sun rise.

I should insist on making the tea, it’s my house, he’s a guest. It’s not how you expect your daughter’s boyfriend to behave. It’s a bit rude, isn’t it? But he’s already doing it. I perch on the stool at the end of the island and watch him busy himself with mugs and spoons. He moves quite gracefully.

He sits down beside me and hands me the tea, then takes a sip of his own. 


He’s so close to me that I can smell the overnight sweat on him. Sour, but not unpleasant.

How about a walk? he says.

It’s five o’clock in the morning.


What about Becca?

She’ll be asleep for hours. 




The common is just down the road - a hundred and fourteen hectares of Special Scientific Interest. Every day I come here following the dog’s stop-start path. But even Chester didn’t want to come out so early. Or perhaps it was Noah’s presence that made him turn over in the basket to which he was relegated and curl up with a sigh. 

Now, there isn’t a soul about – just me, him, an insistent cuckoo, the pine trees and a sense of a thousand creatures waking, opening. Ferns are unfurling from their tight alien frond buds at the side of the path. The air is pungent with fecundity. 

            Shall I tell you? he says as we walk, blowing out a short, sharp breath to disperse a cloud of almost invisible tiny bugs from his face.

            Tell me what?

            About the arm. You seem interested. Maybe disgusted?

            It’s not that.

            What then?

            What? How can I explain? His arm intrigues me and repels me at the same time.

            I don’t answer. 

            It’s an obsession, he says. This is just a start. I suppose it comes from an idea in your head that you can’t shake off. You put it on your skin and it feels… cathartic. They’re random images really, though this guy – he points to the face on his bicep – he’s my Dad. But I never knew my Dad, just a face in a grainy photo. Jeez, my Mom never really knew my Dad. He was some guy she met at a music gig in San Francisco. But he’s cool, right?

            Mom is changing in my mind. No more apple pie. Festival Mom in cowboy boots with a bandana around her hair and a joint between her lips.

            We’ve walked to the very top of the hill. There’s a panoramic view from up here, of distant hills and faint clouds, fairy blue in the summer morning light.

            Wow! he says. England is beautiful. Let’s sit for a while.

            The grass is damp with dew. He pulls his knees up towards his chest, encircles them with his arms. The tattoo seems to quiver in my vision.

            Do you want to look properly? He offers me his arm. 

            Look. At my skin. At my dreams. My canvas. Yes, I do want to look, but it feels too exposing to scrutinise him.

            This… he’s telling me the meaning, the story behind each image. There’s idealism in his words. I remember how it was to be young  – you’re so unique; nobody has ever thought of these ideas before. In truth, some of these images were probably gleaned from a catalogue of stock motifs in the tattoo parlour (parlour, as in funeral – why did it ever become a parlour?) Close up, there’s something Hogarthian about the overall effect. It’s as chaotic as Gin Lane and Beer Street, drawings that always fascinated me in their detail. 

Then, without a hint of self-consciousness, he takes off his T-shirt to show me the shoulder, revealing the stark, dark rays of a sunburst. I catch a glimpse of the swamp of dark hairs in his armpit, the vulnerable flesh beneath, virgin territory waiting to be inked. How submissive it must feel to raise your arm and allow a stranger to stab you there a thousand times. 

Sometimes, he says, I think these images have real power. Feel this.

He grabs my hand, places the flat of my palm on his shoulder. He says, you see, it’s the sun and it feels hot. It always feels hot. 

Through my hand, his skin is burning. There’s a glow of warmth on my own skin too. 

But here, he says, it’s cooler, right?

He sweeps my hand down to the watery scene on his forearm. I can feel the rise and fall of muscle and bone beneath his skin. I’ve never thought before how sensual an arm is, the long sweep down, the perfect functionality of its anatomy. The intimacy of this touch – his hand on mine, my hand on his arm - almost hurts. 

I don’t have any others, he says. Yet. Not even any... hidden away. In case you were wondering.

He smirks. He’s flirting with me, I see that now. This is a game.

I laugh, move away from him. 

We should get back. 

Yeah. He jumps to his feet. I’m starving. 




I stand in the shower, letting the needles of water prick me. This body – so familiar, the feel of it, the shape of it. Used, like an old leather glove that has permanently settled into the shape of its master’s hand.

I could ink my own skin. Why not? Set some cats amongst some pigeons. But really, my body has its own legend already, buttocks rippled with stretch marks - now faded to fine silver lines - from the weight of carrying the twins; the curve of my belly - I could grab a small handful of it, knead it like dough. I massage the body wash into my arms, examine the faint network of veins through which my blood is pulsing, even now. 

            Mark is still in bed, half-asleep. I think about dressing, but then slip in beside him. Not to sleep, just to think. He’s here beside me, one hundred and eighty pounds (when the scales are in a good mood) of naked adult man. I’ve put him off so many times. He’s stopped trying now, to get close to me, physically. Once, I tried to tell him the honest truth. It isn’t time that’s the problem, or tiredness. It’s just that I feel that my body is so changed -scarred, saggy, ugly. He said,  You’re beautiful. And if I was going to buy something classy like, say, a Windsor chair, I’d want one with wear on the arms and a seat smoothed by the wriggles of bottoms. That’s a chair I’d want to run my hands over. Anyway, I’m hardly James Bond myself, am I?

It didn’t really feel like the compliment he meant it to be, but Mark spouting metaphor is a rarity. I appreciated the effort. And the sentiment.

This bed. We’ve had it a long time. Aren’t you supposed to change the mattress every ten years ? But I’ve got used to the lumps and bumps, moulded myself to them. It’s probably full of sloughed-off skin trapped inside the fabric, collecting around the springs, munched on by a million colourless mites – my skin, Mark’s, and some from all the times I slept here with the children when they were sick, a vomiting bowl on the night-stand, their fevered sweat seeping into the pillows. Or when they woke from nightmares, when it was only me – my arms – that could make the Bogeyman disappear.  Motherhood - You can lose yourself in it. 

There’s a giggle along the landing.

Then closer to home, his voice. You okay? That gruff, bleary-eyed morning sound. I should tell him to get up now, the alarm’s about to go off. We should get on with our day.

 Instead, I reach for him under the covers.