Perfect Skin

Perfect Skin

by Nick Earls

Paperback(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312303037
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/04/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 4.16(w) x 10.56(h) x 1.08(d)

About the Author

Nick Earls is the author of two previous novels Zig Zag Street and Bachelor Kisses. Perfect Skin was a bestseller in Australia. His work has also been published in England and in Germany. His upcoming novel, Two to Go, will be available from St. Martin's Press. Earls lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

You'll be under a drape, a green paper drape, and you'llhave to lie very still. You'll hear some zapping noises, andsomething that sounds like a vacuum cleaner. That's justthe sucker, and it's there to suck up the smoke that weget when we zap the cancer with the laser. That's all totallyroutine. And we'll have someone else in there, probablyNigel, our nurse, holding the sucker so that I canconcentrate on the zapping. Okay?


    Good. Any questions at this stage?



    And every time I get into the preamble to minor laserskin surgery, I try to stop it seeming totally routine. I tryto take myself by surprise, as though each idea is occurringto me for the first time, and then leading me to think thenext. Rather than the whole thing coming out as a longand tedious list of effects and side effects, personnel andnoises and what we can hope for. All lost in a drone aseven the patient loses interest.

    I check that we've got time to do this one now, andthat Nigel has the treatment room prepared.

    Okay, Brian, I tell the now well-informed patient,sitting there with his skin cancer on his ear. We're readyto roll.

    I put my surgical glasses on, and my mask, and I scrub.Meanwhile, Nigel checks where the lesion is and setseverything up. I prep the skin, drop the drape into placeso that the ear and not much more is left exposed. I injectthe local and fix a sterile handpiece to the laser.

    How are you going there, Brian?

    No worries, he says, from under the drape.

    Can you feel this?

    I touch the ear with a needle tip.

    No, he says, and shakes his head.

    Can you feel this? And this time, if you could try notto shake your head, that'd be good. It could be a bad habitto get into if I'm lasering your ear and I have to ask youquestions.

    No problem.

    Could you feel the needle?


    Okay, let's get to it. Let us know if there's any problemunder there, but I don't expect there will be. You'll feelme fiddling with your ear. That's normal, since the wholeear's not supposed to be numb. The top bit should be, andyou shouldn't feel any pain. So let me know if you do.And remember there'll be noise—zapping and sucking.So don't be put off by that, and just stay nice and still.Okay?

    No worries.

    I get started, holding the foot pedal down and passingthe red guide light along the edge of the tumor, droppingcircle after circle of Silktouch CO2 laser on there, ablatingthe skin to a depth of one hundred microns each time. Ilift off a sample to be sent for analysis, and I work away,working down through the tumor, lifting the debris offwith a cotton swab. I clear the malignant tissue and somenormal epidermis around it. Thinking of skin, the layersof skin. Knowing skin well enough that I know what'shappening at a microscopic level as I follow the tumordown through the dermis until I can be sure that whatI'm seeing is normal deep tissue.

    Somethingcalled a Window Weasel pops up on screen. It looks prettycheery, but it says:

Hi, Jon. Your trial period is up. We hope you're enjoying your Window Weasel software. Click YES!! I LOVE MY WEASEL!! and you can register to use Window Weasel for life for only $30! Click LATER to register later.

This mystifies me. Where this crap comes from I have noidea. I really don't have a clue about the software thatmight be lurking among the vast numbers of megabytesthat George said were essential to make the system worthhaving. Not that it'll be completely worth having anywayuntil everything's on there, but some of us are still moreattached than we should be to the practice of scrawling afew notes on paper after each consultation.

    So, if I'm to be honest about it, I'm at best AMBIVALENTABOUT MY WEASEL, and clicking LATERseems the only option.

    And then all I've got when I check my mail is a bunchof jokes from George, yet again putting his share of themegabytes to great use. Ten blonds conquering a jigsawpuzzle, important things Mariah Carey has said about life.Why do I get my hopes up? Why do I have it in my mindthat there might be something interesting waiting for me?Why do I treat the process of checking my e-mails withany kind of enthusiasm, when the paper mail in my inboxgets nothing but disdain and has to wait its turn? Itcan't be because George only sends me jokes electronically.

    George, meanwhile, is no further away than the nextroom. I can hear him talking through the wall, the wordlessmurmur that I know is his voice explaining somethingto a patient. There is no actual need for George to e-mailme anything, he's just having a love affair with the electronictransmission of text. What I don't get about it—andI'm sure George isn't even aware of this—is that he'snever actually told me a joke in his life.

    Seventeen years I've known him—half his life, orthereabouts—and never once has he verbally told me aformally constructed joke. We get e-mail access, and inminutes he's zapping me things about dogs, mice and elephantsgoing into bars, or various famous people on fishingtrips together or dying simultaneously and confrontinga very droll Saint Peter at the pearly gates. There's avaudevillian lurking in George that, sadly, in the realworld will never be done justice.

    Jon, your next one's arrived, Sylvia says. No hurry. Here'sthe file.


    And your running clothes are still in the change room.

    Yeah, sorry, I had to move a bit quickly when I gothere, didn't I?

[Missing Page]

with the name of a Cairns car dealer and a phone numbertwo digits too short to be up-to-date.

    College starts in a week or two. And the bumper stickersstuck in my head because they were part of—maybeeven the basis of—my assumptions about what she wasdoing. Moving cities, a thousand miles, to study. I stilldon't think I'd find that easy, even though I'm twice asold now as when I started college. I still don't know if Icould drive a thousand miles with everything I own inthe car and set up a new life somewhere, away from everythingI'm used to. Of course, that's an assumption too, theuntested assumption of an idling mind, out running alonga street it's been down plenty of times and that doesn'toften present something new to think about.

    She got to the end of the street, U-turned and cameback and stopped to ask me for directions.

    Oh good, she said, I was worried for a second, when Itold her there was another section to the road, just overthe creek, and that whatever high number she was lookingfor was probably there, and three easy left turns away.

    Near my car, coincidentally, I realized a couple of hundredyards later as the path dipped at the end of the streetand I hit the concrete ramp and saw her car again, stopping,behind mine. And I can remember seeing the waterflowing out from under the ramp as I ran over it, andseeing that it actually looked like a creek today rather thanan empty open drain. Somehow I couldn't tell her she'drented a place near an open drain. That doesn't seem likea fair introduction to the neighborhood.

    I watched her get out of her car as I ran toward her.She swung her legs out, lifted herself from the driver'sseat and stood there, looking at the house, her hands onher hips. She didn't even shut her door, as though shemight still have changed her mind, driven off. Turnednorth again, and gone.

    With our cars parked end-to-end, conversation two wasunavoidable. But maybe I would have said something toher anyway.

    I said something like, It's not what you were expecting,is it?

    And she said, It does look a bit more condemned than I'dhoped.

    I told her there were students living in it last year, andit looked just as condemned then. She laughed, but in thepolite way of someone whose situation has not been improvedby the joke. The house is in bad shape, and thefact that I park near it often enough to know that it's ina relatively stable state of decay wasn't going to be muchhelp to her. There are tiles missing from one end of theroof, the veranda leans like an old man badly in need ofa walker and the only new feature is the large rezoningapplication sign at the front.

    She said, Maybe it'll be lovely inside, knowing it wouldn'tbe. I'm not paying anything for it, at least. It belongs to afamily friend. I think he hasn't been down here for a while.They're putting apartments up. Sometime.

    She was hoping for more, for something different. She'ddriven a long way with a different house in her mind, adifferent beginning to the year. And I felt sorry for her—Istill feel sorry for her—but it didn't seem to be my placeto do anything. I couldn't think what to do. It would havebeen easy if there had been some emergency going on, butthis was just bad luck, disappointment.

    But the moment might have been handled slightly moresensitively if I hadn't right then pressed the button thatunlocked my car doors. The doors of the navy BMWparked in front of her old red Pulsar. And they unlockedwith a flash of the lights and a smug electronic tone thatmade me feel like a big middle-aged Beemer wanker.

    I remember she looked at the car, then at my hand. Ialways run with the keys in my hand. I didn't mean topress. I probably press all the time, and spend my wholerun locking and unlocking the car, if it's in range.

    Mine looks a bit incongruous parked behind that, she said.But at least it goes with the house, I suppose.

    And that's when I said the BMW wasn't actuallymine—which I figured I could, since it wasn't and it won'tbe, even though I'm driving it now. And conversation twobecame about that.

    No, I wasn't the MLB on the vanity plates. I kind ofinherited the car when some things got sorted out. There'sa gray Corolla at home. Which I actually own. I just can'tsee any reason to add distance to its odometer until thelease runs out on this one and I hand it back. And thegray Corolla's got regular plates.

    How I came to be explaining this in any detail at all tosomeone I'd never met, I don't know, but that's what mademe late for work. A student who'd found the falling-downhouse she was to live in and didn't want to face it, andwanted to talk about anything else instead. And the inexplicablelie she thought she was being told about carownership was simply the first topic going.

    And no, MLB doesn't want the car back, or the plates.Vanity plates are so ... eighties. Anyway, I think she gotthem as a twenty-first present from a bunch of peopleshe'd stopped liking by her twenty-second. Something likethat. Something very MLB.

    That's what I told her. And then I said I thought shemust have a lot to unpack and I was going to be late forwork if I wasn't careful. I wished her luck with the house,as though that's a thing you do with houses, and as thoughher luck with the house hadn't already declared itself tobe bad, and I got into the car.

    Got in and drove without stopping to arrange the towelon the seat first, in the way that I usually do. Drove andsweated right into the BMW upholstery and took the firstcorner faster than I meant to, while pushing the LemonheadsCD into the player. Getting my head into work,singing along and wondering why the Lemonheads fellout of my brain the moment my feet hit asphalt. I wouldhave felt quite good about myself, running with the Lemonheadsgoing through my mind.

    And the running's easier now, much easier than it waswhen I started months ago. I pass more people than passme now. I get the chance to be amazed at just how slowlysome people can run. Not that the fast people aren't stillway out of my league, and that won't change. But itdoesn't have to. That's not what this is about. I'm fitter.I've never been this fit. That's good. It's enough. This isabout fitness.

    So it's important to make time for it. Around the babythings, around work. And it's enough that I have to tryto make time for all that, without getting into conversationsabout liscense plates, or whatever. Useless attemptsto offer some kind of reassurance to someone whose luckyou can't change.

    It's strange. That was probably the first time in monthsthat I've had a conversation with someone I don't know,other than a patient or one of the day-care people. Andthat seems like it should be a bad thing—keeping to yourown small world to that degree—but why should it? It'shaving a baby around, partly. It changes things, particularlyhow you spend your time.

    Sylvia's at my door again, wondering what's got intome today, but making her point with nothing more vocalthan raised eyebrows. But they make it clearly enough.I'm well used to interpreting her eyebrows now. Not thatthere's anything subtle about them. They're a pretty fiendishpair of eyebrows, but that's Sylvia. From certain anglesshe looks a little like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire.From other angles she looks more like the regular RobinWilliams, but with a well-tended bun and, fortunately, lessarm hair. She's fifty-something, and treats us all like childrenwho aren't quite behaving. Particularly George, whogave her the job in the first place. It's a system that worksbetter than I might have expected.

    Sorry, yeah, I'm ready, I tell her. Let's have him. Her.

    Her. The name's on the file. Like the others.

I've seen my twelve o'clock patient before.

    It's not getting lighter, his mother says, about the redlump of a strawberry nevus on his forehead just above hisnose. And I've thought about it, and I'd really like to dosomething before he starts school.

    I take the photo from last year out of his file, and wecompare. I go around to their side of the table and crouchdown next to Tom. I hold a mirror up to let him see hislesion, and I hold the photo next to it.

    Okay, I tell him, what we hoped was going to happenwas that this would just start to fade away. And then wewouldn't do anything. But it doesn't look like it's goingto, does it? So we can do something to make it go away.How does that sound?

    Tom looks far from convinced.

    Remember? his mother says. Remember what we talkedabout if you promise to do everything the doctor tells you?

    McDonald's? Suddenly things look up. Okay.

    So we can make it go away?


    Good. Well, I'd better tell you how we're going to dothat. And it's pretty clever, and it should all go fine.First—and this is the funny bit—I'm going to put asticker on your head.

    A sticker?

    Yeah. I'm going to squirt something on there, then puta sticker on. And we'll leave that there for a little while,then when you come back and I take the sticker off, it'llbe numb. Do you know what numb is? Numb is whenyou can't feel anything. So I can fiddle around with thelump, and you won't feel it. And you just have to lie reallystill for a little while, then it'll all be done. And we mighthave to get you back a couple more times to do that allagain to make sure it's finished. But all you have to doeach time is stay still. Sound okay?


    And how does it sound to you? I ask his mother. Canwe get you back in an hour or two, once the local's takeneffect? What I want to do is use some local anestheticcream, rather than anything that might be uncomfortable.

    That sounds good. And coming back would be fine. We gointo the treatment room for me to put the local on andshe says, How's your baby? You were going to have a babynot long after we were here last time.

    She's fine. She's really good, actually. A lot of fun. Alot of work too, but a lot of fun. She's six months now.

    What's her name?


    That's a nice name. You should have a photo on your desk.You and your wife and Lily.

    Yeah. I keep thinking I should take more photos of her.She's only this old once, I guess.

The first thing I do at lunchtime is call my mother. I askher how Lily is and she says, We've been having fun. Lotsof rolling round, some sucking of feet.

    I think that started a couple of days ago.

    Could be teething.

    Do you think so? She seems pretty calm, most of thetime.

    She is six months.

    Yeah, I know. And that's kind of hard to believe, isn'tit?

    George sticks his head around the door and tells melunch is here.

    There was a time when Lily would almost fit on myhand. It wasn't long ago, but now that it's gone it almostseems like something I've made up.

    Salad roll, large, George says, when I get around to thelunch room, and he throws it to me like a quarterback.

    Would you treat your own lunch that way, Porge?

    Would it ever be a salad roll, large? They GladWrap themgood and tight, Jon Boy, just for throwing. George has threepies in front of him. He picks one up, takes a bite, andthrough a full mouth says, Lentils, as though he's thereforegot the healthy food pyramid totally under control.

    Wendy comes in and takes the other salad roll (small)without having to demonstrate her catching prowess. Shesees me as a convert to the salad roll now, though all itactually shows on my part is a lack of imagination. I decideda while back that I could do better than cheap Chineseand sloppy lasagne, and suddenly I was a regular withthe salad roll (large) simply because I hadn't given lunchenough thought to come up with two healthy options. Andit's such a retro-feeling choice.

    Oscar claims the last pie—the other lentil pie—andstarts on it carefully with a knife and fork. Despite havingseen him eat plenty of times, it can be hard not to noticehis neatness as he goes about it. Particularly when he'ssitting next to George, who treats each pie like a mortalenemy and attacks. It's like eating in a Hall of Mirrors—eachof them embarking on the same process, but one ofthem turning it minute and the other enormous. Wendyknows it, I know it, and they don't.

    Oscar lives at George's place and they always split thetake-out bills evenly, since each of them gets a wholemeal from his portion. Two satay sticks would do Oscarmost nights, but it really is as though they haven't noticedthe disparity. Oscar is the definition of compact, the lastperson I know to wear panther-print Bata Scout schoolshoes. He got so annoyed when they stopped putting thecompass in the heel—when he was in his twenties—thatmy father made him write to the company and complain.There's a lot you can do with a compass, lad, I think myfather said, backing him up. Not that any of us could everthink of a second thing you could do with a compass. ButI think the letter scored Oscar a free pair of compassedshoes that someone found in the warehouse. Theywouldn't reverse their decision, though.

    Today, mid-pie, he says, Hey, check this out, and takesa very small phone from one of his pockets. Pretty cool.

    Oh god, you've gone and bought it, George says in anexaggerated groan. I knew you would. Why couldn't you getone the size of a phone? Nanotech as virility symbol, episodesixty-four. A definite step beyond the big car for the small-penisedman.

    Hey, I'm a small man. A small phone works for me. It's asimple matter of scale. Nothing to do with my penis. And,anyway, look at me. I weigh 106 pounds. I wear schoolboy-sizepants. Who's going to look at me and think there's a bigpenis?

    Come on. George has got a point, I say, deciding totake him on. You weren't offering it that way. You werebeing size-ist again. Going down that "small is sexy" track.And how does that phone work style-wise for the guyswho fight out of the flyweight division?

    Medium-to-large guys, for instance, George specifies.

    Or large guys who used to be medium.

    Without making this personal.

    Hey, you were never medium, Porge, Oscar says.

    This is the phone equivalent of the small, sleek, throbbingred sports car that's all engine. And I can't get one butt cheekinto those. This is what I'm saying. You're turning small andsleek and intricate into something desirable, and where's theroom for the big simple people in your new millennium? Thepeople whose hands work best with a house-brick-size phone,who biologically need the Landcruiser-equivalent vehicle.

    You big guys have had it your way too long.


Excerpted from Perfect Skin by Nick Earls. Copyright © 2000 by Nick Earls. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Reading Group Guide

1. Why does Jon open up to Ash when he remains closed off to his
close friends?

2. What role do Jon's friends from work play in his life? Is it the role
they want to play?

3. How does Jon's relationship with Mel compare to his relationship with

4. Is Jon's response to parenthood and his relationship with the Bean
what he had expected? How is his view of parenthood affected by
his being a single parent?

5. Jon describes the process of surgically removing a skin lesion by
laser. What does this have in common with the way he tells his

7. How does Jon face the tough issues of his recent past? What progress
does he make toward coming to terms with these issues?

8. What role does Lily play in Jon's life and in the novel as a whole? How
do you think Jon's life would be different if Lily had never come along?

9. What do you think Mel was really like?

10. Why does the author leave Jon's issues with his computer

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Perfect Skin 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my favourite book of all time. Everything is just right.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Good story and good writing. The characters were the best (funny!). While the hard-core romantic in me would've liked to seen Ash and Jon together at the end, the hope of them together was pretty darn close. The two of them (along with 'the Bean') made for a sweet trio. A very enjoyable read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Another superbly written book by Nick Earls, with great characters, and an admirable story-line.