Nat The Naturist
Nat had the house to herself.
Normally, she would have complained. When her father had explained that he and Nat's mother were going to spend a weekend away without her, she had been quite offended. They knew she hated being alone—especially now that her grandmother had passed away. But then it had occurred to her that perhaps her mother needed a break. She had been a carer to Nana Janet for the past seven years and could finally leave the house without being responsible for anyone.
Including Nat herself.
Not that she would have been a nuisance to them. Nat was twenty years old after all and more than able to take care of herself. Plus, she knew that if she had gone, her mother would have definitely tried to indulge in her one way or the other. She had been doing for the last eight weeks. Nat had found herself being pampered more than ever before and couldn't help but get a little stiff with all the affection. It actually made her a little uncomfortable to have her mother cooking all her meals, bringing her breakfast in bed and ironing her clothes. In fact, it had got to the point where she passively tried to avoid her parents. Perhaps her father had picked up on all this, and that was why she hadn't been invited. She hoped that was the reason, anyway.
Yes, they needed the time away.
So Nat took the opportunity to make the most out of being left home alone. She was already ahead with her college portfolio, didn't have to work until Saturday and had plenty of time on her hands. The Hutcheon's small house was situated in the country and surrounded by open empty fields. The nearest village was five miles away and the closest neighbours were both in their late seventies. Nat was expecting no visitors and the only path that led to the house was a mile-long dirt country road. This meant that she was quite happy to work on a whole-body tan without having to worry about prying eyes.
It was the first time the weather had been hot enough to do this. She'd never bothered before as the Hutcheon's were a very prudish family that didn't tend to exhibit their bodies. But now she had the opportunity to do all the things she had never done before. Even if it was something as tame as sunbathing.
The day was a hot one, and as Nat stripped down to nothing, she thanked Mother Nature for both the sunshine and for her delayed menstrual timing. It meant that she didn't even need to worry about her bikini line. She drank a large glass of ice water and put her phone onto charge—she would not let herself become distracted. As she sauntered through the house she stopped and stood in front of the conservatory mirror and sighed.
Her body was pear-shaped. Her breasts were small and her arms skinny, her face was narrow and she had a long freckled neck. Nana had always called her a baby giraffe, which had become less flattering as Nat had grown up. In fact, the nickname had led her to become quite obsessive about the way she looked, though she'd never admit it anyone. She pretended that the muddy birthmarks meant nothing to her— that she was far above those primal instincts that told her that her lack of physical beauty made her worthless. However, in secret she'd use natural body lotions to even out the tones in her skin, she used caffeinated shampoo so it would grow long and cover the majority of the dark blemishes on her neck and chest. She'd even considered a sunbed session to even her skin tone but knew what Nana Janet would have said, 'No need to risk cancer to hide your beauty spots.'
'Well, I can try a natural tan now there's no one looking,' she muttered. She ran her hands down her body. Her stomach dimpled where she had fluctuated in weight over the last couple of months, and her bum and thighs had taken on the worst of the excess fat. Perhaps she should start dieting too. Sighing, she stepped outside and paced to the bottom of the garden where Nana Janet had kept the orchard. She was happy to see that the Granny-Smiths were as ripe as ever.
She laid out a light cotton blanket and sprawled out, taking the moment to enjoy the absoluteness of nature. From where she was, she was able to watch the clouds slowly weave themselves through the gaps in the trees and could smell a wild mixture of fertiliser and lavender pollen. She stretched, pointing her toes and savouring the occasional breeze. Her long blonde hair lay around her like a sun in a child's drawing and she strummed her fingers over the strands. She couldn't remember feeling so at peace.
Slipping her sunglasses over her eyes, she placed her hands behind her head. Every now and then she'd find herself drifting to sleep but would shift herself into a new position. Not only did she want an even tan, but she also didn't fancy explaining to her parents that she'd managed to get heatstroke or sunburn by falling asleep outside. She wasn't a child.
At first, she'd wondered if she should have invited some of the girls from her college course. That way she wouldn't have been so alone. She could have had a party if she'd planned it sooner. But she couldn't remember the last time she'd socialised with someone other than her family— and it weren't like the photography students were the most affable bunch. The opposite, in fact, the very few times Nat had tried to invite them out, they'd made any excuse to avoid her. Was she that much of a freak? Anyway, something told her that it would have been bad taste to invite people over just eight weeks after Nana Janet's funeral.
She remembered the first summer she'd spent in this house. She had just turned thirteen and Nana Janet had taken a rather serious and life-damaging fall. At the time, Nat hadn't understood why falling over meant that Nana could no longer leave the house—she was still able to walk. But as she grew older, she learned that Nana had become fragile and susceptible to injury. The fall had revealed to doctors that she suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, and it had been strongly advised that she was either moved into care or ask family for help. The decision had been obvious. Sara and Howard Hutcheon immediately offered themselves to Janet. After all, she had always told Howard that the family home was his once she passed away and had always been very fond of Sara and little Natalie. They came to the agreement that Sara was to become Janet's full-time carer, while Howard would continue working—and little Natalie had free-run of the whole house and garden as long as she didn't break Nana's rules. Of course, Nana Janet had been very straitlaced and had several rules laid out, and Nat being the typical teenager she was, pushed as many boundaries as she could get away with. She swore, she shouted, she brought back a pet mouse from school, she ate with her mouth open, flirted with the paperboy and smoked a whole packet of cigarettes before she decided they made her sick. Despite their differences however, they'd got on great. They'd spent many days watching rubbish TV, baking odd flavoured cakes and gardening. It had wound Nat up in her teenage years that Nana had tried to get her to take part in her old-lady activities but as she left school, she learned to appreciate it. As her schoolmates had moved on, they'd left Nat behind and she soon realised that she much preferred the company of her family anyway. During the two years after school, she found that she bonded better with Nana Janet than she had with anyone else. She'd taught her so much; how to cook, how to plant vegetables, how to sew clothes, how to laugh at soap dramas. She'd helped her write her application for college and helped her practise for her first job interview. And when she had been successful in both, Nat had promised to take her on a cruise once Nana hit her 80th birthday.
But she'd never even got to celebrate her 70th.
What Nat hated most was the fact that when Nana had died— when her body had just shut down all of a sudden without a warning— she had been alone. Howard and Nat had both been at work and Sara had just popped out to the corner shop—just a 10-minute walk away. When Sara had returned, Nana was laying on the floor with a deep gash above her left eyebrow—supposedly where she had tried to stand up, misbalanced, fell, and hit her head on the coffee table. Sara had recounted to Howard and Nat how the blood had spilled down the side of her face—and how her tears had traced through the blood, leaving mascara-specked pathways. She'd called an ambulance immediately and tried to resuscitate her but when the medics had arrived, they'd declared her dead. They'd tried to reassure Sara that Janet had been unconscious for the past thirty minutes—probably since the moment she had hit her head. Sara had known that they were lying. That they were saying that to stop her 'conscience diving into a pool of guilt,' as she had told Howard and Nat. Howard had sympathised with her, trying to reassure her that his mother wouldn't have been in pain too long. However, Nat knew the real reason for the tears. For the last tears Nana Janet had ever shed—for the mixture of blood and makeup tracks they'd carefully washed away for the viewing. Nana Janet had been alone. Scared and alone.
For a few weeks, Nat couldn't believe that the loss of one person could have such an effect on her daily life. Her father went back to work the next week. Her mother found herself a job shortly after that and Nat continued to work her weekend job. However, during the weekdays she found that no matter how much she studied, or cleaned the house, or tried to do anything for that matter, she still felt an incredible loneliness. Her mother and Nana had always been home and had always kept her company in some way. Whether that meant squabbling over the TV or just being in the same room. Even college didn't help. Her classes only required her to attend for two hours on three days a week so there wasn't much chance to make friends. Not that she had the social ability to be making friends after losing the most important person in her life. But this new fear of being alone had never had the opportunity to bloom before as Nat had never been forced to adhere to loneliness.
Yet at that moment, she didn't feel all that alone. She felt as if she were being watched. Or glared at. As if someone was observing her. Despite the heat, the hairs on her arms raised and she had the urge to wrap the blanket round her.
She looked towards the trees where she focused on the miniscule movements among the branches, trying not to imagine, but imagining anyway that something was pushing its way towards her. She suddenly felt a light tickle on her arm and her heart skipped. She looked down to see a little grass spider crawling along the crook of her elbow, its legs treading tiny droplets of perspiration. Nat let out a lungful of air she didn't know she had been holding. She placed her finger by the spider and let it climb her pinky, dropping it back into the grass when it started to run up her wrist. She lay back again.
Nat tried to concentrate on the sky, imagining that she could see as far as the edge of the earth. She'd often wondered why, as a child, she'd believed that heaven was above the clouds. The clouds quite obviously moved with the wind and then where would heaven have gone? Maybe those that had died beneath a clear blue sky had never made it. Maybe their spirits roamed the earth until a grey day came. She was sure Nana Janet wouldn't have wanted to go to heaven. There was no daytime TV up there.
Uncertainty continued plaguing her mind, and Nat found herself glancing left and right every time the wind stirred. She subconsciously crossed her arms over her torso and drew one leg up. Nothing seemed particularly threatening, but the feeling remained.
That was when the attack began. It was only a few bugs at first—a few midges that Nat swatted away or slapped against her skin. They then started to hover in a cloud above her face. She sat up and manoeuvred herself to face the opposite way, but they followed. She cupped her hand over her mouth and nose to test her breath. Shrugging to herself, she batted at the swirling mass, assuming it was something to do with the heat – maybe even the smell of her perfume. She placed her hands over her face so if they settled, it wouldn't be anywhere near her nose or lips. Suddenly, she felt a tickling on her feet, on her hands. She sat up.
Looking down, her eyes widened. A stripe of ants were winding their way between her toes and caterpillars of all colours covered and clamped onto her hands. Thunder bugs, green flies and other insects she couldn't name were darting on and off her arms and legs.
'Ugh, what the hell?'
Nat was usually quite the natural at dealing with insects. She'd always been the one to put spiders outside or feed a bee some sugar water, but this was creepy. She suddenly felt very insecure. As if the crawling insects were invading her privacy—their tiny limbs climbing and brushing her unclothed body. A shudder shook through her. She flicked her feet through the grass to get the ants off and waved her hands so the caterpillars dropped away. Then she noticed the ladybirds, woodlice and earwigs that were crawling all over the blanket. Nat screamed and stamped in panic. This seemed to agitate the overall gathering even more and before she knew it, she was being stung and bitten all over.
She got up and ran toward the house shrieking, the buzzing and clicking of all the miniature life forms following her. She batted at them, taking extra care to not let anything come near her face. As she got closer to the house, they began to fall away from her.
As she got inside, she slammed the door behind her, gasping in fear. She looked around but it seemed that nothing came in behind her. She inspected her body and found nothing save a few red polka dots and black smears where she had crushed the little bodies against her skin. Minor constellations of colours compared to the usual hybrid of peach and coffee colours on her body. Nat flipped her hair forwards and shook it, peppering the floor with strands of grass. A little shaken up, she went to the bathroom and rinsed herself beneath a cold shower. The cool water washed away her panic and as the itchiness and swelling slowly went away, she peered out the bathroom window.
Nothing seemed any different. The sun was still shining and there were only the usual number of flies flitting about. Had she really just been attacked by a mob of insects, or had she imagined it?
Nat dressed herself into pyjamas and poured herself a generous glass of whisky and Coke. Perhaps it was her mind playing with her. Maybe she just needed to relax. She settled herself onto the sofa in the conservatory and tried to distract herself by watching TV. She fell into an uneasy sleep.
She dreamt about flying. Flying slowly just beneath the clouds in a slow and tranquil state. Turning over and over so she could feel the cotton-like strands of the clouds on her face one moment, and see the colourful, stretched world beneath her the next. She wanted to fly upwards but felt that if she reached any higher, she'd be lost in an unknown place. Instead, she lazily floated belly-side down and watched the world hazily pass by below. However, as the scenery below changed, she began to recognise some of the countryside. She flew lower and saw the long, narrow road. The scattering of old houses, the dense clustering of trees. She flew lower still and slowed as she reached her house, circulating it in awe as she had never seen it from above before. She then drifted down and towards the orchard, which was emanating an exhilarating fragrance, and saw a young woman bathing in the sunlight. Nat gasped as she realised what she was seeing and the woman's eyes flicked open.
When she woke again, it was dark outside, and she wondered again if the attack had ever happened. Had it all been a dream fuelled by guilt because she had sunbathed nude in her Nana's orchard? She pulled up her top to find out if the little red marks were still there. They were. Not as itchy as before, but definitely still there. She ran her fingers over them, pressing them down to see if they'd disappear. They didn't. Weird, she thought. It really did happen. She opened the door and stepped outside.
No insects flew at her and only grass cushioned her feet. However, she still felt that presence she had felt earlier—before the insects had attacked her. Yet, somehow it was different. She looked around her, but nobody was there. Nat sighed because, despite the earlier events, she felt compelled to be outside. Something was drawing her, and she tiptoed towards the orchard and dug her toes into the soil. It was dry but soft. Bending down, she dashed her hand across the daisies that had miraculously survived the summer drought.
Her Nana had always said that the orchard had a life of its own. That the soil contained magical qualities. That's why she had chosen to have her ashes scattered there, 'Because it preserves life, Natalie.'
Even the apple tree had flowered and as Nat plucked a Granny Smith from the tree, she felt a warm flick of wind tussle her hair. Nat flinched but then smiled and rolled her eyes, 'If you wanted me to cover up, you could have just said, Nan.'