Saturday, May 26, 2007

Horace Tan’s Horrible Skin Condition (and how Mrs Tan cured it)


This story began its life in 1967 as a high school creative writing assignment. It was originally titled Herbert von Schenke’s Rare & Disconcerting Problem – And How Dutiful Delilah Solved It. I dusted it off in 1987 and fleshed it out for a short-story writing competition. It was awarded a consolation prize. I subsequently sold it to Men’s Review, a trendy monthly magazine, in 1995, along with a couple of new illustrations. And now, here it is again in its latest incarnation as a blogpost (first uploaded 26 May 2007), which only goes to show that there's a future in recycling one’s past...

HUMMING WITH above-average self-confidence, Mr Horace H.L. Tan would flounce down the street each day, despite his rare and disconcerting Skin Condition.

And an uncommonly horrible problem his was at that: poor Mr Tan was burdened at birth with the distressing misfortune of Loose Skin.

When Horace was but a day old everyone had tried to dismiss the issue with humor, saying how charmingly like a plump little prune he looked. The doctors had conducted a series of expensive tests and, after serious conference, had diagnosed the child’s condition as “a most unusual case of acutely uncoordinated cuticular cellulation.”

“Probably a passing phase,” the doctors had declared in reassuring unison, fondly tickling the gurgling bundle of joyful wrinkles that glistened in its cot.

“Don’t worry, dear, he’ll grow into it,” Horace’s father had said, with sensible optimism.

“’Tis God’s Will,” Horace’s mother had responded, carefully powdering her infant and arranging his skin in neat folds, with stoic affection.

As to be expected, young Horace encountered traumatic difficulties in trying to gain the acceptance of society. At school the other children mercilessly mocked his pleated skin: “Jellyfish, smellyfish,” they chanted, “just go away, that’s all we wish!”

Before long Horace had acquired an aura of grand isolation arising from his dermatological uniqueness. Some called it freakishness, but never to his face, for his features had by now become very much enshrouded in the spotty skin of adolescence. Nobody could think of anything meaningful to say to him, and he remained enveloped within himself. For Horace Tan it was one of life’s poignant ironies that he should suffer a total deprivation of the sense of kinship, while enjoying a superabundance of skin.

But he comforted himself by recalling his father’s last words: “A great man, Horace my boy, must have the courage to be different. The ugliest insults to one’s dignity are, at their worst, only skin-deep.” At one time Horace Tan’s father had been the owner of a famous reptile farm (featured on all the tourist maps).

After her husband’s death, Horace Tan’s mother had sold the business and established a trust fund for her only son. She somehow knew her own days were numbered.

Solace also came to Horace in the sweet, unselfish person of Philomena P’ng, a quiet girl from the local orphanage who had been engaged as his handmaid and cosmetician. Not having really had a proper upbringing she had been spared the normal quota of prejudices that children inevitably absorb from their parents.

Now, Horace’s extraordinary hide had attained new dimensions in horniness ever since puberty – for his prodigious dermal development was accompanied by no significant loss of tactile sensitivity. Perhaps in defiance of his own physical shortcomings, he had perversely cultivated a keen interest in feminine pulchritude (which would later prove valuable in his professional life).

For the present, Horace had to make do with Philomena P’ng’s services. No doubt she struck Horace as a morsel too bland for his exotic taste, but she did seem to care for him above and beyond the call of her domestic and cosmetic duties. In fact, after the death of his parents, Horace’s only companion was Philomena – and hers the only other human skin he had touched.

At nineteen-and-a-half Horace Tan stopped growing. But not his skin. It was now at least three sizes too large for him. (To get a more graphic idea of how Horace looked at this stage, slip an old condom over your index finger and wiggle it.) However, to a sympathetic eye, Horace did not appear at all repulsive – thanks to Philomena’s conscientious and tender ministrations which kept his overall complexion clear and healthy. A ridiculous proportion of their monthly expenses, however, went towards imported skin care products.

Since his strange affliction precluded active participation in sports and other social games, Horace had naturally turned to books. (He rarely watched television, complaining that he found the “superficiality and false glamor of TV-land “ in poor taste.) During this period he chanced upon Frank Herbert’s Dune stories which profoundly altered his self-image: Horace was drawn irresistibly into a quasi-mystical identification with the Hero - whose horrendous transmogrification into a hideous heap of omniscient protoplasm earns him the status of Emperor God. The silent contempt Horace felt towards the human hordes that pride themselves on Normalcy became even more pronounced.


FOR A FEW best forgotten years, Horace Tan supplemented his dwindling trust fund income by submitting his Skin Condition to public exhibition. He was billed as “The Incredible Human Fungus.” It was disgusting and demeaning, true, but on weekends the takings were appreciable. Philomena set up a tea stall outside. Soon, a multi-cultural element (consisting of two giggly Thai women wrestling in French salad dressing) was incorporated into Horace’s Human Fungus routine. While Philomena diverted curious policemen with her excellent tea and delicious margarine rolls, Horace livened up his act with a series of other ingeniously flamboyant titillations. “Fun on Fungus” evolved into a fantastic money-spinner, and Horace H.L. Tan was well on his way to true-blue entrepreneurship. “They want skin… I sell them SKIN!” became his private credo.

And with that Horace Tan married Philomena P’ng, bought her a gleaming new chain of fast-food outlets, and installed himself as the Invisible Godfather of a proliferous network of adult video agencies. It was the perfect climate for purveyors of preserved prurience: hot, humid and hypocritical.

Working behind the scenes with transcendental vulgarity, Horace swiftly established a vast and venal empire of ‘musical’ coffeehouses, ‘massage’ salons and ‘sex-clusive’ health clubs. Meanwhile, video vice was doing very well, thank you, with the staunch support of the nation’s puritan aunts and uncles: the more they raved, the more they rented. When the Official Outcry Over Obscenity and Hedonism (OOOOH) reached a premature climax of impassioned publicity resulting in Nocturnal Omissions by the Blind Forces of Moral Erectitude (ref. Raids & Seizures Act, Amendment V, 1969), Horace gently pulled out of pornography and plunged into other, more personally gratifying pursuits.

He took up the serious study of Amateur Dermatology by post, and soon was acknowledged as the World’s Foremost Authority on the tragic case history of John Merrick (the original Elephant Man). Inspired by one of Alan Sherman’s doggerel ditties (“You gotta have skin/All you ever really need is skin…”), Horace next tried underwriting and producing a musical extravaganza (predictably called Skin). The critics dismissed the whole show as “a flabby and shabby flop” but its lyrical content, though accused of “unrestrained idiosyncrasy and self-vindication,” was occasionally brilliant:

Skin is a most precious commodity
Especially when it stretches to Infinity;
Although a few fools think me an oddity,
My ego-encompassing epidermal packaging
Gives me a great sense of Divinity!

Skin, luxurious skin:
Oo, it’s the nicest stuff to be in!
Come rain or shine it won’t fade with time;
Yes! skin is a substance sublime.

Skin, my glorious skin:
Where do you end, where do I begin?
Who cares! just send up an endless supply
Of skin…


But most of all Horace cherished his regular afternoon jaunts. When the sun warmed him like a chappati and the breeze billowed his cheeks like a Sultan’s birthday banners, he would pause and tuck the freehanging ends of his knobby kneeskin into his superstretched socks (so as not to trip and embarrass himself). And he would think fondly of faithful Philomena: so passionate, so patient, so practical, so resilient and resourceful. And his entire skin would quiver with a peculiar pleasure.

Having thus worked up a voluminous appetite Horace would hurry over (the best he could) to his wife’s nearest outlet, where he would drowse behind the giant microwave ovens and wait for the last patron to leave, before doing hungry justice to the day’s remnants of frankfurters, French fries and fruit pies.

And yet, Horace Tan’s marital, epidermal and gastronomical contentment was clouded by the horrid certainty that the rate of his Gross Dermal Product was obviously and undeniably proportional to his age. In other words, Mr Tan’s horrible Skin Condition was STILL getting worse (notwithstanding his remarkable psychological triumph over the cruel bathos of Fate).

"Each day the dutiful Mrs Tan would scrape off the waxy waste with a scoop and sell it by the tub to an orchid fertilizer factory."


BEFORE HE REACHED 44 the unfortunate Mr Horace Tan had become quite incapable of carrying out the simplest tasks of daily living. His devoted wife soon had to administer liquid food to him through a veterinary hypodermic (it was impossible to locate his mouth); walk him in a heavy-duty motorized wheelbarrow (his feet were hard to find); read, or rather, shout the morning and afternoon papers to him (his eyes had for years been buried beneath pachydermoid lids and he hardly had ears to speak of or into); scratch him whenever he had an itch (and he had more than a few); and hose him down thrice a day (to reduce his profuse transpiration).

Almost all his natural bodily functions had undergone a bizarre mutation. He no longer had to “go to the toilet.” Instead he exuded, at regular intervals, a resinous effluent which, although slightly unpleasant in odor, was wonderfully conducive to plant growth. Each day the dutiful Mrs Tan would scrape off the waxy waste with a scoop and sell it by the tub to an orchid fertilizer factory. Then she would turn on the electric shower system in the ceiling and spray her husband with Dettol, followed by Odorono. At night she had to tape his facial folds to the wall to prevent his suffocating in his sleep as he lay helpless on his foam-rubber floor like a retired Portuguese man-of-war. It was a truly unhappy existence, even for such a positive-thinking pair.

Despite his Herculean struggles with dermal density, heroic Horace never forgot each night to whisper hoarsely, albeit inaudibly, to his wife: “Hey, Sugar-Melon… stick around. I… I’ll show you a good time yet!” (Alas, a rarely fulfilled promise.)

Philomena Tan, with phenomenal determination and without prejudice, divided her time equally between running her fast-food chain and attending to her poor husband’s saprophytic existence. But as each day dragged saggingly by with no miracle in sight, and even the subcutaneous sound of Horace’s voice receded beyond the effective range of the electronic bugs implanted within his remote recesses, Philomena began to admit that things looked grave.

The last time she heard him speak was through a medium. He sounded deeply regretful to have imposed such a massive burden on her, and begged her over and over again to put him out of his monstrous misery. She had replied (through the medium): “But, Horace! After all we’ve been through, how can I get rid of you?” (“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Horace had quipped via the medium. At least he still had his sense of humor.)

What with the bourgeoisie rabidly bourgeoning and its insatiable demand for junk food, Mrs Tan was kept too busy to indulge in self-pity. Not till the weekend did she find time to ponder a possible cure for her husband’s horrible Skin Condition. Every known medical approach had been attempted to no avail: Allopathic, Ayurvedic, Homeopathic, Dianetic, even Acupuncture, Ch’i Qong, Hypnotism, Mind Control, Reiki, Aloe Vera, Aromatherapy, Aurasoma, Past Life Regression, Royal Jelly, Lourdes Water, Mystic Ash, Prayer and Tiger Balm.

Then she remembered having seen, among some ancient books collecting dust in the basement, a frayed edition of Dr J.S. Petit’s quaint classic, 101 Ways To Cure Skin (published in 1903). The book had probably belonged to Horace’s paternal grandfather. In a thrice Philomena was rummaging through the musty accumulations of three generations of Tans until, at last, she retrieved the slim volume. Hands trembling, she began her desperate research, struggling over Dr Petit’s worm-eaten archaisms.

The following week, having secured “a good supply of tannin and gambier,” she mixed the recommended ingredients into a concentrated solution and added this regularly to her spongoid spouse’s nutrient injections. There was no way of knowing if the treatment would work. Now that hope and faith seemed useless, only luck remained.


One evening some weeks later she arrived with her husband’s food syringe to find his discolored and deflated blimp-like bulk even more devoid of human semblance than usual. Missing were the familiar rumbling undulations of inexpressible yearning that preceded every meal. “Horace!” she cried distractedly. “Horace, wake up! Your dinner’s getting cold!”

There was no response. Not a single heave, nor the subtlest quiver. “HORACE??” She began poking all over the unmoving mammoth mound of flaccid cuticle, looking for traces of her erstwhile matrimonial partner, but found absolutely nothing: nothing vaguely suggesting an arm or a leg or a protuberance of any description. Horace H.L. Tan had apparently dissolved into the labyrinthine folds of his own skin.

Perhaps for the first time in her life Philomena P’ng broke down and wept. But not for very long. Within a year, the phenomenal Philomena had gathered her resources and opened a classy boutique in Star Hill Plaza selling a chic selection of designer Belts, Boots, Handbags, Shoes, Wallets, Vests, Cigarette Cases, Pipe Pouches, Money Belts, and so on. The turnover was simply sensational. A massive promotional campaign was launched in Hong Kong, Taipeh, London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles, and exports began in earnest. Soon, the House of Horace could boast the rare distinction of being the “World Leader in Quality Leather.” Well, at least till the supply fizzled out… and, horror of horrors, it eventually did, poor Horace.

© Antares 1967, 1987, 1995, 2001, 2007

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I really like it. It's so poignant, I really like the illustration too.

- Karcy.

Antares said...

Thank you, Karcy - I figured this strange saga deserved another airing after 40 years - and it's lovely to know it hasn't lost its charm :-)

xmocha said...

I remember reading this in the NST when I was in my teens.. and fell in love with this writer named Kit Leee :-)

Antares said...

Awww... that's really sweet, xmocha... ;-) MUUAAAH!!! xXx

animah said...

Hi Antares, I've finally dropped by your site. I love this story. Feels quite Dahlish.

Antares said...

Hi there, Animah! Somebody remarked years ago that this story was rather Dahlish and it was then I discovered Roald for myself! Did you know defler was a secret agent before he quit to become a full-time writer?

Ee Lynn said...

Not secret agent lah. RAF only. Plus he only wanted to be an airman so he could visit exotic countries and see giraffes and elephants.

What an absolutely disturbing story! Is it an allegory? Is there a lesson to be learned from it?

Your prose style, though, is inimitable! It's cerebral, sensuous, complex, sexy and shocking all at once.

Antares said...

Thought Roald Dahl was assigned to military intelligence? I'm obviously no expert on the man. As for whether the story is allegorical and what can be learnt from it... well, now that you ask... SKIN is an apt metaphor for the interface between the ego and the environment in which it functions. Skin is also the most erotic substance known to humans! Greatly appreciate your comments, Elfie ;-)

Anonymous said...

Antares/kit,

My aunt SY chew forwarded this little gem to me and its as brilliant now as when I first read it as a boy.

Perhaps i identified with it then as a troubled youth trying to find my place in the world! I had cut it out and inserted in my scrapbook so i could keep re-reading it for eternity. Alas, it was lost with many of my childhood belongings due to an cleanliness obssessed mother years past. Anyway, "for eternity" is only a youth's unattainable ideal so Horace's reappearance here is the best present I've received in a long time. Thank you for sharing it...again.

Kuan

Antares said...

Kuan - Sorry it took me a while to respond here (best to use email if you wish to communicate directly!). You can't imagine how pleased I am to receive such heartfelt feedback from someone I've yet to meet. I'd be happy to make you endless cups of tea when you visit :-) Thanks, mate!