January 20, 1978, Melanie smells of soap and talcum. The freckles on the round of her right shoulder spread from her face, like wild grass, to the top of her arm just above the bit where her bicep curls. Her skin is golden brown, the colour of gula melaka on sago pudding. She likes doing cartwheels in the grass and running barefoot on the roads. Melanie is a wild child.
February 17, 1978, Melanie tastes of coconut cream. The coconut oil she spreads on herself promises full protection from the tropical rays, Ibu Minah says. I lick a patch of freckles near her clavicle and she shivers. Then she giggles, softly at first, then her giggles turn into raucous hiccups and we both collapse in glee, unable to stop laughing. Our stomachs ache, tears pour down our faces, our joy is immense and wild. Melanie is my wild child.
March 14, 1978, The wind is in our hair as the boat glides over waves in the Indian Ocean. Uncle Robert, Melanie’s father, owns a small sailing boat. They sail away from the city every weekend and I tag along eagerly. After a swim, we have sweet mangoes to take the salt away from our lips. We feast on grilled shrimps and squid tasting of the sea and wash our lunch down with lukewarm ginger ale, then we laze about in the cabin below deck to escape the hot afternoon sun. Our stomachs are round with food and drink; we hug and we cuddle, we read and we chat and sometimes we fall asleep spooning each other. Melanie is my sailor girl.
When twilight approaches, we sit on the upper deck, legs dangling off the edge of the boat and wait for the night to come. The sea is silent and still; a light breeze blows. We lie back, heads resting on folded hands waiting for the stars to appear one by one. They are like the freckles on Melanie’s right shoulder. We count the twinkling stars; I count Melanie’s freckles. One, two, three, lick, giggles. Four, five, six, lick, giggles. The stars twinkle and her freckles dance in the moonlight. Melanie is my best friend.
March 30, 1980, Melanie says she misses her mother; sweat is beading on her upper lip. She wishes that it wasn’t so humid, so her mother would stay. I push the button of the electric fan to stop if from rotating so that it blows only at Melanie. “Why did she leave?” There’s more going on in New York. “Have you seen her since?” She never writes nor calls. “It’s better to forget her then.” Melanie nods but I know that it’s hard for her to forget this woman, her mother. Melanie loves her nanny, Ibu Minah; she’s a native woman from the island. Ibu Minah plaits Melanie’s hair and sings her a song in a foreign language. “Sayang, sayang, sayang” Ibu Minah’s voice sashays as she massages Melanie’s scalp and separates her long auburn hair into two parts before turning each part into a neat plait. Ibu Minah’s velvety song sends Melanie into another world where she is cocooned in her mother’s love, where she is smothered by her mother’s kisses.
April 23, 1980, Melanie is mewling like a new born kitten; she is forbidden to see Ibu Minah ever again. Ibu Minah left in a flurry of shouting; Melanie’s father is punching the wall as he tells her that Ibu Minah is a bad woman. The days are filled with despair and the nights desperation. Melanie hugs me sobbing, she doesn’t know what to do without her Ibu Minah. Who will plait her hair? Who will hug her to sleep at night? Who will sing her a song she doesn’t understand and can only sense? Melanie’s anguish interrupts my dreams; the depth of her pain and the intensity of her loneliness disrupt my sleep.
April 30, 1980, Melanie stands naked in the bathroom; the floor is a pattern of different coloured mosaics. She hasn’t eaten properly or bathed in a week. I pour water over her head and spread some shampoo into her wet hair. I rub and massage her scalp until the yellow shampoo lathers, then I wash it all away with buckets of water; her head smells of the metallic shampoo. The tap is running, filling the Shanghai jar until it runs over. Water splashes everywhere. It’s time to soap her body. I pass the bar of soap over Melanie’s chest; it glides smoothly over her budding left breast first, then her right. I bring the soap over the round of her tummy. The triangle between her legs is a feathery bush. Melanie shudders a little when I soap the top of her thighs; the bruises are from Ibu Minah’s pinches to stop her from missing her mother. Melanie is covered in white foam; greenish-yellow patches peep from beneath the foam. I pour buckets of water over her until all the soap is washed away and her freckles are shiny like newly polished buttons. But the blue-black, yellow-green patches won’t wash off.
May 14, 1984, It’s Melanie’s birthday. Her wispy bangs are swept slightly away from her face. She is wearing her hair high to one side in a bushy ponytail. She is sweet sixteen. Her eyeshadow is turquoise and green and her eyes are lined heavily; her lips are ripened cherries. Her date is Andrew Martins. I watch Melanie climbing into Andrew’s car. I am full of rage; bile sits at the base of my throat. She turns around, looks into my eyes, waves and mouths “don’t worry, I love you” though her feline eyes say something else: they are dancing with pleasure and fear. Something’s not right, I sense; it’s too late, the car disappears round the bend; I missed out on saying “I love you too”.
January 29, 2004, The sun has set over the horizon. I am on a boat with Mark; we are in the Philippines. We relish the tropical warmth as anthracite skies spread over London. I lick the freckles on Mark’s right shoulder; he tastes of the sea. He laughs and kisses me hard on the lips. The wind is in my hair as the boat sails back to the resort. It’s our honeymoon and I am five months pregnant.
February 5, Our flight will leave in the afternoon. The outrigger will take us to the airport on another island. Mabuhay, El Nido, we will miss you, I whisper as the resort staff sings us good bye in a foreign language I don’t understand but can only sense. I feel the sadness in the words as they croon and wave us goodbye, their voices floating out to sea as our little boat takes us further and further away.
The baby kicks as I open the overhead locker to stow away my bag. I rub my tummy and whisper “don’t worry, I love you.”
May 14, 2004, I am pushed into the theatre for an emergency caesarean. The pain makes me delirious; I feel the baby pushing against my pelvic floors unable to get out. Everyone is talking in loud gibberish and Mark is running alongside the bed on wheels holding my left hand, my right is tethered to a catheter. He whispers “don’t worry, I love you”. The car turns round the corner and I sense something’s not right. A loud explosion punctures the quiet of dusk; the sirens of the ambulance makes a ruckus. “Road accident, No survivors, Victims both sixteen”. I tear at my scalp screaming. I feel a searing sensation below as the doctor makes an incision; the local anaesthetic isn’t working. I howl like a wounded animal. They place the baby on my chest as someone sews up the cut. The baby is wet and slimy with freckles all over her shoulders. I weep. “I love you, Melanie, I love you. I love you, my wild child.”
Brock Elbank is a London based photographer who celebrates the beauty of imperfection. In 2015, he started to document people with freckles. Elbank says:
“I’ve always loved freckles, and what I find interesting about individual characters that I meet and have been fortunate to photograph is that, generally, they’ve struggled having them in their infancy and either hated them, or grown to live with them or even like them in adulthood. Many of the subjects shot so far are such incredible-looking humans that are simply freckled … It’s really why I shoot what I love to shoot. Just amazing-looking individuals from all walks of life.” (Maria Yagoda for People, http://people.com/bodies/brock-elbank-freckles-photo-series-see-the-inspiring-pictures/)
Beauty is skin deep, as they say, and the standards and criteria of beauty are as arbitrary as the freckles on a person’s face and body. I love how Brock Elbank celebrates beauty by taking portraits of people with freckles. He also has another project, documenting men with beards.