Backwards, Count by Amy Slack


Creative Non Fiction by Amy Slack

Your hands are now safe, says step 12 of the illustrated guide to handwashing that has been hastily blu-tacked beside every sink in the office. Safe. A door locked, a bomb defused.

You like to start at the end, work backwards from there. Turn to the last sentence of a novel before the first, read As before Qs, scroll past-wards through threads of tweets strung together by lost souls. Found alive and well. Thanks to everyone who’s shared our message. Praying for a miracle. Has anyone seen our son? You find reassurance in conclusions.

Your hands hurt. Dry hands thoroughly, says step 10, and you have, so much so that the skin has stiffened until it aches. Your palms peel and flake, reaching, grasping, catching on fabric, clinging to fibres. The backs of your hands crack red, grow angry, break into tiny, swollen welts. Creams and moisturisers sting and burn as you massage some semblance of life back into your knuckles, into the splitting dryness between your fingers.

Your hands drown. Wash for 40–60 seconds, says step 8. You hold them down, follow the moves, perform the poses: interlace fingers, twist around thumb, palm to palm. Step 6, 5, 4. It’s a dance, you tell yourself, and to prove it you sing, mumbling old chart hits and showtunes and imagine being anywhere but back at a sink and foaming with soap again, again, again. You don’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’, though. Your birthday is eight months away. You’ll sing it then, even though you’re meant to stay quiet when it’s your turn and let everyone else sing to you. It’s a promise you make to yourself: you’ll sing it in eight months’ time, when all of this is over.

Your hands betray you. They seek to touch, to force you to be aware of touch: every lift button, every bus railing, every door handle. The ghost of touch curdles in your hand as you debate whether it is okay to slip it – this stranger, this enemy of yours – into your coat pocket. Can it be so much worse in there, with its crumpled receipts and twisted knots of tissues? You dread to think, dread not to think. You press your fist inside, fingers curled around that last touch, holding it tight so that it does not escape.

Your hands threaten you. Even at home; especially at home. Apply soap to cover, says step 2, but no amount of anti-bac will make your hands comply. All they want to do is scratch, wipe, reach for your face, as they whisper gentle lullabies to let you let your guard down. They distract you, wandering finger-first over phone and keyboard to taunt you with news, with articles that pose questions untethered by answers, with constant updates. You wade, fall, sink into bottomless, unending feeds. There was a beginning to all this, you tell yourself. There was a before. There was, but your hands whisper otherwise as they beckon number after number, each one increasing in unbearable relentlessness:13, 34, 85, 206.

It’s coming closer. It’s in your pocket. It’s on your skin. Wet hands, says step 1, and so you begin again.

Would it be a relief, of sorts, to give in?

You touch your face. Your hands are now safe.

11 September 2020