This is the second in my series of literary/women’s fiction short stories. “I won’t ever eat the fish” appeared in my head one day when I was editing a crime thriller for a client. I’d seen a photo on a giant canvas, rather like the header image, of a foreshortened view of a pier (for those of you in the UK, it was in the Argos catalogue. Inspiration comes from many weird places!). The premise of the story wouldn’t leave me alone, and I had to stop the editing and write the first draft of it.
The original version was written when I first began to take my short story writing professionally, and it was placed in a small UK short story competition in 2007. That wasn’t the end of its journey: I entered it into the short story competition in Scribble magazine the other year (yes, this was allowed) and, to my delight and surprise, it won first place for the issue in which it was published. I’ve not finished with this story yet…I’ve been working of a collection for seven years, and this will be one of the stories included.
I would love to know what you think.
I Won’t Ever Eat the Fish
Will I feel dead when we get there? Or will I just feel sick? I shouldn’t be shaking as I drive, but I can’t help it.
I should have known that it would rain today. Nearly the whole of the month has been and gone, with barely a spatter of a raindrop. But today, when I have to – need to – make the journey, a constant stream gushes down the windscreen. I sit and squint through the arc-shaped streaks the window wipers are making, hunched up in the front with the steering wheel resting on my thighs so the girls have the extra leg room, especially Amy. Her legs have grown into broomsticks. They feel as if they’ve snapped in the middle, and spike their bony splinters into my back through the layers of material and padding in the driver’s seat. I sometimes wish that she would sit on Ellie’s side instead, but she always sits in the same place, slumped down so that I can’t see her. That’s fine.
I glance behind me and, with a smile plastered to my lips, say to little Ellie,
“Have you eaten those sandwiches, baby?”
“Well,” Ellie replies, cocking her head on one side, just like her dad used to do, “I’ve eaten a little bit, but actually I’ve eaten a lot really, because I’ve eaten up all of the cake and the crisps. I’m going to save the banana for later, after the chips and the doughnuts on the sand. Is that OK, Mummy?”
Oh, God, those eyes of hers. I think that, even at five years old, girls know how to pull those eyes. They save them for the right moment, for a parent whose stomach is raw, tight – aching. They learn to detect a moment of weakness, so that the doting adult morphs into a golden retriever, rolling over onto its back and allowing the child to rub its belly.
“That’s all right, baby,” I say, and smile at her through the rear view mirror. Who am I to argue? It doesn’t matter – not today. I don’t bother asking Amy if she’s eaten. There wouldn’t be any point. She won’t answer, anyway. Sometimes I just give up trying.
“We may have to stink out the car with vinegar, girls, if you want chips today,” I force the pretence of a giggle. We’d not had that trouble last year, or any of the other years we’d been here for our family treat: an anniversary break for Frank and me – on our own at first, then with the kids, of course. Last year, we’d been in a bigger car – one we could afford to pay for monthly, and big enough for all four of us and the accumulated seaside fripperies the girls buried themselves under on the way home – and the sun had scorched us through the glass. We’d eaten chips swimming in vinegar from polystyrene trays at the sandy end of the pier, where it was safe and the wood wasn’t rotten. And Amy had pestered and pestered Frank to take her out in a boat that year, because he’d been promising since she turned twelve, and after three years the best he’d managed was to stand in the river in his waders to untangle his keep net. He’d even got the collywobbles doing that.
It looks bitter cold outside the car. I wonder if it’s as icy as it is in here, with Amy’s silent slump and Ellie’s little mouth creating enough heat for her to draw stick men in the mist on her window. The rain smears across the windscreen as I switch off the engine.
Everything is there, the same as before. The obsolete sky blue and mint green beach huts stand, perched up on their rocky foundations. The light glints off the tiny top windows, except on one, where blackness swallows up the day. Only jagged arrows of glass flash their barbed edges out at me, around the little window frame. How sad. I don’t remember it ever looking like that. Stupid, isn’t it, how something so wonderful can be destroyed and no-one seems to care?
Frank and I had made good use of those huts, shortly after we’d got married. I stare through the driver’s side window at the third one along and my lips turn up a fraction in the corners. But my eyes betray me today. I’m sure I have two stones stuck to the bottom eyelids, allowing the sand in to scratch.
The raindrops serve as magnifying globules and show up the door and the little roof of the hut as shiny round bubbles. It was most probably in there that my belly had first started to become rounded with Amy, we’d decided. It was our little secret about this place; the one which made us smile together. And we’d thought, then, that our family and our happiness would grow, and nothing would ever break our magic bubble.
But it’s burst now. It burst with a sickness and a violence I had never known anyone could feel, standing inert on the seashore with Ellie wrapped around my hips in koala stance, as Amy came out of the sea, safe in the grasp of the rescue diver’s arms, while his team continued to search. She made that bubble burst, my daughter. Why won’t she tell me how? After the incessant smiles and the soft words from the counsellors, and a whole twelve months of hoping that the wall behind her eyes will finally collapse, why will she still not tell me?
I look around at her from my new driver’s seat, at her sullen, pale face, staring into the depths of the door handle. And in my mind I shake her and shake her, and drip tears all over her and beg her to tell me what happened. But she never does. I made a decision a long while ago – to ignore her, rather than hurt her, because all I really want to do is hit her and hit her for coming back without Frank. For coming back. And, as I look at her and see Frank’s face, his stature, his everything, sitting in the back of the car, I despise myself, for just how much I can’t bear her.
“Put your hoods up over your ears, girls, or you’ll freeze,” I say. Cocooned in coats, we trample over the grassy ridge and onto the top of the sand dune. The rickety old stick fence still clings to its spot, serving its purpose as a makeshift wind-break, as it had done on all those many occasions we’d parked here. Only, this time, the wood looks whiter yet dirtier, sand-beaten from the top downwards, leaving a fan of shards on the top of each post. I’ve ever noticed it before. I reach out my fingers to feel the deep, salt-worn ridges in the stakes, and Ellie, my own miniature copycat, removes her hand from her coat pocket.
“Don’t touch, Ellie,” I snap at her. “You might get splinters.”
Ellie returns her infant hand to her pocket and her bottom lip quivers.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I stutter. “I didn’t mean…” The words just stop coming, as the girls and I look beyond the raindrops and out to the sea. How calm it looks, but deep, impenetrable grey, hiding its secrets, and mocking me with its evil, all-knowing waves.
“Is Daddy still there?” Ellie asks as she points far out to the horizon, and she looks up at me with those baby features still obvious to me behind her five years. I can’t speak to my little girl. My eyes are hidden by a misty wetness and my lips are dry. My head jerks downwards slightly, as recognition of her words, and I cling to her arm so tightly I expect to hear her squeal. But still I can’t speak. So little Ellie speaks for me.
“He is, isn’t he, Mummy? Daddy’s still there, somewhere.”
I close my eyes and pull Ellie close. How long do we stay like that? Five minutes? Half an hour? When I look up, Amy has already separated herself from us, and is beginning to make her way down towards the old pier. She’s old enough to make her own decisions, choose her own course, to leave me if she wants, but still I yell, “Stop, Amy! It’s not safe alone. You might fall in.” I stand, shocked by my own words. Is this the first time I’ve really cared what Amy has done in the last year? Maybe. The wind whistles around our legs and over our hoods as I feel my legs running, running, dragging Ellie behind like a rag doll, until my frantic breath hits Amy’s neck.
She stands, motionless, at the end of the withering planks. For the first time since I sat at Frank’s memorial service, unable to say goodbye to his body, I feel powerless to take control, keeping everyone ticking along, carrying on with life – with my daughter, without my husband. And now I take a breath and hold it there. I hold Ellie completely still. I daren’t disturb the air, or do anything that might make her move, because my Amy, after a year of absent voice, speaks. The sound that emanates from her is barely audible, but enough to make the sky halt for a moment. The wind drops, and the sea opens itself up to engulf the words she mouths to the waves. But they fail this time. I listen.
“Dad, I hope you can hear me. I remember you every day, swimming in the sea. When I close my eyes, I see your face blowing bubbles in the water. I have the same dream every night.”
I look over towards her. Her eyes are grey as the water. Nothing but the sea matters to her. The guilt grabs hold of my empty heart and gnaws away. I should have seen, but she’d never told me. Ever. She just sat up in bed each night, after the scream, and never looked at me. Then she’d lie down on her side, away from my face, and close her eyes. I reach towards her screwed up hand and her pretty painted finger ends unfurl and clutch around my palm, but still she doesn’t acknowledge me. She looks only into the water.
“I got a goldfish for my birthday, Dad. I wanted a goldfish more than anything, because it swims in the water. It blows bubbles like you did, just before you went under and I couldn’t see you anymore. It’s the only memory I’ve got of you. I can’t remember anything else. Maybe I will one day. Maybe after today. I couldn’t save you, but I’ll look after my goldfish, I promise. It helps me to remember. And I won’t ever eat the fish in the sea, Dad, just in case. Ellie’s right. You’re in there, somewhere.”
Then, she turns to look at me. Her eyes are no longer grey, but have the glimmer of blue that will always be the most vivid tell-tale sign that she was, is, Frank’s daughter. Among the anguish and the unspoken nightmares I see Frank staring back at me. And I see her – my daughter, my first-born child, and I, finally, give thanks silently to the sea for releasing her from its deceptive frothy fronds and murderous enveloping waves.
I put my arm around her, for the first time in a year. And she lets me do it, now I know. My heart jumps to life as I feel the gentlest of touches around my own waist, and she lays her head on my shoulder. I hold tight to little Ellie’s hand, too, and she smiles up at me. I don’t need to look at Amy’s face, but I can’t help it. And as I do, the mist appears in my eyes again, until I can barely see where we are walking. As we walk together, we three, back to the sand dune, and the rickety fence, I cling tightly to my family, and think that, maybe, we can come back on holiday in the summer, to spend longer here, with the sea. And maybe, at last, I can talk about Frank – to help her remember.