‘Over the stove she has written ‘Help, Help, Help, Help, Help’
Pamela Zoline, 1967
Jessica Trent is woken in the middle of the night by rain hitting the window. Heavy rain showers used to be Jessica’s favourite kind, rain comprising of fat drops that slick her hair to her head and drip off her eyelashes and nose. For a moment she considers going to stand in the garden, but her body is too tired to move and she falls back to sleep. Her dreams are of water seeping into the room, filling it up, until she’s floating near the ceiling.
Fact 1: Water: a is colourless, transparent, odourless liquid, which forms the seas, lakes, rivers and rain and is the basis of the fluids of all living organisms.
In the morning Jessica’s face is lined from the creases on the pillow, lines that will take at least an hour to fade. When she has a cold, or doesn’t sleep enough the lines stay all day. Her face isn’t ageing well, because it suited young. It’s a child’s round face and soon she knows she will look grotesque: like a ten-year-old with wrinkles and eager eyes.
Jessica goes to wake her children, but they don’t want to get up and she has to remind them that today they will go to life-saving lessons after school. They can all swim, but they want badges. They want to be like their friends and learn to rescue each other and swim in their pyjamas. She’s been putting the lessons off for months, but it will get her out of the house, and there will only be an hour left at home before the children go to bed.
Downstairs in the kitchen Jessica and the children are at first quiet, still half asleep. There’s only the sound of Rice Krispies pinging into china bowls. Jessica’s children are now old enough to have china bowls. She recently collected all the plastic dinnerware into a carrier bag and put it in the recycling. Looking into the clean, empty drawer that once held towers of pink and blue plates, gives her immense pleasure. The sort of pleasure once reserved for producing a thorough report at work, or for writing an elegant haiku. The children protested when they saw the bag of plates, but she stayed strong. Her aversion to plastic can be traced back to Robert Benson, with whom she shared a desk in the first year of secondary school and who sucked and nibbled on plastic pen lids every morning. Once he registered her dislike he would leave the lids for her to find in her school bag, or flick them at her, splattering her with warm spit.
Jessica drinks camomile tea from a white cup and saucer that she re-discovered when clearing out the corner cupboard. Fat jars, filled with a mix of juice and water now sit next to the children’s bowls, also discoveries from the back of the corner cupboard. The children love their jam-jar cups and refuse to drink out of anything else, but the youngest spills juice each time he drinks. The thick rim is too cumbersome for his mouth. Jessica imagines that each time he takes a sip the child will get less and less liquid. It will become an addictive tick to let the juice spill out of his mouth and down the side of the jar, onto his clothes. That no matter how much liquid she gives him none will reach his throat, his stomach or his bloodstream. He will soon begin to dry out; he will become wizened and spongy. Eventually dust.
When it’s time for school Jessica asks the children to put their shoes on and get their things. They ignore her and begin to fight: Mum he’s looking at me. Stop him looking at me. Jessica asks them to put their shoes on a further six times and they only seem to hear her when she roars – a roar that scratches at the inside of her throat and that will be with her rest of the day, a dull gnawing graze on her conscience. One child cries, one goes quiet, the other stomps to the front door.
They all run to school instead of walk. Jessica shouts some more, ‘Hurry up! We’re late!’ She makes them chase after her to keep up. A voice in her head is saying what does it matter if they’re late once? She keeps running and shouting, ‘Come on, stop dawdling, what’s wrong with you?’ There’s a hardness in her that wants to drag them by their pink and blue anorak hoods, shove them so they stumble. They arrive just in time, as they always do.
When Jessica returns home she finds one small glove left on the floor by the door. She picks it up and rubs it against her cheek, which makes her cry. She wants to lie down, to sleep or watch TV until it’s time to collect them. But she can’t lie down in this mess.
Jessica swirls the cloth and sponge round and round in the washing-up bowl, creating a whirlpool, a spinning vortex in the water, which she stares at for a few seconds before carrying the bowl to the table. There are toys all over the table as well as on the floor: a cuddly turtle, a wheel from a toy car, a pair of pink plastic high heels, a Barbie doll with no head, a shoe box full of pencils and pens, seventeen drawings. Too much. She sweeps all of this onto the floor with her arm, swinging round in a low, crouching circle. Her mother did the same thing once or twice, pushing clutter onto the floor in a rage, or worse, calmly with a small smile.
The pencils go everywhere, making a pleasant clinking sound as they bounce on the limestone tiles. She tips a slosh of water onto the surface of the table and begins to scrub solidified Rice Krispies and lilac smears of Petit Filous.
Fact 2: Astronomers have discovered the largest and oldest mass of water ever detected in the universe — a 12-billion-year-old cloud harbouring 140 trillion times more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. The cloud of water vapour surrounds a supermassive quasar, located 12 billion light-years from Earth. The discovery shows that water has been prevalent in the universe for almost its entire existence.
If a water cloud were to burst over Richmond it would be like a tsunami from above. A great cleansing and washing away of everything; of Rice Krispies and Barbie shoes, of the suburbs of South West London, of the world. Leaving a blue marble swirling in space, a planet made of pure water. Beautiful.
Jessica Trent’s new hobbies are washing clothes and reading random articles on the Internet, replacing previous activities, such as of reading of the New Scientist and the creation of haiku, pastimes she was dedicated to throughout college and in the early part of her career as a researcher in the UCL geography department. The haiku were often about the rain, for example:
Rain falls on my face
washing away dirt and tears,
leaving only truth.
This was one of her first, angst-ridden attempts. Later ones include:
I drink tea alone
hot sweet liquid that soothes me
sometimes with biscuits.
Now Jessica washes and cleans the house, adhering to the principles of haiku instead. She puts green washing soap onto stains with five firm scrapes, then rubs the cloth together seven times, and then rinses under the tap five times. She can no longer compose in language, only in action.
Jessica used to stuff the washing machine full – she would do it with quick punches, stuff, stuff, stuff and over fill the machine with a mix of whites and colours and balled-up socks. But the clothes were never clean, they came out in a tangle, grey and smelling sour. Then a child’s PE shorts had a brown stain on them – probably mud, but a classmate said it was a skid mark. The child came home in tears. Jessica tended to the shorts, soaked them in cold water, with blue and white crystalline powder and then rubbed them with the green soap and rinsed with warm water, then let them languish in the washing machine by themselves. She did it methodically, wearing gloves, like an experiment. And poetically. It worked. The stain was gone. The sense of triumph was immense.
Jessica now seeks out stains, searches for them, tries to remove them even from things that don’t matter – tea towels and the children’s old clothes, using her haiku washing process. Ice cream. Ketchup. Balsamic vinegar. They don’t all come out, but when they do it is the best part of her day, reminding her of the hope-filled alchemy of those first experiments at school; the bubbling of bicarb; the magic of mercury, slippery and silvery.
She begins to work on a grass stain on a pair of trousers and a grease spot on a favourite blouse. They’re stubborn marks and she turns the tap on to full blast to try and use water pressure to budge the particles of dirt, to dissolve the stain. But when she holds the cloth under the tap the water goes everywhere, scalding her face and soaking her T-shirt. She bites her lip hard.
Fact 3: Substances such as salt, sugar and coffee dissolve in water. Solids dissolve faster in hot water, as in hot water the molecules are moving faster. When substances dissolve, they only seem to disappear: they are still there, but have become part of the water.
Jessica goes upstairs and changes her T-shirt. In the bedroom she sits in front of her computer for a few minutes and checks her email. Usually she would also log in to Facebook to catch up with acquaintances, or old friends she no longer cares about. She often spends time looking at her own profile on Facebook, browsing through photographs she has posted in the past, of her and the children as babies, or of her on holiday in Crete, pre-children, smiling and carefree, with sunburnt cheeks. The pictures seem to be of someone else; family in the pictures is solid and reassuring the person she used to be is carefree, happy. She stares at them until the pictires are blurred by the water in her eyes.
There’s an email from her father. He hasn’t been very well, his asthma is bad and Jessica can hear the damp wheeze in the syntax of his message.
Sorry to hear you’re not coming today. Will heat up soup later. Is all I can manage anyway. Hope you can make it tomorrow. Could you bring a cottage pie? The one from Jamie’s thirty-minute dinners? But with parsnips. Hope not too much trouble.
Jessica usually sees her father on Wednesdays, but because of swimming she can’t today. The visits are always difficult. The children don’t like his flat with its strange musty smell, or the gasping sound his makes when he leans down to ask if they’re being good.
In the bathroom Jessica flicks the cloth over taps and basin that are stained with splodges of toothpaste. She takes the chance to study her reflection more closely. The pillow creases are still there, her face is puffy; the skin on her forehead is flaking. Sometimes she thinks men still notice her. But perhaps they’re noticing something else; a woman who needs to remove the sleep from her eyes, or a woman who reminds them fondly of their mother. She isn’t a Mum-shell or a Milf. Not even close.
Fact 4: The earth is 70% water. The human body is around 60% water, a baby – 78%. A middle-aged woman has the least water, as fat begins to encroach; a woman of around 44 is 55% water. Water content will reduce, the older the body becomes.
Jessica Trent has tried to rehydrate her face and her body using a multitude of moisturising products. Although her scientific background causes her to question whether pentapeptides really plump up dried-out cells, or that Retinol-A is excellent for revitalising parched epidermis, or even that Collagen B serum reintroduces droplets of Ceramide to dead skin cells, she’s tried them all. She’s peered into the magnifying mirror, pulling her skin this way and that, but her skin seems to suck up these creams and want more and more. A small five-pence-sized amount, as recommended by shiny eighteen-year-old sales assistants, is never enough. There’s very little change.
Jessica’s face, hands and forearms are the driest part of her. If she rubs her forearms flakes of white fall. Perhaps it’s the same in the body as it is in the world – the water isn’t evenly distributed. Her belly and her thighs aren’t yet in the drought zone. She isn’t looking forward to that. Her hands, particularly after cleaning are withered, and her nails peeling. She paints her nails sometimes to hide their flimsy greyness.
Jessica moves from room to room and collects more of the plastic debris; coloured tokens from a board game, Scooby Doo figurines, Lego bricks. She drops them into tubs designed for garden debris, that she has placed by the doorway of each room. The thought of the mess inside the tubs makes her clench and unclench her fists. She wants to throw it all in the rubbish. She pictures herself doing this – up and down the stairs with a bucketful of brightly coloured toys. Tipping them all into the large wheelie bin and then racing back up to fetch more. Until they’re all gone.
Fact 5: In some places the water has gone. We’ve tapped underground water sources heavily. As water is sucked out from beneath the earth, the overlying soil and rock can collapse, causing buildings to teeter in Mexico City, cars to tumble into sinkholes in Florida, or tourists to be swallowed up on the fringes of the shrivelling Dead Sea.
The Barbies in the bathroom teeter on the edge of the bath. They’re naked. Jessica takes two flannels from the towel rail and wraps them around each Barbie and sits them up with their backs to the wall. She tries not to look at their doll-faces. Stop looking at me, make them stop looking at me.
The air in the house begins to feel stale. The day is suddenly draining away fast, shifting as it always does, after 2pm, from slow, dull-trickle of a day to a panicked torrent. There’s a dry fluttering in her stomach, a niggling sense that she must finish each room properly, all the time counting in her head as she wipes, washes and collects, five/seven/five.
Jessica’s forgotten about lunch. She has time for a quick drink of juice, a cracker and an olive or two, before she has to go and collect the children. She likes unusual juices, carrot and ginger, blueberry and acacia. Pomegranate juice is her latest favourite. It’s a thick, pink liquid, like drinking the blood of a Barbie.
At school pick-up Jessica stands alone and looks straight ahead of her. She feels odd to be outside in the world again, she blinks herself awake, takes deep breaths. Then the children are out, pouring across the playground. Her three find her and she’s given all their things to carry, a card board model of a wind turbine, coats, jumpers, book bags, lunch boxes. The children all grasp for her hands to hold.
Jessica needs to drive the children across town to their life-saving lesson. They fight in the back of the car, he punched my arm, he hit me Mummy. The eldest boy laughs and copies the girl in a whiny voice that is actually a pretty good impression– he hit me Mummy.
‘Enough!’ They’re late, and once again they’re running in the rain, from the car to the swimming pool, and she’s talking to them in her cruel hard voice that only this morning she promised herself she would never use again.
Inside the building it’s not what she expected: the pool is tiny. She was imagining a big pool with seats up above, where she could go and drink a smoothie and read a magazine and smile down at the children as they splashed about. Everyone must remove their shoes and socks before going into the changing rooms, even the accompanying adults. She tries not to look at the feet; some are neat and manicured, but others she catches from the corner of her eye – thick yellowing skin, toes larger than you would expect, longer than they ought to be.
There’s a place for the parents to sit right next to the tiny pool, on a ledge. It can fit around ten people on it comfortably – there are already twelve adults and various toddlers and babies. The floor is slimy and as she walks to a space at the end of the ledge, she scrunches her toes into claws. It’s hot and she’s wearing the wrong clothes, too many layers. The windows are steamed up, and the rain is still pouring outside. The pool looks flat and cool.
A baby leans over its mother’s shoulder and chews the lid of a plastic cup, looking at Jessica. Dribble falls from its mouth on to the seat next to her.
‘Sorry,’ the mother says. ‘He won’t go anywhere without it, he does love his suppy cup, don’t you Mister?’ She smiles expectantly at Jessica. She’s incredibly young – or looks it, her skin is smooth and she has even, white teeth. Jessica thinks about saying mine have jam jars, but finds she can’t speak. She nods, her skin reddening as she looks ahead at the pool, at her children splashing around – veering off in a zig-zag line as they swim on their backs. She begins to count the lengths they’re swimming, in sets of five, seven and five. The water when they’ve stopped swimming is a pale greenish-blue.
Fact 6 (Almost certainly not a fact): People born under the astrological signs of Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces are thought to have dominant water personalities. Water personalities tend to be emotional, deep, nurturing, sympathetic, empathetic, imaginative and intuitive. However, they can also be cold, moody, jealous, sentimental, sensitive, escapist and irrational.
Jessica Trent is a Scorpio. She isn’t sure she believes in astrology, but recognises that she’s a typical Scorpio mother: she’s a moody nurturer and at times imaginatively cold. She pictures the rest of her day: shouting at the children to come out of the showers after their swim – as she has had to shout at them to get into the showers before their swim – while the other mothers look away and speak to their children in saccharine voices, laden with darlings and sweethearts. Bending down she’ll become red in her baggy face as she stretches tights and trousers over wet legs. She’ll need to go to the shops on the way home, to get the ingredients for her dad’s pie. The children will whine and fight all the way round the supermarket. Then back to dinner-time and complaints about broccoli and the crushing disappointment of yoghurt for dessert. Then the evening ahead – removing the food that’s once again stuck to the table. Making the thirty (eighty) minute pie, once the children are in bed. And putting a wash on.
The noise levels in the pool are almost as unbearable as the heat. The windows are steamed up and the rain is falling outside. The swimming teachers shout to compete with each other’s instructions, ‘Lift your tummy, Thomas!’ ‘Face in the water!’ These cries are screeched and piercing, and underneath is the low murmur of the parents’ chit-chat.
Fact 7: (Thought by some to be factual and others to be complete fiction) Through the 1990s, Dr. Masaru Emoto performed a series of experiments observing, and apparently photographing, the physical effect of words, prayers, music and environment on the crystalline structure of water. Emoto claimed that the structures became more symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing after being exposed to prayer or positive words. Those water droplets exposed to negative words or unpleasant sounds remained loose and un-formed.
The heat is making her tired. The noise is making her tired. She’s always tired, but today she feels finished. Wrung out. She hasn’t had enough food, or enough water. She’s hot and dried up. There’s no time to tidy up. Or to make a perfect cottage pie with parsnips and truffle oil, with a parmesan-cheddar crust, the way her father likes it. Or to be kind to her children , to read them a story or kiss them gently goodnight. The baby over the shoulder is still looking at her, waving its blue plastic cup near her cheek. She doesn’t want another baby. Another one to shout at, to make loose and unformed. A fleck of baby saliva lands on her foot.
The children line up to jump in, standing too close to each other, jostling for position. They have distended bellies, and swimwear that is lopsided and hiked up over their small bottoms. Some shiver theatrically as they wait to go in. She’s not sure which ones belong to her. Jessica leans forward to watch them jump, her heart beating faster. Most leap with gusto, arms wide and legs flicked behind them, they grin and land almost on the teacher and come up wriggling and giggling. They rush round and do it again. They jump like soldiers, arms and legs straight, they do star jumps or clumsy half-dives. When they resurface they are gleaming and new, their hair slick, water drips from their eyelashes and noses.
The lesson is nearly finished, but not quite. Jessica is counting the seconds: five, seven, five. The teacher is talking to the children at the other end of the pool. Jessica stands. As she begins to walk she feels the other mothers’ eyes upon her. The chit chat hushes. Jessica places her feet solidly, flat on the floor, ignoring the slimy tiles. She stops, turns her back on the parents and blurs her vision, so that the children and their teacher become blobs of colour in the distance.
Alex Ruczaj lives in Cambridge with her husband and her two children, although she no longer takes the children to swimming lessons. Since graduating from Anglia Ruskin University’s Creative Writing MA in 2013, her short stories has been published in the UK and in the US, as well as shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Asham Award, and the London Magazine Competition. Alex is the founder of The Early Night Club – a club night designed for people who like to dance, but want to be home in bed by midnight. She is currently writing a collection of linked stories based on the club.
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