I’m running through the cold shallows then a low dive and I’m under, opening my eyes to the milk white, green then black, working my limbs, pushing into nothing before I’m up again, often against a wind that stirs the water to frisky waves slapping my face till I have to turn back. Wading the mud and stones that wrench and sometimes graze my feet. A towel hitched around my waist I run like the devil, a field, a lane, a hill up to the barn, and sluice off the dirt of my sprint under a shower as hot as I can stand it.
I think I was trying to make what remained of the life in me clap and cheer.
This was long after Jimmie left. We moved to the converted barn in late summer. The lake jostled a cloudy light and smelled metallic. Archie fished. He murmured to whatever he caught, minnows, whiskery heavyweights, sleek midsizers, releasing them with nurturing hands.
Sixteen years. Archie searched, a daily routine, me not so much. It was Jimmie’s choice to run away. Away from us, I’d remind Archie, with no warning as if home was a prison, and besides, no-one ever said that liking your child was compulsory. It was me made the decision to move after Archie took early retirement on health grounds, though he fought me on that. Fought hard. It didn’t stop me throwing away the clutter of Jimmie’s room and a lot more besides.
It being so far north, we bought the barn sight unseen but for website images There were no inner walls, just partitions; no ceiling, just roof beams. Three of the barn’s outer walls were mostly glass and in advancing order gave views of a flagged patio, two roughly marked flower beds gone to weed, a surrounding arc of firs, a slope down to the lane and lake. Beyond all that, the ranging mountains. It was the kind of place I thought we needed.
The suspended sleeping loft was reached by a free standing staircase which Archie wouldn’t use saying he was nervous of heights. He set up camp behind a partition with a sofa bed and surrounding scatter of stuff that pretty soon gave off a reek of sweat, stale food and beer.
Then it was winter and rain. I thought of service stations at night, oiled puddles of orange neon, beacons along a dark horizon, dog shit melting to a wet ooze, spilled coffee on a chipped Formica table.
I cut down eating and practised being hungry.
Archie tracked mud across the wooden floor, he crammed nettle and holly into a jam jar where they sprinkled soil, wood lice and ants. He arranged a row of stones on the kitchen counter, filed bird feathers between and under cushions. I threw it all out and cleaned up after him. He brought more feathers, withered and wet, more stones, a sodden lump of sheep’s wool. I put them on the patio where they could be seen. He pressed his fisted hands and forehead onto the glass which misted with his breath.
‘I didn’t ask to be here.’
‘You didn’t say no, either.’
I wanted to hit him hard across the face.
The rain held off. I walked past the bus stop which lurched as if from a collision, then about a couple of miles between bare branched clacking trees to the village; trotting dogs, fat women, overdressed girls, boys on bikes which they rode like horses. Alongside me on a bench by the river a man, youngish, explained his bad nerves. His face angled, expression cunning, ‘I have the Lord but what about you?’ He pointed at me, stood, belched and took off in a racing sprint.
I thought about one of my favourite things, pegging out washing to catch the scent of sun and wind, and after, folding and folding into perfect creases.
A cacophony of ducks flapped among the reeds. A woman came, hand in hand with a pale child holding a naked Cindy doll. The woman rummaged in her handbag, pulled out cigarettes and lit up. The child leaned forward and looked across the woman at me, grey eyes magnified by wire framed glasses. The woman blew smoke.
‘You got kids?’
I shook my head, one small move.
‘They aren’t all they’re cracked up to be though Lilac’s alright, aren’t you love?’
She cuffed the back of Lilac’s head, as soft as a habit. Lilac didn’t respond.
‘I’m Eddy short for Edwina because who’d want that for a name. What’s yours?’
Eddy stroked, adjusted and studied her navy suit, hemline, lapels and cuffs; there was a whiff of cleaning fluid and her heeled shoes were scuffed, yet she carried off an impression of easy smartness. Lilac sucked on the Cindy’s hair. Her dress and cardigan weren’t enough for the weather and her limbs and face glistened bluishly as if she’d just emerged from water.
‘How old is she?’
‘Six but small for her age, aren’t you my lovely,’ turning to Lilac then back again. ‘She doesn’t talk though they can’t find out why. There’s nothing wrong with her so she manages alright in the normal school.’
Eddy threw her cigarette stub and it smouldered in the grass.
‘Then I’m sure she will eventually. Everyone does.’ I leaned back, hands clasped tight enough for the nails to dig. ‘It’s like walking.’
Lilac opened her mouth, closed it around Cindy’s hair and stared ahead. The ducks took off and flew in a line, skimming the tops of willows on the opposite river bank. I stood up. There was an uneasy sway in my head as if Eddy and me had used all the wrong words.
Another day, leaving the village for a river walk, I saw Eddy framed between trees, pressed against a trunk by a man whose hands cruised under her scarlet sweater. Her skirt was hoiked to fit the man’s leg between her thighs; their kissing was avid and oblivious.
Heating pizza for dinner, something just beyond my sight moved, a kink of light but when I turned there was nothing. A nerve under my eye quivered. I offered Archie the pizza, ready to share, but he took the plate and beer to his camp. It had expanded. Empty bottles, heaped clothes, a lamp on an upturned box. And then the stones, a dried seed head, a fan of feathers, scarlet berries, all arranged like patterned rituals. I wanted to clean and clear. Archie held up his hand the way you stop traffic.
‘Leave it alone.’
‘It’s mine.’ He pushed me away. ‘I never gave up like you.’
‘If he wanted to, he would’ve come back. We waited. It means something that he didn’t.’
‘Either he’s got the new life he wanted. Or he’s dead. Either way, it was over a long time ago.’
Archie turned his back. I climbed to the loft and practised balancing exercises.
A storm hit the glass walls, sounding like static. I sat on the sofa opposite Archie’s aquarium and watched his fish sailing between greenery, plastic flowers and a miniature cave. There was a dream about swimming, my back bone working a fin, the water deep and dense, a steady thrum rising to a crescendo. Someone was banging the barn door and calling my name. I waited but the banging didn’t stop and so I rolled off the sofa, aching, exhausted, my legs unfamiliar, still caught by the dream.
The daylight was pale, the grass and firs iced with frost. Eddy came in at quite a lick and stopped dead. Lilac kept going.
‘Did we arrange this?’
Eddy was costumed in a calf-length greatcoat, sheer black tights and furred ankle boots.
‘No. Are you alright?’
Her gaze was intent. I went to check. Ten thirty and Archie was gone from his camp. Lilac drank Coke from a can and watched the fish.
‘I was asleep.’
In yesterday’s clothes I felt sticky, feverishly hot and thought how it would be to lie on the frozen grass. Eddy took off Lilac’s quilted jacket and her own greatcoat. I wanted to turf them out, went to make coffee and Eddy followed.
‘Sorry. But Lilac’s not at school and I didn’t know what to do with her. So I had this idea.’
‘How d’you know where I live?’
‘It gets about. Anyway I lived here myself, well not here but we used it when it was a real barn so I’ve wanted forever to see how it’s been done up.’
Eddy was perched on a kitchen stool. In a flowered sheath with the hemline stretched to mid-thigh, she could’ve been a night club fixture.
I rubbed my eyes, wanting to sleep again.
‘How did you get here?’
‘I borrowed a car.’
I went to look. It was blue and shiny, decorated with slashes of mud. I asked Eddy to leave, but maybe just in my head.
‘So I grew up on this small holding, mainly sheep which can be quite zen, plus some cows though they’re pretty hectic animals. Anyway, we rented the barn but there’s nothing left of the original except the beams and that wall.’
Lilac stared at the fish like the aquarium was a TV. Striding the barn space, Eddy shifted into the girl who’d tended animals, which was something to do with her freeing movements, the way she placed her feet, toes turned slightly in, giving her hips a purposeful roll.
‘The barn door was here, the wood broken at its base and scraping the ground when you pushed it open. There was a rope over the beam about there, which trailed to a platform above the milking stalls and I’d ride the rope, swinging out to stacked hay bales where the hens would sometimes lay. Jesus.’
I watched her, at the same time distracted by details; smudges on the glass where Archie had pressed his fists, the leaning stacks of books, a rug rucked at one end. Eddy wandered into Archie’s camp but didn’t react.
I sat next to Lilac who was still fixated on the fish. She hummed, her jaw working as if sucking a sweet.
‘D’you like them?’
Lilac swung around bodily which was unsettling until she smiled. It transformed her peaky face and grey magnified eyes into something infinitely welcoming. She got up and kissed the aquarium glass.
Eddy had come to rest against a partition, arms crossed. I was having trouble focussing; my skin felt hot and drum tight.
‘Why isn’t she in school?’
‘She didn’t want to and you can’t make Lilac do anything.’
Lilac laughed by opening her mouth wide, throwing back her head and making a series of squeaks. She clapped her hands.
‘See what I mean? You think, OK, look on the bright side, she may not talk but at least you’re in for a quiet life. No way.’
Lilac laughed again. I saw how they liked each other even though there were no footprints for either of them to follow.
‘Listen, when she’s out of the way, let’s do something.’
I couldn’t deal with Eddy’s insistent energy and shut my eyes.
‘I don’t feel so good.’
‘Jesus. What can I do?’
Maybe I didn’t say that either and then I was lying full length on the sofa under a duvet, my head on a pillow. My limbs ached, my legs sawed. Daylight got bright then dull, a lamp came near and the pain in my eyes was astonishing. Further on and the pain diffused; I was alone and felt how that was what I liked best. And how we had crowded Jimmie away, wanting something he couldn’t give us.
My head was held and I drank water, smelling Archie. The aquarium glowed in the dark, then Lilac’s warm breath on my ear, me dreaming her whisper, the fish halting their drift to listen. I was very cold; white light fell into the barn. I was in bed upstairs and warm again.
‘I’m ready for off.’
‘Come again soon.’
‘Her temperature’s down. I’ll look in later. Lilac, wave goodbye to Archie.’
Their voices moved away and dipped to a softer murmur. I felt alert, pin sharp, changed, though my body, a left-over, wouldn’t get me out of bed. I waited. Archie brought me toast which I couldn’t eat, and sweet tea.
‘No more fear of heights?’
‘You’re best off in bed.’
‘How long have I been out of it?’
‘A good few days. We wondered whether you’d need a doctor.’
We. He prattled. With his help, I climbed downstairs; his camp had been reduced to the sofa bed, folded away, clothes stacked, shoes in a tidy row. The stones remained, balanced to a pyramid, cream and grey, some of them veined.
I took a shower, wiped steam from the mirror and the image was hollow-eyed and grey-skinned until I bared my teeth and became someone else.
I was full-length on the sofa when Eddy and Lilac returned. She’d brought food. I saw her as dominant in a grey knit dress that didn’t quite fit, her hair in a tidy top-knot. Archie helped Lilac onto a chair so she could feed the fish. Eddy brought me sweet tea and a donut. She smelled of cigarette and perfume.
‘Looks like you’ve turned this into a home from home.’
I felt light-headed, indifferent.
Eddy leaned in.
‘Why did you say you had no kids?’
She pressed her lips together, judging.
‘How did you get Archie to clean up his camp?’
‘I asked him why all the shit and he told me about Jimmie so then we cleaned it up together.’
Not ready for food yet, I had to go and vomit the donut, then retched bile. When I returned, Lilac’s hand was in the aquarium, a sea monster chasing fish. Eddy held Archie’s cheek and chin.
I should say more about Archie; he deserved that at least because despite being an inch shorter than me and thick set with thinning hair, women liked him. They found him appealing, a man who responded to loving sentiment which I must have once provided.
Neither Eddy nor Archie reacted to my return. She talked to him, a soothing cadence, a continuous insistent comfort, holding his chin that rested perfectly in the palm of her hand. She was reminding him of what they’d decided, notices to be placed in regional evening papers, ads on social media, all of course to include the new address. Archie smiled, turned to me.
‘Think of what can be done, even after so many years.
‘He doesn’t want to be found.’
‘Sixteen years. He’ll have changed.’
This story book version of Jimmie smoothed Archie’s face so you could see the boy in him but it was nothing to do with me. I climbed the stairs, back to bed. My heart banged with the effort, but that was all.
It took me a while to convalesce, solitary days, edging up and down the stairs between bed and sofa until early evening when Archie and Eddy returned with Lilac. Eddy nursed me; fresh bedding that reeked of washing fluid, meals on a tray. My first day out I walked to the lake, frost on the grass, splintering ice in the ditches. My breath smoked. The air was still and very cold, a pale light over the mountains, water pulsing at my feet like breathing.
The following day I made plans to go away which was no secret. I wished Archie luck but it wasn’t my life anymore.
Early evening, Lilac threw one of Archie’s stones at the aquarium which cracked then gushed cream and gold and yellow fish. She grabbed and the fish leapt from her fingers, wriggling and convulsed. Eddy invoked Jesus over and over and walloped Lilac who shrilled like a siren. Archie rescued the fish into a basin of water. Stunned, they floated then curved into their swims. None of them died, and I helped to mop the water though some of the floor boards would need replacing.
Jennifer Bailey was born and brought up in Lancashire, left at eighteen and gradually moved south via Manchester, Nottingham, Leicester, to London. During that migration, Jennifer taught at a series of universities that included Leicester, Nottingham, California State University in Sacramento and London’s City University. She has written short literary fiction throughout her academic career with some publishing success (though not enough – more, I want more to justify the hard graft!)
If you enjoyed ‘A Fish Story’ leave a comment and let Jennifer know.
You can read more of Jennifer’s fiction below:
Expiating Irene, The Bridport Prize Anthology 2016 pp. 66-74 www.bridportprize/2016
Driving blind, Cinnamon Press, April 2016 www.cinammonpress.com
Portraits of Margaret Fairclough, runner-up in the Manchester Metropolitan University Novella Competition 2014 https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/story/?id=2637
This is how it began, Madeline laughed, Fox-ache, An accident, in Quartet, Cinnamon Press 2013 www.cinammonpress.com
An accident, second prize The New Writer, Issue 115 July/August/September 2013
A sense of obligation, Fish Anthology’ 2013
The clockmaker’s daughter, Rowan B. Fortune (ed.) Cinnamon Press 2011 www.cinammonpress.com
Remembering, Staple Issue 53 Spring 2002
Feature image by Serg-Wiaderny
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