WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID I always used to pour my milk right to the top of the glass. ‘Look out,’ my mum would warn me. ‘It’s going to spill.’ And very frequently, it did. But that made no difference to me at all. I still had to do what I had to do. Also I liked to have the bath filled up with water and if it wasn’t I got a panicky sort of feeling when I was lying in it as though I might not be able to get my breath. I don’t know why but the thought of even half-empty things was unnerving. I wanted everything around me to be full to the brim. When I told Mum about this she said I was a funny fish.
And another thing about me was I sometimes felt as if I should not be here in the present at all, as though I was connected to somewhere else that was not a part of the life I knew about. There seemed to be something that was far off and mysterious. Something from the remote past that was drawing me. I expect this was funny too. At school I started doing pictures that were crammed with objects and around every single one of them I coloured in the sea. It was only when I’d filled in all the spaces between the figures that I started to feel a little bit more comfortable. Only then could I really breathe easily again.
At break time I hung around in corners of the playground on my own as nobody seemed to want me to play with them. The teachers said I was like a fish out of water and when I told my mum this she just shook her head as though I was a hopeless case. Her eyes squeezed up as they always did when she meant to be kind but couldn’t help feeling sorry for me. She called me Lumpfish. The other kids at school said I was a weirdo but I was just saved from being a complete outsider because I found two other weirdo friends to keep me company. Jan and Silky. So after that it was always the three of us, which made things a whole lot better than they would have been as it was the kind of school where if you were a loner your life wasn’t worth living.
Then when I left school I didn’t really see them so much and that was when loneliness really threated to kick in. There was one particular guy I liked, Charlie, but he didn’t seem to go for me as I went for him. So I started thinking about Brody, a boy I’d seen around for a long time because he lived just down the street from me. I didn’t know if Brody had ever noticed me but then I found out he had. Brody was an outsider too as he’d never joined up with one of the local gangs, and it was hard for someone to steer clear of them round our way. Maybe Brody was a fish out of water like me.
I first got together with Brody on the night of the riots. We’d just picked one another up and we walked along and turned a corner in the road and there it was: A mountain of flame. All before us like in a movie, the sky redder than any bonfire night. We came round this bend and it seemed like the end of the world to me. I’d always been extra scared of fire so that this was a special nightmare. I couldn’t help but scream. And that’s when I found out Brody was a kind sort of guy and not like the image of himself that he carried about with him. We would have gone back the way we’d come but the fires were behind us now as well. Brody put his arm round me and said we’d be better off finding some doorway to hide ourselves in. I felt lucky Brody was with me, if I’d been on my own I would have been frightened out of my wits. There was a terrible noise everywhere. Sound of shouting, sound of car horns, sound of smashing glass. I don’t know what. Everything was a mess inside my head and I couldn’t tell one thing from the other. I tried to speak but no words came out and I just opened and closed my mouth a few times in mute fear, knowing it made me look like a fish but unable to stop.
We found this doorway and as it was quite deep we were able to stand back a bit so I hoped nobody would know we were there. Or else they’d just think we were the homeless and wouldn’t bother us. People were running past every second. Guys mostly, but some girls too. They were carrying things. One guy had two tv’s stacked up in his arms. He wasn’t running but staggering along next to the kerb. When I looked I realised I knew him. It was Charlie, the other guy I quite fancied. He stopped, seeing me and Brody and said it was mad out there, nodding his head towards the big parade of shops. Brody was in front of me and I couldn’t hear what Charlie was saying to him but both of them were having a laugh. Then Charlie went on, struggling along under the weight of the tv’s he was carrying, just as before. He’d told Brody there were good pickings as the shops had all been broken into, only you had to be fast cos everybody wanted the stuff. Also the law might turn up at any minute. I thought Brody sounded wistful as though he’d maybe missed out on something good due to being with me. And then I got to thinking Brody was just as lucky to have me with him as I was to have him. This idea empowered me and I couldn’t help holding his arm tightly. Brody gave me a look then and right there in that shadowy doorway we kissed for the first time. It was the coolest kiss I’d ever done. Not that I’d kissed that much before. At first I couldn’t help feeling strange about tasting the saliva in his mouth, then in the excitement that built up between us it became nothing; even became sweet.
Brody and me. Well, I soon got to feeling that he was here to stay and so was I. Charlie was immediately forgotten. I don’t know why for sure but I saw very clearly that night that Charlie didn’t mean anything to me in the least. You could put it that one fish out of water needs another to swim around with. Well whatever, my eyes were for Brody alone. I hope he felt the same way. What do I mean, hope? He did feel the same way. And he still does. We do.
Brody though, he’s power crazy. Always wanting to be the winner, wanting to come out on top. Of any situation. He can’t relax that boy. Always looking this way and that, always seeing if he’s the best. Glances up and down the street. Is there a better one? Or is he the best there is? I try and look at it his way, and I try and look at it my way. What I come up with in both cases is that Brody’s the best one there is. For me, I mean. Since that first night in the doorway while the riots were going on all around I’ve felt safe with him. He was nice to me, I can say that openly. We needed one another, that’s for sure.
And a little while later a brilliant thing happened. Brody got this job. I couldn’t believe he would; he couldn’t believe he would. It was in an advertising agency. And he got the job because of his photos. The first ones he took were on the night of the riots. There was this amazing pic of the lit up flaming sky. It was that good. I said to post it on the internet and he didn’t know if he wanted to and I said he should do it as he was there where everything was all happening. And a lot of people would want to see that. To see what we saw that night. The bright horror, and everything. Brody didn’t know if anybody would care for the pic but I knew. So I did everything for him and it was a huge success that photo and he was really pleased. He thanked me then and said he wasn’t so good without me and that he and I should be an item and we made a good team, and all that. And since then he’s been into taking photos and some of them look amazing and he had quite a few in the paper that I sent in for him. I was that happy. For by now Brody was the one I wanted and he said that he wanted me too. And I was inspired by his success and thought how I’d like to do a course in film making, so I decided to start saving up. We were both love-struck and the energy was flying out of us in all directions. Brody said to me about getting together properly. How we could live together and that. How it would be great to just be the two of us. I thought so too. Him and me. We knew we were right for one another and everything would be fantastic between us. It was kind of solemn when we made up our minds and we both cried a bit. We couldn’t help it because we knew it was such a serious thing. And yet we were laughing like crazy at the same time. Can you believe it, we were that gone. And so, we made it happen.
The day of the riots had been a turning point for me in more ways than one. It seemed like an end of the past and a new beginning with a capital B. In the morning I had been to the memorial service of Jan that close mate of mine from schooldays. Jan had died from taking an overdose. When they did a post mortem they found out she was full of a mixed bag of everything under the sun. But the tip of the iceberg was cocaine which she’d taken moments before going unconscious. She’d been working at the time at this burger bar, and the last person to see her alive was that other friend of ours, Silky, who’d gone in to meet her so the two of them could go for a night out on the town. Silky was at the service too and it was great to link up with her again as we’d somehow got out of touch. And we were very glad of having one another there as well. I don’t how I’d have coped if I’d been on my own. Silky’s real name was Tina, but she’d been given this nickname when we were in school because of her hair which was like a long straight sheet of pure silk. She always wore it loose with a clip each side just above her ears. And somehow it was the right colour for silk too, being very pale silvery white. Everyone in the class was always stroking her hair even though they didn’t want to play with her. It was as though the hair itself marked her off. Some of the girls, I know, were really jealous.
At the memorial I asked Tina if she minded me calling her Silky now we’d left school and moved on. She said she liked being called the old name as it reminded her of the fun times we’d had. And we both howled then because we were thinking of Jan and all the stuff the three of us used to get up to back then. School itself had not been fun for any of us. There were a lot of bullies who went about in cliques and used to pick on kids at random whenever they felt like it. They were always nicking things. Shoes, money, you name it. It was lethal to take your phone with you. And once I remember my nice pink fluffy bath towel disappeared while I was having a shower after netball. I’d had to put on my clothes still wet. ‘Very fishy,’ Mum said when I got home and told her what happened. Mum seemed to have a fish saying for practically every occasion. As though fish were connected in some mysterious way to everything that happened. It did make me start to wonder.
Jan, Silky and me, we didn’t seem to fit into any of the cliques at school and so we were on the edge and therefore always at risk. It was fairly scary. And some other kids who weren’t part of the big gangs had horrible stuff done to them every day of their lives. But because it was the three of us together instead of each of us separately we managed to escape the worst. And in a way we became like our own tiny ‘gang’ that everybody else recognised as such, and for some reason they left us alone. Now, Jan is dead and it’s so hard to believe. The police questioned Silky to find out if she thought Jan was depressed or anything. Well, the thing is, Jan was always depressed in a way. She thought so much about all the troubles in the world, for one thing. Things she heard about upset her and she couldn’t throw them off. And she could never get bad sights out of her mind once she’d seen them. Like a dying dog she passed in the road once on the way home from school. And yet even so, you wouldn’t really call her a depressive person as such, I’d say. But she did like to get loaded. She always wanted to be out of it. Cos you never have to think then, do you, if your head is somewhere else. And she just needed to tone things down. I’ve known one or two like that. Lots of people want to be out of it, but when there’s this extra suffering about the bad stuff you can’t help taking on board, it can drive you further. Such sensitive types can be the very worst for having to steer clear of the world around them, and Jan was one of those. Though I wouldn’t say she was suicidal. Silky said the police were asking her about this. Because she’d seen Jan only half an hour before she went unconscious for good. Silky doesn’t think she wanted to off herself, any more than I do. I’ve heard quite a few kids saying they’re going to do themselves in but never Jan. So, to me, it’s a bigger tragedy in a way, because it wasn’t meant. But of course I don’t really know what her thoughts were. In those last moments when she was aware. It upsets me and Silky to go over that. What was Jan thinking as she stood in those so-bright loos in the burger bar with her dustpan? When she looked into the mirror, maybe, or hid herself away in one of the cubicles? What?
Well, it’s over for her now. Silky and I felt really close at the funeral. We knew we’d
never lose touch again. It’s so good to have someone. Silky had a secret to tell me but didn’t want to speak about it then. She said she had the feeling it would be bad luck. We agreed to meet up after she got back from holiday. And we did. Yes, it’s important to have a friend, and I feel so lucky I never got into drugs in a heavy kind of a way. And Silky was just an occasional user too. Jan was someone who went a lot too far. There was a part of me that had always kept on being a bit worried about her, a part of me that knew she wasn’t completely safe. And the sadness I feel about my old mate Jan makes me extra love-aware. Makes me want to have that love so much.
Brody and me. I am so ecstatic with joy over the two of us getting together this way. Knowing sorrow can make the happiness when you have it, more intense. I’m sure this is true. What I’ve suffered has made me see more clearly what is valuable in life, what should be followed through, and where I myself want to be. I wanted to be surrounded. Like an island lapped in a sea of love. Perhaps I sound silly using these words and yet it is really how I feel. I think of my poor friend Jan in the bright lit toilets with her little dust pan. It gets me very agitated going over this. It’s unbearable.
Then on the 8th February Silky had her baby. A little boy. Adam. Because yes, that’s what her news was that she didn’t want to speak about at Jan’s funeral service. Silky was pregnant. She hadn’t wanted to spoil the baby news she told me when we met up afterwards. Somehow it had been totally important to keep it separate, as though she was keeping the baby safely away from all unhappy things, she said. I read it that this was the protective mother instinct kicking in early. Or maybe Silky was feeling vulnerable about a lot of things herself just then. I was the birth partner and it was thrilling to see that tiny new life coming into the world. I mean, it was like, so much had gone wrong all around us but now with any luck we could move forwards and make something better happen. I think we can.
After the funeral and the drama of the birth things got a bit strange for me. At night
sometimes I began to have these dreams where I was trying to reach for something that wasn’t there. Or I’d go into a bathroom and turn all the taps full on but no water would come. In some dreams I might open a cupboard door say, and I’d scour every inch of the space inside looking for something I expected to find there. And nothing. Just dark empty shelves. It was unnerving. Or else I’d open a window and look out but instead of the houses and streets that should have been there, all I could see was a wide flat plain. Without grass or even a single flower. Without sky even. It was a picture of desolation. All that was present was this dry overpowering heat. I could smell the burning dust.
Brody wanted to know why I was so down when things were looking up for us and I didn’t know what to say. I told him about my scary dreams and he held my hand and was sorry. A short while later he told me we were going on a special outing to the London Aquarium as it was somewhere neither of us had ever been before and he had a hunch I would like it. We sat on this seat in the eerie lit hallway looking at these fish tanks in front of us. Inside, fish were constantly swimming, splicing through weeds, making bubbles. It was thrilling to watch, and also soothing.
Brody told me that all us humans came from fish originally if the truth be known and you went back far enough. Or so he’d heard, he said. And somehow that thought is a special comfort, as though it’s saying that maybe I’m not so strange, I’m just a throwback after all. Brody calls me his Mermaid and I visualise myself with a shimmery tail and feel quite glam and dazzling as though I’m the heroine of a fairy story, my fish scales gleaming all silver in the light.
At night now if ever the bad dreams threaten I think of the sea; try to picture the rush and
flurry of a tide. There’s a horde of lithe fish bodies curving and swerving and coasting
through the waves and the best part is I imagine I’m right there with them. Swimming under
water. I laugh to see myself.
Fiction by Jay will be published shortly by 3 AM Magazine, Litro, Matter Press, Prairie Schooner and tNY Press. Jay is a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her stories have appeared recently in Bunbury Magazine,The Casket of Fictional Delights, Crannog Magazine, Foliate Oak, The Galway Review, Minor Literature[s], Prague Revue, Story Shack, Wigleaf and other great publications. She has 2 short story collections published by Salt and is the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Jay lives in London UK and is currently Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing.