Type
Fiction
Category
Fiction

Time is a fish

Moon, a body

A car rushing to the hospital over an eight-lane bridge, the sky cloudy and cobblestoned in the glow of a full yellow moon. The sheen of a body floundering with pain. The eyes of midwives visible behind personal protective equipment – precautionary protocol because the woman is suspected of carrying the virus. Silver surfaces like a fishmonger’s—the operating room where the baby girl is eventually cut from the woman after going into distress. An allergic reaction to the anaesthetic that makes the woman blow up like a puffer fish—midwives telling the husband to pretend everything is okay and he, unconvincingly, saying, ‘Ginny, you look fine!’ A low blood sugar baby; the midwife massaging the new mother’s breasts to extract colostrum while she lies glassy-eyed, strung out and itchy from the receding morphine. Lavender on the midwife’s wrists—

—but no, that last one is a scent; it does not belong.

Dimmed room, the baby eventually placed in the woman’s arms after her test results return negative. A suspicious furrow in the baby’s brow. Eyes quiet, alert, alien. ‘Aurora’, the couple say to each other.

Giving birth during a once-in-a-century pandemic, arching and thrashing like a fish being hauled from the sea, eventually gutted amid the gleam of stainless steel, I thought: here is a bodily memory that will never leave me.

Yet after everything that happened in its wake – the way the old world was hermetically sealed into history and a new one made as if in a laboratory – the birth of my only child barely figures as something that happened to me. All these years later, my body can’t remember the weight of her in my arms. I only recollect that long night in scenes, like flashes of a movie about someone else’s life.

 

Lost things

‘But you survived it, Mum, and all the ones that came after it.’ Rory loves talking about the pandemic that birthed her.

Now that she herself is nearly ready to pop and we have a new virus that everyone is worried about, she’s even more interested in the time of her birth. But it’s all very civilised these days – she’s booked in for the surgery, they don’t even bother trying it the old way. Apparently, it’s easier to manage the risks and managing risk is the new way to live.

‘Yes exactly,’ I say, ‘I survived it! So why do you think you know more than me about how to survive? Why can’t I make my own decisions?’

Rory sighs from behind the plexiglass sheeting, mandated for all our visits. They give her a permit to see me once a week and I live for these 15-minute intervals, even if she stays behind the plastic screen, as she must. They’ll know if she lingers too long in my room: the device around her wrist is keeping tabs on us. I’m desperate for her to touch me; to feel her skin and smell her hair. Has she showered today? Sometimes after the cleaners have been, I return to the room and imagine I can smell their remnants thickening the air. Because I have money, I can afford to live here in this place that protects me from outside elements. Sometimes I envy the ones who can’t afford it as at least they’ll live out their days with the skin-smell of their loved ones. Here, nothing smells of anything. Sometimes, I imagine the smell of yellow or the slight scent of a song.

‘I just want to hold my grandson, Rory. Please. Think about it?’

Aurora puckers her mouth. That sideways gaze she was born with, as if she didn’t want to see the world as a whole, but to inspect it piece by piece, looking at it from this way and then that. She turns her head toward the photograph of me as a child. She had it framed years ago when people still did that, and now it sits on a wooden shelf by the window; my last window. I’m about 11 and we’re somewhere on the south coast; the summer Jacqueline taught me to fish. I was overzealous – as soon as I felt the slightest interest on the line, I’d yank it and the fish would be gone. Jacqueline, two years older and already in the mystical pull of adolescence, something I only came to understand much later – taught me to let the line out, let the fish believe it was free before slowly drawing it back in. Don’t yank it, or you’ll give the game away. It’ll know it’s still on the hook. She stood behind me and trailed her fingertips over my forehead, collecting my salt-sprayed hair and tucking it behind my ears to get it out of my eyes. Slowly, steadily, pull it in toward you, she said quietly into my ear, placing her forearms under mine, helping me recalibrate the fish’s trajectory so it arced ever closer until it was almost within reach. Looking at that photo now, I can still feel it on my fingertips: the tug and slackening of the line. Resisting the urge to rush. Letting the fish make its play at freedom.

‘What kind of fish is that, Mum?’ Aurora asks, her eyes still on the frame. Obviously keen to shift the subject away from me holding my grandson.

‘Silver Perch, I think it was called.’

‘Gosh. I just read the latest update on extinctions. This one’s on the list.’ Furrowing her brow, looking at the photo more closely. Her wrist emits three short warning beeps; our time is nearly up.

‘Well,’ I say with a little puff. It’s been a long time since I was sentimental about lost things. But I’ll never forget the flash when I edged it up out of the sea, a silver discus winking at the white sun. The sand prickling on my shoulders, the raw reek of worms in the yellow bucket, their slime under my fingernails. The sun in my eyes as I presented the fish to the camera, with my bare hands. The fish was too small to keep, Jacqueline told me, as soon as she’d snapped that photograph.

When Rory leaves, I wheel over and pick up the photo, placing my fingers on the same spots where hers had been. I can’t remember sending that fish back out to sea, as I’d told Rory I did, but I do remember this: holding it loosely in my hands, its small slippery weight. Feeling it flip this way and that.

 

Trompe l’oeil

‘Walk on it! Go on!’ One of us said, Jacqueline or me.

‘I can’t! I can’t do it,’ said the other. Deep, belly-rumbling giggles.

I was visiting her in London, that dulled silver winter, her last winter. My first overseas trip, I’d just turned 18. One long weekend she took me to Dún Laoghaire, a coastal town in Ireland, for an art festival. A German artist had painted an expanse of pavement to give the three-dimensional effect of an icy crevasse opening in the ground.

We spent close to an hour tiptoeing extravagantly around the edges, then joyously edging the precipice, hand-standing on the verge of it, making great running leaps into the dark depths of it. Taking it in turns to pose for photographs that made it look as if we stood teetering on a tiny, icy outcrop.

Weeks later back in London, we had the film developed and shuffled through the photographs urgently, the old awe bubbling toward the surface. Looking back now, I see us, cheeks ruddy from the outside cold, leaning into each other, one of us holding the other’s leg absentmindedly. Encased in the grimy splendour of an old English pub.

But something was wrong.

 

There I was, jumping over a painted piece of concrete. There was Jac in a cartoonish lean, as if falling onto an ordinary patch of pavement. We had asked a stranger to snap the moment before we leapt together into the void and there we were: the two of us, dizzy exhilaration flushing our faces as we turned our heads toward the camera, arms outstretched ready to dive.

But there was no void. The ground, the very fact of it, had developed along with the photographs, materialised over the abyss. Walking home from the pub that night Jacqueline’s face in the purple-grey was resigned, in soft focus.

I didn’t stay much longer in London, but I was there to see her grip begin to slip. The following summer she went to Europe; the postcard she sent from Budapest was the last we heard from her before she disappeared.

Adjacent to the artwork that day was a video screen, playing ‘the making of’ on loop: in the beginning, a stretch of concrete, then a time-lapse of figures appearing, disappearing, colours materialising in straight lines and curves, blues and whites, a steady deepening of shades as marbled sky stretched above, clouds rolling eternally toward the horizon.

‘It’s almost unbearable to watch, isn’t it?’ I said, our giddiness having subsided, icy air rushing back in. I pulled my coat tighter around my neck. But Jacqueline was transfixed, face shining in the screen’s reflection. On the monitor, slanting sunlight was blooming and dying, shadows appearing fully formed then fading.

 

Mothers’ group

Weeks of pandemic lockdown, then a WhatsApp message: First time mums! You’ve been added to this group because you recently had a baby and live near each other. Due to the pandemic, we’re not running mothers’ groups so connecting you here.

Something stopped me leaving the group immediately. The thought: this could be funny. These middle-class suburban yummy mummies will be preoccupied with Pilates classes, sugar-free birthday cakes and Montessori-inspired play spaces.

People started introducing themselves and their babies, posting photos. Someone with a toddler as well as a newborn posted a photo of a “killer play doh recipe” and added a few sideways laughing emojis as if she was being ironic but it was obvious she was totally serious. She really did think she had a killer play doh recipe and she also thought we might want it, that we might save it to our camera reel and heart it for later.

A week later a new message arrived, accompanied by a photo of a woman in a flowing dress, wide brimmed red hat bent over a blonde-haired baby: Girls! So sorry for my slow reply 🙂 I’m Imogen Moon and this is my son Leonardo

 

Cold flushed over my body.

Like something teething, coming painfully into being, the memory slowly surfaced. Imogen Moon? What were the chances? How many Imogen Moons could there be? But no, Ginny, you’re being silly – there hadn’t even been one Imogen Moon. She wasn’t real.

But there she was in the message: true as a photograph, as real as the past.

If not for the appearance of Imogen, I would never have stayed in that mothers’ group.

 

Fish

Time is a fish, silvering trails through a life. Flashing this way and that, only to hover in the blue. Disappearing again out of sight.

Through the glass doors I remember endlessly breastfeeding as a red flower unfurled in the courtyard. Did it take days to bloom? And the sharpening of the shadows cast by the corner fern; that must have taken an afternoon, but how many afternoons? How long did it live, lengthening shadows along the wall, that fern? Was that during the first or second lockdown, or was it the fifth? Was it an autumn light, or already winter? It can’t have been spring or it wouldn’t have been remarkable, that small determined red flower.

Memory has a funny way of layering images. Here’s another one, me: Oh Aurora, Rory, Rory, I can’t bear it, what’s wrong what’s wrong? – me jiggling, forever jiggling. Then a sound erupting from her like singing underwater. Joy surfacing at last. The trembling, terrible thought: I’ll never be so happy ever again.

Was it really just like that, did she go from screaming to singing underwater, did babies do that? It has been so long since I’ve been allowed near a baby.

 

The smell

The baby was newly born – still ‘the baby’ because her name hadn’t settled on her yet – when the smell appeared. It wasn’t the first time a smell had visited me; after Jacqueline died she would return sometimes as a faint lavender smell, the smell we always associated with Imogen. When we first imagined Imogen, she lived in our garden and slept under the lavender bush. But this new smell was different – it was the first time a scent had seemed sinister.

One morning in June, I awoke to rain. Damp blue light spilled through the window, heralding my last moments before the baby would demand from me a new day. Freshly enlivened, the smell hovered over the bed.

‘Ok, surely, now you can smell it?’ I elbowed Greg. He’d slept without stirring all night: not when the baby woke four times to be fed, not when she pooped through her nappy, her clothes, her sleeping bag and cot sheet. Not when I stood, flashing my phone screen over her face, to check the blanket wasn’t covering her nostrils; holding my compact mirror underneath them, watching it fog.

‘Greg, seriously, can’t you smell that?” I whispered. “It’s so obnoxious!’

‘Okay, hold on,’ he said. Rolling onto his back, Greg pressed his palms into his eye sockets, pursed his lips and took a deep breath. The wrought iron bed readjusted itself on the floorboards. In her cot next to me, the baby stirred.

‘I dunno, maybe?’

‘What do you mean, maybe? It’s so strong!’ I said. ‘The rain must’ve dislodged the gases or something. I don’t understand how you can’t smell it. What even is it? Sewer? Rotting flesh? Maybe something died under the house?’

Awakening, the baby began grunting for food. I could barely take a breath.

Greg arrived home from work that night to find the baby and me asleep, wrapped in blankets on the couch, candles burning down their wicks and windows open to the winter.

‘Enough with the smell, you’re being ridiculous,’ he hissed after poking me awake, quietly furious. ‘It’s in your head.’

 

Treading air

It was my curiosity for Imogen and finally the smell that forced me out of the house and into the mother’s group. We’d all birthed during the pandemic and it turned out there was something about that shared experience that gave us the impression we should all get along.

We weren’t to handshake, or hug, or even share airspace for too long. Yet we became a collective, the weekly mothers’ group. We began recognising the shape of each other when sighted from a distance: the melding of pram and woman striding down the street, the fusing of baby and breast on a park bench. On my way to one of our meetings I recognised Imogen’s outline through a café window: arms resting on the pram, pale face inscrutable, eyes searching. Then a gasp, realising I was looking at my own reflection.

Every week we sat in a social-distanced circle, each of us on our own little picnic mat, babies kicking alongside us or sucking on us or screaming at us. Occasionally one of us stood and push-pulled a pram on the spot until a clamouring baby finally fell quiet; another of us was cross-legged, baby hung over lap, holding a phone that blasted white noise from an app into a miniature, perfectly formed ear. Always someone was breastfeeding; one of us stopped and another started. A circle of perpetual nourishment.

 

How terrible it is to be happy, always looking over your shoulder. Making bargains. If I do this, you’ll keep my family safe. Touching wood, checking the locks, palming the oven door before bed. Happiness is a strange thing, growing in frailty as it flourishes. It must never be had in excess, rather rationed out in manageable pieces. It’s hard to explain now: the stretch and snap of the days, the endless yet vanishing months, that new friendship with Imogen. The world was still kind when it could be, tenderly presenting its riches to Rory for her slow, small discoveries.

Like paragliding off a cliff, running frantically to the edge until you’re treading the empty air. Terror-struck yet screaming with joy.

 

Piano

I awoke to it, so soft I couldn’t even register which of my senses was being worked on, a faint thatching of the air—was it a smell or a song? But then yes, unmistakable: Chopin.

 

Aurora must have been about 4 months old, because her name was finally hers. Rory, can you hear that? I remember whispering.

It was only after our neighbour Warren was moved into an aged care facility by his sister that we discovered there was a piano against our shared wall, dormant for years. Before, the only noises that travelled to us were the muted shufflings and mutterings of a man losing his faculties. His walls making way for him, floorboards yielding.

Aurora and I watched Warren’s side of the house being emptied—a buttock-indented brown velvet couch, a teak dining table, an old globe on a wooden stand, tilted on its axis, tossed onto a trailer.

They put the property on the market so it was supposedly unoccupied, and yet someone was playing the piano. Why wouldn’t it have been removed with the rest of his stuff? Surely one doesn’t sell a house with an ancient piano in residence.

‘You know, we could just go ’round there and take a look,’ Greg said, on finding me with my ear pressed against the wall one morning. Smiling. ‘See if there is a piano there after all.’

‘What do you mean if there’s a piano there?’

 

My friendship with Imogen didn’t really have a beginning. Suddenly it was just there, and she appeared, translucent face framed by the lightest copper blonde hair. Brightening the tint of my memories. I know that we were already close at that point because she was on our couch one day when Debussy travelled through the wall and laid a soundtrack underneath our conversation. I remember that day in particular, because it was one of my worst and still when I hear Debussy it brings me back there. Greg was away for work and Rory wasn’t sleeping, had a cold and a fever, so we were alone, isolating against outside contact. Imogen had called, heard me in tears, Rory wailing in the background. Almost immediately I answered the door holding Rory, both of us sobbing, and Imogen walked in. I’d told her on the phone that Rory had a fever, and yet she touched me without hesitation, placed her bare hands under my jawline, thumbs running down my cheeks. The smell of lavender on her wrists. Without asking, she took Rory away from me, into another room until the wailing stopped. I have many memories like this: me, ready to throw Rory to the ground, and Imogen appearing and taking her away until I could breathe again.

Memory has strange ways; Imogen and I often walked together to mothers’ group, but I don’t remember her actually being there for our group catch ups. She always seemed to have somewhere else to be, dashing off for a coffee with someone, or needing to get Leonardo home for a nap. So, our friendship was forged over tea at my place, long afternoons with my cranky Rory, made more bearable by Imogen’s presence. I could tell her anything, and yet in that first year of Rory’s life, the whole time I knew Imogen before she moved away, I couldn’t bring myself to mention the weird coincidence that she shared a name with the imaginary friend who had been a childhood companion for my sister and me.

The place next door was sold to a professional couple and it fell into the unquiet of a house that sits empty all day. If the piano was still there, it was never played again.

 

Of all the gin joints

It wasn’t long after that summer of the silver perch that Jacqueline started talking about Imogen Moon again, years after we had left her behind. The year the bright shadows appeared under Jac’s eyes, when she was pulled by forces external to all of us.

Who were you out with? My mother’s insistent entreaties: angry, then pleading, then bereft, pale as a phantom. Jacqueline wouldn’t come home for days.

Imogen Moon, I told you. Jac’s soft unfocused smile, which reappeared on

Rory’s face when she was a baby, and still to this day.

“Well, well, well,” Imogen would have said if I ever told her she had the same name as our imaginary friend, “Jacqueline and her baby sister, of course I remember you two! What are the chances we’d meet again like this? Of all the mothers’ groups in all the towns, in all the world, you walk into mine!” Then, a soft smile: “We had some great times didn’t we, us three?” And it’s enough, this almost-memory.

 

Huddle

I could sense she was gone when that postcard arrived from Budapest. Not that it said anything in particular, but I just knew it was the last thing she had sent out into the world, knew it the moment I held it in my hands. Yet everyone kept acting as if she would turn up, the way she always had. It was almost a relief when her death became a fact we all had to grapple with together. A gaping hole we huddled around.

White light, white walls, stepping into unbearable whiteness – this I remember about the funeral. Later, shadowed light moving like water over her coffin, covered in purple flowers, lowering into the earth.

 

Lavender

Everything is in order: I’ve had my faculties checked, Rory and I have co-signed the forms, accepted the risk.

‘Are you sure, Mum,’ Aurora asks for the last time.

Yes. Yes. Yes. What else is there?

If Imogen and Jacqueline could see me now. No face shields, no plastic sheeting, no air conditioner recycling the atmosphere so it doesn’t smell of anything. Just little old me, readying my arms to hold my grandson.

And here he is: my boy, my beautiful boy, treading the air as Aurora hands him to me. His warm weight presses upon my chest; my arms feel him squirm. I kiss his face; take him deep into my lungs. Hold his smell tenderly with my breath. Lilac hands, tiny and aged. Fifteen minutes is such a short time. Is it always the way? Is it simply time that tilts bliss toward grief?

I feel a prodding between my spine and my right shoulder blade – what someone else might call a muscle twitch. And the strongest smell of lavender, unmistakable, a violet cloud to lean back into. ‘Hello, you two,’ I whisper.

Stay here, they say, Ginny, stay as long as you can here, only here. Remember this: late afternoon sunlight angling through the window, catching, poised in the dust. A slight stiffening of the air above the baby’s head: above Jack. Baby Jack, round cheeks blown out and ruddy. Soft smile. Bring him to your face, gossamer skin against your cheek. Run your nose through his feathery hair, skin scaly underneath.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Alison Martin is an aid worker and writer, most recently based in Israel/Palestine and South Sudan. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Westerly, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Seizure and in the collection Lost Boy and Other stories.

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