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1. Creative Writing
VI. Creative pieces

The Fish

Shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize 2018
Helen E. MUNDLER

Texte intégral

Photograph courtesy of the author

1“It’s going to go on doing that,” said Ella, “Until it’s dead”.

2As fish went, it seemed quite ordinary – more grey than silver, a slightly triangular tube, tapered from head to tail, compact and without particular grace. But it was writhing on the concrete, bashing and thrashing head and tail against the dock in an irregular and now failing rhythm. Ella felt her chest tighten, as if she had been swimming too long underwater and was being prevented from getting back to the surface.

3“Go and put it back,” said Edward Green. They had been sitting on a concrete walkway at the edge of the lake, making their own this piece of the vastness suddenly and surprisingly cut from the whole like a solitary cookie from a sheet of dough. The lake seemed infinite, like a sea. An ocean, corrected Ella in her head.

4She was already rummaging in her bag, not yet properly cleared from the flight, looking for a tissue, while at the same time keeping an eye on the fisherman, standing some twenty feet way, back turned, presumably indifferent. Was it for Ella to dare to reproach him, in this new world, which was not theirs? But he had thrown the fish away like rubbish, and had no notion of the drama going on behind him. She found herself getting up, then squatting down, still stiff from the journey, and folding the creature into the paper. At home, Edward Green would plop Socrates out of his tank and into a pyrex bowl with one bare hand, while he cleaned and made new, but Ella shrank a little from touching this alien creature, and she had some idea, also, that fish did not like their scales to be touched. Still, she did manage to get a firm hold of it, not to let it fall again. From the edge of the land, she threw it back in the water, where it first seemed to sink, motionless, but after a few seconds began a slow, stunned swimming away. She could still feel its body, surprisingly solid, in the palm of her hand.

5“It did swim away,” she said, over her shoulder, on a note of doubt. She sat back down and took out her Chicago notebook and a pencil, and wrote:

“I wriggle like a fish caught on dry land
Struggle to obtain any help at hand."

6Then after a moment she added, in capitals, and underlined with as much savagery as her desire to preserve the neatness of the notebook would allow:

GRATUITOUS SADISM.

7She tilted the page, to show this last to Edward Green, who smiled, not, she thought, at the sadism, but to show he understood.

8“It’s true, though,” she added, nonetheless, and he took her hand. They stayed like that for a few minutes, inner knees and shoulders touching, until Ella suddenly whipped open her notebook again. Rather than crossing out, she wrote:

I realise now it’s avoid:

“I wriggle like a fish caught on dry land.
Struggle to avoid any help at hand.”

9Although she did not hide this from Edward Green, neither did she show it to him. After a bit she said, as they had both known she must, “Do you think Socrates is alright?”

10Socrates was their fish, at home. They had never intended to have a fish, or any pet at all. Ella would have liked two large and indulgent tom-cats, black, to sleep on their bed and welcome them home with purrs and nuzzlings, but not in a flat, and besides, how could they have left them now, for weeks on end? Edward Green, it had turned out, years into their marriage, would have liked to have a dog, and once had had one, in Brazil, a German shepherd, but the same argument applied. Socrates had been an unwise present, from one of Edward Green’s students, the day he retired. He came with a small pot of food like minced confetti, another which was supposed to provide him with oxygen, his name, and a warning that he was a combat fish and must live on his own. He was intensely blue in colour, with long, trailing fins – a child’s drawing of a fish. Ella’s first thought had been to take him to the park at the end of their road and release him into the artificial lake there, but there was too much dissonance between his resplendent opalescence and the murky brown of the duck-pond, and she knew he would die. Since they were going away, next day, for their weekend in the Black Forest to celebrate the retirement, they had nowhere to put the fish, and he had spent four days in a vase. They had only half-expected him to be alive when they got back, but more than three years later he was still with them, or rather, while Ella and Edward Green sat by Lake Michigan, he was being boarded in a pet-shop over the German border.

11Although Edward Green had improved the fish’s living conditions over time – a small aquarium with coloured gravel, then plants, main and secondary “houses” made of shells and flat stones – and Ella had improved his diet, making regular forays to the pet shop in Germany to buy him live dragon-fly eggs and other delicacies (she had been shocked when she found out that they were dragon-fly eggs, but had continued to buy them), life in the pet shop, where oxygen was piped through an aquarium four times as big as the one he had at home, must be, Ella thought, like living in a thermal spa. And she was interested, since he was now high up, rather than on a table in their flat, to see the surface of the water from beneath, as he saw it: his sky, she had thought. What went on above it must be of very little moment to him.

12The thing she worried about was the relentless solitude, behind the “not for sale” notice which the pet shop lady had stuck on his tank. Perhaps it would have been better for him if he had been sold, to someone with a huge tank and room enough that he would not eat his neighbours. She took some comfort from the fact that there was a tank of terrapins behind a glass partition, tiny, kindly-looking, shelly creatures. She wondered if Socrates could see them, and if he could, whether he could make any sense of what they were.

13“How much is it, again?” said Edward Green, meaning, she knew, the fish’s boarding fees, which, as it happened, amounted, for several weeks, to about the cost of one night in a human hotel in Chicago. She took out the notebook and flicked to the back where the budget was. They both leaned over it, eyeing the figures: already paid for, still to go, total amount left. Ella felt a quick, vertiginous panic, the downside of existing in the new world.

14*

15They walked to Ohio Street Beach. In the strange new geography, Ohio meant nothing to Ella: she had not yet learnt America well enough. As they walked toward it, along the concrete walkway, she reached for an echo but found no resonance. It wasn’t Weymouth, or Portland, or Cornish chicken.

16What Ella liked about America – one of the many things, and she had never expected to like America, which when she was a child had been bad food and trash TV they weren’t allowed to watch, a place, her mother said emphatically, that she had no desire to visit – was the way the British place names seemed to have been put in a hat, shaken up and distributed at random. It was as if Britain had been made into some complicated installation, torn up, distorted beyond all recognition, then rolled out and fashioned into a completely new, and much vaster, shape. For Edward Green, America meant different things altogether: wealth, success, opportunity, and also the indelible shadow of the military dictatorship, which he was able to separate, quite dextrously, from his own America, mapped over decades. He still had a sweatshirt with a textured herringbone weave, frayed at the neck, which he had bought in a thrift store in Brooklyn, aged thirty. Ella liked to think of these travels of his. She liked, in general, to dwell with a mix of pain and glee on the miraculous unlikelihood of them ever meeting at all, born the best part of six thousand miles, and a quarter of a century, apart.

17The afternoon was now becoming faintly chilly. A few people were bathing or paddling not far from the shore, while others, in wetsuits, swam what looked to be immense lengths, in lanes cordoned off beyond it. Ella found herself overwhelmed, for the second time recently, by the desire to take off her shoes, turn the waistband of her skirt over and feel the near-painful pleasure of very cold water on her feet and legs, which felt slightly heavy from the journey. The first time had been, incredible as it seemed, a mere three days before – transported suddenly to the south coast of England, for what she was learning to pack away in her mind as a family emergency, yes, a death, very sudden, very unexpected, making it real and legitimate and in this way keeping her head above the engulfing tide of the mess of it all, the mess and the inability to understand quite what it was that had happened. So on Ohio Beach, in Chicago, she thought only of the other beach, its famous grey stones, treacherously separate and painful on her feet in the thin shoes she had mistakenly presumed adequate for the trip. She had stood on that beach, facing the sea – nobody was bathing, although some people were on the beach, and the raised concrete walkway behind it, with dogs – and waited, but what she was waiting for never came. She had not, then, removed her shoes and put her feet in the water, although she had wanted to, but she did so now, calling to Edward Green to come and do it too. But Edward Green said, as she had known he would, that he was a tropical being, and that this was a beach for penguins, so she went in by herself.

18“He is my joy,” she told nobody at all, or perhaps Chicago, over which the sun was now low in the sky, the towers darkening to silhouettes against a pale, apricot and indigo light. But what she said, when she came out of the water and sat drying on the beach, was, “How do you mourn someone you didn’t love?”

19She was talking about that other journey, immediately, and uncomfortably, before this one: not gently coaxed into being, like this trip to America, but a sudden and unexpected tear in the fabric of life, more jagged than you thought.

20“It wasn’t,” she said, “that I didn’t love him. I mean, I didn’t, but that’s not the point. It’s just that he ruined my sister’s life.”

21In a previous conversation, Edward Green had said, “Didn’t your sister ruin her own life?”, and Ella had replied, “That can’t be known – how it would have been, if she hadn’t met him.” This had at one time been a train of thought she followed, to no satisfactory destination: her sister’s life without David.

22“I don’t want to bring all that here,” said Ella, moving one forefinger in the gritty sand, churning up little whorls. “It’s just that it is here. Even the fish.”

23“The fish?”

24“All that twitching. It knew it was going to die and all it could do was thrash against the inevitable.”

25She was thinking about her brother-in-law’s leg, twitching wildly, the last movement left, and that merely, it was thought, involuntary spasm. He had been a terrible colour, purplish and mottled, with crusts of blood where his face had hit the tarmac. The heart attack had struck like a lightning bolt, the doctor said – they could tell because he hadn’t put out his hands to save himself. He had stopped breathing for twenty minutes, and after that it was really a matter of saving the furniture, as the French said: gathering relatives to say their goodbyes. Ella had booked a flight, packed an overnight case and taken herself to that famous English beach, where she had waited, in spite of herself, for her sister to pull herself out of the darkness, to materialise, just as she found herself waiting now. But she had waited in vain, and the darkness had continued without her.

26Sometimes it helped to think of her sister as a Missing Person. Just as putting the death of her brother-in-law in a box labelled Death in the Family could still the whorl of that particular vortex, so the Missing Person diagnosis shaped the mess and clutter into a story everybody knew and could understand, including, perhaps, Ella herself. The two words conferred the purity of the urban myth, readily accessible, understandable to all: a man goes out to buy a pack of cigarettes and never goes home... This was not exactly what had happened, in the case of Ella’s sister. Her whereabouts, most of the time, were known: she had a job, and a postal address, and e mail. It was simply that she had, as time had passed, withdrawn to some distant and inaccessible shore of family life, from which she existed as a very present absence. Sometimes Ella felt as if they had all dreamed her or made her up. There was terse communication, on occasion, but silence most of the time. She had not attended the funeral of the person Ella thought of as her own brother-in-law, rather than her sister’s husband, although the two were still married. Ella suspected that this near-complete withdrawal was not without pleasure.

27Ella remembered her sister, seemingly impossibly much older, “a lady”, the perhaps six-year-old Ella had said, in a school show, dancing to Little Boxes On The Hillside. They had lived in such a house, Ella’s sister and brother-in-law, a starter home which never looked quite real, the cleanness of its red brick, the brilliance of its white plastic window-frames and the jet of the faux-leaded panes just this side of credibility. The tiny rooms had unlikely designations suggesting some other kind of house altogether: breakfast room, master bedroom, nursery. A sense of the uncanny had hung over the whole structure, of both house and marriage. It was a perpetual tableau which could not be animated – or at least, not by those particular inhabitants.

28“Like a lego house, with lego people,” Ella had said, trying to explain. “They just stood there in positions and didn’t do anything. Do you see what I mean?”

29Edward Green had said, “Not really.”

30“Like a toy you wind up, and there you are waiting, but it won’t go. You see now?

31“Not really,” he had answered again. “Do you?”

32“Yes,” Ella had said, more emphatically than usual. It was a sudden, energetic flicking apart, like two fish in a tank. Edward Green, by virtue of his Brazilianness, got to be a sherbert-coloured fish, fuchsia and acid yellow, while Ella was more subfusc. She put her hand out to where he could take it, because they were Ella and Edward Green, and their coldnesses were brief.

33*

34They walked back along the lakefront in the direction of the Millennium Park, towards the variegated grey and silver of water and tower blocks. By now it was distinctly cooler. Ella’s bare legs under her knee-length skirt felt wrong, and she felt her spirits dip. There was a draining and wrenching in her guts, and she was largely silent as they traversed a concrete underpass which could have been anywhere, and not in the new world at all. Surfacing, they found themselves lost, consulted the too-small maps in her notebook, walked blocks, as she must now learn to think, in the wrong direction. Her neck was beginning to ache from so much craning upwards, not to miss any of the things she had come to marvel at.

35They went for an early dinner in an organic supermarket which had a hot buffet. The thought of food made Ella hopeful again. She knew she was looking pale and strained with tiredness under the strip lights, but Edward Green looked younger, alert, hopeful, although she was disappointed on his behalf with his bowl of vegetable soup. “Spoilt for choice,” he had said, and given up. She had provided herself with a chicken thigh, red cabbage and macaroni cheese. She got up to find Edward Green a fork, and he picked at the macaroni between spoonfuls of soup. Hope began to lap once more against her heart. Through the viscous light, through her fatigue, the momentousness of the here and now returned.

36Ella, satiated, took out her notebook and made an entry for dinner in the budget pages. Then she unfurled their page of the map section at the front. The notebook came with a separate little book of tracing-paper with self-adhesive strips, which she had not until now found a use for, but now she found a pencil and placed a sheet of it over the page.

37“Look,” she said, detaching the transluscent sheet and sticking it on the black cover of the notebook. She had traced, more or less, the route they had taken that afternoon. Now she wrote in, “Fish Quay”, and, after a moment, added a small cross and labelled it “St David’s Monument.”

38“Our map,” she said. “Our personal map.”

39“Like the blue line to Wonderland?” said Edward Green.

40“Exactly like that,” said Ella, with satisfaction. Wonderland, and the blue line, had been on another trip, in Boston, and probably still are. It was the poetry of it that had moved Ella – “Take the blue line to Wonderland” – and finding out, some days later, that Wonderland was a dog track, had done nothing to diminish it, because the blue line and Wonderland were something else entirely on the personal map of their experience of the city. Edward Green could also have mentioned Elgar’s Kingdom, which they had seen part of in an outdoor prom on Boston Common. They hadn’t thought much to it, and had left after a short time, but later Ella had found herself possessed by Signs and Wonders, and listened to part of the piece on the internet each day for weeks and absorbed it into her blood, and over time it had become, Ah, The Kingdom... we heard it on Boston Common, we were blown away. One of the many things that Ella loved about Edward Green was that he didn’t hold this sort of thing against her.

41“Yes, like that. But better than that, too,” she added. “Because this one has a monument, made by us.” She indicated it, elongating the vertical line of the cross. “I should have laid a stone. But I didn’t.”

42“For the fish?”

43“For the fish also.”

44“A Jewish stone?”

45“A Jewish one. But I still didn’t. So it’s just a thing I thought. But it’s on the map anyway. And nobody will know it never happened. The map,” she said, looking up, pleased at this suddenly lucid formulation, “supersedes the reality.” She drew a firm rectangle around the name of the monument. “Seven days,” she said. “That he’s been dead”.

46“But not buried.”

47“No,” said Ella. “Oh, why did she have to marry him? Of all the men.”

48“Plenty more fish in the sea,” said Edward Green, very Englishly.

49“But,” went on Ella, “at least now I can stop thinking, This time last week, he only had however many days to go.”

50Edward Green got up to go back to the cold cabinet by the buffet and get Yogurt of the Gods. When he came back, Ella said, “I made him a collage.” She paused, pencil idling on a second sheet of tracing paper. I didn’t know what to do. You have to do something. You have to mark it. Somehow.”

51“What sort of collage?” asked Edward Green, peeling back the lid and handing her a spoon.

52“Just with the internet. It was an astronaut. Just that. Floating up and leaving the earth behind. With one of those huge black masks on. You couldn’t,” she added, “see his face.”

53*

54They walked the short distance back to the hotel, stopping to listen at one point to a saxophonist, playing on a corner, then past Ghirardelli’s, the Hancock Tower. By now Ella had an unreal, underwater feeling of extreme fatigue.

55They smiled and nodded at the gracious staff in the wood-panelled lobby, took the elevator with its brass fittings and fly-spotted mirror – oh, sighed Ella, for this was more of what she had come for – and finally, in their room, the bed, immensely wide and high, was like an island they just needed to row a few last strokes to land on. They showered together in the bathtub, since neither wanted to wait, brushed their teeth side by side at the huge shell-shaped basin, wrapped themselves in coarse but pleasantly enveloping hotel bathrobes and hauled themselves to the shore.

56“There was a door,” said Ella. “A door into the sea. On the plane”. And then, “Like Hopper”. And a moment later, “Did you see it?”

57“You were asleep,” said Edward Green.

58“Because of the endless day,” said Ella. “Flying into endless day. It’s not night, not really. Not even now.”

59“Go to sleep,” said Edward Green. “You are asleep.”

60“Fish,” she murmured. “You were the only fish”.

61He pulled her hips to him, cupping her from behind, and, quite suddenly, decanted her into sleep. She felt herself swim into the night, half-stunned, instinctual, nosing down to the depths – warm, still eager, alive.

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Crédits Photograph courtesy of the author
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/15413/img-1.jpg
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Helen E. MUNDLER, « The Fish »E-rea [En ligne], 20.1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/15413 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.15413

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Auteur

Helen E. MUNDLER

Université Paris-Est Créteil, CREA
mundler.students@gmail.com
Helen E. Mundler is Associate Professor in English Studies (maître de conférences HDR, 11e section) at l’UPEC (Université Paris-Est Créteil). She obtained a first class degree from Durham in 1992, an M Phil from Strathclyde in 1994, a PhD in Strasbourg in 1998, and an Habilitation (higher doctorate) in Nanterre in 2014.
She works on a range of contemporary fiction and has published monographs on A.S. Byatt and Liz Jensen as well as a book about climate-change fiction.
Recently she has become interested in the promotion of creative writing in English in French universities. As a writer herself, she has published three novels, Homesickness (Stockport, Dewi Lewis, 2003), L’Anglaise (Newbury, Holland House, 2018) and Three Days by the Sea (Holland House, 2022). She has also published and broadcast a few short stories, and was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize (Ireland) in 2018.
Helen E. Mundler est MCF HDR en études anglophones à l’UPEC (Université Paris-Est Créteil). Diplômée avec mention Très bien de l’Université de Durham en 1992, elle a obtenu un Master à l’Université de Strathclyde en 1994 et un doctorat à l’Université de Strasbourg en 1998, ainsi qu’une HDR à l’Université de Nanterre en 2014.
Elle travaille sur la fiction contemporaine et a publié des monographies sur A.S. Byatt et Liz Jensen, ainsi qu’un ouvrage sur la littérature du changement climatique.
Récemment elle s’est tournée vers la promotion de l’écriture créative en anglais à l’Université française. Écrivaine elle-même, elle a publié trois romans, Homesickness (Stockport, Dewi Lewis, 2003), L’Anglaise (Newbury, Holland House, 2018) et Three Days by the Sea (Holland House, 2022). Elle a également publié et diffusé à la radio plusieurs nouvelles, dont une a été sélectionnée pour le Publishing Short Story Prize (Irlande, 2018).

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