Respiration (short story)

She had the day off work because the fish died.  It ruined the feng-shui of the building, apparently.  They were told not to come back until the official cleanser had performed the appropriate rituals.  She had brought bread in for them, sometimes.  The rumour was that it had taken an entire bottle of bleach.  That was believable.  The rumour also said that the fish has screamed, audibly, as the bleach was poured into the pool.  She didn’t believe that. Standing in the wide reception hall, holding her briefcase in front of her, she had watched, with a total lack of emotion, as they were fished out one by one. The grape-vine said it had happened during the night. The alarm hadn’t gone off. Must have been an inside job. More fool whoever had let slip that the fish were so important to the smooth running of the office. Someone must have wanted a holiday real badly.

Being at home during the day was surprisingly boring. They had done all the chores at the weekend. The television was still broken. So, she wandered from room to room. She picked things up and put them down, and imagined living by herself again. Coming back to an empty house. Cooking for herself only. No milk in the fridge because she always forget to pick it up. No fights over what music to listen to.

Nobody to talk to.  She tried talking to herself, out-loud. The words tasted funny in her mouth; awkward and forced.

‘Hello’

silence.

‘How’re you doing?’

silence

‘There’s a cobweb up in that corner.’

It didn’t convince her. She couldn’t be comfortable with it. She had nothing to say to herself.

There was a big dust stain on the sofa. He must have sat down in dirty trousers again. How many time has she reminded herself to ask him not to do that. But tried to ask in a nice way. Didn’t want to be a nag.  Definitely him, not her; look at the shape his legs make. And, see, the stain goes down the front too. He always pulls his legs back in, pushes himself up to standing that way, using his calves against the dark red material to lever him up. She curls on the sofa. Her stain would be round, creased, scrabbily where she crosses and uncrosses her legs from one sitting position to the next.

Since there is nothing else to do, she sits down in his place and tries to stand up like him. It hurts her stomach muscles. She spent three hours in the gym yesterday. When running, not running to or from anything, her mind goes blank. The treadmill is smooth and constant, she doesn’t even have to worry about falling over. There isn’t even anything to look at. She sits back down and holds herself there, back straight, legs straight in front of her. It isn’t very comfortable. It is how people sit in the cinema or at dinner or in the theatre.

Sitting on this side of the sofa means she can see the cobweb more clearly. Why didn’t he say something last night when he sat here, like this? What was she doing when they were sitting? What did they talk about, or were they too tired to talk? What did she replay in her mind on the way to work? There must have been something; they are both intelligent people. There must have been something to say. But she doesn’t even have anything to talk about with herself, so maybe they just sat in silence. They read the papers, she remembers. He told her about the article he was reading and she said uh-huh and nodded and then fell asleep, curled up on her end of things. He had to carry her through to their room.

That explains why the washing rack is over there. He must have had to kick it out the way because his arms were taken up with her. Then this morning they were in such a rush there was no time to put things back the way they always should be; the washing rack never stays on that side of the room. It was placed half way across the door on purpose, to remind them it was temporary and that they really must put a line up in the yard, use that outside space, get some air blown into the sheets and trousers and bras. Give it all a chance to be shaken around properly.

If she stands on the arm of the sofa like this, and reaches up, then she can get rid of the cobweb. There is no sign of the spider. Maybe it has been there for ages, overlooked, gathering dust.  Maybe it belonged to that spider they caught last week. She wanted him to kill it but he just put it out the window. When you’re brave enough to deal with it yourself, he said, then you can kill it. As long as you’re finding insects and then making me get rid of them, I’ll do it my way. Then she had sulked, and spent the rest of the day in bed.

She is too small, can’t quite reach. The kitchen towel might work, if she waves it above her head. No, not long enough. And now she is scared she will imbalance and fall, waving it like a mad thing like that. Nobody knows she is here. They all think she is at work. How long would she lie there for, broken and messed up? But he would be back at some point, come back and call an ambulance. If it wasn’t too late. Cobweb still up there. Not her fault she never grew, really. She ate her dinner, her parents are both small too. It is just a genetic thing.  The cobweb is thin and grey against the cream paint. Why did they paint the ceiling cream and not white? Did they have a good reason, or was it some sort of whim? She isn’t entirely sure if it is important or not. Or if anything is really very important. Or whatever.

Maybe, she wonders, the fish felt this way. Wandering round in circles with nothing to do all day. Except that they were swimming. And at least they could look up and see the world. Maybe just the world of the office reception, but it still had to beat looking up and seeing nothing but that cobweb. And a small crack in the ceiling, but that has been there for ages and anyway he said it was just where the paint had dried and settled or something she hadn’t really been listening. If it had been important he would have done something about it by now.

There isn’t any bread in the kitchen so she can’t even pretend to be a fish and feed herself with crusts. And her feet have added to the dusty marks on the sofa. She starts brushing the feet marks off, trying not to disturb the pattern left by his body. But erasing herself means erasing him too as the marks have overlapped and it is difficult to work out where one begins and the other ends.  Most of it has gone now, if you didn’t know the marks had been there you wouldn’t be able to see his outline, wouldn’t be able to imagine him sitting there.  Why doesn’t she leave marks like that on her bit? The fabric is the same, she must be covered in the same dirt, why doesn’t she leave an impression too?

There is a full bottle of bleach under the sink.  They would have breathed it in, through their gills. Been consumed by it. Burnt by it, bleach burns in a chemical way doesn’t it? Would it be like suffocating or like being poisoned? Thrashing around, making little piles of foam on top of the normally still water. Would it be painful? Would it be fun, in a strange and dreamy way, to spend the last moments of your life dancing like that, moving violently and unpredictably. Would it be better than circling slowly, quietly, through force of habit and through lack of anything better to do?

Goldfish grow to the size of their tanks or ponds or something like that. Does that mean that if you put one in the ocean it would just keep growing and growing until it was an uber-fish, a mega-fish, a leviathan? If she left the flat and went out into the big, wild world, would she start to grow too, would she expand to fill her environment? Would it be possible to just start swimming in a straight line one day, say screw it to circling round the subject. Where do the walls of her tank begin?

The bath takes ages to fill. It was one of the reasons they chose this place. That and the fact that they couldn’t really afford the other places they had looked at. He liked aspiration. She didn’t think it was a bad thing, she had agreed.  But she didn’t really mind paying a little less either and living somewhere not so special. She thought she was easy-going most of the time. But they had both actively liked the big, claw-footed bath that took up too much space in the small bathroom.  You are so small, you could swim laps in it. It was meant to be a nice teasing so she had laughed, like usual.

Maybe there was nothing to say to herself, but she could sing. Singing was appropriate in bathrooms.  Under the water, bubbles coming out in big, fat spurts and breaking into little pieces, each one with a different note. How long has it been, how long has it been since I had a day to myself? It isn’t a real song, it is a made-up one with a made-up tune and none of it makes much sense but it feels good to be doing it. Feels good to be having a bath in the middle of the day.

Dripping wet, utterly naked, she can reach the cobweb with a coat-hanger.  The sofa is getting soaked because she didn’t towel-off her hair. But it was covered in dirt earlier she reminds herself. This is sort of like cleaning it. She puts the webby hanger in the sink, then goes back to see if there are cobwebs in any of the other corners. It is sort of disappointing that there aren’t, but it is also cold, so she gets back into the bath.  The bottle of bleach sits next to the bathroom sink, now,  turned round so that she can read the detailed warnings on the back while she bathes.

The cap is really small, so one little capful added to the water doesn’t make much of a difference. She puts it in the tap end, and waits at the other end to see what it does to the water. It makes it smell like the corridors at work after the cleaner has been, but only a little bit, and probably only because she sniffed the bottle so much before putting the cap back on. Of course, the fish at work didn’t put the bleach in themselves. It was imposed on them, from outside. But maybe they wanted to be bleached. Maybe there was a coded message in the circling, a sort of bored desperation. Maybe they did scream, a cry of release.

The symbols on the bottle suggest it would have been a cry of pain. So she gets out again. Then the whole bottle goes into the bath, with a thick, viscous glug that sounds really satisfying, like eating mashed potatoes with a lot of butter in them. She gets a long wooden spoon from the kitchen and stirs it in circles.  It was still hours before he would finish work. Hours and hours of the clock hand going round in circles. So much time to fill, so little to do. She can keep the water warm, keep topping it up, for as long as she cares to. It is getting cold, out of the bath.

 

*first published online in issue 6 of SWAMP in 2010

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