The fish, we decide, are getting to us. You should write and tell him, I say, and she laughs with wicked pleasure at the thought.
Ok. Dear Richard.
You don’t really need the dear I think uncharitably, but clamp my teeth firmly together this time, as I have failed to do so many times before.
I sometimes find it hard to cope. Especially with the fish.
Your everloving wife
It might make him think, I say. It would give you a place to start.
There are so many places I could start, she says, why pick on the poor fish?
Because like you they are always in the kitchen. No. That’s not fair. You are often in the park, pushing the middle one, holding the baby one, calling out to the older one encouragingly, mostly. And you are sometimes on the beach, huddled at the top out of the wind, supervising the catastrophic collapse of two ice creams onto the big grey pebbles. And you are sometimes, most days in fact, to be found pounding your beat between school and home and nursery, in rain that on a bad day comes down like sticks and stones. You won’t catch fish doing that. But we both of us do our time in our kitchens, back and forth, over and over, moving through the same tracks in air that must be full of us, our breath, our scent of skin and babies.
Green tea with jasmine. Dark, dark chocolate, a small square each. And I don’t have to tell her why the fish because my youngest has wet himself, again, and I go out scolding, rummaging for little pants in my hopelessly flung-together hessian bag. She is better prepared than I am, mostly.
But absolutely the fish, I think. A big, huge tankful on the worktop, and what a lovely idea, the flick and glimmer of them back and forth, an accompaniment, barely acknowledged, to our own backs and forths. Bought for children and tended by mothers all over the land. How many of us, I wonder, stop in their air tracks in moments of complete distraction and stare into the tank? Briefly pulled into the fishworld, its pebbles and weed, and briefly lost in there with the fish who slip in and out of view, or hang quietly behind twisted wood.
She settles back on the low sofa and clamps the baby on for a feed so I take over the supervision of pitta bread in the toaster and pick over her fridge, cleaner than mine, for hummus, philadelphia, cucumber, ham, olives. She tells me about an article she has read on David Jones; you should publish your thesis, I say, not for the first time. She wrinkles her nose at me. Then I tell her about having lunch with an archivist up at the library who is cataloguing the contents of Edward Thomas’ last diary; he told me that you can see the ripple marks on the paper from the shock of that last shell. A brutal folding of the air around him, like stamping on a tin can.
The fish, though. We don’t often stop to watch them; they are mostly sensed peripherally, on our way to somewhere else, let’s say the sink. Peripheral vision is what you use when you’re driving; especially when you do the same bit of road every day, sometimes twice. Eyes on the grey ribbon but you absorb the differences on either side without thinking: the height of the hedges, the curved lines of grass in the field cut for silage. Snowdrops primroses bluebells stitchwort red campion, in that order; a random crisp packet, a dead badger. Me anyway, not her, since she doesn’t drive. I think that might be his fault, too; at least that’s how I interpret it, and he did once say, to my face, to my eternal astonishment, that he didn’t marry her because he thought she would ever drive and that she was quite the wrong person to put behind the wheel of a car. To my face.
It is exactly the same kind of vision which allows you to be acutely aware of the fish. To move with a plateful of pitta bread, as I do now, from toaster to table, stepping over crayons and cars and calling them in from the front room to come and sit up without a sideways glance. If this were my kitchen I would know exactly what stage of the cycle we were at, how far into the slow greening of the glass, the thickening of slime around the filter, the gradual poisoning of the water. I would know from the way they moved, from the level they hang, lethargic or lively, just how uncomfortable I should be feeling. It builds up, over five or six or weeks, depending on the weather.
Well this is chaos, as ever. Two fighting, one crying about something else entirely, one tucking in blithely oblivious. I move in to break up the fight. She gently unclamps the blissed-out baby and lowers him into the buggy by the window, holding her breath, hoping he won’t wake. He doesn’t. She deals with the crying one, and then we hover round the table, making encouraging noises and spreading cheese; diving in like gannets on the olives once in a while. She has that grace about her.
More tea? I ask.
Mmm. I’ll make it.
What next? I’ve got an hour.
Too cold for the park? This wind.
This rain. Oh no, it’s stopped. But still. Beach?
Not sure I’m strong enough. They’re quite happy playing here.
And I’m tired, she says, going back to the sofa with her hands cradled round her mug, I’m tired in my bones and my head. My eyes are too tired to read. My ears are too tired to listen. I have to remember to put the bins out tonight and get enough wood in for a fire that I will be too tired to sit by, and put three small children to bed, one after the other, as I’ve done for five weeks now and counting, and probably fall asleep in the process and wake up in my clothes feeling...
When is he back?
God knows, and when he’s back he works so late it comes to the same thing.
-I know, I say. I really do: at least, I can imagine it. I couldn’t manage the way you do, not for more than a couple of nights and even then I’m shouting blue murder at them by day three.
Right inside my bones, she says. Fatigue.
I think of her lying in bed crying, with the fatigue latching onto every cell in her bones, her dancer’s bones, like the inverse of osteoporosis, transforming them into something not light and brittle but too heavy to bear. The same with her thoughts, her bright mind, all the quick pathways furred up with exhaustion.
Like trying to think through soup, I say.
I should make more soup, she says dreamily. They eat that.
Best way of getting vegetables...
...into them, I know.
One of mine comes in and gives me an unscripted kiss on the arm and goes out again looking important and mysterious. We laugh.
You’re right about the fish, she says.
I know I am.
I actually lost one a couple of weeks ago but I’m not confessing to it. It happened fast. One day, from nowhere,it had developed horrible popping eyes and sank to a couple of inches above the bottom of the tank and hung there. Water quality, it said accusingly on the web, but no amount of clean water could stop the rot. I put it in its own pyrex bowl, a tiny glass leperhouse, and hid it from the kids. It took far too long to die, and fell apart grotesquely when I fished it out to dispose of; it must have been half rotted-through before it had even stopped living.This is not something you tell people. But suppose I multiply my own circle of friends by, say, a mere million, that adds up, I feel, to a lot of mothers quietly carrying round these grisly little moments of failure.
The answer – and this, at the moment, seems to be the answer to everything – is to clean regularly. Different people do it in different ways, but I always transfer the fish to a bowl, chasing them around the tank with a little net, and hoiking them out wriggling, one at a time, two if you’re lucky. I keep about half the old water, which I believe is full of good bacteria, and fetch cold fresh water from the little stream down the side of the house. I clean the green slime off everything, the weirdly furred-up bits of wood, the darkened pebbles, even the gravel. I scrape it off the glass, degunk the filter. It takes a long time and once I start that’s it, I never rush it, and I never stop in the middle of the cleaning to do something else, however much hell breaks loose around me; which must make it almost unique amongst household tasks. The reward: bright pebbles, quick fish, a cleansed and righteous soul.
I clear up the plates. Today, I sense, is not a day for fighting talk, for one of my harangues: rise up, girl, do something write something join a class learn to drive (yes drive, ha!) take control walk out get a part-time job learn a language make him do a day a week, just one.What must I sound like, half the time. No, we’re both mid-week November weary, and happy enough to keep making tea and manage the conflicts and crises that break out like little whirlpools in the sea of children around us. Occasionally we throw out the beginnings of a conversation across the room, about books or things that matter from our childhood, and watch as their strands get pulled down into the little vortices, unravelled, shredded. Much later, when she has left for another country, I will think that perhaps the shipwrecked quality of our conversations makes them more significant. Now I can’t forget how she said she loved having her nails cut, because then, for half an hour or so, she had her mother all to herself.
She uncurls from the sofa and starts washing up. I find a tea towel and come over to dry, picking mugs and plates off the stainless-steel drainer. She looks at the silver space I’m making and gives a little shiver, a kind of shrug.
I came down one morning, she says, and found one of the small fish on the draining board, there, it must have flipped itself out all that way, it was twisted, tiny, with its mouth open.
No, I say, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
There is a noise from the pram, the preliminary half-coughing ack-ack-ack before the first real lungful of yell. She gets to him first, lifts him nuzzling into her neck. I finish clearing the table, and look with some envy at the highchair, which is implausibly clean and bright. How do you get it so clean, I say, ours is always covered in weetabix and dried yoghurt.
She looks at me across the room, helpless, beautiful, defiant. Wry.
It’s what I do, she says.
Mary-Ann Constantine has published widely on Romantic-period literature from Wales and Brittany. Her stories have appeared in New Welsh Review and Planet. Her first collection The Breathing ("a considerable achievement" - Stevie Davies) was published in 2008.