Fish-Fish

by Cherry Potts

Content Note: This story features a widower and refers to the death of a spouse and a stillborn child

She has a small cloche hat pulled down so tight it’s a wonder she hasn’t ripped the rim. He has his hair plastered to his head so smoothly that Joel half expects beads of Brilliantine in the crease at the back of his neck, but despite this, they are immaculate, both wearing some fabric between velvet and moleskin that shimmers and tempts the fingertip to explore its textures. 

Joel shows them to a booth at the back of the room, with a mirror behind them, which will allow him to keep an eye on them without quite staring. He cannot fathom what it is that draws him. They could be sister and brother they look so alike, round-eyed, broad-cheeked, flat-nosed; his wonderful whiskers the only feature that truly distinguishes them one from the other, but the way they behave with each other is not sibling-like. She gazes and gazes, her round eyes drinking him in with something like awe, and he caresses her with his glance. It is barely decent.

Joel finds himself struggling to breathe, excitement crushing his lungs. They are not beautiful, not in the accepted way, they both carry too much blubber for that, but they are smooth and shiny and look about themselves with such eagerness, when they come up for air.  There is unquestionably something illicit about the relationship – they are on an adventure.

Joel brings them menus, which they do not look at. She turns her round eyes up to him and whispers

Fish.

Fish, fish, he barks, with more confidence than she.

Fish, Joel responds, and is about to list the cod, herring, plaice, but they continue, their voices almost overlapping, Fish-fish and he finds himself turning away nodding awkwardly.

He brings them Bouillabaisse, and is only slightly startled when they pick up the bowls between their awkward fat-fingered hands and drain the soup in great gulps.

He takes back the bowls and brings them sprats fried in salt on a base of samphire, his personal favourite. She claps her hands in glee, flat-palmed, noisy, and he watches as she hesitates with a hand over the fork, then picks up one fish after another and puts them head-first into her gaping mouth. Her companion does likewise.

Joel returns to the kitchen and brings them dish after dish, every fish dish on the menu. They eat everything, murmuring to each other, never touching the vegetables, not a scrap of bone or fin or skin left on the side of the plate; the shrimps eaten whole, the aioli untouched.

What appetites, he thinks jealously. Joel has hardly eaten, it seems to him, since he came to this little port over three years ago. He has lost much weight, and recently his hair has thinned alarmingly. His landlady has urged him to see a doctor, but it is out of the question.

He came here for love. He left the sea, and his roving of its stranger climes, to settle here, enamoured of a girl born on this shore. A girl who had died giving birth to their child, a poor sorry creature that had not thrived. None of them have thrived. A mistake, he thinks now, but his heart has been anchored within the harbour wall since he first saw her, and the flukes are driven further in by the small stone cross in the graveyard on the headland, and he cannot bear the thought of the sea anymore. 

He looks at the odd couple, paddling at each other’s fingers and giggling together. This is a dry town, and he wonders momentarily if they have smuggled in a flask of something, but his offer of drinks (ginger beer, lemonade, dandelion and burdock, tea…) had been waved away with a shake of the head; and if they have something, he has not seen it. No, they are drunk on their adventure, on each other, on the appetite that has them gaze at each other and gaze and gaze.

When they leave, the bill is weighed down by an enormous gold coin. Joel stares. He has seen one of these before. He has owned one of these coins, and knows its worth. They could eat the restaurant out of fish every day for a month for this coin.

His coin lies in the cold little grave up on the headland, with his lost girl and the child who could not thrive.

Joel goes to the door and watches as they pick their clumsy way down the shingle beach away from the esplanade. He imagines they will make for the dark under the pier. He imagines they will furtively shuck enough clothes to get at each other and 

He imagines a lot of things. 

~

It is late and there is no one left in the restaurant. He turns the sign to closed, locks the door and wipes down the surfaces, upends the chairs onto tables, leaving the floor free for the girl who will swab it in the morning, and goes through to the kitchen to share a cup of tea with the cook and count the takings. He does not show her the gold coin. He turns it over and over in his deep pocket and wonders.

It is late and there is no one left on the esplanade. He puts his hands into his deep pockets and strolls across the road to gaze at the sea, to listen, in the near-silence, to the hush and rush of the waves sorting the pebbles. It is a sound that he can hardly bear, since the loss of his dearest girl.

There is another sound, a sort of gasping, guttural bark. It makes him shudder suddenly. He knows what it is, and his eyes search the dark under the pier, where he and his girl first knew each other completely. He resents the usurping of their first place. Ridiculous, he knows, when most nights there is some couple or other fumbling their way through the discomfort of sex on shingle in that dark damp almost-privacy with the creaking boards above them.

He hears the noise again, and again, then catches sight of them, humped together against a faint light cast through the wrought ironwork. He tries to disapprove, but all he can think of is her round, dark, glistening eyes, looking up at him, as she whispers her desires. Fish, Fish, Fish-fish. 

As he watches they rise awkwardly, and he sees that there has been no furtiveness. Their bodies gleam in the moonlight, rounded and smooth and perfect. They walk carefully across the shingle, and he knows that hobbling, the tiny steps, the bare feet flinching from sharp stones and splintered shell and shifting, rolling pebbles. But they do not touch each other; he does not reach out to help, and she doesn’t squeal as the girls here tend to as they wince their way into the sea. They walk confidently into the water, and almost at once they dive, and are swimming. His mind jolts from his pleasure in the sight of them to what he is actually seeing. The water rolls over and around them, and he find his tongue and calls out –

Wait!

Not the warning he had meant when he opened his mouth, but a plea: 

Don’t go without me. 

They are just heads bobbing in the troughs of the waves –

Wait! Please!

He is running now, down the beach, casting clothes this way and that, kicking his shoes off on the water’s edge.

~

He came here with his darling girl, on an incoming tide – he knew his tides, how not? – and explored each other in the glimmering knife-light that came through the gaps in the planks of the pier, golden and sharp. She laughed at the touch of his whiskers on her naked skin, and wept suddenly and without explanation, and they stayed longer than they should. And a wave tendrilled around his feet, and without thinking he shrugged his pelt over himself, and he felt rather than heard her gasp, as another wave crept further and the water ran off his pelt onto her naked skin, and he realised what he had done – and he wrapped the pelt around her too and waited for the next wave, the seventh, to wash them off the beach, between the striding metal of the pier and out into the harbour. 

Two hearts within the same skin – he was aware that poets use that as a metaphor, but the reality was horrifying, hers beating three times the rate of his, the panic that clutched his lungs with hers – he half expected to drown, but they were out there no time, and the next seventh wave carried them safe to shore and he untangled them and she stumbled weeping up the shingle to the high tide mark, and sat trembling in the moonlight. He followed slowly, dreaded her questions – her what are you? But that was not what had her stammering and shaking.

We can never, she said, shaking her head, I can’t – with you – like that – here… and he had taken his pelt and rolled it tight and put it into her hands.

No, she said, angry now, I’ll not keep you here by trickery or force. You stay because you want to, or you go. Who do you think I am?

And he had stayed, the pelt buried deep in the shingle under the pier, and his memories of the sea buried deeper, in domesticity and sorrow.

~

How could he have forgotten? How could he have been so beguiled as to forget this? 

He pushes through the resistance of the water, the cold caress of floating weed, terrified by the speed with which they are swimming away, but then she turns back to him, and he hears, faintly, a call – harsh, deep, irresistible – and he reaches the sloping shelf where the water deepens suddenly, and plunges into the water, and lets a wave pull him out towards them.

Wait, he says, again, softly now, confident that they can hear, and he dives deeper, filled with a simple joy that has not been his for – so long. His face is still beneath the surface. He opens his eyes and sees her, watching, her soft round eyes unblinking, as she turns slowly in the water, luxuriating in the way it buoys her; and he admires the silvery bubbles of air trapped in her pelt, and –his own limp pelt that she clasps awkwardly between flipper and flank. She slips away, a great pulse of muscle driving her through the water.

He catches at his forgotten pelt, suddenly lithe and beautiful beneath his reaching hands, and barks his laughter. Surfacing for a moment, he stares back at the land, at the lights of the harbour, the headland crouched above, and the feeling of something-left-behind eases.

His brother glides alongside, rolling him over, slapping him thoughtfully with his great, beautiful flippers, grazing him tenderly with his brisk, magnificent whiskers and more forcefully with his sharp-flexing claws. 

He dives deep; rescued, forgiven, home.


© Copyright Cherry Potts


Cherry Potts is the published author of a lesbian fantasy epic, The Dowry Blade, two collections of short stories, Mosaic of Air and Tales Told Before Cockcrow, and a Photographic Diary of a Community Opera, The Blackheath Onegin. She also has many short stories (and one poem) published in anthologies and magazines in print and on-line. Her stories have been performed in London, Leeds, Leicester and Hong Kong through Liars’ League, and she has performed her own work at the Towersey festival, Story Fridays in Bath, and numerous other London events.

Cherry’s story “Medusa Wonders” was shortlisted for the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize 2020.

She has completed her second novel, The Bog Mermaid, and a novella, A Fish in a Desert, and is currently working on a young adult timeslip novel, and a space opera.

Cherry teaches creative writing at City, University of London as a visiting lecturer and owns and runs Arachne Press for whom she edits short stories, novels and poetry, and sometimes designs covers and animated book trailers; and is the founder and curator of the annual literature and music festival, Solstice Shorts, now in its seventh year.

Cherry sings in choirs for fun (online at the moment which isn’t anything like as much fun) and lives in London with her wife and an adored and very spoilt cat.


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