The Fish Lady

Woman selling fish encounters salvation. A short story.

★ The fish were terrified. Georgina’s round, placid face appeared to come out of nowhere, a full moon over their quivering last minutes on Earth. Their pain ended with her smile. She understood them. Abducted from their homes, taken into an alien world, without a hope of survival. It’s a savage Universe.

Georgina worked at the farmer’s market. Her days were filled with activity, so her thoughts were scarce. She preferred it that way, for when they appeared, followed by tidal waves of emotion, unstoppable and destructive, her entire world would tilt. Crooked and out of joint, it would take days to return to her normal, sedate self. Cutting tiny elegant incisions on her curiously dainty arms would help. Georgina kept her tools in an old Hello Kitty sewing kit. She had it for years. It was her fist aid, always in her purse. A pink sharp wallet.

Before she would cut herself, she would have long hot baths in sea salt and lemon oil. The smell of fish, however, never entirely went away.

Every day, except Monday, Georgina would wake up at six o’clock in the morning. She’d wait for a long moment for the faint screams in her head to die down. Then she’d get ready. Coffee, toast, strawberry jam, orange juice, shower. Sometimes the jam was black cherry and juice apple & elderberry. For special days. She’d stumble into her clothes almost accidentally, as she never was interested in what she was going to wear. It was important to be warm and comfortable. Layered. Cocooned. Like a human onion.

Then she would get on the bus and head to work. The bus ride was her grace time. She observed the people. God’s orphans, she called them, the ones who arrived to work before anyone else did, their lives background music to the lives of others. All the souls in that double-decker wanted to change their predicament but lost hope in one attempt too many, and then settled for survival.

Georgina never had hope. She knew what life was very early on, and decided to meet it calmly, without frills and prettiness. As it is. A meaningless string of events struggling for coherence.

One problem she always wrestled with was her own fine mind. If she didn’t numb it to oblivion by hard labor and freebase nihilism, it would self-activate with painful memories and colorful flights of fancy. Fantasies of beauty and contentment, even some kind of dark, peculiar fame. She would walk down a crowded street and think: One day, they will all know my name. Then she’d punish herself for her burst of vanity with a particularly grueling day, taking on more than her share of the job, bickering with co-workers and customers, injuring herself through freak accidents. Every attempt at assertiveness would always backfire, end up hurting her in some profound way. Her seething rage at the world was thus maintained intact, condensed, a potentiality never receiving enough oxygen to be released in a constructive way. A neurological pressure cooker. This pent-up ball of unrealised energy was her lot in life, letting go of it meant giving up on breathing, abandoning an embryonic existence she felt was her only secret luxury.

That particular morning in late January she woke up with a heavy head, she could not shake off the residue of dreams even with her customary vigorous cold shower. This was not uncommon with Georgina. The only difference this day brought was that somewhere between the bathroom and the kettle, she stopped suppressing the swirling momentum of her emotions. Quietly making her way to the bus stop, she observed the world around her as if she was witnessing it for the first time. This suddenly felt like free fall. A perverse kind of liberation.

Thoughts swelling like a broken limb, she perched herself on top of bus 159, her gaze fixed at the passing shadows of buildings and commuters. It was a dark day, eclipsed by clouds hanging over the city, engulfing it with humidity, the heartbreaking weight of water. A collective gasp of regret. Rays of sunshine were fighting to pierce through the iron will of this cumulus gloom, searching for tiny holes in the system they could squeeze through. Georgina could sense their urgency, as well as their inevitable defeat.

They reached Whitehall. Suddenly, a soft accented voice broke through this dense spell of swarming causality. Georgina looked up. She saw a perfectly manicured hand wave at her. Then she saw her face. Young, serene, fresh, wide almond-shaped eyes, small features, raven hair, smiling.

“Is this seat free, please?” the creature asked, with that emphasised politeness of tourists, trying to mirror what they perceived to be the unwavering courteousness of British society. Georgina’s face contorted into smirk. They could ape the form, but they never got the essence. Vacuum-packed fury. A sense of prolonged frustration of wearing shoes a size too small one’s whole life, and never complaining.

Another thing struck her. People rarely chose to sit beside Georgina, as the faint smell of fish lingered around her day and night, like a halo of permanent decay. They would do so only in emergencies. There were still plenty of empty seats left on the top deck of bus 159, however, this perfectly groomed, smartly attired, enthusiastically disposed foreign person stood there, beaming, intent on that particular seat.

Nodding slightly, Georgina pulled towards the window, and the girl slid in.

She started talking immediately. About architecture. The grandiosity of British heritage. The skies brimming with drama. Her language school in Oxford Street. Prices. How she loved being here but missed her family. The traffic was crawling, and Georgina was gasping for air. It was as if her brain was jump started by bolt of lightning. Nobody said as many sentences in a row to her in months. Perhaps even years. They were squeezed in tight together, the lady onion and the chirping ingénue, mismatched Siamese twins, one mute, the other ripe with volume.

Abruptly, the girl turned sideways, her face disturbingly close to Georgina’s. She looked at her for a very long moment. “You have beautiful eyes,” she sighed.

Georgina’s face was now bright pink, advancing dangerously towards crimson. She thought she would vomit on the spot.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” the stranger continued, her voice jumping an octave.

“No, I don’t have boyfriends,” Georgina heard herself answering back in an equally high-pitched tone, almost shouting.

The girl didn’t say anything, she just continued observing her, with a serious, benevolent gaze. It seemed to be scorching Georgina’s skin. It was unbearable. She felt cracked open, defenseless, horrified. She could smell vanilla in the creature’s hair, her sweet-scented breath, honey and tea for breakfast, feel the tightness of that slight curve on her coat running over her breasts. She wanted to kiss her, drink her blood, strangle her to death.

The girl softly touched Georgina’s trembling hand. “I’m very sorry,” she said. “I have to go now.”

The bus stopped. The girl got up, waved goodbye, and walked down to the bottom deck. As she left the bus, Georgina watched her melt into the crowded street, slowly and steadily disappearing from sight into the stream of faceless bodies flooding Oxford Street.

The waters delivered her, and the waters claimed her.

These exact words shot through her head. In the clear, sharp, detached voice of her mother. Georgina could see her, vividly, gaze averted, peering through the drawn mustard drapes at the rain. She knew that she blamed her. Voicelessly. Relentlessly. That was the only thing her mother said to her on the day of the funeral. Her sister was born during the spring floods.

Then came the screams again. The flapping of small hands. Pale blue eyes frozen in terror, glassy, lifeless.

They were playing in the river that summer and there was a horrible accident. Were they playing in the river? She only remembered that Beth was annoying her, pulling at her bathing suit, trying to tear it off, embarrass the shy, gangly, awkward Georgina. Her breasts were beginning to show, her pubic hair started to grow, and her baby sister thought that was entirely disgusting.

And then she was gone. Engulfed by waters. Did she swim off? Was she pushed under?

Georgina couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember.

The skies started clearing up. The bus reached its final stop at Marble Arch. There she always changed buses.

Georgina got off, and, without a second thought, headed straight for the park. She walked briskly, breathless, determined, slicing through air, a bullet traveling for thirty years, eager to reach its final destination. Then she started to run, furiously, as if there was no time left in the Universe. Reaching the central lake, she stormed towards it with such intensity that all the birds gathered around it flew off in four earthly directions, and Georgina stood there, amidst the flurry of feathers and countless sharp cries, staring at the still, unwavering surface of the water, feeling a surge of complete divinity.

She smiled, opened her purse, reaching for her Hello Kitty sewing kit. Then gazed at it, blades glistening in the golden sunlight, the sky now clear blue.

Georgina closed her eyes, and turned towards the Sun.

© Milana Vujkov, Demolition Road: The Fish Lady, 2015

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