BIG FISH, LITTLE FISH.
By David Milligan-Croft.
Elodie sat beneath a cedar tree eating a pomegranate, pricking the seeds with a sewing needle, trying carefully, not to pierce her lips. The afternoon sun warmed the nape of her neck while a gentle breeze cooled her face. With the tail of her scarf, she wafted away a curious wasp.
Elodie was only visible from the waist up, due to the great height of the rapeseed. She tossed the empty skin of the fruit as far as she could to avoid being harassed by any more insects, then stuck the needle into the band of her straw hat, pinning a crocus that she had picked earlier.
She flexed her naked toes beneath her sandals and admired the crimson sheen from her toenails. A loose thread was hanging from the hem of her dress against her pale thigh. She pulled at it, unraveling the hem a little until it eventually gave way. She wound the thread around her forefinger then unwound it again.
Elodie gazed across the field to the house where she was staying. She knew they would still be arguing. She looked at her watch and saw that she had been gone for almost three hours.
She strolled back through the field toward the house, carrying her sandals, feeling the rapeseed brush against her thighs and calves. She reached the foot of the porch steps and paused to see if she could hear anything from inside. After a few moments she took a step, then another. The third step creaked under her weight, so she stepped back. Then forward, rocking to and fro imagining she was on an old clipper ship.
Elodie pushed back the fly screen and stepped into the cool hallway. The house was silent except for the faint tinny noise of a radio playing in a room somewhere. It reminded her of home; she turned radios on in every room of the house, each one tuned to a different station. But only at the weekends, weekdays were much too hectic for such indulgences.
She tiptoed into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door, peering in as far as she could, feeling the cold, dead air against her clammy face. She took out a jug and poured herself a large glass of ice-cold cranberry juice. Standing by the sink, looking out into the back yard, she gulped life back into herself. The river beyond, seemed brown and heavy, flowing languidly as if it too were suffering from heat exhaustion.
A cat was standing on its hind legs trying to salvage something from the over-filled dustbin. Pawing, tapping and gnawing until it eventually came away with a sliver of bacon rind, then scurrying through a gap in the fence and disappeared into the rapeseed field to enjoy its booty.
Elodie took her glass of juice and sat at the kitchen table, flicking through the previous day’s newspaper. She dare not venture into the other rooms of the house just in case she did actually bump into someone else. It was a rare enough treat to find herself with so much peace and quiet.
‘Where have you been?’ Cesaré demanded.
Elodie looked up with a start. ‘God! You scared the life out of me.’
‘Where’ve you been all afternoon?’ he repeated.
‘I went for a walk,’ she said returning to her newspaper.
Cesaré was Elodie’s partner. He was a broad-shouldered man who was used to hefting reams of paper around at the printing press. When they had first met he was all flowers and romance, but now, it seemed to her, she was just someone to cook his food and mind his children.
He’d walked into the kitchen in his vest and underpants scratching his swollen stomach and sniffing his armpits.
‘Why don’t you put some clothes on?’ she said.
‘Because it’s too fucking hot!’ he replied as he cracked open a can of beer.
Elodie glanced at him over the top of the paper as he belched. She tried to conceal the seething disgust that was beginning to rise inside her. They had met five years previously at their company’s Christmas party. They’d danced and drank cheap punch all night until she found herself, the next day, in his one bed flat with two young kids peering over the bottom of the bed.
He had taken sole charge of the children after his wife had left them for someone else and didn’t want to have anything to do with her past life.
Elodie had quit the printers and got herself a job at a small photography studio. She did secretarial work, accounting, helping out with quotes for props and models and would get to meet all sorts of interesting clients. She would come home from work and tell Cesaré about such and such fashion designer or so and so art director, but after a while she stopped, realising that he gave the same monosyllabic answers as he watched whatever sport happened to be on t.v. at that particular time. Once, she actually changed the subject half way through, and started talking about her period, seeing how far she could go before he would ask what she was talking about. But he never did.
‘Where are Matty and Kate?’ she asked.
‘Dunno,’ he said, flicking through the sports pages. ‘S’pose they’re in the yard playing.’
‘I thought you were supposed to be looking after them this afternoon?’
‘Give it a rest,’ he said standing up and getting another can of beer.
Elodie didn’t mind taking on the responsibility of Cesaré’s children. In fact, she had grown to love them. Even though Matty, who was ten, hated Elodie for quite some time in the early stages. She understood that it was quite normal for a boy of his age to feel resentment toward a person who was trying to take his natural mother’s place.
Kate was different. She was only two when her mother absconded and took to Elodie much more easily. Kate was almost six now and considered Elodie as another friend. They would play and draw and watch videos together, which seemed to exacerbate Matty’s anger no end.
He was much more of a loner and preferred the company of his toy soldiers and World War II model aeroplanes. She thought he was quite a violent child and that Cesaré should take more of an interest in Matty’s emotional needs. Once she caught him setting fire to a model Spitfire and throwing it out of his bedroom window. When Elodie asked him what he was doing he said that the plane had been shot down by a Messerschmidt 109, whatever that was.
‘Don’t you think you should check-up on them?’ she asked.
‘What’s your problem? If you’re so concerned about them you go and look for them.’
‘Because I’ve been looking after them all week,’ she said. ‘It’s my holiday too, y’know.’
Elodie picked up her glass and walked into the sitting room, where Cesaré’s mother was dozing in an old high-backed chair, with a novel on her lap. Her chin would drop to her chest then she would jolt upright again. A trickle of saliva was hanging from the corner of her mouth.
Hilda had come away with them for the week to the cottage. She was a widower now and didn’t get out very much. Elodie felt a little guilty for begrudging her, but she would like to have gone away by themselves just for once.
Hilda wasn’t one for caring what other people felt about her. She had been married three times, each husband dying after only a few years. She did have a knack of picking men who weren’t long for this world. Either that, or after a few years with Hilda, they decided they weren’t long for this world.
Hilda was a large woman with a fondness for cream cakes and chocolate eclairs. Whether this was the cause of her Irritable Bowel Syndrome Elodie did not know, but she had the equally irritating habit of constantly breaking wind: At the dinner table; in mid conversation; at the supermarket; wherever. Elodie had suggested that she might go to the doctors to get it checked out but Hilda had responded by simply saying: ‘Better out than in.’
Hilda hated her grandchildren. In fact, she didn’t particularly care for Cesaré either. Which made Elodie wonder why she would want to come away with them in the first place.
‘I almost died giving birth to you!’ she would say to Cesaré. And, ‘You were a bastard. The only child that didn’t have a father.’
Cesaré was the eldest of four brothers. The other three all had different fathers. This made Elodie tolerate some of Cesaré’s mood swings, thinking that they were a result of not having a father figure to look up to. But there was only so much one could tolerate. Elodie had lost her mother when she was only eight and her father died soon after of a broken heart, so they say.
Elodie had been brought up by her aunt who had a farm in the country. She was an eccentric old woman who loved to potter about and tend to things, whether they needed tending or not. She had three cats and a down-trodden sheep dog. Down trodden by the cats, not by Aunt Nelly. She even had a small swimming pool built at the back of the house by the conservatory. Every morning come rain or shine Nelly would swim at least ten lengths.
‘It keeps me young,’ she would say.
Elodie would visit and clean out the pool for her. Fishing out dead bugs and spiders or feathers from migrating ducks that had stopped off for a rest. Once a year, she would drain the pool and scrub down the sides and unblock the plug hole. It would take about three days to refill from the hose pipe. If she was staying over she would lay in bed and listen to the gurgling like a giant bathtub filling.
Elodie often thought of leaving Cesaré to look after her aunt who was nearing a century of years. But she couldn’t quite pluck up the courage to leave her two new charges alone in his care.
Hilda stirred when she accidentally knocked her cup of tea to the floor which had been resting on the arm of the chair.
‘Oh, you’re back,’ she said to Elodie.
‘Yes. I went for a walk in the fields. It’s a beautiful day, you should go out and get some fresh air.’
‘I’m fine where I am, thank you very much. It’s far too hot to be outside.’
‘Perhaps you’d like to sit out on the porch then. I could take a chair out for you.’
‘What! And have flies buzzing around me all afternoon, no thanks.’
Elodie looked out of the window toward the road. A bus was approaching slowly round the winding road, then disappeared again behind a copse of trees.
‘Have you seen the children?’ Elodie asked.
‘How should I know where the little brats are? They’re not under my chair are they?’
‘I think I’ll go and look for them,’ Elodie said as she made for the door.
‘You wouldn’t pick that cup up for me, would you dear, and make a fresh pot?’ Hilda said with a false toothed smile.
Elodie picked up the cup and walked into the kitchen. Cesaré was still sitting at the table checking the racing results. There were now four crushed beer cans on the table.
‘I’m going outside to look for the children.’
‘Your Mother wants a cup of tea.’
‘You know where the kettle is.’
‘You know, Chez? One day, your indifference will come back to bite you on the ass.’
Cesaré did not look up from the paper. Elodie went to the fridge and filled an empty plastic bottle with cranberry juice and walked out through the back door into the yard. She place her hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun to see if she could see the children. She scanned the rapeseed field and the edge of the river which was overgrown with reeds.
She hopped over the rickety fence at the end of the yard and walked toward the water’s edge. Although the water was a thick red-brown she could still see the reeds billowing beneath the surface.
She walked downstream where the river disappeared round to the right toward the village. As she turned the bend she saw Kate running toward her sobbing inconsolably. Elodie dropped to her knees as Kate flung her arms around her and wailed.
‘It’s alright, darling, what’s the matter?’
‘It’s Matty,’ her voice quivered.
‘What’s happened? Has he had an accident?’
‘He wouldn’t let me go on the swing.’
‘What swing love?’
‘The swing on the tree. Over the river.’
‘It’s okay, sweetie. Maybe he was just worried you might fall off.’
‘I want to go on the swing!’ Kate sniffled.
‘Okay, you show me,’ Elodie said, standing up and taking Kate by the hand. They walked around the gentle twist of the riverbank until they could see a crop of woods in the distance.
‘You know, Kate, you really shouldn’t come down here all by yourself.’
‘Dad said we could do what we liked.’
As they got closer to the woods Elodie could vaguely make out the shape of something dangling in the water. She tried not to panic, hoping that it was just a trick of the light and was merely a creeper of some sort.
‘Oh my God!’ she cried as she broke into a sprint. ‘Wait here darling!’ Elodie ran through the thick reeds as fast has her heart and the heat would allow.
She could now definitely make out the shape of Matty hanging upside down in the river, his ankle stuck through the loop of the tree swing.
She jumped into the river, her feet sinking into the muddy bottom, and waded toward Matty, whose head and shoulders were immersed in the water. She gripped his body around the chest and heaved him up so that his head cleared the water. She looked at the boy’s white face as she tried to untangle his ankle from the noose which was just out of reach of her fingertips.
‘Kate!’ Elodie screamed as she stood up to her waist in the river. ‘Get your father. Quickly!’
Kate ran off back toward the house as Elodie struggled to maintain her balance and keep Matty’s lifeless head from dipping back under. She tried to jump up and flick his foot out of its trap. But, as she landed back in the water, Matty’s head would submerge again.
She scoured the surface for a stick or a branch that she might be able to use but there was nothing. She tried to make her way back to the river bank in the hope that the angle of the rope wouldn’t become too acute. She got about half way before she had to try and hold Matty above her head with outstretched arms. She lost her balance and slipped under the water. She flung herself up, coughing out the fetid taste of the river. Her arms burned and felt like lead weights, she didn’t know how much longer she could hold on.
‘Jesus! Hang on, I’ll be right there.’
Elodie craned her neck to see a fisherman fling his rod to the ground and bolt toward the tree. He grabbed the rope and hacked at it with his fishing knife. As the tension broke, Elodie’s legs almost buckled. The man jumped into the river and helped drag Matty to the edge. Elodie pushed Matty’s head to one side, straddled him and alternated between beating down on his chest and giving mouth to mouth.
‘Is he dead?’ the fisherman asked.
‘Call an ambulance!’ Elodie shouted.
‘An ambulance! Get an ambulance!’
‘Right,’ the fisherman took off back toward the village.
‘Hurry!’ Elodie shouted after him. She thumped hard on Matty’s chest as bruises began to appear. Then, with an unearthly wretch, Matty coughed up the brown liquid onto the grass and gasped in lung-fulls of air. He wretched, then gasped, repeatedly, eyes bulging red as though they were about to pop, until finally, he controlled his breathing and began to sob.
Elodie stroked his sopping hair and held him tight to her chest as her own tears dripped onto his head.
A few metres away, she could see Kate dragging a reluctant Cesaré along behind her.
‘What’s all the fuss about?’ he asked calmly.
‘Matty almost drowned!’
‘Calm down, he looks alright to me,’ he said.
‘No thanks to you! You were supposed to be looking after them.’
‘So he’s got a bit wet, what’s the problem?’
‘A bit wet! If it wasn’t for that fisherman he’d be dead.’
‘Suppose I’d better go and thank him then,’ he said sarcastically.
Kate let go of her father’s hand and flung her arms around Elodie and Matty and began to cry. ‘Are you alright, Matty?’ she sobbed.
Matty nodded to his sister then looked up at Elodie. ‘I got stuck,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t get my foot out.’
‘I know, sweetheart,’ she said wiping his blonde fringe to one side.
Matty reached up and peeled a slither of reed that was stuck to Elodie’s cheek.
‘Thank you, Matty,’ she smiled.
‘I think a fish tried to bite my nose,’ he said.
‘Then we’ll have to teach you how to swim like a fish,’ she said.
‘Will you teach me as well!’ Kate pleaded.
‘Of course I will, darling. We can go to Aunt Nelly’s farm. She has a swimming pool that we can play in. How does that sound?’
The two children nodded enthusiastically.
Cesaré looked on silently, with hands thrust deep in his pockets, shuffling uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
‘Come on, we should take you to the hospital to get you checked out,’ Elodie said, standing up.
‘Do you really think that’s necessary?’ Cesaré asked. ‘We’ll be there all night.’
Elodie glared at Cesaré. ‘Yes. I really think it’s necessary.’
Elodie swept Matty up over her shoulder and grabbed Kate’s hand in hers as they walked slowly toward the rising Doppler of a siren.