“It’s all going to pieces,” he moans.
“The door was open. I’m selling fish,” I say. “It’s frozen. I have it in the van. Do you like fish? Cod loins? Crab canapés? Greenland halibut? All excellent value. Keeps for months. Do you have a freezer?”
He looks startled, shudders as if he’s suddenly frosted up.
Staring from outside his front door, along the corridor of his hallway to where he stands, flabby, with no top on, long grey hair straggling down his shoulders amid a writhing tangle of clear tubing that undoubtedly hooks up to his body, it seems as if it is all going to pieces in a far more dramatic way for him than it is for me.
“I can sign you up now for a monthly delivery. You won’t get better quality. Look at the size of these fillets.” I produce one of the larger smoked haddock samples from my pack, and hold it out.
“Terry.” He shouts. “The name’s Terry.” He doesn’t move from his spot at the end of the corridor, probably in the kitchen, in a glow of light. I wonder if he needs help but at the same moment it occurs to me that I might have disturbed him while he is in the middle of some kind of drug experiment. I turn to go.
“No, no, no. Come on in,” he says.
I sigh and carry my box of samples along the corridor, knowing I am not about to make a sale, when behind him, out the kitchen window, I see something move.
“My God! Look at that!” A glossy brown rat is nibbling seeds on the bird table.
How many hours do I spend in this van? How many times do I fill up with fuel? How many people want fish? How many people don’t want fish? How many people have never eaten fish?
When deliveries are over I knock door to door. That way I might find answers but I doubt that answers are to be found. Not many people want answers. Fewer want to be asked questions. Even fewer want fish.
I leave my business card with Terry so I am only a little surprised when he texts, asking about monthly deliveries.
The fish I sell are wild fish from the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans where the sea is below four degrees centigrade, and the fish grow old. Wildness – I often think about wildness because my cargo is wild. I don’t know that it loses its wildness by being dead and frozen. If I were dead and frozen I would still be wild. I am wild because I roam freely in my van. If I were dead, I would cease to roam freely, on land at least, but my fish are wild; they’re the freest of all creatures. Of all the fish, I would like to be a Greenland halibut.
My shed is lit by a single bulb. I lean into the chest freezer and take out a large bag of cod loins and place it in the bottom of the polystyrene box, followed by three small bags of tilapia and two standard bags of Greenland halibut. I close the freezer lid. As an afterthought, I open it again and add a bag of snow crab cocktail claws to the box.
I carry it all to the van where Terry is waiting in the passenger seat, his tubes in a pile in the foot well. I put the box in the back and get in the driver’s seat.
“For you.” I hand him the bag of crab claws. “You’ll love them.”
“I’m not so sure an airgun will do it,” Terry says peering out of his kitchen window.
“A .22 and a decent shot to the side of the head, or the heart or lungs. You could sit here and watch him with the gun pointing out the window and…Pow!” I mime the killing shot.
The rat appears to smile as it munches on the birdseed.
I can’t believe the height of the mountains around here. Bleak and black against a grey sky with charcoal cloud. The van judders as I change into first gear and whines round a bend into a village. It’s no more than a few stone cottages without fences or walls. No trees. Just stone and rocks and boulders. I stop by a sign ‘Salty’s Seafood Restaurant’.
The orchestra is playing ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ at a reckless speed. We have a front row view. Terry, whose tubes have been crammed into an old holdall, is attempting to tap his foot along to the beat on the footrest of his wheelchair, and is contributing an offbeat rattle. I too tap my foot but it’s pointless because the orchestra gathers speed. The flute sounds more like a gnat. But the smile on Terry’s face belies the chaos. He offers me the bag of crab claws. I take one. He crams three into his mouth. We suck the meat and when we’ve finished, throw the bones into the holdall with the tubes.
Sadness has seeped into the yellow walls of my house. I used a picture from an online catalogue to choose the furnishings and colour scheme—blue cushions, straw lampshades. I have gone to a lot of trouble to make the place cheery but it hasn’t worked so I keep the blinds down during the day and I never turn on the lights at night. Never. I use a torch to get around if I get confused. I think my confusion is completed by the bright colours. I have one print that I like. It is of a Greenland halibut, a right-eyed flounder. Its eye is centrally positioned. On its left side, it is blind. I sometimes shine my torch at my halibut print, at its single eye. A halibut’s eye is on stalks. It is born with two eyes but as it grows the left eye migrates across its head to the other side. The eye of the halibut in my print shimmers like the wings of a blue butterfly in sunshine. Confusion, in itself, is not an unhappy state. If anything, confusion is a tangle of brightly coloured electrical wires. The solution is to untangle the wires, to untangle every single wire. I’m glad I’m out of here during the daytime.
Salty’s is not one of my regular stop-offs. I don’t cover the mountains as a rule. But it’s a special request, and the mountain driver is off sick. I unload the tubs of lumpfish roe from the back of the van, and take them to the door. I push, but it’s locked. I hammer on the glass pane, cup my hands and peer inside. It’s hard to see because it’s dark but the place looks deserted. Ten tables, each with a plant and a menu. No tableware. A counter. A bar. I head round the back.
The bins are outside the backdoor. They look neat. I lift a lid. It’s empty. I hammer on the door. It opens almost immediately.
“I have your lumpfish roe,” I say.
“We won’t be needing it. I told the other guy, the one who usually brings it.” A small woman with a missing tooth and black hair cut into a sharp-edged bob and fringe, holds open the door. She stares over my shoulder.
I turn to see what she’s looking at. How I missed it before, I do not know. Behind me the view of the mountains seems to stretch to infinity – cap upon black cap of crags and rocks, and a few steps away from where I’m standing is a drop down into a gorge so deep the bottom is pure darkness. At the sight of that drop, I stagger, clutching at the bin. It rolls a little. The small woman jumps in front of me and catches the bin before it continues to run down the path to god knows where.
“Come in anyway.” She steps back into the restaurant. I follow her through the door.
I’m relieved she invited me in because the thought of driving straight down that mountain is terrifying.
Who cares if it lives or dies? Really. It’s only a rat. That’s what Terry said. He said that.
But it’s a rat. A rat. You can’t have rats creeping around the place. Rats spread disease.
It looks like a fine healthy rat to me. That’s what Terry said. I don’t want my rat killed.
I laid the airgun on his kitchen table. If that’s how you feel, Terry, I’m sorry I brought it up.
It likes the birdseed. It’s only a rat.
Yes, I’m sorry.
I know you are. It’s a happy rat.
That it is. It’s a happy rat. I’ll leave the gun here anyway, I said.
The rat appeared to smile as it nibbled the birdseed.
The kitchen counter in Salty’s is covered in knives. Dora, she introduced herself as Dora (the small woman with the black hair and fringe that looks like it was cut clean by a knife), prises off the lid of one of the tubs of lumpfish roe.
“Lunch?” she asks.
“If you’re offering?”
“Hah.” She flicks a knife across a loaf of brown bread with the skill of a circus knife-thrower. She’s a frightening woman.
We eat the lumpfish roe on unbuttered toast. It’s the best way. Each bud of orange gleams, all wet and promising. I watch Dora’s face as the little pearls pop. As they burst and the salty sweet flavour runs across her tongue, her eyes widen.
The rat curls up on my blue cushion like it has found the sky. It is an intelligent creature and uses a litter tray and leaves the fish bones clean of even the smallest trace of meat.
Someone has brought a Hardanger fiddle. Salty’s is awash with the sound of music, chatter and laughter. Every place at every table is filled. The fiddler sits back in a battered armchair plucking and bowing simultaneously to the beat of a young drummer, their music as bright as ice. I don’t know how Dora does it.
What would you say to a trip down the river? I asked Terry after the concert.
I don’t know. I don’t feel so good. He replied.
Terry’s face glows as he listens to the fiddler and he seems unaware that his tubes are tangling up the drum kit. He is submerged in sound and friendliness. Dora’s chef has dished up plates of cold-water prawns with pineapple and artichoke; snow crab with avocado; and Greenland halibut with curls of sweet potato dusted with roasted seaweed. Dora sits by me. For the first time, I gather my strength and run my fingers across her knuckles as if they were the ribs of a salmon. She smiles. Soon she will get out her knives.
In the darkness, the darkness outside, the mountains are blind and hum their treachery. Terry unfastens his tubes and walks out the door.
About the Contributor
Amanda Oosthuizen’s novels, short story collection, poetry collection and flash fiction collection are awaiting posthumous self-publication, which is entirely her own fault. Meanwhile, recent work is at Cosmonauts Avenue, The Pre-Raphaelite Society Review, Ellipsis, Riggwelter, Under the Radar and Storgy, and forthcoming in Humanagerie and Ambit. www.amandaoosthuizen.com @
H(a)ppy - Nicola Barker
H(a)ppy is set in a perfect world where everything and everyone is safe, where art is perfection, and where emotion and narrative are forbidden in order for everyone to stay calm. But Mira A can’t help feeling emotion, and she desperately needs to tell a story. I have chosen the book because I’ve found that safety, comfort and the avoidance of emotion can easily become a habit and even a raison d’être, and this book shows a world that has lost risk and emotion, where everyone’s aim is to live life in a state of perfect blandness. It’s a brilliant book.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals