It arrived the winter I turned seven, big and blue and strange like a spaceship, or a whale. I wasn’t allowed to climb in it, this big swimming pool that had suddenly taken up residence in our bathroom. Like my mum’s swollen belly, this was unknown territory, repulsive and fascinating. Sometimes, when everyone was sleeping, the house quiet, I would scramble into the empty pool. From the middle of its blue insides everything looked different; the bathroom transformed into a series of strange dark shapes. I would imagine it was my Mum’s belly and I was back inside it with the baby. I could see us as little fish, splashing around together. Once, my dad caught me sleeping in the pool. Sighing, he carried me back to bed, tucking me into the cool sheets.
‘Not long to wait now Ella,’ he whispered, the door closing softly behind him.
In the last weeks of my mother’s pregnancy she could hardly move and her stomach seemed to fill the entire room. She would take my hand, guiding it gently across her stomach until I could feel kicking against my palm.
‘The baby’s trying to get out,’ she would say. I clung to her then, drinking in her scent of rosemary and greedily kissing her full on the lips.
We climbed to the top of Kite Hill, the day before the baby arrived. The wind whipped around us as if celebrating the sight of London stretched out far below us.
‘I’ve had a thought,’ said my dad, his voice carried high into the air by the wind.
‘Isn’t it strange that the baby has literally no idea it’s at the top of Kite Hill?’ My mum laughed.
‘Very profound, John.’ My dad swung me down from the great height of his shoulders.
’What’s profound?’ I asked.
‘I’m being serious though.’ My dad ignored me, like he always did when he was excited by something. ‘Isn’t it crazy that it has no idea that there is an entire world outside your stomach?
Imagine, like seriously imagine, what it would be like, to see the world again through completely fresh eyes.’ I thought about it. It seemed so strange that it didn’t know about simple things, like
London and chocolate cake and how the leaves change to a deep orange in Autumn. My mum smiled as she took my hand in hers and we started the long walk back down the hill.
That night I dreamt that I opened my mother’s belly with a key and an ocean flooded out of it, a great wave sweeping me away. I felt myself drowning, the water seeping into my eyes and lungs, dragging me further and further downwards. I awoke suddenly. The short rasps of my breath echoed loudly in the quiet of my room. Clouded in sleep, I slipped out of bed. In the darkness the corridor seemed to stretch on infinitely. A light was shining through a crack in the bathroom door. I paused. A scream pierced through the night. I flung open the door. The light was shocking. My mum was in the pool, naked, her legs spread wide apart. Faceless doctors surrounded her and her eyes were black and wild. An arm grabbed me from behind, pulling me backwards so I was shrouded in the shadows of the corridor once again. My dad’s face loomed out at me from the darkness.
‘Go back to bed, Ella. The baby’s coming.’ He picked me up, carrying me back to bed,
‘Everything’s fine.’ It took me a long time to get back to sleep.
The next morning I awoke with a start, hurtling down the stairs to find my grandfather sat alone at the kitchen table.
‘Where’s mum?’ He looked at me. ‘And the baby?’ He stood up, pulling me into a crushing embrace.
‘Do you not have a hello for your Sabba?’ He was a huge man, his body once strong and tall had sagged over the years, as if in disappointment that he had grown old. Despite living in England for more than half his life, he still had a stubborn Israeli accent.
‘Where’s Mum?’ I asked again. He smiled, but there was something guarded in his expression.
‘Don’t worry Ella, Sabba is here. Your mother, she is in hospital with the baby and your father.’
‘But Dad said they’d be here.’ I felt hot tears starting to gather behind my eyes. ‘I want my mum.’ Sabba frowned.
‘Today you are having a special day with Sabba. Are you not happy for this?’ I felt a single tear drip pathetically down my face.
‘But I want to see my mum.’ He reached out a large finger, firmly brushing the tear away. ‘Why are you crying? You will come and stay the night at my house tonight, yes? For a special treat I will make you hot chocolate. Come now, go and get your toothbrush and we will go.’ I opened my mouth to protest but he shook his head. ‘I will ask you only once.’ I did as I was told.
Sabba’s house smelt like damp, and with only one small window, time seemed to drag on indefinitely with no separation between day and night. The television was always on, casting a clinical blue light over the small living room. Sabba seemed distracted, leaving me staring at the screen until it was time for bed, and then long past that, the animated, too-bright faces slowly blurring into one. I couldn’t understand why they’d left me. Maybe it was a punishment. I thought about all the bad things I’d ever done and felt a knot of pain in my stomach. Sabba had bought me a box of chocolates and I ate them ravenously one after the other until I felt so sick I couldn’t concentrate on anything and the knot went away.
‘Time for bed.’ Sabba switched off the TV. ‘Did you eat all the chocolates you naughty girl?’ I nodded. ‘You will get fat if you’re not careful. Now upstairs to bed. I love you very much. Your Daddy is coming to pick you up in the morning.’
The sheets on Sabba’s bed smelt sickly sweet, like honey left out in the sun. An african mask hung on the wall. I drifted in and out of sleep. I could feel something watching me. The mask. It opened it’s mouth slowly, it’s face morphing into a strange, twisted grimace. It had my mother’s eyes. Black and pained, they looked straight at me, pleading for help. I squeezed my eyes shut, diving deep under the duvet until I was submerged in the safety of blackness. Slowly, something emerged from the depths of the watery darkness, pushing forcefully at the back of my brain. I let it in, allowing it to grow until I could feel nothing else. I hate the baby.
The next morning, My Dad’s familiar smell of smoke sent relief coursing through my body. He hugged me tightly.
‘I’m sorry Els,’ he said.
‘You said you’d be there’ – I could feel hot anger pushing to get out – ‘and you left me! You
just left me on my own. Where’s mum? I want to see Mum!’ My dad looked at me.
‘Els,’ his voice sounded strange. ‘Something has happened with the baby. Something that we weren’t expecting.’ He picked at a bit of loose skin on his nail. ‘She’s different from other babies.’ He paused for a second and a silence seemed to stretch out before us. He cleared his throat. ‘She has Down syndrome.’ Down syndrome. It sounded strange. ‘It means she won’t learn things as quickly as other children.’ He paused again, ‘and it means she looks a bit different as well.’ I imagined a monster. ‘I know this is a lot to take in,’ said my dad, ‘but it’s going to be ok. She’s still a little baby and you have a sister, like you wanted.’ His smile didn’t seem to reach his eyes.
‘I just want to see Mum.’ Dad nodded.
‘Let’s go home.’
The baby’s name was Nelly. I looked at her small body wrapped in layers of thick blankets and could think only of a package sent to the wrong address. I imagined another baby that looked just like me, abandoned alone in the hospital. I’d watched a nature program with my dad once about cuckoos. Climbing into other bird’s nests and killing their babies, they tricked the mum and dad birds into feeding them until they grew into ugly, great birds.
‘Cuckoo!’ I hissed at Nelly. She smirked, her mouth mean and puckered.
Routine became the only way to loosen the knot that had stubbornly tied itself to the depths of my belly. On the way to school I counted every lamppost I passed. At lunchtime I would go to the library, the shouts of the playground echoing faintly in the distance as I tried to read exactly three chapters before the bell. Failure was punished with a sharp tightening of the knot. Every night, I would creep downstairs to the kitchen and gorge myself on whatever food I could find. Sometimes nausea would make me stop, and I would go and sneak a look in Nelly’s room. The sight of her face would only tighten the ever-present knot, forcing me to eat even more.
My body started to change, my belly expanding into rolls of fat that stretched over my jeans. Once, I overheard some girls discussing my swollen body in the toilets. I hid inside the cubicle, my face burning with shame. As I became physically bigger, I seemed only to grow more invisible.
One night, while standing on a chair to reach for a biscuit tin, high on the top shelf, I lost my balance. The whole shelf toppled down on me in an almighty crash. I lay where I fell, food littered around me like fallen leaves. I heard lights frantically being switched on and the panicked run of my
Mum’s footsteps down the stairs.
‘Ella?’ she screamed, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I felt the knot inside me explode, rushing out through my mouth in a strangled sob. Tears streamed down my face until my body shook uncontrollably. My mum took me in her arms, her body warm and familiar against mine.
‘It’s my fault, mum’ I sobbed.
‘Shhh, darling, what’s your fault?’
‘The Down syndrome. Nelly has it because I was bad and I’ve been trying to make it better but I can’t.’ My mum looked at me fiercely.
‘Never think that Els. It’s not your fault. Nelly has Down-syndrome because things like that just happen. All we can do is accept, and love her.’ I felt lighter. ‘I know that I haven’t been the best Mum to you since Nelly was born, but you have to know that I love you.’ She took my face in her hands and looked deep into my eyes. ‘But I love Nelly too, and she needs me.’ I nodded. ‘She needs you too Els, she needs her sister.’ I felt a fresh wave of sobs threaten to overtake me. ‘But tomorrow, how about me and you go for a walk, just us. Would you like that?’ I nodded. It wasn’t my fault.
‘Can we go to Kite Hill?’ My mum smiled.
‘Of course darling. Now let’s go back to sleep. And promise me, no more late night eating.’
She kissed me on the forehead, taking my hand as we went back to bed, leaving the mess of the kitchen behind us.
As I lay in bed, I still couldn’t sleep, and I found myself, again, standing in Nelly’s room. I looked down into her cot. To my surprise, she was staring straight back at me, awake and alert. I noticed, for the first time, that her eyes were a deep ocean blue. Her face spread into a smile, like a wave quietly breaking over a pebbled shore.
‘Hello Nelly,’ I whispered.
‘Little Fish’ was published in 2016 as part of the UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology, Undertow.