“If you ran your veins end to end, they’d wrap around the world twice,” Mr. Rogers declared with relish, while girls planted chewing gum in Beth’s hair.
Her stomach burned. Acid waves had been rolling inside her and the visions amplified. The latest, a woman wading into the sea.
Fish, plankton, sea-wasps and anemones rippled underneath as the ice cold crawled up her neck. The woman felt for the scar on her temple. The Palace Pier lights flung suggestive trails into the water like nets. Arms and legs of impossible creatures; children never born.
“A word about your trousers please Beth,” Mrs Philpot whispered, plucking her from assembly for the second time this week.
The BHS label said Navy. But they were the wrong shade of navy apparently. Mrs Philpot pursed her lips and sent Beth away. She was to scrub her mascara off too, with the itchy pink handsoap that oozed over taps.
Senior school had been a series of revelations. There were shades within shades. Boys—like Frank McKay—who took you into the cleaning cupboard while the others held the door. Girls who laughed in a way that made you brace yourself at the beginning of corridors. What made her think she could trust a BHS label?
Shoving her head in the freezer didn’t work. The rubbery gum only clung harder. She rested her cheek there anyway until it went numb.
Other visions washed up from other lives. Phantoms of untrodden paths. Fish. Plankton. Sea-wasps. Anemones.
She cut the chewing gum out in the end.
A single orange goldfish flapped on the windowsill—almost hopeful.
Weaverfish with poisonous spines swam in her peripheral vision, burrowing their heads through cracks. Dark grey bodies of mackerel leapt from cupboards. Sand eels flicked their silver tails in the bathroom cabinet where her mother kept her pills. She wanted it to stop. She flushed the goldfish down the toilet.
Seawater rose from her stomach and salt caked her lips. Beth unscrewed the mouthwash with shaky hands.
Whitebait. Starfish. Whole shoals of young sprats beached themselves in her bathroom. Surely they’d be better off dead than gasping.
A trail of foamy water ran out the door.
The wading woman, Mrs Philpot and Frank McKay evaporated. Instead of salt she tasted diazepam and Listerine.
“Mum,” she shouted after she heard the door click. “I’ve—”
Slamming her head on the tiles, she spotted the goldfish. It’d swum up from the toilet bowl and now glared at her from the rim.
Beep. Her eyes clenched against fluorescent lights. Beep. Veins in her arms were corridors for plastic tubes.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” her mother sobbed.
Over the scent of stainless steel, latex gloves and antiseptic, she smelt her mum’s hand-cream.
Other peoples’ thoughts flooded through her:
This is where I had my daughter.
But she was fourteen and didn’t have a daughter. She scratched the stitches on the side of her head and winced. Beep.
Later, nurses insisted on brushing her teeth. Entrails of seaweed reached down her throat as her mouth filled with foam.
They took her temperature, checked her pulse, wrapped a blue sleeve around her arm and pumped it tighter than Frank McKay’s enclosing hands.
Strange things played on a nearby radio. Old men debated quantum physics and multiple universes. She wondered what the other versions of her were doing right now. She wondered who her daughter was.
“Mummy, can I count on you?”
“Yes of course you can.”
“Okay. One, two, three, four…”
“Oh I thought you meant—”
“Five, six, seven, eight, nine…”
“I can’t do it anymore.”
“Yes you can, just push. You’re nearly there.”
She’d read about this moment. The resolve to give up meant that last wave was coming. This was the wave that would break the world open.
The pain split her in two. Maybe more.
She thought of starfish. When cut in half, both parts regrew distinct. But which was the true one? The original? Did it matter?
Her daughter Anna-Rose shored up, gasping. Strange things played on the radio. A woman with a voice like butterscotch spoke about quantum physics, the multiverse. “Beth, can you hear me?” she said. Beth passed out.
A sardine, a son, a daughter, counted on her. Bream: all slimy scales under silvery light. Pearly like a vernix covered baby. Still alive and flapping on the bathroom floor.
“Remember, the self you become is just a culmination of choices,” she said.
Who said that? Anna-Rose? The woman on the radio? The school nurse?
“You choose which path you tread.”
The fishes milky eye: dead, alive, peered over her shoulder.
She bought her son, daughter, a goldfish in a bag. She worried that the bag would puncture. The water would pour out and never stop pouring. He was, she was, a teenager, a toddler. The thing in the bag was a fish, a pregnancy test.
Beth caressed the scar on her temple.
A new life—chlorophyll-green—rose under bathroom lights, hospital lights, pier lights. Light-trails. Ghosts of other selves.
“It’s a boy!” they cheered, raising the little wet beetroot.
It’s mine? It’s really mine? she thought, fading under fluorescent lights. She whispered, “Thank you” through salt-caked lips before passing out. They brushed her teeth.
A door clicked open.
“Mum,” she shouted from the bathroom floor, “I’ve done something stupid.”
The test teetered on the toilet seat, its blue line like a vein wrapping around the world twice. Her mum found the toppled pill pot, called the ambulance and cradled Beth’s head. Everything smelt of Listerine.
“Count with me baby. You have to stay awake. Ready?”
She wasn’t ready.
The blue line unspooled until it filled her bathroom. She’d sunk so deep she couldn’t feel her legs.
“One, two, three, four, five…”
On the windowsill a single orange goldfish thrashed with all its might.
© Amy O’Neil
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Amy’s interview]