Mai saw water and the water saw everyone. It was earth’s eyes around the world which observed life and death and everything tightly packed in between. It was old-grown with foxtail grass and yellowing bulrush, springing up in sifting and burbling circles. But still it lived and breathed despite whatever catastrophe was crawling inside people’s heads or outside in the physical world painted between eyes and mind, not mind and eyes. 

The water wrapped and enticed people together with their friends and family in the summer and emptied them back away to their homes or roofless bedrooms during the winter. For some, it was a place they would clutch onto throughout the year like a dying child, where people would observe it dry up and wilt or crackle into fractured shapes of ice that nestled into each other so perfectly. The water didn’t mind this of course, but for others it was something that became a part of their routine. A desperate need like human validation or endearment, authentic or contrived.

Mai sat thinking about this on the first floor balcony that connected to the kitchen. A shred of blazing yellow slipped past the open windows and two mildewed curtains framed around the matching white metal chairs and the grey and orange piled ashtray on the table. There was something familiar and comforting about the smell and sight of tobacco that made her want to eat every speck of it on that tray as well as smoke it herself. A temptress that intensified the desire to breathe it in and devour it entirely like a sweetly roasted feast. Or maybe even preserve it in a bottle or a jar and blur it away into a distant corner where no one she knew could find it. The lingering odour: silent evenings and early mornings when her mum used to cook breakfast. Her hand was already reaching out towards the honeyed, leftover tobacco her parents had been smoking yesterday night after another festival of feuding. It was a calamity of different feelings merged into two humans who she never knew whether were on good or bad terms, but this everlasting guessing game was a well known and familiar enemy to Mai, so it didn’t matter. Not entirely.

A bash from the front door shrunk the house to a hum. Mai snatched her hand away from the table and stood up to shuffle towards the kitchen sink. It sees everyone, she thought. Looking out at the river once again, she grasped and pulled the curtains closed. Nature was skilled at illuminating the gloom and moments of weakness in human life, in observing the snapshots of smiling eyes and lips. A complex vessel that attracts and watches vulnerability whether you want it to or not. Mai longed for this side of her life to be scratched out, camouflaged, the heaviness hidden where it might wither out of the light.

She jumped back in front of the sink.

“Pass me a fag,” her dad bellowed from the hallway. “Your mum’s pissing me off.”

She turned on the electric fan and reached for the cigarettes nested in the bottom right hand cupboard. Mai knew what was coming from the tone of his voice and so did everyone else in the flat. The anticipation of an argument made her chest dense like the air, but gave her a head start for what was to come. This became a daily repetition; ingrained within her mornings, drummed into her muscles. Wake up. Get dressed. Make breakfast. Eat breakfast. Parents home from night shift. Give them cigarettes. Listen to them bicker. Grab bag and, finally, leave for school. It was a loop. Internally, time and a sense of being had frozen but externally her body moved and people moved and the living world carried on as it ever did. Mai wished she could move like those people internally, dance like the way the sun meets the water.

Two orange cigarettes poked out from in between her fingers like carrots in the soil. One gone, her dad snatched it with a paralysed glare towards the balcony. Two gone, her mum snatched with a pitiful half smile towards her daughter. None left. Vacant hands and vacant people. They opened the curtains and sat down on the balcony chairs. Mai stood there paused, arms flopped by her side as if waiting for a train to arrive that was never destined to reach her. She watched from afar as the smoke swirled in ringlets above their heads. Completely immobile. A pierced word on the edge of a tongue. The train never arrived.

Her mum let out a long exhale. “What’s the matter with you?”

He waved his hand in the air like he was trying to get rid of a fly.

“No, come on, we need to talk.”

“For fuck’s sake Isabelle, stop being a pain.”

“Look, you can’t just avoid a conversation.”

His eyes flicked back and forth between Isabelle and the river. Mai didn’t want to hear another argument about this. The money, the food, the money. It made her want to curl up into a ball and become a child again. Just think about the memories and breathing and memories.

His knuckles started to turn white as his grip on the chair hardened. “The problem is the money, the food, and the fact that you don’t fucking listen to me. You spend all my money like it magically appears out of nowhere because you don’t understand the value of having a job.”

Isabelle stared at him in disbelief, mouth hanging open like a fish on a hook. “The value of having a job? I have one actually and I do understand the value – ”.

“No, no you don’t.” All of a sudden he budged past Mai towards the fridge, opening it and snatching a yoghurt. Mai stood there glaring at the river, wanting to escape the room and never return until their bodies had aged and crumbled to dust. Nevertheless, another side of her wanted to make sure the argument ended. She couldn’t help but feel that responsibility sting her like lemon juice.

“These yoghurts are all old,” he continued. “The fridge has no space. You never think or plan ahead when it comes to money or anything, you just spend.”

“It’s not – ”

“No, no, no, no there’s no excuse for this. You’re so fucking stupid like the rest of your family.”

“Oh here we go again, my family.”

“You never learn. Open your ears! You’re acting like your mum, completely oblivious.”

The sink became Mai’s retreat base that lovingly closed in around her and metamorphosed her parents’ voices to nothing more than a low buzz. It gave her a quiet, fantasy sensation: The soapy foam was spiralling away through the drain and some of it was sliding down the plate she used this morning for breakfast, circling around its base and drizzling down the rim. She analysed it thoroughly like a sculpture. Mai didn’t want to think about the conversation and yet she couldn’t keep swallowing her anger away either.

“Don’t talk to mum like that,” Mai finally spat out.

His eyes pierced through hers. “Stop getting involved.”

“You still can’t talk to her like that.”

“You’re always defending mum. Mum, mum, mum, I love mum,” he mimicked. 

“It’s because you’re talking to her like a piece of shit”. Just think about the memories and breathing and memories. “Where did this come from? I don’t understand why you’re shouting over a yoghurt, please – stop,” her voice fell to a whisper, “stop.” She felt her heart being carved and dropped, her eyes becoming layered and blurred. She wished she hadn’t said anything at all.

A hollow laugh escaped his mouth. “Get a grip, you’re so weak.”

“You’re mad, you’re actually mad!”

“This isn’t just about the yoghurts, it’s about nobody in this place understanding that we are going to lose this flat!”

A sudden pause. Tightness in the room. The heat and shouting made her dad’s eye bags look heavier,  his cheeks sag like dark jelly. His facial features were haunting and made the inside of Mai’s stomach ache. It was as if he had been propelled through a time machine thirty years into the future. What a sad and lonely future it seemed. She didn’t want that for him or for herself. 

He sulked over to the balcony again, slumping on the chair. “Great, now I’m the villain because I have to take control of our fucking issues.”

Mai stopped and turned to face her dad. Every lonely muscle in her face and body began to knot and crawl with outrage. She could sense this tension like the relentless tick of a clock, waiting to finally strike. She wanted it out of her. “It’s nothing about taking control of our issues, it’s about taking responsibility of what comes out of your fucking mouth.”

Isabelle let out a chuckle and covered her mouth instantly, eyes wide and white like two golf balls. She peered at her husband only to see him staring back with another cigarette locked between his teeth and an offended expression smeared across his face. 

Mai scurried. She stuffed her lunch into the bottom of her bag, swung it onto her back and all of a sudden she was peddling on the road to school. No, now by the river and bulrush that were looped with brown caterpillars on their tips. She would have screamed then, if only her mind wasn’t so tangled and cluttered. Instead, she quietly babbled to herself about what she should have said or shouldn’t have said to her dad, whether it would have been better to have left her home earlier rather than stay for longer. Mai’s head was a noisy, disordered battleground. She felt herself shift between being proud to regretful to disappointed to happy in the space of each completed revolution and breath she took. She felt like she could still hear her parents’ voices even though she was more than one hundred metres away. Their words grazed and bruised her, but they weren’t hurting her to the point of weeping, more so they were hurting her to the point of tiredness. It was a strange line to cross: agony to exhaustion. Mai had learnt that this emotion only rotted with time, until it moulded into you and became an instant response to any conflict that charged her way.

The dry grass crinkled under the tires of her bike and she was seeping out sweat at a constant, feeling it settle and layer on her clothes softly like hot sand. But she glided on the path and the June air sweetly brushed and whispered past her as did the water that followed. Mai glanced to her left and saw the foamy white lines blanketing the river and how it splashed and waved the twigs and frog spawn in one smooth motion. She looked ahead and then back to the left again to see a different view, one where all of the long grass had been wiped out and the water had risen. She was closer and closer, not to school, but to where she was going. Mai yearned for it: the water washing up and down against her skin and the feeling of floating in the cold with the sun that played around, through, and below her.

“Mai! Hey Mai! Over here.” Her friend called from an empty patch of grass.

She swung off of her bike and let it plunge onto the ground, sitting to his right with her legs crossed. “Hey, Nick!”

“Parents still arguing?”

“Like they’re ever gonna stop. Sister still a druggie?” she teased.

“That’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

“Just a bit,” she teased again.

A tiny laugh slipped from his mouth. “She only deals coke, it’s not like she’s part of the mafia.”

“I know, I know.”

He reached into his backpack and took out a clear bag with white powder, waving it in front of her face like a donkey with a carrot. “But I managed to get some before she left.”

“She could get into trouble.”

“She won’t.”

A beat. She stuttered and found her words again. “It’s too early for it, maybe after school.”

“Are we even going today? We need to be quick then.”

“Yes, after this. We’ll be a bit late, but so what?”

Nick was lying down now, his hands laced behind his head, the sun wrapping around his pale skin. Mai watched him like he was a painting and saw his expression change from neutral to distressed as he tilted his head quizzically to the side, eyes fixated on the passing clouds that dangled above them.

Mai placed her hand on his arm and noticed his skin burn through hers. He reminded her of what it was like to feel warm again. “We’ll both be fine. Our grades are still really good.”

“Your grades are good.” He shifted up slightly. “You get As and Bs even when you don’t try.”

“You got an A in your last test.”

The corner of his mouth curled into a flickering smile, the one that made her crumble like a petal held to a fire. “Only because you helped me.”

She moved her eyes forward and followed his down to where he was focusing. The saffron grass on the other side of the river hushed side to side with the wind, left to right and right to left in one ripple. It was as if Nick and nature were playing a game of sleeping lions. He wasn’t in his usual nervous state now: no chipping at the corners of his nails, no telling her that they shouldn’t be skipping their first lesson, no moaning about how water pollution is worsening day by day or how the government isn’t funding the fight against climate change enough. Nor did he open his phone to flick through social media or text back his friends. She fell in tune with him because of this, and it seemed that every copse of living, dying, and dead essence around them did too.

Ten minutes later they were two silhouettes in the river, black outlines of stick figures swimming up and down and beyond. The water observed their life and ignored their minds, but nurtured them more than anyone had ever done. Mai’s eyes searched Nick’s and the river glazed so vibrantly, like it was about to swallow her whole and carry her to another paradise. Buried under and resting above the water varnished a sage haze, but she could see the life surrounding her like clean wiped glass. As her eyes adjusted to the brightness, the view became clearer and less daunting. She knew that neither the world nor the water was going to take her away, rather she felt so present despite everything that wasn’t going her way.

Two warm hands that were interchanged together, a touch that didn’t need to be spoken about aloud. Everything burdened below was vanishing to a bright trail they could both follow again. The gentle waves slowly sloshed to a gradual stop. A bird cawed from one tree to another, from one ear to the next. Mai could feel something crawling around her feet.

“I wanna do this all day,” he breathed out. Two silhouettes, black outlines of stick figures close together.

“Me too,” she responded, almost immediately. Two silhouettes, black outlines of stick figures ambling out of the river together.

Earth’s eyes observed this and let it proceed and emerge. A playful push and a shove, the drying of skin with a towel, and the pulling, yanking, stretching and tugging of clothes over their bodies. Inside their tiny window of a world lit a bright, sombre orange that hugged around their faces and melted onto the yellow grass patches that led them back to the road. A hop on a bike and three rings of the bell, they cycled away. 

The water began to move at its usual pace again, crawling down the middle of the stream, tiptoeing near the edges. It overheard their giggles and childlike conversations, until they were so far away that it was nearly impossible to make out a murmur. How simply being with them became a part of the water’s daily routine. If they were to sway it would sway with them and if they were to resist so would its’ soft waves. An ongoing spiral. Down and up, down and up. Nick and Mai essentially became its oxygen, until they couldn’t be anymore. The water hid this thought from its consciousness as a faraway delusion, a fantasy. How could it happen when all three of them needed and loved each other so much? It wouldn’t. It couldn’t. Down and up, up and down, the water lapped and played. 

 

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Amaia Martinez lives in Oxford and is currently enjoying her gap year before heading off to university. This is her first published piece of writing. Amaia enjoys writing through the expression of nature, its movements, and how that intertwines with relationships and emotions. She’s passionate about poetry, story telling, dancing, and many forms of artistic expression, and hopes to publish a novel one day.

 

Fish out of Water was developed with Product Editor Patrick Small as part of our New Writers’ Mentoring Programme. The programme runs every year and is open to applications from the autumn. Follow @scottishproduct for updates. 

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