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  • Published: 1 March 2022
  • ISBN: 9780143776895
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 240
  • RRP: $36.00

The Fish

Extract

ONE

The slow gulps of my sister’s Fish turn our thoughts back to the sea. We feel its draw…because that is what it is to imagine the Fish in the world, stranded on this long puzzling sandbar we call home. We look harder at his gills,at the broadening mouth, at the hard rise of his eyes. Andwe wonder. We have not stopped wondering. It comes down on us like a sack of drowned kittens. Who the hell is he? Where did he spring from? In his class photo the Fish has been placed at the end of the row. There is a gap between him and the girl in the white school blouse standing next to him. There are no other gaps in any of the other rows. We know because we have looked, in that way of the aggrieved out to prove a point. The rest of the class is shoulder to shoulder. Three rows of pegs. Except for the girl next to our Fish. She rears away from him, away from his fish breath. We find a place to hide the class photo. We worry that the Fish will see in the photo what has not been apparent to him in his short life so far. He is different. A fact that would perhaps astound him. My sister has given birth to difference. Worse, she has placed difference in our ranks. What the Fish ought to feel transfers itself on to us.The girl in the photo rearing away from our Fish makes me want to lean into her and bare my teeth.

Over the course of his adolescence, the Fish will grow taller. However, his hair, thin and lank at the best of times, will continue to look like an unsuccessful hair transplant. His brow will be overly represented and creased. His gills vulgarly present. His mouth constantly gulps inside rubbery lips. At the fish shop we place him in the window display,then we look away ashamed of ourselves at what we have thought.

A fish out of water?

We see our Fish in the new migrants. The hesitation and bewilderment they try to conceal, in the supermarket aisles pushing their shopping trolleys faster than they feel comfortable with, afraid their ignorance will give them away.The stony expressions with which they view our sports.The foreign way they learn to drive, as though the road and their controls inside the car and their eyes bear no relationship to one another. Braking suddenly with white-eyed fear.

What will become of our Fish? It is a worry that won’t go away. How will he find his place in our world?

The Fish casually announces one evening he would like to become a train driver. At this astounding news we all put down our cutlery to look at him. The stone drops, the pigeons scatter. The Fish goes on eating.

As it happens my mother remembers a train driver who was also a songwriter. ‘He was even quite famous.’

She looks to Dad. ‘You remember, don’t you?’

‘No. I don’t.’

‘He was on the TV.’

Dad shakes his head. His mouth is full.

‘Yes, you do. At night he drove his train and wrote the most beautiful songs.’

Our Fish, of course, isn’t interested in writing songs.There is homework to finish. The Fish gets up from the table and drops his plate and cutlery in the sink. Lazy Fish! He is called back to rinse them.

Then as soon as the door closes, Dad looks up over his knife and fork.

‘Train driver. I don’t think so.’

Mum takes a more encouraging view. A train driver is just the idea he has of himself at this point in time. It will change.

Personally, I don’t believe our Fish gives a toss about becoming a train driver. It is a cloud like the ones squid squirt to conceal themselves. A plain and banal idea to put out there while he slips away leaving us to assemble the meaning of what he is.

***

He had no friends—it has only just occurred to me now, years later, when his solitariness is more obvious. I recall there was some talk about getting the Fish a dog.

None of the other kids invited him over to their house to play. There were no birthday party invitations. He never went out during his years at high school. We didn’t question it at the time.

Now I wonder if we were overprotective, ever blind in our eagerness to throw our arms around him, to screen him and ourselves from insult and hurt.

At primary school, Mum must sit with the Fish in class and count the blocks with him. His spelling is appalling. We are always pulling him up there. We are a family that prides itself on correct spelling: however sloppy we might be in the other areas of our lives, our family cannot tolerate a misspelt word. Still, some aptitude for art is shown. The Fish seems to know something about colour. The other children draw and paint wonky houses on hills. That kind of representation is of no interest to the Fish. To look at one of his paintings is to find yourself overwhelmed by feeling. Yet no one, the Fish least of all, could say what they were of. It was like diving into water. A feeling of fluid moving over you.

Whenever Mum is sick or unavailable, I am pulled from class to help the Fish. An extra chair is found for me to sit at his shoulder and help him decode our world.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

Then, what?

The class is asked to tell the rest of the story—the story as it was read to them just a minute ago.

Everyone turns into snails, crouched over their writing pads. Some whisper aloud the words they scratch on the paper. One or two rest their heads on an arm laid across the desk and scribble their childish doodles. One side of the classroom is burning up in the morning sunshine. Miss Head emerges through a cloud of chalkdust. She glances down at the desks either side, then stops at the Fish’s and as she places her hands palm down on his desk, a redness rushes into her fingers.

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘What is that?’

The Fish has written the word ‘passionfruit’.

Passionfruit is not in the story. Jack and Jill are fetching a pail of water. Then, Jack falls down. I’ve been through this with the Fish several times already. I’m waiting for Miss Head to share my exasperation.

‘Do you like passionfruit?’ she asks.

The Fish nods.

‘Do you have a passionfruit vine at home?’

Again, the Fish nods.

‘Well, perhaps that is how it found its way into Jack and Jill’s story.’

Later, I wonder if the Fish meant fruit of passion? He often gets words back to front.

The passionfruit vine climbs the side of our house in the backyard. We have to keep cutting it back to prevent it growing over the bricks that I like to hit a tennis ball against. The passionfruit was planted by my sister. Not the Fish’s mother, but Carla, the older, more glamorous one. She was the one to introduce me to the word ‘correspondence’. From Medieval Latin. Correspondentia ‘close similarity, connection, or equivalence’. At first I practised spelling correspondent. Then I discovered there is the world we wake to each day and there is the one we choose to describe. In time, after years of this activity, I will see how I was reborn by my own writerly efforts, by this act of correspondence.

Perhaps this was also understood by the Fish when he wrote the word ‘passionfruit’, in effect, writing himself into the world and over the top of another story.

The fruit of a passion. 

The passionfruit was a gift to Carla from an adoring boyfriend, of whom there were many but none that she especially favoured.

This Sunday morning, she has got up too early after getting home late. Out on the back porch there is far too much sunlight. She tries to brush it away from her eyes asif it is a bothersome fly. Then she sits down on the top step, draws up her knees and hugs them. She looks thoughtful or tired, or maybe she’s thinking about breakfast.

‘I don’t think I love him,’ she says.

‘Then you don’t need to,’ I say back. I have no idea who I refer to. Those words just blew out of me.

Her cheekbones begin to rise—her beautiful cheekbones, a gift from a fabled grandmother long dead. Carla, the older, glamorous one, is actually giving full consideration to what I just said—and I have no idea, no idea about anything. There is nothing more I wish to achieve in the world than hit the ball in such a way that it will return to me. So, I am quietly amazed when my older sister begins to nod thoughtfully.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I think you might be right.’

She smiles into the morning. Her eyes lock on the shaggy ball that has been in and out of the dog’s mouth.

‘How many times can you hit that thing in a row?’

‘Fifty.’

‘Show me.’

I start and she begins to count—

‘Ten. Twenty. Twenty-five. Thirty. Oh well. That is still pretty good. Especially for a kid your age.’

Two weeks later, the screen door opens—on fifty I catch the slimy ball and look up at Carla. She is in a smart dress, her going-out shoes. A suitcase is parked behind her legs.

From the other side of the house there is a beep from the car.

‘That’s Dad,’ she says. ‘He’s driving me.’

‘Driving you where?’

‘The airport.’

She looks surprised that I didn’t know.

‘I’m going to Sydney. I’ll be gone for a wee while.’

She gives me a moment to reply and when I don’t, she says she has something for me.

‘But first, I bet you can’t hit a hundred in a row.’

‘I can.’

‘Show me.’

‘Ten,’ she calls.

There is another beep from the car. But she ignores it and counts—‘Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Fifty.’

After she stops calling the numbers, I keep a count in my head—sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred. I catch the ball and turn to look up at the door, but she has gone. Inside the door, though, wrapped in cellophane, is a chocolate fish.

I save it for later, after I have delivered the sack of pine cones next door.


The Fish Lloyd Jones

Another powerful, innovative and unique novel from the extraordinary author of the Man-Booker shortlisted Mr Pip.

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