Fish Flail Out of Water by Denise Bayes

Mabel arranges the slabs of opaque cod caught fresh from the River Wear. Places them in circular patterns on a bed of ice flakes. Her shoulder blades tense, feeling Da’s eyes watching her work waiting for the inevitable criticism.

Too bloody slow, our Mae.

She shelters from him in the shadowy back corner of the shop, a crawl of crabs on the cool marble slab in front of her, staring up with black-eyed fury. Mabel hates dropping them into the splash of boiling water, the squealing that rents the shop, that Da says isn’t pain, cos they’re just crabs, it’s just their hard shells cracking, our Mae.

But what does Da know about pain?

Later when they’re cool, she’ll have to crack their sharp short legs, dragging the dead man’s fingers from their armoured bodies in a practised flick.

She shouts towards Da’s white-coated back.

“Just gannin’ for a smoke.”

He is bent over a vast charcoal turbot. Preparing posh fish for posh people who gaze at the blank fish faces to avoid catching the eyes of those serving them.

On the doorstep, Mabel scrapes a match across the box, watches the flame flare. Inhaling, she gazes across the road towards the stone pillars rising in front of the local library.  The heavy wooden door shrieks open. A little bairn skips out with her gran. Mabel’s seen it before, that look in their eyes as they bounce home with their string bag of newly chosen books. She’s seen them nearly trip on the steep steps,  trying to walk and read their books at the same time, too impatient to wait til they get home to start their stories. Bloody idiots.

But Mabel wonders as she watches the bairn, all bright eyed and excited, chattering away to her gran. What life would have been like with words in place of the lingering stench of fish guts, which clings on the bus ride home over the bridge, through bleak evenings with Da’s brooding silence choking the room.

She frowns, remembering a sea of squiggles swirling indecipherable across pages of books. Her teacher’s frustrated sighs.

“Come on Mabel. You’re not trying.”

Recalls the sensation of drowning as she searched for sense among the wonky shapes, wiping away tears on her scratchy grey wool sleeve.

“Crabs won’t clean themselves, our Mae,” Da’s voice booms.

Mabel watches the glowing fag end swim away down the gutter.

Biography: Denise Bayes writes flash fiction and short stories. Words have appeared in NZ Micro Madness, Retreat West, Free Flash Fiction, Oxford Flash,100 Word Stories, Ellipsis Zine, Firewords and Roi Fainéant press. Originally from the North of England, Denise lives in Barcelona, Spain. Tweets at @DeniseBayes