Mae Daly could already feel a bruise appearing under her dress, somewhere near her left hip. The girl with the large backpack had been shoved up against her when the bus stopped. It was always packed in the morning and she would inevitably be left to the flimsy safety of the straps, always up too high, her arm having to stretch out at an uncomfortable angle. Sometimes she imagined having a seat to herself, being old and wrinkled, with a walking stick or heavily pregnant. Someone would offer their seat to her, she was sure of that. She had seen it sometimes, those rare acts of compassion and decency. Instead she had to grimace for half an hour, her fingers turning white as she held onto the strap that slowly twisted and tightened around her hand, cutting off her circulation. As she lurched forward and backward into strangers, as they all moved as one wretched organism past shopfronts and people waiting at traffic lights, past crowds jostling for space on sidewalks, Mae thought of water. She thought of torrents of rain and the sound they had made on the zinc roof in the country she had left and always missed.
The bus came to another stop and lilted as if it were tired, as if it too had imagined something else. The doors opened, letting out a hissing, sighing sound. The passengers shoved and pushed, desperate to be out first into the glare of the daylight, into the foul traffic air. More passengers with bags and briefcases and fold-up bicycles embarked, squeezing Mae against the window, her hand still clinging onto the strap. She had two stops to go. Mae always closed her eyes then, when she struggled for breath and sharp elbows poked her sides, she clung to an image that always calmed her. Dias beach at Cape Point. She had often sat there after the walk down on creaking wooden steps, in the sun and the wind watching and listening to the waves crash over the rocks. Wanting to be in there, in a world she knew would show her no kindness, where she would be a tiny thing thrown in all directions. The sign had warned against it, going in. WARNING- Rip-currents. Swimming is dangerous. The water looked so blue, so wild. The bodies of birds told of the precipitous cliffs and the surf in their scoured white bones and mangled feathers that stuck out from the sand. Many had thought they could make it, many had swooped down from their rocky perches into that violent wind swept place. Astonished by the beauty of it, by the hunger in their bellies, the bright silver fish darting beneath.
Mae’s stop was next and she always had to brace herself for it, as she was often the only one getting off. She prepared her body for a fight, scanned the crush of bodies for a space to shoulder her way through, to push. She tried never to shove. Sometimes there would be another trying for the same and a brief, vital alliance was formed. Mae, in her soft, timid voice, tried to move to the door, “Excuse me, excuse me, so sorry, coming through.” The other woman was more confident, even rude, “Why don’t you fuckers move, get out of the way dammit!” The passengers grudgingly moved a little to the side, telling the woman to fuck off as they did. She showed them her middle finger, reached for Mae’s hand which had still not come back to life and pulled her out of the crowd and onto the street.
“Bloody bastards, the lot of them. You should broaden your shoulders a little more, you know.”
Mae was still recovering and trying to pull her dress right and that bruise was certainly spreading, a purple bloom opening down her thigh.
“You should toughen up.”
Mae thought it very forward of this complete stranger to be telling her what she should do, and also her hand was coming back to life and she couldn’t help wincing at the way it hurt.
She shook it about, trying to speed up the process, which made it hurt more.
“Well, anyway, till next time then.” The woman turned to go. She had a sensible and determined gait. Mae had never noticed her. Had she been on her route all this time, squashed everyday behind suitcases and strollers? Mae walked the short way to her place of work, her hand still tingling. A fleeting imprint of attraction. A whole life, if she looked closely. Mae had been there before and lost. There was something wrong, she had said. A long time ago, while looking out the window and not at Mae. With me? Mae tried for an answer, an explanation. Maybe. I don’t know.
The glassy, dead eyes greeted her, as they did every morning. Parrot fish. Herring. Eel. Angelfish. Sole. Butterfish. Kabeljou. Salmon. Tuna. Mackerel. Sometimes an entire octopus was draped forlornly over the bed of crushed ice. There were crabs and prawns with their round black eyes on stalks, the curled pink shrimps. There were so many kinds, some from responsible and ethical nets, others not. Sometimes the customers cared where the fish came from, mostly not. Mae had wanted to protest at being moved to the fresh fish section, for ethical and moral reasons. She never ate anything with a face. She had been happy in the aisles and the fresh produce section, polishing apples, stacking oranges into enticing pyramids, removing wilted greens and mouldy tomatoes from their baskets, sharing her best recipes with the customers. Instead, she went quietly and took up her new post in hair net and white apron. She spent most of her day slicing, filleting and cutting the heads off of the fish. Wrapping up the pink and white pieces of flesh in plastic and wrapping it again with paper, sticking it closed with a price tag. She could even see the tiny sharp teeth in their open mouths, as if they were still fighting for breath. It reminded her of her fishing expeditions as a child with her father in the St Lucia wetlands. She could still remember the untamed wonder of the place over thirty years later, could still see the tiny red heart of the fish she had unwillingly caught, how it had carried on beating for a while out of its body. Her father had wrestled the large silver hook out of its mouth. She couldn’t do it, couldn’t even look at it gasping for air. She had started to cry, and her father, his hands all bloody, tried to tell her that the fish hadn’t felt anything, “They have no feelings, kid, they are cold blooded.” She knew even then that couldn’t be true. Everything had feelings, in some form or other. How had she landed up there, behind the counter, with all those little bodies on ice, opened up from head to tail?
She wondered how long she could manage it without being fired, without tearing up, without making a fool of herself, as was often said to her. Her stomach turned every time she had to dispose of a head, which was several times a day. Customers didn’t like the heads much, those eyes that stared, the red, tender looking gills. An anonymous piece of flesh was easier to manage when it came to the cooking.
When the working day was eventually over and she had washed down all the counters and all the knives, she would catch the same bus, take the same crowded way home, hanging onto the grey, tourniquet straps while teenagers and their smelly gym bags took up the seats.
Once in her apartment with the sparse furnishings, the few ceramic ornaments on shelves fixed to white walls, she would take off her shoes and put her feet up, the smell of fish and their nameless stories and endings still on her clothes. She had hoped to see the woman again, the one who took her hand and led her through the wall of bodies, but she was again prevented from a view, only seeing the shoulders and backs of other passengers. The matted hair of their armpits.
It was not uncommon for Mae to doze off on her couch after work, before she had made her dinner without a face, before she had even made herself a cup of tea. The daily journey exhausted her, she didn’t know how much longer she could still keep it up, the whole damn thing. The concrete, the fumes, the crowds. All the waste.
Once asleep, it was also not uncommon for her to dream of fish. Shiny hard scales and the sound they made when she scraped them off. Their sad, gaping mouths and their last breaths. Little shoals flickering among the coral, into underwater caves where nothing hurt. Where she leapt, at last, from the cliffs and soared into her blue memories that shimmered, even with her arms heavy as lead and her heart beating outside of her body.