Carp in a Bathtub by Tom Guy

The carp was sulking. Jakub had been watching the fish for almost an hour and in that time, it had not moved. When his father had first dropped the shimmering fish into the bathtub several days earlier, the ferocious thrashing of fin and tail had surprised the boy, but now it hovered sullenly over the plughole. Its wonderful golden scales which had seemed to glow and glisten like the Christmas tree lights had faded to a dull brown. This fish was not like the ones they had in Poland.

The day, ten months ago, when his parents had told him and his brother, Filip, they were moving to England, had started in peculiar fashion. It was a Saturday and both his parents were at home when Jakub woke up. Mama and Tata should have been at work for at least two hours. Even stranger, as Jakub entered the kitchen, he saw that Tata had brushed his hair and wore his Christmas and birthday jacket. Mama, who usually alternated between her nurse tunic and dressing gown, had a pretty dress on which showed more of her chest than he cared to see.

‘Jakub!’ she exclaimed, rushing over to kiss his head, wafting perfume as she moved, ‘Did you sleep well my darling?’

‘What’s happening?’  he asked flatly.

‘Little brother! You are always so glum!’ Filip had burst in from the living room and immediately put his brother in a suffocating headlock.  Despite being only a year older, Filip was tall for fourteen and was a good six inches taller than Jakub. His muscly body made Jakub feel chubby in comparison.  ‘We are going out for the day!’

Filip’s optimism annoyed Jakub. Though he was the older brother, he could be so stupid. The last time Tata didn’t go to work on a Saturday was when Babcia died. Mama was wearing lipstick. Something was clearly wrong. Just as he began to point this out to Filip, Tata laid down his newspaper and cleared his throat. The boys fell silent.

‘Jakub, nothing bad is happening. We are going for a picnic in the park. Mama and I thought it would be good to spend some time together as a family.’

‘See little brother! Even you can’t say no to a picnic in the park!’ cried Filip, jiggling his brother’s belly. Jakub swatted his brother’s hand away, but he couldn’t stop a smile from creeping on to his face. He loved picnics.

By mid-afternoon, Jakub’s worries from the morning were a distant memory. Filip led the way through Zywiec Park to a place where he said he brought all his girlfriends. When they arrived at what Filip had begun to call the ‘love nest’, Jakub couldn’t deny it was a good spot. The winding path led through two giant oak trees, which wore a flowing coat of autumn leaves, to a grassy clearing. Mama laid down the blanket and the feast began. Jakub gorged on szarlotka, the sweet apple filling making his hands sticky, spicy sausages and sandwiches until he could eat no more. It was heaven.

‘Now boys,’ Tata’s voice cut through his bliss, ‘Mama and I have some news for you.’ He spoke calmly and slowly, trying to sound warm.

‘Mama’s having another baby!’ blurted Filip, turning to his mother, ‘I thought you were getting fat!’. Tata and Mama struck Filip’s face at the same time, as though he were a percussion instrument, but both parents smiled.

‘I have been offered a new job,’ Tata continued. Relief washed over Jakub; this was good news. Maybe his brother was right, he shouldn’t be so negative all the time. ‘In England.’ The words rang in his ears. His vision began to blur, his head span and he was sure he was about to see his lunch again. He had only just made a couple of friends in high school. Jan and Oskar were the only kids he had ever met who played Monastyr and liked reading. He couldn’t leave them behind. He could only speak a little bit of English; how was he going to make new friends? Through his shock, he could hear laughter. Filip was hugging his parents and they were all smiling and chatting excitedly. Mama took Jakub’s hand.

‘Jakub,’ she spoke softly, ‘try to look happier. This is good news. We will have more money and more opportunities in England. We’ll be able to go for picnics all the time!’

This story was originally published by Bandit Fiction as part of the Bandit Fiction Presents… series of digital issues. These issues remain freely available, and by purchasing one, you’ll be supporting us to continue doing what we love doing: bringing the best works from new and emerging writers to the masses.

Jakub reflected on the lack of a single picnic in the six months since their arrival in England as he splashed the water in the bathtub, trying to stir the fish that was to be their first Christmas dinner in this stupid country. He took a small handful of breadcrumbs from his pocket and dropped them in front of the carp’s nose, even though Tata had said it wasn’t to be fed whilst being cleansed. The crumbs sank, a few bouncing off the fish’s head, before settling under its fat white belly. It remained stubbornly still.

‘I know how you feel,’ Jakub said. Then he laughed at himself; his only friend in England was a carp in his bathtub that he was going to eat in just a few days.

He attempted to find some comfort in his family’s happiness. Tata was getting paid more and working less than ever, Mama had a house with a garden as she had always wanted, and Filip was in the school football team and had a pretty new girlfriend. It didn’t work. He hated England. He missed having friends, he missed his bedroom and he missed the familiar sound of Polish voices. 

Jakub’s misery was interrupted by sudden banging on the bathroom door. It was his brother.

‘Little brother, what are you doing in there? Are you having a candlelit bath with the fish again?’

He could hear Filip laughing. Tears began to well as his fists clenched in tight knots.

‘Tata!’ cried Filip, ‘Jakub is having a bath with the Christmas dinner!’ his laughter became hysterical.

Jakub could take no more. He felt as though a volcano had erupted in his chest, anger rising like lava. ‘Piss off, Filip!’ he screamed. The tears were now streaming down his face as he burst through the door and shoved his brother in the chest with all his strength. Filip didn’t move.

‘Little brother, why are you crying? It was just a joke,’ Filip said, still smiling.

‘Everything is a joke to you…you…you dupek!’ sobbed Jakub. He knew he was making a fool of himself, but he couldn’t hold the tears back. His sobs were interrupted by the slow, deliberate thuds of Tata’s footsteps on the stairs, which restored some reason to Jakub. Had Tata heard him swearing? Filip cleaned Jakub’s snotty nose with his hand as Tata called from the staircase.

‘Boys, I think you better come downstairs.’ Without looking at each other, they trudged downstairs to the kitchen where Tata and Mama sat. Mama gave Jakub a kind smile. Tata wore his stern look.

‘I hate it here,’ blurted Jakub, ‘I want to go home.’

‘You want to hate it here, little brother. Maybe if you stopped sulking all the time and tried to make some friends you wouldn’t hate it so much,’ said Filip.

‘Your brother is right, Jakub,’ Tata said, ‘you must try harder. Filip brings friends – even a girlfriend home all the time. You come home and sit in your bedroom.’

‘It’s easy for him! He can play football and girls like his stupid six pack.’ Jakub could feel his lip quivering, ‘and even if I did bring a friend here, they’d think we are freaks with a fish swimming around in our bath! My home is in Zywiec, not here.’ He looked to Mama for some support, but she avoided his eye.

‘Jakub, you are just being silly now. You will always hate it here if you never give it a chance,’ said Tata, and as Jakub began his reply, he waved his arm to signify the end of the conversation.

Filip told Jakub he was going to meet some friends and asked if he wanted to join; after all, they were only a year older. He declined. Instead, he went back to the bathroom to look at the carp. It was still. The breadcrumbs lay in a pile over the plughole. ‘Stupid thing,’ he spat, as he slammed the door and stomped to his bedroom.

Later, he could not sleep for his mind was on the carp. He thought of the murky undergrowth of the lake; the hiding places amongst weeds and rocks, the silt, the sunlight bursting through a gap in the lilypads and then he thought of the bathtub; sterile, cold, lifeless. He closed his eyes and rolled over countless times, but it would not work. He couldn’t leave the carp alone in there, it was too miserable.

The house was silent as he crept on tiptoes downstairs to the kitchen. Each creak of the floorboard made him wince; it sounded as though the floor was screaming. He carefully moved bowls aside in the cupboards, but none were big enough. In the sink was Mama’s washing-up bowl: perfect! He giggled to himself; Mama could never have imagined it was going to be used for a fishy rescue mission.

Tentatively, he pulled the light cord in the bathroom. The fish still sat morosely over the plughole. He admired its stubbornness. Jakub put his now shaking hands in the water. The carp remained still. Slowly, his hands moved closer. Still, the carp didn’t move. Suddenly, and with speed that surprised himself, he grabbed the fish with both hands around its slimy belly. The carp came to life. It began to writhe and wriggle in his hands, thrashing its tail against the water. Jakub pulled it quickly out of the bathtub and dropped it into the bowl with a slap. The carp continued to struggle, splashing water over the sides. He felt certain somebody was going to wake. He turned the light off and strained his ears. The fish settled and silence was restored.

Carefully closing the front door behind himself, Jakub stepped on to the perilously icy pavement. He started towards school; there was a park on the way with a big lake which the other kids threw crisps and sweets in for the fish. As he walked, he held the bowl at arm’s length, chest height, balancing it as though he were carrying a tray of drinks. The water sloshed from side to side, spilling over the edges and seeping through his trainers. His toes began to numb in the cold.

After what felt like a lifetime, Jakub arrived in the park. It was still. Suddenly, the nerves which had left him some time ago, came crashing back. He was scared. His hands, which had turned blue, started to shake, loosening his grip on the bowl. His arms burned with fatigue, but he ploughed on until he was knelt beside the lake. The icy mud oozed through his trouser legs and chilled his knees. The water looked dark and there was no movement beneath the surface. In the bowl, the carp had assumed the forlorn position he had become used to seeing. Looking down at the fish, Jakub began to wonder if he was making a terrible mistake. Although he knew it couldn’t understand him, Jakub had grown reliant on the carp as a silent listener to his homesick feelings. He would miss the reminder of Christmases gone by. And then there was the question of this year’s Christmas dinner; Tata would be so angry with him.  

Jakub remained froze in thought for some time before he tipped the bowl forward. The carp slid into the water with a splosh. For a moment, it stayed perfectly still, as though it had been dropped back in the bathtub; staring at the bottom of the lake. He stared at the fish, willing it to move. Then, with a sudden movement, the carp darted downwards, its tail slapping the surface of the water. And then it was gone; perhaps not into its own lake, but still a lake.

Jakub stood and, brushing his knees, looked around himself for the first time. A full moon cast a brilliant silver light which shimmered on the frosted grass and treetops. A family of swans huddled together at the side of the lake, the mother sheltering her young beneath her wings. Ahead, a fox, with a deep auburn coat, slinked across the grass before disappearing between some trees. It was beautiful. He stood for a while, enchanted by the strange but lovely landscape, then began to stroll home.

About The Author

Tom Guy is a Creative Writing student from Worcestershire. ‘Carp in a bathtub’ is his first short story. His second short story ‘Lights Out’ is due to be published in November and he is currently working on his first novel.

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