Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by, London. This week’s story, of a fear of fishy creatures, is by R.B. Stewart.
My life was transformed by second hand meditation.
My mother meditates, though how such a fierce woman manages that I don’t understand. She suggested it to me since I have a lingering trauma from a childhood incident. I rarely discuss it since people usually find it amusing, as if I would joke about such a thing, but small frights can grow into large phobias, manifested in nightmares.
Mine goes back to me as a toddler standing knee deep in a pond, fat toes wiggling in sticky mud while glistening little fish flitted around my knees, chasing the bread crumbs tossed by my grandmother. A charming scene, until the big fish barges in to get her share. The wobbly child takes a fright, tumbles down, gulps some water, sees a great eye and a gaping mouth.
A nightmare was born, and for years, she watched me in dreams, always from the gloom and shadows.
For obvious reasons, I don't often tell that story. I don't swim. No eating fish if they leave the head on. Never had a goldfish. All of this because a great whale of a carp came too close.
Now I live on the Isle of Dogs, surrounded by London and the River, but protected from the water's edge by the rail at Island Gardens near my home. I don’t go alone, taking with me my dear violin.
Viewed through a high-flying satellite, my park sits beside the Thames looking like a green bit of Greenwich has broken away and drifted off like an iceberg from its mother glacier. There is a tree with branches that reach like the waving arms of a voyager leaving on a crossing. They wave at Greenwich, from which my park and voyaging tree departed.
A perfect spot for second hand meditation.
When I go there, I sit on the bench near the rail and the River, while a Meditator sits serenely beneath my favourite tree. An older lady with hair simply restrained. It flows down her back like a vestment as she grooms her Karma. Even my own riotous red hair, my mane, cannot distract her from swimming in the unseen universe. I imagine her drawing all manner of positive mysteries into herself from the tree and the world more broadly. I imagine as well that it flows back out again, purified and properly sorted.
So I sit on the bench nearby and let it flow into me and into my violin.
I’m a violinist by trade and quite good, though unknown. We are legion — the quite good but unknown. It comes from quiet application and years of pressing from my relentless mother. I can’t imagine doing anything else. My mother can imagine me doing this but at a more glorified level. We all have our little dreams. Mine are nightmares, bred of fish encounters, as I’ve explained.
E. Winterborne is how I bill myself. The E is for Emma. You may have seen my name in the credits for a minor video game, but probably not. A touch of violin needed here and there. Maybe playing at a wedding, though usually not the larger sort. Once, I played a short piece to accompany a breakup video. Such a tasteless man, but at least he paid.
Given the lack of lustre on my career, I come to my park to perform. As I mentioned, I sit on the bench with my violin beside me, and we each absorb the radiance from the lovely Meditator beneath our gesturing tree, not paces away. When she has sufficiently enlightened herself for the day, she departs. That is my cue to perform, and I compose on the fly, guided by inspiration. Well, I’ve caught myself ripping off Beethoven or similarly dead geniuses but they can haunt me if they like. How bad could that be?
My violin and I play out what good vibes we’ve drawn in. We send it out to tickle a passing boat or skip across the River to wash the face of Greenwich. A great gig. A great venue and almost never a critic — except for that damn terrier. Except for him, there is always some bird or beast that draws my attention and that signals the end of my impromptu concert and an informal dedication to that creature. A squirrel one day, a gull the next. I turn a blind eye to cats, as they do to me. Cats and that damn terrier.
But today was special.
Today the music flowed so transcendentally that I wondered if our Meditator had achieved some cosmic breakthrough, or left, not for home, but to escape the bonds of earthly existence altogether, assuming that’s a desirable outcome. I believe, from limited research, that it is.
Yet no one was about. No one on a bench or prowling the lawn. Nothing in the trees. No passing boat. As if a very tidy apocalypse had occurred while I was distracted, sucking every living being up and away to wherever and leaving me in sole possession of a city that I love but could never maintain without help.
The breeze fell away. And that is when I heard it; a wet and rude sound, like someone going after the last of the soup without aid of a spoon. I looked over the rail to the river and saw her there. (I say her, but who can judge the gender of a fish in water?) Such a huge fish! Its head as big as mine. Its eyes bigger and seemingly fixed on me.
Having my full attention at last, it tipped itself just enough to raise its mouth full above the surface, and it blew me a kiss or whispered silent thoughts my way.
Thank you Meditator. Thank you my dearest violin. And thank you, whatever and wherever you are in the Thames.
Twenty years after a childhood dunking, I've made my peace with the fish.
Got any more stories about London’s green spaces? Send them to email@example.com. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
- Heath Swimming: A story of heartbreak and Hampstead.
- Lost Sister: A search among London’s mythical inhabitants.
- The Wishing Duck of Regent’s Park: Be careful what you wish for.
- The Strangest Suitor: An unconventional Prince Charming.
- Mud Man: A quietly heartbreaking tale from the canal.
- The Fingernail Fairy: Do you believe in her?
- The Last Train: A fairy godmother on the tube.
- Waterloo Sunrise: A dawn encounter on Waterloo Bridge.
For children/by children
- The Lion: Something’s up in Trafalgar Square.
- Lyndon The Greatest Thief in London: A light fingered robber meets the Queen.
- Beyond the Central Line: Notting Hill Gate looks different today…
- The Makings of a Killer: A dark encounter in Southwark.
- Places to Hide a T-Rex in London: About time someone tackled this one.
- The Modern Fire of London: A sneezing dragon is a dangerous thing.
- The Let Down Competition: A mango has a fight with a pig.
General London fiction
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
- The Guardian of Travellers: Victoria Coach Station passengers take the advice of a sage.
- Graphic Novels: A celebrated novelist finds inspiration in Shoreditch Library.
- Not Enough: A family struggles to get by.
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
- Keep the Change: Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
- Night Bus Dreams: Michelle Surtees-Myers is picked up by an enchanted night bus.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Routine: The importance of the day-to-day, by Clare Kane.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.