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Frog
 Alice Ash





You are swinging your legs and I am so tired. You have been talking constantly since we left the venue, throwing out little jabbing statements and observations; excited, you talk over me when I try to reply. I am thin-lipped now, haggard.

‘Can we just—’ I say, and you reply, ‘Of course. Let’s play a game. We’ll be completely silent until the train comes. We won’t talk at all.’

You look thrilled.

You take out a flask and balance it on the end of your thin knees. You open the flask and begin to pour soup into the lid. An egg drops out and into the soup and it splashes the woman sitting next to you.

You laugh and then you put your finger to your lips, ‘Shush!’

I am staring at you, embarrassed.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I say to the woman. I try to give her a crumpled tissue, but she just wants to get away from us. I watch her sharp shoulders disappearing into the crowd of commuters.
 

You are slurping at the soup and a little baby that is on the floor, a harness wrapped around its shoulders and belly, is smiling at you. The baby’s hands are on the floor, bare against the concrete. You wave at the baby and the baby lifts a hand, bends one finger.

The train is still not here. I am rigid with tiredness and the cold and you are bouncing your hands on your knees.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ you say, ‘Let’s not talk.’ Your eyes sparkle mischievously, ‘Let’s sing instead,’ and you open your mouth wide: ‘Now, now you say you love me…’ You are singing on the train platform. All of the people near us hunch over, looking intensely at their phones or hands or magazines.

‘No!’ I shout, and you look at me, surprised. A thin glaze slips over your eyes, as though you have remembered something disappointing.

‘Ha-ha,’ you say, ‘No. We won’t sing.’



        *



The teacher has wheeled the tank into the middle of the classroom and has put a piece of fabric from the creativity cupboard over the top. I am underneath the fabric, hiding. The fabric is sparkly and the teacher feels like she is doing a magician’s trick.

The children gather around and they are very excited.

‘Hold on, hold on,’ says the teacher.

This is a new teacher and she is glad that she is holding the class’s attention; she has tried, in many adventurous ways, to keep the children engaged. Now, the teacher pauses before she lifts the material; she is enjoying herself. But the children quickly become angry as well as excited, and one has yanked another away from the tank by pulling on a thin blonde pigtail.

The teacher shouts, ‘Stop that!’ and she spontaneously pulls the cloth away, with less of a flourish than she might have liked.

The cloth falls onto the floor, a sparkly puddle.

The tank is full of pond water and weeds, and in the corner, there is a wobbly lump of frogspawn.

I am inside the frogspawn, one tiny black fleck.

There is everything that the frogspawn needs inside of the tank: there are rocks, to create a shallow area, and weeds and the tank will be rolled over to the window so that the spawn can have sunlight.

The teacher realises that she is holding her breath while she waits for a reaction, and she coughs, asking the children brightly, ‘Well, what do you think? Have you ever seen frogspawn before?’

The class is silent; they are pressed around the tank, but the jelly does not exactly enthral them. No one notices me, not even the teacher. The teacher tries to get a better vantage point so that she can look, and she realises that the frogspawn inside of the tank is not so exciting to see. She remembers being excited when she was a child, but she realises that the excitement must have come from some different part of the frogspawn experience—maybe from spotting the jelly, from shouting out, look! Baby frogs!


The teacher has asked the maintenance man to get some of this frogspawn from a park that is close to the school, and he has done it for her, but now, the children are asking her, ‘What does it do?’ And the teacher tries to explain the lifecycle of the frog, but she gets confused, she begins to feel doubtful, and one of the boys tries to get one of the girls wet, and then someone sees a homeless man outside the window, and they all run across to gesture at him on the street.

The teacher is panicked and she shouts, ‘Tracey-Ann? What do you think?’

The teacher knows that she relies on Tracey-Ann too much, and the girl smiles weakly at her now.
‘It’s very nice, Miss,’ Tracey-Ann says, ‘I think it will be so great.’

The teacher has asked the maintenance man to get some of this frogspawn from a park that is close to the school, and he has done it for her, but now, the children are asking her, ‘What does it do?’ And the teacher tries to explain the lifecycle of the frog, but she gets confused, she begins to feel doubtful, and one of the boys tries to get one of the girls wet, and then someone sees a homeless man outside the window, and they all run across to gesture at him on the street.

The teacher is panicked and she shouts, ‘Tracey-Ann? What do you think?’

The teacher knows that she relies on Tracey-Ann too much, and the girl smiles weakly at her now.

‘It’s very nice, Miss,’ Tracey-Ann says, ‘I think it will be so great.’



        *



The train is packed full of people and you say, ‘Oh dear, no seats.’

You look forlorn, clutching your soup, four scarves circling your reedy neck.

There is a small dog balanced on someone’s knee and you push through the people to pet it, letting the dog drink from the lid of your flask. I am behind you, calling your name, people tut me and ask me where I think I am going.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘My mother…’

And when I reach you, the dog’s beard is covered with yellow soup, like sick, and a little bit has dripped onto the owner’s knee, his pinstriped trousers.

‘Are you sure that dogs can—’ I start, but then I see that the man is laughing, charmed; you are already asking him about where he is going and what he is going to do when he gets there. You act as though the man’s conference in Bournemouth is enthralling, blinking slowly, making your eyes wide, ‘Incredible,’ you say, and as I watch, the man gets up and offers you his seat; he is only going one more stop, ‘So—’ he says.

You sit down.

Politely, the man asks where we have been, and you tell him: ‘My daughter!’ as though you have just remembered that I am on the train. You look around and point at me, ‘It is the proudest day of my life. A presentation. Computer science programming,’ you annunciate as though these are difficult words, ‘I have never understood, but she explained it in a way that made it so interesting, so engaging. It can make a real difference to the world. Tell the lovely man, darling,’ you gesture with the soup, casting a spell, presenting your daughter to this new friend. My mouth becomes dry: ‘Tell him about the computers, sweetheart.’

I stand next to the man and mumble something, feeling my cheeks tingling, ‘It’s not really that interesting.’ We are stood awkwardly, side-by-side, and he looks at me, incredulous, while I start to tell him about the new technology, ‘Japan,’ I say, sounding entirely ignorant, and you chirp, ‘See! So interesting,’ and then you point at the window and shout, ‘Lambs!’ and we look to see the mounds of fluff on the hill outside.



        *



The tank is already becoming a hindrance for the teacher, even though the spawn hasn’t had a chance to grow, to become anything interesting. The classroom is so small and the teacher has to keep shouting when the children bash into the tank, making the jelly quiver.

The teacher wants the children to gather around the tank and draw the frogspawn, but there really is very little to see. The sides of the tank are becoming cloudy and need to be cleaned, even though the maintenance man has been up to do it once already. Tracey-Ann has drawn the best picture, as always, but she has been working too close to the tank, and there must be a leak because water has seeped onto the edge of the page.

I am trying to contort my body, to make my inky blackness as elongated as possible; I become an apostrophe, instead of a full stop. Around me, my brothers and sisters are chattering and the mass of spawn vibrates, the edge of the cloud begins to break off and float to the surface of the murky water, where a boy pokes at it with an orange crayon.



        *



‘What shall we do now?’ you say after the train has emptied out. Your eyes dart around, looking for potential friends and pastimes, but you only see me, your daughter.  I have been WhatsApping my husband who wants to know whether he should pick up a pizza on his way home: can we have wine; are there potatoes left, but now you focus on me, suddenly desperate for my attention.

‘I’ve got this method to cope with anxiety,’ you say. You want me to come and stand next to you, and I go, awkwardly untangling myself from my laptop bag.

‘You have to really concentrate on residing inside of your body, feeling your spirit inside of a limb. Take your arm,’ you grab hold of my wrist. ‘You might feel like you are not truly present,’ you say intensely, ‘like you are nothing, about to float off into space. But you rock your limb back and forth; feel the pressure of your inner body. What’s inside of you, darling?’ You begin to rock my arm but it is stiff, clutching my phone. I am standing awkwardly in the aisle and as a man pushes past me, my fist connects with your face.

’Whoops!’ you say, and I see that there are instantly tears in your eyes.

‘Oh my god,’ I say, ‘Are you okay?’ and you shake your head at me, ‘It’s not your fault,’ you say, angry.

I stare at you while you start on your exercises.

‘I am inside my body, I am inside my arms, I am inside my shins, I am inside my knees,’ you continue, staring ahead. You are prodding your limbs with your long fingers, muttering to yourself. I feel the breeze running through the carriage and the quiet; it is as though I have vanished and you are sitting alone on the train, completing your rituals, stewing in your disappointment. Lines from my presentation run through my head, within the next year, using these systems could become a reality.

Who in the hell gives a damn?

‘I am in my feet,’ you say.

The train thunders on and my phone buzzes. It is my husband.

Are you still there, he asks me.



        *



The teacher has placed a black cloth over the tank and now she tries to whip it off with a flourish: a false magician. Most of the spawn has perished in the darkness, but I have made a special effort to remain alive, straining my body towards a tiny triangle of light at the edge of the tank.

The children put their hands, clammy star shapes, onto the glass and look over the edge. They gaze into the scum that has formed on top of the water, as though there might be a secret message there. One of the children has seen the dead frogspawn, empty shells and dried, gummy o’s, and he begins to cry, confused and angry rather than sad; the boy is cheated by the deaths, and I try to show him, look at me! I am here!

I push off of a rock, my feet not fully formed, just nubs, but still, I manage to spring through the water, and briefly, a patch of scum disappears. It is unfortunate though because, by nature, a frog is camouflaged, very difficult to see, and I watch as the teacher shakes her head, the lenses on her glasses reflecting the corpses that glimmer on the surface of the water.

           

        *



I walk you home and on the way, you tell me about a Bolivian dance troop who are raising money for refugees next weekend; they have a real tiger! you tell me, and then you say, over and over, how interesting, interesting, interesting my talk was, and how proud you are; how you’d like to see it all over again, just to see if it could be even more interesting a second time.

‘Well, actually—,’ I say, but you have spotted a yoga friend across the street and you are waving. I hold onto your trolley to stop it rolling down the hill, and you run towards your friend, your scarves and hers melding into one pile of rippling fabric. You clutch each other’s hands, talking passionately in hurried whispers.



        *



The teacher is embarrassed about asking the maintenance man to come and tip the frogspawn back into the pond, especially after she has made such a fuss about getting it into the classroom. The frogspawn is only there because of the teacher; this is all the teacher’s decision, all her fault. She has spent three lessons with the children, getting them to make diagrams of my life-cycle, but I am the only survivor, and I am basically invisible, jumping from rock to mass of weeds, to empty shells of spawn, although Tracey-Ann does point me out one morning, and three boys run over to the tank shouting, ‘Where? Where?’ upsetting the water and making it impossible to see through the clouds.

My yellow eyes blink as the boys call Tracey-Ann a liar, a suck-up, a boffin: ‘Miss, Tracey-Ann’s got an invisible frog-boyfriend.’

Later, the teacher is marking, her head resting on her hand, nearly touching the desk. The teacher has thirty-two short essays on the life-cycle of the frog, and each of the descriptions is completely wrong, some referring to magic spells and transformer toys, and the teacher can see that the children have not understood the exercise at all.

The teacher is paid very little and she has to afford resources like pens and pencils and tubes of paint herself, out of her own pocket, and now her red pen runs out. She picks another red pen out of her drawer and finds that it is also empty. She has no other red pens and she goes to the bin and throws the pens into the darkness. When the teacher turns around she sees the tank.

The teacher takes the tank into the girl’s toilets. The lights flicker on, urine-yellow, and the teacher balances the tank on the edge of a little sink while she catches her breath. She looks at the ceiling and the clouds of toilet paper that girls have whetted and thrown up and onto the tiles. The teacher shakes her head and takes the tank to the toilet bowl. I grip the sides of the tank, hiding underneath a piece of rock that is wedged into one corner, and I watch as my surroundings tumble into the toilet, the rocks splashing the teacher’s jeans and the sound of the jelly hitting the bottom of the bowl. The teacher swears at her stupidity because the rocks have obviously blocked the cistern and lie, unmoving at the mouth of the bowl, but the spawn flushes away, and the teacher carries the tank out of the room and back into the classroom. She picks up her bag and her car keys and leaves the marking on the table.

The teacher takes the tank out of the school and throws it into a skip outside. Now, the tank is discarded, slung on top of piles rubble, stained yellow pillows that must have come from the houses opposite, coke cans, a hobbyhorse with empty eyes. I hop out of the tank and stand astride a red brick, fully formed and disappointing.

But I’m a frog, I want to say, this is the way I was supposed to be!

The skies are dark with cloud and soon it will rain.

I watch the teacher try to start her car, her head resting against the wheel; her eyes are closed.



        *



While you are talking to your friend, on the other side of the street, I lean wearily against a skip. We are stopped outside a school, but it is getting dark, and there are no children there. A young woman is leant over the bonnet of her car outside the school, pounding the hood, and then, defeated, she is crying. Embarrassed, I look at my smart black shoes, the lip of your trolley. I see a pile of rainbow knitting that is there: a new scarf. I imagine you sitting at the back of my presentation, clicking away and whispering to whoever was sat next to you, getting them to hold your yarn out for you, and smiling gleefully at your progress. You would have someone fetch you a mint tea during the interval, ‘Make sure it’s piping hot!’ you might squeak.

I look over at you and hear you talking about the man on the train, ‘A new friend!’ you say. You do not mention my talk, the computers. I feel the trolley become very heavy in my hand, so heavy that it begins to roll away from me, soon falling onto its back and spilling its rainbow coloured guts. I watch as a woman carrying a baby stops to pick it up and you look at me, blinking for a moment before you dash across the road, hugging the woman and stroking the baby’s head, looking deep into its eyes.

‘What a beautiful girl,’ you say, you reach into your scarves and pull out a necklace of yellow beads. You put the necklace around the baby’s neck and cover her hand with your own. The baby looks at you blearily for a few seconds, and then, inspired, she gurgles heartily: singing, performing for you.

‘The most beautiful baby I have ever seen,’ you are talking to the baby, but the mother giggles with delight, ‘Apart from my darling—’ you say, and you turn to gesture at me, where I am standing, swaying greenly in the dimming light.

‘My pride and joy,’ you explain, and the three people, two women and a baby, all look at me.

I realise that you expect me to say something, so I croak, ‘Hullo,’ and then you link the woman’s arm and say that we will help her with her shopping. It has started to rain and I feel a large drop on my shoulder, wriggling inside, under my suit jacket. I take the trolley that has been left on the corner of the road and follow the procession, the colours, the chatter, the baby’s laughter. I watch as my mother throws a scarf over her shoulder, her hair and hands twinkling eternally, and her beautiful voice as she begins to sing—.









Alice Ash is a writer from Brighton, UK. Alice’s story ‘Eggs’ was longlisted for the Galley Beggar Prize 2019, and her work has been featured in Mslexia, Popshot Quarterly, Galavant Literary Journal, and The Squawkback, amongst others. Alice is represented by United Agents and is currently working on her first collection, Paradise Block.







2019

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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

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2019
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