Foul, it was foul. Naida clamped her hand over her nose, but it was too late. Trapped inside her nostrils, the fumes were spreading to her brain, dissolving it. She gagged and her hand scrambled to extract three mints from the box she kept ready in her pocket. No sucking now, this is an emergency. Teeth crunched, grinding the smooth pills to powder; peppermint oil filled her mouth and rose to purify her brain. Saved. Naida let out a careful, controlled sigh against the fabric of her glove. Then she looked again. Foul. Flies were landing on it already.
The filth was closing in on her; she had never had it on the doorstep before. But it did not count. The count began with the first step on the pavement, that was the rule. Changing the rule would upset the numbers and the numbers must never be wrong. Naida stared at the fish head in front of her.It could not exist. Did not. Fighting an urge to go back inside she forced herself to step right over it and unto the pavement. It was Saturday, she had to go on.
Cupping her gloved hand in front of her nose, she began to walk along the canal. When tracking the level of filth it was important to follow the same route, and to stick to the same side of the road, always. Left is safer. She counted out loud as she went along: one indicator for dog mess, another for filth, and she repeated both for each increase: dog mess, one/zero, an empty cigarette pack, one/one, and so it went on. Nothing escaped her eyes as they swept across the pavement in front of her: a crumpled McDonald's bag here, a condom floating in a puddle of rainwater there, chewing gum and dog mess aplenty.
Twenty-two/seventy-six, Naida made an emergency stop at the bridge. Ahead a garbage bin vomited empty cans of beer and a half-eaten burger all over the pavement and into the road. If she went past, the indicators would reach one hundred combined. She felt the pollution penetrate her skin, thoughts already fragmenting before she could think them to the end. She popped three mints on her tongue, and kept them trapped in the side of her mouth. Safe for now. If she turned back, she would have to phone the shop and let him deliver. That was worse. Proceed on mints. She crossed the bridge and faced the mess, banned from her mind the temptation to count it all as one. It was important to stay focused, important not to avert her eyes. Her tongue tripped as it rattled through the scores: twenty-three/eighty-four. She was now on amber alert. The mints would see her through, but if the indicators kept rising she would have to stay at home in the purified zone until Tuesday when the street cleaners came along.
Naida left the canal and hurried through the narrow streets putting fresh mints into her mouth for each increase until at thirty-three/ninety-seven she reached the shop. She peered through the display in the window to see who was in charge. It was him. Today just would not go right. She chanted the halfway score, while her thoughts see-sawed: go back or go in; go back or go in; go back and phone in an order and he might come; go in and she would have to endure his grin and eyes so sticky that she could feel his gaze even with her back turned; go back.
She went in. His grin seemed wider than she remembered it to be. Thirty-three/ninety-seven, in here she whispered it, not more than a hiss of breath so the shop assistant would not hear. She could feel his eyes on her back as she made her usual tour of the shop: bottles of mineral water floated mid-air on shelves of polished glass along mirrored walls. Labels gave information about the different brands: Swedish, Italian, French, Scottish; still or sparkling; pure or with flavour of choice fruit; blue bottles, green bottles, clear bottles; triangular bottles and tulip-shaped bottles – every single one of them contained clear, unpolluted water.
The premium waters were upstairs arranged around a little fountain in the middle of the room. Each week Naida bought one bottle from this section, slowly working her way through the most exclusive bottles to be had.
'The usual?' He had followed her up the stairs immediately, there was no escape.
Naida nodded. Thirty-three/ninety-seven. She must not be distracted. Every week she bought the same: five bottles of still water and five litres of sparkling, always Ramlösa, she liked the Scandinavian image of clean nature and healthy living.
'And which one are you choosing this week?' the shop assistant continued, smirking now. Or was it something she imagined?
'I don't know – it is difficult to choose.' Naida was flustered, this was the most important moment of the week. Thirty-three/ ninety-seven.
'What would you recommend?' she said, she shouldn't have, but the halfway score got in the way.
'We have just got a new delivery: Oxygenated Living Healing Water from an Arcadian mountain spring, it is quite extraordinary.'
Healing, yes healing was good, especially today.
The shop assistant fetched a bottle from the top shelf and put it on the counter; a dark, sparkling blue bottle shaped like a drop of water.
'Natural spring water – very mild – quite extraordinary – the sparkles just tickle your palate without being dominant, and the taste – the purest you can imagine, just a hint of salt.'
Naida couldn't stop looking at it, she had never seen anything so pure.
'I will take it,' she said and felt quite daring to try an unknown brand just like that. No detailed questions about certificates and hygiene standards today. She was in a hurry to get home and purify before the pollution took hold and damaged her beyond repair. The shop assistant wrapped the bottle carefully in silvery cellophane, took her money and handed her the bottle. Following her downstairs, he buzzed her through the door.
'It really is a very special bottle you've got there, I am sure you won't regret it,' he said. 'Once you've tasted it there is no going back'. Again Naida thought he was smirking but she was in a hurry and thought no more of it, until it was too late.
Thirty-three/ninety-seven. Concentrate now. Naida cradled the bottle of healing water in her arms as she retraced her steps back through the narrow streets and along the canal. This was the control count. She chanted the halfway count before the two control indicators at each increase in order to keep the numbers separate and accurate. If the control count matched the initial count, the day would be balanced and all would be well. If the two counts differed she would add up and settle on the average, then compare with the average of the same date the previous year. It always went up, worryingly up. But today the indicators escalated beyond control. Another mint in the mouth just to be on the safe side. It was the last in the box. Make sure to refill as soon as she was home. Make sure. Thirty-three/ninety-seven; forty-one/one-hundred-and-thirteen. This was red alert. Taking no chances, Naida chanted the count inside her head while taking shallow breaths; through the front door and up five flights of stairs to her flat.
Getting inside was a quite complicated manoeuvre: she opened the door, placed the backpack and the special bottle in the decontamination basket just inside, stepped out of one shoe and into the hallway with the stockinged foot, kicked off the other shoe, turned and scooped up both shoes in a zip lock bag, and ran through the flat to the balcony where the spray and the brush were ready to disinfect the bag and its contents. You had to be quick or the germs would spread and contaminate the whole flat. Afterwards she circled every room and inspected the soles of her white socks: not a speck of dust, she was finally safe.
It was time to purify. She wiped the bottle in the kitchen and carried it through to the living room, placing it in the exact centre of the round table. Then she fetched the glass; it was her favourite, but she used it only for the purification ritual. Air trapped in the glass made it look like it was made of frozen mineral water and its colour, a transparent sea-horse green, complemented the blue bottle. Naida read the label again savouring the moment: Oxygenated Living Healing Water. Drinking this would purify and heal her.
She sat down, poured half of the bottle's contents in the glass, and lifted it to drink: air rose to the surface – tiny bubbles in quick succession that burst on her face like microscopic cluster bombs of spray. The first mouthful, a careful, measured sip, then her mouth exploded with life as if she had swallowed the surf of an incoming wave. The buzzing sensation in her mouth frightened her at first, but the moment it went down she felt bereft that it had gone and so she took another sip, closed her eyes and leant back in the chair to enjoy how her mouth was sizzling with life once more. She continued to drink in carefully measured small quantities to let the sensation last as long as possible. Still the glass was emptied before she knew it and she immediately reached for the bottle to pour another.
The water would not come out. Naida shook the bottle and tried again, but still nothing came. Tipping it upside down she tapped the bottom. A fish leapt from the bottle and into her glass followed by a gush of water. She jumped away from the table and dropped the bottle, it slipped from her hands and crashed against the floor in a shower of blue splinters.
The floor was covered in mess, but she couldn't cross the room to get the broom because of the fish. It stared at her from the glass on the table with its goggling eyes and a mouth that sent out a continuous stream of bubbles, bubbles of fish-fouled water that was inside her now. Fingers plunged to the bottom of her pocket. The mints, she'd forgotten to replace the mints. Naida gagged and tried to spit the bubbles out again but they passed up at the back of her mouth and rose to the top of her head. Her mind started to fizz, unravelling itself until it dissolved and spilled on to the floor. A foaming, whirling pool propelled her forwards through the flat, burst the door open and cascaded down the stairs. Cleansing the street like a tidal wave, she washed through the canal out to the river and on to the sea.
About the Author: Marianne Beyer lives and writes in Amsterdam. She was shortlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize in 2012 and is currently finalizing her first novel which were awarded 2nd prize in The Yeovil Literary Prize Novel competition 2013.
Image: (c) G Laury