‘Keeping Sheila’ from Vida Adamczewski’s ‘Amphibian and Other Bodies’
Posted by Vida Adamczewski
Vida Adamczewski’s Amphibian and Other Bodies is a feverish and wildly inventive first collection that brings together her award-winning lyric play Amphibian with eleven new short stories, published by Toothgrinder Press today. Read ‘Keeping Sheila’, a story from the collection, below.
The queue in the pet shop shambled forward. It was a Thursday afternoon, just after three. All these people should be working, Alice thought. She had an appointment at half past four in Stratford. It would take at least an hour to wiggle her way across London. The Tupperware wobbled in Alice’s hands. The Terror was butting its ugly head against the lid, threatening to pop it off and leap into her face. Alice flicked it through the lid.
Alice wondered if she should let Patrick know what she was doing. Since he’d packed his stuff, Alice had been lumbered with a looming sense that Patrick would ask for the axolotls back, or insist that they shared custody, shuttling the tank between their flats in overpriced Ubers. She imagined him hoiking the tank under one arm and cycling off wobbly down the road, the axolotls slapping around, aswirl with pebbles and soggy fish flakes.
The shop was a relic of an extinct high street shopping culture. The door was propped open with a grotesque plaster figurine of a dalmatian with a lolling tongue. The window featured a sun-bleached selection of leaflets for dog walkers, groomers, cat rescues, and the obligatory poster for Zippo’s Circus. Stacked cages and tanks flanked either side of the galley leading up to the counter. The wall above the counter displayed a perverse selection of leads, collars and squeaky toys.
Alice was stood behind a man, about her age, in the queue. She surveyed him, quietly. He was wearing jeans and a crisply ironed shirt. She regarded the unchewed hems of this immaculate ensemble and concluded that he did not own a pet. At most, he was a houseplant person. Cacti, Alice speculated, in their arid soil, blossoming from his neglect. She imagined he would be an uncomplicated, but effective, lover. She had always liked imagining how sex with strangers would feel. Alice wondered what the other customers might think about her. She was obviously neither a cat nor a dog person. She hoped she did not look like a keeper of mice. She hoped she looked like she’d be adequate in bed, though that didn’t matter so much for women. The man turned his head, as if he sensed her thinking about him.
Alice dropped her eyes. The Terror was floating on its back now, provocatively displaying its pale belly to her. Patrick came vaguely to mind with his white belly streaked with black hair and the smattering of pink, scaly regions of impetigo. Stretched over her bed, feet flopping, he’d gaze into the tank while Alice yanked her knickers up and thrashed around in an inside-out jumper. Patrick would place a finger on the glass and Bradley – the christian name for The Terror – would glide, oozingly, up from the bed of the tank to lay a webbed paw against the glass, perhaps offering a few sucking kisses. Patrick would grin, ‘Alice, look! He’s high-fiving me.’
She shuddered. Bradley rose slowly from the water. His grey pearl eyes regarded Alice suspiciously. The pink fronds that crowned his face fanned and his webbed hands stirred the water villainously.
Alice swapped the Tupperwares. The second Tupperware contained the other, victimised axolotl; Sheila. Sheila was a runty albino alien with blue speckling round her eyes like an insomniac, and a fine, feathery beard of green slime. She swam round and round in circles conjuring a gurgling whirlpool. She always swam clockwise nowadays, her surviving right arm scooping determinedly.
Alice looked beyond the caged rodents to the serenely swimming fish at the front of the shop. She pressed her thumbs a little harder into the side of Sheila’s container as if she could impart her thoughts to the axolotl this way. Soon Sheila would be cosied up in one of those palatial tanks with the colourful pebbles and plastic seagrass.
Sheila was depressed. Alice knew that she had not been happy for a long time, but when Alice brought it up, Patrick dismissed her concerns as the kind of anthropomorphic psychobabble that lined vets’ pockets. Even before the assault, Sheila had spent all day lying on her side in the corner of the tank, unmoved by Patrick’s cooing. He’d sometimes give her a flick, or rap his fingers on the glass, and she’d roll over to not look at him. After a month or so, Matthew had grouchily announced that Sheila could be ‘Alice’s one’. Alice did not point out that technically both of them were hers.
The man stepped up to the counter. With a deep public school drawl, he ordered five frozen mice. As he squeezed past her, out of the shop, the cold blue carrier bag brushed Alice’s calf. Alice was horrified that she had contemplated having sex with him.
The shop assistant beckoned her forwards. ‘Madam?’ With one word, he had aged her. Alice placed the Tupperware boxes on the counter.
‘I want to return these,’ she announced firmly.
‘These little guys?’ Just the kind of insipid Americanism Alice expected from a pet person. He opened the Tupperwares, one by one. ‘What are they?’ Alice looked around the shop desperately. Surely, she was not the resident amphibian expert.
‘So, we only accept returns of live animals in exceptional circumstances.’ Alice tried to explain the exceptional circumstance she had found herself in. A guinea-pig meeped.
‘I am sorry to hear that, madam. That must have been very distressing.’
Alice actually hadn’t been as distressed by the axolotl’s cannibalism as the shop assistant implied. She had excellent presence of mind. She had rolled up her sleeves and plunged her arms into the tank. She had deftly unlatched Bradley’s jaw with her finger and gently eased the frayed remains of Sheila’s arm out of his mouth. Then she had scooped Sheila out of the tank, and carried her to the bathroom. Twice, Sheila had almost slipped out of her hand like a bar of soap in the shower, but Alice held her firmly. Sheila soared through space, one arm desperately pawing at the air, her gills opening and closing rapidly. Sheila’s persistence in the face of such devastation was admirable. Alice mused that it was a quality that they shared, as she measured the bathwater’s temperature with a sugar thermometer.
This distinguishing quality of pragmatism had resulted in numerous accusations of coldness and emotional unavailability. Once, Patrick had declared that she was ‘icy and impenetrable’. Alice had shrugged it off. He had flapped his hands in the air, crying to an absent jury, ‘See!’ Patrick was often personally offended that Alice did not take his slights to heart.
There was a ruminating silence while the shop assistant looked glumly at Sheila.
‘You know, this kind of aggressive behaviour is quite common, particularly if pets are not separated, or are underfed.’ Alice felt an acid blurt of indignation, but she swallowed it down. She had dutifully dished out their fish flakes every morning, often before she made herself tea. She explained that she still wanted to return them.
‘Do you have a receipt?’ Alice produced a birthday card from a torn silver envelope. Folded inside it was a perfectly crisp gift receipt. ‘Ok, I’m just going to take a closer look at them,’ Alice pushed the boxes across the counter. She checked the time on her phone. She had fifty-seven minutes. She began to map and recalculate routes in her head. The shop assistant looked up at Alice expectantly and cleared his throat, ‘Madam?’
‘Sorry, what’s the verdict?’ She was becoming her father.
‘I’m happy to offer you an exchange or full refund for the green axolotl. The white axolotl is not in a resaleable condition so we can only accept her in exchange for partial credit.’
‘But axolotls grow back their limbs.’ This much Alice knew. When Patrick had presented them to her, he had given her an extended lecture on their many charming attributes. The more Patrick explained why she would love them, the more offended Alice was by the gift. But then she looked at how Patrick was crouched in front of the tank, grinning, and realised that Patrick had bought them for himself.
‘That’s true,’ the shop assistant conceded reluctantly.
‘So there’s nothing wrong with her?’ She immediately regretted snapping. Presence of mind, Alice. The shop assistant narrowed his eyes and restated the shop’s policy. From her tub Sheila looked up at him, and then back at Alice.
‘Cash or credit?’
Alice was five minutes late to her appointment, but the receptionist beamed and kindly admonished the traffic in London. She was directed to a sofa and a fan of gossip magazines to choose from. There was a lovely soapy smell in the clinic.
If Patrick found out, he would be furious that she had not simply put a glass divider in the tank. He had always spoken about that idea with the rue fondness that a retired guard might speak about Guantanamo. Alice could see it; Bradley viciously smashing his head against the glass and Sheila cowering in a far corner, the tiny flower of a new hand budding from her armpit.
Alice selected a gossip rag and flipped through to the personal experience section, which always made her feel better about herself. Alice hadn’t been surprised when Patrick broached the subject of moving in with Rosie, but she had been offended by how condescending he was when he delivered the news. Patrick had rubbed her back and explained in a slow and caring voice that it wasn’t that he didn’t love her, it was just that they wanted different things. Alice assumed a parallel conversation was happening between Rosie and her very tall boyfriend Max. Patrick apologised earnestly for keeping his feelings for Rosie a secret. Alice admitted that she had known for some time. ‘What?’ He lifted his hand from her back and stood up, unable to process this deviation from the script. As Patrick raged on about her martyrdom, Alice thought about Max. When she had seen him at the office Christmas party, the length of his legs had not escaped her notice. As Patrick wheeled his bike through the gate in a fury, she called after him, ‘I’m keeping the axolotls,’ and slammed the door. She listened to him wrestle with his panniers and smiled smugly. Alice had always been better at keeping secrets.
A doctor in a baby blue tunic summoned Alice into a little room. The doctor had a neat, scrubbed face, her hair scraped back into a tight bun. Alice hopped onto the bed and slid her knickers off.
A week ago Alice had gone to see her sister, Evie, to fill her in on the unfolding domestic drama. Alice’s niece, who was young and wily enough to still be precocious rather than rude, had greeted Alice at the door and said, cheerily, that she looked pregnant. Evie had exclaimed in a teetering voice, ‘Of course she’s not pregnant!’ and swept the little girl into her arms, tutting. She had turned to Alice, ushering her in, and said: ‘I think you are looking very slim.’
Alice had taken a pregnancy test that evening. She had stared at the pink cross blithely. She made a list of pros; she knew the cons by rote. She phoned the abortion clinic that afternoon and made an appointment for half past four the following Tuesday.
Patrick had lauded the fact that Alice was not a maternal person, just as she was not a pet person, as one of her most attractive traits. He brought it up a lot, mostly when they walked past clods of mothers walking their dogs and offspring in the park. Patrick had even brought it up when he unveiled the axolotls, explaining how they reminded him of her. ‘They eat their own eggs,’ he’d said, like she would understand.
But it wasn’t that Alice didn’t want kids, more that she didn’t mind not having them. Which was how she felt about pets too, mostly. She had briefly convinced herself that she was barren, and accepted this fact when Patrick went through a phase of ejaculating inside her and still no foetus had presented itself. He had accepted her deficiency, never once thinking it could be him.
Lying on the bed in the clinic, Alice’s resolve crystallised. Patrick did not need to know. She closed her eyes and smiled, imagining him bumping into her in the supermarket, her swollen belly blooming beneath a jumper. As Alice dreamed, Sheila bobbed pleasantly in her Tupperware and smiled beadily up at the ultrasound screen.
Amphibian and Other Bodies is published by Toothgrinder Press, priced £10.