Short Fiction

The Impossibility of Death by Tiffany Williams

Who are these artists? I thought. If somebody wants to talk about the barriers we put up between ourselves and the abyss, they can say it with words, not with a dead shark. I saved that thought for the date debrief with Clara. I pictured how she’d reply, gently sarcastic, “I don’t think that’s really the idea, Christine. The world would have lost something if Van Gogh had just turned to the next bloke in the guinguette and said, “Bright out tonight”.”

Clara was the kind of friend who would fillet the spine out of your taste in art, but leave less important things, like your love life, to you. That evening I was conscious of how much I needed her. I was seeing a guy called Andre, and it was our seventh or eighth date; the question of ‘where is this going’ was going on unsatiated, because our conversations were always taken up with where we literally were. Each new activity Andre found was a quirky, original, inspired, complete and utter waste of an evening. I had thought nothing could be worse than the play we’d been to see the week before, an improv comedy with alcohol in which none of the actors were fun drunks. However, that night he was introducing me to the Saatchi Gallery’s controversial new installation: a shark suspended in formaldehyde. 

 Naturally I told Clara about it beforehand. I put the phone on speaker while I stood in front of the mirror in the hall, trying to brush Claudia Schiffer waves into my hair. I had put on a slip dress, thinking I could get away with it as long as the gallery hadn’t turned its heating down to preserve the shark. 

“I just want to say, ‘Can we please go to a pub?’”

“Why don’t you?” she asked. “Is he really that…niche that he doesn’t like the pub?”

“No. I don’t think so.” It dawned on me, as it often did at the peak of these conversations, that I was overreacting. “He probably just thought the shark would be interesting. I mean everyone wants to see it, whether they approve of it or not. Erm, by which I mean everyone from Barnet to Crystal Palace.”

“Oh no,” she said, “we’ve even heard of it in Staffordshire.”

“When are you and Sasha next coming to London?”

“Didn’t he tell you? He’s there all the time now,” she said. “He’s doing some cataloguing work with the Natural History Museum, along with everything he’s doing here. This is the first weekend he’s been home in a while.”

Clara had met Sasha after she did a summer working as an au pair in France after we left school, while I stayed home and learned to type by writing diatribes of envy.

“You’re better off,” my father had told me. “These girls go over to look after babies and come back with one of their own, like as not.”

My mother had reacted with a snort. “Not that one. Something off with her.”

Sasha and Clara had married after a short engagement, and despite everything allegedly wrong with her, he’d stayed seventeen years, and counting.

He was a specialist in butterflies, the kind of job me and Clara weren’t encouraged to believe existed. He was also unnaturally handsome; you could not meet this man without wondering if he’d somehow got lost on his way to Hollywood. As Clara’s best friend, I knew exactly how flawed Sasha was. He had never in his life remembered to take out the bins, his sense of humour was slow and repetitive, and whenever I had a party he drank too much and picked political fights with my other guests. But he always found his way back to his gentle Clara at the end of the night. And when I got the photos developed, and everyone else looked red-eyed and washed-out, he was sleek, a work of art.

“Are you doing anything special for your reunion?” I asked Clara.

“Yes, actually. We’re making bouillabaisse. I bought the fish fresh from the market. And we’ve got some fennel from the garden going in, too.”

“Oh God, I can taste it. I’m cancelling the shark, wait for me,” I said. She laughed.

Sasha and Clara would grow old with their garden. I went to see them the summer after they moved in, on a white-bright day like the ones everyone remembers from childhood. While Clara gave me a tour I teased her about how they’d prioritised it over the house, and got a shock when she flinched.

“It’s important to us.”

“I’m sorry, the butterflies, I know.”

“No. Well, yes, obviously, but not just that. It makes us feel part of life.”

“Don’t you feel like part of life otherwise?”

She reached over to the coneflowers, holding one from underneath so that the magenta petals fanned across her fingers.

“I…was pregnant when we moved in. I’m not any more.”

I covered her free hand with mine. “Oh, my love. I am so sorry.”

She paused. Her features seemed to sink in her face. “You know, I didn’t even think about getting pregnant before I did. It was too much, too beautiful a thing for me to have. So when I lost the baby, I felt like…like I knew it would happen. It is the darkest feeling I have ever known.”

I put my arm around her, and she rested her head on my shoulder.

“Sasha designed all this,” she said. “He said that he would grow all the beauty he could for me, because I give so much to him.”

“That is lovely,” I said.

She stared at the flower in her hand as if it would fly away at any moment. 

“I would die for that man,” she told me.

I have heard it over and over in my mind ever since.

The gallery was too cold for my dress, while the white wine on offer was too warm, and I inhaled it before we reached the front of the queue. 

I’d imagined the shark against a background of searing white, like the other works in the gallery, but instead it was held in a murky green substance the colour of the sea a few metres below the surface.

“It looks quite small, doesn’t it?” Andre said. “In Jaws the shark comes out mouth first and it’s horrifying. But seeing it from all angles, it just looks like an ordinary fish. The catch of the day. Perhaps that’s part of the point.”

I gave an affected shrug. “It can be an ordinary fish if you want it to be.”

I was glad Andre could be so detached, for as much as I’d pretended that I had better things to see than the shark, it entranced me. Its teeth were asymmetrical, like a serrated knife that had been made one point at a time, and its mouth was a gaping cavern, lined with ridges that gave texture to the image of being swallowed by it. But really, I could forget those. What followed me as I walked away were its gills, wide and rippled like sword slashes through a curtain. Mid-breath. The fact that sharks die if they stop swimming had made me anxious when I first heard it as a child. What if they forgot?

The sun was only just setting when we left, and it felt early. Andre and I dithered on the lawn outside the gallery. The time for me to make an offer was short, and I also knew I couldn’t go to Clara with the same problem twice.  

“Do you like pubs?” I asked. 

He grinned. “I may have enjoyed a pint or two in my time.”

The turn of phrase might have annoyed me on another night, but right then it relaxed me. We turned down the street, and my hand slipped into his. The shark was just one oddment among so many in our good old city. I rehearsed my favourite way to start that treacherous conversation. Andre, do you mind if I ask you a serious question?

“There’s an interesting little place on Fulham Road if you don’t mind a trek,” he said. “Victorian pastiche. I’ve heard on the grapevine they have a stuffed panther. We could stay on theme.”

Eccentric, I realised, was far from the worst thing a man could be. I decided the serious question could wait for another day, and we went to Fulham Road.

It was almost one in the morning when I returned to my flat. I made myself some tea to cancel out the alcohol I’d drunk, and I was in the middle of removing my make-up when my phone rang. I listened to it in tipsy agitation for a few seconds before hurrying to the hall to pick it up.

“Hello?” I said. Silence. “…Hello? Who is this?”

“Hi, Christine,” Clara said.

“Clara. Oh my God. I just got back from the shark. I mean…who are these artists? If somebody wants to talk about the barriers we put up between ourselves and DEATH, they can…”

“Christine,” she interrupted, “listen to me, please. Something’s happened.”

It was the nature of our friendship to take turns with crises, and I’d had mine earlier.

“Go on,” I said, in my kindest voice.

“Sasha is dead,” Clara said. “I killed him.”

I pressed the phone close to my face and I giggled. There was shock and disbelief in it but I have to admit that to my wine-addled brain it was also funny. It was like in a cartoon when a character is jerked off-screen by a cane. 

“What? What do you mean you killed him? Jesus!”

“He’s been having an affair. Another academic he works with in London. He’s been seeing her for months… He said he didn’t want to keep it from me any longer, he said he wanted to talk… We were having some wine, the bottle was by my hand, I grabbed it, and the next thing I know he’s…dead.”

There was a long pause. I heard the sharp clatter of plates. 

“I should clean up,” she said. “The whole floor smells of fish. It’s so late.”

Her voice was quiet and slurred. I wanted to guide her to bed, like I’d caught her sleepwalking. “Clara, love, don’t worry about the dishes.”

“One of our nice bowls is broken…” The volume of her voice faded in and out, replaced by the sound of movement. “…should have put away the butter, it’s got all crumbs in it, and…”

“Stay with me, will you?”

Why am I like this?”

“Clara,” I raised my voice a little. “What are you going to do?”

“The police will be here soon. I’ll do what they tell me to do.”

“You called them?”

There was another long pause. Her tone, when she spoke again, was lucid. “Do you have a better idea?”

I had nothing. All words left my head. Just a sensation, of a set of teeth closing around us.

“Goodnight, Christine,” Clara said. 

Tiffany Williams

Image by Nico Franz from Pixabay 

8 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Death by Tiffany Williams”

  1. Hi Tiffany,
    The writing is excellent.
    There were a couple of lovely touches – The line about being ‘Bright out tonight’ is a nod to Don Mclean’s ‘Vincent’…I think???
    I have probably said this many a time – When he was asked what ‘American Pie’ meant, he stated that it meant that he would never need to work again!!! – Brilliant!!!
    I’ve just realised a phrase that we use but don’t write much – ‘Dawned on me’ so good on you for using this.
    The section about the loss of the kid was superbly done, it was understated but still tragic.
    I liked how the revelation at the end was so matter-of-fact, that made it chilling / funny / poignant.
    Oh and I loved the mention of Bruce the shark. Not sure why he was called Bruce?????
    All the very best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Hugh, thank you for your kind comments. I will have to listen to ‘Vincent’, as that line wasn’t drawn from there…unless it was somewhere deep in my memory, unlike ‘American Pie’, which is often near the surface. I am really glad to hear the section about the loss of the baby worked for you, it was such a delicate thing to write, I wanted to handle it with care. In contrast to the ending, which I enjoyed making nice and blunt. Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Leila, thank you so much for your comment. That was something I thought a lot about when I wrote this, about how we think semiconsciously that certain things will stay the same forever, and then in a day or less they can change completely. Thank you for your kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is excellent – beautifully put together, poignant and then shattering at the end. That penultimate line ‘ Just a sensation, of a set of teeth closing around us.’ will stay with me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Steven, thank you so much for your comment. I am very glad to hear it was poignant and shattering. That was what I hoped for, and it has taken a few drafts to get there. I am very grateful you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Poignant and well-written. The contrast between Christine’s shallow relationship with Andre and Clara and Sasha’s deep connection is striking, and makes what happens to the latter all the more tragic. The symbolism of the shark resonates through the piece. Very nice.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi David, thank you, I am really glad to hear you comment on Clara and Sasha’s connection particularly. I wanted to somehow get across that it was, to use a bit of a clichéd phrase, a crime of passion, that she would not have been so angry if she had not loved him so deeply. Thank you also for your comment about the shark, I wanted hoped to make that symbol work.

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.