Claire Pearson wrote this piece after finding inspiration at the University of Essex’s Sustainable Practice summer school. In this short story she vividly remembers the first time she became aware of her impact on the natural world.
It was 1973. Wizzard was number one in the charts with See My Baby Jive and the last of the day’s sunshine filtered through the orange curtains in the front room. It was a birthday and birthdays meant nice food and presents. About six o’clock there was the metallic scraping of the key in the lock and bright chatter swept into the hallway along with the smell of fried food. She was home at last.
Older, wiser, and already experienced in the disappointments of the world, my sister knew not to expect too much. I watched as her long lacquered nails peeled back the thin layers of wrapping paper to reveal an oblong box about the length of her hand. It was the colour of my skin, decorated with pale flowers, and there was writing on it too. With her usual mystifying indifference, she withdrew the item from the cardboard container and scrutinized its contents. An opaque bottle which matched the colour of the box; and sitting on the top was a great big fruit. It looked just like one of the apples that grew on our tree, only it was yellow and flushed with a spray of deepest pink. I noticed a small cleft from which sprouted a stalk and one bright green leaf that protruded at a rakish angle. My sister explained that the fruit was supposed to be peach and it served as the bottle’s lid.
She unscrewed the top and I leant in to experience the overpowering, ersatz, fruity aroma. Is that what peaches smelt like? She held up the bottle for closer inspection and read the label aloud, ‘Avon Pretty Peach Bubble Bath’.
I was overwhelmed with unconcealed desire for this glorious item: ‘Oh pleeeese can I have it, just for a while, just to look at?’ I pleaded and whined as my sister gazed into the mirror and added the finishing touches to her mascara, but she wasn’t really listening. Then, as she sprayed us both with liberal amounts of hairspray I heard the throaty exhaust of her boyfriend’s car; I was running out of negotiating time.
I whined some more as my sister put on her platform shoes.
I whinged as she clomped her way down the stairs.
Stepping out into the evening, she slipped her bag over a shoulder and made her way towards the rattling car and called back to me ‘You can play with it once it’s empty’.
That night I lay in bed watching car headlights as they zoomed round the purple wood-chip walls while David Cassidy looked down. Our bedroom was littered with things from my sister’s shopping sprees: clothes, magazines, shoes, half empty aerosol cans, nail varnish bottles and perfumes. I didn’t know what was in most of them, or why my sister needed so many, but I knew each item well because I used them all as stock for my pretend shop – and the one thing I wanted to add to my stock was lying beneath a pile of my sister’s work clothes. We were only allowed a bath once a week. I’d be grown up by the time she’d finished luxuriating in peachy bubbles.
The next evening, after my sister had gone out and with the smell of dinner still hanging in the air, I stole downstairs with the bubble bath, along the hall, into the small kitchen and out of the back door, closing it quietly behind me. Evening was drawing in and a few birds still called across the gardens as the wind stirred the trees. It was getting chilly. Checking to ensure I wasn’t being watched through the kitchen window, I scuttled along the garden path and around the corner where the lilac trees grew tall. The plastic bottle felt cool and heavy in my hands. Carefully I unscrewed the beautiful peach lid, held the bottle at arm’s length, flipped it upside down and emptied its pink peachy contents into the flowers, moving around the garden as I went. Shaking vigorously, I emptied the last drops out replaced the lid and quietly hurried back inside returning the bottle to the heap of clothes now on the floor next to my sister’s bed.
I’m not sure how long it took my family to find out what I’d done, but I suspect it was probably the following day, but not because my sister had taken a bath. My grim-faced mother requested I follow her out into the garden because she had ‘a bone to pick’ with me. I had no idea what this meant, but I could tell from her expression that she wasn’t happy. She led me across the lawn and pointed to a strange iridescence that clung to the edges of the water’s surface and it was explained to me that emptying bubble bath into the pond had resulted in the death of all the fish.
My eyes and cheeks burned.
I felt sick.
I felt ashamed.
I was horrified.
I was shocked that I had so much power.
I was a fish murderer!
How could something that looked so beautiful and smelt so divine, be so deadly?
Claire is a part-time postgraduate student in her second year studying for an MA in Wild Writing: Literature, Landscape and the Environment at Essex University. She is an artist, musician and writer who draws inspiration from the natural environment.