While rinsing the pink gravel from the fish tank, I sneak a handful into my mouth. The rounded stones rattle around my teeth, massaging my tongue, before tickling their way down my throat.
I don’t know what made me do it. I suspect hormones, but I can’t be more than a couple of months, and anyway Kevin says I shouldn’t blame everything on being pregnant. He told me yesterday it’s sitting around that makes my legs ache and suggested a stroll around the garden, even though I’ve done so many laps I feel like a fish in a bowl.
The goldfish stare from the plastic box I scooped them into. They open and close their mouths as if shocked at my behaviour.
‘I don’t know what you’re looking at,’ I scold, picking grit from my teeth.
As I dump the gravel back into the tank, I swallow another couple of stones. Only the prettiest ones: those that shine and sparkle like jewels. They slip down easily, disappearing as if dropped down the sink.
Kevin would go mad if he saw me eating pebbles. Last night, when I reached for the cream cheese, he pulled out his phone and recited: ‘Soft cheese can contain listeria. Pregnant women are advised…’
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake,’ I said. ‘That means brie, not Philadelphia.’
But he got in such a huff I ended up with peanut butter instead.
I carry the tank to the living room and traipse back and forth with the jug to refill it. After testing the temperature, I pour the fish back in. They swirl in the water, fins golden and feathery. You have to do that with babies, I remember, test the bath water before you put them into it. And test the temperature of their milk bottles. Although I suppose I won’t be using bottles. Kevin says breast is best.
I sit down to prepare Monday’s lesson on fronted adverbials. Half the kids probably won’t show up, but I’m obliged to offer an online class anyway. Soon, my head nods. I lay it on my desk.
When Kevin gets back from the supermarket, after systematically peeling off his gloves and mask, he notices my bleary eyes and says, ‘Tired again?’ Without waiting for him to suggest it, I haul myself out of the chair and go into the garden for my government-approved exercise.
When we bought this place, the garden was a mess. Kevin cleaned it up, building planters out of old tyres and scrap wood, painting them gaudy colours, and filling them with miniature daffodils. As I pass, they nod their silly little heads like children in a Zoom lesson.
‘You love kids,’ he reminded me last night. ‘That’s why you went into teaching.’
I didn’t mention that I hadn’t known what else to do with an English degree. Instead, I rolled over and pretended to sleep.
My corner of the garden is a rockery. Eximia offers up garlands of prissy pale pink flowers. Purple campanula spills over the wall. But the rocks are the stars of the show: sandstone boulders sourced from a local quarry, slate chips shipped in from further afield. I blew the doing-up budget on my stones, forcing us to resign ourselves to the hideous avocado-green bathroom suite we still haven’t ripped out.
‘Rockeries are water-efficient,’ I said to Kevin, when we were putting the finishing touches to the garden.
He pointed out that Manchester receives an average of one hundred and forty rainy days every year. I laughed and said global warming could change all that. When he started on about the gulf stream, I threatened to throw my trowel at his head. He apologised and came to help me with the primula, his hands warm over mine. Soon, we dropped our tools and went into the bedroom. A storm started while we were making love, hurling fat drops against the window.
It’s not raining today. The weather in lockdown has been glorious: blue skies and wall-to-wall sunshine, and not a single beer garden open to enjoy it. Even the Peak District is off-limits; the police have used drones to film and shame people visiting beauty spots. Not that Kevin would agree to take me anyway.
‘Best not,’ he’d say, ‘in your condition.’
Damp slate chips sparkle in the sun. Glancing over my shoulder, I pick one up — just a small one — and slip it between my lips. My tongue explores its jagged edges. It tastes strangely salty. I crack it between my teeth and swallow the two pieces. One, two. Gone.
The next day, my stomach cramps and I run to the bathroom, afraid that yesterday’s craving has done me serious harm. Can stones perforate the stomach? But after using the bathroom as normal, the pain goes away. I pull up my jeans, disappointed as always not to see blood.
Whenever I pass the fish tank, I check that Kevin isn’t looking, lift the lid, and plunge my hand into the water to pick up a handful of stones. I keep them in my pocket, slipping them one by one into my mouth, like kids in my classroom sneak sweets when they think I’m not watching.
I’m lucky not to have to go into work. Online teaching is tedious enough. I turn off the kids’ video streams and talk at a blank screen, not wanting to see their needy, childish faces, or their frazzled parents lurking in the background.
Kevin, furloughed, massages my shoulders when I’ve had a long day.
‘Knots like rocks,’ he laughs, pressing his thumbs into my flesh.
I slip my hand into my pocket and rub the fish-tank pebbles between my fingers. No matter how many I eat, they never appear in the toilet. My body absorbs them, assimilating them into my bones and muscles, like sugar cubes dissolving in a glass of water.
t’s a superpower, this disappearing act. On my daily walks around the garden, I push it further, munching chips of overpriced Snowdonia slate. I imagine it as a training program, teaching my body to break down and destroy whatever invades it.
A few Sundays later, Kevin decides he can’t live without whiskey.
‘I thought we were shielding,’ I say.
He explains that we are, as much as possible, you can’t be too careful with a baby on the way, but also it’ll help him sleep.
He always finds an excuse.
He suggests I take a nap while he goes looking for an off-licence, but I’m too restless. The heat is getting to me. I long to drive to a reservoir and swim to cool off, but he’s taken the car. Instead, I putter around the house, sweaty and bloated, dreaming of open water.
I sit on the front step with a cup of ginger tea, enjoying the shade and the breeze, not caring what the neighbours think of my shapeless dress and unshaved shins. Blossoms drift across the street from number thirty-four’s cherry tree.
How can it be May already? When lockdown began, a lifetime ago in March, I had all the time in the world, and now here I am, with the beginnings of a bump, still not having even made a doctor’s appointment. Every time I bring it up with Kevin, he says GP practices are infection hotspots; can’t I wait a little longer?
My bare toes dig into the gravel driveway, hiding themselves under the pink and blue stones. Without a scan, the pregnancy doesn’t feel real, even though I haven’t bled since January and our three home tests were all positive.
I pick up a stone with my foot. Bending awkwardly, I pluck the pebble from between my toes. It is smooth and coloured like a stormy sky. It snags in my throat when I swallow. I take a gulp of tea to force it down. Gone. Like it never existed.
We always said we didn’t want kids. And yet Kevin, when I showed him the test, hadn’t shared my anxiety. ‘Perfect timing!’ he’d said, and went on to list all the advantages of preparing for a baby while the world is on pause.
I choose another stone, a little bigger than the last. This one is egg-shaped and white with speckles. Down it goes, washed away with another gingery gulp.
I never knew I could swallow so much. I drop to my hands and knees, rooting through the stones for the most tempting. Not caring who might be watching, I shove them into my mouth, choking them down one after another.
When I finally stop, only the larger stones are left. The weed membrane shows through the remaining gravel. I sit back, my legs stretched out, feeling pleasantly sedated, like I’ve just eaten a roast dinner.
When Kevin storms into the house, I’m dozing on the settee.
‘What happened to the driveway?’
‘What?’ I sit up and realise I’m hungry, again.
‘Half the stones have gone.’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I don’t know. I was sleeping.’
‘Didn’t you hear anything?’
I shake my head.
He stares out of the window, craning his neck as if looking for his precious gravel. ‘People’ll steal anything. You should keep the door locked.’
‘Okay.’ I heave myself up and go to the kitchen.
As spring boils over into summer, sleeping becomes difficult. I lie awake, thinking about the crunch of slate between my teeth, the thrill of a rock catching in my throat, the black hole of my belly taking all those stones and dissolving them to dust.
In a pool of sweat, I imagine diving into a cool lake, my once lithe body shooting through the water like an arrow into the future. Before lockdown, we’d planned a late spring trip to Norway. Cancelled, of course.
Scrolling the booking website on my phone brings up a picture of the lake we should have stayed beside, with a couple skimming stones in the foreground. Whenever I’ve tried to skim a stone, it’s sunk into the water on the first plop. I’ve always meant to practice until I get it right. Something shifts in my belly. I suppose it’s too late now.
I can’t hold off the craving any longer. Careful not to wake Kevin, I sneak out of bed and slip on my dressing gown and slippers. He replaced the gravel driveway with concrete after the stones went missing for the third time, so there is no crunch of tyres.
I drive to the reservoir. It feels illicit, which is silly, because I have every right to go there. Even the government says so, now the death rate has dropped. I park in the empty car park and walk to the shore, letting moonlight guide my way.
The water level is low — a drought will be the next crisis, no doubt — which exposes a white bank of limestone gravel, slippery with moss. The sharp stones press into the thin soles of my slippers.
I sink to my knees and pick up a rock in each hand. I stuff the first into my mouth. It’s a tight fit, scraping against my gums and palate. I bite down, but it doesn’t break. Blood flows.
A cramp begins, low in my belly, as an owl screeches somewhere in the shadow of the trees. I gasp and clutch at my grotesque bulging stomach with my empty hand, as the fear I’ve been pushing down for months finally takes over. What the hell have I been doing all this time? What have I been waiting for?
I whack the heel of my hand against the stone in my mouth, trying to force it down my throat. A tooth cracks. I don’t know which hurts more: the edges slicing into my gums, or the lower, internal pain. The cramping builds until it’s screaming for my attention; there’s no ignoring it now, no matter how many rocks I eat. And yet still, as I wade into the water, I push fingerfuls of grit past my bleeding lips.
Han Whiteoak is a writer from Sheffield, UK. They have a degree in physics, a passion for the Peak District, and an incurable habit of borrowing more library books than it is possible to read during the loan period. Their short fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Solarpunk Magazine, The Sunlight Press, Metaphorosis, and others. Their website is www.hanwhiteoak.com and Twitter handle @hanwhiteoak.