‘It’s quite normal,’ said the midwife. ‘Plenty of babies are born with gills. They’ll disappear in time.’
The doctor disagreed. ‘This sort of abnormality is very unusual. In fact, your baby is probably unique.’
Jodie stole her parents’ car. She had to get away from London. Down to the sea. Before the people from the council came to steal her baby. Before others came to take Jodie to what her father called a ‘safe environment’.
She waited until midnight. Then she slipped out of bed, got dressed and listened outside her parents’ bedroom. Satisfied they were both asleep, she crept in.
Estelle lay awake in her cot. She made no noise other than a contented gurgle when she saw her mother.
She was good that way. Hardly ever cried.
Jodie wrapped her in a blanket and carried her downstairs.
The car keys were easy to find. Her father, a creature of habit, always left them on the hallway table.
As she reached the front door, she heard footsteps and froze. The heavy footfall of her father was unmistakable. He came out of the master bedroom, turned on the landing light and headed into the bathroom.
There was no time to lose. On his way back to bed, he was bound to check on the baby. She waited until she heard his urine splash in the toilet bowl before opening the door.
Then she was out of the house and off to find a better life for her baby.
At first, people had been nice about Estelle. Friends and relatives oohed and aahed over her. Complete strangers would stop to tell Jodie what a lovely baby she had.
The few who knew about the gills tended not to mention them. But if the subject came up, they would say it could have been something worse. Like Down’s syndrome or spina bifida. Some even went so far as to suggest the gills might be a blessing in some uncertain way.
Only her father seemed to mind. She once overheard him on the telephone saying that Estelle was some sort of monster. A mutant in fact.
So far as she knew, he had only ever held the baby once. It was the day she’d been born.
Jodie remembered the look of disappointment on his face. Even then he must have thought his grandchild was a freak.
And now he wasn’t alone. It seemed that everyone – her mother, the council, the courts – had come to regard Estelle as something less than human. Something to be locked away and forgotten about.
‘Dr Barrowman. Sorry to be phoning you at this ungodly hour. It’s about Jodie.’
‘Jodie?’ The voice at the end of the line was gruff and sleepy.
‘Jodie Penn. I’m her father.’
‘Right. Jodie – yes.’
‘I hate to be a nuisance but she’s disappeared. Run off with the baby.’
‘Surely that’s a matter for the police?’
‘She’s left her pills behind. I’m worried about what’s going to happen when they wear off.’
‘When did she take her last dose?’
‘Just before she went to bed. At ten o’clock.’
‘She’ll be fine for another six hours. I suggest you get the police looking for her straight away.’
‘Do you think I should tell them?’
‘Her condition. Her hallucinations and all that.’
‘Well, of course you should. Show them the pills and tell them when they wear off she’s likely to do something stupid.’
‘You don’t think she’ll harm the baby?’
‘There’s every chance, Mr Penn. Now call the police and let me get some sleep.’
Getting out of London was imperative. But she had to drive carefully. If she had a crash or caught the attention of a passing police car, it would all be over. As Jodie drove towards the outskirts of the city, the strain of fighting the urge to hit the accelerator and ignore every red light made her ache.
Take your time, she told herself. You’ll soon be out in the country and then they’ll never find you.
She was sure her father wouldn’t call the police straight away. That would mean letting more strangers into the dirty family secret. Probably he’d just stew for a few hours in the hope that she’d come back of her own accord. And part of him would be praying she came back without her baby.
Maybe her mother felt the same way.
Poor Mum who had loved little Estelle. Who couldn’t do enough for her. Who had shut Dad up whenever he suggested getting the baby adopted.
Even when the baby’s skin had changed, she’d tried desperately to go on loving her. And she’d succeeded for a while. But when the scales spread to Estelle’s face, Mum could barely stand to be in the same room as her.
That was when she switched to Dad’s camp and began echoing his demands to know who the father was. Who had defiled their little girl and left others to pick up the pieces? Eventually, like Dad, Mum came to believe that Estelle was a punishment from God.
Flashing lights warned Jodie of a level crossing. A barrier descended.
She slowed the car to a halt and smiled down at her baby, lying there on the passenger seat with not a care in the world. Not yet anyway.
My beautiful baby. With your blue eyes and your skin that shimmers with a million captured rainbows.
Freak, they call you.
And now they want to take you from me so they can examine you and test you and tear you apart until they know exactly what you are. But they’ll never know and even if they did they’d refuse to believe it.
For what seemed like forever, she waited. Eventually a mail train rattled past and then – long moments afterwards – the barriers rose and let her on her way.
‘So you’ve no idea where she might have gone?’ The police constable looked up from his note pad. Ridiculously tall and – in Mr Penn’s eyes – ridiculously young, he was perched on a settee not suited to his body type. His knees were almost up to his chin.
‘None whatsoever,’ said Mr Penn, a trace of exasperation in his voice. He felt he’d answered enough pointless questions and time was running out.
Mrs. Penn, who had been hovering nervously in the background, chipped in. ‘I bet she’s run off to the father.’
The constable licked the tip of his pencil. ‘The father being?’
‘We don’t know. I think she only met him once.’
Mr Penn shot his wife a look that warned her off saying any more. ‘The bastard must have slipped her something. My daughter’s not promiscuous, Constable.’
Sensing an atmosphere developing, the constable changed tack. ‘You say she needs some pills. Do you mind saying what they’re for?’
‘The child was born with extraneous flaps of skin on her neck. They look at first sight like gills.’
‘But why would your daughter need pills?’
‘To balance her mind, constable. She thinks her baby’s turning into a fish.’
‘Salt water or fresh?’
‘What the hell’s that got to do with anything?’
‘It might tell us where to look for her.’
Jodie was out of London and an hour from the coast when a phone rang. At first, the faint melody puzzled her. It seemed to be coming from the engine.
Her heart skipped a beat as the thought came to her that the car was malfunctioning and would leave her stranded here in the middle of the Kent countryside miles from anywhere useful.
But then she recognised the melody and remembered her father kept a phone in the glove compartment for emergencies. Without taking her eyes off the road, she dug the phone out with every intention of jettisoning it in a hedgerow. It was only the thought that she might need it if she broke down that forestalled her.
She looked at the display. Home it said above her home number. Or rather her parents’ home number. After tonight, she was determined never to set foot in their house again.
The phone stopped ringing. She dropped it in her lap and drove on.
When she caught sight of the sea, Jodie pulled into a lay-by and wound down the window. Fresh air filled her lungs and banished fatigue.
Estelle gurgled joyfully. She knew the sea was close, that she was on her way to where she belonged; where no one would call her freak, monster or mutant.
Jodie picked up her baby and kissed her forehead. Her cold scaly forehead that tasted of brine.
A pucker of Estelle’s lips signalled she wanted feeding. Jodie happily unbuttoned her blouse and brought the baby’s head to her breast.
The baby feasted greedily. Knowing this might be the last time, Jodie didn’t want her to stop. But all too soon she did, leaving Jodie with a feeling of emptiness.
As she replaced Estelle on the passenger seat, the phone rang again. This time she saw no reason not to answer it. At least she’d be able to tell Mum she and the baby were all right and – more importantly – she could tell her father how much she despised him.
This is goodbye, she thought, pressing the answer button. Goodbye for ever.
She put the phone to her ear. ‘Hello.’
‘Young lady! What the hell do you think you’re playing at?’
Jodie almost laughed. Where did the old fart get off calling her young lady like she was still six years old? I’m eighteen next month, you patronising bastard. Not that I’d expect you to remember a little thing like my birthday. ‘You know exactly what I’m playing at, Dad. Did you really think I’d let them take my baby from me?’
‘It’s for her own good.’
‘No, Dad. You’ve never done anything for her own good. The truth is you can’t stand her. You want to have her shut away so you don’t have to see her or even think about her.’
‘It’s not like that.’ Dad’s voice softened. ‘You’re sick, Jodie. Your mind makes you see things that aren’t there.’
‘I heard you and Mum talking. You want to send me to the funny farm.’
‘To a rest home. You’ve been under a lot of strain.’
‘I’m going to give my baby the gift you never gave me. I’m going to let her feel she belongs. Tell Mummy I love her.’
Jodie hung up.
Leaving the car’s headlights on to guide her through the dark, Jodie carried Estelle down to the sea. On the way she passed the field where she’d attended an illegal rave on the night Estelle had been conceived. High on what had been sold to her as ecstasy and was almost certainly something else, she’d wandered away from the party. Had in fact taken this very path through the dunes.
She recalled how that night had brought with it a rare and wonderful feeling of belonging. At the rave, she’d danced with strangers and even hugged a few of them as if they were old and treasured friends. It seemed as if everyone was glad to see her and loved her unconditionally.
Now she was back. This time with her baby whose journey through life had begun when Jodie had wandered off to marvel at the stars and commune with nature.
Jodie walked along the shore. This time there were no stars and the moon was obscured by clouds. But that didn’t matter.
She could feel the wonder again and knew from Estelle’s face that she felt it too.
‘Everything’s going to be all right now,’ she told her baby.
Jodie listened to the waves as they gently rolled onto the shore. The serpentine hiss of retreating sea water. The bell-like discord of pebbles rolling into each other.
She filled her nostrils with the scent of the sea. It was the scent of Estelle’s father, of a being born of the ocean who could venture onto dry land for only minutes at a time. Long enough, on one occasion at least, to seduce a human female and leave his seed in her.
‘Soon,’ she told Estelle, ‘you will meet your father. And he’ll take you to a place where there are others like you and you won’t be so different after all.’
She sat on a rock with her baby and waited.