Mum had grown tired, so I tried flooding the basement. I put Mr Zorro, her axolotl, into the water with her and she seemed happy. She’d float or paddle around the room in loose circles. When family came to visit I’d tell them to take their shoes and socks off at the front door, and together we’d walk down the stairs, stopping just a few rungs before the water. Our ankles would get splashed as Mum came to meet us. When my niece and nephew slept over, I brought out a big orange pool noodle and let them swim with her. Michael, only six, held on to the noodle and patted Mum’s hair as she came close. Fiona giggled when Zorro swam near her heels.
Mum started ignoring visitors. She just spent weeks bobbing up and down. When I asked her what was wrong she answered me with my father’s name. ‘Nothing, Frank.’
One morning the water was red. I couldn’t see her. I ran down the stairs and dived in. She was by the far corner, up against the dryer. A light fuzz, enveloping her like down, wisped away as my hands tried to grasp it. She had no cuts or bruises and when I put my arms around her she wriggled and glared. She was fine. Standing up, my dressing gown dripped heavy, its white stitching turned a salmon pink.
A man from the council came out. He wore big plastic pants tucked into steel-toed gumboots and, standing in the kitchen, he told me we had a high concentration of phytoplankton – a red algal bloom. He nodded his head, trying to be nice about it. You could pump out all the water, put clean in, but within a month it would be back. Same thing happened down at the Marsh’s place; the grandmother had even developed an infection. It’d have to be drained for good.
I carried Mum upstairs and put her and Mr Zorro in the bathtub. I set up the pump in the basement; its little diesel motor made a put-put noise.
The next morning I woke to the sound of thrashing. Water ran in rivulets down the tiles. Mum, her breathing ragged, let out a low moan as she smashed her body side to side. Her eyes were wild and out of her lips poked a twitching leg and tail. Crying, I sat next to her, patting the side of her face until she calmed down. When she fell asleep I walked downstairs and threw the pump against the wall.
Outside, four carers wearing smocks and hairnets stood smoking. A yellow bucket sat on the asphalt next to them. It reeked of blood, fish guts and raw meat. A carer, hunched over, poured in bottle after bottle of multivitamin tablets.
Michael tapped at the tank’s glass, first with one finger then two. An old man moved his head towards us, and then swam into the distance. Mum stayed floating, watching.
I told Michael to wave hello.