:: Article

The Eels

By Ellie Broughton.

Photo by Giancarlo Revolledo on Unsplash

28 February, 2020. (The first three cases in the UK have been and gone from the headlines). Tomorrow, my parents are flying to New Zealand to see my sister; I will join them two weeks later. She and her boyfriend have been working at a little hospital in Northland while on a short break from the NHS. They go surfing after work. At Christmas it is so hot there that the Sellotape holding up the fairy lights slides down the wall.

Tonight, Mum and Dad take me out for dinner in Bloomsbury. In a little Italian place behind their hotel, we sit tight together by a darkened window. At Dad’s shoulder, grey snowflakes twist against the night, but our imaginations are ten thousand miles away. We make plans: beaches, crater lakes and hot springs, ‘wine islands’ and tropical gardens. Outside, something wide, dark and unseen is moving.

12 March. I fly out via Hong Kong. In the queue at Heathrow, I count face masks. On the plane, I sit between two people in plastic ponchos. Further up the aisle, a white paper coverall. It had never crossed my mind to cancel the trip.

At the airport in Auckland, I meet my family in a crush of hugs.

Two days after I arrive, the New Zealand health service announces that arrivals must self-isolate. They start to publish cases on a website; a week in, my flight number appears.

I wait for symptoms to follow; instead, they turn up on the far side.

16 March. My flatmate, home alone, messages me to say she has a headache, chest pain and a dry cough. It hurts her to sleep. She is on her own in the flat. She has a Morrison’s delivery due 30 March, she reassures me, but supermarkets are cancelling batches without warning—that’s the soonest she can get one. A friend who has already had it drops round to the flat for a beer. (She keeps her disposable gloves on throughout). They send pics. I am not there to help, or shop, or drink beer, or keep an eye, or get sick with her.

Symptoms and advice emerge online: you lose your sense of smell, you mustn’t take ibuprofen, overweight men over 65 are more at risk. I keep sniffing—clothes, flowers, coffee—all day. I put paracetamol on the shopping list. I watch Dad help himself to seconds at dinner.

21 March. In the morning, the five of us take a boat tour out onto the lake. Me, my sister’s boyfriend, and the burliest man on the boat divebomb its frigid, crystal waters and come up shrieking from cold.

“This is a crater lake,” the tour guide explains, “of a super volcano. When this one blew, it turned the sky red over Rome.” The lake bed falls out beneath us to a deep dark. “And of course,” he chuckles, “it’s still active.”

Around midday, the guide and his wife gather round a radio, and slowly everyone checks their phones. A month-long lockdown begins in two days.

My flights are cancelled. At the Airbnb by the lake, the five of us make plans to return north up the island to my sister’s. James, Mary and Mum pack and map routes. Dad has gone quiet.

To take my mind off the situation, the afternoon before we leave my sister and her boyfriend drive me to the ‘Craters of the Moon’, a huge hillocked field of pocks, humps and bunkers groaning with sulphurous steam from the core. Earth mouths are caked with liver-coloured deposits. I stand in deep and ignorant awe on the fragile crust, puny and small in my anorak.

Around the world, borders close and the prices of the last few tickets spiral into the tens of thousands of dollars. The sky clears.

24 March. I rent a place with my parents in a white-picket suburb near my sister and her boyfriend. We have a washing machine; Mum is happy, and takes charge of all our laundry. The neighbours are nice, there are well-stocked supermarkets, there’s a public garden up the road.

But at the bottom of the garden there are eels. The Airbnb host used to walk down to the stream with a tin of cat food every night before dinner. They knew when I was coming, she says, they used to recognise the sound of me banging on the tin and crawl out of the water onto the shingle.

When we Google them we find New Zealand has two species, long- and short-finned. The long-finned eel can live as long as we can, to 100 years. We watch videos of Kiwi conservationists feeding tanks of them with scraps. I have always disliked eels. Mum used to tell this story about her dad. He was fishing in the canal in Liverpool once, and one twisted up his fishing rod. (He threw it, and the kit, back into the murk).

Still, I find myself crouched on the riverbank, waiting. One evening I see a dark streak running over the riverbed. The eel is a dun grey, and if I were to guess, as long as my arm from fingertip to pit. At its jaw, it has delicate fins petalled like a clam shell on either side of its head, and a long fin runs from its neck to the tip of its tail. Its head is almond-shaped, studded with black eyes. Its body is one long muscle. It looks horrific; I am impressed.

That night, I dream of a country house hotel, where out in the car park deer or moose graze under huge monstrous antlers. They wander freely and we act like they are livestock, like we are not terrified.

In the mornings, I look for routes home. Tickets crest $30,000. In the afternoons, I walk through the local reserve, a big kauri forest on a hill. The paths are deserted, all slanting sunlight and birdsong. Under the soughing of the high branches, it is perfectly quiet.

At other times, I might feel a bit spooked to be up here alone, out of earshot, and I get a bit of a fright when the occasional jogger dashes between trees.

But the idea of something bad happening to me is a worry low down on the list. I feel much less preoccupied with the idea of being attacked than I do about how I suddenly feel unable to enjoy anything: the forest, the sun, the wine.

Even trips to the supermarket feel exhausting, at first. I wait alone in line with everyone else, and get the ‘spacesuit’ feeling of anxiety halfway round. I forget half the things on the list and afterwards, when I meet Dad at the car, I wish for a Geiger counter that I could run over my clothes for viral particles. At home I scrub the vegetables with soapy water, against good advice.

At the hospital where my sister and her boyfriend work, they create ‘green’ and ‘red’ zones, where staff work on rotation. They get their first suspected case.

At sunset Dad and I go for a walk on the local playing fields.

“They said in the paper it will be a bigger recession than 1929,” he says. I am suddenly furious with him. My jaw clamps shut until we get home. The next morning, he sits on the end of my bed to apologise, and I am sorry too.

Going for a run usually helps me when I feel anxious, but even endorphins can’t solve everything. One afternoon, I run out and meet my sister in a local park. It is late in the day. Keeping our distance, we walk and talk. Time rushes by. Evening falls. By the time we get to the highway it is 6pm, and pitch black. She knows the route home is badly lit and gives me a look.

“Whoops,” I say.

“Are you going to be alright?” She asks.

“Of course,” I say, putting my earphones in already, “just a bit late home.”

I set off along the highway. No-one else is out. On my righthand side, the park lies in complete darkness. Headlights clip my elbow as cars pass. Don’t be ridiculous, I tell myself, keeping up a steady footstrike.

Off the main road, there is not a soul out. Apart from the white stripe snaking down the centre of the road, my route home runs into a lampless patch of night. The pavement fades to black, then falls ten feet off down a rocky bank. I feel dumb as shit, move out onto the white stripe and pelt it through the dark until I see house lights.

I get in at 7pm. My parents had called Mary and stayed on the phone til I got in. Mum is quiet when I arrive, and hugs me after dinner.

“You’re 33,” she says, shaking her head.

20 April. Lockdown eases in a week. That night, Dad makes lamb for dinner. He chops away the fat and shards of bone from the steaks and hands me a bowlful.

“For the eels,” he says.

I walk down the garden to the bank of the stream and lob a couple of pieces in by the shingle beach where I saw one the other morning. Nothing emerges—just a moorhen popping out on the opposite bank briefly, to scream.

I walk along the bank and chuck the rest in piece by piece, up by where a little waterfall churns the clear water. Still nothing. Then, a minute later, the first eel approaches.

It methodically passes along the rocks on my side of the falls, as if sniffing like a dog or cat. It noses a fallen leaf, moss, and swims near or round a couple of pieces of fat without so much as a glance. Its fin grazes the surface of the stream, sending brush-thin ripples out across the water.

Then, another eel swims up from the shingle beach. It is just as long and dark, and busies itself patrolling underneath overhanging branches by the far bank.

By now the white fat chunks, each about the size of a little toe, are drifting out from the falls. There is no doubt the eels, suddenly summoned, can taste something in the water. Neither of them seem to spot the floating flesh.

Then, a chunk floats into the centre of the water, where the surface is glassy. The first eel moves towards a leaf nearby, rising to the surface to snuffle. It finds the fat, and raising its jaws, mouths the entire chunk in a single movement.

Almost at the same moment, one of the large eels scents the fat and glides towards the first. Swimming up to the spot, it can’t find the chunk for itself, and simply clamps its jaws around the other’s belly. The bitten eel thrashes in the water and shatters the surface. Eventually, it slides off downstream, although not before the second eel bites its departing tail.

New Zealand has been extremely defensive of pests. At arrivals in Auckland, an official cleaned the mud off my walking boots to prevent me bringing in invisible pests. Along the highways Department of Conservation posters warn against particular breeds of carp.

The country’s attitude to a pandemic is no less rigorous. It manages to isolate and treat all the country’s cases in a matter of weeks.

26 April. No new cases in New Zealand. I book my flight home. Mary and James and I go surfing. At this beach, waves run long and straight. I am a less than amateur surfer and after half an hour of fumbled attempts to stand, I paddle out.

I like sitting on the board in ‘green water’, before any waves crest. The sea slapping the underside of the board makes an uneven sound, like rain. Out here you can see the headlands and hear the shouts of better surfers up the bay. I like watching the view, the unbroken waves. Over my shoulder, my family. The water has a rough shine like hammered metal. Waves roll underneath me and pass on.

That night, the rain on the roof and the wind in the palms combine to make a near-perfect white noise. Ten thousand miles from London, in a tropical paradise, I fantasise about the city. I long to hear the new quiet that pushes up through the tarmac like weeds where the cars ran.

5 May. I fly home, changing masks at each stop. At Heathrow, no-one greets or stops us as we disembark. In a matter of minutes, I leave the airport and board the Piccadilly line. The smell of hand sanitiser reminds me of doing the beer run with Dad. I settle in the old moquette and watch Ravenscourt Park zip by, super green.

I change onto the Victoria line northbound. At the last stop, I climb up out of the tunnels into the sun and walk the last half-mile home. Walthamstow’s streets are clean and clear, Lloyd Park is full of children, and cherry trees foam with blossom.

In that first week, I feel tense as a coiled spring, waiting for depression to clamp its jaws around me. But I am OK: I freelance, I cook, I do my own laundry. I spend the evenings drinking beer with my flatmate, her handmade ‘Welcome Home’ garland with its paper eel still fluttering on my door. Blackbirds call from the back garden, and over the fence wood pigeons and parrots crowd lime trees in the park. On Thursday nights, our street rings with the chimes of saucepans beaten on doorsteps, the clatter of ratchets and rattles.

At the weekend, I Skype my family. It is Sunday evening in Whangarei. They’re lined up together on the sofa of the Airbnb, shoulders pressed together in the video frame. They’re still out there, in paradise. They are safe. They are busy. The eels twist softly in the dark stream, where they belong.

Ellie Broughton is a writer living in London. She has previously had creative non-fiction published in Elsewhere journal, and features published in Vice, the i paper, LitHub and The Guardian.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 2nd, 2020.