The Life of Picasso – a short story.

My daughter, Olivia, owned thirty-six toy frogs, all shapes, sizes and shades of green. They lined her bed, her bookshelf and chest of drawers. On the eve of her tenth birthday, still dressed in her frog-covered pyjamas, Olivia pleaded with me,
‘I want a real frog now. One I can actually love and hold. These toys are boring.’ She held up her finest frog, Sebastian. His front legs, made of emerald velvet and stuffed with sawdust, drooped. She shook him at me.
‘I’ve checked out tree frogs on the Internet. I know what to do. It’s easy.’

I couldn’t disappoint her. I was like the old woman in the shoe. Four children, one husband, three surviving rabbits, two blue budgies, one guinea pig, and now a live green tree frog named Picasso. The back yard was littered with empty hutches, abandoned birdcages and cracked fish tanks. Along the fence between the rose bushes, rows of makeshift crosses each inscribed in a child’s handwriting marked our cemetery.

Olivia lifted Picasso from the resurrected fish tank that was now his home and sat him on the flat of her hand.
‘He feels slimy!’
‘Cover him with your other hand or he’ll jump.’ I said. I hovered over the two of them ready for action.
‘You don’t need to tell me what to do.’ Olivia looked down on Picasso with a mother’s smile.

Picasso took a flying leap from her hand and landed at my feet. Olivia squealed.
‘Grab him,’ I said, ‘before he jumps again.’ But Olivia only whimpered. She held onto her hand like it’d been bitten.
‘Yuk. He peed on me,’ she said. ‘It’s disgusting. I’m never touching that frog again, ever.’

I rescued Picasso from the floor. He was all-legs and the suction pads on the tip of his toes stuck to my hands as I tried to peel him from me. I picked off bits of fluff that clung to his body and put him back into the water bowl in his tank. I was careful to place him in the shallow end where he sat like a statue and soon fell asleep.

On this humid summer night, Olivia practised her cello and Picasso blew a bubble under his chin that went in and out like a bellows. Then he gave off a deep ‘wark-wark’ sound. It rumbled in unison to the scraping of the bow over the strings.

I lifted the lid of the cricket container to let four or five crickets slide into the tank.
‘That’s revolting,’ Olivia said, and zipped her cello into its case. She marched off upstairs.

The crickets edged out from under the cover of an egg carton and plunged into the tank. One managed to leap outside. It landed on the table. I grabbed for it but it sprung into a gigantic arc and landed on the floor. I bent to grab again but my hand came up empty as the lone cricket scuttled under the skirting board and out of reach.

Back in the tank Picasso noticed movement nearby. He sat very still and fixed his black eyes on the other intruders. Then in a sudden rush he slipped out his long pink tongue and dragged in a cricket whole.

Some months later the fine point at the end of Picasso’s spine began to jut out in a way it never had before. There were dark raised spots along his skin. He had lost his bright green sparkle and turned into the colour of the ocean on an overcast day. Picasso did not leap to swallow the crickets any more. He was too slow and getting thinner.

I made Olivia come with me when I took Picasso to the vet, one who specialised in reptiles and amphibians. The walls of his consulting room were covered in animal pictures and in the waiting room there was a large glass cage lined with carpet off-cuts. The fat scaly tail of a goanna poked out from behind a rock. The place stank of Sorbitol.

The vet was a young man with a gold stud in his left ear lobe. He picked up Picasso in his fine-gloved, well-washed hands and squeezed the frog’s stomach. He invited us to do the same. Olivia pulled back but I slid my fingers across the ridge of Picasso’s belly. It felt as moist and squishy as ever. I was too scared to push harder to feel whatever else might lie underneath.

‘This frog has a severe case of gravel ingestion,’ the vet told us. ‘What sort of set up do you have for him at home?’

I felt accused and my explanation sounded limp even though I had followed all the instructions from the pet shop where we bought Picasso.
‘Thought so,’ the vet said. ‘Too much gravel. Whenever this frog swallows a cricket he takes in a piece of gravel with it, and for some reason he hasn’t managed to pass any out.’
‘Why did you have put in so much, Mum?’ Olivia glared at me. ‘I told you it was too much.’

The vet pushed once more onto the sides of Picasso’s belly in a way that made us both squirm.
‘He’s got a gut full of stones. At least a third of his weight. A dose of laxatives might fix it. It’s all I can suggest. Caramel flavoured,’ he said. ‘Frogs love the taste.’

Picasso took it in. He had no choice. The vet had his mouth pried open with a metal stick and shoveled the stuff in; brown and gluey, like melted toffee.
‘As long as he doesn’t vomit it back up,’ the vet said, ‘it might help shift the gravel. It’s his only hope.’ He washed his hands for a second time. ‘Put him in a separate container tonight, otherwise you won’t know whether he’s passed anything.’

I settled Picasso in the shoebox I’d brought him in.
‘That box is no good,’ the vet said, ‘cardboard burns their skin. An ice-cream tub would be better. Always wet your hands first and leave them wet when handling your frog.’ He rinsed his own hands under the tap yet again. ‘Otherwise frogs are surprisingly strong.’

‘We’ve had this one for ages,’ I told him. I did not want him thinking I was a complete incompetent but now I wondered how long was it since I last cleaned out Picasso’s tank? Maybe it was my fault after all. Maybe I’d left him in his own mess for too long.

I remembered my goldfish Priscilla. I got her when I was Olivia’s age. She zipped about in her bowl for months until one day out of nowhere she produced a long line of what looked like eggs. Little jelly eyes that stuck to her rear end instead of dropping off the way fish poo normally does. Then her swim bladder went and she tipped over to one side. I poked at her and she righted herself again but a short time later there she was back on her side. My mother said she was done for.
I put her in some water in a glass jar, which I left overnight in the freezer. That way she could float into a coma, freeze to death and not feel a thing.
I still felt guilty.

‘If he can get rid of the stones,’ the vet said, ‘Picasso’ll be okay. Otherwise we’ll have to put him down. It’s the kindest way.’

Later I checked Picasso. He had managed to escape from the yellow ice-cream tub but not before leaving behind a pile of pebbles. He was half submerged in the water bowl, like a crocodile. I put five meal worms, like thin orange witchety grubs, in the centre of a dish and propped it in front of him.

Meal worms from the pet shop came hidden in small plastic containers filled with sawdust. I kept the container in the fridge where the meal worms went into a sort of hibernation with the cold. When I picked them out one by one they wriggled to life under the warmth of my fingers then waggled their short legs.
Even warmed, the meal worms were sluggish but they moved enough to attract Picasso’s attention. He took in five at once. A gulp, a burp and they were gone.

It was the law of the jungle and it got to me. When I had first noticed Picasso’s weight loss I worried that his diet was off. The pet shop man suggested instead of only offering crickets, as an occasional treat, I should feed him a few pinkie mice. I bought three. They came home in a brown paper bag. I could scarcely look at them let alone leave them at the base of the tank for dinner. Hairless, pink and foetal, their eyes still sheathed in skin, they squirmed noiselessly among the gravel. They were gone the next time I looked.

Olivia pointed her finger at me. ‘How could you do it? You’re a murderer.’
‘I only did as the vet suggested. You needn’t try to make me feel guilty, I feel bad enough already.’

I always felt guilty when one of the animals got sick or died. Frogs, rabbits, guinea pigs. I should have kept them cleaner or warmer. I should have fed them different food. I should have offered a better life or at least taught Olivia how. At the same time a part of me wished them dead.

The night after our visit to the vet I fell into a restless sleep and dreamed of open mouths that swallowed baby mice whole. I woke in a flap.

Couldn’t keep anything alive. What sort of mother was I? The sheets on my side of the bed were soaked with sweat. I slid out from under them and tiptoed down stairs.

Picasso in his tank leaped Tarzan-like from one branch of the spider plant to the next. I opened the fridge door and doled out another dish of meal worms. They wriggled blindly on the saucer. Picasso eyed the white dish then plunged at it and onto it, swallowing five meal worms in one hit. He bulged slightly in the middle but sat upright on the plate.

I could just imagine those meal worms as they writhed about in Picasso’s belly, in among the gravel. My back ached, my eyes were blurred from lack of sleep but there was Picasso as green and shiny as a bright new day.

At breakfast Olivia walked past the frog tank reading her latest Pony Pals.
‘Look at Picasso,’ I said. ‘How well he’s doing.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘That’s good.’ She gazed out through the kitchen window. ‘Mum. I want my room painted pink. And can I have a horse?’

My mother hums

We take the yellow bus to Camberwell. It smells of shoe polish. It smells of leather. I sit beside my mother near the front. Today it is just the two of us, my mother and me, and we are taking the bus to Camberwell to shop.

I want to complain about my mother’s plans to buy my sister pantyhose. I am older than my sister and I am still in socks. Why should she have stockings before me?

But I do not want stockings. They are too grown up. Pantyhose are the new thing – stockings like tights that go all the way up to your waist. You pull them on like trousers and do not need to support them with a suspender belt.

How I hate suspender belts. I wear them in winter for school. Mine invariably loses the little bobbles that I poke through the hooks to keep the stockings in place. Once I lose the normal bobbles, I use three-penny bits but the coins are not attached except by the force of the stocking through the hook. They easily come adrift and I wind up with a threepenny bit hanging around my ankle underneath the stocking, which sags on the side where the coin has come loose.

Pantyhose belong to a new breed of women, modern women, not twelve year old girls like my sister, besides I should have them first. I am nearly two years older. But I do not ask for them and my sister nags. She nags and nags and drives my mother to buy them for her, even though we do not have enough money for such items.

My mother hums. She must be nervous. The bus turns the corners too fast and I slide across the seat right up against her. My mother’s body is hard and soft at the same time. She has lost her stomach muscles, she tells me from having so many babies.

An ambulance screeches past. Its siren splits the air. My mother hums on as though she has not heard. I watch the driver’s neck. It has uneven black stubbly bits that run down and hide under his collar. The bus driver has fat stubby fingers that work the gears whenever we slow down to stop.

My mother looks ahead, still humming. Her nose juts out hooked. She is proud of it. Aquiline, she says, like an eagle. A sign of aristocracy. My mother is proud, but she sits hunched over in her old green coat with her handbag on her lap. She does not wear pantyhose. She wears stockings held up with her girdle. The girdle is pink, skin coloured. She wears it to hold in her stomach muscles on account of all those babies.

My mother is fat and frumpy and I am pleased about this. I would not want a mother who looks young and is pretty. Mothers should look like mothers.

My mother fiddles in her handbag for her compact. It opens with a puff of powder; sweet and tacky to smell like Lux Soap. My mother dabs the powder on her nose. She does not want her nose to shine. She squints into the compact’s tiny mirror and smears on a line of lipstick. Glossy and red.

My mother was very beautiful once. We have a photograph. In it she looks like a movie star. She gazes out from the photo with movie star eyes, with a wistful look, as if she is performing for a camera.

The top of the bus brushes against the branches of street trees as we turn corners. At Stanhope Street it stops for an old man who fumbles in his pocket for change and nearly falls over when the bus starts up again.
‘Pull the cord,’ my mother says. ‘We mustn’t miss our stop.’
I am taller than my mother. The cord like a skipping rope is taut till I pull on it. A loud buzz and the driver slows down. We walk towards the shops along an alleyway that leads to the train station.

My father will kill us all. The thought pops into my mind and I want to push it away but it will not go away. He will kill us all one by one. He will start with my mother move onto my sister and then it will be my turn. He will work through the girls and then start on the boys. I have not yet worked out how he will do it, but I know he will.