Ella is under the sea. Colourful fronds sway lazily all around her and a stingray flaps languidly past. She watches with fascinated eyes as it drifts away. Ella’s five and she’s never been to an aquarium before. There aren’t many other people here either. She’d imagined it as a busy place, but today the whirring and bubbling of the filters fills the space usually crammed with chattering families and boisterous school trips.
Earlier they’d visited the gift shop. Dad bought Ella a pile of toys on his credit card; pink glittery glasses, a stuffed octopus, some chocolate. Ella thinks it must be her birthday, but her birthday is in December and it’s only March.
Mam and Dad aren’t saying anything, so Ella becomes a mermaid, fingers stickily trailing along the acrylic tunnel, pretending that the pressure she can feel is just part of life beneath the waves. She spins, filling her long hair with sea-bubbles. She has a beautiful shimmering green tail, and...
Mam’s voice cuts through the water. Ella drops her arms, opens her eyes.
“Daddy needs to tell you something.”
Ella hears Mam’s voice shaking. She looks at Dad, searching for that ‘uh, oh’ eye-roll they share when Mam gets ‘emotional’. But Dad’s looking at the floor.
“Lisa, do I have to…”
“Daniel. You’ve done this, you tell her. You don’t get to be the fun guy this time”
Mam sounded like she was going to cry. Again. This was the first time they’d seen Dad in weeks, Ella had been so excited when Mam had let them come to the aquarium instead of school. Why is she spoiling it?
“Alright” Dad sighs “Ella? Listen. I’ve got to go away for a while.”
“On a trip? For work?” Ella is dancing again. Her fingers trail through a shoal of rainbow-coloured fish She isn’t looking at Dad, pretending away the strangeness.
“No. This time I won’t be coming back to live with you and Mam.”
“Ever?” Ella stops. Dad had gone away before, but always came back.
Dad looks at Mam, who turns away. Rolling his eyes, Dad turns back to Ella.
“Yes, love. Now, you remember Kelly, don’t you?”
Ella made a face. Horrible Kelly with her stupid orange hair.
“Kelly’s having a baby - your little brother or sister! Now you’re a big girl I’ll need to help Kelly when the baby comes. I’m not going to have much time to...”
“But I don’t want to be away from you.” Ella feels the panic rising. Mam wouldn’t make Dad go - not forever?
Dad hugs her then and she sinks into his warm reassurance. But too soon he lets go and she’s adrift in the deserted aquarium.
And Mam is pushing Dad away and blocking Ella from running to him and Dad is shouting and Ella is crying and Dad is walking away and Ella doesn’t understand what’s happening, but Dad is gone and Ella isn’t a mermaid anymore, just a confused girl in pink glittery glasses.