“Rescue Attempt” by David Morris

12 February 2021 on Fiction   Tags:

One morning last summer I was about to pee before getting ready for work, my eyes still half closed with sleep, when there was splashing and a dark shape moved in the toilet. I jumped back and watched the rim, now wide awake. Whatever was in there didn’t climb over the side. The splashing stopped and I inched forward, craning my neck until I could see inside. The creature was olive-green, tubular with slick, shiny skin and small black eyes. Motionless, its head poked above the water. Its body extended into the toilet’s drain pipe, making it impossible to guess its length. At first, I thought it was a snake, but then I saw the gills on the side of its head. That’s when I thought it might be an eel.

“How the hell did you get here?”

I lived on the apartment building’s ninth floor.   

The creature started thrashing about, slapping the side of the bowl. I grabbed the toilet’s lid and dropped it and jumped back to the doorway, turning side-on, ready to flee. I watched the lid for a full minute, expecting to see it lift and the creature to emerge. But there was no movement. I hurried back to my bedroom, thinking how I’d be late for work now that my stay-in-bed-until-the-last-possible-minute-and-still-get-to-work-on-time routine was disrupted. I’d have to deal with whatever it was in my toilet later.

My alarm clock read 7:25. It was a thirty-minute walk into the city to get to the bank where I worked. I had to be at my desk by eight. I’d still make it. But instead of getting dressed, I picked up my phone and googled, “Australian eel”. The images that came up were a match: a short-finned eel. I was sure there was an organisation that rescued animals that were injured or in difficulty: kangaroos hit by cars, seagulls tangled in fishing line discarded on the beach, possums attacked by dogs or cats, and eels stuck in pipes, even toilets. I’d find out who to call after Mr Morgan, the bank’s manager, finished his morning inspection, checking everyone was at their desk, bent over their work. I’d used up three days of sick-leave in the past month, faking gastro. I couldn’t miss another day without a medical certificate. Even if I took a photograph of the eel with my phone and sent it to Morgan as proof, he wouldn’t think it was something that warranted taking time off. He’d say, “It’s just a slimy eel”. In Morgan’s mind, wanting to stay home and find someone to remove the eel would be further evidence I wasn’t dedicated to my work. My next performance evaluation was in two weeks. On my last one, in the section titled “Job Commitment”, Morgan ticked “Unsatisfactory”. To be fair, his assessment was spot on. But the week before, head office had announced there’d be layoffs. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. The clock read 7:27. I threw open the wardrobe and yanked my suit off its hanger.

In the bathroom, no sound came from the toilet. I lifted the lid a few cautious centimetres and peered in, hoping the eel had disappeared back down the pipe. But it was still there, resting its head against the bowl. I lowered the lid. Then I lifted it, thinking the eel might need some air. But I didn’t want it to escape and slither around the apartment, leaving a slimy trail on the carpet. I lowered the lid again and bent down and examined the small gap between the lid and the bowl. It was sufficient to let air in.

I dashed towards the front door, still needing to pee, thinking I’d use the bathroom in the apartment building’s gym, and that I had to hurry.

*

I worked in a small, windowless office at the back of the bank. If I stood in the middle of the office and took a step in any direction, I could touch the wall in front of me. I hadn’t hung pictures on the walls like some of my colleagues. That would be like saying, “I give up. I’m never getting out of here so I may as well make this tiny space as cheery as possible”. But they could hang all the pictures of lush, green forests and white-sand beaches they wanted, their offices still resembled a prison cell.

As soon as I sat down at the pine-laminate desk wedged into the corner, my heart still pounding from running, Morgan launched into the office brandishing a manila folder, shaking his balloon-shaped head.

“You’re late.”

“I’m sorry. There was ...”

“I’m not interested,” Morgan snorted, now standing so close his flabby, pasty white skin was visible through the gaps in his shirt, where the buttons strained against his stomach. “We have a problem.”

He opened the folder and pulled out a dozen documents and spread them across my desk, straightening each one as he laid it down and tapping it with his index finger before laying down the next one.

“What. Are. These?”

He gripped the edge of the desk and leaned over. His cologne, which I guessed was supposed to be something “woody”, was as pungent as disinfectant and irritated my nostrils.

I pretended to examine the yellowing documents.

“They’re home loans from the nineteen-fifties,” I said, playing dumb.

“Theeeese!” Morgan pointed at the staple in the top left hand corner of each document, saying, “This ... and this ... and this ... and this ...”

“I must have missed them.” Don’t apologise, I ordered myself. Do not apologise.

Morgan snorted again.

“You need to pay closer attention.”

The bank was scanning every document in its archive. In case of fire, Morgan said when I started. Or maybe it was for some other reason and I’d forgotten. I didn’t know. I’d been at the same bank, in the same office, at the same desk, doing the same job for three years. And that job was to ensure all the staples were removed before the documents were scanned. It wasn’t the sort of work that held one’s attention. Morgan explained what I already knew: the documents couldn’t be scanned if the staples weren’t removed.

“If you don’t want to do the job, we’ll find someone who does. Do you want to work here or not?”

Until a few weeks earlier, the first thing I did when I got to work was search online for another job. But no-one was hiring. Then I figured, even if I did find something there was a good chance it wouldn’t be any better than this job. It might even be worse. So I gave up looking.

“I want to work here.” My lips felt like they were fighting against forming the words.

“Then do it properly. This, right here,” Morgan pointed at the staple on one of the documents. “This is important.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Do that.”

On his way out, Morgan called back, “It’s why you’re here.”

I waited until he had gone before I opened the desk’s drawer and took out the staple-remover. I looked hard at that thin, bevelled piece of plastic. This was what most of my waking hours were reduced to: using this to remove staples from bank documents. I was twenty-nine years old.

I picked up Mr Ernie Blythe’s home loan from 1959 and dug the tip of the staple-remover under the staple and flicked my wrist, instead of inching and wiggling my hand slowly forward so that the staple lifted away from the document. The corners of the four pages of the home loan tore away. I threw them in the bin under the desk, rather than reattach them with tape. A small, pathetic act of rebellion. I looked at the clock on the wall. Nineteen minutes after eight. The bank closed at four, then Morgan locked the doors and I had to work for another hour before I was released. I examined Ernie Blythe’s home loan. It took him just ten years to pay it off. What did he do then? Anything he wanted, I imagined. It would take me thirty years to pay off my own mortgage, which was standard. I’d be fifty-eight. Fifty-eight!

“Enough of that,” I said. “Don’t think about it.”

Of course, that didn’t work.

Then I said, “You will get out of here. One day.”

But that didn’t work, either.

I started scrolling through websites on my phone, reading about eels and trying to find someone who could remove the one in my toilet. One website stated that short-finned eels were on the brink of extinction; their habitats, rivers and creeks and ponds, were being drained for apartment block developments and they moved through pockets of water deep under the new buildings, trying to follow ancient paths. I lived only two kilometres from the Yarra River, which was probably where the eel wanted to get to. I thought about its determination, climbing nine floors through the apartment building’s pipes to try and reach its destination. But it had to be tired from its steep climb. What if it couldn’t hold its head up any longer and drowned? What was I going to find when I arrived home? Its bloated, lifeless body in my toilet? Or, it might have found its way back down the pipe. Perhaps I was worrying unnecessarily. Still, I shouldn’t have left it. And then, to close the lid on it! But eels needed water. Maybe I’d done the right thing closing the lid, keeping it in the bowl.

I googled, “rescuing wildlife in Melbourne”, and opened the first website listed. A picture of a man, tall and broad-shouldered, cradling a koala like it was an infant, appeared on the screen. I called the phone number at the top of the page. A woman answered and asked how she could help.

“There’s an eel in my toilet.”

It sounded like the start of a joke. The woman didn’t laugh.

“Is it alive or dead?”

“Alive.” Then I said, “I think.”

“You don’t know if it’s alive?”

I didn’t say anything and considered hanging up, before admitting to her I’d left the eel to come to work.

“But it wasn’t injured or in danger. If it was, I never would have left it.”

I waited for her to yell at me, “That’s hardly the point.” Instead, she asked for my name, address, and phone number. But I knew what she thought: I was a terrible person.

“We’ll send someone over.”

“When?”

“I’ll contact one of our workers right now.”

“Now?”

“We don’t want to leave the animal stuck in your toilet any longer than we have to.”

“Of course not.” I opened my mouth to explain how it would be difficult for me to get away from work. But what could I say? Can we make it later tonight? I have important staples to pull out. I’m sure the eel can hang on until then.

“Terry’s on call,” the woman said. “Hold on. I’ll check if he’s available.”

Maybe I’d get lucky. Maybe Terry wouldn’t be available until lunch time, when I could run back to my apartment, have him get the eel out of the toilet, and be back at the bank before my break was over.

Over the phone, a local radio station started to play. An ad for a car dealership came on. I’d resisted buying a new car for several months. My current one, which I bought second-hand five years ago, was fifteen years old. Every time I had it serviced, the mechanic found something expensive that needed fixing. Brakes, suspension, tyres. My father always said, “A second-hand car is a money pit.” The payments on a loan for a new car would keep me locked into my job, but it was only a matter of time before I gave in. The mortgage, my student loan, I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. What was one more debt to add to the pile?

A song I didn’t recognise started to play.

I had a sudden vision of the eel struggling to keep its head up, making one final effort, and then giving up and slipping under the water’s surface.

The song clicked off.

“Terry can be there in twenty minutes.”

“Twenty minutes?”

“Problem?”

I looked at the office wall, in the direction of Morgan’s office, trying to work out how to get away. I considered a family emergency: my grandmother in the hospital, my brother in a car accident.

“Sir?”

What if Morgan asked questions? Checked things out? But I couldn’t leave the eel trapped in the toilet.

“I’ll be there.”

I hung up the phone and left my office and walked down the hallway. I wouldn’t say anything to Morgan. I couldn’t stand the thought of making up some lie, looking all forlorn and abasing myself, only to have him make me feel guilty and negligent for leaving my work undone. I just had to hope he wouldn’t notice my absence. I took a deep breath and held it as I strode past his office, head forward, and strode through the customer service area towards the glass doors at the entrance.

Outside, the sun was already hot. As I ran along the footpath, I started to sweat under my suit.

*

There was a white ute flecked with dirt parked outside my apartment building. The name of the organisation I’d called was painted on its side. A man who looked like he was about forty was in the driver’s seat, his arm dangling out of the window. He was tanned and had a bushy, sandy brown beard. His eyes were closed and his head was tilted towards the sun.

“Terry?”

He opened his eyes and looked at me. He smiled. “You must be James. The man with the eel in his toilet.”

I said that I was.

“You don’t look so good.” He reached over and took a drink bottle from the console between the front seats and held it up. “You want some water?”

I thanked him and said I was fine, wiping the sweat off my forehead and taking a deep breath. I pulled my shirt away from my chest to try and cool down, but the back of it was moist and clammy on my skin.

Terry opened the ute’s door and climbed out. He wore a pair of heavy duty boots, the toes scuffed and scraped, and tight khaki shorts, revealing powerful, tree-trunk thick legs. He walked to the back of the ute, peeled back the tarpaulin and pulled out a large pail.

“Let’s get it home,” he said.

Riding up in the elevator, we stood side by side. He smelled of sweat, but it wasn’t an unpleasant smell. 

“You lived here long?” he asked.

“Six months.”

He made a low, humming noise and nodded, like what I’d said meant something to him.

“They put these places up pretty quickly,” he said. “Soundproofing issues in a lot of them. You have any problems?”

“It’s not so bad.”

The fact was, I heard my neighbour every time he did his vacuuming, or sneezed.

“Do you live nearby?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

He laughed.

“No.”

He said the name of the place where he lived. I didn’t tell him I’d never heard of it, but maybe he could tell from my expression because he said,

“It’s about an hour’s drive from here. It’s quiet, which suits me.”

Wherever it was, I was sure there wasn’t much out there; no shops or cafes or restaurants or bars or cinemas. I couldn’t live in such a place. The boredom would kill me.

Terry had wiped his boots before we entered the building, but as we walked along the hallway they left a faint imprint of dirt on the carpet. I didn’t like seeing it, and was relieved when he took the boots off before entering my apartment.

Inside, Terry stood in the middle of the kitchen/dining/lounge area and looked around. He didn’t say anything, but I was sure he was thinking about how small the apartment was, or how it still stunk from last night’s BBQ Meatlovers from Domino’s. The air didn’t circulate even with the windows open.

“The bathroom is through here.”

If the eel’s still there, I thought as I led Terry down the short hallway, please, let it be alive.

I stood off to the side as Terry approached the toilet.

“I closed the lid because I didn’t want it escaping,” I said. “I figured it needed to stay in water.” 

“I understand. But you needn’t have worried. Eels can survive out of water for a couple of days.”

“I didn’t know.”

Please, let it be alive.

Terry bent down and lifted the lid. I almost burst out laughing when I heard water splashing.

“Looks like it’s OK,” Terry said.

He stood up and stepped towards the shower and opened the door. He turned on the water, holding the pail underneath.

I felt like I should say something, but didn’t know what.

“Have you ever had to rescue an eel from a toilet before?”  I asked.

“This is a first.” He chuckled. “But there’s always something new in this job. Last week, a woman called because she had a bat flying around her house.”

“How did you catch it?”

“Fishing net,” Terry laughed. “Sometimes, you have to improvise.”

He turned the water off and returned to the toilet, getting down on his knees. He reached into the bowl.

“You don’t wear gloves?”

“No,” he said. “Gloves can strip off the eel’s protective slime.”

I moved closer to the toilet.

“Its instinct is to be wary,” he said. His hand hovered above the eel. The eel’s gaze was locked on it. “Which makes sense. The ones whose instinct was to trust us probably didn’t last very long.”

“Do they bite?”

“Sure. If they feel threatened.”

The eel’s head didn’t move, but I thought any second it would strike out at Terry’s hand, like a cobra.

“You’ll be OK,” Terry whispered. “I’m here to help.”

I leaned forward. The tips of Terry’s fingers made contact with the top of the eel’s head. The eel jerked away.

“You’re OK,” Terry whispered, again. Over and over. “You’re OK.”

“It isn’t hurt, is it?”

“No,” Terry said. “Mostly frustrated, I imagine. Probably thinking, How the hell did I end up here? And how do I get out? Or scared. Good thing you called when you did. We wouldn’t want to leave it feeling that way for too long.”

Had the woman on the phone told him that I’d delayed calling for help?

“I would have called sooner,” I said. “But things at work ...”

“I understand,” he said.

But he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand that I was deep in debt and my head was on the block at work. He didn’t understand that not everyone could make rescuing an eel from their toilet their top priority.

“There’s a lot going on, right now.”

“Like I said, I understand.” He was moving his hand millimetre by millimetre towards the eel, which continued to watch it. “I didn’t always do this for a living.”

I was about to ask him what he meant, but he touched the eel, which flinched only slightly, and started stroking it. The eel lowered its head, like it was enjoying his caress.

“There you go.”

“That’s incredible.”

It really was.

Terry didn’t say anything. He continued to stroke the eel, and with his other hand moved the pail to the front of the toilet.

“Will it be OK?” I asked.

“It will.”

Despite his gentleness up to that point, I expected him to grab the unsuspecting eel and rip it out, and anticipated watching the eel thrash about, fighting against him. Instead, in a swift movement, he slid one hand down the eel’s body and pulled it forward and placed his other hand underneath it, guiding it over the bowl’s rim, so that its head disappeared into the pail. His actions were so smooth it was hard to believe he hadn’t done this before. The eel slid into the water and coiled itself inside the pail. It must have been a half a metre long.

“That wasn’t so hard,” Terry said, standing up and lifting the pail. “Once he knew we were working towards the same goal.”

He looked down at the eel. “Isn’t that right?”

“How do you know he’s a he?”

“His size. The males are smaller than the females.”

“How big do the females get?”

“About twice the size.”

“Really,” I said.

Outside the apartment, Terry put the eel down to put his boots back on. It wasn’t moving. I wondered if it was afraid, or if it knew things were going to work out.

In the elevator, I asked Terry if he thought the eel was trying to get to the Yarra River.

“Yes,” he said, and I felt a degree of satisfaction about being right. He said that’s where he planned to release it. He knew where there was a quiet spot. Outside, I walked with him back to his ute and thanked him. I looked in the pail, where the eel was motionless. I smiled, knowing it would soon be back where it belonged, but I was also disappointed the experience was over.

I raised my hand and said, “So long”. The eel didn’t look at me. I didn’t move. I thought about how in half an hour I would be back at my desk, removing staples from pointless bank documents. The thought made my body sag.

“You don’t want to come with me and release him?”

Terry said it like he was confused.

“I wish I could. But I’m afraid I have to get back to work.”

“It won’t take long. Twenty minutes, tops.”

He held his arm out, like he was guiding me towards the ute’s passenger door.

I opened my mouth and emitted a strange, strangled croak. I still didn’t move. Morgan would have realised I was gone by now. The longer I was away, the harder it would be to come up with an excuse for my absence, and the greater the trouble I’d get into. But I couldn’t go back to the bank. Not yet. I’d think of something to tell him. As I walked towards the passenger side door, I felt anxious. Then invigorated.

*

“You said you hadn’t always done this for a living,” I said, as we drove towards the river. “What did you do before?”

Terry drove with one hand on the wheel, his other arm resting on the edge of the open window.

“I spent most of my life working in a warehouse that stored and delivered boxes filled with the crap they sell in two-dollar shops. Then, five years ago, I saw an ad calling for volunteers for wildlife rescue. Weekends, mostly. I replied to the ad because I wanted to do more with my life ... I wish I’d done it when I was younger.”

I looked at him, thinking he’d be looking at me, but he was staring straight ahead.

“Then it turned into a paid gig,” he said. He pressed a button on the dashboard and my window wound down.

I rested my arm on the window’s edge. The air felt good on my face.

I looked down at the pail between my legs. The eel moved its head, and then flicked the end of its body so that water splashed onto my trousers.

“It’s OK,” I said. I said it again. The eel settled down a few seconds later.

When we took a turn, forcing me to lean sideways, I clasped my knees tight against the pail.

I thought about what I did on the weekends: sleeping in, binge-watching TV shows, getting drunk, trying to forget the week just gone, dreading the one ahead.

“Had you worked with animals before you volunteered?”

“No,” he said. “But you pick it up pretty quickly. I think we have an innate empathy for them, especially when they’re in trouble. The rest is learning about handling procedures.”

I thought about my own reaction when I first saw the eel, and how I was scared and then more worried about getting to work on time than helping it.

We pulled onto a dirt track. There were no other cars around. I didn’t know where we were.

“But a lot of it is dealing with animals that have been hit by cars. Kangaroos and wombats, mostly. Dead, or dying. That can really get to you. You have to be prepared for that.”

I’d never touched a dead animal, or watched one die. I wondered if I’d be prepared for that.

I wondered if it would get to me.

“We’re here,” Terry said.

He parked at the edge of a steep bank. Below us was overgrown grass, and trees whose species I couldn’t name. Beyond that, the river. The current created ripples on the muddy water. Terry got out of the ute and I followed, carrying the eel.

“It really is beautiful,” Terry said, standing on the edge of the bank. “All those years cooped up in that warehouse really makes you appreciate something like this.”

He took a long, deep breath, and exhaled. He gazed, as if in a trance, at the scene in front of us.

I looked and looked at the canopy of overhanging tree branches and the dense gathering of bushes with their small red and orange and purple flowers, and the river, at the exact spot where Terry was looking. But whatever he felt, I didn’t feel it. I felt only my distance from everything. I listened to the same silence as him, and breathed in the same faint grassy scent that I was sure was part of his experience, that he likely found calming or reassuring or affirming, but it only increased my awareness that I was disconnected from these surroundings, and that something important was missing in me. I looked down at the ground.

Terry moved forward and started climbing over the edge of the bank. When he was over, he reached his hand out.

“Give him to me,” he said.

It was strange, but I didn’t want to let go of the eel, and didn’t move for a few moments, but there was nothing I could do except hand the pail over to Terry. It felt like I had failed at something.

“You’ll be OK,” he said. He was looking right at me. He reached his other hand out.

I examined the river bank, the grass and soil. My suit and shoes were bound to get dirty if I went down there.

“Come on,” he said.

I stepped forward and took his hand. His skin felt like dried-out leather, and it was rough with callouses. I didn’t resist as he gently pulled me towards him. He held me tight as I made my way over the bank’s edge, and kept holding me until I found my balance.

“There you go,” he said. “You’re almost there.”

I followed him through the thick grass, loose blades stuck to my trousers. My shoes sank into the mud as we approached the river.

What would Morgan say when I returned to the bank?

“You can’t work here looking like that.”

But I didn’t stop. I’d come this far and now I wanted to see the eel released into the water.

We made our way under the low-hanging foliage of several trees. It was cool and shaded.

Terry set the pail down at the river’s edge.

“You should do the honours,” he said.

I didn’t move.

“I ...” I said, the start and end of my explanation that I didn’t know what to do.

“All you have to do is tip the pail,” Terry said.

He said, “Go on.”

I stepped forward and picked up the pail and, adjusting its angle by gentle centimetres, tipped it. Sure enough, the eel flowed from the pail into the river. I watched its natural, easy movement through the water, tracking it as it was borne along by the current, a dark shape disappearing and then reappearing. I managed to track it for maybe half a minute before it was gone, but I kept looking for it. I must have stood there searching the water’s ripples for a minute, maybe more, before Terry softly cleared his throat. I guessed he was letting me know he had to return to work. I was sure he felt bad about interrupting.

“We should go,” he said. He was right. The experience was over. What good did it do me to stay there? But even as I heard twigs crunch under his footsteps, and heard him climbing back up the bank, I didn’t move. Now, looking back, I don’t know if it was the eel or a trick of the sunlight, but as I searched the river’s surface I saw something. It was moving further and further away from me, but I tried to keep it in sight.

*

Art: Digital Painting by Joe Lugara.

David Morris lives in Canberra, Australia. He studied creative writing at the University of Melbourne, where ‘Rescue Attempt’ started as a writing exercise for a course that engaged with contemporary eco-fictions. The story was inspired by the discovery that the campus and surrounding area was built on a creek that was once a migration stream for short-finned eels, and that eels still follow this ancient path using drainpipes. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Red Fez, Cordite Poetry Review and elsewhere.

Joe Lugara took up painting and photography as a boy after his father discarded them as hobbies. His works depict odd forms, inexplicable phenomena and fantastic dreamscapes, taking as their basis horror and science fiction films produced from the 1930s through the late 1960s. His digital photographs debuted in a 2018 solo exhibition at the Noyes Museum of Art in his home state of New Jersey. Mr. Lugara’s work has been featured in several publications and has appeared in more than 40 exhibitions, including the New Jersey State Museum and 80 Washington Square East Galleries at New York University. Follow his work at www.joelugara.com. Twitter and Instagram: @joelugara.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Comment
error: Content is protected !!