Lake Fly, by Kate Preece
Winner in the 'The Story I Needed To Have Read' writing competition
A lake fly lives for five days, at most.
The thought jiggled about Claire’s mind as she walked along the uneven stopbank.
She didn’t think lake flies deserved any more time on this earth — she hated lake flies. They slipped into the house through any opening, then in death congealed in a sludge that stained and smelled foul. Thank God they didn’t bite.
“Would you do things differently if you knew your lifetime was really short?”
Her walking buddy grimaced. “That’s a bit heavy.”
“It’s just a question.”
The sun hung high in the cloudless sky, its rays bouncing off puddles that pockmarked the ground. The lake had withdrawn, changing the meeting point of the ducks and swans.
“Do you mean knowing how much time I have left, or always knowing when the end will come?”
“The latter,” Claire said, passing another plume of the short-lived bugs. “Imagine your life was only a week long.”
Jo clamped a hand on her sister’s arm. “You’re not trying to tell me something, are you?”
Claire turned to face her. “No, no, nothing like that. I was just thinking about the lake fly.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Jo shook off the fingers of fear. “Why on earth are you contemplating the fate of the lake fly? They’re such a nuisance.” She scrunched up her nose. “All they do is reproduce and die.”
“That used to be all that was expected of us.”
Jo scowled. “I’m not about to pump out 3000 babies to keep up with an insect.”
Claire grinned. “Ok, ok, perhaps not the best comparison. What if… no one made it past their thirtieth birthday?”
Jo’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Thirty? I had not long passed the bar and only just got to London. I didn’t own a house… I hadn’t even met Tony!” Jo rubbed at her temple as if to squeeze out a clearer picture of her life 12 years ago. “I was finally making headway up the ladder!”
A flock of Canada geese took to the air with a heavy flap of wings and a chorus of honks.
“Our parents had it sorted by 30.”
“They didn’t have the options we have,” said Jo. “We are the generation that has to make up for women being held back all this time.”
Claire’s hand tickled. A slim, long-legged lake fly stood on her palm. She blew on its frail body and it disappeared.
“Dying at 30 would make Charlie an orphan at two.”
“Yuck,” Jo shuddered. “And who would look after him?”
“Not you — you’d be dead!”
Disturbed by the pair’s irreverent laughter, a black swan waddled into the water, red beak gaping as it trumpeted a warning.
“You’d need to have kids as soon as possible.”
“Like insects,” Claire quipped.
“Whatever. So you meet your life partner at high school, have a baby, get a job, and die?”
“In 30 years.”
“It wouldn’t work for everyone.”
“It doesn’t work for every lake fly.”
For a few paces the environment carried on uninterrupted. Swallows swooped above them, nabbing invisible bugs from the uncluttered sky. The volley of calls from the lake birds had quietened.
“Don’t you think it sounds like a simpler existence?” Claire paused. “We have to do everything, be everything, go everywhere… but does any of it make us happier?”
The cars came into view, Jo’s Mercedes glinting violently.
“Imagine if happiness was at the top of the ladder.”
“Happiness isn’t on my master plan,” Jo’s smile failed to pin the corners of her mouth up for long. “I’m not that unhappy though, am I?”
Claire focused on side-stepping sheep poo.
“I get genuine smiles out here.”
Jo scoffed, “What do you expect me to do? Ditch my career to walk in endless loops around this lake?”
“It might get you off your meds.”
Claire lifted the latch and received a whack from her sister as she went through the gate first.
“A lot of people die young, yet here we are, in our forties, still bothered by what we don’t have.” Claire gave the gate a tug to check it had fastened. “Life could be so simple.”
“Maybe, but would you be happy to be dead already?”
“No, of course not,” Claire shook her head. “What do you need to do to die happy?”
Claire felt exasperation creeping up her spine.
“Don’t you remember what Grandma used to say?”
Jo raised an eyebrow.
“All you need is food for your body, love for your soul and shelter from the storms.”
“And magic beans to pay the mortgage?”
“Look, I get it. People should be happy to be alive. But that’s not the world we live in.”
They had arrived back at their starting point.
Claire brought Jo into an embrace. “We all have the means to be happy.”
Jo squirmed. “I suppose you think the lake fly is happy then?”
“I didn’t get a response when I asked.”
Jo’s eyes rolled. “Human life is much more diverse than that of any insect.”
“Yes, and we are extremely lucky to have so many choices. All I’m saying is that we waste a lot of time being unhappy.”
The radio blared as Jo’s key turned in the ignition. She carefully removed her muddy trainers and slipped on her Lacostes.
“Same time next week?” Jo’s hand waited to pull the car door closed.
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
The silence in Claire’s car was thick with the absence of nature. Her thoughts drifted to the Monday meeting, until she noticed a cluster of lake flies at the top of her windscreen.
“Bet this wasn’t part of your master plan,” the reluctant tour operator grumbled.
They had graduated to the final stage of life — dying. All that remained was for the timer to run out. Lake flies don’t even eat.
Claire wondered what Dan was making for dinner. He always cooked on Sundays. The house would be ripe with delicious smells and as warm as Charlie’s welcome hug.
A high-pitched buzz filled her ear. Claire swatted at her hair. Freed, the lake fly banged itself incessantly against the window. Fragile, gormless, and lost.