Huge, tent-like, a curve of mirrors and empty offices overshadows a small steel fountain and its artificial concrete pool, encircled by fast-food restaurants and cafés and an IMAX cinema. The fountain is illuminated by slowly-shifting mood lighting, and replenished by jets spaced around its perimeter. In the middle, the main spout of water is uplit by a battery of blue lights. Next to the jet a naked body, female, lies on her back, hair floating aimlessly, its blondeness dulled by the blues of the fountain. She is one of those people who has mastered the art of floating without the need for kicking or armpaddling to stay afloat. Her eyes are closed.
One of the cafés has sun-warmed wooden tables and chairs stretching as far as the perimeter of the fountain, where cappuccinos go cold in the artificial outdoors beneath the geometric triangles of the roof. A few patrons have noticed the woman, some trying not to look for too long, others openly leering. A man in a fluorescent yellow jacket approaches the fountain, holding a walkie-talkie to his ear. A group of teenage boys take their burgers and cardboard chip cones outside the fast-food restaurant and devour bites of burger whilst watching the water. As the fluorescent man nears the rim of the pool, the woman flaps her arms in a lazy, sensual movement, making snow angels in the water.
The man stops abruptly. The fountain is deep enough that he would have to soak his jeans right up to the bottom of the fluorescent jacket if he stepped in. He lowers the walkie-talkie from his ear. The woman is clearly conscious and not in distress, to the disappointment of the would-be rescuers from the café, one of whom has removed his tie and begun to undo the top buttons of his shirt. The woman continues to move her arms, creating gentle ripples, her expression inscrutable. Her body is a shocking white, as far down as the darker blur of her pubic hair, a foot or so from the end of the nearest rainbow jet splashing into the water. A young mother approaches the fountain with her children, then turns away when the woman’s body becomes visible.
The security guard makes up his mind and wades shoeless into the water. He moves in a clumsy stagger, the diametric opposite of the circular grace of the woman’s arms. Someone in the burger-munching audience cheers. As the security guard nears the woman, he stops again. She gives no sign of having noticed him. He reaches down and taps her on the most decent part of her body he can find. No response. He tugs at one arm half-heartedly, but she just stops beating them, allowing herself to drift. He bends down and says something to her. Finally, defeated, he straightens up and trudges back to the edge, trying in vain to avoid the sprinkle of the jets. Laughter is audible amongst the raised voices. Up above, the woman’s body, now still, is reflected in one of the mirrors lining the shopping centre’s interior wall. Several onlookers have been filming the scene on smartphones. No clothes are visible near the fountain except for the discarded tie, which has been recovered and retied around the neck of the disappointed diner.
More people arrive, drawn to the scene as if to warm honey. A pair of bored policemen at the back exchange monosyllables. Some of the fast-food salespeople trickle out into the sunlight, tribes distinguishable by their uniforms. A bubble of excitement grows opposite the burger restaurant – and with it, a first pile of clothes. As more and more items land on the pile, two sunburnt men with matching potbellies emerge from the crowd, and without warning one bellyflops into the water, triggering a seismic wave which rocks the woman’s body. His companion joins him in the same manner, and to an even bigger cheer. And then more T-shirts are removed: from above, the metallic floor of the retail complex resembles the backstage of an orgy, clothes strewn everywhere, shiny shouts and giggles reflecting off the walls. The two men have more difficulty floating than the naked woman, despite the buoyancy of their bellies, but they paddle around the outside in a decorous lap of honour which encourages more onlookers to join them.
Soon the fountain’s capacity is reached, aside from an unspoken space around the body of the woman, whose hair has fanned out into a golden octopus. Bodies of all lengths and curvatures find ways to fit into the water without submerging their neighbours, a damp game of human Tetris. The corporate uniforms become branded hills of colour outside each establishment. More people crowd into the watery constellation of nakedness, indifferent to the spray of the jets and the frantic gestures of the security guard, who is shouting into his walkie-talkie as he paces through the mass of those still wearing clothes. In the centre of the mandala of bodies, it looks to the nearest swimmers as if the contours of the woman’s face have changed, even as her body maintains its perfect paralysis, her expression softened by the curved undercurrent of a smile.
*** Sasha Ockenden studied French & German literature at the University of Oxford, where one of his stories was published in the Failed Novelists Society’s Failed Anthology and he won an international DAAD prize for creative writing in German. His flash fiction pieces have appeared in (mac)ro(mic) and are forthcoming in Flash Flood and Riggwelter. He is currently based in Berlin and still working on becoming a failed novelist.