Silence Is Goldfish


By Annabel Pitcher

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My name is Tess Turner–at least, that’s what I’ve always been told.

I have a voice but it isn’t mine. It used to say things so I’d fit in, to please my parents, to please my teachers. It used to tell the universe I was something I wasn’t. It lied.

It never occurred to me that everyone else was lying too.

Fifteen-year-old Tess doesn’t mean to become mute. At first, she’s just too shocked to speak. And who wouldn’t be? Discovering your whole life has been a lie because your dad isn’t your real father is a pretty big deal. Terrified of the truth, Tess retreats into silence.

Reeling from her family’s betrayal, Tess sets out to discover the identity of her real father. He could be anyone–even the familiar-looking teacher at her school. Tess continues to investigate, uncovering a secret that could ruin multiple lives. It all may be too much for Tess to handle, but how can she ask for help when she’s forgotten how to use her voice?

In a brilliant study of identity, betrayal, and complex family dynamics, award-winning author Annabel Pitcher explores the importance of communication, even when we’re faced with unspeakable truths.


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There must be a list on the Internet of what to buy when you're running away, but my phone is typically dead, like I swear it just passes out whenever things get stressful. It's unconscious in my pocket so I can't look up a list of essential items for life on the road, but a children's flashlight in the shape of a goldfish seems a very sensible choice. It looks friendly enough with its little orange face and definitely I could use an ally right about now, so into the basket it goes, where it sits in the corner, gazing at me with shiny black eyes as I pick up tampons, tissues, two chocolate bars, and a magazine.

It's a two-hour train ride from Manchester to London, so I'll need something to read as well as something to hide behind because knowing my luck Jack will alert the police when he realizes I'm gone. By the time I pull into Euston station, there will be pictures of me plastered over the bathrooms with the caption Find My Tessie-T in extra-large bold letters. Let's face it, Jack isn't the type to downplay a drama, and a child going missing must be the worst thing that could happen to any parent. This realization makes me want to drop the basket and run back home, so I remind myself that my so-called dad is now my number one enemy after what I saw on his computer. My heart still aches though when I think about the expression on his face as he stares at my empty bed with its Star Wars duvet, which I bought last year, pretending it was some jokey ironic statement when actually I just wanted to sleep with Luke Skywalker, and who can really blame me when you think about how he handles his lightsaber.

Mum will shout Jack, come here! with her voice more strained than it should be at seven o'clock in the morning when she always bursts into my room with a cup of tea, like a cuckoo in a grandfather clock that, yes, is reliable, but also quite irritating. I'm not even kidding, I haven't drunk that tea for three years. It just seems too hard to lift my head off the pillow at that ungodly hour, but I am grateful and Mum knows it, squeezing my foot when I croak, "Thank you." That is love, making endless tea for someone who never drinks it, just in case this is the one morning they might actually want a sip, and I want to throw the tea back in Mum's face but also savor it, and I can't do either of these things, because I will never see her again. In about an hour's time she will realize I'm gone, gazing in horror at my empty bed, where Jedi will jump up to give me a lick, whimpering when he sees I'm not there.

And I whimper too, walking up and down aisles on feet that throb in silver Doc Martens because this is the most exercise my legs have done for give-or-take four years. Once upon a time it was the best thing in the world to sprint with the wind whistling through the gap in my front teeth. I would stretch out my arms and fly like a fat butterfly and oh God I remember my dazzling colors, but as I grew up they faded and now I plod. I've been plodding since ten past two this morning when I crept out of my house, needing to feel solid ground beneath my feet, to know the Earth was still there though my world had just crumbled. I wandered familiar streets feeling lost in the darkness, too scared of the stuff inside my head to be afraid of anything outside it. And now I am here with a plan that involves a goldfish, who looks shocked because this is not at all what he thought was going to happen when he woke up this morning next to the bottles of de-icer in the Texaco station that is the only home he's ever known.

My eyeballs swell like rain clouds. There's going to be a downpour and no one wants to see that now, do they, so I pretend to be someone else, someone in her thirties with her life sorted and a train to catch for an important meeting in the center of London, rather than a fifteen-year-old with dyed black hair, bad roots, and no dad. I say no dad, but he could be over there, working behind the cash register, though that man doesn't look the type to have fathered large offspring. No offense to myself, but I do have big bones with a fair bit of beef and that man is lean chicken with a henlike face. He stares straight through me as I put my basket on the counter then pecks at the register with a scrawny hand, typing in the price of the goldfish because it doesn't have a barcode.

"Sorry," I say, as if it's my fault. The man doesn't acknowledge my apology, which is bad manners or what have you, but I don't really mind because it is better for everyone if I don't exist.

I know what planet I am, thank you very much, and I am sick of trying to bump myself up the solar system when my true position is obvious, just ask my old lunch monitor, who spotted it a mile off. At primary school when people tried to find friends, I tried to find space that my imagination could fill with whatever it wanted, nearly always butterflies because to me they were perfection, like real-life fairies with prettier wings. At break time I turned myself into them, not just one butterfly but hundreds of them, my arms a kaleidoscope of colors as I danced across the wet grass while my class played tag, chasing each other around the blacktop. I didn't understand it, like wasn't it too crowded I asked them all the time in my head.

"Don't you worry, cherub," the lunch monitor said when she caught me watching the other children in confusion. "You're Pluto. Happiest away from the heat of the action." She smiled a wrinkly smile. "Nothing wrong with that."

I believed her until the start of high school, when there was a welcome dance for the first-year students with a DJ who wasn't even somebody's dad but an actual teenage boy with a tattoo of a Chinese symbol on his biceps.

"Kung Pao Chicken," I replied when two wide-eyed girls asked me what I thought it meant, "with fried rice." They frowned and danced off, so I escaped the noise of the gym for the room where the teachers were selling sweets, and oh goodness the chocolate bars were in such a mess that I had no choice but to stack them in neat piles for Mrs. Miller, and then I disappeared outside to sit on a wall beneath a tree.

At home, Jack asked me if I'd had a good time, sounding as if he already knew the answer to that one, but I defied the odds and nodded, thinking of the way moonlight had shone through the branches to make silver patterns on my skin.

"You did?" His voice perked up, his face too. "Really? That's great, Tessie-T. Really great. New school and everything. New start. What did you do?"

"I sat under a tree," I told him, and his face fell.

"With a friend? Tell me you were with a friend, Tess. We've talked about this."

I examined my toes through my tights. Before the dance, Mum had painted my nails bright pink even though no one would see.

"Tess?" she said, half-hidden by a pile of papers in the armchair because she teaches English in a high school on the other side of Manchester. "Dad's talking to you. Did you go outside with a friend?"

"'Course she did," Jack replied. "She remembers our discussion, don't you, Tessie-T? About the importance of fitting in? That's what you're doing, isn't it? Fitting in?"

There was only one right answer, that much was obvious. They didn't want a Pluto. They wanted a Mercury or a Venus at least. I nodded, my head going straight up and down then jolting forward as Jack slapped me on the shoulder blade where my left butterfly wing used to be.

"Attagirl!" he said, and if his voice had perked up before, it positively soared now, high high high above the fear I would always struggle to fit in. "Tell us about her. Or is it a him?" he said, giving me a wink as he pulled me onto the sofa. It creaked like always and we had to adjust the cushions like always and we both did this exaggerated groan when Mum squeezed in on the other side. She poked us with a red pen before saying, "Go on, Tess. Give us a name."

"Anna," I said, not even caring it was a fib. They were glancing at each other over my head with these eyes that were full of a thing I didn't recognize, and then it dawned on me that it was pride. I was surrounded by it, warm and full of hope, this golden cocoon promising to transform me into something more desirable than even a butterfly. When I went to bed, I knelt in front of Jedi and made a solemn vow. I'd try to be an ideal daughter if he'd try to be an ideal pet, and he hung his fluffy white head because he knew that meant no more fighting with Bobbin, his nemesis, who belongs to Andrew next door.

I raised my hand and he lifted his paw.

"May the force be with us."

It sort of was for a few years. Jedi didn't bite Bobbin for ages, and I made this big effort to fit in, trying to be louder and livelier and more fun than I felt inside, wearing my personality like a clown hat to make everyone laugh. Jack in particular.

Well, not anymore. Not after the words I read on his computer. I'm off the hook, which means Jedi is too, so can someone please tell my dog that the deal is off. A leopard can't change its spots and a dog can't change its temperament and a planet can't change its position in the universe. I'm Pluto, which is why I take the receipt in the petrol station without saying anything to the man who's not saying anything to me, but that takes some effort let me tell you after four years of being the one to fill the awkward silence.

I wait for the red light to halt the nonexistent traffic on this not-so-busy road that actually doesn't require me to stand on the pavement, hanging around until some machine tells me it's time to cross. That sort of behavior belongs to a girl trying desperately to do the right thing, and I am trying desperately to do the wrong thing, so I step out onto the road without looking both ways, ignoring the light because I am that much of a rebel.

"Use your bloody eyes!" a van driver yells, slamming on the brakes. Of course I check him to see if he's the one, but he's too loud to be my dad, shouting blah blah this and blah blah that because I made him screech to a stop, ruining his brand-new bloody tires that cost a bloody fortune, don't I know. "Look where you're bloody going next time!"

My real dad would never be this rude, I just know it. Even if he was angry, he would hold up his hand to apologize. I would hold up my hand to apologize, and he would hold up his hand even higher to take more of the blame, but I would hold up my hand highest of all to show that it was actually my fault. And with our fingers almost scraping the sky we would smile identical smiles then he would gasp, "It's you!"

"Yes!" I would reply, and then we would embrace, right here in the middle of the road, with everyone clapping and cheering like a film with a happy ending that will never happen in real life, Tess, so don't go getting any strange ideas.

I make it to the pavement doing a semi-waddle, which is my version of a run these days, and when did that happen, when did this stripy dress that is supposed to be A-line but looks more O-line on my body get so damn tight is what I am asking myself. I'm supposed to care that I'm getting fatter, according to Jack, but I am fine with my size, thank you very much.

I strut along the pavement, belly-first, like bow down and worship at the great altar of Tess is my suddenly awesome vibe as I look out for a taxi to whisk me away on an adventure. I've got a load of change in my coat pocket and the prospect of getting into a cab feels sort of magical, like wow I can just fling out a hand to stop a black chariot and pay a few gold coins to go anywhere I want within reason and a nine-pound budget. And the place I want to be is Manchester Piccadilly train station because the place I ultimately want to end up is Finsbury Tower, 103–105 Bunhill Row in London, and I chant these words again and again in my head so when I finally flag one down it's a surprise to hear my mouth tell the driver my home address.

"That up by Chorlton Grammar School?" he asks as we do a U-turn. There's still time to change my mind. I am ready to go and the goldfish is too, but I mutter, "That's it, yeah. The first right after the school, about halfway down the road."

We set off in the opposite direction to the station, and in no time at all we are turning onto my street. Something more should be happening, something big enough to account for the mad beat beat beat of my heart, but no, we're slowing down, coming to a stop outside my front door. Everything about my house is the same. The same silver number is displayed above the same silver letterbox. The same curtains are hanging in the same living room window. And this evening no doubt I will be the same girl sitting on the same sofa, watching TV in my tiger-print onesie when a mouse-print one would be far more appropriate.

"Six pounds fifty, when you're ready."

I hand over some cash but don't get out, pretending for a few more seconds that I really might do something big and brave for once in my decidedly small and timid life.

"This is the one?"

"Yeah," I reply, but I make no move to open the door. The driver almost-but-not-quite turns to look at me.

"You are okay, aren't you?"

It's nice of him to ask, but his voice is heavy with obligation and his eyes are tired, like here's just another messed-up teenage girl wandering the streets after a disastrous evening is the precise look on his face as he half-surveys my own. Maybe if he'd twist a bit farther, or cut the ignition, or take his hands off the steering wheel rather than gripping it so tightly, maybe then I'd tell him what I saw last night.

Instead, I pull myself together. "I'm fine."

The sky is crying, relieved or disappointed by my return, it's hard to tell. I stand in the rain, staring up at the house, taking in the fact that Mum and Jack's bedroom curtains are still closed so they will never know I ran away for four hours and thirteen minutes. The cab disappears as I unlock the front door. I tiptoe into the house, wondering why it still feels like home.


The kitchen smells of burned spaghetti, proof that last night happened, there's absolutely no denying it. Listening for Mum and Jack, I avoid the creaky floorboards, creeping to the sink to get a glass of water. The cold tap is tricky, but I turn it on the perfect amount to get a good flow without any splash.

The house is quiet. Not silent exactly, but the noise of it is so familiar it barely registers.

I listen harder, transforming the creaks and groans and pops into something strange, then force myself to look. The door to Jack's study is open so I can see it from here, just a boring old laptop, but somewhere hidden away in the deepest, darkest part of that computer is a file called DCNETWORK BLOG containing six hundred and seventeen secret words.

And Jack typed them yesterday.

Jack typed them, and that's a hard fact sitting in my brain giving me acid indigestion of the mind, particularly behind my right temple, which is throbbing.

Jack typed them, sitting down at his desk no doubt with a cup of coffee, putting it on the "Master of the House" coaster he bought after we saw Les Misérables in London. And wow that was such a good night, but then again, maybe not for Jack. Maybe it was this huge great big effort for him to climb to his feet during the standing ovation where we both grinned at each other, clapping until our hands stung. I elbowed him in an eloquent way, like that jab of my bone on his arm said, This is the best moment of my life. He elbowed me back to say, Mine too, but now I am wondering if actually he was trying to knock me off the balcony because, no doubt about it, he would be happier if I didn't exist.

Jack's slippers with the worn-down backs are still under the desk where I kicked them off when I discovered the truth. Jack's slippers. Dad's slippers. Dad's old familiar slippers I used to put on whenever my feet got cold because dads and daughters can share foot sweat no problem. I will never wear them again and suddenly that seems the saddest thing of all, like my toes start to grieve, throbbing in my boots as I turn away from the study, unable to believe he wrote that blog.

When Tess finally emerged after two hours of pushing, all I felt was revulsion, and I could no more easily pretend to love the peculiar creature in my delighted wife's arms than hide the resentment that burned inside. It wasn't my daughter. It was her daughter—hers and some sperm donor's I had never met, but what could I do? She was here and she was my wife's and I loved my wife even if I didn't love the ugly red thing gnawing at her—

"Oh no! Oh help!" Mum had shrieked as the smoke alarm had gone off and Jack had burst out of the study as I'd run in from the living room. Mum was flapping her hands at the sticks of spaghetti jutting out of the pot that had caught fire in the flames of the gas stove. "What's the rule?"

"Watch yourself, Helen!"

"What's the rule?"

"What are you talking about?"

"The rule about fires!" Mum exclaimed as the smoke alarm yelled, There is an emergency there is an emergency there is an emergency! "You're not allowed to throw water on certain types of fire. Some of them need an extinguisher. What is it? I can't remember. Quick! Do we need an extinguisher?"

"What? We don't have an extinguisher." Jack went over to the tricky tap, turning it on to get a good flow without any splash. He filled a jug of water.

"Don't just throw that on it. It might cause an explosion. Is it gas fires? Is it gas that needs carbon dioxide or something? Does that sound right? We need to check! I think it is gas fires."

"You've turned off the bloody gas, Helen. It's not a gas fire. It's just a fire. Fires need water," Jack said, but he was hesitating now, staring at the stove. "The gas is off, isn't it?"

"The fire's getting bigger!" So were Mum's arm flaps. They were ridiculous and I smirked as I watched the spectacle, ignoring the alarm urging me to Leave now.

"I can see that," Jack replied. I don't know how. Mum was practically doing jumping jacks in front of the stove as the alarm got louder, screaming You are in danger, not that I paid any attention to it. "I can see that, but I don't—"

"Quick, Jack!"

"Don't tell me to be quick. You're the one slowing—"

"Just pour!"

"No, I can't now. We should check."

"We haven't got time to check."

"Just check, will you?"

And that's what I decided to do, slipping into Jack's study, normally off-limits, but this was an emergency. Besides, my parents were too busy arguing to notice, all this hot-faced bickering that steamed up the windows. I put on Jack's slippers that he'd left under his desk then sat in his chair, bashing a few buttons to wake up his laptop.

"Come on," I said, wiggling the mouse when nothing happened, almost knocking over the framed poem on his desk—"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. I stared at the words without seeing them because there was a glorious picture inside my head, and it was of me saving the day, finding out the information in the nick of time.

Pour! I imagined shouting, a split second before the pot exploded. Pour, Dad! Trust me!

I wanted to impress my dad, that's why I was drumming my fingers on his notepad, urging his computer to wake the bloody hell up before I missed my chance. I wiggled the mouse again, but the screen stayed black for what felt like ages. I will always remember it, the blissful darkness of not knowing before the harsh glare of reality hit me between the eyes, and the alarm beeped and beeped and beeped because there was an emergency, after all—it just had nothing to do with burned spaghetti.


Mum doesn't look at me as she places my favorite pig mug on my sudoku book, and she doesn't look at me as she moves my curtains to groan at the rain, and she doesn't look at me as she takes my lunch box out of my schoolbag so she can fill it with salad now that Jack has banned bread of all types, not just the white stuff. She doesn't look at me because for the past one thousand mornings when she's delivered my tea, I have been dead to the world, my face buried in my pillow.

This morning is different though.

I am lying on my back with a rigid spine, gripping the duvet with tight fists as I stare up at her. When she finally notices, she jumps out of her skin because there are the whites of my eyes, I can feel them glowing in the darkness.

"Wonders will never cease. Are you actually awake?" She is all smiles and long brown hair as she leans over me, checking my pulse with jokey fingers nowhere near the right place in my neck. "Well, well, well. Your body must be in shock after such an unprecedented event. Here, let me see." She grabs my wrist, feeling the pulse there too, pretending to time it tick tock on a nonexistent watch. "Yes. Yes. A little fast. Just what I thought. Are you feeling okay?" she asks in mock concern, and here it is, the perfect opportunity to scream no at the top of my voice.

I wait for it to happen, but the word doesn't even nearly come.

Mum puts her hand on my forehead.

"Slightly raised temperature but that's hardly surprising. All that effort it must have taken to peel apart your eyelids at this time in the morning. You must be exhausted. Do you want to lie down? Wait. You're already lying down. Thank goodness! Don't want you overstraining yourself." She grins at her own joke then lifts my tea by the rim of the cup, offering me the handle. "Can you manage this for once? Go on. Make my day."

She cheers as I take the cup and I smile, like I actually do this massive grin, and what the Holy Crap is that about I ask myself in disbelief. I'm supposed to be causing a scene, not playing along ever so nicely, but I let Mum plump up my Star Wars pillows then take a sip of tea that tastes really good after my failed attempt to run away. I grip the mug tightly, relieved I am not in the station drinking weak tea from an unfamiliar Styrofoam cup, waiting to board a train that will take me away from everything I've ever known.

But then Jack appears at my bedroom door. Tea goes down the wrong way and I start to cough. I can't stand to look at him, but I can't take my eyes off him either, so I gaze at him without wanting to, resenting the pull he has over my eyeballs. His red hair is wet from the shower and his pink cheeks are freshly shaved and he looks clean, too clean for someone who writes dark confessions about his so-called daughter to post on the Internet.

The betrayal hits me again and it takes effort not to double up and hide under my duvet like I did last night before I ran away. Typing DC Network into my phone, I found that it stands for Donor Conception Network. Holding my breath, I visited their website all about sperm and egg donation where it outlined the procedure and talked about how it felt to conceive a child through assisted fertilization. Loads of people had written about their experiences, but not one of them had said anything about disgust. Jack obviously spotted a gap and decided to fill it with his story, willing to tell the world his secret, but not me, his own flesh and blood—well, not exactly, I have to keep reminding myself because the fact that he isn't my real dad still has not sunk in.

"Look at this!" Mum says, meaning me. "It's a miracle."

"Now, there's something you don't see every day."

Jack steps into my room, drying his face, but the mask of Perfect Dad does not rub off on the towel. He uses it to grin at me as if he is just so goddamn delighted to find me wide awake in the room he painted when I was ten. I got to choose the color from a shiny brochure, and of course the only logical choice was the mystical Midnight Blue. I couldn't wait for Jack to start, jumping up and down when he covered my furniture with sheets to make a cave that I sat in even though I was too old to pretend that I was a troll.

"Don't you want to be a princess?" Jack asked as I scratched my warts then belched, rubbing my belly with a hairy hand.

"I eat princesses for breakfast."

Jack shook his head then shooed me outside. I climbed up on the shed roof in the backyard. Craning my neck to peer through my bedroom window, I saw Jack bend down to prepare the paint that I just knew was the exact color of magic. When he caught me spying, he waggled a finger and I laughed, leaping off the shed because I didn't want to spoil the surprise, not really.

It was a shock when he said voilà and I burst through my door to my new blue room that wasn't blue at all but pale yellow.

"It's First Dawn," he said as my chest constricted. "Not Midnight Blue. I thought it was prettier. Much nicer for a girl your age. Look how it catches the light, Tessie-T. That blue would have been too dark. This makes your room look so much bigger, don't you think?"

I nodded even though the walls were caving in, squeezing out oxygen, they must have been, because I couldn't breathe. Tears teetered on my eyelids, globules of disappointment that I had to hide no matter what because Jack was waiting for me to be delighted. Somehow I managed it, I don't exactly know how, keeping my eyes open until they stung and saying the words he wanted to hear.

"Thanks, Dad, I love it."

"Your old man knows best, eh?"

I have never hated my yellow walls more than I do at this moment as Jack clutches the towel to his chest and pretends to have a heart attack.

It's brilliant how he does it, I have to admit it. Mum is in stitches and normally I would be too, maybe even joining in with a companionable cardiac arrest of my own. It takes a lot of willpower, but I make rocks out of my eyes and keep my expression stony as Jack staggers to my desk, clawing at his heart. I watch impassively as he holds out a dying hand to grip the coat I wore to run away last night. It's damp, it must be, and Jack is surely about to notice—but no. It's just a prop, and he collapses on my chair and dies with his face pressed against my hood, not even wondering why it's wet.

I jolt up suddenly, screwing my anger into a black ball, toying with it so dangerous and powerful in my hands. It's a grenade that could blow up this ordinary day, shattering the image of my perfect family into a thousand little pieces. All I have to do is let it explode.


  • Praise for Silence is Goldfish:
    * "Pitcher delivers a story of betrayal and miscues among family and friends with a realistic blend of humor and gravity as Tess slides toward mental instability. An unflinchingly honest portrayal of anguish."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • * "Pitcher (My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece) returns with a memorably offbeat novel narrated by 15-year-old Tess, who decides to stop speaking...It's a painful but rewarding story of an insecure teen finding her voice."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Captivating...Tess's struggle as she discovers her parents and teachers are flawed human beings will ring true with teens coming to their own similar realizations. A recommended purchase where contemporary coming-of-age stories are in demand."—School Library Journal
  • "Her narrative voice speaks loudly--Tess is a witty, energetic, and appealing protagonist."—The Horn Book
  • "Pitcher's smooth writing offers clear insight into all of Tess's heartfelt emotions, and she constructs a complex plot around Tess, her family, Mr. Richardson, and all the intertwined relationships at school. The characters are layered and flawed...Readers who like quirky, angsty characters who triumph over both themselves and their oppressors will enjoy this tale."—VOYA
  • "In Tess, Pitcher crafts an engaging and honest...narrator. While so many YA contemporaries put teenage romantic relationships front and center, this refreshing story is firmly focused at home on questions of identity and family. Though many readers will predict the ending, they will nevertheless enjoy the journey."
  • "The strength of this emotionally wrought, introspective novel lies in the character of Tess, the clarity of her voice, and the odd but wonderful relationship she has with the Jiminy Cricket-like Mr. Goldfish...An engrossing character study of a girl in crisis, this novel is perfect for readers who appreciate realistic heroines who solve their own problems."—BCCB

On Sale
May 17, 2016
Page Count
352 pages

Annabel Pitcher

About the Author

Annabel Pitcher is the award-winning author of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece and Yours Truly. She graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English Literature. She lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband, son, and dog.

Learn more about this author