By Laura Barker
It’s called The Swish and it starts on TikTok. One of your daughters shows you while you’re confiscating her phone – a daily occurrence: you stand by the front door and you put their phones in a box with the promise that they will get them back the next morning. Your youngest, Brielle, named after the town her donor was born, does not care. Her latest obsession is aquaponics and she puts the phone in the box and dances away to the back garden, a former concrete jungle now home to an enormous fish tank, a kindergarten of tilapia, and a riparian zone of plants from coriander to snake gourd who are fertilised by the waste materials of the fish. Your oldest, Dakar, named for the city in which she was born, does care. She protests every day of the week. Sometimes it’s a list of every way you annoy her and restrict her freedoms, sometimes it’s histrionics, today it’s trying to entice you to look at things on her phone. It’s compelling. You tell yourself this is why you have to restrict their mobile phone usage: it’s because things on there are so compelling, it’s like the sharp sugary sweetness of the confectionaries you steer them away from. Treats so interesting it will have them demanding luminous wafers over your carefully prepared vegetables and proteins and slow release starches. It’s not just the taste. It’s the photo of the wafers on the packaging. You remember an article you read once about how blue tits prefer hyper-real photographic images of blue tits to the real blue tits right next to them on the tree.
“Look Mama,” she tells you.
Whenever she calls you Mama, she wants something. When she’s annoyed with you, she calls you Tshwane, when she’s conspiratorial with you she calls you T, the rest of the time she calls you Mum. You look.
There are a group of teenagers dancing. This is surely nothing remarkable. The majority of videos you’ve seen on TikTok are teenagers dancing. But there is something about the way they are dancing that is different. It’s not exactly tap, although some of the moves remind you of that advanced tap masterclass you took at Brixton House earlier in the year – something about how the dancers lurch as if they’re going to fall over and then regain their footing. Their arms are all swishing to the left, and for some reason it doesn’t look like a boy band move, them all going in tandem with each other, or like synchronised swimming. It’s more of a weird point to that side. And you find yourself staring at the left. You are certain there is something there, although you can see nothing. There is an odd space in what looks like their dance studio there – they are all dancing way over to the right.
The video stops. “Very nice,” you say, “Now put it in the box.”
Her eyes are bright and wet with some kind of excitement. “Don’t you think its amazing Mummy?”
“The Swish. The dance.”
You consider it. “Yes, it’s pretty amazing,” you say. You pluck the phone out of her hand.
Immediately she wails. She has always been able to turn on the waterworks just like that, but it’s been a while since she’s done this over her phone. You are filled with panicked concern before you remind yourself that she’s full of hormones. It’s a difficult time for her. You must not collapse – under no circumstances should you relent and give her back her phone – but you must be here for whatever she’s feeling, you have to hold the space around her so that she can fall into it and explore her emotions whilst still feeling safe, but not too safe: in order to make this difficult transition from childhood into adulthood she must also experience danger and consequences and ambivalence about you and their other mother.
She stops wailing. “Fine,” she says. And then, “I detest you.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” you say, as she stalks into the kitchen to eat what will be one in an entire series of toast slices.
Two days later and your wife Didi sends you a video of Dakar dancing The Swish in your kitchen after you left for work. You open it at reception and you stand there wide mouthed while your boss Maureen peers over your shoulder. She’s pointing her arms consistently in one direction, lurching them back to neutral, and then pointing them again, but the dance is strangely unstylised. You’ve never seen her dance like this. It doesn’t look like moves she could have copied from anywhere, and it also is not the sort of dancing people do when they’ve been moved by the spirit. Her face is completely focused. She’s not smiling, or pouting, or posing.
Maureen says, “The Swish,” and shows you a video of her teenaged child Mee doing something very similar, waving their arms to their right, a look of vivid concentration on their face, their legs buckling wildly as if their kneecaps are dislocating and then gaining control again.
The two of you watch the videos over and over again, and then you remember that you both have jobs, and you get on with things: you with client notes, her with arranging whole-group continued professional development training. Later, you do a little side Googling. The Swish and drugs. There is a concerned thread on Mumsnet, and reassurances from many parents that whilst The Swish certainly looks like it could be a drug induced dance, there is nothing to suggest this. Someone posts a link to a school’s statement that many parents have contacted them concerned about The Swish and so far there is nothing to suggest this latest dance craze is anything to worry about.
A mother on Mumsnet recalls how the dutty wine was banned from her school because the headteacher thought it would break their necks, someone else posts an article about how the dutty wine did actually break a street dancer’s neck, and someone else points out that the article does not name the dancer or any sources and she thinks it’s a rumour. Someone else posts a link to an article about the tragic death of dancer Amancia Campbell, but this is a completely different kind of dance to The Swish. Still, you read testimony from Amancia’s mother and your heart seems to compress onto itself. You think about this poor woman now raising her three grandbabies and how shocked she was that a dance routine could have ended her daughter’s life. You cannot—cannot imagine living without Dakar, and yet you are imagining it. There is a video available to watch, where Amancia’s dance partner accidentally puts her full weight on Amancia’s throat. You know this is not a healthy rabbit hole for you. You close the Chrome window. You open it back up and search for the video. You click on it. You press play, then you press stop immediately after. You close the window again and take some of your box breaths, breathing in, holding it, breathing out, holding it, breathing in.
You message your wife. “What do you think of this dance?” you say.
“Ha-ha it’s too athletic for me,” she messages back. Then, “At work, talk later. Love you.”
“I’m spiralling,” you message her. She’s already gone.
You get home early and are immediately comforted by the sight of the slow cooker bubbling away on your kitchen island. The slow cooker makes you feel like the smuggest parent in the world. While other parents are scrabbling around, multitasking, trying to arrange dentist appointments and keep three-year-olds from sticking things in plug sockets and cook at the same time, you glide your serene fat body into the kitchen and whisk the glass lid off the thick ceramic bottom, ready to smell the delicious dinner that has been preparing for you all day.
You gag. The smell is terrible and toxic, and unnatural. It takes you back to a time in a science class where one of the rude boys mixed acetone with bleach. You put the lid back on and go to the bathroom to vomit profusely. You haven’t vomited like this since you were pregnant with Brielle. You swill your mouth out with the mouthwash your friend and herballist Janeen made you for ulcers and you vomit again, thin liquid rushing up your gullet and projecting at the back of the sink.
Something makes you take your phone out of your pocket, even though it should be in the box already – no phones on weekday evenings is a rule for all of you, not just your kids – and you watch that video again. Didi obviously stood in the kitchen doorway to take it. Dakar is behind the kitchen island and her arms are pointing right at the slow cooker. You are about to Google The Swish and toxic smells when you hear the crunch of your children’s feet on the woodchip that mulches the fruit trees in your front garden. You run to the hallway and dash your phone in the cardboard box before opening the door to greet them. You scan Dakar’s face for signs of drugs or chemical toxicity or anything unusual but she looks normal. The two of them are arguing about the tilapia in the aquaponic farm outside. It’s a familiar argument they both enjoy, about whether they are going to ever grab the fish and kill them and eat them.
Brielle takes the lid off the slow cooker before you have time to warn her. She is not the screaming sort of child, and the piercing sound she lets off slices your nerves in half. Dakar has her head in the kitchen sink to vomit in seconds – neither of them have thought to put the lid back on the slow cooker – and you worry fleetingly that she is pregnant before you dismiss this thought and you walk into the kitchen to do some parenting.
You all talk about the mystery of the evil smell over take-away. Didi came home with black eyed bean duqqa dip, snake gourd chichinga, plantain, breyani, chakalaka with vegan sausage, wilted greens, and garlic smoked whole cauliflower, and you eat straight out of the compostable containers. The kids come up with theories and you watch Dakar closely to see if she is hiding something. She seems not to be. Brielle tells you, spiritedly, about the worst smell known to humans, which is thioacetone, and Dakar surprises you all by saying the worst smell in the world is actually from the carrion flower. You say the worst smell in the world is Didi’s gym socks, and you giggle. You say it because this is something that a mother would say in an ordinary family where nothing strange is going on, but it has the opposite effect you hope for: everyone looks at you as if something is wrong. Didi squeezes your hand under the table and whispers, “Are you okay babe?”
You realise it was the forced giggle that made you sound unhinged. You have got to get a grip on yourself. You say you have a headache, and you leave Didi with the kids while you go upstairs and have a lie down. You slide your phone into your dress pocket on your way up and you strip down to your slip, slide a night scarf over your locs, and lie under the covers pretending to be asleep while you scroll through articles about The Swish and smells. It doesn’t help your search that a commercial cleaning company called Swishly Does It claims to remove all unwanted odours, and the Smithsonian Museum has several articles on olfactory hallucinations. You go to Page 3 of Google, a place you haven’t visited for several years, and there you find it. Some little known parenting forum. A woman complaining that her teenaged daughter made her younger brother’s birthday cake smell like toxic garbage by dancing The Swish too near it. Most of the advice given pertains to sibling rivalry and gift jealousy, but one other parent responds with a similar experience. Her youngest was dancing The Swish near a fish tank and she came home from work to find all the fish upturned with death and an unholy smell in the entire aquarium. Without thinking it through you race downstairs and bolt outside to check on the tilapia. They’re fine. Your children and wife stare at you from the table and you say, weakly, that you thought you smelt fire.
Didi follows you back to your bedroom but you pretend to be asleep, and she sighs, kisses your forehead, and goes downstairs to engage both children in an extremely loud game of 40-40. You message Maureen and ask her if there’s a weird bad smell in her house where Mee danced The Swish. Maureen messages back that Mee danced The Swish at their father’s house. Maureen asks if you’re okay and you put your phone down. You fall asleep.
The next day Maureen is telling you that there is, in fact, a terrible smell at her ex husband’s house where Mee danced The Swish, but this is old news now: the story broke early that morning that The Swish seems to make terrible smells. Nobody can understand why. The smells have been analysed. Scientists thought it was chloroacetone but initial tests with sodium hydroxide seem to suggest it must be something else. Not thioacetone – people are vomiting, but not in the volumes thioacetone would cause. Teenagers interviewed so far do not seem to be able to explain why they dance The Swish and they don’t know anything about the smell it’s causing. A breakfast news presenter who herself has twin teenaged sons demands to know what their arms are pointing at, and she is denied this information by the smug faced seventeen-year-old she interviews who also refuses to perform the dance. Influencers slash creatives on Instagram are saying The Swish is a sacred dance and it will not be performed for the exchange of money.
You have been messaging Didi frantically to ask what she thinks The Swish is about. She has told you several times that she doesn’t know, and now she is asking you if you are having compulsive thoughts about The Swish. You had a nervous breakdown five years ago, when Brielle was little, before you took a career change and became a therapist, and you know she is worrying about you. You don’t do or say anything to reassure her. You can’t, because you know something bad is happening, and you don’t know what it is.
When you get home, your kitchen island has melted. Yes, melted. It is, or was, a reclaimed railway sleeper wooden island with pewter handles and towel rail, gifted to you by your neighbour Drakeson’s cousin who was going to chuck it when they got their kitchen redone. In the middle, where the slow cooker was before it was unceremoniously emptied into the hot compost, the glass lid recycled, and the ceramic pot put out the back to hold Namaqualand daisies after you declared it a public health hazard, is what looks like a sinkhole. The wood has somehow oozed and expanded, dropping down to the floor. The pewter handles have stretched completely out of shape. It looks like a Salvador Dali clock. And it stinks. Not as bad as whatever was inside the slow cooker, but it does stink, a foul, acrid, chemical smell. You throw open windows and take a photo of the island to send to your wife.
“Weird,” she texts back. “I’ll be home early, by the way.”
She is never home early. It’s your arrangement that you will be home before the girls. Supposedly so they don’t become latchkey kids, but really so that you don’t take on too much.
Didi arranges for the kids to go to the cinema with their godparents. The two of you sit on the sofa under a cashmere blanket you won in a competition and usually keep in a box under the bed to stop it getting ruined by the girls. It’s autumn, and not at all cold, but it’s cosy under the blanket, and you feel safe and protected, even when you watch the news on Didi’s laptop and see that sinkholes are erupting over the country, near the site of The Swish dances. They show a group of teenagers dancing The Swish in a public park in Croydon, pointing their arms to the right, and, days later, a large cavity in the ground where they were pointing. The news reporter’s eyes are misted over and although she’s wearing a mask, she’s still trying to breathe through her mouth so as to avoid the toxic smell. The teenagers explain that the dance just takes you over. It’s not a deliberate thing. You and your best friend have taken a break from each other for a month or so after a big argument but you message her to ask if she’s seen the news. She messages you back an hour later while you’re eating take-away pizza and half watching a family film about dogs that Didi selected and she says there’s a sinkhole in her street. She sends you a photo of it. It’s an enormous abyss in the tarmac and you can almost smell the bad smell emitted from it. Also, it seems to have teeth.
Later you drop a kimchi stone into the melted kitchen island hole and your wife says, “Look, there is something up. I’m not going to deny that. I just want us to approach it as calmly as possible,” and the stone hisses and fizzles and is gone except for a trail of thick grey smoke. You look to see where the smoke is coming from and you smell burning hair. It’s from thick tufts of the stuff that are coming out of the melted kitchen island hole. There is no fire that you can see but the hair is sizzling, smelling of keratin sulphate. You pinch your nose closed and look closer and you see a tooth coming out of the pewter. “Look at this,” you say to Didi.
“Yeah, bit strange,” says Didi. You can see she is determined to not get upset about the fact there is some kind of giant teratoma in her kitchen.
Then you feel it come over your body. It’s the smoke. It drapes over you like a shroud, and when it touches your shoulders, they start to jerk back and forth. Your body feels like it is no longer yours. You have some vague notion of your knees and that they are wiggling in a way you are no longer capable, but mostly you feel nothing, your eyes are fixed on the kitchen island, and your arms are pivoting themselves forward, fingers outstretched.
When it’s over, you’re on your knees, panting, and your children are looking at you in horror at your dancing. Genuine horror, not the fixed faces of horror they get when they catch you and Didi wining in the kitchen after they’re supposed to have gone to bed.
“Go on, then,” you say. You have no idea why you say it. Or perhaps the hole said it. You genuinely can’t tell.
Then Brielle says, “Okay,” and not in her normal voice. She says it automaton. She goes outside. She returns with ten flopping tilapia in her hands, gasping for air, choking. Her school sweatshirt and shirt are soaked through with the stinking natural fertiliser of aquaponics water. She throws the trawl into the kitchen island hole. The fish disappear. Smoke comes out. Then, without warning, she scrambles to the top of the island and throws herself into the hole. At one point it looks like she’s stuck, but then the hole widens, and then she is gone, just her socks, which got caught on the melted pewter, are left behind.
Dakar is next. She runs and dives in head first after her sister, screaming the entire way. Didi looks at you, but it’s not her looking at you, it’s something else. She is gone down the hole before you can open your mouth. Shaking all over, you walk to the hole and look down. It is completely dark. It is a hole so big you can see nothing down there. It goes down way beneath the floorboards and the foundations of the house. You don’t register that you are climbing onto the kitchen island, squatting at the top, and peering over, and so when you topple down, it takes a few seconds for you to know what is happening. You are being pulled, by teeth, by a strong and supranaturally muscular tongue, into a colossal malodourous mouth. You start screaming. You wish you had taken Brielle’s sock with you. The smell is vile – a yellow pungency that fills up your nostrils and your throat and your eyes. Perhaps you could go back for the sock? You vomit as you’re falling – or is it that these walls are lined with bile? – and then you try to cling onto something, to claw your way back up. Between the undulating fondle of soft palate and gullet, you can still feel sanded patches of reclaimed railway sleeper under your fingernails as you try to dig your way to the top, but your nails stick and split almost instantly, sending waves of shocking pain through your fingertips, and you let go. The hole is horrifyingly warm to touch and the stench seems to be coming from a churning basin of acid below. Something wet comes over the top of your head as you are squeezed and compressed downwards. You turn your head feverishly from side to side, trying desperately to find air. You close your eyes, hoping for the best, fearing the worst.