I know a man who has had a goldfish for seven years. In captivity, I
understand, a goldfish’s life rarely stretches beyond three. So, upon
learning at a dinner party the other day about this wonder of
piscatory longevity, I was instantly interested.
“What’s your secret?” I asked.
He didn’t answer immediately. He looked perplexed, and his face
became, for a second, young and full of promise, like a child’s in awe
of the world. I have been encountering him at dinner parties for a
year, but that side of him is not something I have seen very often. We
mainly talk about books, music and politics, on which we share a
number of opinions.
He cleared his throat and explained – an explanation percolated with
hand gestures referring to measurements, processes, routines, like a
passionate, gentle teacher. He explained that he changes the water in
the bowl every week, and by this he means every week. He would never
dream of neglecting his water-changing duties even when he is busy or
feels tired or apathetic.
He also explained that one Saturday in four he drives to a garden
center three miles from where he lives and selects palm trees, algae,
castles, bridges, rocks – all made of the best plastic he can find.
One day he was irresistibly tempted by a skull of perfect proportions.
He drives home with his treasure on the passenger’s seat next to him
and spends some time thinking about how to shape the newly acquired
objects into a landscape the goldfish can thrive in. He places a
castle in the middle of a circle of pebbles which is in turn in the
middle of the bowl, and deposits the skull in front of the gate (as in
some sort of allegory). Then he studies the goldfish’s response –
whether it swims gracefully or circles awkwardly -, and makes
adjustments if necessary.
My glass of wine suspended in the air, I had a vision. I saw the man
performing these actions one Saturday seven years ago, then five,
four, three and so on. In my vision, I transformed into the goldfish
in its bowl; I knew because the man’s silhouette was blurred and
watery, his face a splash of red, his cheeks menacingly sharp. His
hair stood out over the border of the rim and it turned from pitch
black to the salt-and-pepper I know today as my vision progressed, his
body (my perspective of which started at crotch level: embarrassing)
degenerated from lean skyscraper to something resembling an aubergine.
To the goldfish I was, those visits were unexpected, but not entirely
unwelcome, and it occurred to me (to the real me, not to the goldfish)
that this was because he hadn’t been so constant in performing all of
these actions as he claimed to be. Maybe he skipped changing the water
when he felt apathetic, and instead the wife laid me on a cloth by the
sink as the bowl was refilled with water under the sink. Maybe that
lean castle with elegant turrets had been chosen by his oldest boy, or
by his daughter, while he hid in a corner and read his book (he had
admitted to doing that in department stores and garden centres).
But I know his children have now grown up and left home, and his wife
has left home too. He might not have been doing all of this on his own
for seven years, but, from what I know about his dates, he must have
been for at least two.
This, in my book, gives him a right to brag about his goldfish’s
“What’s the goldfish’s name?,” I asked.
“He doesn’t have a name.”
My mouth, on its own accord, shaped into an ‘O’, as a goldfish’s would.
“You’ve never thought of giving it a name?”
For the rest of the evening and for many evenings after that, we only
ever talked about books, music, politics.
Originally from Galicia in Northwest Spain, Eva Ferry is a lecturer at
the University of Glasgow and is currently writing her first
English-language novel. Her short story ‘The War on Girls’ was a
finalist at the Weegie Shorts Writing Competition.