The driving rain was falling sideways, longways, soaking me through and through. But the tarmac beneath my feet looked dry and felt it too. I don’t know if I touched it with my fingertips or my tongue to establish this. It does seem unlikely that I’d used my tongue, but the potential I did presents itself now as I recollect.
The edges and ends of the streets defining structures were eerily greyed out, twisted, and de-focussed at the time, and so they remain in my subconscious. There was no discernible character about any of it. I cannot recall how it looked or how I felt as I walked along it. All I can say for sure is what I remember it not to have been.
It was not dark and foreboding like the river Styx. It was not endless and lost in time, like the country lane I walked along to school as a kid. It was not a brightly dappled alley between two tall hedges of green poplars.
It was not wild and desperate and inhospitable like the outback, or comforting like the street where I grew up, or reassuring like the various cities I know well.
It felt like a dilution of everywhere it was not, of everywhere I have never been hidden beneath a haze of everything I have never known nor ever will.
I walked on. Knowing only that I should. With the rain still falling hard at my back and long beyond me to the invisible end of the street, slipping past the ground inconsequentially.
Every nondescript corner turned into another nondescript road or alley with every new step. And the rain came with me, still soaking me and everything ahead except the ground under my feet.
Each un-occurred happening that unfolded an expectant nothingness before me was bringing me closer to somewhere I knew I would know once I got there.
If I had known then where I was, maybe now I could better explain the nature of the streets, or I could google it now to see a few pictures to help me. But at the time I did not and I still do not. And nor did I then or do I now have any idea how I had come to be somewhere that was so unfamiliar to me even in the minutest detail.
The only thing in all this that mattered was my cargo. It had appeared in my hand when the sideways rain started, and it had very quickly gathered an air of importance around itself. As unexplainable as the temporary nature of the streets I was walking. As unnerving as a swinging light bulb in a sealed room.
Even though I knew I had not just come out of a pet-shop, and I had no recollection of the rhythmic neon gaud and tack of a fairground, it was present and undeniably real
Admittedly there was a sort of vague recognition connected to it. The kind associated with the unplanned obtaining of anything. A distant “I want that” echoed somewhere. Like when you are drinking a good whiskey out of a really nice glass in a pub you’ll never go to again, and after your last sip you slip the glass into the big pocket of your winter coat just before you leave.
I knew that it had certainly not fallen from the sky for instance; I knew I would have remembered the actions of reaching and catching…and the slapping, slopping landing in my palm too. Similarly, I knew I had not picked it up from somewhere or plucked it from a tree – how unlikely that would be, anyway – or anything like that.
It was there and that was as it should be.
It felt wriggly and squishy in the palm of my hand. Its flimsy flesh so tenderly gelatinous it was almost intangible. Its inescapable eyes were unfathomable. Its orange scales such a succulent shade that they seemed synthetic. Edibly so. Like the inside of a Jaffa Cake.
I wanted to lick it, to consume it, but I didn’t. I knew that I should look after it.
As far as I could tell, not that I am even remotely an expert on the species, it looked perfectly healthy despite the fact that it remained dry amidst the sideways rain at my back that persisted in drenching me but not the floor as I continued to walk through the certain but unexplainable everything.
Eventually, I found myself coming to a stop and standing calmly still on the edge of a dry, dusty and rocky wasteland littered with cables and car parts. The sideways rain was still falling hard at my back, but it was no longer falling beyond me now. Like I was the sideways ground and I extended left and right and up and down.
In the distance, in the far corner of the wasteland, there was a small, simple house. It was tucked tightly under the yellow stone heal of a giant bridge over a mighty river. The house had a simple roof and three simple windows. As I walked across the wasteland, the sideways rain came with me. It did not want to go ahead.
When I walked up to the light blue wooden front door, I saw that it was rotten and crumbling into centipedes and caterpillars at my feet.
I recognised only the warmth this scene encouraged in me and the way reaching out towards the door reminded me of the desire to touch piano keys. I knew it would be dry inside, too. But everything else remained as unfamiliar as everything else.
The door swung open easily and, once inside, I immediately put the fish in a cardboard box behind the TV for safety. I knew then, and I remain sure now, that this is the precise action one should take when arriving anywhere with a newly acquired goldfish. However that goldfish had come into one’s ownership and wherever you were.
I did not for one moment consider the large and broad heap of ant powder I had put behind the TV months before to cope with the unrelenting invasion of ants in the early summer: they came in as a wave one morning, covering everything like a quick black moss, undulated there for three days and crept off silently at midnight.
I did not even consider if ant powder is poisonous to goldfish. Probably is!
I did not even remember to remember the bowl of water in the corner between the footstool and the orange tree, which I knew was always there for the birds who usually pass through on Wednesday afternoons.
None of these things were important or even natural considerations in the circumstances. An open box behind a TV was and is the ideal, the only, place to keep a goldfish – that remains an indisputable fact of my memory – and an available bowl of water or a mountain of ant powder are both total non-events. As inconsequential as
It was getting dark and I was understandably hungry after all that had happened, so I went to find a kitchen. The closer I got, the surer I was where it was and the more I found I knew about its insides.
Wooden. White. Metal. Slate.
I quickly found my place in there and cooked myself what I saw. A packet of egg noodles was on the shelf, which I mixed with some pre-roasted aubergine and peppers I found in the fridge in a shallow tray of olive oil. I roughly chopped some partially sun-dried tomatoes that were laying on tissues on the draining board. I tore up some fresh basil and loads of rocket from the herbs growing behind the sink. And I mixed it all together, along with a little ground pepper, in a wooden fruit bowl that was sitting slightly off centre of the dining table. I spread some granary bread thickly with butter, both of which I found at the back of the large empty larder covered by a white and blue tea-towel. And then I went to sit down on the small blue-grey sofa back in what was almost certainly the living room, with the foot stool, the orange tree, the bowl of water, and the TV in front of me.
There was a bottle of chilled white wine and a crossword waiting on the coffee table.
I have never in my life finished a crossword to be honest. I like them but I do not think my brain works in the order required so I usually stop. Often before I’ve started. Maybe I mean that I don’t like them.
After finishing my dinner with half the wine, I went back into the kitchen to do the washing up and then returned to the living room, poured another quarter of the bottle of wine into my glass and switched on the TV.
As I leaned to press the button, I caught sight of the box I had put behind it earlier. I had almost forgotten about the fish. I leant right over to have a closer look, putting weight on the TV and worrying a little that I might snap or crack it, and I noticed that the fish had multiplied into three. This was fine as far as I was concerned. I had not been expecting one, I certainly had not been expecting three.
The three of them looked happy together there, neatly set up as they were, pout to tail, in a triangle. The box seemed a perfectly adequate size for all three of them, and the ant powder beside them and bowl of water in the corner still played no part in the decision to leave them there.
There was a documentary on about Puffins I was interested in watching and after that there were a couple of those topical panel comedy quizzes I wanted to catch up on. I decided to stay on the sofa all night. I had a glass of wine left in the bottle and three quarters still in the glass, I would be fine.
The evening moved on slowly without any further consequence. At about eleven thirty I began to feel tired and thought about finding a bed. I stood up and went to turn off the TV.
Again, I had forgotten about the fish behind it in their box.
One of them had been mauled and disembowelled by a no longer present cat. I had not noticed anything happening. I only knew it had been a cat and I only guessed what I saw were fish bowels. It had been tossed into the heap of ant powder and was dead. It faded out of existence as I stood there.
Of the other two, one had been chewed quite a lot but was still in the box. It died right then, also disappearing quietly and whitely into nothingness.
I remained bizarrely calm about these two deaths. At the time I did not see any point in making a fuss. All sorts of things I could not explain had been happening, why not this. All three fish had appeared out of nothingness after all, what was the harm in them returning to it.
Quite apt in fact.
The original goldfish was the one that remained. I do not know how I knew that. It did not have any specific distinguishing marks, like grey or white patches, I just knew it. It was a certainty, as with so many of the uncertain things that had been happening to me.
It still lay there, perfectly healthy as far as I could tell just a little wrinkled and dried up. I could see its little body gently swelling and flattening as it lay in the corner of the box breathing shallowly. The sides of the box seemed to be moving in and out with it too – as if the fish’s gentle breaths could tug on the world around it.
I knew then that I had to get it into some water before its unexplained little life petered out right there before me too. I didn’t want this fish – the first and last – to die. Its utter importance insisted and insisted and insisted and and insisted and and and…
I bent still further over the top of the TV set. It creaked under my ribs. I reached down into the little box and grabbed the fish in my right fist. It quickly spun round and looked out at me like it knew what I was doing.
The smell of my orange tree, the orange of its scales.
I went to put the fish in the bowl of water. But without any warning whatsoever, and I am not entirely sure what sort of warning would suitably foreshadow such an occurrence, as my hand opened to release the fish the foot stool sucked in the bowl of water and spat out an old cold cup of coffee in its place.
It had never done this before.
The poor little fish landed head down into the nasty black liquid. I quickly scooped it out and took it to the kitchen to get a replacement bowl.
It needed to be glass.
I found one of my mum’s old, deep mixing bowls in the back of the deepest cupboard. The shallow places are for the shallow things. I remember the bowl clearly from childhood. Heavy, wide, vertical ridges and grooves around the side, with a thick lip at the top and a wide flat base. I have not seen it since she and I moved from the flat to the house when I was about thirteen and it certainly is not a bowl I expected to find so easily so long after I moved out of her house.
I turned the tap on full to fill the bowl with water and dropped the fish in. Immediately it began to swim around and look happy, if still wrinkled and still clearly slightly desiccated.
The water very quickly became murky, then deeply inky, but the fish was still alive and happily swimming. It had its head out of the water to breathe (some of the things I knew about this fish wouldn’t even explain themselves to me) and it was scanning the room intelligently and contentedly.
It was looking at me too, studying.
At that moment a being flashed into existence beside me. It was a mixture of many friends from my past and future. Six, seven or maybe twelve faces and bodies blending and phasing in and out of each other, twisting together like twigs, mud and clumps of grass in a sand storm.
“It has bled all the poison out now,” my friends said in voices that echoed back and forth along the paths we will walked together, “You just need to change the water.”
And then my friends popped, just as suddenly and inconsequentially, out of existence.
I decided it would be prudent to do what they said. If you cannot trust the momentary appearance of your eternal friends, what can you trust. So I put the plug in the sink, picked up the bowl, and tipped the fish and murk into the sink.
Then I rinsed out the bowl into the sink, refilled it and used a sieve to get the fish out of the crude oil that had formed around it. I took my time to rinse it off slowly and deliberately, scale by scale, under a dribble from the tap so as not to damage its tender body, and then I popped the fish back into the bowl I’d filled with clean water.
I picked up the bowl too quickly. It sloshed. The poor fish rolled around and was nearly slopped out. I stood still for a few seconds, staring out of the window, holding the bowl softly in both my hands, waiting for the water to relax, and found myself thinking about whether the river rushing by outside ever relaxes. Could such power ever be held so gently that it would become still. I wondered on…to whether I should add some gravel from the wasteland outside into the bottom of the new bowl, so the fish would know its ups and downs. But in the end I didn’t feel like constraining it.
I slowly took the fish in its new bowl into the living room, and found a place to hold it in the air, in front of a picture of sand dunes, the beach, the sea.
A winged horse galloped towards me out of the sun. The sound of its hooves hollow. Its gait, feeble and weakening as it loomed. Ribs. Eyes. Cracked Lips.
Do goldfish eat bread, I thought.
The horse laughed at me. Or maybe it just retched dry air. I wasn’t sure. And then I heard it whisper that the life of this little fish would always be part of me.
Being unsure from my progress so far whether or not I had any natural ability to provide for this goldfish, even though it had not yet died, I quickly also realised that, should I begin to feel like I was failing I had no idea how to ask it what it might need.
Knowledge of how to commune with it did not seem to come to me, like so many other things had.
I’d learned to speak Cat and Dog as a child, and have practised all my life to talk with our avian friends very well too, but I’d never attempted goldfish. Or any kind of aquatic animal for that matter.
Well, ok. Once I’d chatted to an Otter for a bit about how warm the water was and stuff. But that’s it. And that does not prepare you for this.
I felt that clear-headed confusion you get when all you know is that you will know. I noticed my tongue was dry because my mouth was open a little. I only had one eye in the middle of my forehead. I looked down at the poor little fish in the bowl, who I think understood even less of all this than I did.
The sharp edges of the ridges on the bowl were outlined with a black absence. The light was doubling back within the scooped-out corners of the grooves. The water inside looked bright and clean. This was not bioluminescence. The tap in the kitchen does not drain Halong Bay, or at least I don’t think it does. This was some kind of molecular phosphorescence. But I thought that kind of thing was fiction, so perhaps my retina had mutated in some way when my eyes had merged.
The little goldfish looked back at me, glistening, breathing slowly. Breathing. In and out. Hovering in the water, not floating. Its tiny black eyes fixed points.
The walls around us were breathing or beating, too. Expanding and contracting. I was too. Shrinking and growing. Pulled and pushed. Breathed into. Emptied.
And then it started with the bowl.
Little wobbles. The odd loop. Blurring and phasing. Duplicating. Combining. Quickly everything around it, around me, us, around those pin-point eyes; everything began to shift and pulse.
I began to fall or spin or fly. Echoes and silences muffled my ears. Lightness. The smooth rush and white crash of a weir. I was inside something. Or under it. Or beyond it.
I was with it. I was flowing with it. Light dancing with water.