“FISH,” a voice says when I push the gateway buzzer.
“Fish. I have. For you. At gate.”
I recognise the voice of the Eastern European courier. He’s visited me before. This time, he arrives with a carton such as you’d expect an under-counter fridge to be delivered in, and horses it up on the kitchen island in a way that suggests it weighs maybe half a ton. You can hear water sloshing inside. I thank him. He shakes his head at me. The task is incomplete, apparently.
“More fish! Lots more fish!”
This proves to be true. Three more fridge-sized cartons join the first on the surface and the courier seems charmed by how daunted I am by them.
“You have aquarium or lunch,” he tells me delightedly and disappears.
I carefully open one of the cartons to discover a styrofoam box inside, and inside that again, carefully surrounded by bubble wrap, four or five big water-filled bags, rubber-banded at the top, each containing one or more fish. Some of those fish are zen about their incarceration. Some are losing whatever marbles they were born with.
I read the instructions, which all seem to relate to an aquarium, which I don’t have. What I do have is a big outdoor pond which allegedly contains half a dozen shubunkin and goldfish which, apparently suffering PTSD after the pond was cleaned and relined, have taken to hiding in the rocks.
When I confide this problem to a friend, he tells me to take out the rocks. Which goes to prove that there’s an answer to every problem that is simple, straightforward — and wrong. What the hell are the water lilies going to hang on to if I remove the rocks that are their foundations?
Instead, I go to a recommended shop, Seahorse Aquariums near Virgin Media.
Seahorse Aquariums is one of those places impossible to find because it’s been built in the back yard of somewhere else where the car parking requires courage and a Fiat 500.
When I eventually locate it and walk around inside, it is passing strange. In regular pet shops, the customers tend to be families with children running from fish tank to fish tank, the air filled with the tweeting of birds and barking of dogs. Perhaps because it specialises in aquariums, this shop has none of that.
It has aquariums and threatening men. Big guys in long shorts looking expert and discussing clownfish. I go for the special offer and buy 40 fish for €400. Goldfish. Shubunkins. Koi carp. One fish, two fish, 40 fish… That’s what’s delivered the next day, just as the first clap of thunder breaks overhead. You will not forget last week’s thunderstorms. They were not minimal.
The bags in which the fish are imprisoned tell me I am to avoid giving any shocks to the contents. I’d have thought that being put in a polythene bag inside a styrofoam box in the dark while being transported in a truck was more of a shock to the fish than I could come up with even if I worked at it, but the bags explain in detail that I am to float them — meaning the bags — fish inside, on the surface for 10 minutes.
I do not see the point of this, particularly when the downpour comes and drums on the blown bellied bags, all 40 of them, floating around the pond. The poor fish must think they’re being machine-gunned from the sky. The thunder is now coming closer, threatening to exterminate me and the 40 fish, so I cut to the chase, catch and slice open their bags and turf them into the pond. They go and hide in the rocks and I am too frightened and wet to care.
The next morning, it has rained so much, the pond level has risen and the fish are out swimming in schools, which scares me because one gust of wind and the pond will overflow and they’ll be swimming up the path to meet me.
I stand there, tempted to throw the container in after the food, disbelieving the recent research saying that goldfish are intelligent as well as being good for your mental health, lowering your blood pressure.
Mine is sky-high, so coffee and a book are the solution. Which reminds me I promised to offer any reader who is off on their holidays this August some suggestions for reading by the beach.
Three books, none of them the traditional nostalgic beach book type. First isby Niall Ferguson, published by Allen Lane.
Ferguson looks not just at the catastrophes that have afflicted humanity, but at the fact, as he puts it, “that people convinced of an imagined impending apocalypse can do a great deal of real harm”.
One of the examples was the fear of global over-population which dominated the thinking of public intellectuals in the seventies and led to some disastrous policy developments.
“Encouraging, if not quite forcing, Indian women to accept IUDs and Indian men to accept vasectomies led to much suffering,” he comments, adding that, in the mid-70s, the government of Indira Gandhi carried out more than 8m sterilisations.
“Nearly two thousand people died because of botched operations. The United Nations also supported the Chinese Communist Party’s even more brutally administered ‘one-child policy’.”
The question now is if the overwhelming attention paid to climate change could parallel the population preoccupation of the 70s. If, in other words, humanity is always barking up the wrong tree, firmly focused on one potential disaster when another — like, say, the coronavirus pandemic — slips in a side door to clobber us.
The second book is an essay collection by Jenny Diski, published by Bloomsbury, entitledand takes an offbeat view of things, including the wisdom that is supposed to come to us in old age.
Before her own relatively sudden death from cancer, Diski came to the conclusion that this wisdom “is in much shorter supply than I imagined, and apart from that, it’s a matter of how self-deceptively, or stoically, you are able or prepared to put up with the depletions, dependency and indignities of getting old”.
The third anti-beach book is, by a former chef from the North named Louise Kennedy. Her characters are a country mile away from the superficialities of the pastel-covered bestsellers and live lives so blighted that they will convince you that, no matter how bad your existence seems, it’s a hell of a lot better than theirs.
Grim, the three of them. But riveting, each one.