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Kaz Knowlden tells a fishy tale of innocence shattered.
Immanuel glumly navigated the bowl, swimming without any specific mission, but aware that his long-standing partner Moira might sink into one of her dreadful depressions if he showed any loss of confidence on his part. “I’m falling in love with you,” she’d sighed dreamily when she was first plunged into the bowl with him, “because you always know exactly where you’re going and what life is all about.”
He permitted himself an ironic smile at this memory. Where exactly was there to go in a goldfish bowl? If Moira hadn’t twigged this essential truth yet then he had severe doubts about her intellectual capacity. The daft creature still sought out his company day after day by the plastic bridge, wrapping herself enticingly around it as he held forth on his latest sphere of expertise. Of course, his daily lectures were not to be sniffed at. Immanuel knew his stuff. In the past few months he had covered the pros and cons of organic fish food, advanced tank maintenance, and goldfish gender issues to boot â€“ the latter of which Moira had struggled with, admittedly. But this morning for some reason he didn’t feel in the mood for his lecture. He avoided the plastic bridge where he knew she would be waiting, and dallied about on the bottom of the bowl, pursing his lips at the amount of debris that had collected over the last few days. Mr andMrs Brown were letting standards slip again â€“ it must be pay-day again for them. Come pay-day and the pair weren’t to be seen near the bowl, except for a cursory handful of food thrown down once a day. Of course he didn’t really know what ‘pay-day’ was exactly, but it was an expression used a lot by the Browns at the end of every month.
God, he was bored today! He didn’t want to burden Moira with such possibilities, but sometimes he pondered at the futility of a world that just contained Mr and Mrs Brown and himself and Moira, all in a small room. Sometimes Mr and Mrs Brown would become invisible for long stretches of time, but they always re-materialized.
Hidden within the softly moving debris, he watched Moira circle the bowl looking for him. ‘Well, let her look,’ he thought tetchily, ‘I’m sick of providing for her intellectual needs, sick of being her plaything too when she’s feeling frisky. Stupid fish thinks she’s in love with me! If only I could have an intellectual companion on my own level!’
Moira drew closer and he resigned himself. “Sweet pea, there you are!” she murmured, her huge, popping eyes drawing level with his. He suspected she was in one of her romantic moods, particularly when her rubbery lips fastened greedily onto his own. “There’s a time and a place, dear,” he muttered without much conviction. But it was no use;Moira was a strong, large fish, used to getting her own way. It was sexual harassment, really, he knew. She pushed him deeper into the debris, maintaining eyecontact as she rolled him around for a good five minutes. At last she grew bored. “What’s the topic of my lecture today?” she demanded, all trace of the coquette suddenly gone.
“Er, I thought I might give the lecture a miss today, dear. Thought we might go for a swim on the other side of the bowl. Just for a change, you know,” he said with a nervous cough.
A long silence followed. He watched her carefully, well aware of her tendency to plunge into a black depression if her routine ever changed in the slightest. He remembered the time Mr and Mrs Brown had tried out a new brand of fish food. Moira became virtually anorexic as a result, her once fetching curves soon just a distant memory. Then there was the time the Browns had put them into a different bowl for a few days. Moira did nothing but dash around the bowl like a mad creature, sobbing hysterically. ‘No, perhaps I had better give my lecture after all,’ he thought ruefully.
“Very well, my dear: today I am going to talk about why we are here – what is the purpose of our lives.”
“Hmm. Doesn’t sound very exciting, sweet pea,” she said, squinting at him unpleasantly.
“Well that’s what I’m going to talk about anyway,” he said. Damn the fish â€“ she was always trying to manipulate him.
She was wearing her petulant face now. “Can’t you give your ‘Romance in the Tank’ lecture again? That’s such a lovely lecture.” Moira’s fins were flapping ominously as she spoke.
“Oh alright, dear. Meet me at the bridge in ten minutes.”
“Ooh, you’re so clever, Immanuel! You know everything there is to know about fish!”
His thoughts were in turmoil as she swam happily away. He wouldn’t, he jolly well wouldn’t give that inane talk about ‘Romance in the Tank’ again. He’d only done it before because it was her birthday and she’d pretty much begged him to.
He felt as if a huge weight was dragging him down. There had to be more to life than an eternity of swimming around a rancid bowl day and night with the witless Moira. What he needed was some kind of grand project. But what?
He went and hid himself in the fetid weed, making sure not a hint of a fin or flipper was on view. Then he gave in to the crushing grief and misery. Hours passed and the light in the room faded. Up above Moira thrashed round and round, calling his name, angrily at first, then pitifully.
He spent the night hidden in the debris, sleeping fitfully, knowing Moira would have to be faced in the morning.
Dawn came slowly. A cold grey light gradually filled the bowl and Immanuel emerged from the debris, too hungry to hide any longer. He nipped up to the surface and was startled when he banged straight into a large, inert object. It was Moira! What in bowl was she doing? He pushed her gently with his fin but there was no response. He called her name. Soon he was yelling it. Still no response. In desperation he thought back to his long-acquired body of fish knowledge and expertise, but he could think of no reason why a fish might stop moving, stop eating, stop talking. It was if she had become like the bridge, an object within the bowl. He just couldn’t account for it. Time passed, with Immanuel hovering close to Moira, unsure what to do next, while a strange unnameable fear gradually consumed him.
A loud bang startled him back to reality. Mr andMrs Brown were arguing with each other about some trivia as usual. Mr Brown tried to tickleMrs Brown under the armpit, but she screeched and wrenched away from him. “You’re drunk again, you filthy brute!” she cried, her angry face close to the bowl, which was on a shelf. A loud guffaw fromMr Brown followed. Then a shout fromMrs Brown: “’Ere! Moira’s kicked the bucket!” Two red faces surrounded the bowl. Mrs Brown had the decency to take the situation seriously, Immanuel noted, whilst wondering what in bowl ‘kick the bucket’ meant. Mr Brown laughed in a very inappropriate way and lunged his hands into the bowl. “Got to get the dead ’un out, love,” he grunted. Immanuel backed away in terror asMr Brown’s great, unsteady fists plunged again into the water. Mrs Brown screamed as the bowl toppled, then smashed to the carpet, spilling out dirty water and weed, not to mentionMoira and Immanuel.
For a few seconds no one moved. Then Mrs Brown screamed again, whileMr Brown laughed as if he had never seen anything so riotously funny. “Do something!” she yelled, her hands flapping wildly. Then she ran out, leaving the door open.
Immanuel felt a strange sensation gradually engulf him as he flailed about on the carpet. He was having difficulty getting his breath and felt most unwell. But then all the pain was blocked out by an amazing revelation – this room led to another room! Through the open door he saw a long narrow space that opened out onto another space. ‘Suppose that space opens out onto yet another space!’ he thought in a daze, ‘And so on and so on... That means all my theories about life have been totally wrong!’
He had stupidly assumed that he had known all there was to know about life, about reality. Now Immanuel realised his huge ignorance for the first time. It was impossible for him to know what was really out there because his life was spent in a bowl. From this bowl he had foolishly pontificated, using his clearly inadequate fish faculties, thinking life in the bowl was everything! In his folly he had thought he was the world!
Just as his own life was about to ebb away, he felt himself being scooped up with a spoon and placed into a large waterfilled china bowl. But there was no sign of Moira... and indeed he never saw her again. But the real shocker for Immanuel was the arrival of Bubbles â€“ another fish. Incredibly, there were other fish in the world! He could only be thankful that Bubbles never expressed any interest in hearing him lecture.
© Kaz Knowlden 2007
Kaz Knowlden teaches ESOL and A Level Philosophy in a Bristol college, and is an examiner for AQA.