When I was little, I lived in the big tank, an enormous empty space with hundreds of other fish. The girls told me how to attract the customers. ‘Make yourself look pretty,’ they said. ‘You want to be chosen.’ I groomed my scales and fluffed up my tail. I perfected the art of flitting this way and that to show how streamlined I was. There was a particular place about halfway along the tank, where a spotlight hit it. That’s where I turned. I folded gracefully over myself, let my tail fan out and trail behind me, paused for a moment, gave a quick, shimmering pulse and darted away. I practised that move again and again. It worked. I was hired by a modelling agency. It was the happiest day of my life.
My first job was in a very chic designer tank. In the middle there was a shell glowing with soft creamy nacre, which opened and closed at intervals to reveal a single, perfect pearl. I hid inside the shell and when it popped open, there I was, showing my best side – the left – and holding myself motionless by quickly paddling my fins back and forth. Surprise fish!
I remember another lovely tank with a miniature replica of a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The filtration system was carefully calibrated so that the bubbles were the exact same size as the bubbles in a bottle of Moet et Chandon. I controlled my breathing to make my own bubbles identical. I really went the extra mile there, but then I’ve always been a perfectionist like that. I drifted languorously in an ethereal haze of tail and fin and breathed out those tiny bubbles. It wasn’t easy. I don’t think the agency realised how hard I worked to sell upmarket aquarium accessories.
After that I got a residency in an architectural show home curated by a man called Gustave. I had to sell the concept of the lived-in home to the wealthy, childless couples who came to view it. The vision we were selling was pure interior design, with the subtlest possible hint of life. Like taking a perfect model and smudging her mascara a little, Gustave explained. It couldn’t be completely perfect. Perfection was vulgar, it smacked of trying too hard. Interiors have to have a little edge to them to be chic. I nodded enthusiastically. I understood. That clam shell with the pearl – it was vulgar. I saw that now. That was for people who only wanted to display their wealth, not their good taste. Taste was so much more important.
Gustave was a visionary. He had seen the future and it was orange. My bowl had orange gravel at the bottom, an abstract sculpture made of orange glass, and a single strand of orangey-brown seaweed. There was an orange cat too. He sat on an orange sofa on an orange blanket and eyed me with his pale orange eyes. When he yawned I saw the meaty interior of his wet, red mouth and a row of sharp ivory teeth. There, I thought. Red, not orange. That mouth was the hint of imperfection, the glint of edginess that Gustave wanted.
‘You’re the third one, you know,’ said the cat.
‘Third what?’ I asked.
‘Third goldfish.’ He stuck his hind leg up in the air like a chicken drumstick and gave his balls a thorough lick. While he did this, those pale orange eyes remained locked onto mine. When he was quite satisfied, he lowered his leg decorously.
‘The first one got a nasty skin disease,’ he continued. ‘She went mouldy. Grey slime grew all over her. The assistants flushed her down the toilet.’ He paused. ‘She was still alive.’
A couple came in. I flitted energetically around the orange glass lump. The place had to look like a person could live in it. The cat curled himself into a perfect circle and purred for dear life.
‘Oh, it’s lovely,’ said the woman. She stroked the cat, who rolled onto his back to expose the soft white underside of his belly to be tickled. The man walked about suspiciously opening drawers and wrestling them shut. He hung his coat on a hook on the wall. It slithered to the floor with an exhausted sigh. The couple left.
The cat stretched and turned his gaze on me again. I paddled round and round.
‘You see?’ he said. ‘It’s a house for looking at. There’s no water in the sink. The pot plants are plastic. Nothing can really live here. Not me. Or you. Well, nature calls.’ He dropped onto the floor and padded off.
‘Wait!’ I called.
‘What happened to the second one?’
‘Oh. Her. She died of constipation. Worried that swimming about in such a tiny bowl with no filtration system would make her mouldy like the first one. Apparently Gustave’s goldfish have to actually be gold coloured. Well, orange, really. If not… ’ the cat made a gurgling noise, and span round in a tight circle to imitate a toilet flushing. Then he sashayed off downstairs, tail held high.
I was alone. My bowl was eerily quiet. Why was it so quiet? It was quiet because it didn’t have a filtration system. It did have an orange glass lump though. That was something, wasn’t it. It had style. Surely the cat was lying. The agency would never send me somewhere with a bad reputation. And the curators would come and clean out the tank. Of course they would. They had to. Anyway, no one could actually die of constipation. That was a lie. It was definitely a lie. The more I thought about it, the more anxious I felt. I felt my guts contracting and pulsing. That made me more anxious. I swam round and round. Another couple came in.
‘See how the lamps match the vases? It’s so holistic.’
The cat shot back in, and wove between their legs. Why wasn’t there any filtration? I was uncomfortably bloated. Now I really needed to go. Maybe it was just wind? How long did my contract last, could I just hold it in until then? If I did get some kind of skin disease, would the agency really drop me? No, I was too valuable. After a short period at a spa my skin would be better than ever. I was insured. I was a high-value fish. My stomach gave a rumble.
‘Oh,’ said the woman, ‘there’s a goldfish as well. That’s a nice touch. I can really imagine myself living here.’ The cat gave a chirrup of delight. I clenched. I couldn’t hold it in much longer. If only they’d go away. I hid behind the orange glass lump. The woman’s enormous face approached the glass. I couldn’t help myself. The poo just shot out and floated upwards in a long, thin string.
‘Oh my god! Look, Nathan, the fish just did a huge poo! It’s hanging out of its bum! Wow, you’ve got to look at this!’
There was an awful hissing sound. It was the cat, laughing.
‘Huh,’ said the man. His face loomed hugely over me. ‘It’s massive. Imagine if we pooped like that, it would be, like, five feet long. It’s impressive.’
‘Eugh, Nathan, you’re so gross.’
I squeezed the end of the poo out, and paddled away. I’d never been so humiliated in my entire life. The couple wouldn’t go away, that was the worst thing. They were staring at the bowl, fascinated. I swam round and round, trying to get away from them, but there was nowhere to go. Each time I had to swim past my own trailing poo. I wished I was dead.
After that incident the only contract I could get was for a company that sold perpetually discounted pet food in a suburban shopping centre. I worked in a large tank with a sensible filtration system. Cat litter and dried pellets of food were stacked up under garish 50% off signs. There were lots of other fish in the tank. They swam round the hygienic plastic pirate ship, over the easy-clean gravel, and made farting noises with their mouths every times they passed me. Each day there was the same dreary parade of fat legs, bad skin and ugly shoes as customers struggled with wet umbrellas and foldable pushchairs that wouldn’t fold, while their snot-caked kids slapped their palms against the tank and screamed. It depressed me. I stopped taking care of myself. My tail got ragged at the edges. My scales weren’t as shiny as they used to be. I was tired. I spent more and more time seeking refuge inside the pirate ship.
My agent suggested it might be time to retire – how about a tank in a dentist’s waiting room, or maybe the local Balti house? I was stunned. I wasn’t ready to retire. Anyway, I wasn’t in such bad shape, was I? ‘Well’, he said. ‘That tail is one thing. The self-care-is-beneath-me stance. Sometimes that look can work for older people. Given the right styling. Look at Patti Smith. Although that’s much less fashionable than it used to be. And some forms of self-destruction are more attractive than others. The kinds that make you thin, for instance. I mean look at that belly. That belly has to go. Alright, alright. I’ll see what I can find for you. Just don’t blow it. Not everyone gets a second chance.’
I looked at my reflection in the glass. He was right of course. The middle aged can’t afford to look depressed, no matter how they feel. Visible displays of misery and disaffection are only chic in the very young and very skinny. I started a new interval-training regime, alternating fast and slow laps of the tank. The other fish laughed at me. ‘Here comes Miss jet-propelled!’ they jeered. That lasted for the first week. Then they slunk off silently and jealously as my paunch disappeared.
That hard work paid off. I got a new job. I was shown in an art gallery. There was a big tank with black volcanic sand at the bottom, a variety of broken bottles, rusty cans and a crystal-encrusted skull. It was a really diverse crowd in there, all different kinds of rock pool dwellers. The hermit crabs curated their shells, adorning themselves with a mixture of rubbish and jewels. It was great to be surrounded by creatives, so inspiring. I swam through the skull’s empty eye sockets, making myself small and sleek, and popped out suddenly in a waft of gauzy tail. I felt alive again.
While I was exploring my new environment I swam down into a murky bottle. I felt something snapping at one of my fins.
‘Get outta here!’ said a voice in the gloom. ‘This is private property, girl.’
‘What? Oh, sorry. I thought it was a communal space.’
‘Well, it’s not. It’s Jack’s bottle. And I’m Jack. And I don’t appreciate you barging in on me like this.’
‘Sorry. Sorry I disturbed you.’ I turned, ready to paddle out again.
‘So you’re gonna burn out not fade away?’
‘Sorry?’ I said.
A hermit crab scuttled into the light. He was living inside a small pipe, decorated with sequins and safety pins. It was a great look.
‘You’re going down in a blaze of glory? Rock and roll. I salute you.’
‘Sorry, I don’t understand.’
‘The blender, girl. I’m talking about the blender.’
‘You know. The blender. They put the fish in a blender and then wait to see who turns it on. Russian roulette. Stay here long enough and one day – brrrr! Brrrr! Fish smoothie.’
‘What? They can’t do that! What about animal rights?’
‘It’s art, girl. They use our corpses to jolt them out of the cycle of mindless capitalist consumption. Contemplate mortality and all that. That’s what is says on the panel, anyway.’
‘But that’s not what I signed up for!’
Jack laughed. ‘What else you gonna do at your age? Dentist’s waiting room? Balti House? No, they’ll blend you, girlfriend. Or maybe slice you in half and put you in a vat of formaldehyde.’
Jack was rambling about art now, rambling on and on. I closed my eyes for a moment. Balti House. Blender. Balti House. Blender. Balti House. Blender. Something was poking at my side. When I opened my eyes again Jack was waving a concerned pincer at me. It was varnished in pink glitter.
‘So they didn’t tell you, huh? Hey dollface, I’m sorry.’
I pushed past Jack and back out of the bottle. My agent had lied to me. All my life I’d been trusting, I’d done what I was told and worked hard. I’d got in shape, hadn’t I? But it wasn’t enough. Modelling was a young fish’s game. If my career was over, wasn’t death by blender better than a living death in the Balti House? A green nylon net descended into the water. Well, I wasn’t going to cower in a corner waiting. I swam right into it.
They put me in a small tank, on my own. The filter was broken. It was dirty already. Not enough oxygen. I started to feel heavy and sleepy. But at least it wasn’t a blender. Jack was only trying to scare me. The tank perched high up. I peered down and saw an easel and a stack of half-finished canvases. There was a table strewn with a litter of paint tubes, old plates used as palettes, knives and bottles of turpentine. A huge pile of paint-smeared rags tumbled in one corner. Right next to the painting area was an unmade bed. There were old socks and dirty underwear and tissues and empty wine bottles and mouldy tea cups and half-eaten bits of toast.
The room was full of people milling about with champagne flutes. It was hard to see through the dirty glass. Someone was clapping. A tall man stepped forward. People gathered around.
‘It is a great pleasure to welcome so many special friends and patrons of the artist Ariel Cleveland and the Fraser Gallery,’ he said. ‘Ariel’s new piece, ‘The Artist’s Room,’ exposes the domestic interior of the artist, and offers a window into the creative process. It is not a carefully curated space designed for public display; it is a raw, kitchen sink slice of real life. The Fraser Gallery is proud to be the home of this provocative work, reinvigorating the debate on the relationship between art and life.’
There was a polite round of applause. ‘And now, the artist will complete the finishing touch,’ he said. There was a pause. Then for a terrifying second I was flying through the air, the water was sloshing around, the tank crashed down on to the bed. It was deafening. Pencils and nail varnish and old magazines and a lilac-coloured rubber vibrator went skittering across the bed and onto the floor. The tank tipped onto its side and the dirty water leaked out onto the mattress.
I lay on the gravel in a puddle of water. So Jack was right after all. This was my last performance. I would make it my best. No Balti House for me. One last moment in the limelight. All eyes were focussed on me. It was time to shine. To improvise. I drew on all my performance skills. I sucked up one last gill full of oxygen. And I jumped. I jumped right out of the tank as high as I could. I flapped my fins and leapt, slapping my body against the soggy detritus on the bed.
‘Is that supposed to happen?’
‘Someone should report this to the RSPCA.’
There were missing the point! I wasn’t going to be flushed down a toilet. I was going to force them to watch. To watch me die and rot on this bed for the next three months. I flapped and flapped. The cold dry air hurt my skin. Bits of gravel tore at me. I was bleeding. I saw a single pearl, glowing for a moment, and then gone. An orange cat with a wet, red mouth. A plastic pirate ship. A sparkling, pink claw. My lungs were burning. Fuck you! Fuck you all! I made your stupid aquarium accessories look good! And you never appreciated me! Look at me, look at me goddammit! Don’t go! Please. Watch me. Admire me. Watch me gasp. If only they would watch me gasp. And gasp. And gasp. And
Kate M Tyte was born in Bath, England. She worked as an archivist for over ten years, before moving to Lisbon where she works as an English teacher. Her non-fiction has appeared in various British history and genealogy magazines. Her essays have appeared in Slightly Foxed, and her fiction in STORGY, Riggwelter, The Fiction Pool, and in Madness Heart Press‘s anthology Ghastly Gastronomy. She is a book reviewer for STORGY and The Short Story.