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Zen And The Art of Fish Keeping

By Alison Thompson
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“Mum,” Small One says. “Do you know what I really want for my birthday this year? Like really, really, really, plus another pile of really, stretching until infinity?”


Scared to open this particular can of worms, I pause, mid brew, still holding the kettle full of gently steaming just-boiled-water as I gather my thoughts. She doesn’t wait for a response.


“I want a pet of my own,” she says.


Sharp intake of breath. Surely these are the words guaranteed to strike fear into all but the boldest of parental hearts?


“And I want it to be something super cool. Like…”


She takes a moment to consider. Taking another bite of her cracker she munches it steadily, deep in thought, while I sweat it out. Like what? What classifies as “super cool” when you’re 7-soon-to-be-8. A tiger? A chihuahua? A salamander?


“Like… a fish,” she finally pronounces decisively.


The relief is palpable. I put the kettle down and start breathing again. Being saved at the 11th hour from having to welcome a Burmese Python into Thompson Towers makes me jovial, giddy even.


“We can certainly ask Dad when he gets home from work. But, if he thinks it’s okay, then I think a fish would be very good first pet,” I say.


And this is how I come to find myself spending an hour and a half of every single week up to my elbows in lukewarm water scrubbing algae from plastic ornaments carefully crafted to look like underwater medieval castle ruins (whatever such a thing would like in the first place is anyone’s guess) and fake sea anemone. Despite my firm declarations stipulating that it was entirely her own responsibility to maintain said item, deep in my psyche, even as I was speaking, I was already capitulating. Small One is 8. She wouldn’t brush her teeth, wash, nor probably ever wear outdoor clothes again, if I weren’t there to rehearse her basic hygiene responsibilities with her on a twice daily basis. She loves the fish. She watches them swimming round the tank as she’s going to sleep at night. She notes their habits in a little book in her desk, kept for that purpose, and knows their personalities. If, however, they were relying on her to remember to actually feed them or clean the toxic sludge from the bottom of the tank, they would already be scampi.


Before the glorious arrival of these new be-finned additions to the household, the amount of fish-keeping knowledge I brought to the table was precisely nada. However, I soon realised that they are delicate little blighters so I would have to shape up fast or watch our investment spinning clockwise down a flushing loo.


Thus, Small One and I embarked on a flurry of library book perusal and frenzied Googling. We decided that the tank filled with sharks, with half a Mini Cooper sunk in the middle, in the basement of the townhouse owned by a Saudi Prince, though a statement piece with plenty of wow factor, might be a little impractical in our setting. Not least because the tank and severed vehicle had been lowered into place by a giant crane during the actual construction phase of the house, the rest of the building literally having been built around it.


Something more modest would have to do for our maiden voyage. After reading several extremely detailed fish-keeping tomes, I was dismayed to realise that rather than feeling better equipped to deal with the task at hand, I was, if anything, more overwhelmed by its enormity. As is so often the case, this newfound knowledge had thrown my previous naivety into sharp relief. I could not believe I had decided that fish would be the perfect beginner pet when in fact the complexity of the subject knew no bounds. The chapters on tank positioning alone kept me awake for several nights in a row. I realised now that hubris, folly in the extreme, had led me to believe we would be able to manage such a responsibility, when I was clearly nowhere near familiar enough with the placement of our joists.


After some more late night plumbing of the inner depths of online aquarist chat forums (who knew?) and some much more pragmatic advice from our local aquarium supply shop, we were ready at last. We had made all the key decisions necessary to get started, namely the shape and size of the tank required (medium) and the type of fish we wanted to keep (tropical). Having set everything up a few days beforehand, we took Small One to the shop on her birthday to choose her first fish. Proudly, and with great excitement, we released our first two specimens: Goldie and Mr Fishington into the tank that afternoon and added two more: Aqua and Hermione a few weeks later.


But little were we to know that, despite having grasped by that point at least the rudimentary principles of aquarium management, the fun was only really beginning. Each week brought a new challenge. Sky rocketing and potentially fish-poisoning ammonia levels in the water. Three distinct types of algae, each one arriving precisely after the one before had been finally and arduously eradicated. The week I thought that Goldie had a weird stomach parasite. (This was in the time before I knew her well enough to know that she is almost constantly going to the toilet. So no, Siri, that is not a worm hanging from her tummy fin, but rather an unbroken chain of poop). The time Small One insisted on being allowed to carry the bag containing her new catfish upstairs and promptly dropped them half way up, leading to several anxious days of watching them hiding stock-still in the undergrowth, presumably suffering from PTSD. The time that I accidentally sucked Hermione up the syphon and thought I’d killed her.  Even in a good week the amount of time I spend scraping stubborn green smudges off the glass with an old Peppa Pig ruler is excessive.


And yet when I have successfully scrubbed the gloop off the underwater castle, cleaned out the filter without electrocuting myself, returned the glass to it’s original sparkle, and hoovered Goldie’s work out of the gravel substrate for the 700th time, and actually sit down in front of the tank to admire my handiwork, I have to admit our little shoal is as fascinating as it is relaxing to watch. Mr Fishington is very tame and does on occasion take food from my fingers. He is also however a total diva. The arrival of the catfish seemed to knock him for six, and, like an older sibling huffing at the attention being lavished on a new baby brother or sister, he can spend hours at time a time hiding in the hollow log like a petulant teenager. Sometimes when I peer through the side of the tank to see him more clearly he actually swims delicately and deliberately around in a half circle, pointedly ending up facing in the other direction.


It’s hard to express the frustration I feel at being given the cold shoulder by a fish after the time I have just spent cleaning his little habitat. But then I suppose if it were up to him, he would probably be merrily swimming in a shallow river somewhere in Sri Lanka with nary a plastic log in sight. In any case time marches on and Small One is already eyeing up her next potential fishy acquisition. She asked me the other day if I would buy them for her for Valentine’s Day, because, “You do love me, don’t you, Mum?”


As well as being the month when Beloved and I try to put a sterling equivalent on how little we can spend on the 14th and still have it qualify as romance, it is the month of the celebration of his birth. Which means that soon there will be a JCB edging up the drive ready to deliver his latest Lego acquisitions. I suppose I should be grateful that at present he simply retreats to his man castle to build quietly in peace and has not yet begun to host his own Youtube channel on the subject. Unlike LegoLover123 in Stockton-on-Tees who seems to find hour upon hour of real time, not to mention hundreds of actual money, to share his burgeoning collection with the nation. He is a man who loves minutia and no evening would be complete without his nasal tones (sinus problem?) ringing through the house as he gets down to the nitty gritty of the authenticity of the Incredible Hulk’s facial expression in the latest Avengers set.


Maybe in another few months I should launch my own channel. I could name it WinsomeFishLady and share my wisdom, not to mention boundless experience of going on four months now, with a grateful public. As the Kin Á La Kardashian have no doubt have discovered, with great power, comes great responsibility. I do worry that living in the public eye could be wearing. I don’t think I could deal with the constant pressure of being under the microscope. The paparazzi capturing my #makeupfree visage as I purchase an 18 pack of toilet rolls in Home Bargains on a Wednesday afternoon would be hard to bear.


It’s on that basis, after a great deal of soul searching, and despite many requests to the contrary, I have decided to live the best version of me, in the privacy and relative tranquility of Thompson Towers. Marie Kondo might need to teach those Stateside hoarders a lesson or two about how to aerodynamically fold their undies, but not me. My crib is already fully zen. So, if you need me I will be meditating crosslegged in front of the fish tank, allowing the simple fluidity of the movement of my aquatic friends to calm my soul.


Not Goldie’s though. Her movements I really could live without.

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