At holiday time there are kennels for dogs, and even hotels for parrots. But for fish - there are only neighbours. Two small boys had entrusted me with the care of their loved ones. As I stared apprehensively into their tank, two goldfish and a couple of disinterested snails peered sulkily back. It was going to be a long three weeks.
It was on the second day that I noticed the water lacked its previous sparkling clarity. Never mind, didn’t goldfish lead healthy enough lives in garden ponds?
By day three the water had taken on a decidedly murky hue. I had been instructed to take out two cups of water daily and replace them with fresh water. However, a jug had been left for this purpose. Perhaps I had misheard and I should have been replacing two jugsful daily. It took quite some skill removing a jug of water from the small tank without capturing fish, snails, and marine foliage.
By day four the fish tank resembled a scummy pond. Tiny frothy bubbles were bursting and reproducing like fermenting beer. The snails were nowhere to be seen. I feared the fish could be gasping their last.
I made tentative enquiries about fish replacements, but feared the children may have had an unfortunate knack of recognising their pet’s idiosyncrasies. Could have taught them synchronised swimming, or darting through hoops. Surrogate fish would be exposed as impostors.
Quelling a rising panic, I sought medical assistance.
“Does the water smell?” enquired the vet.
I gave it a sniff. “Yes, definitely stagnant.”
“Do the fish have scales?”
“What? I thought all fish had scales.”
“Do they have white scales?”
I couldn’t say, I could hardly see the fish through all the murk, let alone their scales.
“They could be suffering from ich?” he murmured.
“Ik, ick? What’s that?”
“A disease that fish are prone to. You’ve probably been over feeding them. The food has rotted and fouled the water.”
Thoroughly alarmed I asked how I should remedy the situation.
“Place the fish, water, stones, shrubbery etc into a clean, detergent free bowl. Clean out the tank, refill with water and allow to stand for 24hrs before replacing the fish.”
“What about the snails?” I asked.
“Are the snails all right?”
How does one tell? Snails don’t do much in the way of activity on which to base an opinion.
“Do you want the snails?” he persisted.
I didn’t know. After all, they weren’t actually my snails. Could be a home industry set up by older son, breeding them for a local restaurant. Or younger son’s biology experiment. I opted to keep them.
In order to clean out the fish tank I would need a receptacle in which to temporarily house the fish. The only vessel of a suitable size was the fish kettle. I hoped it would not have a damaging psychological effect on the fish.
I scooped out the fish with the jug, but the snails revealed a stubborn streak by clinging tenaciously to the side of the tank. They required a prod with a wooden spoon before releasing their grip.
As I heaved the tank into the sink and poured the dirty water down the plughole a large quantity of the tiny stones that covered the base disappeared with the water. The possibility of blocked drains was added to my worries.
The following day I was relieved to find the goldfish were not the floating corpses I had feared. But as I transferred the aquatic menagerie back into the sparkling clean tank, I was alarmed at finding the addition of several long, thin, worm-like creatures of a strange orange hue. Could they be important aquatic wildlife vital to fish survival? I consulted my husband. A quick glance. “Fish shit,” he pronounced.
There was no way of confirming this nugget of fish wisdom.
I set the tank back on the kitchen table and peered smugly through the shiny glass. Two sets of eyes peered pitifully back, their mouths opening and closing like starving fledgling birds.
I couldn’t help myself – I reached for the fish food.