A chance meeting in front of the piranha tanks. The exhibits hung behind us, poised in all of their sinister calm, as if the signal for them to wriggle viciously into their daggerwork was about to come at any second. The piranhas were arrayed in a fan and each one seemed to be carefully placed, as though in accordance with some hierarchy that only they knew. The chubbiest piranha was at the front of the display and in the centre and it had a huge wart on its chin. In contrast to this stately hierarchy, myself and Kirsty had met accidentally, like two shrimps clattering untidily into each other whilst on their rounds of a rockpool.
Kirsty’s scowl made the fish waiting behind her look suddenly flat and relaxed. She resembled a child who has taken a defiant step out of a game and who isn’t playing anymore. She held the Fitbit out at a slight distance, as if it was a scorpion on her wrist. “I don’t care if I come last,” she maintained, wagging her head resolutely. “It’s probably more dignified coming last than running around frantically here and there, like you’ve lost your housekeys.”
My eyes dimmed for a moment as I found myself waxing into admiration. “This is the beauty of Ross’s system,” I reflected scientifically. “The management won’t immediately care if you refuse to play but your own colleagues will. You’ll be viewed as a spoilsport or a sore loser. Eventually, you won’t be able to continue in your opposition. You’ll be worn down by your colleagues’ remonstrances. The most manipulative systems always sink right down to the bottom rather than gesticulating from the top. The viciousness should be ultimately attributable to the team rather than to the management.”
Kirsty glared at me but no longer with the same power. Then she shook with exasperated defeat and she was appealing piteously to my humanity. “Biggy, this is horrible, this exploitation. When I get home from work, I want some energy left to be able to cook for my children and put them to bed. This is an easy-come job – we’re not meant to be Olympic performers.”
I was bemused by her dismay. I suppose I thought that if she had more imagination or a livelier sense of humour, then she would have been as appreciative of our new system as I was.
I was confident that I was doing very well and that I might be even taking the majority of the organisation’s steps. Yet there was a spot of worry on my mind about Sandeep. On several occasions I had seen him lingering down in the undersea tunnel and this was where I found him now. I was carrying a bucket of pineapple segments and on my way to an appointment with some impatient lobsters. I stepped on to the tunnel’s moving walkway to approach Sandeep, but then corrected myself and disembarked again, not wishing for my tally to fall off.
Sandeep was meant to be wiping the fingerprints off the high-density acrylic with vinegar. He had paused, however, and he was morosely eyeing the codfish that had flocked around him. They were all identically sized and identically grey, as though a load of slates had swum off a roof. These fish seem to gravitate to your side if you are standing in the tunnel, with a fake friendliness that you suspect is more like satellites being mindlessly pulled into orbiting a more substantial body.
“How are you man?” I greeted Sandeep. I didn’t wait for a reply – I had to hurry our conversation up. This was already becoming an interval of terrible repose. “It’s very important, you know, that we keep on moving.”
Sandeep grunted without interest. He continued to watch the cod, as if they were dark clouds in which a thunderstorm might be gathering.
I too looked up at them. They were loitering on subtle fluctuations in the water, innocuous slabs of aimlessly alert tin.
Sandeep shifted and seemed to settle back into his surroundings. He glanced at me a little doubtfully. Finally, he decided that my soul was confidential enough and that he would not be squandering his predicament on me.
“Isn’t it frightening how… how blank they all are? How there’s nothing there?”
I looked at the rows of faces in the water. The eyes that were like windows without anybody watching from them. The gorping mouths – strangely sensual and with almost a satirical twist to them – but that would never laugh or kiss or sing. This noiseless, touchless world that had enclosed each fish like cotton wool around a wound, a world in which they were always moved as if by eternally wandering hands. Yes, you were always made uneasy by fish. They are more ghosts than they are ever in the land of the living.
“And all they do,” Sandeep continued sorrowfully, “is dangle there, just hanging in the water, doing nothing.”
He had a point. They were indeed as all the same as grains of rice, being stirred in a soup. But I was dancing to get moving again. I turned back to him. “Man, maybe you should just try not to think about the fish. Just concentrate on wiping the glass.”
Sandeep has a small, neat, mildly joyous pot belly. At that moment we both stood dazed as an unreal shadow crossed over it. The unexpected depth of the shadow caused Sandeep to pale, as though a black sun had come out and Sandeep was himself a shadow that had faded in response.
The shadow looked too perfect, like a silhouette taken from a display on the wall of a child’s bedroom. Overhead, the shark’s lengthy white torso veered serenely, with only a slight crumple at the base of its tail to indicate that it was not a plaster model. “Even this shark,” Sandeep cried, “snakes round and round in pointless circuits. There’s no light switched on in its mind!”
The shark’s mouth was wondrous whenever your eyes happened to fall on it. It resembled an inverted cactus with its elaborate tiers of very dainty teeth. This breed, however, were as safe as sheep. They could meet a million codfish and they would never take a bite out of a single one. Sometimes our customers even swam with them.
“Sandeep, why do you work in an aquarium? You don’t seem to have any natural liking for it.”
To my surprise, he nodded. He then glanced around again, looking troubled. “I don’t know,” he mumbled feverishly. “I was employed at a bank, with a normal office job, but then one morning I woke up in a strange apartment, in a strange part of the city, and I knew that I had to get a train to this aquarium. I knew exactly where my locker would be and I knew that there was a unisex polo shirt inside that I had to put on. Like I was following a script. And now I’m stuck here every day with all of these fish and it’s driving me totally bats man!”
I knew at once that he wasn’t joking. He looked poisoned in his guts with worry and despair. I was continuing to lose steps though and so after a sharp goodbye I hastened back to my proliferating circuits of the aquarium.
[Next instalment: Fish Hell (Octopus).]