When I was nearly eleven years old, I stood up in front of my classmates and proudly announced that I had an immortal goldfish. My teacher, a stout, angry woman called Mrs. Gilbert wasn’t as impressed by this statement as I had hoped.
‘Immortal?’ She said, her tone scathing.
‘It means she’ll never die,’ I said. ‘Mum said so.’
Mrs. Gilbert told me that it was impossible. ‘Goldfish can’t live forever,’ she said. Behind her, some of my classmates began to snigger.
‘Mine can,’ I retorted, with the bullish conviction that only comes from a position of pure ignorance. ‘She’s already more than six years old.’
You see, I had spent the best part of my childhood trying to convince my parents to buy me a dog. My parents were less ambitious, or perhaps simply more realistic, and had agreed to buy me a goldfish instead. As an adult, I realise that this was poor negotiation on my part, but as a child of not-quite-five I decided to take whatever I could get.
So, I got Goldie.
Goldie was, as her name suggests, a goldfish. She was closer to orange than to gold, a kind of shimmering brass colour, and I would watch the way her tails fanned like silk underwater as she pirouetted in her brand-new tank, complete with fake fauna and a miniature shipwreck.
Every week, I would take Goldie from her bowl and place her in a cup, a wide vase, or (occasionally) one of Mum’s Tupperware boxes, so I could clean it. It wasn’t a long process, but I took pride in it, rubbing away the mildew that collected around the corners and polishing and replacing the small green stones that littered the bottom. I made extra-specially sure that my parents saw me doing this and would often bring them in to inspect the way the glass shone, or to watch me change her water. I’d ask them whether they thought I was doing a good job, and they’d reply that I was. I’d let the unasked question hang in the room, in the hope that they would make the leap on their own and decide that my careful attention to one small goldfish was direct evidence of the love and attention I could lavish on a dog.
Not only was I poor negotiator, I was also an optimist.
We had had Goldie for almost a year when my parents decided that we would go for a holiday to a villa in the south of France. My enthusiasm for the holiday dried up rapidly when I was informed, in no uncertain terms, that Goldie wouldn’t be accompanying us.
‘She’s a fish,’ Mum tried to explain, attempting not to step on my feet as she negotiated her way around me in our small galley kitchen. ‘You can’t take a fish on a road trip.’
On a practical level, I knew this to be true. Grandma and I had spent the day in a small village two summers before, fishing with plastic buckets for the tiny brown guppies that tried to flee upstream, away from our snatching hands. Grandma released all her fish, but I had managed to catch a particularly large one.
‘I want to keep it,’ I said, proudly showing her the fish sulking in my yellow bucket.
‘I’m not sure she’ll be happy living in a bucket,’ Grandma said, leaning forward to get a better look.
‘I won’t keep her in the bucket,’ I said, with confidence. ‘I’ll keep her in a fishbowl.’
She paused. ‘Your mother won’t like it,’ she said. ‘You know how she feels about pets.’
I had given Grandma my best please eyes, the ones that usually brought the best biscuits out of the cupboards and had even been known to illicit cream cakes from the bakery at the end of her road.
‘Ok petal,’ she said eventually, giving my shoulder a squeeze. ‘But you have to take really good care of her.’
I swore very solemnly that I would.
I named the fish Hazel (it appears I had a penchant for colour-based identities as a child) and Grandma repurposed a snack bag for me so I could take her home. I watched her swimming the whole way back, my body vibrating with the excitement of having found my own pet. It felt like a form of rebellion against Mum and Dad, a symbol of my independence. I had already decided to repurpose Mum’s favourite vase for her new home and was wondering whether I could get away with sticking sequins to the inside of her tank when I noticed she’d stopped wriggling and was now floating, her slimy stomach staring at me woefully. I had known that fish for less than an hour, but I cried more for her than I did for Princess Diana. What can I say. I was a child, and I hadn’t known Diana the same way I’d known Hazel.
The idea of Goldie’s glittering white belly staring up at me from a bag was so horrifying that I reluctantly agreed to let Uncle Richard babysit Goldie, explaining in painful detail the six steps to cleaning her fish tank and leaving detailed, crayoned instructions about how to feed her on the fridge. You can imagine my delight when we arrived home a week later, and Goldie was fatter, more gold, and faster than ever. She raced around the tank as if she were excited to see me, and when I dangled my fingers into it she swam up to meet them.
Uncle Richard had done a brilliant job.
As the months passed, it became clear that Goldie wasn’t enough. I couldn’t take Goldie on the short walk to school and show her off to my friends, not without slopping half her home onto the pavement, anyway. Having a dog made you cool, whereas having a goldfish was boring.
‘They just don’t do anything,’ my friend said, prodding the edge of the bowl with her finger.
‘She swims around,’ I told her, indignantly. ‘That’s something.’
‘So what?’ She’d said. ‘My dog can swim. And I can take it for walks.’
This seemed like solid logic to me, so I renewed my subtle efforts to convince my parents to buy me another pet, a better pet. A dog-shaped pet. I cleaned the tank every other day, to the point where they didn’t even need prompting to walk in and give me the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ I was after. The number of unanswered questions in the kitchen grew, until finally I plucked one from the air and decided to ask my mother outright if we could go back to the pet shop.
‘Of course,’ she replied. ‘You’re doing a great job. I think you deserve a reward.’ We returned the very same day and I walked straight to the bank, past all the tanks, to the room where they kept the proper pets. You know. The ones with fur. I poked my fingers through the cages and let the whining puppies on the other side nibble at them. It didn’t feel the same as when Goldie did it, fish don’t really bite you, they just sort of rest their mouths against your hand. Dogs were a lot more interested in seeing what your palms smelt like, tasted like, and they would gnaw away until I drew my hand back with a gasp and moved to the next cage.
At the end of the row, forgotten in the corner was a small brown dog lying with its nose curled so closely to its tail it looked more like a pretzel than a puppy. This would be my dog, I decided. I would call her Brownie, and I would love her and walk her every day, and buy her those funny smelling pig ears, and multi-coloured collars, and let her sleep on my bed so we could read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe together.
We walked out of the pet shop fifteen minutes later with a small, silver fish that had a speck of orange through its tail. Mum had to carry him, because I was too busy snotting into my sleeve and telling her that I hated her, that I would always hate her, and that the poor brown puppy would probably die without a home because we hadn’t bought it.
Ingeniously, I named the new fish Silver.
Goldie and Silver didn’t seem to like each other. In fact, I sometimes wondered whether they spoke at all. They would swim in counter-centric circles, passing each other twice on their rounds, and they would never once say hello.
Silver, although impressively coloured, wasn’t as friendly as Goldie. When I put my fingers into the tank, he would hide in the shipwreck, although he was too big for it, really, and I could see his orange-striped tail wafting out of the back of it.
I wonder whether it was the trauma of having an ignoramus human hand thrust into his home that eventually killed him just four weeks later.
Silver’s funeral was a family affair with me, my mum, my dad, my aunt, my uncle, my grandma and my nan in attendance. They weren’t wearing black, because they’d only popped over for a cup of tea and hadn’t realised it was such a sobre occasion.
‘She’s very upset,’ I heard Mum say over the roar of our new kettle. ‘I don’t think having a pet is a good idea. They only die. It’s more hassle than it’s worth.’
‘Death is hard for children to understand,’ my dad had said. ‘Let her cry it out. It’s her first, after all.’
I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time, that it was my first. As if death was something that happened so frequently you were forced to make numbered lists of it in order to keep up.
‘Perhaps we should have bought her the puppy after all,’ Mum said. ‘They live a lot longer.’
After that, I decided to go into a full week of mourning for Silver. I wore black every day (except for my socks, because all of them were white), and whenever my parents were in the room I made an extra-special effort to look sad.
This seemed to pay off, because the following week we were back at the pet shop, me and Mum.
‘You can have as many as you want,’ she told me.
I was elated. How many puppies could we fit in the car? Ten? Maybe eleven? Would they all want to read with me, or would some of them prefer to watch the television downstairs with Mum and Dad? In my head I was enacting my own, private version of 101 Dalmatians.
I decided I should probably pick a conservative number. After all, I didn’t know how many would fit in my bed. ‘Can I have eight?’ I asked.
Mum had given me a wide smile and a wink. ‘I tell you what,’ she said. ‘You can have nine.’
The fish tank was rather full after that, and I had to move Goldie out of her bowl and into a purpose-built aquarium.
I didn’t know whether Goldie had counted the deaths of her friends as they floated belly up around her, but I had. We stopped having funerals after the fourth fish, because the garden was starting to look like a family of moles had moved in.
‘It’s better to flush them down the loo,’ Mum said. ‘That way they can go back to the sea, where they belong.’
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that these were freshwater fish and salt water would kill them all over again. Goldie looked lonely in her tank and I was struck with the sudden realisation that one day the tank might be empty. If Goldie died, I would have no more fish left. I started crying.
‘Don’t cry, darling,’ Mum said, giving me one of those tight hugs that squeezes all the air out of your lungs and makes you feel very safe. ‘Goldie’s a special fish. She’s immortal.’
I didn’t know what this meant, so I asked her.
‘It means she’ll live forever,’ she explained. ‘So, don’t you go worrying about Goldie.’
I was glad I didn’t have to worry, because I was running out of fingers. When I told my dad this, he didn’t understand what I meant.
‘You’ve got ten,’ he said. ‘The same as always.’
I held my small palm so close to his face that it was almost touching his nose.
‘Silver was the first,’ I said, callously ignoring Hazel as I bent down a digit. ‘Now nine other fish have died. We can’t get any more fish, Dad. I don’t have any fingers left.’
Dad had taken my curled fists and held them in his hands. ‘What do you do when you want to use your hands to count to twenty?’ he said.
I snorted. That was obvious. Dad could be very silly at times. ‘You start again,’ I said.
‘Exactly,’ he said, and went back to watching the football, his beer balanced precariously on the edge of the sofa.
Ten was enough, I thought.
Goldie and I went back to our routine. Every Sunday I would move her bowl from where she sat in the conservatory into the kitchen and she would sit in Mum’s vase, quietly watching me while I cleaned her house. I stopped asking Mum and Dad to come and see, and slowly the questions I’d left in the air began to dissolve and disappear.
When I turned eleven, Grandma started to get sick. When I hugged her, there was a little less Grandma than there used to be. I knew it was bad because she didn’t want to go to the garden centre anymore, and Grandma loved going to the garden centre. She liked looking at the flowers, whilst I liked to play in the sheds and pretend that they were tiny houses.
Mum was always quiet on the drive back to London after we’d spent the day with Grandma.
‘Is Grandma very sick?’ I asked her once.
‘Yes,’ Mum said, moving her sunglasses so that they pushed her recently cropped brown hair off her face.
‘Is she going to die?’ I asked.
She left my question in the car, slamming the door on it and walking into the house without me. I thought it might fade away, like the questions in the kitchen, but it didn’t. It followed us. Every Sunday we would drive to Grandma’s, and every Sunday the question would hover between us. Sometimes we could drown it out by singing Robbie Williams over the hum of the tyres on the motorway, but most of the time we couldn’t. It began to get thicker, the way the air does before a thunderstorm, and it pressed down upon us until finally Mum reached for it.
‘I think Grandma is going to die,’ she said. ‘And I want to tell you this so that you can be ready for it.’
I looked at my hands. What do we do when we want to use our hands to count to twenty?
‘Why is Goldie immortal, but Grandma isn’t?’ I asked.
Mum had laughed, which I thought was an odd reaction to such a serious question.
‘Goldie isn’t immortal,’ Mum said.
I frowned. ‘But Goldie can’t die,’ I said. ‘And Grandma can. I would rather have Grandma than Goldie.’
‘I know you would, sweetheart,’ Mum said. ‘I know you would.’
‘Why does Grandma have to die?’ I asked. I couldn’t imagine a world with her cut out of it. Without her cupboards full of biscuits, her pink knitted jumpers and her Lamb Surprise (where the surprise was always that it wasn’t lamb, it was chicken.) ‘It’s not fair.’
‘I know it’s not,’ she said.
What do you do when you want to count to twenty using your hands?
You start again.
That night I couldn’t sleep.
My brain kept counting to eleven, over and over and over again.
Grandma’s funeral was much bigger than the funerals we’d had before. For one, a lot more people showed up. We buried her in the church at the end of her road and I remember standing there, sobbing into my uncle’s shoulder as he held me and told me what a brave girl I was. I hadn’t cried for the eight fish that had gone belly up after Silver, but I cried so hard for Grandma that it felt as though my heart was tearing itself open from the inside.
Afterwards we went to the posh hotel at the edge of the village and we ate cucumber sandwiches and I drank orange juice while Mum drank something a lot stronger that made her very tired and very sad.
I didn’t understand why Grandma had died and Goldie hadn’t. Grandmas are meant to live a lot longer than goldfish. Grandmas are meant to be permanent. You can’t go to the pet shop and buy more Grandmas, although there were many nights after the funeral where I wished that I could.
Not just for me. For Mum.
After the funeral, Mum was still Mum. She still made me corned beef and tomato sandwiches for school, and she still brushed the knots out of my hair whilst I hopped from foot to foot in the kitchen, gasping.
But she also wasn’t Mum. Sometimes she would forget to laugh when I told her about the funny things that happened at school, and sometimes when I talked she would stare at me blankly for a few moments before blinking and saying, ‘Sorry, what was that, darling?’
I knew it was because she was missing Grandma. I missed Grandma too. Every night, when Mum and Dad had gone to bed, I would call her phone. I wasn’t allowed to use the phone without asking, but they were asleep. They didn’t know.
And I would just listen to it ring.
A few weeks later as I was lying in my bed, waiting for them to fall asleep, Mum came into my room. ’I have something to say,’ she said.
I was very worried that she had found out about my using the phone, so when she told me it was about Goldie I was relieved. Mum put her hand on my forehead, stroking it like she used to when I was very small. She told me that Goldie hadn’t survived all my other fish. Goldie had died not once, not twice, but countless times, and each time she had been carefully replaced. That’s why she had been so vibrant when I came back from our holiday in France. Not because she was happy to see me, but because she was a completely different fish.
Goldie, the real Goldie, the one me and Mum had bought together at the pet shop wasn’t sitting in the tank in the conservatory. She’d been flushed down the toilet like the fish I didn’t love.
‘How many times did you replace her?’ I asked Mum.
‘Too many to count,’ she told me. ‘It felt like it was every other month. I would wait outside the store before they’d opened and Mark, the owner, would wave at me and ask me “Again?” He probably shouldn’t have kept selling us them. But I saw how happy it made you, and I saw how upset you were when your other fish died. I wanted you to believe that life is a place where bad things don’t happen.’ She sighed, leaning so that her forehead pressed against mine. ‘I guess that was stupid of me. I just wanted you to be a child for as long as possible. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s ok, Mum,’ I said.
If I could have done for Mum what Mum did for me, I would have done it in a heartbeat.
But I couldn’t shield Mum, just like she couldn’t shield me.
Mum still doesn’t talk about Grandma very much, and we don’t go and visit the grave Grandma shares with Grandpa. As a child, I thought this was strange. I used to like to go outside and talk to my fish, to tell them about the treats that I would have fed them if they were still swimming in the tank. As an adult, I realise the grave has no importance for Mum because Grandma isn’t there. It’s like my eleven-year-old self visiting the toilet to talk to my fish.
They weren’t in the toilet any more.
They were floating around somewhere where I couldn’t see them.
What do you do when you want to count to twenty using your hands?
You start again.