The Aquarium

Anuk Arudpragasam



The aquarium seller took a small fish net out from his bag. He rolled up his shirtsleeves and leaned over into the tank, where the goldfish, fleshy and swollen, lay motionless in the water. He cupped her gently in the plastic mesh and brought her slowly to the surface. He prodded her body with his thumb and forefinger, and like an old woman’s breast her fluid-filled abdomen gave way without resistance as he pressed. He turned back to the woman, who was watching him anxiously from a distance.

“The swelling is due to pus, ma’am. She probably has an infection. It would be best if we tried to remove the stuff.”

“Are you sure that it’s an infection?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I thought maybe her stomach was so big because of eggs.”

“The females won’t usually produce eggs unless a male is present. And you can tell from the kind of swelling that it isn’t caused by eggs.”

He pushed heavily into the belly with his forefinger to demonstrate that the thin, watery substance inside the fish could not have contained the gem-like orbs that give birth to life.

“So what are you going to do?”

“We have to make an incision in the skin,” said the man. “To let the pus out.”

The aquarium seller set the goldfish under the water, on top of the mesh, between the front two edges of the tank. He then asked the woman for a pin or a needle, preferably new, which, after a moment of hesitation, the woman brought out. Holding the fish steady between his thumb and forefinger, he squeezed her belly until it looked ready to burst, and then, not letting up on the pressure, inserted the needle’s sharp point into her body. A thick, yellow pus pushed out into the water, spreading out and thickening as the man kept squeezing more and more of the blood-tinged ooze from the incision. The process went on until almost all of the pus was pushed out of the fish, until the substance was suspended like a toxic cloud about the net.

Satisfied, the aquarium seller turned to face the woman. She had left his side and was sitting on the settee, her eyes closed and her head folded into her hands.

“Ma’am,” he said gently. “Everything is alright. The fish is fine.”

She opened her eyes. She stood up and studied the tank. The cloud of pus had dissipated, leaving the water slightly opaque, but the goldfish was swimming with a new animation, as if a heavy burden had suddenly lifted. Her belly no longer was swollen and her skin, no longer stretched out, gently sagged. She was back to normal except for a tear where the puncture had been made, to which a slender yellow-red thread of discharge was tethered. At this the woman winced and looked away.

“What about that?”

“The wound will be alright in a few days, ma’am.”

“Nothing will happen?”

“Nothing will happen, ma’am. Just make sure to put new water in the tank tonight so that it does not get infected.”

The woman opened her purse to get out the money she owed him but the aquarium seller was already at the door and shuffling out of the flat. He insisted that she did not pay him anything. She had been a regular customer of his for several years now, and it was his duty to see after the health of the fish he had sold her.

*

Things proceeded as usual at school the next morning. The woman served the small queue of boys that wanted food before classes started, then helped to unpack the items that the catering vans brought in. The sausage rolls, cutlets, and buns near the front, the cakes, eclairs, and desserts in the middle, and the drier, less popular items, the biscuits, sandwiches, and processed goods, at the back. The crows gathering steadily around the canteen. Each vanguard less easily deterred than the one before. Every few minutes one of the three ladies had to wave her hands and shout in order to keep them away. Once they had finished getting everything ready for the morning, they waited quietly on an assembly bench outside, staring out across the emptiness of the dusty playground. It was another thick, sultry day.

The boys were rowdy as usual at interval. Shirts untucked, sweating and panting like horses, pushing, shoving and cursing, they waved their money violently in the air until they got what they wanted. One of the boys was especially rude and the woman made sure to ignore him as long as possible. When at last she handed him his donut, he curled his lips and narrowed his small eyes.

“Look at her dirty fingers,” he said loudly to the boy next to him, who smirked and turned to look at her hands. “How does she expect us to eat what she touches?”

The woman made no response. She continued serving food as though she hadn’t heard the remark. The boy next in line smiled apologetically and said good morning and she felt better almost at once. If she had ever had a son, the woman thought, that is how she would have brought him up. Gentle and respectful. Shirt always tucked into his shorts, and morning breaks always spent quietly inside the assembly hall.

The interval over, she went to the sink at the back of the canteen and soaped and scrubbed her hands under the water. The school bursar came by at noon to let them know the decision about the management structure following Prashanthi’s retirement. The woman listened in surprise, having completely forgotten about the long-awaited change. Someone new would be joining the canteen to take over the staff and stocking duties. Mahesha was to take over Prashanthi’s position as manager, and the woman was to keep her present duties. The bursar asked if everyone was happy with the new arrangements. They looked up at the short, round man, and nodded in unison.

“Good,” the man said. “If there are any further questions, just come and see me in my office.”

They watched as he turned and walked towards the main building and then they began to get the canteen ready for lunch, the woman moving with more briskness than usual. Not once in her five years had she ever been late to work, and hardly ever sick. She wasn’t unfit, had no health problems, and still walked the twenty minutes to school and back every day. The boys liked Mahesha better, naturally, she was young and pretty, friendly, of course. But all the same, she’d been at the school just three years.

The woman’s thoughts gradually turned towards the afternoon. If she got home early enough, she’d have time to make sure everything was in order. The bell rang for lunch. She set aside the pastries she wanted to take with her, then began serving the large crowd of boys that had gathered around the canteen. She packed what she’d set aside neatly into a little box, and padded them with tissue so that they didn’t crumble on the walk home.