It is always dangerous leaving a resourceful thirteen year old to their own devices, especially when the fun fair is in town. I drop my younger son off at our local cricket club to watch the first team play but when I return, two hours later, it is evident that the lure of the fun fair has won out over the match. He is clutching a small container with a goldfish inside and looking shifty.
“Before you say anything,’ he begins quickly, ‘My friend won it. Only his mum wouldn’t let him take it home so he offered it to me.’
‘That was nice of him,’ I say, giving my son a suspicious look. He has been after a gold fish for years.
‘So can we bring him home?”
No is my gut instinct. We’ve had a lamentable track record with Guinea pigs, none of them lasting more than a few weeks and we already have two dogs (well, the little one belongs to my mother but we have her to stay so often she might as well be ours). We don’t need any more pets. But then my son looks at me with those big, brown, beguiling eyes of his and my resolve weakens.
‘What are you going to call him?’ I find myself asking.
He thinks for a moment. ‘Freddie.’
I glance dubiously at the container Freddie’s in. It’s the size of a chocolate Maltesers box.
‘Is he going to be all right in that?’
‘He’ll be fine, Mum. Look, I bought some food.’ My son shows me a tiny cylindrical cardboard pot with what looks like fine sawdust inside. ‘Only cost a pound. The man said it will last a year.’ Mmmm.
Freddie’s new home is on my son’s bedside table. For two days I am traumatized by this little fish banging against the sides of his minuscule container. It’s like me trying to do lengths in the kitchen sink. He’s no sooner turned round than he’s hitting the opposite side ready to turn again.
On day three I can’t take the Maltesers box any more and drive to a nearby pet shop. I discover it does a roaring trade in all things relating to cats, dogs and birds but almost nothing on marine life. After some searching the shop assistant finds, half hidden on a top shelf, a five litre plastic tank. No gismos, just a plastic box which I buy even though the cost of it would get me enough Freddies to fill the London Aquarium.
Transported to his new home, Freddie now looks like he’s attempting the Atlantic crossing and I no longer pass him weighed down with guilt. But for a little fish he produces a lot of waste so the water gets murky very quickly and has to be cleaned every other day. And there’s another issue. Big it may be but the tank does look pretty boring. There’s nothing for Freddie to do or interact with.
Egged on by my son, I go in search of a proper aquatics centre to stock up on accessories. I’m not sure what to expect but as I enter the place I am transformed. Huge tanks lit with a dreamy blue light fill the walls displaying a circus of fish. Wow, I think, delighted by the spectacle. The last time I got this excited about fish, I was snorkeling in Sharm el Sheik. It’s like being at a fashion show, each creature showing off dazzling colours and exotic shapes. My son would love this, I think, wishing he were with me. Trying not to get distracted, I show the assistant a picture of Freddie and explain how we got him. Then comes the sobering news. Freddie is a fresh water fish and will grow to several times his size. Left in his current home (and without filtration), the water will run out of oxygen and he will die.
I think back to the goldfish I had as a child and don’t recall any of them growing particularly big or having a fancy home. Mine would have been your standard fairground bowl, like the one depicted in The Cat in The Hat. But then if I’m honest, I don’t think any of my fish lasted very long. I could just bite the bullet and buy a filtered tank but it turns out I’d also need lighting, a heater, shingle for the floor, thermometer, accessories, plant cover to prevent stress, not to mention the chemicals needed to keep the water healthy. All this for one little goldfish. I can’t help feeling that Freddie who’s only trick is to swim in circles, is beginning to look like a poor investment.
In the end I return home empty handed and convey the news to my son. He takes it better than I’d feared. Thirteen year old boys are stoic like that. Neither of us know how long it will be before the end comes but one morning I wake to find Freddie’s tank very cloudy and Freddie looking subdued. Usually he darts about eagerly looking for food. Now he hovers like an inert submarine. The time has come.
Conscious that Freddie might only have a bit of oxygen left, I wake my son who launches into action. Together we fill a freezer bag with fresh water and scoop Freddie into it. Then, my son sets off at speed towards the pond at the end of our road. Freddie doesn’t know it yet but his tank’s about to get a whole lot bigger.
I know he’s only a fish but as I watch my son disappear, I feel a pang of guilt. After all what fate am I sending him to? Will he manage to adapt to pond life? The man in the shop told me that pond fish (for that is certainly where he came from) can grow up to ten inches, but first there’s the shock of the temperature change to cope with and the threat of larger predators waiting to pounce.
A few days later I drive past the pond. My son is with me chatting away about something he’s seen on T.V. He seems, thankfully, to have escaped the whole fish episode without any emotional scarring. All the same, I keep him distracted as I notice out of the corner of my eye, a newly installed heron taking centre stage on the pond. Uh oh, I think. Let’s just hope Freddie’s keeping a very low profile.