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A Shout From The Attic: Fish Tale

...I sat and looked at the tank and was deeply troubled by what I saw. Among the pretty monkfish, angelfish, bottom crawlers, water snails, and several unpronouncables was a mild mannered Shubunkin who seemed to be having a hard time of it...

Ronnie Bray tells of the day he became a fish doctor.

Call me Ishmael. It’s not my name, but I can’t hear you and I will not be offended. You will recognise the request as the opening words of Herman Melville’s classic that can rightly be called the first American novel. Although to be accurate you should call me Ronnie, I too have a tale to tell about a swimmer who made up for in courage and spirit anything he may have lacked in volume.

The sulking prophet Jonah’s story would not be half as compelling without the ‘great fish,’ lacking the giant marlin that gave Hemingway’s ancient hero, Santiago, a run for his money, crowning his life with success when triumphs had long been distant memories, the tale would be just another angling story, and Ahab’s pursuit and ultimate destruction of the great white whale would be at a loss for a plot without Moby Dick.

I mention these three Hall of Famers to set the scene for what unfolds in this tale of a fish. You see I am not a stranger to fish and their habits, and am constrained to relate this account of a fish, whose story ranks with the great fish tales of classical literature, to bring balance to the world piscatorial chronicles.

In the long-gone days when Matt and I lived at 39 Reins Terrace, Honley, someone made us a present of an aquarium. It might have been the people who lived further towards Honley on the other side of the road up the grassy bank behind the big stone wall, but we got it, its paraphernalia, and its piscatorial residents.

I have heard it said that watching fish blather about is relaxing, which is why fishy scenes are often found in the waiting areas of dentists’ premises, but watching this tank was anything but relaxing. It was hard to breathe and watch the show at the same time.

You may have experienced the sensation of drowning when watching a film drama about people who are under water for too long without any apparatus to let them breathe down there. Questions arise in your mind, breathlessness invades your lungs, your heart rate quickens, and panic sets in, and your overall comfort level plummets even deeper than the watery pitch occupied by the on-screen person whose role you are simulating with your body and mind unless the gasping victim can reach the surface and gulp buckets of air.

When they inhale, so do you, having held your breath for longer than you knew you could and feeling as if you have been through the experience with them, which, of course, you have! You have undergone sympathetic suffering of the same order as sympathetic pregnancy, or sympathetic toothache, only far more distressing. Don’t let anyone tell you that your breathless suffering was not real. Everything that we experience is psychically perceived and hence, even sympathetic agonising is superlatively real.

I sat and looked at the tank and was deeply troubled by what I saw. Among the pretty monkfish, angelfish, bottom crawlers, water snails, and several unpronouncables was a mild mannered Shubunkin who seemed to be having a hard time of it. He kept struggling to the surface and then falling back down to the bottom of the tank, from where he would immediately struggle back to break the surface. This behaviour was continued without pause. While his fellows enjoyed their roaming round waterland – apparently nolens volens – but who knows what fish are thinking? This poor chap, I called him Henry and it suited him although he would not answer to it, lived a life distinguished by constant exertion. It was painful for me to watch him.

I tried to get inside his head and feel what he was feeling, experience what he was experiencing, and think what he was thinking. It was worse that watching the moving picture The Poseidon Adventure when Shelley Winters had to make like a fish for a long way underwater or die. It was her choice of sink or swim, and she swam. That film took so much out of me that I had to watch National Velvet ten times to get myself back to normal!

The most I knew about fish – and this will surprise you – was that batter-fried cod was greatly to be desired, but that batter-fried haddock was only alright for those who lived south of Rotherham, or who had no gustatory perception. After that my ichthyology suffered from abysmal ignorance as wide as the Mid-Atlantic trench is deep.

All I knew was that Carassius Arassius Auratus Henricus was well into the survival business, and that I was the only one who could help him. Donning my ichthyologist’s hat I pondered for the aetiology of Henry’s condition, and for a matching treatment and prognosis. Eventually I was able to determine that his symptoms were the result of a failed swim bladder. This little organ is important because it enables fish to control their buoyancy, enabling them to stay at one level, rise up, or head downwards without having to flash fin after fin furiously to be where they want to be.

I felt a flash of conceit at having resolving the problem, but Henry was no better off for the determination or my vanity. He still had his problem and the help he so desperately needed was just as far away. Had I been surgically inclined I might have opened the little fellow up and attempted to fix his problem with needle and thread, or by a spot of super-glue, if the malfunction lent itself to simple mechanical repair. But it was unknown territory and I was unsure as to how long a tiddler could survive out of the water, under the knife, and not think he was being filleted rather than fixed.

Such was my quandary. I was once told that if I ever found myself in a quandary I should peddle like mad until I was out of it. So I did exactly that and came up with the idea that probing about inside a creature of similar dimensions as my forefinger could be tricky, because the bits I needed to attend to were some of the bits the fishmonger had already removed thrown to his cat by the time I get my hands on the carcass, yet it might be possible to effect a remedy exteriorly.

Having eased out of the quandary I got off my bike and set about designing an outside substitute gas bladder for the still striving Henry. I had two focuses. One was the material of which the artificial bladder was constructed, and the second was the means of sticking it onto Henry. There was something about seeing my fellow creature struggle so long and hard that made it an affair of the heart, not merely something that was happening to one of many aquatic friends. This had become personal.

I thought of the balloon in which the Montgolfier Brothers made their rise in the world by rising out of it. Their blimp went up because it became lighter than air. I needed something that was neither lighter than nor heavier than dihydroxygen. It cold not be a hot air balloon, but something somewhere had to have similar specific gravity to the element in which denizens of the deep live.

Montgolfier’s round balloon floated round in my mind, round the room, and lighted on the table lamp. In doing so, a potentiality exposed itself. The light was heavily decorated after the fashion enjoyed by those with more money than sense and an army of maids to do the dusting. The bottom edge of its shade was wreathed by intricately filigreed haberdashery, generously fringed, tessellated, and balled.

Each tassel was superseded by a small round ball covered in the same silk thread. I reached for one and fingered the orb. It was solid, so I decided it must be wood. This was exciting. If this worked I would have enough to fix the deficiencies on a whole shoal suffering from the condition I named “Henry’s Monology Simplex.” I would write up the case later and have it published in Fish Fryer’s Weekly. I would be feted, wined and dined, and films would be made about my inspiring life.

When I came back to my sense I snipped off one of the tassels from the back side of the lamp and stripped it bare of fibre. The strands, like the lamp, were a rich salmon colour: what non-fish-lovers would call deep rich pink. I took it as an omen although I give not a fig for superstitions like that, but in extremis I don’t mind hedging my bets.

When I dropped the wooden sphere into the fish tank it floated curiously half sub-merged and half e-merged. That was ideal. I then pestered myself to find a way to make a harness to attach the ball to Henry without interfering with his vital functions or causing him distress.

After several miserable failures, deftly I constructed an apparatus out of waterproof sticking plaster and, after attaching the ball to it, raised Henry out of the water, attached the Bray Icthysoterial contraption to his aureate body, and gently lowered my little friend back into the aquarium and watched.

For a second or two I was back with Shelley Winters in the upturned ship making my way across the ceilings under twenty feet of salt water not daring to breathe. Henry stood still – if, that is, fish can stand, being footless, as it were – and then began to swim effortlessly around the tank, in and out of the pirate’s castle, around the ragged rocks, diving and rising with perfect ease. The device worked and Henry’s hard days were over!

If the contrivance had not worked, I do not know what my next plan would be. But thank the Lord it did work, and a creature’s hard times were behind him at the cost of a useless decoration, an inch or two of Elastoplast, and the application of a touch of genius. Elastoplast is cheap, and if Elastoplast is not available there are adequate low priced substitutes. It is the genius of problem solving that is priceless, especially when it is applied to the problems of those that will never know how the necessary aid came to their rescue.

Few of us get through life without puncturing our swim bladders, and life gets tough with no help close at hand. That is when friends step in and fix what they can, any way they can, as quickly and as lovingly as they can. An absorbent shoulder, a listening ear, an understanding and loving heart supply the flotation devices and harnesses needed to get us up and about again like our old selves.

Henry lived a good long life by goldfish standards, and the little upturns at the corners of his mouth indicate that he was at last happy and content with his lot, even though his world was small. It is not where we live, but how we live, that matters, and Henry knew it.

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