‘The Fish Tank’ by Austin Bowsher
My name is Austin Bowsher and I am a recent University of Exeter graduate, soon to have my degree in English. My piece is inspired by how easy one can fall into a simple, repetitive life out of convenience, even at the cost of their deeper desires.
Bubbles tumbled from its gaping mouth and rose upward, breaching the surface and dispersing into the thin gap of air above. As it moved, it traced a circuit from the top left to the bottom right, along the front to inspect for onlookers, and then bottom left to top right, its fins and tail undulating in hypnotic harmony. There was something oddly satisfying about observing these most basic of actions. Precise, repeated.”
What are you doing, Kim?”
“Huh? Oh, uh…”
I spun around to my colleague, a twinge of guilt on my brow. I pointed behind me with a languid finger, as if the answer was so stupidly and revealingly obvious that saying it aloud would embarrass me.
Last week, the manager installed a fish tank at the back of the store. In between the history section and the beginning of the classic children’s literature bay. We had to relocate the modern science section upstairs on Tuesday to make room for it, and with each shelf we filled during the transition, our manager, Lauren, would fill the silence with various parts of the same phrase.
“It’ll be worth it. The store will benefit from a splash of excitement, something to stir things up. A breath of fresh air.”
When the move was complete, we manoeuvred the transport trolleys back downstairs and left tired but abated in the knowledge that we’d earned our overtime pay. Before I made my way through the door, I glanced behind me at the gap we’d hewn in the wall of novels, one that I, when I first started working here three years ago, thought to be immutable.
The next morning the fish tank had arrived, any toil or trouble involved unknown to us. From our perspective it was as if it had always been here. Positioned in front of it was three cushion-laden stools: one green, one blue and one purple.
I was sat on one of these stools, a half-eaten sandwich on my lap and twenty minutes of my scheduled break remaining.
“Ah, well that clears up everything. Mind if I join you? Or was this a bit of planned one-on-onetime?”
“Go right ahead”, I replied, ignoring his jabs.
Nate took a seat on one of the stools beside mine, the green one. Nate’s slender frame dwarfed the fish’s enclosure, dispelling the illusion that the tank was large at all. He had brought lunch as well, more accurately what we referred to as ‘late-shift lunch’ or ‘Lunch 2: Now It’s Personal’, the latter a joke Nate made once that I continued to use to spite how much he regretted it moments later. It was a deli selection, encased in a trim box, separated into four equally-sized divisions.One contained pastrami, another some emmental cheese, another a pile of square crackers, and the final one a helping of caesar dressing. I wasn’t even looking at him or the box when I made this observation, because I had no doubt in my mind that this was the exact meal he’d brought.
Carefully layering the cheese and then the ham atop one of the crackers, Nate returned to our conversation.
“There was another dog in the store today. A little dachshund.”
“Oh really? Damn, I didn’t get to see it. I was stuck behind the till all day.”
“I think it was the same one that came in last week.”
“The one with the little brown patch near its ear?”
“Yeah. That one.”
“Hm… well, it could be a different one, you know. Maybe this one’s patch is by its right ear and the one from before had a patch by its left ear.”
“Maybe. I doubt it though.”
I lifted my sandwich to my mouth and pursed my lips, munching away idly.
“So… how about you? Anything new with you?” Nate asked.
“Not new, per se. I did look into flights again, though. Yesterday evening.”
“Making much headway? You haven’t brought it up for a while.”
“I’m really looking forward to it. You know? A chance to get away from it all. Pursue the thingsI’ve always been curious about.”
The words slipped from my loosened lips, and Nate nodded along.
“Maybe I’ll think about doing something like that, too. I could use a break. I wouldn’t have to go far. Maybe just to France for a weekend.”
“Yeah, that sounds nice, go for it.”
“About your trip, when are you planning on it?”
“I don’t really have a set date. Definitely at some point. Definitely. Maybe even next week. I have Saturday off next week.”
“That’s quite short notice.”“I bought the tickets a while ago, well, kind of. They’re rolling refundable so I can choose any date and they’ll match the price.”
“Sounds convenient. Maybe you should do it.”
“Yeah… yeah. I will. I’ve been building myself up for it for months now. Might as well bite the bullet, right?”
“Ah, Kimberly, I have your order right here. Chicken tikka with mayonnaise.”
I retrieved my order from Sam and trotted out of the sandwich shop, checking my phone. 8:50.So I’d arrived with ten minutes to spare.
I passed through the door at… 8:54… 8:54… 8:55. I passed through the door at 8:55 and signed the rota for the day. I tipped my head to Nate as the deactivated elevator echoed hollow clunks from my footsteps on my way upstairs.
“I… weren’t you supposed to be flying today?” he intervened.
“Oh, I… Uh… Something came up. I thought it might be better if I just… worked today.”
“…Right. Well. Shall we… clean the fish tank?”
“Sure. Let’s clean the fish tank.”
As we scrubbed away at the rim of the fish tank and sprinkled food in for our new colleague, I felt its globular, judgemental eyeball glaring at me, glazed, still spewing bubbles from its puckered maw. It sucked up its food without a question, and when we were done, continued about its business. Before I could bring myself to start my shift, I counted the bubbles.
I will go, I told myself. I will go. One day.