Read by Suzanne Goldberg
If you’ve ever researched how to euthanise a fish, you’ll know that the most humane method is with clove oil and vodka. The juries which preside over internet forums are unanimous on that: five drops of clove oil to send it to sleep, then two shots of vodka to put the final nail in the coffin. That’s why I’m waiting alone with a bottle of vodka and my daughters’ two-year-old goldfish with dropsy, its body bloated and distended, its scales protruding like spines.
With humans, I suppose, situations like this require more precision and professionalism, and the whole arena of death – induced or otherwise – is steeped in ritual and taboo. This is one of my preoccupations since they found that I have stage four ovarian cancer. I now define life by how shrewd our coping mechanisms are, and death by the elegance of our exit strategy.
I hear keys rattle in the lock, and my husband and daughters come in.
“Hey girls, how was swimming?” I call through.
The reply is sobbing, and its perpetrators stumble through to the kitchen dripping rain and leaking tears. They look even younger than I remember.
“Mum, what’s wrong with Rihanna?” our eldest asks. (It was their choice of name, not ours.)
“Dad says she’s g-going to—burst!” says our youngest. She was devastated when Postman Pat got lost in the fog, so I dread to even look at her as she weeps.
“Dad said what?” I shoot my husband daggers as he comes through; I’ve already lost control of the evening. “No sweetie, she’s not going to burst, she’s just unwell so we need to say goodbye.”
“You said we should tell them,” he mouths, “they’ll be fine”. What I really said was that I should tell them; which I still think trumps his ingenious idea of claiming Rihanna had “gone on tour”. So I scoop up my blubbering girl with one arm, take my husband aside with another and keep one eye on the eldest as she goes to inspect the tank. Using my clearest English like I am manning an information desk, I explain to him that you can’t just blurt things out, some issues need to be guided through with seriousness and tact.
He only replies with a smile: “Oh, so you don’t want fish and chips for tea then?”
Levity is a man’s only coping mechanism, that’s what I pity the girls for when I’m gone; that and the awful dinners he will make for them, the bra shopping they will miss.
I sigh, “If you’re not going to be sensible, then at least be useful: did you get the clove oil?”
He takes it from his bag, and we congregate around the tank as my daughter muses in her mature way that the fish looks like a lead balloon. I explain that it’s just one of the symptoms of dropsy, and that she isn’t in too much pain, although all available evidence disagrees with me. Looking at the creature, lying on the gravel bed beside the novelty treasure chest and water-plant, I wonder if fish are aware of their mortality in the way that dogs and cats are supposed to be. And if so, what would it select from the menu of options for fish euthanasia which I’d browsed through earlier like a restaurant-goer: decapitation, freezing, flushing, or clove oil and vodka? Maybe it’s best to trust yourself to a beneficent god, such as I was to the fish at that time.
I’ve already assembled the various instruments and apparatus that we need and, using my instructions, I begin this strange and uncanny ritual, as if euthanising and exhuming myself. Opening the tank’s lid, flooding the room with halogen light, I scoop a bowl full of water, coaxing the fish up into it by creating gentle currents. When I put the bowl on the table, the fish rolls barrel-like in the settling liquid; upside-down, back-to-front, round-and-round, displaying a complete lack of control. I take the clove oil bottle, feeling more and more like a steely surgeon instructing a lecture hall – albeit a juvenile one:
“Our instrument of sedation today is the essential oil of the clove plant, syzygium aromaticum, which is commonly used as a home remedy for toothache, but in this case will anaesthetise the patient, and which will be administered from a small apothecary bottle with a pink nipple.”
But then I make the mistake of breathing deeply in the thick aroma of clove oil, and as I taste its peppery warmth I am teleported back to studding oranges to make pomanders at Christmas, to the aromatic bath oils I used to indulge in before having kids. I add five drops to the bowl, giving the water a ghostly milkiness.
After a while, as the sun finally expires and the horizon is sealed shut by night, the fish falls asleep, its gills sculling only very occasionally. It lies there with such a wholesome stillness that I see it momentarily as a monk deep in meditation. I try to imagine that, far down in its pea-sized unconscious, is a serene place where life and death are being contemplated; but the notion won't stick. Instead, I oblige by seeing the fish's life flash before my own eyes; it is a vignette which mainly consists of gormless gawping and cruising plankton-like from wall to wall. But perhaps that’s what my family would look like if you observed us from the street.
“Is that it?” my husband asks. “Time for tea, girls.”
“No that’s not it,” I say, with an irritation that surprises me. “That’s her asleep for a few minutes, but it’s the vodka that kills her, like poison; then we have to bin her, because if we flush her she might compromise the local ecosystem. I’ve read up on it.”
Perhaps I feel a bit betrayed that the one man who is supposed to console me into the afterlife can’t recognise the difference between peaceful sleep and eternal death. Contemplating that thought a little furiously, as is a woman’s wont, I take the vodka bottle in my hand.
“Drowned in vodka?” he says. “Not a bad way to go.”
And yet I’d just realised that this liquid may as well be an axe, a guillotine, a noose or any other tool we have for the snuffing out of life. It is bizarre to recall the manifold ways in which we can perish. In this scene, with my husband and children perched at the tableside ready for the ultimate act, I see all of my family and friends stood around my grave. In their three faces, cast glowingly in the bright white light of the fish-tank, I see curiosity and sadness, but I also see excitement and anticipation – the sort that people exhibit when watching a swimming gala or playing cards – and it makes me wonder if there is a thrill in death, a voyeurism.
The vodka dissipates silently into the clove oil concoction, like a deadly veil closing over the fish. I don’t know whether I expected any thrashing or gagging, but I do feel a certain disappointment as the fish remains entirely unchanged. I tell the room, which by now has become my science classroom filled with eager pupils, that when the vodka drowns the lungs the gills will cease moving. I explain again, this time more as a family vet, that once you notice dropsy in your goldfish then it’s often too late, and that it’s a fairly common affliction in fish, and that the owners have done nothing wrong. Nor is there any explanation to why it happens, save for an act of God or, in secular terms, an unforeseeable inevitability. I am convincing as an objective judge.
My eldest of course is all nods and comprehension, as if these events are simply a trigger allowing her to recollect a long-held but repressed perspective; I hope she will retain this imperturbable way. As I whisper that it’s done, my youngest lets out a blubbering tide, and now I’m sure that she’s too young for this.
I extract the fish with a spoon, birthing it into the cold air; how funny that I wince when it breaches the surface, remembering the chill that catches your skin when you come back to shore from swimming in the sea. I’m clearly a fool for empathy, which wouldn’t do for the next stage, consisting of depositing the thing in the communal bins.
I wrap myself in an oversize cardigan, stand into my slippers, and take the little plastic bag down to the bins, wrapping a knot in it as if sealing a coffin. It’s a mild night, and the warm orange glow from the streetlights laps around me like water. I pause as I open the rubbish bin lid, wondering inexplicably if there is any sort of recycling protocol to follow in this situation. Then I catch myself with deeper thinking. For example, I have recently wondered why we put our children through it at all, and they their children; try your best to build contingencies and strategies, to use protocols, but it does boil down to decay. It comes back to a word I learnt at school but never understood until recent weeks: attrition. I’ve looked it up for you: Attrition, noun, the process of gradually reducing the strength or effectiveness of someone or something through sustained attack or pressure. Welcome to life. The bin lid claps shut in a sudden and brief applause.
And yet after that particular bout of melodrama and self-pity I look up at the dad and kids having a cuddle, a kiss and teary laughter, and in spite of myself I see a scene befitting the Waltons and I feel grateful. My emotions are a heart monitor, spiking and dropping.
I walk in, shed my jumper, and disengage my slippers like lifeboats releasing from their slipway.
“Hole in one?” my husband asks, checking the golf on TV.
“In one,” I say, and I want to add: “but will you be this flippant when it’s me? Would I prefer it that way?”
But now here is the uncanny crux of the situation: I haven’t cried once since the doctor sealed my future shut; not when I thought about the girls’ lives without me, nor about my husband outliving me by thirty or forty years, nor even during the extravagant bouts of morbidity that you have witnessed; so why is it that when I look over and see that the new family companion is now a tank of pet water I burst uncontrollably into tears?
Whyever it is, it acts as an impressive catalyst, sparking a logical chain of reactions and questions from my family, such as “What’s wrong?” and “It’ll be all right,” all of which progresses me step-by-step closer to my grave.
I turn my face towards them and hear my voice distantly as at last it explains, reassures, and asks calmly for a fragrant and poetic death worthy of a fish.
(c) Jonny Aldridge, 2017
Jonny Aldridge is a 27-year-old writer from Newcastle Upon Tyne. His debut novel, Banes of Boys and Girls, is out now. He is currently writing his second.
Suzanne Goldberg’s theatre credits include: Macbeth (National Tour), Miniaturists (Arcola Theatre), A Big Day for the Goldbergs (New End Theatre), Who Will Carry the Word? (Courtyard Theatre) Moll Flanders (Southwark Playhouse), Soho Streets (Soho Theatre), The Cherry Orchard (Greenwich Playhouse), & Theatre Souk (Theatre Delicatessen). Suzanne regularly narrates for RNIB Talking Books.