Precocious Ghosts
23 March 2022

It is a rare thing to live through a moment of huge historic consequence and understand in real time what it is.”  The BBC

My childhood friend John kept fish and he passed this hobby on to me.  Together, we’d take the subway north and in the dim and humid corridors of the basement at PJ’s Pet Store, we would, in that warm aquarium glow, choose which fish we’d take home with us.  We looked at tank after tank full of guppies, platys, mollies, swordtails, algae eaters, loaches, and tetras.  I could see my face half-reflected in the aquarium glass as I eagerly pointed to the fish I wanted, and the patient employee would scoop them out in a small green net as the bubbling of a hundred filters filled my ears like it were the sound of joy itself.  

My parents were supportive of such a hobby.  It could only instil in me some much-needed responsibility, to be charged with the care of living creatures, which unlike the family dog or cat, would be my sole responsibility.  I fed them daily.  Once a month I cleaned the tank and changed the water.  I replaced the charcoal in the filter.  There were times when I stared into the aquarium for hours, located as it was at the head of my bed and each night I fell asleep to the tank’s gentle babbling.  I would have been 8 or 9 at the time.

Fish died and were replaced.  A bad case of ick took out almost the entire population and only the heartiest loaches and an indestructible goldfish survived.  Over time my interest began to wane like many childhood hobbies do and other interests took precedence.  My mother took over cleaning duties until the rigours of motherhood put an end to this too and eventually there was just the one goldfish nosing about in its lonely 10-gallon world as the glass confines of its home grew murky with green algae and the water thickened with food residue and shit.  One morning I woke up and could see that it was upside down and had been sucked up against the filter, the usual posture of the aquarium dead.  I felt a pang of grief, but also relief that I would no longer have to feel guilty about how remiss I had been.  Even today, forty years later, I feel a keen jab of shame recounting that.  My friend, always more diligent than I, on the other hand persisted.  He had an Oscar named Oscar that lived for many years after John himself had left home.

A brief stop in London on the way back to Canada saw me staying with my old friends and their two children, girls aged 8 and 5.  While I was there it had been agreed that they could have an aquarium and we went and got the starter kit and I helped the girls set it up and the next day they went and excitedly picked out their two fish.  A pair of platys they named Midnight and Sun.  

It was good to catch up with friends and get thrashed at backgammon (a game I play daily) by my eight-year-old god daughter who has some kind of voodoo luck with the dice.  Sitting around the supper table on my last night I watched them all as they giggled and ate and talked and I wondered if I hadn’t made a huge mistake in doing what I do, pursuing a life at sea with few shore based responsibilities, but, I suppose, my best has never been good enough and my worst has always been worse and instead I’ve cultivated an alarming tolerance for drink and a predilection for partying that frankly, ill-fits a man of 46.  

Meanwhile, missiles fly and the tanks of another unhinged belligerent advance into the Ukraine. I think of my friends’ families and their children and of the parents of children over there, unable to console their children that that distant rumble is only thunder.  I thought of people like me leaving behind record collections and books and trying to get away with what little they can carry.  And I thought then, that we are all just precocious ghosts.  Precocious, because we are living while in the vastness of history we might just as well be dead.  And while the sound of history being made is deafening, it is staggering how its lessons continue, time and time again, to be ignored.

You’ve seen the photos of the bombed-out blocks of flats, their owners having fled with their families and household pets.  But of course, an aquarium is impossible to transport.  As the power went out the tropical fish would have died off immediately as the heaters went cold, while the hardy would and are left to swim around their dark and lonely worlds all day, waiting for the hand that feeds them and will never come.