Fucking Fish

I have been entrusted with the care of a fishtank for one week and already things have got out of hand in a deathy fashion. It was only two days ago that my mum and step-dad absconded like lusty teenagers to a caravan in Suffolk for their anniversary and I’m pulling my bloody hair out.

The exchange went something like this:

“Just drop some food in every other day, Sadie.”

“Yes. I shall. For I can do that.” 

End of exchange.

I really thought that would be the extent of it. But those were simpler times.

So the roll call of aquatic creatures left in my ward goes thus: Sexy Shrimp (actual name, I’m not a wrong’un) – half the size of a peanut with a behind that just won’t quit; Intrepid Hermit Crab – keeps himself to himself; Dopey White Dude – in possession of an underbite that must have made it the subject of terrible bullying at fish school; The Nervy Admiral – a black and white stripy fish who moves like an old man that’s wandered into a 90s rave and is having war flashbacks to The Prodigy, and a new addition to the tank – Big Spindly Shrimp Thing that lurks at the back, trembling. I was worried it might be shy. Little did I know that this seemingly harmless shrimp would unsettle all our lives forever. Well, mine. For, like, two days.

On Sunday afternoon we got back to my mum’s after a walk in the woods, put the kettle on, and checked on the fish, me congratulating myself on taking my minimal responsibilities so seriously. Then I saw the carnage and gasped in horror. Dopey White Dude, last seen giving a wall of moss a proper good sucking only an hour previously, was now heavily dead and being grappled by Spindly Shrimp Thing, who out of nowhere suddenly exuded a transformational evil that seemed to turn the very waters black.

“WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON HERE?”, I exclaimed indignantly with my hands on my hips, like a preppy babysitter who had important coursework to be getting on with and didn’t have time for mischief and certainly not murder. Realising I wasn’t going to get any sensible answers from a crustacean, I sat on a chair and peered into the tank to try and surmise what had happened while I had been out for a bracing walk, banging on about the joy of autumn leaves. And I stayed there with my eyelashes blinking against the glass. For far too long to be psychologically healthy. The sights I beheld will chill me for life. Or until I have been relieved of the duties that I am clearly not cut out for psychologically, and fall back on my old friend, Retrospective Denial. (Middle name La La La La Laaa.)

George and I held a fraught detective session, like a two-man episode of Columbo set in the Sealife Centre. George thought it was a natural death and that the shrimp had just happened upon the corpse while feeling peckish. But I believed I had seen the very fires of Hell in that shrimp’s black eyes and I wanted vengeance, and peace and safety for the other occupants of the tank. George kept dragging me out of the room because I was being no fun – like, seriously, a real dick about it all – but I couldn’t relax. What if the others met their deaths too and it was all my fault for not flushing Spindly Shrimp – AKA The Devil – down the lav straight away?

Each time we left the room we’d switch off the lights to lull the wily shrimp bastard into a false sense of security, then popped back in for obsessive death checks. At each interval something new and wicked had taken place. Lights off. Tea break. Lights on. The Devil had cast off the corpse and was flexing his claws at The Nervy Admiral like he was a between-courses sorbet. Lights off. Half an episode of Luther. Lights on. Intrepid Hermit Crab had dive-bombed off the rock and was on his back, peddling his little legs and delving his claws into the guts of the dwindling carcass of Dopey White Dude. Lights off. Pretend to George I need a wee. Lights on. The Devil had forcibly, jealously, retrieved the cadaver and was filching its pincers into the gills of Dopey White Dude, who was essentially now just a floppy pocket of tasty fish guts.

It went on for hours, this sick carousel of wet despair. Nature is a fucking horror show.

I’ve got five bloody days left of looking after these tiny hell beasts – these mad little bastards who put the loco into ‘in loco parentis’. Five. I’m going to have to keep my wits about me, keep my beady eyes on them, try not to whimper as I studiously watch the body of Dopey White Dude being slowly gnawed down to the scaly nub, and if The Devil even attempts to go near Sexy Shrimp or the Nervy Admiral I’m going in, armed with a pipette to squirt Domestos in his evil crusty face before I pull his stupid fucking legs off.

 

MEET THE CAST…

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Sexy Shrimp, doing what he does best – rutting the coral like it’s his last Christmas

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Intrepid Hermit Crab – rare shot of his eyeball stalks there. Probably off his tits on fish blood, like a tramp on a Tennents bender.

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The Nervy Admiral – mid escape.

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AND THE EVIL SPINDLY ARSEHOLE SHRIMP DEVIL BASTARD, PLAYING AROUND WITH HIS FOOD – AKA THE FISH FORMERLY KNOWN AS DOPEY WHITE DUDE

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The Hermit Crab, tucking in. I don’t blame him, he didn’t do the killing. It’s like having a wedding buffet put in front of you and not having a sausage roll. If anything it would be a waste to leave it.

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The Devil – about to discard Dopey White Dude and have a go at the Admiral. Prick.

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Dopey White Dude – The Remains

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What are you?

A friend just sent me a quote. It’s one of my favourites. Roald Dahl. “If a person has ugly thoughts it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. you can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”

It was linked to Theresa May looking like demonic hag and to a dishevelled Jeremy Corbyn with his kind eyes.

But this isn’t about them. It’s about us all. It’s about you, reading this now.

As part of my job(s) I have to do a lot of social media. Most people do nowaways. I have to push my plays, I share my columns and other writing, I share events I’m doing, projects I’m involved in. And I work for an arts organisation who, amongst many other things, puts on events. A lot of blood sweat toil and occasionally tears goes into our projects. And ideas, good intentions, and love. Lots of that.

As part of running events we get a lot of people offering other ideas, feedback, criticism. Quite often vitriol and spite. People who think they know better how to run an event that twenty thousand people attend every year to mostly jubilant response. Have they ever done it themselves? Mostly not. Because it’s hard. Anything mass scale can never be perfect. Anything that revolves around humans is never perfect, because humans are not perfect, and you can’t control their singular behaviour. Things can go wrong. Good people tackle it and try to get better. Because they are doers. Bad people moan and fire grenades. They tend to be people who do less, who have less to do, and worse, delude themselves that their venomous little splurges have something of value.

Facebook has increasingly become a wallowing pit for people who prefer wading in thick muck and bile to clear waters and positivity. People who get their sole satisfaction from ranting on media platforms seldom think enough to realise they are not reaching the core issue, but are merely reaching one or two people trying to do a job. Who take in their words and carry them around in their personal lives, who take their energy home, to the bath, to bed, and into their hearts. It’s like having a go at the till girl because you don’t like a brand. Which are you? Are you a muck-flinger or a clean water paddler? Ask yourself quickly, now. I wonder if you are right. I wonder if what you think about yourself is what others think about you.

People who fire their ire into the ether think they are assertive, righteously angry, the product of a society which now thinks moaning and attacking as the primary approach is the best way to get what you want. It never is. Even if you achieve the outcome you want – the compensation, the apology, the plain weary receding of someone else’s opinion – you have still lost something by resorting to negative energy and spite. I believe the energy we send out there lingers like clouds. It reflects us, it affects people’s moods, and it is hard to forget.

People who know they are quick to jump to aggression – why? Does it make you happy? I’d say you owe yourself, your life as a creation you are in control of, and the people around you who soak up your clouds, to keep a watch on it.

It is not always assertiveness. It is often tiring, poisonous, unproductive, and beyond tedious. Make a real change. Do things, create things, counter things in a truly enlightening and positive way. Use better more powerful language in your criticism. There is no value in being a critic of things when it does not co-exist alongside something else, something which makes you a valuable human to have around.

Are you the best kind of assertive you can be? Are you doing good? Are you making a difference, or are you just spaffing out an energy that is of no use to anyone, that speaks of a deeper dissatisfaction in your own life, targeted outwards to others, who can’t help the person you’ve allowed yourself to become.

What are you? Look deep; do it. What are you really? Are you sunbeams, or are you black clouds? Are you clean blood, or are you cancer?

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Change. History. Time. Feet.

I need to grow up and get better shoes. You can’t traipse around London for three days solid in worn-out Converse and not expect your feet to hate you by the end of it. Those soles are thin at their best, when they’re new, but when you’ve worn them the equivalent of ten times round the United Kingdom, you are definitely on course for some intense post-walk pangs de pied.

I spent a long weekend in London, two nights in a hotel were presented as a birthday gift by my boyfriend as a subtle hint to switch my brain off. It takes acts of bossy kindness like that from loving others for me to take the hint and accept I need downtime; enforced mini breaks, maternal rants, being strapped into a deckchair for a summer lobotomy. That kind of thing.

As part of the prescribed relaxation I decide to do away with the tube and walk everywhere. I wanted to see London. I didn’t want to zoom through underground tunnels and magically reach my destination without seeing anything; I wanted to join the dots overground. With my feet.

I wouldn’t ordinarily have the time to do it; trips into town are usually for one purpose and bookended by rushing. A rush to get there, a rush to get back. Occasionally I’ll manage to see friends when going in for a meeting or to do a show, but mostly I go there for the thing itself then dash away again. Time. It’s tricky to get it right, isn’t it?

But this weekend I walked. I strolled that bad boy London. I perambulated the nation’s capital like a boss. I mooched the living bejesus out of the big smoke.

And I remembered to look up. I was like a magpie for all the hidden bits; the old street signs, the plaques memorialising long-gone taverns, the chimneys and church steeples and turret rooms and broken windows and strange shops and old walls and hidden doorways and mysterious doorbells. Grandeur and hovels, side by side. Valiant preservation and cruel unthinking destruction. Things simply fading away under the weight of newness. Change. History. Time. My eyes were hungry for it all. I loved London that day in a way I had not allowed myself for a long time. Because I took the time to.

At one point, after picking up the pace again after a well-earned pint of lager and lime in Drury Lane, I wondered if my walking London might be a bit like where Forrest Gump starts running and keeps on going until he gets tired and just stops in the middle of a desert road, all beardy and pooped but with a yawn of strange clarity. I wondered if I might be silently protesting against something, hitting my feet against endless pavements driven by some inner voice until the voice just quietens and I would look down and realise I’d worn my legs down like pencil lead. Walking is meditative; it doesn’t just take your body to other places, it carries your mind away too. I think I needed it. Time and space and walking.

And then of course you get home after three days of being the Barbican’s answer to Bear Grylls and take your shoes off and wince and think maybe you should buy yourself some nice Scholls. “You’re 37 now, Hasler. It’s time. Those arches could drop at any minute.” You look at your feet – the same ones you’ve had all your life, the ones that have walked you everywhere – and you see your own history there, every room and street and moment you have ever walked through used those very feet – and you might even remember to thank them.

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The Zen Phosphorescence of General Knowing

I was thinking that being 37 is a funny age. But they’re all funny ages aren’t they? Because we’ve never lived them before, so they all feel a bit odd and clunky, like new shoes that need to be worn in. Just as you think you’ve got one era of your life straight you move onto a new one, a fresh new bundle of five years tightly bound with the twine of time so you can despatch them in convenient manageable batches as they pass. A stack of experience to be filed away in the sprawling room of retrospect. Early twenties is different to your late twenties, early thirties different to your late thirties, and presumably similarly onwards until your own unique allotment of age runs out and you shuffle off this mortal coil in your slippers, scratching your head and wondering why there’s so much stuff left on your to-do list.

I find myself sat squat in the middle of the latter half of my thirties, just a few crispy autumn months shy of 37 and a half. Aside from the occasional shrieking shock of existential age-versus-success related panic (“I HAVE GREY HAIRS BUT WILL NEVER HAVE A MORTGAGE”, and other witching hour joys), it’s alright. Thirties are pretty great, on the whole. Mostly when you remember to take it easy on yourself.

You even allow yourself the odd moment of feeling wise. Everyone starts looking terribly young and foolish, like they’re blindly wandering the lands of youthful misdemeanor and mild peril and you now get to comfort and dole out nuggets of wisdom from your pouch of experience feeling like you are terribly useful, like baby wipes to a spillage or Smints to a post-sick scenario. Those little blighters need you. You have lived. You have loved. You have mucked countless things up. You have got loads to bang on about until they get bored and lose the will to live.

The wisdom never lasts long. Because you realise you still haven’t got a clue. Your life is lacking in any real foundation, structure, meaning, direction, and purpose, than in fact a whole TED talk could be written on why everyone should do the exact opposite of what you’re doing because you’re an idiot. That you have made some terrible decisions and laughable turns, but that you’d be really good at taking stock and making significant changes if only some benevolent stranger would pay for you to go to Thailand for a 6 month lie-down, where a transformation would come upon you like a slow-growing tan. You’d probably get dreadlocks, and your arms would fill up with meaningful beads and potent charms on string, and your cranium would take on a sort of natural saint-like glow from all the zen phosphorescence of General Knowing shooting out of your follicles. It’d be great. You’d be great. You could be so goddamn great. If only things were somehow…different.

When you find yourself caught between what was, what is, and what could be, turning in small circles like a robot running out of batteries, you need to turn to other wisdom. To books, podcasts maybe, music. To history, to science, to philosophy. To people. People you see all the time, to people you don’t see enough. To whatever makes you feel connected and less lost.

I turn to people. I turn to older friends, to people a few stages on from me. I soak in their thoughts and their advice and their stories and their experience and their love. Their knowing and not knowing. Feeling like you aren’t much different to everyone else might not make the answers come and bonk you in the face like a neon sign of definitive acumen, and it gives you comfort and bravery to keep moving forwards.

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Pie & Miles Davis

I was going to write about pie. We made one yesterday and I still can’t move and now it’s all I can think about. Pie. But have you ever tried writing about pie while listening to Miles Davis? It can’t be done, even about a really memorable pie. You start writing about pie while listening to Miles Davis and stuff gets weird. The pie stops being something you made on a Sunday afternoon with Bake-Off on in the background and becomes something you once devoured with your bare hands in a Manhattan diner on an accidental night out in 1952 with a grizzly four-piece from the Bronx after they made you smoke that funny cigarette and you all ended up sleeping in a bathtub in Greenwich Village. And that never happened, it’s just that Miles Davis makes you feel like it did. The tinker.

I’m not just casually dropping Miles Davis into a column so you can be all like “Oh, jazz lover are you, Sadie?” and do that little associative link that people make with jazz like you must either be somehow culturally enlightened, or cerebrally developed like loving Jazz is a little extra tail flicking off the end of your DNA helix, along with other genetic distinctions like being able to curl your tongue in half and loving Marmite. No. I’m not responsible for this morning’s music pick. I can’t take credit and so nor can I take the blame. I’m being pummelled by the frenetic stabs of something on the more freeform side of things and it’s making me feel a bit mental this Monday morning if I’m honest. Miles Davis is making me twitch. I’m getting about five words down at a time, nothing on the wonders of pie at all, and then glazing over staring at the turntable spinning, my eyeballs all wide and oxygen-puffed, the steady bob of the needle like a musical woodpecker chipping into my temporal lobe and meddling with the natural order in there. If there is any.

I’m not dissing though, man. I can do jazz. I like a bit of jazz. I love the dirty sounding speakeasy stuff from the twenties and thirties, I like the smooth swaying stuff of the forties, Glenn Miller is a peach, Chet Baker makes me go woozy, I’ve tapped my feet to a shedload of live jazzy stuff down the pub and haven’t even been drunk. And I’ll definitely remember this Miles Davis album for when I need to write a character who’s having an intellectual breakdown at a posh Uni or a very tumultuous love affair that ends in one of them cutting all their hair off with a bread knife and running down the street half-dressed before drowning in a stagnant canal. For that it’ll be great. Man.

Choosing an album to listen to must be one of the sweetest things in modern life, a beautiful melding of the conscious and subconscious, a fusion of choice and abandon, of change and nostalgia, celebrating an old familiar thing or discovering something new, making a new friend. But when you’re at the mercy of someone else’s choices – pub jukeboxes or moochy mornings at home with someone else at the helm of the record player – the needle becomes a rudder of your mood for the next hour, and the ride isn’t entirely yours. But it’s nice giving in to the bends and sways of someone else’s journey, your brain in the sidecar, the wind in your hair.

So I was going to write about pie but it didn’t happen. And now the record’s been switched and Carole King’s on and I feel like I could maybe write about pie after all – a sad pie – dark cherry – the kind you stuff in one go after breaking up with the love of your life – but I’ve run out of words and that’s probably just as well.

Well Hard Wild Nature

Say what you like about the world and all its faults but nature never stops giving you things for free. Nice views, food, inspiration, water… haircuts. Here’s a tip. Spend five minutes in a blackberry bush and come out with the best backcombing job since Barbarella and a compelling asymmetric blunt cut that will definitely glean a few looks if not actual admirers. Nature lavishes gifts upon you, and you get to give back by leaving a clump of your matted hair for birds to use as a winter duvet. The great outdoors is a big brilliant not entirely painless swap-shop.

I spent Sunday afternoon romping around the wild sea-blown hedgerows that snake through Wakering fields, falling away into the muddy marsh rivulets of the River Crouch, filling and draining with the tides. Our mission was sloe berries and blackberries for to stew head-pounding Christmas brews. My boyfriend hacks himself up in the hedges every year in this noble boozy pursuit. I was recruited as assistant berry-hand. I can do this, I thought. I am big into nature. I like leaves as much as the next person. I might have killed every plant I’ve ever owned within a month of having it but I have spent an inordinate amount of time saving suicidal snails in the rain. My dedication to nature is proven. Not many people can be bothered with snails. There was nothing to suggest I would decimate the bushes with my deathly presence alone, I just had to fill a bag with soft ripe berries begging to be picked before the birds pecked them to death. Easy. My black fingers would have no power here. Wild nature is well hard; it’s just houseplants that turn all namby-pamby on you, because they’ve been spoilt. It’s not my fault they’ve all died.

My childhood years of tomboying around the big parks of Leicestershire, the forests and overgrown quarries of North Wales, and the beaches and backyard alleyways of Essex came back in a flash as they always do. I threw myself into the mud and the thorns. Stuff going home with a bag of berries for christmas booze, I wanted to stay out for the full survival experience. I wanted to bind weeds into rope and weave it into some sort of sleep pod. I wanted to stitch huge spade-sized dock leaves together for tent sides and blankets and canopies. I wanted to pluck nettles and make a protective border against trolls. Dig deep traps and fill them with sharp bracken to fell chancing marauders. I am Enid Blyton regenerated as Bear Grylls. I am wasted on modern domestic life. Pit me into the wild and watch me not die. I can do it.

I don’t mind the sting and scratch of the delving arm. I don’t mind my face being whipped by defensive branches. I don’t mind going home ruddy-cheeked, bush-haired, thorn-pricked, bracken-nipped and sore. It’s nice. Getting stuck into something is meditative. I like the little questions that come from those quiet moments face to face with a tight entwinement of bushes and trees. Will this pretty red berry kill me if I lick it? Why are these leaves so soft, and these leaves so crunchy? How did this butter-shelled snail get six feet up in a hazardous dog rose bush? Did it slowly slide its way up, millimetre by millimetre, leaf by leaf, just to get a different view of the ground? Are snails dreamers, chancers, or do they just get lost a lot? Or did it hitchhike up there in the beak of a friendly bird? Lovely little mysteries. Nature might give you stuff for free, but it doesn’t always give you the answers and that’s good.