Continuing The Pond People. If you missed the beginning, click here to Meet the Mirlings
The school holiday arrived and the children were around all day.
Flash learned to understand human-speak as well as the pond mirlings did.
Andre caught sight of Sylva one morning as she swam back into the weed and decided the fish must have spawned. Not realising how unlikely that was in a new tank, he resumed his hatchling hunts.
On the third day, Father set up a piece of equipment to hang over the tank. All night, it ticked quietly above them. In the morning it made a whirring sound and flakes fell from it to the water.
That morning, the family were up early and buzzing around the kitchen. Children ran in and out, getting in their parents’ way, and Father watched the new feeder as it whirred and dispensed flake.
‘That does the job! We won’t have to worry about the fish starving while we’re away.’
‘Oh bother!’ said Mother. ‘I meant to vacuum the aquarium and clean the filter yesterday. What with the packing and everything I didn’t get around to it.’
‘I’m sure it’ll be fine. Do it when we get back.’
‘Along with the unpacking and the washing and the ironing, you mean.’
‘I’ll do it when we get back.’ Father seemed determined to spread cheer as the bustle rose to a crescendo.
The front door closed, and suddenly it was quiet.
It was quiet for days.
The mirlings were free to swim whenever they wanted and forgot about looking out for humans. Sylva took the opportunity to visit every corner of the tank and check that standards were being maintained.
Eddy, Flash and Grandad spent ages discussing what might happen to the murky water that was syphoned from the gravel and sank to the bottom of the bucket.
So did Molly, Flo and Grandad. Flash learned this from Sylva, who had a knack of joining in conversations when you thought she wasn’t in range.
Grandad usually ended such discussions with his annoying common-sense.
‘They’re never going to empty all that muck into the pond.’
Still they were reluctant to let go of the idea. It was the only way they could think of to get out of the tank, although nobody could come up with a strategy to get from bucket to pond.
Whenever Sylva tuned in on an escape committee, she would repeat, ‘We have to stay together,’ but her mantra had lost its urgency. After hearing some of Flash’s unlikely suggestions, she had clearly stopped believing that anyone would be foolhardy enough to risk one of them.
The automated feeder dispensed more flake than the fish needed and uneaten flake fell into the gravel to decay. The over-fed fish had produced more waste and the water began to taste… sharp. It caught in Flash’s throat when he was swimming and breathing deeply. He tried not to take too much in at once, so that it could pass through his gills without stinging.
On the fourth day, the feeder stopped working. There was no more flake polluting the water, but the goldfish rooted around in the gravel for food, disturbing the muck that was rotting there. They nibbled away at the plants, stripping leaves that helped oxygenate the water.
The pond fish were first to grow sluggish breathing the tainted water. Then Grandad’s bronze took on a grey hue, and Amber’s new rosy glow – acquired since she’d been swimming with them – began to fade back to yellow-gilt. Her new-found energy was easily drained, and Flash heard panic in Walter’s grumbles to his little sister.
‘I told you, you’re not strong enough to go off swimming with Eddy.’
‘The exercise is good for us,’ Eddy told him, ‘and Flash carries her when she’s tired.’
‘Don’t worry Walt,’ added Flash. ‘We’ll look after her.’
Sylva bristled. ‘His name’s Walter,’ but Walter disagreed. ‘I quite like Walt.’
Amber reassured him. ‘I’ll be alright, Walt.’
Next day they were all drooping. When his sister began falling over, Walter turned to Flo for help and Amber was installed beside Grandad where she could listen to his tales of the river and Flo could watch over them both.
Walt was never far from Amber now. Sylva didn’t want to be alone, so the sickbeds became a focus for the mirlings. Amber and Eddy played five-stones and she laughed at Eddy’s awful jokes, even though she had to stop to catch her breath.
By the day after, none of them were laughing. Flash foraged for food which Molly prepared in silence, too worried to issue advice. Flo tried not to make it obvious that she, too, was close to collapse. Flash felt useless.
There was nothing any of them could do.