Continuing The Pond People. If you missed the beginning, click here to Meet the Mirlings
Scents of Home.
When the family came home there was little movement in the tank. The fish hung listlessly in the water or rested on the gravel. Flash had stopped looking out for humans and crawled into cover as the children bounded into the kitchen.
Andre paused by the tank. ‘What’s that smell?’
Father removed the tank’s lid. ‘It’s the fish food. Most of it’s still in the feeder. Condensation made the flake damp so it gummed up the hole and didn’t drop.’
‘Well, get rid of it,’ said Mother. ‘And if the tank still smells you’ll need to clean the gravel. And the filter.’ Mother had become as knowledgeable as Father since taking over its maintenance.
‘A partial water change might help,’ she added with satisfaction in her voice. ‘I’ll be unpacking the suitcases.’
Father sighed a lot while vacuuming the gravel. Flash watched from a scraggy patch of weed. The fish had stripped much of it, looking for food, and some stalks were bare. It didn’t offer much cover, but Father was preoccupied and Mother was on the other side of the kitchen, feeding armfuls of clothes into the washing machine. She was humming to herself.
Grandad was right about keeping still. Flash had noticed more while watching from his hiding place than he did when swimming around the tank. Things like the plants drooping on the windowsill, and Mojo sneaking out with a sock from the washing pile.
Father poured in fresh water from the pond to replace the water vacuumed out with the sludge. Immediately, breathing became easier and Flash felt a wave of nostalgia as he breathed in the smells of the pond. Goldie rose from the gravel and flexed her tail, followed by the fantails and the carroty Flipper.
Flash felt Eddie’s homesickness tinting the water as he swam up to join Flash in the weed.
‘You don’t want to go down there. Molly started clearing out the gravel under the plants so the muck would get vacuumed away with the rest. Now Sylva’s moaning at Wally for being too slow to get theirs finished in time. Father isn’t as thorough as Mother.’
‘I’d have thought Molly would panic about being seen. How’s she getting the muck out for collecting?’
‘Father had to go off a few times to empty the bucket. He’s replaced a lot of water.’ They both inhaled gratefully, and Eddy asked, ‘Why do you dislike Molly so much?’
His answer came without thinking. ‘Because she’s always right.’
‘She doesn’t really think that, Flash. Flo says she’s just trying to keep us safe.’
‘So are we all. So is Flo, but she doesn’t tell everyone what they must do.’ He took a deep breath of fresh water. ‘The annoying thing is, she’s right. . . about staying out of sight, about cleaning the gravel to maintain water quality. . . but what’s the point when there’s so much out of our control? If Beth pours in too much flake, or the pump stops working, what difference is it going to make if we’ve cleared out our bits of gravel?’
He relaxed his shoulders and controlled his thoughts again. ‘There’s nothing we can do to help ourselves. We can’t turn on the pump or vacuum the muck away. And we can’t get out of here.’
Next morning, when the day lightened, Shadow was floating on her side at the top of the tank, gills pulsing desperately.
Mother saw the black fish bobbing against the glass wall when she came downstairs. She scooped water from the tank, emptying several mugfuls into a basin. Then she fished out Shadow the same way and poured her into the basin. Father said to hide the bowl under the sink before the children came down for breakfast. He didn’t want Bethany to see it before school.
When they had all left, Mother took the basin from the cupboard, and put it on the worktop, by the sink. During the day, Flash saw her checking it. The last time, she prodded at the fish with a spoon handle before carrying the basin out of the kitchen.
Bethany didn’t notice that Shadow was gone.