Continuing The Pond People. If you missed the beginning, click here to Meet the Mirlings
Happy New Year.
The mirlings recovered from the family’s holiday. The shelters they’d made for themselves behind the plants became more home-like.
The children brought their friends to see the tank, and the mirlings learned humans weren’t all the same colour after all, although the range was limited. They brightened their unexciting browns and pinks and beiges with coverings of different colours, which they often changed and were rarely seen without.
Father came home with more bags from the aquarium shop. One day he brought a piece of driftwood with a fernlike plant growing out of it which was soft to eat.
On another day he brought a plant with flat leaves which the fish kept dislodging when they rooted in the gravel. It grew just as well drifting on the water and made a good look-out point when the family were around.
Molly missed Shadow. The fantails were cheerful fish who wiggled around the tank and were always pleased to see her. They were pleased to see anyone. She had the impression they forgot about mirlings as soon as they swam up to resume their wiggling.
The minnows swooped around the tank together, like those birds that flocked across the sky in swarms that Father had called starlings. Molly missed the sky.
Most of the time, the tank was well maintained, and the water rich with oxygen; although it began to stale if they were due for a vacuum and water-change. Food was plentiful and, once the humans stopped staring at them, there seemed few threats to worry about.
Nothing was expected of her. There was no new-laid spawn to chase fish from and no freshly hatched fry to herd into cover. Her parents weren’t forever nagging or hauling her off to visit relations. But Molly missed them.
And she had to do something.
She’d enjoyed organising the Misfits and was grateful to Grandad for pushing her to do it. The team’s easy acceptance of her leadership had fed her confidence, which wasn’t as strong as others supposed. People assumed her capable of things that Molly herself wasn’t so sure about, but the Misfits had been fun.
Nobody spoke again about leaving the tank and Sylva had relaxed, even telling Molly what a ‘triffic’ job she was doing. (What job?) Lately, she had sought out Molly, who found the girl hard to warm to. They had little in common and Molly wasn’t good at small talk. Sylva would babble on anyway, not noticing the lack of response.
Walt had reconciled to having his little sister around all the time, and Amber’s cheerful humming became a background to their daily activities, like the whirring of the pump. The vibrations reached them as a reassurance that all was well – or as well as it could be.
She was cheerful even when unwell, which was a lot of the time. But her best days were the ones when Molly saw Eddy beckon her away for a game of fish-chase as the morning lightened, before Walt or Sylva had time to tell her how ill she looked.
More time passed.
‘I hate it when the shops put up signs saying, “Back to School” when we’ve only just broken up.’
‘I picked up a couple more fantails while I was in the pet shop.’
‘Go check your bags kids. Make sure you’ve got everything you need for school next week.’
‘The fish don’t seem very lively. Have you cleaned the filter lately?’
‘We’re going to visit Aunt Felicia at half term so don’t go making plans to meet your school friends.’
‘The fish look fine. A week without food hasn’t done them any harm. That auto-feeder was a waste of money.’
‘Not more fish, Henry. You went to the pet shop for Mojo’s flea shampoo.’
‘Happy New Year, everyone!’
A lot of humans passed through the kitchen. Many stopped to look at the fish; the mirlings hid. At one point all the guests crowded into the other room and began counting backwards. There had been a cheer and loud bangs, followed by everyone singing and then more bangs.
Soon after the bangs stopped, the children went to bed, and the adults carried on without them.
Molly enjoyed listening in to conversations and was irritated when people moved out of hearing before they’d finished them.
‘You should try tropical fish, Abby. They’re more colourful. You’ve got everything you need here except a water heater.’
‘Please don’t suggest that to Henry. All this was only set up because Beth won a goldfish at the fair and wouldn’t put it in the pond. Henry got all enthusiastic – reading up about aquariums and fish diseases – but I’ll give you three guesses who gets to pull out the dead ones and clean the tank.’
The women moved away laughing. Molly couldn’t see what was funny about dead fish, but sometimes she wasn’t sure she’d understood properly.
On the day after all the people came, the kitchen lights went out and the bubbles stopped. Molly hardly noticed the constant whirr of the pump now, but she noticed when it fell silent.
Joel wailed a protest from the other room. ‘Mum, the TV’s gone off!’
‘Henry! Can you check the fuse box? Andre, look and see if the neighbours’ lights are out too.’
‘I think so, Mum. I can’t see any lights on anywhere. Maybe it’s a p-power cut.’
The children appeared in the kitchen. ‘We’re missing the film.’
The lights came on again, accompanied by beeps and pings from around the kitchen. The children were summoned by the restored sound of the television.
But Molly didn’t hear the whirring start up again. And the bubbles hadn’t come back.
Next morning, when Mother fed the fish, she didn’t notice the pump was still off. Nobody noticed.
The family went out early to the sales and returned in darkness, carrying many bags. Mother took her bags upstairs. The children took theirs into the living room. Father went to watch television.
None of them were likely to look in the tank until Mother fed the fish again in the morning.
With the central heating turned up, it didn’t take long for the water to taste bad. Molly had to breathe the foul-tasting water more often to get the oxygen she needed.
This time they must do something.