By: Hannah Retallick
Jonty wanted a goldfish. Harriet had been allowed one when she turned eight. Father told Jonty it was a huge responsibility to look after another living thing, not one to be taken lightly, and he would have to wait. Mother shrugged, giving him hope that he might have an ally, but she wouldn’t say either way.
Jonty made a strong case for being allowed a goldfish at a younger age than Harriet; he was already experienced in caring for slugs, caterpillars, and woodlice, gathering them in his palms and easing them into Tupperware boxes. He collected greenery for them to eat, hoping it wouldn’t be poisonous and kill them. He left enough room between the lid and the box so the creatures could breathe but not escape.
Jonty tried to convince himself that he had all the animals he needed.
But he still wanted a goldfish.
It was easy to see where this obsession came from. Their father took them out every week to Pets at Home. There was a nice lady there who showed them the animals, sometimes letting them touch or hold. Harriet was brave. She seemed to like the hamsters and gerbils and guinea pigs, with their straw smell and rough hair; they made Jonty’s hands itch and he couldn’t stand their wriggling. The lady laughed and took the creatures back, cradling them in her arms and making jokes with Father.
One day, when his sister and father were with the nice lady and the furry animals, Jonty walked down the aisle to where the fish lived. It was Harriet’s goldfish’s old home. Jonty hadn’t looked at the tanks since then; it was too painful, the reminder of the many months he had left before he would be allowed a goldfish too. But he had grown in confidence – one of his caterpillars had turned into a butterfly that morning. Surely, he’d shown enough responsibility and maturity for his father to trust him?
He went up to the biggest tank and pressed his finger on the glass. The fish darted away. The nice lady had told them all the names of the different fish. It was a long time ago though; he could only remember a couple. Neon tetras, the little ones with a streak of blue and a streak of red. Zebra danios, in their striped blue and white pyjamas. But none of them could compare to the orange glow from the goldfish in the next tank.
It was Jonty’s turn to sit in the front of the car. They climbed in and he took the opportunity. He told Father he’d been thinking and they should have another talk about him buying a goldfish and he was really was ready now. No success. His father kept explaining that he must wait until his eighth birthday; it was a huge responsibility to look after another living thing, not one to be taken lightly. If only he could understand how well Jonty looked after his garden creatures! Nowhere in the village were woodlice given better care. But it seemed to make no difference.
When they got home, Mother asked if they had enjoyed the museum and they said yes. She frowned and went into the kitchen. Father winked and gave them their treat – Cadbury’s Crunchies. It was their little secret.
Jonty and Harriet ate them together, sitting at the top of the bunkbed, watching the door. Harriet was rabbiting on about rabbits. Jonty sucked the chocolate-covered honeycomb and looked down at the glass bowl on the chest of drawers. Billy swam round and round. Such a stupid name for a goldfish! Another reason Harriet was less qualified to have one than him. Jonty became sick of her talking, so he told her to shut up, please. She looked upset. He told her more gently that she could have a rabbit one day but not until she was at least ten. It wouldn’t be fair for her to have two animals from Pets at Home before he had even one. She nodded and crunched the bar, dropping crumbs onto her duvet. There, he had argued his point and convinced his older sister! Surely it wouldn’t be long before he could do the same with Father.
The following morning, Mother told them that Father would be taking them to the funfair. He didn’t look happy about it. It was Saturday. Normally, Father went out with his friends and sometimes stayed with one of them for the night. That must have been why he didn’t look happy about it. Mother crossed her arms, like she did when they stole food from the kitchen, and said she was going to have ‘me time’ for a change. When Mother looked like that, she was no fun at all.
It was cloudy and there were rain speckles. Harriet wore her yellow coat and Jonty wore his blue coat. Father was bad; he went out in just a hoodie. Mother was right to tell him off, but he didn’t listen, he just walked out and said come on kids, let’s go have fun.
Jonty walked ahead. Harriet hung behind with Father. She was asking him all sorts of questions, about why Mother didn’t want to come to the fun fair with them and why Mother was getting cross about everything and why he wanted them to say they went to the museum. Father explained that Mother was probably tired and that it wasn’t Harriet’s fault that she was cross and that Mother shouldn’t know about Pets at Home because she would worry that they might buy more animals than they could look after. He said she would worry needlessly.
Jonty asked them to hurry up, please. He saw the colourful rides before they reached the funfair; merry-go-round and Ferris wheel and drop tower, all playing cheerful music. It grew louder and louder. He said look they even have bumper cars! Father said that’s great. They stepped onto the green and shuffled through the mud, which was already decorated with boot prints. Father said to be careful it’s slippery. He reached into his pocket and handed them both a couple of pound coins. Jonty nearly dropped them he was so excited. Not nearly as excited as when he saw the hook-a-duck stall.
Printed boldly on the big sign: ‘Win a Goldfish!’
Water-filled plastic bags hung from the top of the stall, goldfish circling in them. ‘Get your Goldfish Here!’ said another sign. Jonty grabbed Father’s arm suddenly and said sorry when he nearly slipped and fell. This was his chance, his only chance to own one before he turned eight. Father said it was a waste of money because hardly any of the ducks were marked and Jonty was unlikely to get it. Jonty said he knew that but would like to try anyway as long as he was allowed to keep the goldfish if he won. Father smiled, shrugged and agreed.
Jonty handed over his two pounds to an unsmiling man who was stooped under cover, keeping out of the drizzle. He told them the rules like a robot, handing Jonty a pole. All he needed to do was hook a rubber duck by the metal ring on its head. If it had a fish symbol on its base, he would win his prize. Three tries.
Jonty’s hands shook. His tongue slipped out between his lips in concentration. He soon hooked his first duck from the water trough. No fish symbol. He tried again. People were beginning to watch. No fish symbol with the second duck. Jonty had one more try and no more money; now or never. He swirled the water with his pole, willing it to be drawn to the winning duck.
Father and Harriet clapped. The unsmiling man said third time lucky and untied a plastic bag from the stall. Jonty had never been that happy in his whole life! He sat on a bench while Harriet went on the bumper cars with Father, cupping the jelly-like bulging bag in his hands, watching his precious prize swimming around. He named it Gill. Not Jill; Gill. That was a proper name for a goldfish.
Jonty placed his fish bowl next to Harriet’s – his was a clear vase from the kitchen. It would have to do until they could buy another. Harriet said maybe she could get a rabbit from a funfair because it was a good way around the rules. Jonty sprinkled in fish food flakes, which looked like little autumn leaves, adding a few extra when Harriet turned her back. She had wandered to the door, listening. Jonty asked her why and she said shh. Mother and Father were arguing about something. Jonty dismissed it as a grown-up matter and he didn’t join in with Harriet’s spying, even when she told him to. He was too busy with Gill.
That is, until it ended.
A week later, the worst happened. Jonty climbed out of bed, took the tub of fish flakes out of the top drawer, and then he saw: Gill’s body. Still and floating.
He felt tears coming and he called out to Harriet, who was still in bed. She jumped down, landing with a thud. Is he dead? Jonty asked. Harriet took his hand and said I’m afraid so.
They went down to the kitchen. Father wasn’t there; it was Sunday morning and he hadn’t got back from his sleepover. Mother told Harriet off for jumping from the top bunk and that she could bring the ceiling down if she did that again. Harriet stomped off. Mother’s face changed when she saw Jonty. She cried when he announced the sad news. Jonty didn’t know Gill meant so much to her. He realised he must pull himself together and make her a cup of tea with three sugars. It didn’t work. Nothing worked.
He slipped upstairs. Harriet was perched on the chest of drawers and dangling her fingers into Billy’s home. When she saw Jonty, she jumped off and gave him a hug. She said she’d been thinking and that if he wanted, they could share Billy until he was eight. He said it was very kind of her. She said at least he still had his slugs and caterpillars and woodlice.
They heard Father come home and were going to tell him the sad news, but the muffled arguing stopped them. He would know soon enough. Jonty and Harriet planned Gill’s funeral instead.
The weekly trips with Father changed after that. Sometimes they went to the museum; sometimes, if the weather was good, they went to the park. They didn’t go to Pets at Home anymore. Father explained that it was best for him not to be reminded of goldfish and what he’d lost. Jonty said nothing; he was still grieving.
They had buried Gill in the garden the day after it happened, marking the spot with a plank of wood. He had written in permanent ink: ‘Here lies Gill, Jonty Roger’s beloved goldfish.’ Harriet came up with that; she was clever with words. Father rested his hand on Jonty’s shoulder. He said that he could have another goldfish as soon as he was ready, even if it was before his eighth birthday. Mother could always take him to buy one. Only if he was ready. Father said it was important to be sure because once you are committed you must keep your word, or things can end badly. Not that Gill’s death was his fault, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, sometimes things just happen like that and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
He gave his father’s offer a great deal of thought. This was what Jonty had wanted all along. In the end though, he decided to do the right thing and say no. He was only seven and a half. His age had already killed one innocent creature. He was not about to let it kill another.
Hannah Retallick is a twenty-seven-year-old from Anglesey, North Wales. She was home educated and then studied with the Open University, graduating with a First-class honours degree, BA in Humanities with Creative Writing and Music, before passing her Creative Writing MA with a Distinction. She was shortlisted in the Writing Awards at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2019, the Cambridge Short Story Prize, the Henshaw Short Story Competition June 2019, the Bedford International Writing Competition 2019, the Crossing the Tees book festival competition 2020, and the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize 2021.