He banged his hand against the side of the tank. I couldn’t help but look up at him. The glass thudded dully. It seemed to shudder. I tried to see his eyes. Behind the glass silvery fish flickered as they turned. They seemed distracted by the blow. Tommy was a big man. They must have felt it. They must have felt the blow to the tank.
‘This,’ he said, ‘Is why I hate it all.’ There was no tone to his voice. I looked at the back of his head. His dark hair. So dark that even the highlights seemed black. He slowly turned with his face a reverse eclipse. The words hung soaking in the dead air. His eyes were empty and unfocused. They looked black as well. It was the artificial light, I decided. His eyes looked like the eyes of fish. As black as the space between stars. They should get better lighting, I thought.
We stood there. Opposite. Apart. It was all TV monitors and underwater glass. There was a stillness to it all. The under sea exhibition centre, that was what they called it. That was the name that they gave it. The undersea exhibition centre. It felt like we were on show. I saw us in everything. I saw our reflections flowing in everything about us. I saw it in the black glass of the aquariums. In the blank TV screens at the sides of the rooms. I even saw my reflection in the black spaces of Tommy’s eyes. His in mine, I suppose. Reflections were everywhere. It was like some fair, some carnival hall of mirrors. I was twisted and misshapen by all, the TV’s, the glass, my reflection… I hardly recognised myself. I saw Tommy’s reflection in the side of the tank. It was odd and textured, bright in the dim light. Fish swam beneath his skin. Almost inhuman. I tried to look at him.
‘Hate what?’ I said, ‘I don’t get you?’ My voice sounded out thinly in the still air. I would have felt better had there been a breeze. If there had been some wind. I remember the wind against my face. In the long dark room that we stood in there was no chance of it. There were doors at either end. They had banged shut as we entered. I had tried to catch it. To stop it shutting so quickly. It banged shut.
Tommy’s gaze contracted sharply. For the first tie in ages he seemed to see me. I shifted in my shoes. He moved forward a little and the light caught him. The colour of his irises. Bright blue. The shadows of water flickered over him. They moved like the cresting of headlamps on a hill. Like breaking clouds. He didn’t keep secrets from me. We had known each other far too long. We had no secrets.
‘It’s why I hate it,’ His voice was flat. Tommy turned away and looked into the tank again. It took up the whole wall. He stared into it. ‘It all seems so average,’ he said. I walked up behind him. I didn’t know what he meant. He had brought me here. I could see the whites of his eyes reflected back on the side of the aquarium. He looked strange. He seemed to stare right into the iridescent scales of the fish. They moved languorously behind the glass. Like white clouds on a summer day. Lazy. First one way, then the other. The little flick of their tails. The flicker. I couldn’t look them in the eyes. They were too alien. I kept focusing on Tommy.
I was rolling down the hill again. The wind was in my hair. I couldn’t close my eyes.
‘Average,’ said Tommy’s reflection, ‘so average.’ His voice was sullen. The creatures behind the glass moved silently. Tommy laid his hand upon the surface of it. His reflection reached up to him. I saw it raise its hand. It held up its hand to him. There was a transparent wall between it and Tommy. It was such a barrier. Such a bridge.
We had been walking around for a little while. Down past the angelfish – skirted around the octopus. The starfish. The skates. The rays. So much to see. It was late. There weren’t many people about. We didn’t see anyone else. We stood around and pointed at things. There had been a dead fish in one of the tanks. That had been further upstairs. It was late in the day. It hadn’t been noticed. No one but us knew that it was dead. We looked at it for a little while. There wasn’t much to say about it. The aquarium that it floated in needed a little plastic castle. I said that. It needed a little plastic castle. We both laughed and moved on. The fish floated at the top of the tank. Some vegetarians eat fish. It’s not important, but it’s true. That’s what they say.
Tommy’s face was half-bright in the glass. It looked up at my reflection, or me. I don’t know which. ‘They grow teeth on just one side of their mouths at a time, you know?’
‘I think,’ I said. I looked up. ‘I think that I knew that.’ I saw my reflection say it. It looked dubbed. Badly dubbed. It looked fake. Too deliberate, too real. The fish drifted in the water. How was I to tell if it was looking at me? Tommy was looking at me. I could hardly bear to meet his gaze. It was so insistent. Like he was starting something. A flicker of a tail. I spoke like I was underwater. Tommy nodded. The water spun with dust or something. The fish glided. I watched them glide. I wished that I could walk that way.
There had been a time, when I had had to live in a wheelchair for a month, that Tommy had pushed me around dutifully. He had saved me when I had went out of control. No brakes. I had started to roll down a hill. My wheels spinning wildly. His fall had been almost lazy.
‘It’s common knowledge,’ said Tommy. His voice was odd. Distracted. Distant. Like the sound of a car engine or a drifting radio. The sound of someone concentrating on other things, like driving or gluing something into place. There was that fixed quality to it. As though it were almost a form of meditation. Almost a form of dance. The stresses of the syllables. 123. 123. Tommy turned to me.
Up ahead the flat road was streaming. Insects picked up like eager stars. I looked over. His hands were on the wheel. My hand reached for the stereo.
Tommy’s face in the half-light. Only the highlights stood out strongly. It was almost as if he was under a coloured lamp, but with all the colour drained away. There were parts missing from his face. He looked like some old America International monster. His features were half cut away by the knives that darkness wields. His eyes were made empty sockets by the sharp absences of light. We had known each other so long though. We had known each other so that despite the darkness I knew exactly how his eyes moved, his skin creased. The crooked slant of his teeth. The last wayward curl. It’s what happens when you know someone. When you know someone too well. We had seen the bit behind each other’s smiles. In innards of our faces. It comes out in drunken confessions, or wary boasting. It’s the hand me downs of youth and the heirlooms of the dawn. We always pick a best friend to pass a secret on. The light on Tommy’s face rippled. Behind the glass the fish were scaled clouds. Tiny reflections on their skin. Our images a hundred times.
We’d known each other for too long to be fooled. We’d known each other for too long just to come out with it. I knew that something was up. Once we wouldn’t have known. We lived streets apart when we were children. We weren’t supposed to talk to each other. He was from there. I was from there. But then, we were too young to know that, and nobody had told us. We became friends, scuffing round the houses and up to the woods beyond. Sixteen buildings weren’t enough to keep the two of us apart. We tumbling went through the summers, eating them up, his matted hair rusted with dead leaves. We made ourselves impregnable. Running through the ferns. We cut the heads from the demons and devils that posed as vegetation. For swords we carried the sticks we had liberated from trees. We ate time. We swallowed it in great gulps of games, and of friendship, and of other empty pursuits.
A crack. Two cracks. Patterns like a spider’s web.
Tommy rapped his finger against the side of the tank again. The fish flickered and moved. Agitated silver and red. Tommy smiled, Lips spreading over chipped teeth. Something liquid glittered by his eye. His smile looked wrong. Every time he tapped his finger against the tank the fish within would change direction. They altered their courses at each abrupt vibration, locked into endless haphazard triangles. They flicked. First one way, then the other. Tommy seemed mesmerised. I stood nervously behind him. His face was pressed close t the glass. His breath dusted condensation against it. His eyes locked onto the route of one particular silver-red fish and followed it. Tic-tac against the side of the glass. Tic-tac the movement of his eyes.
It was the same look that I remembered. That look of determination. Like everything else had been faded down. Like he only knew this one thing. At school he had looked after me. That’s what I had thought of. At school, I remember him fending off a bully, saving my skin again. I wasn’t the healthiest of children. I was often ill. Tommy looked after me though. His white knuckled fist beating the older child into teary submission. Tommy would visit me in my sick bed. Sometimes he wouldn’t be allowed, for fear of some juvenile contagion, but he would scale the wall and come in through my window. He would sit at the end of my bed and I would tell him stories about how ill I was. His eyes would get that same look. Concentrated. He had sat on the bully’s chest. His hand was in his hair. He was smacking his head against the tarmac. Staccato.
The fish looked unreal. Like special effects from strange prehistoric celluloid. They twisted and fumed. The motes of dust in the water caught the thin light and produced weird cones of illumination. They pierced the water like odd architecture. This is how they make entertainment. With light and fury. Tommy tapped and the fish danced, silently. They observed their own code, keeping strictly to the steps they knew. No one else was about to see them. Tommy turned to me, his face swimming into the light. His eyes became clear, as he turned, until they were bright and sharp. Behind him the fish calmed, breathing water, something glistening in their mouths.
There was a splash of light on the tarmac. There was a sound like tires. I had fallen.
‘You know how I’ve always been here for you?’ said Tommy. It wasn’t really a question. It was an affirmation. He looked like he was going to cry. His eyes seemed to sparkle. Even in the dull light.
I shrugged. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I mean, yeah, of course I know that.’ I took a step toward him and he edged back away from me. I blinked and stopped moving.
As teenagers we had arced blue back over the streets and across the bridges, out into the night. Tommy had learnt to drive as though it were drinking. I had just come to him. He would fill a car with his friends and take it out. Driving about in the night. Moving about our town and out. I’d sit beside him. Thick jacket up around my neck. He would drive. His head would move involuntarily along with the music. The layers of sounds seemed to join up the stars above us. I would sit there, looking out of the window, huddled, trying to see everywhere at once. Trying to make out the the picture that the stars made.
Tommy’s eyes were lit bright. ‘Oh, Mark,’ he said, his voice wavering somewhere near a tone of defeat. ‘I sometimes feel like I’ve been fighting for you since I was born.’ I didn’t know what to say.
‘No,’ I said, ‘No you don’t…’
‘Let me finish,’ He said, holding his hand up. ‘Just let me…’ his voice trailed. He looked upward and took a sharp breath. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I know you think I’ve been avoiding you for the last few weeks. You know what I mean. It’s… school’s over now and there’s like, um. Look, this isn’t easy.’ He was looking at me. Right at me. His eyes were almost white. ‘School’s over,’ he said, shaking his head. The fish glided through the still water, glinting. My eyes were pulled away from Tommy. Flicker. When I looked back at him he was holding out a piece of paper. I looked at it blankly.
‘What’s this?’ I asked, declining to take it.
Tommy drew it back to him and slipped it back into the pocket from which he had taken it. He folded it first, very slowly and neatly. He looked at me and said simply: ‘I got accepted.’
In the back seat of the car someone had once started to sing, just as a tape finished. It was late into the night. The voice was so soft. If I hadn’t turned I wouldn’t have believed that it was really a person. The song washed about us in syrupy scratches, getting under our skins, into our heads. I don’t know what time it ended. The car was empty but for Tommy and me as he drove us home. We were silent the whole way back. I staggered out of the car when he dropped me off, waving him away over my shoulder. I was too ill to see him the next day.
‘Accepted.’ I said.
‘That’s right,’ said Tommy, ‘I got accepted. I got that job.’ He was trying to smile up at me. It was like he wanted me to say something. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Accepted, he had said. Accepted. I couldn’t feel a thing. I could live with it, I told myself. He kept on speaking. I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
Spinning down the hill. I could hear the sound of shouting. The flash of sunlight against a turning car. I was rolling down the hill. I could hear someone screaming. The wind was in my hair. The hill stretched out before me. I couldn’t close my eyes.
‘So what do you think?’
Tommy was looking at me. I tried to look at him. I’d known him so long. I tried to speak.
‘Go,’ I said, ‘Go on. Take it. Be happy.’ I raised my lips and bared my teeth. It was like a smile. ‘Invite me down sometime.’ In the reflection of the tank it seemed convincing enough. A fish swam through my face.
‘Are you sure? Are you all right?’ He sounded concerned. How must I have looked? His head tilted to one side as he turned his attention to me. For a terrible second I thought that he might try to reach out an arm, or worse yet, rush forward and hug me. I could safely live without that. The terror of his vast arms encircling me, crushing me.
I couldn’t touch my hands to the wheels. They were going too fast. The road stretched down the hill like a black tongue. I couldn’t close my eyes. I could hear shouting. I had slipped my moorings. Started to roll. Behind me I could hear shouting. I was screaming. The hiss of the pavement. The bark of a car braking. The sounds of footsteps at my back. A hand on my shoulder. The sound of running. A wrench. A pull. Fingers digging into me. Pulling me. Forcing me over. The tarmac skidded against my shoulder. I heard something smash. The sky was a violent blue above me. I lay on my back. I could hear a gentle sound of spinning from the wheel of my wheelchair. I could hear the sound of somebody screaming. It wasn’t me.
‘Yes,’ I said quickly, ‘Yes, I feel fine. Really I am.’ I could hardly talk to him. I looked over. His cheek was bright with reflections. Fish darkened and flickered behind him. I waved my hand toward the doorway, along the dim-lit hall. I did not look at him. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘this place’ll be closing soon. You go ahead,’ I shook my hand toward the exit, ‘I’ll catch you up.’ I felt him move.
‘Are you sure?’ he said.
‘Just be a minute,’ I replied. He was looking at me when I glanced up. I turned my eyes from his face. He took a breath as though he were about to say something. He didn’t say anything. I heard the heavy sounds of his footsteps start to echo away from me. In the tank I could see him, moving toward the exit sign. The sign glowed with green letters. His reflection got very small. Fish breathed water. The hint of teeth.
I remembered a car ride. Huddled there in the front seat, singing word perfect to a song on the radio. Like it wasn’t even my voice. We cut through the town. Slicking out of it into the country. Tommy singing beside me, his head going. I looked behind me, out the back window of the car, and saw there, spread out across the land, the sparkling body of the town. I stared at the retreating light-scape. Streetlight picked out over black earth, marking out a shape like some giant, twisting fish. Neon scales. A belly full of townsfolk. It really was beautiful. I almost wanted to get out and of the car. Just to stand there. Just to see.
Tommy backed out of the room and away from my vision. He faded into the darkness. I was left with the gloom of the place. I stood there for a moment, before I moved up to the glass of the tank and began to tap against it. The fish moved one way and the other. Behind the glass. The fish turned away from me. They moved toward me. Every time I tapped they moved. I watched them carefully, my eyes moving with them.
The headlights pushed the landscape before us on arcs of yellow air. Driving through the town. Familiar streets. We turned corners we knew. Went down the streets that we’d in as children. It was all so familiar. We turned down a sloping street. The road stretched out before us like a black tongue. It was all so familiar. I glanced over at Tommy. His hands were on the wheel. His eyes looked forward. The tape clicked off. In the back seat someone started to sing.
I was lying on the ground. The sky was blue in my eyes. I could hear someone screaming. Tommy had pulled me out of the wheelchair. He had stopped me from rolling down the hill. I looked over. Tommy was screaming. He had fallen while pulling me over. A bottle had broken his fall. A bottle had been broken by his fall. Tommy’s wrist spat blood. It sparkled in the sun. There was a car driving past. I lay back. The sky was a violent blue. Clouds swam over it lazily. There was a sound of brakes.
My reflection stared back at me. I stood alone in the long room. The unearthly light of the water rippled over me. I tapped against the glass with my hand. The fish started. Toothy mouths agape. I felt the glass warp. It buckled. First one crack, then another.
The glass shattered. There was a glut of water and fish. I was too shocked to move. The water unspooled from the tank, decanting itself over me. Glass and fish covered me. I felt it cold over me. My arm was still held up, where I had been tapping. Just tapping. I stared forward. Something was wrong with my arm. I turned it, and it opened on red. There were little flip-flopping noises down at my feet as the fish struggled to breathe. There was blood coming from my arm. It dripped into the water at my feet. The drops of blood feathered in the water, spreading out. Fish died, greedily opening and closing their mouths. My arm was just starting to hurt. Somewhere I could hear the sound of running.