Tuesday, 17 April 2012

HELP, MUM! the fish are dying!

More and more of us are buying our children pets. But in this hilarious account of her own animal adventures, Julie McGowan warns that it isn’t all puppy love

Written by Julie McGowan
It is a truth universally acknowledged, to paraphrase the opening lines of Pride And Prejudice, that all household pets, no matter which family member they 'officially' belong to, eventually become the responsibility of the parents. And so it was with the tropical fish bequeathed to the eldest son by a much-loved retiring priest.

Now, I'd already coped happily with a cat regularly producing kittens in the shoe cupboard, a dog who frequently stole the football during the local team's practice sessions, and even the collecting of live woodlice for the family lizard. But somehow I couldn't quite take to all these fish. They began to die off almost as soon as the tank was installed in the son's bedroom, and the deceased – their Catholicism obviously being without question – were given a sort of last aquatic rites by the older children before being flushed ceremoniously down the toilet. Eventually, though, we were left with half a dozen, who seemed happy enough. I even began to concede that watching their aquatic meanderings could be quite soothing.

But there were some things about them that I failed to understand – like why pet fish need a light on ALL day? After all, it's not light under the sea, is it?

Answers to this and many other questions were patiently provided, with much sighing over my stupidity, by the children – although, like physics, I found them hard to grasp. Some questions remained unanswered, though. Such as why, on the rare occasion that the tank was cleaned, it was necessary to use every single one of my new plastic food containers, the best nail brush AND the youngest child's toothbrush? And, no matter how carefully the tank was cleaned, where on earth did all the snails come from?

One minute there were none, and then they would appear, clusters of them, clinging to the water filter, the rocks, the sides of the tank... and breeding, well, like snails.

But the real crunch came one morning during that awful time when everyone in the household realises they should have got up earlier. The cry went up as the children ran about in varying states of undress: 'The air filter's not working! The fish are going to die!' (Of course, one of my immediate questions was why do they need all those air bubbles, but I knew better than to voice it.)

All four children were soon found clustered around the tank, blowing down drinking straws into the water. By this time the two children I childminded had also arrived, and eagerly and unquestioningly joined in the fun – although I had to remove the toddler when she sucked instead of blew.

'You'll have to get a new filter! Please Mum!' eldest son pleaded, using that special wheedling tone sons reserve for mothers they know can be beaten down. 'We can't let these die too! We've lost so many already!' I had to admit that the fish were looking a bit peaky... but perhaps it would be better if we simply let them gasp their last and be done with it...

By mid-morning, though, my guilt every time the three-year-old said, 'Shall we see if the fish have died yet?' was too overwhelming, so the children were hastily strapped into the car for the journey to the aquatic store down eight miles of dual carriageway with its permanent contraflow system.

At last we reached the store – and I dashed up to the counter. 'I need an air filter!' I gasped in such desperate, winded tones that the assistant could have been forgiven for thinking my need was a personal one. 'Which one?' she asked, presenting me with a choice of about 30 stacked up behind her. I was stumped. Even physics questions hadn't seemed this hard. 'Do you need one with...' and she reeled off a list of underwater specifications that a diver would be pleased to have on his aqualung. 'I'll take that one!' I said, pointing to the cheapest, as they all looked more or less the same and I could stand her pitying looks at my stupidity no longer.

But, of course, it was the wrong one. Even when I found the English instructions amongst the nine different languages printed on the box, I couldn't get the wretched thing to fit.

By this time the fish were definitely looking jaded, although none of the snails seemed to have lost their grip on things. So, after a bit more blowing, back we went to the store, taking the moribund filter along with us this time. 'Ah!' said the assistant, a gleam in her eye. 'This is the one you want,' and selected one of the most expensive.

'Of course,' she said blandly, after ringing up the money and handing me the receipt, 'they'll probably all die now, anyway.' Smug was the only word to describe me when I finally sent the children up to see the new,gently humming air filter. Eldest son, however, had his fish-expert friend with him and soon they hurtled down the stairs again.

'Guess what, Mum? Matthew's fixed the old air filter – there was just a snail blocking the outlet tube!' he told me, in the hearty tones sons reserve for mothers who look as if they are just about to blow their tops after 32 miles of unnecessary driving and a wasted day.

By next morning, though, I decided it was all a bit of a learning curve, especially as the first thing the threeyear- old said was, 'Can we play that game again? With the straws and the fish tank?' I didn't answer straight away. I was busy replying to the priest's last letter. 'Your fish,' I wrote, 'are absolutely fine...'

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