I tell Iris about the death of my goldfish, Derek. This is a mistake.
Iris is my elderly neighbour and one of life’s more persistent problem solvers. Whenever it’s good drying weather Iris and I have conversations over our fence. I work at home most of the time because my employers – a small logistics company – like to avoid any painful and embarrassing physical reminders that they employ me. And Iris is around most days because nearly everyone she’s known has died and there’s really no point in leaving her house to go anywhere, except occasionally to get some liver or tongue from the local family butchers (don’t ask) and some Maeve Binchey and Catherine Cookson from the slightly less local library.
“Now you’re quite sure Derek is dead?”
With Iris, you tend to get used to unusual lines of enquiry. “Er, yes Iris. I’m pretty sure…..”
“And what is it that makes you so sure?” she asks, narrowing her already narrow eyes.
“Well,” I begin, “his body was a little more crescent-shaped than usual. Plus he was floating at the top of aquarium. And his gills weren’t moving at all,” I add. “Taken together, these signs rarely mark the start of a good day for a goldfish.”
“So any word from Thea?” she asks me. Iris will abruptly return to this topic whenever she can. Iris remains a massive fan of Thea, despite all the shouting (Thea) and wailing (me) she must have heard through our shared walls in our final few months together.
“No. And to be honest, I don’t expect any either,” I explain. Thea has already used a wide range of words in relation to me. There must be very few left.
“It’s all such a shame,” she says, studying me afresh and shaking her head, saddening her heavily pencilled eyebrows.
“It is indeed,” I agree.
“Don’t you think you could do something to make her realise how great you are?”
“Iris,” I say. “Thanks. Seriously. I mean that. But I think it’s pretty obvious that Thea doesn’t share your very generous and kind assessment of me.”
“See? Iris says, clapping her shiny, veiny hands together. “Just listen to you. How could anyone leave such eloquence behind? In Elizabethan times eloquence was seen as a sign of virtue.” Iris says this with authority, as if she’d been there at the time. “And you two were so good together. So very good.”
“No,” I try to explain to her for the seventy eighth time, “it turns out that I was good together. Her? Less so.”
But it is as if I haven’t spoken. Iris doesn’t have a hearing problem; just a listening one. “And she was so beautiful. Such hair. And so shapely. And nice with it. Not proud of herself. And so funny. Such a warm and caring soul. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more generous person. Just so thoughtful….”
“Iris?” I plead. “In what way is this helpful?”
Iris shrugs. But she shrugs in her special, non-resigned way. With Iris, it’s the lack of resignation you’ve got to keep an eye on. I wouldn’t put it past her to be writing to Thea on my behalf, inventing a terminal disease for me to have in some bizarre attempt to coax her back.
“Well, I may not be able to sort out Thea for you. But I can certainly do something about Derek.”
And then she’s off, wandering back up her garden to her house. “Iris,” I call after her. “Please. There’s really no need….”
What there is, actually, is really no use calling after her. Because sure enough, a couple of hours later, she’s knocking on my front door, holding a polythene bag of water containing a small, unfamiliar goldfish.
“Well it turns out Derek wasn’t dead at all,” Iris says brightly, trying to pass me the stranger. “It turns out he was trapped inside my shed all the time.”
“Iris,” I remind her, “I’m thirty two years old.”
“Well, I‘m hardly likely to fall for some story that my goldfish was found in your shed.”
Iris is taken aback. “It’s what happens with lost cats,” she points out.
“Yes, but Derek wasn’t lost. And cats are a lot more comfortable with the whole wandering into other people’s shed thing and..…” – I start to hear myself – “Iris, I am really not having this conversation. We both know that isn’t Derek.”
Iris and I spend a couple of minutes examining non-Derek in the bag. He looks friendly enough. But he’s clearly not Derek. In so many ways.
“We do Iris,” I say, sighing a little. “We really do.”
Iris looks defeated, but only for a moment.
“Could I interest you in a little cake?” she ventures. “I’ve been baking again. Lemon drizzle?”