There were nineteen fish in the pond in Rachel’s back garden but only three of them could talk. The three were Barney, an overweight shubunkin, Pi, a baby goldfish, and Rita, a platinum koi.
Rachel discovered that they could talk one Saturday afternoon after everyone else had gone inside. It had been a hot day and Rachel had been playing in her paddling pool, splashing and jumping around and skipping and making a lot of noise while her father sat in a deck chair and read the papers. After a while, her father decided that it was too hot and he told Rachel that he was going inside.
Rachel’s mother was upstairs ironing and so Rachel was left alone in the garden.
She soon got tired of playing in the paddling pool and went to see the fish. The pond was a rectangular structure that was built up from the ground. The sides were about two feet high and the whole pond was about twelve feet long and six feet wide. Rachel liked to sit on the side and watch the fish swimming around.
There were goldfish and shubunkin and sarassas and a couple of koi. The pond was in the garden when Rachel and her mother and father had moved into the house. It had been dirty with thick blanket weed clogging the water and you couldn’t see the bottom, but Rachel’s father had got the pump working and cleaned the water and they had stocked it with shiny new fish.
Rachel loved the pond and the sound of the water plashing from the pump and she fed the fish every morning and every evening and often during the day as well. The fish were growing and getting fatter and they seemed to enjoy their new home.
The sun was beating down and the air was still and warm and Rachel, still dripping from her paddling, gazed at the lazy swimming sparkly fish. Barney and Rita and Pi were her favourites. They always seemed to swim together and when Rachel dropped in the flaky food they fought one another to see who would be first to grab the fishy flakes.
Now, Rachel watched them and then found the jar of food and dropped some flakes into the clear water. They floated around while the fish nipped at them- their busy mouths flapping open, closed, open, closed, open, closed. Rachel trailed her fingers in the water and let Barney nip at her fingertips with his scaly jaw.
“Occasionally it would be nice to have some different food,” said a voice. Rachel looked around. She was alone in the garden on the edge of the pond.
“These flakes are all very well but they get a bit samey. Very fishy, if you know what I mean,” said the same voice.
Rachel stood up. She walked slowly around the pond and peered into the bushes. Nothing. She looked over into next door’s garden where they often sat eating their barbecues. No one. She looked in the living room and saw the back of her father’s head as he sat in the chair. She looked down into the clear water at the fish lazily twisting and swimming. Barney was gazing up at her. His jaw moved.
“I said those things. Me. The fish. Down here, in the water.” Please help us
Rachel looked down. She said, “Fish can’t talk.”
“How do you know? You’re only seven. You don’t know everything. Just because you know what asteroids are and that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon and how to spell volcano, there are still lots of things you don’t know. For example, what is 342 divided by 17?”
“I don’t know.”
“See? That’s just what I mean.”
“What is it?” Rachel asked.
“That sum. 342 divided by 17.”
“I don’t know”, said the fish. “I was just making a point. I didn’t say I knew the answer. I said that you didn’t.”
Rachel said, “Can all fish talk?”
“No. Some shubunkins, catfish, a few goldfish and some little ones that look like horses.”
“Seahorses, you mean.”
“If you say so.”
“What about dolphins?”
“What about them?”
“Can they talk? They’re supposed to be very clever. My daddy said so.”
“Don’t believe everything your father tells you. Dolphins aren’t clever at all, although they like you to think they are.”
“If you can talk, why have you never said anything before, after all you’ve been here for a few weeks,” Rachel asked reasonably.
“Well. One, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Two, people are naturally suspicious of talking fish. Three, I wanted to see what you people would be like. Four, I have my reasons.” Listen, will you help us?
Pi came to the surface and Rita bobbed up beside him. Pi said to Barney, “Have you been talking? I thought you’d promised me that we wouldn’t say a word.”
Barney replied, “I only said a few words to her. She’s harmless.”
“Harmless! She’s not harmless, she’s a little troublemaker, you heard what her mother shouted at her the other day. She’ll tell everyone and we’ll have every scientist and local newspaper and reporter and local TV people and those horrible cable television people with their little cameras and their motorcycles and Michael Barrymore and Newsround will do a computer model showing the evolution of talking fish. It’ll be a nightmare and all because you were bored and had to start talking to this horrible child on a warm Sunday afternoon.”
“I’m not horrible,” said Rachel, as she felt the tears welling up.
“Stop crying”, said Pi.
Rachel stopped crying.
She said, “I’m going to go inside and tell my Daddy that we’ve got talking fish in our pond.”
“Now see what you’ve done,” Pi hissed accusingly to Barney.
“Never mind,” said Barney, snatching at a piece of blanket weed that was drifting by.
He chomped. “Nobody will believe her. Who would believe that fish could talk?”
Pi said, “There’ll be trouble, you see if there isn’t.”
The fish swam around in their usual aimless way while Rachel went inside to tell her father about the talking fish.
Rachel’s father was sitting in his favourite chair reading the Sunday papers. Rachel’s father – his name doesn’t matter but Rachel called him Daddy – was a tall man with a pot belly, red hair going grey and a little wispy beard that he called a goatee but everyone else said was goaty. He wore glasses and today, because it was hot he was wearing a pair of grubby cream shorts and no shirt. His pot belly hung over his shorts like a window box. He had one leg swung over the arm of his chair.
When Rachel came in the room all she could see was the front of the paper and a bit of leg sticking out.
“We’ve got some talking fish in the pond,” she said to the paper. Her father grunted behind his paper.
“Go and tell Mummy,” he said.
Rachel said, “Aren’t you interested to hear what they said?”
Rachel said, “The talking fish in the pond.”
Her father said, “Fish can’t talk.”
“Barney said you’d say that,” said Rachel.
“Go and tell your mother,” her father said again.
Rachel went upstairs to see her mother. Her mother was furiously ironing shirts and blouses and skirts and school uniforms, while listening to her favourite music on the CD player. She was jigging and ironing, ironing and jigging.
“Hello,” she said, as Rachel emerged at the top of the stairs. “What are you after, trouble?”
Rachel said, “We’ve got some talking fish in the garden and Daddy said I should tell you about them.”
“Has Daddy heard them?”
“No. He doesn’t believe me. Do you believe me?”
“Of course I do, sweetness. Of course I do. Just let me finish this ironing.” And she started to jig and iron, iron and jig.
Rachel went back downstairs to see her father.
“Mummy believes me,” she said. “Now will you come and see?”
Rachel’s father put down his paper, swung his leg down from the arm on which it had been hanging and looked at his daughter. Rachel stood beside the chair in her pants with water still dripping from her hair. She was smiling and the gaps in her mouth from where her teeth had fallen out looked like parking spaces.
He said, “I am going outside to listen to these talking fish and if they don’t say anything to me then I am going to get cross. Is that clear?”
He walked outside with Rachel skipping along behind and went up to the pond. He sat on the edge and gazed at the fish. Barney swam close and lapped at the surface of the water. Pi was chasing pond skaters, Rita was tugging at the black butyl liner and the others did what fish usually do.
Rachel’s father said, “Rachel tells me that you can talk.”
The fish continued to do their fish things. The only sound was the water flowing through the pump and the thwack of club on ball by the golfers teeing off behind them on the green. Rachel was looking at the fish and minding her own business.
Rachel’s father looked at her and sighed.
He said quietly but angrily, “You know Rachel, just once, just ONCE mind, it would be nice if you left me alone for five minutes to get on with what I wanted to do. I don’t ask much. And another thing. You’re supposed to be a clever little girl and not naughty. Fish can’t talk.” Then he went back in the house.
Rachel watched him sit down, swing his leg over the arm of the chair and pick up his paper.
Barney said, “Maybe he’s not ready. It’s a big shock to find out that fish can talk.” We need you.
Rachel was a bit tearful. She said, “You could have said something.” What do you want me to do?
Pi swam up to the side. He nudged at Barney and tickled his side. “You’re wanted down below,” he said to Barney.
“What? Why me, what have I done?”
“You spoke to a human,” said Pi. “You’re in big trouble. The Queen of the King of the Fishes has been told. You’ll be sleeping with the fishes.”
“Very funny,” said Barney, but he was worried. ‘Come below with us.’ Help us- be a saviour for us.
Rachel said to Barney, “Where are you going?” I’ll help you if I can. Just tell me what to do.
Barney said, “I shouldn’t be telling you this. I’m in hot water already, but you seem like a sensible girl and I can tell that your father is one of those people who never believe what their daughter tells them about the world and how it is, so I don’t suppose anyone will ever know. But this pond is not all it seems.” I’m telling you the truth. But Pi mustn’t know.
“What do you mean?”
“You see in the centre of the pond where that broken fountain is?”
“There’s an opening and it goes down to an underground stream and rivers and lake and ocean and that’s where all the talking fish are. That’s where our King lives. If we tell anyone that we can talk, we have to answer to him. I told you.”
Rachel said, “Why did you speak to me?” Why mustn’t Pi know?
Barney said, “Secrets aren’t any fun unless you have someone to share them with and anyway fish don’t have much to say. Just because some fish can talk, it doesn’t mean they have anything interesting to say. They mostly talk about food and pond skaters and why goldfish are always in bowls and how irritating the sound of pumps can be at night. That sort of stuff, it’s not rocket science you know.” He’s not to be trusted. You’ll find out.
Rachel said, “Will you introduce me to your King? I’d like to meet a talking fish King.”
Barney said, “I’m sorry I can’t do that. It’s not safe. You could get lost and never find your way back and then where would I be. Feeling all guilty and no-one to feed the rest of us and your father blaming us and thinking that you’d drowned and everything.”
Rachel said, “Please. Please. I’m only 7 and I’ve never had any real adventures – not on my own. My Mummy and Daddy think I’m too young and they won’t let me do anything on my own except get dressed and tidy my room and play shops. I’m not even allowed to have a bath on my own because they’re always watching me and trying to see I don’t drown.”
Barney said, “All parents are like that. You shouldn’t blame them. They only want you to be safe. But all right I’ll take you. But you must promise to behave and do what I tell you.” Thank you, the king will be so grateful and so will the rest of us.
Rachel said, “I will. But can my friends Sophie and Jonathan come too?”
Barney said, “Don’t push your luck.”
Rachel said, “I’m just going inside to get Timmy and to pack my bag. How long will it take to find the Fish King? I’d better tell Daddy when I will be back.”
Barney said, “That may not be such a good idea. Anyway, who is Timmy? You can’t bring anyone else.” But Rachel had already scampered inside. Barney sighed.
Rachel returned a few moments later with a doll in a sling round her front, a leopard skin print handbag and a cream canvas bag slung over her shoulder. She had put on her silver high-heeled jellies, shorts and a blouse and had a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. On her head was a blue denim hat with a yellow plastic flower stuck on the front. She looked like Lily Savage.
Barney said, “Are you sure you’ve got enough stuff?”
Rachel said, “I wanted to bring Timmy’s buggy and some of my Barbies but I wasn’t sure if there would be enough room.”
Barney said, “Wait a minute, Timmy is a doll?”
“He’s not just a doll, he’s very clever and he gives me guidance and keeps an eye on me and he’s someone to talk to when Daddy ignores me.”
Barney said, “Timmy talks?”
Rachel said, “Well, so do you and lots of people would think that was pretty strange.”
Rachel said, “Who is the Queen of the King of the Fish?”
“Don’t ask. With any luck you won’t meet her.”
Rachel hefted her belongings and stepped over the side of the pond into the cool water. The water came to her knees as she waded towards the centre of the pond. In the house her father still sat with his back to the window swinging his leg idly over the arm of his armchair.
In the centre of the pond was the broken fountain- a concrete bowl with a length of hosepipe and a sprinkler fitted to the end in the middle
Barney came to the surface. He said, “You’ll have to push that away to find the opening. Just step in, everything will be fine. We use a separate doorway but it will be too small for you. I’ll meet you down below.”
Rachel hesitated. She looked towards the house. It was quiet. She looked up at the bedroom where the sunlight glinted on the windows. She couldn’t see her mother. Above her the sky was blue and cloudless. She felt the sun’s warmth on her face and her hair and the coolness of the water against her skin.
Timmy was nestled in his sling across her front. He said, “Don’t be afraid. It will be OK.” Rachel patted his head and ruffled his hair.
She pushed the broken fountain aside and it toppled lazily into the water. Peering down she saw a circular pipe about 2 feet in diameter and full of water. The water was clear and she could see the bottom. She couldn’t see any opening and she was sure there wasn’t any. Barney and the other fish disappeared through a tiny gap at the base of the pipe.
She was alone in the pond- all the fish had swum away. This was silly, she felt. There wasn’t any opening or underground ocean, and there was no such thing as the King of the Fishes or the Queen of the King of the Fish or any of those things and Barney couldn’t really talk, she knew that, she wasn’t silly and her Daddy had been right all along and she had been wrong. She started to cry and then she waded back to the side of the pond.
Timmy said, “What’s the matter, why are you turning back? I thought we were going to have a real adventure. I’ve never had any real adventures, except when you strap me in the car seat and we go out with Mummy and Daddy in the car and even then you never take me out of the car seat. It gets really boring, you know. Please. Why can’t we go?”
Rachel said, “Fish can’t talk, Timmy. You can’t talk really. I just pretend that you can because I get lonely. I don’t want to pretend anymore.”
Timmy said, “You’re only 7 you know. You don’t understand a lot of things. Just because you pretend some things that aren’t real it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things that you pretend that are real. If that makes sense. Step into the pipe and let’s see what happens. If there’s nothing there then we’ll know, but you must try, you have to trust people sometimes.”
Rachel said, “Barney is a fish. Why should I trust a fish?”
“Trust me,” said Timmy.
Rachel stepped into the pipe. She looked around. Nothing happened. Timmy was leaning out of the sling and looking down at the water.
“See,” she whispered to him. “Nothing.”
“Be patient,” said Timmy. “Patience is a virtue.”
“What’s a virtue?”
“Now is not the time to explain,” said Timmy. “But it’s something worth having.”
“Can I buy it? I’ve got 15 pounds. I brought it in case we had to buy something, or catch a bus or something.”
“Where did you get 15 pounds?” asked Timmy. “And why would there be buses down there? Fish don’t travel on the bus.”
“How do you know? Anyway, I saved it up.”
“You can’t buy patience up here, especially not in this household,” said Timmy. “But who knows what we may be able to buy in the Kingdom of the Fishes.”
“There is no Kingdom of the Fishes, it’s all…”
Rachel stopped talking. The bottom of the pipe was moving and disappearing from beneath her feet. Rachel felt herself slipping down. She held Timmy tightly and held her breath as she sank beneath the water.
She seemed to be in a kind of tunnel that sloped gradually downwards. The sides of the tunnel were smooth and made of some shiny metal like steel. There was plenty of light although she wasn’t sure where it was coming from. She couldn’t see any light bulbs and the sky was definitely not above her head. She wasn’t frightened – instead she felt excited. Timmy loved it. His head was sticking out of the sling and he had a big smile on his face. Of course, he always had a big smile on his face, because he was a doll and was made that way. But this was an extra big smile.
Rachel had expected that she would be surrounded by water and she had been a bit worried about that – how was she going to breathe? But it was completely dry so although she was still wet from going beneath the surface of the pond, she wasn’t getting any wetter. She didn’t know how long she was in the tunnel but soon she slipped out of the end and landed on a soft pile of leaves. She stood up and brushed the leaves away and looking around found herself in a large underground chamber.
The chamber was not made of metal. It was made of rock. Stalactites hung from the ceiling while stalagmites stuck up from the ground. Rachel knew which was which because she had been to Cheddar Gorge caves with her Mummy and Daddy and Daddy had said “tites hang down.”
Looking down she could see a green stagnant pool- smelly and thick with weed. Running along the side of the chamber was a narrow channel cut into the rock. Clear water flowed swiftly along this channel and in the water were thousands of little darting silvery fish. However, she couldn’t see Barney or Rita or Pi or any of her other fish.
The walls of the chamber were very high and above them the dark roof was shiny and wet and droplets of water slowly dripped onto the ground. It wasn’t dark but it was quite gloomy. There were flickering lights set into the walls. It was quiet apart from the drip of the water from the roof.
Timmy was looking out from the sling. “Where are we?” he said.
Rachel said, “How should I know? I thought you were the clever one. Be patient you said. It’ll be alright you said. Now look what you’ve done. How are we ever going to get back home? I can’t climb up that pipe again and here we are trapped in this stupid cavern. Just me and a talking doll. And Mummy and Daddy don’t even know where we are.”
She started to cry and because she was upset, Timmy started to cry too. She sat down on the hard stone floor and got her shorts wet. Wetter. She pulled the shawl tightly around her shoulders and cuddled Timmy tightly to her chest.
Timmy said, “Did you bring anything useful in your bags?”
Rachel opened her leopard skin print bag and tipped the contents onto the hard ground. There was:
- A small red model Ferrari that her father had got free with some petrol.
- A filofax that she had stolen from her mother.
- One packet of Starburst.
- One packet of Fruit Pastilles.
- 4 Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids.
- A magnifying glass.
- A book about the moon landings.
- A nappy.
- 4 green grapes.
- 15 pounds in loose change.
- 3 small notebooks.
- 2 pens.
Timmy said sarcastically, “This is useful stuff. What’s in the other bag?”
The other bag was cream canvas and had been bought in the National Gallery. There was a Rembrandt self-portrait on the side of the bag. Rachel tipped its contents onto the ground too. There was:
- A Swiss army pen-knife.
- A key ring.
- A torch.
- A tin of fish flakes.
- A photograph of Neil Armstrong.
Rachel unwrapped a Starburst, popped it into her mouth and started chewing. Then she put the rest of the things back in the bags. She stood up and held Timmy tightly.
She was about to start walking when the thick green water in the stagnant pool parted and a most hideous creature emerged.
Rachel pressed back against the damp wall of the cavern. The hard rocks pressed into her back. Timmy ducked inside the sling and refused to look. In the fast flowing channel the fish paused and watched, their little mouths flapping.
The creature moved slowly to the side of the pool, strings of slime hanging from its body. Its upper body was that of a fish – scaly and shiny. Its head pointed straight upwards and its eyes were on opposite sides. It had a wide mouth, lipless, and its jaw constantly flapped up and down. It had long flippers like arms, which ended in three webbed fingers. In colour, it was mottled-green, brown, purple. As it emerged from the water, Rachel saw that its lower half was like a crocodile, with two wide heavy feet ending in long claws and a tail that dragged along behind like a bride’s train.
It had great trouble emerging from the water and had to try a few times before it rolled onto the floor and gradually rose to its full height. As it rose its eyes took in Rachel in sweeping glances – first from one side and then the other. It grabbed flippers full of slime and flung them on the ground. Rachel noticed that the slime was in fact blanket weed and it fell on the ground in green clumps like hair at the barbers.
Rachel was frightened but too frightened to move. Timmy slowly poked his head out from the sling and then ducked back inside. Then curiosity overcame him and he stuck his head out again.
When the creature was a few feet away from Rachel it sighed heavily and slowly lent back against the rocky wall. It crossed one heavy crocodiley claw in front of the other and folded its flippers across its chest.
Big crocodiley tears began to slide down its fishy face. It wiped them away.
“You must be Rachel,” the creature said in a deep, growly, croaky, tear stained voice. “They call me the King of the Fishes.”
“How do you do,” said Rachel and did a little curtsy like her mother had taught her.
As she curtsied she lent forward and Timmy tumbled out of the sling and crashed to the ground.
“Ouch!” said Timmy, sitting up and rubbing his plastic head. “That hurt.”
Rachel picked him up and put him gently back into the sling.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
“Because…” began Timmy.
“Not you,” said Rachel. “I was talking to the King of the Fishes.”
The King of the Fishes sighed long and hard, turned around and moved slowly down the cavern. He looked back over his shoulder at Rachel who was waiting with her bags and Timmy.
“Come with me, I’ll show you.”
The cavern was long and gloomy and cold. Rachel pulled her shawl around her shoulders. The King of the Fishes moved quickly and purposefully, his long tail swishing behind and brushing the stone floor. The King didn’t look back, he just assumed – like Kings do- that Rachel was following, which she was.
Towards the end, the cavern narrowed to a small passageway, only just wide enough for the King of the Fishes to pass through. The ceiling brushed his smooth wet head and he ducked to fit through the gap. Rachel trotted along behind – her silver jellies slopping and squelching on the slippery ground.
With the King of the Fishes blocking out what little light that remained, the narrow passageway was very dark and Rachel had difficulty in seeing more than a foot in front of her. At one point, she stumbled and reaching out she grabbed the King’s tail. It felt rough against her skin and she quickly snatched her hand away.
“Ow!” said the King just managing to turn around in the passageway. “Please be careful.”
The passageway opened into another cavern, smaller than the first one, but very bright and clear. In the centre of this cavern was a wide clear pool with a waterfall at the far end. To the left was a stone grotto inset with shells and glittery stones. A waterfall trickled down so that anything sitting in the grotto had a steady trickle of water flowing over them.
The King of the Fishes turned to Rachel and said, “I can’t stay out of the water for too long, so you will forgive me if I don’t stay out here with you. But you must join me in the grotto.”
So saying, the King slipped quietly into the water, moved swiftly along beneath the water and soon emerged in the grotto with the waterfall gently playing over his head like a flowing crown.
Rachel sat at the edge of the pool, removed her jellies and trailed her toes in the cool clear water. Timmy slipped out of the sling and sat beside her.
Rachel said to the King of the Fishes, “Where is this place? Have we travelled far from our pond?”
The King said huffily, “What pond? I don’t know of any pond. I have ruled over the Kingdom of the Fishes for many years and this has always been my home. I have never lived in a pond and I don’t intend to start now. Especially at my time of life.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just curious.” Rachel leaned down to Timmy and said in a low voice, “He seems to be very sensitive. I’d better be careful what I say or we may never get home.”
The King said, “If you must know, I believe there is a Sainsbury’s which is built on top of this cavern, if that helps.”
Sainsbury’s was a couple of hundred metres away from Rachel’s house towards the High Street.
She said, “Golly. We have come a long way. Isn’t it dangerous to build a Sainsbury’s on top of a cavern, couldn’t it fall down?”
“Perhaps. But they didn’t ask my opinion when they built it so that is their problem.”
They were silent. Rachel paddled and the King drank from his waterfall.
Rachel said, “I haven’t seen Barney since I’ve been down here. Do you know where he might be?”
The King said, “Who is Barney?”
Rachel said, “He’s my friend. He’s the one who brought me down here. He started talking to me in the pond. That’s how I found out that fish could talk. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
“What does he look like?”
“Um. Like a fish.”
The King said, “That doesn’t help me much. I suppose that to you all fish look alike. I can assure you that is not the case. There are millions of fish in the sea, you know. You can’t possibly expect me to know them all.”
“Pi said that Barney would get into trouble with you because he started talking to me. Is that true?”
The King said, “Pi is a troublemaker and he always has been. I don’t mind if sometimes a fish starts talking to someone from up there. It doesn’t change anything. We live down here and you live up there and that’s the way it’s always been.”
“So you know Pi then?” asked Rachel.
“He’s my son.”
Rachel said, “If we started at our pond and this is beneath Sainsbury’s, then where is the golf course and how far away is the golf course and how far away is Sophie’s house and where is the Fish Shop?”
The King stopped drinking from the waterfall and stared at Rachel. He stroked his scaly neck with one flipper.
“The Fish Shop is not very far away and it will soon get what is coming and then people will know the name of the King of the Fishes,” he said.
Rachel said, “What is your name?”
But the King had slipped beneath the water and disappeared. Rachel and Timmy were alone, still paddling. After a while Barney swam up.
“There you are,” he said. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Come in, we’ve got to get out of here.”
“Why?” said Rachel. “What’s the problem? Any anyway where have you been, I’ve just been talking to the King of the Fishes.”
“Just follow me,” said Barney.
Barney was swimming away so Rachel quickly pulled on her jellies, grabbed Timmy and put him in his sling, tied her hair back, put her bags over her shoulder and slipped into the water to swim after Barney.
Rachel was a strong swimmer and she moved swiftly through the water. It was cold but clear and clean and she could easily see Barney swimming ahead of her. Suddenly Barney darted downwards, so Rachel quickly filled her lungs with a big gulp of air and slipped beneath the surface. Her long hair spread out behind and over her shoulders like a cape. Timmy wasn’t keen on the water and kept his eyes tightly shut. It was easy for him to hold his breath, because he was a doll.
They swam through a tunnel and Rachel was worried if she could hold her breath long enough but it soon emerged into another pool. She saw light above her head and swam to the surface. As she emerged above the water she noticed that she seemed to be in a clearing in a forest. Dense trees surrounded the pool and the edges of the pool were covered in leaves and trailing plants. On the bank, beneath the overhanging branches of a large oak tree, a machine sputtered and whirred.
A pipe emerged from the machine and emptied onto a conveyor belt and out of the pipe came a steady flow of blanket weed. Rachel pulled herself up onto the bank beside the machine and brushed her hair. Barney swam up, closely followed by Rita.
Rachel looked at Barney and said, “I think you owe me an explanation. One, where are we? Two, why did we have to leave that place in a hurry. Three, what did the King mean about the Fish Shop? Four, what is all this about Pi, who is the King’s son, I find out? Oh and fifth, what is this machine?”
Barney said, “We are beneath WH Smith, we had to leave in a hurry because the Queen of the King of the Fishes was looking for us, you’ll find out about the Fish Shop in a minute, Pi is trying to ruin everything and that is a blanket weed machine. It produces all the blanket weed in West Wickham. That’s how it ends up in the ponds.”
“Why do you have a machine for making blanket weed?” asked Rachel.
“How else could we make blanket weed?”
“But what’s it for?” asked Rachel.
“People don’t like blanket weed in their ponds and if it gets to be too much they get fed up and then they stop keeping fish so we get to set some more free.”
“But you’re not free, you live in our pond.”
“No we don’t,” said Barney. “Who looks after whom? Just tell me that! Anyway, we’re not in the pond now, are we? You see, yours is a magic pond because it has an entrance to the fish world. But not all the ponds are like that. So we have to find some other way of freeing the fish.”
“Is that why the King wants to set the fish free from the Fish Shop?”
“Yes,” said Barney. “We’ve been planning this for months. But the King’s son, Pi, betrayed us to the Fish Shop owner. Now he knows our plans and that’s why the King and all the rest of us have to move quickly.”
“Why did the King’s son – I mean Pi – betray you? I like Pi.”
“Because he’s in their power. They’ve promised him special fish sticks and his own tank and they’ve said that they’ll help him to steal the King’s crown. We have to stop him otherwise everything will be ruined. That’s why I started talking to you. I was hoping you would help.”
“But what can I do?” asked Rachel.
Barney said, “Let me explain.”
And he proceeded to give Rachel all the details. When he had finished, Rachel said,
“What do you want me to do?”
Rachel sat beside the machine while the water dripped from her and leaked into the ground. She was hungry and ate two green pastilles and then three yellow ones and then a red one. Timmy was hungry too and ate an orange one. She opened the tin of fish flakes and sprinkled some on the water. Barney and Rita ate their fill and many other fish came to feed also.
Rachel said to Barney, “When I was talking to the King, I asked him about you and he said he didn’t know who you were.”
Barney was embarrassed. He said, “Well, why should he? There are lots of fish in the world, you know, he can’t know all of us. Does your Queen know who you are?”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel, thoughtfully. “I’ve never met her. But she might, I suppose.”
“Anyway,” said Barney. “We don’t have time for all of this. Will you help us or not?”
“Of course,” said Rachel. “What do you want me to do?”
Barney said, “Come closer and I’ll explain.”
When he had finished, Rachel said, “Just one other thing.”
“The King. He’s not all fish, is he? I mean, he’s well, he’s sort of ugly.”
Barney said, “Looks aren’t everything. You’ll learn that as you get older.”
Rachel said, “Let’s go to work.”
Barney and Rita swam away while Rachel gathered her things together and set off walking through the dense forest. The trees were tall and green with big wet leaves that brushed her face as she walked. Timmy said that he was tired of being carried and said that he would walk for a while so Rachel and Timmy held hands as they walked. Soon the trees thinned and they came across a low brick built building with a small door at the side. The door was shut but using her Swiss army knife Rachel could open the door and they slipped inside.
It was dark inside and smelt musty and damp. Rachel switched on her torch and the thin yellow beam illuminated a winding metal staircase that went straight upwards for as far as she could see. Timmy climbed back into the sling as Rachel set off up the stairs.
The metal was cold and the stairs were narrow and Rachel had to hold onto a rope attached to the wall as she climbed. She didn’t like climbing spiral staircases and clutched the rope tightly. Timmy counted the steps. “139, 140, 141, 141.”
Rachel said, “What happened to 142?”
“Sorry”, said Timmy. “I forgot. 142, 143…”
When he reached 148 he stopped. They were at the top. Here there was another door that Rachel managed to open without recourse to her knife. Through the door were bright sunshine and clear blue skies and the familiar surroundings of West Wickham High Street.
The Fish Shop was on the other side of the road.
Rachel waited at the zebra crossing until the little green man appeared on the crossing signal and then she walked quickly across the road.
Timmy said, “Where does that green man live?”
Rachel said, “That’s not a green man, it’s just a picture that tells people when it’s okay to cross the street.”
Timmy looked at her. He said, “Don’t believe everything you see, or don’t see. For instance, there are many people who would be surprised that I can talk.”
Rachel said, “Timmy, we are in the middle of crossing a busy street, on our way to save some fish. This is not the time to discuss what is real and what is not real.”
“Get back to me,” said Timmy.
The Fish Shop was set back from the road. In front, on the pavement, was a collection of water plants, statues, garden ornaments, plastic pool liners and other pond paraphernalia. Rachel and Timmy went inside.
Inside it was dark. The walls of the shop were painted black and the lighting was soft. Against three of the four walls were glass-fronted tanks containing fish. There were about 24 tanks altogether and each contained between 20 and 30 fish.
“There must be about 600 fish,” said Timmy, who was quite good at maths.
Some of the tanks were for freshwater pond fish and some were for tropical fish. In the centre of the shop was a very large showpiece tank that contained an eel, an octopus and two small baby sharks. There was a plastic shipwreck on the floor of the tank and plastic coral and shells scattered around. The sharks looked at Rachel as she walked by.
“Are you the one?” one of them asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Rachel, under her breath, not looking at the sharks. “I think I must be.”
The shark that had spoken nodded his snout and then nudged the other shark. The eel shook its tail and the octopus wiggled three tentacles and rubbed two of the others together and scratched the back of its head with another. All at once.
“Wise guy,” said the eel.
Two men worked in the shop. One was busy behind the counter, while the other stood by one of the tanks, scooping Koi into a net for a customer.
“They’re bottom feeders,” he said to the customer as he scooped. “They tend to stay down at the bottom of the pond. Feed them about three times a day, they’ll get to know when you’re coming and that way you’ll get to know them.”
Three Koi were already inside the plastic bag, which the man had slipped into the water.
“Hurry, please hurry,” the Koi pleaded as Rachel watched. “We don’t want to end up in a pond. We want to be back with our families, back in the fish kingdom.”
The man carried on scooping. Rachel realised that she was the only one who could hear the fish talking.
“Can I help you?”
It was the other man who had come to offer assistance to Rachel.
“I’m just looking,” she replied.
The man turned and walked back behind the counter. When he wasn’t looking, Rachel slipped through the doorway into the room at the back of the shop. There was the door, just as Barney had said. The key was in the lock and she turned it slowly so as not to make a noise.
The King slipped inside. “Thank you,” he said. “Do you think anyone saw you?”
“They saw me come in,” said Rachel. “I expect now they’ll be wandering what happened to me.”
“No they won’t,” said the King. “People like them have no imagination. Now listen to me. Everything is ready down below, so this is the tricky bit and the dangerous part. You are the only one who can release those fish. As soon as they saw me, those men would guess why I was there. But with you they won’t suspect anything.”
Rachel said, “But how can I release those fish? Look at all those tanks. And they’re all separate, they’re not joined together. We’ll have to break into each one individually. I can’t do that without being caught.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said the King. “We’ve been talking to these captives for months and we’ve worked out a plan. They’ve been digging a tunnel that joins all the tanks together. All they are waiting for is the signal and then they can all move.”
“How can they dig a tunnel in a tank?” said Rachel. “Wouldn’t all the water flow out?” Rachel was a sensible girl and knew these things.
The King said, “Ordinarily yes, you’re right. Perhaps tunnel is the wrong word. You have to forgive me, I’m afraid. My English isn’t perfect. But these are special tanks. The front is real and the sides are real, but the oxygen pipe that aerates the water runs all the way through and all the tanks are joined together by that. That pipe has been weakened. All we have to do is break through and the fish can swim away.”
“How will they get below?” asked Rachel.
“Questions, questions,” said the King irritably. “Why do little girls have to ask so many questions?”
“It’s how we learn,” replied Rachel.
The King said, “I know, I’m sorry. That’s why we need you. You have to grab the pipe and run with it to the pond in the back. All the fish can then escape through the pond.”
“You too. Don’t worry, we won’t leave you behind to face the music.”
“What music? Spice Girls?” asked Rachel, who was fond of their music.
The King looked at her. “I’m very grateful for what you’re doing to help us. We waited a long time for someone like you to emerge. Our elders told us that a little girl would come and save us but we never really believed it. But now I see that it’s true.”
Rachel said, “Pi told me that Barney would get into trouble for talking to me. Why did he say that if you’ve been waiting for me to come along?”
“We weren’t sure if we could trust you,” said the King. “That was a test to see if you would still come along. You passed.”
“Like my SATs,” said Rachel.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Rachel. “I’m ready.”
Rachel stood by the doorway and looked into the main part of the shop. One of the men was tying up the bag of Koi while the other was processing the credit card and waiting for the machine to finish its printing.
“Enter your pin,” he said to the customer.
Rachel turned to the King. He said, “Thank you, I’ll see you below.”
He walked past Rachel and into the shop.
Who knows what the owners of Fish Shops know and what they feel and if they think that keeping fish and then selling them on in plastic bags is wrong? Perhaps they see it as a service to the fish and perhaps they don’t think of the fish as being real, or having feelings and even if fish can talk? And have they heard of the Kingdom of the Fishes or are they like Rachel’s father and believe only what is already believed?
When the King emerged from the back office and walked through their shop with his scaly tail waving and his crocodiley feet cracking they knew that something was amiss and they may even have guessed what was about to happen. But the speed of events overtook them.
The King walked up to the counter. The customer, an elderly lady – harmless, lonely and kind – turned, stared, pointed, swallowed, screamed and ran.
The King spoke to the older man. “You should not keep my people here. They are not your subjects. They are mine. What you are doing is wrong and it has to stop now.”
Fish Shop owners meet in pubs and darkened clubs and they talk chemicals and weeds and plastic liners and the merits of imitation coral and after all the young ones have gone and there is no one left but the old men, the Fish Shop owners of many years standing, and somebody has brought out the brandy, then, and only then, does the talk turn to fish and do they talk. They do not talk to their wives or these possibilities, they do not talk to their girlfriends, or their children or their parents but only to each other. Some say it is true, some say they have heard it said, some that it happened a long time ago, when the fish ruled the waves and people were yet to walk the world, some that it was an old wive’s tale, some that a time would come but not in their lifetimes, some laughed and scoffed, but some, some suspected, some knew, some waited, some watched, some hoped.
But these two, they were a new breed of Fish Shop owner. Tired of selling computer games and sports shoes and everything for a pound, they had found a job lot of tanks and a cheap source of fish and set up in business. The idea that fish could talk was as far from their minds as the idea that cats could count or dogs could drive. (Rachel had a cat that could count to 178 – more than Timmy- but that is another story. She didn’t know any dogs that could drive).
“Don’t be stupid,” said the owner. “This is my shop and my fish and no crazy creature with a crocodile tail and a fish head is going to change that.”
So saying, he threw a glass goldfish bowl at the King. The King ducked and the bowl sailed past his head and smashed into the large central tank. The two baby sharks and the eel and the dark octopus sloshed onto the floor and slithered and shook in the glassy wet mess.
The King turned away and went to the side wall and with one flipper swiped at the nearest tank and heaved it onto the floor where it smashed and joined the other one in bits.
The owner and his assistant raced around from behind the counter and tried to wrestle with the King. But the King was slippery and scaly and their hands couldn’t maintain any grip. As they grappled, the King’s tail swirled around and knocked the owner’s assistant behind the knees. He fell down and cut himself on a shard of glass.
Rachel slipped quietly out of the back room. She walked quickly up to the nearest tank, unhooked the pipe and ran with it to the pond in the back and thrust it into the water.
Immediately the water began to boil and froth and bubble and fish spewed from the end of the pipe. There were baby goldfish, mottled shubunkins, colourful Koi, red sarassas, lithe seahorses, sparkly tropical fish, all tumbling and flitting and filling the pond. Rachel saw Barney rising from the central fountain and Rita wriggling and showing the way and gradually the fish began to disappear from the bottom of the pond.
Rachel raced back into the shop. The owner’s assistant was leaning against a tank clutching his bleeding hand, while the owner himself was still writhing with the King on the floor of the shop.
Rachel grabbed at the owner’s shirt and tugged it.
“What are you doing to the King?” she cried. “Leave him alone, he’s only saving his fish. It’s his duty.”
The owner tried to push her away but she held on tight while the King slithered away and stood up and ran to the back and dived into the pond to join the others.
The owner stood up and looked around. One by one the tanks were emptying before his eyes. The water remained but where once there had been hundreds of sparkly fish there were now only bubbles and pieces of imitation coral and plastic shipwrecks. He walked out to the front of the shop and sat down on a statue and put his head in his hands. Then he took out a packet of cigarettes and put one in his mouth and lit it and inhaled deeply.
Rachel followed him out.
“You shouldn’t smoke, it’s bad for you,” she said, solemnly.
The man looked at her. He didn’t say anything, just continued to smoke his cigarette. When it was finished, he threw it into the road and then turned to her.
“Why?” he said. “Why did you do that? I wasn’t hurting those fish, it was just a job. You even bought fish here, I remember you coming in with your father. I gave him advice about the pump and told you what chemicals to use on your blanket weed.”
Rachel said, “The King asked me to help. There’s a whole fish world down below us and they live their own lives. They don’t bother us, they don’t keep people in tanks and feed them flakes. People keep ponds because they like to look at the fish. But they don’t really care about the fish. I do.”
“Leave me alone,” said the owner. “Maybe when you’re older, you’ll see things differently.”
“I hope not,” said Rachel.
She walked back into the shop. Timmy poked his head out of the sling.
“That was exciting,” he said. “Now what?”
Rachel said, “I have to find the King and Barney and the others and see that they’re alright.”
The shop was calm. The water in the tank had settled and was draining away from the floor. The owner’s assistant was sweeping up glass into a dustpan. Rachel took one of her Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids from her bag and gave it to him.
“I suppose I should say thank you,” he said.
“Go on then,” said Rachel.
Through the back the pond was plain and clear. It was set into the ground in the small back yard. Rachel tied her hair back, checked her bags and slipped into the water.
The pond was deep, far deeper than Rachel had expected. The water had seemed clear earlier but now as she sank through the depths it became darker and murkier and the light failed to penetrate. She finally reached the bottom and her hands scrabbled around for an opening. At first she could not feel anything but finally her fingers found a metal cover that she managed to move to one side. Down a long plume of water she fell, into a shallow pool and her bottom hit the bottom hard.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed.
Timmy had fallen out of his sling and he also hit the bottom hard.
“Ouch!” he said.
The plume of water continued to rain on their heads until they moved to one side and leaned against the edge, getting their breath back.
Rachel unwrapped one of her favourite yellow Starburst and popped it into her mouth. Timmy found the magnifying glass and began to examine the back of his hand. There were no fish in the pool. Rachel and Timmy were quite alone.
Not quite alone.
Pi emerged from nowhere. He swam in lazy circles, moving closer and closer to Rachel until he brushed against her legs. His skin was hard and scratchy. Rachel tried to shoo him away. He moved out of range.
“I suppose you think that you’re just the cleverest girl in the whole world,” he said mockingly. “I suppose that you think that we’ll all fall over ourselves to thank you,” he went on. “If we could fall. Which we can’t. Freeing a bunch of stupid fish that didn’t know when they were well off and sending them back down here and causing all that damage to the shop and putting people out of business that you didn’t even know. I bet you think you’re so smart.”
“What do you mean?” asked Rachel. “I helped the King and all the rest of you. Why are you being horrible to me?”
Pi was angry. “Because I can. You didn’t help me, your stupid actions didn’t help me. I was going to be King, the King was going to hand everything over to me, but oh no, not now, now he’s the big saviour, now all those stupid fish want him to stay as King forever and I won’t get it. It should have been me, you interfering busybody, it should have been me. You stupid little girl.”
Rachel started to cry and Timmy cried too as he always did when she was upset. He kicked out at Pi who swiftly darted away.
“You’ll get yours,” Pi called as he swam off. “Just you wait.”
Rachel comforted Timmy. “It’s all right,” she said. “He’s only a fish, he can’t hurt us. How can he harm us?”
“Don’t count our chickens,” said Timmy. “We’ve still got to get home, don’t forget. Do you know where we are?”
Rachel said, “I think we must be near Sophie’s house. Come on, let’s get moving.”
She lifted Timmy and put him under her arm and climbed out of the water and stood dripping on the bank.
Rachel’s friend Sophie lived in a house with a swimming pool in the back garden. Rachel wasn’t sure where they were exactly but she knew where the Fish Shop was and she knew where Sophie’s house was and they weren’t far apart. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find where Sophie lived and she knew the way home from there.
She started walking.
When she had first found herself in the Kingdom of the Fishes, it had been warm and although dripping wet from all the water she had not felt cold. Now however it was different. The air was chill and a strong breeze blew through her thin clothes. She shivered.
There were no trees in this part of the Kingdom. Instead, the ground was grey and hard and her jellies crunched as she walked. There were walls on either side of them. There didn’t appear to be any vegetation, just this grey hard ground and the walls on both sides. The stream continued to flow beside her as she walked and she followed the flow. However, there were no fish in the stream and she wondered what had happened to all of them – they seemed to have disappeared very quickly and also there was no sign of Pi.
She pulled her damp shawl around her shoulders and for the first time since her adventure had begun she felt worried and alone.
She seemed to have been walking for some time. Timmy was quiet and she thought he was asleep.
“Where are we?” he said suddenly.
“I don’t know,” Rachel replied. “I thought we might be near Sophie’s house but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of it.”
“I’m frightened,” said Timmy.
The path meandered through a narrow gorge and the walls seemed to close in above their heads. In order to squeeze through the gap, Rachel had to wade in the stream. Through the gorge, it was clear and looking up she saw the outline of a swimming pool. It was rectangular and the base was made of glass bricks. A shape was visible moving swiftly and easily through the water above her head.
“We’ve made it!” she said to Timmy. “We’ve found Sophie’s house!”
“Thank goodness,” said Timmy.
A voice sounded as if it came from the rocks themselves.
“Not so fast. You and I have some things to discuss, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Who’s there?” said Rachel, nervously.
There was a laugh.
“They call me the Queen of the King of the Fishes. Welcome.”
The stream widened into another pool. So many pools thought Rachel. So many pools everywhere, and Sophie’s made five.
This pool had a thick covering of green slime, unbroken and smooth like vichyssoise. There was nothing to be seen.
As Rachel and Timmy watched, the slime parted and a creature appeared. In size it was taller than Rachel, in colour pink like Timmy’s moulded body, its upper half that of an octopus with flailing arms, a head with big black eyes, no nose and a furious gulping gaping mouth. The lower half remained in the water but it was clearly standing on the bottom.
Rachel backed away until she was against the side stone wall.
The creature’s head swivelled around and its black eyes rested on Rachel, cowering against the wall. Three long black tentacles snaked out and pawed at Timmy.
Timmy writhed and wriggled and slipped out and down to the ground and escaped the greasy clutches.
“Clever doll,” hissed the Queen. “Where did you get him?”
“He was a present,” said Rachel. “For Christmas, from my Mummy and Daddy. What do you want from me?”
The Queen laughed.
“Pi told me about you. So, you had to help the King, did you? You couldn’t leave well alone, could you?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because you shouldn’t interfere in things that don’t concern you. We have our lives down here and you have your lives up there. There are some things that it is better not to know. I can understand why your father doesn’t want to believe that fish can talk. It raises lots of awkward questions. Questions he doesn’t have time to ask never mind answer. That’s the thing about children. You ask questions and you have time to hear the answers. But parents don’t. Pi never listened to his father either.”
“I thought that the King was his father,” said Rachel.
“Not was, is. And I am his mother.”
Rachel said, “So you were in on the plot too, to give the kingdom to Pi.”
“I wasn’t in on it, as you put it. It was my plot. Still is, I suppose. If there’s anything left.”
“Serves you right,” said Rachel. “Goodbye.”
“Wait,” said the Queen. “You may think you’ve won, but you haven’t, not really. I’ll have my revenge. There are Fish Shops all over the place. You’ll never get to them before I do. Maybe you can talk to fish and maybe they can talk to you and maybe I can’t do anything about that. But I can do one thing. No -one will ever believe you, no-one will ever know that you were here and everyone that you tell will just laugh and tell you not to be silly.”
The Queen sank beneath the slime, which closed over her head. There was no sign that it had ever been disturbed.
Timmy ran to Rachel and jumped into her arms.
Rachel began to climb the wall. There were holds and ledges in the rock to grip and although her jellies slipped on the slippery surface and she grazed her knuckles she made it eventually. At the top of the rocks was a small, low wooden door. It was unlocked. Rachel opened the door and stepped inside.
In the garden of Sophie’s house a small wooden changing room had been built adjoining the garage. Inside were slatted wooden benches and a cupboard to put clothes. In one corner was a door leading to the shed where the chemicals and other equipment were kept for the pool.
Rachel emerged from the shed just as Sophie was coming in to get changed for her afternoon dip.
“Hello Rachel,” said Sophie. “Did you want to come for a swim?”
“Yes please,” said Rachel. “Sophie…”
Sophie turned to her. “Yes?”
Rachel said, “We’ve got some talking fish in our pond.”
Sophie was a sensible girl. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Fish can’t talk.” She went back outside and Rachel followed.
It was warm and sunny in the garden and Rachel went and played in the Wendy House until she felt tired. Then she said goodbye to Sophie and went home.
She walked through the side gate and into the garden. The paddling pool was still there and the pond. She looked in the pond. The fish were still there but she couldn’t see Barney or Rita or Pi.
She could see her father still sitting in his chair with his paper. She went inside.
“Daddy…” she began.
“What is it Rachel?” asked her father.
“Um. Nothing. I love you Daddy.”
“Love you too.”