I had a magic fish when I was seven. I won him at a fairground. I heard Mum muttering about how they always went belly-up the minute you got them home and Dad saying that’d be a mercy, and it would only be for a few days. I assumed belly-up was some sort of swimming trick, like belly flops for humans.
At home Mum found a big glass vase and I put my fish in it, along with some pebbles and a Lego castle. I called him Wish Fish because the man at the hoopla-stall had said he granted wishes. The fish-flakes Dad bought smelled grim but they were pretty colours, like confetti.
On the first night I watched him for ages waiting for magic, but he just swam around mouthing madly like fish do. But as I turned away in disappointment, a waggling fin beckoned and I laid my ear against the cool surface of the vase.
“All right?” said Wish Fish. His voice was deep and rumbly through the glass, with a London accent. I remember the stall-man said the fish came from Crystal Palace. I thought of a glass mansion full of flickering fins. “You decided on your wishes yet?” he asked, in a bored sort of way.
My eyes bugged. “So it’s true?”
“Course it is,” said the fish. If it had been possible to smoke a tiny cigarette underwater, this was the point at which he would’ve taken a drag. “Would a mysterious hoopla-stall proprietor lie?”
“Wow,” I said, lost in wonder. Obviously aged seven you’ve never really doubted that magic is real, but it’s nice to have concrete proof.
“Well?” said the fish, “I ain’t got all day.”
I thought hard. I wanted to test Wish Fish by wishing for something so far beyond the realms of normal possibility that it would definitely count as a miracle.
“Can we have ice-cream for dinner tomorrow?” I asked, then quickly added (because I knew wishes could be slippery) “I mean nothing but ice-cream. Actually, no, McDonald’s and ice cream!”
My Mum controlled ice-cream very strictly and thought McDonald’s was evil. If the fish could pull this off he was definitely magic.
“Yeah, go on then,” said the fish. “I’ll sort it for tomorrow. Laters.”
The next day Mum was kept late at work. My dad put a lasagna in but he forgot to take the plastic off and the fumes meant we had to leave the house for a bit. The smoke got in my eyes so he bought me an ice-cream. And we were both really hungry by then so he took us to McDonald’s and made me swear not to tell Mum. At McDonald’s we had chips and burgers and chicken nuggets and a milkshake (which has ice-cream in it), and a Smarties ice-cream for pudding.
When I got home I turned on the light and tapped the glass. I felt sick with excitement, or maybe it was the three kinds of ice-cream. Wish Fish swam over and looked at me expectantly: I noticed he was missing a big scale on his front.
“Can I have my second wish now?” I asked.
He did a fish-shrug in the water.
It was my eighth birthday next week and I’d asked for a Nintendo DS, but I didn’t trust my Mum to get one for me cos she was always on about how bad videogames were. I could’ve just wished for the DS, but I was cunning.
“I want you to change my Mum’s mind about videogames so that she gets me a DS and games for my birthday.”
If the fish had had teeth to suck, he would have sucked them. “Ain’t gonna be easy,” he said eventually, “but OK.” He twirled in the water and a scale floated free and drifted to the bottom of the vase, glinting.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Oh,” he said, “every time you wish I lose a scale. Goldfish only have a ten-second memory, innit? Means I know how many wishes I’ve granted, so you don’t get extra.”
“How many do I have?” I asked.
“Who are you?” he said.
“How many wishes do I have?” I asked again. He looked down at his two missing scales.
“You got one left.”
I nearly died of anticipation every day that week. When my birthday came I ripped off the wrapping of my main present to find a DS, and my Mum was beaming too. Then she dropped the bombshell. Everyone knows you’ve got to be careful when you wish, and I hadn’t been careful enough.
“I got you some games too,” she said eagerly. “They have educational ones now!”
I immediately took my grievance to Wish Fish. I’d have to spend my last wish wishing for more games and it wasn’t fair.
“Not fair?” he said, “not bleeding fair? I’ll tell you what’s not fair, after I grant your last wish and lose my third scale I die, mate! That’s not fair!”
My lip wobbled. I’d grown quite fond of Wish Fish.
“Why do you think fairground fish always go belly-up after a few weeks? Greedy little children use all their wishes and the fish die!”
So that’s what going belly-up meant. It didn’t sound so fun now.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“What can you do about what?” I’d clearly reached the ten-second limit.
Eventually we worked out a plan where I’d use my last wish to make Wish Fish live forever. Then I’d flush him down the loo and he’d go and tell the King of the Goldfish that I’d done him a favour and the King would grant me infinite wishes and therefore infinite DS games.
“Everybody wins,” said Wish Fish, as I held the vase over the toilet-bowl.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I never saw Wish Fish again, and the King of the Goldfish didn’t grant me infinite wishes or DS games. I had to play Professor Layton and the Curious Village all that long, hot summer, and every time I did I cursed the soul of that cheating carp.
But you don’t realise about pets when you’re eight, do you? Even if you’re repeatedly told that they can’t eat chocolate, don’t like wearing hats and all the rest of it, kids rarely remember or respect the limitations of animals, even magical ones. So it was only when I was ten, and Wish Fish had been swimming happily about in the sewers or in the King of the Goldfish’s Crystal Palace for a full two years, the penny finally dropped. It was my fault.
You see, I’d wished for Wish Fish to live forever, but I hadn’t wished for him never to forget. And with a ten-second recall, how would he remember to tell the King of the Goldfish to give me my infinite wishes? Wishes are slippery things, and you’ve got to make them watertight.
I know Wish Fish is out there somewhere, chased forever by the nagging feeling that there’s something he’s forgotten. That’s all right though. I forgive him, and I don’t mind, really. Cos I’ve got an Xbox now.