Like much in the new economy, Tranquility Fish Supplies endured yet didn’t prosper. Quickly more of an incident than a business, it was one of those smalltown events that has its day. The little square soon went back to sleep. Footfall was the problem, although in the dark evenings the shop still had its visitors. That couldn’t be denied. You would catch sight of these people from behind, silhouetted against the window they were staring into; and your lasting impression would be of shoulders that, when they weren’t hunched against the early winter weather, were long and steeply sloping. A bell rang as they went in.
Wee Oss was now seen behind the counter more often than Tommy or Brenda. His Toyota reappeared in the car park, in its customary position tight up against the yellow gritting bin, at a bit of an angle. The mud had been jetwashed away, the deflated tyre replaced; to balance that, someone had bashed in the rear window, as if whatever had happened in the quarry needed to be understood as part of an ongoing process. The old man closed up late, and always had some difficulty with the door. That was how Victoria came upon him, ten o’clock one evening early in the month, bent double but trying to keep off his knees as he struggled with the lock.
“Have those two gone already?” she said. “I thought they fitted in so well.”
He had to smile at that, Wee Oss said. “They’re up at Kinver, Tom and Brenda, on business of their own: we shan’t be seeing them again. Not so soon at any rate. Not so soon.”
For a moment, they both gazed into the shop. The fishtanks glimmered or shone. At this point along the flattening commercial arc of the business, they contained more tank decor, that curious built environment in which everything is sunken or drowned, than fish. There were drowned cottages, drowned bridges, drowned castles, drowned temple columns and oriental towers. Sunken villes of mixed structure dispersed themselves on beds of gravel that contoured away into the calm green mirrored infinity of each tank. There was an aesthetic of glow-effect pebbles, toadstools in vibrant purples and greens; a lightweight conspiracy architecture of “ancient stone heads”, sunken submarines and sarcophagi.
Down there, where scale meant nothing and even water could be depicted as drowned, postmodern treasure chests dwarfed the houses, overflowing with vast coins and strings of pearls. Everything was vividly simulated, luminous, tropically coloured, encrusted with plastic algae to signal slow, deep, marine change: it was as if the tanks had transformed themselves into dioramic representations of the famous but now lost coral reefs of the world, designed by animation artists who had never seen one. Victoria pointed. “That waterfall?” she said. “It’s made of plastic. Doesn’t that give you such an uncomfortable feeling? Water shown flowing under water?”
She felt herself shiver.
“It does me,” she said, “it gives me an uncomfortable feeling.”
The old man bent down without a word and began fiddling with the lock again. His eyes were sore. His nose was running. She clutched at the shoulder of his Castrol jacket and tried to pull him to his feet, the way you pull a toddler upright in a mall. She was determined to capture his attention.
“Where have you been?” she said.