My Californian dad had a real love-hate relationship with America. He didn’t want to live there and left aged 29, but wanted to retain citizenship; he never took me over there, but arranged for me to have citizenship too; he was estranged from his abusive father, but had stayed in touch with pretty much everyone else he knew in America, such as the rest of his relatives and his school and college friends.
Anyhow, all you need to know for this story is that my dad had an aunt he particularly liked, Auntie Ann, and that in 1989 she came over to the UK with a female friend to stay with us for a month.
Both women were very elderly (probably in their late 70s/early 80s). Auntie Ann had a perm and was fat, and her friend Miriam had a perm and was thin. As you can see in the photo above, I had a perm and was chubby. (Joke! That was my natural hair.)
Auntie and her friend were very nice, and one day in late May they took eight-year-old me and my five-year-old little brother to Pinner Fair.
Pinner Fair was (and still is, I assume) a gigantic funfair that wove all the way through Pinner Village on the Wednesday of summer half-term. It was amazing and huge and boasted everything you can imagine: a carousel with beautiful painted horses; a ghost train; a hall of mirrors; bumper cars; a ‘fun house’ and ‘mad house’; loads of food stands (hot dogs, toffee apples and candy floss) that we were never allowed to buy anything at because my mum was a health freak; and numerous insane rides you’d need a death wish to go on.
It also had lots of exciting stalls where you could win a massive cuddly toy, and one where you could win goldfish in bags for sticking darts in three playing cards.
Now, it turned out that Auntie Ann was a dark horse: she was a bit of a sharpshooter when it came to darts.
‘Please, Auntie Ann, win us a goldfish!’ my brother and I begged.
Auntie Ann’s jaw set in steely determination. Her wrinkled, liver-spotted hand shook as she took aim and fired a dart into the first card on the stall floor. Pow! Second dart: Pow! Third dart: Ka-pow! That’s how you do it.
The man running the stall reached up and fetched us a bulging plastic bag of water with a great big fat goldfish in. We were thrilled, as we’d never had a pet before.
But being kids and always wanting more, we weren’t satisfied with just one goldfish. We now wanted one each.
Auntie Ann sighed and gave the man another quid. Pow! Pow! Ka-pow! She could have been a secret sniper, for all we knew. The man lifted down another goldfish, but this one was thinner and looked scrawny and malnourished.
And so we ended up with two very different-looking goldfish. My dad told us that, as Auntie Ann had been kind enough to win them for us, we should name them after her and her friend. So we obediently called the fat one Ann and the thin one Miriam.
My brother claimed ownership of the fat one, and he always got his way as he was my mum’s favourite child. So I was left with the scrawny one. ‘I didn’t want the stupid fat one anyway!’ I protested.
[These were not our goldfish. I didn’t own a camera aged eight.]
Now, the initial appeal of the goldfish wore off very quickly. They couldn’t do tricks and you couldn’t pet them. All they did was swim around their bowl with their mouths gaping (they shared a bowl, presumably in case they got lonely, or possibly for economic reasons).
So my brother and I would go into the bathroom once a day, where the fish lived on a tall wooden stand by the window, and chuck in a handful of fish food. And that was the extent of our involvement with our new pets.
We didn’t notice that Ann, the fat fish, was eating all of the scrawny fish Miriam’s food. We didn’t pay any attention to them at all.
And so I entered the bathroom one day, preparing to throw in the usual handful of fish food, and found my fish Miriam floating on top of the water.
I was shocked and upset, and wanted to tell someone. But who? My great-aunt and her friend were still staying with us, but they were in the bedroom having an afternoon nap. My dad was out of the house with my brother. I searched for my mum: she was out in the garden talking to the gardener. I barrelled down the stairs and out into the garden.
‘MUM, MUUUUM!’ I shrieked, ‘MIRIAM’S DEAD!!!!!’
I had never seen my mum move so fast in my life. She looked appalled, as though she’d seen a ghost, and sprinted into the house. I was quite gratified that she was taking my concern seriously, as she had never seemed to like the goldfish at all.
When she discovered that I was talking about the dead fish Miriam and not our elderly-yet-very-much-alive house guest Miriam, she screamed at me, which I thought was very unfair. ‘It’s not my fault we were told to name the fish after her!’ I sulked.
The next pair of pets we got were two gay rabbits. We were forbidden from naming them after anyone we knew.
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