Wednesday, February 05, 2014

White line

Today after making like wicked little old ladies at a National Trust teashop, Pluvialis, Madame O and I washed up at a garden centre just outside Cambridge. Not the huge one with the sprawling cafĂ© but the smaller one in the other direction with the farm shop in it. They have all sorts of gardenscaping things and after the bit with all the pre-formed ponds and replicas of Manneken Pis in it, there is an implausibly excellent aquarium section, humming with filtration and massed piscine mentality.  

In the centre there is a showpiece aquarium, a huge glossy block of made-up ocean like a bit of sea punched out with one of those things that makes sushi rice into neat pucks.  

Grass and plants and bogwood and big fish and small, ones that lay carefully along the lengths of a blade of grass, tiny gangs of eye-lit tetra, sucker-faced plecostomus gloop-gloop-glooping the gravel, water so clear and glass so pristine by some fishkeeping wizardry that you could watch the diffraction index warp as you came around the corner. 

It was magical. Capability Brown space-monkeys fantasy-transporting imagined real made actually real, a diorama of not-real reality made to look how reality doesn't really look. Or as O put it, her nose a whisker from the glass, this is like being on very good drugs. 

There was a collection of discus inside, big ones the size of my open hand, small ones like a paper sachet of pepper and ones in between. Blue and ivory and yellow and orange and parchmenty, flanks squiggled like sulci, handful of brain ironed flat with a teeny tiny pair of kissy-kissy lips and a thoughtful, entirely unfishy eye.  

Pluvialis and O and I clustered together at the end of the tank, ensorcelled. 

They all shoaled over to see.

The discus. They came over to us. I pressed my fleece glove fingertips against the glass, and they came to look at me, turning like pages, the barest sketch of three dimensions. The biggest one claimed the spot just below eye level, right up to the glass, strange nothing-edge between the kinds of things our lungs liked. It stood by my glove, whispering its fins.

Before I came to England and birds happened to me, it never occurred to me that a wild bird might look at you. Not just see you and fly away, like all the wild things that lived on the other side of the white line painted down the middle of the world---but look

In 2007, I think, Pluvialis and I went to watch the migrating swans come in to the washes at Welney, where greater water-parsnips grow, as if you needed another reason. At dusk the swans coast in thousands at a time, calling to one another like truckers finding out who's on the CB. Breaker breaker, this is Bewick the Buick, 10-2 on this very fine night, come on back. 

On the way to the boardwalk over a waterway to the hide, a barn owl cast up to our left, vast and silent impossible paper and feathers, scooping soft wetland sounds with its dish-face. We turned our pale people-faces to the air and as it came overhead it turned to look, tilting its owl eyes curiously at us while the rest of it went on coasting away into the darkness, entirely undisturbed.

A deafening, warping, dopplering second-and-a-half as it looks, dragging me astonished in damp waxed cotton over the white line into the place where the owl and I are in the world together. 

It looked at us, I finally manage to say. Pluvialis smiles, because she knows. Yes, she says. It wanted to see us. 

The discus propelled slowly toward the corner of the tank, past my glove. I turn my head to follow it and inside its extraordinary, crinkly-crumply bright-orange old-man socket, the discus turns its startling person-eye and regards me. It flips itself nimbly and pins me with the eye on the other side. It whispers its fins and comes back to the glove.

Hello, discus. I didn't know we were on the same side.      

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