Down in Cornwall for the last few days of my annual leave, I planned to try and connect with the underwater world in my novel, Deep Water. I told myself I needed inspiration to help me finish the latest round of edits back from the publisher. I even took my mask and snorkel with me. I was feeling really optimistic.
Of course things didn’t go exactly to plan. October, England and I’d forgotten to take the wetsuit. It started blowing a gale and coastguards issued severe weather warnings to shipping. I figured the weather warning probably extended to include snorkelers, and I was unlikely to get a chance to go in the water without drowning or getting hypothermia. All of which should have been good for the editing process. In theory I could just stay in the cottage and work.
No chance. Obviously I risked the gale force winds and caught the ferry across the harbour to Fowey to browse in the bookshop instead. They sell a lot of Daphne Du Maurier books there – mainly because you can see her old house from the quayside – but they have other books too, and I love a good bookshop. It provided the perfect opportunity to avoid any edits for a few hours.
Heading back to the ferry clutching my latest book purchases in a fab new #booksaremybag limited edition Tracey Emin bookbag, I noticed the aquarium was open. Surprising, as the tourist season was definitely blowing to an end. Fowey aquarium is the old fashioned kind, housing only local fish and sea life, mostly provided by local fishermen. In fact exactly the kind of sea life I’d have seen if I’d have been able to go out snorkelling. (Okay, that’s a lie. The kind my protagonist would see, as unlike me, she isn’t terrified of encountering anything bigger than a goldfish.)
I’d visited the aquarium the year before, and particularly remembered the massive conger eel who came out of her submerged drainpipe especially to stare at me when no one was looking. There was an intelligent look in her eyes. Actually I think we really connected and it was a truly magical moment. Of course if I’d met her in the sea, the only magical thing would have been the speed at which I’d have got out of the water. But in this encounter, she was in her tank and I wasn’t. She was lovely, in a conger eel kind of way.
Anyway, since the aquarium was open, I thought I’d revisit the place, do some sea life research and reconnect with the eel. It felt like destiny. There’s a conger eel in Deep Water, and a mythic eel features in my current WiP too.
I paid my £3 entrance fee and found I was the only person in the aquarium. I asked the proprietor if he still had the conger eel.
‘Oh no, I put her back, just a month ago,’ he said.
So much for destiny. I tried not to show my disappointment. ‘A month ago? Back where?’
‘The sea. She wanted to go back. I couldn’t keep her any longer.’
‘She was amazing,’ I said.
He agreed. ‘She was funny too.’
An eel with a sense of humour? Awesome. I thought she looked clever.
I sighed. ‘So where did you let her go?’
‘Just over there.’ He waved in the direction of the harbour wall. ‘I knew she had to go. I took her when it was dark and she was quieter than I expected. Didn’t even struggle. Weighed a ton mind. She’d put on a lot of weight.’
As he told me the story, I couldn’t help noticing his eyes were the translucent grey colour of aquarium water. Or maybe it was just the reflection from the massive fish tanks surrounding us. I tried not to stare.
‘I was sorry to lose the company, really,’ he said, shadows flitting across his eyes. For a second I wondered if he was upset – then realised the shadows were just reflections of the pollocks swimming past in the tank behind me.
Our chat about the conger eel seemed to have created an unspoken understanding between us. I guess not many customers are that eel friendly. Anyway, as I moved from tank to tank looking at the inhabitants, he followed me round, trying not to be intrusive but desperate to share his love for his fish.
He pointed out a baby ray, born a month previously. Only a couple of centimetres long and buried in the sand, there was no way I’d have seen it if he hadn’t told me where it was. He proudly showed me a mermaid’s purse, the very eggcase the ray had hatched from. It was in his pocket. I couldn’t help wondering if it had been in there for the whole month.
He showed me baby spider crabs, already camouflaged so well with seaweed I wouldn’t have noticed them hiding in amongst the anemones. Starfish so tiny they’d fit on a baby’s fingernail. I could tell this man spent a lot of time with his fish. He darted back and forth like a guppy in a rock pool, telling me stories of sea cucumbers growing from plankton and sharing his excitement about his cuttlefish. I felt obliged to admire them for several minutes as they rested on the bottom, trying to blend with the gravel. Gravel with beautiful eyes.
In fact most of the aquarium dwellers had remarkable eyes, even those with eyes on stalks like Bluey the lobster. There’s no way I can eat a lobster now I’ve met Bluey.
I reached a point when I realised I couldn’t avoid the book edits any longer. I said goodbye and left the peaceful, bubbling world of the aquarium to catch the ferry back to Polruan. As the ferry set off, I looked down in the depths of Fowey harbour, thinking about the conger eel. I wondered if she was down there still, or had long since swum out to find herself some sunken wreck deep in the ocean. If so, I hope she’s happy there. The aquarium man obviously misses her.
Maybe she misses him too. There probably aren’t so many opportunities to be funny at the bottom of the sea.