The river bounced moonlight like a babe upon its knee. We shivered on the bank, waiting for the prayers to end so we could go home. Grace's mother rolled her eyes as her daughter failed to add “Amen” to the end of what we had all hoped would be her last sentence.
It had started with a dead fish. Not even a remarkable one, just a common goldfish with no sense of caution. Someone (and nobody in the Fletcher household had yet had the decency to proclaim themselves the evil doer) had overfed it. It was found on a Tuesday morning, head and tail and spine only, floating atop the tank.
Harry was devastated that he hadn't witnessed its explosion. If only he had kept his disappointment to himself we might not be here now. Grace, who had called the thing Bertie and declared it her baby, was as upset by her twin's callous comments as the untimely demise of her beloved pet. She declared that Harry had better be careful, talking ill of the dead like that. Such disrespect could lead to all sorts of curses being visited upon him. How could Bertie rest in peace when such spiteful things were being said about him?
“Oooooh, Ghost Fish! I'm shaking! What's he gonna do? Waggle a skeleton fin at me?”
“Who knows what he can do now that he's not trapped in a tank anymore?” Grace said.
The hapless fish was scooped from his watery grave, wrapped in a sandwich bag and buried under the rhododendrons. That was the end of the life and times of Bertie, or so everyone thought.
There really was no disputing the run of bad luck that subsequently befell the Fletchers. Even Grace did not instantly join the dots; seeing at first no correlation between a leaking exhaust or even a blown fuse box and her dearly departed scaly friend. But she began to come to a realisation after Harry twisted his ankle and had to swap being star striker of the school's football team for sitting on the bench, grimacing with the agony.
“Serves you right! I told you you'd regret being mean about Bertie!”
“Don't be such an idiot! You and your stupid fish can go to Hell together.”
That little outburst landed him in bed without any sponge pudding and custard, another misfortune Grace attributed to the vengeful fish.
“I'm telling you,” she declared to her parents, “he's doing the limbo!”
“I – what?” Mrs Fletcher nearly choked on her dessert
“He's doing the limbo! He's stuck, unfinished business. He can't get to fish heaven because he wasn't treated with respect.”
She went on to explain, with absolute authority, that pets can only go to heaven if their owners have given them a decent funeral. Prayers need to be said for them, otherwise how does God know which ones were good pets and which were bad?
“Honey.” Her father put down his newspaper. “Surely God would have been watching Bertie? He knows he was a good fish. There's no need for silly worries.”
Grace was indignant. “You think God has time to watch every little goldfish in the whole world, and I'm the silly one?”
They decided to let it go, believing her obsession would pass, as well it might have if an insidious leak from the bathroom pipes hadn't caused the ceiling below to give way when everyone was out. Coming in to the devastation, Grace proclaimed it absolute proof of a watery haunting, and even Harry was beginning to look a little unnerved.
Perhaps it was all mere suggestion, I wouldn't like to comment, but the whole household found themselves wrestling with aquatic nightmares. Mrs Fletcher found her nights disturbed by visions of demonic mermaids wielding fiery tridents. Her husband was wrenched from sleep by thoughts of giant squids wrapping their tentacles around his throat and squeezing the breath from his body. Harry woke in a cold sweat screaming for his Mummy after dreams of being pursued through murky oceans by hungry piranhas.
It had to stop. The jury was out as to whether Bertie was malevolently weaving nautical nightmares, or if they were simply a result of Grace's incessant talk of his tormented soul. Either way, something had to be done.
“OK Grace.” her mother sighed. “What do you think we should do? What would help Bertie to rest in peace?”
And so here we all are. Grace decided that the insult had been so heinous that huge effort must be made to redress the balance. A proper funeral. His body must be exhumed from its substandard resting place amid the flowerbeds. He would like to swim free in the river. The entire family must attend, hymns must be sung, a priest must preside.
That's where I come in. No, not a priest. The Fletchers could not find one willing to undertake the task, but I was happy to don the outfit I bought once upon a time for a costume party and play the part. To be honest, when Mr Fletcher told me the whole sorry tale at work I volunteered. A fishy funeral - it sounded too good a future anecdote to miss. But, Good Lord, I hadn't expected it to go on this long.
Grace finally finishes her eulogy, unwrapping Bertie's remains from the sandwich bag and committing his bones to the river.
As we begin a half-hearted rendition of Nearer My God to Thee, I hear Mrs Fletcher whisper to her husband, "Y'know, all things considered, I think maybe we should have got her a puppy after all.”
Gary Priest writes poetry and short fiction, both of which have been published online and in print. He lives at the end of a dead-end road, which may explain everything. https://garypriestwriter.wordpress.com/