the fish man cometh

‘Oh. I thought you were the fish man.’
‘The fish man?’
‘Come to clean the tank.’
‘No. I’m from the hospital. Come to see how you are.’
Vera backs up, and lets me in to the narrow hallway. There are two doors to the left, and behind her, a steep set of stairs leading up to the maisonette. The chair to Vera’s stair-lift is waiting for her where she left it.
‘Sorry it took so long to answer the door,’ she says, carefully climbing back onto it. ‘That’s why I put that notice on the door. Right! Here we go!’
And ignoring the seat belt, she flicks the switch and begins the slow journey up.
‘I think you’ve got that about right,’ I say, following on behind, ‘…getting someone in to clean the tank. It’s such a chore. I remember when the girls were small and they insisted we got some fish. Guess who ended up soaked to his elbows in dirty water every weekend.’
‘I know. It is a bit of a job. John used to do it when he was alive, but I don’t have the knack. Or the patience, to be honest.’
‘Hamsters, too. I don’t see the point of hamsters. They only come out at night.’
‘But they’ve got such funny little faces, haven’t they?’
She peers down at me, pursing her lips and raising her eyebrows.
‘Well. Yes. That’s true.’
At the top of the stairs she raises the handle and steps onto the landing.
‘This way,’ she says.
I follow her into the sitting room, one whole side of which is entirely given over to an enormous aquarium, rounded at one end like the prow of a ship, the base meticulously crafted in burr walnut, the tank itself a faithful recreation of a coral reef, with gently undulating plants, and a circulating crowd of exotic fins.
‘Wow! When you said tank I thought you meant a goldfish or two.’
‘It was John’s thing, really. But I like to see them lit up at night, swimming about. I find it quite comforting. D’you see?’
The doorbell rings downstairs.
‘That’ll be him,’ she says. ‘That’ll be the fish man. Would you mind popping down and showing him in? Only I’m worried by the time I make it down again he’ll have thrown his buckets in the van and gone home.’

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