The fish swims around and around in its bowl, never changing pace, never changing direction. Around and around. If I didn’t know better I’d think it was on a track or was some sort of wind-up toy. The small weeds in the bowl tremble rhythmically in the water, the constant movement of the fish making them seem alive too. At the very bottom of the tank, nestled amongst the tiny grey pebbles is a single plastic castle. It has turrets and hard flags permanently frozen mid-flutter. The goldfish has seen it every day for its entire life in that bowl and never approached it. It just swims above it in that single, tired circle.
Outside I hear the rattle and thump of my bus hitting the pothole outside my house.
“Shit,” I say, snatching up my handbag and racing out the door, all thoughts of the goldfish gone. I sprint down the street even though I know I won’t make the bus. Ahead I can see it trundling away, growing smaller before disappearing entirely as it turns the corner. My breath catches in my throat and I cough a few hacking, spluttering coughs. I have to stop running and bend over, getting the air to flow properly. Inhaling through my nose, I walk on with my bag thumping against my hip and the sun bearing down on me.
I make the next bus and while I sit in the suspiciously stained seat work out the mental arithmetic to get myself to work on time with such a poor beginning. No matter how hard I try and make the numbers fit, pull and squeeze them, I can’t change the passage of time. I relent to the fact I’m now running late unless the bus miraculously becomes a jet or my building catches on fire in the next half hour. The time is my own again and my thoughts turn back to the goldfish. I wonder if it knows how to change directions. What would happen if I spun the bowl around as it was swimming so it was always in one place? I don’t quite understand why a goldfish in a bowl fascinates me so but I spend the rest of the bus trip thinking about it.
I don’t bother to run to work. Late is late, no matter how many minutes tick by. I watch the people around me and wonder where they all go. What do they do all day? Do some of them simply pretend to have jobs, hop on the bus to get into the city by nine and get back on at five come the afternoon? How would you fill all those hours in between? Someone bumps into me as they rush to wherever the hell they think they’re supposed to be and I don’t care they never bother to apologise. What will it really do? It won’t make the ache in my shoulder go away any faster and it certainly won’t stop the whole incident from ever occurring in the past.
The double doors slide open with a faint whoosh as I finally make it into the office. Ahead of me I have two choices: the stairs or the lift. I’m not conscious of the decision I make, following the architectural path and pressing my index finger to the raised button of the lift. The seconds slip by and another set of doors open themselves for me. At the back of the lift is a full-length mirror. With no one else sharing the little space with me, I study my reflection. My eye is drawn to the black pants I wear to work everyday, along with countless other women. Of course, they probably own much nicer ones than me. Mine have loose threads trailing from the waist and they’re slightly too long, the material bunching around my feet. I look like a kid playing at dress ups. In a pathetic attempt at vanity, I hoist them up further around my waist, creating a camel toe. I let them slide back down. The sigh of the material falling mimics the one coming out of my own mouth.
The lift dings and some woman who I don’t think ever existed tells me I’ve reached my desired level. Once when I was bored, had some time to fill before work actually started and not wanting to go in early, I’d gone to every level in the building. Beyond the paintings and signs, every level looks exactly the same. Frosted glass, cubicles and people dressed exactly like me. I suppose that’s why they make sure the lady announces each level.
My cubicle is in the far corner. The walls of my fellow workmates’ quarters block any light that manages to get through the grimy windows. All day I have to have a lamp burning. It makes me sweat, especially since the air conditioning can’t quite cope with the large open-plan office. I haven’t got much of a choice though. I can either sweat my figurative balls off or strain my eyes so much I’ll end up looking like a seventy-year-old woman before my thirtieth birthday.
I can’t quite face my cubicle just yet. Again, late is late, and I head to the tearoom. The fridge door is bare of any adornments beyond a tattered, slightly crumpled note reminding us all to not leave cups in the sink. I wonder what people would do if I drew something and stuck it on the door.
Finally, I can’t put it off anymore and I have to go to my workspace. My chair is the oldest in the place, I’m sure. I can’t adjust either the back or height of the seat. Wearily, I know I’ll never do anything about it. It clunks worryingly as I sit down but nothing happens. I boot up my computer, the warm-up music far too cheery for the drudgery we’re both about to face for the day.
A friend once asked me to describe exactly what it is I do all day and I ended up confusing us both. I sit at a desk for six hours – a short break for lunch – type up numbers, names and acronyms that come across my desk or pop up in my email, and I answer phone calls only to put them on to someone else and stare into space. At the interview four years ago they said I’d be an integral cog in the business, without my position the place would fall into ruin in a matter of moments, but it’s total bullshit. But if they want to pay me for fuck-all I won’t stop them. At least the biscuits in the cupboard are top quality.
I do the bare minimum. My mind switches to auto-pilot and only comes back to a vaguely higher level of thought when I look to the clock and see it’s past three. It’s the only time I move through the office with any purpose. My bag’s on my shoulder and the door swings shut behind me. I flick randomly though my phone as I slouch by the bus stop. Nothing holds my attention but I still move my fingers over the screen, glazed eyes poorly perusing the wealth of information laid out before them. Even though I know I’m going home, the day is over and the night is for me the bus ride is as tedious and uncomfortable as it was six hours earlier. I slip the phone back in my bag and lose myself in thought. Again, I wonder about the goldfish swimming around and around in its bowl always on the coffee table in my living room. How many times does it go around while I sit at my desk? Does it even get dizzy?
I walk home, uncertain as to why I’m not more excited. I remember when I was a kid, coming home was the most exciting part of the day. The potential for who-knows-what was almost overwhelming. All that time was mine until I could take no more. In all that time I could live a thousand lives, experience a million experiences and it was all mine for the taking. But here I am now, feet barely advancing. My key slides in the front door and my shoulders slump. Inside, I pull the shoes from my feet and strip naked. I fling the clothes in the laundry before scooping up the pyjamas I left lying on the floor this morning. I slip them on and return to the living room. Sinking into the armchair by the coffee table, I cradle my chin in my hands.
The goldfish swims around in front of me just as it has done day after day. The castle below it shimmers. It strikes me now how strange it is to decorate a goldfish’s home with something so unrelated and ultimately pointless. Is that why the goldfish always swims around it, never touching it?