Dinner With Fighting Fish

Be patient.
First we have to drive.
The fish are already there.

I’ve been on the road for a few days now in new territory, driving down the south coast of NSW and inland to Canberra, and I have plenty to write but will focus on this because it has a poignancy I can’t resist.

Chewed up a lot of road today – Canberra to Goulburn, Goulburn to Bowral, and in retrospect, probably some of the worst white-knuckle stuff I’ve done – Bowral to Orange. The GPS indicated a 4 hr drive, but it never indicates the terrain – time and terrain are just different creatures I guess.

It was innocuous enough to start; the Hume slides along like a big tarmac snake. It’s easy to be hypnotised to the point of feeling dozy with the cruise control on, it’s like being on the couch with a steering wheel in your hand while the landscape blurs by. Things become more active after I slip back through Goulburn as the sky darkens prematurely and a refrigerated grey mist punctuated by swirls of drizzle smudges itself across the landscape. The increasing twists and undulations in the road poke me from my catatonia and forced me to be more attentive at the wheel. I’m glad I knocked back a double espresso in Bowral. It was bitter, the coffee and the milk both burnt as they often are. Some people are either too careless or too eager making coffee.

On the way to Crookwell my attention is distracted by a wind farm and I can’t help but pull in to the viewing area and get out the camera. The drizzle and wind have picked up and the cold is even more bitter than the coffee and there is no chance of a good shot – only the sound of the blades slashing rhythmically through the fog. I jump back in to the car with a disappointed chill. I top up the petrol at a little servo, have a piss, and grab a Red Bull and a pack of chips, knowing I have another 3 hrs behind the wheel.

It’s pretty much dark by 5pm, and an ominous feeling settles over me as I turn with determination to my task while the road starts to rise and buck and squirm. My wide, caffeinated eyes flick from the coloured square of the GPS floating in the darkness above the dashboard, to reading the uncoiling white line and stream of red reflectors marking the limits of the road in my headlights. A mild anxiety brews a concentration borne of the feeling that a lapse could lead down a rocky drop or to wrapping the car around a tree while the airbag deploys in an explosive embrace.

The road forces me to tap dance on the brake and accelerator while my hands shuffle and slide along the steering wheel. It undulates so much now there are points where it seems to completely disappear before reappearing again on a sharp decline. There are remnants of fading light in the distance that I can see reflecting on mountain peaks, apart from these hints I have no idea about the landscape, all I see around me is darkness, fleetingly lit trees and nothing.

Without warning there is no bitumen, the car lurches and slides on rutted dirt and stones. The GPS led me astray the first night and doubled a 2 hour trip to 4, taking me past 2 fixed speed cameras that flashed as I went by, distracted by being lost and tired after waking at 4.30am to get on a plane. I look with distrust at the GPS, it hasn’t spoken for a while. The prim English woman I chose over the other voices says nothing as I become paranoid about being led in to the heart of nowhere. I don’t feel I have any choice but to plough forward in to the night, as turning back and recalculating the route could add hours and more Red Bull.

I crank up the music and set to the task, feeling the subtle grip and slide of the tyres over the uneven surface. Disconcertingly, I avoid the odd mangled lump of roadkill here and there and imagine an ongoing photo essay project, subject of which: roadkills I have passed. I can picture the different stages (fresh, decomposed), the different animals – a sad procession of ill-fated fauna in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have the feeling that it would be tantamount to some kind of visual vulturism to capture roadkill – an intrusion on some poor creature’s lonely mortality. Maybe I could call it Roadkill Zoo.

Mobile phone reception dropped out a while ago and I begin to worry that even the satellites won’t see me, and the GPS will go that shade of blue it turns when the link goes cold. The road narrows at points to one car wide, at others the tarmac suddenly reappears, then is taken away again. I panic when the GPS becomes confused and the little blue arrow that represents me floats temporarily off into nothingness before joining the road again.

And this is what I am now – a blue arrow ducking a weaving through the dark landscape to a shuffled playlist. I flit through the odd collection of dwellings that pass for places with a name, and even stop in one that has a tiny empty pub with warm glowing golden windows to piss with a plume of steam in the concrete toilet block out back. There are few cars on this route; the ones that I do pass slow as we dip our lights, giving each other as wide a berth as possible in a narrow space like two cautious lost dogs.

Eventually the road improves and calms. A blip from my phone indicates that I’m back within the bosom of the telecommunications network and I have a message that I don’t check. More traffic flows toward me and I feel part of the human network again too.

With relief I pull in to the International Ambassador Motel in Orange. I love the ironic names of country motels, I try to imagine the rooms here are full of visiting dignitaries, starlets and playboys – not chubby, balding middle aged sales reps, and conference delegates. The receptionist tells me that my booking was for last night. I have made a mistake and prepaid too. I drop my head into my hands and sigh, asking how much for another night, handing over my credit card knowing I’m unlikely to be reimbursed for my own screw up. Dejectedly I drag my case up to my room. It’s spacious, clean and slightly gaudy – pastel prints of flower bouquets with butterflies on the walls. I turn the heater on, knowing it’s going to drop below zero tonight and I’ll be scraping a layer of ice off the car in the morning.

I shuffle down to the restaurant to indulge in some quiet solo dining with the book I’m reading. It’s Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, and I’m struggling to immerse myself in it because I find myself annoyed at his deployment of copious erudite verbosity – it really fucking pisses me off. The waitress is young, skinny with freckles, and sort of pretty but with bad teeth. I order a glass of merlot and the lamb. It arrives garnished with bits of crisp fried rocket and is actually pretty good. I ponder the irony of a fried salad ingredient while I chew the sweetly spiced lamb.

Then I notice – there is a vase on my table, but no flowers. In the vase, staring back at me is a fish. To be precise, and slightly, annoyingly fucking verbose: Betta Splendens, commonly known as the Siamese Fighting Fish. In fact, on every table is a vase with its own resplendent resident Fighting Fish, pebbles and fake water plant. It seems too quirky a touch in a beige country motel. The few diners that are left seem indifferent to their companion, but I ignore the little sticker telling me not touch or feed him and carefully relocate the vase in front of my plate so I can watch my little friend while I eat.

Fish never look happy – expressionless eyes, mouths turned down. I never picture them smiling, alive or dead. Except that stupid Billy Bass singing fish that was a popular novelty a few years back that’s probably now a popular feature of garage sales. This one’s mute, but he’s saying something to me just by being here. I feel an exhausted affinity with him, even though rumour has it he may only have a 2 second memory. But I think that would be a blessing sometimes. The onset of dementia would bring a complete immersion in the ever present now – like being born again.

Siamese Fighting Fish are kind of like a guppy with incredibly extended tail and dorsal fins, waving like flags at Atlantis. They’ve been bred over the years from a natural plainness to artificial iridescent brilliance. They’re kept in separate containment for a reason – innate and unrelenting aggression. They’re like miniature sociopaths. Males put together will attack each other, and placed in a confined space with a female, will attack her if she’s not in the breeding mood.

When the waitress comes by I ask rhetorically if she knows what fish this is. I want to know what she knows.

‘It’s a Mexican Fighting Fish’.

I can’t help correcting her, kind of disappointed that the staff don’t know about the fish, or maybe she just confused it with a Mexican Walking Fish. I love these anthropomorphizing names. Fish walking and fighting. Angel Fish, Monk Fish. Do Monk Fish see Angel Fish when they pray?

‘They fight each other when you put them together. Some customers hold up a mirror and they start attacking the vase like there’s another fish there’. The waitress gives up what she knows.

I notice that the vase had been sitting on a square mirror before I moved it. It’s convenient that guests have been provided with a mirror for testing this. I don’t have any urge to. I picture a schoolyard bully holding the mirror while the fish bangs against the wall of the vase, enraged at its own image, with the bully repeating, ‘Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself. Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself.’ I sometimes want to give myself a good hiding when I look in the mirror too. Teach myself a lesson.

I wonder what makes the fish so uptight. Is it a scarcity of resources and breeding partners, or a pervasive discontent with their lot? There’s no expression to indicate anything. I envy the poker face. Maybe they’re not uptight. All of them, waiting in their glasshouses unaware of their peers, but wanting to throw stones if they could. What kind of chaos would be created by containing them all in one vase? A miniature rainbow coloured whirlpool of violence – natural selection condensed into one bubbling moment.

The waitress comes over for me to settle the bill; I think they want to close now it’s just me and the fish. I sign it without looking away from my little friend. I see my reflection in the vase, my fish eyes looking back at me. My poker face disappears the longer I take a good hard look at myself, and then I shrug, get up and walk back to my room – wondering if anyone would notice if I walked out with a vase tucked under my arm.

I don’t want to start a fight or anything though.

Dinner With Fighting Fish


Joined May 2007

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Artist's Description

This is a reload of a story I put up earlier this year that I had to take off during hibernation. It was the basis for a collaboration with Cliff Vestergaard and Tom Godfrey , please check out their rockin’ work…

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