Until three weeks ago, Bob lived a happy but unremarkable life with his friend, an insurance salesman, named Geoffrey Babbitt. They lived on a quiet road in Ealing where nothing ever happened. But then three weeks ago something did happen: Bob died. From that moment on, Bob’s ‘life’ became much more eventful.
‘Hey, quiet everyone,’ said Bob. ‘I think I can hear voices.’
A hush descended over the group as they listened to two people talking outside the sack.
‘And how are you this morning, precious?’ said a man with a gravelly cockney accent.
‘Oh, you know, can’t complain,’ said a woman. ‘Anything interesting today?’
‘I don’t know, love. I don’t bother looking anymore. If you’ve seen one umbrella, you’ve seen them all.’
Bob felt the sack swing upwards. The other inhabitants of the bag let out a series of ‘whoas’ and ‘arghs’ before they all landed onto something hard with a thud.
‘Is everyone alright?’ said a muffled voice from the middle of the sack.
‘Oh yeah, brilliant. I love being tossed about like I’m in a washing machine,’ said a gruff voice near the bottom of the bag.
‘Well there’s no need to be sarcastic,’ said the muffled voice. ‘I was only trying to be nice.’
The top of the sack had fallen open slightly, allowing a little light to penetrate the gloom inside. Bob swam towards the opening, pushing past umbrellas, mobile phones, and wallets to get to the surface. Once there, he peered through the chink.
‘Jeez,’ he said.
The occupants of the sack answered his surprise.
‘What is it?’
‘Where are we?’
Bob and his sack mates were on a table in a large storeroom lined with grey-metal shelves that ran from floor to ceiling. The shelves were brimming with everyday objects, such as handbags and tartan shopping trollies, but then there were the slightly more interesting items: prosthetic legs, a toy doll dressed as a nun, a giant plastic banana the size of a kayak, and a large bust of William Shakespeare that was missing its nose. Every inch of space was crammed.
‘I don’t know how you stick rummaging through all this crap,’ said the cockney man.
Bob cautiously poked his head around the opening of the sack and saw the owner of the cockney voice perched on the edge of the same wooden table as the sack. The man was wearing a t-shirt that clung to his biceps and showed off his sleeve tattoo of a koi carp.
‘Oh, I find it fascinating,’ said the woman. ‘You never know what’s going to turn up.’
Bob could only see the middle of the woman’s body, as she was standing beside the table.
‘You can tell a lot about people by the things they carry around with them,’ said the woman.
‘I couldn’t poke up with the smell,’ said the cockney. ‘It whiffs like musty old ladies in here.’
‘You get used to it after a while,’ said the woman.
‘No, thanks. I like the open air, speaking of which.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I best be off.’ He slid his arse from the table. ‘Let’s have your autograph.’
Wanda signed her name with a squiggle on the hand-held digital notepad.
‘Cheers then,’ he said. ‘See you tomorrow.’
‘See you, Nelson. You take care out there.’
Nelson gave Wanda a wave as he climbed the steps out of the basement. He threw open the door at the top of the stairs and disappeared out of sight. A beam of sunlight bounced off the plastic Lost Property Office sign on the door and briefly illuminated the pockmarked wall that ran up alongside the steps.
‘Right, what have we got here then?’ Wanda said, to herself as she pulled her glasses out of her messy hair and placed them on her face.
Wanda grabbed the bottom of the sack and tipped it upside down, pouring its contents onto the old desk. A chorus of ‘whoas’ and ‘holy shits’ and ‘bugger mes’ erupted from the bag as its temporary lodgers streamed onto the table like a flash flood.
A poster for the film Jaws appeared and disappeared before Bob’s eyes as he spun round on his spines until finally coming to a rest with his back to Wanda and his face towards the toothy shark hanging on the wall. He shuddered.
‘More umbrellas,’ she said, with a sigh. ‘Oh, wait a minute.’
Wanda noticed what looked like the spikey ball of a flail. She placed a bejewelled hand on Bob and spun him around to investigate.
‘Ah, hello you.’
Bob was mesmerised by Wanda’s eyes, which were as blue as a tropical sea.
‘Now let’s put you to one side while I deal with this lot.’
Wanda sat down on a battered office chair and tapped away at a grubby keyboard. She always started with the expensive items first: mobile phones, tablets, wallets and purses, basically the things people were liable to actually miss. Wanda catalogued everything, even the dreaded umbrellas, which were hardly ever claimed and had a tendency to burst out into spontaneous rain related pop songs. She thought she might go mad if she ever heard The Weather Girls It’s Raining Men or Rihanna’s Umbrella ever again. Most objects had a shorthand code on the system, but occasionally something unusual would crop up and Wanda would have to think of a new code and description for it. She’d set these items to one side until she’d sorted everything else. This is where Bob ended up.
Looking after objects others had lost or abandoned gave Wanda a sense of purpose in life. So when she started hearing the voices, she wasn’t the least bit surprised. Wanda hadn’t told anybody about her gift; she knew others wouldn’t understand. It was just hers and the storeroom’s little secret.
Once all the other lost items had been logged, tagged, and shelved, Wanda filled up the kettle in the little sink under the stairs and sat back down at the desk. She picked up Bob and smiled at his goofy open-mouthed grin and beach-ball-like-body that was covered in prickly spines.
‘Now where in the world have you come from?’
It was an obvious question to ask, and the simple answer was this: Ealing. Before Ealing it had been a pet shop called Petcetera. This was where Bob first clapped eyes on Geoffrey. He’d been busy decorating the one-bedroom flat he’d just moved into. Geoffrey wasn’t allowed any pets as a child, so this was his passive-aggressive way of telling his parents to go fuck themselves, only he was 32 and hadn’t lived with them for eight-years. But he knew and that was enough.
‘Bob, quick it’s starting!’ said Seabiscuit, the seahorse.
Bob swam over to his usual position in the corner of the tank just in time to see the end of the opening titles to Homes Under the Hammer.
‘Oh no, that Dion Dublin’s on it again. What does an ex-footballer know about renovating houses?’ said Seabiscuit. ‘And they don’t need three hosts. It’s just a waste of tax payers’ money.’
As Seabiscuit continued to slate the former sportsman, Bob looked to the empty spot on his left where Goldie used to swim. Bob pondered where fish went after they were flushed down the toilet. He wanted to believe that all drains lead to the ocean, but he’d watched enough home improvement shows to know that things weren’t as simple as that. There could be problems: burst pipes, landslips, and massive fatbergs that the council had to remove with pressure hoses. But if Goldie did make it through all that, then what would happen? Would he really reach the ocean?
‘What the hell does he know about kitchen-diners anyway!’ shouted Seabiscuit, sending several bubbles to the surface of the tank.
Geoffrey walked into the purple-tinged living room. His big face appeared in front of the tank, blocking the TV.
‘Oh, Geoffrey, I’m watching this!’ said Seabiscuit, as she swam to the other end of the tank to find an unobscured view of the TV.
‘Hello, old blue eyes,’ said Geoffrey. He looked solemnly at the tank. ‘Look’s like I’m going have to get you some new friends, doesn’t it fella?’
Geoffrey sprinkled some flakes of food into the tank, gave Bob a wink, and slouched on the sofa in front of the TV.
As the little flakes of food drifted passed his face, Bob imagined himself like Goldie had been that morning: belly up. He thought what it might be like to have Geoffrey scoop him up and carry him off to the toilet. He was confused by the shiver of excitement that pulsed through him and along his spines.
‘Geoffrey, I was watching that,’ said Seabiscuit.
Geoffrey was flicking through the TV channels with the remote.
‘Oh no, he’s going to put on one of those dull nature documentaries again.’
‘I like them,’ said Bob. ‘It reminds you that there’s a whole world out there. A world beyond home improvement and quiz shows.’
‘Not this again,’ said Seabiscuit. ‘Listen, the ocean is full of things that can eat us. Eat us, Bob!’
‘You just need to be careful, that’s all. Make sure you camouflage properly,’ said Bob.
‘It’s alright for you, Bob. You just blow-up like a balloon the moment anything gets near you. But look at me. I’m like a swimming chicken satay.’
Bob had heard the scare stories before, but it didn’t stop him dreaming: he was going to swim in the ocean one day.
Wanda sat back down at the desk with a mug of tea.
‘Right, let’s have a look at you then,’ she said.
Wanda inspected Bob and then picked up her pen.
‘One stuffed puffer fish,’ she said, to herself as she wrote Bob’s tag.
‘Porcupine fish,’ Bob said, to himself absent-mindedly.
People were always making that mistake.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.’
Wanda screwed up the tag and wrote a new one that said ‘one stuffed porcupine fish’ instead.
Bob was amazed. ‘You can hear me?’
The objects on the shelves sniggered.
‘Hey guys come on, that’s not very nice. He’s new here.’
The sniggering petered out.
‘I take it you’ve not travelled much,’ said Wanda.
‘No,’ Bob said, in a quiet voice. ‘Not since Geoffrey bought me home from the pet shop.’
‘What did I tell you? Those humans treat us no better than a piece of meat,’ said a haughty voice on one of the shelves.
There were loud groans of approval from the shelves around Wanda’s desk.
Bob tried to twist his head to get a better look of the room, but his little bloated body rolled forward towards the edge of the table. Wanda caught Bob and propped him up on an old coffee jar she was using as a pencil pot.
‘I was just swimming around the tank in the pet shop one day and then suddenly this net appeared from out of nowhere and…’
Bob took a moment to compose himself.
‘Well, I haven’t seen my mother since.’
‘Oh my God kid, you’re breaking my heart,’ said a miniature statue of Uncle Sam.
‘Sam!’ said Wanda.
Wanda looked over to the old wooden dresser where she kept the more unique items that came into the storeroom. Some things were simply too precious to let go of. The bust of Shakespeare chuckled at the statuette of Uncle Sam on the shelf above him.
‘Shut it big nose!’ said Sam.
‘If only I had thumbs I’d bite them,’ said Will.
‘How did you lose that beak again? Hey kid, you gotta listen to this story. It’s a riot.’
‘Fellas, we’re in the middle of something over here,’ said Wanda.
‘Sorry, Wanda,’ said Sam.
‘I’m terribly sorry, Wanda,’ said Will. ‘My apologises for the interruption.’
‘Kiss ass,’ said Sam.
Wanda turned back to Bob. ‘Sorry, so what happened next?’
‘Well, not a lot really. I just swam round the tank in Geoffrey’s front room. I thought when I died that would be the end of it, but then he decided to have me–,’ Bob looked down at his perpetually bloated body, ‘stuffed.’
Bob became aware of the voices, as he drifted back into consciousness.
‘Hello?’ he whispered.
The voices stopped. Bob opened his eyes, but the room was shaded. As his eyes adjusted to the low light, more of the room came into focus. Glass cabinets lined some of the walls and in the centre of the small room was a desk with a green-shaded lamp on it. Under the lamp was a row of seven long oval shapes. At first they looked as if they might be toy dolls, but with a rising horror, Bob’s eyes picked out their true form. They were fish, dead fish. Some had no eyes while others had a deep groove that ran along their bellies, revealing their empty insides. Bob recoiled only he didn’t go anywhere. His fins flapped helplessly in the air, in the air?
‘What the…’ said Bob.
He looked around him and saw that he was on a high shelf. Next to him were other animals he recognised from Geoffrey’s nature shows: squirrels, badgers, pheasants, and fish, lots of fish. Only there was something odd about the animals. They seemed stiff and awkward looking. And none of them were moving.
‘What’s happened to me?’ said Bob, as he started to freak out. ‘Why aren’t I in the water? I’ll die if I stay out here.’
A chuckle came from a shelf across the room.
‘Dumb child,’ said a low malevolent voice.
‘Hello? Who’s there?’ said Bob.
The door flew open. A dark shape moved swiftly into the room and flung open the curtains, sending blinding sunlight crashing through the window.
‘Argh!’ said Bob.
‘Oh, do pipe down,’ said the malevolent voice.
Bob looked in the direction of the voice and saw that it belonged to an enormous koi carp mounted on a wooden board. He was horrified. He turned away, only to be confronted by something even more monstrous: an image of himself reflected in a mirror on the other side of the room.
‘Oh my God! What’s happened to me?’ said Bob, looking down at his body.
The dark shape moved towards Bob and stared at him.
‘Mmm… I didn’t do a bad job on you, did I?’ said the man.
Bob stared at the man’s wrinkled face. ‘Who are you? What is this place? Where’s Geoffrey?’
The man didn’t react.
‘Geoffrey doesn’t care about you. You’re just an object to him now, just something to put on a shelf and get dusty,’ said the malevolent voice.
‘No, you’re wrong. Geoffrey loves me!’ hollered Bob.
‘I’m sure he did… once,’ said the malevolent voice. ‘Face it, you puffy faced idiot, your swimming days are over.’
‘You’re wrong. I’m going to swim in the ocean one day!’ yelled Bob.
The malevolent voice let out a chuckle and said, ‘The ocean?’
The other stuffed animals laughed too, although their faces appeared expressionless and unmoving.
The taxidermist crossed the room and sat down behind the desk. He turned on the radio and hummed along to ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ by the Blue Oyster Cult, as he merrily gouged the eye out of a fish.
Geoffrey was overwhelmed when he saw Bob. It had been a long wait for him to be reunited with his beloved pet fish.
‘He’s just as I remember,’ said Geoffrey, tears glistening in his eyes.
The taxidermist was visibly relieved as he carefully wrapped Bob up and placed him in cardboard box.
Now I know what you’re thinking: a grown man nearly crying over a stuffed fish? But as I said earlier, Bob wasn’t just any old fish. He was Geoffrey’s first ever pet and the first thing Geoffrey thought ever loved him back. He couldn’t flush him like the other fish. Bob was special. Only Bob didn’t realise this because his and Geoffrey’s relationship was made up of a series intricate nods and winks, none of which Bob understood. He just thought that Geoffrey had some kind of disorder that made him periodically pull funny faces. Yet in spite of this, Bob did love Geoffrey, only he wouldn’t realise this until later.
Geoffrey couldn’t resist taking a sneak-peek of Bob on the bus. He’d prepared Bob’s new home: a shelf that overlooked the TV. He was sure Bob liked watching nature shows, but perhaps that was just his wishful thinking. Geoffrey could not have been happier as he rode the number 17 bus back to Ealing. But the moment Geoffrey was thinking this was also the very moment Bob was rolling himself down the stairs and off the bus in an attempt to find the ocean.
‘My goodness, you have been through the wars, haven’t you? said Wanda, as she gently attached an identification tag to Bob’s battered left fin.
‘Well, this Geoffrey sounds like a monster.’
‘No, you don’t understand. Geoffrey loves–’ said Bob, before being interrupted.
‘Right guys,’ Wanda said, as she picked Bob up and carried him over to the dresser where she placed him on the shelf next to Uncle Sam, ‘I’m trusting you to look after this wee man,’ she said.
‘I don’t need looking–’
‘He’s pretty delicate, so you and Will be careful, alright?’
Wanda placed Bob onto an empty roll of Sellotape so he wouldn’t roll off the shelf.
‘You don’t understand. Geoffrey isn’t a–’
‘Don’t you worry. You’re safe now,’ said Wanda, as she patted his spines.
‘I don’t need looking aft–’
There was a loud crash from the other side of the storeroom.
‘Purple rain, purple rain!’ sang an umbrella, imitating Prince’s anguished delivery.
‘Oh, bloody hell!’ said Wanda. ‘Not again.’
As Wanda rushed off, Bob stared helplessly after her.
‘Oh boy, she likes you,’ said Sam, teasing Bob. ‘Looks like you’re part of the permanent collection.’
‘The permanent collection?’ said Bob.
‘You know, the stuff in a museum that never leaves,’ said Sam.
‘But I need to get to the ocean,’ said Bob.
Sam and Will chuckled, as a chorus of purple rain was stopped in its tracks.
‘Good luck with that, kid,’ said Sam.
Bob looked at the bursting shelves and felt regret.
A shrill ring cut through the storeroom. Wanda hurried to answer the phone on her desk.
‘Hello? Oh, hi, Drake. Yeah, not too bad, thanks. What can I do for you?’
Bob struggled to hear Wanda over Sam and Will’s bickering, but he caught one word very clearly.
Wanda’s sunny exterior momentarily slipped as she glanced over to Bob.
‘What does it look like?’ Wanda said, looking away again.
Wanda picked up her mug of tea, though didn’t sip it. She was trying to appear casual, but her fingers were drumming the glaze.
‘Stuffed? Hmm, now that is unusual,’ she said. ‘Well, I’ll certainly be on the look out for it.’
Bob stared at Wanda open-mouthed, not that he could help it: he’d been stuffed that way.
Wanda glanced down at her empty desk. ‘I’ve got a bit of a backlog down here at the moment, so it might take a while. Okay, I’ll let you know if anything turns up. Bye, bye.’
Wanda hung up. She looked over to Bob and gave him a wink. ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea.’ She giggled as she turned on her heel and headed into the bowels of the storeroom.
Bob stared dejectedly after her.
Geoffrey Babbitt returned home without his beloved pet fish. He was devastated. But in time, he would buy new fish. There would be other Goldies and Seabiscuits. And there would be other Bobs.