The Aquarium. Part 5. I Can’t Make You Love Me.
Their father’s funeral might have been a sorry affair if they had gone. But they did not. The two brothers were only pleased to see each other and they drank long into the night swapping histories.
Wallace had been released from the Scrubs the previous year and, somehow, despite his history of holding up trains, got himself a job as a porter on the Scottish sleeper service. Tin whistle. Narrow trousers. A key to the fresh linen cupboard.
“But it kills me. After spending so many years cooped in a cell I feel I am in another one, albeit one hurtling through the nights northward.”
Njord, encouraged by this confession, admitted his own unhappiness. Nemo was sinking, his failure to fulfil his dream of becoming an ocean explorer causing him deep mental anguish.
“I think these days he’d even settle for a skinny sloop, a lobster pot and one of that blasted Cousteau’s self-contained under water breathing apparatus.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Wallace, and they clinked glasses.
Poured another one.
Outside on the mudflats seals barked, slithered their blubbery bodies against each other, revelled in simply being.
The following day when the two brothers attended the reading of the will at Shakerton, Shakerton and Shakerton they were both somewhat worse for wear.
“That section,” said Njord, “can you read it again.”
“Yes,” said Wallace, craning forward, his breath stinking. “My arse. What was that you said?”
Shakerton, the actual only Shakerton left, could barely keep the disdain for his voice.
“The glove factory, your father’s pride and joy, his life’s work. It’s yours. The pair of you.”
His brother willing, Njord knew immediately what they had to do. He waited only until they had left the dusty lawyer’s office to say.
The former glove factory they could turn into an aquarium.
Gaseous, words bubbled out of him.
“Think of those huge aching rooms full of tanks. You and I can manage the day to day running while Nemo travels the world sourcing exhibits.”
Arm in arm they sauntered along the seafront, repairing to The Jolly Fisherman for hair of the dog and a discussion of the plan.
“What do you say?” said Njord. “Me a bugger. You an ex con. It will be the perfect memorial to that damned father of ours.”
Wallace held up his beer glass, imagined a shoal of tiny exotic fish swimming there, a crowd of goggle-eyed children gathered giggling around.
It was a childhood he had never had.
“As long as we can have those nippers that look like zebras,” he said. “And seals! I want hundreds of seals. Thousands of them. And a blue whale.”
He slammed his beer down on the table, cast his arms wide as if to describe one there and then, diving deep, mouth open, fielding plankton.
They worked then for seven years.
The first job was to demolish the old seal slaughtering house. They did this brick by brick, their heads covered with diving helmets to mask the stench of all the blood.
One day Nemo led Wallace and Njord by hand to the train station. There was an object there covered by a sheet.
“It’s a memorial,” said Nemo. “I’ve called it Fidelity.”
Then he pulled away the sheet to reveal the statue of the seal.
“It's fashioned from the old bricks of the slaughtering house. It's looking out to sea because that’s where all its dead folk came from. But I’ve put it at the train station so people can see it. So they never forget. Fidelity.”
He reached up, he was a tall man, and had become thin over the years so he was often mistaken for Yuri Stepanov, the Soviet high jumping champion, and patted the head of the seal like it was a dog.
“True-heartedness, loyalty. Because the seals never left the town whatever was done to them. That means something. What do you think?”
For once neither of the brothers could speak.
It meant something.
A bright winter’s morning, under the protruding blinkless eyes of the mudskippers, the seals became the first fish that were brought into The Aquarium.
Although seals were not strictly fish. But aquatic mammals. Pinnipeds. Carnivorous. Fin-footed. Related to bears, red pandas, weasels.
Over and above all this they had the benefit of being available.
Like explorers, or beekeepers, Njord, Nemo and Wallace went out onto the mudflats with rucksacks filled to the brim with squid, shellfish, shrimp, whelk, cod, herring, flounder, mackerel.
Walking backwards, dropping a trail in front of them, they guided the seals into The Aquarium.
Plunge pool, scrabbly rocks, sliding area. It was a home away from home.
After the seals came the actual taxonomically correct fish.
Njord called in a favour from Gus Janssen, one of the fishermen he had lost his virginity to many years before. Happily married then as he was now it was rumoured down at The Jolly Fishermen he was on a last warning.
Fenna, his wife, was fuming when he returned from a lads night away in Alnwick with a series of love bites across his buttocks.
“Me and you,” said Njord, “it might tip her over the edge. Imagine a dolphin going over a waterfall. Dolphins aren’t designed for that.”
He winked knowingly and Buttercup was theirs for a week.
Stout-nosed, reeking of sardines, powered by a two-stroke Diesel engine with a tendency to hiccup Buttercup little resembled her name.
“It’s not exactly the Nautilus,” said Nemo.
But taking his seat at the tiller, casting off, he had the look of a fiery Neptune in his eyes and as they crested the first wave, and the second, and the third, his lips moved in a litany of future desires, “…the South China Sea, the Straits of Magellan, the Arabian Sea, the Black Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Andaman Sea, the Coral Sea…”
For the two weeks before they opened Nemo, Wallace, and Njord made a tour of all the local schools.
The children loved to hear especially about sharks, hammerhead, Great White, wobbegongs, and between them they conjured up such grotesque and brilliant images of these underwater killing machines, Wallace acting out the jaws, Njord how they sliced through the waters like Robin Hood’s arrows, that on the day of The Aquarium’s grand opening there was a long eel of a queue outside its doors, children clutching at the hands of their equally expectant parents, all staring in wonder at the huge fresco Nemo had done on the former front wall of the glove factory; a gigantic kraken rearing up out of a stormy sea, grasping and pulling down and snapping asunder a three-masted sailing ship with its mighty tentacles.
In 1966 The Aquarium featured as a ‘Top Ten Attraction’ in Letts Guide to the North East. They were two places below the Foetus Museum but two above the Poulton-le-Fylde Lido where, ironically, the statue to the Norse sea god from whom Njord has gained his nickname stood.
The aquarium’s five staff, ten in the busier holiday periods, were made up of art students from a college in the neighbouring town. These students would arrive to work each morning in clothes they had made themselves; Minnie Mouse ears and shorts, a bean bag with holes cut for arms and legs, clingfilm wrapped around and around the body.
One girl, Freya, Njord’s favourite, wore nothing but little tiny hats, hundreds of them, fixed cleverly in place.
She didn’t sleep in a bed, she joked, but on a hat stand.
“You try taking 400 hats off off at night!”
They were one big happy family and things could have been perfect except, like the war they had previously endured, dark clouds were beginning to gather.
On a rare day out, quite forgetting themselves, Nemo and Njord had walked hand in hand around the perimeter of Poulton-le-Fylde Lido.
It was the same week Joe Orton, the playwright, had been bludgeoned to death by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in their tiny flat in London. It just so happened that Orton’s most famous play, What the Butler Saw, was running right then to sell out crowds at the Alnwick Embassy. And now it had come out that this nice young man, so handsome and cheeky, was, well, you know?, queer.
It was a slap in the teeth.
Revenge was needed.
Orton was dead. And Halliwell. But Njord and Nemo. They were the same, weren’t they? They would do.
Letters of complaint were written by a hastily convened band of shocked citizens to Evans, the owner of the Poulton-le-Fylde Lido. Evans, a prominent businessman himself, had been a friend of old Sheldon, Njord’s father, and he was not happy what had been done to the glove factory.
“And now the gloves are off.”
Evans enlisted his friends at the Daily Mail.
“I want you to focus on the fish,” he said. “Get rid of the fish and we’ll get rid of them. Do you see? They co-exist.”
And so a petition was started.
The fish were being badly treated. Look at those ‘cages’ they were in. They could barely breath. It was unnatural.
One morning Njord and Nemo woke to find a protest outside the gates of The Aquarium, Concerned Citizens of Poulton linked arm in arm.
‘No more fish!’ and ‘Free the cod!’ had been hastily daubed on t-shirts.
“It’s a bloody joke,” said Nemo, looking out of the window as Evans rolled up in his limousine, handed out steaming cones of fish and chips, bags of cockles, fried scallops, lobster tails, whelks, prawns, winkles.
The message was clear.
Evans was prepared to play dirty.
When Njord saw what was to be the first in a series of letters sent to the Alnwick Mercury, he wasn’t even surprised. A Concerned Citizen of Poulton had seen cigarette burns on the flippers of one of the dolphins. In the next letter the same citizen, or a different one, had been ‘first hand witness’ to perversion in the octopi tank.
‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Octo-Steve.’
“I mean,” said Nemo, kicking over a chair, “who the fuck is Steve? They’re not even subtle in their hatred.”
Then he went out to see the dolphins.
He and Njord had never had children but he loved these beasts as much as if they had been his own.
When they saw him they came over to the side of the pool and chirruped while he rubbed their beaks. Sometimes he would wheel out the TV set and they would watch movies together.
“I won’t let you go,” he said. “I won’t. They’ll have to tear me asunder first.”
And asunder it was.
The team of inspectors from the government’s Fisheries and Aquariums Department arrived one morning without warning.
One by one they examined the tanks and on each one they placed the same sticker, red and with a black cross through it; CONDEMNED.
It was impossible to continue.
On the night after the fish had gone Njord and Nemo cried in each other’s arms.
And the night after that.
And the night after that.
It is an unacknowledged fact that pain can be infinite.
And that goodness never loses its capacity to surprise.
Njord and Nemo were woken one morning from their fitful sleep by sounds coming from the aquarium below.
They went down to find the art students gathered there dressed in swimming trunks and aqua lungs. Also with them, and in the same get up, were most of the fishermen, Ginny from the arcade, the proprietor of Delicious Gifts, his two sons and a group of their friends.
Each of them was holding a large black sack.
“Watch this,” said Freya, the art student who was usually dressed in all tiny hats.
Then, climbing up a ladder propped against the nearest tank, she dived in.
“Oh my goodness,” said Nemo putting both hands up to his face.
In the water the black sack she had been holding had opened out and unfurled behind her so that it appeared she was being followed by a shoal of glorious fish. Their bright stripy bodies swam gaily between the fronds.
“It’s a miracle,” said Njord.
More than a miracle.
Because one by one each of the students and townsfolk climbed into a tank and here were stingrays, there was an octopus, there a barking happy seal.
“And you haven’t seen anything yet,” said Freya putting her head out of the tank.
Njord and Nemo were beckoned outside to where a group of four art students, four fishermen were standing. On the count of ten they jumped into the pool together and moments later the shining massive body of a blue whale appeared.
It swam around and around, getting faster and faster, before it launched itself into the air and did a backflip through a pre-suspended plastic ring.
The crowd gathered there, the rest of the townsfolk of Saltburn-by-the-Sea, those either too elderly, too young, or those not able to swim, went wild.
It was a miracle.
In 1969 The Aquarium appeared in first place in the Letts Guide to the North-East list of attractions.
And on the same night that the guide was published Nemo put the book in a protective plastic bag and went out to his newly purchased boat, The Nautilus.
There was a full moon.
In the boat with him he had a flask of coffee and a bag of sandwiches.
The distance was not great but it took him some time as he was continually pushed back by the sea’s swells.
“Easy baby,” he said under his breath. “Easy.”
Finally happy he was in the correct place he dropped his sea anchor and leaning out over the prow he made a deep brassy sound in his throat.
It took only a few moments for the two noses, beaks, to appear.
“Hello,” he said, “Hello.”
And then he showed his dolphin friends how they’d made number one attraction.
Then he told them his dream.
Not the South China Sea. Not the Straits of Magellan. Not the kraken.
But to walk down the aisle to become married to his loved one.
George Michael – I Can’t Make You Love Me -