For more than a year I’ve been serving sharks, stingrays, stonefish, jellies and the cheap feeders that follow. The pay is pretty skinny, but I can walk to work and they feed me for free. It’s ok.
I wake up early, before the fish, and ready the cafe while it’s dark outside. In the hour before opening, with a thermometer I survey and document the temperature of the fridge, the freezer and multiple burley-churners - most of these documents I falsify. I update the specials board. I clean and empty the rust tumbled Skin n’ Filth Filter. And when there’s time, I practice applying balm and bandage for potential/imminent stings, bites and dismemberments.
At five to seven, just before we open for business, the LBFS (Last Breath For Staff) bell rings. I expel all the old air from my body in a slow hiss until I’m dead ballooning - like the manual demands; then I steady and gulp the greediest gulp of breath a boy can grab, swallowing it deep down into my guts - this will have to last me the day. I strap a CSBB (Company Standard Bowling Ball) to my right ankle, a CSBB to my left ankle and switch on the lights designed to attract big fish. Exactly two minutes after the LBFS sounds there is a gurgle, distant deep and wet, followed fast by a heavy crash of dense wood meeting steel and then the great compression comes: oceans of fat wet water falling from some height, exploding into itself and expanding, ever expanding, the relentless feeding frenzy of salt water devouring the insides of this aquarium. Once each floor fills to the brim a trapdoor opens and the gush continues in a rush, down to the next level to rinse hard and repeat. My cafe waits at the bottom of ten stories, so the water, when it arrives down there is heavy. Buoyancy wants badly to drag me up and away from the coffee machine, the chowder, the little cakes and the counter, and float away I would, if not for the two CSBB’s attached to my ankles.
I’ll be honest, watching that body of water explode around the room, eating all the air and enveloping e v e r y t h i n g can be a little unnerving, so to stay calm as the water rises, I close my eyes, tense my tummy and inwardly run the company line: look at you, you beautiful fish, you better wetter fish, when you’re not here I’m nowhere. Repeat.
Service is the same, day to day. I dish towering scoops of rioting maggots straight down the gob of pushy tuna and snarky bass, while for the orcas I flay baby seals before their beady eyes and toss the grizzly snack their way with nervous fingers - you don’t want to lose your pinky twice, that’s what I’m saying. Each day has it’s snippy crab and bullish shark. Each day has it’s injury and it’s insult. Still it has it’s soft spots too, like after lunch when the sharks are sleeping and the salmon are spawning and the stonefish are off setting traps, then the cafe falls quiet. No noise save the low rumble of the Skin n’ Filth Filter and that slow pulse in my temples. No one around, so I sneak a paperback from beneath the counter, check the coast is clear, and proceed to suck sweet clean air out of each soaking page. I’m not sure how it works, but I’m alive because it does.
This week I handed back my twin CSBB set, my wetsuit and my seal-skinning knife. I'm leaving. I wonder if the fish will notice. I doubt it. I wonder if I'll remember this place in five years, or just the books I breathed though. I wonder if they'll clean the aquarium.