JELLYFISH – 6 MINUTE LISTEN
In the summer Chorlton Water Park is very beautiful. It reminds me of one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, Alex from work, who used to go and sit there in the sun. He left two years ago to bicycle to Morocco – he doesn’t use social media so I have no idea where he ended up, whether he’s still cycling around somewhere.
I’m there in the Water Park, eating crisps, when I see the waves splashing up, and I think it must be people swimming. But I look around and I can hardly see anyone else in the park. Dog walkers in the distance, stooping, throwing sticks. Nobody in the water. Just something – a smooth, flat plain with a texture like thick cellophane, bumping up to the surface of the lake like an island. I go closer. When I drop my hands into the water, she loosely wraps her tentacles around them. Hello.
One night I bring the giant jellyfish chips from the takeaway. I’ve been to the pub and now I am throwing the chips into the lake. Everyone’s gone home but me, and it’s nicer to eat a takeaway with company. She gusts them into her mouth with a quick movement of her tentacles. She gently flashes blue and green in the dark. I sit and stare into the water. She is as long as a limousine and moves like silk.
Early one morning I swim with her and she shows me the eggs hiding in her mouth. She is a mother of six. In the reedy water, she is languid and semi-transparent. Through her, I watch the big carp swim behind her, golden-brown and trophy-heavy. Up for air, I watch a heron on the other side of the lake, stepping slowly and angrily like someone pointedly leaving a restaurant. The jellyfish leans against my side in the water. We breathe, in our own ways, and then I climb out of the water in my pants and go back to my heap of clothes, my bicycle.
One day I go to Chorlton Water Park and I find her, bobbing at the surface like a plastic bag, not sunbathing, limp-tentacled. I lie down by the lake and stretch to touch my friend’s poor head. She feels like gone-off leaves at the bottom of a salad. Could she have choked on litter? Was she very old? There is nobody I can ask about these things.
I rush to a pet shop. The shop assistant and I pretend together that I’m not crying, as they politely explain the range of water filters available, advise me on gravel for the bottom of the tank.
With great gentleness, I collect the fertilised eggs from the dead animal’s mouth, and put them into the fish tank. I board the tram, with six glossy, delicate eggs bobbing around in the water. They make me think of my grandparents’ collection of glass bells for the windowsill: to be carried carefully, to be loved. I heave the tank onto my lap.
“What have you got there, love?” a man asks.
“Gonna eat them, are you? Or pets?”
I don’t know what I’m going to do with them.
A few days later, the eggs are swimming freely about: they are little blobs about the size of golf balls, propelling themselves through the water with the nimble hairy feelers on all sides of their bodies. They are translucent and lovely, catching the morning light: they look like fibre optic Christmas decorations. I try putting one in my mouth to remind it of its mother, but it flaps against my teeth like a bird in an office building so I let it fall back into the tank.
I give them fish flakes, body builders’ protein powder, and whatever I can find that might remind them of their mother and the lake – long legged water insects, leaves.
After a week they take root. Many species of jellyfish experience a life stage in which they are rooted to the ground like an anemone and, to look at them, you wouldn’t know they were a jellyfish at all. My jellyfish babies look like coral, flailing and plumping in the water. My tarot reader said: “It’s taken you a long time to figure out what you’re doing, but you’re nearly there now.” I’m taking stock of everything through the soles of my feet.
The rooted polyps begin to thicken with little discs of jellyfish, which fly off into the water a couple of weeks later. I worry about how they will learn to swim without their mother. I practice with them in the bath, trying to convulse in their muscular fashion, broadening and narrowing, taking up alternately more and less space in the water. Every day I take a different baby jellyfish out in a tank to see the world (Sunday is my day off). They come to work with me, or they come and sit in my friends’ houses. I move them into separate tanks: they are getting bigger every day. My friend the biologist is fascinated by the speed of their growth, she wants one for her dissertation. I refuse. “They’re animals,” I tell her, “and I’m responsible for them.”
Sometimes I hold a tank over bodies of water, and say “That’s where you’re going, Mr Scruff”. Sometimes I balance a tank on the front of my handlebars and go very slowly around the park. I take one of them on the bus to the Trafford Centre aquarium, and show her the other jellyfish behind the glass, and all the other fish – she moves giddily in the water, like a dog watching Crufts on television. I say to her “Don’t expect water this blue, don’t go expecting anything tropical”. But then I feel sorry for lowering her hopes, and I say “We have some sunny days too – look at last week, proper barbecue weather!”
They are going to be as big as limousines. They are eating more and more, and in August it’s harder than usual to pay my rent. I feed them whole bananas, old fish heads I get for free down the road, and I cook dinners for seven. I’ll miss them but it’s time to let them go. I release the jellyfish one by one into the canals, lakes, rivers, at a distance from each other so they have their own territories. I don’t know if that’s what they want but I’m doing my best. They are about the size of small dogs now. I release one dangerously close to the New Islington marina boats and I go back and apologise several weeks later. The community say it’s ok, she doesn’t bother them or bump their boats around – she just comes up and begs for food sometimes, especially if she can smell cooking meat.
I name the jellyfish I return to Chorlton Water Park Alex. I bought a second hand dining table off his friend the other day. I didn’t know whose place it was, but when I opened the door she said “I know you! You worked with Alex!” She doesn’t know where he might be either. I suppose he might even be back in Manchester again. That’s cities, isn’t it? She was cat-sitting so while I was manoeuvring the table out of the front door, her housemates made shushing noises and waved their hands, trying to keep the wriggly inquisitive cat indoors.
After Pride I wonder if the Canal Street jellyfish has been mistaken by anyone for a spilled banner in the water, for something holographic from the hopeful day. And I go back to the delph of the Bridgewater Canal in Salford to look for Emmeline Pankhearst but I can’t see her anywhere. In fact I rarely see any of the babies, but sometimes they nose the water and wrap my ankle in their tentacles, if I’m walking by. And I stoop and kiss their massive heads.
Commissioned by Read Manchester for 6 Minute Reads delivered by the Writing Squad and Manchester Literature Festival in 2017.