The corpse of the goldfish bobbed quietly sideways on the surface of the water, nudging every so often against the wall of the tank. White flesh bloated out from between the scales, eyes like eggs fried to opacity.
Old fluorescent bulbs dappled feeble light across the dim surface, which was choked with algae. Evaporation had long since left a cruft of dried duckweed and mineral deposits, now several inches above the waterline. The filter pump dribbled onto humps of algae and gave no circulation. The thin plastic case of the pump resonated in sympathy with the impeller inside it, whining as the blades fought to turn.
Above the tank, a small shelf was bracketed to the wall, and held a series of box files and a framed photograph. A layer of dust made the image difficult to make out. Two standing metal shelves, each of riveted, skeletal grey, stood against the two adjacent walls, bearing various ageing stationary. A damp furl of yellow envelopes poked wetly from a row of stuffed boxes; on the shelf below a carton of rusty staples had spilt. The air had a waxy reek and felt like breathing through cloth.
The walls were cinderblock, around 7 feet apart from each other, and had not seen any decoration beyond a simple whitewash over the brickwork. A paper guillotine stood leaning on-end, against dried up paint pots and a scuffed yellow plastic hoop.
David stared for a while, kneeling on the floor tiles, his eyes inches from the tank’s glass wall. A flush spread across his cheeks. This was going to take some explaining.
“Joyce, come and have a look at this!”
He called for his colleague, shouting above the deadening blackness of the room. The silence was made deeper by a muffled vacuum cleaner being switched off. He hadn’t even registered it, but now the dull roar had stopped. For a few seconds the only sound was the piss-trickle from the knackered pump.
“Did you say something, Dave?” A muffled voice drifted in through the gap between the frame and the door. It had almost closed behind him but he’d been too engrossed to realise.
“I said -” He realised he was still shouting. “I said, you’d better come and have a look at this.”
The door opened, flooding the small room with light. Motes of dust swam in drifts, filling the air. David rose cringing to his feet, turning to squint against the light. Joyce’s smooth silhouette gradually filled in with crooked detail as his eyes adjusted.
“Sorry Dave,” Joyce grinned. What’s up?”
“They aren’t going to like it.”
“You’d better see for yourself.”
“Yeah, well, I’m trying to see for myself aren’t I, but you’re in th-” She caught sight of the floating shape in the tank.
“Oh fuck. For six weeks?”
“You know what that’s going to be don’t you?” The note of calm she tried to put into her voice was crowded out by several unpleasant overtones of rising panic. David watched as she put one palm to her forehead and the other to the small of her back.
“It’s going to be a fucking nightmare, that‘s what it‘s going to be.”
“Can’t we just get a new one? It’s not like they don’t all look the same anyway, is it?”
Joyce looked at him with practiced cynicism. “Of course they’ll know. Christ knows how they’ll know, but they’ll know. Of course they’ll know, and you’ll never hear the end of it, believe me.”
“But how can they know?” David felt the blush on his cheeks return with force, and the prickly hotness stung the palms of his hands. He wiped them on his overalls and swallowed thickly.
“Believe me- I said believe me, didn‘t I? If there’s one lot you can’t fool -”
Grainy air sifted across the shaft of light from the doorway.
David shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looked at his shoes and frowned.
“I tell you what though,” he looked up again at Joyce. “It‘s not our problem.”
“How’d you work that one out ?”
“Well look, I never saw a thing. Did you?”
Joyce’s eyes narrowed.
“You’d really do that as well wouldn’t you?” She folded her arms to her chest.
David picked at a box of envelopes for a while, pretending to think.
“He’s the one that left it here all summer, not us.”
“That’s true.” Joyce turned to face the doorway. David stared at the back of her head.
“Either way, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes tomorrow morning, eh?”
With a snort, David followed her out from the stock cupboard and into the main classroom, where the recently mopped floor sucked at his shoe soles. The darkness swung shut behind them, and soon the vacuum boomed dully through the walls once more.