Unlike other countries, the UK has no statute of limitations on crime.
Because of that, and the nature of this story, I’m not going to reveal my father’s true name or his whereabouts at this very moment
What I can say for sure is that the fish involved in this particular heist have since passed on, via a robust toilet flush, and so can no longer press charges, so for them the story has definitely come to a fin.
But for us, it begins with a magazine, left on the counter of my father’s liquor store by an absent-minded fishkeeper.
Why the fishkeeper forgot his precious periodical, and what exactly excited my father about this particular edition of Tropical Fish Hobbyist, which he obviously failed to return to its original owner, shall remain a mystery to all of us, but within days he was planning the arrival of piscis by the netful.
My mother, who’s only experience with fish involved a folded newspaper and vinegared chips, generally stayed out of the fish-dream process, but did find time to cackle at my father’s enthusiasm in the same way she laughed at his photography phase and his pipe-smoking period, pooh-poohing his perpetual probing for the perfect pastime passion.
For my part, I’d lived through the coming and going of many of these moments of interest, and so it was with some reluctance that I helped him make ready a table in the corner of the small living room, replete with a black velvet cover that hid the underneath workings of the phantom tank, for the imminent birth of hobby number nine.
A parturition we must thank Jeanne Villepreux-Power for, who created the first ever aquarium in 1832, for the specific goal of studying and building knowledge of aquatic organisms and marine life, burdening her with the catchy title of the ‘Mother of Aquariophily’.
A decade or so later, the British marine biologist Anna Constantia Thynne, or Lady John Thynne to the household staff, created the first stable aquarium, in which she kept corals and sponges for over three years.
And finally, the chemist Robert Warrington, who built a thirteen-gallon container which held goldfish and snails, added plants like eelgrass, explaining quite correctly that fauna added to the water would give off enough oxygen to support animals.
After that it was a small step from the Great Exhibition of 1851 where Victorian aquaria with ornate cast-iron cases were on show, to my father’s store in Marylebone, just thirteen noisy and mind-agitating kilometres across the post-Roman capital of the land of the Angles, where my father was finalizing our trip to the fish centre.
With a light rain and a heavy atmosphere, the four of us - my cackling mother, my young obnoxious brother moaning about not having more time to be obnoxious, me, trying to be supportive of my father and his searching-for-purpose activity, and my father, driving us steadily through the urban hell on his searching-for-purpose activity - exited London in the green Chrysler 180/2 litre.
While it was two women who developed the aquarium, it was two men who made them popular, stealing the idea from the gender still seen to be inferior in the regressive queendom. First, Philip Henry Gosse, who built the first public aquarium at London Zoo, coining the phrase aquarium in his book, The Aquariums: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Water, and Edward Edwards, who’s cruel parents inadvertently drove him to develop and patent his ‘dark-water-chamber slope-back tank’, with its water circulator to keep the fish fresh.
We were feeling fresher too, having left the polluted city, and sitting in an almost meditative silence until we arrived at the fish store, which was actually a garden centre in a field of gravel, and my father got out and skipped to the entrance, and we all followed, twenty steps behind him.
Inside, a wonder of gardening greeted us, with the obligatory dripping-water urination-inducing sound from the gaudy resin fountain. Mixed mixed-seed packets, herbaceous border plants that had begun to accept they would live where they’d been placed, large metal butterflies that you stuck in the garden to imitate large metal butterflies, and ugly fat gnomes, one of which directed us to the fish area.
Where, my father set about collecting all the paraphernalia he needed to make his much-planned and dreamt-of project a reality. In a huge tank he chose to house his specimens, he placed a water filter, lighting strips, white gravel and a gravel washer, a dechlorinating water conditioner, a small net, fish food, and, of course, the fish themselves, each in a small plastic container with a sealed cover for the trans-terra journey.
With all that resting on an ungainly flatbed trolley, we waited in a very long line to pay, before my mother, losing any patience that she'd ever had with untidy assistants that took forever to do anything, made loud huffing noises, spun on her sticks while waving a spindly finger in the general direction of outside, and ordered us to march toward the car, which we did, leaving my forlorn father and his tank-full of treasure in the line to pay.
In the Chrysler we sat in silence, mainly because my mother hated music as well as humanity, and because the anticipation of the trip back and the setting up of the tank, and the knowledge that it would be harder than we all knew my father thought it would be, and the arguments that would consequently ensue, filled us all with terror.
The rain fell, our hopes fell, my mother’s jaw fell, but we strapped it back up, in Jacob Marleyesque fashion.
What didn’t fall, quite unexpectedly, was my father, as he suddenly emerged from the garden centre, carrying the tank and running across the wet gravel. Mesmerized, we watched in confusion as he stumbled quickly closer, and realized he was mouthing something to my mother, who’d rolled the window down to better hear her beloved as he wobbled towards her, his polyester pants threatening to fall at any moment.
At some point my mother, attuned to his voice, heard him say ‘boot, open the boot', because she repeated those words to us quietly, as if making sure they made sense, before saying them again louder, with urgency, and leaping from the passenger seat to move quickly to open the large trunk of the car.
My brother and I watched her stand there as he approached, before hearing him clearly now shout, ‘get in, get back in’, which she did after a quick shudder of understanding, and slammed her door hard.
I felt the heavy tank go into the boot, heard it slam shut, and followed the quick footsteps of my agitated father on the gravel, as he clawed his way around the vehicle and slid into the driver's seat, starting the engine and shoving the car into gear at the same moment, almost like a getaway driver.
Which, of course, he was.
German aquarists switched into overdrive too, when the aquarium craze had begun to wane in Britain, and stole the mantle of aquaria, furthering the hobby with books like the 1856 Der See im Glase, or, The Lake in a Glass, which spurned the founding of the first organizations and societies for fishkeepers across the globe.
In turn, the United States then stole the origin of the aquarium, in an 1858 issue of The North American Review, asserting that one William Stimson owned the first functional aquarium, which of course he didn’t.
While that claim was certainly hyperbole, it's not an exaggeration to say we flew very speedily along in that 1978 Chrysler, ignoring things like road signs and pedestrians, until my father uttered the only words he offered on that journey home.
‘We’re clear,’ he said, and ‘they were too slow, I couldn’t wait any longer.’
My brother, still too young and obnoxious to really understand what had happened, and my mother, too dumbstruck to reflect on my fathers impulsive crime, and me, too mature to not realize this just wasn’t normal, sat there silently.
The car droned on. The rain still fell. The tank wobbled in the back.
And, the Siamese fighting fish planned its fatal attack on every other fish it could see through its small, round, temporary plastic container.
photo by Neha Pandey