You go to the market to get fish. There is a place that plays dub-reggae music, regardless of the weather or time of day. The men there recognise you by now and keep a few buckets of fins and bladders under one of the tables. You’ve been a good customer to them in the past, so these slops are free of charge although you occasionally offer a fiver which is generally accepted. One of the men knows you by name, his is James. When you walk to the stall James is bent over a frozen tray of cod, using his right hand to skim the excess water onto the street. He sees you and nods. His head is large and bald and the nod he gives you is slight, which you suspect is due to the weight of his skull. He motions for you to come towards him and you do so. It is early and you have not yet eaten any breakfast so the smell of fish makes the back of your throat tighten and your stomach ripple. James does not say a great deal but he does ask how you have been and you reply as you always do that you have been well. He nods again and looks at the two buckets under the table, which you take as a signal that he wants you to pick them up. You bend over and pick up the two buckets of wet slops, although James’ silence and the oddly slow manner in which you lift the buckets makes this transaction feel troublingly significant. You tell yourself that this is not the case and focus on straightening your back. You do not have five pounds on you today, and although James doesn’t ask for it you notice that he looks slightly forlorn and you are unable to decide whether this is due to you not offering him any money or is down to some other unrelated reason. Impulsively you ask him if everything is okay. He looks you in the eye, pauses, then quickly says that he has money troubles. You assume that he means the five pounds and apologise for not having any cash on you. You say you’ll bring five pounds with you tomorrow, but he says it isn’t the five pounds; in fact he owes a lot of money to his landlord and doesn’t know how he is going to pay it. This is the most James has ever said to you and you are surprisingly pleased with this; you feel accepted by this man who sells fish and you stand with two buckets of slops like a person who belongs completely in this situation. James continues to talk about his landlord, about how strict he is with payments and about how James shouldn’t have to pay him when he doesn’t come over in the winter when the pipes are all frozen and he can’t turn the shower on. You ask whether there is anything you can do to help, which you do not really mean, but you ask it anyway. He doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, but eventually he looks at you and says that there isn’t anything you can do about it, and that he’ll have to get the money somehow. You wish him well and begin to walk back on the road towards your house.
You walk away from the market behind a man in a black and red tracksuit walking a large, muscular dog attached to a chain leash. The hind legs of the dog stretch and quiver as it moves forwards and you remember reading in a magazine that some dogs lock their jaws when they bite and that the only possible way to get it to let go of you is to stick a finger up its bum. You suddenly notice the presence of James walking beside you. This causes you to stop and you ask whether you left anything at the market-place. He says that you didn’t, that he only came to help you carry the buckets back to your home. You have always carried the buckets on your own and although you may not be particularly strong you have always managed it without a problem. You say to James that you are alright with the buckets and he gestures towards the pavement which is wet with slop. You look towards the market and see that you have been spilling splashes of liquid for a while. Although you are not sure why James is helping you, you feel embarrassed enough to accept his offer and he grabs hold of one of the buckets by the handle. You both walk behind the man with his dog and you ask James what he knows about getting a dog to let go of you once it’s locked its jaws around your leg. He suggests punching it in the nose, which he says also works for sharks, and you tell him that apparently you have to stick a finger up its bum. James gives you an odd look and asks with great sincerity why you would ever do that.
You reach your house, which you rent with your wife, and place the bucket on the ground while you search the outer pocket of your jacket for your keys. You thank James for his help and make a joke about fish that he doesn’t laugh at. He has the forlorn look in his eyes again and you aren’t sure what to do so you invite him inside for a cup of tea which he eagerly accepts. You both enter and make your way to the kitchen. James asks whether he should take his shoes off and you hesitate but in the end say that he doesn’t need to. You boil a kettle while he stands looking at the magnetised letters on your fridge which spell out ‘BATMAM’. You tell him that you couldn’t find any ‘N’s and he nods. You pour the boiling water into the cups and ask him if he wants sugar, he says he does and you ask ‘milk?’ and he says ‘yes’. You hand him his cup of tea and he asks you if you are married. You tell him you are and he asks where your wife is. You tell him that your wife is out at work. He asks what you do for work and you are beginning to get annoyed with all these questions but you tell him that since you lost your job you’ve mostly been staying at home, working on things. Naturally he asks you what these things are and you tell him that you can show him but that he should finish his tea first. As you say this you notice that he has fashioned a letter ‘N’ from three letter ‘I’s. James is happy that you have noticed and smiles openly for the first time that day.
You close the door to the basement behind you. You thank James for carrying the two buckets down the stairs and then flick the light-switch on to reveal a large tank of water. James takes this opportunity to tell you that it really means a lot to him that you’ve let him into your house, that he really needed something to take his mind off the problems with his landlord, and that he is very grateful for the tea you have given him. You tell him that it’s okay and turn to walk towards the large tank of water that rests in the middle of the room, the sides of which are made from sleek, dark-blue rubber. Standing next to the pool (the sides of it reach up to your chest) you use the palm of your right hand to gently slap the surface of the water. James is watching and he says that you have done a good job in making such a large tank, and although you causally thank him for the compliment you are secretly proud of what he has said. There is a dolphin on the opposite side of the tank and the slapping on the water causes it to slowly move towards your hand and nudge the tip of its nose against your index finger. It makes a noise somewhere between a squeak and a crack which James imitates and you gently pat its nose which causes it to make the noise once more which James again imitates. There is as raised platform next to one of the walls of the basement, and on the platform is an old brown sofa. You motion for James to sit on the sofa while you move towards one of the buckets of slops. You pick up a slimy piece of fin and keep it snuggly in the palm of your left hand while you move back to the tank and slap the surface of the water two times. At this signal the dolphin moves into the centre of the pool where it dives downwards so that only its tail is above the surface. With a practised effort it begins to shake its tail backwards and forwards, as if it is waving, which causes James to become suddenly animated and shriek with joy. The dolphin swims towards the side of the tank and you drop the piece of fin into its open mouth. You clap your hands three times and the dolphin swims back into the centre of the water and this time it twirls around like a spinning top before coming back to the edge of the pool. You pick up another piece from the slop-bucket and slide it from your palm into the dolphin’s mouth. The dolphin cackles and James whoops and laughs and slaps his thigh. You clap loudly four times and the dolphin disappears beneath the surface of the water. Sweeping dramatically to the other side of the pool, you pull a piece of thin rope hanging from an overhead beam. As you do so a red hula-hoop descends towards the pool, like a plastic celestial halo. James is silent in anticipation although his breathing is heavy from all the excitement. With a sudden rush the dolphin breaches the water’s surface and flies upward through the air towards the red hula-hoop. It passes cleanly through the hoop and descents back into the water with a splash. For a split-second James is completely speechless, but then with a vital energy he stands and shouts ‘Yes’, over and over again. You are happy that the routine has impressed him, and as his shouts of ‘Yes’ become fainter, you are left with a glowing warmth and tell yourself that you made the right decision to train a dolphin. James wants to see more, but you tell him that the dolphin needs a break which he eventually accepts. He asks you whether you have anything to drink which catches you slightly off guard but you are still feeling happy with the performance and tell him that you have some beer in the fridge upstairs.
The lack of natural light in the basement makes it hard to tell what time it is, and your head is feeling heavy so you rest it on the back of the brown sofa. James is telling you about a long-term girlfriend who recently left him. He tells you that they used to share the flat and that they were very happy together and had bought all types of furniture, but now that he is alone he can’t afford the rent and he doesn’t know what to do with all the furniture. He tells you that you are very lucky to be married and that you should treasure your wife and never take a single day of your life together for granted. He says that it is a great thing to be in love and then he bends over and begins to cry. You feel a great surge of love for this man and you gently pat his large back and tell him not to worry and that it will all work out in the end. After a few seconds he raises his head and sniffs and says thank you. His eyes look sore and wet and his lips are coated in drool but you smile with genuine affection and place your hand on his shoulder. He finishes his beer in one large gulp and casually drops the empty can onto the floor with the others before reaching to the side of the sofa for a fresh one. You have also drunk quite a bit but are now feeling sleepy so you rest your head on the back of the sofa and stare at the tank of water. You can see James’ face out of the corner of your vision and he is also looking at the tank but with that forlorn expression. You take it upon yourself to break the silence and begin to tell him about how you managed to train the dolphin after reading a book on the subject; about how it’s fascinating to learn about how, when broken in manageable steps, you can train a dolphin to do a very complex routine. James does not respond but continues to look dejectedly at the tank and raise the beer-can in his hand which is shaking slightly. Not knowing what else to do, you continue to talk about the process of training a dolphin and then say that maybe it is getting late and that maybe James should make his way back home or to the market stall. James says he saw a dolphin on a TV show once and in that show they had a child go into the water and then the dolphin went under the child and lifted the child before swimming around the edge of the pool. You say that you have also seen that and James asks whether your dolphin can do it. You fumble for words but eventually say that you have never practised it with the dolphin and that the dolphin is unable to do such a thing without proper training. James grins and eagerly asks whether he can train the dolphin to do it now, which you say is definitely not a good idea and that you should both probably go upstairs. James is now standing and taking his t-shirt off, followed by his trousers and socks and underpants. You are surprised with the speed of this action and can now see his cock, which is gigantic and the head of it looks like a purple version of his skull. You ask him what he is doing but he has already run towards the tank and is gleefully scrambling over the rubber sides, causing water to spill onto the floor of the basement. You stand and begin to run over to the tank to stop him, but you forget that you are on a platform and fall to a ground with a crash.
You pick yourself off the ground and feel a sharp hotness from your lower lip which is torn and bleeding down your chin and onto your clothes. You cup the lip with your left hand and feel that the cut isn’t too deep but it definitely hurts and makes it hard for you to shout clearly to James who is standing still at the inner edge of the pool. The dolphin is on the other side of the tank, staring intently at the naked man opposite it. You move to grab James’ shoulders and pull him back towards you but he sweeps your hands aside and tells you that he works with fish for a living. You tell him that dolphins are mammals but because your lip is cut the words come out slurred and elongated and sound more like ‘door frames and murmurs’. With his back to you he takes a step forwards and gently pats the water and makes a cooing sound. The dolphin remains where it is; its mouth slightly open like it has told a joke and is waiting for a reaction. Both of its small black eyes are fixed on James and you decide that you will never really know what animals think. James pats the water once again, but the dolphin continues to stare without sound or movement. James pats the water with a greater intensity, and when the dolphin still refuses to move his shoulders visibly sink. You tell him that things will get better and that he should come out of the pool and that you will call him a taxi so he can get home okay. He must have understood what you said because he begins to shout about how he doesn’t want to go home. He shouts about how his landlord will be there waiting for him with a knife and how he will be living like a rat on the streets any day now. His body trembles and you see the strength of his shoulders fall apart. He quietly tells you that all he wants right now is to be like the child in that show who rode on a dolphin’s back. He moves forward in the water and the dolphin is now squeaking and splashing away from James towards the edges of the tank. You grab the side of the pool and try to pull yourself up but the rubber is slippery and it is hard to get a good grip. James now has both arms around the dolphin and is struggling to wrap his legs around its body. The noises the dolphin is making are guttural and piercing and occasionally muffled as its head is pushed into the water. You manage to climb the edge of the pool and throw yourself in but your clothes make it hard for you to move quickly and now James is punching the dolphin in the face. You reach his naked body and use both hands to pull him away from the squealing animal but his grip is tight and his skin is wet and you fall backwards. You try to hit him in the back of his bald head but all this does is make him weep and shake as his face is pressed tightly against the grey surface of the dolphin. You stare at this man as he desperately clings to a terrified sea-mammal and you feel your heart break. The dolphin’s tail is splashing so much water that it makes it hard to see anything, but you can see James’ back and you can see his spine snaking down towards his coccyx. You watch as the muscles of his buttocks stretch and quiver under his skin and before you know what you are doing you have forced an index finger inside his anus and are pushing with all the force you can muster. James lets out a loud wail but continues to hold onto the dolphin so you jab the finger roughly in and out; your elbow is slapping hard against the surface of the water which hurts slightly but you do not care and can only think of that repeated jabbing motion as your fingers push angrily and irrevocably forward. With a last, forceful drive you finally manage what you wanted and James releases the body of the dolphin which floats towards the walls of the tank. Both of your breathing is heavy and both of you are shaking, and you watch the ripples of the water become less and less present until the surface is completely still. Eventually James moves towards the edge of the tank before climbing onto the wet floor of the basement. He quietly puts his clothes back on and says that he is sorry. You do not really know how to reply to this as your mind is spinning but you say that you have five pounds upstairs if he would like it. He says he doesn’t and instead walks over to the sofa.
You sit next to James and you look at the two buckets of slop and you decide that tomorrow you will throw the contents of the buckets into the toilet. Just as you come to this decision James passes you a can of beer and in complete silence you both watch the lifeless body of the dolphin drift from one side of the pool to the other.