Short Fiction

The Pool Ornament

By A. T. Zanker

Danny Virke used to live on the crest of a moderate foothill on the suburban fringe of Moanui. His was an enormous modern villa, built only four or five years before his demise, that boasted views not only of the city but also of the Pacific ocean. His neighbors might only have had views of Danny’s villa, but Danny scoffed at all criticism, claiming that it was the only view that they deserved. After the completion of Montfort, as Danny had christened his new home, I would drive my bashed-up old MG up the hill and recline with Danny on his lawn in the late afternoon. As the light became more raking and the shags foregathered on the russet cliffs, we would get drunk off Danny’s rough red wine and the saline breeze that would softly well up to us from the bay below. At such times, nothing was said – friends as old as we usually don’t need to say anything to one another. Instead, we’d watch the sun descend into Danny’s kidney-shaped pool, and then wade into the water to keep it company, floating on our backs with our glasses resting on our bloated old bellies while we waited for the chill to come.

Danny had lived a muscular and ambitious life, eliciting fear from his enemies and cautious fondness from his friends. According to his own reckoning, he had contributed to the common good adequately enough during his early years at the Department of Internal Revenue that he felt entitled to do the same to his own as a private tax consultant later on. He had been married several times to beautiful, often much younger, women, but had never had any children by them so that in his late sixties he found himself very much alone in the world. If this distressed him at all he hid it successfully, and I personally believe that Danny was incapable of such regrets. There were signs, however, that he was under no delusions as to his own mortality; like the pyramids, like the mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Montfort had been built for the twin purposes of attracting attention and of simply lasting. For Danny knew that he was unlikely to be remembered fondly after he was gone.

Given his pride, the High Court trial of 2001 had hit Danny hard. It wasn’t the jail time or the seizure of the offshore accounts that had hurt him most, but rather the public humiliation. For a year or two he had been crushed with shame, even though I think that all that horrible period actually proved was that his detractors were far lesser men than he. When, in the Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector is slain by Achilles, the lesser Greek warriors run up and marvel at his stature; they then stab his dead body in turn. I would never have suspected Danny’s enemies - and I knew some of them quite well - to have been capable of the cowardly attacks they had made, made both in the press and on the television, if he hadn’t been compromised. The bruising he’d suffered in court, which he had accepted with blank fatalism and a smile, had been aggravated by individuals who would never have dared to stand against him before. Luckily, he still had funds available; it was immediately after his conviction that he had ordered the construction of Montfort on the edge of the city, intending to live out his days there in peace. But his retirement from public life brought with it no privacy, and the blows, though growing less frequent and effective, were still falling years afterwards.

*

Given this short portrait, I’m afraid that I’ve encouraged the conclusion that Danny was nothing but a selfish old playboy who met a duly deserved end; let it be said that, for me at least, the man’s apparent faults were simply misapprehensions of his of his virtues. Up until Danny’s death, I had lived a pellucid, conventional sort of life. I had worked half-heartedly as a history teacher, and had slowly moved up to a position of some authority within the Moanui city council. Simply put, my life had lacked all the vigor that had marked the meteoric rise and fall of Danny’s professional fortunes and the seismic vacillations of his romantic liaisons. The man knew a great deal about joy, and I’ve found that that is a kind of wisdom far rarer and more precious than the most fully developed sense of morality.

*

I remember how, on the night when I first visited the newly built Montfort, Danny’s fish had caught my eye - even before its real significance had become apparent. At the shallow end of Danny’s pool an obsidian plinth rose out of the water, pyramidal in shape and terminating in a thick, bronze pipe. Atop of this pipe sat a terracotta fish, fat and smiling, of poor workmanship. Its size was alarming - about three feet in length and two in width – but what made it truly noteworthy was its gaping mouth, whose corners turned up in a melancholic grin; its sad eyes looked wistfully up at the starry heavens, as if the fish were admitting awareness of its transfixion yet tacitly accepting it at the same time. The sheer voluptuousness of the terracotta gave you the impression that the fish was being impaled on a spit by its own weight. A piscine crucifixion.

I must have looked alarmed, for Danny smiled wryly and indicated that I should follow. We walked back to the balcony, where Danny pushed a button concealed by the vines. Bright halogen lamps in the bottom of the pool went on, illuminating the fish from beneath and causing rippling shadows to play over the crudely incised scales on its belly. The fish became the focal point of Danny’s entire garden – a grotesque, kitsch centerpiece for such a painstakingly designed property. I would have placed this obese article and the common garden gnome in the same cultural category without hesitation, and couldn’t understand why Danny didn’t simply have it removed. But when I turned to face Danny, he laughed strangely and put a finger to his wizened old lips. With his other hand he pressed another button. There was a lethargic gurgling, and then water began to well up out of the fish’s mouth; yet there seemed to be something wrong with the pressure, as the water failed to spurt through the air in an arc but rather flowed down the embarrassed pink cheeks in bubbling rivulets. I almost groaned out loud: it was a pitiful sight, but, as I turned to face my friend, it seemed to me to be not quite as pitiful as the expression on Danny’s face: he was rapt with glee, hooked on the unwholesome spectacle before him.

“I think you’ll agree that it wasn’t the most inspired decorative choice, Ted” Danny said with a chuckle. “But on the whole, I’m glad for the incompetence of my contractors on this particular occasion”.

I asked him what on earth he could possibly mean, why he didn’t simply have the fish taken down and thrown away.

Danny sighed happily. “Because, Ted, I’ve come to the realization that that I feel strong affinities with that fish. The banal, ridiculous thing represents all that I have become, and so I can’t simply throw it away. It is ugly and completely lacking in dignity, but it still has one important use – that of amusing me and of prompting reflection. Soon, perhaps, it will lose even that dubious worth and will become a source of irritation and pain, but then, I think, I’ll know what to do.” Danny paused, and then quickly snapped off the water and the lights. I said nothing.

“Let’s go inside; it’s getting cold”.

*

As the summers came and went, as Danny’s garden matured and his vine began to enmesh the entire villa, the fish ceased to revolt me, and I even found myself growing quite fond of it. When I entered Danny’s back yard with a glass in my hand, the sight of its overwrought suffering was often provocation enough for a quick, ironic smile. There were times, though, when it was obvious that it held a deeper purport for Danny. I would occasionally catch him staring at it from his deckchair, the same puzzling expression upon his face. There was always something disturbing about this, as if there were a third presence in the garden somewhere, and I usually felt the need to interrupt his silent communion as quickly as possible. As soon as he snapped out of it, though, he was his usual lighthearted self, and I even noticed that our drinking was happier and freer than ever before.

“Which are you more afraid of, Ted – guilt or shame?” I remember him asking me one evening. In fact, the question had cropped up before in different forms in our conversations, and I now realize that Danny was preoccupied with it.

“Guilt. Shame doesn’t rankle so deeply. We feel guilty when we know that we have done something morally wrong; in the case of shame, the moral judgment is made by society, not by ourselves. I think it’s probably far easier to stand convicted in the opinion of others than in your own.”

“That’s interesting. I ask because I’ve actually never been able to feel guilt myself. But shame has always been something I’ve dreaded.”

This was a strange answer, but in character. Danny took the conversation no further, and I wasn’t going to push him to. We sat back and looked at the stars.

*

One early evening in late summer I arrived at the usual time and entered the garden to find Danny’s deckchair empty and the fish with a tablecloth draped over it. It had rained in the early afternoon, and the cloth clung to its ample lines in an impertinent manner, stretched and taut with the weight of the water it carried. The ghost that had seemed to haunt the garden before was there no longer. I looked around for Danny, and took a ramble through the lower garden and the villa, although I already knew that I wouldn’t find him. I sat on his porch, resolved on having one last glass of Danny’s wine before leaving, and set my gaze on the fish. I’m not normally one for maudlin thoughts, but this time they came unbidden.� I thought of Danny, who had given up his exhausted interests in Moanui and escaped from his shame at last. I made a brave but futile attempt to feel happy for the man. I forgave myself even for the brief twinge of anger at the fact that Danny had left without saying anything, and let my thoughts drift.

Then a surge of terrible self-pity hit me with the realization that without Danny there was no hope for me. Local politics is rife with petty betrayals, and I thought I’d paid richly in the strong currency of remorse and self-recrimination for not interceding in that decision. But now I felt the guilt was as keen as it was during Danny’s trial, made even worse by the fact that I had never admitted to him my cowardly co-operation with the inquiry committee. He never found out that his best and only friend was at least partly responsible for his being brought to trial. What had been my motive for gutting our friendship? I can’t really say. No money had been offered, and if it had I would probably have rushed to save my friend. Was it some kind of moral quirk that drove me? I’ve only ever been a weakly moral man. To tell the truth, I have no idea why I did what I did. I only know that it was probably the worst decision of my life, and that I seem to have made it for no reason at all.

“How can you come up the hill so often, Ted?” I remembered Danny asking, about three years after his conviction.

“Because I’m retired, Danny, and because Marion doesn’t let me do the gardening”.

“You know what I mean. I’m one of the most despised men in Moanui; I live out here on the edge of town, baiting my neighbors with this giant coffin,”-� he pointed back to the villa - “and yet you still come and visit me. You, out of all my old friends, are the only one to do so”.

“I suppose that when you get to our age there’s something wrong with you if there’s nothing you regret. I’m no saint either, you know, Danny”.

I’m no saint either, you know, Danny. I couldn’t stand it any more. I left the garden quickly, slammed the door of my car, and drove back down the hill.

*

It turned out that Danny’s death brought no wave of suppressed sympathy with it. No one was surprised by this. Yet the howl of public censure that served as his send-off, with all its ugly tinctures of invidiousness, did nothing to undermine my genuine feelings of private sorrow at having lost a life-long friend. But sorrow wasn’t the only impulse: I felt myself beginning to take the attacks made on Danny personally, as if each reproach leveled against my friend were an attack on myself. I was adopting Danny’s crime as my own. I realized that this was ridiculous; Danny had met his downfall because of his own greed and habit of making enemies – and yet, I couldn’t quite absolve myself of all responsibility for it, no matter how I tried. The small polyp of guilt that had been held in check while Danny had remained alive seemed ready to invade every moment of my waking life now that he was dead. Danny’s worst fear had been shame, and it turned out that shame wrecked his life; by the same ironic twist of fate, guilt seems set to wreck mine. The present moment has become my enemy, as it had been his till he felt he could fight against it no longer. I am loved by my family and friends, and widely regarded as a generous man who stood by an old friend long after his name had fallen into disrepute; but at night, just after turning out the light and kissing my wife, I never fail to look through the chink between the curtains at Danny’s fish, covered by a tarpaulin, propped up against my backyard fence.

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The Pool Ornament was published on 12th May, 2009.

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A. T. Zanker Biography »