What colour is a goldfish? 

It’s that little bit of time I look forward to all day.

Those couple of golden hours as the sun sets. My son is settled in bed, I cuddle up with my wife on the sofa. We open a bottle of wine and check out the latest offering from Netflix. We’re both pleasingly tired.

I love doing all the daddy things but they sharpen the mood for that little bit of nighttime respite. Swapping our stories of the day, the adventures, the struggles. There’s a special sort of intimacy in the muffled laughter.

I’ve found that elusive comfy spot on the sofa. Life is good.

And then it begins.

First a jangly noise like mischievous fingers running through a wind-chime, like promises being sprinkled. And then the voice.

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

It’s immediately familiar. Not welcome. A voice from long ago, something I’d tried to bury deep in my mind. I haven’t heard it in….God, it must be more than a year. Again.

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

The voice is high pitched but strangely mechanical, almost sinister in its jollity. I’m not fooled. A third time.

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

I crack first. Of course. I shift from my comfy spot.

‘It’s that feckin’ wand! I thought we threw it out long ago?’

Maybe two years back we bought our son the Holly Wand. It seemed reasonable at the time. He was going through a Ben and Holly phase. How were we to know?

Now after months of silence it has awoken, like a hedgehog from hibernation. I suppose I always knew it would. I pause the TV and begin to search. I have to find it, to engage the old foe once again.

My wife gives me one of her thin smiles, as if to say ‘Your eccentricities were adorable for the first seven or eight years but now….’

I’m going through the toy boxes, but it’s not there. The voice again, taunting me.

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

I’m now flat on my face, manoeuvring myself under the sofa like a crab. I know I’ve already lost the war but I keep going. Eventually I locate it in the darkest corner, unknown to the hoover.

I struggle back out, covered in dust. There’s a cobweb in my hair. I hold it up in triumph. A purple staff with a star-shaped head, a kaleidoscope of glowing colours and buttons. That mocking smile and the eyes which follow you everywhere.

The batteries in all of my son’s other toys seem to run out with disappointing regularity. Sometimes it seems that I’ve scarcely screwed the cap back onto a toy when it needs replaced again. My life is a procession of episodes where my son is holding a toy up to me, his little face crossed with sorrow, and I’m searching for my screwdriver.

But not the wand. No, the batteries in it seem determined to run forever. I know they want to outlast me, to be there when I’m in a hospital bed struggling with my last breaths, still asking me about the bloody goldfish.

I have a vague furry memory of trying to remove the batteries at some point. Did I actually succeed? I decide its best not to think that way.

There are a couple of scratches at the edge of the wand, perhaps caused by me banging it off a table.

My wife wants to bring us back to the place we were.

‘Well done honey, the wee man will be delighted you’ve found his wand.’

But I know it’s not over. I wait. This time the wand cracks.

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

I press the button which seems most to resemble gold. There’s a moment of silence, pregnant with tension.

Then.

‘Oh, that’s not right, I’m sure you’ll get it next time.’

Arrghhhhh!

My wife puts her hand on my shoulder. She is reassuringly calm.

‘Come on honey, leave the wand in the kitchen and let’s get back to the programme.’

I obey but it’s not quite the same. I can’t hold my concentration. The comfy spot on the sofa has disappeared. I can still hear it talking to me. I know that when it starts there is no place in the house where you can’t hear the wand. There is no hiding place.

I’m subdued for the rest of the evening and eventually we give up and go to bed. I lie on top of the covers. Eventually I drift off into a troubled sleep.

I awake with a jolt and a sense that something is not right. I don’t know what time it is but I know from the depth of the dark that we’re right in the heart of the night. We’re all at our most vulnerable now. I’m a little afraid.

I wait. Then.

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

I sit upright. The night is cool but I’m sweating.

I check my wife and son. Both asleep, peaceful and serene. For a moment I think perhaps I’m the only one who hears the voice, maybe it’s in my head? Don’t go there.

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

I know sleep is a hopeless quest now. The time has come. The reckoning is upon me.

I go down the stairs, my feet heavy, I don’t even think of the lights. I’m at my most primitive.

I enter the kitchen. It’s on the table, glowing. Throbbing with menace. It’s only in the dark that you can see its full terrible, magnificent glory. Lit up like a fireworks display, a beautiful, malevolent force.

I lift it. Is the smile a little wider? Have the corners of the mouth curled just a bit?

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

I hit the golden button before it has even finished the question.

‘Oh, that’s not right. I’m sure you’ll get it next time.’

I hit every button on the wand. I’m happy to concede that a goldfish is purple, green, anything, just let it be over. But it’s always the same.

‘Oh, that’s not right. I’m sure you’ll get it next time.’

I sink to my knees, holding the wand in front of me like a sacred cross. Its power is absolute. I might be crying.

‘What colour is a goldfish?’

The last thread of civilisation snaps. I start to roar.

‘It’s gold! It’s gold! Can’t you feckin’ see that it’s gold? The feckin’ clue’s in the name.’

The glowing stops. Everything is dark. Quiet. I can hear my own breathing, deep and panicked at first, before it starts to slow. For a moment I dare to hope. Then.

‘Oh, that’s not right. I’m sure you’ll get it next time.’

I go back to bed. I feel strangely ecstatic. Perhaps once you’ve danced with the devil then there’s nothing else to be afraid of.

I start to laugh, stuffing the duvet into my mouth so as not to disturb my wife.

Finally I understand, it’s clear at last what the wand is telling me. Question everything that you think you know, banish all certainties. What colour is a goldfish? I ain’t got a feckin’ clue.

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