It is half wall, half aquarium. A meter and a half long and only 10 centimeters wide; it separates the waiting room from one of the several treatment rooms in the busy dentist surgery. I guess that it is a curiosity: a means of keeping the waiting patients occupied. There are no magazines about and for that I am grateful. I do not wish to know about some soap star’s secret hell. I want to watch the fish. The curiosity works for me.
The fish dart along the length of the aquarium. There is little else for them to do. There is no width to their prison, only length.
I ponder the ethics. The aquarium designed to be a wall first, a habitat second: it cannot be a proper home for the fish within. Nevertheless I watch them. The 50 something woman sitting next to me; through an unnaturally black dyed fringe, she watches them too. The two children Fleur and Imogen climbing up and down from the last vacant seat in the waiting room whilst their au pair tries to engage them in a storybook she produces from a canvas bag; they are watching them.
There is a sudden disturbance to the jerking rhythm of the fishes’ collective movement. A triangular-shaped yellow and white one heads for the upper right hand corner of the long thin glass tank. The others dart and flash to follow. Now all the fish are crammed in one end. I wonder if the yellow triangular one thought it has seen an exit; a way out of the book-shaped hell. There is urgency and energy inside the glass pane. They remain momentarily and in an instant they realise there is nothing to be alarmed about. They disperse.
The nurse calls in the woman with the raven-dyed hair. Fleur and Imogen are called into another room. I am not a person who fears trips to the dentist but I imagine the fish are a calming influence. The yellow triangular fish darts again for the upper right hand corner. The others follow in haste. There is nothing. I remember that fact that fish have a 5 second memory. It explains it. To the yellow fish and his followers, the clamorous shift down the length is a new experience. They follow in hope that a way out of the cruelly shaped box has been found. Their tiny brains hold no memory of their previous failures, only faith that they will swim from this dentist’s waiting room and into the warm southern seas.
Easter has finished. Easter and Christmas both changed for me a few years back. In omne tempus, dear readers. My trip to the Holy Land, to the iconic sites now permeates the familiar and comfortable stories of Christ. The scenes that played out in my mind’s eye for the first 45 years of my life were those of the Sunday School comics of my childhood. No longer. Now Bethlehem, Gethsemane, Calvary are real places, tangible backdrops to the consistency of the stories.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands inside the old walled city of Jerusalem. Access is via the old city’s labyrinth of stone market places, stairways leading to secret rooftops and the smell of spice and rotting flesh. Two millennia have past but two sites inside the church are venerated and enshrined within as the place of the Crucifixion and the sepulchre where He rose from death. I entered one day in May 2008 and climbed the steep stairs to the site of Calvary. Whether the spot is genuine or the convenient appointment of some medieval monk didn’t matter. The air around the shrine was heavy with prayer. Several pilgrims/tourists milled around in unenforced silence, each with their own reason for being there. It was the centre of the universe for the icon of the cross; the most widely recognised icon in civilisation.
And as I descended the steep steps I was surprised to see the tomb itself, so near, in fact suspiciously near the site of Golgotha.
I queued patiently behind a velvet rope which snaked and wound its way behind the great detached stone box in the centre of the cathedral. Pilgrims were admitted two at a time into the inner sanctum and left to their individual devotions for about 30 seconds. Then the guards at the entrance would hurry the pilgrims on as summon the next pair to enter.
I entered the candle lit inner chamber and stood before the slab which reputedly held His Body. It was a stone slab about 2 meters long and a meter wide. It was 10 centimetres thick, no more.
My instinct was to sink to my knees and to spread my arms wide. I laid my upper body on the stone slab and placed my right cheek on the surface.
I expected coldness. For some reason I expected coldness. Science, experience, logic has taught me that stone was cold to the touch.
The stone was warm.
I ran my hands along the stone without lifting my face and felt the warmth fill me. The feeling surprised and startled me. I had entered with hope that I would experience something to affirm my faith. I expected the cold of the grave. I experienced the warmth of hope turned to faith.
Four years later I am 2500 miles away from the old walled city. I am in a dentist’s waiting room watching the fish slide along a strange shaped aquarium that brought to mind the shape of the slab in the Holy Sepulchre. The fish dart to the upper corner in the hope there is something better beyond the limiting and stifling tank. Thirty seconds later they dart to the corner again. It is Hope I am watching. But I am wrong. I think of the great stone radiating heat and realise I am wrong.
They are certain that the warm sea is just beyond. Hope is uncertain. Faith is certain. It is faith I am watching.
Keep the Faith,