“The sky is falling!” I cried. “It’s falling fast!”
“It’s falling into the ocean.”
And everyone watched as the sun sank into the sea, and the moon laughed from the clouds, and the people cried until salt water came up to their chins.
“The water wants our words,” they said. “It can’t have them!”
The alphabet ran rivers from their mouths.
“Don’t fight it,” I said, swimming between them. “In a past life, we were jellyfish. And just look at us now.
‘You’ll get used to it. Learn to float.
……………………Lie back.
…………………………….Take steadying breaths.
……………………………………..It’s all going to be OK”

Welcome to the aquarium.
I work here on Saturdays.
Here, we like the colour blue.
Some scientists argue that ancient civilisations couldn’t see the colour blue because they didn’t have a name for it. Then the Egyptians started to paint the sky on everything.Their blue had a luminescence, a halo. Lighting up under microscopes like fragments of outer space.

Let’s talk about cosmic dust. As much as 40,000 tonnes of it rains down on us every year. Some of it falls from planetary rings, which would explain why I feel like I’m standing inside an orb most of the time. I stretch out my arms and touch all of the things I cannot see.
Other people can’t see them, either. They ignore my galactic rules and invade my personal space.

In the sea, instead of cosmic dust, there is something called marine snow. White flakes of dead fish that trickle down into the darkness to feed those below.
Like standing out in the rain and sticking out your tongue.
The dead skin of stars and the dead skin of Pisces.
Hello, Aquarius.
We are all made of starfish.

In the sea, we lose our colour, the deeper we go. Until skin becomes transparent and not-quite-there. Ghost shrimp, and glass squids… organs blooming in fluorescent lights, and bodies floating like brains.”

Sometimes, people look at me strangely. They are very wary about touching the headsets I hand out to them at work, in case I’ve contaminated them somehow.
I was born with my fingers joined together, but now they are separated. Scars scatter my hands like nets, caught by science. I’m missing some of them, too.
Sometimes I tell people sharks ate my fingers, just to see the looks on their faces.
I was given a written warning at work for saying that, in case customers thought that we’d broken health and safety rules.
“Welcome to the aquarium, where sharks will not eat your fingers.”
My toes are joined together, too.
I pass a headset to a woman and her two children, and she holds it, gingerly, at arm’s length, glaring. The head­phones pincered between two fingers. Like a crab.

Just keep swimming.

Sometimes people get annoyed because David Attenborough doesn’t narrate the audio tour.
They ask me for a refund.
“I’m afraid we have a no refund policy.”
Sometimes people ask me if we have freed the angry orcas yet, and I have to say:
“We are not affiliated with SeaWorld.”
But they don’t believe the girl with missing fingers.
I suppose that’s fair enough, considering my lie about the shark.

Sharks are fascinating creatures.

The goblin shark lives near the bottom of the ocean. Like the narwhal, he is a unicorn of the deep. One of the many unicorns we dismiss as ‘not real’ because he doesn’t shine with the beauty we imagine imperative. Instead, scien­tists call him a living fossil; they’re not sure why evolution has let him pass. He is death, swimming out of sight. A fairy tale, his skin crinkled and pink, as though just born. Sometimes, fishermen accidentally haul him to the surface and hurriedly throw him back. No one wants an ugly history, dying, on the deck of their ship.

Antarctic icefish larva. Uwe Kils/Wikimedia Commons

In the sea, we lose our colour, the deeper we go. Until skin becomes transparent and not-quite-there. Ghost shrimp, and glass squids. Vases of the deep: organs blooming in fluorescent lights, and bodies floating like brains. If the sea is the sky, these are our aliens.
I like to sit at the bottom of the bath to see if I lose my colour, too.
When I am half asleep, I like to talk to myself as though I am underwater.
When it rains, I stand outside and wait for my scales to show.
Crocodile icefish live in the depths of Antarctica. Swimming stars with transparent blood. They have no haemoglobin or myoglobin so, beneath their jelly skin, you can see them pulsing. Musical fish, beating, with bright, white hearts.
We don’t have many exotic fish at the aquarium. But we do have mantis shrimp. You might not think that’s exciting, but it is. They are the size of a finger, and have the most complex vision of any living creature we know. Humans have just three colour cones. We see blue and red and green and all of the colours those can blend. Butterflies have five colour cones, and their rainbows are brighter. The mantis shrimp has sixteen, and we have no idea what their world looks like. Colours that don’t have names slinking across the waves.
The mantis shrimp can also eat octopuses, and even break aquarium walls.
We keep a very close eye on them.

Scientists believe that some women have four colour cones. That their skies look different. That their blues are more varied.”

Scientists have invented an injection for colour. It hasn’t been tried on humans yet, only monkeys. A cure for colour-blindness.
My dad is colour-blind.
Scientists also believe that some women have four colour cones. That their skies look different. That their blues are more varied. Colour enthusiasts chase these women all over the world. We have an obsession with things just out of our reach.
I’m sure that gravity has a colour.
I like to think that colours were created by children, somewhere. Breathing names out into the dark.
When I was small, I saw a documentary where a blind man regained his sight, and he looked down at his black jeans and said to his wife: “You told me these were green. Green’s my favourite colour.”
And she laughed and said, “I wasn’t going to let you wear green jeans. And, anyway, I thought you’d never know.”
He’d had those jeans for six years.

Did you know there is a shade of blue called Space Cadet?
And did you know that, in China, shades of blue are called shallow or deep, not light or dark?
Our aquarium uniforms are orange. They are not very flattering.

My favourite tank is the water tunnel. A huge pool full of squid and stingray. The public walk beneath it, surrounded by water above and around, so they can imagine that they are at the bottom of the sea. I watch children run from one end to the other, holding their breath the whole way. Giggling nervously, tapping the glass to make sure that it’s strong enough.
“This is like a submarine!” a young boy cries, colliding with my leg.
He doesn’t apologise.
When Finding Nemo was released we had our busiest weekend ever.
“Excuse me,” his mother says. “Are any of these fish for sale?”

Transparent zebra fish are used for cancer research. Scientists like them because they can see their insides without ever having to cut them open. They plant stories inside and wait for the end.

Genetically modified Danio rerio GloFish®. glofish.com/Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, I jumped into a story.
I won my first goldfish at the summer fayre in a child’s version of beer pong. I remember my parents, outraged, shouting at the headmistress. Stuff about promising children animals as a con from the local pet shop. A free goldfish so long as you buy the expensive tank to put it in. Some redundant bridges. Food. And cleaning equipment, too.
“We should just flush it down the loo,” my dad said, holding the plastic bubble of water.
A mini world.
A lost soul stuck in the centre.
And off we went to the pet shop, my father swearing profusely, and my mother telling him to please be quiet, otherwise people might hear.
Things have changed a lot since then. For instance, in America, now you can buy GloFish® (Experience the Glo!® ) – genetically modified fish that glow in the dark. They come in red, green, orange, blue, pink and purple. They were originally bred to help detect pollution.

Have you seen those people taking a break from their shopping, who pay to have fish nibble at the dead skin on their feet?
They laugh while it’s happening. Garra rufa. Toothless little carps from Turkey.
Put on a show!
Smile for the people!
Now, now. Eat them nicely.

In ancient Egypt and Rome, military commanders painted their nails to match their lips before they charged into battle.

Perhaps if I dipped my feet into the tank, they would eat away at the skin between my toes. Gnaw at my rough edges and let me emerge a princess. A water nymph.
Because princess is beauty.
So they tell me.
Every single day.

Did you know that we used to think that princes and princesses had blue blood?
In Inuit mythology, a giant called Sedna was unhappy with the men her father wanted her to marry, so she married a dog instead. Her father threw her into the sea in outrage and, when she tried to cling to the side of the ship, he cut off her fingers with an axe. Her fingers fell into the sea and took on a life of their own. They became the seals and whales of the ocean, and Sedna grew up to be a goddess of the deep.
I like origin stories.
When I grow up, I want to be…
The vampire squid that lives at the bottom of the ocean. It turns itself inside out and morphs its organs into traffic lights. It has three hearts because it has learned that one is not enough.

Garra rufa pedicure in Siem Reap. Cambodia. Taguelmoust/Wikimedia Commons

At the weekend, we do something we probably shouldn’t.
Something we definitely shouldn’t.
Once all of the children have gone home, we lock the front doors, change our clothes and hold our breath.
We section off the big tank, and filter the floodlights. Mr Farani says it’s the only way we can make ends meet. Things have been quiet recently. But not on Saturday nights.
We can’t talk about it loudly. It’s passed in whispers through the streets. We dim the bulbs and shine subtly. Like GloFish®. Like plankton.
Dinoflagellates are a sort of plankton and they are biolu­minescent. They have two tails, and create a red tide when all of them come together. This is called an algal bloom. A red sea.
This is not the same as The Red Sea. That’s Al Bahr al-Ahmar and is something else entirely. It touches nine different countries and has twenty-five islands, and seventeen major shipwrecks that it’s swallowed down whole.
There are lots of plankton there, too, though.
People think that plankton are entirely insignificant, but together they weigh more than all the other living things.
The Dead Sea is different. It spits up black asphalt. The Egyptians trekked far to get their mummification balm there. Some say it’s haunted by fish spirits killed by high salinity. Occasionally, things are born there, after heavy rain. Propelling themselves to life before the salt levels rise.
The Dead Sea is a brilliant turquoise. A floating machine. But, in the wet winter of 1980, it bled deep crimson. An explosion of red algae, dancing in the rain.

We all come from the sea, really.
Glistening humans, feeling for gills.

Seventy per cent water.
Shimmering foetuses.
We are clumsy on land.
We are clumsy in water.
And don’t get me started on what we’re like in the air.
We’re an embarrassment.
We are so insignificant.

Did you hear about that hotel in Florida where you can get married underwater? Wedding vows as bubbles and chlorine shooting up your nose. And, did you know, in Argentina, a baby dolphin was washed up on the shore? Sunbathers passed it around the beach, taking selfies. Hugging it close.
Put on a show!
Smile for the people!
And the dolphin died, right there, surrounded by humans. Far too over-exposed.

We all come from the sea. Just some of us more than others.

Once upon a time, a girl jumped into the sea.
There wasn’t anyone around, so she might have made no noise.
If a girl falls down.
Does anyone hear it?
It was in the days before the sea and sky had been sliced in two, so no one knew if she jumped up or down, or in or around, but she jumped well.
And the air and the sky slipped through her fingers.
And the limpets were stars that clung to her knees.
And the sun bubbled like a blowhole in a far-off galaxy.
This girl was from an island that no one had left before.
And she was strange. And she was different.
And everyone was scared of the way she talked, which happened to be not at all.
They called her many things, and they named her many times.
And, then, when they were done, they told her to swim.
Swim into the nameless colour, and tell them what was there.
Whether the world was flat, and if water dragons were fierce.
And if a space whale had once fallen into the sea in a shower of liquid stars.
They packed her a lunch, and watched her go.
And prayed she’d never come back.

So, off she went

Russia has a proverb: ‘Not everything is a mermaid that dives into the sea.’”

Clione limacina ‘sea angel’. Jeff Hannigan/Wikimedia Commons

She swam until her skin turned blue.
She swam until her feet were webbed.
She swam until she saw a light, lurking, far beneath her feet.
A light that buzzed and hummed and sang within a gigantic shell of bone.
The girl tapped it once. She tapped it twice.
And on the third tap it opened, like a broken jaw.
When the bubbles cleared, she saw a cushion there.
On it were pearls.
No, not pearls.
Rows and rows of strangers’ teeth.
The teeth flew out of her hands.
And clung to her neck.
And locked themselves into place there.

And then she could see all the colours.
And then she could hear all the stories.
And then she knew that she was not alone.


Welcome to our night-time aquarium.
We’ve turned the underwater tunnel into a cocktail bar and by ten p.m. it’s packed with those clamouring to see. Men below, looking up, and men above, looking down. We have glasses with umbrellas and Mr Farani serves grilled shrimp. The men in the tunnel are banging the glass.

Put on a show!
Smile for the people!

Let’s talk about butterfly stroke. I am not very good at butterfly stroke.
Are you? Is anyone?

Sea butterflies are pteropods and they are nearly invisible to the naked eye. They have feet that they use as wings to swim through the ocean.
Some pteropods are called sea angels.
Sea angels.

The love of my life is called Melissa Singh.
Melissa Singh is our underwater ballerina.
Our in-house evening mermaid.

My job is to hold Melissa’s inhaler. I help her get into her costume, too. I have to sew the sequins back on if any of them fall off. They fall off quite a lot. It’s a very important job. It is also very difficult to walk with a tail. Melissa makes it look easy, in her cheap bubblegum bra. She poses for the punters and they throw silver in the water; they shower her with stars and she pretends not to mind. Then she curls her pink tail (this shade of pink is called flamingo), shoves her hair behind her ears and dives into the tank.

I hold my breath in solidarity. My lungs a burning coral.
The world record is twenty minutes and, after that, you disappear.

In Eastern Europe, some mermaids are called rusalky. They are dangerous, demonic creatures who love to dance and drown.
Russia has a proverb: “Not everything is a mermaid that dives into the sea.”

Melissa has a scar.
A big one, on her right leg. It runs all the way from her ankle to just inside her thigh. It’s a glistening constellation. It matches my hands. She caught me looking one time, and gave me a look of defiance. Perhaps we are the same, I thought. Perhaps we come from a similar home.
I’ve spent all this week reading up on Sirenomelia. Babies born into this world swimming, with their legs fused together. The likelihood of this happening is the same as conjoined twins.

We are all born with our shadows underwater.
Tiktaalik are the first fish that scientists think could crawl.

Melissa surfaces, gasping, as though unused to air.
Lungfish are ancient species that used to be everywhere.
Now you can only find them in the Southern Hemisphere.

Melissa floats, symmetrical.
Sequins falling from her tail.
She is our only northern lungfish.

I hold tightly to her inhaler, and recite species off by heart.
Plankton have such ridiculous names:

The Spiral Curvydisc
The Potbellied Gravyboat
The Necklaced Ladderwedge

Until the 1880s, anyone born with a deformity was medi­cally called a monster.
What is the etymology of etymology?
Google says it comes from etmos, meaning true.
How hilarious our world is.

Melissa’s hair billows like seaweed.

In Siberia, rusalky look like yetis.
In West Africa there are water gods with snake bodies called Nommo.

In the 1780s, Charles Byrne was born in Ireland, and it was rumoured he grew up to be eight feet tall. People called him The Irish Giant, and he travelled across to London. He’d heard he could make money in the city’s bizarre sideshows.
Scientists loved Charles Byrne. They said he’d grown so tall because he’d been conceived on top of a haystack.
They said Madam Howard was born with a mane because her father was eaten by a lion.
They said the Lobster Boy had a mother who’d craved shellfish when he was in her womb.
The Irish Giant drank himself to death at the age of twenty-two and, not wanting scientists to dissect him, he paid a fisherman in Bristol to bury him at sea.
The fisherman faked a water funeral and sold his body back to science.
He’s still on display, in London, for anyone to see.

It is uncomfortably hot in here.

I watch the Raja Binoculata float by. A flat fish, skimming, with the face of a startled human.

Melissa told me she fell off her bike when she was little. She said the doctors had to sew her back together again. She said she’s never even heard of medical mermaids, and now everyone around us is taking her photograph.

Melissa means bee, and Singh means lion-blooded.
Sea lion.
Sea angel.
Brittle sea star.

Did you know a starfish is an asteroid?
And some brittle stars have six tentacles?
And some starfish can regrow their arms but, really, they’d rather not?

I squeeze Melissa’s inhaler in the palm of my hand, and then suddenly realise I’m still holding my breath.

We all come from the sea.
Blurry and ancient. Slowly evolving.

We are photographs, developing.
I wonder, can you see my heart?

From the collection The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night (Two Roads, £14.99)


Jen_Campbell_420Jen Campbell is an award-winning poet and short-story writer. Born in the north east of England, she now lives in London. She worked as a bookseller for ten years, and is the author of the bestselling Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops series and The Bookshop Book. Her first children’s book Franklin’s Flying Bookshop is published by Thames and Hudson. A respected and influential book vlogger with almost 30,000 subscribers, she has won an Eric Gregory Award for poetry in 2016 and has been a judge for the Costa and Somerset Maugham awards. She is a little bit obsessed with the darker side of fairy tales. The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is out now from Two Roads in hardback. Read more