It is also far from clear why a cat and a goldfish should be enemies. Certainly the cat would like to eat the goldfish but while the goldfish has such a safe refuge as a large tank with a lid and goldfish toys to hide in there is little chance of that. Certainly, it would be advisable for the goldfish to exhibit a certain amount of wariness towards the cat, for everyone knows that most cats have a Machiavellian intellect. However, there is no reason why a cat and a goldfish could not become firm friends if the problem of communication could be overcome. Of course most goldfish realise this but find the problem rather intractable. After all, how would one start such a daunting project as learning the language of a creature that is not even in the same phylum? What kind of superpiscine intellect could undertake such a task?
Gilbert, named partly for the pun and partly for the somewhat drippy hero of "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall", was just such a goldfish. He lived in his tank on a sideboard in the room and resided in a plastic castle that he called Elsinor, a name he chose from a play his owner left open by his tank (frustratingly he never found out how it ended). Gilbert was somewhat precocious and had taught himself to read at an early age by peering at books left open near his tank. It was an intensely problematic experience for Gilbert who never got to read the kind of material that was considered more suitable for beginning. In fact, since he had no control whatsoever over the text that was left by his tank, had to skip entirely the "See Gilbert swim, swim Gilbert swim" stage, that would have made his task easier and instead start reading on a mixed bag of Greek classics, sex manuals, classics of English literature and TV magazines that his owner would leave in readable positions near his tank. Indeed it was a full two months before Gilbert was able to easily ascertain whether a document he was presented with was the correct way up. Breakthroughs were few and far between, but there was little else to do in Castle Elsinor (although Gilbert had not yet named it) except for eat, pull faces and spit small pieces of gravel at the various tank decorations. Swimming can, of course, hardly be counted as a hobby for goldfish and if confronted with the suggestion that they "go for a nice swim" the average goldfish would be as incredulous as a human who when asking for advice to relieve boredom was told "why not go for a nice breathe?"
The big comprehension breakthrough came, for Gilbert, while reading TV Chat magazine. As it had plenty of pictures, Gilbert was able to spot that certain phrases would reoccur with certain individuals and thus begin the translation process. After some initial difficulties (including a frustrating two months when he was convinced that the phrase "Albert Square" was human for "very gloomy looking person") Gilbert was able to read a variety of publications with relative ease and make some sense of plays and books. It was only at this point that he realised that humans also had a spoken language and that amongst the strange sounds that would echo through his tank were definite words which were a spoken version of the written language he was now beginning to master.
Of course Gilbert immediately set out to decode and be able to communicate in spoken human. After all, he really wanted to be able to talk with his owner. Amongst other things he longed to be able to say "Could you please turn the page?" and "For God's sake, turn the TV over, this is mindless garbage and there's a documentary about Jacques Cousteau on the other side." Attempts to leave written messages were futile. There was no paper in the tank nor anything to mark it with and the gravel that Gilbert could lift was not large enough to spell anything out and would wash from place to place at random.
After his mental exertions learning written human, spoken human was no bother whatsoever. Gilbert could speak fluently withing five months. Alas, his tiny goldfish voice was far too quiet to be heard by a human. Even when his owner pressed her face against the tank and "blew bubbles at him" his mightiest bellow of "Please turn to page 23 of The Symposium, I am most intrigued to see what will be said next," was completely inaudible to her. Gilbert was downcast. In fact he would have considered his attempts at speech a dead loss if it hadn't been for the fact that from listening to conversation he had finally worked out more or less what a clitoris was (his initial guess of TV remote control had been a long way from correct - although he stood by his reasoning and humans certainly did seem to enjoy fiddling with those too). It was then that a piece of information came into his possession that was to change his life forever.
For all three years of his life, Gilbert had shared the room with the cat Bryn. Bryn was a female cat, black white and brown, not exactly a tabby nor exactly tortoise-shell but attactively blotched and neatly short-haired. It is not for nothing that female cats are known as queens for they all have the aspect of some monarch about them. Some are delicate and frightened like a deposed Czarina in hiding. Some are overweight and serious like Victoria. Some are smug, slow and contented like our current monarch. And some, like Bryn, are vain, haughty, attention-seeking and cruel, like the previous Elizabeth. Yes, Bryn was a queenly cat and she held her nose in the air and her tail high, despite mocking comments from other cats. In fact, Bryn didn't get on well with other cats who rarely could see her finer qualities - or at least that's what she told herself - but her owner would always fuss her and stroke her and respond to her every regal decree.
If the truth were to be told, Bryn, despite her regal airs, was every bit as bored as Gilbert. Sometimes she would peer into Gilbert's tank and ponder deeply on the problem of extracting the fish without getting wet - Bryn hated getting wet after an accident as a kitten. Sometimes she would just stare at him for hours, drooling slightly as she thought of how he would taste as she nibbled slowly on his fins while holding him helpless under her dainty white paws.
Gilbert, being something of a philosopher, was able to overlook the fact that often he spent hours of a day in the close company of a creature which so clearly desired to kill and devour him. A more squeamish type might easily have been disturbed by this but Gilbert was able to ignore it, swim over to the other side of the tank and think more pleasant thoughts. For example, he had thought of over twenty alternate endings to Hamlet based only from what he knew from reading the first few scenes and curiously at least two of his versions were pretty close.
Bryn, for her part, felt somewhat aggreived that Gilbert failed to be sufficiently awed and terrified by her presence and would spend time gazing at her reflection in the glass and practising toothy snarls which would be guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any normal fish.