The Siamese Fighting Fish known as Bruce Lee had no idea he would find himself at the centre of a global conversation about fish depression. When he woke up for his morning fish flakes on Monday morning, he was shocked, perplexed and, yes, a little anxious and depressed to see his shining blue face and gills effervescent on the smartphone screen of the woman staying in his hotel room – also known to Bruce and his imaginary aquatic companion Ralph the Japanese Wrestling Toad as ‘the Great Beyond’.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Bruce confides during an exclusive interview with Nothing in the Rulebook. “When that New York Times reporter started taking photographs of me, I just assumed it was for their Instagram account. And the questions they were asking – about whether I had a loving relationship with my parents or if I believed in God – well they’re just pretty standard, really. A lot of guests at Holiday Inn hotels find themselves having existential questions with fish; it’s really not uncommon.”
A staunch supporter of fish rights, Bruce has been on at least three circular swims around his bowl in the last half hour alone – all in protest at the way fish so regularly have their photographs taken without their permission, gaining no financial reward when these images are then shared worldwide.
“That David Attenborough and his Blue Planet series – he’s just the worst. I regularly commune with a Tiger shark I met on the fish internet called Terry, who hasn’t been able to get a job since David and his BBC crew filmed him eating a baby seal. They call him “baby killer” and “seal muncher” in interviews. He’s been losing weight; his wife left him, taking their pups with her. And what did he get? Not a dime from the production company. When he goes too close to the shallows now, people start screaming at him, they even bring in helicopters, chasing him away with harpoons and speed boats. They recognise him from the TV show, you see. It’s really not right what these pornographers – and they are pornographers, there’s no other term for it – do to us. We have rights, too.”
But what does Bruce think about the core subject matter of the article about his supposed depression? On this, the Betta takes a complex view.
“All I see is grey”
“You see, the thing is, I’m not what you would call the sort of fish who gets depression,” he explains. “Sure, there are days when I wake up and all I see is grey, and it feels as though I’m moving through liquid, with a strange weight all around me. But then, there will be others where everything is new and different and exciting. You look down to the bottom of your tank and you see there’s a new pebble that’s been overturned and it has the most beautiful pattern like nothing you’ve ever seen before. So I guess that’s just the nature of life in a way – it has ups and downs.”
“But of course, fish depression really is the silent killer. And a big problem in the shoaling communities is that you lose touch with your friends as you get older. They stop coming to visit your tank; you stop making the effort to go to the fake alligator or meet them in the plastic plants, because hey, you’re not fry anymore and you’re spending each of your days busting your gut down by the filtration system, so you just want to go back to your corner and drift along by the floor of your tank and maybe watch Netflix if one of the guests is into something decent like Stranger Things or Hannibal. You just don’t have the energy to keep up with all these young guppies showboating with the cash they’ve been flush with since Thatcher privatised all the old state industries and deregulated the financial fish market.”
“Too many fish just sort of disappear”
“I’ve known too many fish who just sort of disappear this way. One day they’re there – the next; bam! Floating upside down in a toilet. Of course no fish asks for this. But nobody ever knows where to go. They never talk about it. And that’s the most important thing. You need fins to cry on; you need folks to turn to; you need to speak up. So yes, in that respect I suppose it is a good thing that this article came out when it did – it’s just a shame that journalist didn’t ask my permission to use my photo, and I don’t see why some of those sweet internet royalties couldn’t find their way to me somehow.”
Speaking to Bruce, you can’t help but get the impression that he’s trying to deflect around something that is otherwise gnawing at him. He’s all pomp and bluster and good natured conversation – offering you as many fish flakes as you like and never flinching when you accidently tap the glass of his tank. But this is a fish with a very real wall around him, blocking him off from the rest of the world. As though in a move to combat this impression, he pre-emptively moves to forgo further questioning about his personal feelings by offering us un-inhibited access to the personal diary he has kept for “somewhere between one hour and four years, depending on time and my life expectancy, etc – what ever that is,” he says.
Reading the diary is a far more revealing experience than, perhaps, either Bruce or this interviewer expected.
Diary of a lonely fish
Diary entries range from the elegiac; “I spent three moons deep at rest beneath the swirling stars of the hotel guest’s laptop screensaver. The quickening slivers of colour warping around each other seemed for a moment to mirror the beating of my heart, and with each movement of water through my gills it felt as though, for the first time, I could feel the intrinsic separation of oxygen from hydrogen molecules as the liquid passed back into my tank, and the sweet elixir of life filled my lungs. And in the ecstasy of the moment all I could think of was how infinite the world was, how perfectly beautiful it is to be mortal and small and unimportant in something so vast.”
To the worryingly short; “why exist?”
But perhaps the most interesting diary entries are those focused around a particular week in the summer of 2016. It is during this time that Bruce’s diary entries are most vivid, at their longest, and filled with an intense optimism about the possibilities of the future.
Donald Trump and a new love interest
Crucially, it is also at this time we are introduced to a new hotel guest – described by Bruce as “An overweight orangutan with a bad toupee and tiny hands”. This guest – who hotel records confirm to be no other than US President Donald Trump – had a habit, the diaries indicate, of setting up mirrors all around the room. While Trump apparently used these mirrors generally to investigate suspicious moles on his back, as well as to stare at his genitalia shouting “It IS bigger than Barack’s, it is!” the truly interesting thing is that in the mirror closest to Bruce’s tank, Bruce first spots “the most incredible vision – a fish more beautiful than words can describe”.
Pressing Bruce to expand on who this fish was, he averts the question, talking about how the animated film Shark Tale is the most racist-against-fish film to have been produced this side of the millennium. Yet other diary entries are more illuminating.
On the second day of Trump’s residency in the room, Bruce notes: “I am yet to build up the courage to talk to her – but I know I must. Never have I felt such a passion stir in me.”
And then, on the fourth: “Feelings! My heart leaps and my world is turned around. For we have the most incredible of all things – an instant, life affirming connection. And this all the more fantastic for there being no words spoken between us. But who needs words when the connection is so strong? After hours of pondering, of second-guessing my best move, I approached this beauty, and as I did so, she turned to face me, too – entirely directly, our eyes meeting, and in that moment, the world stood still. We stayed there, transfixed upon each other’s gaze. Galaxies exploding in our heads, the infinite possibilities of love in our hearts. Every move I made she made too – at identical times, as though we were not two creatures but one; two parts of the same whole. It is true what they say, that souls do have their equal partner. After so long waiting, I have finally found my own.”
Finally, though, disaster. On the afternoon of Trump’s last day in the room, Bruce’s love interest disappears. That evening, Bruce writes: “Oh woe is me my love, for banishment hath found my heart and ripped it from my chest. I cannot think but think of you – I cannot swim but drift to the bottomless depths of despair. How can I carry on without you beside me? What is life without you? What is…”
There are no further diary entries for a period of seven months, until a fresh one appears, signalling a key sea change in his tone of writing: “Fish flakes. The synthetic substance made of my peers. Each mouthful is cannibalism. My life is a lie.”
With a deadline looming, one final attempt is made to persuade Bruce to speak about this period in his life. And to find out what transpired in this Betta’s mind during those ominous seven months of silence. But he is unmoved by our requests and signals with a dorsal fin for us to leave the room. Our exclusive interview with the fish who shot to fame is over.
Two days after this interview was published, Bruce was found on the floor of his hotel room, dead. The apparent cause of death? Suicide by drying out on the carpet.
One day later, a cheque arrived for Bruce from the New York Times.
The NYT have not been available for comment.