Ella Squilp thought the idea sounded good. Create a large built-in aquarium for the living room of her monstrous house, stock it with fish, and never worry again about running out of fresh catch for dinner. Plus, as she envisioned it, the aquarium would be an extraordinary conversation piece. It would comprise a ten-thousand-gallon main tank in the center of the “great room,” with submerged, glass-topped channels running  beneath the floorboards. The glass tops of the channels would be integrated into the floor, so guests could see the underwater wonderland as they walked to the kitchen, the guest baths, or toward the guest rooms. Need I say Ella Squilp was obscenely rich? Well, she was. She inherited an enormous fortune from her father who, in turn, had inherited it from his father, and so on for several generations. If one looked carefully at the family’s financial history, one would find it built upon the backs of literally thousands of people who, when their contributions to the family’s wealth declined to familially-determined unacceptable levels, were dispatched into the streets, utterly destitute. The Squilp family might have served as the model for a present-day dynasty.

Ella did not fully grasp the importance of the jobs performed by Clarence and Modesty Devlin, the housekeepers charged with cleaning the aquarium and feeding the fish. Clarence and Modesty had worked for the Squilps their entire adult lives, joining the household staff only a month after they married when they both were twenty-six years old. Ella, who was fifteen at the time they joined the staff, grew up with them. When Ella decided, just after her fifty-fifth birthday, to replace Clarence and Modesty with a younger, cheaper set of housekeepers, she did not realize the gravity of her mistake. Ella knew nothing of fish tank maintenance, nor of the consequences of inadequate aquarium cleanliness. So, she did not know how to train the new staff, “guppies” she called them. She assumed housekeepers, even untrained young ones, would know how to keep the tanks clean. After all, how hard could it be? Functions that could be filled by people of the “working class,” in Ella’s view, could not possibly require much knowledge; the lower classes must have some sort of innate understanding of taking care of dirt and the like, she figured.

It therefore came as quite a shock, then, when a number of her guests at a particularly lavish seafood dinner became quite ill after eating fresh salmon from Ella’s aquarium. When six of thirty deathly-ill guests died, members of the health department staff descended on Ella’s house, testing and measuring all manner of potential causes for the deadly outbreak. And they found them in the aquarium. The new staff members, not knowledgeable of proper aquarium maintenance practices and untrained in their jobs, had fed the fish with foods from the kitchen; the health department learned some of the food had been tainted. And so the food chain cycle had begun. Tainted salmon, looking and tasting absolutely delicious, wrought havoc on Ella’s guests. Fortunately for Ella, she had opted for the shrimp that evening, so she did not fall victim to the ghastly illness that killed some of her guests. But from that evening forward, she found it difficult to convince people to come to her house for dinner. For who is willing to risk one’s life by eating dinner at the home of someone with the apt nickname of “Salmon Ella?”

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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