A mackerel’s black stripes

It was three o’clock in the afternoon and I had been for a walk up round the stone circle. I had paused for a while there amongst the stones. They nestled in the lee of a hill surrounded by gorse and bracken and giving a view over Kitchen Cove, Owen Island the water beyond. There were striations on the top of each stone that seemed to follow the lie of the wind as it came up from the Bay. On the walk back to The Cottage it had started to rain. A slow drizzle that penetrated deep under your clothes.  There was a dirty red car parked at an angle outside the pub and I thought I would stop for a pint before going back to light a fire to beat back the grey mist.

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The man with a black beard was stood at the bar as I walked in. He barely looked up but he gave me a nod. Mary got up from the chair in her corner and I asked for my pint. The radio played softly and I looked out of the window. The rain now was thick across the bay and I could hardly make out the black lines of Owen Island.

‘It’s gone a bit wet now,’ I said, ‘And after that sun in the morning.’

‘It’s wet enough,’ he said.

Mary finished pouring my pint and put it on a mat and pushed it towards me over the bar before going back to her seat.

The news came on the radio and there was a story on a fishing boat that had sunk out from Kenmare. There had been three men on board two of whom drowned for the want of wearing a life vest.

‘It’s a bad thing’ said Mary quietly, ‘But they should all be wearing them now’.

‘If the sea’s going to take you it will have you and there is feck a life vest will do. There was a man once, his boat went down on the rocks, Cahir Rock, off The Mizen, he should have drowned but he stuck out the night on a packet of cotton.’

‘Was that the Jones man?’ asked Mary.

‘It was alright’ said the man with the beard.

“What boat was that?’ I asked.

‘Feck that was a long time ago. In the century before last it was. The boat was The Bohemian, an old steam boat from America sailing to Liverpool. There was fifty five men on board and only one boat got away after it hit the rock and thirty three of them died. There was two that night that died in the life boat so cold it was. It was February I think it happened and the man at the wheel he misheard his captain, he steered into the rocks on the fog coming down when he should have been turning away.’

‘There was thirty three that died they reckon and they could only pick up ten of them and the rest went to the fishes and the crabs.’

He stretched out his hand in front of him and opened his fingers wide and shut them again.

‘Do you know how a mackerel gets its stripes?’ he was watching his hand as he spoke, opening and shutting the fingers.

I shook my head head.

‘Well you put yourself in the water there and you are wearing your heavy boots and they are pulling you down. The fish they will go for anything that moves through the water and if you are drowning you will grab for anything that is there. And if you grab hold of a mackerel you’ll squeeze it hard as it maybe the only thing that will pull you out of there. It won’t of course but if you’re squeezing that hard your fingers will leave their mark.’ He put his hand back on the bar.

‘Otherwise its writing that scribbled down their backs. The writing of a drowning man trying to get some final words down. Of course no-one can read them but they are there if you look.’

‘A mackerel can be a wicked fish. They will eat anything that’s there. They get punished for it of course when we haul them out of the water. But you get lost down in their water and they will pull you in and that’s it. That red line that runs down the side of a mackerel, it comes from the blood of the drowned men that they’ve eaten. It’s best best not to think on what a mackerel eats’

‘The boat, The Bohemian, was full of dead meat and cattle. My grandfather, his father was but a boy when it went down but there were still stories that followed the sinking. Some of the cattle there were they made it to the shore and were washed up on the northside of Mizen by Dunmanus Castle. The cattle they used to live wild for a while on that side it was so dark and so few people to catch them. And there was a wooden cage full of chickens that got washed up down on this side under the shadow of Cora and the Black Gate. My grandfather, he said that there were descendants of those chickens who were still laying eggs when he was but a boy. He said they were good eggs as well and needed no salt if you boiled them’

‘The captain of the boat and another man they were stuck on the rock the boat struck for the night and they saw them the next day waving for to be rescued. But there was only the men at the lighthouse and in Crookhaven and the sea was too bad for a boat to be got out so those that watched them waving they saw them drowned in the end. With the drowned and lost men and the cattle and the lost dead meat the crab, the lobsters and the fish had it good that year. Now a mackerel it only lives a few years but there’s say that a lobster can live to over a hundred. You get a big one out from the heads and it might have started on some that dead meat.’

‘Who was the Jones man?’ I asked. I looked over at Mary and she got up to renew our pints.

‘The Jones man! The Jones man why he was Welsh of course. You’ll not hear that name here. He came up down by Tooreen He floated and kicked on that packet of cotton until he made it straight across the bay. Feck he was strong  and he got to the the cliffs and he hauled himself from the water.’

Mary put the pints in front of us. He looked out at the weather and the the rain that was now coming down. ‘You’ll have something with that? It’s a walk back in this weather to where you have to go. Mary, can we have two small glasses to go with this?’ Mary filled two glasses with Powers and put them next to the pints. As he lifted his I did the same and we drank together both shivering as the raw liquor caught at the back of our throats. We drank at our pints to soothe away the harsh taste.

‘It was only the day after he was found and a week later before he could say anything. Of course on this side they didn’t know about the wreck and when he spoke they couldn’t follow him speaking and it took time for the story to come out. Eventually they came for him to take him back home but he wouldn’t go and he lived out his years down by the other side of The Sheep’s Head. There is a place there near where the writer drowned and you can see the cliffs of The Sheep’s Head and The Beara on the otherside and if you had time on you hands you could stop and look at it.’

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“He had children and a son and for while there were Jones’ that lived here. But the sons died or moved on and they were gone. But he lived a while and was still talk of him around when I was a boy. He never ate fish and he never ate meat. I suppose he’d had enough of them both that night.’

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