‘Feck. Did you know once, once there was a man who set himself the task of counting the stripes on a mackerel’s back.’
We both drank at our pints.
‘Jimmy Carroll he told me the story and showed me the paper this man wrote. His grandfather, James Carroll, was a fish merchant in Kinsale on Fisher Street and he had a shop on The Pier, and the man wrote to him letters asking questions about the fish that he sold. The man, Walter Garstang, if there is such a name was a professor and a fellow of some sort, a college, in Oxford.
‘Back then the men would catch mackerel by dropping rocks in the water. They’d take two boats out and one of those boats would have a net in and the other would be filled with pieces of stone and there would be six men in each boat . There’d have so much in the boat with the stones if they’d caught a bad wave they’d be over and down and the boat would only move slowly through the water. But they’d get it out there and they would sit there on the water and wait to see if the surface was moving and that would tell them if there were fish underneath.’
‘Patrick Daly he said that it was the colour of water that told you if there were fish there. He said that if the water was yellow and smelt of shit there would be plenty to catch. Michael Arundel said that if there was a smell in the air then that was because Patrick Daly was wearing the same old clothes he’d been wearing all month and that if he were to fall in the water and wash some of the shit off him there would be nothing to smell at all.’
‘The first boat once they saw some movement in the water they would throw out the net and let it sink near where they thought the fish should be. But if you let a net just hang there in the water it will catch feck all so once it was down and secure to the first boat then the men in the second boat would start throwing in their stones. You’d think that the fish would just swim away. Well maybe some of them did but there would be enough that would panic and they’d get caught in the net. Some of the men would shout at the water as well and on a quiet day you could hear them out there they would make such a noise.’
‘Once all the stones were gone the boats would pull up next to each other and then men would clamber out some so there was ten of them in the first boat and they would start to haul it in.’
‘A net like that is heavy enough when it is wet but you fill it with fish and you would need a good ten strong men to pull it in and as the fish came out they would let them fall about their feet in the bottom of the boat. They would have to climb from boat to boat as the fish came in so there were mackerel and men equal in each boat. If they had a good day the fish would be so deep they would be up to their waists here and they would have to sit on their benches as if they were in a bath of mackerel to row the boats back in.’
‘Back here their feet on the ground their boots and trousers would shine in the light the colour of the fish they were so covered in their white scales and red blood and they would have to wade back in the sea to wash it off. If they left their trousers all covered like that when they dried they’d be as hard as a piece of wood.’
‘The man, the professor he had heard that you could tell a male fish from a female by the number of their stripes. Feck I have never heard something so stupid. If you have the fish there in your hand they all look the same and if they are male and female is there any difference to the taste. How the feck do you tell if the fish you have there in your hand is a man or woman.’
He paused and as he allowed that thought to settle we both started to smile and the man made a noise his throat.
‘Feck. Can you imagine it we go out there to start sexing the feckin fish. Start counting their black lines and they’ll have us throwing them back if we get it wrong, if we miscount on the stripes on a mackerel.’
‘But this man, the professor, Garstang, he had these fish sent from all over not just from Kinsale. The fish there from Kinsale, almost 400 there were and they were fresh and they were wrapped up in newsparer, old copies of The Southern Star, but there were others that came from America and they were kept on blokes of ice and France as well. And they all went to him by boat. Now a mackerel’s no good after it has been out of the water a few hours so can you imagine them after there few days in a boat. Think on the smell. Feck, all those fish together. He said in his paper he had almost 2,000 of them in all. Can you see it now 2,000 mackerel all out of the water and starting to smell and their insides going black. Feck you put him on one of those boats were they threw out the stones and the feckin’ fish would be jumping, jumping out of the water to be in the boat with him.’
‘Well he counted the mackerel’s stripes, he counted them and he measured the feckin things and do know what he found. He found that they all have the same feckin’ stripes be they a man or a feckin’ woman. He would have been sick of mackerel after that. Do you think he ever ate one again.’
‘What was that question? How to kill a mackerel? I tell you, I tell you, you hit it on the back of the head with a feckin’ great stick. Hit it clean and that’ll do it. There’ll be blood and shit and their white scales on your hands and their tails will still thump at the boat but it’ll be dead and you can throw your line and your hooks back in to catch another.’
Outside it was coming to the end of the summer. It was getting dark and with the clear sky a chill was starting to form in the air. I could see Owen Island across the bay and there were two Great Black Backed Gulls sat on the lamps on the pier. The water was still in the early evening and under its surface the mackerel churned and turned. What sound did they make there in the water? Would they have heard the shouts of the men dropping in their stones?
I said goodnight to the man and he shook my hand. ‘You be good now’ he said.
It was a two minute walk back to The Cottage. Outside I could hear the noisy squabbling of the gulls crossing back and forth across the water. Before going back into The Cottage I turned right and walked up the pier. We’d be gone soon but the boats and and the gulls would remain and the mackerel would be back next summer and some of them would be caught up short by the hook at the end of my line. There were sprats in the water flitting just under the surface small flashes of light. Some of them appeared translucent and others carried hints of the pinks, blues and green that move over the belly of a mackerel just after it has been caught.
I turned and walked quietly back to The Cottage.