Ever since they were banned plastic shopping bags have acquired a particular value especially round the pier. They are the perfect vehicle for passing on fish, prawns and lobsters but they are not so readily available as they once were, so old bags get kept to be passed on again and again developing an ever higher old fish smell as they go.
My first bag of mackerel was passed on to me by Curly O’Brian.
Curly was tall and pale and he was somewhere between 60 and 70 yrs old. His hands and body was beaten back by the weather and although he was a big man there was a lightness about him. As he shook my hand he would lean into me and his hand was hard and heavy in my mine. There was nothing tight there but the weight of him bore down in the greeting.
He had a thick accent and his words would mash together leaving me trying to piece together what he was saying by reference to what was around us and what he might have been talking about be it the weather, the Cottage’s porous boundaries, fish coming in from the sea and whatever else might have taken his fancy.
It was the first or second summer we spent time in The Cottage. We had arrived late at night as the festival that takes place over the first Bank Holiday weekend was in full swing. We lay in bed awake listening to the band and the laughter coming down from the back of Arundel’s.
Over the next few days we were bewildered by the activity, the number of people on the pier and the sound of a local radio station blaring out until late at night from speakers strung along the lamps on the pier.
On the Monday afternoon it was the fishing competetion. There were no boats at The Cottage then and we had not yet been out to catch mackerel. I was down on the pier watching the boats come in and the men lifting out their crates of mackerel to be counted and weighed. There were shouts for the biggest and best.
As I walked up and down the pier I bumped into Curly. Rather to my surprise he recognised me and he took up my hand to shake it. We fell in to talking and I had to lift my head at an angle as if being able to hear better would make his words clearer.
I realised we were talking about mackerel and so I shook my head and said we had not been out fishing.
I have some mackerel I caught in his voice will you have some.
I was polite in reply ‘Only if you have some to spare.’
He laughed feck come with me the words mashing together there’s too many of the feckin’ fish here.
He walked me back down the pier and we crossed over the road to The Butter House. There was a shed on the right hand side next to the stream that runs down by the pier. Curly pushed open the door as if it was all his and reached in to pull out a battered steel bucket full of mackerel.
With the bucket on the floor between us he pulled out of his pocket a plastic bag and bent down to start picking out the fish. His hands were big enough almost to cover a fish whole. I think he would have given me the bucket if I had not stopped him. There were seven fish in the bag that he passed over to me.
I shook his hand again to to thank him and it was still wet with the fish.
We had three of them that evening roasted in the oven with garlic and cumin.
The next day it was wet and cold and in the evening we lit the fire. I wrapped two more of the fish in bags of foil and cooked them on the fire.
I last saw Curly when he stopped in the garden one evening as we were down on the beach. He’d been in the pub and it was getting late and he was wondering if we might be able to give him a lift back to his farm in the hills. He pulled up a chair just behind us and settled himself down as we finished our food. We were not to worry about him and he would sit out the evening until we were ready for him.
He had to bend carefully into my car and I took him back home. I am not sure now I could find myself back to his farm in the hills.