The taste of burnt mackerel

Time clicks on like a watch but every so often a piece of dust will work its way against the cogs and the clicks stop for a while. These are moments that might take you for the rest of your life. They can be a caught few seconds, hours spent in someone’s company or maybe a few days doing something right. But once they have you those moments, those fractions of time, will colour and shade you forever.

Miriam Black-Fore would try and put those moments back back together as she sat in her metal chair next to the round table on the patch of lawn back from the yellow door. She knew where they started and how they ended but the hours in-between were little more the wisp of a spider’s web caught in the dew. She would drum her fingers against the top of the table as if the steady sound could take back the years she had lost and position her back to those caught few hours.

It was the taste of burnt mackerel that took her back. The German sailors had built their fire on the raised bit of ground on the western side of the Cottage overlooking the sea. They had built it with firewood gathered from the beach and the flames rose clear and high in the early evening. There was no metal grill to cook the fish on but one of the men threaded a long thin stick through the head of the mackerel so they were lined up down it and two of them held this over the embers, lifting it as the oils from the fish ran down and flared the fire.

The fish were done when they were able to gently twist away the body from the head. The cooked fish were put to one side, the heads taken off the stick and thrown to the gulls and more fresh fish were threaded on. They were able to position the fish so the stick was not exposed to the heat and that way they were able to stop it from burning.

As the light faded from the sky the sailors voices were quiet. Someone had bought some plates from the submarine and these were passed round with the pot of horseradish cream.

Miriam stood back and watched them from the garden. The flow of pints from the pub had stopped now but the men had been able to exchange something for two bottles of whiskey. She heard later that the pub had acquired two large glass jars of sauerkraut and a bag of smoked sausage. The sausages were eaten but the jars of sauerkraut stayed in the back of the pub for another fifteen years before they were lost.

The Captain took a plate with two mackerel and a spoon full of cream and offered it, with courtesy, to Miriam. She thanked him and took the plate. The skin of the mackerel was black and burnt. Standing there she held the plate in one hand and pulled away at the skin with her other revealing the thin white fillets. The skin had protected them from the flames and they were sweet with the sea. Some of the sharpness of the horseradish had been dampened by the cream but it still cut through the oil in the fish. Small pieces of black skin stayed with the fillets and through it all she could taste the astringent work of the fire and its wood.

The Captain was back with his men and she stood there alone eating the two fish.

When all the fish had been cooked the long thin stick was thrown on the fire. One of the men was down on the beach gathering dried seaweed. When this went onto the fire it flared high again and there were loud cracks as the pockets of air in the sea wrack burst. Some of the seaweed was still damp and the men cursed and thick white smoke blew in the breeze. But the fire settled again and the shouts quietened and the men seemed embarrassed by the noise they had made in the dark.

The sun had gone down now behind the hulk of Rosskerrig and in front of them over the bay they could see the light of the moon rising up over the hills of The Mizen.

The Captain came back now to talk to Miriam. He asked her how the fish were and she told them they were good. She’d not had them with horseradish before and she didn’t know the German for it. The Captain was pleased that she liked it and as the evening settled they spoke some more.

As the years went by she found it more and more difficult to piece together what they had talked about. She had spent six months in Berlin and was able to speak with him. But as the years passed she never spoke German again and as the memory of the language faded away so did the memory of what they had said. She knew there had been some common ground with the places she had gone to and there was a family she had met through a student where he said there was some connection.

She thought it was some time since he had really spoken to anyone. After a while they sat at the metal chairs next to the round table and they had a glass of whiskey. On the beach some of the men were singing their voices quiet now in the dark. The talk from the other men softened and they were silent listening to the half murmured songs.

She and the Captain carried on talking and she could sense the relief in him, the weight lifted, his voice in the dark.

There came a point when all was quiet from the beach and this seemed to rouse the Captain. He knew it was time to go. The tone of his voice changed and it cut through the few moments of intimacy that had been created there in the dark. He explained that he would have to go back to the boat. He would need to be there for the night and tomorrow they would have to go back home.  He thanked her for her help over the day and with a smile he thanked her the use of the beach. He had to go back but would she mind if some of the men were to sleep outside.

They stood up and walked down to the beach. Most of the men were awake and the Captain spoke quietly amongst them. Some of the men got up and made their way back to the pier and there about a dozen who stayed on the beach. They moved closer the fire and put their heads back amongst the stones to watch the night sky and the stars.

The Captain looked Miriam out in the garden. He was formal now, taking his leave, shaking her hand and bowing slightly in good-bye.

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