A Fishy Tale

In a narrow window of bright sunshine at the low morning tide, we decided to walk on the local beach. 

And due to the government’s covid-19 ‘lockdown’ restrictions, we arranged to bump into friends, Pete and his wife, Sue. After all, we could bump into strangers, so why not friends?

I always think that a common sense approach to the myriad of new rules and laws is the best one, lest our government should get ahead of themselves.

We were all hoping to see the seal, who has been a regular visitor over the last few weeks.

Michelle and I love to walk the length of the beach in winter. We love the reflections of the boats on the water; the orange-beaked Oystercatchers wittering in excitement on The Salty, the patient turning of the tides revealing interesting driftwood and the multicoloured seaweeds and strawberry anemones that cling to the wet rocks.

Occasionally there is something unusual, even extraordinary to see.

Today we would see something extraordinary and it happened to me.

Had there not been witnesses, you would think it a fishy tale indeed. “Nonsense! He invented the whole story,” you might say. But it was true and I have witnesses to prove it.

We had Just spotted the seal at the surface after a long period under water.

Sometimes we only see his head bob to the surface and then submerge again quickly.

He can stay underwater for a surprisingly long time- anything between three and thirty minutes. He can travel a long way in that time so it is unusual for him to stay in the same spot. My eyes scanned the water between the multi-coloured, multi-shaped boats for signs of movement.

This time he lifted a good portion of his body out of the water as he caught his breath.

I waved and pointed to Michelle and Sue who were walking about thirty yards behind us.

I moved towards the water’s edge to get a better look. I’m always fascinated by his smooth dog-like features and his long cartoon bristles for whiskers. He’s an expert swimmer and hunter and there’s nothing to beat a live wildlife performance.

After twenty seconds or so, he blew air and water out of those wide black nostrils and submerged out of sight. His mind was clearly on the hunt, chasing fish in the shallows.

We stood searching the shining surface for his reappearance but it never came. The ladies soon lost interest and went to fetch takeaway coffees.

The ferry came in next to us and we got talking to Pete, the part-time ferryman. He just does two days a week and some odd jobs around the nearby villages. Business, he told us, had evaporated from six-hundred passengers a day to twelve.

We talked about the seal and he revealed that he had seen it eating a garfish the other day. “I don’t know where he got a garfish,” said ferryman Pete.

A couple approached with a young boy, who I guessed to be six or seven.

“We want to get on the ferry but not to get off the other side- just to come back again. Can you do that?”

“Of course,” said Pete, not wanting to look this gift-horse in the mouth.

“Do we need face-masks?” Asked the woman.

“Nawwww,” said Pete, waving them aboard.

We told the little boy to look out for the seal as they pushed away from the shore.

Then my attention was drawn to a flapping commotion at the waters edge, where the seal had clearly driven a small fish in blind panic to escape being his hors d’oeuvre. 

The fish gathered its composure for a moment then swam off.

A second time the same thing happened attracting a small gull. 

By this time I was nearer to the edge, trying to spot the seal as Michelle returned with a takeaway coffee. 

Had she and our friends Pete and Sue not witnessed what happened next, I feel sure that my account would be widely dismissed.

For a third time, a fish- a large sea trout – flapped at the water’s edge right next to the seagull which promptly pecked at the beast, surprised by this stroke of luck and thinking it was going to be an easy day at the office. 

With Gollum-like instincts I leapt to the waters edge and snatched the fish.

The seagull looked at me in astonishment, as if a great affront had taken place and the time honoured etiquette between man and seagull had been broken: A reversal of roles so abhorrent that the bird could hardly believe its beady eyes. Its simple world had been turned upside down, inside out and back to front.

In a mad, almost tribal dance that crossed the ages of hominids, from Australopithecus africanus , to Homo floresiensis, to Homo sapiens, I waved the great fish aloft. 

“Ha Ha! That’s for all those Cornish pasties and ice creams, sandwiches and chips!” I hollered.

Such was my jubilation, having not caught so much as a face-mask jellyfish by conventional means all summer, that my solemnly sworn witnesses doubled over in laughter at the spectacle.

In all the commotion a rather serious looking woman with a fox terrier came over to see what was up and I felt obliged to tell the story.

Michelle said “Aw, throw it back.”

“No!” I rebuked. “I’m having it for tea.”

I might even have hissed and referred to it under my breath as “my precious.” Primal urges had been stirred and my dander was up!

I then felt a sharp tugging at the fishes tail and noticed that attached to it was the woman’s Fox terrier.

I gave the still wriggling fish a sharp jerk upwards and the dog’s teeth snapped shut on thin air.

It then proceeded to bounce against my leg in an effort to regain its hold.

But it was my fish- MY prescioussss!

“He likes fish,” said the woman, in a matter-of-fact tone, without any attempt to restrain the determined terrier.

I had wanted to dispatch the fish, but was reluctant to do so with a stranger and a single-minded fox-terrier looking on.

Perhaps she was one of those evangelical vegans and would report me for cruelty. She might report my mild breach of covid regulations or both matters to the authorities. She might faint at the sight of a fish that has not been cleaned of blood and guts and formed into fishfingers.

To my relief she broached the subject first: “you’d better kill it- it’s cruel to let it suffocate,” she said with deadpan expression.

I wondered if it might be a trap and that she would film the whole episode and send it to countryside activist, Chris Packham, to publicly expose another act of carnivorous vandalism, but I decided, for the good of the fish, to put it out of its misery rather than prolong its death, witnesses or not.

I could see the Ferry returning with the small boy and needed to get the thing done before I gave the poor little chap nightmares and he refused to touch another fishfinger in his life. My moment of joyous triumph could yet go horribly wrong.

The fox terrier had other ideas. Every time I lowered the fish to bash its head on a suitably sized rock, he would lunge at the fish, grabbing its tail.

I snapped the fish away and stood up and looked over at the woman.

Rather than offer to put the little blighter on its lead she seemed to enjoy the conundrum she had created and was wondering with detached ambivalence how it would all turn out.

I settled on trying to bash the fish with one hand whilst fending off the terrier with the other under the stupefied gaze of my growing audience. 

Being slippery by nature, the first blow was a glancing one and the fish popped out of my hand like a soap in the bath.

The terrier made his move and I fended him off with a rough shove, grabbing up the fish with both hands.

I was acutely aware that had I been attired in thigh-length, green waders and in possession of a fishing rod, like the other anglers who crowded the neck of the estuary a short distance away, my activities would not have appeared so sinister; But I was not and they did.

I looked at the woman for pity but there was none – only the same ambivalent expression on her face.

I tried again striking a more convincing blow but again the fish slipped from my grasp. It was bleeding but still flapping.

Now sweating under close attention from the terrier, I scooped it up and tried once more.

“That’s it,” pronounced the woman. “You’ve done it.”

Relieved that my tormentor and referee appeared satisfied, I quickly bagged the fish before the ferry landed and washed my hands in the sea.

As we walked away in our pairs, the woman and her terrier approached again from a distance, waving what looked to be a small inedible crab.

“You can have this to go with your fish if you like,” she called.

Perhaps she had liked to see the killing of the fish, I thought. Perhaps she was of the sort who liked to write to imprisoned serial killers and saw me as a kindred spirit.

“No thanks,” I waved back, “we’re alright.”

So there ends my fishy tale.

For your information, I gutted The trout and baked it whole with a little salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon for 20 minutes. It was tasty, though a little too bony for my liking. Next time I’ll leave it for the seal.

Footnote (added later)

We returned to the same spot a couple of days later and saw one of the fishermen who unbeknownst to me had witnessed events. 

The episode seems to have passed into  local folklore already. 

“How was your sea trout?” he called over.

“Oh, er, lovely thanks.” I replied, wondering why I didn’t recognise him. 

“I saw you with a fish, “ he said “and thought you’d caught it off a boat. Then that woman came and told me.”

“Caught anything today?” I asked hopefully, trying not to rub salt in the wound. 

He laughed, shaking his head. 

“I’ve been here for six hours, got hundreds of pounds worth of gear then John the Baptist here comes along and plucks one out of the sea with his bare hands.” 

He chuckled again. He was accompanied by a large shaggy dog whose bored expression confirmed another uneventful day at the waters edge. 

I felt sure that he meant to refer to the two fishermen disciples: Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, whom Jesus called from the Sea of Galilee to follow him and to be ‘fishers of men’. 

But I got the Biblical reference and thought it not worth quibbling over. There was something strangely miraculous about it all. 

Come to think of it, I had dunked the fish in the sea to clean it, though John the Baptist’s clients were not usually bashed on the head first to make sure they were dead. They were gently baptised into a new life. 

John was no ‘crowd pleaser.’ He expected the people to come to him. 

He lived on locusts and wild honey and willingly confronted the hypocrisy of the religious establishment. He didn’t hesitate to expose the immorality of Herod and chose to die a martyr’s death rather than compromise his convictions. If only we could all be more like John, I thought. 

If I was quick enough I might have said something like, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”

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