At ten I was not good with fish. They were slippery creatures. Tricky. Slithering through my fingers.
“You must be firm,” my mother said.
By the worktop near the sink, I watched her with a whole mackerel. Whorls of black, a bright clear eye. On the blue Formica, two knives lay side by side, blades thin, dark handles.
She took the smaller knife, chafed the skin, loading the blade with dirty sequins.
“Scrape the scales so, or they will stick in your throat.”
Wiped that knife clean on a wet dish cloth. Next the longer, narrower one. A clean cut in front of the gills removed the head, one more took off the tail. She turned the fish, pressed the knife edge against its creamy belly.
And it was then she told me. What people said was true: my daddy was not my real father. Although God knows what business it was of theirs.
There was only a little blood when the fish was cut. Strings of red, dark globules laced the worktop.
“I am not telling you everything now, so don’t ask. We can’t upset your father. You know how he is.”
And now we must probe for bones, the little ones. Run our fingers over the inner flesh, feel for the blighters that could stick in the throat – choke the life from someone. Use fine tweezers to pull them out.
Afterwards, we swept skin and bones, wrapped them in newspaper. Remnants of flesh clung to us both. So we scrubbed our hands in soapy water.
But the smell of fish is not easily washed away. Something persists, lasts, outlives.
And other things are only lent.
He needed some peace and Jesus he deserved it.
“But I’m not leaving you, kiddo, never you.”
And I wanted to tell him that when he sang, it was better than the radio. How I loved the strength of him, lifting me to see over the top of the bridge, the whoosh of air, the rush of water. And I could tell him the names of the fish he caught: tench, pike, dace.
Anything to hold, be firm, just as she had told me.
But at ten, there were things I still could not do.
He left behind the white bottle. The one with the blue ship. It stayed. Sometimes I took off the top only to catch the spicy breath of him.
Some nights the wind bashed my bedroom walls just for fun. Then, I played him. Played the life of him above, on my white ceiling. Now striding the streets, heavy coat, a black shoal streaming behind him. Now tumbling from the pub, beer-loud, singing Strangers in the Night. Or perhaps his favourite, a quiet river bank, letting fish from the keep net free. Slithering, slipping easily through thick fingers, into the river. His slight smile, their fat silver bellies winking in the sun.
Julia Deery lives in Essex and is a writer of short stories and Flash Fiction. She particularly enjoys the challenge of very short fiction as it encourages writing that is intense, powerful and effective in exploring those moments in life that have lasting significance. Since retiring from as the Head Teacher of a Boys Comprehensive school in East London, Julia has had more time to concentrate on her writing and is working on several ideas for a novel, including a piece of historical fiction. She is inspired by the examples of Anita Brookner and Annie Proulx, fabulous women writers who published fiction in the later years of their lives.