If you handle mackerel the skin on skin contact will kill them. Something to do with the natural oils in your hands reacting to their oily skin. So a fisherman, according to my fishmonger, will shake an unwanted mackerel off the line without touching it and throw it back. These two young fish were caught and handed over to my mum and eaten all on the same day. They were caught on the seafront yards away from the house, we had swum early in the morning and that night we ate their extraordinary juicy flesh singed by the grill with nothing but some rock salt and a bit of lemon. They look a bit surprised don’t they? It was all going so well.
Sometimes, while swimming, especially in the early morning when I’m still not quite awake, I can feel the nudge of a fish. A spray of bubbles accompanies it and I get a ghostly feeling, suddenly aware the sea doesn’t belong to me, that I’m surrounded on all sides and beneath. The current is a stealthy thing, dragging me away from the little bundle of clothes on the beach, so that in seconds I am a long way away and no amount of swimming against the tide will work. And yet it is such a tame looking thing, the English channel; not ‘real sea’ at all, people say. Too cold, too grey, too English. Yet I love it.
Tessa Hadley in her latest novel The Past has a man on holiday in Minehead sitting with his coffee at a cafe, knowing that if it was France or Morocco or wherever there’d be infinite stimulation simply in the mediocre act of sitting there. The smell of churros and that bewitching fragrance Spanish women wear, the French man and his cheroot, the feeling of the air, the colour of the sky, not understanding the language, its infinite sexiness.
Here, on the beach in Seaford, there is Gary the roofer, there’s the ex-headmistress polishing her chest of drawers outside, there’s a red-faced man inside a kiosk, and a man with dreads and a proper camera hurdling gently over the barrier at Splash Point to stand and stare down at the water. Along the promenade there are also the fish and chip eaters shielding their hot vinegary mush from the young gulls who pretend not to care. There is the baby gull sitting quietly with something broken, waiting by the shoreline for the tide to carry him away. There are people running into the sea as if towards a finishing line, hurling themselves at it, screaming and being generally quite unpolished. This was before the cold snap. Now no one is running into the sea screaming, except for me and someone’s dog.
Slitting open the mackerel’s bellies felt like an intimate act. There was very little there in the first place and I kept the head on, almost as if I wanted the torture of eye contact. There is really nothing to it when it comes to cooking them; grill on one side only and fill the cavity with a few wisps of a herb – I like fresh oregano. A light emulsion of olive oil and some big salt. And then, when they are crisp and ready, sit down with a salad of tomatoes and pretend to be European.
I wish I had an elegant photograph of the mackerel once they’d been cooked but I don’t. They become almost miniaturised by the heat and rather torched. This one was beheaded.