Mackerel Story - three orientations, plus Isobel’s
Thursday 7 May (food diary)
Apple and almond butter on toast
Caramel wafer from the blood bank
Baked beans on toast when home, ravenous, from giving blood.
Went to pick up the fish Isobel has painted.
Mackerel with orzo, dill and cream.
Two Scottish mackerel, ordered to the home fresh out the water.
I - like some kind of organ donor, walked South, then East a little, to get to her flat - carrying a silver bag (got at the duty free last year; someone carried soft cheese home in it from Italy) filled with a bag of frozen peas.
I got to the flat and took collection of the goods immediately, no time to waste: the mackerel, dead and tired from a day of being laid out in the studio.
Isobel made two charcoal drawings and a painting of the mackerel. She held these images aloft, in the hall, I out on the stairwell: a private close exhibition.
When I got home I took them straight into the kitchen, the site of what would be their second death.
I put the oven on. I was calm but also in a hurry, trying for expedience.
I got out two silver bowls and put them on the table in the centre of the room. I filled them each with ice cold water, then removed the mackerel one by one from their plastic incubator, lowering them each in to the first bowl for a swill. Their bellies were unsplit, but there was still a gunk to be rinsed off.
Was this the wrong thing to do - how are you to treat fish? I know you aren’t supposed to wash a dead chicken, but it had been so long since either. The hindsight today gives me nothing.
I took them through this baptism, from the first bowl to the second. The water gone opaque in the first. I handled them as though they were still alive, not as though they were flopping around, just with a wariness. I pretended that they were asleep.
I emptied the liquid in the first bowl into the sink, cleaned it, then replaced it on the table. Each fish: lifted, wobbled to remove liquid, then placed back in to the first bowl, now dry.
I took bowl 2 to the sink, replaced it with a white chopping board, a cloth under it.
I stroked their leopard skin, more velvet than scale - prod it in one direction and it takes you round the edge of its tummy, in the other and it resists. Did they swim together, are they kin? I know they swum in the same mass of salt water, but did they cross bodies in life. Did they breathe the same air at times through their flossy gills. Did they get near enough to smell each other, this pair? I think this as I make an incision from a chin to a belly to where a body ends, try and degut them as cleanly as I can. Their blood is semi-coagulated, it holds on my knuckles, in each of my palms. After the first cutting it is not novel, I want it to be over. I try to not look at them; their wholeness is lost, their occupying of a certain discrete volume gone.
I rinse them all again, their insides, and then wrap them snug in paper, a little oil and bay, some salt, and get them in the oven quick. I cook orzo in a shallow pan, in a little oil at first then add boiling water to it. I chop dill finely, add it to the pasta when it’s almost cooked, and tip in the end of a pot of cream. I break up the mackerel with a fork, add it. It it too creamy, even with some lemon, I forgot how oily-rich mackerel is. I eat it in waves of guilt, I know I need to savour it, even though I haven’t done it justice, I know it needs to be worth it.
It is beautiful.
Like fur, or flat shorn velvet.
I stroke the skin.
I, with blade in hand
open it up. guts expel to
cedar wood flesh.
I rinse its limp body
under running tap water,
until it runs clear.
In the neat sunset
I despatch the guts and blood
to a bin outside.
Isobel and Mackerel (click through to buy a reproduction)