Until the day we went fishing in Tenby, my infantile palate had been accustomed to, and welcomed with great enthusiasm, cosy comestibles such as roast lamb, soft boiled eggs with marmite soldiers and bags of sherbet lemons after Sunday school.
Then I met mackerel.
We were on this fishing trip, I was six years old and the only girl in a bunch of jostling boys and men. Bored and fishless, I decided to reel in my line. Flickers of silver began to appear in the greeny-black sea and gradually a fish shimmied up to the surface. Mum appeared beside me and said, ‘Ooh look, you’ve caught one.’ My fish glared at us as it dangled on the hook. It was long, metallic and lean with black lines wiggling along its body.
‘It’s a mackerel,’ announced Mum, with the happy glow of a new parent. The skipper came lumbering over, released my fish and tossed it in the bucket where it writhed and flipped, its silver scales glinting in the weak sun.
After that, fish after fish hooked themselves eagerly onto my line until there were seven glittering mackerel slumped in the bottom of my bucket.
‘All those big lads and men fishing like mad and one little girl catches seven,’ said Mum as we headed back to the car with my catch bundled up in soggy paper.
Back at the campsite, my parents gutted the mackerel.
Off came the tails, chop, chop, chop. Seven soft bellies were split open and the entrails, slippery and crimson were tossed onto a pile. Then seven pairs of eyes stared as Mum fried the fish in a blackened pan on the camping stove.
She gave me a hunk of pungent smelling flesh in a red plastic bowl. It was dense and brown with crinkly, scaly skin clinging to it, not at all like the pretty white flakes of fish I was used to eating.
I took a cautious mouthful and tasted rubbish bins.
A rotting stench swam to the back of my throat and wouldn’t let go. In my mouth the flesh became a nasty, slimy ball that should not have been there. I attempted to swallow but my throat, a slammed-shut trap door, wasn’t having any of it.
I tried to like it.
After all, I had caught it. I should be eating it with pride.
‘Mmm, this is lovely. Really fresh. Tastes of the sea.’ Mum scraped the last bits of flesh off her camping plate and reached for more.
‘Pass us another one, Sue,’ my step-father said, not bothering to supress a mackrelly belch.
My parents chattered and ate while I managed, with a huge gagging gulp, to force a few mouthfuls of the terrible stuff down my throat. I took a long, life-saving drink of Ribena and the foulness was swept away a cold stream of purpley sweetness.
Mum put her knife and fork together and said, ‘Well that was delicious, well done, Stevie’. She looked at me. ‘What’s the matter? Didn’t you like it? You spend all day fishing, catch seven lovely mackerel and don’t eat any of them.’
Then she picked up my bowl of carrion, said, ‘Oh well never mind. We can feed it to the seagulls. I expect they’ll love it.’