She was born to that work. You could see it in the way her gloved hands flashed, dealing the fillets out into trays with fat slaps, and a card sharp’s speed.
As a rule I hated being dragged along on shopping trips, but going to the fishwife’s was different. The cool, blue-green tiles, and the smell of salt and sea – so true, you’d swear the shop had sails, sometimes; swear you felt it pitch and creak beneath your feet.
The village women were blind to the fishwife’s beauty. She hid it under stiff white overalls and the stink of fish, wore a hairnet that flattened her curls, and no make-up. But the men saw it. Even as a child, I saw the way they watched as she twisted their skate into waxed paper. The white slope of her throat. The glimpse of her breasts as she leant into the cool glass cabinet. And it was always the husbands who volunteered to pick up the haddock on Friday afternoons, the boned salmon for the birthday meal. Always the husbands who had a sudden hankering for Dover sole, or chilled eel.
My favourite thing was when she’d take a knife and diddle the blade along a fish, then strip away the sheet of scales in a practiced flick, the twinkled dark of a country midnight. It gave me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’d done the rounds of birthday parties, seen my share of dislocated ladies smiling from boxes, doves pulled from cuffs. But this was different. Something in that shop felt otherworldly, strange. There was a shift when the door closed behind you, like the world had tilted ever so slightly on its axis before righting itself. A split second of zero-gravity.
I tried to tell to my Dad once that I thought the fishwife might be a witch. “Not the fairytale kind,” I added quickly when his brow creased in a frown. “A real one, I mean. Like, she does spells and that, makes good things happen. But no one ever knows about it.”
My Dad said “Aye, perhaps,” and went back to his paper. But he couldn’t deny that Mr and Mrs Jenson from three doors down swore they’d first kissed over the fishwife’s red snapper. That Mr Barker, 103 next birthday, credited her whelks for his royal telegram.
I was eleven, with an overprotective Mam. She still held my hand in the street, even though I was almost as tall as she was. Mam’s sister, who would have been my Aunt Jean, had died when she was only nine. I didn’t know what had happened, exactly, but I’d heard my Dad once tell his friend Malc that it had been “a bloody bad business, and they never caught him that did it.” Even as a child, I intuited that this was this reason for Mam’s over-protectiveness, and that’s why I didn’t get mad when she held my hand in public. Not even the time when Jason Murray saw, and told the other kids, and they called me a sissy for months after.
But I had a secret. Some nights, after the house had gone still and quiet, I’d wait for the first snores to roll like the surf from my parents’ room, and then I’d get up and dressed in the bars of moonlight striping my floor. The whole way downstairs, I’d hold my breath, and then with a thief’s knack, I’d slip the spare key from its hook in the kitchen, and out I’d go, soundless, into the night.
When you’re eleven, you take your freedom where you can find it. I found mine in those midnight streets, when the world was mine and mine alone. When no-one could tell me No, or When you’re older, where there were no hands I had to hold, no rules I had to follow.
I skipped stones along the roads, which shone like metal under the moon. I went to Jason Murray’s house and flashed my own small moon at his bedroom window. Once, I climbed on to the school roof to watch the stars, and felt myself smaller than the minnows we caught in the pond at school, thin flickers of light in our palms.
I still couldn’t say what made me go down to the harbour that night, a week or so before my twelfth birthday. Lately, I had been feeling restless, like I was too big to be contained within the cage of my bones. I was a swarming, urgent mass of ideas, and hormones, and frustrations, and questions, and deliciously tormented by thoughts of my first crush – Poppy Miller, a girl with red hair, and a constellation of freckles on the saddle of her nose. Sometimes I felt I might burst at the seams.
I didn’t specifically intend to go the harbour, but that was where I ended up. It was eerie at night, the still boats looking hobbled, somehow, and listless; the creaks they made reminding me of the old ladies in the Sunday pews, knees protesting like rusty gates as they knelt to pray.
I kicked my way down the pebbled shore. The fine spray of stones made a satisfying sound, like whispers, or water. Shush, said the stones. Shush, I said back.
I walked and walked, only stopping when I realised how far out I was. I couldn’t face the long walk back, not yet, so I sat instead in the lee of an upturned rowboat to rest, lazily tossing the occasional pebble into the water, but mostly just enjoying the quiet.
It was half past one in the morning. I remember noting the time, and thinking I would head back soon, when I saw a rippling in the water a little way down the bay. A few bubbles burst on the surface with sounds like wet lips smacking together. More rippling, and then a seam opened between sea and sky, and the gleam of a seal’s head rose from the water like a stone.
My breath caught in my throat as I watched the seal move in a straight, shining line for the shore, where she – there was never any doubt in my mind that the seal was a female – turned suddenly clumsy and lumbering as she reached the shallows, and rolled her bulk out onto the stones.
Beautiful she was, her wet back like a sheet of beaten silver in the moonlight, her eyes dark and thickly lashed as a cow’s. I sat like a statue, watching as she hauled her way up the beach, heave by muscled heave, to a half-ring of rocks.
In every life there is a moment where childhood is left behind forever. Mine ran out like water from a colander the moment I saw the sealskin split and come away, when I saw an arm, long and white, reach out of the slack, followed by the freckled moon of a shoulder. A white back came after that, and then – even now, I blush to remember it – a naked bottom, round and smooth.
What was I thinking? Nothing explicit that I can remember, though I can recall the event like a film-reel unspooling – even now, all these years later – with crystal-clear precision. There are just no thoughts attached to the images. My mind was a swarm of white noise, a television switched to a fuzz of snow.
The woman stepped out of the loose sealskin, her back to me, wet black hair spilling like oil all the way to her waist. I watched her fold the slick grey caul into careful quarters, then tuck it neatly beneath a rock. From the same rock, she pulled out a pile of clothes and climbed into them, shivering now, still wet: a pair of jeans, a red shirt checked like a tablecloth. She twisted her hair up into a knot, and then plopped down on the pebbles to slip on her shoes, her face lifted to look out at the sea so I saw her features for the first time.
It’s perhaps to my credit that I managed to smother my gasp with a fist. I watched wide-eyed as she tied her laces in two neat double-bows. Then she stood, and I watched the fishwife walk across the shingle, back towards the harbour and the sleeping village, all the lights of the universe ringing her head like a crown.
I didn’t tell anyone what I’d seen for years. I didn’t think anyone would believe me, for one thing, could imagine how the sounds of disbelief would ring in my ears; how taunts of crazy would trail in my wake for the rest of my life. For another, how would I explain to my mother that I’d been leaving the house past midnight? As she reminded me constantly, there were bad men out there who loved to pluck boys like me from the streets for their own seedy delight; I knew she’d never spend a peaceful night again if I confessed.
Besides: there is nothing sweeter than the taste of a secret. I rolled it on my tongue for years, savouring its tones and golden notes. I’d imagine coolly telling Poppy Miller, The fishwife is really a seal, you know. I’ve seen her change. Imagined telling Jason Murray, I’ve seen the fishwife naked. I’ve seen her boobs. In my mind, I walked them down past the row of creaking boats and lobster creels to unroll the skin from its salty crevice. Maybe I’d even slip it on, and see what it was to be a seal myself.
But some part of me, even as a child, was wise enough to understand that reality could never compete with fantasy. I didn’t want the disappointment, and so I kept quiet, kept the fishwife’s secret in the private rooms of my own head.
It wasn’t until after we’d buried my Mam when I was fourteen that I finally told my father. For weeks we’d watched her waste away to the cancer that would kill her, her failing liver turning her skin the colour of custard, her breath rank with a sickly pear-like odour. We knew she was dying, but the morning we found her cool and pale as porcelain still came as a shock.
After the flowers and the funeral home, after she’d really and truly gone, the silence came down like a wall. I sat on one side with my grief, and Dad sat on the other with his, and neither one of us knew how to breach it.
I’d like to think I finally told my Dad because he needed some magic back in the wake of my Mam’s passing, but truthfully, I needed a way over the wall before I went mad, or both of us did. And so I threw out the fishwife’s truth like a rope, and my Dad grabbed at it with both hands.
Another week passed before he asked me to show him where. We dressed in black and left at midnight, prowling the quiet harbour like a pair of burglars.
Did I know, deep down, the thing he was planning? I must have done: I wasn’t surprised when he pulled out the salty, sea-smelling skin, and tucked it briskly under his arm. Partners in crime: we stole back across the dark bay.
I woke next morning to kippers frying. Rock and roll on the radio.
I drifted downstairs to the kitchen. My father sat at the table with his paper, eyes crinkled, content for the first time in months. And there she was, at the stove. Turning the yellow fish, wearing my Mam’s robe.
“Morning, Simon,” the fishwife said, and although her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, it was close enough. I thought in time it might.
“Kippers for breakfast, is that alright?”
My tongue was tied, so I nodded my head. She turned back to the pan, the spitting fat.
“You can call me Mam, if you like,” she said.
Cheryl Pearson lives in Manchester. Her poems have appeared in publications including The Guardian, Southword, Poetry NorthWest, and Frontier. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming at Confingo, Spelk, and Fictive Dream. She was Highly Commended in the Costa Short Story Awards 2017, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first poetry collection, “Oysterlight”, is available now from Pindrop Press/Amazon.