The Devil's Dish Served Six Different Ways (chapters 5 & 6)
Dougie-boy didn’t say much. He steered the boat and followed a course that seemed to be set towards the far, far distant horizon. After thirty minutes or so Akil noticed that the sea was becoming choppier and the boat seemed to be struggling to rise above each wave.
“See that net ?” shouted Dougie-boy without fully turning. “Make it ready to throw over the side.”
Akil took hold of the pile of green netting that lay at the rear of the boat. It was much heavier than he anticipated due to the number of weights and hooks affixed to the edges. Was he going to have to attach worms and maggots to the hooks ? He hoped not. His mother had once told him that flies and worms carried disease and infected food. So why, he wondered, did fish find them so tasty ?
Suddenly Dougie-boy cut the engine. The boat drifted for a moment and then Dougie dropped anchor. Akil stood ready. “Ok, lad - throw it over.” Akil dragged the net to the side and with all his might pushed it overboard.
He watched as the net unfolded itself in the water, expanding like a giant flatfish, before slowly sinking. Dougie-boy poured two cups of tea from a thermos flask and handed a cup to Akil. “Now” he said “we wait.”
Akil was glad for the tea even though it had milk in it which he didn’t usually like. The wind dropped and it got colder, so cold that Akil began to shiver. Dougie-boy didn’t seem to notice or care about the cold. He sat with his feet raised in the tiny engine house of the boat smoking and reading his newspaper. Akil decided that Dougie-boy didn’t mind the cold because he was used to it. Dougie was a sea-person whereas Akil was a city person. Hamzah was always telling him that people were different. What was good for one wasn’t necessarily good for another. That was how life was.
Akil wondered how long they were going to have to wait. It was getting colder and colder and the afternoon light was beginning to fade. He leaned over the side of the boat and stared into the water. He imagined the fish swimming just below the surface – shoals of silvery-blue creatures darting to the left and right. And in his daydream he imagined his mother and sister swimming amongst the fish - swimming elegantly like dolphins, following one another, the sheen of their skin piercing the surface of the water.
“That’s enough” said Dougie-boy.
Akil looked up, wondering what he meant.
“Now we'll check the catch.”
It took a great effort to haul in the net. The hooks had snared many different sized fish. As more of the net was retrieved Dougie-boy tore the smaller ones from the hooks and threw them back into the sea. Some of the others he examined closely before consigning them to a plastic yellow box. After a few minutes hauling Akil saw a large black fish with red fins and a yellow tail twisting on one of the hooks. Dougie-boy was excited when he saw this fish and carefully prised its mouth free from the hook before holding it tightly in his hands.
“This is what we’re after” he said.
“What is it ?” said Akil.
“Folk call ‘em devil-fish. You only find ‘em in this stretch of water. This is what we’ll eat tomorrow.”
He threw the devil-fish into a white plastic box. Akil had never seen such a creature before and stared as it flapped and twisted, gasping for breath. Its large eyes were yellow-white and seemed to be staring directly at Akil. He watched as its mouth opened and closed - rapidly at first, then slower and slower, the gills deflating into tiny dough balls.
“Come on, lad – no time to stop.”
They hauled the net again. It seemed to go on forever. Dougie-boy continued to throw the smaller fish back into the sea. And when another devil-fish appeared Dougie muttered a low groan of approval before carefully placing it into the white plastic container. By the time the last of the net had been pulled aboard six devil-fish were lying on their sides breathing their last. “A good day’s catch” said Dougie-boy. “Those devil-fish must like you, lad! Now put the net neatly to the side and ice the fish so they keep fresh.” Akil did as he was told. Then Dougie-boy raised the anchor, slammed the boat in gear, and set course for the harbor.
When they’d moored the boat Akil helped load the fish boxes into the rear of Dougie-boy’s van. It was dark as they drove up the hill to the house and Akil wondered if his father would be angry. He’d been working on Dougie-boy’s boat all day. Akil couldn’t recall spending so much time with someone other than his father. Although he was very cold, and despite the fact Dougie-boy didn’t talk much, Akil had enjoyed himself.
They walked into the house and discovered Hamzah, Dorothy and Dorothy’s parents sitting in the lounge. A girl, older than Akil, sat hunched on the sofa with her hand resting on her stomach. She had short black hair and a ring through her nose. Akil guessed that the girl was Dorothy’s daughter.
“We’re back” said Dougie-boy. “We caught six of the beauties - all decent size.”
Akil noticed that Dorothy’s mother was holding a handkerchief and her eyes were very red. Akil looked at his father. Something was going on.
“Put the fish in the kitchen” said Dougie-boy’s father.
“You going to make ‘em ready ?” said Dougie-boy.
“Not now” said Dorothy rather sharply and the room fell into an uncomfortable silence. Dougie-boy shrugged and went into the kitchen.
Dorothy’s daughter didn’t look like Dorothy at all. She was pale and a bit too thin and had a tattoo on her shoulder. Hamzah said: “Perhaps Akil can prepare the fish. He’s very good at preparing fish, aren’t you Akil ?”
Akil wanted to say yes, he was an expert in preparing fish, but it wouldn’t have been true. Akil had never prepared a fish in his life. His mother had once told him to be very careful when preparing food from the sea. Some fish contained poisons that could make a person ill.
Dorothy let out a long irritating sigh. “We’ll prepare the fish tomorrow.”
Akil and Hamzah went out to the van and helped collect the boxes. Dougie-boy took out the six devil-fish and put them into a polythene bag. He tied the bag with a piece of rope and put it in the freezer. After he’d washed his hands Dougie-boy muttered: “See you later” and left.
Alone in the kitchen Hamzah said, in a low voice: “Akil - things are not very good in this house. Not good at all. There is trouble with Dorothy’s daughter.”
“What kind of trouble ?” said Akil.
Hamzah shook his head. “We cannot discuss it. It is women’s trouble. Tomorrow you will have to cook the dinner, Akil. There is much unhappiness here but your food will make everyone smile. Do you understand ?”
Akil nodded although he didn’t understand at all. “I’ll do my best, father” he said.
Hamzah smiled and patted his son’s head in the same way the Indian man patted Akil’s head when he was cooking. “Here – I have prepared you a sandwich. Take it and go up to bed. You must be tired after your day with Dorothy’s brother. I will stay downstairs for a while and help find a solution to the problem with Dorothy’s daughter. We’ll talk again in the morning. Will you do that Akil ?”
Akil said that he would. Then Hamzah did something very strange – he took Akil in his arms and hugged him, hugged him so tightly that Akil could barely breathe and said: “All life is precious, Akil. Even life that is unloved and unwanted. Do not forget that my boy. Do not forget it for as long as you live.”
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