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  • Duncan Mackay

ONCE A GREEK FISHERMAN (#2)


continued...

Maria was never going to be able to dance like Jennifer Lawrence (nor George Osborne for that matter - see #1) because she had bad arthritis in both knees. After preparing the fish she shook some splattered scales off her black cowl of a dress and hobble-ushered me to the back of the inside of the concrete box. In its interior cool cavern she banged on an ancient switch and a dim fluorescent strip stutter-lit the once bountiful frozen food once display cabinet of a once fishmonger’s shop. In it were a tiny selection of the struggling species of an overfished Aegean Sea. Maria pointed to each one in turn, named them in Greek then pointed to the battered balance weight scales in the corner and named their price in Greek. I assumed that I was being invited to select my lunch and pointed at the least ugly specimen in the tank. Maria gave me a look, hooked a finger deftly under a gill to reveal its freshness, slapped it on the scales and added a pretty accurate guess from the rusty collection of weights. More Greek-speak and minor fiddling of the tinier weights gave a result. Maria looked at me very sternly now and spoke with the rising intonation of a final answer question like the one followed by the dramatic pause in ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’. I nodded in assent, final answer.


Outside in the stripey sunlight filtering through the bamboo thatch a small crowd seemed to have gathered to watch the crazy English eat his fish lunch. The three children also acted as waiter/waitresses supplying bread, water, lemon, Greek salad, olive oil, salt, knife and fork, serviette, cold beer, glass; each item delivered individually by different processional children followed by a group huddle to watch the degustation. Their young friends seem to have been invited and some adults. The fish, a sinagrida, arrived, white-eyed and blind to the end of its life. Maria came back with hot olive oil cooked chips. Greetings and a blessing to enjoy the meal were spread around the multitude. It was an unnerving experience being watched until Manolis the vest bear arrived from his slumbering and loudly parted the crowd demanding beer and bonhomie for all. More orders were taken and more seats and tables were magicked up from the concrete cube. My meal over, the fish skeleton and head removed back to whence it had come. A communal tureen of some form of fish soup then arrived in Maria’s strong arms. I’m sure I saw my fish head in there. With much theatre Manolis stirred the pot, took a satisfying sniff, praised his attentive wife and invited the throng to eat. Amidst the slurping Manolis fished out a number of different sightless floating goggly eyes from the fish soup and lined them up for me like an expectant optometrist. I presumed this was some form of test as he crunched a couple with a grin and invited me, by a nudge of his hairy brown elbow, to try one. And so I quickly became adept at eating everything the Aegean could scrape up and deliver by kindly hands to my plate. Everyone roared their approval at my willingness to become the butt of the joke. Then the bill for ‘my fish’ arrived. It was much larger than the fish itself by a factor of ten and took half of my meagre supply of drachma cash. I think I might have eaten the tiniest but tastiest rarest fish in the Med that day. However, it was the last fish food bill I was presented with during my entire stay as I was about to become a Greek fisherman for real.


As the day began to cool I was summoned to the nets, now dry; small rowboat on a string attached to a rock with a hole in it to be hauled in to take us to the caïque; with Manolis junior swimming ahead to nimbly haul up the leading anchor. On board the bent deck the beauty of the boat design became clear as it morphed into a flat deck when two or more people were on one side either setting or hauling nets. It was good for the wallowing or convection waves and, with the heavy solid keel, it cut through most with aplomb. I was assigned the task of keeping the boat in slow reverse while the Manolis’s set the net attached to a flag buoy and payed it out keeping it in line with the far off island of Dia. Once done with the sun’s last light rapidly smudging over the mountains we sloshed full speed for the beach and retraced our lines and anchors.


Dawn yawning on the beach as the first hint of a change in light smeared on the eastern misty seaward horizon. My stretching-brain was interrupted by Manolis bearing a cup of harsh but sense awakening sweet Greek coffee and a hand-sized piece of dried rusk dipping barley bread, the Cretan speciality paxi madia. The other use for this bread I assumed was in the construction of small rockeries or Cotswold drystone walls. Manolis pointed to cup then bread with an insertion motion and headed for the boat.


It was beautiful to be on the sea, feeling both the forceful faithful shudder of the old marine engine and the satisfying give of the planking as the caïque headed, rolling rhythmically and sensuously, to the distant nets and the anticipation of fish. Manolis trusted me with the helm and showed how to steer just with the strength of slight pressure from your inner thigh; the rudder helm jutting promiscuously between your legs in the spirit of the ancient sea gods. Or so I imagined. Ayia Pelagia was named after a body beautiful repented prostitute made saintly by becoming a trans-gender hermit and starving to death - as legend has it; improbable but possible. The haul was anticlimactic even as the sun, now risen above the sea horizon as a hot red globe, poured sweat on our lusty endeavours. Red Scorpion fish, ‘skorpida’, spiky, poisonous bane of the Mediterranean Sea fisherman hoping for more lucrative catch. Dozens of them but barely anything else of saleable quality like anchovies, red mullet, bass, parrot fish or small tuna. Eyeball soup again; for this was the infamous main ingredient of Maria’s tureen. We untangled these red monsters from the net with much cursing. Manolis showed me the right way to avoid a painful spiky scratch from the toxic dorsal spines, and gutted them for the seagulls and crabs.


On land the nets were hauled to dry on the beach, scorpion fish struggle-holes repaired and marine debris and seaweed removed; there was no plastic in the sea then. The village hall and restaurant, as taverna Manolis seemed to have now become, was the centre of a dirt and sand labyrinth of paths trod out by bare feet. Now my daylight eyes could discern amongst the beach edge fringe of reeds and bamboo a meagre smattering of crude low build concrete habitations and small garden plots with the sure civilising sound of chickens and evidence of pumped fresh well water. Beyond and above up the steep ochre-smudged, wild oregano-scented mountain was the bus road to Heraklion and Chania. Another fast receding world-away like a rapidly balding man’s pate; a comb-over from the simple rhythms of life at sea-level and the salty wind in the hair in the plunging surge of a caïque.


Amidst those that gathered, as if drawn by invisible lures to the fish soup tables, were key notable characters in the village drama. The crazy man, the donkeyman, the one-armed hunter, raki man and his wife with their verdigris coated copper Cretan stills, various vegetable-growing sustenance smallholders and many happy, noisy children skilled in many practical things - the future keepers of this tangle-netted genius loci. Crazy man wanted to take me to his shack. He was the most insistent player and Manolis gave me the rolling eye but nod to go. After a beaker of raki and much finger to throat slitting expressions with whispers to avoid dark spirits overseeing our ambitions he jemmied up the floor planking and pulled up a WW2 hoard: sacking-wrapped Schmeisser MP40 sub-machine guns, boxes of 9mm parabellum ammo, four stick grenades and a Luger pistol. He indicated keenly that there was much more to see in the even darker underfloor world of this particular Minotaur. “Turks” was all he said with more finger-throat gesticulating and raki-eyed wildness. I tried to offer the thought and mime that maybe it wasn’t wise to sleep atop this decaying 30 year old ammo dump but that seemed only to offer encouragement. Passing shouting, running, children exploded into the scene and we all jumped up to go. Perhaps the Turks were invading our imaginations after all? Atop a headland boys were shouting and pointing at the sea. In a frenzy, an army of children, elderly and all in-betweenness waving the longest-ever bamboo poles above their heads attached to end-weighted sisal string and a white chicken feather were engaged in a scene of peasant warfare with the sea. Crazy man produced two poles from the side of the shack and, raddled by noon raki or not , off we ran. The beach sand around us was thudding. Like some Charles Fort book chapter the sky was raining fish. Lo! The technique was easy to copy but hard to master; flick the pole and the feather lands in the frothing sea, flick your wrist, wrench your pole and a fish will fly over your head until apogee, then it will detach its spiky tiny teeth from the sisal snare and plummet to its doom. Then repeat. Lashing the sea, mashing the water in a tumult of time bound energy, with a back scene of the smallest children scrabbling for writhing fish in the sand and a slow old woman with a basket under a beachside pomegranate tree acting as a focal depot for the scurrying. More shouts from the lookouts indicated that the bait-shoal of garfish was moving back out to sea propelled by dolphins or King Minos on a chariot, we never knew. The last of the beach boys persisted in fighting the seagulls for the last of the swimming stragglers while others collected dry twigs for a fire quickly lit and pointed sticks made with boyish Cretan killer knives. The way to cook a garfish is to gag it with a pointed stick through its pointed beak into its guts, wave it over a hot fire until the scales go crisp, then nibble on both sides like corn on the cob. The flesh is the purest white and the bones are the most viridescently satisfying green. Tonight at the restaurant the whole village would be sharing garfish and chips, and the skinny cats would crunch the garish bones.


Most caïque-fishing days were the same routine with the wild excitement of randomness provided by the minor variants in sea conditions or catch. After a week or so there was a mood swing signalled by a delay in morning departure and the arrival of a huge moustache. The one-armed hunter strode down the mountain path with his poachers bag and hefty bolt action rifle. He was met enthusiastically and furtively by the restaurant crew like a group of knowingly naughty children. Today there would be five of us on the boat and the row boat came too, bobbing in the wake as we headed west around the cape towards a steeply cliffed coastline devoid of all habitation. After an enjoyable hour admiring the changed vista and the breeze Manolis steered into a tight cove and we bobbed in neutral gear as one-armed mountain hunter handed over his rifle, stood in the prow of the row boat and was rowed closer to the cliffs. I thought of the gull egg collectors of Bempton or the gannet chick harvest on Lewis and wondered. Suddenly he swung his one good arm as if waving defiantly at an unseen foe. Then there was no more time for wonder as the rower threw himself at the oars in a start that would have graced any royal regatta at Henley. I became deaf and the shock wave of a stick of dynamite exploding under water nearly knocked me off the deck. A gigantic plume of water drew skywards as if Poseidon was trying to catch a passing seagull. Then the sky began to rain fish. I watched a terminally surprised slo-mo dusky grouper tumble high into the air before descending with a loud smack. Nets and scoops now came into play as every seabird within ten nautical miles was onto the game and man v bird got underway. Soon the row boat was full of shocked fish, Hunter and rower were extracted triumphantly and the homeward journey begun with the scoops used to fend off the gulls. Suspicious glances fell in my direction and despite Manolis giving me some sort of character reference the new crew members both came to me with the finger symbol of silence and the words “non polisi”. I got the message and the display of Cretan knives in their belts was merely for friendly reinforcement. There was a crowd waiting back on the beach and eager swimmers came to haul the fishy-dodgy rowboat of slippery trove to the shore. Baskets ready, the illegal catch disappeared in minutes. That night the whole conspiracy of villagers came to the restaurant and a boatload of fish went down the collective gullet as soupified, grilled, fried or fishballed pieces of happy guilty pleasure - with chips, bread and salad.


There was no fishing the next day, maybe it was a church day for extra penance (and some) or votive offerings to appease the earlier gods of the sea and marine fertility. Maybe it was also a day when nobody was looking to bulldoze a Minoan/post-Minoan archaeological site over a cliff. I found recycling evidence under the tracks of the dozer (whose driver was snoring under a midday tree) in the smattering of broken pottery; some with the traces of food still burnt into the base of cooking vessels - maybe the ancient forerunner of Maria’s fish eyeball soup? Maybe they were pots not washed since the explosion of Thera in 1650 BC? I took a handful to take home to confuse future Time Team digs in Yorkshire. There was no confusing the location’s sense of timeless beauty. It was a deeper understanding. I wondered just how many others had stood there before me and wondered the same thought - a different type of timeshare. I was hailed by one of the guilty fish-sharers from his vine covered shack to enjoy a sweet prickly pear and a cool glass of water from his well. There is a knack to cutting and eating these ripening fruits of crazy cacti. If English enclosure hedgerows utilised the discrete spines of blackthorn sloes to keep cattle in newly stolen fields on former common lands, I wondered what monsters needed spines this long and cacti this high to keep the villagers safe at night. Monsters or maybe wolves or just the neighbour’s goats? I admired his vegetable plot with an approving wave of my arm and he and his old wife smilingly leapt into action working as a silently practised olive-oiled team. Firstly, to raise water from a cistern well then let it run through a sluice into an earthen channel. Secondly, with a deftly aimed adze, make an opening into a veg enclosure before stopping that off and allowing more water to flow into the next with a swift but effective sweep of the ancient tool on its long worn smooth wooden handle. A present of a handful of warm sweet tomatoes rounded off the virtuoso display.


My Cretan fishing apprenticeship ended in the following days with the trip to Dia. This island featured on the everyday eastern horizon and acted as a mark in the sea for all manner of instruction. The dawn beach gathering was joined by two others, who, as I learned, had a proprietary interest in some lobster pots. There was also some baited long lines for tuna and no nets. It was a faraway sea march to the island and the flags were hard to see. There was some anxiety that they had been stolen or lost by wave action but eventually they were located and the slow upward haul of the weighted pots commenced. It was not wholly successful in the manner expected but one large spiny crawfish and one large conch shell still vigorously hanging on to the stinky bait were dragged by sweating grunting men to the deck. Next the tuna and bonito lines were deployed as the straight between Dia and Heraklion were deemed good for these now rare fish or maybe even a swordfish. It was not a wholly successful drag home but one very small tuna gave itself up for the greater good.


Triton’s trumpet was blown with news of the lobster and clearly some ocean drum was sounded as the next day a flashy yacht anchored in the bay and a foursome of wealthy mainland Greeks came ashore and took over the restaurant, loudly. Gold was flashed. There were visits to see the beast and several expressive shoulder squeezing hagglings over the price in the margins. Maria fauned and fussed and delivered up not only the steaming spiny beast but also the tuna too. The usual gawping crowd scene developed to watch the voluble and valuable devouring. The yacht people ignored everyone with the disdain of the arrogant rich. Manolis looked satisfied, Maria looked happy; each dreaming perhaps of a new things. Hope and simple desires fuelled by hard fishy cash.


The last act of my last day was to eat the conch. On landing, it’s muscular foot - looking more like a boxer’s fist - had been skilfully lassoed with fishing line then the line spliced to a series of successively stronger ropes. The rope was tied with a garrotte to the stoutest of the restaurant’s outdoor supports and the snared conch shell wedged in a slot on a pole opposite. The garrotte was then tightened. Passing customers added a twist to the pressure. Time passed, night fell, the golden yacht Greeks came and went, the sun began its downward slope. Then the conch gave up the unequal struggle, the line went slack and the whole gooey spiral was gently extracted and the inedible parts shucked for the skinny cats. Someone took up the foot muscle and went to the octopus bashing rock and proceeded to pound it. Others took over the tender/not tender task until nearly everyone had had a go at beating the bejesus out of triton. Maria conveyed the flayed blob to the kitchen and emerged with a communal plate of olive oil swimming with conch chunks in lemon, mountain herbs and olives. It was chewy, like life, and slowly masticated into many happy memories of my time as a Greek fisherman (honorary).



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