STORYLINE - 9: THE CODFATHER, Low Dudgeon on the High Seas (Fiction, what else?)
'A life on the ocean waves, a home on the rolling deep...'
The 'Moray Mary' was tossed about like a dog-kennel on house-high waves south-west of the Faeroes.
Something suddenly registered on the net-graph that rang alarm bells with Skipper Andy MacTavish.
'Wha' in the name o' Chris'mas is tha'?' MacTavish boomed like the lighthouse bullhorn at Cruden Bay. 'There's somethin' awfie funny goin' on doon there!'
'Whits tha', Mac?' Bennie Jespersen had his nose in the Daily Record as usual, more interested in trawling the names of horses at the weekend Ayr meeting in the hope of earning a better crust - or getting out of trawlers, full stop.
'It looks like somethin's tearin' a hole in the damn' net, Bennie - get it in, for Gorrsake afore we lose it! Lord knaws, the things're dear enough to buy. If we're not careful, there's goin' tae be no net tae pull in - go on, lad, gedditin!'
'Aye, aye, Skip!' Bennie thrust the paper into the corner of the wheelhouse and was almost thrown to the floor when he pulled the door open. 'Sheesh! Get a load o' this!'
'Get a load o' that net afore it's gone, nivver mind sprawlin' on't floor!' Andy Mac yelled, one hand on the wheel, the other jerking towards the net winch.
'I'm on it! I am on it! Keep yer troosers on!' Bennie yanked the door shut behind him and almost flew out of the cabin with the Force 8 north-westerly all the way from Iceland. He struggled down the three steps and hurtled along the deck, pushed by the wind.
There was a gut-wrenching noise of machinery grinding to a stop as the net was caught in the machinery. Frantic efforts were made to clear the blockage and the net winch was started again. The sea meanwhile threw its salty might about and the wheelhouse window wipers were over-worked trying to keep up with the work-load.
It was not long before the machinery behind Andy Mac sounded as if it was being strangled again, and the net stopped with a judder. It was as if old Neptune had caught it on his trident. Swearing started out on the deck, not that Andy Mac could make any of it out but he knew it was no sweet-sounding poetry! Somehow Bennie got it going again and the machinery sounded smoother this time as it chugged away, like Chips' buzz-saw snores. ..
Andy Mac turned his attention back to the task in hand,
'Where's that bacon butty? Ah asked fer it a bloody hour ago, Chips!' he barked into the intercom. He was talking to the cook down in the galley - well, not so much talking as haranguing - to find out when his bacon sandwich would show in the wheelhouse.
'There's nean a soul but me here, Skip!' Chips yelled back. 'An' mah hands are full wi' tryin' tae get this grill goin'!'
Andy Mac growled and turned off the mike, slapped it back into its cradle and stared out past the driving rain at the grey mass where sea and sky met. He wondered where things had sunk to since his Dad ran the trawler, now he ran his chip shop ashore as if it were the mine-sweeper he comanded during the latter years of WWII. The staff turnover was alarming, and he had to recruit his 'victims' (as the folk back in Peterhead called Auld Jimmy's shop staff) from as far off as Cruden Bay, and even they were getting wise to his advertising in the paper!
The winch stopped again with a crunch and somebody set to it with a wrench.
'Hey, tha' winch isn't yer wee wifie!' Andy Mac almost choked, and - realising no-one could hear him - gripped the wheel with his right hand. With his left he slid open the back window of the wheelhouse to shout out, 'Hey, Bennie - tha' winch isn't yer wee wifie, so gi'e over slammin' it wi' yer monkey wrench!'
'Ah'm nae slammin' it, man!' Bennie yelled back, 'It's the winch that's rattlin' away! Come out an' see for yerself!'
'Ye kna' I can't leave this wheelhouse', Andy Mac fumed and yelled back, 'It's your job, see tae it an' tell the lads tae help!'
More swearing followed and Andy Mac slid the window shut again to steer the rusting trawler he inherited. What with EU quotas and nosy civil servants, the job Andy Mac thought would last him a lifetime didn't look as if it would see out another year. Diesel for the engine, engine oil, grease for the machinery, nylon nets, net sizes and all the rest of that rubbish... What with the paperwork. He shuddered, shut his eyes tightly and opened them wide again at what he saw.
'Holy crab-meat, wha's that?!' He rubbed his right eye, then his left with one free hand and stared again. There was a man-sized codfish standing at the starboard side of the prow, fins folded, one side of its tail thumping the iron deck, impatient. 'Ah'm dreamin'!'
Before long the four crew, including Bennie, stood in front of the wheelhouse. Their heads obscured the bottom third of the wheelhouse front screen, mouths and eyes wide open (except Andy Mac woudn't have seen that). He let go of the wheel for one second - or was it? To anyone else it would have been longer, much longer. Minutes! The wheel spun and the vessel lurched to port. But the cod stood - was that the right word? Fish don't have legs! - and jerked its head aft,
'What do you think you're doing? You've already exceeded your quota!' it said.
A talking, man-sized cod-fish - with an Icelandic accent, dressed in a striped suit with snappy white silk tie and dark blue bandana. What? Andy Mac shook his head and grabbed the crazily spinning wheel. The vessel lurched again, to starboard this time as he turned the wheel to get back onto course. What was it, eighty-seven degrees? Or was it eighty-four? This talking fish had all five crew hypnotised.
The cod made its way past the wheelhouse to the winch and stopped. Andy Mac could see it stoop to look at something. Bennie Jespersen and the others followed it with their eyes, and Andy Mac slid open the back window again.
'You know what happens when you over-fish, I suppose?' the cod asked as if it knew the answer anyway. Like a policeman, or a Fisheries inspector.
'Tell me - ye seem tae know the answer already!' Andy Mac didn't know why he was talking to a cod-fish - of all things - but he wanted to know where this was leading. 'Ye widna be a Fisheries inspector in disguise wid ye, by some funny quirk o' fate?'
'God, no! I've got something else in mind', came the answer.
'What then - bigger net sizes, mebbe, so all the fish can swim through?' That would be just what a freak like this would suggest.
'No, no, no!' The cod 'stamped' its tail. Bennie scratched his forehead and look at the others, not knowing what was going on. Was he dreaming, or were they all in the same mad dream?
'Wha-a' then?!' Andy Mac was getting a stiff neck, half-turned with one hand on the wheel, the other scratching his head.
'You catch mackerel instead of cod, and I'll show you where the mackerel hide out!' the cod told him.
Andy Mac was stumped for an answer. Was there some sort of war going on under the waves? Had cod-fish declared war on the others? God, what was he thinking? No, this wasn't happening - surely!
'I suppose ye're goin' tae tell me ye're some soart o' spokes-fish?' Andy Mac asked tongue-in-cheek.
'Don't sneer Jock!' the cod-fish snapped back. 'I'm trying to help you out here, and you're taking the mickey! If you're not careful, you're heading for a Mickey-fish-fin'.
'An' you don't call me Jock, neither!' Andy Mac balled a fist. 'Damn' Sassenach fish!'
'Sounds like i've touched a raw nerve there!' the cod-fish laughed.
'Damn' right an' all! What is it ye're after?' Andy Mac rasped.
'I told you. Let the cod out of your nets - it's a lean time for us anyway - and catch mackerel. I've heard you do great smokies in your part of the world', the cod-fish answered, looking heavenward, as if talking to a stubborn child.
'An' who do Ah say told me to catch mackerel? Ye cannae eat chips wi' mackerel! Jimmy'd tell ye that, an' no joke!' Andy Mac suddenly had a thought. Dad would have him locked away if he told him he'd been talking to a cod-fish.
'There's haddock', the cod-fish told him, staring upward into the night, bored with arguing. 'Nobody seems to know the difference anyway'.
'How wid ye kna tha''?.Andy Mac sniffed. 'Have ye eaten one?'
'Take my word for it - what's your name?' the cod-fish stared him in the eye. 'Andy?'
'Aye', Andy Mac shuddered. How could the cod-fish know that by looking at him? 'An who might ye be yersel'?'
'I'm the Cod-father'.
Andy could swear he heard the cod-fish tell him, 'Cod-father'. There was something wrong with his ears, maybe? Very wrong. He felt like laughing, but asked instead,
'An' who's gonnae mak' me fish for mackerel or haddock?'
'Don't take my word for it', the Cod-father clicked a fin end and a small army of cod-fish with dark suits and black fedoras lined the deck wall, Tommy-guns aimed at them all. Mafiosi, or was that mafish-osi? 'You ready to talk?'
'Sheesh!' Bennie breathed out in a hiss.
'Where do Ah sign?' Andy Mac was flabbergasted. 'This is worse than the contract with MacFisheries!'
'Sign? You've got the wrong end of the stick, Andy. We take a piece of paper back with us now and there's nothing left on the paper before we've swum half a fathom! No, there's no signing to do. Just doing as I've told you'.
'Haddock an' mackerel', Andy Mac repeated, the Cod-father nodded and Andy looked back to where the Tommy-gun toting cod-fish had been 'standing', but there was nothing there. He looked back to where he last saw the Cod-father, but he was no longer there. Andy spat out, 'Haddock an' mackerel!'
'Wha' was that?' Chips stood next to him with a bacon sandwich. 'Here's yer bacon butty. Lord kna's, ye need it! Ye've been natterin' 'awa' aboot Cod-fathers in stripey suits, Tommy-gun totin' cod-fish and quotas. If Ah said aboot this tae Auld Jimmy the men in white coats wid be crawlin' all over this wreck o' a trawler. Time ye took a hollerday, if ye ask me. Talkin fish, eh? Hah! Wha' de ye tak me for?'
The policy document that maps the decline of the British fishing industry. It would have come sooner or late, by legal or commercial force, or by slow strangulation. However, stocks are unsustainable and we've already had a 'Cod War' with Iceland. Net sizes have to be monitored etc. - and the Royal Navy is out there looking over your shoulders, so watch it!
European Community fisheries laws
'Fish and chips? That'll be a tenner sir'.
Cod and chips is turning into a luxury these days, what with controls on fishing, energetic fisheries inspectors on quaysides, Navy patrols in the North Sea and the cost of putting a trawler on the high sea.
There are less trawlers, many harbours being totally bereft. Towns such as Grimsby, Whitby, Scarborough in England, Peterhead or Eyemouth on the east coast of Scotland all show signs of serious decline. Buy a fish and chip dinner for four - average UK family size, plus cat, dog and budgie - and you'll be lucky to get change out of a £20 note. Buy the same when out 'on the town' in London and fork out £40 and don't expect change.
When you think - back in the 50's when I were a lad up North - you'd get a slap-up fish-'n'chip do for less than £1. (Imagine that! Quick rush round the corner, stand in the queue for a half hour while the fish is done behind the counter - dribble at the smell! - and then sharp back home again). "You want scraps (fried batter crumbs), salt'n'vinegar on that, luv?" Or lads standing on the street corner with paper bags of fishcake or haddock ('Sorry luv, no cod) and chips, wolfing it down before crossing the road to the Workmen's Institute for a game of snooker. Of course everything was in black & white back then, like the newspaper the food was wrapped in, so you wouldn't see the golden brown of your meal. (Sob-sob).
Flat caps, fish'n'chips, mushy peas, loadsa salt an' vinegar, whippets, and ferrets dahn tha breeks, flicks (cinema) on Sat'day neet, all for a fiver an' change!. Aye, lad, that were livin'!
**Footnote: Since I wrote this I've been to York again. On my way around the city, up on Micklegate near the church I stopped off at a chip shop - the one I used to visit in this area has undergone a refit and is now a mini-mart - owned by a Russian couple. For a portion of fish and chips I paid about £6.50. Not bad going. At a fish restaurant near where I live you can get a 'Pensioner's Portion' of fish'n'chips for £4.90. Generous portions of chips (Lincolnshire's finest potatoes)!