Yesterday was a rite of passage for the nine year old. And one that I can, with hand on heart, say that I am glad to have missed.
He caught… Drum roll… His first fish!
And who was there to share the precious moment? The triumph of the successful bite? The joy as the catch is, finally, reeled in? The squirm-inducing process of torture by which one rips the hook from the soft palate of a living, suffocating, flopping creature, exterminates the last vestiges of consciousness and transfers it to a receptacle to await its ultimate fate?
Granny and Grandpa!
Z does not, it is fair to say, have angling in his DNA. When he attempted to fish from the back of the junk in Halong Bay, using Cap’n Jack’s rod and luminous squid-alike lure, his father and I could offer no more meaningful advice between us than “It’s probably better you do it when the boat’s not moving.”
This time? In the lovely resort in Mulu National Park, Sarawak, to which Granny had treated us?
It was Z. A rod. A line. A hook. A big old chunk of bread. A bunch of what I am, in lieu of taxonomical accuracy, going to call coral trout. And, good ole Granny and Grandpa!
We meet shortly after they return. Z is triumphant. Grandparents are noticeably pale.
Oh, and there is a small, pink fish taking an unconscionable amount of time to die in a plastic bag in the bedroom fridge. Presumably cooling has that same suspended animation effect on fish that it does on open-heart patients.
“Well,” says Z. “I caught THREE fish. The first one fell off the hook. Granny threw the second one back into the pond. And the third one is in the fridge.”
I exclaim proudly, make all the right noises.
“In fact,” he says. “I’ll just take a look and see if it’s dead yet. They’ll cook it for us, you know. We can have it for dinner.”
The plastic bag, into which I do not look, is mercifully still.
“I think maybe we’ll have it along with our dinner,” says Granny, tactfully. “We can split it between the four of us and make it the main event.”
Grandpa shudders quietly. “How anybody can say that fish don’t feel pain and that angling is not a cruel sport is beyond me,” he says. “When I tried to take the hook out it leapt further than the length of its own body in absolute agony.”
“I think it’s only anglers that say fish don’t feel pain,” I say. “Not evolutionary biologists. Or marine biologists, for that matter. Or that bloke Peter Singer…”
“Well, precisely,” he says. “Clearly they feel pain. Or something so close as to be identical. Otherwise they’d spend their lives bumping into bloody rocks at the bottom of the ocean and scraping themselves raw. And they don’t.”
“What happened to the first two?” I ask.
“Well, the first one managed to extricate itself and I’m fairly sure it will have survived. Your mother dealt with the second.” Granny’s colour retreats even further.
“It was probably mortally wounded by the time we’d removed the hook,” he continues. “But we put it back in anyway. I did the third one.”
“You mean,” I say. “You put your fingers in its mouth and…”
“Not exactly,” he says. “I covered my fingers with a dead leaf and held onto the hook, and sort of worked at it until it came loose.”
“Oh,” I say. “And it was alive while you were doing this?”
“Oh god yes,” he says. “All too alive. It was gasping for breath, leaping…”
It’s amazing the things grandparenthood will do. One of the reasons that I’d ducked out of fishing was that I’d had a fairly good idea I would have been asked to do the hook thing, and found myself incapable.
I mean, sure. As the best vegetarians say (I was one for five years, albeit for the starving people rather than the pained animals), “If you’re ready to eat it, you should be ready to kill it.”
To which I say: “Bring me dynamite. Cyanide. Dragnets. Anything. Just DO NOT make me put my fingers in that poor creature’s mouth or waggle the hook until it emerges from its brain.”
We head out for dinner, Z proudly clutching, nay, brandishing, a plastic bag containing one small, dead, pink fish. He stomps up to the reception desk, assertively. Opens the bag. Is rapidly redirected to reception at the restaurant.
Where the girls there pass the bag between them like so many Texan etiquette coaches finding Borat has just misused their bathroom, until one of them picks up the baton, not to say the fishling, and asks how Sir would like it cooked.
The fish duly arrives at the table, fried till golden, with its mouth in a remarkably wide O shape.
Then, something extraordinary happens. The nine year old (who defines himself as atheist but has some serious issues with Big Bang theory too) says, “I suppose we’d better say grace.”
OK, we say. And he begins.
“Thank you for all the food. The forest, the plants, the rivers and the fish. Particularly the fish. And I’d like to say sorry to the fish. Because, well, because it isn’t nice to be caught. But I didn’t intend to catch him. And, well…”
“Z!” I say, with a lack of sensitivity which is epic even by my standards. “Are you trying to say the fish was asking for it?”
“No,” my mother says, sternly. “He’s trying to say thank you to the fish, and sorry to the fish. He’s trying very hard to put something difficult into words.”
“And, anyway,” says Z, who has lived with insensitive interruptions all his days, “Thank you to the fish. For making a meal for us, and being part of the world. Amen.”
He shares it out. It tastes fantastic. He eats it with an enthusiasm none of us have seen before.
Will he go fishing again? “I’m not sure,” he says. “I hope the next time the fish takes less time to die.”