Thursday, 7 January 2010

Fishing for Erraid

Image above: Scorpion Fish
Fishing for Erraid (The Weird Windowsill Fish)
Monday 4th January

The wind has started again and like a jukebox brought to life by some otherworldly coin it has begun to rattle out melodies on the cottage windows. I walk across the sand of Christine’s bay with a bucket in hand trailing a garden rake as my youngest son nods in his sling somewhere in the outer layers of my winter clothing. Occasionally the rake hits a solid object in the sand and I stop to investigate an empty shell or a stone. I walk on towards the narrows and a spot where a couple of days ago I had stopped the tractor between firewood runs to hunt for cockles. The picking’s had not been great and later after watching an old documentary about Morecambe Bay’s cocklers I realised just how poor my takings had been.

I find the tyre tracks and the marks left by my previous excavations, the tides have softened and healed the scares. Leaving the bucket on the sand I begin to rake and after half a dozen strokes the blade clunks against a shell and I roll a cockle out onto the undisturbed sand before scooping it into the bucket. I wonder how a tool so rudely made could carry the resonance of a hard shell and soft body as perfectly as a tuning fork reaches pitch. Iron-handed I work my way between the high and low water marks. I image striking a seam of densely populated sand, but still it is ten or twelve strokes between cockles. A little disheartened I move down to the river and find the low banks littered with empty shells. Here the sand gives way to deposits of gravel carried as bed load, each pebble a single piece of mountain. In places live cockles dislodged from the sand and gravel lie on the surface decorated by the sun with patches of algae. I leave these to the hooded crows who drop them on favoured rocks and then daintily pick at their lunch.

The afternoon has moved on, and I look up to find the sun has left the bay for the mountains. Away over the sand I spot my wife, I wait toying with a bank of gravel and we walk on together up the river. Deep in the corner of the bay we find one of the fish traps the local shepherd had told us about, it consists of a dwarf wall in a crescent shape with a small outlet or shoot. Rising tides bring fish from the sound like mullet and flatties as well as salmon and sea trout although the latter are generally headed up river to spawn. If the shoot is blocked or netted it effectively cuts off the retreat back to the sea. We never asked about the history of the traps but a part of me wonders about future use.

Out of the sun the wind begins to bite and we head back stopping randomly to prospect. My wife draws me back to patch of gritty sand that makes a small island in the river. With little more than a starter’s worth for an afternoons work I decide to give it one last go. Every stroke brings up two or three cockles and after five minutes we have collected enough to half fill the bucket. We wander back in the gathering dusk, up on the hill behind the cottages the cows are silhouetted against a mackerel sky. I carry on down the street to the main kitchen to collect some milk and stop to look at a pair of scorpion fish in a windowsill fish tank.

A guest who had stayed with us in the summer asked in worried tone one morning whether it was normal to see fish crawling out of the sea. An explanation about the walking fins of scorpion fish seemed to put him at ease. Later I wondered whether he had been slightly disappointed as I imagined he had been harbouring the belief the fish had come to talk.

From the windowsill the scorpion fish look on in abject boredom as if the street was the least interesting rock pool they had ever had the misfortune to be stumble into.

P.S. The scorpion fish were rescued from an abandoned creel and released later that evening after a photo shoot, unharmed if not a little bored; the cockles weren’t so lucky.

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