Every Saturday morning in the summer, the fish van parked on the street. The awning rolled out, the window was opened and the chalkboard sign set up on the pavement: Fresh Fish And Seafood From Hastings. I stopped beside it on the way to the park. I’d go to see the glistening squid and bright red snapper, the yawning monkfish and the squatting crabs. I imagined the taste of the wrinkled whelks and breathed in the salty smell. I’d lived in cities my whole life and longed for the sea. The strange creatures from the deep filled the books on my shelves and their lost shells decorated my tiny flat. I stood at the fish van, never buying anything, but touching every creature with my feeler eye that waved in the watery air.
‘The thing is, I’m not really ready for a relationship.’
We were sitting on the park bench as the children played in the grass. I’d stopped at the fish van that day and pointed to the oysters layered like tiles on the ice. His mind had been on other things.
‘I think it’s best we’re just friends,’ he said, looking at his feet.
A smile gripped my face and I nodded. Blood started pounding in my ears, muffling the sounds, sinking me underwater.
‘I hope you understand.’
He said it with a sigh, as if expecting irrational female wails.
‘But Cornwall-’ I said.
They were the only words that felt safe. I wanted to say: but you took me to the sea. You invited me there, to meet your friends and the waves. You said you’d never met a girl like me before. You said-
‘I don’t want a fuss,’ he said, and stood up.
I stood up too, but couldn’t move. I realised with a fear like gathering clouds that there was a real danger that I was gpoing to cry. And the most terrible thought of all: that, if I began to cry, I would never be able to stop.
‘So you won’t even hug me?’ he said, shaking his head in contempt.
I heard him walk away behind me. I stayed still like that with a rigged smile on my face for a long, long time.
When I walked back, the stench of the fish van hit my nostrils. I realised it was rotten, all of it. The flies sucked voraciously on the octopus skin and the mussels dripped mucus. I saw the dozens of fish with mouths gaping wide and fogged out eyes goggling at me out of that grubby vehicle. It should all have been thrown to the gulls, not sold to passers by. A rank pile of wobbling corpses dragged from the shore.
‘Can I help you, love?’ the fishmonger said, standing in his gut-greased apron.
I turned suddenly pale, leant over and threw up on the pavement in front of his van.
‘Are you sick?’ he said.
‘It’s the fish,’ I said.
It was an easier explanation.