He’d Speared a Squid

When I saw that scene in Game of Thrones, where they throned Rob Stark, it reminded me of squid fishing in the Bay of Naples, January ninety-four. “The king in the North! The king in the North!” they clamoured, raising tankards and slurping ale while covered in bearskins and wearing swords. There were no bearskins nor swords in Napoli. Even in January, it was too warm for furs, and nine-mills were — and probably still are — the preferred weapon. I guess a longsword would have attracted police attention, even in a corrupt region like Napoli in the nineties. It’s also a little hard to hide a longsword in the waistband of a pair of chinos.

“The king in the North! The king in the North!” I remember that January night as clearly as I remember that scene.

After Christmas, when the winter sets in for real, the local fishing methods change from free diving with a snorkel, a mask and a spear gun, hunting sea bass under the hulls of anchored ships, to fishing from boats with gas lamps shining on the surface to attract the fish, and tridents used to spear them. Needless to say, balance is critical. Thrusting with a trident while standing in a rocking boat is not easy.

The fishing technique might have changed, but the quotas did not. The Guardia di Finanza — Italian Customs and Excise — limit the size of each fisherman’s catch, meaning a surplus after each sortie. Because their wives would no longer allow late-night fish binges, having lived with them for too long, fishermen were always on the lookout for somewhere to cook. Despite being aware of the tradition, I hadn’t expected a ring on the doorbell at ten o’clock on a Friday in early January. With my wife still in Ireland, visiting her family in Limerick, I’d been about to go to bed.

“Who is it?” I asked at the intercom.

“Pippo, it’s me, Andrea. We have caught some fish. Can we come up?”

Of course, I would not have rejected fresh fish for any reason and so buzzed them in. I was surprised when I went out onto the landing and heard squelching as they made their way up the two flights of stairs. When they arrived at the door, I noticed Andrea was soaked. I grinned at the brothers, Beni and Genno, nodding at the footprints the doctor was leaving on the marble stairs. Genno, the head fisherman, pushed the doctor into the apartment, laughing as he did so. 

“Why’s he so wet?” I asked as I closed the door.

“You won’t believe it, Pippo,” Genno gasped between laughs. “Il Dottore speared a squid!” 

I knew Genno’s laughter was not to do with Andrea spearing a squid. Watching the slumped shoulders as the man walked down the corridor, I wondered at the bedraggled state of a senior specialist at Antonio Cardarelli hospital. I let it slide because I knew Genno was a storyteller renowned in his own head and loved to drive suspense at his own pace.

“Pippo, can I have a shower and maybe borrow some clothes?” Andrea asked from the kitchen doorway. 

I frowned, conflicted when it came to providing Andrea with support. According to the village gossip mill, the guy was shagging my wife! Although gossip mills, especially those in rural fishing villages, were renowned for inaccuracies, I still couldn’t shake the idea there might be some truth. I looked at him. He seemed so forlorn and desperate. Would he really come here in need of help if the rumours were true? Unless, of course, it had not been his suggestion to use my place.

I turned to the others, Genno, Beni, and another man I didn’t know. They were grinning and looking guilty. The wife had delayed her return from Limerick. I looked at the monster from the lagoon and wondered if they had had a spat. Christmas breaks seemed to be getting longer, but I supposed it could just be because she needed to get away from the village. She could be avoiding the waggling tongues, and I wouldn’t blame her for it.

“Okay!” I said, “I’ll get some clothes.”

Andrea followed me to the bedroom. I gave him a towel, a t-shirt and a pair of jogging pants and joined the others in the kitchen.

“Come on then, why’s he so wet?” I asked Genno.

“Well, we keep a bottle of wine on the boat, you know, for emergencies.” Shaking my head, I wondered what type of emergencies might be counteracted with a bottle of wine. “When Il Dottore finally speared a squid — for years he’s been trying — he decided it was an emergency.”

Genno stopped and looked around to make sure his audience was listening. Each of them was grinning and nodding. “So he took the bottle of wine — he was in the bow of the boat with his back to the sea, by the way — tilted it back and back and back, until he fell off the boat with a splash!”

Everybody laughed. 

“The most amazing thing,” Genno continued between splutters, “was he didn’t spill a drop. He went into the sea with a bottle of wine and rose from the waves like Neptune, although he dropped his trident, which Neptune would never have done!”

The laughter became raucous. Each of the men in the company had their own memories of that moment. Still, they were as one when it came to the doctor’s seeming ability to rescue wine from a hopeless situation. Rather than making wine from water, he saved wine from water. 

To this day, I don’t think the fishermen were in awe of the feat but were playing with Andrea in a way only they knew how. The caste system is solid — at least it was solid — and the doctor’s continued attempts to bridge the gap annoyed those he was trying to reach. Also, to the locals, the gossip mill was never questioned. As far as they were concerned, he’d broken a cardinal by sleeping with another man’s wife. They were just waiting for me to shoot the bastard with my speargun. Maybe, if I’d been sure, I would have shot him, but I was never sure. Even now, I’m not sure. I remember her sister staring at me while I eulogised at the wife’s funeral, daring me to voice my suspicions. Instead, I extolled her on her love of food and a constant smile. I kept her memory clean. If I ever get to eulogise the doctor, maybe I won’t be so reticent.

Finally, Andrea returned from the shower and announced, “If nobody objects, I will cook. I know you guys can fish, but only I can cook!”

They looked at each other and nodded, fighting hard against a need to laugh. Let Andrea cook. They were men; cooking was for girls. If anything, in their eyes, the doctor was undoubtedly feminine.

The fish was in a plastic bag. The doctor upended the load on the draining board and started to sort through the catch, I suppose deciding how to cook them. A fish stew for those fish not big enough for individual cooking, grilling for those that were, and so on.

As Andrea divided the fish into piles, an eel decided to protest against its fate and lunged at him, grabbing hold of the flap of skin at the base of his thumb. Needle-thin teeth sank into flesh, causing a scream and futile attempts to shake it free. He continued to scream, little yelps in time with each shake, until the eel fell and started to flop around my kitchen floor, looking for an escape route. Incensed, Andrea grabbed my cast iron wok from the hob — a wok which was dear to me — and began chasing the eel around the kitchen, attempting to bash its brains out. With each swipe, the wok clanged like a tolling bell. The words, It tolls for eel, kept running around my head until I realised the danger.

“Hey, use something else,” I shouted, but the doctor was on a crusade and heard nothing. With his final smack, he killed the eel, and my prized wok gave up the ghost as its handle separated from its body with a final clang. 

“It tolls for eel,” I said as Andrea dropped the handle and grabbed the fish with an eerie look of triumph on his face. I decided to get out of the kitchen before saying something I would regret.

“Don’t ask,” I said in answer to the raised eyebrows in the dining room. 

I slumped into the chair at the head of the table and crossed my arms in frustration. Banging my wife was all rumour. Banging my wok, not so much. “Bastard killed my wok. Present from me ma, that was,” I said to the ceiling.

The fishermen just looked on. They’d no idea what I was saying because none spoke any English. Local dialect was their mother tongue; Italian a distant second, and no such thing as a third language.

“You okay, Pippo?” Genno asked.

“Been better,” I admitted.

My subdued mood persisted. If the others noticed, they said nothing. The doctor served the fish, which was good, and the wine flowed. Genno continued to dart the odd veiled jibe at the doctor, which he either ignored or missed entirely. No mention was made of his infidelity or the murder of my prized wok.

It was only after Genno raised his glass and said, “I would like to propose a toast to The King of the Sea!” that I noticed the t-shirt I’d lent to Andrea. It had an image on the chest of a ship’s anchor wrapped in rope, surrounding words, the logo of a local clothing brand called King of the Sea.

Each person around the table raised their glass and repeated the toast, “The King of the Sea! The King of the Sea!” The doctor sat there, face split from ear to ear, not laughing at himself, not laughing at Genno’s joke, but seeing it as his crowning achievement. 

He’d speared a squid.

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