After the fishing trip in Tenby, mackerel played no part in my life until many years later when a boyfriend –let’s call him Tarquin – took me to meet his mother.
Tarquin was a lumbering, rugby playing chap who clowned around a lot. He had a clutch of posh, amiable siblings, with names like Montgomery, Araminta and Rupert, unfortunately absent on the day of our visit. I believe there was a step father too but he too was nowhere to be seen when we visited. Probably cowering under a bed somewhere, sucking his thumb.
Because Mrs Tarquin was terrifying.
She spoke in the artificially enunciated tones of Margaret Thatcher and bore the hardened expression and dark bullet eyes of Victoria Gillick.
Remember Victoria Gillick? That ruthless 70s campaigner who tore TV presenters apart and succeeded in stopping the pill being prescribed to underage girls.
Perhaps Mrs Tarquin was the secret love child of Victoria Gillick and Margaret Thatcher.
I’d have asked her but she got in there first, her hard eyes raking over my laddish clothes and cropped hair. She greeted me with a subtly condescending emphasis on my name, said, ‘What happened? Did the hairdresser get carried away?’ and tinkled with laughter at her own joke. An unusually subdued Tarquin and I sat down next to a small table bearing a pile of tea serving stuff and and a heap of tottering meringues whose blousy whiteness made me feel grubby.
‘Now Tarquin,’ she said, pouring tea, ‘I’ve been thinking. Would you like me to make an appointment for you to see my dentist? He could do something about that gap between your front teeth. It would improve your appearance no end.’ While she ploughed through Tarquin’s list of short-comings, I balanced a wobbling saucer on my knee and with hands cramping from the effort of gripping the tiny cup handle, took a sip of tea. It scalded my tongue.
I bit into a meringue. It snapped like a gunshot, exploded between my teeth then blasted the room with brittle white shards.
‘Oopshh shorry,’ I said through a mouthful of what felt like packing foam.
Tarquin flushed and looked at the carpet.
Then we all looked at the carpet.
It was spattered with snowy white bits of meringue. Apart from that, it was perfectly clean. Quite spotless in fact. Mrs Tarquin appeared to be mesmerised. Above her head, a vacuum cleaner hovered inside a thought bubble. Then she snapped out of it, looked at me frantically swiping the crumbs off my clothes and said, ‘Surely that’s not Tarquin’s shirt you’re wearing?’
By now the party was in full swing. In the warm, familial atmosphere, the three of us swigged tea, told filthy jokes, slapped each other on the back and held an impromptu meringue spraying competition.
‘Oh my dear, you’re just like a daughter to me!’ proclaimed Mrs Tarquin and with tears shining in her eyes, clasped me to her bosom and welcomed me into the fold.
It was all going splendidly.
Then Mrs Tarquin asked me set the table for dinner. Eager to please this tender-hearted, maternal figure, I jumped to it and headed for the polished dining table with a clutch of shining silver and posh napkins.
But then an older, almost identical version of Mrs Tarquin appeared.
Tarquin had a grandmother.
She swept into the dining room and without greeting me or apologising for spawning Tarquin’s mother, said through curled lips, ‘Oh. Who laid the table?’ It sounded like ‘Oh, who shit on the table?’
After rectifying my well-intended but unsatisfactory arrangement of cutlery, dinner was served and mackerel entered my life for the second time. Peppered and smoked, it was slapped on a plate with a tail at one end and a head at the other, and once again I was presented with something that could glare at me while I ate it.
Like we’d those weights we’d plunged into the sea so many years ago, my heart did a downward plop. So did my eyes, in a series of desperate glances under the table, looking for a dog with an open mouth. But there was none and while Mother and Grandmother chattered about the antics of Monty, Minty and Rupes, and brought each other up to date on Mrs Fotherington-Smythe’s boils, I scraped up a few fibres of brown fish, coated them in a massive slab of peppercorns and repeated the throat-strangling mastication experience that my six year old self had gone through.
Every so often, somebody would ask me a question, always with that sickly emphasis on my name: ‘Now Steph, what about these A-levels you were thinking of doing?’ ‘And how are things at the burger bar?’ Then the foetid bolus rotating round my tongue would have to be swallowed and my throat would seize up. After three mouthfuls, I put my knife and fork together, dabbed my mouth with the napkin, and promised my inner heaving, gagging, sweating child, never again. Ever.
And never again would I come back to this china-clinking, fish-riddled house with its exploding meringues and disapproving occupants.
But I did go back. It would have been rude not to.
And once again, at the dinner table, Mrs Tarquin slapped a stiffened, peppered mackerel in front of me.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but on my last visit here, I learnt that smoked mackerel is even more foul than fresh and you were so rude to me that I don’t feel the urge to please you by attempting to force down this repugnant offering.’ Then I wrestled Mrs Tarquin to the floor, straddled her and slapped her repeatedly across the face with it the dead fish.
At this point my sublime fantasy evaporated. I smiled in a charming way, and said, ‘No thank you, not for me.’
Quite soon after, Tarquin dumped me for a girl with an unbelievably posh name, a fine collection of silk blouses, who could eat meringues without pebble-dashing the walls and had a father who’d been a well known radio presenter.
The Tarquins were thrilled. They even allowed Stepfather Tarquin out to meet her and dusted him down specially.
Shortly before our parting, Tarquin and I talked about meringues, mackerel and his mother.
‘I’m sure I told her you really couldn’t stand mackerel,’ he said, looking puzzled. He scratched his head. ‘I don’t know why she served it a second time.’