Aleyn held the coregonus albula in his hands and looked down at it in amazement. The young boy couldn’t believe his luck. Although he’d never caught one before, he’d seen this fish many times in his books on fishing and fishes. He knew that this fish – known more commonly as a vendace – was probably the rarest fish in Britain; so rare, in fact, that it was thought extinct up here so close to Scotland.
But here it was – gills opening and closing, caudal fin swishing and large eyes staring wildly – and it was a whopper too! Aleyn reckoned the vendace must be a good 30 cms long; much longer than the normal size according to the book. He would have to check the records later but he knew this was an incredible catch for anyone, let alone a young lad.
He considered, for a moment, keeping the fish and running from the lakeside up to the cottage to show his father, the man who had taught him everything he knew about fly-fishing. He knew his dad would want to see this and would be proud of his son for catching such a rarity by himself. But he also knew that it was the family rule that ‘unless you’re going to gut it, cook it and eat it, you put it back’, and so he carefully unhooked the fly from the fish’s mouth and lowered the coregonus albula back into the lakeside waters where it swiftly recovered its senses and swam away.
The disappointment of not being able to show anyone (and so not likely to be believed if he mentioned it) was offset by the fact it also meant there were vendace breeding in this lake, their lake. It was definitely an adult so there must surely be more out there, waiting to be caught.
He gathered up his rod, bait and other tackle, and headed back to his home which stood overlooking the lake less than 100 yards up the hill. There were not many ten-year-old boys who had a huge Cumbrian lake for their garden and Aleyn considered himself a lucky lad.
It is a little-known fact that all mammal embryos look very much like fish embryos in the early stages of development – and this includes human ones. The Human face is formed from three main sections which rotate and meet in the middle, eventually fusing. Your eyes start on the sides of your head and have to move inwards, travelling relatively quite a distance. The top lip, jaw and palate start as gills on the neck. Nostrils and the middle part of lip come down from the top of your head. They all have to meet at just the right time and the remnant of their fusing together is the little dent in the middle of your upper lip called the philtrum. If the timing is out – by as little as an hour – then they won’t fuse correctly and this is how cleft lips are formed. About 1 in 700 babies around the world are born with this deformity.
The point of all this is that many scientists believe that we begin life in the womb in our early evolutionary stage – as fish – and at some point during the development our genes take a specific decision to become human. Even then, there are some left-overs from our fish stage. One theory says that the reason our sexual organs ‘drop’ is because of our fishy beginnings (sharks keep their organs tucked high up) and that we hiccup because of our amphibious roots (tadpoles need a way to gulp water and keep lungs closed at speed and automatically – which is just what the hiccup spasms does). Such is the strange and mysterious world of genetics and our fishy origins.
When Aleyn reached the cottage, the raised voices he could hear from inside told him he needed to keep out of the way and go straight to his room until peace was restored. The arguments between his parents, to Aleyn’s knowledge, had only begun in recent weeks but the few times he’d been close enough to overhear snippets of the conversations made the boy suspect that these rows had been going on a long time but that both parents were careful to keep them away from their growing and sensitive child. Even now, he knew that once this latest spat had burnt itself out, his mother would soon come to the bedroom door and ask him what he wanted for his tea as though nothing had happened and all was as it should be.
Within a week of becoming aware of these fights though, Aleyn had started to feel pain – physical pain in his arms and wrists. Now as he sat on his bed, listening to muffled accusations and counter-accusations through the walls, he rubbed his tingling arms and became aware, for the first time, that he felt raised lumps. He quickly rolled up his sleeves to take a look. Sure enough, on both arms, just up from the wrists, were a couple of lumps under the skin. The protrusions didn’t alarm the boy, who ran his fingers over them with typical ten-year-old boyish fascination, but he did wonder what was causing them.
The argument came to an end as did the tingling sensation through the lumps remained and, as Aleyn predicted, his mother came to the door as if the last few minutes had never happened and asked him what he fancied to eat. As usual, he gave the same answer: Fish.
Aleyn lived for fish and fishing. Since the day he was five and his father bought him his first rod and fly-fishing starter kit and took him out onto the lake to learn the art of fishing Aleyn had loved the aquatic vertebrates. He also proved to be a natural. By the time he was eight he was catching larger fish more consistently than his father using his own handmade flies. Aleyn prided himself that he was the only boy at school who could gut a fish and prepare it properly for cooking. Although his mother wouldn’t let him cook alone in the kitchen yet, she did let him help and nothing tasted better in the whole world than fish he’d caught, prepared and cooked himself. On his bedroom walls were hundreds of magazine posters of fish and few books on his bookshelf concerned themselves with subjects other than fish and marine life.
When taking a bath, Aleyn would run the water as high as possible so he could lie back, head under water and pretend he was a fish for hours on end only surfacing to breathe when needed and, at the end, washing himself with soap as his mother required of him. It was during a bath night, a week later, that he absent-mindedly brushed his right hand up his left wrist and felt something that made him sit up with a great splash and look at his arm.
Protruding from one of the lumps was something shiny and wafer-thin. He picked at it like it was a scab until the coin-sized wafer came away from his flesh with a squelch. He held it up to the light to take a close look at it. There was no doubt about it, Aleyn thought, it looked very much like a fish scale.
To continue reading this story please buy the book ‘The Old Man on the Beach and other stories’ available January 2015.
Copyright © 2014 D K Powell