I touched slimy things and now my hands stink.

November 23, 2008

Sunday morning. The fish market at the Ahuriri marina, just around Hospital Hill from our house.

OK, maybe “market” is stretching it a bit. It’s more like three guys selling fresh fish — stored on ice — out the back of a cube van. The haul was caught last night in a gill-net operation off the coast of Gisborne, about a three-hour drive north. We’re told the fishing will continue there until Christmas before the boat returns to Napier waters in January.

Today’s offering includes John Dories, flounders, moki, live crayfish, red cod, snapper and gurnard. Viking Woman was here last week and knows she wants flounder. She’s also heard gurnard is a good white fish and is eager to try it.

There are no orderly lineups. There is no till. It’s strictly cash in the hand. The bed of a nearby pickup is used to hold some of the containers but most of the selling is done straight out of the cube van.

One of the fishermen, a dreadlocked, grizzled Kiwi bloke named Mark, displays an interesting attitude towards customers, especially those who attempt to reduce his profit margin to somewhere south of zero. Most of those clamoring for ridiculous deals are what I’ll politely refer to as immigrants. It soon becomes painfully obvious these belligerent non-locals — all sharp elbows and pushy demeanor — will not be receiving a Christmas card from Mark this year. Or any year, for that matter.

A typical bargaining session goes something like this:

Customer: How much for that fish?

Mark: Fifteen dollars.

Customer: I’ll give you 10.

Mark: F**k off.

No matter what language you speak, there are certain words that are universal, and the F-bomb pretty much tops that list.

It isn’t the most subtle marketing strategy I’ve ever observed, but it’s effective nonetheless. Aggressive bargain hunters slink off to badger a garage sale somewhere.

Another customer plucks a moki from the ice and waggles it in front of Mark.

Customer: How much is this one?

Mark: Five dollars, but it gets dearer the longer you hold it. Six dollars . . . seven . . . eight . .

The fish is quickly returned to the ice.

I’m fascinated by how Viking Woman reacts to the action. “Demure” and “shy” are adjectives no one has applied to her since she was maybe four, but she seems quite content to hang back, to let the other punters push their way into the fray and be subjected to Mark’s withering barrage of abuse. She knows from experience that the crowd will thin out before the supply of fish does.

Mark appears to appreciate her calm attitude and, once she’s applied the full range of her Canadian charm and politeness, we end up with four gurnards for the price of two.

I am taking notes and photos for this blog and there is a moment of consternation when someone suggests I might be working for the government and somehow keeping a running tab of how much GST will be owing at the end of the day. But then I speak and the accent serves to soothe the anxiety somewhat.

Home then, where Viking Woman sharpens the knife and sets to work carving fillets from the corpses. I eye the bulging gut sacks and prepare to dry heave, but there are no errant nicks and so everyone’s stomach contents remain intact.

Later, it falls to me to clean fish scales out of the sink and I note how the larger ones resemble guitar picks. Really, really smelly guitar picks. It’s an interesting image, and one I’m hoping will not return tonight during dinner.

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