This is a story inspired by a trip to the historic Billingsgate Fish Market in London, which is only open from 4-8am.
It was written for and published in Wells Street Journal Issue 5: Food
I stood in front of the sofa where mum and dad sat attentively, waiting to find out why I’d assembled them in the living room so urgently. Mum was beaming with doe-eyed adoration, the novelty of my presence in the house for the first time in months not having worn off her yet. Dad was also smiling gently, something I was still getting used to since his retirement. What I was going to announce was sure to bring out more of the testiness I grew up with.
“I’m not going to Billingsgate,” I said.
As expected there was an immediate reaction from dad, who started silently fidgeting, eyes looking everywhere but at me. I could practically hear his cantankerous inner grumblings, which he would unlikely be able to contain for long. Mum’s old sternness also had no trouble bubbling up from below.
“What? Why not?! Your father’s been looking forward to the trip for months – he was gutted when you returned to uni early in the Christmas break.”
Dad was now picking truculently at the frayed edge of the sofa. He glanced at me occasionally, unwilling to maintain eye contact.
“It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with you, dad, it’s just… can’t we do something else?”
“That’s not the point! Dad wanted to take you to Billingsgate just like his father took him when he was a young man – it was supposed to be for a special New Year’s Day family dinner, but of course we’re well past that now…”
“I understand that, but can’t we make a new tradition? It’s just that Billingsgate… it’s the very antithesis of my being.”
My father finally looked up at me properly, his eyes demanding an explanation.
“It’s just… well, do you know what the first line of their website days? It says that they sell 25,000 tonnes of fish there each year. Notice how that figure is given in weight? Not number of seabass, or number of tuna, or number of… I don’t know, cod – it’s weight!”
“So you want them to count each individual fish they sell there? Do you realise how stupid and impractical that would be?” Dad challenged with what he believed to be flawless logic.
“You’re missing the point! We’re basically just saying that a fish’s life is only worth its weight. And even that value is ascribed to them at an ever-declining rate, depending on how late in the day they’re sold.”
Dad opened his mouth to retaliate, but mum cut in. “Look, we know how much your university classes have opened your mind to new ideas and points of view – and believe me your father and I have been taking it on board and cutting down the amount of meat we eat,” she shot a conspiratorial glance at my father as she said this, “but this is an important part of family history for your father that he wants to share with you – can’t you respect that?
“But mum, haven’t you been reading the articles I’ve sent you about the problems of overfishing? Not to mention –“
“We know, we know, but whether you go there or not, there’ll be just as much fish. If you don’t go, you’ll have to explain to your aunt and the family why there is no fresh fish for them tomorrow.” I stayed silent for a moment. “Besides, it should be very interesting. Did you know that Billingsgate Market has been running for centuries? Loads of interesting people have worked there too, including George Orwell – you like him, don’t you?” Obviously mum had read the website too.
“Mum, now you’re missing the point, it’s –“
“I’m sure I am!” she said, holding her hands up in defence. “But maybe you are too. You should go there and experience it for yourself before you judge. Isn’t that what you’ve told us repeatedly this year about tofu, animal rights marches and psychedelic mushrooms?”
Dad had ceased his frustrated plucking, but was now grinding his teeth behind a deep-set frown. Mum had a point, and trying to argue my way out of it seemed like it would only cause my father more distress.
“Fine, I’ll go, if it’ll make you happy, dad.” Plus it would give me more evidence as to the horrors of the food industry that I could extoll on my halls mates when I returned to campus.
Mum beamed. Dad stood up stiffly, “good,” he said, relaxing a little and putting a hand on my shoulder, gripping it tightly, “we leave at 4am.”
As soon as I stepped out of the car into the brisk early morning air my nostrils were hit by the fresh smell of brine brimming out from under the market’s imposing awning. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell on its own, but hidden deep in its complexities I sensed something else: fear.
My father set out over the floodlit car park towards the entrance. My drowsiness from the early rise rapidly lifted off my mind as the cold pre-dawn air stirred my senses. I shivered and pulled my beanie down tighter, as some kind of vain shield against the mounting unease that within me.
“Know what you’re going to buy?” I asked, hoping that we could be in and out rapidly.
“You can never know until you see everything that’s on offer,” My dad offered up, as if he were a seasoned pro of the market. He skipped up the stairs leading to the market floor, and I staggered up behind him.
Upon entering the cavernous space I was at first blinded by the bright, clinical lights running the whole length of the warehouse, and their glaring reflection shining up off the soaking floor below. Once I recovered my vision, I looked at the main components of the area: rows and rows of merchants in white, oil-stained lab coats, with stacks of white polystyrene boxes piled around them, their wares bursting out with a rubbery lifelessness.
This was not the Valhalla for fish that I had wished it would be.
My father made no hesitation and started striding away purposefully into the midst of the vendors. I almost slipped on the slick surface in my haste to keep up. Everywhere I looked I saw endless fish awkwardly strewn about, piled high, lolling half in, half out of their enclosures. Seabass leered from my left, snapper stared resolutely from my right. All dead. But, seemingly, with the final bubble of plea having only just burst from their gaping mouths moments before.
Disgustedly, I surveyed the customers’ eyes roving over the products looking for a good deal, and the fishmongers’ eyes roving over the customers looking for a good mark.
My father came to a stop at a stall that had caught his eye.
“How much for the…” he started.
“Hold on mate! This lady was first.” Embarrassed, my dad snapped shut his mouth, and we stood awkwardly while the salesman dealt with the other customer.
While this exchange went on, I looked at the masses of creatures laid out uniformly in front of me, like knock off handbags at a flea market. The unease I felt outside was building into a panic. I couldn’t help but think that the only places where this much bright light would be shone on this many dead bodies would be either in a morgue, or the excavation of a disaster site. The red, silver, pink and blue scales glistened brightly under the extensive lighting, but each and every dead eye that I looked into was a black void, sucking in the light and showing only desolation in return.
Staring into these forlorn features, I felt a potent mixture of sadness and rage come rumbling up from under my diaphragm. Do the fish out there in the ocean have any notion of this place? Do they know that they’re destined to be bagged, boxed and put on ice until they drown in air? Considering the telepathic connection schools of fish seem to have – turning, darting, diving in perfect unison – you’d think that the fear that is psychically emanating from the fish in places like Billingsgate must be felt by those still out in the open water.
Imagine a fish cut off from the rest of his school as they’re caught in a fisherman’s net. Does he still have that psychic connection to them as they’re shut away in boxes? I could see this fish, driven mad by the psychic fear being projected to him from his brothers and sisters, following them all the way to Billingsgate. I could hear him out the back, splashing around in the Thames, desperately trying to reconnect with his family. The sharpness of the terror I felt in that moment took my breath away.
A loud, weighty smack brought me back to my senses. The sound of a wet fish slapping human skin is generally thought of as an amusing one. Quite the opposite is true of the sound of the slap of wet fish on wet fish on wet fish on wet fish on wet fish on wet fish on wet fish.
“This guy’s having a laugh, let’s look elsewhere,” dad said, not noticing my sudden paleness. I told him I needed to find a toilet, and without waiting for a reply walked off in a random direction, trying not to look at all the dead animals encroaching on either side.
Through my mental blinkers, I navigated towards the corner of the market, and found a small working man’s café tucked away there. Hurriedly, I ordered a cup of tea and sat down on one of the plastic moulded chair and table sets in the back. While waiting for my tea, I looked around, glad not to be surrounded by death.
What I saw instead was equally as disgusting. Every inch of the walls was covered in pictures of fishmongers from the market, stretching back decades. My eyes flicked from smiling face to smiling face. Some were holding up large fish, as if they’d caught them themselves, as if they were some kind of trophy. Elsewhere a lobster balanced comically on a top hat for the benefit of the camera. Nowhere did they show respect for the lithe, colourful and graceful creatures that they happily shift in bulk for their livelihood. No acknowledgement that these creatures are living things too. Just rows of pictures showing Poseidon’s emissaries held up like sacks of money. The malicious greed glinted in every set of smiling eyes, like hyenas picking the meat off some other animal’s prey.
Barbarians, the lot of them! Vain, heartless, primitives every single last one of them! The thought scorched through my brain in a flash of fury that brought all my nerve endings into fizzing life. The waitress placed my tea on the table in front of me, but I immediately stood up, steaming just as much as the liquid in the cup. I marched back out of the café, determined to find my father and make him leave immediately. We could not show support to this stronghold of suffering.
Fuming, I blustered my way down the aisles of sales, this time making no attempt to block the dawdling corpses from my peripheral vision. I used the dishonour of their deaths to further entrench me in my mission to bring the place to an end.
At that moment, I felt a crunch underfoot and stopped, looking down to see some fragments of smashed crab shell scattered all around. My eyes scanned the trail of shell pieces across the floor to an upside-down crab carcass lying still, having smashed under its own weight upon falling from the box above. I looked from the remains up to its former container and saw that all the crabs within were still living. They were piled up in the corner, scrabbling maniacally over each other in an attempt to reach over the edge of the box, where they had seen their compatriot lead. They were wildly jabbing their sharp legs into the fleshy undershell of their fellow prisoners, as they clamorously clawed for the summit of desperate crustaceans. I could feel their frantic fear like scores on my skin, and in that moment I knew what I had to do.
The stall’s vendor was deep in bartering with a customer, so in an impulsive lurch I quickly swiped the top-most crab from the box, just as it was teetering over the edge in preparation for a messy death. With my fingertips on the ridges of its chalky exoskeleton, I lifted it to safety, and turned my back on the stall, striding quickly away. With my free hand I whipped my beanie off my head and as inconspicuously as possible I placed the crab into it, bunching the opening together in my fist to make it into a small sack.
I could feel the crab’s sharp claws tearing at the fibres of my hat, and I felt its struggle as my own. I needed to free it. I needed to get it to the river behind the market. Without looking back, I strode decisively through the streams of people back out to the car park.
Outside, facing back towards the market, I noticed a little alley leading down the side of the main hall, where empty boxes were flung after their contents had been sold. I had a feeling that I could follow the alley all the way down the side of the building to the river beyond. Peering down the passage as far as the stacks of discarded crates would allow, I couldn’t sense any movement.
Looking back around behind me to check the coast was clear, I stole into the alley, ducking behind the nearest batch of rubbish. From there I moved covertly, avoiding the pools of light coming through the windows of the market, and hiding behind any objects that would cover me from prying eyes. After a few minutes of stop-start manoeuvring, the crab’s movements beneath my hand had only grown more furious and desperate. About six feet from the river, my path was cut off by a chain link fence, blocking any further progress.
Looking at the makeshift beanie sack in my hand, I saw one of the crab’s legs beginning to cut through the fabric. Withholding panic, I decided I’d have to try and pull up the bottom of the fence enough to put the hat through, crab and all. Before I could stop and think of another plan, my free hand shot out and yanked up the foot of the fence, and with no small amount of effort I managed to create about 6 inches of space. The wiry fence tore at my fingers as I strained to maintain the gap. With my other hand I quickly pushed the hat through as far as I could get it – about a foot – then gratefully released the fence, which sprang back into place with a rude clang.
I watched the hat for a moment, waiting for the crab’s emergence. “Come on, man, you can do it,” I said. “Get out of there and get into the river. You have to warn the others of this place! Tell them of the suffering that happens here. But tell them that you have a human ally – tell them I’m going to get more people to fight this fight and together we’ll bring this place down!”
At that moment a couple of legs protruded from the ball of wool and started clawing the body free. “Go! Quickly! Warn them!”
I gave this last order and hurried back down the alley to the car park. It was getting lighter now, with the sun just below the horizon. I reached the car park, and momentarily stood outside the entrance, taking a moment to enjoy the fresh breeze, which was not so biting anymore.
“Mind your back, mate!” came a cry from behind me that made me leap out of my skin and quickly prance to the side. “Cheers,” said the porter, winking at me as he pushed past another trolley piled high with produce. I leered back. He wouldn’t be winking at me if he knew what I’d just done, that with my actions I had declared myself an ally of the sea in the battle to bring down Billingsgate.
I tailed him back into the market hall and then started making my way quickly around the aisles in search of my father. It was busier now, and seeing all the hungry human faces salivating over my deceased friends only made my search all the more frantic. Eventually, I found him in the furthest corner, but it was too late, he’d already bought something.
“There you are, just in time. Take this,” he said, putting a large box into my hands that required both arms to hold. “Got a great deal on haddock.” I was glad the box was closed. “Oh and got a box of these too,” he said, turning around and picking something up from the box behind him. When he turned back he was holding up a delicate grey spindly creature that I identified as a king prawn. “Look at this sucker,” he beamed as he held it right up to my face so it dominated my vision. It was still alive, moving stiffly as it had just come out of the ice.
I looked into the poor crustacean’s eyes and could feel the uncomprehending terror surging through him. Keeping my eyes locked on his, I bowed my head forward a bit so that the tip of my nose just stroked his leading antennae; a gesture of solidarity, to tell him that he wasn’t alone and that it was all going to be ok.
My dad quickly whipped him away, “don’t do that! Don’t you know these things are bottom feeders?” he said with disgust. I stared daggers into him, but said nothing.
“Come on, let’s get out of here, I’m gagging for some breakfast,” he said, and marched towards the exit with the box of prawns. I walked measuredly behind him with the box of haddock, carrying it with the respect owed when bearing the coffin of a fallen friend.
Outside in the car park the sun was now over the horizon, its golden hue adding some natural colour to the ungodly arena. Walking alongside dad across the car park, I started rapidly formulating a plan for how to free the poor prawns. Once back home, I could make sure that I got the box with the prawns out of the car, but then where could I take it? If I could just get the prawns down to the river… I could tell dad that I need to borrow the car for something then drive to Hounslow. There I could get access to the river, just like we used to when I was a kid…
At that moment, something came plummeting at high velocity straight down out of the sky and hit the ground 10 feet in front of us with a clean and clear crack that bounced off the metallic cars, making us stop immediately in our tracks.
“What the bloody hell was that?”
I already knew exactly what it was. A moment later a seagull swooped down upon the broken body and started protruding its beak into the poor crab’s exposed innards. My dear comrade, killed in the escape.
The seabird pulled its beak out from the shell and started masticating contentedly. As it did, it looked me dead square in the eye, seeing my skin for scales, easily identifying me as a traitor to my species. Looking into its sun-glinted eyes, I recognised pure hatred, and felt dread.
The birds had declared their alliance with the humans.