Big Fish

It is a beautiful, sunny Saturday in early June, and I am driving along the Ormeau past the old Post Office. On the other side of the road, outside the Bangla Bazar, are two Romanian men. They are probably in their forties, wearing tatty black trousers and mismatched shiny-elbowed suit jackets. The balding one with the Saddam Hussein moustache is my neighbour; he lives across the street from me, in a household of two families. The two men are passing an oversized bottle of white wine between them. It is nearly empty. My neighbour holds on to his bicycle with his left hand as he takes a good long swig from the bottle. His bike is old, the black paint giving way to patches of rust. There is a wicker basket attached to the front, suspended between the handlebars and the battered mudguard, and sticking out of it is a massive fish. Its dead black eyes glare accusingly at the living world around it. I don’t know what sort of fish it is, or what seas it came from. It is fat, oval shaped; the body must be at least two feet long. It is going to take some cooking.

I reach home before my neighbour, and after unloading and stowing the shopping I get myself a cold beer and lazily start to do a bit of work in the front garden. Some of the Romanians are out in the street: the two mothers sitting on the kerb chatting with a friend, and three small boys running about in the road. The youngest, who has only just learned to walk, has a rivulet of thick snot running down his upper lip. The women wear the same clothes: long skirt, t-shirt, and a headscarf over their long black hair. They have bulbous bellies and large breasts. Occasionally they shout at the kids, who ignore them and carry on mucking about in the road, until inevitably a car comes, and the toddler’s mother has to lift herself and pull him squealing onto the pavement. They are briefly corralled in the front garden with a ball to kick.

Two older children appear from within the house. They are girls aged, I reckon, twelve and fourteen. The younger one is friendly. She always says ‘hey’ with a disarming smile when I meet her in the street. She is wearing sandals with heels, silver trousers, and a pink t-shirt. The older girl is dressed like the mothers, and bulges in the same places. She has a pretty face, but does not smile like her companion. I know that her compressed lips conceal jutting rat teeth. As they walk towards the corner the younger girl suddenly races ahead, spinning with arms outstretched, in a dance of pure joyfulness. There is something in the air.

Not long afterwards, the father arrives on his bike. He dismounts easily at the garden gate and proudly lifts the fish for the appraisal of the women. He looks across the street at me and I give him the thumbs up. He beams at me, returns the gesture, then goes into the house with his catch. The bike is abandoned.

On Sunday it is fine again, and I am in the garden eating lunch. Over the road the party is in full flight: riotous gypsy music is pulsing out into the street in surges of trumpets and soaring fiddles. It sounds like they are having a great time, and I daydream about going over there with a bottle of wine and joining in. The big fish is being barbecued; it smells delicious. I can hear men shouting, whooping over the music; they must be giving it loads in there.

It is not long before the first casualty is brought out. The women form a line in the garden, between the front door and the gate. They stand silently, grim-faced, arms folded – an honour guard of disapproval – as two older men haul a shirtless young man out into the sunlight. He is suspended between them, his arms across their shoulders. He has less walking in him than a new-born foal, and his feet drag along the pavement as they take him to the entry and dump him there to sober up. They walk back to the house, laughing at the state of him. Five minutes later the process is repeated, and another youth is carried into the entry, his head lolling. I picture a mounting pile of bodies, like a war crime, but these are the only two. After less than an hour the party is over. The music stops, and the street returns to its normal rhythm.

Two days later both families are gathered outside the house. Nobody is smiling. A taxi pulls up and is loaded with plastic bags of clothes, a suitcase. The girl with the rodent teeth is brought out by her mother; her cheeks are wet with tears. She looks back at the crowd on the pavement, her red-rimmed eyes imploring. Her mother ushers her into the back of the taxi and it bounces off over the speed bump. The party is over.

Audio, read by Susan Hughes:

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