One Way to Cook an Eel
Emily Bromfield grew up in London, England where she still lives. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths College, London, and currently works part-time for an international writers’ organization. This is her first piece to be published in the US.
Step 1: Skin and clean the eel. Ensure all scales are removed.
She lived in my bathtub. About 80 cm in length, speckled mud-brown skin, a yellow-white underbelly, and pearl black eyes. I found her slapping around in a puddle next to Regents Canal one morning, was only out to buy milk and bacon for breakfast and my Lotto Dream Numbers for that weekend’s draw. When I stopped to look at her, bent down right close, she went very still except for a tiny flick of the tail. Should have tossed her back in, but there were these school boys coming up behind me who wouldn’t have been kind, who would have used her as a plaything. So I wrapped carrier bags meant for my shopping round both hands, picked her up all soft and warm, fist tight round the mouth, and off we went home. I gave her a bit of pipe to sleep in. She fit perfectly head to tail. When I needed to wash, she went in a blue plastic bucket and both of us slapped about contentedly.
I considered it lucky. Eels are sacred creatures in some parts of the world. In Japan, for example, it’s believed they carry the souls of the dead and the heart is a culinary delicacy, swallowed whole, still beating. But Shirley, my wife, told me it was the last straw. She was not sharing a house with an eel. “Todd Ford,” she said, “for the last 20 years I have had it up to further than you will know.” Then she told me about Alan. He was an operations manager at a biscuit factory. He had prospects, a pension, and passions for lots of different things. She was moving in with him.
Step 2: Cut into two-inch pieces, sprinkle with salt, and rest for one hour.
We listened to Heart FM in the mornings whilst I brushed my teeth: Gareth John he’s a funny man. And Drive Time with Lucio in the afternoon when I fed her a treat, a couple of crab sticks or a shrimp. The treats were leftovers from work, Ford’s Fishery, on the high street: “everything for the body and sole.”
I’ve been in the trade nearly 30 years, took a shine to filleting in home economics at school, much more fun than fairy cakes or pasta bakes. Gutted a plaice when I was 13; sliced its belly, pulled out the organs, the long stringy blood veins and got the carcass so clean it squeaked. At 18, I won the Young British Fish Craft Championship. The crystal bowl and tankard are still on the mantelpiece “First Prize 1984. Congratulations to: Todd Ford.” Shirley took nearly everything else with her, stripped the house bare. “Don’t argue,” she said, “I’ve only taken what’s mine.” Alan the biscuit man had waited in his car. I saw him through the curtains, round red face and blonde hair, like a jammy dodger. Shirley kissed me on the cheek on her way out. She smelt of vanilla. There was something new about the way she’d pinned her hair. “I tried, Todd,” she said and patted me on my chest. Her hand rested on my heart. So she took that too.
That night, I didn’t get out of the bath. It was the only place I felt safe. The lights dimmed low made my skin looked tanned instead of whitey vein blue like under the fluorescent beams at work. My long legs, bony chicken legs Shirley would say, had some definition, some muscle, not a lot but a bit. The bucket stayed close to the tub. There was no slapping or splashing. When I got out and dried my shrivelled body, she was just under the water wriggling about. I’d gone to bed as the sun came up, lay there calculating costs of a mussel, the smell of vanilla tucked under the duvet.
Step 3: Soak in cold water for ten minutes, drain and dry.
The overall odds of winning a lottery prize are 1 in 54. Euromillions, Thunderball, Lotto, or Dream Number, it doesn’t matter which. By choosing numbers above 31 the odds are slightly higher because most people choose birthdays or other important days like wedding anniversaries. I play Dream Number and Lotto every week. Once I won £90. I used the money to buy some Japanese chef knives from a magazine, five for £79.99 instead of £199.99. It said they were handmade, hand hammered, by master knife maker Takeo Murata using Yasuki Aogani Blue Steel. I cooked Shirley dinner as soon as they had arrived, a red mullet left over from work. The head came away easy, no force needed only a small crunch of bones and a quick snap of the jaw. We sat at the table. It was a special occasion. “Shirley,” I said, “you are my soul mate and I love you.” She choked on a bone, a small bone I must have missed, and spat out a mouthful of mushed mullet and broccoli.
After the mussel delivery that first afternoon without her, I came home and put the knives in a cupboard. It just didn’t feel right using them. So I bought two ordinary kitchen knives from the supermarket. I also bought a leather holdall from a magazine, only £12.99 with postage and packing, in case I wanted to go on a mini break. Teletext had some reasonable deals, and it would have been good to get some sun, dry up negative thoughts. But I couldn’t leave the house. I had responsibilities. So I used my holdall for work to carry my lunchbox, overalls and a newspaper, filling the compartments with cling-filmed treats for feeding time. Every evening when I got in, I went straight to the bathroom, and there she was gliding up and down. I had dinner in front of the TV, a microwave meal from a three-for-two deal, and watched a nature programme or the news before going to bed, her soft ripples sending me to sleep.
Step 4: Butter a saucepan, season with nutmeg, salt and pepper, and cover with lemon and onions.
During an eel’s life-cycle they change shape several times. Born in the Sargasso Sea as transparent larvae shaped like leaves, they drift with the currents towards Europe. Once they reach the coastlines, they stretch like a sausage and turn into my eel. They can live to seventy years old, a pet for life. But they yearn for home, the tropics’ warm waters, and will slither over land if need be to get back, spawn, and die. My Atlas of Fish told me all this. I liked to lie in the bath and read it, sometimes out loud because the sound of my voice made the house not seem so big.
The vanilla scent began to fade after four months. First it went from under the duvet, then it left the cushions on the sofa. After six months it disappeared from the kitchen where it had hung around the sink and by the back door. My regular customers said I was looking better, which I found funny because they only ever saw me in white overalls with guts wiped down the front.
One day the woman from Use Your Loaf, the bakery across the road, came in. I always saw her in the mornings opening up in her blue bakers coat and meringue-shaped white hat. We were usually the only two people awake, the day still dark, most shops still shut. Sometimes I walked past her close enough to know she wore perfume that smelt of apricots and that she had a broken nose. Once she smiled at me, and I could see she had a gap between her front teeth.
She browsed the shellfish and took a piece of mackerel I had put on the counter in a dish. “It’s good with horseradish,” I said and watched her chew, “or just bake it in the oven in foil.” She swallowed and smiled. “You’ve got mackerel in your teeth,” I said.
Step 5: Cover pan and bake in the oven until eel browns.
Her name was Marie. It said so on her name badge. One day instead of bringing ham sandwiches into work I went to Use Your Loaf and bought a cheese and pickle baguette. She made it for me, put extra butter on the bread and wrapped it up tucking the sides under so I wouldn’t lose any pickle. “Thank you,” I said, “I hate losing pickle.” I ate it on the bench in the playground behind the high street. It was the first time I’d taken a real lunch break in two years. It was nice to see the midday sun. After work, I went back and bought two éclairs and a cherry bakewell. “Treating myself,” I said. She showed me the gap in her teeth again and held her hand out over the counter. There was a bit of icing on her thumb. “I’m Marie,” she said. “I know,” I said and took her hand, “your name badge says so. Todd Ford.” “I know,” she said, “your name’s on the front of your shop.”
I had a bath as the sun went down and nibbled at the cherry bakewell. “It was a good day today,” I told the bucket. I had put her on the atlas so she was level with the tub’s rim. Her pearl eyes glimmered. According to my Atlas of Fish, an eel’s pupils enlarge when they return home to reproduce and their smooth skin turns into coppery scales. I photocopied and laminated the diagrams of metamorphosis and blue-tacked them above the taps. “So you can see where you came from,” I said when I tipped her back into the bath. She had darted in and out of her pipe, and all night, the house filled with the sound of water slapping.
Step 6: Take the eel out and put into a dish with one cup of stock.
“If you choose numbers between 32 and 49 your chances of winning are greatly increased,” I said, waiting for Marie to finish peppering my cheese and coleslaw bap. She told me she played Lotto too, had done since it started. Sometimes she played Lucky Leprechaun because her family was Irish. “My mother won 500 quid,” she said. I had started buying my lunch from her every day. “You’re using your loaf,” Marie chuckled as she slipped fondant fancies next to baps and baguettes when her boss wasn’t looking. In return, I gave her some monkfish, a langoustine, and a thick slice of smoked salmon.
One day Marie asked if I were married. We were sitting on the playground bench eating tuna rolls. There was a packet of salt and vinegar crisps open. Reaching at the same time our hands had brushed. Her skin was soft and warm. “I was married but my wife left me,” I said. “I’m sorry,” she said, “that was very personal of me.” “That’s ok,” I said, “I do not mind sharing with you, Marie.” Two boys had come into the playground and were on the seesaw. It creaked as they pushed hard against the floor to fly high up in the air. As we watched them, Marie slipped her hand through mine, grains of crisp salt tucked between our fingers.
Sorrento’s, the Italian restaurant next door, had organised a local traders’ dinner and karaoke night. It was going to be the first evening I’d been out since Shirley left. I closed early and went home to have a long soak. We listened to Lucio talking people home on Drive Time, me tapping my feet when he played a song I knew, she taking my cue and wriggling in her bucket flicking drops of water onto the bathmat. I had bought a new suit, grey linen with a two-button fastening and some Joop! Homme aftershave because the label said it had a classic masculine edge. “You look great,” Marie said. “It’s nice to see you without a meringue on your head,” I said back. She grinned, gap teeth shining, and pressed her hand on my chest. “You should come to mine for dinner,” I said, “I would like to cook for you.” “I’d like that,” she said, her hand still on my chest. She sat next to me at dinner and sang Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” with the girls from Use Your Loaf. She looked at me and winked when they sang the chorus, “anything you want, you got it, anything you need, you got it.” I went home with the smell of apricot on my suit.
Step 7: Bring to the boil then thicken with a tablespoon of butter and flour.
Things had got back on track. For the first time in a long time, I felt happy. I was living my life again and it was all because of Marie. “You are my lucky star,” I told her on a barge trip down the canal, “I was a lonely man but now I’m not”. The wind was playing with her hair and at one point, blew it right across her face so it looked like she had a moustache.
For my birthday, she took me to a Japanese restaurant and I got to meet the chef. He said I had a lovely wife and asked how long we’d been married. “33 years,” I said, “she is the love of my life.” He shook my hand and congratulated me, man to man. “That is a good long time,” he said, “there must be something very special between you”. “There is,” I said, “we fit together, and that is more important than anything.”
When Marie told me about her ex-boyfriend Dean and how he used to sleep with other women, I said I thought he was a bastard as she was something to be treasured. She told me how much she’d loved him and that he hadn’t meant to break her heart. “It was a bodily disorder,” she said, “he needed to feel universally loved.” One day we saw him waiting for a bus. Marie hid behind a wheelie bin. “Just can’t bear to see his face,” she said. He had a jaw like Sylvester Stallone and wore a t-shirt that showed off his gym body. “I think I should cook for you tonight,” I said. Marie looked up at me from her crouching position. “What time?” she said.
Step 8: Mix three egg yolks with a splash of lemon juice then pour over the fish and serve.
Everything was lined up neatly on the kitchen worktop. A chopping board, mixing bowls large and small, and Pyrex dishes one round, one square. The Japanese fish knife lay perfectly straight by the chopping board. It was the right occasion to use it again. A fat haddock was on a sheet of shiny wax paper, a pan of potatoes on the hob. I had cleaned the house earlier that day, dusting surfaces, the sofa and chairs. Shirley’s photo that sat on the mantelpiece went in a cupboard. The bathroom was disinfected. She thrashed about when I tried to move her to the bucket until I stroked her yellow-white underbelly. “We’ve got company tonight,” I said, “We need to be on our best behaviour.”
When it went dark outside, I lit candles and put them on the table with a bottle of chilled Soave. The fish knife fit well in my hand. It was like it had been crafted just for me. I slit the haddock carefully, guts out nice and tidy, the long blood veins scraped free. The pan sizzled, lovely hot oil, and as the skin hit heat it cracked.
We waited: her upstairs in the tub, me downstairs in front of the TV. Eamonn Holmes was talking to a Liverpudlian couple in Kenya, the lucky Jet Set winners three weeks in a row. Casualty started; Cyd the technician and Greg the paramedic finally kissed. One of the candles burned out so I lit another. I sat back on the sofa and wondered where Marie could be, she was over an hour late. Tried her phone but the answer machine kept telling me no-one was in. The haddock had toughened, the potatoes wrinkled from too much cooking. I put the Soave back in the fridge and poured myself a whisky and then another. “She’s not coming,” I said out loud and turned the TV off, “she’s probably gone back to him like I knew she would.”
From the hallway, a sound of something brushing against stair carpet made me look up from the bottom of my glass. A flash of black pearl shone bright, snaking towards the kitchen. I got up from the sofa and went out into the hallway, and she was at the back door knocking into it again and again. I lunged forward, tripping over myself. She shot away from the door bashing into the table legs so the candles snuffed out in a pool of wax. And I knew what it was, knew what she was trying to do, and there was no way I was going to allow it. “You’re not leaving me too. This is your home,” I cried. She darted into a gap between the oven and a cupboard and for a moment everything stilled. But then I got down on my knees and pulled her out squirming as, fist tight around the mouth, I stretched her long body on the chopping board. I stroked her underbelly, shushed her calm until she stopped struggling, until she gave in completely and I loosened my grip round the jaw. The fish knife found my hand. And off her head came. There was only a little resistance, a small shudder, a quick crack, pearl eyes dimming, reducing. I slit her belly and let the blood pour out, pushing back pink flesh, and the heart, tiny heart, still beating. I caressed it in the palm of my hand watching the life drain. I slipped it down my throat, felt the throbbing through me as my body curled on the floor. Until I felt the cold of the concrete through the linoleum, smelt vanilla and apricot and the warmth of salt water. From somewhere, I heard banging and someone calling my name. But I shut my eyes, saw the sea and heard its calm voice speaking, sun rays burning copper, floating on waves.