“A fish!  A fish!  Bring me a bucket!  I’ve caught a fish!”

I rushed to the stern, where she lurks with her book, sun-hat and Heath Robinson fishing gear.  The least successful fishing gear ever, prone to entanglement in lobster pots and greedy removal, she assures me, by huge fish which could never be mastered by the flimsy line, small hooks and pretty shiny lures.  Huge, fleshy fish ripe for slicing into sushi, if only…  All the way down the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsular – a coast, if the marine traffic is anything to go by, teeming with delicious catchable fish – nada.  OK, we had a couple of suicidal mackerel, but if you were to calculate it in comestible grams per man-hour spent in the chase, our harvest would be smaller than a modestly successful search for wild white truffles.

So I rushed to her with the first bucket that came to hand, the small one we keep in the cockpit (you never know when you’re going to need a bucket) thinking it indicative of her assessment of the chances of success that she did not trouble to take a bucket with her from the start.

The fish was on the after-deck when I arrived, iridescent and beautiful but slightly unnerving as it flipped about, still attached to the line.  “Get it in the bucket” she gasped, excited, quickly followed by “oo, stop it from jumping out” and immediately thereafter “aw, he’s too beautiful to keep. Let’s throw him back.” A high proportion of our very rare catches benefit from similar sudden crises of conscience.

Sometime between the stopping of him from jumping out (I held my right hand, palm down, fingers fanned out, inside the circumference of the bucket) and the crisis of conscience, the struggling, freedom-loving creature fixed me with its terrible expressionless eye and got my measure.  Sometime in those seconds it flexed its lithe shining little body and pierced my hand with a poisonous, malicious barb, one of a number I noticed too late neatly arranged the length of its arching convulsing back rather like those on the spine of a dragon in a child’s drawing.  As Mrs C waved a sentimental good-bye to her freed captive – who showed neither gratitude nor remorse – a pain quite disproportionate to the near-invisible incision at the base of the ring finger quickly spread to my whole right hand.  By the time I made it back to the cockpit everything from half-way down the forearm to the tips of the fingers was urgently aching as if the blood in the vessels within had been replaced with burning acid.  Panicky speculations about the circulatory system and the consequences of the acid spreading, intermingling, reaching my heart, drove me to suck desperately at the wound, hoping to transfer the poison from vein to mouth, which for some reason seemed the better place for it, although even at the time this did not feel well thought-through. If anything the pain intensified.  I now imagined a million tiny, barbed fish spears, loaded with venom and able only to move forwards, inwards, exacting fishy retribution.

In quick unscientific succession I applied cold water, warm water, iodine and Savlon gel.  “It’s just the salt in the wound” said Mrs C, sounding metaphorical and failing to reassure.  The pain, the pain, I could do nothing but focus on it, as if wishing sufficiently hard might reduce it.  The hand was cold now, both internally and to the touch, the skin at the knuckles white.  I held it to her cheek and she dived below, returning with a shot-glass of the cinnamon-flavoured aguardente given to us by the restaurant in Vila Nova da Gaia.  She had one herself, out of sympathy.

It began to swell, this coldly burning extremity of my body.  I was beginning to feel cold all over, but that was most probably pure theatrics.  Mrs C went for the Mediterranean Cruising Almanac and a small bowl filled with Dettol and warm water.  The warmth was the only comfort, that and the fact that the pain – without diminution – seemed to have stopped its irreversible progress half-way up the forearm.  I took an Aspirin.  I imagined the internal battle-field at that point in my arm (where a bruise subsequently appeared), white blood-cells heroically laying down their lives to arrest the progress of the invaders.  My hand soaked, the liquid cooled and my teeth began to chatter.

“Aquatic stings and bites” she read from the almanac. “Bathe in water as hot as the victim can bear … vinegar … alcohol.  You’ve had all those except vinegar.”  I said nothing and she went to get some balsamic, which I don’t think the salties who wrote the Almanac had in mind, whilst I regarded my wrinkled, soaked hand and wondered if Dettol was an acid or an alkali and whether to mention that the almanac probably did not intend for the alcohol to be cinnamon-flavoured or taken internally.  I took a paracetamol and had a lie down.

That was a few days ago and this little fish off the Andalucian coast has lent support to my theory that our sainted NHS, far from being an lumbering behemoth, largely works on the efficient basis that if caused to wait sufficient time most people either get better on their own or die; either way, they are no longer the NHS’s problem.  Here I am, proof of the effectiveness of this strategy.  Not dead yet, the hand still swollen but getting better on its own, zero demand on healthcare resources.