‘What about ‘The Frying Squad”?’ Suggested Pete
There was a general groan of disapproval, ‘We had that half an hour ago,’ complained Simon, ‘and I still think “The Happy Haddock” is a good name’
‘I’ve got it!’ cried Trevor, ‘”In Cod We Trust”!’
There was a roar of laughter at this and The Regulars ceased their amicable bickering for a few seconds, before Trevor turned and yelled, ‘What do you reckon ‘arry? “In Cod We Trust”’
Behind the counter Harry just smiled and let the conversation roll on. It had been a quiet night – like most Thursdays were. Sometimes Harry thought Thursdays were just a day in waiting for Friday and he knew that if it wasn't for the company of The Regulars he would close up on Thursdays and consider it a day gone but not missed from his calendar.
Harry picked up the metal spatula and turned the fish in the batter, watching it cook. Tuesdays was Mrs Duckworth, with her pukka pie, mushy peas and chips: every second Wednesday was the Smart Young Man. Harry didn’t know his name, but he guessed he was an actor or something, because he knew that Wednesdays were matinee days at the local amateur drama group. Thursdays were The Regulars. Not that they weren’t here every night; it was just that Thursdays were, in some indefinable way, their night.
Their conversations were wild and varied, almost with a life of their own, straying from topic to topic like a shifting wind. Sometimes a book one of them had read would be explained and discussed in slow, painful detail; sometimes the conversation was about their jobs, their most recent girlfriend or their lives. Mostly they spoke the philosophy of the streets, putting the world to rights. Tonight's topic of choice: a new name for the shop, whether Harry wanted one or not.
Pete, the oldest of the group, liked his chips piping hot from the tray, on a plate and with only a splash of salt. Simon, who was small but stronger than he looked, liked his the traditional way; in paper and soaked through with vinegar until the paper dissolved under the acid. Trevor, the unofficial leader of the clan, was in charge of ordering. Every Thursday they would come in and take their usual seats at a battered formica table whilst Trevor shuffled to the counter, raised his huge caterpillar-like eyebrows and said, in his best booming voice, ‘Surprise me ‘arry’
Harry smiled again as he laid the first lot of chips onto a plate: one shovel-full for a small lot, two for a large chips – slightly less if it was with anything. There was something infinitely satisfying about the time honoured procedure. In an ever changing world he prided himself that the one thing his customers could count on was the size of their portion of chips.
35 years he’d spent working in the city. Every day commuting on the train, every day staring at the same spreadsheets and dealing with the same stupid questions. They’d called it a mid-life crisis, but the truth was it had been coming for years. He could still remember that last day in the office, as he'd walked calmly through and taken his leaving gifts with good grace; each pair of watching eyes wondering if he hadn't gone mad. It had felt good to know that he was the only truly sane one there.
Harry watched Pete pull a battered pack of cards from his pocket and start dealing them between the trio, savouring the moment. These three came here every day, ordered the same meal, sat at the same tables, talked the same nonsense. They lived by what they did – true, hard graft that brought its own rewards. Not one of them would know what to do with a spreadsheet and Harry knew in his heart that they were all the happier for it.
There was a poem he’d read once, about a priest in a chip shop – longing for the life he could have had. It had been a simple poem, only seven lines long – but it had touched him and called out to him in a way that no other words had ever done. It was just a small poem in an anthology, easily overlooked - but Harry had known exactly what it meant; it meant that you only get one chance, so get it right.
Harry poured the last of the chips onto the plate and pulled a bottle of wine out from beneath the counter. He walked around to The Regulars and placed it on the table in front of their surprised gazes, then he solemnly walked to the door and locked it, turning the sign from “open” to “closed” as he did so. He took a long look at the silent street outside, shrouded in late-evening darkness. Each street light offered a small patch of life, a path to take, a choice that had to be made. Left or right, business or pleasure - every step you took changed the route of your life in some small way. For the moment he pulled down the blinds and took a deep, contented breath, realizing that there was nowhere else he would rather be. Then he turned and, with a beaming smile straight from the heart, he sat down and said, ‘Deal me in boys, sky’s the limit’
Vinegar, by Roger McGough
i feel like a priest
in a fish&chips queue
as the vinegar runs through
how nice it would be
to buy supper for two
NB: the above story was not inspired by this poem, but about half-way through i realised that it was what it was about. I would recommend Roger McGough's poems to anyone.