Fish & Chips

I remember how Friday tea-time was always special for Jimmy.
Fish and chip night, every Friday. A family treat. Jimmy’s dad used to come home from work with the Evening Post under his arm and an empty lunch box. Ten minutes later his Mum put the kettle on and the plates in the oven while his sister buttered the bread and Jimmy was off, two pound notes in his pocket and a warning to be careful of the Ring Road ringing in his ears.
It was the only time he was allowed over the Ring Road – too busy, too dangerous. It was also the only night Jimmy’s parents didn’t seem to row with each other or shout at him or his sister. It’s not that Jimmy came from a bad family but with two parents working and two growing children, life wasn’t always easy. They were just like anybody else round our way.  But Fridays his father came home with his weekly wage packet in his overall pocket and was content with his lot.  Later he would go for his traditional Friday night ‘Pint with the Lads,’ at the Hope Inn.
Jimmy used to love going for the fish and chips. Maybe because they signified the start of the weekend, maybe he associated the smell with happiness or contentment. Or maybe it was because he was allowed to shout  ‘2 specials’ at the fat lady behind  the counter, his only chance in life to legitimately shout at an adult.
Sometimes I used to see him in the queue, still in our school uniforms; we used to  talk about school or Peter Glaze in Crackerjack which had just been on the TV. There was always a queue on a Friday, sometimes stretching down the street. Blokes in the queue used to smoke cigarettes; even when they got in the shop they never docked them out. The smoke used to linger in the air before mixing like a genie with the steam rising from the stainless steel and glass of the fryers, full of golden battered fishes giving rise to the distinctive aroma of the shop. They used to talk in hushed voices below the sizzling of the fat, about 3 day weeks, winters of discontent, striking miners. It was always the fat lady who served. The adults used to call her Doe or something, I never knew her name until a few years later. There was always a radio playing. It always seemed to be stuck on the same station playing the same song, Chicory Tips’ “Son of My Father”.

 


We used to hang about round that same chippy in our early teens, skinny kids with acne, short spikey hair, mo-hair jumpers and combat jackets. Brimming with hormones, wannabe rebellion and bad attitude. The bench outside full of graffiti – nicknames, Punk will never die, The Clash, the Damned. Wearing the badges of politics we didn’t really understand, Disband the SPG, Who Killed Blair Peach, Anarchy Peace and Freedom. Sharing chips with scraps in newspaper cones, talking about the Pistols, talking about buying some guitars and forming our own band, Punks DIY ethic. Slagging off the greengrocer’s daughter who had just taken over the country with promises of a New Britain. Sometime we’d pool our money for cheap bottles of cider and sit on the bench, eye up the girls, all dressed up for a night out on the town, only a few years older than us but unattainable. Later we’d sit watching and laughing as the drunks piled out of the Hope Inn, occasionally spilling out into drunken brawls – pub entertainment Leeds style.
If it rained the fat lady used to put the canopy up to give us some shelter, although she never understood why we ‘weren’t sat at home in this weather.’  Jimmy pierced my ear on that bench, we drank our first booze and smoked our first joints on there and Jimmy had his first proper kiss, with a girl called Gail Plaice…really….. all under the watchful eye of the fat lady.
A few years on it was the smell that tempted us in when the pubs shut..’Fit and chis pleeeese,’ grinning insanely, slobbering on the finger marked, stainless steel counter, flicking stray grains of salt and scraps at each other, counting the remaining pound coins from our Friday night out at the Hope Inn, always seemed to be Billie Jean on the radio, and the fat lady always laughed at our p****d up smiles, contented after a hard week at work. Looked at our t-shirts asked us who the Bunnymen were, what Red Wedge was, asked Jimmy how Gail his girlfriend was, if we were still working  at the foundry, and when we said yeah and turned our noses up she always used to remind us we were lucky to have jobs to go to, not like the striking miners. Sometimes we’d talk about Scargill, the breakaway unions, the wall near Seacroft hospital which said ‘Scabs Queue Here.’ The Met marching like Hitler’s stormtroopers, ten miles up the road from where we lived on people just trying to defend their jobs and communities. She always used to give us extra fish if it was getting late and tell us to be mindful of the Ring Road in our condition: ‘use that new zebra crossing, that’s what it’s there for.’
Another Friday, fish and chips for Jimmy, who’d just left Gail his wife, at Seacroft Hospital. A baby boy, Joe, 7lb 4 ounces, Stone Roses on the radio, I Wanna be Adored, the Greengrocer’s Daughter replaced by some faceless civil servant with a  liking for peas, making promises to get back to basics.
‘A special fish for a special day – on the house,’ the fat lady smiled at Jimmy from behind the newly tiled counter, ‘you’ll need all the strength you can get now…’
A couple of drunks came in, only young, late teens, early 20’, ciggies in their mouths, blatantly ignoring the No Smoking Sign, half finished pints still in their hands from the Hope Inn.
‘Hurry up yer fat cow, ‘kin size of ‘er surprised there’s owt ****kin’ left,’ – provocative, aggressive. Normally Jimmy wouldn’t have got involved, but the fat lady was like an auntie to him now,  known her most of his life ….
‘C’mon lads, leave it out.’
I wasn’t there. I always feel I should have been. I pieced together what happened later through Jimmy’s family and the Evening Post. They attacked Jimmy from behind with a motorcycle chain at the new pelican crossing, stuck the boot in when he went down, only stopped kicking him when they heard the police sirens. We were always warned to be careful of the ***king Ring Road.
Jimmy’s in a wheelchair now, paralysed from the waist down. He doesn’t speak well, doesn’t eat well, doesn’t always understand what’s going on around him. I still go round once a week, every Friday – Traditional Lads Night Out, always have ten pounds from the Union Benevolent Fund. I try to talk with him, tell him about the foundry, about the striking Liverpool Dockers, about the ex public school boy running the country, banging on about New Labour, New Britain, Cool Britannia.  A load of bollocks, same sh*t, different coloured rosette.
In winter I usually look after Jimmy on a Sunday. Gail has all on looking after him and Joe and I’m grateful I can help out a bit. Usually I take him over to my flat. A can of Special Brew and the old vinyl. I always play him the old songs and sometimes, for a few moments it’s like we’ve never stopped been young. He can’t sing-a-long with me, but I think he recognizes the music because he starts to move about in his wheelchair, his head going from side to side. He knows the songs but it’s sad to see their impact. Back then they were our call to arms, we were the suspect devices, f**k the system, Anarchy in the UK at 45 revolutions a minute. Now it’s like playing a five year old the birdie song, he shakes he’s head, claps his hands but will never understand the effect these songs had on our youth and how they shaped our lives as we negotiated the barbed wire fences into adulthood. Now it’s hard not to look at a wasted life; we never got the riot of our own, Radio Clash a distant memory.
In the summer I take him for a walk, ‘Where d’you wanna go Jimmy?’ always the same gestures over the Ring Road towards the chippy.
And the fat lady, whose name I learned from the Evening Post was Doris Hall always comes out, asks how Jimmy is, asks how Gail and Joe are, gives us specials – on the house. I sit on the bench, full of modern day graffiti now, the sort you only used to see on tube trains in New York. I can hear the radio – it all sounds the same to me these days. I eat my fish, smoke a roll up, watch the near misses at the series of  new mini roundabouts, that no-one seems to understand.
The Hope Inn’s a Burger King these days, and hope’s all but disappeared. Jimmy’s in his wheelchair, it’s difficult to gauge what he’s thinking but I hope the look on his face is a smile. I think it is because he dribbles out of the edge of his mouth, I wipe it clean with a tissue, sometimes I make gestures to him, raise my fists as if we’re going to start boxing or karate. Maybe that’s in poor taste but to be honest I don’t know what else to do. I’m engulfed in the hopelessness of it all.  I always offer to help him eat his fish but he never does. I try to remember to throw it away before the grease seeps through the paper and stains his trousers.
Last week it started raining, the fat lady put the canopy down for us. I wrapped my coat round Jimmy and gave him a gentle hug. Something I’ve wanted to do since this happened but have never found it in me to do. Male pride, a ***king joke isn’t it? This wasn’t an embrace, like you’d greet a long lost friend, this was for sympathy, for anger, for the love of my best mate. Sat there, a ***king vegetable, ‘cos of some bastard’s blind indifference to their fellow man. I can hear the strains of the radio through the rain drops hitting the vinyl roof – Chumbawamba’s Tubthumper. Jimmy got knocked down and never really got up again.
‘Bastards, bastards, bastards……bastards…’
The thing that grinds me down most is the uselessness; it’s like a nest of hungry rodents, gnawing away at my entrails, the uselessness breeding with the permanent rage inside me. Fair enough, they’re locked up, they got six years but with good behaviour and time on remand counting double, they’ll be out in about eighteen months.
A short sharp shock, zero tolerance, community liaison, community policing, getting tough on crime, more bobbies on the beat, they’ve all said it at some point. Hasn’t helped Jimmy though has it?  And I often think about the past, the future, Jimmy’s future, the changes going on around us, nothing stands still or remains the same. Except Jimmy, he’ll never move on. I always wonder why he makes me bring him here.  He doesn’t communicate enough to tell me anything. Maybe it’s the memories of our youth, or maybe his last memory of being.. well.. just.. normal. I can only guess.
***k knows, maybe he just likes the smell.

 

 

safetypin

Fish and Chips…A Safety Pin Stuck in My Heart

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2 Comments

  1. Brian Ryder says:

    Great story, love the way it documents time and events, very evocative, brought back some memories of the day.

  2. What a sad but great story, I don’t know if it’s true or not but it reduced me to tears.

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