Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Fish Supper

For our fifteenth wedding anniversary, Hywel took me to a fish and chip shop.
As he held open the door for me, he beamed.
‘You should see your face — it’s a picture. You weren’t expecting this, were you?’
‘No, I wasn’t.’
‘I thought it would be good to take a trip down memory lane, back to where it all began.’
I looked around Aberuffern Fish Restaurant, the scene of our first date. Only in those days it had been Bertorelli’s chip shop. The restaurant, such as it was, had been a small back room separated from the takeaway counter by a plywood partition. There were four, or maybe five, pale blue flecked formica tables, the sort that were fixed to the floor, with matching dark blue plastic-covered seating. Each table had its own mock-crystal salt, pepper and vinegar bottles. To eat in the restaurant, you queued up at the counter and ordered your food with the other customers, but when asked, you said, ‘eat in’ instead of ‘takeaway’, and then your food would be put on a paper plate instead of wrapped in newspaper.
The Bertorelli family consisted of one woman, aged somewhere between twenty and fifty, and two men. It was a threesome that caused much speculation and gossip when they first arrived in town. The only other Italians we knew were the Macaris who ran the ice cream parlour on the prom and they’d been here longer than anyone could remember. The day war ended, Mr Macari gave free ice cream to every child in the town. I wasn’t born then, of course, it was just one of those events you wonder if you’re destined to spend your life missing.
Today the Bertorellis have gone. They disappeared as mysteriously as they came and still no-one any the wiser about their relationship. The chip shop was taken over two years ago by Taffy’s, a national chain. They expanded the restaurant area and refurbished it in pine, with Welsh plaid woollen cushion covers. The walls are decorated with signed prints of much-capped rugby players alongside a bigger photo of the only player from Aberuffern to ever have played – once - for the national team. The waitresses wear pinnies and shawls, and bring your order to your table. The chain is proud of its Welshness, promoting Welsh sausages and Welsh lamb pies, and using only Welsh potatoes for their chips. They stop short of advertising Welsh fish.
‘I was lucky to get this table,’ Hywel said. ‘When I phoned to book, the manager said they had an important group booking tonight.’
Over his shoulder I could see a party of well-dressed men, mostly Japanese.
‘I read about them in the Western Mail,’ I said. ‘It’s the weekend of Welsh culture organised by the Chamber of Trade as part of the ‘sell Wales to the Japanese’ effort. Tomorrow they’re visiting the market for cockles and laverbread, then they’re going to the match.’
‘What? Aberuffern against Twllmawrddu. I fancied going to that. It’s always a hard game.’
‘Then, after all that excitement, the Gwrywllais Male Voice Choir is putting on a special concert in their honour. They’re singing hits from the shows of Andrew Lloyd Webber. According to the paper, the whole weekend is the brainchild of the chairman of the Chamber of Trade.’ I paused. ‘It didn’t say whether any of his committee questioned his idea of Welsh culture.’
‘Lloyd Webber? I like his music. I wonder if there are any tickets left. Where’s the concert?’
‘In the ex-workingman’s club.’
‘Remind me tomorrow.’
Hywel looked at the menu, encased in its shiny folder decorated with a fire-breathing dragon.
‘Nothing’s changed – it’s still chips with everything.’
He was satisfied.
And he was partly right about nothing changing: everything on the menu, with the exception of the Welsh chicken and the chips themselves, was wrapped in batter or pastry, and served with bread and butter and a cup of tea.
I could see one of the Japanese picking up a white triangle from his side plate. He studied it carefully, and finally took a bite. For a few moments his jaw moved slowly, thoughtfully, before he returned the remains of the bread to his plate.
‘I thought I was the luckiest man alive when you agreed to go out with me,’ Hywel said. ‘And I’d never been to Bertorelli’s restaurant before. I’d only ever had chips out of the paper.’
‘They use polystyrene trays now.’
‘Do you remember what you had?’
‘What, back then? I don’t know. Pie and chips?’
‘Scampi. You had scampi. I didn’t even know what scampi was.’
‘I remember. I’d never had it before but it sounded sophisticated and I wanted to impress you.’
‘Well, you succeeded. It was expensive though. I had to have a rissole because I couldn’t afford anything else.’
‘You should have said.’
A waitress walked past carrying two plates, one of fish and chips and another of pie, mushy peas and chips. She put them in front of two of the Japanese party.
‘I wonder what he’ll make of mushy peas.’
Hywel glanced around, following my gaze.
‘Probably think they’re some exotic vegetable.’
He reached out and took my hand.
‘They’ve been fifteen good years.’
He dropped my hand and sat back expectantly as he spotted the waitress bringing our order. He splashed vinegar on his fish and sprinkled salt lavishly over his chips.
‘I wish you wouldn’t do that; too much salt isn’t good for you.’
Hywel was sceptical. ‘Huh, that’s what they say this week; next week it’ll be “eat more salt”.’
He tucked in enthusiastically. I stuck my fork in my chicken and watched the golden fat ooze out. I lifted the edge of the almost crisp skin and pulled it aside.
One of the Japanese had speared a piece of cod in batter and was turning the fork around in front of his face. He eventually popped the fish in his mouth. It must have tasted good because he nodded, said something to his neighbour and continued to eat.
‘It must be very different for them,’ I said.
‘Those Japanese. They eat their fish raw, don’t they?’
‘Wouldn’t surprise me.’
‘If they open a factory here, there’ll be lots of new jobs. I thought I might apply for one.’
‘What do you want to work in a factory for?’
‘I didn’t mean in the factory, but they’re bound to want office staff, personnel, people like that.’
‘They’d want computer literate staff and, anyway, you’ve got a job already.’
‘Working part-time as a dentist’s receptionist isn’t very challenging.’
‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, that’s what I say. We’re managing fine as it is.’
‘I thought I might do a course anyway.’
‘We’ll see. Excuse me,’ he caught the waitress’s attention, ‘could I have some more bread and butter, please?’
Through the bamboo partition separating the restaurant and take-away, a gang of boys was making slitty-eyed faces at the visitors. One of the hosts, an ex-prop forward by the look of him, spotted them. With a coal-face he excused himself from the table, collared the boys and manhandled them out of the chip shop. One of the other hosts, to divert attention I suppose, suddenly launched into an impromptu rendering of Bread of Heaven. His startled audience gave him a polite round of applause when he finished. I think he would have started on Land of My Fathers if his fellow Trader hadn’t returned and scowled at him.
‘I don’t think it’s funny,’ Hywel’s voice was peevish.
‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’
‘You seemed to find it amusing when I said that Roger from Accounts insists on using the paper from the bottom of the pile.’
‘I wasn’t laughing at you, it was something else.’
‘It’s not that time of the month again, is it? You’re very distant tonight.’
‘Am I?’
‘I don’t think you’ve been listening to anything I’ve said.’
I looked at him. With his neatly flicked back hair and rosy cheeks, he would have passed for an earnest TV evangelist.
‘Things have changed, Hywel.’ I paused, watching him, wondering how to say it.
He pushed his few remaining chips around with his fork, wiping his plate clean of tomato sauce. ‘Not these chips. They’re still the best in town.’

Two weeks later, the Western Mail reported that the new Matsushito electronics factory was to be built in Newcastle.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Over the sea

The man had borrowed the truck from his neighbour who used it to take vegetables to market. His neighbour had washed it for him. ‘You’ll want it clean for today,’ he’d said.
The man drove to the girl’s house. She was waiting outside. She called out, ‘I’m going now,’ before she climbed into the passenger seat. A woman in a widows-black dress came to the door and watched the truck drive off.
In the truck the man said, ‘You okay?’
The girl nodded, not looking at him.
‘You don’t have to come, you know. You could wait at home with your grandmother.’
‘I want to come.’
They drove in silence. It was fifteen miles to the airport and the roads were rough and dusty. The last part of their journey took them down the hill overlooking the airport.
‘I remember the last time I came here,’ the girl said. ‘I thought things were going to be different then.’
The man glanced across at her and nodded. There were two cars in the car park. He pulled the truck in alongside. He got out, walked round to the passenger door and opened it. The girl stared straight ahead. He held out his hand. Without looking at him, she climbed out of the truck. Together they walked into the main airport building. It was a large rectangular room with windows on three sides. On the fourth side were an office, toilets, a vending machine and posters listing forbidden goods and the penalties for smuggling. A mongrel was sleeping in one corner; in another a fan whirred constantly.
The man said, ‘Wait here.’ He went and knocked on the frosted glass door of the office. An airport official in his shirt sleeves opened the door.
‘Just to let you know, we’re here,’ the man said.
The official nodded. He looked over the man’s shoulder.
‘Is she all right?’ he asked.
‘She’ll be okay. I’ll look after her.’
The official nodded again. ‘A bad business.’
‘Yes. When will the plane arrive? Is it going to be on time?’
‘Soon, the plane will arrive soon. I’ll tell you when it’s coming.’
He went back into his office and closed the door.
The man stood outside the office for a moment. He clenched his fists then walked back to the girl who was standing staring out of the window.
‘When I was little I thought there was no other world but this,’ she said. She looked at him. ‘Have you seen all the world?’
‘No, I’ve seen a lot of it but there’s much more I want to see before ...’
He stopped.
‘Before you die?’ the girl said.
‘It’s only a saying.’
‘I know.’
The girl turned away. ‘Let’s sit,’ she said. She indicated a row of hard red plastic chairs. She sat upright, her hands in her lap. The man sat a seat away from her. He slouched and drummed his fingers on the chair next to him. He sat up again, ‘What is it with your people? Why can’t they answer simple questions? Why can’t he tell me if the plane’s going to be on time?’
She shrugged, ‘It’ll arrive when it gets here.’ She leaned back against her chair.
He stood up, paced across to the window and back. She watched him.
‘You should be used to our ways by now, ‘she said.
He sat down again and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.
‘Your mother always kept me waiting,’ he said. ‘She couldn’t understand why it made me mad.’
‘But you waited anyway.’
He sat back in his chair. They were silent then the girl said, ‘I should have gone with her.’
The man looked at her. He leaned across, placed his hand on hers and squeezed it. ‘You know she didn’t want that, she wanted you at home with your grandmother.’
The girl moved her hand away. ‘Then you should have gone.’
He stared ahead again. ‘I wanted to but she asked me to stay here with you.’
‘She shouldn’t have gone.’
‘She thought there was a chance.’
‘Was there?’
He shrugged. ‘They said there was.’
He stood up again and walked to the window. The dog in the corner yawned. He sniffed the air, got up, stretched and walked across to the girl. She bent to stroke him.
The official came out of his office. ‘Twenty minutes,’ he said. ‘The plane will arrive. It was on my radio.’
‘Thank you,’ the man said.
The official raised his hands, ‘That’s okay.’ He went back into his office.
‘Did you hear what he said?’
The girl nodded.
‘Have you eaten?’
She shook her head.
The man went to the vending machine. He dug in his pocket for change. He fed coins into the machine and returned with a can of Coke and two chocolate bars. He gave one of the bars to the girl.
She took the chocolate from him and tore open the wrapping. She broke off two chunks. She ate one and gave one to the dog who gulped it down and then sat looking up at her expectantly. She stroked his head, before saying something.
‘What did you say?’
The girl looked up. ‘I said did you love my mother.’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think you made her happy. My grandmother said my mother forgot how to laugh after my father died. You made her laugh again.’
‘She had an infectious laugh,’ he smiled. ‘You have the same laugh.’
The girl bent over the dog again, gave it another chunk of chocolate. The man watched her. ‘You’re very like her in lots of ways,’ he said.
A tear fell onto the dog’s tangled coat. There was silence for a few moments before the man spoke again. ‘Yes,’ he said. The girl raised her head. ‘The answer to your question,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think I ever told her.’
The girl wiped her cheeks with her fingers and sniffed. For a moment they considered each other. Then she bent her head over the dog again.
The man walked to the window. He looked at his watch. ‘We should be able to see the plane soon.’
The sky over the sea was bright and clear. Aeroplanes, when they came, flew in to the runway like albatrosses.
The girl went to join the man. The dog followed her. She gave it the rest of the chocolate.
‘My grandfather used to tell me stories about the sea,’ she said. ‘My mother said that one day I would cross the sea for myself.’
They heard the noise of an engine.
‘Is that the plane?’ the girl peered into the sky. The man shook his head, ‘It’s the car outside, look.’ He pointed through the other window. A long black car had pulled into the car park. Four men in dark suits got out. Three of them leaned against the car. One took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and offered them around. The fourth made his way to the waiting room. When he saw the man and the girl he took off his hat and nodded. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead.
‘The plane’s not here yet?’ he asked.
‘No.’ The man looked at his watch. ‘Another five minutes maybe. We should be able to see it soon.’
‘Well, we’re out there when it arrives.’
‘You know what to do?’
He went and joined the others outside. The girl went back to staring at the sky. The dog nuzzled her hand.
‘I don’t have any more, I’m sorry,’ she said. She bent over and scratched his ear. The airport official came out of his office. He had straightened his tie and put on his jacket.
‘The plane is almost here,’ he said, pointing to the sky. The man and the girl both turned to look.
‘When it lands,’ he continued, ‘I will do what has to be done and then signal you to come out.’
‘Thank you,’ the man said.
They watched the plane land and the official hurry over. The men in the car park had put out their cigarettes and were standing ready. They had opened the back of the car.
The girl turned away from the window.
‘Will you go back to England after the funeral?’ she asked.
‘Not yet. One day maybe. Or I’ll go somewhere else. You could come with me if you wanted.’
She shrugged. ‘Maybe.’
‘He’s calling us out. Are you ready for this?’
She nodded. She put her hand into his and they walked silently into the suffocating heat.