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.’
‘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.