Fish and Chip restaurants are not cool. There will be no hoodies in here, no hen parties, no wine on the tables. They are the home of the nice cardie, the waterproof anorak and the sensible shoe. Hair is worn grey and short, if at all. I’m early and it isn’t busy, the waitress on the front desk still has time to have the local paper open at the crossword page and I can choose my own table. The banquette seats and stone topped tables separated by stained glass topped partitions are steadily filling up with the kind of people who are rarely worth advertising to. They know what they like and what they like is a nice dinner eaten somewhere warm and fairly quiet with friendly waitresses, strong tea and portions that don’t over-face you.
Paying too much is frowned upon and the tables have stand up cards reassuring you that you are getting good value. Lunch time special: a medium haddock and chips with tea or coffee and bread and butter for £7-25. The tea time special is exactly the same with a smaller haddock for a pound less. You can get cheaper fish and chips but the ones in here are good and Northerners can always be relied upon to sniff out the best fish and chips. Especially these northerners. They have spent a lifetime eating them before anyone round here heard of fresh pasta or balsamic vinegar. Anyway you need somewhere warm to have a rest when your legs are aching and it’s mid October, so it’s worth “paying to sit down”. There are framed prints of impossibly posh eighteenth century salons and theatres around the walls to give a touch of luxury. You can put your shopping down and tell yourself you’re having a treat. And they do.
The lady at the little table in front of me is slowly tackling her small portion of fish and chips. She is wearing a nice pale blue cardie and her special white blouse with embroidery down the front. A soft lilac anorak sits on the chair behind her and she eats slowly and carefully like a small delicate mouse. The James bond theme plays in the background.
The bald man in the next row has a shiny face and piercing eyes. His soup arrives and he gives it a careful look.
“Thank you dear.”
The waitress, smart in her black polo shirt and striped apron smiles at him. He likes that.
A man on the other side stares into the pot of tea on his table before carefully pulling out a teabag.
“Bit strong innit.”
Another man with pale watery eyes stares quietly, a teaspoon and napkin held next to his mouth, while he watches his wife eat. His jaw moves slowly along with hers although he is eating nothing.
The lady opposite me and her son have ordered large portions, with mushy peas. They eat steadily but her plateful doesn’t seem to get any smaller even though he has nearly finished. She chews grimly. Cry Me a River plays quietly in the background and she stops eating to search for pound coins in her bag.
“Do you want owt else?”
“No I’m all right.”
She notices my table.
“Have you lost summat on’t floor love?”
One of the pieces of card advertising “award winning fish and chips” is laid under the table. I reach down and pick it up. We smile at each other. She wants everything to be right for everybody.
The man with the shiny face is happy to see his waitress back at his table to take away his soup bowl.
“Hello dear. How are you dear?”
He watches everyone, anxious to speak. He asks her questions, wanting to make her laugh and find things out. She smiles at him with dark sooty eyes and tries hard for a while before she moves off. His napkin is already placed on his knee and he will be equally delighted when his fish and chips arrive.
The lady in the far corner stares out, straight backed and stony faced. She and her husband have said nothing at all to each other so far. Their white bread remains untouched. Perhaps they have said it all over the years and there is nothing more to report. They will go on to eat their entire meal in silence.
The shiny faced man sees his pot of tea which is on the way to him.
“Here’s my pot of tea. Thank you my dear. You are kind.”
The lady who has just sat down opposite may be cheaply dressed- we all are in here- but she has a Harrods notebook. She is anxious about her shopping and wondering whether she has done the right thing. She talks about shoes and shoe sizes while her husband listens blankly and eats all the bread and butter.
The lady in the pale blue cardie has finally finished her tiny lunchtime special. She goes to the counter gripping her bill carefully and searches in her bag for coins. They are patient with her.
The shiny faced man is now tucking into his fish and chips. You can see just from the way he chews that he has opinions about all kinds of things. His wife nods quickly without looking up from her meal when he shoots out a sentence in mid chew. The music swells with emotion. “I just wanna hold you, oh God just let me please, just let me hold you………….”
The silent couple leave. By the time the worried husband has put on his anorak and picked up their brolly his wife has already gone.
When the waitress takes away his empty plate the shiny faced man explains to the waitress about SIR Jimmy Saville. He has mistaken the fact that she really doesn’t want to talk about a sordid subject for ignorance.
“It’s all over the papers.”
She knows it is and she remains silent.
He explains to her exactly what he would like to do to SIR Jimmy Saville if he wasn’t already dead while his wife watches him quietly. The waitress leaves and he digs his spoon into his ice cream happily.
“It’s nice this.”
As I leave a group of ladies who are not quite senior citizens are trooping happily up the stairs. One of them laughs.
“We’ve come for t’pensioners special.”
Her friend looks at her sharply, faking anger.
“Eh! I heard that!”