Pete’s Plaice had definitely seen better days. The only thing still there to remind customers about the good old days was the old “Fish and Chips. Britain’s national dish” poster they had left up on the wall. It had a cheerful haddock on it, waving a Union Jack, surrounded by a group of smiling chips. All the same, the shop did have its regulars. Connie made sure that the ones who came in every week got an extra half fish, and they still used beef dripping and put decent vinegar on the counter, and free Heinz ketchup. Nobody else did. The regulars kept coming, and somehow Pete’s Plaice kept going. The regulars liked Connie. A long time ago, when she first arrived at the shop, they had decided that she was all right. That was how things were done on the Yorkshire coast. The job had started as a part time stop gap, to ease her back into work when her daughter Kelly had started school, but somehow she had never left. She had made plans once, but after a while it seemed easier to stay as she was. It had only been Pete’s Plaice for three months. It had been Huntley’s before that, and way back when she was growing up it had been the Sea’s Pantry. They used to open up the restaurant at the back then, the two rooms they only used for storage now, and sometimes when Connie went into the back and looked at what was left of the old wallpaper she felt as if she was in there waiting for her mum and dad to catch her up and tell her to sit down and behave. She was still a bit puzzled by the new boss. Everybody was. Especially Gina. Connie got fed up of her talking about him all the time when they were doing a shift together. Gina thought he was lovely.
“He’s got this Heathcliff vibe going on,” she’d said to Connie one day when things were slack and he’d gone up to his flat.
“Can’t see it myself,” Connie told her, untruthfully.
“You’ve no taste you,” Gina had laughed. “I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.”
There wouldn’t be any talk like that on this shift, no laughs. Young Jessie was dark haired, stick thin and she did more attitude than talking. They drank their coffee in silence, watching the flickering portable television high up in the corner of the shop. It was a show where people were buying a new home in the sun, helped by two presenters who spent most of the time making gooey eyes at each other. It was on several times a week during Jessie’s shifts, and she could recite a lot of the script along with them. Nobody ever seemed to buy any of the houses they looked at, and it was the same today. Connie shook her head in disgust.
“Duncan and Selina are still hunting for their dream home in the sun. Gormless numpties. I tell you what; if I had an opportunity like that I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Jessie gave a heavy sigh and stared at her nails. She knew what was coming.
“Most people born here can’t wait to get out. There’s nothing for the kids, no jobs, unless you want seasonal work. The fishing’s pretty much dead now, apart from a bit of crab and lobster potting. It’s dead. There’s no wonder they end up making trouble for themselves, nicking from the pound shops and setting fire to deckchairs. Somebody was mugged in broad daylight the other week. It’s coming to something when you’re not safe walking the streets in broad daylight.”
Connie could see that Jessie wasn’t impressed.
“I’m not exaggerating. Somebody did get mugged.”
“You get that sort of thing, wherever you are. It’s safe enough round here. You ever lived anywhere else?”
Connie shook her head.
“Ever been mugged?”
“Think yourself lucky.”
“It’s nowt to laugh at.”
“There are worse places.”
Jessie wished Connie would shut up. If she thought it was that bad she should have gone long since- not stopped there moaning behind the same chip shop counter for twenty years.
“I suppose there are.”
“I’m not stopping here myself, mind you.”
“Are you not?”
Connie didn’t bother to hide her scepticism.
“Where would you go then?”
There was a long silence. Jessie really wanted to slap Connie down, stupid old bat, but she had a point really. Where would she go? Her fantasies, such as they were, mostly revolved around going away from things, rather than going towards them. She could easily give Connie a long list of what she wanted to get away from. Her dad’s moods, the dark nights in winter, the smell of chips, the damp stain on the ceiling in the corner of the bedroom, just about everything in fact. Where she would go to was a lot harder to work out. She stared down into her coffee, knowing that Connie was watching her, and waiting. She wondered how she had managed to end up staying here for her whole life if she hated it so much.
“Dunno. Down south maybe.”
Jessie knew she wasn’t stupid. She could do better. She didn’t want to be standing about here, still frying fish in twenty years, wondering where her life had gone. She couldn’t blame everything on her dad. Just some of it, maybe. Bloody X factor. Bloody sob stories. Bloody dreams. Bloody journeys. You can do anything you want to do, biggest lie going that was. It was all fixed. She didn’t mind the shop. There was something about fish frying that got under your skin, and it wasn’t just the smell of chip fat. Jessie’s favourite job at the shop was making the batter. She enjoyed making up the soft pale liquid to exactly the right thickness so that it would spread over the fish in an even creamy coat when she dipped the fillets of cod and haddock in. It was satisfying, just a small job that she could do to perfection without anybody interfering. She had learned how to swing the fish over the hot fat and drop it in close to the surface, letting her hand pull back at the last minute. Just a few pieces of fish at a time. No targets, and no performance reviews- not like college. She sometimes wished she hadn’t packed in college but times like that made her glad she had. She could always go back.
The bell over the door rang and Jack Perriman walked into the shop with his chin up, ready to stare Jessie down. Connie had seen him coming. Those two had history. She knew better than to ask why he was in here buying chips. He’d come to see Jessie. Jessie glared at him.
“All right Jess?”
“Now Jack. What can I get you?”
“Dunno. Chips I suppose. Two lots.”
“What’s got into you then?”
Connie watched as Jessie filled up the trays with more chips than usual.
He waited for the plastic trays to be filled, holding out his money, staring silently. Connie watched Jessie serve him, smiling to herself and shaking her head.
He didn’t hear the slightly pathetic mutter as the door clicked shut behind him.
Connie wagged a finger in Jessie’s face.
“Oi you- that was a customer.”
Jessie’s eyes flashed, making the most of the dark eye-liner that surrounded them.
“He’s a twat.”
“He fancies you.”
“Don’t embarrass yourself.”
“Yeah he does.”
Connie nodded towards the door.
“Go on, go after him. He didn’t buy two trays for nowt. You know damn well where he’ll have gone to eat them.”
“Go on- Pete’ll never know. He’ll be watching the footie by now and we’re not busy. I’ll say you felt poorly.”
Jessie was out of the door like a shot.
Jack was in the park, leaning against one of the shelters. He was on his own. An empty plastic tray was already on the ground next to him. He could see Jessie coming towards him and she wasn’t sure what to do about it. She couldn’t back out now. He was on his own. She tried to think of things to say to him but she honestly couldn’t think of any. She’d hardly seen him lately, not even with Jenna. He didn’t look very happy.
Jessie looked down at the ground.
“All right Jack.”
There was no reply, but when she looked up again he was still standing there. What was his problem?
“You want something then?”
He actually looked a bit uncomfortable. That was a result at least. At least it made a change from him looking as if he was doing her a favour by being there.
“What were you doing in Pete’s?”
“Very funny. Well?”
“Just wondered how you were and that.”
Jessie looked him up and down suspiciously.
“What brought that on then?”
He might be well fit, but she wasn’t going to let him walk all over her twice. Or at least, she hoped not. Let him stew a bit. He looked away. Jessie wondered if he thought that looked cool. If he did think that he was wrong. He was only managing to look shifty.
“Just wondered, that were all. What have you been up to?”
Jessie bit her lip to stop herself grinning at him. She had forgotten how exciting he could be. If that was his idea of conversation then the beach donkeys could teach him a thing or two. It was a bit weird that Jenna wasn’t there, tagging along with him. She decided it might be fun to ask after her.
He stuck his hands in his jeans pockets and shrugged.
Jessie’s heart lurched.
“Oh, right. She get fed up of you then?”
“Dunno. She just said I were dumped like. Didn’t say why.”
He did look pretty hacked off, but then he would, wouldn’t he? Jessie felt like putting her arms round him, but if that was going to happen she wanted him to suffer first.
“Well I know exactly what that’s like. Don’t I?”
“All right. Don’t go on.”
Jessie wondered what Jack was expecting to happen. Did he think all he had to do was hang around for a bit and he’d be able to go back out with her? Until something better came along? As if.
“You all right, anyway? Should have seen it coming shouldn’t you? Jenna Maxwell’s a right flighty cow. You knew that.”
Jessie smiled. Yes, he would live. He wasn’t the sort to hang about moping for long. Not with those eyes. There would always be somebody after him.
“Fancy some chips?”
He held out the tray glumly and she picked one out. They wandered across the gardens to the town centre. Jessie wondered whether she should say something.
“What are you going to do when you finish college then?”
“Work in my dad’s garage or summat. He says I can have space for my bike. I’m saving up for a new Kawasaki next year.”
“Not going to uni then?”
“No point is there? Do my NVQ in car mechanics and motor maintenance. That’s all I’ll need. Work for my dad, maybe take over eventually.”
“You’ll be stopping here then.”
The way that he said it made it obvious to Jessie that Jack had no intention of going anywhere. His little life was all mapped out in front of him, and he would plod his way through it, picking up a wife and kids along the way, without bothering too much about anything really. That was the thing about people like him. When life came easily to you it was sometimes too tempting to accept what was on offer, without wondering what else there was out there. Somebody like him could do a lot better, but she doubted whether he ever would. So long as he had his Sky+, his mates, his cars, and enough money to afford to go down to the gym on Saturday mornings he would be happy. Or at least he would think he was.
“I can’t believe you’re stopping here.”
“No chance. Dunno what I’m going to do yet, but it won’t be here. Not wasting my life, thanks very much.”
“What are you going to do then?”
“Work with animals. Donkey sanctuary or somewhere like that.”
There was a long silence. She waited for the inevitable comment, but it didn’t come.
“Doesn’t sound like much of a laugh to me.”
“No, well it wouldn’t would it. Anyway, there’s more to life than having a laugh.”
“I don’t know. It helps.”
Jessie was amazed when Jack offered to buy her some chips of her own. She stood outside, looking in the charity shop window, far enough away from Pete’s Plaice to be sure that Connie wouldn’t be able to see her.
“Put some salt and vinegar on for me, will you?”
It was hard to tell whether Jack still fancied her, or whether he was just fed up with himself, and going for the easy option. She supposed she had as long as it took to eat a tray of chips to make her mind up which it was. He was definitely fit, there was no doubt about it. When he looked at her it still made her feel very odd, and he had a way of moving that she couldn’t help watching. Having a bit of fun and getting one up on Jenna couldn’t do any harm, surely? At any rate she was getting a free tray of chips, and that had to be a result. He’d even remembered the salt and vinegar.
“No probs. Fancy going down the boat landing?”
Jessie nodded. What he really meant was, do you fancy going down to the arcade. She wondered if he would be hoping that Jenna was there.
She was. It was pretty quiet in there and they both saw her straight away. She was wearing her skinny jeans again and a tiny black top, and she was standing very close to Dean Benson. Neither of them said it, but both of them stood there thinking she looked good. Very good. It was sickening. She touched his arm.
He nodded, and she felt herself being pulled round behind one of the large games consoles.
“Get off me.”
“Sorry. Needed to get out of the way.”
His hand was on her hair, and she could feel his breath.
“Stop it Jack- not here.”
He pulled away reluctantly and stood there, looking at her.
“I still fancy you.”
Her face glowed. She had spent several months waiting to hear him say that.
“Only because you can’t get Jenna.”
“Could if I wanted.”
“In your dreams, Perriman. You’ve been dumped- get used to it.”
“You know you still like me. Admit it.”
Of course Jack was right, Jessie did still like him. He stood, with his hands on his hips and his head tilted, waiting confidently for her to say so. It wasn’t going to happen. Jessie had learned the hard way, and she just stared him out.
“You’re not all that.”
“I never said I was. Still think you like me.”
“What if I did, anyway? Doesn’t mean I’d be stupid enough to get back with you.”
He pulled her towards him and slipped his arms around her back. She tried to struggle, but had to give in and accept that he was going to kiss her. As he did, even his clumsy effort made her loosen and melt into him. God, this was nice. At the same time, as he was pulling her closer to him, a small part of Jessie was hoping that Jenna might be watching. This was class this was.
He broke away and looked at her, beaming.
She rearranged her hair behind her ears and pulled her top straight.
“You’ll get us kicked out of here if you’re not careful.”
He slipped his hand into the back pocket of her jeans.
“We could always go somewhere else.”
Jessie stood there uncertainly. She liked the possessive way he had his hand on her bum. It made her feel safe.
“Come on, you know you want to.”
Jessie knew where he would suggest going. She had been down in the far shelter in the park plenty of times with him and she also knew what he would want when he got there. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go with him. She did. She had come very close to giving in to him before he went after Jenna. She wanted him badly, and she wanted to get the whole having sex for the first time thing over with as well, but something about it still didn’t seem right. There would be a better time, and a better place, and “come on, you know you want to” was a bit of a turn off, if she was honest. Surely he could come up with a bit better chat up line than that?
Quite suddenly she knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t frying chips or changing nappies for the children of a greasy motor mechanic with only holidays in a cheap hotel in Spain to look forward to. That might be good enough for Jenna Maxwell but it wasn’t good enough for her. She stood back and looked at him in disappointment.
“Jack, get a life please. You’re a total waste of space.”
He watched her sashay out of the arcade with his mouth open, and the beginnings of a sneaking admiration. Jessie Pattison was on her way.