‘Plaice and chips,’
I’ve been working in Big Fred’s Chippy for four months now. I did a degree in Media Studies with the promise of a glamorous job, something in advertising offering perks like free foreign travel and infinite invites to exclusive parties. I stopped counting how many job applications I made after seventy rejections. I needed some money. I wanted to buy clothes and make-up, I wanted to go out with my friends and have a holiday in Turkey. I was fed up with mum’s nagging and dad’s sarky comments. The notice in the shop window said, ‘Assistant required, must have a sense of humour, apply within,’. It looked like it had been written in crayon by a child of ten, but desperation had set in. Four days later, after a brief chat with Fred who seemed more interested in my cleavage than what I’d got to say, I started the job.
‘Two jumbo sausage, a couple of pickled eggs and two cans of Coke’
I go home stinking of grease, of rancid oil that’s been used for too long. I dreamt of working in a glass office, with complimentary bottled water, coffees from a Nespresso machine and free use of a gym in the basement. Somewhere in the middle of London, close to Oxford Street for lunchtime shopping and drinks after work in Soho.
‘Give me two portions of chicken nuggets and a couple of cans of Fanta’
I’d take the tube or bus to work with other commuters. I’d go to meetings and give presentations. I’d have appraisals and the promise of promotion
‘One Cod Roe and two fishcakes with chips’
I’d pictured living in a shared house, in Hoxton or Hackney, with other media types. It would have grey walls, stylish furniture and funky paintings dotted around the place. We’d be part of the local arty scene. We’d cook vegetable spaghetti, go to cocktail parties and drink macchiatos in hipster cafes. I’m stuck at home, sleeping in my childhood bedroom listening to my brother’s dubious phone calls on the other side of the wall. Sleeping under a faded flowery duvet cover that was bought in the sale at British Home Stores before it closed down. Lying in bed staring at the yellowing Japanese paper lampshade and walls covered with traces of Blu Tack. The remnants of torn down posters of Little Mix.
‘Haddock, chips and mushy peas and a can of Sprite.’
I imagined work colleagues, like me; in their early twenties, into social media and looking good. Experts at self-appraising and editing selfies and posting witty tweets. I’d have a wardrobe assembled from an eclectic mix of clothes; vintage, homemade and the odd designer piece. I wear a turquoise nylon overall here and a plastic food safety hairnet. No make-up is allowed. It would melt in the heat anyway. I look like a sexless frump. I work with Vera. She’s worked here since leaving school. She couldn’t care one iota about her appearance. She wears thick stockings, cable knit cardies and polyester trousers. Her life revolves around the soaps on TV, that’s all she talks about. She’s got an antique pay-as-you-go phone, she’s never used the camera.
‘Four meat pies. Don’t be mean with the gravy’
The pies look like they’re made of white play-dough. Soggy bottoms guaranteed. They smell like dog food. I have to remove them from their packaging, the writing on the box says ‘EU sourced meat from different animals,’. The gravy is from a packet, I have to make it. I stir powder into water, it’s boiled in a large saucepan and kept tepid in a bain-marie. ‘Don’t worry about the lumps, the punters like them’, Fred told me.
‘Three scampi and two pickled onions’
It took me a month to perfect the art of holding my breath long enough to remove a pickled onion from the large jar on the counter. I can’t bear the smell. I dropped one once on the floor, it splattered everywhere. I thought they were meant to be crunchy.
‘Two cod and one portion of chips’
Fred buys the potatoes in sacks, a machine peels and cuts them into fries leaving any black spots to be deep-fried.
‘Saveloy and chips and a bottle of Pepsi’
The bright red sausage looks obscene, how could anyone eat such a thing. ‘One spam fritter and cheesy chips’
The spam comes out of a large tin. Fred insists only he can slice it up. Portion control he calls it. Meanness I say. The fritters contain mostly batter; they ooze grease.
‘Large chips with curry sauce.’
The curry sauce is made from concentrate. Poured from large plastic jars Fred buys from the Cash and Carry. It’s got a lurid yellow colour and smells of chemicals, the kind you might use to clean the toilet.
‘You sell kebabs?’
‘Do we look like a kebab shop?’ I want to say but smile and murmur no. We’re not allowed to mention Ali’s Kebabs down the road.
I long to scream at the customers; these greedy people with no manners. The words please or thank you aren’t in their vocabulary. It’s worse after ten o’clock when people have had a drink when they’re all tanked up and ready for some fat. People think I’m nobody because I work in a chip shop. I can’t bear this job, I will things to change. I’m not religious, but last week I snuck into the catholic church near the market and prayed. Please don’t let me be left here to rot away, please let me get a job in London, please let me get a job in the media.
I can see Mr Lemmings from my old school outside the shop. He taught me drama. His hair needs a cut, his beard has started to grey and he’s got new glasses. He was the one who encouraged me to go to university.
‘Hello Shona’ he says, ‘I didn’t expect to see you here’
Inside I’m growling, but I grin.
‘Just a stop-gap,’
I feel like I’ve told him a lie because I’m beginning to believe I’ll never escape this place. Robbed of a dream. Hope stolen.
‘What can I get you?’ I ask
‘Fish and chips,’
I study him, I register that look of impatience I see all the time. He’s thinking ‘come on get my food; now, make it quick.’ He’s the same as all the other punters, judging me by the job I do rather than the person I am and he’s no manners like the rest of them.
‘What’s the magic word? I’ll give you a clue it starts with a P,’ I say.
I’m pleased with myself for having the courage to fight back.
‘Plaice, plaice and chips.’
He pretends to smile as he says it.