Saturday, 14 January 2012

Fish Cakes

“Is that a cod fish cake?” The old woman standing next to me in the chip shop wants to know. “I dunno, love,” says the Turkish lady behind the counter, “we buy them in, innit.” She turns to her husband, busy shovelling chips into slit paper bags, and flicks her head towards the sorry article, “It's cod, is it?” He shrugs, “mix, probably”. There’s a pause. The old lady looks undecided.

I’m tempted to try and talk her out of it for so many reasons, not least because the food in question is bright orange and limp and looks like it’s been lying under glass and a glowing hot lamp for a very long time. I’m about to say, in the spirit of friendly small talk, that of course we shouldn’t really be eating cod, but then I remember the last time I said that in the chippie and the nice Turkish lady had looked taken aback. Why not? she demanded. Well, she owns a fish and chip shop, I thought, surely she knows about dwindling fish stocks. “You know, because it’s running out...” “Oh no dear," she answered emphatically, “don’t worry, there’s always plenty come in when I order it.”

So now we stick to talking about our children. You could say we’ve bonded over the subject. She tells me about her feckless, lazy daughter, still living at home at 25, “but this is the Turkish way, dear.” And I tell her, every time, that I have three sons and every single time she gives the same response (I think that’s why I tell her): a sharp intake of breath with a smile and a shake of the head. In fact, now I think about it, I get that sort of response a lot: raised eyebrows, low whistles, slow head shakes. “Hard work!” “You’ve got your hands full, then!” And usually I go along with it. “Yes!” I might add, “I don’t know what I did wrong in a previous life!” When really I’m pleased as punch that I have three boys. I adore them. I’m so proud. I don’t think my life is particularly hard - not anymore. So why do I do that? It’s just the role I’m meant to play, I guess.

So here I am playing my usual role in the fish and chip shop on this dark, cold January evening and the Turkish chippie-lady smiles and laughs as I talk about exam revision and how Eldest didn’t do any for his mocks (not quite true), and she chips in (excuse the pun), telling me that her son can’t do anything for himself and he’s 19 now. We're both playing our parts I suppose, to pass the time, as you do, until the old lady who I had forgotten about for a minute there, suddenly makes up her mind. “Well so long as it isn’t whale or shark or something, I’ll have it,” and I turn to look at her.

She is small, much smaller than me, only coming up to my shoulder, and she obviously doesn’t have much money because she’s wearing an old cream anorak with a tatty shopping bag clutched, anxiously, to her body and this fish cake decision is a big deal. Her face is framed with curly white hair, slightly messy, and she has a sharp chin and a smatter of lipstick and bright, sad little eyes. So I smile at her and turn back to the Turkish lady to I carry on where we left off, as salt and vinegar is added rather too liberally to my order and then hurriedly I scoop up the warm, plastic bag from the counter, full of fish and chips for Husband and three boys waiting back home, and turning to the old lady I say, brightly, “Enjoy your fish cake,” and suddenly she grabs my arm. “You shouldn’t moan about them, you know,” she says, those bright, sad little eyes fixed intently on mine. “I lost my only one in 2004 and there’s nothing worse in the whole world than losing your child.”

“I’m so sorry,” I stammer, “I…no, I mustn’t, you’re so right, ” and she shakes her head, relaxing her grip. “No, you shouldn’t moan about them…” she repeats quietly to herself and I have to get out of the chip shop as fast as I can because I think I’m going to cry.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Let the train take the strain

We’ve had a fabulous Christmas with my parents in York and now it’s time to go home. Coming up on the train on Christmas Eve was a pleasure: an almost empty concourse at Kings Cross, a quiet carriage sparsely populated with cosy little family groups all smiling benignly, but now it occurs to me that the journey back might not be so relaxing, especially when I read in the paper that Tuesday will be the busiest day by far – and we’re travelling on Tuesday.

I thought I was so clever having Amazon deliver the presents up north but of course there’s no delivery service to get them back… only us. I spend a couple of fraught hours packing, shouting up and down the stairs to boys and Husband as I remove gifts from packaging before crushing and bending them into the enormous suitcase - and still there's Middle One’s telescope to contend with, its huge cardboard box looming in the hallway, taller and wider than Youngest, and Eldest’s full size acoustic guitar in its new hard case…

Approaching York station we get the first whiff of trouble: traffic backed up so far we can’t turn off the road. We consider jumping out in the middle but judge it too dangerous, what with luggage to wrestle out of the boot and three children. So we spend precious, sweaty minutes watching the hands on the elegant Victorian clock face make their slow but inevitable progress until finally mother squeezes the car through a gap and we jump out. The train leaves in four minutes.

We throw everything on the pavement: bulging suitcase, enormous telescope box, guitar, family rucksack full of packed lunch, three more rucksacks, one for each child, Penguin suitcase Youngest takes everywhere with us, my handbag, and the children of course. Youngest removed his shoes in the back of the car so more valuable minutes are wasted as he fumbles to get them back on.

We run for the train, trailing children and grandparents behind us and this is when the horror hits: it’s already there by the platform, like a black and bloated corpse, its entrails hoards of people spewing from every orifice. Great. As we run husband spots a luggage carriage with doors open and flings the gargantuan suitcase and telescope box into it. “They’re not labeled!” I shout and now we’re committed: we have to get this train. The whistle blows. My heart pounds. Middle One and Youngest search our faces for reassurance - and find none.

Desperately and inelegantly we push our way on, Eldest holding the guitar case above his head, me wedging Youngest with Penguin suitcase and bag out in front like barricades. We have reservations but when we finally inch our way to them (ten minutes out of the station) other travellers are sitting there (of course). Thankfully when politely challenged they move without a fight and we flop down, hot, trembling and exhausted. Less fortunate passengers, clutching small animals and bags and cases and rucksacks, tower above and around us like brooding sentinels.

After a few minutes I pull out the packed lunch and that’s when I remember the beer - I grabbed a bottle from my parent’s fridge at the last minute. “Do you have that bottle opener you got in your Christmas cracker by any chance?” I ask Eldest. He pulls it from his rucksack with a flourish. Thank God.