Dee tapped a slow rhythm on top of the fryer with his chip shovel. Along with the bubbling fat in the fryer, the metallic rhythm of the chip shovel was the only sound in the shop, and it echoed unpleasantly.
‘Can you stop that, Dee?’ asked Harry irritably, without turning around. Harry was one of the many teenagers who worked two days a week in the shop, waiting to finish school so they could fuck off to a proper job. In his five months of working at Dee’s, Harry’s ears had become ultra-sensitive to the sound of the chip shovel.
Dee slowly and deliberately tapped three times more on the counter, before chucking the shovel into the chip basket with a clatter.
‘Didn’t I tell you to wipe them tables,’ he said, ‘instead of standing there doing fuck all?’
‘Already did,’ Harry mumbled, which was lost in the sound of the fryer.
Dee craned his neck towards the door. He thought he’d heard a car pull up outside. There was a long line of cars waiting for the lights at the junction, the stay-laters up at British Telecom queueing to get home, but no-one had turned into the car-park. Sometimes he’d get a couple of suits in around eight, dazed and starving after a long day of spreadsheets, who would swallow some parched haddock that had been sitting behind the glass since opening. Not today.
Any fish and chip shop owner in the country will tell you that Friday and Saturday are the busiest days of the week, for obvious reasons. People coming home from work with the weekend ahead, families off to the beach, children begging Mum for some chips, whatever, Friday and Saturday are the big days. Thursday is the third busiest night of the week, because it’s close to Friday, and you can count on Monday and Tuesday being dead unless there’s a game on. Only Wednesday is the wild card, because it’ll either be rammed and you won’t get out until gone twelve or it’ll be deader than Monday, and there’s no way of predicting it. Dee cycled through the days of the week in his head – it was Thursday. It should be fairly busy, but business had been dropping off to the point where even Fridays were quiet, and he was considering closing on Mondays because they didn’t take in enough to cover the cost of the fryer. The pressures of a failing business were starting to make themselves felt on Dee’s face. His nose had been weathered by the heat of the fryer and the hair on his brows had receded. He tried to isolate one particular person to blame for the slow death of his business, but there were too many people. He was surrounded by them.
A solitary fleck of batter was floating in the fryer, tossed about by the bubbles. He grabbed a scoop and fished it out, stared at it above the basin of fat until the oil slid off in droplets, and threw the scoop and the batter back into the chip basket. He sniffed. Business was slow.
Word was going around town about the new shop in Kesgrave, about how their chips weren’t too soggy and how their servers weren’t surly little bastards. He glared at the back of Harry’s head. Harry was a typical specimen: comfortable family, pushy mother, no common sense or work ethic. Didn’t even know how to mop when he started. All the boys he got to work behind the counter were the same, and yet they were the only servers he could get because no-one else would work for such a low wage. Most of them slid off without telling him after a few months to go work at Waitrose. Easier job, pays double. Couldn’t blame them really.
Harry pushed himself off the fryer and plonked his elbows on the counter. He nearly asked Dee for something to do, but thought better of it: that might involve lugging a sack of potatoes to the chipper, or restocking the fish freezer. Dee watched as Harry absently picked up a paper bag and started drawing on it with a biro. The chip shovel glanced against the fryer with a bang.
‘Those bags are for customers, not for you to draw on!’ he yelled. ‘That’s coming out of your wages, boy!’
Harry scrunched up the bag and tossed it in the direction of the bin.
‘Well I’ve got nothing better to do, I did those tables like you told me,’ he said sullenly. Dee went pink and levelled the chip shovel at Harry.
‘You want something to do? I’ll give you something to do, there’s boxes of cod out the back that need putting away in the freezer. I’m not paying you to draw on my fucking chip bags! Get on!’
Harry regretted opening his mouth, and shuffled towards the kitchen to find the cod. If you wanted to go anywhere in the shop, you had to shuffle, since there were often slick patches of vegetable oil on the floor which could send you arse over tit if you walked normally. Harry learned that pretty quickly, after knocking a huge jar of pickled onions off the counter on his first shift. He carefully manoeuvred himself past Dee and through the back door to the kitchen.
Dee slammed the door behind him and the shop was quiet again. A large fly was bouncing off the ceiling, near the blue neon fly-killer on the wall. He had begrudgingly bought the device after several complaints about the number of flies in the shop, and had put it up near the Coke machine where they congregated. Though he initially resented having to pay for it, watching the fly-killer had become a welcome distraction when business was slow. If an insect flies through the grill and lands on one of the neon blue bars it gets zapped with 30 watts of electricity, with a satisfying bang that can be heard even above the noise of a full fryer. There was a growing pile of scorched moths on top of the Coke machine that could be seen from the back wall of the shop, and Dee enjoyed watching it grow larger. He put his scoop down to watch the fly circle nearer and nearer to the zapper. It landed on the metal grill and rested there. Dee urged it inside. Go on, he thought, with bated breath. Suddenly the front door opened with a ring, and the fly flew off towards the ceiling.
‘Harry!’ Dee yelled over his shoulder, ‘Service!’ He ignored the customer who had just saved the fly.
Harry slid through the door and to the counter.
‘Hello,’ said the woman, offering Harry a smile which tried to say – it’s been a long day for both of us, hasn’t it?
‘What would you like?’ Harry replied.
The woman wasn’t prepared for such a response.
‘Oh. Um. Well I’ll have two portions of large chips, and something quick, I’m in a rush. What’ve you got that I can take right away?’
‘Battered sausage, medium cod, chicken pie,’ Harry listed. A pause.
‘Oh-kay,’ she said, ‘in that case, I’ll take the cod and the pie, please.’ She tried another smile.
Harry swivelled around and grabbed a chip shovel, spinning it around in his hand like a tennis racket. With a lot of clanging and scraping, he transferred a mountain of chips onto a roll of paper on the counter. With a practiced hand he wrapped the chips into a tight parcel, and threw the parcels into a large brown bag. He did the same with the cod and the pie, and pushed the bag towards the woman.
‘That’s eight pound thirty, please.’
The woman opened her purse. ‘Is there vinegar on the chips?’ she asked.
‘No,’ said Harry. You know there isn’t, he thought.
‘Well… would you mind putting some on?’ she asked as she put a ten-pound note on the counter.
With great restraint Harry emptied the bag, unwrapped the parcels and doused the chips in vinegar. ‘Salt?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she replied as Harry re-wrapped the soaking clump of chips.
The parcels were returned to the bag, which darkened at the bottom. Without a word the customer gingerly took hold of the bag and left. Harry leaned back once more against the counter.
‘That cod done, is it?’ Dee barked from behind the fryer.
Harry sighed, pushed himself off the counter and slid back out, slamming the door behind him.
Dee shuffled over to the till. He opened it and counted the contents. Eight-thirty, he thought, so that’s one-seventy change from a tenner, we had a fifty quid float…
He flicked through the notes and sorted the coins into £1 piles. Calculating on a chip bag, he found that there was no discrepancy. So Harry hadn’t slipped anything into his pocket. One of the boys was stealing from the till, he was reasonably sure, though he hadn’t yet found the culprit. Maybe they were on to him and decided to lay low for a bit. He would keep checking. Lying awake at night after a slow day behind the fryer, he would fantasise about catching one of them in the act, he would curl his toes, feel his fist connect with a pubescent jaw…
The phone rang. Dee looked up. The phone rarely rang. It’s probably someone placing an order, he thought gladly. We could do with a big order tonight.
‘Dee’s Fish and Chips.’
‘Hello there, I’d like to make a complaint, please,’ a man’s voice crackled through the phone. ‘My wife was in earlier, about eight.’
Dee silently prepared himself to tear into Harry when he got off the phone. ‘Right.’
‘She ordered cod, chicken pie and two large chips, do you remember?’
‘I do, yeah.’
‘And when she gets home not only were the chips soaking wet and inedible, they were also covered with grit! They were disgusting. We had to give them to the dog.’
Dee cursed inwardly. ‘I see, well I’m sorry, sir–’
‘Yes, you should be sorry, we had plans tonight, which are now obviously ruined.’
‘I can offer you credit for your next order–’
‘There won’t be a next order from us, thank you, so I don’t want credit. I will be round in the car in fifteen minutes to pick up what we ordered, without grit, and that is the last custom that you will see from me and my family. That’s all. Thank you.’ The line went dead.
Dee slammed the handset onto the counter. He slid over to the chip basket, took out a withered piece of potato, and licked it. It tasted like it had been dragged around the carpark. ‘Harry!’ he bellowed.
Harry poked his head out of the kitchen door. ‘Yeah?’
‘Someone just rung up to complain. These chips are full of fucking grit!’ Dee kicked a scrap of batter along the floor. ‘Get the fucking chipper out, clean the potatoes, and make enough for two large portions because that twat is coming back in for his order!’
Harry opened his mouth to interject; after all, the potatoes were chipped before he had arrived. ‘Now!’ roared Dee. Harry ducked back into the kitchen as a chip scoop clattered against the door.
Harry slowly made his way over to the potato sacks. The kitchen floor was a minefield of cooking oil, washing up liquid and potato skin, so it never paid to rush, whatever the situation. He grabbed a few potatoes and brought them over to the sink. The potatoes arrived in the shop in sacks, covered in dirt, which had to be scrubbed off before they were ready for the chipper. Failing to get rid of the dirt meant that the chips would come out covered in a fine grit, undetectable to the human eye, which would stay stuck to the chips even after they were deep-fried. Very nasty to eat, of course. Harry looked at the clock. He didn’t care who had forgotten to scrub the spuds. He threw some clean potatoes into the chipper, which groaned and shook before belching out a handful of thick, raw chips. He gathered as much as he could hold and slid over to the fryer. It hissed violently as he dropped handfuls into the oil. ‘Chips are on,’ he yelled.
Dee grunted. Behind the counter he had been racking his brains for someone to blame for the grit in the chips, but undeniably it was he who had forgotten to scrub them this morning. Deprived of a target, deprived of a release for the frustration dammed up inside him which he could not direct at himself, he felt a growing resentment for the man on the phone, and his wife who had made the order. His chest tightened. They don’t know the first thing about running a fucking business, he thought. What makes him think he can talk to me like that. Like I’m an idiot.
He squeezed the handle of the chip shovel and stifled the urge to throw it at the Coke machine. A vein bulged on his bare scalp.
The front door opened, and in walked a grey-haired man with a kagoule over suit-trousers. His face was pinkish from the cold, and little droplets of rain slid down his waterproof. He stopped at the counter.
‘I rang earlier,’ he announced.
‘Right.’ Dee met his stare. He tapped the chip shovel on the counter. Ting, ting, ting.
‘With a complaint.’
Dee said nothing.
‘So I’d like to collect my order and go.’ A pause. ‘It was cod, a chicken pie, and two large portions of chips.’
‘I fucking know what it was,’ Dee snarled.
The man took a step back, startled. Then his face hardened and he pointed at Dee accusingly.
‘Now listen here,’ he said, ‘how d-dare you talk to me like that! You should be ashamed of yourself running a business like this!’
‘Like what?’ returned Dee.
‘Being so bloody rude to your customers, and– and–’ the man spluttered indignantly, ‘the quality of your food is terrible!’
‘What’s your fucking problem?’ Dee shouted. Harry emerged silently from the kitchen to watch from the back wall.
‘Well, you gave me chips covered in dirt!’
‘I couldn’t eat them. Neither could my wife,’ the man said hopelessly. The vein on Dee’s head was visibly throbbing, and he took another small step back. He was not expecting this.
Dee breathed fast through his nose. ‘This,’ he gesticulated around him with the chip shovel, ‘is my business. I work my fucking hands to the bone to keep this place running. Every day of the week!’
‘Just give me the damn chips and I’ll leave,’ said the man, exasperated. ‘I don’t want any trouble.’
‘You know what’s trouble?’ yelled Dee, levelling the chip scoop at the man wildly. ‘Working my hands to the bone serving cunts like you and your–’ Dee shifted forward and slipped on a streak of vegetable oil. He slipped sideways with a rubber squeak, upending a bottle of vinegar and bringing a stack of paper bags down on top of him. The man gasped. A scream emerged from behind the counter. A hairy arm protruded and knocked down another pile of bags. The man turned and ran out of the shop.
Dee inhaled a puddle of vinegar from the floor, which scorched his throat and brought tears to his eyes. He screamed again, a wild animal noise that echoed out of the shop and all the way down the road. A driver at the junction opened his window and squinted out into the darkness.
Harry was stuck to the spot. He could see nothing from the back wall. He shook himself and slid tentatively around the fryer, revealing Dee sitting up on the floor, breathing hard. Their eyes met. His eyes were teary and bloodshot from the vinegar fumes, and wet paper bags clung to him. It was a horrible sight. It reminded Harry of the gaze of a lion he had seen at a circus show in Great Yarmouth. Dee dropped his chin and croaked something inaudible.
He coughed and looked up with fury in his eyes. ‘Get out.’
‘Are you okay?’ Harry asked, red.
Harry turned and ran through the kitchen door, shame bursting from the roots of his hair. He untied his apron and threw it at the potato sacks. He wouldn’t be coming back, he knew. There was no way back from this.
The back door slammed and Dee was alone. He brushed a bag from his shoulder and stood up, being careful to avoid the puddle of vinegar. He leaned against the counter, staring at the fly-killer. He contemplated the decline of his business and the war he waged with his employees and customers with a calm mind. He arose, washed the vinegar from his hands, and switched off the Coke machine. He would close early tonight.
James Donovan is a professional songwriter and the guitarist of the London-based punk band HMLTD. He writes short stories about his experience of growing up in Ipswich, in his view a depressing town in East Anglia, when his life was a lot less exciting. This is his first submission to a literary magazine or journal. Find him on Instagram here.