By: Rachele Salvini
Grandpa would be sick.
He would look at all the well-dressed guys and four-eyed ladies, sitting at the tables while typing at their laptops with pretentious expressions on their faces. He would be so angry. And most of all, he’d be bloody disappointed because I work here. In a chippy that looks like a Starbucks.
It was like one of those jokes of destiny – you spend your whole life in Liverpool, watching your old grandpa eating fish and chips while talking loudly about football, politics and girls. Then you work for ages in one of the roughest chippies ever. And when you move away you end up at The London Lightbulb, possibly one of the most awfully snug places in London.
He would be so disappointed. He used to say that chippies were the perfect working class restaurants. His favourite, the one where I worked for ages, was called The Bad Habit. It was dark, and the walls were completely covered with newspaper cuttings. You could spot Margaret Thatcher’s face between them, and of course it was provided with horns, moustache and several insults. There were many posters from The Sun – you can imagine which ones. It was fantastic. It was the perfect working class temple, very stereotypical, but fascinating.
My grandpa would come in after working at the port all day. He would croak a simple “same, Tony” to the owner and then sit heavily on one of the benches. I remember it because I used to wait for him every day after school, right there, at the second table next to the door. He would scratch my hair and ask me how I was doing.
If he had seen the place where I am working now, he wouldn’t have scratched my hair at all. I can almost imagine him walking in, limping slightly as he used to do when he got older, and staring at the shop. At me.
I glance at the door, almost expecting him to come in. I am polishing some glasses and everyone is chatting or typing at their laptops. As if it wasn’t insane enough. Who the fuck brings a laptop to a greasy, dirty chippy, right? But this is not the case. As I said, this is not “a chippy”. This is a Starbucks which sells fish and chips.
Tracy is speeding from table to table, bringing those stupidly colourful fish & chips bowls. What the fuck does it mean? Nicely decorated bowls of fish and chips? Seriously? How is it even possible to think up some stupid shit like that? They look like you’re going to eat rice or some other nice, light and healthy stuff. On every bowl, you can read the terms peace, respect, love, nature. I don’t even have the words to express how lame it is.
“Max, do you think you’ll be polishing that bloody glass until someone punches you? And by someone, I mean me.”
That’s Alvin. My boss. Lame chipper, lame name. Alvin. Ridiculous. Like one of those fucking chipmunks. He’s bald, with that greasy moustache that makes me want to puke every time he strokes it and then puts his fat fingers into the chips bowls. He wears tortoise-rimmed glasses, quotes Charles Bukowski all the time, and I’m positive he shags an underage, scared-looking small guy that comes here every day at closing time.
I nod, put the glass away and start cleaning up the counter. Alvin smirks and approaches the till as he sees some new customers coming in. I don’t even know why I’m here. I mean, of course I know: I just needed to work and I got this job because I was lucky enough to have worked at The Bad Habit for years before grandpa died. But then, I really had no reason to be stuck in Liverpool anymore. London seemed more appealing. I found out about the Lightbulb by chance. I didn’t know that everyone would kill to have this position.
It feels like The London Lightbulb is the new thing now. The most expensive, fashionable and smart chippy in Brick Lane. People come here after their shopping at Spitalfields, or they just pop in because it’s cool to put the pics of our famous decorated bowls on Instagram.
I don’t think there’s particularly anything much about this London Lightbulb, but that’s only my opinion. It’s really nothing special. I guess people like it because it’s nicely decorated and quiet. Osho’s quotes are all over the place and make me want to kill myself. The words love and respect are carved on the door. Little colourful lightbulbs are scattered on the ceiling, on the counter and on the tables. People like that, but it gives me the creeps. I don’t know why. First time I got here, I felt like I was entering Charles Manson’s place: everyone was hippy and respectful, but you could bet the bloody chief was planning a mass murder.
I look up from the counter. A blondie is looking at me. Her fingers are wrapped around her huge phone.
I bet my balls Alvin is staring at me. I know that he knows that I hate this place and he always keeps an eye on me, especially when I have to deal with clients.
The blondie is hot. She has some lipstick on her teeth and a turtle-neck shirt that makes her boobs stand out.
“I’m afraid the wi-fi’s not working. Can you help me?”
She probably doesn’t know that I’m as good with technology as I am good at avoiding looking at her tits, but I smile to her and pretend I know how to help her.
“’Course darling. I’ll work it out.”
She smiles as well and puts her hand on the counter, approaching me. She runs her fingers through her hair. Damn if she’s hot. She knows it too. I’m almost tempted to ask her name, but then I remember that she’s a customer and I’m a fucking chipper. Let’s catch up about it later, honey.
I turn to Alvin, who’s talking to some customers about the menu. Right, I really don’t know what to do, but I’m pretty sure Tracy does. She’s the technological one. She’s serving someone at the table next to the door, so I smile at the blondie again.
“Just wait a sec, do you mind?”
I make my way to get around the counter, but as soon as I take some steps, the girl stops me.
“Doesn’t matter. It works now.”
She doesn’t even look up at me. She’s staring at her fucking stupidly big telephone and texting someone or posting some shit on Instragram. As ever.
I open my mouth to say something. I’m not sure if I should go back behind the counter or tell her something else, but the girl turns on her heels and makes her way back to her table without saying anything. After a couple of steps, she turns around casually and says “oh, and thank you anyway,” that really sounds like, and by the way, who the hell are you, go fuck yourself.
Damn, I hate this place.
The Bad Habit wouldn’t be like that at all. We didn’t have wi-fi. I guess people didn’t give a damn about it. And if you had to hit on a customer, it was perfectly fine. I mean, it was almost like girls were expecting to be hit on there. They probably liked it.
And this girl, this blondie, well, she would have got a good dose of chrain.
Just thinking about that word makes me smile to myself. Isn’t it good? It’s so poetic. What a sound. Chips – rain: chrain. Amazing. Chips flying all over the place, especially on the person who deserved it. People laughing and crying and cursing. Beer foam and oil everywhere and you couldn’t really walk on the floor until some motherfucker had swept the whole damn place. You behave like an upper class asshole, you get chrain.
I even got my own dose of chrain. It was that time I bought a stupid leopard-print shirt. I mean, it was beautiful, and I had paid quite a lot for it, so the people at The Bad Habit noticed. After my grandpa died I was really desperate. My mother was all about that stupid guru stuff. She got crazy. She would talk to her songbirds more than she would talk to me. I only had The Bad Habit – but after grandpa’s death, even approaching the place made me sick. I felt lonely, so I started chasing after girls like crazy. I combed my hair and put on some perfume and showed off. So, when I got into the chippy again, I actually deserved the chrain. No one at The Bad Habit would let things like that pass unnoticed.
Tracy brings some dirty bowls to the counter and I pass them to the kitchen. As soon as I’m back to the counter, Alvin has disappeared and I see some clients approaching. I reach the till and prepare to greet them with the same big smile as ever.
“Hi there, how’s it going?” I start.
It’s a four-eyed girl with short red hair and a tall guy who looks like someone put a baseball bat up his ass.
“Hey!” she almost screams, probably too excited.
“Heeeey!” I answer, trying to seem half as excited as she is. “How can I help yooouuuu?”
She looks up at the menu carved into the wood on the wall, “oh well, yes. So I was wondering if you have vegan fish and chips?”
My smile immediately fades away from my face, and for a moment I imagine what would happen at The Bad Habit if the same thing was asked. Chrain.
“Of course. We have vegan alternatives. The fish is made of battered and fried tofu and nori. How does that sound?” I would like to tell her that everything I’ve just said is also written on the menu that she had pretended to read, but she probably felt the need to scream and let the whole chippy know that she was brave enough to start a vegan diet.
She’s looking up at the menu like she doesn’t believe anything I said. Her boyfriend is doing the same, so I just try to avoid the disgusting thought of them banging. He seems like he cries after sex. And she probably asks him to use a vegan lube.
My mother had been a vegan. After my dad ran away, she became a hindu and filled the house with those stupid candles and incense sticks. She started mumbling things that didn’t make any sense. She wore those horrible beaded necklaces and thought that everything had a soul. She got crazy about all that meditation crap and the house smelled terribly. That’s why I loved my grandpa. He made fun of her and told her she needed to find a man before going totally insane. He used to take me away from that house and we would go to The Bad Habit or to the park. There was a little pond full of turtles. We would throw small rocks at their shells, just for fun. Only now I realise how cruel it was, and I also think he was always a little drunk when he brought me there. But we had fun. And I didn’t have to think about my fucked-up family.
“Pearl, I think you should hurry up. I’ll take the vegan fish and chips.” The vegan redhead’s boyfriend taps her shoulder with his finger and she looks at me again.
“Wait a second, Marcus, I was just reading the menu.”
I am getting a little pissed off, but I try to smile again. “I’m afraid tofu and nori is the only vegan alternative we have. Otherwise, we have salads. And there are chips and onion rings so…”
“That’s exactly what I was trying to read,” she interrupts me, looking straight into my eyes. “Only one vegan alternative is a bit poor for such a well-known chippy as The Lightbulb.”
I open my mouth to say something, then I smile sarcastically. “Look, I’m not the one who cooks. I am sorry, I’ll tell the owner…”
But she interrupts me again, “don’t worry about that, I’ll write a complaint right away.” She pulls out the cell phone from her pocket and starts typing frantically.
I am getting more and more pissed and I really need to take a deep breath. Then I address her boyfriend, “so, a vegan fish & chips and…?”
I look at her, but she doesn’t even answer. She’s still typing.
“Look, I need to know what you want, darling.”
“Don’t you dare call her darling!”
I freeze. Suddenly, I don’t know what to say. Ok, these people are totally nuts. Just stay calm. Don’t take any false steps.
Her boyfriend is staring at me like a madman. The girl puts the phone in her pocket, slowly, and looks up at me.
“Do you have any idea how sexist it sounds?”
When I get what she means, I feel like my knees are melting. I didn’t get it at the beginning. I thought that her boyfriend was like a jealous freak or something. But this is even better. She sounds exactly like my mum. Stop calling me sweetheart, you sexist pig! she had screamed to a shop assistant at Sainsbury’s. I had wanted to disappear. I had wanted to die and be forgotten forever. And now, this crazy redhead sounds even crazier that she did.
I try not to laugh. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but I can’t help it.
“Well, sorry about that. So what do you want to eat?” Bloody darling sweetheart honey cunt.
“You don’t seem sorry at all,” she accuses me.
As she talks, I see a guy approaching the till and another couple entering the chippy. I don’t know what to do, but these two must clear off as soon as possible.
“He’s just an asshole, Pearl. Let’s go somewhere else,” her boyfriend says.
“Of course, but I’m going to write it on the complaint as well.”
She takes out her cell phone again, but suddenly I realise that I cannot take it anymore. I bend over the counter to approach her. “Make sure you write how big my cock is.”
She looks up at me, startled, and her boyfriend starts screaming, “I want to talk to your supervisor!”
“Oh really? Well, you can talk to my big, fat cock that I was telling your girlfriend about instead,” I answer, pointing at my crotch.
People start looking at us. I feel like I could explode now. This is just the beginning. I can’t stand it anymore. I really need to bugger off, like, immediately. People are turning to look at us, leaving their laptops unattended and stopping eating for a second. I am fucking grateful that Alvin is somewhere in the kitchen, but I spot Tracy staring at me like she wants to kill me. She flies to the counter and addresses the couple.
“I am his supervisor. I am sorry for his behaviour, that’s simply unacceptable. Can I help you? I am desperately sorry. We can offer a meal to make up for the inconvenience.”
The fucking stingy couple seems to be considering the offer. The redhead looks at me like I am the worst person on Earth, but Tracy manages to calm them down and she takes them to a table. I still feel like I’m going to explode. Like I’m going to kill someone. My heart beats fast and I have to clench my teeth and my fists to avoid punching the wall.
I put my hands on the counter, look down and try to take a deep breath, but a voice interrupts me.
“Hey. Excuse me. I would like to bring these back. These chips are cold.”
I look up at the guy and watch his face. He has long, thick black hair and he seems like one of the Ramones. He’s even uglier than Joey Ramone. He’s dressed as a trendy motherfucker, with his Tommy Hilfiger shirt, his disgusting perfume and his smug face. He seems exactly like the dick who’s going to ruin your day.
I try to smile. I’m bloody shaking. “Sorry about that.”
He pushes the stupid bowl toward me, “can I have another portion? I didn’t pay for cold chips.”
I would like to give him the finger, but then, suddenly, I don’t know why, I think about myself, standing at the counter of The Bad Habit, with my hair combed backwards, my perfume and my leopard shirt.
Chrain. I knew that I had deserved it. And now my fingers are shaking, my arms are shaking, my shoulders are shaking. It has been months. It has been months since I’ve seen one. Beer foam, Margaret Thatcher smirking from the wall, desperate working class people trying to laugh and avoid thinking about their problems. We had nothing else than that. Laugh. Laugh at the poor bastard who got chrained. How stupid it sounds.
So I can’t help it. I simply can’t. I grab the bowl so hard that I think I will crush it, but that’s not the tradition.
I know I would seem like a better person if I say that I think about it. That I think about my job, about the ridiculous rent that I have to pay, about the fact that I’ve been eating only butter and pasta for days and that I need to have an income. I know that saying that I think about it would make me look like a better person.
But I don’t. I don’t think about it. I simply throw it.
Chips fly all over the place and land on the guy’s stupid hair. He looks at me, drops his non-existent jaw and doesn’t say a word.
Damn, my grandpa must be having quite a laugh, deep down in Hell.
Rachele Salvini is an Italian from Livorno, the only port in Tuscany. Besides London, she has only previously lived in seaside citiessuch as Oslo and New York City. This could explains why she absolutely loves fish: her favourite dish is impepata di cozze – a poor, simple mussels soup with lemon, pepper, parsley and bread. She is Italian but she can’t cook – so she writes instead.