“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.