It was dark. I was driving home and hungry. I stopped at lights. Across the road a little shopping plaza, the sort of thing they put up in the 70s. It now looked low-rent tired, outstripped by big-box supermarkets and huge-box indoor malls.
In one corner a dairy, blackening bananas on display outside and trays of eggs. Beside it a Thai restaurant with no one eating. Then an empty shop with a poster in the window screaming about the fabulous location, the unmissable retail opportunity, and next to that a chip shop, its windows steamed, the fluorescent light inside it like a Hopper painting. A woman in track pants came out the shop with a paper-wrapped parcel as big as a baby. I smelt the grease, the salt, and parked the car.
I don't remember when I last had fish and chips. Nothing had changed. The bubbling vats of fat. The stainless steel. The huge extractor hood. The show case of exhibits - battered sausages like half-drowned infant arms, the hunks of fish like pallid sandals - and the permanent chalkboard menu. How did they make a living from such prices?
The woman working at the fryers was dressed like a coronavirus nurse, in plastic apron, plastic bonnet and a mask of surgical blue. But when she saw me she smiled a greeting with her eyes and called out in what I took to be Chinese to someone on the far side of the plastic flaps that marked the border between shop and preparation room and private residence.
A neat young man emerged, all smiles and pencil-ready. "Do you have any fish other than fish?" I said, speaking slowly and aware of the absurdity of the question in any different circumstance. But fish is often rig, and rig is merely dogfish, and dogfish is what, when I was young and fished from piers and jetties, we threw back or gave to cats.
The young man pointed at the far end of the menu board. "Speciality fish" it said with two wee stickers hoisted underneath, "gurnard" and "red [Akaroa] cod." I would have liked to see Atlantic cod up there. There's no better fish for frying. It peels apart in bright white flakes like little lustrous ploughshares. I ordered gurnard and a scoop of chips.
The young man smiled and asked me a question.
"I'm sorry?" I said.
He asked again, striving hard against the alien language, but still I couldn't make it out and felt embarrassed for his embarrassment. The woman frying overheard us and pointed with a pair of tongs at two words on the menu overhead. The words were crumbed and battered. Such cruel words, such awful challenges to the speaker of Chinese. Those r's and d's and t's. I ordered battered.
A single wooden bench against the wall, a pile of sad and tattered magazines. I was the only customer. I stared around at all the chip shop staples - the vinegar bottle, the 30 cent sachets of sauce, the fluorescent light, the cooler advertising Mountain Dew but stocked with Coke and Fanta.
I watched the woman prepare a massive pack of deep-fried hot dogs and meat patties, several bits of fish and a Vesuvius of chips. She rained salt on it, wrapped it in some half a dozen sheets of paper and had just done tucking in the paper ends as neatly as a Christmas present when a ute pulled up outside, a man in hi-vis overalls came in and took the beast in two large arms and drove away.
A couple came in, obviously regulars, ordered a double-lamb souvlaki and a hot dog and chips and sat on the bench and stared up at the menu together in silence, holding hands.
As the woman tipped my chips on to the paper I realised too late I should have ordered half a scoop. No one above the age of 10 could eat that many chips and after dark there are no seagulls to help out.
The paper-wrapped pack felt lightly bulky. I placed it on the passenger seat, where it emitted fumes. I was perhaps 10 minutes from home. After two minutes I reached across with my left hand, flipped the packet over, opened it like a ragged paper flower, reached into its greasy smoking fragrant salty heart, broke off a wedge of fish flesh in shattering batter, squashed it hard against a chip the colour of oak furniture, stuffed both into my mouth, wiped my fingers on my trousers and drove on.