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Fish and Chips.
“I’m hungry.” Toby said, without taking his eyes away from the TV or his tobacco stained fingers off the remote.
“So?” I replied.
It was a typical evening; I was trying my hardest to focus on reading while he switched aimlessly between channels, swore loudly at the screen and turned the volume up higher each time I asked him to turn it down.
“So go get me something from the chippy.” He demanded. I pulled back the curtains in time to see the next door neighbour’s recycling bins being blown over by the wind, their spilled contents completely soaked by the rain within seconds.
“There’s some spaghetti hoops in the cupboard.” I said, closing the curtains on the turbulent night and returning to my book.
“I don’t want spaghetti hoops, I want a deep fried cod, chips, and sausage with ketchup and barbeque sauce. And hurry up, last time you took so long it was cold.”
“What’s the point of me buying those tins if you won’t touch them?” I asked, looking up from my book once more, quickly losing hope of reading any further. “The reason I get them is so we have some food in the cupboard whenever we want without having to go out all the time and wasting our money.”
“My money you mean.”
“I got a fresh baguette this morning that we can have with them.”
“I never told you to waste my money on spaghetti hoops.” He said, raising his voice. “And if I wanted a baguette I’d go to bloody France. Now get going before the chippy gets crowded.”
I rose from my comfortable chair in front of the fire, knowing full well that it would be taken by the time I got back. “I’ll need some money.”
Toby glared at me with disgust then rolled his eyes. He seemed to have been born with a permanent frown. His stained teeth, misshapen face and dirty nails certainly didn’t help with his appeal. It was easy to discern that he could never derive joy from anything. Except humiliating me, of course.
“You know I’m skint.” He said, taking a swig of his beer and burping loudly and purposefully in my direction with a rare hint of delight on his face.
“And yet you always have plenty when we’re at the betting shop.” I responded.
He picked up my book from the side table and flung it at me. I was used to him throwing things at me so I dodged it and it smacked into the wall instead of my head. At least that time the spine didn’t break; one more damaged book and the library would have banned me.
“Don’t be clever. Just because you read books doesn’t mean you know everything.”
“Maybe I should watch television and get drunk all day instead. Then I’ll know plenty.”
He threw the ashtray at me that time. It barely missed my shoulder, leaving a dark ash stain on the wall and the carpet covered in broken glass.
“Get to the damn chippy or I’m coming back to haunt you when I starve to death.” He snarled before turning his attention back to the TV.
Arguing was useless and I didn’t want anything else thrown at me. Even if I ended up in hospital he would still insist that I feed him. There was nothing more I could do other than gather up my last few remaining coins and prepare myself for the storm. His accusing eyes watched me the entire time, just looking for any excuse to blame me for something.
The moment I took a step out into the freezing night, an icy blast of wind and rain hit me in the face. I hadn’t even left the front porch and already I had to wipe the raindrops from my glasses.
“Close that door. You’re letting the cold in. My chips had better not be wet when you get back.” Toby bellowed from his chair.
“Don’t worry, your precious chips will be completely dry.” I called back, slamming the door and heading out. By the time I reached the end of the garden path my shoes were already soaked through. I wished I could afford to buy new ones but all of the little money I had went to indulging Toby. He didn’t need to be so paranoid about the chippy being crowded. Nobody would be stupid enough to go out for fish and chips in this weather.
Mr Papadopoulos, the man who ran the local takeaway, greeted me cheerfully as he always did, even as I dripped dirty rain water over his polished white tiles. He was eager for company as I appeared to be his only customer on that miserable evening.
“Nothing for you today?” He asked after he took my order. I didn’t even need to say anything; he already knew that I was running a forced errand for my house mate.
“Oh you know how it is, money’s a bit tight right now. But it’s ok, I’ve got some spaghetti hoops at home. And a baguette.” I replied, inching over to the radiator and feeling guilty about spreading the puddle I was making even further.
“Well I’m sure it’ll get better. A smart lad like you should have no trouble finding a job.”
“It’s not that easy. That’s why I had to move back in with Toby.” I mumbled awkwardly, eyeing the holiday pamphlets on the counter top.
“It’s good of you to do all of this for him.” Papadopoulos said with a kind but pitying smile.
“He lets me stay in his house. I owe him something.” I said as I handed over the last of my change to pay for Toby’s dinner.
“Yes, but running around after him is hardly worth room and board. Where would Toby be without you? I doubt he could even buy a train ticket without someone to do it for him.” He said.
I noticed that he put in a few extra chips when he boxed up the food. As much as I appreciated the gesture, I knew that I wouldn’t be getting any of them. I would be lucky to have a bite of the gristle. “Have a good evening.” He said as he handed me the box.
I sheltered it under my coat as I set back out into the cold. The last time I brought the food back just a little damp, Toby said it was ruined and sent me out again.
The box felt so warm and the fish smelt delicious, particularly inviting on such a night. And it wasn’t even for me. Just for once, I wished it was for me.
Finally back in the living room, and dripping all over the recently cleaned carpet, I found Toby, as I expected, in my chair by the fire. The remains of the ash tray were still there but Toby had at least picked up my library book from the floor. His beer can was resting on top of it.
I held out the box as if I was making an offering to appease an angry god and he grabbed it expectantly.
“At last. I was wearing away to my bones. You really took your time. I don’t know how much longer I would’ve-” He stopped, staring perplexed into the box for a moment. “You took a bite out of this, didn’t you?” He shot me an angry look.
“What? No.” I replied, completely truthfully. I had picked off the skin, not bitten it. “I don’t need fish and chips, I’ve got some spaghetti hoops in the cupboard.”
“What’s this then?” He said, holding the box out towards me. Almost the whole top half of the skin was missing.
“It came like that.” I said, retrieving my book and wiping the beer drops and cigarette ash off the cover, trying my hardest not to grin.
“It came with half the skin missing?”
“Or maybe it fell off.” I said, sitting in the vacant chair and picking up the heavily worn TV guide. He rifled through the chips, under the fish and sausages and even in the pot of sauce.
“It’s not there.”
“Mr Papadopoulos must not have had time to wrap it very tightly. Just like you said, the chippy was packed.” I said without taking my eyes off the page.
“It was in a box, not wrapped. How could it fall out?”
I didn’t need to look at him to know how red his face was turning.
“Oh, now I remember. I tripped on the broken step when I came in. Almost twisted my ankle again. It must have dropped off out there. Moulin Rouge is starting in a minute.”
I risked a peek over the edge of the magazine. His face was lobster red. It reminded me of last summer when I told him not to go out without sun lotion.
He marched to the door, flung it open, nearly ripping it off its hinges (it wouldn’t be the first time) and went out into what was by then close to an Arctic storm. With only the light from the living room to see with, he squatted down and started scanning the paving slabs. “So where do you think you dropped it?”
“Hold on, let me think…Uh, yes, I believe it went in the grass.” I turned on the TV to Moulin Rouge, a film I knew he hated.
“Turn that down. Where in the grass?” He called over the noise of the TV.
“I don’t know, just somewhere in the grass.” I said, picking up the takeaway box and dunking a couple of chips into the sauce. I watched as he squinted at the leaves and twigs, dislodging them while trying to avoid the dirt. “Your food is getting cold.” I called to him
“You lied to me again. There’s no skin out here.” Toby said, not looking at me as I started on the first sausage.
“Well I never actually said it definitely fell off out there, if you’ll remember.”
I heard his words catch in his throat, followed by a series of short gasping noises.
“Well?” He said, his rage close to unleashing. “Where is it then?”
“If it’s not out there then it must still be at the chippy.”
“Right, I’ll get that Papadopoulos for this. Thinks he can cheat me out of my skin.” He said, marching down the path, not even noticing the rain or that he wasn’t wearing a coat.
“Have a good time.” I stood waving from the front door.
“You shut up. I’ll deal with you when I get back.” He hollered back.
I waited until he had left the garden path before finally closing the door on the cold then heading to the kitchen to get a Pepsi from the fridge. I felt a little sorry for sending an angry Toby to Mr Papadopoulos. But I also remembered what had happened to the last person who had shouted abuse at him.
It was almost an hour later when I got his call. I hadn’t expected him to take so long.
“Yeah?” I said as I answered his call.
“It wasn’t there!” He screamed down the phone.
“I never said it was.”
“And Papadopoulos punched me in the face.”
“You shouldn’t have been so horrible to him. He works very hard and takes great pride in what he does, and why shouldn’t he? That fish was delicious and his chips are the best.”
“I knew it! I knew you ate it. Couldn’t help yourself could you? I ask you to do one thing and you have to go and be all greedy. You think you’re so smart but I had you all along. You rat…” He stopped. I already knew why.
“Something wrong?” I said, wishing he could see my smirk.
“It’s gone! All of it!”
“Not all of it. I saved half for later. I have a long trip ahead of me.” I said, glancing at the airtight box stashed in my bag.
“You had my last Pepsi too. Where are you?”
“I’m not sure.” I said, again completely truthfully. It was so dark outside that I couldn’t even tell where the train was passing through. “By now I could be anywhere between home and Athens. Mr Papadopoulos says it’s lovely there.”
“You…You never appreciated anything I did for you. All you do is moan. And now you’ve gone and left me with nothing to eat, you selfish little-”
“Actually, I did think of that. I left something for you on a plate in the fridge. Oh, and could you do me a favor and return my book to the library? Otherwise there will be a fine, and you know who’ll have to pay that, you being the responsible one and everything.” I ended the call before I had time to hear any more from him and settled back in my seat, nibbling on one of the remaining chips.
Listening to the rain pelting the train window, I closed my eyes and imagined him rushing to the fridge like a starving beggar and yanking the door open. I grinned as I pictured the look on his face when he saw the Chinese takeaway menu sitting on the plate.