Fish and Chips
An original story by eflshorts.com/Copyright EFLshorts.com
I drove slowly. The mist in front of me was like a great white wave, and my car was like a ship, slowly pushing through it. My car’s headlights reached out, but not far. I could see hedges. Their dark shapes guided me along this narrow, country road. I was anxious*. At any moment, another car could come along. But there were no other cars. Not one. Where was I? When I left my manager’s party, the night air was clear. ‘I can get home in less than an hour,’ I thought. But then the mist came down, and now I was lost.
I turned up the heater and leaned forward in my seat. Perhaps a town or village was round the next corner. I hoped so. I looked at my petrol gauge*. I needed petrol – quickly. I thought about my new job – my first after university – and Mr. Harkness, and his party. ‘I have a Christmas Eve party every year for the staff,’ Mr. Harkness told me. ‘Enjoy yourself, lad.’ I did. The room was warm, the people from my work were friendly, and the food was good. But at 10pm, I decided to leave. Helen, my wife, was pregnant* and alone in our house. Mr. Harkness understood. He walked me to the front door. ‘Is Helen’s morning sickness* still as bad?’ he asked. I told him it wasn’t. ‘Well, give my love to her,’ he said. I promised I would.
There was a CD player in the car, but I needed to concentrate*. My hands held the steering wheel tightly. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. Suddenly, the car hesitated*, jumped forward, hesitated again; then died. I was out of petrol. I was miles from nowhere and I was out of petrol. I dropped my head onto the steering wheel. I felt angry. ‘But that isn’t going to help,’ I told myself. I took out my phone from my pocket. No signal*.
I switched off my car’s headlights, opened the door and got out. The air felt heavy, wet, cold. I could feel it on my face and in my throat. I shivered and pulled on a jacket. I pressed the button on my key ring. The lights on my car flashed* and the car made a loud ‘beep’. The sound seemed very loud. It was too quiet, too still. I stood listening for a moment, hoping to hear another car. But there was nothing. I started walking but stopped. Did I imagine it? Was there a noise? I stood and stared into the blackness. ‘Hello?’ My voice sounded small and afraid. I waited. My heart beat faster.
I started walking again, my footsteps loud on the road. Every now and again, I turned and looked behind. The car was gone, swallowed. Ahead, I could see nothing.
I don’t know how far I walked. I looked at my watch. It was now 12.10 pm. ‘Merry Christmas,’ I muttered* to myself and thought about my wife. Right now, she was sitting at home watching the clock, worrying.
Was there a town nearby? Was there a phone? How long should I walk before giving up? I didn’t want to spend the night in my car, but I didn’t want to get lost either. I thought about my job. I was a fundraiser for ‘Roof’, a charity for the homeless. It always made me furious when I thought about the human cost of homelessness. The homeless had no homes for many reasons, but there were so many young homeless people. How could society be so uncaring? Why did it turn its back on them? What future did they have? Of course, sleeping in a car was nothing compared to sleeping outside in winter, but I still didn’t want to do it. I decided I would walk a thousand paces more, and then turn back if I found nothing. I watched my feet and counted my steps out loud. ‘One hundred and thirty one, one hundred and thirty two…’
Then I walked into something very hard. For a moment, I was stunned. I staggered back and fell. I looked up. A lamppost. Its faint, yellow light was only just visible in the thick mist. I looked around and saw the outline of other things too – some houses, some cars, a post box. I was in a village. I got up. My hands were bleeding, and they stung. I pressed them together, as though I was about to pray, and blew on them.
Perhaps now I could find a telephone or a taxi – something or someone – to get me home to Helen.
The mist began to clear. With the help of a few yellow streetlights, buildings, gardens, hedges and cars appeared. I was in a village. Not much of a village, but a village all the same. The road that I was standing on bisected* it. I guessed there were about ten or twelve buildings in total. Although it wasn’t very late, there wasn’t a single light in any of them. Stranger still, I noticed that there were no Christmas trees, no coloured lights, no decorations* at all. ‘Did they forget it’s Christmas?’ I wondered.
In the complete stillness, my breathing sounded loud. I checked my mobile again. Unbelievable! Now, I was out of battery*. I looked around and saw an old phone box on the corner. My footsteps echoed as I walked down the road. I swung the phone box door open and picked up the receiver. I wanted to hear Helen’s voice, and I wanted to call a garage. But the phone line was dead. I dropped the phone. As I swung open the door again, a flicker of light caught my eye. It was down a lane just to my right.
I walked over to the lane, but stopped. The light was coming from the back of the shop next to me. I looked at the shop. Though the neon sign was not switched on, I could read the unlit letters. ‘Fish and Chips’ it said. My stomach grumbled*. I was hungry. I stared through the front window. The shop looked empty. I went up to the door and pushed. I expected it to be locked. Instead, there was a gentle ‘Ting’ as a small bell rang above my head and the door swung open.
I walked to the counter*. Why was the fryer on at this time? It was after one o’clock in the morning. Did the cook have insomnia*? And where was the cook? It was strange. I thought about leaving again. I had no right to be there. But the clouds of hot steam from the fryer smelt delicious. They smelt of hot, evaporated fat. I couldn’t see the contents of the fryer, but I could hear the bubbling oil in it. Pictures formed in my head: lots and lots of chips slowly turning brown. My stomach rumbled again. Behind the fryer, there was a door. It was open, but only a little. The light from the fryer gave everything in the shop a warm, orange colour.
‘Hello?’ I said quietly – too quietly. The sound of the bubbling fat drowned my question. ‘Hello,’ I called again. I thought I heard something, perhaps voices.
Suddenly, a head appeared. It looked in my direction and disappeared. A moment later, the door half-opened, and a tall, thin man slid out. He faced me; but behind his back, he held onto the door handle. I couldn’t see his face well – it was mostly in shadow – but he looked annoyed*.
‘Merry Christmas,’ I said. When he said nothing, I continued. ‘I am sorry, but the front door was open and…’
‘What do you want?’ he asked.
I needed to call a garage or a repair service, and I needed to speak to Helen and reassure her. I ignored his aggressiveness. ‘My car stopped a few miles away. I think it ran out of petrol. I tried to call a garage from the phone across the street, but…’
‘What do you want?’ he asked again.
‘I’d like to use your phone. If you don’t mind.’ What was this guy’s problem? Asking to use his phone wasn’t such a big deal*, surely?
‘It’s…No, you can’t. It’s not working,’ he said.
It sounded like a lie to me, but what could I do? It was his phone, and it was his choice. The noise of the bubbling fat filled the silence. I shivered*. What a way to spend Christmas….‘Okay. In that case, can I buy something to eat?’
I could feel myself getting angry. ‘I can wait,’ I said, the words as cold as the night outside.
We stared at one another. Then he gave a long sigh, released the door handle and moved to the fryer. Snatching* up a long, metal spoon, he stirred the contents of the fryer. Then, with his other hand, he raised a basket of fried food, shook it, and plunged it back into the swirling fat. He did this three or four times, paying me no attention at all.
‘Do you have any fish?’
He looked up, surprised. Had he forgotten I was there? He stared at me. Then, as suddenly as he had looked up, his eyes found the metal spoon again. He thrust it into the oil; and as he did so, his face relaxed and he looked strangely happy.
‘There’s no fish,’ he said, his words slow and deliberate*.
‘Well, what do you have?’
He looked up and gave a thin smile. ‘Two pounds,’ he said, ‘and you can eat them here. If you like.’
The sausages were good – delicious* in fact – and I ate them quickly, enjoying the hot, greasy* food. I felt better and my face glowed red. But while I ate, the man watched my every move.
I put the last chip in my mouth, screwed the newspaper into a ball and dropped it into the bin next to me. ‘Well, thanks for the food,’ I said. ‘I should be going. I need to find a phone.’ I stood up.
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘You can use my mobile if you want. It’s charging.’
‘That would be great. I need to call a garage and my wife. She must be worried.’
‘It’s through here,’ the man said, walking to the door and opening it just a little. He gestured* that I should come around the shop’s counter. I did so. He pointed to the door. It lay open a fraction. He gestured again, motioning me forward.
I stepped past him and put my hand on the door, ready to push it fully open.
And that’s when he hit me. One moment, I was standing; the next, I was on the ground. As I lay there, stunned*, a kick struck me in the face. Then another.
After that, everything went black.
What was that noise? It was a roaring sound like a motorboat and it filled my head…I tried to open my eyes. Everything was blurred*. My head hurt. Where was I? What happened? And what was that smell? It was something familiar, something unpleasant. I wrinkled my nose and tried to shake the pain from my head. The room spun around. I wanted to hold my head in my hands, but I couldn’t. My hands were tied behind my back! Slowly, I remembered: the Christmas party, my car, the shop, the man behind the counter…
A cold, metal drainpipe dug into my spine*. I was tightly tied to it. The smell? He sat beside me, also tied to the drainpipe. I could feel him and smell him. His breathing was heavy and ragged*. I twisted my neck and leaned forwards as far as I could so that I could see his face. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew this man. His name was George. He often came into town and was a regular at the soup kitchen* on Hayek Street.
‘George?’ I whispered. ‘Is that you? Are you okay?’
There was silence for a while and then, ‘Yes.’
‘What’s happening? What’s going on?’
‘Talk quietly,’ warned George. ‘He’s in the next room.’
I kept my voice low. ‘How did you get here?’ I asked George.
‘I was going to Leicester…I was thumbing a lift*.’ George started to cough. ‘It was late. A car stopped. It was him. I got in and that’s the last I remember. I woke up here.’
‘Do you know me?’ I asked.
‘Yes, you work for that homeless place…’ George started to cough again. He turned his head as he did so. I felt spittle land on my face, and I jerked* away, repulsed*. This time George couldn’t stop coughing.
A door opened across the room and the shop owner slipped out from behind it. George kept on coughing. I wanted to shout at this man, but in all honesty I was too afraid. My mouth opened, but I felt helplessly weak. His presence –half in the shadows, half out – made me cower. It was the inhuman way that he was staring at us. Through eyes that were sunk deep in his skull, he stared at us as though we were prey and he was a predator. His mouth, as thin and tight as a paper cut, carried the smallest smile – and it was that smile that emptied me of any courage that I had.
For a terrifying moment, I though the man was coming towards me; but instead, he grabbed George by the hair and stared into his face. George coughed and spit* accidentally flew from George’s mouth and hit the man’s face. The man staggered backwards and stumbled into a metal shelf. A big container fell off the shelf and landed on the stone floor. The man ignored it. With disgust, he wiped a hand across his face. His chest was heaving and I could see him clamp his teeth together. He stared with naked hatred at us both. Then abruptly* he strode across the room and flung open the door. I could hear his heavy footsteps as he climbed the stairs to the rooms above us; then the sound of running water.
George finally stopped coughing. I turned and looked at him. He stared back at me, his beard covered in spit, his eyes full of tears.
‘There was another one,’ said George.
‘Another what? What do you mean?’ I asked.
George twisted his head and stared at me. ‘There was another man here before you. When I woke up, he was next to me – tied to the pipe – just like we are. Then the shopkeeper came in with his knife and…’ George shook his head and swallowed again. ‘After the shopkeeper killed him, he dragged* his body through to the next room…and I could hear him chopping… it went on forever. Then it stopped and he walked past the door. He had a bucket in his hand…He put the contents into a mixer. He was making food…’
I shook my head. I didn’t want to hear any more. I thought about the sausages I had eaten and their hot, fatty meat and my stomach lurched*. Desperately, I pulled and twisted at the rope, but it was useless. It bit into my skin and I could feel my own hot blood run down my fingers.
Just then, the shopkeeper appeared at the same door again.
Tears began running down my face. I glanced at George. Head bowed, he was shaking and mumbling*. I looked at the shopkeeper. He held my eyes. His smile extended a millimeter. Like a bad magician, he brought out a knife from behind his back. Light danced on its cold blade. He smiled.
‘So,’ he said, ‘who’s first?’
‘No, please,’ I shouted. ‘I have a wife and a family….’ I thrashed* my legs, aiming kicks towards the shopkeeper.
‘Don’t struggle*,’ the shopkeeper said calmly, standing out of reach of my kicks. ‘I can make it hurt – or not.’
I was desperate. It was a life and death situation. Afterwards, I felt ashamed*, but at the time I meant every word. ‘Kill George! Kill him!’ I shouted. ‘He’s got nothing to live for. Don’t kill me. Kill him! I won’t tell. Just let me go!’
The man smiled. My heart jumped. ‘He’s got no one,’ I said, almost whispering, ‘No one will miss him. Kill him but not me. Just let me go. You’ll never see me again.’ As I spoke, I glanced at George. His face said that he had heard my betrayal* but was struggling to believe it.
‘You should get better friends, George’ the shopkeeper said. The knife rose up. I closed my eyes. The world seemed to stop. I waited for the pain, but it did not come. Instead, there was a small cry, the clatter* of steel and a dull* thump.
I opened my eyes. Either the shopkeeper had tripped over the container that had fallen earlier, or he had slipped on its contents. It didn’t matter. All that mattered now was that the knife had bounced out of his hand was now lying inches from my foot. I had seconds. I curled my left leg, trapped the knife under my shoe and dragged it towards me. As I did so, I glanced at the shopkeeper. He groaned slightly and rolled over in our direction. His eyes, unfocused and blinking, looked around.
The knife was trapped under my feet. I began to nudge it towards George. ‘Can you reach it?’ I asked. George stretched out his fingers and his nails touched the knife’s handle. By the tips* of his nails, millimetre-by-millimetre, he dragged the knife closer to him. The shopkeeper on the floor groaned again. ‘Hurry!’ I hissed. George had a good hold of the knife’s handle now. I slipped my hands down the pipe to the knife’s blade and together we began to cut through the rope that held us. I don’t know how long it took, but suddenly our hands were free.
We sat there for a moment, neither of us moving. I picked up the knife and stood. The room was eerily* silent. ‘I’m going to call the police,’ I said.
‘We should tie him first,’ said George. I nodded. With the rope that he had used on us, we bound* the shopkeeper’s hands behind his back.
When we finished, I stepped over the shopkeeper and went into the other room. The mobile phone was on a table. I walked over to it and picked it up. The screen was blank. I tried to switch it on, but nothing happened. I removed the back. No battery. It was a ruse* to get me back here. I wondered how many times he had done this. How many people had he tricked and killed? I put the phone down on the table and turned. I froze when I saw the scene in the storeroom next door.
George was sitting on top of the shopkeeper with his hands around the shopkeeper’s neck. The shopkeeper was awake: his eyes were bulging*, his face was tortured, and he was kicking and thrashing his legs, trying to break free of George’s grip.
But the more he struggled, the tighter George’s grip became.
‘Is he dead?’ I asked.
George didn’t answer. It was a stupid question. I had stood and watched, too stunned to move, while George’s grip on the shopkeeper’s throat had tightened and tightened…
‘Of course he’s dead,’ said George, standing over the shopkeeper, his legs either side of the body.
I stared. I couldn’t think. The nightmare had taken yet another turn. I was numb. What were we going to do? This man had tried to kill us, and now he was dead, murdered in front of me. It was self-defence. The shopkeeper was a maniac*. Who knows how many other people he had killed. But George had committed a crime. He had made us criminals. There would have to be an investigation. We would have to defend our actions…
I was aware of George moving around the storeroom, looking for something.
‘What are you doing?’ I shouted, rage* suddenly erupting* from me.
George didn’t reply. Head down, he continued to rummage, mumbling to himself.
‘Answer me! What are you doing?’
George stopped and stared at me. ‘It was him or us,’ he said.
‘We should call the police. We can explain. There was a fight; we had to protect ourselves.’
George had a bundle of newspapers in his hands. He dropped them next to the body and began collecting more. He looked at me over his shoulder. ‘I’m not explaining anything,’ he said.
The fire was already blazing when I barged* out of the shop.
I ran until I could run no further. When I eventually stopped, I could barely stand. Gasping*, I looked back towards the village. Was it the same night or the next? I wasn’t sure and didn’t even care. An orange glow lit the sky above where I presumed* the shop was. For a moment, a vision of the shopkeeper, dead on the floor with flames tearing at him, filled my head.
Suddenly, out of the dark, a car’s headlights flashed, disappeared and re-appeared again, weaving* along the bending road towards me. I ran into the middle of the road, waving my arms and shouting. There was a screech of brakes, and the car slowed down. It tried to go past me, but I launched myself onto its bonnet and made it stop. Inches from my face, a frightened young woman stared back at me through the front windscreen glass.
‘Please,’ I yelled, ‘my car’s broken down. I need a lift.’ The woman shook her head. She looked terrified*. I couldn’t blame her. ‘I need to get home to my wife. She’s pregnant. I ran out of petrol. You’ve got to help me. Please. Please.’ I looked at the woman’s face. ‘I’m begging you.’
I could see that she didn’t know what to do. I was a stranger in the night; I could be a madman, but I could also be telling the truth. ‘Please,’ I said again, ‘It’s Christmas and I don’t want to miss the birth of my child.’ The woman bit her lip and looked around herself as though she were looking for someone who could make the decision for her.
Slowly, the fear drained* from her eyes and the car stopped completely. I climbed off the bonnet and began apologizing for what I had done, hoping that I was sounding like a normal person might.
A few moments later, she unlocked the doors.
The car slowed down and stopped. Angela put the car into neutral and I sighed. I was home. After all that had happened, I had made it back to my wife. I looked at my house and then turned to Angela, the woman who had been brave enough to help me. ‘I can’t thank you enough,’ I said. ‘If it hadn’t been for you…’
‘I’m only glad I could help,’ she replied, giving me a broad* smile. ‘Now off you go and don’t keep your wife waiting any longer.’
I nodded. Stepping out, the icy air stung my face. ‘Merry Christmas,’ I said, my breath surrounding me in white clouds.
‘Merry Christmas,’ she replied.
I closed the door and a moment later, the car moved away, its tires crunching through the ice on a puddle. But its red tail lights receded* quickly, and when I raised a hand and waved, it was too late: Angela’s car swung right at the bottom of the street and was gone.
Wary of slipping, I trod carefully up my driveway and was suddenly aware of snowflakes tumbling* past me. I stopped and stared into the looming* sky. The delicate flakes tumbled out of it and met with my skin. Sunrise was hours away, but to the east, a paler darkness was forming. I looked at my watch, and looked at it again. At some point during the night it had stopped. I guessed the time might be around five – early, but I knew Helen would be up. She must be frantic*. What was I going to tell her?
I stopped and looked in my front window. It was bow-shaped and its centre sat our Christmas tree, its lights glowing amongst the baubles* and pine needles*. I stared at it. I couldn’t see them, but I knew that at the base of the tree, there were gifts wrapped in bows, waiting to be opened. The life I had – a loving wife, a comfortable home, an unborn child – was now just a turn of the key away. I had come so close to losing it all, but I hadn’t.
Standing on that step and listening to my wife coming down the stairs, I began to cry.
I was grateful beyond words.
We have a baby girl. She was born on Christmas Day. We called her Angela, our little angel. Like the sun, everything revolves around her. Once, I used to put my head down on my pillow at night and not wake up again until morning. Not now. Nowadays, I’m lucky if I get three hours uninterrupted* sleep. But I don’t mind. I’m a father; I’m an incredibly proud, incredibly lucky father. Sometimes when Angela wakes me up at night, I don’t get back to sleep again. Usually, I take a spare duvet* and go downstairs into the living room. Then I sit and think about that night in the Fish and Chip shop. I haven’t told Helen anything about it. As far as she knows, the car broke down and I had to walk part of the way home.
I know it’s better to lie, but I wish I could tell her.
I look at my watch and take a sip of my tea. I’ve been awake since four, when Angela woke me up. It is nearly six now and still dark outside. There is also snow on the ground. Even if I couldn’t see it lying on the top of cars, I would know: snow and neon streetlights create an unmistakable orange glow. I shiver at the thought of stepping out, but there is no alternative: I used the last remaining nappy* last night. I’ll get some more – no big deal*. There is a 24hr supermarket a mile away. I’ll take the car and be back in twenty minutes.
After I clear the snow off the car and get the car started, I put the heater on full and wait for the car to warm up. The warm air blowing on my legs feels good. I think of little Angela sleeping in her cot* all cozy and wrapped up in blankets. I smile. She is safe and warm and in my life. I drive off and head for the supermarket. Everything around me is deserted. I am in a snow desert. But up ahead is a junction. It is the turn that takes me onto the main road. The road I am on has been salted and covered in grit, but I slow almost to a crawl nonetheless. Next to the turn, there is bus shelter. I apply the brakes gently, getting ready to turn. I check to my left. All clear. As begin to turn right, I see that there is someone in the shelter. The person is huddled on the ground, covered with a light blanket. I feel suddenly sorry for this poor soul. Maybe I should stop and give the person some money or help in some way. As I move onto the main road, the person in the shelter suddenly sits up. I only get a glimpse, but I am sure. I am sure it is George. I am on the main road now. It has been cleared of snow. There are other cars, behind and in front. I pick up speed. I look in the mirror. George is still sitting up. He is watching me drive away. I can feel his eyes. They are locked onto my car. I press the accelerator harder. I watch in the mirror until George and the shelter have disappeared.
Until they have become nothing but a memory.
a big deal* – an important thing
abruptly* – suddenly
annoyed* – angry, irritated
anxious* – worried
barging* – pushing
baubles*- spherical decorations
betrayal* – disloyalty, bad faith, treachery
bisected*– cut in half
blurred* – not sharp
bound* – tied
broad* – wide
bulging* – sticking out
canister* – container
charity* – an organisation that relies on (cash) gifts in order to help others
clatter* – loud noise, especially because hard objects smash together
concentrate* – focus
contorted* – moved to form strange shapes
cot* – a baby’s bed
counter* – place in a shop where customers are served
decorations*– adornments, things that beautify (esp. Christmas decorations)
deliberate* – with careful thought, planned
delicious* – good tasting
dragged* – pulled in order to move something heavy
drained* – emptied
dull* – not sharp, not distinct
duvet* – a warm blanket
eerily* – strangely, frighteningly
erupting* – coming out suddenly
flashed* – shone briefly
flicker – an unsteady light, light that shows briefly
frantic*– very distressed, upset
fundraiser – someone whose job is to raise cash for a charity
furious* – very angry
gasping* – breathing very heavily
gestured*– moved hands in order to signal something
greasy* – fatty, oily
grumbled*– made an angry sound, complained
hesitated* – delay, move uncertainly
homeless* – without a home
insomnia* – the inability to sleep
jerked* – moved, pulled suddenly
looming* – overhanging, threatening
lurched* – moved suddenly and unsteadily
maniac* – madman, lunatic
morning sickness* – nausea and vomiting that pregnant women have
mumbling* – talking indistinctly
muttered* – said in a low, unclear voice
nappy* – a diaper, a piece of material wrapped around a baby’s bottom
no big deal* – not a big problem
no signal* – the phone cannot locate a mobile phone service provider
out of battery* – there was no more power, the battery was flat
petrol gauge* – instrument that shows how much petrol there is
pine needles* – the leaves of a pine tree
pregnant* – will have a child soon
presumed* – assumed, guessed
rage* – anger
ragged* – not regular
receded* – grew more distant, became further away
repulsed* – disgusted
ruse* – trick
shivered* – shook because of the cold
snatching* – picking up quickly
soup kitchen* – a place that offers free food
spine* – backbone
spit* – the water in one’s mouth
struggle* – fight against
stunned* – surprised, knocked into a semi-conscious state
stunned*– knocked out, half-conscious
terrified* – very, very frightened
thrashed* – moved violently
thrashed* – moved violently
thumbing a lift* – signalling to a driver you want to be taken somewhere
tips* – ends of
turn its back* – ignore
unblinking* – not opening and closing
uninterrupted* – not broken or disturbed
weaving* – moving from side to side