Just the usual, thanks

25 November 2020

Few operations rival the sheer coordination, precise communication and military-grade timing of a well-run fish and chip shop at six-thirty on a Friday night. To witness a fish and chip shop going at full tilt, gears turning, pistons firing, is a strange wonder. Like the engine of a running car, its finely tuned system of inputs and outputs chugs along in a vaguely miraculous way. By the same token, a fish and chip shop in disarray—overwhelmed, understaffed, patrons sharing concerned glances—is a calamity of the highest order. A bottleneck on the fries, a shortage of dim sims, a faulty card reader—all can bring an otherwise well-functioning store to its knees.

My local fish and chip shop has always been the Aston Martin of fish and chip shops. The weekly visit remains the one resilient routine still standing as all others have fallen away. When everything outside its four walls seems up in the air, it has become a bedrock of consistency. “Ready in 15 minutes”—shouted down the phone-line above a clatter of noise—means ready in 15 minutes. No sooner, no later. Upon arrival you’ll see ten or so employees crammed behind the counter, locked in a frantic rhythm like the bees of an especially efficient colony. A middle-aged Asian man, clearly the head of the operation, stands coolly at the till, exchanging warm paper packages for cash and credit cards as his workers swarm around him. To pick up an order from this particular shop is to observe a masterclass in small business management. 

So came my surprise, last Friday, when I was regretfully informed that I would have to wait a few more minutes for my order. The grill was full, the till-man explained, feeling as if some sort of justification was necessary. I pushed back against the white-tile wall—alongside the other customers in a way that resembled a police line-up—and watched on. I could see that the grill was indeed full. Each beef patty and grilled flake had been expertly arranged to maximise its limited real estate. It was operated by a small hunched woman, whom, from their subtle communicative gestures, I judged to be the wife of the till-man. He would a turn a fraction towards her, she’d flash two fingers and receive an affirmative nod. Two minutes. The rest of the crew consisted of a small army of teenagers. They worked the fryers, manned the phones, wrapped the orders and scrawled monogrammatic labels on them in blue texta. 

Tonight, each cog in the machine was noticeably stretched to its limits. There was tension in the greasy air. One of the boys in charge of taking phone orders scolded another for forgetting—again—to note down the time on the relevant slip of paper. The deep fryer popped and its operator yelped as the grease singed his arm. The sound was mimicked playfully by a few of the other workers, before a stern look from the till-man swiftly reminded them of their duties. But it was too late. Equilibrium had been lost, and the usually well-oiled machine was slowly slogging up the hill of peak time. 

Meanwhile, a common restlessness descended upon the queue of customers. The human chain, spaced appropriately, simmered with the invisible energy of hunger. An energy manifest in the kinetic forms of foot-tapping and phone-scrolling and mask-fidgeting. Most listened out intently for the till-man, pouncing at first syllables and then retreating; Beth walked out with the greasy treasure that had, for one orgasmic millisecond, been claimed in the mind of Ben. Those clacking plastic strips became a sort of finish line. A final checkpoint declaring the ultimate Friday night victory. I could taste the cool air on the other side. Any minute now.

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