I don’t know quite what it was about the young lady on the fish counter that sucked me in. Glum shop assistants tend to frighten me, but then her surly pout had a definite allure. Perhaps it was also the way she used her knife. Firm, when she was swinging it down to the counter, albeit not with the brutish force the guys at the market used. Soft when she was filleting. Tender, when she was scraping out innards or hosing out all the muck that got stuck on.
There was the intriguing fact she didn’t wear gloves but also didn’t want to touch the fish with any more fingertips than were necessary. The discrete way she brought the back of her hand to cover her nose when she needed to. The casual way she was snacking on a bag of prawns, slipping rather than cracking their heads off, when I saw her leaning against the back wall of the supermarket on her break the previous day. The cold way she had ignored me when I tried to nod a hello to her then.
I suppose I could never quite describe exactly what it was. When you’re a young man, your brain is just putting together hundreds of cues and impressions before you form your opinion. Isn’t that how it works? Starting in one or two places, you say? Well, the slim outlines underneath the white coat that seemed a size or two too large for her appeared worth knowing. But what I really wanted to know was her mind. I had an urge to know how she lived, what she dreamed of, what she watched on TV, whether she ate grated tomato on a toasted baguette for breakfast like everyone did outside that little cafe.
She pulled a dripping hake out of an icy bucket to show me. It had the same sad expression in its eyes all dead fish seem to have.
She flashed a semi-smile upon seeing me licking my lips.
“That looks delicious!” I said. “Too many chips at my hotel. Not good,” I added, patting my stomach.
She brought her finger to her mouth in a mock vomiting motion and I smiled.
She turned, unusually, to chop the hake on the worktop opposite the counter that had the weighing scales on. That meant she had her back to me. I felt sure her face was smiling away out of sight. Her arms and elbows seemed to be lighter and looser as she went to work on providing me with 500 grams.
She ran the knife over the edge of the counter and cast it to one side, having decided it wasn’t sharp enough. She grabbed another.
There must be some adage said somewhere and sometime about never asking a young lady out with a knife in her hand. Clearly I was under the influence of the holiday spirit and the sun, but again, something about the moment I couldn’t possibly quantify seemed perfect.
I didn’t allow myself to back out on seeing that her glumness had returned when she span around to present the fish in a lazily tied plastic bag with the price sticker flapping off the side.
“Anything more?” she said in a muffled tone, clearly ashamed of either her English, her job or the world.
“Yes!” I said, clearing my throat, and calming myself, having been taken aback by the emphatic start to my answer. “I’m doing a Spanish course at home in England and I thought, well, it could be really nice to meet someone Spanish here to talk to. Provided you might be perhaps interested in meeting for a café con leche one afternoon?”
She looked at me blankly and tossed her knife down into a mackerel’s stomach, where it stood with its tip wedged into a hole it had pierced in the skin.
“Maybe if I could take your number?” I asked, reasoning that I could check a few words on the internet before composing a text message to better explain myself.
“I no understand,” she said.
She swapped an apologetic glance with an old woman who was standing impatiently at my side, admiring the salmon with her green paper ticket held in her fingers.
I could feel a bead of sweat at the back of my neck trickling down with the help of the powerful fan buzzing from the ceiling.
“Numero” I said, “de telefono,” moving my hand to my ears to gesture taking a call.
The same blank expression. Was my pronunciation really that terrible?
“Look” I said, holding out my paper ticket to her with the number 92 on.
“Noventa dos,” she said, reading the number out to me in Spanish.
She looked to her side as across waddled Carlos, the barrel-shaped man with a crooked nose and sweaty cheeks who worked on the cheese counter.
Why wasn’t she wearing a name tag too? If only I could put a name to the memory now, that might make it more wholesome. I suppose at the time it just added to her enigmatic charm.
Carlos grunted something inaudible that could have been “problema” then he stooped down to put his arm around the young lady on the fish counter.
Were they? Surely not? She was a beauty, and Carlos, as well as being three times the size, was at least 15 years older than her.
I heard the slow patter of flip slops interrupt the calm sound of a Spanish pop hit behind me.
“Taylor!” It was Duffers.
I turned around, alarmed.
He had a giant red bag of crisps in his left hand, while with his right hand he tried to adjust the laces on his brightly patterned swimming shorts.
“Did you find any beer yet? The United match is starting in ten minutes.”
“Oh,” I said, “no I was just – “
“Is that…fish you’ve got there?” he said, a grin spreading from cheek to cheek as he asked.
“Oh, well, it’s just a bit of hake, I thought that – “
“Put it back! We’ll get some burgers by the pool in a bit,” he said.
“Sorry about my friend, he’s a bit crazy,” he said, laughing, as I placed the white bag with six euro 70 worth of hake back on the counter.
Then I heard a buzz as the number on the electronic display above the scales turned to 93.