Al gave the basket a good shake in a failed attempt to dislodge a chip that had bent itself around the meshing in the bottom corner. He angled it to the side and shook again. Still no luck.
“I’m gunna pitch a fit with you in a second, Mister –” he muttered. Aware that his hands were starting to shake now, he placed the basket back in the fryer. The unmistakable sizzle sounded out.
“So I’ve heard you won’t be heading back to Ireland?” said Mrs Joyce, the newsagent’s widow, when the sizzling had calmed from a frantic assault to a quieter, more rhythmic hissing.
“Ain’t gonna happen Miss Joyce. Ain’t nobody I know there anymore,” he said, turning back to the chips before he had a chance to gauge her reaction.
“Well,” she said, gulping, “how nice that you’ll still be around here. We’ll be seeing you, well in here as a customer, perhaps.”
Al gave out an affirmative grunt as his fingers struggled to open a paper cone in preparation for pouring the chips in. He felt heavy from the heat. It was high time to hang his chip basket up. 83 was not an age for any of this, but still he couldn’t help feeling apprehension of what was to come.
“75 isn’t anything in this day and age, you know?” said Mrs Joyce, switching her glance several times between Al and Deborah at the till. “Look at Doris Johnson. She went to the market in Harrogate last week you know? On the bus, and everything. 96 and right as rain! Fit as a finely tuned fiddle!”
Al turned around to watch the chips cool. He wanted to say: ‘Yeah, except ol’ Doris ain’t had one thousandth of the life I’ve had’. A few bumps raised themselves on the ridge of a particularly chunky chip as the steam wafted aimlessly from the basket. Al patted his apron at the side of his bulging stomach. It had been a lot worse. 40 years of just frying fish and running had improved his physique no end, but now the aches and pains from that time of excess were returning. What he feared much more than any physical deterioration was all the time. Time to think about it all. About the past life that he had done so well to lock away but was now stood at the door with a knock, knock, knock that was getting harder to ignore.
“Where are you from in Ireland again?” asked Mrs Joyce, as Al handed her a cone of warm chips.
“Oh, nowhere in particular, kind of middle o’ nowhere, if you know what I mean?” he replied.
“Oh,” she said as Deborah tapped a few melodic chirps at the till and Mrs Joyce slid a five pound note towards her on the counter.
Deborah turned to Al to smile and shake her head. He saw the quizzical look in his boss’s eye that showed she remembered the occasion a couple of years ago a family from Limerick had stopped by on the way back from the York races, and Al had served them in an evasive silence. Still, Deborah wasn’t the sort to ask questions she knew would be uncomfortable. In fact, nobody was in the entire village. That is what made it the perfect place to retire too. Well, retire from his previous life. And now he was retiring again, leaving the fish and chip trade.
“What time do you make it, Al?” Deborah asked a couple of minutes after Mrs Joyce left. “That clock says 3:20 but my phone says 3:14.”
“Ermm, my watch says ten past,” said Al.
He was due to finish his shift at four. His final shift. He was standing on the edge of a black hole he didn’t want to look down. The ticking of the clock heaved at his heart. Amid all the fumes of battered fish, fried chips and the cloggy whiff of mushy peas he could smell the bitterness all over the shop left from his row with Deborah earlier in the week. Linda McCulfey the teacher had let the secret slip when ordering a jumbo sausage on Tuesday lunchtime – Deborah had contacted the Harrogate Gazette on the quiet, begging them to take photos and run a story on Al’s retirement. Al had immediately stormed out and gone to his flat, telling Deborah he would only come back to work when she confirmed she had cancelled the photographers. He was sorry for making her wince when he threw his apron over the counter and slammed the door in the middle of the lunchtime rush. She would have loved some positive press for the shop instead of an incident that was likely to be talk of the village for years to come – and cast doubt on the people her business employed. He had done what he had to do though. The hair may have gone – after a short period of wearing wigs, he had kept it shaved until it simply stopped growing – and the face had shredded all its earlier roundness, but he couldn’t run the risk of being recognised. Couldn’t Google even recognise a face these days? It was definitely time to call it a day. What with all the mobile phone cameras, his luck would run out at some stage.
“I’ll go in the back and check the delivery sheets. I thought Barry would be dropping off the goujons by now,” said Deborah.
“Right you are,” said Al.
He grabbed a couple of handfuls of potatoes to take to the sink. He could feel another flashback coming on. His mind wandered far away from the steel sink that Deborah’s late father Frank had proudly installed in 1998. He remembered instead the gold tap and the mirror dotted with lights. Folk swatting around him like ants checking his clothing. Someone squeezing a pill through his lips to weed out any remaining nerves. The feeling of immense power at being a rock everyone wanted to flock to. Tarred by an undercurrent of sadness at not feeling entirely human. A constant feeling of being ready to explode.
Al turned the tap to its fullest to flush out the memories. He splashed a little cold water on his forehead. He then spent several seconds focusing on the flow of the water. He recalled the words of his psychiatrist back then for the ten-thousandth time: “It’s not enough to feel like a new person. You need to be a whole new person. Focus on the little details of life like a child would. That’s the only way this will work.”
Al closed his eyes to focus on the sharp roar of the water hitting the sink basin and turned the tap closed. He opened his eyes and felt a bead of sweat drip down. He was losing his power to shut out that past life. Fear creeped up his spine once more. The pleasant memories were coming to tempt him, but when he let them in, it would only be a matter of time before all the desperate lows flooded back too.
‘Ah so be it,’ he thought, as he brushed a well-rounded King Edward potato. ‘I may have had two very different halves of my life, but at some point they have to come together into a whole’. He smiled at how proud Jerry the Shrink would be to know he was still here. He wondered if Jerry was still alive. He had thought a few times about getting some message out to him. Surely curiosity would have gnawed away at Jerry too. He would have wanted to see if his top secret plan, his very own footnote in history, had worked out. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to find Jerry had been traveling the world, scanning millions of faces, just hoping to see Al.
Al snapped out of his daze at the sound of the shop door swinging open. He staggered around to see Mumbling Maud sweeping towards the counter with her tiny robotic steps. He checked the clock. Twenty to four. It could be the last customer he ever served.
Reflecting on that had a strange affect as Al felt some of the energy of his early years, which he had spent so long feigning and then suppressing altogether, swirling up inside him again.
“Hey honey, how you doin’?” asked Al, finally dropping his faked Irish accent.
Maud grabbed the handle of her shopping basket and looked up, startled.
“Hmm, mmm, huh – you still here, are you? I thought you’d be gone by now?”
“Yes, dearie, I’m finishing 40 years of service at four o’clock. Which means for another 20 minutes I’m all yours.”
“Hmmm,” said Maud. “A haddock please, I’d say, though not a big one. And just cooked gently so it’s still soft.”
“Comin’ right up, madam!” said Al. He went to the fridge to take a haddock fillet to toss in the fryer.
“Some like them soft, some like them hard. Then some like both, I hear,” he said as the sizzling pitched up. Maud continued to silently grasp her shopping basket handle.
Al thought back to the women now. That had been the hardest thing to give up, despite age helping to dampen his passions a little. Not the wife, of course, that had all been a sham really. Memories of embracing his first loves, had stayed with him, and then he felt a tingle of excitement, and power, at all the conquests in later years. How he had kept Jerry the Shrink’s advice to steer clear of the fairer sex he would never know. Was it one of the injections they’d given him before he made the big move? Or Jerry’s mantra – ‘One wrong move and it’ll all be over. The End.’ – which Al still repeated each day at the breakfast table in his council flat. And then there was the daughter. Damn. That was the brick wall that his flashbacks, his memories always ending running into. Leaving her was a sadness he could never suppress. Folk do even worse, and to everyone there I was as good as dead. That’s what Al kept telling himself, and it may have been a branch that felt very flimsy at times among the deluge of regrets, but that’s all he had to hold onto, and hold onto it he must.
“I had a life before I came to work in this place, you know?” he said. He wasn’t quite sure if he was addressing Maud, the haddock, Deborah – who could be heard shifting boxes around at the back – or the whole world.
“Oh yes, I have heard. You came from errr, Ireland wasn’t it?” asked Maud.
“No ma’am that was all a bit of bull, if I can be frank,” said Al, smiling at seeing the bubbling in the fat pan.
“I actually came all the way from Memphis, Tennessee. Except folk didn’t call me Al back then – they only put that on the counterfeit documents. A Christian name with just the two letters would speed things up, so they said. As a matter of fact, I used to go by the name of Mr Elvis Presley.”
A small chunk of batter dislodged itself from the haddock and floated to the top of the pan.
“Can I have a small amount of mushy peas on the fish when it’s ready, but no vinegar please?” asked Maud.
“Of course you can honey” said Elvis. He grinned at his last chance of relishing the insignificance working in this place had gifted him. He wrapped the haddock in paper and handed it over the counter.
“On the house!” he announced, as Maud was fumbling to open her purse.
He took off his apron and hung it up on the hooks behind the counter.
“If you see Deborah, tell her I’ve retired ten minutes early,” he said.
He left the building at the exact time the sun peered out from behind the clouds on the winter afternoon. Dazzled in light he felt like he was taking to the stage again at the International Hotel in Vegas. He could taste some of that one more time if he wrote to the papers; if he confessed to just one of the many millions of people who he had touched in his previous life more than Mumbling Maud. An ache nagged at his knee as he walked along past a mother with a pushchair and a gaggle of school children. ‘Or more likely not a soul will believe me, and I’ll be locked away’ he realised. Time to put the feet up for good.