“Now I can tell you what happened,” whispered my husband Mel when the children had finished eating and gone to play in the other room. He did have a strange expression on his face when he came back from the Fish N’ Chip shop with our dinner, a cat that ate the canary kind of smirk, but he said nothing until the children were out of earshot. It was his first visit to England and we were staying with my mother in the house where I grew up on Marks Gate Estate in Chadwell Heath. We were all tired after a long day of sight-seeing in London and nobody felt like cooking. So Mel offered to go round the corner to the Fish N’ Chip shop on Rose Lane and pick up dinner. He felt proud that he could go it alone, having spent a couple of weeks getting used to deciphering the London accent. He had also learned about ordering fish and chips, that you have to specify the kind of fish and that one of the choices is plaice, a fish unknown in America. But it turned out that the timing of his expedition would give him quite a different immersion in English culture.
This is the story he told at the now childless dinner table: he gave his order and the young man at the counter told him it would be a few minutes wait as he was just putting a fresh batch of fish into the fryer. As Mel stepped aside to wait an attractive young woman came into the shop. But she was no ordinary customer in search of fish. She flung off her coat revealing her generously proportioned and quite naked upper body. Something skimpy gave a hint of modesty to her nether regions. Singing Happy Birthday, breasts bouncing in time to the beat, she danced around the counter to greet the young man. Pushing him into a chair she sat on his lap, kissing and cuddling up to him. The older man who had obviously organized this surprise Strippergram stood off to the side laughing at the blushing birthday boy’s discomfiture.
At this point things got even weirder. An elderly man entered the shop and walked up to the counter. The topless young woman jumped up and, leaning over the counter the better to display her attributes, asked him “What’ll you have luv?” He calmly gave his order and she took it in a business-like manner. The old chap didn’t react at all, as though this was an everyday occurrence. The two men waited patiently for their orders while more tomfoolery went on behind the counter. At last the stripper handed them their fish and chips and they left the shop without a word or even a raised eyebrow. My husband was once more impressed with the legendary British spirit of “keep calm and carry on.”
Mel managed to keep his voice to a whisper as he told his story but our gasps and giggles in reaction were unrestrained. And we underestimated the determination of little ears to prick up when they think something is being kept from them. At one point the seven-year-old boy’s voice piped up from the other room, “He said she was naked!” Parental discretion had been for naught. My mother was quite indignant at hearing of such shenanigans in the neighborhood. “Well I’ve never seen such a thing in all my years here!” she insisted, as though she worried Mel would think it went on all the time. We marveled at how he had happened on that exact moment in the history of the Rose Lane Fish N’ Chip shop to pay a visit. But the story had the biggest impact on the teenage boy at the table who had declined to accompany his father pleading exhaustion. His laughter had a rueful quality.
The fish and chips, by the way, were excellent.