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Flash Fiction: A fish out of water

By Jo Howell

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Koi carp by Jo Howell 2018

A fish out of water by Jo Howell

Just as she lay the large white cod into the sizzling fat, a sharp pain ran through her arm. The batter fizzed, and she glanced down. Once again she had managed to stick her flesh to the metal cage of the fryer. Holding her wince to a minimum, she turned and smiled at Rob the Knob. 

He was waiting patiently on the other side of the counter. He was the last customer in the shop. He smiled back at her. His mouth widening to reveal his blackened teeth. There were many holes where she assumed the other teeth used to live. 

She had no idea how old Rob the Knob was. He had been a regular at the shop for many years. Her mam had even warned her when she was younger to be careful, not to be alone with him at night, for fear that he would chase you around the kitchen counter for a dirty grope. For all Karen knew, he could be as ancient as Methuselah!

Or, he could be a fifty-something year old smack rat. She surmised from his wrinkles that he was much older than her. He had a leathery, but kind face, and he always wore a tatty brown flat cap to cover his baldy head. There was a half burnt cigarette behind his ear, emanating the smell of stale smoke, and in the top pocket of his shirt, one of the little pens from the bookies had leaked. His clothes were old, and raggedy, so the blue stain didn’t look out of place. 

Rob was old school. He’d worked in the ship yards until they closed down, then he’d stolen lead from church roofs for a while, before sinking into a terrible pit of despair when his wife died. That’s when he became a moonshine quaffing alcoholic. For nearly 30 years he had lived the half life of a feeble drunk. Rising to see the sunshine on the weekly jaunt to the bookies to make his bets on the dogs. As far as Karen knew, he had never won anything of consequence, but he went out religiously to place the bets regardless.

Whatever, it didn’t really matter.

Number one rule for Karen was: Do not hold eye contact with him for too long. 

Otherwise, he had a tendency to lean over the counter and breathe his rancid breath in your face. Being a moonshine drinker, Karen reckoned that his breath could probably strip paint. So, she didn’t want him stripping her face back anymore than it already was!

She ran her finger along the red angry mark left by the burn, and glanced at the clock. Time to turn the fish. She dipped the ladle into the fat, and scooped the cod on top of it. Three quick shakes to get the fat off the top, and flip it back into the fryer. It was going to be another 4 minutes before she could drain the fat off, pack up his scran, and send him on his way. 

The end of the Saturday night was always the longest part of the whole week. She had spent the last 3 hours intermittently on Facebook, or checking out Dwayne the Rock Johnson on Instagram. Nothing had been happening in her social sphere other than the usual parade of babies, weddings, and celebrity deaths. 

Keeping herself looking busy, she turned her back to Rob, so that she could rearrange the polythene cartons. Her mam had been working during the day, and whenever she gets the chip trays out of the plastic wrap, she never puts them out on the counter the way that Karen likes! It was a good excuse for her to ignore him a little longer.

 From behind her, Karen heard a small snort that sent a shiver running down her spine, she cringed. Rob was letting her know that he was getting an eyeful of her arse through the cheap sheer fabric of her fish shop uniform. She had always meant to buy better uniforms, but they felt like a luxury when business was this slow. She wanted some with the logo of the shop embroidered on the breast. 

“Chip off the auld block.” 

Fish and Chip experts of the North East…. 

Fish bowl, 2023 cyanotype by Jo Howell

And, some nice thick fabric to protect her body from the spitting fat, as well as the perverts! Though his perversion pained her, having her back to him was still far better than talking to him.

Now, Karen was aware that she probably wasn’t an oil painting herself either. Her hair was covered in chip grease, and quite frankly she smelled of fish. Even so, standards had to be upheld! Just because he bought chips didn’t mean he bought titillation too!

“Stop gawping you old git!” 

She shouted as she turned quickly looking over her shoulder, and catching him in the act.

“Eeee… Sorry pet. If only I was a few years younger, eh?” 

He leaned towards her and winked. His eye stayed closed for far too long because he was pissed as a fart. He swayed a little and released a pungent burp. Then he looked shocked. Like he had never burped before.

He was truly vile. She sighed audibly. All the blokes around here were the same. Lifeless, smelly drunks. Living for a pint of bitter with the lads Friday through Sunday, and rolling home to the wife to stink out the bedroom with little brown ghosts… She was glad to be rid of all that!

Deep down she felt a small pang of guilt. Rob the Knob wasn’t a bad person as such. In fact, of all of the drunks who frequented the shop after a skin-full on a Saturday night, he was easily in her top three. Apart from the odd dirty comment, and the blatant staring at her arse, he was no harm. He always gave her a bottle of home-brew at Christmas. It tasted grim, but it was as strong as rocket fuel! 

Stephen Seagull

The first Christmas that he had given her a bottle to take home, she had polished it off all on her own. Then she had fallen in the snow in the back yard, and had gotten a clip off her mam for acting the goat. Living with her mam at the age of 44 meant that she could still receive the occasional clip across the ear for messing about. After that Karen had shared the home-brew with her mam, Janice, ensuring that they were both out of their tree therefore rendering her unable to give out any ‘clips’.

“Do ya want it wrapped Rob?” 

She knew he never had it wrapped, but it was a necessary politeness, and force of habit.

“Nah Karen. Can ya stick lashings of salt ’n’ vinegar on it? And loads o’ batter an all.”

“Aye, no bother pet. Same as always eh?” She threw the vinegar on until the smell made her heady, and dusted the fish with snowy peaks of salt.

“Aye pet, nee change here.” 

He grinned again as she deftly wrapped the base of the fish lot up in fake newspaper to save his hands from the heat. 

She handed him the warm greasy parcel, and put the £4.50 he gave her in to the till. He always gave her the correct amount. He saved his fish lot money in his sock, only using the money from his pocket to buy drinks. This always made Karen feel a little bit sick. Why was she the one who had to handle his sweaty sock money?! 

“Same time next week pet!” He waved and staggered out of the door into the cold night air. She saw him brace himself against the wind. He threw a piece of fish in to his mouth as he gave her one final wave through the glass. 

The clock said 11.55pm. 

Tonight had been a long and lonely shift. Times were hard at the moment, and she had spent the whole staff budget for the week on asking Nicole to cover Sunday. Karen was feeling exhausted. She’d been covering the shop a lot more since her mam was waiting on the hip operation. 

Her poor mam had started the fish shop donkeys years ago, and it was driving her mad to not be working all of the hours that God sends. Sometimes during the day she would come in to cover the till while Karen did the cooking, but sitting on the tall stool at the till aggravated her hip even more. So, with great sadness she had asked Karen to take over the whole thing until she was feeling better. That was nearly 2 years ago.

And, the boys were absolutely useless when they were in. More money went missing than was made or saved! So there was only her and Nicole holding it together at the moment. 

Oh well, shit happens and you just get on with it, don’t you? 

It’s always been that way. She was cut from the same cloth as her mother. 

Both were eternally dissatisfied, but driving forces just the same. Modern Boudicca’s fighting the world on their own, whilst struggling to run a failing fish shop.

Her dad had left her mother high and dry in the 80’s, when she was only 9 years old. As far as she could gather, (for her mother hated the mention of him, even after all these years), that he had set up home with some fancy woman in Scotland. Karen had spent her childhood being the same as the many other kids on their road who had a mysteriously missing dad. 

Everyone had their own story: My dad’s off fishing… My dad’s in the RAF… My dad’s doing important government work… My dad was eaten by a shark… etc.

When in reality all of the stories were similar to her own. The dads had gone off to chase younger women. Having taken everything that they could from the mothers of their children, it was common place to divorce and run off.

Divorce, though rife in their street, was still not really commonplace back then. Thats why they had started the single mams ghetto, to keep the shame to one area.

By the time Karen came to divorce her own dickhead, times had changed and it had become much more acceptable. Easier. 

South Shields by Jo Howell, 2022

Snapping out of her dream, she decided that she couldn’t be bothered with anymore losers tonight. She walked across the sticky linoleum, and closed the glass door firmly. As she turned the key in the lock, and switched the sign to closed, she breathed a heavy sigh of relief. 

It was 12.35am by the time she had finally finished cleaning the displays. Her arm stung and the burn was still raised. The boiling water she used to clean the fat off everything was making it worse. Taking the Amber Leaf out of her coat she took enough tobacco out to make a skinny rollie. She had run out of filter tips so she tore a small square of card from the corner of her Rizlas. An old trick she had picked up from her son Ross who enjoyed the occasional spliff.

Grabbing up the two black bin bags in one hand, she popped the roll-up behind her ear. She pulled her coat around her. 

The weather on the coast was predominantly brutal with high winds, rain, and damp that could chill a person to the bone. 

It was pitch dark in the scruffy back yard. She could hear the rodents scuffling around. It wasn’t raining, so at least she could stand in the doorway for some shelter from the wind and have her fag in peace.

This would probably be her only quiet moment before getting back in to the house, and mum. Janice still waited up for her every night. The boys would likely still be out.

After birthing her three wayward lads, she found that the best thing to do was to just let them blow it out of their systems. After all boys will be boys; but her boys liked their mischief. Each one partial to their own brand of thievery. By God, she loved the bones of all of them, but they were tremendously hard work. 

The street lamp flickered as it partially illuminated the yard. She dragged in deeply on the cigarette. The paper crackled, and the rats at the far end seemed to startle, as there was a loud clatter from the direction of the bins. 

She hated the rats and their fat hairy bodies. She shuddered at the thought. The health inspector would shut them down if they knew. She strained her eyes to look in the shadows for them, and tried to remember if they had ever had a health inspection. Sucking on the end of her cigarette again, she wondered if she should ask her mother if health inspectors actually existed. Or, whether that was just something she had picked up from American films… 

The cardboard burned her lip, and the smoke went up in to her eye.

“Fuck!” She yelled as she rubbed the cigarette out on the wall. She grabbed the bin bags and ran across the yard in the rain, hoping that the rats would scarper.

Net by Jo Howell 2020

The metal bin smashed loudly onto the concrete yard as it rolled out from the shadows. 

She was bricking herself. This wasn’t just rats, if they were rats then they were bloody massive! 

She dropped the bags and ran back to the relative safety of the doorway. She had sharp knives just inside for peeling the eyes out of the tay-toes.

“Look, who ever is out there had better come out…” Karen waited for a reply whilst waving the knife around threateningly, but she could only hear faint whispers. It sounded like kids. If it was kids then they were out bloody late! Trembling she went back through the door into the kitchen.

“Billy Jones! If thats you and Sam, I’ll go straight down your mams with you!” 

There was still no answer from the shadow beside the bins. Feeling an unusual spasm of bravery she marched back into the kitchen, and grabbed the torch out of the emergency drawer. 

“Right you little bastards! I’m coming out with a knife!” 

Context: I started this story many years ago. After getting most of the way in, I realised that I was a cliché and some parts that I’d written weren’t really my story to tell. So, the plan is to present the bits that did work as a serialised fiction. Giving me a chance to brutally hack my story to bits, and build it back without the cliche. Well, as much as possible. If you do read it through, please let me know what you think of this instalment.

Thank you for reading! New instalment next month if there’s any call for it.

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