Fish Shop Tale

I walked into a small fish and chip shop the other day in Riviersonderend and all those remembered smells assail me; fish, burning oil, fried chips. The oil gets in the back of your throat and in your hair. Feet slide in the slick of oil on the floor.

It takes me back to the days that I owned a fish shop in Muizenberg. Its Friday and tonight has been busy, like the shop hasn't been since I bought it. It had taken time and patience to get Friday evenings going again because "Vula", the previous owners wife used to shut up shop early. The staff nicknamed her "Vula" the Xhosa word for "close" because of her propensity to shut up shop early and go home. She hated the shop and did everything in her power to get out as soon as possible and so by 5 pm on a Friday the shop was shut before the Friday rush could start and so the rush was lost to other more energetic shops.

Friday is make or break for a fish and chip shop. This Friday, I had the usual quota of three staff, Lizzie the manageress, who taught me all I know about running a fish shop, Mary, her side kick who nearly burnt the shop down when drunk and John the back yard man who goes about his inscrutable way, not sharing much, cleaning fish, dumping scales, rolling potatoes in the in the potato peeler. Not too long otherwise your profits wash down the drain.

Tonight was good. People queueing for the first time patient, friendly, amiable. Good vibe. The surge dies at 8.Friday evening and three tired, cold men arrive at the counter. Hungry. Driven from Secunda. Last money in the tank to get them to Simon's Town. Jobs at the dockyard, contractor hiring welders. Payback next Friday. Honest. Earnest looks, not pleading just hopeful, desperate.

Beggars are good at desperate. Beggar stock in trade is desperation. Dad was a welder, so I am biased, but the staff aren't. What have the staff to do with all of this? Simple, after being a soft touch for all the beggars in Muizenberg, I'd instituted a democratic method for saving my profits. The staff all get to vote on freebies for beggars, which means that I don't have to feel like a murderer and a hard hearted beast. The system is simple, a good story gets you are freebie, a bad one gets you out of there hungry. And you have to have a 100% yes vote, no exceptions. The staff enjoy the chance to have a say, even John comes out of the back yard, listens then votes.

The staff listen earnestly and politely to the welders story. After some muttering, the staff vote unanimously for fish and chips all round, three parcels, more than the normal cost because it is normally only one beggar, not three. They are grateful, as beggars always are, but dignified. They will be back next week. The staff and I smile, nod politely and write the cost off to a good story.

The next Friday comes and goes, no men, no desperation, no failed job application. They don't return and I write them off as looking for another handout. The vote system works well that way because they know one chance is all they will get.

Two weeks down the line, and the shop is busy, we have definitely turned a corner and, once again Friday is going to break all records. It is now 8:30, the staff and I are shutting up shop. I am exhausted but at last I have hope in my heart, we are going to make it. A small victory in what was beginning to feel like an endless mindless and unremitting slot. Suddenly the small shop is awash with three drunken, ecstatic welders. Payday last week went on lodgings, food and money borrowed against payday. Today there is sufficient money for 6 parcels, three taken on account two weeks ago, three taken now and eaten on the pavement on our plastic chairs carried out there by the staff for the feast, in celebration and in acknowledgement of a good story with a surprising twist in the tail.