‘Frying Tonight’. This notice, chalked on a board outside Guinea’s, our local JL chip shop, heralded the weekly highlight of our long winter walk home from school. It had opened for business soon after the Second World War.
There was a bow window to the left, and the entrance was down several wide wooden steps. The gleaming fryer was on the left while the remaining space serv ed as standing room for the customers. At each end of the scrubbed counter stood shakers containing salt and vinegar.
The shop always seemed to be full, and we pushed our way into the crowd prepared for what seemed to be an interminable wait. We watched, fascinated, as the patron carried in a container shaped like a loaf tin which was full of creamy batter. Alongside was a plate of flour. Next came a platter piled high with overlapping pieces of white fish.
He laid each piece of fish in the flour, first one side then the other, before lowering it into the batter. He coated it by using a deft back and forth motion, reminiscent of a painter, before lowering it into the sizzling fat. When all the pieces were in the fryer, the lid was closed.
Into the neighbouring fryer went the chips, which had been peeled using a rotary gadget clamped to a wooden table, and chipped by hand.
It seemed to take ages before the fish and chips were ready. The air of expectation each time one of the hatches was drawn back was quickly dashed when, after a quick swish or rapid squeeze of a hot chip, die hatch was closed firmly again.
At last the doors of the heated cabinet were rolled up and wire basketfuls of golden chips were banged on the edge of the fryer to drain before being thrown against the glass to tantalise us with their sight and smell. Next came the fish, tipped in then gingerly moved by finger and thumb until all were neatly ranged on end alongside the chips.
Now it was time to begin serving. Chips were shovelled into small bags placed neatly, facing inwards, on a square of greaseproof paper. More chips were scattered on, portions of fish placed atop the pile and the whole doused generously with salt and vinegar before being wrapped in layers of inky newspaper.
Chips cost threepence. If we were lucky we had a threepenny piece each, sometimes one
between us. As there appeared to be no queue the adults, being taller, were always served first, and by the time we got close enough for our waving coin to be seen and our order heard, the first batch had been sold and there was a further wait while more fish and chips were fried.
Eventually, clutching a bag of chips laced liberally with salt and vinegar, and a good shovelful of scraps – those delicious crumbles of batter which fell from the fish – we pushed our way out of the steamy warmth into the damp of a winter afternoon. I can still see our friend holding up his bag and biting off the comer to suck out the vinegar which had collected in the bottom.
I don’t remember sampling the fish until years later, when Guinea’s had closed and another shop had opened further along the street, functioning as a ‘wet’ fish shop by day and a traditional chippy at night.
Standing in the new shop, viewing the white tiles, bright lights and large bottles of jewel-coloured Corona, I was filled with nostalgia for the jostling and pushing of warm bodies in the dimly-lit, greasy atmosphere of our old shop down the street.