After the box hefting and relationship councelling of last time, ‘Anton’ went back to Leeds to rewire a kitchen for one of his untrusting elderly Asian clientele, and Joe and I went on a chip run to Beccles. Beccles is a pleasant East Anglian boating town where Chris Martin* and John Lemman** were born and, reaching the front of the compulsory fish-on-Friday queue at the Sea Spray Fish Shop, I put our order in. Joe is a regular patron, and the chip shop lady knew to include the ‘bin liner of chips’ he always buys for his thirty four children. I also remembered to ask for ‘Large chips and chicken strips, for Joe’s mrs’, who refuses to eat fish because it is weird.
‘Child or adult?’, asked the chip shop lady, a scarlet barrel of a woman in a hairnet.
‘She’s thirty-four’, I said. It seemed a strange question.
‘Child or adult size?’, clarified the chip shop lady, demonstrating the difference in chicken parts, a detail I had missed among the salting and the vinegaring and the wrapping stuff in up paper. We established it was the adult size and I left, saying something about having to pick Joe’s mrs up from nursery, which got a larf.
The point of recording this exchange was not to suggest Joe might have married a child by accident, but an episode that occurred some years ago in the early hours of a January morning in the Lighthouse Fish Bar at Tooting Bec. I had spent the preceeding evening at the Wheatsheaf with John the Boxes, the richest market trader in London and, swaying gently, realised that my childhood was over. Children aren’t allowed to drink alcohol because they just spill it everywhere, so it was nothing to do with being up the pub. It was when Mo the chip shop man offered me a choice of cod and chips accompaniments, and I realised that somewhere in the Unknowable a tiny wheel had turned, an obscure planet had re-aligned, and I now preferred peas to beans in this, and all, circumstances. I discussed the revelation in a distraught manner with Mo until he asked if I needed him to call me a cab home.
My current girlfriend states that her childhood ended with the realisation that her favourite building was now North Finchley public library, and no longer the bouncy castle next to the Eiffel Tower. Parenthood has also ushered in a joint appreciation of Rich Tea biscuits which, as a youthful postman in Slough washing down a packet of chocolate Hob Nobs with a pint of full fat milk every morning outside the corner shop at the end of Park Street, I would have considered unmanly. I suppose all these things are not so much rites of passage, which are big obvious things like getting into your first fight or paying to get into the cinema instead of sneaking up the fire exit, or parenthood, but subtle life markers. After all, ‘life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans’, as John Lennon*** famously said, although he had taken quite a lot of heroin by then and was in any case merely quoting a Reader’s Digest article from 1957. Anyway, I understand the gist of the ‘life v other plans’ sentiment, but resent the glibness, because life is other plans. ‘Other plans’ for John Lennon included forming the most beloved and influential entertainment phenomenon in the history of the world****, but all the while he was slowly preferring peas to beans because, whether he liked it or not, life was happening to him.
Other life markers include, of course, death. I cut Mr Matthews’ hair last Wednesday, and on Thursday he died. The events are unrelated – he was 94, although amazingly not my oldest client – and while it is a blow to my small mobile barbering business, it would be crass to dwell upon this as the most noteworthy thing about it. No, I am sure from the conversations we shared that he greeted it with acceptance, free from significant mental deterioration or the particularly determined tumours and lurking congenital defects that have already afflicted my own circle of friends and peers as we march towards middle age. These concerns were unlikely to trouble Mr Matthews, who felt that all his life’s bad luck was taken by his brother, who died as a child when the Germans bombed Coventry. He once said that he used to worry about having created no cultural legacy of literature or art to leave when he died, but in the end realised this was because he was simply ‘a very ordinary man’, and had failed to consider what a blessing this was.
I am hard pressed to imagine a more ordinary death than that of Mr Matthews – half past ten in the morning, watching the regional news – and, as a widely loved man, he needs no further commemoration from me. I therefore congratulate him on a race well run and causing me to consider, with Joe on the way home from the chippie in an ex-Post Office van, that sooner or later everyone prefers peas to beans, but as long as you have one or the other, things are looking up. Never tomato sauce with a roast though. That’s very common.
*The Derby Country striker, not the lead singer of Coldplay.
**The seventeenth century Lord Mayor of London, not the Beatle.
***The Beatle, not the seventeenth century Lord Mayor of London.
****The Beatles, not the office of Lord Mayor of London.
Main – East Anglian village fete. The orchestra were playing the theme to Match of the Day slightly too slowly at the time.
Top – Mari Bowen, Nid’s maternal great-great-great-great-grandmother, who took part in the Rebecca Riots of 1843. These were a series of civil disturbances sparked off by punitive tax reforms, and notable for the male rioters dressing as women for some reason.
Middle – Thomas Phillips, Nid’s maternal great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, a master mariner on the transatlantic route from Cardigan Bay to Waltham, Massachusetts. I wonder what his views on his riotous grand daughter were.
Lower – Nid in a graveyard, after I had to remove him from a Christening service for running around the church shouting ‘Daddy!’ and ‘Bingits!’ [biscuits]. Strange to think that whatever he achieves he will one day be an obscure name on a family tree, too.