Rotary-Summit Daily Short Story Contest Winner: 2nd place
Keith didn’t remember the name of the restaurant. It was fish, fish and then some name before it. A made-up name, as the names of restaurants always were. Lou’s, maybe, or Harry’s. Sam’s fish and chips? It didn’t matter.
There was a painting of a cod in a top hat on the wall. Maybe not a cod. How should Keith know it was a cod? He lived by the sea, but not the kind of sea with fresh fish. Sea meant dirty gulls and pallid, second-class tourists. The gray streak beyond the piers. The cod was smiling and wearing spats. Where would you put the spats? No feet.
Sunday made it better though. Sunday was a good day, the day to put on the dark blue sweater with the hole in the left pocket you can’t see and go with Jenny to Lou’s or Harry’s or Sam’s or some other name. One thirty meant meet Patrick and Cathy there and order a cup of tea and a cod and chips please. It was madness, the tea cost 70p and was a waste, but that sort of wastefulness is allowed on Sundays. At eighty-six Keith deserved it.
It was Sunday so it was a good day. Keith and Jenny went into the restaurant. He would call it restaurant even though it was really a cafe at best. They sat down, Patrick and Cathy sat down, and the man who didn’t really speak English took their orders. A cup of tea and a cod and chips please. Mushy peas, not beans.
Keith looked out of the window. It wasn’t the nicest June Brighton had ever seen but it was there, all the same, June. There were posters in the window which he read backwards. Educational Series. Carnival on the Shore. The Seagull by Anton Chekov. Cathy was talking about her son and the to-do he’d had with the landlord, what do you get for living in Spain? Keith listened to her; he liked Cathy. She wasn’t as deaf as Patrick and she always asked after his daughter and her bad husband.
The cup of tea and cod with chips please took longer than usual to come, but Keith didn’t mind. He listened to Cathy’s story and listened to the one that Jenny told back. He’d come to expect and like the strange way women talk, story for story, with nods and tuts in between.
The cup of tea came at last, the way he liked it. He drank. It was hot and milky and good. “Got us through the Blitz,” Keith’s dad had always said. Keith wouldn’t know. He had been in Italy, far from London and its tea. When he was twenty it was cigarettes and chocolate bars. Now it was tea that kept him going.
Keith looked again at the painting of the fish, cod or not. Why the top hat? Putting on my top hat, tying up my white tie, brushing off my tails. What was that? It was something long ago, a memory within a memory. He remembered Jenny when she was young, some movie she’d enjoyed more than he had. Fred Astaire, she’d always liked him. Keith began to hum a little, one of the old Astaire songs, something about take that away from me. What nice music. Katie, his other daughter, the one without the bad husband, had made them a videotape of Shall We Dance. He liked that. They could watch it tonight before the six o’clock news. He’d ask Jenny, she’d be pleased.
The cod arrived. It was big and the mushy peas were a good bright green. The best bit of the Sunday, the meal. He reached across the table for the salt, brushing Jenny’s wrist on the way. She smiled at him, she loved him and it made him happy. He sprinkled on lots of salt. The doctor says he shouldn’t really, for his kidneys, but it’s Sunday. What Dr. Patel doesn’t know won’t kill her.
He was careful unfolding the paper napkin. These days his hands tricked him and delicate things liked to fall apart in them. He got it this time and laid it on his lap. Decorum is not dead, not yet. Keith picked up the little knife without a sharp edge and the matching fork and cut a small bite, for his false teeth. Teeth, kidneys-his body was on his mind, it had been for several years. Ever since when? When did he become old?
The fish will get cold. He lifted the first bite and put it in his mouth.
Something is wrong. It’s hot, it’s crispy, and it’s wrong. It’s sweet. He looked down at the white tub next to his plate, across the table to the two matching shakers next to Patrick’s. Sugar. Not salt at all. Sugar.
Such a little thing.
Jenny is looking at him. Time is passing. There is sugar on his fish. Jenny is looking at him. He closes his eyes quickly and opens them slowly. He cuts the fish. Cod. There is sugar on his fish. The second bite goes into his mouth. It’s horrible. He can’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything.
Keith cuts the third piece, the fourth. He doesn’t grimace. This is good food. It’s disgusting. Waste not. There is sugar on his fish.
Keith is ugly and Keith is old and Keith is eating fish with sugar.
It was called Johnny’s. Johnny’s Fish. That’s right. Who is Johnny? Where is he? Is he dead? Who is Johnny?
The painted fish, maybe cod, fifty times larger than life, laughed.
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