Fish and Chips
My life took a U turn at the tender age of six. A memory of alarm, followed by change. Punctuated by crispy battered deep fried fish.
I know my early years were comfortable, but I recall a sense of claustrophobia. I was smothered in love. My every need was met, every desire catered for. Momma was my world, and I was hers. I was too young then to see what I can from an adult perspective. I did not run freely with the other kids in the park, or go on playdates. We never had visitors, we never visited any other friends or family.
Every second weekend I got to go to Dad’s, and he was a different world, so different from my world with Momma that they became two distinct worlds that I did not try to compare. Dad let me play with kids next door. He let me have McDonalds, fish and chips, and Coca Cola. Momma would never let me have ‘fast-food,’ ‘no nutrition in that rubbish’ she would say. I never told her about these luxuries, I kept the two worlds separate.
Dad also took me to see grandparents, who I admit gave me so much food that lacked in nutrition I would be sick. I asked Momma about her parents. She said both had passed before I was born. I decided this was a good thing. One set of grandparents was enough.
One day in my sixth year she was walking me home from school, and something happened to change our lives. It was a long time before I discovered who she saw that day. It was late enough in my sixth year to be feeling too grown up to hold my mother’s hand which she nonetheless had grasped in hers. I was about to object, the words “I am nearly seven Momma'' on my tongue. She stopped so suddenly my words stopped with her. She was looking at a woman on the other side of the road. That woman looked at us briefly, and I recall she did a funny sort of smile and walked on. Mum grasped my hand so tightly that I called out in pain, pulling it away.
“Who is that?” I asked. I don’t think Momma was listening. She did a funny high pitched laugh saying she thought she saw something odd. She said she was taking me to Dad’s. On a weeknight! I was elated, and for then at least forgot this odd experience.
The following Thursday she declared we were having fish and chips on the beach with Nan. I could not believe it. Greasy fast food? Eating on the beach? Momma was lighter, she was different. Not in any way I could understand, but I was aware of change.
“Who is Nan?” I was confused, as I had no Nan with Momma.
A word Momma had never said before. I did not know what to say or ask, but as Momma never was one to answer a lot of questions, I waited with anticipation for this rare event.
Momma pulled up in the long row of otherwise empty car parks. Perhaps Nan is not here, I thought to myself.
We walked down a slippery sandy track to the bottom edge of the dunes, and there sat a woman older than anyone I could imagine. She wore a huge man’s jacket and big clunky boots. She was like a little wrinkled nut in too many clothes. She also smelled quite bad. I paused, staring at Momma with confusion. Momma had always made sure we avoided such people.
Not this one. Momma laid out a mat beside her, and opened our fish and chips to share. My eyes popped when she also pulled out a bottle of wine and two plastic cups. My world was neatly divided between the worlds of Momma and of Dad. Nothing in this fitted.
“This, Daniel, is Mrs Meran. You can call her Nan. And Nan, this is my Danny.” She hugged me closely.
Before my wide eyes Nan did that first cup of wine in a single gulp, holding it out for more, and grabbed the largest piece of fish before she spoke.
“Hello Danny, pleased to meet you.” She held out a tiny hand, the skin sitting over it in folds like an oversize glove. I hesitated. Momma nodded, so I took her hand. Her grip was surprisingly strong.
They chatted about very little. Momma would have a few sips of wine, the rest was very much enjoyed by Nan. This became a Thursday routine. Fish and chips on the beach. I did not hang around and listen, I soon learned how much fun it was making piles of sand and decorating them with shells and bits of wood.
Sometimes I joined them.
“Do you live here Nan?? I asked one night.
“Sometimes my love, sometimes.”
“Where else do you live then?”
“Shhh Danny,” said Momma.
“Oh, it's alright love, Danny can ask me all the questions he wants. I do have a home Danny. They call it a pensioner flat and it is fine, but sometimes I like to be somewhere else.”.
Other routines in my life changed. Momma took me to places called Opportunity Shops. We would buy stuff for Nan, and sometimes for us. Momma said something like, ‘oh Mother would have a fit if she saw me.” I wondered what a ‘fit’ was. I noticed she looked out the window as if she expected to see ‘Mother’ which was silly.
Another big change was meeting Julia, at last. She lived over the road. I wanted to go and play with her, but Momma’s distrust of other people’s houses meant I could only watch her kicking a ball around her yard, climbing their tree, and often playing with other kids. It would be fun, I often thought, to join in. Momma was not altogether ready to trust ‘another person’s house,’ she made sure she met Julia’s Mother first. Amazingly the next day she took me over and left me. After that she was okay if I went there, or Julia came to me. I became a normal kid.
She told me about Nan eventually. Nan’s home had burned down many years ago. She had only gone to buy some milk, her boy, my age, was alone in the house.
“Oh that is sad,” I said, with my limited child’s comprehension of such grief. She can be my proper Nan then since my Nan passed so long ago. Mrs Meran/Nan cackled when Momma told her that. She gave my hand a squeeze and said she would be my Nan. It was a glowing feeling.
Nan changed too.I could see Momma made her happy. She wore the things we brought her and smelled better. Something that never changed was how her first cup of wine went every time in one big noisy slurp, followed by some lip smacking and the cup extended for more.
Something else happened. Dad joined us one night. It was weird and uncomfortable. My two worlds had become three, and I did not know how to integrate them. Dad understood. It was a long time before he joined us with Nan again, but a few weeks later he picked us up on a Saturday night, and just us three went to the beach with fish and chips and wine and Coca Cola. My three worlds slowly merged.
What happened that day that marked the change was not explained to me until Momma considered me ‘old enough.’ She was right to not try and explain earlier, I would not have understood why she lied to be about her mother, why she had not ever been a part of our lives.
My Momma’s youth had been as bare of love as mine was smothered. My grandmother was not a nice person. I also learned I had had an aunt who had not survived the loveless upbringing as well as my mother had. My Momma had lived her life in a shell she built around first herself, then us. She had been unable to absorb that anyone could love her. Dad had been shut out of that shell.
The woman that Momma saw that day was her Mother, whom she had not seen since she left home. I was staggered, I asked many questions, Momma answered them all.
Seeing her Mother that day had thrown her into shock, cracked her shell.With no clear idea why, or real plan she had dropped me with Dad, brought fish and chips for the first time in her life - and a bottle of wine, and headed down to Scorching Bay, where she met Nan. Two broken people were able to heal each other. It was a beautiful story.
I tracked down my grandmother. Momma had said she was always manicured to perfection in her appearance. As a retired woman she still was. Her hair sat in a neat bun, she wore full makeup and what I could tell were expensive clothes. I found her home in Petone, and followed her to a café, where she sat on her own delicately picking at a muffin. There were no smile lines on her face, no wrinkles to tell of joy or laughter or sorrow. How did someone get to be like this? How could someone raise two children and not experience joy or love? I had, however, read enough by now, to know that some people can through wiring they were born with, or something terrible when very young be this devoid of normal human feeling.. I considered saying hello, but no. I had seen her, and that was enough.
I really did like Julia, that girl over the road. She is now mother to my two boys. We often take them to the dunes on the end of Scorching bay with a bundle of fish and chips. Momma and Dad sometimes join us. Momma still pours a wine for Nan.