Oliver Leech  FROM CHURCH TO CHIPPY

 
FROM CHURCH TO CHIPPY
As soon as I heard that the church down the road was going to be closed, I put in a bid. I’m not a churchgoer but I knew the inside of St Bartholomew’s from many a wedding and, sadly, many a funeral. It was a very old church, going back to the middle ages with a lot of stained glass and woodcarving I’d taken a fancy to.
I heard nothing for weeks, months, forgot about it. Then out of the blue an envelope popped through the letter box. My offer had been accepted. A day or so later I drove the pick-up round to the back entrance of the church. The vicar helped me load them on and then, good of him, he came back with me and helped me lay them out in the yard. 
On the Sunday when the shop was shut I took them in and fixed them against the tiles on the back wall opposite the counter. I raised them up a bit higher than they had been in the church because, there’s no getting round it, my customers are much bigger than the average choirboy. And there they are, my very own misericords, you know those shelves sticking out where the choirboys sit in a church, for them to lean on, not as deep as a seat to sit on and get comfortable but just enough to give some support when they have to listen to long and boring sermons. They’re oak with beautiful shapes of leaves and flowers carved into them.
Now as far as I know — and I’ve spent hour after hour looking on the internet —they are the only set of misericords in a fish and chip shop anywhere in the whole of the UK, and probably in the entire world. My chippy is unique.
I got them for my customers so, when they’re waiting for their cod in breadcrumbs or the next fry-up, they don’t have stand there hopping from leg to leg but have something to lean on, rest on. Some of them even get the point and start singing, not usually hymns and psalms and they haven’t got voices that would get them into any decent choir, but it’s cheerful and everyone joins in. Good for business too but that’s a bonus I never expected. 
One day, a Saturday—any chippy owner will tell you it’s the biggest night of the week— this Saturday night, the queues were even longer and deeper than usual. I forget why — people wanting to get back for the Strictly final, something like that. Anyway it was only half past six, just the beginning of the evening. I went out of the shop into the back room to fetch more fish from the freezer. I opened the door. Well, my heart sank. To my horror we were nearly out of stock.  I was gobsmacked. It had never happened before in all my thirty years in the trade. I keep on top of what we’ve got and what we haven’t. I couldn’t understand how I’d slipped up. I must have messed up the order somehow. What a disaster!
I went back into the shop, carried on as usual. I checked. We had a dozen fish ready and a few still frying. What was I going to say to my customers, my regulars who came at eight, nine, ten o’clock for the best meal of the week, their Saturday night treat? I kept the banter going with the girls who work with me behind the counter. I scanned the shop. There was not a spare inch; the back row on the misericords were singing full throttle and some guy in a hoodie I didn’t recognise was conducting them. 
Just my luck, I thought, the biggest crowd in weeks, all in a good mood, all hungry for my fish and chips and I was about to let them down.
I was down to the last three or four. The back row had worked its way round to the counter. The guy in the hoodie was next but one in line. A minute later he was directly in front of me. ‘What can I get you?’ I said, trying to sound normal. I had one fish left. 
	‘Show me what you have. Lift it out, please.’
I put it on a scoop and held it over the counter. 
‘Salt and vinegar on your fish?’   My automatic question.
Then he did something no customer in all my years has ever done before. He put out both hands and held the fish. I know my health and safety. I should have screamed at him that it was red hot, to put it down but he gave me a look that shut me up. He muttered something, put down the fish and said, ‘I’ll just have a small chips, please.’ By the way all this time the other customers and the girls were busy chatting away, didn’t notice anything unusual. 
I wrap up the chips. He gives me the right money and he’s off. Then I look down to check the fat and what do I see but a dozen fish, sizzling away, their batter crisp enough for serving. One minute there are no fish. Now there are all these, cooked, ready. I deal with the next customer, talking away, trying to be my usual self but, I tell you, my legs were jelly.
‘You carry on,’ I say to the girls and nip out the back to get my breath, to steady myself. I sit down, take a few breaths. Then just out of habit, I open the freezer. Is there such a thing as double shock, when a hammer hits you again before you’ve go over the first blow? The freezer is crammed full of cod, haddock, plaice, the lot, packed from top to bottom as if I’d had a delivery half an hour before.
It turned out to be our best night ever. We stayed open till one in the morning, me and the girls totally shattered. I gave them a bonus, sent them home and went to bed but I couldn’t sleep a wink that night, going over and over what had happened. 
I look out for him but I’ve never seen the guy in the hoodie since then. I carry on working six days a week much as before. Nothing much has changed. Or has everything changed, I am not quite sure. Perhaps there’s a little less aggro at the weekends, perhaps the singing has improved a little but that might be just my imagination. Everything is different in a way you can’t put your finger on.
Whenever I come into the shop and on my way out, I close my eyes, run my hand along the carving and have a little lean on the misericord. And I just think for a moment what a lucky fella I was and what a very, very strange world this is. 
The vicar called in this morning, told me the old church is to be knocked down to make way for a warehouse. He looked really glum. I didn’t know what to say. I gave him a bag of chips, on the house.