For too many years I’d avoided Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chip Takeaway. Located not in my neighbourhood but in the neighbourhood next to my neighbourhood, and set halfway down an obtuse street, I generally hurried past its vicinity on an upper deck without giving it any thought. Then one evening, walking home, hungry, and not inclined to dine out even moderately expensively, I discovered myself to be only a lane’s length from its lit frontage.
Joe was there, or Giuseppe I supposed, a middle-aged Italian whose build, physiognomy, colouration and phlegmatic approach were typical of his race and occupation, in exile. I placed my order just as it began to rain, and a telephone rang. Joe went to answer it, did so, then broke into a shouted grin from the shadowed hallway where the instrument was placed-a friend, a relative, from Sorrento, or Parma perhaps, ringing with news of the birth of another grandson, or of victory in the local derby.
Joe babbled on deliriously in his native tongue, and for all I knew he might have been reciting the lyrics to Nessun Dorma, or instructing a fellow-anarchist in how to construct a makeshift bomb using a hollowed-out tennis ball and match-heads. Sensing his phone-call might take some time, Joe held the receiver to his chest and roared – it might have been Francesca he summoned, or Fortunata, or perhaps even Lucrezia; it was something Italian at any rate, someone feminine I half-guessed.
More correct to say I half-hoped than half-guessed, for my love-life at that time was imaginary only-women retreated from me the way the well-adjusted instinctively retreat from those who reek of disappointment. I heard a door open from above, and imagined coming down the stairs a beauty, Italian, a woman with dark hair and lustrous eyes. This is why, I told myself, I’ve arrived in Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chip Takeaway after all this time. Here she comes, my future-mine will be the face she’s been waiting for, and whichever psychological configuration she entered adulthood with will predispose her towards the some years her senior yet not unsightly individual I was then. (I cannot speak for now).
Joe fired his instructions towards the concealed stairwell, then returned his attention to the intra-continental. I waited, breathless, and with a fluttering soul. She rounded the frame of the doorway… a beauty, Italian, a woman with dark hair and lustrous eyes, and I marvelled at the fullness of her Roman lips – although, of course, she may have been from the industrial North, or the poorer, agricultural South. Or she may have been from three doors down, I conceded, earning a little extra at weekends to supplement her husband’s income as a coal-haulier. But when she spoke to clarify my requirements, she rolled her r’s with such a second-language lilt I had to refrain myself from applauding.
Was it the way I looked at her (I tried not to look too often, though I may have failed)? Was it because I didn’t look at her as much as she felt I should, and did that enforced inattentiveness tell to her its own story? Did my eyes, unwillingly, whether I looked at her overlong or otherwise, give the game away, despite a feigned indifference? I don’t remember. But after some minutes of tending to my requisites, she broke off and addressed me. She had something to say, and did I mind if she did so? I did not, I explained, trying to suppress from my voice any suggestion of the necessity for immediate elopement.
‘It is obvious to me,’ she began (in a very fine English, and with her trademark Italian accentuation), ‘that I correspond to your anima, that archetype of the female in your unconscious which the psychological configuration you entered adulthood with has predisposed you towards. So far so good. However, to be blunt, I cannot reciprocate. Even if the disparity in our ages was not in itself an issue, there is also the inevitable mismatch between our likes and dislikes due to our varying socio-cultural backgrounds; these factors in combination contrive to make any liaison between us highly unlikely. I am sorry to have to be the one to break this news, but I’m sure that later, when you think about this sad affair, you’ll realise I’m the only one who could properly have done so. Salt and Vinegar?’
I paid my money and took my Battered Codling and Chips with as much grace as I could muster. The change I indicated she could add to whatever paltry sum the collection box chained to the counter presumably contained. On my way out, I believe I heard her add, over Joe’s robust laughter into the mouthpiece, that she was bound in any event to be unfaithful. I have never been back to that establishment. She can look me up, that Italian beauty, if she so desires; but that evening I knew at last why I’d avoided for so many years Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chip Takeaway