Billy stood in the doorway staring down at the kitchen table. Marge placed a glass of water next to his plate as the kids scrambled onto their chairs.
Fish fingers and chips, said Edie, who was eleven and loved answering questions.
Billy sat sideways on his seat. He picked up a dry, skinny chip and looked at it.
Mam says we’re not allowed have proper chips until you get a job again, said Dara, who was thirteen. Marge sat down opposite Billy to her plate of steamed broccoli and carrots.
These are proper chips.
Billy bit the end off the fry in his hand. It tasted like… no, it didn’t have a taste.
Use your knife and fork, said Marge.
Don’t talk with your mouth full.
The kids looked at Marge, then Billy. He dragged his legs under the table, and shook salt onto his plate for twenty seconds, then vinegar. He picked up his cutlery and sliced a corner off a fish finger. He chewed, and swallowed, and put the fork down on his plate. He reached for the Chef red sauce and squeezed it over his chips. The bottle sputtered and rasped.
There’s more in the press, said Marge.
Billy stood and went to the cupboard. Inside was a litre bottle of Kandee. He closed the door and sat back at the table. As he ate, he counted in his mind all the reasons why he used to love Fridays.
The graphic was big, blue and red: there were fourteen days of the January transfer window remaining. David Beckham might be moving to Spurs after all. Billy squirmed in his armchair as he tried to reach the itchy spot between his shoulder blades.
Marge walked into the room, dressed in shorts and a running vest with matching head and wrist bands.
I’m going for a run, she said.
Okay. See you later.
Why don’t you come with me?
I’m serious. The fresh air will do you good.
I’m grand here, thanks.
She caught her ankle in her hand and held it tight against her arse, reaching out at the air with her other hand to keep her balance.
We can just walk, if you like.
Maybe next time.
She jogged on the spot, looking down at him. She stretched her other thigh, kicked out her leg, and did three star jumps. The dishes rattled in the dresser. He turned his attention back to the telly. He heard the front door close, and saw her run past the front window. The ads came on: Guinness, Renault, Dustin Hoffman selling that new Sky channel.
Up in the attic, behind boxes of Christmas decorations and video tapes, Billy found the deep fat fryer. He tried to wipe off the dust but it was stuck solid to the dried-in grease. They’d got the fryer as a wedding present from someone, and they’d used it a bit when the kids were younger, but Billy hadn’t seen the thing in years. He hauled it down to the kitchen and put it on the counter.
He boiled water and scrubbed away as much of the greasy scum as he could. He peeled a few potatoes and chopped them into thick chunks. He found half-empty bottles of vegetable oil and Flora, which together almost filled the fryer, and he plugged it in and waited until the red light went off. He poured the chips into the wire basket and lowered them into the oil. They sizzled loudly. He smiled.
Every few minutes he spooned out a chip to check on its colour. They took ages to cook. Eventually, when they looked to be about the right shade of golden brown, he lifted out the basket and spilled the chips into a big bowl. That’s when he heard the front door bang, and Marge walked into the kitchen.
What are you doing?
I’ve made chips.
She wiped her finger along the oil-spattered worktop.
I can see that.
He raised the bowl to her face. She looked like she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or not. He raised the bowl another inch, and she picked one out and bit into it. Her face scrunched up like a felt puppet, and she turned away from him. He put the bowl down and tried one himself.
It was crispy on the outside, but still hard in the middle. He gagged, but forced his jaw to keep chewing. A bitter oily taste swilled around the raw, soapy lumps of potato. Bile surged up his throat and he rushed to the sink and spat into the basin.
When he turned around, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist, Marge stood looking at him, an empty oil bottle in each hand.
Billy didn’t have a clue how the best chips in the world came to be cooked in Ireland by Italians, but no chip he’d ever eaten from a place that wasn’t called something like Luigi’s or Borza had even come close. They must, he reasoned, have some secret recipe, a method handed down from one generation of immigrants to the next.
Why don’t you google it?
Dara was tapping away on the computer in the corner of the living room. Billy leaned over the back of his chair.
Like they’re going to put stuff like that on the internet.
Within five minutes, Dara had told him that the chippers parboiled their spuds before frying them, and that they used lard instead of vegetable oil; that parboiling meant half-cooking the chips in boiling water before they were fried; and that lard wasn’t available in Irish supermarkets anymore, but could be found in the Polish stores. Billy clapped his son on the back of his head.
And is there one of them shops near here?
That night, Billy lay in bed with his eyes open. Once he got the lard, he thought, there would be no stopping him. Next he would move on to onion rings. He liked the ones that were whole slices of onion, so that they were actually more like discs than rings. He wondered what the Italians made their batter out of. He thought he remembered hearing that they put beer in it. That would be an excuse to open a can before six o’clock. He smiled. After he had mastered the onion rings, he would move on to fish. Cod, or haddock maybe. Fish was good for you. And battered fish was delicious. Then he was walking home from his office on a Friday evening. He could feel the weekend like a warm breeze behind his back, and he stopped into Ezio’s. The place was packed: people, like him, just out of work; a gang of student types; a pair of twelve-year-old girls. The insides of the windows were all steamed up. When it was Billy’s turn to order, the Italian man behind the counter smiled at him in recognition, like they were old friends. Billy wondered if this was Ezio himself. He watched the other lads working in the background.
The skinny guy shovelled chips from one metal tank to the next, and they landed with a satisfying thunk. The fat fella poured another plastic bucket of chips into the oil, and they sizzled: whoosh! At last Billy’s food was ready. Ezio winked as he handed him his change.
Billy walked out into the lamplit fridge of an evening. He tried a chip first. It was thick and soft, with just the right level of crispiness. The coarse salt bit, the special brown vinegar kicked. This, he thought, is how it’s done. He moved on to the fish.
The crunchy batter melded perfectly with the juicy white flesh of the haddock. Wonderful. He wolfed down the whole fillet before returning to the chips. He made an effort to eat them slowly, one by one, to savour them. Then Marge rolled over in her sleep and knocked the bag into the road. A bus gusted by and its wheels smushed the chips into the tarmac. Marge jogged along after it. He called her name, but she didn’t turn around. She kept on running away.
Twelve days of the transfer window to go. David Beckham’s move to Spurs was definitely not going ahead, though he might train with the team for a few weeks. Marge came into the room with her free weights and perched on the arm of the couch. She began working her left biceps. Billy glanced across at her.
I’ll look after dinner tonight, if you like?
She looked at him.
You can put your feet up for once, he said.
What’s brought this on?
She looked at him.
You’re going to get that fryer out again, aren’t you?
Billy turned back to the telly. Marge kept looking at him.
They’ll be much better this time, he said.
Dara found out how to do them properly.
Dara’s thirteen. He can barely burn toast.
It was on the internet. It’s all about the lard, apparently.
You can get it in the Polish shops.
Marge moved on to her right biceps.
With the money you’re wasting on your experiments we could all eat out at the Shelbourne.
They’ll be much better this time, he said.
I’m doing pork chops and vegetables tonight, she said. Feel free to help me if you want to.
Billy shook his head and stared at the telly. The ads came on: Guinness, Renault, Dustin Hoffman selling that new Sky channel.
At half past four, Marge went out for her run. Billy watched her go past the front window, jumped up out of his armchair, and rushed to the kitchen. Then he paused and took a deep breath. He had to be careful. It was important to get this right. He poured the oil from his first attempt down the sink, and replaced it with the six blocks of lard Dara’d got for him. He took the printed list of instructions from his pocket, and smoothed the paper out on the worktop. He chopped up the last few potatoes and dropped them in a big pot of boiling water. The kids came home and he sent them upstairs to do their homework, but they wouldn’t go. They kept watching him from the kitchen doorway. He told them they could play their Wii if they wanted, so long as they were quiet, and he shut them into the living room. Ten minutes had already gone by, and he drained the chips from the water. He put them in the fryer at two hundred degrees, and set the countdown timer on his phone to twenty minutes. He got the pork chops out of the fridge and put them under the grill—chops were just like rashers, he reckoned, except they’d take a bit longer to cook. He set the table for four, making sure the knives were on the right side, forks on the left. He turned the chops. He put the oven on at low heat and stuck in four plates to warm. His phone went off, and he turned the fryer up to 210˚ for another two minutes, to add that final crispiness. Shaking off the grease, he spilled them into a big dish lined with kitchen paper, and patted them dry. He took the chops off the grill and put one on each plate from the oven. He turned back to the chips, added salt and loads of vinegar and let the fumes waft up his nose.
Then Marge came home. He met her at the kitchen door.
I know you’re going to want to kill me, but I swear it’ll be worth it.
She looked at him.
I’ve done the pork chops too, he said.
When was the last time you saw me eat chips, Billy?
That’s just ’cause of your diet or whatever.
It’s not a diet, it’s a fitness plan.
One plate of chips won’t kill you. Come on, they’re getting cold.
He leaned into the hall and shouted to the kids that dinner was ready. Then he began to serve the chips from the dish onto each plate. Marge gripped him by the elbow and pulled him over to the sink. Air bubbles were gurgling up through a thick coagulated pool of oil around the drain.
Shite, said Billy.
Marge looked at him.
I’ll sort it out after, he said. Let’s just sit down and eat.
Now he took Marge by the elbow and led her to the table. The kids were already in their chairs, looking up at him with their mouths open. He made a crescent of chips next to each chop and brought the plates to the table, then took his own seat.
Alright, he said. Dig in.
They sat looking at him. He laughed.
I’ll be the guinea pig, so, he said, and he picked up his cutlery. His fork penetrated the chip easily, and his knife slid through exactly as it should. He blew the steam away and folded his lips around the fork, pulling the chip clear of its prongs. His jaw moved up and down as his teeth ground through the potato. His tongue rose and scooped the mush to the back of his mouth, and he swallowed. And then he swallowed again.
It was definitely an improvement, he thought, much better than the last batch. Compared to the last batch, this was far, far better. And yet… he swallowed again… they weren’t quite right. A sour aftertaste lingered on his tongue, and a greasy film lined the inside of his cheeks. No, he thought, no. They weren’t right.
His family was looking at him. Behind them, black smoke was billowing from the deep fat fryer. He jumped up and rushed over to turn it off. The smoke kept coming. He went to pull out the plug and noticed that the bottom of the net curtain had caught fire. He ripped it off the rail and threw it in the sink. It landed in the pool of oil and orange and yellow flames blazed up from the drain. Marge came running over with the fire blanket. He grabbed it from her and tried to smother the flames. Smoke rose up into his eyes and nostrils and he coughed and choked and turned away. Edie started to cry. Dara stepped towards him and then stopped. Marge stood in the middle of the floor. They were all looking at him.
I just wanted a nice plate of chips, he said.
He pulled the fire blanket out of the sink and flapped it against the smoke still issuing from the fryer. Inside, the lard bubbled and spat. The lard was supposed to make all the difference. His hand was clenched into a fist. He had followed the instructions. They were all looking at him. He had done everything he was supposed to do.
He plunged his fist into the fryer. He heard them scream, Edie, Dara, Marge. He heard the sizzle: whoosh!