It was late in the summer of 1996. I was young and scared of the world. So scared that I spent much of my energy hiding away from it. On a fine Saturday evening I found myself in the small seaside town where I grew up visiting family.
I had been dispatched to a local chippie to buy dinner. At that time I don’t think I had yet enjoyed a Chinese meal and I’m quite sure I’d never tasted Indian food. Pizza I may have experienced fleetingly. Exotic food, to my blinkered palate, was coleslaw. Takeaway dinner could only mean the fish and chip shop. The chippies back then sold chicken burgers which contained brown meat, but we didn’t know enough to mind.
I remember the garish red and white colour scheme of the shop interior and the smell of burnt fat which seemed to cling to the hairs on your arms. When I reached the front of the queue I struggled to make eye contact with the woman holding a small pencil behind the counter. I mumbled my order (chicken burgers? Fish supper?). I noticed she had not written down what I had said, so I repeated my words slightly louder, presuming she hadn’t heard me. Only then did I notice the severe expression on her face and the hard stare she had fixed in my direction. My face coloured as she peered hard in my direction.
Her unforgiving eye met mine. Then she started.
‘Are you smart?’ The words were delivered in a harsh north Antrim drawl (the same accent as my own).
‘I said, are you smart?’
The direct nature of the questioning disarmed me. I’d never been asked such a thing before and hadn’t the remotest thought of what an appropriate answer should be. In the end I mumbled something quite unconvincing.
‘Uh no, no, I don’t think so.’
But the chip shop woman was not to be put off so easily. She turned sideways and closed one eye, so she could stare at me all the more intensely with the other.
‘Are you sure you’re not smart?’
She spoke the words with apparent distaste, as if she suspected I was a leper who should be carrying a bell.’
‘You’re definitely not smart?’
Like Peter, I denied it for a third time.
She began to write down my order. Midway through she stopped and fixed her glare on me once again, a hint of triumph in her fierce eye.
‘Yes you are smart! I know you, I’ve seen your photo in the paper. You are smart!’ she exclaimed with a sneer.
I knew immediately the photo she was talking about. I had recently graduated from university and, against my wishes, my Ma had insisted on putting the photograph in the local paper. It was a small community and back then things like that got noticed.
The woman moved away then and began to shovel chips into a bubbling fryer. I rested against the windowsill, burning from shame over the interrogation. Desperate for a distraction I watched traffic slowly moving in the direction of the quay. Other people came into and left the shop. Presently the woman beckoned me back to the counter to collect my food.
As she wrapped it in sheets of white paper she resumed the attack.
‘So, are you going to teach then?’
Again it was a question I could never have anticipated and I blurted another unprepared answer.
‘No, no, I don’t really think I’m cut out for teaching.’
Her glare lifted from the food back in my direction.
‘So what are you going to do with yourself then?’
It was the question I dreaded, the one I’d asked myself countless times but could never find an answer to. What exactly was I going to do with the rest of my life? I pushed my hand through my hair and looked sideways as I tried to offer a sufficient response.
‘Uh, I don’t really know for sure at the minute. I suppose I’ll sign on for a while and see what comes up.’
She stopped moving as soon as I said it. She looked me up and down, making no attempt to conceal her scorn.
Then she spat the words, a harsh edge of bitterness in her voice.
‘That doesn’t sound very fucking smart to me.’
She returned her gaze to the food.
‘Do you want salt and vinegar on these chips?’