Fish and Chips Wrappings
By: Michal Reiben
The first time I hear about Carl ‘abducting’ his baby girl from his wife, I am shocked and voice my opinion, ‘You did a cruel and terrible thing,’ I say.
In his defense, he says, ‘When I came home on leave I found Anna alone, wailing, her soaked nappy hung down to her knees, she smelled and the house looked neglected. I decided that my wife was an unfit mother.’
‘Was your mother happy to take Anna in?’ I ask.
‘Not really but she felt she had no choice, I had to return to my unit in Belgium’ replies Carl.
‘Did your wife try to get her back?’ I then ask.
‘Yes, she sent a stack of awful letters to me, she constantly harassed by parents with telephone calls and went around to them trying to force open the locked gate of the little alley which leads to their front door. After about a year she just gave up,’ explains Carl.
‘I feel sorry for her,’ I say.
He is silent.
Every day we meet after Carl has finished his studies at the ‘Poli’. We are so poor we go to a cafe which sells slices of bread spread over with dripping, each slice costs a penny and is the only thing we can afford. We then collect Anna from her all-day Kindergarten and stroll off to Kensington Park. The park has large expanses of grass dotted by deciduous trees. We arrive at the swings. Anna is happy to see this familiar and beloved place. The swings are her friends, she adores them. They have smooth wooded seats, long, slightly rusty chains and swing gently in the breeze. She is also fascinated by the Park keeper, she watches him closely as he picks up litter from the grass with a sharp, pointed stick and deposits it into the waste bins. She calls him, ‘Keeper Park.’
I sit on a bench. Carl pushes Anna. ‘Higher, higher,’ she squeals in delight. On rainy days instead of heading for the swings, we go to the National Gallery. Anna wails in disappointment…but it’s dry, warm and free.
I begin to sleep over at Carl’s parent’s house at the weekends. It becomes indubitably clear to me that Carl ‘has bitten off more than he can chew’. In his parent’s awkward, tall and narrow house there is a multitude of stairs, consequently one is endlessly climbing up or down them. Carl’s bedroom is on the fourth floor. In the evenings his parents and Anna, who have bedrooms on the third floor incessantly call out to him. His parents might want him to empty their bedpans for there isn’t a toilet on their floor and Anna might want to be tucked up, a glass of water or some other excuse for attention. It plays havoc with our lovemaking and we often just give up! Carl resents being held responsible for anything, especially emotional responsibility. It all becomes too overwhelming for him and he craves his freedom.
When Anna turns five years old he packs her off to a boarding school in order not to be lumbered with her. In order to escape his parents, he rents a cheap apartment in a ‘slum’ with a chum of his from the army. There are a communal bathroom and lavatory on each floor. On my visits, I am appalled at the state of complete squalor in their flat. There is a ramshackle assortment of old furniture. On a seedy, chest of drawers stands a little fish tank with dead, moldy fish floating on the surface of the filthy water. In the kitchen the zinc is overflowing with dirty dishes, the draining board slimy, the walls grease splattered, cups of tea and coffee are littered about the place with growths of mold in them. On the kitchen’s wobbly table is a pile of old, filthy, greasy newspaper wrappings from the portions of fish and chips which they eat daily. In the bedroom, dirty clothes cover the floor and I am shocked to see bed bugs creeping up the walls above their beds.
One day I arrive early, I push the door against some objects which litter the floor and my nose wrinkles in disgust at the stench from within. I decide to surprise ‘the guys’ by cleaning their place up until they arrive. With gusto I rush around the flat picking up the litter from the floor and putting it into the waste bin, also I throw away the newspaper wrappings from the kitchen table, make their beds, stack all the dirty clothes in a heap. As I begin to wash the dishes the lads turn up… ‘What have you done to our place?’ demands Carl indignantly.
‘I wanted to please you by cleaning it up,’ I answer.
‘But we liked our mess,’ explodes Carl.
‘Yes, we liked our mess,’ echoes Paul his flatmate.
Upon seeing the kitchen table wiped clean Carl asks accusingly, ‘Where are our fish and chips wrapping?’
‘I threw them away, they were disgusting’ I answer stubbornly.
‘How could you? We liked the fish and chips wrappings,’ exclaims Carl in annoyance.
‘Yes, we liked our fish and chip’s wrappings,’ repeats Paul.
I stand in stunned silence and think to myself, ‘ I love Carl very much but he is rather weird, I hope I’ll be able to change him. Quite honestly I sometimes wonder if his daughter wouldn’t have been better off living with her mother.’