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A Shout From The Attic: Dining Out

Ronnie Bray tells of his first experience of dining out Yorkshire-style, which of course meant eating fish and chips.

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's life story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

As I spread my wings on my short and careful journey from boyhood to youth, I discovered the delight of dining out. Besides the splendid dining rooms at the Queen’s and George hotels, the town boasted several first class restaurants, and there were other noted watering places a little way out. But these were not the objects of my first dining out excursion. The first reason was that I would have been too shy to go in them. I knew where I belonged. The second reason was that cost was a principal factor in my decision, and they were well outside my price range.

Had the second factor not been a consideration, the first element would have prevented my ingress to those exalted halls of victuals, because my shyness was a much worse problem for me than my poverty. There were places where I knew I did not belong and I would have felt so out of place that I could have died of embarrassment. Even in the place I chose to make my dining debut, I was a little uncomfortable. Even as the importance of the occasion rested on my head, and made me stand a little taller – such was my sense of the importance of this rite of passage, you only dine out for the first time once – I felt just a little out of place.

At the bottom of Huddersfield is a narrow cobbled lane called the Beast Market, reflecting its ancient utilisation. It stands between two rows of eighteenth century buildings, some of the last left in the town. In my boyhood there were two fish and chip shops, one either side of the road, and each with an upstairs dining room, where, for the princely sum of one shilling and six pence, a plate of fish and chips, a plate of bread and butter, a teapot full of the life blood of England, a bowl of sugar, and a small jug of milk were deposited on a brown tin tray to be carried upstairs to the dining rooms and eaten at leisure.

All my prior fish and chips had been eaten from newspapers walking home with salt and vinegar liberally sprinkled on them, but I had never eaten in a restaurant before. I chose Gledhill’s Tea Rooms because the décor was a little better. The green and white ceramic tiles gave it a touch of class, which reveals the state of my aesthetic sense.

I went in, trying not to look as important as I felt, fondling the shilling and the sixpenny piece in my trouser pocket. I had just enough. There was no tip because customers carried their own trays out of the fish and chip shop up the stairs and set them on the table of their choosing. I was happy about that. I was not ready to face waitresses.

I placed my order when the busy fryer had turned the sizzling pieces of battered cod and slammed a basket of chips onto the keeping shelf, lit brightly with electric lamps that emphasised the golden sticks, then she turned to me raised her eyebrows and asked in that familiar West Riding way, “What’s yours, love?” “I’ll have a tray for upstairs, please,” I said, and my tray was assembled in quick time. “Alright, love?” she asked beaming right at me. “Yes, thank you,” I said fulsomely, handing over the hot coins. Then, smiling right back at her, I picked up my tray and took to the stairs.

The upstairs was divided into two rooms that were almost identical. I picked a small table in the first room next to the net curtained window overlooking the street. I took the plate of fried delights from the tray and setting them on the table between my knife and fork, set its accompaniments on the table. As I did so, I felt a thrill of wonder at the event. What now seems so pedestrian, so banal and prosaic, at that moment felt like exploring the Amazon.

My table spread, I sat down and looked on the feast. It looked so very good! I felt sorry for monarchs who have never sat down to Gledhill’s fish and chips in the rarefied air of their upstairs rooms, and eaten leisurely enough to relish every mouthful. The salt and vinegar, essentials to this repast, brought out the flavours and added some of their own. The sense of achievement and liberation was worth all my fortune. And all my fortune was what it had cost – one and six.

As a rite of passage, it had worked out very well. When I had finished the meal and drained my last cup of tea, I wiped my mouth on the paper serviette and tossed it gaily aside, before shuffling my chair back and descending the stairs. With a nod to the busy fryer, I stepped out into the street, where I breathed air that I could taste, and enjoyed the lingering flavour of eighteen pence worth of grown-upness.

Maybe I wasn’t grown up yet, I told myself. But, I had made a start. My step lighter, my heart as full as my stomach, I strode up town as the keeper of a secret that burned incandescent and exploded within me, making me hum. I had dined out! Look out world! Who knew what would be next?

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