An order, a dispute, a burning
Suddenly it had gone from warm to cold. Just dry cold but snow had started falling in tiny flakes that melted as soon as they hit the road. We were looking for lunch - not a big lunch because we'd had a large breakfast, but something. In the fish shop, three women struggled against waves of cold air coming through the screen door.
"Shut the door please." someone calls.
Frying is an art. Keep the wind from the flame.
Megan and I stand and look at the chalkboard menu, forced in from an active day of scenery and walking. We've been squeezing gum leaves, smelling the stink ants crushed against granite rock but now the slight snow has sent us back through the bush up the escarpment to the main street to here where fish has been frying for centuries. My body is still hot from fighting through scrub to see the perfect view, find the perfect rock, achieve the perfect kissing point, but my face and fingers are chilled.
The fish shop is caught on the steep slope of the mountains, held in and tucked up as if the mountain was rolling, pushing against a fierce sea gale. The salt smell is a forlorn, fish laden dock; the sweet tang of vinegar is the pitch smell of dank tar.
Three workers weave their way along the deck of the shop's innards.
A young girl, called Natalie by the older one, grins at us and bashes the life out of the deep baskets. She flings a handful of onions on the grill while her mother - it has to be, look at the similar dip of the brown hair across the forehead and the same lips and disappointed chin - catches up white battered fillets between large metal tongs and submits them to the fat.
A girl with a nest of fire-engine red hair is squeezing the very devil out of the phone that she whispers into. At her elbow, half floured calamari and chunks of fish fill a stainless steel bowl bigger than the town hall clock.
"Sandra, get off that phone."
Sandra rolls her green eyes at us but I ignore the complicity because the mother daughter team is overworked and they don't have the romance of a phone call. She relinquishes the phone with a loud click and a sigh. Her wrists plunge into the floury bowl.
"Up for the weekend?" the mother asks. She hasn't looked at us properly.
"Yep. From Sydney."
Natalie suspends a deep-fry basket above the oil and then turns with it in her hand, facing us and then lifting it as if she has a good mind to spatter us with chips. Something has clouded her eyes, made her hands forget what she's holding.
"I've never been to Sydney."
Never. Two hours drive east. In my shock I laugh. "Well, Sydney's not that great, really."
But then she spins briskly back around to the fryer and the chips crash and plunge to their doom. As we watch objects bubble in oil, Natalie gazes at us intently, as if for instructions. How do I get to Sydney? How do I get to the ultimate shore? Up here on the cold sea-blue plateau, the mountains roll on and on like wasted time.
Even as she opens her mouth, even though she's smiling, I know what she will say.
"Mum won't let me go yet."
She's examining Megan and me in our denim and corduroy jackets - heavy and stupid for walking through scrub but great to wear when drinking caffe lattes in Oxford St - and our black boots and our hair. She's wearing an apron that says "Katoomba Fish". She lifts herself on her toes to look over the counter and - ah yes, as she had suspected - our fingers are linked and held between us.
She's still smiling at us. I smile back at her. I start shifting from one foot to the other, worried that Natalie will ask for our numbers. I see her leaning over the counter, her sotto voce whisper "do you know any good lesbian bars?" as though it were opera bouncing around the shop, bouncing onto the two new customers who've walked in.
I imagine her mother's life without the enthusiasm and good nature of Natalie. Life with sulking, flame-red Sandra and chips and fish and pineapple fritters and spring rolls.
The older woman is silent now. She has become our mothers as well, radiating disapproval and hurt. She has taken our measure and glares at us, a thorough glare that hits us as a couple and then one by one. Won't let you go yet? Forget yet. Yet is fast becoming never.
There's no small chat about the snow; there are no communal laughs about the breasts-bubbling-over mermaid carved in wood like a figurehead. (An ancient seventies addition for sure.) Behind the shop counter the storm is gathering and the sails flap and crack.
I sense and respect Natalie's vision of Sydney. I fear for her future.
Our purchase is parceled and bound with a terse slap of tape.
"Six dollars thirty" mother says. She almost sucks it back as she says it, wanting to expend as little energy on us as possible.
Through the net of wire screen the snow falls on in mid-spring madness. We are schooled out, free to go back to Sydney, blatantly encouraged to, and the screen door bangs shut behind us. The mother has fish to fry.
But I know that Natalie is watching us walk down Katoomba's main street to the car park. We cross over, touching shoulders, brushing hips. The spine of the road is tilted like a roller coaster so that the side we walk down is higher than the other. Every movement feels electrically charged under Natalie's gaze and as we stand and fuss for the car keys I look back. Once. Twice. She's pushing a cloth across the glass window in front of the bream, the dory, the redfish and the off-white mounds of cut chips. Then with her free hand she waves at us. And stops. She looks back inside, diverted by an order, a dispute, a burning, and her face disappears altogether.
The snow falls wet onto the warm road.
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