The Annual Simms Extended Family (Incorporating Friends) Fish And Chip Supper

When one person repeats an action, it becomes a habit. When several people repeat it, it becomes a tradition. Over the last few years our family have started a Christmas tradition. My three brothers and I all live in the south-east, though it is a journey of several hours to get from Peter in Cambridgeshire to Mike on the south coast. So, in the middle of December sometime, we meet up for the Annual Simms Extended Family (Incorporating Friends) Fish And Chip Supper. We eat at the same fish and chip restaurant in Eastbourne, a mile or so from my aunt and uncle.

Uncle Bill was my mum’s older brother by over a decade. He is approaching ninety now, but though he’s a little slower he is still the big kid he always was, enjoying a drink and a laugh. He and Aunt Bett worked in the licensed trade all of their working life, and now live in sheltered accommodation provided by the Licensed Victuallers’ Association. We take the opportunity to visit them and to exchange Christmas presents, but mainly it’s an opportunity to indulge in our favourite sport, taking the Mickey out of each other.

As can be expected from a family of four boys, all born in close succession, rivalry is intense, but so is the love (though none of us would admit that, even under torture). We score points off each other, and each other’s wives, and children, friends, passers-by and even ourselves. The collateral damage from friendly fire is excessive, but no UN resolution can stop it. We are merciless when enough of us get together.

This year we arrived almost together, cars pulling up outside the small restaurant on a deserted suburban street from all directions. It must have looked like a shady drugs deal, or an espionage plot from a cold war film.

“Good evening, Tavarich. The swallow flies south early this year.”

“Good evening. The snow storm approaches from the west.”

Then we opened up the trunks of our cars and swapped bulky bags full of suspicious packages. Christmas gifts exchanged, we filed into the small restaurant.

A fleet of tables had been lined up end to end along the length of one wall. We sat in no particular order, my son and his girlfriend electing, for some strange reason, to sit halfway down the table from me. By the time we were all seated, there were about twenty of us. For the first time all four brothers had made it, along with significant others, some of our children, Bett and Bill and a handful of close friends.

And then hostilities broke out. Peter’s girlfriend confessed to being camera-shy to the point of paranoia. Naturally she was subjected to a barrage of flash guns. Jo had brought her boyfriend. Were his intentions honourable? We all asked the question, separately and in unison, repeatedly through the evening.

Tony produced Santa hats for everyone. The lads wore them with pride; we’re all natural show-offs. The wives and kids reluctantly donned them, knowing the ridicule for refusing them would not be worth it. The exception was Michael. His birthday loomed a couple of days in the future, so he wore a birthday hat resembling a cake, replete with fabric candles.

And then the poor waitress tried to take the orders. My heart bled for her. She wasn’t family. She didn’t know the rules. Yet here she was, thrown into the middle of it all like a lamb stumbling into the den. The wolves circled.

On the first supper, Mike and Tony had started an argument, roped in the waitress and now continued it at every supper. It was a subsidiary tradition, and everyone knew how it would progress. Everyone except the waitress.

“I’ll have cod and chips, please,” said Tony. “And a pickled onion.”

The waitress scribbled on her pad.

“But can you make sure it’s a big one?”

“A large cod?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t eat a large cod. No, I meant the pickled onion. Can I have a big pickled onion.”

“I think they’re all the same size.”

“Yes, okay, they’re ‘all the same size’,” he said, winking. “So long as my onion is bigger.”

“I’ll have cod and chips too,” said Mike. “And a pickled onion, but can you make sure that my pickled onion is bigger than his.”

“They’re all the same size,” protested the waitress.

“Yes, I know, so long as my pickled onion that’s the same size as Tony’s is actually bigger.”

“No, I should have the biggest onion, because I’m older than you.”

“Yes, but it’s my birthday in a couple of days, so I should get it.”

“But I didn’t have any onions on my birthday, so I should have some compensation.”

“Look, shall I bring some scales to the table and weigh the onions for you?” said the waitress, aware of the game playing out but at a loss as to what the rules were.

“That would be great. Could you?” said Tony. “And when you weigh them, just make sure I get the biggest one.”

She shook her head, looking for all the world as though she were mentally checking the situations vacant column of the local paper, and moved on. Eventually she reached my end of the table.

“Cod and chips, please,” I said. She made a note on her pad. “Oh, and I think… yes, a pickled onion.”

She sighed, a resigned look on her face. “A pickled onion?”

“Yes. However, unlike the mentally challenged duo at the other end of the table, I don’t care how big it is.”

“Really?” She looked relieved. Silly, naive girl.

“Really. Because as we all know, size doesn’t matter.” And as God is my witness, that was as far as I had planned the joke.

“That’s right,” she said, glad to be let off the hook. “It’s not the size, it’s the taste.”

“Excuse me?”

Our end of the table fell into a shocked silence. She replayed what she’d just said and flung her hand to her mouth, but it was far too late; the words had escaped.

I stand up in front of a roomful of strangers most days. I talk to people I’ve never met in queues. I dance to the muzac in supermarkets. I have no shame and no pride. However, for one of the very few times in my adult life I blushed, even as I laughed, a beetroot glow spreading over my face. Perhaps it was embarrassment at accidentally catching out a stranger, perhaps it was guilt because she had no choice but to endure the Simms.

Or maybe it was the shame at knowing no witticism I would think of that evening would even come close to that innocent faux pas.

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

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