More Ketchup than Salsa

By Joe Cawley

Biography & memoir, Travel, Comedy & satire

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679
14 mins

 

I’d known Joy ever since she’d pushed me backwards off the top of the slide at nursery school. She was an experimental child but compassionate with it. As soon as my head had hit the floor she slid down and ran around to peer in my face. ‘You dead?’ she asked. I managed to smile crookedly as Miss Cornchurch dragged her off by the arm before I passed out.
But I took solace in the fact that I was not the only one bullied by Joy. In fact, she was so impressed by my not dying that she took on the role of protector and regularly pushed other kids from the slide if I wanted to have a go. She also insisted that I push her off, as she was curious to see what it felt like to fall so far. I declined the offer.
We sailed through primary school as a tag-team of cutesy cheek and imaginative excuses. I would help her with her homework and she would steal me penny chews as a reward.
As pre-teens we had only once stepped over the line of platonic friendship. It was Saturday night and her parents had left us playing Buckaroo whilst a romantic western flickered in the background. Joy’s attention was diverted from the kicking mule by a passionate scene involving a feisty cowgirl and cowboy.
‘Kiss me like that,’ she commanded and pulled my face against hers. I remember the taste of liquorice toffees and wondered if this is what she tasted like to herself all the time. We remained eye-to-eye for about a minute until, unimpressed, Joy pulled away and silently placed another bucket on the donkey’s backside. Romance didn’t surface again for a long time although we both maintained a mutual disrespect for each other’s juvenile amours.
Although in different levels of classes at comprehensive school, we would still hang around with each other during most lunch breaks and after school, plotting horrific revenge on the teachers that had dared to reprimand us. I was usually no more than an accessory but due to my pubescent lanky stature I had taken over the mantle of protector. And boy, did she need it. A cheeky smile and sparkling eyes could redeem her of most crimes but there were times when physical intervention was unavoidable.
We finally became an item after an unplanned holiday together. Joy’s boyfriend had dumped her just days before departure accusing her of spending more time with me than with him. It all came to a head outside the Dog and Partridge in Hazel Grove when I was invited on what her boyfriend thought was going to be a cosy tête-à-tête but turned out to be a tête-à-tête-à-tête.
On a campsite in southern France, fuelled by too much alcohol and exposure to naked flesh, intimacy was inevitable. The holiday romance continued after we returned home and still did three years later inside a dingy pub in Bolton.

‘How do you fancy moving to Tenerife?’ Joy peered over the rim of her glass. Her eyes searched mine.
‘Uh... why?’
‘We’ve been offered the chance to run a bar, only it needs two couples to run it, so I said I was married.’
‘To who?’ I shrieked.
‘To you, you numpt! Who else? I said we could run it with me as bar manager and you as the chef and...’ Her speech accelerated as it always did when she was trying to steamroll me.
‘Hang on, hang on.’ I raised a hand to slow down the onslaught. ‘Who would offer to let two people who have hardly any experience of pouring a pint let alone running a bar in a foreign country, take over a bar?’ I knew as soon as I had said it that our previous careers may have deviated slightly from fish filleters to nightclub management. Joy confirmed that she had exaggerated our talents slightly and distorted the actual financial arrangements.
It transpired that we weren’t expected to just run it; we were expected to buy it.
‘What exactly are we supposed to buy it with? Fish heads?’ I spluttered when the actual truth came out.
‘No. We can borrow it,’ replied Joy. Her straight face implied that there was something else she wasn’t telling me.
‘How much?’
‘A hundred-and-sixty-five grand... more or less.’
I blinked twice. Hard. My pint remained suspended halfway between my open mouth and the beer mat. This was surely some seafood-induced dream. Believing that this was just another of Joy’s get-rich-quick schemes that would fizzle out as fast as previous plans I decided to humour her.
‘You said two couples?’
Joy continued. ‘I didn’t tell you but I got a phone call from your stepdad before I went to Tenerife. He said that the bar on El Beril, where his apartment is, had come up for sale and he was thinking of buying it as an investment. He asked me to collect the books for him to take a look at. When I called in, the owner said why don’t I take it over. Anyway, when I got back this morning Jack came to pick up the books and I joked about us two running the bar for him. Before I saw you he’d just called to say he’d been talking to your mum and they both thought it was a good idea. We go into partnership with your brother and they’d help us raise the money.’
‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ I interrupted. This was in danger of becoming serious. ‘From having a bar job in Tenerife, we’ve gone into partnership with my brother and into debt with Jack to the tune of a hundred-and-sixty-five grand. All on an island two thousand miles away with a population that doesn’t speak English. And all behind my back. Where exactly does my opinion come into all this?’
Joy became defensive as she always did when she was on the offensive. ‘Calm down. It’s just an idea. Just forget I ever said it and tomorrow we can go back behind that crappy stall and stink of fish for the rest of our lives.’
Several pints later – I suspect that they had been laced a little – the whys and wherefores had progressed to whens and hows.

I hadn’t seen my brother for several months. Like me he was drifting through life waiting for an opportunity to be handed to him on a plate. Over the three days since the seed of the idea had been planted, I assumed that like me he’d begun to think that this could possibly be it.
Joy, myself, David and his girlfriend Faith had arranged to discuss the idea in The Stage Door pub in Manchester. It was next to the Palace Theatre where a degree in sociology and history had enabled my elder brother to secure the lofty position of box office assistant.
Although we were virtually neighbours in age – there were only 11 months between us – we were poles apart in character. I was the practical brother, he was the creative one. I had logic, he had intellect. Ask about the social order of the Napoleonic age or the consequence of community breakdown in the 1980s and my eyes would glaze over, saliva would forge a path down my chin and my brain would start blowing raspberries. David, however, would casually launch into a scholarly diatribe over the shame of the proletariat and the fortitude of Karl Marx and then try and flog you two tickets to see Widow Twanky played by Keith Chegwin.
University had taught him many things: how to dress like an East European chimney-sweep; how to smoke out of the side of his mouth like an aristocrat; how to behave like a socialist; and how to make £1.50 last a fortnight. Only on weekdays though. On the odd weekend when he would return to Mum and Jack’s house he muttered about the capitalist extravagances of home life before indulging himself in a bathroom full of designer toiletries, a kitchen full of food and a car full of petrol. I suspected that David, like me, was also ready for an out.

‘Well!’ I exclaimed, starting the discussion. ‘What do you think?’
‘We’re all for it,’ David replied. ‘We think it’s a great opportunity...’
‘You do,’ interrupted Faith looking up at my brother. Physically they were complete opposites. David had the physique of a retired rugby player but the heart of a teddy bear. At six-foot-two he was a good 12 inches taller than Faith who, with her tiny, doll-like features, seemed too delicate for a man with hands the size of bin lids. Her skin was porcelain white, a nose stud and four gold earrings provided a gilt-edge. She looked like a fragile piece of china but her apparent frailty was used to good effect. David would fuss round her like she was a vulnerable child.
Where David merely had to breathe his words to be heard, Faith had to project her voice with all the force of a shout but without the volume just to reach ears that were rarely close by. ‘It’s a huge risk for me. I’d be giving up my career to gamble on this,’ she strained. Faith’s career had so far reached the dizzy heights of assistant manager at a Virgin Records store in Altrincham. We were not playing with high stakes here. ‘I mean, none of us have any experience of working behind a bar, in a kitchen or running a business,’ she continued.
‘I’ve worked in my Mum’s café and Joe and David have both had bar jobs. It’s just the next step, that’s all,’ said Joy.
‘Selling pies and serving tea is hardly the same as owning a restaurant,’ argued Faith.
‘We’ll learn,’ countered Joy.
‘That’s a bit flippant considering we’ll be in debt for a hundred-and-sixty-five-thousand pounds. It’ll be an expensive lesson if we get it wrong.’
‘We’ll just have to make sure we don’t then, won’t we?’
‘What about my cat? I can’t leave him.’
‘Surely a cat isn’t going to make the difference between going and staying?’
‘I’ve had him a long time.’
‘He’s not even your cat. He’s David’s.’
‘He still loves me though. I can’t leave him.’
‘Well, buy him some sunglasses and bring him along. He looks like he could do with a holiday.’
‘I’m being serious.’
‘So am I.’
This was not a good start to a business partnership. David and I let the girls slug it out for a while as we bought another round of drinks.
‘You know that Mum and Jack said that they’d only lend us the money if we all went?’ I reminded David.
‘I know, but I’m not sure if Faith’s got it in her. You know what she’s like.’
I wasn’t sure if any of us had it in us to leave the comfort zone of undemanding jobs in familiar surroundings and put ourselves in debt through owning a business that we knew nothing about on an island of which we knew even less. Although spurred on by Joy’s reckless enthusiasm to give it a go, Faith’s contrary attitude had raised uncertainty about the wisdom of Mum and Jack’s plan. I began to think if we were really ready for it. This was a commitment, the very thing that I had done my best to avoid all these years. A small part of me hoped that Faith would say no and we could sink back into the cosiness of a life without change, responsibility or effort.
Although Jack’s offer to lend us some of the money and help arrange a mortgage for the bulk was a generous, and perhaps foolish, one, the rate of interest that we’d be paying back was a lot more than the rate he would have gained by holding the same money in a bank. At the end of the day it was a business proposition that was intended to benefit him as well as us. Financial gain was always behind any reasoning of Jack’s.
The appeal of investing in a bar on the same complex as his apartment would satisfy many whims. He could waltz in and out, help himself to large brandies and puff on fat cigars. He would have achieved most men’s dream to own their own pub but without having to deal with the petty whims of a drunken Joe Public.
An added bonus of course was that his two stepsons would finally have ‘proper jobs’ rather than messing about with mackerel, Karl Marx and Widow Twanky.
If there was a certain amount of self-interest in the proposition, there was also a smattering of sense in Jack being the one to suggest it. After decades of flogging houses on the home front, he had retired from his UK partnership the year before and had set up a similar venture for property investors overseas. Tenerife was the first port of call as residential tourism was just starting to follow in the footsteps of its package holiday popularity. For UK investors seeking a red-hot winter bolthole whilst the rest of Europe turned blue, the Canary Islands had recently emerged as a leading contender, with one advantage over the Spanish Costas – winter sun.
Located less than 100 miles from the coast of North Africa, the seven islands making up the Canarian archipelago had all the assets that a North European citizen looking to escape grey winters could ask for. Perma-sunshine, an eternal spring climate, safe bathing and an enlarging expat community.
Historically this septuplet of islands had drawn the attention of many British visitors, most of them unwanted. In 1595 the Canarians beat off Sir Francis Drake as he tried to conquer La Palma. In 1797 Nelson and his arm parted ways during an ill-timed attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife. And whilst docked off the same island in 1832, Charles Darwin was thwarted in his lifelong ambition to explore the archipelago because of the risk of a cholera epidemic.
Perhaps with all the chronicled exploits of the early visitors it was surprising that it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the masses cottoned on to the appeal. For Joy and me though, it wasn’t the beaches, pine forests or volcanic badlands that had provided the lure. If Jack had diverted his attentions towards pig farming in Lithuania and dangled a means of becoming swine entrepreneurs I think we would have been equally enthused. It was merely the dream of an adventurous escape from our usual drudgery but with the added incentive of daily sunshine and a potential pot of gold if we managed to avoid spectacular failure.
The problem now was that this dream had grown dangerously close to becoming reality and for me that would mean having to swap the excitement of making plans with the horror of having to follow them through. But the decision was now down to Faith.

Despite several more remonstrations about what a crazy, illogical plan it was for herself and the cat, Faith finally, though reluctantly, agreed to come. Having overcome our own personal doubts, Faith’s decision took us to Phase II. We had to start preparing to move.
For Joy and myself the most pleasant part of Phase II was leaving the market. But that would only come after the most unpleasant part – telling Pat.
He was in a particularly vicious mood that day. ‘You’re not going to sell that fish by whispering, Joe, for jeffin’s sake, shout.’
‘Three fish for a fiver! Fresh in today!’
‘That’s not shouting. That’s talking. Scream it out you nancy.’
‘THREE FISH FOR A FIVER. DON’T BE SHY, COME AND BUY.’
‘Joy, shift those chicken legs. They’ve been out of that jeffin’ freezer three times now. If they have to go back in one more time you’re going in with them. Sandra! What the bollocks...?’
Sandra worked alone on the shellfish ‘department’ slotted at right angles to the fish and chicken stall. She was allowed to run it how she pleased and was a particular favourite of Pat’s. This was just as well as the slightest hint of a reprimand would make her reach for the Kleenex. Today however, wasn’t even a good day for Sandra.
Occasionally, apart from the run-of-the-mill fish like cod, halibut and hake, Pat would take delivery of some unusual marine life. This was partly to show off to the other fishmongers in the market and partly to keep the attention of his regular customers.
Emerging from the cold, dark, hush of Ashburner Street into the brightly-lit riot of early morning stall preparation was a slap in the face. Finding yourself eye-to-eye with a creature that you wouldn’t normally expect to come across in Bolton town centre was heart-stopping.
I was deep in thought about warm quilts and soft pillows, hands burrowed in my donkey jacket, collar turned up in defence against the biting chill, when suddenly what appeared to be a large shark was grinning at me from atop a trestle table in the middle of the market hall. The apparition was indeed a 3-metre shark, Pat’s latest ‘attention-grabber’. It had certainly got mine. Pat’s beam matched the shark’s as he noticed my shock. ‘Think you can sell that?’ he asked.
‘It’s a shark,’ I said.
‘Top marks Einstein. I can see education’s not been wasted on you.’
But this morning it was fauna of a different kind that was destined to draw the gapes of Bolton’s plastic bag brigade. A fresh delivery of live crabs had arrived and Sandra had carefully arranged a dozen of them on their backs, little legs cycling in unison between the cockles and mussels.
Unfortunately, a sympathetic pensioner had noticed they were upside down and had turned them back the right way whilst Sandra was off chasing a young boy who had helped himself to a fistful of crabsticks.
Sandra returned to find a man in a cloth cap and a woman with no teeth hopping youthfully in front of the stall. The upright crabs, having sensed a window of opportunity, had hurled themselves off the edge of the stall and were scuttling for their crusty lives between wellies and moon boots in a bid for freedom. The good people of Bolton, unaccustomed to such crustaceous attacks, had also fled, missing another window of opportunity around the other side of the stall as Pat had sanctioned an emergency plan of four trays for a fiver plus a free bag of tandoori chicken in a bid to woo the fleeing shoppers.
The crabs were eventually herded together but not before word had got out that Pat’s stall should be given a wide berth. Trade that day remained slack. Worse than that, the other stallholders had gained enough ammunition to goad him in the Ram’s Head for a very long time.
At the end of an unprofitable day, Pat’s ruddy cheeks were scarlet, his mood black.
‘Pat, can we have a word?’ said Joy. Pat grunted and kicked a box of chicken legs towards the freezer for their fourth frosty sleepover.
‘We’ve bought a bar in Tenerife,’ I said. Pat stopped kicking and looked up. His eyes narrowed and his cheeks glowed furiously. He was in no mood for jokes, especially if they were on him.
‘What d’you mean you’ve bought a bar? A toffee bar maybe. How can you two buy a jeffin’ bar on three quid fifty an hour.’ He turned his back and shooed us off with a flick of his hand. ‘Piss off. I can’t be doing.’
‘So we’re going to have to hand in our notice,’ continued Joy.
‘You’re serious?’ We waited for an explosion after the pause. ‘Do you want a barman?’ Pat had turned round again. He was looking from me to Joy and back again. We both let out a nervous laugh.
‘No, I’m pleased for you. You’ve both worked hard. We all had a bet on how long you’d stick it out when you first came working here. We gave Joe one day and you two weeks. Didn’t think you’d both hack it. You proved us all wrong. Just let me know a week before you’re leaving so I can get someone else in.’ He turned round and shoved the chicken with his foot as we strode off. ‘Oh, and don’t forget,’ he shouted, ‘if you do ever need a barman…’

When the rest of our stall colleagues heard the news, they were sceptical. They expected to see us reappear at one of the other stalls further down the market selling mixed bags of sweets or bundles of low-grade toilet rolls.
The send-off on the last day was full of warm-hearted well wishes. Old fish innards and chicken bits were cheerily stuffed down our clothes and we were both forced to wear rabbit carcasses on our heads for a good deal of the day.
A couple stopped in front of the stall with mouths agape. They both had matching lilac shell suits and absurdly orange-tinted tans. ‘Why have you got rabbits on your heads?’ asked the man, understandably bemused.
‘Because it’s our last day,’ answered Joy.
‘Oh,’ he replied, as though this was a reasonable explanation.
‘Why are you orange?’ said Joy.
‘It’s called a suntan, love,’ said the lady.
‘Oh I see. Been away?’
‘Yes, we’ve just come back from Tenerif-ey,’ smiled the lady.
‘More like Shirley’s Sunarama on jeffin’ Hardwick Street,’ muttered Pat as he passed behind carrying a box Terry had just delivered.
‘Tenerife!’ exclaimed Joy.
‘Yes, we own a villa out there. We try to get over as much as possible, you know, to get away from this frightful weather.’ Her voice had suddenly jumped up a couple of social classes to underline her ownership status. ‘Have you been?’
‘Oh aye,’ said Joy brightly. ‘We’ve bought a bar restaurant there. We’re moving in a few days. Maybe we’ll see you there.’
‘Yes... you might well,’ answered the woman faintly. The exclusivity of her status was in danger of being cheapened by a market trader of all people! She didn’t like it whether it was true or not. The woman was no newcomer to the market and had been on the receiving end of teasing before. You couldn’t blame her for doubting that a couple of fishmongers wearing rabbits on their heads had bought a business on her island.

‘I’ll miss you,’ said Sandra at the end of the day. A solitary tear dropped onto a bag of peeled king prawns. ‘Here, take these,’ she blubbered. She checked if Pat was looking and handed us the seafood as a farewell gift.
Pat immediately shouted us over. ‘You three, over here now!’
‘Shit,’ said Sandra. ‘Might be needing a job meself now.’
‘We all clubbed together and bought you something for the bar,’ said Pat. The others were standing around watching. He handed us a box. Inside were an elaborately framed dartboard and two sets of darts. ‘I bet your bar doesn’t have one of those, does it?’
‘No, I’m sure it doesn’t,’ I said. ‘Thanks Pat. Thanks everybody.’ We were touched that Pat had taken the trouble to arrange a going away gift, irrespective of the fact that the price tag signalled Whitakers of Bolton had unwittingly donated it.

Pat had spared us a final end of day clear-up. We were keen to get home to start packing. There were only three days to go before we were due to fly out and suddenly it seemed like we had a mountain to climb. I wasn’t ready, neither physically nor mentally.
I had intended visiting the haunting ground of my schooldays in Glossop. Subconsciously I wanted to be in a place where anxiety, responsibility and financial burden had yet to surface. I wanted to recapture those carefree feelings of walking to Su’s at lunchtime when the biggest decision was whether to have batter bits with my chips.
I wanted to stand outside the Surrey Arms where my first serious relationship was sealed with a long kiss, when nothing in the world mattered apart from spending every minute of every hour with Lesley Allen. It was a sensation that I desperately wanted to recapture to clear the whirlwind of emotions currently wreaking havoc in my head.
I wanted to go to Old Glossop at the edge of the Pennines, to wander into the hills and gaze over Derbyshire life. It was there that I always had time to think, safe in the knowledge that at home my mum would have cooked my tea, washed my clothes, been to work and still have the patience in the evening to devote all her time and love to my brother and me. She was the one who had absorbed the anguish of teenage angst, soaked up the grief of broken relationships, made all the plans for our better future whilst my dad busied himself in making a career, always miles away from his real responsibilities. I could see now that my Dad had passed down his commitment-aversion genes. I too had developed a phobia of being trapped in a situation with no means of escape.
But my nostalgic journey was not to be and I continued with the material aspects of emigrating. Packing for a new life involves a bit more than throwing in a few shirts, a pair of flip-flops and a good book. Everything that I had collected had some meaning and each time I was coerced into taking things out of my suitcase to throw away it felt like another nail in the coffin of my life to date.
Despite the wrench of packing for a new life and packing up my old one all was going according to plan until we got a phone call from our gestoria, the person who was sorting out the paperwork for us in Tenerife. ‘Slight problem. I can get work permits and residence permits for the two lads as joint owners, but not the girls. I’ve just found out the only way we can make them legal is if you’re married, in which case the wives automatically become residents. You’ll all have to get married, quickly.’
As much as our hearts were racing at the thought of swapping the two-tone grey of Bolton for the multi-coloured hues of a life in the sub-tropics, Joy and I were adamant that marriage was not a thing of convenience. The threat of wedding chimes set off alarm bells and we said no. The whole move was in jeopardy once again.

Even Faith was disappointed. They had already agreed to get married if it meant we could still go ahead with the plan. They were not amused at our refusal.
‘We’re prepared to sacrifice so much and you won’t budge at all,’ complained Faith at an emergency meeting.
‘We are not being told when to get married,’ I said. ‘We’d rather forget the whole idea.’ Secretly, although I loved Joy, I had no intention of getting married at all, ever. My parents had got divorced and I was not convinced that wearing top hat and tails for a day whilst paying for a knees-up for distant relations was the key to an eternal romantic union.
In the meantime, David and Faith frantically set about organising their wedding, convinced that we would change our minds. It was only amidst a flurry of international phone calls between Jack and our gestoria that she admitted she may have been a little over-emphatic in using the phrase ‘have to get married’. We could still go ahead with the move but the legalisation process would take a lot longer that’s all. The risk was that, in the meantime, should Joy and Faith get caught without either work permits or family connections they would more than likely be deported. Naturally my brother and his wife-to-be were a little miffed at this eleventh-hour revelation but it was too late to back out, so they proceeded with their big day anyway.
Thus, on a blustery Saturday less than three months since the original business idea had surfaced, and in the presence of a select nearest and dearest, my brother and his girlfriend duly whispered ‘I do’ at a registry office in Salford. The bride, in an inauspicious display of doom and gloom, draped herself from head to toe in flowing black with matching bonnet, boots and mood.
The dashed affair was completed in traditional fashion: the hat competition was won by Aunty Beryl who managed to force an astounding union of millinery and garden mesh; confetti and insults were hurled with equal verve; tearful emotion became more contagious in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed; and opposing relations were loudly hailed as potential new friends whilst quietly cursed as pains in the neck.
All the hellos quickly turned to goodbyes as the last drops from upturned bottles of Beaujolais dripped onto white linen. The following day we were leaving England to start a new life. The honeymoon was already over.



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