When I was 18, I got a job in a fish and chip shop in Dumbarton, just north of Glasgow. This was a mistake. Dumbarton has a picturesque ruined castle and views of the Highlands, 3196-foot-high Ben Lomond and the River Clyde. I did not see any of these things. I did see a lot of lard.
Until I started the job, I thought that success was measured by good grades, exhaustive knowledge of Eurythmics lyrics and whether or not Maria McGinty’s posse acknowledged your existence at Tiffany’s Rollerdisco on Saturday afternoons. But on my first morning at the Chip Chik Inn I learned that this was not the case. It turned out that success was actually measured by how many children one could pop out before the age of twenty.
My teenage mentors — or tormentors, as fate would often have it, Mee-chelle and Chel, were 19-year-old mothers of a boisterous combined herd of what sounded like at least 29 urchins. They simply didn’t believe that, at 18, I didn’t have any children.
“You sure?” they questioned, looming menacingly over where I sat cowering on an upturned MAYO-K bucket, as if the fact of my having given birth might have fallen from my mind into a nearby vat of congealed lard.
Soon astonishment turned to suspicion. They thought I was holding out on them. Everyone they knew had reproduced at least once by my age.
“But you’re eighteen,” puzzled Mee-chelle.
“What’s wrong wi’ you?” heckled Chel. “Ah’d four by your age. And twins on the way.”
“No even one wean?” pleaded Mee-chelle.
One dim bulb fizzled overhead in the post-apocalyptically grimy kitchen. Frothing oil troughs gurgled in the shop beyond. I shrugged apologetically and peeled my 462nd potato. The three of us sat on our buckets and whittled away at our potatoes silently.
“Think she’s daft in the heid?” whispered Mee-chelle to her friend.
“Aye,” said Chel whirling her potato peeler aggressively around her left ear, mouthing, “Loony.”
My lack of offspring worried Chel and Chelle. They huddled in dank, greasy corners by the deep fat fryer and talked about me. They scoped me out from behind teetering mountains of unpeeled Golden Wonders. Chel shook her head darkly whenever I approached, lightly dusting trays of withered haddock with cigarette ash.
Having failed to get me to crack with tales of prodigious progeny-production, Chel tried a new approach.
“My maw was a granny by the time she turned 33.”
“You’ll be the same, Chel,” fawned Mee-chelle.
“Maybe younger, though. Maybe 31. My Jacinta’s a right wee looker.”
“How old’s wee Jac?” Mee-chelle asked.
“Just turned three.”
Eventually, toward the end of my first day of oil-saturated initiation, I relented. If I was going to stick this out, I reckoned, I was going to need to fit in and, other than Eppy Andy, the epileptic fry cook, the Chel(le)s made up the entire staff roster.
So, a few boiling spuds short of my 1000th Golden Wonder, I invented a two-year-old called Joseph.
The heavy hydrogenated oil and lard-filled air seemed to lift, the ominous bubbling of the fryers seemed to relent and Chel and Mee-chelle leaned back against the peeling, sweating wall, finally satisfied.
“She has got a wean!” screeched Mee-chelle.
“Ah knew it,” said Chel, stubbing out her cigarette on an adjacent potato. “Ah telt you she wisnae that ugly!”
“Nice one, hen,” crowed Mee-chelle.
“Whit age’s he?” asked Chel, offering me a cigarette. “Two, aye? A bit younger, mind, but, if he’s no a total minger, I’ll set him up with Wee Jac.”