I wrote this back in March when Eat Me Magazine was still printing, and after I wrote this rather bleak piece for their Christmas 2011 Issue, they asked for a creative writing piece for their Summer 2012 Issue.
Just found it again. It’s no longer remotely relevant, but seeing as it’ll never go to print, I’ll just put it here.
I give it three out of five cockles.
“GERTCHA TRADITIONAL EAST END GRUB ‘ERE. GERTCHA TASTY –“
Les Bannerman turned around to see his feckless nephew, LeAndrey, leaning against their stall; a rickety shack that declared ‘Classic Cockney Cuisine’ in big blue painted letters.
“What you saying ‘gertcha’ for?
“It’s cockney, innit?”
LeAndrey rolled his eyes. “Yes, Chas n’ Dave, it is, but it don’t mean ‘get your’; it means ‘fuck off’.”
“Well I don’t bloody know, do I? I’m from Kent.”
“Yeah, not exactly East End.”
“Well it’s east of something.”
Les, a man of considerable heft, waddled the few feet back to the stall that he had originally ventured from in the hopes of drumming up business.
“Why ain’t you got your costume on?”
“I ain’t wearing no bling suit”, LeAndrey scoffed, “This ain’t Essex, Uncle.”
Les looked down at the Pearly King costume he had squeezed into that morning. While he knew it was snug in all the wrong places, he didn’t realise that he looked like an old disco ball that had seen better days, or that passers-by could tell he dressed to the left.
“Can I go home yet?”
“No, I promised your Mum I’d get you out and taking part.”
Exasperated, Les gestured to the thousands of tourists moving like slow cattle down the South Bank and to the Olympic rings bobbing on the Thames.
“Oh, I don’t know, Lea. How about biggest party you’ll see in your home city. This’ll never happen in London again. Not in our lifetimes, anyway.”
They gazed into the slow-moving crowd of international visitors for a moment. London, with its usual indifference to newcomers, had allowed itself to enjoy the attention for once. Careworn Londoners quietly agreed that it was OK to get excited about something that was going on. The Olympics, after all, are generally considered to be a big deal. Besides, they could chuckle to themselves every time a foreign visitor needlessly pressed the ‘open door’ button on the tube.
The horde spat out a middle-aged couple, bedecked in regulation tourist hats, shorts and sandals.
“Carol!” The gentleman tourist’s voice cut through the buzz of the swarm, as American voices often do. “Carol, look! Briddish food!”
“Finally!” Carol grabbed her husband’s hand and dragged him closer to the stall. “You know, we have been looking for something traditional all week and we’ll be damned if we could find anything from the actual English Isles.”
Les puffed up his chest. “Only the best the East End has to offer. Here, try some jellied eel.”
Les plunged a ladel into a Bain Marie full of what could be generously described as jellied eel slop, and poured a healthy portion into a paper cup.
“Oh, yeah, that’ll put hairs on your chest. See that dog over there? It was a Chihuahua til it ate jellied eels. Now it’s a Mastiff.”
Carol and husband looked down into the shining lumps that shook in the lukewarm cup.
“Mm. Yes. Well, when in Rome…”
Shortly after Les waved the couple off, still apologising, LeAndrey started a tally behind the stall, titled ‘Return of the Eel’. The tally would reach eight by lunchtime.
Throughout the day, Les and LeAndrey would convince customers that Usain Bolt stopped by their stall every morning for his carb-loading session of pie and mash, that their ‘fresh fish’ definitely wasn’t bought in a pub three days previously, and that the cockney rhyming slang for “Olympics” was “blimpsticks”.
Mid-afternoon LeAndrey noticed an old woman watching them. She was resting against a modest catering trolley; an old fashioned piece of equipment with a blue and white striped umbrella, something that LeAndrey had seen used to sell ice cream or hot dogs in the movies. He read the words ‘Hetty’s Bow Bites’ painted across the side.
“FORGET ABOUCHA HEALTHY EATING ‘BRIXTON RIOT’ DIET AND INDULGE IN A PROPER EAST END ‘MR SKINNER’ DINNER –”
“Les, wind ya neck in.”
He elbowed his uncle hard in the side and nodded towards the old lady, who was making her way over to them.
“Ello me old China Plate. How can I help?”
The old lady gave Les a slow look up and down, shaking her head.
“I aincha mate, son. What’s wiv the clothes and all the ‘apples and pears’?”
“I’m showing off me cockney roots.”
“Cockney roots? You’re ‘avin a laugh, incha?” the old lady sniffed.
“I’m not avin a ‘giraffe’”, Les replied with a laugh while LeAndrey stared at the floor in embarrassment. “I am a proper cockney.”
“You’re about as Bow as Mahatma Ghandi, love.”
She peered over the stall. “Let’s ‘ave a taste, then.”
LeAndrey spooned some jellied eels into a cup for the lady.
“I don’t fink so.” she scoffed as she examined the offering. LeAndrey handed her a plastic knife and fork, to which she responded with a cackle.
“Blahdee e’wl, you givin’ aht knives?”
Les folded his arms across his barrel chest, quickly losing his patience with her. “What are we supposed to serve it with? Spoons?”
“Exactly. Cockney food ain’t been eaten with a knife since dubyadubyawon when the ‘ole bloody country ‘ad a knife shortage. Everyone kept nickin’ ‘em from caffs and pubs. I know the rest of the country got back into the habit of knives but proper Eastenders don’t bovver.”
LeAndrey swapped her knife for a spoon and she plunged it into the cup. Balancing a bite-sized chunk on the spoon, the old lady surveyed it for a moment before plopping the whole thing in her mouth. She chewed for a few moments, keeping her eyes on Les and his Pearly King costume. She held the cup up to her mouth and spat out the bone.
“That’s the way to eat it. All in ya mahf, chew around the bone. Shame that it’s poor quality. Where’d you get it? Back of a lorry last summer?”
Les lowered his voice. “Look, we’re all just trying to earn some money and take advantage of what’s going on.”
“Oh I see, thought you had yaself a nice little earner. Oh, sorry, a ‘Tina Turner’.”
Les’ cheeks burned.
“Look, lads, I won’t begrudge anyone tryna make money, but you sellin’ this rubbish is givin’ the trade a bad name.”
She opened her trolley and pulled out two paper cups, full to the brim with much healthier looking jellied eels.
“Lahvely stuff. No charge. Fair’s fair.”
Les and LeAndrey looked at each other with some uncertainty as they picked at the food. Having been around their own stock all day, they had lost what little stomach they had for it. But the old lady was waiting for them to try it, and they didn’t want to offend her anymore than they already had. While still an unquestionably ‘acquired taste’, these eels were much tastier than the ones they had been selling; cold, chewy, salty and oddly refreshing. Les navigated the bone with his teeth before spitting it out into a napkin.
”That’s alright, actually.”
“Course it is.” She said, patting the closed lid of the trolley. “I got loads more ‘ere: cockles, mussels and winkles, pig trotters, salmon.”
“Salmon?” choked Les. “Is salmon cockney?”
“Blahdy ‘ell, there was a time when you couldn’t move for salmon in the Thames. People would complain there was too MUCH salmon. ‘I swear, if I see another salmon, it’ll be too soon!’ You wouldn’t get that kind of talk nah’days.”
Les and LeAndrey blinked at the lady, unsure of what to say.
“Look, I like you two. I wanna see you do well. I’m an old lady. I don’t wanna push this heavy trolley, it’s a young man’s job. How about you buy all my stock off me and you two can make yourself a profit? People’ll believe you’re a proper cockney with this grub.”
“Shush, I’m talking business. How much are you willing to sell your stock for?”
The old lady ummed and ahhed for a moment, looking into the trolley, talking about the high quality, before eventually peering over their stall and asking, “’Ow much you got?”
When LeAndrey looked back at the London Olympics years later, he recalled the overcrowded tubes and the excitement in the city, but he would always remember the time a crafty old dear managed to swindle his Uncle Les out of £500 for an empty trolley, bar a couple of portions of really nice jellied eels.