In Isolation with Jacinta Mulders

Location: Canberra, Australia

It comes to me while I am crossing my living room: the yellow crunch of fried batter surrounding a white fillet, the tang of vinegar, licking salt from my fingers.

In usual times, there would be somewhere in Canberra I could go to eat fresh fish and chips: I’ve heard that Snapper on the Lake in Yarralumla is good. If I were feeling zealous about it, I might have driven to the South Coast. In Eden last winter with my family, I ate battered flathead on a slatted wooden table near the port, in view of the flat, grey sea. But no-one is driving anywhere. Eating in public places is dangerous. In the evenings, I boil brown rice and eat it with something from the fridge: a cube of feta preserved in oil, last month’s pumpkin curry I defrost and eat, begrudgingly.

The newspapers say that during lockdown, people are having wilder dreams. I can believe it. The physical restrictions on my body cause desires to strain outwards against their confines. Subtle longings for food balloon into jagged urges. I don’t just think of the food I can’t eat; my mind begins to drip with the people, locations and landscapes I associate with particular meals.

When I think of fish and chips, I’m reminded of the year I lived in Norwich while I was studying towards my Masters at the University of East Anglia. Norwich is a small place—many of its streets are wandering and medieval. At the intersection of Pottergate and Lower Goat Lane, right at the heart of this cool, sweet clutter, sits the Grosvenor Fish Bar. Here, people eat their fish and chips on metal chairs in view of a nail bar, a pink-lit bohemian pub, and a 14th century church called St Gregory’s.

My usual order was cod or haddock and chips—lemon sole or rock if I was feeling adventurous—with plenty of lemon for the fish, and salt packets and sachets of tomato sauce for the chips. I listened with curiosity to the orders ahead of me: mushy peas, curry sauce, toad in a hole (a kind of sausage in the middle of a Yorkshire pudding), fish cakes. I came to delight in the weekly specials: the ‘Five Quid Squid’ (crisp hoops of squid with a pot of pale yellow, creamy garlic aioli), the ‘Big Mack’ (battered mackerel, lettuce and tartare sauce pillowed in two halves of a white roll) or the ‘Wako Taco’ (steamed cod frilled with lettuce, cheese, salsa and sour cream, trussed in a wrap).

The physical restrictions on my body cause desires to strain outwards against their confines. Subtle longings for food balloon into jagged urges.

In the quiet evenings, people would gather in the street outside Grosvenor’s. Some tore open their packages of butcher’s paper to eat the hot contents under the eaves of the pub; others bundled them into their coats to take to family at home. My favourite time to eat fish and chips was in the evening. I loved breaking open the batter to flake apart the fish and look at the sky over the church as it clocked through pale shades of blue, orange, pink and violet, somehow joining with the food to become part of the experience of the meal.

When people from Australia came to visit, I took them to Grosvenor’s. The place gained the approval of my Mum, as well as two friends from Sydney, each of whom ordered things I had never considered before: scampi, which came out battered and large, and grilled fish with fried green tomatoes. My friends and I would go there before nights out and eat our fill before kicking off to wherever we were headed, the headlights on our bikes blinking.

Attending Grosvenor’s took on the tenor of a ceremony. I remember the warm smell of beef shortening—oddly cosy—which I have since come to associate with other fish and chip shops I encountered in England: usually on the Norfolk coast or at wound-down Victorian seaside towns. In Norwich, we went to Grosvenor’s in all seasons: during summer, when the evenings were long and humming; during winter, our hot mouths blowing steam and filled with chips. It was cheap, comforting food.

Some kind of fish and chip shop has existed on the site of Grosvenor’s for 90 years. I deduct decades in my head: it would have opened sometime in the 1930s. The fish shop, then, has seen the phases of twentieth century history—wars, the blossoming of the sixties, the turn of the millennium—and it is still standing. In these restricted times, not only are my memories of Grosvenor’s a reminder of the world’s richness and expansiveness, but the shop proper, when thinking about it, is a kind of stalwart reminder that no phase of things is final.

By Jacinta Mulders