There’s actually a fishmongers in victoria st, richmond, in the vietnamese side of the suburb, that’s open on xmas day. Anticipating crowds I got there at half eight and discovered it had not yet open. There were a couple other customers there waiting and we got to talking about how clever we were to know about this place and not have to wake at 5am on christmas eve to queue at the vic markets. We were all feeling self-congratulatory until I wondered why there were so few people here and one of the customers said,
“I expect that most people want to get the shopping done so they can spend christmas morning with their family and friends opening presents.”
At that point I noted that the other two were singletons, one a woman in her late forties, the other a man in his early fifties. A look of mutual recognition passed between us and the conversation died. The woman knocked on the shutters.
Inside, i bought a lot of prawns, some fish and five dozen oysters. I packed the lot in an esky only to discover that the oysters were frozen. I took them back and asked for fresh ones.
The fishmongers were apologetic and replaced them with freshly opened oysters. The cold room was set too low last night, they said sadly. I was sympathetic. As I collected the new oysters I said I didn’t need a box in cantonese. It came out by accident. I’d prior to that spoken only in english. The fishmongers were shocked.
“you speak chinese!”
“a little,” I said, “it’s been a long time. I can understand better than I can speak.”
But I knew and they knew that my cantonese was too good for it to have been that long, that it was good enough that I could have carried out the entire transaction in cantonese. I felt as I usually do in these cases when I reveal my cantonese abilities very late in the conversation that i’d somehow been presenting a false front. Still, they were friendly enough, their smiles wider and they apologized again for the oysters.