The tale of the squid and the mop

Let me tell you a little story about my teuthiphobia, how it started and how it led on to ichthyophobia. To do this I need to take you back in time to 2005…

In the autumn of 2005 I upped sticks to Spain to take a chance on my holiday romance. I spoke extreme beginners’ Spanish and took the first job I was offered in a tapas bar called La Factoria. In my ‘interview’ I smiled a lot and explained that I is been a mop many time at England pubs. The bar owner, who either took pity on me or saw that I represented an as yet undiscovered mine of hilarity, signed me up on the spot.

What I’d intended to convey in my interview was that I’d worked as a washer-upper for years. I love washing up in restaurants. For greedy people like me, the networking opportunities are second-to-none. You make friends with the chefs and you’re made: first dibs on all leftover trays of dauphinoise potatoes, the chance to try new concoctions as they’re being created, and the biggest portions when you stop for a lunch break. What’s more, you get all the insider gossip, a radio to listen to, zero contact with bossy paying customers, and you can wear whatever you want.

In the five years I worked as a kitchen porter, peeling buckets of spuds, making up oceans of stock, washing up towers of greasy plates, picking enough fish bones out of the drain to make entire skeletons, and working my way through vats of prawns and squid, I never once had a freak-out.

So I thought I could handle La Factoria. They came on strong – had me crawling into their huge, filthy oven to scrape out the grime with industrial-strength products on day one, insisted I chop a huge pile of parsley more and more finely until my spirit almost broke on day two, and made me clean the customer loos at two in the morning at the end of all of my shifts. But I could take it.

During the day, the owner (and head chef) would make small talk with the sous-chef and I’d scrape up any conversational crumbs I could decipher. Occasionally I’d take a deep breath and blunder through the odd sentence or two. At those times, everyone would stop and watch me intently – and disconcertingly – as I spoke. When I’d finished, they would address me as – well, as an English person would address a non-English speaker – like an old lady who’s as deaf as a post.

During the evening, I learnt to keep my head down and wow them with my productivity. I was routinely trotted out by the head chef as an overseas curiosity, where I would smile and introduce myself as the new mop, but aside from that I kept myself to myself.

Then, just as I thought I was settling in and gaining the respect of my team, it happened. I’d been asked to clean a huge metal tray full of squid and got straight down to it, one by one: pull out the quill, rummage around for the beak, poke out the eyes, done, onto the next.

Soon I’d got about halfway through the squid mountain and was on autopilot, consumed by the task in hand. Quill, beak, eyes, next. Quill, beak, eyes, next. Quiiiiii…… Suddenly, before I could process what was happening, I was making a low, disgusted noise that was somewhere between a roar and a moan, the audible equivalent of the air you expel furiously from your contaminated nostrils after tentatively sniffing the ‘mud’ on the sole of your shoe. Before I knew it, the squid I’d picked up was sailing in a high and graceful arc across the kitchen, watched curiously by the head and sous-chefs. It thudded onto the floor and skidded into a corner, while we all stared after it open-mouthed.

The chefs’ first reaction was one of concern. What had happened? Was I mentally unstable? Had an army of the squid undead risen up and attacked? Worse, had I seen a rat?

Soon, general opinion settled for the former hypothesis. I babbled mortified apology after mortified apology and scurried to pick up the squid. Reaching towards it with my outstretched hand, I heard the same sound again. Uuuuuuuuhhhhhhh. My fingers brushed the squid and drew back quickly. I just knew I couldn’t touch that squid.

Equally, I couldn’t let on that the squid had freaked me out. I had to recapture it and finish the job. So I gulped decisively, stuck out my hands, grabbed the squid and lunged to the sink to deposit it. The sous-chef bustled over kindly and sorted out the offending squid, casting me amused glances. I smiled brightly, gritted my teeth and picked up a fresh squid, trying to hold it with only the tips of my fingers as I prepared it.

It was a long, grim afternoon, as I waded through the million or so remaining squid in that metal tray. Waves of nausea crashed over me as I suppressed the crazy fear each new cephalopod provoked in me. They seemed to get bigger and bigger as the afternoon wore on. As I flung the last de-spined squid onto the pile, I felt weary and particularly spineless myself.

And ever since then, curiously enough, although I’ve rehabilitated myself, my fear of squid has morphed into a fear of fish. Now, as I wash and gut them or score the skin, I emit a repressed echo of the same noise I made all those years ago in La Factoria. To prevent myself from lobbing a dead fish across the room, I chant to myself, ‘It’s just a fish, it’s just a fish, it’s just a fish’ over and over again until the job is done. I chant especially loudly if I’m dealing with my nemesis – smooth, stripey, snake-like mackerel. 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