It can be cold these January mornings on the fish truck, no matter how many layers I put on. During those now scarcely remembered days of the summer and pre-Christmas rush, I had been neglecting this branch of my business because I was so busy at the pub and Fish House.
And even feeling a bit guilty, because it was this converted Chevrolet ambulance, parked up next to a farm shop on the A35 in Dorset, that first got me back on my feet again after the blow of my restaurant business closing as Covid struck.
My New Year regime is therefore to make sure I am here at least two times a week, sometimes three. The early morning cold does occasionally make me wonder about the sanity of doing it.
The fish is on display in ice buckets in front of the truck, so I allow myself a little heater to warm my feet as I stand here with the flap open and the wind off Lyme Bay blowing straight in. But I still have to brace myself to plunge my hands into the ice to serve the fish.
What I realise most, though, is how much I love being here and having this most direct of contacts with my customers. On the fish truck all the trappings of pub and restaurant are stripped away and it’s just me and them. And the regulars have been very loyal these past almost two years.
Even in the busiest times in the summer and autumn when I didn’t always manage to open up, or around Christmas when my hernia op – which seems to be working – made it too hard for me to come up and start hauling round fish boxes, they have stuck with me on this long road back.
In return, I have tried not to neglect them. Most of them have my number, so can ring to see if the truck is going to be open. If it is not, they can order some smoked salmon from my garden smokehouse, which they can collect next time they are in Lyme.
Now I am back in place in the truck as a regular fixture, they are coming along for a chat as much as anything. Yes, money usually changes hands as well, in exchange for fish, but in January there isn’t much else to do to cheer ourselves up than talk.
It’s always a bit of a bleak month, hibernating after the Christmas and New Year festivities, life stripped back, short days, long nights and only work to distract us. And this January and last have taken that model to extremes. So we all need a bit of human interaction, whether it’s for a moan about the weather, Government or pandemic.
It’s a two-way thing. Often, I find myself packing up at the end of the morning feeling more cheerful than when I arrived, even if the customers have hardly bought anything, but said a lot. Occasionally, in the quieter moments, I do sometimes find my mind wandering to what I might be doing if this was a ‘normal’ January.
It is the time of year when, in past years of good health and plenty, I have headed off for a bit of fishing with old friends in the Caribbean.
In 2021, there was absolutely no question about the regular trip taking place, but this time round, we did have some optimistic preliminary discussions back in the autumn about whether it might just be possible.
Then good old-fashioned practical common sense kicked in. After a year of interrupted trading, the bank balance was already looking rocky.
Thank God we let it go. With omicron and its impact on the whole Christmas and New Year period of trading, we are now plunging deeper into the red. This is no time for holidays.
Instead, given the reluctance of people to gather indoors, the fish truck is suddenly feeling like the most Covid-secure part of the business I am building in these difficult times. It is all outdoors, so much less risky.
That thought is what sent me up here straight after New Year to give it a good wash down and spruce up. And I have been upping my game as the only response I know when Covid anxiety is at its peak.
I am trying to attract new passing trade with snacks on the counter. The bestseller so far has been the oyster po’boy, deep-fried oyster with mayo in a bun. A dash of chilli warms it, and you, up.
And when I do have a moment to daydream, it’s not the waters of the Caribbean that I find myself picturing, but something more mundane – a whole year’s trading without interruption. That’s how far Covid has narrowed our horizons.
As told to Peter Stanford