Memories Contest Joint Winner: “Not Billy Bob Thornton and the Raw Fish” by Malcolm Mackinnon

The waitress looked at me, confused. She raised her hand as if to say, “Wait there,” before disappearing into the small ramshackle café. I glanced at Donna, my wife, and smiled. We were getting used to this by now.

The delay didn’t matter. Half the fun of ordering at a village restaurant consisted in overcoming language barriers. Here, at the north end of this Greek island, sitting in a courtyard on a cliff top staring at the Adriatic Sea, I didn’t mind how long the waitress took, or even if she never understood us at all.

It had just passed 11 o’clock, and I needed a coffee. Now that we’d finally found a café, I knew a coffee would eventually come. We’d already learned nothing happens quickly in Greece, especially before noon. So, I sighed deeply, closed my eyes, and allowed the sound of the water far below and the fragrance of wild oregano to wash over me. We had the whole day to cruise around on a moped and explore, allowing us a tremendous feeling of peace and freedom. We were the only customers in this sleepy bar, nestled in an even sleepier village among olive groves and lemon trees. As I sat back in the old wicker chair, without a care in the world, Donna brought me back to reality.

“Here comes someone,” she said. I looked up, casually, to see a man in his 40’s walking towards us. His calm air of authority suggested he was the manager. However, as he approached, I gave him a double-take. Surely this was Billy Bob Thornton?

Obviously, that made no sense at all. Why would a famous Hollywood actor be running a small obscure café on an equally small obscure Greek island? And yet, the resemblance was uncanny. My 15 years as a portrait artist had trained me in the skill of recognizing when somebody looked like somebody else. Donna noticed too. Before he attempted to take our order, my excitement got the better of me.

“You look so much like Billy Bob Thornton,” I blurted, like a star-struck fan. My beaming face told him I was friendly, yet he still stared back at me with the same confused expression as the waitress. Whatever “Billy Bob Thornton” meant, it didn’t exist on the menu. But I couldn’t stop.

“You look like the actor Billy Bob Thornton,” I repeated, this time slower, as if that might help. Ignoring his pitying smile, I moved into full charades mode, performing the universally recognized symbol for movies, regardless of the fact that nobody had turned the crank on a movie camera for at least 60 years. Donna joined in.

“Billy Bob Thornton! The Hollywood actor. You know.” He clearly didn’t know.

“Beeely Bub Thontong,” I said, in my most Greek accent. My powers of rationality were disappearing fast. Undeterred, we started listing any movies we could remember that he had been in, shouting the names loudly, in the same crazy universal presumption that shouting makes people understand us better.

“The US president in Love Actually!”

“Monsters Ball!”

“Armageddon!” He stood at our table, peering at us both in turn, still bewildered.

“He was married to Angelina Jolie,” announced Donna triumphantly, as if this would suddenly provide the breakthrough in his understanding. He replied by raising his hand to cease our babbling, then motioned for us to stay there while he returned to the café.

“Where’s he going now?” asked Donna.

“Maybe he’s going to get someone else who can’t speak English?”

“We could be here all day.”

“I don’t think bringing up Angelina Jolie helped.”

“But they were married.”

“Even I didn’t know that,” I said. “Anyway, he could definitely get a job being a celebrity double.”

“Would Billy Bob actually need a celebrity double?”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t think of too many scenarios where there would need to be two Billy Bobs.”

“I’m sure there would be. Anyway, he’d need an agent.”

“The poor guy obviously has no idea what we’re on about. I doubt he’s even got a TV, let alone an exhaustive knowledge of Billy Bob Thornton’s filmography.”

“I just want to let him know. I wish I could show him a photo.”

“You mean you didn’t bring your Billy Bob Thornton photo collection with you?”

I ignored Donna’s sarcasm and eagerly awaited his return. I fully expected him to reappear with either a pen and paper, or perhaps someone who could understand us. Fifteen minutes passed and, to our surprise, he came back with a small tray containing bread, a bottle of Ouzo, and two small fish. It was our turn to be confused. What did he think we had asked for? He couldn’t have mixed up our order, since no-one else was there. I looked closer at the fish and realized they were raw. I started to feel uneasy.

Without talking, the man calmly cut the heads off the fish, slit the skins, and removed the bones and guts. He cut the fish into chunks, placed a couple of pieces on a plate, and handed it to me with a piece of bread and a glass of Ouzo.

I looked at Donna, hoping she might have some insight. Her shrug told me she didn’t. What was I supposed to do? Throw it to the birds? Feed a dog? The man gestured for me to eat. I stared back at him, deeply puzzled – not only by this bizarre ritual, but also why Donna hadn’t been dragged into the insanity. He took a piece of fish and popped it into his mouth, expecting me to follow suit.

“Does he want me to eat this?”

“Looks like it,” she said, unhelpfully.

“But why?”

“Probably to stop you talking about Billy Bob Thornton.” Donna, who hates fish, even when it’s cooked, stared at me with disdain.

“You don’t have to eat it, you know,” she said. It’s one thing to eat raw fish when served as part of a sushi meal; it’s another thing altogether when the fish only finished swimming about 10 minutes previously. The man remained at our table with no intention of leaving until I had eaten something. Finally, hesitantly, I picked up a piece of fish and started to chew it. Unemotionally, he nodded at me, as if approving my decision.

Perhaps it meant he liked me? Perhaps it meant he hated me? Perhaps this was the forfeit for anyone who insulted him by liking him to Billy Bob Thornton? The fish tasted pretty much like I imagined; crunchy yet rubbery (if that’s possible), raw, oily, and not really fit for human consumption. I downed my glass of Ouzo in one go to take away the taste, before remembering that I also hate the taste of Ouzo! I continued eating the fish, making sure I swallowed as much bread as I could with each bite.

We finished our strange meal as silently as we had begun it, the quiet only punctuated by occasional murmurs of disgust from Donna. When nothing remained, he patted me on the shoulder, took the tray away, and left us. Evidently, I had passed the test. Had we just become blood brothers? Was I now expected to marry his daughter? Had I become a part-owner in the café? Had I just participated in the New Billy Bob Thornton Secret Camera Prank Show?

As he disappeared into the café, I felt slightly nauseous, as well as a little light-headed. I turned again to Donna and asked, “What just happened? What on earth did he think I said to make him bring all that out?” Donna shook her head.

“I’ve no idea,” she answered.

“Did I just completely gross you out?” I asked her.

“No, not at all. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud of you!”

We left the café eventually, climbed aboard our moped, and drove slowly through the rustic lanes of the quiet island. We may have had something else to eat and drink but, to be honest, I can’t remember. The repeating taste of raw fish and Ouzo, along with the weird adventure we’d just experienced, pretty much blotted out any memory of what else we might have done there. Only two things remained in my mind from the encounter: the fact Billy Bob Thornton has a Greek double who spends his time giving out bizarre snacks to tourists; and, even more weirdly, that my wife thought me a hero for being willing to participate!

12 Comments

    • Thank you, Cheryl, for your encouraging words. I had hoped readers would find it funny.

    • Hello Ian. I really appreciate your feedback, and I guessed we might have the same sense of humor.

  1. Great story, and very well written. Definitely funny, but I also felt your pain. Great conclusion!

  2. Thank you, Sandy. I’m pleased you found it funny and could empathize with what we experienced. I appreciate you taking the time to comment, too.

  3. I had a similar experience in Greece, also on a scooter, which included a rowboat, a live octopus, a charcoal fire, and the ever present Ouzo. You took me back in fine style. Thanks for the memories.

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