Imogen has only just reached the end of her time at Huntley’s Department store in her discussions with Andrew at the employment agency, but already there seems to be a connection between the two of them. For the first time in many years, Imogen is feeling the warmth of a man’s attention.
The next position after Huntley’s beckoned. Catering Assistant at O’Ryan’s Steak House, near Peter’s college in Sussex. First, however, there was something I needed to do.
Chapter Eight – Into the heat of the kitchen.
My girdle was killing me and as soon as I arrived home I raced upstairs and removed the offending undergarment. My body did not return to its customary shape for about five minutes, which caused me some concern. However, I was soon sitting down to lunch and for some reason I was motivated to by-pass the French bread, mayonnaise and pate, and indulge in a wholemeal, tomato sandwich and a piece of fruit.
It was a while since I had felt attracted to another man but I recognised the signs. Incentive to lose weight had been sadly lacking of late, and had been the reason behind my constant failure to stick to a healthy lifestyle. I wasn’t sure where my relationship with Andrew was going to lead, perhaps nowhere, but if I could lose a stone in the process it would be a bonus.
After lunch, I looked out of the kitchen window to the back of the garden. The green gate that opened onto the forest had not been unlocked since my arrival in the house six months ago and I had to root around in the drawers in the dresser to unearth the key tag marked ‘G-gate’. I put on a pair of sensible shoes and headed out the back door; with my rolled-up CV in my pocket for reference. The key fitted, and although rusted, the gate opened with a protesting groan. The paths in the forest had been beckoning since I arrived, and for the first time I succumbed to their invitation and set off through an avenue of trees.
Once I was into my stride, and my heart and breathing had slowed down a little, I reached back through the years to 1972.
* * *
There had been almighty ructions in the house over my decision to leave home and go to Eastbourne, although I imagine that the problem was more about my being with Peter than about my leaving home. Even the fact that I would be living-in at a job I had obtained through a catering magazine, and not with Peter, in digs, did nothing to persuade my parents that I was doing the right thing.
They were very disappointed that I had dropped the idea of nursing, and felt that I was taking a backward step by becoming a catering assistant. But I was in love, and nothing was going to stand in my way, not even my parent’s disapproval. With all my clothes jammed into two suitcases, I packed myself into Peter’s small car and off we headed into the wide blue yonder.
Peter was in his last year of study, so I was not looking for a career. However, I did need a job that would also gave me a roof over my head. When I saw my drab little home, in the attic of the steak house, for the first time, I realised that I was not going to be enjoying the home comforts that I was used to.
About ten feet square, the room arched into the roof space, where cobwebs had been gathering since the building was erected in 1812. A single bed was pressed against the wall and dingy blue curtains flapped at the small grimy window. I thought for a minute that the window was open but on investigation discovered that it was the draft around the badly fitting window that was the source of the wind tunnel effect in the room. There was an old, oak wardrobe and dresser and a chair in the corner.
Down the hall was the bathroom – shared by the five staff who lived in. Strangely, none of them seemed to be able find the cleaning products under the sink; left there for the purpose of removing stains from toilets and baths. I thought longingly of my room at home and the pristine bathroom next to it. Oh well, there was always love – wasn’t there?
I unpacked my two cases and changed into the uniform that had been provided.
My training was to take four weeks in total, with a week in each of the four departments in the steak house: Bar, Restaurant, Kitchen and Stock Control.
Because of my previous experience with accounts and retail, I was classified as ‘Assistant to the Assistant Manager’. What this really meant was ‘General Dogsbody’. If anybody was off sick anywhere in the establishment, I got to fill in for them. Actually, I rather enjoyed the variety that this offered and I soon made friends with the other live-in staff and managed to get myself into and out of some trouble along the way.
Peter was studying hard, and working a part-time job too. We only really saw each other on my evening off, and one other day a week. If I had stayed at home we would not have seen each other more than a couple times during term, so we counted ourselves lucky to have that.
The departments that I spent most time in were the bar and restaurant. The building, as I have mentioned, was built in 1812, and had some additions to the rear of the property where the kitchen was housed. The downstairs bar and restaurant were decorated in red flock wallpaper with red velvet seats and brown carpet. The ceiling was an interesting, mottled, tan and yellow colour. I thought it rather unusual and mentioned it to my boss. He laughed and said it was ‘tinte de nicotine’, which also explained the smell that pervaded the place, masked by some kind of antiseptic smelling deodoriser. At the end of each day, my clothes and hair would reek of tobacco smoke, that lay like a layer of smog about six feet off the ground in the bar. Being so tall had its disadvantages, and I began to walk with a stoop to keep below the contamination layer.
The bar work was hectic and wet. The steak house was busy, particularly at the weekends. Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday lunchtimes, were manic. We would sometimes have a waiting list of up to two hours on a Saturday night, and of course, this meant that every table in the bar was packed. Most of the men drank beer and the women wine or lager. We were not into designer cocktails, at the time, so life behind the bar consisted mainly of pulling pints and making liqueur coffees for the after dinner crowd. The floor used to become slick with overflow from the pumps. Add spilt cream, peanuts and bottle tops and you have a skating rink. I once ended up sliding from one end of the bar to the other on my backside and still managed not to spill the Irish coffee that I had just made. Apart from being dog-tired at the end of each shift, nothing spectacular ever happened in the bar. That was reserved for the restaurant and kitchen.
After eight weeks, and on the resignation of the deputy restaurant manager, I was promoted. I have no idea why; except that I always accepted whatever job I was given and got on with it, generally without complaining. I was given a pay rise of two pounds a week, which was most welcome, and was also given two long black skirts for evening wear in the restaurant.
My first week went smoothly enough. Lunchtimes and evenings were busy, but nice and steady. Then Friday night arrived. We were booked solid – three sittings, from six in the evening through to last orders, at ten. What I had failed to realise, when I accepted this new position, was the amount of juggling one had to do.
The menu was simple enough, with a choice of only three starters, soup, pate or juice. The main courses were steak (in various disguises), chicken in red wine or fish and chips. You could have an ice cream or sorbet for dessert and this was included in your meal. The wine list was short and young, and so were the waitresses. The grill chef was experienced and could rattle out the orders like a conveyor belt, at least when he could read the waitresses writing.
The customers had to be in and out in just over an hour to enable us to lay the table up again for the next booking. Everything had to be timed to perfection. But not, I’m afraid, on my first Friday.
As a perfect recipe for disaster, you need to take: an inexperienced assistant restaurant manager; three sick waitresses, leaving five disgruntled ones; a grill chef with a hangover from lunchtime; two hundred hungry customers; and a dead mouse!
We suffered an evening of overbooking, wrong orders, meals taking twice as long to get to the customers, and a broken dish-washer that ate the cutlery.
By ten o’clock that night, I was running on adrenaline. I was clearing tables, and laying them up again, serving wine, replacing undercooked steaks, and seeing customers to their tables. I was perspiring. My feet hurt, and I thought that the evening would never end. The eating was at its peak – a frenzy of steak, fish, chips and ice cream. I paused by the entrance before using the microphone to call the next group of diners forward. I glanced down the aisle of tables and noticed that a customer was bent over retrieving his serviette from under the table. His hand re-appeared not holding the red paper napkin as expected but a mouse, by its tail.
I do not remember consciously thinking about my next move. I dashed down the aisle with my hand outstretched. Just as the man went to stand up and wave his unexpected find around the room for all to see, and just before he opened his mouth to shout the news, I grabbed the mouse in mid stride and shot into the kitchen. I threw the offending creature into the nearest bin and shot back out again. The customer was still staring at his hand in mystification. The light had been dim, and my reaction fast. Could I get away with it? Adrenaline still pumping I walked calmly over to him.
‘Oh thank you so much for finding that stuffed mouse. The manager’s daughter was playing in here today, and would not go to sleep until we found Mickey.’
I could see that there was some slight hesitancy about accepting my fulsome approach.
‘Please have a liqueur coffee on the house as a thank you.’
That clinched it. He sat down, looked up and smiled.
‘That’s one for me and the rest of my party isn’t it?’ At least we had an understanding.
At the end of the night I collapsed in a heap, into a bath of lukewarm water, and wished myself a thousand miles away. No other night would be as bad, but I have never worked so hard as I did in that restaurant.
The mouse, unfortunately, had more work to do. The next day a waitress, who had spurned the attentions of the under chef, found Mickey served up, with chips and peas, on a plate in the warmer. The under chef was sporting a black eye for dinner that night.
We had fun too. Most of the customers just wanted a night out, with good food at a reasonable price. They were not looking for a posh restaurant, with fancy wine and snooty waiters. They enjoyed the bustle, and cracked jokes with the staff as they downed their steak and ice cream, and very few gave us trouble. Sometimes they got a little loud, especially if there was a delay in getting to their table. We did not give specific times at the weekend, we used a first-come-first-served basis. So they could be waiting for up to three hours for their turn. This could mean several pints and glasses of wine, and trouble. Most of it was easy to diffuse but we occasionally had to call to the kitchen for assistance.
There is not much to match the sight of the large Irish chef, Paddy, and his two kitchen porters, Dave and Pete, in full riot gear charging up the restaurant rolling up their sleeves. One sight of the rescue team and peace was normally restored. I got quite philosophical about it in the end and little did I realise how this would stand me in good stead in my next job.
In my time at O’Ryan’s, there was only one job that I really did not like. On Sunday nights we did a stock take of the food. The business was successful because it provided good quality food at a very reasonable cost. This meant very strict portion control, down to the last pea. My job was to count everything that was left, on Sunday night, taking into account deliveries during the week, and then work out what had been sold, and how much wastage there had been. That was straightforward enough, but it was the physical counting of every item including the weighing of the bags of frozen peas that I found tedious. What I found terrifying was the two hours at the end of the stock-take, where I sat in the office in the furthest end of the attic. I was not terrified because of the task in hand, but because for some strange reason, I would be covered in goose-bumps, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I kept on thinking that there was someone in the room with me and I would look over my shoulder, constantly, at the blank wall behind me.
This went on for several weeks, until one day I happened to be talking to an old boy that came in every day for his schooner of sherry. He was about ninety, and loved to spend a few minutes chatting with the girls. My break coincided with his second glass of sherry, and I would often sit with him and listen to his tales of his time up the Kyber Pass on his motorbike. I asked him one day if he knew the history of the building. He smiled, and looked up at me from under bushy eyebrows.
‘Seen her have you?’ He whispered.
‘Seen who.’ I whispered back.
‘His wife, she haunts the place you know.’ He looked around him to ensure that no one else was within earshot.
‘Don’t want to scare the customers away do we?’ He cackled away into his sherry while I tried to decide if he was having a joke at my expense.
‘The man who built this place was a rich merchant.’ He continued swiftly.
‘After a few years he fell in love with a widow and tried to get his wife to leave him.’
He paused for effect.
‘When she refused, he locked into the room at the end of the attic and starved her to death, then married the other one.’
Looking across the bar he swayed slightly in his seat and went quiet. I checked to see if he was still breathing.
‘Never forgave him, she didn’t, and has been haunting upstairs ever since. Must have annoyed her something rotten having starved to death and then them turn it into a bleeding steak house.’
He was laughing his head off and kept patting my hand as he rocked back and forth.
I still don’t know all the truth, but from that time on I would never sit in the office on my own at night, and bribed one of the other assistants to always sit with me.
Peter was not helpful, and thought that the whole thing was an elaborate story that the old boy made up to frighten us young girls in the restaurant. I should have realised then what a miserable imagination he had. But then he asked me to marry him – out of the blue – and all notions of ghosts and starvation were banished to the back of my mind.
He was coming to the end of his studies, in Eastbourne, and had been offered a job, for six months, in a bank on the Isle of Wight. He wanted us to get engaged, and for us to live together before getting married, in a year or so. More disapproval on the horizon from certain parental quarters, of that I was sure. It would mean another job change, but that was okay. I had ceased to find the adrenaline rush at the weekends exciting and quite looked forward to a change of pace. What I did not expect was for it to get faster.
You can find the previous chapters of Just an Odd Job Girl here.
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