This was the first novel that I wrote back in 2001 when I first moved to Spain to live. I had written short stories before and non-fiction health books, but felt the need to bring a little romance and humour into my writing.. the result was Just an Odd Job Girl.
Previously Imogen takes on the role of Assistant manager of a steak house and has a run in …literally with an unwanted visitor…
Chapter Nine – The Isle of Wight Pub Life and Skinheads
I realised that I had reached the end of the particular path I had taken through the woods when I was faced with the main road. I had a choice, either go back the way I had come, or skirt the edge of the forest and return by another route. I wasn’t quite sure where I would end up. It was certainly going to be longer, but as I looked behind me, at the path I had already walked, I decided to continue on the new route. Perhaps it was symbolic of what was happening to me in my life. New paths, taking risks, uncertainty, were perhaps the way forward.
I continued on my journey, and my mind moved on to my next job.
* * *
Peter was going to be working in a bank in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, and as we were just coming into the Easter season, I thought that jobs should be easy enough to get hold of.
We found a small flat, some streets back from the harbour. Compact! That was how it was described to us by the letting agent. Quite! It was actually two rooms and a bathroom, with a separate entrance, in a house owned by two solicitors. The bedroom was small, just big enough for a double bed, wardrobe and a chair. Luckily we had very little in the way of personal belongings; I certainly would not have had room for my current wardrobe of clothes, despite the fact that most of them were too small to be of any use to me.
The other room was a lounge, dining room and kitchenette. However, you could only use it for one purpose at a time. The two armchairs had to be pushed under the window to enable the hinged table, which was attached to the wall, to be extended. With the table out you could not get into the kitchen area. We learnt to compromise and ate most of our meals off trays on our laps.
The bathroom was an altogether different kettle of fish. I use the word ‘fish’ for a specific reason, as there was so much damp on the walls that fish would have been quite at home there. When I pointed this out to the landlords, they shrugged, smiled and gave me a pot of magnolia paint and a brush and suggested that I paint the walls every few weeks. This meant that lying in the narrow bath one either suffocated from the smell of mildew or paint fumes.
What do we do in the name of love? This was our first home together, and with some posters covering the dampest patches on the walls, and a little imagination, it was a palace – and cheap with it.
After two weeks, I applied for, and was offered the position of assistant manager at a local harbour side pub. The owner, Tom, was a rather round man with a moustache that gave him the appearance of a walrus. He did have kind eyes though, with a twinkle in them, and told me that he expected his assistant managers to get on with their jobs and not bother him too much. When I began work, I soon realised that, from his almost permanent position at the end of the bar, he had a three hundred and sixty-degree view of the entire establishment and missed nothing.
The downside to the job was the hours. I would be expected to work until three in the afternoon, five days a week, and from six until eleven at night for five evenings. The bar work was no more than I expected, but I was warned that it would get very hectic once sailing, Cowes’ main claim-to-fame, got started.
I had plenty of experience of bar work, and had no problem adjusting to my duties. I wondered if I might get a little bored, but there were some interesting customers, and enough activity to keep me busy when on duty. As usual, I then got myself dropped into a different situation. The owner, Tom, had taken on a cook to run the snack bar for the season. After two weeks the cook was found pilfering the cigarette machine behind the bar, and was fired on the spot. It was very late to find a replacement, and before I could say fish and chips, I was dressed in check trousers, with a cap on my head and draped in an apron bearing the slogan ‘Sailors do it tied up’
Luckily, the menu was straightforward. Fish, chicken, and sausages, all with chips, and in wicker baskets. Sandwiches had to be prepared in advance, and were stacked neatly in two glass cabinets on either side of the snack bar. I had a very nice assistant called Daphne who had worked there every summer for the last ten years. She proved to be an invaluable guide to local gossip and the horrors of the summer season to come.
It was a slow start, but it gave me time to get to grips with the two temperamental deep-fat fryers, which had a tendency to switch themselves off, right in the middle of serving lunch. As everything was fried, with chips, it made life a little difficult on occasion, and my ability to use expletives improved rapidly in the first few weeks.
By the time the season really got under way, I had developed a routine that enabled me to cook over a hundred lunches, and twice that many dinners in the evenings. I now worked Monday to Saturday with Sunday off. A girl came in on Sunday and made toasted sandwiches and rolls, giving me a well-earned day of rest. The good thing was that, in my new job, I made an extra five pounds a week, which Peter and I badly needed.
We wanted to save enough to rent a larger flat when we moved from Cowes, and we hoarded every penny we could. Peter got a part-time bar job, to supplement his meagre pay from the bank, and we saw very little of each other. This was hard, but we reckoned that six months here would make life a lot easier for us in the future. I was so busy that I really didn’t have much time to think about our time apart, and when we were together, it was hard to stay awake. I am not sure how young love survives under those circumstances, but I suppose it was a test of our feelings for each other. I often think that we were at our happiest in that damp small bed-sit with so little time together.
My morning consisted of two hours of preparation and two hours of manic activity. I barely stopped to take a breath as I worked my way through the stack of orders. The majority of our customers were not from the island. Boats plied back and forth from Southampton to Cowes depositing several hundred people at a time. The day-trippers were happy to be on holiday and were easy to please. We had a large balcony in the front of the pub, which looked out onto the harbour entrance. It was a huge attraction in the summer and was usually packed. I, of course, saw very little of it, as I was either preparing food or cooking it. But there came a time, a couple of weeks into the season, when I began to see more of the bar area than I wished.
Tom had already suffered one heart attack, and started to feel ill about two months after Easter. We were already busy, and it was just the start of the summer season. He took me to one side at the start of my evening shift and told me that his doctor insisted that he take things easier. I was not sure how much easier Tom could actually take it. I don’t mean to be unkind, but apart from the occasional trip to the whisky optic, I had rarely seen him move from his corner of the bar. However, I nodded sympathetically and waited for the other shoe to drop.
I suddenly found that I was the Deputy Manager, with full responsibility for the bar, food stock ordering, the cleaning staff, and security. I wondered how I was going to fit all this into my already crowded day, when he introduced me to my new hours. I would now work eight until four, and then six to eleven thirty, Monday to Saturday. A pay rise of five pounds a week was considered adequate compensation for this and I found it quite acceptable, until I experienced the security aspect of the job. It was then that I realised that I should have asked for hazard pay as well. I also revised my impression of Tom’s previously unappreciated stress levels. This revolved around closing time.
Until now, I had finished serving food before closing time in the afternoon and at least an hour before we closed at night. I had often heard rowdy laughter in the bar and had gone home, blissfully unaware of the complexities surrounding ‘drinking-up time’. This was the ten minutes allowed, after official closing time, for everyone to finish their drinks and be off the premises. The problem was that the bell for last orders rang ten minutes before closing, and there was a mad dash for the bar to get the drinks in. The staff was frantically trying to serve everyone before the last bell. This meant that a large number of customers were left holding full pints of booze and only had ten minutes to drink it. Multiply that by a hundred and you have a recipe for disaster. The local police were very keen, and quick to jump in if they thought after-hours drinking was going on. And guess what my security job entailed? That’s right, I had to get everyone off the premises and the doors locked by a quarter past eleven at the very latest.
By ten I was already tired, having produced over a hundred basket meals. Now, I had to divest myself of my apron and check trousers, and assume the role of authority.
On the dot of eleven, I would move through the bar smiling and calling out in as pleasant a tone as possible.
‘Time ladies and gentlemen, please finish your drinks as quickly as possible, thank you.’
That would be the first pass through the main bar area. This would generally eliminate about half the drinkers. The rest would hold fast, clasping half finished pints possessively against their chests. Time for the second pass, this time with a little more attitude.
‘Come along ladies and gentlemen! We are past closing time, finish your drinks if you please and make your way to the exit. Thank you.’
Another wave of customers would wend their way across the greasy carpet to the exit. Obviously, the thought of returning to their bed-and-breakfasts was not as appealing as incurring my displeasure. This would continue for the ten minutes allotted drinking up time.
Finally, I would be left with about ten die-hard drinkers determined to push the system to the limits. My instructions were very clear. Remove the glasses forcibly if necessary and escort the offenders to the door myself. I must have been so naïve. I did this without any back up at all. Thankfully, I am a big girl and there were occasions when I had to resort to physical manipulation to assist some of the more stubborn customers to the door. After a week, I was quite practised in this role and Tom announced his satisfaction, and faith in my abilities to deal with my next challenge. This came under the heading of ‘Skinheads’.
At the height of the summer the ferry companies ran night-time excursions from Southampton to Cowes. Alcohol was served on the crossings and both ships and passengers steamed into the harbour at about eight each night. There would then be a torrent of shaven-headed, tartan clad, booted and spurred youths pouring down the high street. They would fall into the nearest pubs en-route, packing them within minutes. Those who were left out on the street continued their quest for the next pint until they reached us, at the end of the street. By this time alcohol deprivation must have set in, and their frustration levels reached new peaks. This wave of red and green plaid washed through the bar to the counter, and the staff hurried to fill their drink orders.
There is a law about serving both minors and those who have already consumed so much alcohol that they are legless. You try telling a five-foot skinhead, halfway across the bar, that you are not going to serve them. I think not. The one saving grace was that the boats returned by ten each night, so there would be a reverse flood back up the high street to catch the steamer before it left. It was not a wise move to be out on the streets at that time and the locals stayed safely out of the way.
After a few Friday and Saturday nights, I devised a plan of action. I invested in a pick axe handle and hung it over the food counter with a sign swinging beneath it which read ‘Attitude Adjuster’. Between cooking meals and leaving my assistant to cope as best she could, I would make frequent forays into the bar dressed in my cooking gear. With my sleeves rolled up and as mean an expression on my face as possible, I then exhibited a side of my nature never previously revealed. That of a protective Rottweiler.
Control was maintained, not through customer service, but by fear. I would walk with authority through the crowded bar and stare down anybody who got in my way. My calf length apron hid the fact that I was quaking in my shoes. This was not to say that I got away with just non-verbal communication. There were times when a show of force was essential to prevent a fight between rival factions of this tartan army, and I physically threw out a number of potential combatants by hand. This was not without danger, and on more than one occasion I was threatened with broken pint glasses and other veiled threats of violence.
I don’t know where I found the courage. It was certainly a far cry from chasing shoplifters through a department store, but the principal was the same. I objected to the few troublemakers who made life difficult for everyone else. To be fair, apart from the sheer mass of bodies that these excursions produced, and despite their ferocious looks, most of the skinheads just wanted to get as many pints in as possible before the ship sailed. It was a small minority that considered it his or her right to a punch up, as part of the evening’s entertainment, that spoilt it for everyone.
Thankfully, after about eight weekends of this, the excursions came to an end. The only other extraordinary event was Cowes week, which was frantically busy for the whole seven days. Culminating with Firework night. Tom had to partake on this occasion, as there were certain steps that had to be taken in preparation for this night. The first thing that happened was the removal of all furniture into storage, just for the day. This increased our capacity by about a hundred bodies. Then there was the employment of six burly bouncers. And where had they been when I needed them I asked? No food was to be served, except rolls and sandwiches, and all cutlery was removed and locked in the store cupboard for the night. Pictures were removed from the walls and all booze was served in plastic pint and half-pint glasses. This was all based on experience, so what does that tell you? It was a night to remember, or forget, whichever you prefer.
I have never seen the pub so full and the atmosphere was charged with energy and anticipation. Extra bar staff had been enlisted to assist, some of them booked since the previous year. Everyone was paid a premium rate, except for me, as I was management. Even I was behind the bar – the floor of which was soon running with beer slop and broken ice cubes.
As soon as the fireworks began there was a rush for the balcony. I am truly surprised that the whole building didn’t topple straight into the harbour. And then it was over. Four hours of non-stop serving passed in a blur and then they were gone, the whole thing over for another year. It was only the next morning, when clearing up the debris that we found plastic glasses in the most inaccessible places, including the roof.
So that was my season in Cowes, I have never worked so hard or been pushed into so many different situations. But I coped. My relationship survived and we planned to move on to Peter’s next job, which was back in the head office of his bank, in Portsmouth. I had no doubt after my experiences this summer that I would find something to keep me occupied for a few months and I decided that perhaps something non alcoholic and unrelated to food would be a good move.
What I had not bargained for was the change in my relationship with Peter. We began to argue, he felt that my summer in Cowes had hardened me and made me aggressive. I thought that I had just learnt to be more assertive. Dealing with the day to day situations that I had, had made me more confident in myself, and I had matured over the last few months. I think that Peter was worried that I no longer needed him. Well, that was the spin I put on it. In fact now I realise that it was a matter of control. Until now, I had always followed his lead, giving up family and jobs to move with him wherever he needed to go. I ignored the warning signals and settled for a quiet life.
©Sally Georgina Cronin Just an Odd Job Girl
One of the reviews for the book
Just an Odd Job Girl is the uplifting story of Imogen. Cast aside aged almost fifty by her husband who chooses a younger wife to replace her she faces beginning life all over again. A new and most cool phrase totally to me in this book – the fast tracker – a great name for those gorgeous young women who forego the whole long term working to succeed in life together as a couple in favour of swiping an already successful older man from the woman who has put in all the years to gain the success. Imogen’s self-confidence is low as it can be, but she heads off to a personnel agency that specializes in placing the more mature job seeker to see if they can help her find work in spite of her not obviously stellar curriculum vitae. Twenty four years of “only” housewife and mother. There she is interviewed by Andrew Jenkins, who rather than dismisses her on the basis of her tiny CV, encourages her to tell him what she liked or didn’t like about the few jobs she did have many years back before she stopped working in exchange for being a stay at home wife and mother. And then the fun begins!
I laughed so hard I almost cried a few times reading Imogen’s memories of former jobs and employers. She’s crazy in the most wonderfully inspiring way. Chasing thieves and fabulousness in a funeral parlour and dentists office to name only two of the places she showed her wonderful character and savvy in on her Odd Job Girl trip. The apprehending of the shoplifter just has to be read! In the telling of her own life, Imogen realizes her value though. While this book is a really fun romp, it’s also very poignant and touching. So many women around the globe really do get kicked to the kerb after years of thinking that they married their true love, and would be together forever. Generally they feel old and ugly, all used up and not much use for anyone or anything, let alone a meaningful career and life.
This is a book with a happy ending, and an inspirational happy ending at that. It shows that all is never lost until the very last breath that you take. It shows that everyone has fabulousness within us, and all it takes is to recognize it, grab it, and have a ball with the amazingly wonderful person that you are. It’s not all about age, it’s all about feisty and real. Five out of five stars and a very hearty one hundred percent recommendation. A nice one for the guys out there too – especially if you have ever been a target for a fast tracker. There’s a whole lot more to life than a little bit of nubile.
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Thanks for dropping in and as always your feedback is very welcome. Sally.
I hope you will join me again next week for the next chapter in Imogen’s colourful work history.