In many years of working I have yet to be sacked. I may have been lucky in that regard but I have been demoted, twice in the same job. Memories of the first of these backward steps came to me today when I watched a fly, over-powered by the recent heat, flutter its last and expire on a piece of toast I was buttering for a guest in a shelter where I work. This time I merely dumped the toast, Musca domestica and all into the bin and started again.
Unlike the last time.
Picture the scene…
I am 19, home from university and working in a hotel as a waiter. What is called a commie waiter which has nothing to do with my ‘what’s mine’s yours and we’re all off to the gulag’ politics of that time, but is the lowest form of waiting pondlife meaning, mostly, we barely see any share of the pooled tip box.
That said we are run ragged by the head waiter and permanent staff, taking on tasks far too complex for us inexperienced waiters and waitresses. Mind you they suss me out quite quickly and I’m put in charge of the sweet trolley at lunch. This day, in July 1976, it is baking. Even the cactus plants sweat.
On its face my job is simple. At a signal from the waiter in charge of a particular table, I wheel my creaky contraption to the woman sitting nearest to the left hand of the head of the table – if the guests are of a uniform sex, I am given a discreet steer by said waiter as to who to serve first.
‘Would Madam like a dessert?’
I’m tasked with oozing as much smarm as I can muster to hide the equally effluent sweat that is dripping from me. This particular table is of non residents and comprises eight locals with a ruddy faced booming Old Sea Dog at its head.
The woman, who we will call Doris, simpers. ‘Oh no I shouldn’t.’
Captain Pugwash is having none of it. ‘Come on Doris, don’t let me down. You need some grub in you.’ He turns a beady and appraising eye on me. ‘What have you got, boy?’
By July I’ve been trained in the art of merely imagining sicking a runcible spoon in his vacuous rectum while maintaining a plausibly intelligent smile. I list the sweetmeats and other delectable comestibles. She hesitates and dithers and dissembles. She chooses a rum ba-ba which changes to a crumble before morphing into a lemon tart that segues onto the Chef’s piece de resistance, his sherry trifle.
My smile shifts uncomfortably, its adhesion failing under the weight of this incontinent indecision but manages to hold. ‘Certainly madam. A fine choice madam. Discernment is your middle name, eh, madam?’
I take careful aim at the jelly/cream/fruit/sponge/custard combo and place a cunningly asymmetric but utterly appetising portion on a plate and place it in front of her. I’ve done this a lot and have learnt how to cut it so as to display the piped cream to perfection. I turn to the trolley while she turns and flirts with the bewhiskered and wrinkled old scrotum to her right.
I wish I had timed that pause, between placing the plate just so and returning with the cream jug. Farts last longer, as do a few political careers. The word ‘scintilla’ is probably apt here.
‘Would madam like…?’
The words, ‘some cream’ become merely breathy pixels in an astonishing and asphyxiating tableau. We – me, Doris, Admiral Lord Pillock and the other guests – all turn to face the served trifle at the same moment.
Where once there was an astonishing confection of sculptured cream, there is now a lepidopteristic embellishment: to whit a fly; a very dead fly; on its back; in the centre of the cream.
To me this is redundancy at its highest. It is, obviously, a fly, but perhaps he wanted not just genus but species. Before I can satisfy my hubristic urge to explain the difference between the common house fly and, say a horse fly, Doris gurgles and gags. Any colour she has gained by exposure to Britain’s ridiculous heatwave disappears as she contemplates just what she might have been lifting to her mouth.
‘Oh god…’ Her napkin, chair and decorum are sent flying as she ups and leaves, making her way to the ladies.
Smuggler Bill eyes me beadily. ‘Why,’ he asks in one of those voices that usually presage a little light genocide, ‘did you do that?’
Our eyes lock. He means it. This is, perhaps, law student as I currently am, my first exposure to people who have suffered some kind of disappointment and however bloody obvious it might be that it is merely Mother Nature at her most capricious, has to find some one to blame. And here, in this stiffling restaurant, that fall guy is me.
‘I’m going to speak to Eric.’
Eric, were you to be unsure, is the owner of the hotel. A man of lopsided visage and with a tendency to turn in circles. I await the result of this little fireside chat with a degree of trepidation. My fellow waiters have opened a book on the manner of my likely demise. Some form of defenestration seems inevitable. It doesn’t take long in coming. I am summoned to the inner sanctum. Eric sits behind his desk, spinning his chair as he effects the anticipated holding pattern.
‘There’s been a complaint.’
‘Sir, it was…’
‘I will have to take action.’
‘So I’m moving you to barman. Your hours will change…’
‘You made cocktails before? Gary will show you.’
‘In the bar?’
‘Probably a good place to be barman.’
It begins to feel like a promotion when he adds, ‘School holidays begin next week; our busiest fortnight. If I could, I’d sack you but…’ At least he smiles. ‘Start next week. You’ll like Gary. If you need him, he’ll be in the taproom.’
I enjoyed barman; I didn’t share tips for starters and learnt a lot about serving drinks. I talked to the guests a lot more. I still ate with the restaurant staff most lunchtimes and could still silently lust after the two student waitresses, neither of whom gave me much encouragement.
I got demoted from there too, three weeks later. An unfortunate incident with a Lieutenant Commander and a pink gin. That’s another story.
These reminiscences are what led me to write my first novel, a comic coming of age story, Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle and I used this incident in the book. If you enjoyed the above then maybe check out the book… click on the image below for details