It’s been incorrigibly hot here recently and the flies have been dying in their dozens, usually between the secondary glazing and the windows. How do they get it? I’ve never understood musca domestica and its penchant to peg out in unexpected places…
That paragraph is a link to the story behind the title of my first published book, Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle. In 1976, it was bum-boilingly baking and I worked in a hotel on the very edge of the New Forest called the Passford House. I think it still exists. I was employed as a waiter in their dining room along with several permanent staff, a demonic headwaiter and a few fellow students like me…
Picture the scene…
I am 19, home from university and working in this self-identifying ‘quality’ hotel. 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 students barely see any share of the pooled tip box.
We keen youngsters are run ragged by the head waiter and permanent staff, taking on tasks far too complex for us inexperienced waiters and waitresses. Even so, they soon become wary of my tendency to serve the wrong food, to offer frozen croquet potatoes rather than the cooked variety, so I’m in charge of the sweet trolley for the lunches.
The temperature continues to soar and by the fateful day even the thermometer has cried foul and hidden in a fridge. The cactus plants have begun to 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 in the hope my oleaginous fawning will distract from the 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 this point in my waiting career I’ve learnt that I must merely imagine sticking a runcible spoon in the guest’s vacuous rectum rather than actually garotte him. I maintain a plausibly intelligent smile while I list the sweetmeats and other delectable comestibles available to Doris.
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 just about manages to hold its place. ‘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; a insectoid monument to the ephemeral nature of life sat on its own cream plinth.
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, 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 stifling 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 unlit 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’ve made cocktails before, haven’t you? If not, 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’d like to say this move presaged a new secure element to my employment but my role auditioning for Cheers lasted another three weeks. I thought I was doing okay but somehow I managed to throw a pink gin over Lieutenant Commander Roderick Everlode RN. It was a pretty good pink gin too, made to his exacting specification. I’m still not sure if it was the soaked shirt or the fact I made him late for dinner that led to the complaint.
I ended up helping the gardener, Cuthbert. It was sweaty work, there were no tips but we could hide in the shade of the yew hedge and watch the younger female guests sunbathe around the pool while we drank mint juleps that Cuthbert spiced with some illegal spirit he brewed with the surfeit of apricots he grew. Life wasn’t so bad….
If you want to read Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, the excellent coming of age comedy, the first in the series of Harry Spittle sagas, you can find it by clicking on the cover image below