My sister Carol, then aged 13, had got a holiday job as a waitress in one of Southport’s big department stores, the sort of place where ladies of a certain age would go for afternoon tea. One particular old biddy was there every afternoon for a toasted teacake and a pot of tea for one (she appeared to have no friends) and she was proving to be distinctly unpleasant, constantly finding fault with the food and the service and never leaving a tip.
Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant — I never have but I’ve known several ex-waitresses over the years and they all have shocking tales to tell — will know that upsetting the serving staff is not a sensible idea. Revenge may be taken, sometimes in terrible ways: the ‘sneezer’ in Friends was a mild one. My sister was not a vindictive person but the kitchen staff didn’t like to see her treated this way, so before toasting the teacake they would play football with it behind the scenes, then slice it in half and toast it before having another kickabout on the kitchen floor, then Carol would take it to Miss Miserable and serve it with a flourish and a little curtsy (¨Your teacake, ma’am¨) trying to keep a straight face, which was difficult as she had a keen sense of humour and a broad grin.
My own involvement in the food-serving business was brief and dramatic, and not in a restaurant. I had got a few days’ work at the Southport Flower Show as a bar porter. It wasn’t exacting. I had to take the full crates from the car park over to the beer tent in the morning then bring back the empties during the course of the day. There was a lot of hanging-about time, and on the final day the Catering Manager summoned me. “You’re a public-school boy aren’t you?” I admitted that I was. “I thought so,” he said; “You see, you were lounging about with your hands in your pockets, and an ordinary chap wouldn’t dare to do that here. Come with me, I have a special job for you.” It was a curious method of selection but I said “OK, sir” and tried to look pleased and a bit honoured.
My special job was to carry a dish bearing a whole poached salmon over to the trestle tables on the far side of the field where the Lord Mayor was holding a celebratory lunch for the high-ups of the Flower Show plus various wives and assorted dignitaries, all dressed up to the nines. The dish was quite heavy but off I went, and I’d got about half-way across the field when I tripped and fell, sending the salmon spilling in fragments onto the grass. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed this unfortunate mishap and expected cries of outrage from the Manager and anyone else who might have seen, but in the afternoon heat everything seemed to have gone strangely quiet, the Mayor and his party appeared to be miles away on some far-off horizon, the beer tent was merely a distant buzzing and time seemed to stand still, so I did what any decent, honest, godfearing public-school boy would have done: I bent down and scooped up the chunks of salmon with my bare hands, plonked the fragments back onto the platter and then patted and moulded them into the approximate shape of a fish, looking nervously about to see if I was being observed. I hoped that any odd bits of grass or other greenery clinging to the reconstituted salmon would pass for garnish.
I wiped my hands on my pants and made it to the high table without further incident, where I placed the dish gently in front of the Lord Mayor praying that he wouldn’t notice anything amiss, but he just said “Ah, the piéce de resistance” and started serving it. I muttered “Bon appétit” and went over to the beer tent as quickly as I could without actually sprinting, and there I lurked for the rest of the afternoon doing my best to turn invisible. It seemed only a matter of time before one of the diners would discover a fag-end, or worse, in their salmon, and it would be all too obvious who had been responsible. But there was no immediate outcry, and it soon transpired there were other things to experience behind the beer tent: I was a fairly naïve youth and rather shocked to find that the bar staff, who to my young eyes seemed at best middle-aged and some of them actually old and distinctly ugly, were having sex back there, usually opting for what was then and maybe still is known as a knee-trembler, doing it standing up against one of the tent-posts, and if there was a height difference there were plenty of boxes and beer crates around for the smaller partner to stand on. And I’d thought that sex petered out at the age of about 25.
Back home with my guilty pay packet, I kept quiet. I watched the local tv news expecting to see reports of an outbreak of botulism or salmonella poisoning at the Flower Show, and scanned the local paper the next day expecting headlines like
FLOWER SHOW FATALITIES
POLICE SEEK BAR PORTER
I didn’t tell my parents what had happened because I knew that if I had done my father, with whom I wasn’t getting on too well, would make a big deal out of it, making me write a letter of apology to the Lord Mayor or something like that and blowing the whole thing wide open. I didn’t even tell my sister Carol because I knew that she would find it hilarious and tease me about it, probably concocting a little performance of me effing and blinding while desperately scooping up the salmon. I wouldn’t have minded this because we got on very well and Carol could be extremely funny, but I knew that my mother would soon be in on the joke, and then my dad … I said nothing, but the headlines in my mind grew worse:
SOUTHPORT SENSATION – MISHAP OR MURDER?
After a couple of days with still no hue and cry I began to venture cautiously out into the town with my shades on and my collar turned up, looking nervously about for passing policemen and steering well clear of hospitals and flower shows. I started growing a beard.
My family knew nothing of my fish fiasco but when the parents weren’t around I told Carol about the goings-on behind the beer tent expecting her to be a bit shocked perhaps but also amused — big bro being a bit sophisticated y’know — but she had a better story. She said that she had gone to the basement toilet in the department store and pushing open the unlocked door had found one of the kitchen hands “having a bit of fun with himself”, as she put it. (The expression “having a wank” was not yet current in 1963, at least not in respectable Southport.) Other young girls might have found this traumatic and needed councelling in later life but Carol just found it wildly funny, and suggested that perhaps he might have been making a special ingredient for the Cream of Mushroom soup ordered by the snooty couple at Table 12, and there were more variations on this theme (“Was our home-made mayonnaise to your taste, sir?”), and I realized that li’l sis was rather more wordly-wise than I’d suspected.
I never did tell the family about the salmon — indeed, I’ve never old anyone about it until now, even as a joke. I’d like to say that confessing it has been a relief, an unburdoning of a guilty secret carried for far too many years, and beg the forgiveness of those ancient diners, but after all this time who gives a toss.