I don’t know quite how I got to be a waitress at a Butlins hotel for a week. It was the Easter vacation from college. I must have seen an advertisement and applied, and knowing me I would have been dismayed when they took me on. I was never a willing employee – merely desperate, unmotivated and directionless.
I think the hotel was in Cliftonville and, appropriately enough, on the cliffs. Until then I had only heard of Butlins holiday camps. I had never been to one but pictured a holiday camp as somewhere with chalets, and irritating, intrusive entertainers called Red Coats, communal meals, Best Baby, Lovely Knees and Glamorous Granny competitions – that sort of thing. It was where people went on holiday when they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else and didn’t mind being crammed in with a lot of other similar people and told when to wake up, where to go and what to do next every moment of the day – or that was my perception of it.
We had to list first second and choices on the application form (so I must have replied to an advert). I put chambermaid first and waitress last, so of course I got waitress, and there couldn’t have been a job I was less suited to do. On the first day I dropped a large bowl of boiled potatoes in the centre aisle. (I know, she keeps dropping bowls of this and that – a couple of posts back it was pink blancmange outside the school gates, and now she makes with the potatoes.) I can’t remember whether I picked up either the potatoes or the bowl or just stood there looking vague and puzzled. There’s a lot I can’t remember about that week.
Half way through it my college boyfriend and a friend of his came over, in the friend’s car, to pick me up and take me to a party. This was the party before the party before the one where I met my husband (to be – he of the no engagement ring) but given by the same couple in the same house. One’s past life seems so labyrinthine, looking back. After the party, along with quite a few other people, we ended up sleeping on our coats on the floor of the hosts’ bedroom. The hosts were in the bed. In the early hours of the morning we were woken by unwelcome and embarrassing noises from the bed. Impossible, just impossible not to listen. Impossible to sleep. Eventually we gave up, tiptoeing out as dawn was breaking. Boyfriend and his friend drove me back to Cliftonville. It was a long way. We said goodbye and I had to go straight to the kitchens to start work. I was not on best form.
We had to carry plates – great stacks of heavy plates – in great heavy iron racks. I wasn’t strong enough. I mean, a great lump like me and I could hardly get these things off the counter (and the plates were red hot) yet little slips of fluffy blonde waitresses seemed to be able to lift them with a little finger. Also, I was slow. Before we started the job we had had a training session. They taught us how to lay up tables with the knives and forks in the right places. They taught us how to fold serviettes into fan-shapes and plop them into the water glasses. I expect they taught us a lot of other stuff but none of it went in. As I remarked in my last post, nothing sticks unless I am interested. I tried. Just didn’t succeed.
It was also a bit of a hindrance to have a trainer with a thick Glasgow accent. Glasgow is one of the most difficult accents for Southerners to cope with, but there’s Glasgow and then there’s Glasgow. This was Glasgow on steroids. Nowadays, I am OK with most accents. After five years working in a call centre, phoning everywhere from Eire to America, your ears learn to tune themselves in within the first sentence or two to variant English, different rhythms and unfamiliar idioms. But I could not understand this woman. She repeated everything for me three times over. After the first two I would nod sagely, hoping to look as if I knew what she was going on about, since I could see she was getting angrier and angrier, but it was no good. Hence I had no idea what I was doing when I started being a waitress, and was so thoroughly spooked – well, everything just went wrong. After the first day they halved the number of tables I got to attend to. Lame Duck again.
The punters – probably we called them guests – were a kindly lot, seemed a bit intimidated by their surroundings, really. They were obviously missing familiar things from home. One old gentleman used to whisper:
‘Ave yer got any prunes this morning?
I expected he needed them for his bowels. Maybe prunes were the only things that… oooh, more unpleasantness. Everyone else had Cornflakes, and soggy toast. Another one used to grab me by the arm and ask, always the same question:
Got any brown sauce, dearie?
Bacon is not bacon without brown sauce. A lot.
In the basement of the hotel was a kind of nightclub. It was for the guests, of course, but staff were either allowed to go or went anyway. I seem to remember a singer and a microphone, circling multi-coloured lights, copper-coloured small tables, couples clinging to each other as they danced. A kind of desperation.
The staff hostel was round the corner, in a side street. Another tall, multi-roomed building. On the outside it looked very little different from the one we were working in. On the inside it was shabby and smelled of disinfectant. I shared a room with a lady of uncertain age. She was friendly enough – too friendly. She drank a lot and was kind of corseted, frightened me. I think I sensed in her an alien intelligence or maybe a down-at-heel cunning I hadn’t yet acquired.
There was no plug in the washbasin. No plug in the bathtub either. No shower, of course. I asked how we were supposed to use the bath. You didn’t bring your own plug? Everyone brings a plug. In the end I think I bunged it up with something. Can’t remember what. Bath-mat, maybe, or scrumpled shower cap. One night she came in drunk from the club, with a man. They sniggered a lot and didn’t turn on the light. I lay like a log in the other single bed, pretending to be asleep as the springs started to creak.
The noises. Again, the noises.