y first ever job was as a waitress in a pretentious mock Tudor Barn restaurant in my hometown of Saffron Waldon. It was so pretentious they served a lemon sorbet between the starter and the main course and I was forever explaining to the bewildered customers awaiting steak and chips that it wasn’t their dessert but something to cleanse the palette between courses. And, of course, a pretentious place tends to attract pretentious customers. I once had a woman who sent back her finger bowl because it was too cold.
Working there was the most educational experience of my life, ahead of getting my college degree. It taught me so much about people and how foolish it is to try and be anything other than what you are.
I originally got the job because I was tired of listening to my mother bitterly whining about my school fees and lecturing me about how I’d soon understand the “real world” in which people had to get jobs.
So I went out and got my own. Even now, I still feel a little glow of satisfaction remembering the look on her face when I told her I’d be working at The Eight Bells Pub Restaurant.
I was 16 and terrified. But without encouragement or training I still somehow muddled through.
At the time, the restaurant was run by a hugely overweight and dour man who enjoyed intimidating his staff. He’d watch with satisfaction as they’d scuttle away from his barbed tongue. At the same time, he also loved it if you were quick enough to reply sarcastically — unless of course you touched on the Tudor origins of the place, of which he was strangely proud.
Being a waitress there was a pain in the arse because you had to cart everything upstairs, which is next to impossible in a pencil skirt. Dropping anything meant dire consequences for the diners seated below. At least he didn’t insist that we wear Ye Olde Maids outfits. When he shouted at the cook — a fat and taciturn woman who sweated her way through every shift — I’d imagine him dressed as Henry VIII shouting “off with her head!” The poor cook always seemed moments away from a cardiac arrest.
All in all, it was a very English restaurant that served good enough steak and chips and dreadful coffee. One of my first duties was to put on that coffee — which we’d serve three hours later. Still, the place was considered acceptable, at least in those days, and it filled up every weekend.
These days I’m working in a rustic B&B in Le Marche. The owner arrived recently and swanned about as though the place was a swanky hotel. It’s not. It’s a rural family run place that’s is still on the shabby side – at least if we’re honest about it.
Yet it’s nice enough place to stay. Children can roam around and we treat our guests well. We’re not the Ritz, and we know it. The day we try to be something we’re not will also be the day our clients start complaining that there isn’t a finger bowl. That’s when they’ll want to take matters up with Henry VIII. Thankfully, he’s nowhere to be found.