"No, I don't think we'll take the chicken, Albert." "Oh, why not, Maisie?" "Well, we don't want bits of it getting stuck in our teeth now do we?" Maisie had decided she wasn't going to waste unnecessary time cleaning her teeth on her wedding night. These two honeymooners were the last guests in the dining room at the end of my very first day of waiting in a hotel. I shall always remember them with affection for by that time of the evening my feet were killing me and out of the enormous menu I presented them with they chose only one dish Peach Melba with cream.
I had decided to earn some money on holiday that year instead of spending it and had chosen a hotel as far away as possible from my home in London, in the Lake District for my debut as a temporary waiter. The evening before I started I had arrived complete with bow tie, white jacket, black trousers and shoes.
I had a surreptitious cup of tea in the staff room and was later shown the dining room through a secret peephole in the wall. This preview served early to show me the barrier between them and us. The waitress showing me round spoke in a breathless hush each time we came within earshot of them, as she referred to the hotel guests, as if for all the world we were a couple of hunters on safari avoiding the hostile natives. Then at seven sharp the next morning it started. I had a hasty breakfast in the kitchen under the watchful gaze of the regular staff. Again the hush in the air was noticeable. "Pass the sugar please." "No, more coffee for me." Then the whispering was shattered by the entrance of the chef who was a Liverpudlian (from Liverpool). "Right. They're filling up inside. Start taking the orders please." Here was the man around whom the whole hotel revolved. And like some international operatic singers he was known by the one name only Chef as if Christian names and surnames were beneath him.
Breakfast is really the most tiresome meal to serve to large numbers. There are endless variations on the same theme. Just think of all the things you can do with an egg. I took six orders and tried to keep them in my head but by the time I'd reached the kitchen I'd quite forgotten who wanted what. I stammered out the garbled version I could remember. Chef smiled benignly. "What you're trying to say is that old fatty wants one fried, the three judies (women) fancy it boiled, the colonel wants is scrambled and the duchess wants it ever so lightly boiled." Clearly, I was redundant. The all-seeing chef knew and heard all. At lunch time he even remembered the number of potatoes the guests required. He had a way with food too that was remarkable to watch. Even peas recognised his touch and rolled where he wanted them to. By three o'clock the dining room was empty and it was our turn to eat. With plates piled high by chef we gobbled our way through massive portions. Over the top of my pile of Brussels sprouts I caught sight of chef's dish. Sitting in isolation on a saucer was one hard-boiled egg. "I never touch rich food myself," he said as I sliced my fifth roast potato, "it's bad for the heart."
As the days passed, I acquired new skills. I learnt to circumnavigate a round table, carrying a tray full of soup plates, and place them within grasping distance of the guests in a manner that would have done credit to the buxomest of bunny girls. I learnt to deliver scalding hot plates to guests who complained at having to wait, making sure the plates were placed in such a way that they'd have to handle them before they ate. And what was more, I learnt to be a good trencherman. I refused to be put off by the sight of chef eating his solitary egg. As for the lakes, well, I must confess I didn't see anything of them I was too busy waiting and eating.
The following year I went back to the Lake District as a guest and thoroughly enjoyed myself. After one memorable long walk I bumped into chef. "Come back and meet the wife," he said "and have some lunch." I was starving and readily forewent the hotel lunch, which was not as large, I discovered, when you were a mere guest. As chef went back to his work I sat down in his front room and mouth-wateringly anticipated the lunch his wife was about to serve me. She popped in to see whether I was sitting comfortably. "By the way," she said, "how do you like your egg done, light or hard boiled?"
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