It strikes me that the most obvious sign of getting older is the tendency to ooze. Every day that passes, I seem to find somewhere new through which to leak. Life is a diuretic. I choose my clothes these days on the simple principle of absorbency. Whilst younger people choose their clothes on style – pinstripe suit or check, flared skirt or ‘A’ line – I choose mine based solely on stain resistance. If I don’t seep it, I spill it. I normally have to be hosed down after spaghetti. You can gauge how much I have enjoyed a meal by the amount of trifle I have down my crotch. Two metres social-distancing is nothing new to me: I am forbidden, by law, from eating tomato soup in public. Sitting opposite me when I am in possession of a jam doughnut is a little like lying, face-up, under a cow: you know what’s coming, you’re just not sure when you’re going to get it.
This would be understandable if I was a fast eater, but I’m not: I’m slow – painfully slow – I cannot remember the last time I made it through the potatoes before the gravy congealed. I have never eaten a cheese fondue: by the time I get to it, it is just cheese. I seldom have to ask for the bill in a restaurant, I just wait for the waiter to come round and ask me to turn off the lights as I leave. Which comes as some relief of course, because, as we all know, waiters are trained from birth in how to studiously ignore people who wish to pay their bill. It is as though bringing the bill drags the whole evening down to the status of ‘financial transaction’, which seriously reduces their opportunity to appear superior to you in all respects. How can a waiter maintain an air of quiet superiority when you are about to pay him? When you are his de facto employer? To be honest, I find that most of them manage to maintain a reasonably high level of disdain when they see the amount of tip I am about to leave. The skilled waiter is trained – up to Ninja level – in the art of saying, ‘Well, you obviously need that more than I do,’ without ever moving his/her lips.
Now, I used to be a waiter – a good one, oddly – able to silver-serve a Dover Sole, off-the-bone, without so much as a scale out of place: the waiting equivalent of eating a mushroom vol-au-vent without getting a crotch full of pastry. I worked in the dining room of a high class hotel, in which the well-heeled clientele reinforced their sense of pre-eminence by hardly ever leaving a tip. When they did, it was generally in the form of a handful of small change from some exotic foreign shore – ensuring that you were left fully aware of the places that they could afford to visit whilst you continued to wait at tables. Also that they were tight enough to hang onto their change on the way home rather than drop it into the little seat-back envelope, in order to help a Romanian orphan buy a prosthetic nose, or similar. I am always polite to waiters: I know what they can do to your food.
When I was younger, I worked behind a bar with an older man called Neil. He had a semi-permanent ‘dew-drop’ on the end of his nose. It was always there when he started to pull a pint, but not always by the time he finished. It was like Russian Roulette. Did you buy lager so that you could see any sign of viscous intrusion, or did you buy Guinness so that you would never know? It paid never to examine the pickled eggs too closely. I was popular simply because I didn’t have a dew-drop. Damned by faint praise: the barman that everybody wanted to be served by, just because I didn’t add volume to every third pint. As a barman I was always told to, ‘Get one for yourself’; nobody ever told me that when I was a waiter. ‘The entrecote was superb. My compliments to the chef and get one for yourself. I would recommend the Chateau Laffite to accompany it, but you’re only sixteen. Here, have a Tizer.’
I did learn to love food as a waiter. We were fed at the end of breakfast and lunch sittings, and before dinner. I would have been happy to have done the job without pay. For a boy raised on luncheon meat, tinned tomatoes and chips, this food was a revelation. I didn’t realise that you could eat food that hadn’t been fried. I didn’t comprehend that salmon didn’t necessarily come from a tin, full of tiny little crunchy bones. I didn’t know that fresh scampi was even a thing. As far as I was concerned, fish was caught in batter – I had never seen it any other way. Who knew that vegetables didn’t have to be boiled for hours?
I met my wife when I worked as a waiter. We were both children. The pride of the dining room was the sweet trolley. It was famous throughout the county. Everything was freshly made, every day. One evening, at start of service, she managed to upend the whole trolley. The head waiter refused point blank to go and tell the head chef – who, to be fair, may well have killed him – and ordered my one-day-to-be-wife to go. I went with her, regretting my decision from the very first millisecond, especially when she was struck half-dumb by the fearsome visage of a gourmet chef in mid-stress and I took it on myself to help her explain, hoping only that death would come quickly. He stared silently, hollowly, first at her and then at me. The whole kitchen froze. He turned away from us and started barking out the instructions that ensured that within a scant few minutes, sweet trolley#2 trundled off to the dining room in all its resplendent glory and service resumed almost unbroken – except that a certain waitress was quietly excused sweet service. The chef never mentioned the incident to either of us – although he did give the head waiter a severe wigging. He, too, never mentioned the incident. Funny things, adults.
Anyway, there we are. Other than my wife displaying a slight nervous tic every time she serves a syllabub, you would never know that the incident ever occurred. I’m not even sure what brought it to my mind, but I do know that even now, forty five years later, the memory of that trolley is making my mouth water…