It’s a weird feeling, being uprooted. I’m 31 and this is only the third time I’ve lived away from my hometown; although the other two times – a three month trip around Australia when I was 20 and one semester at Aberystwyth University, which I left because I was in love – don’t really count.
I’ve been here three weeks now, on the Isle of Wight, but it feels like forever. The first week was a whirlwind. I got here late on the Friday night and started work in a busy beach restaurant at 9am on the Sunday. Four back-to-back 14-hour shifts followed and I was quickly immersed in my new life of mopping, making toasted teacakes, getting covered in coffee and baked bean juice, aching hands, throbbing feet and rain. Oh yes, it rains here too. My childhood memories belied that.
I work with a diverse group of people, from 19-year-old girls who look like models, wear Jack Wills and drink 55-quid bottles of champagne, to young men working 80-hours-a-week to pay the rent. There are customers who treat you like family, and customers who seem to think you were born only to serve them. The distaste on their face if you dare to ask them to pass their empty plate is similar to what you’d expect if you were to suggest frying up their mother’s liver and leaving it out for the foxes.
As I walk quickly to their tables with huge heavy bowls of mussels and whole sea breams staring up from their polished porcelain graves I make up stories about myself that I could tell them. I imagine complaining about the electronic tag on my ankle irritating me as I lean over to pour their Chablis, but I haven’t plucked up the courage yet.
I’m not shocked by how seriously some people take themselves but it does make me sad. I’m not incompetent but I get made to feel so at least once a day by people who are so far away from what I would ever want to be. And yet they impose their supposed-superiority on me by ignoring me at the table or rolling their eyes when I explain my crazy computerised ordering machine is playing up. I don’t mind. It’s all interesting, finding out what they find annoying; what can ruin their day.
It’s opened my eyes to family life too; how differently people bring up their children. Depressingly I have waited on more than a handful of families where the children have failed to look up once from their iPads, even when ordering. One 13-year-old tapped at his touchscreen as he ordered: “fillet steak, blue. Oh, and what are the vegetables?” I explained the vegetable selection to his bowed head, to which he screwed up his face and said “No,” dismissively. And that was the end of our exchange until I delivered said steak to his table and his parents finally told him to put the iPad away while he indulged in his expensive steak (he left half of it. It was distracting him from his game).
Inevitably it makes me think about my own childhood. We rarely went out for meals and when we did it was a huge treat. Christmas eve was one such occasion. Every year we went to the Dog and Duck in Shardlow. My brother, my sister and I were allowed to choose from the kids menu and we had Texas Burger and chips every time. It was the cheapest thing on offer but we loved it. As we got older we started to push for the adult menu and a coke each, rather than one with three straws. And that’s when we stopped going.
When we came here, to the Isle of Wight, for our summer holidays we looked forward to seeing the waiters and waitresses at the Mayfair Hotel. My grandad was the biggest charmer. He’d treat them like they were made of gold and they loved him. Mealtimes were an occasion. We dressed up in our best summer clothes and all met in the bar to go down for dinner together. We’d order oxtail soup and prawn cocktail in stainless steel bowls, roast beef and spaghetti bolognaise, Peach melba and apple pie and knickerbockerglories.
The waitresses fussed over us and we had photographs with them before we left. Hazel was our favourite. Larger than life and with a dirty laugh louder than the foghorns you hear here on misty mornings, she made every morning a special event. We knew how lucky we were to be there.
As I’m darting round the beach restaurant serving sailors and DFLs (down from Londons)and iPad addicts, I think of Hazel and it makes me smile. I hope some of the kids who still get excited about sitting in a restaurant by the sea remember me when they look back.