A classy job with a regular schmuck doing it.
I think that, in the profession I have chosen for myself after many years of searching, it is almost cliché to want to write your memoirs, but I think my story may be a little different to those of the mystery-solving, piquant-quipping, social outcast one may expect to see in works of fiction and fact. I am a little different from most of the historical people who did my job, and probably nothing like most of the people who do it now..
I have had dozens of jobs, and this is by no means the strangest or the most exciting of my professions over the years. I have done almost everything any other hapless drifter and career avoider in England could do, from Sales and call-centre work to picking and packing. I never believed I would enter into any sort of profession and stick at it because I have a CV that would make any employer think do we really want to take a risk on this guy?
In the Noughties, it started to become habitual for no company, agency or employer to be willing to take risks on people. If you didn’t have a degree in Leisure and Tourism from some prestigious university, you simply would not be able to sweep up in a decent hotel anywhere in the West Midlands. There would be no point in going for an interview in a grotty restaurant chain without 3 years’ experience in, you guessed it, another grotty restaurant elsewhere.
I found uninspiring career choices all over the place. I ended up buying short-term leases (6 months where possible) as near to the latest place of work as possible, and moved on without holding down any ties or making many friends. I was described by people who didn’t know I was listening as “a nice guy”, or “a bit quiet” and maybe, if they were girls of a certain age, “a bit of a sad bastard”. I didn’t care - I worked to live, I didn’t live to work and frankly, I had enough friends that knew me and had already forgiven me.
I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted from a job pieced together from the many aspects I hated from the others. I knew I didn’t want to be in the foreground of a business or organisation, just hiding in the background doing my job with quiet dignity and without having someone telling me what to do all-the-livelong-day. I did not want to sell anything, because it felt like a sleazy life to me - it probably isn’t, if you’re passionate about it, but you can’t help how you feel. I had decided what I wanted, and started to look in the papers and online for something that matched while I worked in a restaurant owned by an old friend who owed me a dozen favours.
It was a trip to London that gave me my chance in a million. I had saved up some money from my last 5 months at the restaurant to go to a comedy club (I sit near the back when I go to avoid the smart-alec comics picking on me for wearing a suit) After the gig, where there were a lot of faces from the Eighties who were still carving out a full-time job there on a near-daily basis (although I do wonder if they would be doing the same jokes tomorrow) that I remembered the free paper that had been thrust my way by a cheerful teenager with about 12 tattoos as I entered Kings Cross. I wasn’t really expecting to see much to interest me apart from the latest gaffe from the London Mayor.
An advert seemed to jump out as I idly searched for the sports section so that I had something to chat about at work on Monday. It was not exceptional, or unique, it almost seemed to be hiding. The letters were in the smallest print possible to be read with a human eye, and it had no colour or graphics with it. The advert read as follows:
Butler required for small N.London household, one married couple with 2 girls aged 12. Silver service experience preferred but easy-going household. Apply by phone: 6812149.
I never considered this a job for a normal middle-class guy like myself. I didn’t see myself as a Jeeves or an Alfred, and I certainly would not have put it in a list of careers any higher than Country singer or Toreador, but it had caught my attention and, as is typically the case, I had experience of silver service and a desire to get the hell out of my current job. My boss is a great guy, but being friends with someone with whom you work makes socialising with them very awkward and dull sometimes. I tore out the advert, put it in my top pocket and threw the rest in a recycling bin.
After getting back to the hotel and eventually locating the credit-card shaped key for the room, I changed out of my best grey suit, hung it up with the one for tomorrow and took a shower. I always wear a suit when visiting London to keep people from noticing me. If I went to the country, I would probably dress differently, but a suit feels like good camouflage in the City to a small-town lad like me. I put the ad beside my bed to call on the Saturday morning, after 10:30 to be polite, and wasn’t sure at that point whether I would actually do it.
* * *
I woke at 7am unintentionally. It happens all too often because I have a workaday body-clock which wasn’t exactly handy for when I worked in a hotel as a Night Porter, or as a postie. I decided to go for breakfast away from the rather grand, historical hotel because (a) I had heard people leaving the night before complaining that a “gaff” like this should know how to do a proper cooked breakfast, and (b) I knew there was a rather famous East-European dissident who had been poisoned here in the past. It wasn’t the reason I came, but it was perhaps the reason I could afford to stay in such a fine place.
The greasy-spoon café I chose gave a nice view of Hyde Park and had the bonus of a beautiful girl on the counter who chatted non-stop to me and smelled of cinnamon. She was from Poland, absolutely manic, and had a name like Ibona or Ivona that she garbled. I ate breakfast slowly so that I would have no reason to look like leaving, told a few jokes to her (and cringed when she didn’t get one) and order several flavoured cups of coffee to get me the energy for a long day.
At about 9am, when I had run out of things to talk about and completely lost the will to take another frothy coffee, I took in a couple of breath-mints secreted in the top-pocket of my casual shirt and grinned at Ibona/Ivona, who blushed like a Jane Austen character in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. With my back turned to her, I had written my mobile number and name on the £20 note that just covered the meal and the near-lethal dose of caffeine.
She smiled at me and advised that my bill was “£17,50, unless you want to tip,” with a giggle that sent electricity up and down my spine. I handed over the note with my thumb underlining the message. “I’m Bill from Woodside, by the way,” I told her as I handed over the note, flicking it with my forefinger in the hope of drawing her attention to the secret message.
“Okay, Bill from Woodside - do you plan to come to London again from this place?” she asked with a Gigawatt smile and a raised eyebrow.
“I’m not sure yet. I... may be getting a job in North London soon but it depends on whether they like me.” She took the note and put it straight in the till while plucking out my change. I gawped and tried to think of some way to draw her attention to it.
“Sorry, I’m not sure if I gave you a ten or a twenty,” I floundered desperately. She didn’t look down, shut the register and proffered the change.
“You did - it was pink not orange. We’re okay, ” she replied. “If you’re in London again, we would be happy to see such a nice man who likes my special coffee so much,” she added, holding out the change. I closed her hand around it in a manner I hoped inferred she should keep it, and she genuinely looked surprised. Slim pickings in her café for tips, by the look of the empty coffee-mug with a cat on the front and a chip on the back that said tips in black ink.
“Keep the change. If you cash up, and find you’re £10 short, you know who to blame, right?”
“Oh sure, Bill from Woodside - I won’t forget that!” she said, and I could hear her laughing in a warm, friendly way even after I closed the door behind me.