By Jacqueline Dowling
I often wonder what sort of gap year I’d choose today. Would it be chilling on a Thai or Goan beach, back-packing around the globe, doing good deeds in one of the deprived regions of the world, working the super yachts…? there are just so many choices, so many places to go – things to see. And how do today’s Gappers ever manage to settle down when it’s all over?
(Pictures from gapyear.com)
My gap job just happened. It wasn’t exactly chosen nor, I suspect, would they have chosen me had they known how totally unsuited I was to the world of kitchens, waitressing, cooking and locking up. Home Economics at school had laid a solid foundation in the art of cleaning a stove until it squealed for mercy, removing stubborn red wine and beetroot stains, clearing drains, concocting a superb shrimp cocktail . . . What it didn’t prepare me for was how to poach and present an egg on toast (light supper) without the toast subsiding in a soggy mess due to a badly drained egg. Nor was I up to speed with ‘Welsh Rarebit dear, not too stodgy please.’ What the * was Welsh Rarebit? I was soon to find out.
Rewind to one of the Shakespeare Trust properties in Stratford-upon-Avon. Downstairs housed a restaurant-cum-coffee shop and a superb garden for summer meals and teas. It also housed me and several plummy voiced guides who took visitors and groups on tours of the lovely old Tudor building. Upstairs, The British Council occupied a couple of rooms at the back. From time to time large groups of their international luminaries and students were booked in for lunch, English style. Which meant roast beef and all-those-things. And that was the beginning of my woes.
Twelve beautifully robed and sari’d ladies sat around an ancient oak table and surveyed in polite silence the platters of roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding drooling thick beefy gravy. Eyes settled on their waitress (me) bearing aloft a large bowl of peas and another of new potatoes liberally doused with butter and chopped mint. It should have been a loud tara – tara moment, the dishes being set down with a flourish, and everyone going Oooh in various tongues. It didn’t happen. I tripped over a chair, both bowls headed due south and anyone within their sphere received a lapful of potatoes and peas, butter and mint.
Fast forward to my first duty evening. The gas stove looked a bit mucky so I set to and scrubbed it: then, for good measure, polished it with Zebo black lead. Looked great. Enter two Octogenarians who ordered ‘Our usual please dear.’ Silence.
Then ‘Erm, I’m new here so could you tell me what your usual is please?’ Turned out to be Welsh Rarebit, not stodgy. A quick phone call home and all was clear. Toast, white sauce with lots of cheese, not stodgy, pop under grill and you’re away. Except – when blackleading a hob, it’s a good idea to remove all lead polish. Top and bottom. Somehow the bottom bit missed out and when I lit the grill to brown the WR a shower of liquid black spits measel’d out all over my masterpiece. Not good. I explained that the griller had gone on the blink and would they like a fresh cheese/ham/egg or pork pie salad instead. Which, after a few whinges, they did. Now the commercial pork pies in the UK at that time were huge, delicious, golden and jellied and required refrigeration. I cut off two generous hunks from the one in current use, saladed up the plates and presented my alternative piéce de résistance with the flourish which missed out in the peas/potatoes incident. And left them to it.
Back in the kitchen preparing for the following day,I heard a tentative voice. Mrs Octo stood with her plate held before her, Oliver Twist style, and murmured ‘ Your salad was lovely dear, but the pork pie’s growing whiskers.’ And it was. Since I had survived the several slices I’d eaten for supper, it clearly hadn’t reached the red zone – yet. I could visualise the headlines in the local paper: ‘Student dies in suspicious circumstances. A whiskered pork pie has been taken into custody to help police with their investigation.’ Worse was to come when I discovered that the hard-boiled egg in the middle was turning a suspicious shade of greeny-grey. We’ve come a long way with sell-by dates and preservatives, but back then it was a case of writing down the date of opening or cutting anything perishable, and keeping a close watch.
On the flip side, I met a great cross-section of actors, musicians, poets, visitors – and the local puppeteers who made beautifully crafted marionettes, usually of the characters in the current RSC season of plays. And, on one occasion, a coachload of West African dignitaries in fabulous robes, accompanied by young boys wearing long white dishdashes and carrying brass bowls of rose-scented water for the washing of hands between courses. My job was to transport the trays of food to the edge of the room, well away from the table, and hand them on to the vassals in white. Happily nothing was spilled on this occasion and I was relocated to my favourite place, the garden.
Best of all were the summer evenings when I’d lock the old studded oak front door and hurry down Waterside to the theatre, just in time to buy a cheap seat in the gods, right up near the ceiling. I saw every production that came to the RSC that year, opera, ballet, Shakespeare, musicals, pantomime – and it laid a firm foundation for my choices in life. Did I settle down to higher education? No, not really: it was a struggle, and I so badly wanted to go back. Would I do it again given the chance? Yes, definitely, but always keeping a close eye on the pork pies’ five o’clock shadow and steering well clear of any form of stove polish!