Wednesday, 28 March 2012
Adventures during the Age of Aquarius Part IV
Part I - Part II - Part III
When I told Lucas that I wouldn't be coming back to his uncle's fish shop he wasn't pleased. He had had great hopes that I'd be available both on and off the job; now he had to renew his efforts to find somebody willing to fall in with his idea of being an employer, while I began to look around the coffee shops of Soho for waitressing work. I lived in the Camden area of London, a short ride on the No. 24 bus from the Westend. My fares would be low-cost and the coffee would be free, or so I hoped. Perhaps I'd even be given a sandwich as part of my pay. I knew a lot of the girls working in the area, often spending hours in one café or another, chatting with them and listening to the music. The pay wasn't great and occasionally a customer would become a nuisance, but, on the whole, the environment was pleasant enough.
I needed money urgently. My rent was due weekly and I was already a week in arrears. I had just cashed Mum and Dad's latest postal order and stupidly left the money, all in crisp £1 notes, open on the bedside table while I was out. The house where I lived was sub-divided into rooms, with a cooker and kitchen sink on the half-landing for the five tenants to share. The landlord and his family lived downstairs. The tenants shared one lavatory in the house and a bathroom in a shed in the garden. The bath had a thick streak of verdigris running from the plughole halfway along the bottom of the tub; the landlord provided scouring cream but the discolouration was permanent. It was all very primitive and run-down. We cleaned our own rooms and were supposed to share the cleaning of the stairs and the communal facilities; the only person who made a real effort was an Irish girl who lived on the floor above; she was always complaining that the cooker was covered in grease. I never used it, so I never cleaned it. My room had been part of a first floor drawing room before the house, which was large and had been quite handsome in its day, became a lodging house. Between my room and the room next door were wide double doors, which would have been thrown open to combine the two rooms for parties and family entertainments in the olden days, but which were now provided with an inadequate lock; a hefty shove would open the door. A young couple were my neighbours, as poor as the rest of us; I never found out who they were or how they earned their living. The Irish girl was a factory worker, and there was another ex-student in a smaller room on my floor, also an illegal waitress.
I have no idea who broke into my room and stole the small pile of pound notes; when I came home that evening the money was gone. I suspected the couple next door; I knocked on their door and accused the woman, who was alone, there and then. She vehemently denied any such theft and kept asking me how I thought she had got in, as she had a chest of drawers across the doorway connecting our rooms. She made rather a point of that chest of drawers, which made me suspect her even more. There was, however, no way I could prove anything and I soon gave up. I mentioned the theft to the landlord when he brought the week's clean sheets and towels; he questioned my sanity for leaving the money lying around in the first place and otherwise shrugged his shoulders. Finding a job was essential.
A lot of the coffee shop owners were foreigners themselves, mainly Italians and some Greeks. Soho was a pretty seedy place, with very few of the elegant restaurants that opened later. It was very mixed, with famous clubs and pubs, as well as Chinese and Italian restaurants, side by side with sex shops and 'working girls' and their protectors. Not so different from today really, except that prices have gone up massively. The population in the cafés was constantly shifting, proprietors were always looking for new staff willing to work for very low wages; as many of the workers were also illegals, they couldn't complain about the conditions. It didn't take me long to find a job. I think the place was called La Rocca, run by a Greek, a bull of a man, called George. No doubt, both George and La Rocca have long since gone into the great coffee shop in the sky, I cannot be had up for libel. George ran a tight ship when it came to the customers, absolutely no credit and absolutely no hand-outs, but he sometimes forgot to pay the waitresses on time, and always charged us for breakages. He had his own table in a corner, where other men joined him, some staying for only a few moments, others sitting down with him to discuss business. Sometimes these men became loud, their voices heated; George remained impassive, clicking his worry beads, sipping from a tiny cup of Turkish coffee, an immovable and imperturbable mountain. George had impressed on me, and everybody else he employed, that we were to keep our noses out of the business he conducted in his corner, and that we were to run the coffee shop side of things efficiently and smoothly and only to come to him for help if a customer pestered us.
George wasn't a bad employer, he looked after us in a very hands-off way and often allowed guitar players or one of the many small bands around at the time to come in and play for nothing; he'd switch off the music box for them; when he got tired of their noise he threw them out good-naturedly. The boys didn't seem to mind, they had had a chance to perform, and if they pleased the customers they would be given a tip.
I was quite sad to leave La Rocca. One day several very fit looking young men in very ordinary clothes came in and took a table. We served them their coffee and thought no more about it. They came back two days later, sat, drank their coffee, observed and left again. This happened a few more times. They were quiet, well behaved and, in spite of behaving unobtrusively, stuck out like a pair of maiden aunts visiting one of the sex shops in the area. George saw them and the flow of men to his table stopped. He came out of his corner and chatted amiably with the customers, including the newcomers. After work that day he handed me and the other waitress, both of us illegal aliens, two weeks' wages - which was quite generous under the circumstances - and said "sorry to have to let you go, girls, but you know how it is, better safe than sorry. Can't be seen to be breaking the law. Nothing personal and the best of luck to both of you." George wasn't going to endanger the lucrative side of his private business for the sake of a couple of waitresses. I was once more unemployed.