Click here for The story so far . . . .
Considering London’s Soho at the time, La Rocca had been a reasonably respectable environment; although George was definitely walking on the shady side of the law, he kept the other waitress and me in the dark about whatever it was he dealt in. I never had the slightest idea what was involved, drugs, fencing, smuggling, or maybe even politics. Most of the regular customers were young people, students, office clerks and shop workers, and illegally employed foreigners like me, all proudly shabby and determined to rebel. New and exciting music was the common bond.
The Age of Aquarius was still in its infancy, the free and easy sex came later. I was aware that some girls were different; we’d sit and have a chat over a coffee, but when a man came up to speak to them they’d disappear for a short time. They all had steady boyfriends, who turned up several times during the afternoon and evening and took the girls aside without leaving the premises. Once, a girl who was small and slight and very pale, came back to our table after such an encounter, sobbing and shaking and collapsing on her chair. She was obviously very distressed and, foolishly, I said to her that, if her boyfriend made her unhappy, 'why didn’t she just walk out on him?’ For a moment the others stared in disbelief, but nobody chose to enlighten me. It took me weeks to understand.
In the meantime, finding a job which would pay my rent was my first priority. I was told that Johnny, a Cypriot who ran a combined restaurant and drinking club on two floors of an old Victorian house in Robert Street was looking for a waitress. The area north of Soho, between Warren Street and what was to become posh Highgate was seedy and run-down, with rabbit warrens of dank and insalubrious side streets off Hampstead Lane. Robert Street was one of them. A lot of the area was subsequently flattened and high rise blocks of flats replaced the Victorian houses. It took an army of yuppies to step in and stop the destruction; thanks to their efforts whole streets were rescued from the bulldozers and turned into very desirable residences. Prices rocketed and many of the large houses were sub-divided into flats. In the late eighties and at the beginning of the nineties Beloved and I lived in the top three floors of one of these houses in a lovely street called Montpelier Grove in Kentish Town, by then thoroughly gentrified.
Johnny looked me up and down. “Have you done waitressing?”, he asked. I had, first in the fish shop for one disastrous day and then several weeks at La Rocca. Johnny was short and square, with a shiny face and restless hands and full, rather moist lips. I didn’t like him at all. Johnny’s wife was running the restaurant downstairs which I found reassuring. Surely, no man would try it on with his wife a short flight of stairs away? He said I could start in the drinking club and we’d see how I got on with the customers. He took me behind the bar and explained the shelves of drinks, the cash register and the baskets of food. The bar served meze and the waitress had to cut up and dish out appetisers on very small plates. There were strict rules as to who got what: the man who came in for a beer had a dish of peanuts and a few olives and under no circumstances was I to give him more. “ Some of them sit all evening over a beer and expect me to feed them”, Johnny said. “You’ll get to know them soon enough”. The customer buying the most expensive drinks, such as a whole bottle of whisky, had a lavish spread, from olives and celery sticks to stuffed vine leaves, freshly grilled sardines, spiced and smoked meats and chunks of Greek bread. Sometimes there were tables of four who had a bottle of wine between them. To begin with they were to be given a reasonably generous array of plates; if they made no effort to buy another bottle, their dishes were not to be replenished.
During the week I was often left alone upstairs, Johnny coming up around ten o’clock to make sure nobody had got drunk and made trouble. He didn’t mind them getting drunk, it was the trouble he objected to. He had impressed on me not to leave my station behind the bar except to serve a table. It was a small room, with the tables ranged around the outside and a small area in the middle left free for dancing. Often it was the men who danced, arms spread wide and interlinked and heels kicking. At weekends a fiddler and a bouzouki player provided live entertainment.
I soon got used to it. Johnny was behaving himself. Occasionally, just before closing time, he rubbed up against me when he squeezed past to get to the cash register; I could cope with that. Once he himself was behind the bar I was free to move into the room. At times I enjoyed myself.
to be continued . . . . .