– The Barman –
I don’t have anything in particular against very small people. I’m only about five feet six myself. My brother is even shorter than that. In fact, my whole family is pretty small. It’s our working class heritage, I suppose. Anyway, as I said, I don’t have anything in particular against people who are very small. Unless, that is, they employ arrogance to make up for their lack of height. Then they are just nasty, little people. With his slicked-down hair, round face, tiny moustache and horn-rimmed glasses, strutting about in that morning suit which he always wore and looking like a perennial wedding guest, Mr Thom was one of those – an arrogant, stuck-up, nasty, little person. And the person responsible for bringing my blossoming career as a cocktail barman to an abrupt end.
It all began when they built the motel up at the entrance to the road bridge. They called it a motel, but it wasn’t anything like the seedy, out-of-the-way American ones that I’d seen in films like ‘Psycho’. No, this was a much grander affair. For a start, it was built over three floors. On the ground floor, right next to the big car park for visitors to the bridge’s viewing area, there was a lounge bar, which was only open at weekends, a large public bar and an even larger cafeteria. A ramp-like road over the roof of the cafeteria gave access to the middle floor. Here, behind wide glass doors on the left, was the reception area and another lounge bar. To the right was a corridor leading to the bedrooms. Each room looked out over the estuary at the front and was allocated its own carport directly outside at the back, the latter obviously representing the ‘motel’ part of the guests’ experience. Opposite the reception area, an imposing staircase took you up to a plush restaurant, which had a tiny, leather-clad, horseshoe-shaped cocktail bar in one corner. For a town the size of ours, the whole place was enormous. And for young people in the town, the place was like a magnet: modern and exciting, and full of 1960’s glamour and glitz.
It was of no surprise, therefore, that Billy and I should try to find work in the motel shortly after it opened. We were both looking for a job during the summer holidays, the last before we were due to leave secondary school. So we went to see Jack Burt, the Bar Manager, who was addressed as ‘Boss’ by all his staff. He was a small, plump, middle-aged Fifer with rosy cheeks, a perpetual grin and, more often than not, the stub of a cigar protruding from a corner of his mouth. His appearance always reminded me of a Toby jug. After looking us up and down for a while – the tall, blond, Teutonic-like Billy and the small, skinny, swarthy me – he agreed to hire us to help look after the enormous cellar that was needed to service the four bars in the place. We were elated, of course.
‘I assume that both you lads are eighteen?’ he called out to us as we were leaving after the interview.
‘Sure, Boss,’ we lied in unison and then hurried away.
Despite being underage, Billy and I advanced rapidly through the ranks of the bar staff. In a matter of weeks, we progressed from cleaning the cellar to waiting at tables to helping out behind the bars. By the time the holidays were finished and we were due to return to school, we were fully-fledged barmen. We continued to work there in the evenings and at weekends. Then, at the start of the next summer, when school was finally over and we entered that period of grace in which we had to decide what we wanted to do in the big, wide world, the Boss employed us full-time to run the upstairs lounge bar, the one behind the reception area on the middle floor. The bar itself was a narrow oblong placed in the centre of the floor. Most of the other bar staff called it ‘The Shoebox’ and hated working behind it, but, as a quite small person, I loved its compactness. I also loved the lounge, its ambience, its wide glass frontage with that panoramic view of the estuary, its sun terrace and its mainly sophisticated clientele. Most of all, though, I loved making cocktails.
From the Swinging Sixties set, who craved their Blue Lagoons and Moscow Mules and Flying Angels, to the American guests, who went for the more traditional Highballs and Manhattans, to the posh, staid Pimms drinkers, everyone wanted cocktails in those days. And I learned how to make them and many more. I knew which ones should be mixed and which shaken, which types of glass to serve them in and what to garnish them with. I even kept my own book of cocktails, which I still have to this day. It’s a science notebook that I pinched from school, in which, meticulously printed with both blue and red felt-tip pens, are the ingredients and serving instructions (and even prices) for some forty individual cocktails. Yes, making cocktails was like a vocation, an art that I wanted to develop. I had notions of creating my own cocktails and of eventually moving on to bigger and better establishments in Edinburgh or London or even New York ...
Anyway, there we were, Billy and I, both of us still underage, but now in charge of our own bar, with me practising my art in it and with that magnificent panorama laid out before us day and night. No idyll is without its imperfections, though, and ours came in the starkly contrasting shapes of the General Manager, the Undermanager and the Housekeeper. Regularly of an afternoon after lunch and of an evening after dinner, that trio was to be found standing in a huddle at the end of our bar, gins and tonic in hand. They never conversed with us minions, nor acknowledged any of our customers, only speaking among themselves, as if the bar existed solely for their pleasure. Their presence was always unsettling, and we were glad every time they left.
Leader of the trio was Mr Hardie, the General Manager, a tall, handsome and utterly haughty Englishman in his late thirties or early forties. Always immaculately dressed in a pinstripe suit, he sipped elegantly from an Edinburgh Crystal goblet that was kept specially for him behind the bar and tended carefully by us, the Boss having warned us on more than one occasion that any damage to the glass would result in instant dismissal of the culprit.
Then there was Mr Thom, whom I’ve already mentioned, the pompous, little toad of an Undermanager. None of us knew what he actually did to earn that title. Aside from strutting about the place and hanging around the reception desk, the only other thing that we saw him do was to drive the motel’s Volkswagen minibus, usually ferrying guests to and from the airport. He was so small that wooden blocks had to be fitted to the van’s pedals to enable him to drive it. He also had to sit on a pile of cushions when he was driving. Even so, all you could see when the van passed was the top of his head and his beady, bespectacled eyes peeking above the dashboard, ‘Kilroy Was Here’ style.
Making up the last member of the trio was Gloria, the Housekeeper. Probably in her late twenties, she was petite, but still much taller than Mr Thom, with short blonde hair, cold blue eyes and one of those shrill, nasally Estuary voices that you could hear from across the room. I suppose you could say that she was attractive in a Twiggy-esque sort of way. Mr Hardie certainly found her so. The torrid affair between them was one of those secrets that was known by everyone who worked in the motel, with the possible exception of Mr Hardie’s wife. It was as a direct result of the affair that Jack Burt’s tenure in the place (and ours) came to an end.
The trouble began when our bar was pronounced ‘significantly under’ after the latest monthly stocktaking. The term ‘significantly under’ meant that the amount of money taken over the bar during the previous month had fallen well short of the value of the stock used in that period. Since we had neither stolen money from the till, nor helped ourselves to the stock, and since we knew that there was very little wastage in the bar, we were dismayed and not a little surprised by that finding. We put the alleged misdemeanour down to an error by the stocktakers, but we resolved to be extra-careful in the coming month. That was when we noticed things going missing. A whole lemon just vanished from the fruit tray, along with a few bottles of Schweppes tonic water from the cold shelf. The level of the gin bottle on the optic dispenser seemed to go down overnight, as did the number of packets of Benson & Hedges in the cigarette drawer under the till. Then a full bottle of gin disappeared from the spirit cupboard. When we told the Boss about those occurrences, it didn’t take him long to work things out. Up until then, he had assumed that there existed only two sets of keys for the door to the bar and the spirit cupboard inside it. One set was held by him, and the other was shared by Billy and I. Now he was certain that the General Manager had another set in his possession and that it was he who had been pilfering from the bar, stocking up with all his favourites – gin, tonic, lemon and Benson & Hedges – for his nocturnal assignations with the lovely Gloria. On the Boss’s instructions, we carried out our own mini-stocktaking every night after the bar closed, counting bottles and cigarette packets and even marking the levels of the spirit bottles, all of which we checked the following morning. By the time of the next proper stocktaking, we were able to hand the Boss a detailed note of everything that had been stolen during the month just passed.
Then the Boss made a fatal error. He should have known better. He should have realised that a little, working-class oik from the back end of Fife, who was known to like a drink himself, would be no match for a slick, callous toff like Hardie. He should have changed the locks or sought the support of the independent stocktakers or gone over Hardie’s head to the motel’s owners. Instead, he confronted the General Manager and threatened him with our note. Hardie retaliated by denying the existence of another set of keys, accusing the Boss of stealing from his own bar, firing him on the spot and giving him twenty-four hours to vacate the motel along with his wife and young son.
Luckily for him and his family, the Boss found another job within a matter of days, becoming the manager of a small, busy hotel down in the town. As well as about a dozen rooms, the hotel had a public bar, a lounge bar and its own restaurant. Many of his former staff in the motel resigned immediately and went to work for the Boss. Those who remained were advised that they would be interviewed by the motel’s management to see whether they would be permitted to keep their jobs. Billy and I were in the latter group. We had mixed feelings about the whole business. While we did owe a kind of loyalty to the Boss, we had heard that his new place was rough and always full of drunken, fighting matelots, few of whom would ever have need of a Tom Collins or a Gin Fizz or a Whisky Sour. How could that compare with our bar and its ambience, its panoramic view and its mainly sophisticated clientele? We decided to wait and see.
Which brings me right back to that pompous, little toad of an Undermanager. The one with the slicked-down hair, round face, tiny moustache and horn-rimmed glasses. The one always dressed in that morning suit and looking like a perennial wedding guest. The one whose job it was to conduct the interviews with the remaining bar staff. He sent for us one evening in the week following the Boss’s departure. We were working in the bar when a girl from reception came over to speak to us.
‘Tom Thumb would like to see you two guys in the office,’ she said. ‘You first,’ she added, looking at me.
I followed her back to the reception and went through to the office. He was sitting on a swivel chair, his little legs dangling in midair. On the desk in front of him was a pile of buff-coloured pay envelopes, which he was searching through. Without looking up, he asked me to sit down. When he found the envelope that he was searching for, he picked it out of the pile and laid it aside. Then he sat back, removed his spectacles, cleaned them and put them back on. Finally, fingers intertwined across his chest, he stared directly at me and began to address me in that croaky, posh voice of his.
‘When the Bar Manager, um, leaves an establishment, it is normal practice for all of his staff to, um, leave also. That is done in case the staff have picked up any, um, disreputable habits from their Manager.’
He paused, cleared his throat and continued.
‘However, on this occasion, we would like to give people the opportunity to remain in our employment if they so wish. This is your opportunity, therefore, to let us know if you would like to remain with us.’
He paused again, this time waiting for my response. I didn’t like him, his attitude and his rehearsed, clipped speech, with its reference to ‘disreputable habits’, but I wanted to keep my job. So, feigning a big grin, I answered him in complete earnestness.
‘I’d really like to stay, Mr Thumb,’ I blurted out the words.
Without any expression on his face, he took hold of the envelope that he had picked out earlier and threw it across the desk at me.
‘Your P45 and one week’s severance pay,’ he said coldly. ‘You are dismissed. You should remove yourself from the premises now. Goodbye.’
It was only after I had left the office, clutching the envelope, still in shock, that I realised what I had said. Oh, well. Needless to say, Billy and I ended up serving pints to a bunch of drunken, fighting matelots in the lounge bar of the Boss’s hotel. We did have a sort of a view of the estuary through the bay window of the lounge, but there wasn’t a cocktail in sight.
– o –