By Chris Wilson
Faith Hope and Charity
By Chris Wilson
“Tough luck Annie. I know it’s a big theatre night and it’s Christmas, but three girls and a wine waiter, is all I can do”
Annie glared angrily at her line manager. He knew what it took to run a busy restaurant; especially in peak periods, and he knew that three waitresses for a double run of 120 covers was nigh on impossible. What did he expect her to do with such limited resources? Who was going to act as a runner between the tables and the kitchens, and how was the normal high standard of table service to be maintained.
With one last despairing glance at her manager, she stomped out of his office. At least she’d have her best team that night. Her lucky if recently hewn, three lobed real life lucky charm of faith hope and charity. Sarah, Chantelle, and Doris. Chantelle was a rookie, but the other two were experienced waitresses, and they had always served her well. If all four of them worked as a team, they might just be successful, but there was no margin of error, no safety net, and if service went pear shaped there was nowhere to hide.
God help the four of them if they had any fussy punters, or if anything went wrong.
She walked down the stairs towards the restaurant, and pulled out a piece of paper from her blouse pocket. She always carried this slip of paper before such massive evenings. It was her good luck charm, and so far it had never failed her. Stopping for a moment just outside the restaurant, she opened the paper, and began to read.
“And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity for Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
She opened the doors to the restaurant, took a deep breath, and walked inside. Sarah was good, Chantelle showed promise for the future, but Doris held the key as regards tonight’s restaurant service, for she was the glue that held them them together as a team.
Take away the glue and take away the stability, thought Annie, as she studied the table reservations. Take away the stability, and the whole damn house falls down.
She checked her watch carefully. One hour to go before showtime. She had better get moving, as there was still a lot to be done!
The tables were set now, the food lay ready and waiting, and in response to her question three sets of eyes briefly looked at her, and three heads nodded quietly in return. There was no sound within the restaurant, and Sarah, Chantelle, and Doris were now like three Greek statues; looking past her towards the closed restaurant doors beyond.
Each statue had eyes, each had a mind, and each had a story. It was Annie’s job to read minds, to support and comfort her staff, and listen to their stories. She had always had always used that softer human side within her, and though one or two rotten apples had let her down or behaved disgarcefully, good staff had always trusted her to the full. That’s what she really enjoyed over twenty years in catering. Plus the quiet chats over many steaming mug of sweet coffee, and the laughter; if not the tears. That was then, and now there was only four minutes to go before opening. She looked carefully at the three still forms standing before her, and began to work out what might be going through their minds.
Sarah Finnegan, stared composedly, towards the doors of the restaurant . Tall, angular, fit, athletic, childless, single, and now aged 30 she had always been in catering, and with ten years of full time hospitality service behind her, her career was on the move. Steely eyed and cold hearted, she was as hard as slab of granite in Christendom.
Nobody and nothing frightened her, nobody ever got round her, and her knowledge of the industry put those around her to shame. She also knew how to control her customers, and Sarah loved to be in control.
Control meant safety, and immunity from pain and disillusionment. When her parents divorced, and her father had died of cancer she had cauterized all of her emotions through necessity. Since that time emotions were only a complication. They were a nuisance, they confused things and made things messy. Life itself was messy, if you allowed life to have such freedom, and love and friendship were even more of a pain.
So it was that Sarah, through choice, had forsaken such pleasures, and as she stood looking towards the entrance she ran an inventory and check list of her tables, service station, table reservations, and of any specific requests that her clientele might need.
Cutlery, crockery, napkins, wine glasses, and cruet sets, all present and correct and all polished to perfection.
Table reservations, fully booked, as was always the case on busy theatre nights, but no special requests.
Her station was the express station. Get in, eat quickly, and then get out as soon as possible, that’s what her clients wanted, She knew what they would eat, how quickly they would eat, and what drinks they wanted placed on the table.
The customers were just lumps of meat to be processed, so in her neat and tidy world there was no room for hitches, glitches, fuss, and ceremonials. That was her faith, her caterers faith, as she always termed it. With promotion within the company looming large on the horizon, and her private life all in order, she had no need, or desire , to rock and roll.
There were a couple of flies in her ointment though, and both of them were standing by her side.
First came Doris, a seasoned campaigner, but a bit of an artful dodger, she knew every shortcut going. When Sarah wasn’t looking the glasses and cutlery that she had so lovingly polished went walking over to Doris’s station, and Sarah’s stack of perfectly ironed and folded linen napkins would be slightly reduced in size. Doris knew her job through, and her customers, so despite her lazy “indiscretions”, Sarah was happy to work by her side.
Chantelle was very different. With two years experience of helping out in her Mum’s cafe on the town’s high street, she was willing, and irrepressibly bubbly, but she was as still as raw as a freshly sliced onion, an an onion with a sharp little fizzy sauce by it’s side
To Sarah’s mind, willing exuberance was no substitute for experience. Chantelle was like a clumsy moth fluttering around a lamp light. Sarah wanted to catch that moth, and stop it fluttering, but all was not lost.
Sarah and Doris had already discussed the problem, and with 40+ years of service within the service sector between them, they knew all the tight spots and awkward corners, and they knew only too well where a little oil might need to be applied.
No words were needed now, not as this stage of the evening. Just a perfectly weighted stance that made sure she could start moving instantly, a reliable pen and a pristine blank order pad. She knew exactly what lay in store.
Yet a bit of her, a secret bit of her, still yearned for a bunch of red roses from a special admirer. She held such thoughts down, determined to deny them any freedom, but they still kept on growing, and they still demanded their chance to bloom under the sun. They kept on tugging and niggling away inside her, yet she was the ultimate professional, and, as normal, nothing crept up to the surface, not even a whisper, and certainly not a smile.
Chantelle was scared. It was only her second week in the restaurant, the first week had been bewildering. Now was she standing between two experienced waitresses, with only a slight degree of hope to comfort her, and an attitude of never say die.
It had been alright when she had worked for her mum in the cafe. A natural exuberance masked her youthful inexperience, and if anything threatened to break that cover, she always could always turn on her smile. It was a beauty, and she knew it. Every plate of food she served had her smile stamped on it, the regulars loved it, and they showed it by eating there every day
She had loved working in that café with its volcanic water heater, and its tea pots, coffee pots, and shiny white mugs all in a row. A working man’s caf’, that was some called it, , but to Chantelle it was “ her mums café”, and she loved. It was small, and condensation constantly steamed down the windows, but it was honest and cheerful, and as far as Chantelle was concerned, a wonderful home from home. Dancing around the cafe, like a delicately patterned and black eyed Chalkhill Blue butterfly, the café was, in her mind a little bit of heaven, and, in her dreams she one day hoped it would be hers.
Then her Mum had told her that there was little future in the cafe business, not now that the town was so quickly changing.
Goodbye sweat shirt, jeans, and trainers. Hello black shoes, black skirt, a starched white blouse and frilly piny; and a service area bigger and more awe inspiring than anything she had seen before.
Then of course there were the customers. No more Dustman Jack, veggie Eddie and Rock Shop Robin, with their earthy good humour, and friendly wit and banter; and no more saucy little winks on the sly.
Such characters, and such winks, were in the past now, and that saddened Chantelle, as, even on a wet day, their warmth had always lifted her. Now it was “Sir” and “Madam”, and disinterested and affected smiles of interest. It was spotlessly clean windows, squeaky clean bell toned glasses, regimented cutlery and an endless stream of pure white table linen. In her mind they all glared at her, and silently reprimanded her for her high spirits and gaiety. So much so that she almost wanted to laugh at them, and, sticking out her tongue rudely, seep them to one side.
Yet this was her future, and this was the town’s future. Posh new coffee bars, increasing affluence, and snooty hostile attitude towards the sea side cafe’s and chippy’s, That’s where the tide was flowing. Her mum’s cafe, like other cafe’s would soon be history. Progress, it seemed, had no interest in fishermen, shop owners, or bin men; unless, they wore a shirt, tie, and a jacket, and of course unless they could pay.
She was still afloat though, and she was still swimming. Where she was swimming to was still a mystery to her, but she had got through the first week of posh catering. Hope springs eternal, as her mother had often told her, so with Faith and Charity beside her, she might survive and even become part of the team.
She only wished that Sarah could be as approachable as Doris though. Sarah was good, very efficient, and, if she had time, very helpful, but she was often cold and distant. Chantelle had felt very lonely when it was just herself and Sarah working. She had no-one to talk to, and no-one that she could turn to if she felt scared or lonely, or if she had a problem on her mind.
Doris, or Charity, as Annie sometimes called her within the restaurant, was different. She was as warm and as friendly as a mug of creamy hot chocolate, and quickly sneaking a glance toward Doris who stood beside her, she was pleased to receive a brief yet comforting smile in return.
One day, quite soon now, the hotel and restaurant would lose Doris through retirement, but Chantelle hoped that such a day would be a long time coming her way.
Then Annie asked if they were ready.
That was the signal that everybody knew and waited for.
It was time to concentrate and try and remember her clients’ names, as well as their table numbers. She had been given her list by Annie, but all such names and numbers were still like some slightly incoherent jigsaw puzzle. Nothing fitted together, and all the names and table numbers looked the same.
Soon she would know all of them, they would become her new regulars, but now she was just grateful that Doris and Sarah, stood beside her, for they were like two guardian angels, and they allowed her to tuck herself under their wings.
Yet what did Annie, Doris, and Sarah think of her? Did they like her, or where they just being kind to her, and would she survive the night to come?
She pulled herself together rapidly. She was a fighter, she was resourceful, and though she felt both sweaty and nervous, she almost looked forward to the battle to come. The best things come in small packages, her Mum had always told her, and now, more than any other occasion, she hoped that this was true. Five minutes, five minutes and counting. She firmly held her gaze on the closed restaurant doors.
Of course Doris, or “Mum” to the restaurant staff who really knew her, was ready. Sort of anyway, as much as she ever bothered to be nowadays. She knew all the shortcuts of service, and she knew all her customers by name, as well as by character. She also knew how to handle Annie who, just occasionally, had a bad day. From age 16 onwards she had always been in catering, but now after working the last twenty years with Annie, her old bones, and her bad back were now giving her rude and insistent messages. No love letters from secret admirers, regrettably, just increasingly painful reminders that it was time for her to retire.
What she couldn’t really decide was whether or not such an outcome was a good thing.
A few years back she would have said yes, quite emphatically, yes, as when Annie was promoted over her she was annoyed to the point of resignation, but now it was different. She had mellowed considerably, and she now looked at her job in an entirely different way.
It was true that now aged 56, she was sick and tired of chanting out the eternal mantra of “Sir” and “Madam”, and it was also undeniable that the rules of catering had changed dramatically over the years. When she was training the customer was king, and they responded with equal dignity, but now just as service standards had dropped, so had customer civility, and now the customers themselves were now classified as customer relationship types, the likes of which she could never understand.
To her customers could be divided four ways, and in ways that any waitress could understand. The“cheapskates”, the “I’m important, and you had better believe it, the “I need info but I don’t care about you”, and, the “I’m important, very important, so don’t you dare leave my side” customers. That is how she viewed them, but now, by so called modern industry standards they were transitional, relationship, information, and partnership customers. They could all be categorised, bundled up, and dealt with accordingly. Such was the incoming surge of sales targets, profit margins, and overhead reduction requirements, that Doris often felt overwhelmed by such an insurgency, and could barely recognise the new style of catering that surrounded her on all sides.
They had all been told about this in a special staff meeting, by the Hotels marketing manager, an empty headed Armani suited dandy with a degree in hospitality management. Sarah, and other such climbers within the company had all embraced it enthusiastically; but for Doris, and a couple of other old timers like herself, were reluctant to embrace such a change.
For them marketing was all about cut price shopping, an exchange of gossip over a cup of market place tea and a toasted teacake, and grabbing a couple a pound of spuds from a local market trader, but they had listened politely as he carried on talking, as it meant a sit down for 30 minutes, and tea and biscuits to come.
There would be drawbacks though upon retirement, and they weighed heavily on her mind.
The state will always look after you, she had been told when she was younger, but not anymore. She would be saying goodbye to all her customers, they would soon forget to speak to her. She disliked being alone, and worst of all she would no longer be Mum to all the restaurant rookies, and no longer to tuck them under her wing.
Unmarried, childless, and well past her sell by date, a bleak and lonely existence seemed to stretch out before her, and she wondered whether anyone in the hotel would come and see her, or if she came back to the hotel visiting, would anyone welcome her, as she sidled in through its doors? The Hotel, in her mind, was like a luxury liner. She was part of its crew, and the ship was now approaching an isolated desert Island. Once anchored she might suffer disembarkation, but this once dreamed of paradise would now be a lonely life sentence, and suddenly, with a chill settling around her shoulders, she didn’t want to be left behind.
That was in the future though, if it ever happened, the doors were about to open, so bracing herself for yet another swarm of ungrateful customers, she looked forward to the evening at hand. Just under 5 minutes to feeding time, she thought to herself, and just enough time to give Chantelle an encouraging and sympathetic smile. It had to be a quick tight smile though, as Sarah was covertly keeping an eye on both of them.
Doris had once been like Sarah, and, nowadays feeling sorry for her. She had been just as cold and professional, and had put her life into neat little boxes,but not now. Never more could she be so, for with her aching bones, her love of cosy fires, and a recognition of all the good and bad points within her, such dreams, like her once neat pile of boxes, had tumbled down and had long since died. They were now but dust in a distant landscape, and a good thing too for everybody concerned.
When would life catch out Sarah, Doris wondered, and when would warmth and affection cut her to the bone. In her experience no such stack of boxes stayed neat and tidy forever, and one day all those soulless boxes would come crashing to the ground
You stupid old woman, she thought to herself, a lifetime of service and still full of philosophical meanderings! Still it meant it was a few minutes closer to her tea break, and a natter with some of the rookies; and on balance, it was an interesting way to while away the time.
She still had a couple of minutes and thereby time to plan her raid on Sarah’s cutlery and neatly stacked pile of linen. In a few minutes Sarah would be deep in service by the restaurant windows. Two minutes, that’s all Doris needed, under the pretence of checking the mid evening table reservations. Just two minutes while her punters were tucking in to their soup, melon with port, ot their prawn cocktail. Then, with a well practised sleight of hand and a conspiratorial wink towards Annie, some, but not all, of those immaculately prepared goodies would be lying close by her side.
At least she could leave her a note and a little present. The wine waiter had asked Doris to slip a note and a rose into Sarah’s service station. Funny old bugger that wine waiter, but at least there might be a dash love coming into Sarah’s cold climate. He was a generous soul though, if curiously infatuated, and Doris was always willing to help the wine waiter, as after service he often managed to slip her a glass of sherry or wine.
Just a nip for her old bones, just a medicinal treat for her aching feet and battered body. Everybody had a nip if they could get away with it, that is what the waste or ullage book was for behind the wine waiters counter, so why shouldn’t she sometimes have an occasional treat during the few service years remaining to her. Even at her age she was allowed a bit of comfort and fun!
“And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity…”
Annie again glanced at her precious, if by now battered slip of paper. It would need replacing soon, just like her special shoes whose replacements she had ordered, but she still found time to look at her little trio, and smile. Of course they would be fine. They were her babies, her very special babies.
The doors softly opened behind her, she turned round to welcome the dinners that were now walking towards her. It was curtain up time in the restaurant. The hunt was on, and her statuesque group of hounds would soon be up and running.
She smiled at the arriving customers, and decorously greeted them, as, one by one, they gave their names for that nights booking. Yet behind the smile, and the attentive service that she gave to each and every one of them, a little voice inside her kept on whispering.
“ God bless Faith, Hope, and Charity, and let loose the dogs of war!”
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