Grumpy and the Chateaubriand; part I


It’s late, and I’m sitting up here in my attic leafing through one of my early little books of inspiration . I’ve kept them all, you see, and they’ve served me well. Not only are they a treasure-trove of memories, but they’ve provided valuable inspiration and material for my books and characters.The need to write comes from within. It starts early – it did so with me – and never leaves you. I’ve also learnt very early on to write things down straight away, and make a note of an idea or an observation, which one day could be turned into a story.

As it happens, the entry in front of me reaches back to my early student days. It’s a short sketch of a wonderful incident which I developed many years later into a short story. It’s a little gem I’ve used in my first Brothers Grimm challenge. I’ll let you know what happened another time, but for now, let me share the story with you.

I had just left school and was looking for a casual job before uni started. The obvious choice was hospitality. A new five star hotel had just opened in Sydney and was hiring casual staff. I applied. Start at the top, I thought; nothing to lose. To my surprise, despite my lack of experience, tender age – I had left school only two weeks before – I was accepted and placed into the care of a senior waiter for ‘training.’ His name was Albert, but everyone called him ‘Grumpy.’  Why that was so, I was soon to find out.

Grumpy wasn’t really grumpy, well, most of the time he wasn’t. He was only grumpy when he was sober, which wasn’t often. A feisty Scott in his late fifties, with a striking shock of white hair neatly parted in the middle, Grumpy was a waiter of the old school and a tough task master; everything had to be perfect. He was head waiter in the exclusive, fine dining room of the hotel, and I became his assistant.

During my first week in the job I wasn’t allowed to even set foot in the dining room. I was in training. I had lessons in napkin folding, glass polishing, table setting and most challenging of all, silver service. Picking up grapes with the tips of a spoon and a fork delicately held in one hand wasn’t exactly my forte, but I was determined to make a fist of it. I learnt how to clear tables, carry half a dozen plates and assorted cutlery neatly stacked up one arm, and juggle coffee cups without spilling a drop. We had daily uniform inspections, and I was shown how to tie my bow tie; the old fashioned way.  I became the sorcerer’s apprentice learning the ropes, and I was enjoying it. Then came that fateful evening neither Grumpy nor I, or anyone else who was present for that matter, would ever forget.

‘You’re doing well, lad,’ said Grumpy, obviously pleased with my progress, ‘tonight, you’ll come into the dining room with me. It’s a good night because it will be very quiet.’ With that I followed Grumpy into the magnificent dining room and he took me on a tour of his domain.

The ambience was elegant and classy. Discreet lighting, soft colours, potted palms and crisp white tablecloths gave the room intimacy and warmth. A trio was playing smooth jazz, and only a handful of tables were occupied, mainly by couples finishing their dinner. The experienced floor staff was quietly going about their business, and Grumpy explained the layout of the dining room, pointed out the table numbers, and explained where the plates and cutlery was kept and so on. Soon the dining room was empty, and the waiters were beginning to reset the tables for lunch the next day.

‘We can relax now,’ said Grumpy loosening his bow tie. He winked at the barman, who handed him a large glass of what looked like coke. As I was to find out later, this was a nightly ritual, only it wasn’t coke, but a water glass full of whisky with a dash of coke. Like most seasoned alcoholics, Grumpy hid his little demons well. He never looked drunk, or slurred his speech. His hand was always steady and his manners impeccable. Yet he consumed amazing quantities of liquor every night, but only after the last diner had left the room.

‘You can start folding napkins,’ said Grumpy, pointing to the cupboard where the linen was kept. He put his empty glass on the bar and gave the bartender a nod; the glass was immediately refilled.

I had carefully folded a dozen or so napkins under the watchful eye of my mentor enjoying himself at the bar, when the lift doors opened and a group of noisy, elderly American tourists burst into the empty dining room. They had just arrived from LA and were obviously after some dinner.

Looking at the time, I really must stop. And besides, this blog is getting far too long anyway. I must admit, I got a little carried away by the story, but it’s a good one; you’ll see. So please be patient with me. You’ll find out next week what happened in Grumpy’s fine dining room that unforgettable evening. It’s a corker! Trust me.