Monday, 4 December 2017

The Round Robin


Well another year has rolled around and we haven't managed to catch up face to face. But be assured I miss you terribly (INSERT NAME HERE)!
I talk about you often dear (INSERT NAME HERE) and have such fond memories of our time in (INSERT PLACE/RESTAURANT/CULT/ DEPROGRAMMING UNIT/ CULT SUPPORT GROUP HERE).
If we'd had kids I'm sure little (INSERT NAME HERE) would be doing marvellously at his Montessori school and looking forward to all the gifts Satan will be bringing him for christmas.
And had I finished 'that' novel I've been tiredly working on for two decades then I imagine this letter would be a lot shorter and considerably less humble.
But life being what it is – a long inexorable march toward death, the terror thereof ameliorated by alcohol, shiny bargains and life hacking TED talks that convince us we matter – 2017 was sadly not the year that I became a success. Or in many ways, a grown up.
The tree is up! Imagine our delight when we woke in the morning to find it potted and bedecked with baubles. We almost believed in Father Christmas for a moment until we followed the trail of our visa receipts and realised that we had in fact put the damn thing up ourselves. Who knew that off licenses sold decorations? Not I. And once we'd wiped the blood off the ornaments they certainly did glitter with all the promise of a turd wrapped in tinsel.
I suppose a small re-cap of the year is in order so I'll do my best to lift something from the addled fog of sleep deprivation that was the past 11 months.
January brought an all inclusive trip to Mexico and the mere sight of a lime can evoke the heartburn and indigestion that prevailed.
We returned just in time to catch the beginning of a new sitcom in which a narcissist with the IQ of a spoon became president of the United States. We laughed and laughed until the tears ran down our faces. They haven't stopped.
By March everyone in the UK with an accent was proposing to their English partners and quicker than you could say 'Brexit' the invites were pouring through the door. Of course a lot of people had quite a difficult time finding venues that could host their big day what with all the staff being either on the guest list or getting hitched.
I have absolutely no recollection of April or May but judging from the tattoo on my back I can only assume that this is a blessing.
June fluttered in with all the promise of a summer that would never come but we removed three layers anyway huddled around the aga.
That's a lie. I should have an aga by now but I don't. I refer you to the unfinished novel.
We skipped through July aided by industrial strength ibuprofen and a can do attitude and skidded to a halt in August for a long conversation about all the BBQ's and picnics we were going to have. And never did.
In September I went to the gym, enjoyed their power shower and a pep talk before leaving and never returning.
With October came the rustle of fallen leaves, fallen loved ones and fallen standards.
With a new found determination I opened the fridge, pushed aside the weight watchers 1 point loaf and reached for the cheese. I wrapped it in chocolate and enjoyed it with eight pouches of Virginia Bright and a vitamin C tablet dissolved in gin.
In November I wrote half a book, deleted it and played scrabble online with a woman in New Delhi who had a broader vocabulary than I. Me. I.
Which brings us to today.
As I sit here, a metaphorical pizza in a gluten free dairy intolerant world, and think of you dear dear (INSERT NAME HERE). I wonder what lessons I can take from this last year and what if any wisdom I can impart.
The answer at first glance appears to be 'fuck all.' But I'm going to just keep typing and see what emerges.
If your 2017 has been good to you then pay it forward it 2018 and make someone else's next year one to celebrate.
If your 2017 has been shit don't come moaning to me about it, I've got enough on my plate.
If you're full of fear and trepidation about what's to come, don't panic, we all are.
If you're confident that everything is going to be okay, you're probably ill informed or haven't read the small print.
If I can wish anything for you in the coming year then it's what I wish for myself: Good health, good love and good times. Moments of real happiness that cannot be expressed on social media because they rest in your heart and not in your humble brags. A sense of truly moving forward, always striving to attain the things you want without forgetting to be present because as the cliché goes, it's the road that counts and not the perceived Eden at the end, the chasing of which will always be more than the attainment.
We too often take a picture of a tree or a sunset and post it because we want the world to think we find it beautiful and be validated as the sort of person who appreciates the gorgeous vicissitudes of nature. Don't take a picture. Just look at the fucking tree. It'll be boring at first but with practise and time we might all become the people we'd much rather be.
Always tip your server, and do so in cash. Try to be kind even when you want to rip someone's lungs out for being a complete mouth breather.
Unless you have a genuine life threatening food intolerance, shut the fuck up and eat what is put in front of you.
Take dance lessons.
Learn an instrument too late in life.
Use the words 'Omnishambles', 'Clusterfuck' and 'Brouhaha' (It's time they made a come back)
Write a letter.
Write a book.
Kill your darlings when you do.
Have a wonderful time of it all because we're not here for all that long and we are terribly lucky to be here at all.
Try not to be a cunt.
And take comfort dear, dear (INSERT NAME HERE) that you are nothing. You are barely an idea in a huge canvas of much more important things than you and the universe doesn't give a toss about you. There's a freedom in really knowing that. It makes you feel special.

I love you. Stay golden. Let's not leave it so long this time.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Churros and Adios.

I'm innocently floating around the pool reading a book when I hear an American woman to my right screech;
'Oh my gosh! You're in the water with, like, paper!'
'Oh my GOD!' I screech back. 'You've brought your own drinking tankard to a free bar!'
I then stare mutely at her until she turns away and continue my paddle.
For every ten absolutely delightful people you meet there's always a universe balancing arsehole. The French and I made an agreement early on that whenever we witnessed somebody being shockingly awful we wouldn't get wound up but instead would stop what we were doing and give them a slow applause.
The people who dictate what they want and never say please or thank you. The people who never tip. That's the worst offence really. The logic being that its an all-inclusive and so tips are included in that. Surely! Am I right?! NO you're not fucking right.
Gilberto, one of the waiters who hasn't had a day off since we've been here and is always 100% on the ball, tells us (we ask, he doesn't offer the information freely) that he earns 76 pesos an hour. That's just over three quid. So when you see someone clicking their fingers or kicking up a fuss about something so puerile it makes your eyeballs sweat its hard not to physically attack them. For the most part its the English and the Americans who are guilty of this. The only people that are never ever rude and tip just because someone smiled at them are of course the Canadians.
I have never met a Canadian I didn't like. They learn all the waiters names too.
And my obsession with visiting Canada is just growing and growing. The fact that we flew over Canada to get here makes me feel a bit bilious. I came so close and yet still no cigar. I've spoken to quite a few of them in passing here and pretty much all of them have invited me to stay at theirs. Or recommended a great place where the trees are tall and the lakes wide. We went out to Bucerias for dinner again the other night and met a group of Canadians who were sat at the next table. Over the balcony there were lots of locals dancing away to some live music being played in the square.
Lisa is there with her husband and two other couples. She recommends a restaurant for us and suggests we come back on Saturday afternoon for a live music party on the beach.
'It's kinda the local happy hour between 3 and 6pm, lots of dancing, its fun.'
'Do you live here?' I ask.
'No, we just holiday here in the winter for 4 or 5 months.'
She kisses her husband, gets up and starts shimmying toward the street.
'Hey you wanna come dance?'
'Oh that's so kind but I'm afraid I'm British.'
She sashays off to the rhythm and I wonder once again what it must be like to be rich.
We've met a fair few people here who are on semi permanent holidays.
One elderly Canadian couple at dinner last night told us they were here just for a week on the back of a month in Fiji and before that New Zealand for two months.
'We couldn't face going back to the weather in Canada just yet.'
The French and I are very good at picking up languages and within a week of being anywhere can pretty much communicate with anyone. Where the French excels though is his ability to seemingly soak up the essence of a country. He not only speaks to everyone in Spanish, he does so with his whole body and makes everyone around him feel like he's a local and their long lost friend. He SOUNDS Mexican. I watch men swarm around him, changing his ashtray, making sure his drink is never empty and somehow discussing Arsenal with him. They see him coming and his drink is poured before he gets there. He hugs them all, asks them how that thing went the other day that they were talking about and how are the three kids etc. His achilles heel however is accents. He has a complete tin ear for them and its hilarious. He comes back from the bar and tells me he's just overheard some French Canadians and the way they speak is bizarre. I mooch over to eavesdrop and discover they are in fact from Birmingham.
Another prize winning occasion:
'So where in Scotland are you from?' He asks.

He's been eyeing the jet ski's since we got here.
'I went on one in Acapulco a few years ago. It was awesome.'
'Go on one then.'
'No, no, no. I'd rather spend the money on restaurants.'
A day later I find him watching the jet ski's yearningly.
'It's really cool if you stay on top of the waves...'
'Go on one then.'
'No no no. It'll be super expensive.'
Yet another day later I watch as he smokes a cigar whilst his eyes never leave the jet ski's skimming across the ocean.
'For the love of Christ just go book one!'
He strolls indifferently over to the hombres in charge of the jet ski's and starts chatting. He returns 5 minutes later having made blood brothers of them all.
'I got them down to thirty quid for half an hour. For both of us.'
The following day I get on my jet ski and think 'Yay! I'm saying YES to life!' And almost immediately regret it. Its the turning I found problematic. Anyway, The French satisfied his need for speed and I survived so it's another thing ticked off a bucket list I never wrote.
Body boarding was a lot more fun for me. I felt like I was 8 again, catching the back of a wave and shooting towards the shore.

There have been lots of highlights but the local fiesta two nights ago was one of the best moments, not least for the fresh churros that were so delicious I gave the woman a rose to thank her (I also paid for the churros...obviously). The reason I had roses in the first place was because a couple sat at the next table to us in a bar bought them for us. Just because. They were, of course, Canadian. And yes, they have invited us to British Columbia for a vacation and some fishing on the lake.
I've promised myself a trip to Canada if I ever get published. The French says 'when' not 'if'.
I find a booze stand offering a cocktail called 'Adios Mother Fucker' and ask the woman what's in it.
'Is Tequila, gin, ron, vodka and just tiny bit pineapple.'
I settle for a margarita.
We eat at a stand and pay less than you would for a pint in the UK. We watch huge fireworks which are set off in the middle of the square by a bloke with a fag dangling out of his mouth. There's no barrier, no health and safety. If you're stupid enough to stand too close you're probably asking for it. 

The holiday is over and we have to vacate the room in about thirty minutes. We haven't even packed yet. But we're ready to go home. We've had a ball, enjoyed it all. We now know we're not all-inclusive kind of people and won't do it again. But it was just what we needed this time round. The French is getting wound up by other holiday makers having the audacity to breathe near him. We're both done. We'll endure the 11 hour flight back, find a train and collapse in to the flat for a few hours kip before dinner at my mum's. I love travelling. I'd love someone to pay me to go places and write this stupid blog. The only thing better than travelling is probably coming home. See you soon Xx

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Pepto-Abysmal And Gyrating Raoul

Every day around noon Raoul, one of the swarthier members of the 'entertainment' staff can be found strutting around the sun loungers charming the ladies in to an aerobics session with him in the pool.
'Come on Signoritas! You's gotta work off the alcohol si!'
Gold rimmed shades, ponytail and snake hipped he sexually insinuates himself through a wall of liver spotted cleavages and plastic sun visors.
Sure enough ten minutes later the pool is a blanket of giggling American housewives staring adoringly at Raoul who stands on the side thrusting his groin in a slow circular motion and telling the ladies to follow suit.
The French looks up from his reading and mutters; 'Fucking Raoul.'
In the evening we're having some cocktails before dinner and discussing the much anticipated performance of the “Mexican Michael Jackson.” I never really understood the appeal of the actual Michael Jackson but I do find the world of imitators weirdly intriguing. The French however is uncharacteristically keen and is practising his moon walk in the middle of the plaza with a drink in one hand and his hat tilted Jackson style. I wave my glass at one of the staff and beg for another drink.
The build up is impressive. There's a big light show and a massive projection of Jackson's (Liz Taylor phase) eyes. Six dancers appear and start throwing shapes and even the table of drunken Scots (same table every day from 10am till 11pm) briefly look up from their drinks and make a collective noise which could be a heckle or some kind of approval. Finally Mexican Michael arrives in Thriller mode. He gyrates wildly, makes that squeaky noise and grabs his groin. The French grins, then frowns and finally squints.
'It's fucking Raoul.'
'Surely not.'
'I'm telling you – That. Is. Fucking. Raoul!'
I take a closer look at the groin rotation. It could definitely be Raoul.
He does all the big numbers, 11 costume changes and finishes with a dramatic 'It's your fault I'm dead' kind of blackout. The crowd goes wild.
A couple of hours later there's a conga line working its way around the fountain and yes, Raoul is leading it. The man's an animal.

When we arrived The French was pretty ill with a bad cold. He has since recovered and passed the baton to me. Our room is littered with half bottles of Vicks 44 expectorant, Tylenol, Ibruprofen and now Pepto-Bismal which I picked up yesterday at a Farmacia in Puerto Vallarta. The constant diet of chilli, lime and Amaretto Sours/Margaritas means heartburn is unavoidable. The woman in the shop gives me a quick appraisal and discreetly hands me a list of under the counter drugs available. Tramadol, Vicodin, HGH...the list is impressive. I start to enquire about the cost of the diet pills but The French grabs me and pushes me firmly out of the door.
I catch my reflection as I walk past the mirror. Cocktail in one hand, Pepto-Abysmal in the other. I pop an ibroprufon and a tylonel and wash them down with swig of pepto.
Admittedly I look like shit and I have a pretty bad cold but I'm on holiday and no one can take that away from me.
It's 30 degrees and the French can't take a step without breaking a sweat. My hair has reacted to the humidity and is eight times its original size. The French occasionally pretends its become sentient and says he can see a pulse. The novelty of constant alcohol has worn off but we're still very much working on the premise that if you're not sure what you fancy there really is no bad time for a Bloody Mary. We have located the one man in the hotel who knows how to make a decent coffee. He works in the 24 hour sports bar and every morning we shuffle in there with the other 6 people who have discovered him, request a hit, and give the obligatory half laugh when he suggests a shot of tequila in it.

Being constantly looked after and having to do absolutely nothing for yourself except wash is very seductive but also creates an inertia that makes you feel like having a nap every twenty minutes. To counteract this we've been making little trips outside of our cottonwool wrapped world, the first of which was to Bucerias.
The taxi dropped us off at the edge of a flea market. It looks like a shanty town and from the moment you step out of the car you're assaulted by dozens of people holding up bits of jewellery, rugs, skull mugs. One stand has gimp style superhero masks. The French points at the Dead Pool one and says he needs it.
'Take it mi amigo,' the man says. 'Make all your fantasies come true.'
Another big guy nods at us, 'Come see my cheap shit.' I don't think his heart is in it.
It's a bit overwhelming. You want to be polite and say “no thanks” to everyone but in the end we just push our way through the crowd and stop responding. We find a restaurant that's been recommended to us. Miguel Angel is a cool little Mexican place with parrots hopping around everywhere and palm leaves for a roof. Miguel himself is charm personified. He looks like Charles Bronson and The French calls him that for the rest of our visit.
'You like football?' Miguel asks.
'Of course.'
'Who's your team?'
'I got a sports bar upstairs, they playing right now.'
There's a small cloud of dust where the French once stood. Born lucky. I follow up the stairs and there it is, a hug sports bar with the game playing and various men staring fixedly at the screen whilst some disenchanted women shovel tortilla.
A smiling man brings a bucket full of ice within which are nestled five bottles of corona and a dish of lime.
'400 pesos amigo.'
The French is about to distractedly hand over the money and then does the math.
'400?! That's more than 20 pounds. For five beers??'
The man smiles nervously.
'Five buckets, amigo.'
'What the fuck do I want with 25 beers?!'
'Okay, 100 pesos for one bucket.'
He's tried it on, not succeeded and there's a slightly tense feeling in the air. Luckily the outraged French is an affable sort and merely gives him a friendly slap on the back which nearly floors the tiny chap.
'That's more like it!'
He watches the game and I watch the room. Everything is so colourful here.
His team wins and we head downstairs to eat. It's shady and lovely and the waiter brings me a bucket of passionfruit Margaritas. We eat fish tacos and giant fried prawns with the obligatory nachos and dip. There's an old boy playing a keyboard and singing in the corner. He starts 'What a wonderful world' and its just perfection. A small boy comes in and tries to sell us handmade bracelets with little dream catchers on them. He wants 100 pesos (about five quid). They're hideous but he's a pro and whilst the French tries to haggle him down to 50 pesos the kid refuses to make eye contact and insists on at least 70. We buy the damn thing and I'm forced to wear it. He's the first of about 60 people trying to sell us stuff. I wonder if there's a kind soul somewhere with a room full of sombrero's, rugs, dolphin wind chimes, marble face ornaments, skull head mugs, grains of rice with their name on it, cuban cigars...actually we did buy a box of cuban cigars but turned down the weed that was offered with it.
The second trip is to Puerto Vallarta where we find a colonial style shack on the beach called The Red Lobster. The food is fantastic and we just sit there for hours eating, drinking, laughing and politely refusing to buy a million things.
The third trip we've been looking forward to all week. We are headed to the 'Rhythms of the night' event at a little cove some miles away. We travel there by boat which takes about an hour and a half and involves a glorious sunset and a lot of rum punch. The team on the boat led by Julio are hilarious. They throw alcohol at you, play music and do little skits to keep you amused. There are about 40 of us and everyone is in high spirits. A man called Tom and his friend recreate the Titanic pose at the front of the boat, people are dancing and laughing. A hush descends as the sun sets and before long we are approaching the Las Caletas cove which is entirely lit by candles and flaming torches. It's a jungle and as we get nearer we spot a mermaid waving from the rocks. A girl dressed as an eagle perched in one of the trees. The water around the boat is clear and thousands of fish are shimmying in the light. We dock and start making our way up a candle lit path. Part of a tree unfolds and smiles at us, something that looks like a cross between a goat and a god plays a lute and a half naked man painted to look like a deer struts around on the rocks and watches us suspiciously. It's completely immersive theatre and not what I'd expected at all. We'd been told the show was influenced by Cirque du Soleil which I liked and not dissimilar to The Lion King which I fucking hate. When we reached the clearing the layout was much like an Ampitheatre with steep wooden stairs at one end leading up to a large skull surrounded by fire.
'It looks like a sacrificial alter,' I whisper.
'I hope it is,' The French says, looking pointedly at a woman just behind us who hasn't stopped narrating every moment since she got off the boat.
The show starts with a very entertaining Master Of Ceremonies who walks through the audience making guttural tribal noises before saying terribly politely “That means, excuse me please, I need to get through”. The performance lasts the perfect amount of time (40 minutes) and there's a giant butterfly in a tree playing a violin, a colourful bird woman on a wire zooming around overhead, giant stilt walking tree men, monkeys doing insane balancing acts using only one arm, fire juggling and dancing. The French keeps staring at the Deer man suspiciously.
“It's fucking Raoul. I'm certain of it.”
I have absolutely no idea what the plot is or why the deer gets killed and comes back as a dancing man but The French assures me its all about the connectedness of everything in nature and everything serving a purpose. I'm fine with that.
Afterwards we are taken to our table for two by the edge of the sea and served booze and food by candlelight whilst a man plays a harp for us. It's all ridiculously romantic and I can't help but think about the level of organisation it takes to make this many people feel so personally cared for. The beach to our left has been hung with dozens of cream hammocks and its an absolute scream watching couples trying to climb in to them gracefully for a kodak moment under the stars. One big chap looks utterly defeated before he's even begun but his girlfriend is bloody determined and so he folds himself on to an edge and braces himself with one foot in the sea for what looks to be ten minutes of absolute terror.
A bell rings and its time to head back. The journey is broken up by the crew dressing up as Kiss and performing for us. No, really. A Liverpudlian chap comes up to me and nods towards The French.
'Is that big lad with the hat your fella?'
'He had me and my girlfriend in bits all the way out on the boat. He was having a dance and rolling a fag at the same time whilst everyone else was holding on to the rails for dear life.'

'Yup. That's my one.'

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Mexico And The Scooby Snacks

A tiny Mexican woman hands me a pair of paper knickers the size of a tea bag and tells me to pop them on and 'jump' on to the massage table.
There seems to be a recurring theme of holidays and humiliating massage experiences for me.
'Um, I don't think these will fit me. I'm carrying a little extra weight...'
She grins.
'Ah, yes, Navidad – Christmas, si?'
'Yes, exactly. Approximately 42 years worth.'
'Is okay. Put them on. Stretchy.'
They are not stretchy enough. I contort myself in to part of them and hobble towards the table. I try to pull the sheet modestly over myself and roll on to my stomach. She whips it off.
'No, no. Sitting up please on edge.'
I surrender to the horror and haul myself up all the time thinking of that episode of Jerry Springer when they telecast a hugely obese man (basically a blanket of skin with eyes) in to the studio from his trailer - “Help me Jerry, I don't wanna die.” They cut him out of that trailer. My problems are comparatively small. I just need to stop drinking 14 cocktails a day and get back to my running regime and all will be well. As I'm thinking this the tiny Mexican woman rubs my entire body with exfoliating stuff and points at a shower.
'With the pants?'
All of this takes place with one lit candle and an acoustic arrangement of 'I will always love you' serenading us.
After this everything gets a lot better. She's small but she is fierce and the one hour deep tissue massage is painful and relaxing at the same time. Throughout the whole thing I have a towel over my eyes. She whispers 'terminado' and I hear her leave. A few moments later another woman comes in and starts trying to scrape the despair from my face. I assume its another woman, I still can't see a thing, so unless the first one has popped out for a costume change and is now posing next to me in a wetsuit taking selfies with me beached next to her with a fin stuck on my head...I try not to dwell.
The facial is really good. I know this because I am woken several times by my own snoring.
I pay cash, put my sun glasses on and leave with my head bowed.

We've been in Mexico for three days and once I'd managed to unfold the furious French from his economy sized chair after an 11 hour flight we both started having a lot of fun. He's a giant in the UK so over here, where the average hight is about 5 foot 2 he looks like a building.
It's hard to get your head around an all inclusive resort. I keep wanting to say 'I can have this too? For free??' I was worried it would be like some awful package thing with mandatory games and English breakfasts. But as The French pointed out, 'It's a five star resort, shut up.' As someone with absolutely no self control, accompanied by someone with very little self control, the notion of free alcohol 24/7 was a curious one. I found I have been able to avoid a hangover by drinking fairly steadily from breakfast onwards. There are four optics in the bedroom, Champagne and Bloody Mary's with breakfast, cocktails are delivered to your sun lounger, there's a bar in the pool and every time you think 'Steady on there, probably time for a coffee' a nice smiling person appears at your elbow and refills your glass. Horrific.
Some jolly young Canadian girls introduced us to 'Scooby Snacks' last night. A 50ml shot of vodka, melon liquor and something else I can't put my finger on. They are radiation green and it isn't until your sixth that you start to feel a burning in your chest. And as the young Canadians pointed out 'They don't even taste like alcohol! It's awesome.' I spotted them a couple of hours later cavorting maniacally around two waiters who stood there grinning and trying not to recoil as they gyrated and screeched in some tribal mating ritual. I saw them again at breakfast this morning. The French told them they were evil and they grinned.
'Y'all have a good day! Try the Banana Bamba today, it doesn't even taste like alc-'
'Fuck right off!'
There are very few kids here which is nice as we are the sort of awful people who don't enjoy the sound of children's laughter. But there's this one little person. Very small. Almost staggering around on wobbly legs age. What is that age? Anyway, she's beautiful. Mesmerising. She has eyes like black marbles and thick shiny black hair that curls around her cheeks and wherever the music is playing she is struggling towards it on tiny drunken legs like a little dark angel. I don't know if its the last gasp of an unused womb or just that she is the most precious little thing but every time I see her I just stop and stare. Her dad is now on nervous nodding terms with me.
The French has found the hat. The hat that completes him as a person. It's one of those 'man from Del Monte' hats. Makes him look some colonial fellow in an Agatha Christie. The staff call him Papi and he's really just missing the cigar to complete the look. Luckily there is a vast armoury of cuban cigars on offer so its really only a matter of time. I beat him at pool yesterday. He's still raging about it.
It's luxurious here, lots of marble and palms and a golden beach that we've only visited at night when it was empty and we could float on our backs and look at all the stars in the sky. The whole place is in the Art Deco style and amongst the frondy plants there are Tamara de Lempicka copies and walls full of Klimt. It's all very nice and very seductive and apart from the staff and the tacos you'd never know what country you were in. We quite like knowing what country we're in so this afternoon we're breaking out of the compound and visiting Bucerias, a town nearby with a flea market and a highly recommended seafood restaurant on the beach and on Tuesday we're taking a speedboat to a little island for the 'Rhythm of the night' party. The tiny beach lit by 3000 candles and there's fire juggling and music and a meal. I'm really excited about that. Despite the fact that I will unquestionably get eaten alive by mosquitoes. I managed to go two days without getting bitten and the moment I bought the “OFF!” repellant and sprayed it on they found me.
Our rep is from The Wirrall and her name is Julia Roberts. I shit you not. I've started calling her Erin Brokovich which she finds hilarious in a professional can't punch me in the face sort of way.

Everything is lovely and wonderful. Except the coffee. The coffee is fucking awful.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Day 318 Of My Captivity.

The restaurant world keeps its own time. I've been the GM for nearly eleven months now but it feels like I turned around and a few seasons passed. I worked for Mr Morrisons when I was student up north doing night shifts at his slaughterhouse near Wakefield. I was a dinner lady serving breakfast at 11pm to men who'd previously worked on oil rigs. Lunch was around 3am. The other dinner ladies were usually married to the men, or would be, and the sons often came to work there too. We were all locked in together and the shifts would pass in a dreamlike state, as though non of it were real and we only existed at night. I once bumped in to one of the other women in the town centre mid morning and we exchanged shy hellos, feeling exposed outside of our parallel time zone.

Comparatively this job is a breeze. I mean, at no point during a busy night has anyone dragged me in to a staff room, handed me half a pint of cheap wine and a Lambert and Butler and said 'Get that down ye luv, it'll carry you through till finish.' Not that I'd complain. When I started at the slaughterhouse I asked one of the less terrifying women how many sausages, bacon etc I should put for each serving and she said: 'Put it this way, if they can see t'plate there'll be hell to pay.' Oh, okay. So, yeah, comparatively, this job is a breeze. Not easy though. I'm still learning. Every time I think I'm beginning to get my head around it all there's something new to learn, another element of the job that I've been shielded from until deemed ready.

I need Lara, the previous Manager, less, but lord knows I still need her. She's my 'Restaurant Management for Idiots' guide. We're about to head in to our first christmas together and she is bright eyed and bushy tailed whilst I stare at the already heavily booked calendar with a sense of mounting bewilderment. Of the staff who were here when I arrived only Lara and Simon remain. Everyone else I either employed or brought with me from previous jobs. So my safety nets have been slowly disappearing and more often now I find myself turning back to ask an adult what I should do and finding only myself there. My wonderful, utterly capable and profoundly chaotic Ali has moved to our new pub, The King Alfred, and is now quite rightly an assistant manager. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed taking that darling for granted. Apart from her multi tasking genius on the floor, she did a lot of background stuff that I consequently never had to think about. Until now. And Karon. Off she went and gave birth to a Henry. She'll be back though. Mark my words. Every time I get the place ready for an evening shift I think of Karon moving a table one inch to the right, adjusting a candle, all the little things that seem so inconsequential but strangely make such a difference. And then all the bright young things who come back for a month or two before heading off on their next adventure. So, obviously, I have some new staff.

There's Hannah, who in real life is one third of The Spitfire Sisters musical arrangement. She works for us around her gigs and much to all of our delights she'll be performing here during our Prohibition night for Winchester Cocktail week in February. All of the venues taking part will create two cocktails that wristband wearers can purchase for £4 each. I decided to serve ours in tea pots and keep to a prohibition style drink. Our cocktails will be The Mermaid's Tub and Moonshine Honey. It's all very exciting. We're using The Isle Of Wight Distillery and Fabian Chase (real name) is a mixologist who's helping me with my concoctions. Hannah is also a trained barista and makes the best coffees.
There's Dominic, Craig and Joshua who do a couple of shifts a week. Dom and Craig are students and very charming. Dominic in particular has been a hit with women of a certain age. I've had at least four come up to me after a meal and tell me he's 'just excellent'. Joshua does Viking re-enactments at the weekend and has promised I can come along one day. He turned up to work a few weeks ago with his hair carefully covering a fairly impressive battle wound.
'I like your hair like that.'
'I look like Justin Bieber.'
'No, no, no...yes.'
My old timers of the new wave are Sam and Janna, who joined me from my last job shortly after I started and I don't know what I'd do without them. Sam's main response to anything I or a customer says is 'No problem'. Janna comes in and quietly does everything that needs to be done without fuss or difficulty. And then of course there is Benjamin. I worked with him a few years ago at Loch Fyne. He was my supervisor when I was a waitress and now he's my supervisor again. Oh how the tables turn! Well, not really. We don't much do hierarchy here. I write him long rambling lists of things that need doing and he does them and ticks them off as he goes. His girlfriend Rachel has come to work here too. She's a student also and has a good dry sense of humour and like all of them, just cracks on.
So, our first christmas booking is on the 24th of November and then its just a roller coaster ride to New Year's Eve. We're having a Day of The Dead themed party and Lara and I are having a ball sourcing decorations, drinks, Mexican style tapas. Quite a few of our conversations feature Pinata's and skulls. We've hired a close up magician who didn't balk at all when I asked him to dress in top hat and skull face. It's going to be a splendid night and when it finishes I'll crawl in to bed, wake up on New Years day and remember that I will officially have worked here a whole year.

The restaurant world keeps its own time. It passes quickly though the days can be long. Our weekends are often on Mondays and Tuesdays. We stay up late and drink at each others businesses. We see more of each other than we do our non industry friends and family. It's often fun, it can be very satisfying. Sometimes you can get too knotted up about little things you can't control and then you step back and remember its all just a ride. The job ultimately is to feed and water people and make them happy. Hope they come back. Since extending our wine list to impressive proportions, adding cocktails and sourcing even more local beers we've started to see people just popping in for a drink which is hugely pleasing. I light the candles for breakfast, keep the lights low, turn the sign to 'Come in we're open!' and the day rolls on to night, and then again, and again. Each one different, each with its own challenges and rewards.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Ceramic Ducks.

It's 10.15am on Friday and Ali is pacing between table 12 and the window.
'John isn't here yet.' She frowns.
John is a lovely old boy who comes in every Tuesday and Friday for breakfast. He likes to do the Guardian crossword whilst he eats his salmon (half portion) and scrambled eggs (runny please).
Ali always reserves his table and puts the paper open on the right page by his cutlery. He's never late, 10am on the dot. Except today he is late and Ali is fretting.
'He'll be here in a minute,' I say and find myself straightening his chair.
'He's never late,' she counters.
We pace a bit.
I always help him finish the crossword which he keeps his arm wrapped around whilst telling me to bugger off until he needs me.
We have quite a few regulars. There's Malcolm who literally runs in for a flat white on his way to or from one of his endless spin classes. He's somewhere in his early fifties and I've never seen him out of sports wear. Rose who works for the hat fair comes in for coffee and breakfast early before it gets busy. The woman who is impossibly glamorous, has hot milk with her coffee and is very good at napkin origami. The tall elderly man who always has an espresso with hot water on the side, pays at the counter and never stays more than ten minutes but is terribly nice.
Okay so I don't know ALL of their names. But I'm pretty sure Ali does. And Karon. Karon probably knows their National Insurance numbers. She's off on maternity now and kicking it up in the South of France. It was getting to the point where the tiny woman was having to tie her apron higher and higher over her belly. If she'd stayed any longer she'd have been wearing it as a scarf.
John eventually saunters in at twenty past ten with no kind of excuse or apology for the hand wringing he's caused. Instead he says:
'Your man cooking Thursday night?'
(My man is the head chef at The Green Man)
'Good. Can you ask him to do me a chateaubriand. I'm taking an old mate and he likes his meat ruined so can you ask if he'll cut it in half and do my bit medium rare and his bit leather?'
'7 for drinks, eat for 7.30?'
'Fine. Are you OKAY? You're late.'
'Yes I'm alright. Can I have a coffee?'
Damn him.
You know that expression about how it takes a village to raise a child? Well it takes a small pub group to keep a John up and running.
Working in a little local place is a curse and a blessing. The curse is how many people's lives you become tangentially involved in. That's also the blessing. We have a lot of regulars and most of our suppliers are local and independent so we get to know them too. And the little pub group has three other pub/restaurants in Winchester so you get to know all that lot too and before you know it, seven months down the line of pretending to be a general manager, you can't walk down the street without stopping five times to say hello to someone and ask about their day. I can't remember the last time I felt part of a community. It was sometime in the 70's when summers lasted forever and you still went tad poling.
I think independent businesses might be the last bastion of community. It's depressing to see so many places shutting their doors as another chain invades the High Street.
It's a bit more expensive to eat at a place that can't afford to offer you two courses for a tenner. When we started using Fran's coffee we had to put our prices up by about 5p a cup. I asked John what he thought of the new Moonroast and he quipped 'Can't afford NOT to like it.' Then winked at me roguishly. But 5p isn't the end of the world because what you get in return is people who know your name, your favourite table, that you like your eggs a certain way. We see you come in for a first date, you have your wedding here and the following autumn you rock up with a baby in tow.
A community witnesses your life, let's you know that you matter, and that if you are usually always here at ten am on a Tuesday there is someone who will worry when you're not.

Everyone who has worked at The Corner House for any length of time loves it and owns it. This too is a curse and a blessing. The curse is quite funny. Every new manager wants to put their stamp on the place, make it their own a bit. My stamp has been a desire to shift its image a little. A really tiny amount. We are well known for our breakfast, lunch and afternoon cake but not so well known as a bar. With that in mind I put together a little cocktail list. That went relatively well once everyone was up to speed on how to make an espresso martini and we remembered to order some kahlua. I then thought we should perhaps de-chinz a little. As you know I'm not a fan of the expression 'shabby chic.' With that in mind I started quietly removing some of the more quaint decorations. The odd ceramic duck here, a tea pot there. I placed them in a box and returned a day later to find them quietly removed from said box and placed neatly back in their original locations. I less quietly removed them again and this time sealed the box and hid it. One of the tea pots still found its way back in to the restaurant. When I moved some of the furniture around, to let some light in, I came in the following morning to find Ali standing in the middle of the floor rubbing her wrist and staring like a rabbit at the new layout.
'Everything okay?'
'Yes. It's fine. It's just different. Fine. This is fine.'
On the whole its a well functioning democracy. I change things and if they aren't met with universal approval they are swiftly returned to their original way and we say no more about it. If one out of five changes are kept I suppose I'm winning in some way.
It's a bit like the make over scene in a romantic comedy. The previously perhaps slightly set in her ways, comfortable and cluttered beauty, is plucked, primped and bejewelled and reveals herself to be a Goddess like vision. Except half way through the transformation the beautician turns away to grab a pair of tweezers only to discover that a ceramic duck has been placed on the head of the subject whilst her back was turned.
We've just had some more shelves put in. It's all very exciting. We are expanding our wine range don'tchaknow and we need somewhere to put it all. We usually have six white, six red, one rose and four sparkling. We are in the process of adding twelve white, twelve red, two more rose and another sparkling. The actual getting of and having the new wines is jolly fun and was really as far as I'd bothered to think about it. I hadn't really taken in to account all of the business bit around it like reducing the old stock and staggering the ordering of the new stock and – anyway, Lara, made me a graph. She always makes me a graph when I stop blinking. We've got a lovely new Sancerre if you fancy a tipple.
We do a monthly pop up Vegetarian and Vegan night too now. That's proving very popular. I want to call it Nothing With A Face Night but have been forbidden. Anyone know of a good Vegan wine that doesn't make your teeth disintegrate? We've found a shockingly good vegan stout but you can't please everyone. The next one is on August 24th if you fancy it. 

The more I learn about this job the less I know. There's nothing fundamental I'd change though. I wouldn't want to work with anyone but the people I do and when things get overwhelming I have a nap and everything look much more manageable. It never ends, its a constant rolling ball of madness and incomplete lists and cake and orders and people, a breakages and christmas bookings (yes really) and ceramic ducks and locals and days and weeks and sun and rain (both equally bemoaned). It's life. It's a community. And as my mum says: You just take it in your stride darling.
PS Do you like our little ad? Ali was FYYYURIOUS that I used the picture of her with all the cake and wine. Oh how we laughed.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Corner House Bell Curve

When I first started as manager at The Corner House I asked the owner what the difference between gross and net profit was.
No, really, I did.
Everything froze for a moment, the birds stopped singing in the trees, the coffee machine ground to a halt. To her credit she merely stared unblinkingly at me for a fraction of time (whilst she wildly calculated the risk she'd taken) before launching in to a 'Finance for Idiots' explanation: “Imagine you have a hundred pounds...”
Larabelle, my predecessor and educator, has fielded so many mind numbingly stupid questions from me its a wonder I haven't found her rocking in a corner. She sometimes draws pictures to explain things to me. And she does this on whatsapp whilst dandling a baby on her knee. The Corner House was her baby until she had an actual baby and she has bit by bit handed me the reins with great grace and kindness.
Everyone I work with in one way or another has had to teach me something they probably didn't think they'd have to teach me.
“Ali. ALI! How do I get someone to come and look at this beer thingy that doesn't work?”
“You see that number on the wall right next to the beer barrel?”
“Call that number and ask them to send someone.”
“Okay. And will they know what I'm talking about?”
“Yes. Just say you're calling from the – I'll do it.”
“Okay great! Thanks. Busy busy!”
I shuffle some papers.
“Ali. ALI! We need bin liners and -”
“I do that order on Fridays.”
“Right. Well there's hardly any Twisted Nose Gin left -”
“I've ordered some already.”
“Okay, good, great. Good job everyone, keep it up.”

During one of my early meetings with the owner she gave me some golden advice:
“The secret to good management is surrounding yourself with people who are better at something than you and then letting them crack on with it.”
Never let it be said that I don't listen.
But I am learning things. And I'm better at my job now than I was three months ago. The first time I had to arrange for a man from Dyno-rod to come I was so amazed that he actually showed up and fixed things I embraced him like a long lost friend and kissed him on both cheeks. I'm told this is unnecessary. But then on the two subsequent visits he's made he's always greeted me with a bear hug and a 'two sugars just a dash of milk sweetheart.' I feel like we're old friends now. His name's Rob and he and his wife are in Majorca at the moment so I'm not allowed to call him.
In the words of Blanche Dubois: 'I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.' Though I think she was largely talking about sex. And that's really frowned upon in a managerial capacity. Never let it be said that I don't listen.
The place is starting to feel like mine. As do the staff. They are mine. And if one of them leaves me for any reason at all (Damn you Karon and your glowing baby growing betrayal!) I will take it in much the same vein as I would being dumped. Three of my girls used to work with me at my last job and I brought them with me as a sort of security blanket. There's Janna who handles all my ailments with the stock phrase “Here, drink some water.” There's Sam who can answer most questions with “Yup, did it already.” Sophie who does one shift a week is basically a mum from the 1980's trapped in a 20 year old body “Everything looks better with a bit of parsley on top.” And now Ben has joined us. Ben and I worked together for a few years a while back and we compliment each other in that
everything I hate doing he quite likes and vice versa. He is also growing a magnificent red beard which you should really come and see. Laura is with us for a while before going travelling and Hannah is back for a bit before heading off to Canada. They are young and free to come and go but Ali, Karon, Simon and Ben are not allowed to do that. I'm trying to find a way of putting that in a blood signed contract.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the chefs at this point.
There's this joke about how all chefs are basically pyromaniacs with a knife fetish who work in kitchens because its the only place their tourette's is considered par for the course.
Our chefs are NOTHING like that. 
They skip in to work every morning fresh as a daisy and rearing to go. They often wear flowers in their hair and listen to Joni Mitchell whilst prepping. They all drink nothing stronger than camomile and can be found weeping in butchers shops. Show them a 14 hour day and they will show you a heart giddy with anticipation.
I've enjoyed writing fiction from an early age.
Something you won't know unless you've worked in a kitchen or its vicinity is that chefs suffer the most physical ailments of anyone you'll ever meet. One chef sleeps with breathing apparatus stuck to his face because for the brief few hours he gets to be unconscious his body decides to try and kill him. It thinks its doing him a favour. Don't get me started on the varicose veins from constant standing, the burns, the scars, the high blood pressure. They can move seamlessly from humour to a towering rage and back again before you've had time to whisper 'Aneurism'. And no, being a chef does not mean that you eat wonderful food all the time. They all eat like 14 year old boys.
That said, if you show them a little appreciation, make them a coffee or take them a cold beer at the end of a long shift they will always have your back. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and care enormously about what they produce and how. The Corner House uses local produce wherever possible. They're passionate about cooking, all of them. If you ever meet an indifferent chef he won't be a chef for long. The positive feedback from a table means a lot. You know how it is when you're throwing a dinner party for say eight people and you're fretting that your soufflé won't rise? Now imagine there are between forty and eighty coming for dinner and a few people you weren't expecting might rock up too. And some of them have deathly allergies. It's important to love your chef. There's no magic in that room at the back. Just a lot of hard work, heat, and a stunning amount of preparation.
Over two decades of working in this environment on and off I've watched gangly monosyllabic kitchen porters become confident talented chefs. You have to learn to be disciplined, take criticism and praise (both can be equally hard) and be part of a team.
They always play tricks on the new kitchen porters. Always. You will have heard about those. Doe eyed kids being sent off to find glass hammers, tartan paint, salmon feet, or walking down to the hardware shop to ask for a 'long wait'.
They're a bit tribal really. The nature of the job means they often spend more time with each other than they do their families.
The Corner House is small by restaurant standards but it produces a vast array of different dishes and all of our menus; breakfast, lunch and dinner cater generously for the gluten intolerant and those that prefer not to eat anything that once had a face.
On the 18th we're having our first pop up vegan and vegetarian night and the bookings are flowing in.
Tuesday's Acoustic night is slowly finding its feet too. Charlotte was magnificent with her sax and Alex continues to make us swoon a bit with his pirate good looks and covers of Jolene.
I've been sticking posters up around town and handing out flyers but I find asking a guest face to face if they'll pop in one night works best. Usually whilst holding their plate a food just out of reach and staring at them balefully.
People think of us in terms of food and I want them to know we're a bar too. We have an array of bottles that would give the most hardened of drinkers pause. I've been cataloguing our spirits. There's stuff I've never heard of. One chocolate liqueur called 'Mozart' baffles me. I tried it and its really nice. Trying everything is a very very important part of my job. At the moment I'm suggesting it as a shot or something to pour over ice cream as a boozy dessert. Unless you have any better ideas? Simon and I are compiling a list of cocktails. He's already done a few and he's laminated them so he means business. He has been quietly biding his time by the coffee machine waiting for someone to let him off the leash and have at it. He loves the cocktails and he's really good at them. They'll be on the menu next week so you should really pop in and try one. Because y'know, we're a bar too.
A few weeks ago the owner printed off a ten foot X reading from the till and told me to study it as it would really help me understand what we we sell, how much, what that means etc.
After a particularly long day I took some scissors to it and made one of those banners of paper men holding hands. I then strung it up and took a picture of it which I sent to her saying “I really feel like I'm getting my head around these figures.”
She texted back: “We need to talk.”
Probably about how hilarious I am and that humour is a perfectly good substitute for business acumen.
Everything is going to be just fine. Every new job comes with a learning curve and so what if that curve is more of a bell curve? I now know the difference between gross and net profit. It's 20%. Right? I'm fine. This is fine.