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?'
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.
'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.