Four of us. Car share. Middle of nowhere.
Until the large modern conference centre rises up out of the bush landscape we think we’ve missed a turn. It’s plush, air conditioned and has a swimming pool odour about it. We change into our uniforms for the day. Collarless shirts should make us look like the Beatles but we somehow end up looking like Chinese waiters. No time to do anything about that as it’s showtime Countdown, 5-4-3-2-1 we’re on, so we all turn round and head for the bathroom. Tip for the day: always go to the toilet on company time, not on your unpaid break.
“Hello, my name’s John. Come with me and I’ll show you how to set the tables.”
Our supervisor leads two of us into the dining hall and places condiments on the table so carefully you’d think they contained nitro glycerine.
“So you see? Middle of the table. Salt on the left, pepper on the right. Now we’ll do one more table together then you can carry on. Will you be ok with that?”
I must have missed something, there must be more to it. From his look of concern at our ability to complete this task unsupervised he must be expecting us to juggle or recite Shakespeare at the same time. He shows us one more time. No, that’s it, just salt and pepper on 35 tables.
With my new partner in crime, Bret, we allay the boredom by compiling lists of worse places to be: Refuge camp, Easter island, plague era London, Frankston, – scary Melbourne outer suburb – cleaning up Japanese nuclear waste. The list goes on…
Salt and pepper now expertly placed – oh boy can we place salt and pepper! – we assemble for our briefing. Our manager, Madeleine, is short, brunette and highly Greek. The assembled team of about fifteen now attend to truly pointless last minute tasks such as making sure all the wine bottles on the tables face east as though communing with an alcoholic Mecca. The next manager comes in and countermands this so we turn them all round the other way, only to be told by the first manager, etc etc.
“This place is quite Belle époque really. Or maybe more Hapsburg Vienna.” Says Bret standing back and admiring our place-setting handiwork.
Bret and I had latched onto one another as the only available source of intelligent conversation. Supremely overqualified, gloriously over-camp and possessing some of the best anecdotal turns of phrase ever, Bret has the gift of elevating the seemingly mundane up through the sublimely commonplace towards the surprisingly entertaining. He also turns out to be the worlds biggest Margaret Thatcher fan. He tells me how no weekend is complete without at least one viewing of the iron lady’s “NO NO NO!” speech on YouTube. Bret missed out on the eighties. Those of us who were present and correct during that decade are less enthused by Maggie’s antics. I’m glad to hear she’s on YouTube though. At least we know where she is and can keep an eye on her.
So why are we here? Oh yes. Catering for a high profile fashion house end of year appraisal. A ‘let your hair down’ sort of thing for the Australian and New Zealand sales team. Three hundred and forty six women and four gay men arrive for dinner, dressed, well…let’s just say badly and leave it at that. No actually let’s not leave it at that. With the annual sales figures they’ve just displayed in a powerpoint presentation, this lot should be able to afford some classy outfits, but the look they’ve gone for is “Just stumbled out of a nightclub in Stockport” complete with stilettos, ill advised figure hugging dresses and unidentified flouncy…things.
“These women don’t know how to dress.” I say.
“Putas.” Adds a Venezuelan colleague most thoughtfully.
“I think the one with the glasses fancies me.” Says Bret who has not noticed the 346 women at all.
We serve the food and run endless drinks from the bar. The quantity of diet coke these fashion girls consume is astounding. If someone brought out a range of Lard with the word diet on it somewhere, this crowd would buy it. “Die-lard. All the taste, half the health risk.” I admit it needs a bit of work…
An hour later they’ve cleaned us out of diet coke but laugh openly at our suggestion of Coke Zero as a replacement. They’ve seen right through that marketing ploy.
Halfway through main service I get a half hour staffroom break and shovel in a plate full of food that resembles a mixture of all the main courses on offer because that’s exactly what it is. Whilst munching, I stare blankly at the TV and consume a USA game show that involves pulling as many tissues as possible out of a box in ten seconds. When a large latino man wins and his even larger family in the studio audience go wild, I find that Americans have once again mesmerised me for all the wrong reasons. These people NEED diet lard.
Back on shift. They’re onto dessert now – panacotta with raspberry and a trio of chocolate cakes – and the trivia part of the night is about to start. Each table gets to pick a name and I’m most flattered when my favourite table – a group of women from New Zealand – choose to compete as Team Barton. I take back what I said earlier about their dress sense as these kiwis obviously have taste. They later tell my manager that I gave them five star service throughout the evening which is the kiss of death really. I’ve been clocked as someone who gets things done above and beyond the call of duty. Extra responsibility this way lies.
Later on, two in the morning at the end of our shift, I tell Bret and he shakes his head in disbelief at my stupidity whilst stuffing a piece of purloined chocolate cake into his mouth.
“I shouldn’t really.” He says. “My flat mate’s psychologist says I should watch what I eat.”
I slowly unpick this sentence and look puzzled.
“She says the sight of my flabby arse making its way to the bathroom in the morning brings her undue stress.”
I switch my phone on to find a message from the recruitment agency assigning me a breakfast shift at a large hotel starting in 4 hours. They must be joking.