I wrote this very early on in my writing ‘career’ and it really shows. It may even have been the first thing I wrote. However, given the latest Royal Wedding, today seems a good day to post it. It is actually an entirely true experience! This was written for an assignment in a short story writing class I took with the NZ author, Michael Morrisey. The object of the exercise to my mind was to create a series of contrasts – the dress with my parfait creations, the romance with George’s bladder, the fine champagne with our bleach cocktails, the glories of Broadlands with the squalor of Bertie’s and Diana’s expensive going away outfit with my vile coloured uniform. I like to think I might have written it better nowadays but we all have to start somewhere.
The Wedding of the Century
Everyone wants to tell you where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot – in fact they insist on it, as if the telling of the tale also gives them a place in history. I don’t have the luxury of retaliation. I wasn’t born back then. But I do remember where I was when Princess Diana was married, and not everyone can say that after all these years.
A quick glance at the Royal family tree would inform you that Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer tied the knot on the 24th of July, 1981. It was the wedding of the decade – what am I saying? – of the century, and no-one could get enough of it. The summer that she traded her job as kindergarten assistant for a temporary slot as fairy tale princess, my sister and I took school holiday jobs as waitresses, dishwashers and occasional ice cream makers at Berty´s. Berty´s was planted squarely on the edge of our town’s gardens, an oasis historically both tranquil and deeply genteel, but now filled to over-capacity with large groups of French and Italian language students. They lay on the grass next to the bandstand, enveloped in clouds of hazy blue smoke, shivering resentfully under Britain’s poor apology for a sun, radios blaring as if the students were afflicted with some specific continental deafness. They brought us that taste of exotic European culture we so sorely lacked. Berty´s never attracted these students, being far more expensive than McDonalds but providing less ambience.
I worked that entire summer for a slave wage. The Royal Wedding was a highlight for all the temporary staff, not because we were particularly monarchists but because we needed a break from our tedious routine; egg and chips for the endless streams of irritable families on holiday or scones with artificial cream and synthetic jam for the vague elderly ladies trying to recapture a time when all the best families holidayed in our town and service still meant something.
All the casual staff had to work on the day of the wedding, with no paid overtime. The owners clearly felt that the chance to serve our country was recompense enough. A few of the regular staff were pressed into service and we were ready to do our duty by the nation. A television was brought in so that no customer in search of both sustenance and excitement would be forced to choose between scrambled eggs and ivory satin.
When Diana emerged from her carriage and floated up the steps of St. Paul’s, the restaurant fell temporarily silent. It was impossible to guess how many artists had been involved in such a lavish creation. Carl, the head grill chef, offered his professional culinary opinion that she looked like a baguette in a crumpled paper bag but he was swiftly silenced by George, the assistant manager, who was watching in rapt and tearful silence. James, our section manager, pointed out to me tartly that the tray of parfaits in the freezer was nearly empty.
On very rare occasions, I was allowed to work in the ice cream section. There was an ice cream machine which faced the main street. This was only for the plebeian takeaway ice creams, those poor relations of the glamorous confections that perched smugly inside the freezers. But it took a certain skill to create a solid enough foundation to support the real Everest of ice creams. After the final jaunty swirl of snow, I experimented with new angles for the chocolate flake, usually perpendicular to the cone as though the ice cream was smoking a joint. Obnoxious customers received a portion as minuscule as was consistent with Trading Standards, with the flake inserted at such a shallow depth and angle that it fell out ten paces up the street, preferably not less.
It was inside that my artistic bent found its truest expression. When left alone for half an hour, I produced creations worthy of display in the Tate. First the perfect frosted parfait glass. In went a lavish spoonful from the catering pack of mixed fruit cocktail, tenderly laced with rich, red sauce from a metal container. A squirt of delicate rosy-pink ice cream and another helping of translucent ruby sauce was topped with an icy whirl of vanilla and finished with a lavish spray of canned cream and a tablespoon of chopped nuts. I produced infinite variations on this theme and it was fascinating to watch which customer selected each glass. I wondered anxiously if they knew how much artistic tenderness and creative fervour had gone into each one.
The wedding ceremony looked most impressive, even when seen on the minuscule screen where it perched between two drooping spider plants. Diana looked suitably radiant as she repeated her vows, mixing her groom’s string of names into a glorious nonsense as she went.
‘I think she just married his Dad,’ muttered Carl, sliding two blackened eggs off the grill plate and onto the damp slabs of toast that mournfully awaited them.
James heaved himself over to the glass dish of cream cakes and regretfully binned the ones with the thickest yellow crust. His face that summer was perpetually gloomy, his lips theatrically grim. He was relishing his current role as a doomed and desperate lover, having conceived a burning, forbidden passion for his aunt by marriage. He drooped against the ice cream machine for hours, blocking my access to the tins of cherry sauce, breathing pungently into my face and discussing his plans to emigrate or commit suicide. After three weeks of this, I was surely not alone in hoping he might do both.
By the time the happy couple had driven slowly down the Mall and were safely back inside Buckingham Palace, the freezer was full of snowy glasses, all with an extra sprinkling of nuts in honour of the occasion. Carl leaned heavily against the grill, sighing loudly at the thought of having to fire it up for the lunchtime rush. Diana and Charles were now on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, smiling and pretending not to hear the vast roar from the crowd. As Charles finally leaned over and kissed his bride, George sniffed richly and wiped his nose on his sleeve. ‘Beautiful, just beautiful. Hold the fort a minute, James. I’ve got to go again.’
After working for three weeks at Berty´s, I had become more familiar with the vagaries of George’s bladder than I would have liked. It was a peculiar organ, sending him scuttling off to the mens’ room at the most inopportune times. He was peculiarly proud of his inability to tackle tasks of any length, regarding this as a charming eccentricity, and describing each new symptom very fully to whoever happened to be in the lunchroom at the time. After the first few days, I began eating my sandwiches in the gardens, preferring to brave the radios and blue smog rather than risk further distressing details. My sister whispered to me in my second week that George might also be developing bowel problems and she took to joining me each lunchtime, even though we usually had nothing but insults to throw at each other.
The television switched back to commentary as, with rare smiles and discreet waves, the Royal family finally left the balcony. Inside the palace, so the permanently smiling BBC reporter informed us, the extended family would be toasting the health of the happy couple in the finest champagne, a gift from the President of France. The reporter had a faintly resentful look in his eyes, as of one whose own invitation had been lost in the post.
Sprinkling a delectable topping on the last strawberry parfait and humming Rule Britannia slightly off key, I was slow to focus on the screams at the far end of the counter. When they finally pierced my somnolence, I rushed across to find my sister, doubled over and retching. Next to her stood James, concerned yet defiant, holding a suspicious yellow bottle. Exhaustive enquiries later revealed that Carl had been making a stream of unpleasant remarks on the subject of incest and inbreeding. James, taking exception to these oedipal jibes, had devised a revenge worthy of any Greek tragedy and laced what he mistakenly took to be Carl’s lime cordial, with the finest lemon-scented bleach. My sister had only taken a sip and, unlike most tragic heroines, survived, but James was sent off with his bottle of bleach to clean the toilets for the rest of his shift. As George was on particularly fine form that day, it seemed a fitting retribution.
The afternoon passed without further incident. George spent some time tasting the rest of the drinks in the chilled cabinet in order, he protested later, to satisfy himself that James hadn’t decided to poison the customers as well as the grill chef, but the manager caught him and put a stop to it. At 8 p.m. we finally shut the doors, leaving the hungry multitudes outside. My sister had been sent home after the bleach incident so I wiped down the freezers alone. The BBC reporter was describing the glories of Broadlands, where the Royal couple planned to honeymoon. The bride and groom had left the reception, Diana dressed in a frothy peach outfit that cost more than the entire week’s takings at Berty´s. I threw my bile-coloured uniform into the corner of my locker and escaped, passing George in the doorway, face tense as he headed for the men´s room one last time.
Outside, the late evening sun was still warm and the walk through the gardens was pleasant now that the students had moved on to the clubs for the evening. I breathed deeply and calculated the number of days I still had left to work at Berty´s and then multiplied it by twenty five to see how many bathroom trips that might make for George. Both answers were equally depressing. I sat in the dusty golden sunshine under the pine trees and relaxed at last, glowing with the satisfaction of a job well done. It had been a memorable day for me. I expect it had been for Diana too.