After an eight-year ‘sabbatical’ from full-time work, I remember thinking, “I should be applying for jobs right about now.” Instead, it is my 9th month off the clock from my usual odd jobs, locked up in my room in Calcutta reading texts from friends and news detailing layoffs and salary cuts. On my own with so much time on my hands, however, did not bring about the intense introspection most of my friends have found themselves doing during the pandemic; yet, as I’ve typically been a curious worker, I have found myself reminiscing about all the jobs I’ve held till the ever-fateful 2020.
From running a news desk at India’s second largest English daily and writing a book published by Penguin India, to covering the Olympics and FIFA World Cup as well as lecturing in well-reputed colleges, I’ve always had a hearty appetite for work. Be it heading marketing and leasing for a real estate developer (pays the bills), managing an education project for a non-profit, or marathon coaching, keeping busy has been somewhat of an unofficial credo of mine. But never have I had more fun on the job than the time I spent three weeks slogging it out at a quintessential British pub. The Black Horse Inn at Chesham, in northwestern suburban London, made the gorgeous English summer of 2018 all the more memorable.
I’ve often found that serving and bartending can easily be dismissed as low skill work, but my brief foray into the field immediately made it evident that both require serious social skills and considerable brawn, not to mention that being sharp and empathetic are advisable prerequisites. Like many middle class Indians, I took good service at restaurants as a given, never thinking about what it takes to ensure that level of service: that ended when I walked in for my first shift at The Black Horse Inn. Seven hours on dishwashing duty brought about an arsenal of dirty, hefty kitchen pots and pans, not to mention fine china that required a delicate touch. When the pub owner, the magnanimous and kind Geeta, walked into the kitchen that evening, she soon spotted the exhaustion on my face, asking me to wrap up for the day with a consolation pint, as if to say, “I feel your pain.” Even I was surprised about how wiped out I was, my marathon-ready legs sore, lower back stiff, and wet wrinkled hands shimmering with the sting from non-stop scrubbing. All I wanted was a bed.
On my second day I was given a ‘Bar Team’ tee and began tending tables and pouring pints. The learning was on the go as the pub’s regulars started showing up at 11:30 a.m. sharp and our shifts started at 11 a.m.. In about two hours I had memorised the specials and was taking lunchtime orders, gingerly navigating the floor with armfuls of loaded plates and drinks, all with a nervous smile. Another seven hours disappeared before I had time to think. The next day I found myself playing the gardener’s sidekick, who was laying a new section of lawn, while simultaneously doing the weekly maintenance chores, which included trimming the existing lawn, cleaning the outdoor tables, and attending to the potted plants, only with a short break for a sandwich-and-crisps lunch washed down with warm cuppa.
Over the next three weeks I grew a lot more comfortable and confident at taking orders, carrying dishes, and talking to the guests. I even became more efficient at doing the dishes, but I never really enjoyed that bit of the work. As for gardening, it was hard toil, but seeing the new lawn we laboured over look like a smooth green carpet was rather rewarding. But perhaps the best part of the gig was pouring pints and mixing drinks while chatting with customers.
The setting of the countryside Victorian-era pub also brought rustic charm into my workdays, surrounded by lush fields and ambling trails. There were days when the farmer next door would push out his light aircraft and use his field as a runway, giving the customers seated on the lawn quite a show. I especially liked catching glimpses of the folks trotting up Chiltern trail across the road on horseback, solidifying the bucolic essence of this far out corner of the big city sprawl. Working at The Black Horse Inn was never dull, that’s for sure. On a Bank Holiday Monday, the sun was out and so was all of London. It was so busy that in just four hours I had clocked 45,000 steps (10,000 more than what I do in a full marathon) collecting glasses, sauces, and burger baskets from the garden tables.
There were blunders too. Once I used an Americanism when I thought a guest had ordered two drinks for himself. I asked if he was “double fisting” and both he and his wife gave me such a bewildered look I knew a faux pas was in the works. I explained that in the USA double fisting is slang for having a drink in both hands, while they, with growing smiles, informed me that in the UK it is something we shouldn’t be discussing in public, or perhaps anywhere.
Mini-triumphs dotted my time at the pub as well, like when I managed to make two retired couples happy by disagreeing with their poor assessment of London’s cleanliness by comparing it to smelly New York and noisy Mumbai: they left me compliments and a £10 tip. That day I was more excited than my friend back in Mumbai who had just been made a managing director at a big American investment bank.
Looking back at my salad days as a jack of all trades at The Black Horse Inn, I really cherish how I learnt to be adaptable in a fast-paced environment and took dignity in my labour, hopefully with a side of humility. At this uncertain time, when few jobs are coming through and many are losing what they had, I am grateful for what I gleaned at the pub, and though I don’t know what lies ahead, I’m eager to tap into what I absorbed back in 2018 and put good use to it. When I travel, even during the hardest hiccups, I say to myself, “There is always a pleasant surprise, eventually.” So I stay positive, hoping that maxim proves to be as pliant as bartender hustling on a Bank Holiday.
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is a newsroom veteran on a break from full-time work since 2012. He uses his newfound freedom to travel, get fit and undertakes odd jobs, including writing, to pay his credit card bills on time.
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