The Days of My Youth
The picture was taken in Mallorca on board the Audrey B in 1985.
I truly believe that I have an angel on my shoulder guiding me through this amazing journey called life. On reflection I reckon my particular episode started in earnest when I left grammar school – I detested the stricture and discipline of the education process and felt lucky to leave with sufficient qualifications to enable me to go to college. For all intents and purposes I would be enrolling in a teaching college in September – the year is 1976 and it is mid June. My parents were ecstatic that I would be following this well trodden path as one of my older siblings had – to their credit they worked tremendously hard to give us all a good education so their mood was not unexpected – and I would be the last to fly their rather crowded nest since I was the youngest of eight children. As that lovely warm summer unfolded so my future took a different turn leading me on an path that I never expected to follow. I am always one close to boredom so I took on a job at the local farm in rural North Shropshire where I was tasked with rearing and cleaning out the pigs, potato picking, stacking bales of hay and general building maintenance. I loved the feeling of complete freedom away from the cloy of school in addition to being out in the fresh air – it was the perfect antidote to seven years of educational torture.
Socially I was busy, occasionally with the local Young Farmers Association or acting as a taxi service to neighbours who did not drive – taking them to Whist Drives or Bingo whilst the rest of my free time was spent playing sport. As September approached I had a pit in my stomach dreading the thought of returning to the learning process and then realised that this was not the path I wanted to follow feeling almost press-ganged by peer pressure down a road I did not want to travel. It was with great reluctance that I informed them of my decision knowing how disappointed they would be – of course they were gutted so much so my father barely spoke to me for 3 months. My Mother asked me to reconsider but I was adamant that life had something else intended for me although I had no idea what, where or when. I clearly remember feeling the freedom in taking the decision to see what lay in store for me rather than a preconceived plan that so many others felt forced to follow – deep down my instincts were telling me to relax, to let the wind blow which ever direction you were meant to go. Often when you are caught up in the moment of day to day routine you forget those particular decisive moments in your life – I however have more than I care to remember! The change came unexpectedly when one of the ladies I taxied to Bingo told me that the local golf hotel was looking for full time staff – I knew the place and staff there well as I had worked part-time during the school holidays collecting glasses, washing up, peeling potatoes even sweeping up leaves outside the foyer. It was a good way to boost my modest pocket money and even funded two school trips to ski resorts in Austria where my passion for travel was awakened – may be that was what my instincts were telling me – moreover I told you I had a low boredom threshold and the long summer breaks in particular were tedium personified – so I went to work! In retrospect however I now realise my disquiet was something far more life changing than a thirst for travel.
Within a week I had left the farm, stopped taxiing old ladies around the countryside and moved out of my childhood home – in late September 1976 I started as a full time barman at Hawkstone Park Hotel living in a room in one of the staff annexes. My Mother was apoplectic that the last of her brood was leaving but I assured her that I would come home once a week and even took my laundry even though there was free staff service in the Hotel – it my gentle way of cutting the umbilical. The hours were long but I had an absolute blast and finally I had found my vocation – I loved every minute with the year flying by to September 1977 where I left the Hotel to enroll in Blackpool College of Technology and Art on a 3 year course studying Hotel Management and Catering Administration much to the approval of my Father who, as you can probably deduce, was speaking to me again! My learning curve had begun and Blackpool was light years away from parochial, rural Shropshire in respect to the multi-cultural society and bustling tourist holiday hotspot. The three years there flew by and in June 1980 I left with my Diploma and once again not a clue as to where my future lay. In the end I returned to Shropshire and began my fledgling management career in small country hotels on the English/Welsh border but after 3 years of long hours and poor salary my career once again went AWOL and I ended up setting up a small lunch delivery service in the small rural town of Wem with a good friend. The rewards weren’t great but I felt that I had my freedom back again just like the heady summer of 1976 yet once again I knew not what lay ahead until in early 1984 I received a phone call from an unexpected source.
In a remote part of North Shropshire lies a dairy farm belonging to the Bennett family – Mum and Dad, Audrey and Tony and their two daughters Gillian and Caroline – all hard working and talented. When the girls had flown the nest Audrey (already an entrepreneur) having set up two fishmongers and a thriving sandwich shop in local market towns decided to turn half of their large farmhouse into a restaurant with eldest daughter Gillian being the cook. I was a friend of hers and her husband Kim was a year below me at school so when Audrey called me with a business proposition I thought it was an offer of work as a waiter at the restaurant. I had been to the restaurant several times and it was always busy with the support of the local farming community although the food was top notch. A part-time job there in addition to the revenue from my little sandwich business would be ideal so I went to meet Audrey the following day with high hopes and a spring in my step!
Not having any male heirs, the Bennetts’ wanted to keep the family name alive so had decided to open another restaurant and they asked me if I would be interested in running it for them as they obviously were full on with the farm, fishmongers, sandwich shop and their own eatery. The new venue would be on the outskirts of Palma de Mallorca in a small town called San Agustin overlooking the yachting harbour used by the King of Spain! I cannot remember if my jaw dropped but I agreed on the spot to their offer with the only condition that I was to be flown out there to see the venue as I had never been to Spain before never mind the Balearic Islands. Two weeks later Audrey and I headed off to Palma and I fell in love with the place at first sight – if the sight of La Seu, the imposing Gaudi Cathedral that dominates the sweep of Palma bay is not enough to sway you – then the mountainous interior will. Suffice to say, six weeks later following some hurried basic Spanish lessons, my Mallorca adventure began. It was one of the most intense, vibrant, amazing periods of my life and a learning curve second to none.
The first few months seem like a blur although I do remember certain things such as not having a telephone in the restaurant and having to use a kiosk down by the harbour to order from suppliers. I would sweat buckets especially in the summer since the phone booth was like a greenhouse but also because my then limited Spanish stressed me completely since most of those I called either did not or refused to speak English! I had a Head Waiter named Venancio, a barman Luis Marti Jiminez and another waiter named Juan Albali. In the kitchen was Chef Antonio Bonet, his daughter Alicia and his niece (although I am unable to recall her name although I think it was Marie L something and if memory serves me correctly, it may have been Marie Lazy – time does warp ones mind though!). One significant memory is the first time we really began to ‘get known’ and we had a good few tables booked only for the Chef to not turn up for work as he was drunk watching Spain play in the European Football Championships. Venancio stepped into the kitchen void although truth be told the night was a disaster. If I recall correctly we closed in October and I returned to the UK until the restaurant re-opened early in 1985 which would be a pivotal year for yours truly.
The second year of Bennetts Mallorca was no less fraught than the first. Senor Bonet was replaced by a younger more sober chef named Sebastian and we had the water cut off due to an anomaly with the paper work related to the building. Myself and the staff brought in water from our own homes to use for washing up, flushing toilets and cooking until the issue was resolved. Further the agent representing the family disappeared along with 10k which was due to be paid to the builders so they came knocking at our door and I eventually discovered that I had no correct papers so in fact I was working illegally. Moreover, Audrey wondered why we had never received an electric bill – further investigation revealed that the electricity supply to the restaurant had been connected to the local street supply. Welcome to Spain in 1985! Later that year, when a representative from the Mallorcan Guardia Civil visited requesting we advertise in their annual magazine I thought I was going to be banged up for life! Gladly this did not transpire. We closed again for the winter although this time I decided to remain in Mallorca rather than return to the UK – this time I had fallen head over heels in love!
If you want to read more then please take a look at Cinco Duros in the Short Story section.