Every hotel in town was full. I was directed to a country club on the out-skirts, also full. The receptionist at the country club had an idea, though. She rang the town-centre pub and B&B where they ‘put’ their trainee chefs. I was lucky, she said, cupping the receiver to her chest. The Rising Sun had a vacancy. Should she tell them to keep it for me? Please, I said.
On one side of the Rising Sun was a scrapyard. On the other a stagnant canal. Opposite, a derelict factory. ‘It’s not the Ritz,’ said the landlady, who looked like a French prop forward, as she showed me the narrow room. ‘But it’s clean.’ Owing to her breadth and the narrowness of the room, we extricated ourselves from it in reverse. ‘Will you be having supper with us, Ralph?’ she said. ‘Please,’ I said, wondering where she got the ‘Ralph’ from.
I slung my bag on the bed, cleaned my teeth and went downstairs. There was one customer standing at the bar. The landlady introduced me. ‘Ralph, meet Rod Hardwick. You’ve got a lot in common you two because Rod were a chef at one time, God help us, weren’t you, Rod?’
Not only was I called Ralph, but I was now a trainee chef as well. But being a chef called Ralph for a couple of days appealed to me. So instead of correcting my hostess at such an early stage of our acquaintance, on what are, after all, technicalities, Rod Hardwick and I had a brief moan about what a rotten life being a chef is. The landlady, after satisfying herself that we were making the most of her introduction, left us to it.
If anyone needed a face-lift, Rod Hardwick did. It was hanging off him. His hair was black and brown. Nowadays, Rod told me, he was an entertaining called Billy Sapphire. He was fronting the Rising Sun’s nightly karaoke sessions, telling a few jokes, throwing in a few impressions, collecting the empty glasses in between. He wouldn’t be doing his Gary Glitter act tonight, though. The last time he did his Gary Glitter impersonation, on a cruise ship, a member of the audience had jumped up on the stage and pushed a glass in his face.
‘There was blood everywhere. I said, “What did you do that for?” He said, “Because you’re Gary Glitter.” I said, “I’m not Gary Glitter; I’m just doing an impression of him.” And he said, “Sorry pal, I thought you were him.” And for the rest of the cruise I’m doing my big finale, a medley of romantic ballads, Reason to Believe, Sexual Healing and so forth, with a bloodshot eye and 17 stitches in my face.’
At nine o’clock the landlady laid a place for me at a table in the bar. There were no other customers yet, but Rod had started off the karaoke anyway, with a balls-out rendition of Mack the Knife. ‘Steak pie, chips and peas all right for you, Ralph?’ said the landlady. Her massive folded arms and the tiny home-made tattoo of a crucifix brooked no argument. ‘Please,’ I said.
I was joined for supper by a man who you could tell was a lorry driver just by looking at him. ‘Gary, this is Ralph. Ralph, Gary. Ralph’s another bloody cockney come up here to take our jobs as if we’ve got plenty to spare for ourselves, Gary. Enjoy your meals.’ When she went away, I said to Gary, ‘I’m not a cockney; I wasn’t born within the sound of EastEnders. I’m from Essex.’ And Gary said, ‘And my name’s Geoff, not Gary. I’ve told her twice but it hasn’t sunk in.’
I ate the peas first, then the pie. I was about to launch myself at the mountain of crinkle-cut chips, when Billy Sapphire asked Geoff and I for a ‘special round of applause for tonight’s guest, the one and only, the very lovely Jade!’ I looked up. Jade looked about 17, was probably about 14 and what little she had on had been bought from a sex shop specialising in bondage gear. ‘His daughter,’ said Geoff without looking up from his plate. I laid down my knife and fork and applauded enthusiastically. As unperturbed as her father about singing to an audience consisting of a pair of middle-aged men eating pie and chips, Jade sang It’s Raining Men as if it was the Pop Idol final.
I watched her with my mouth open and an unchewed crinkle-cut chip slightly pro-truding. Jade stepped down from the tiny stage and, singing her little head off, came over to our table and thrust her bare, pierced midriff at us in a highly provocative manner. Geoff was either no longer subject to the desires of the flesh, or he had them firmly under control, for he kept his eyes fixed on his food. Then I felt his lips against my ear.
‘Your chips are getting cold, Ralph,’ he said.