This story has elements of sadness and british madness. If this is a trilogy of the Westbrook stories this episode would be chronologically last. A bit like Star Wars – by that I mean all over the map. I will confess to not being a Star Wars fan – in fact I fell asleep during the first film. But all this has nothing to do with this episode of the Westbrook Seaside Stories.
In the first episode I told you about the wonderful couple Mr and Mrs Ward who ran a wonderful seaside boarding house. One year, after Dad had booked our two weeks with the Wards, Mrs Ward wrote to tell us that Mr Ward had died suddenly. She was unable to keep the boardinghouse going and would be selling it. She had made tentative bookings for us in a slightly more upscale house along the cliff-top towards Westgate. We were all very upset about the news of Mr Ward and the sense of loss of our holiday family and home.
Dad accepted the booking Mrs Ward had kindly made for us.
This place was larger and the dining room more formal. I really liked the dumb-waiter in the corner. The kitchen was evidently either in the cellar or on the first floor (second floor for North Americans), and the food was hauled up or down – I really don’t know which, in this little hand pulled lift. I always think of it when I watch “The Money Pit” and Shelley long pulls up a dumb-waiter only to be startled by a racoon inside. I found this contraption to be quite fascinating. I would have loved to have a ride in it.
Meals were always served at the same time. The inmates (guests) would start gathering in the lounge, after dressing for dinner, shortly before mealtime. When it was ready, the manager would sound a brass gong. Sometimes at the Ward’s, who also used a gong, one of the children was invited to bang the gong – this was a real privilege and made us feel most important. The gong was the signal to enter the dining room.
There were no meal choices except for dessert. The waiter would bring the plates around, serve the ‘ladies’ first and the children and men next. At this time in my life I was not a great fan of food. It seemed like a lot of work chewing 24 times after each bite and rather a waste of time. Dessert was worthwhile though.
I don’t remember much about the meals at this new place, except for one fateful day. The meal was served; meat, potatoes and two veg with gravy. I actually enjoyed my first couple of bites. Then mum said “put down your knife and fork, we are not eating this”. I looked around and everyone in the room had put down knives and forks and was staring resolutely and sternly in front of them. There was not a sound to be heard. The atmosphere was very tense.
“why can’t I eat my dinner, I like it?”, I said – contrary as (perhaps a bit too) usual.
“Because it’s horse-meat – we had to eat it during the war – we will not eat it now!” my mother replied (yes, Mum could turn into mother quite quickly).
The silence in the dining room continued. There was the sound of muttering escaping through the open dumb-waiter door. Then the waiter (not the dumb one) went around collecting the mainly untouched plates and sending them back to the kitchen via the dumb-waiter. Nothing was said. Dessert was served to a chilly reception, but eaten. Then everyone left the dining room – still not a word spoken. Even now I can see my mum’s look – pursed lips and eyes that said – “don’t mess with me”. I kept quiet.
This was the English way of dealing with discontent. Perhaps we learnt something from Gandhi after all. Horse-meat was not served again that fortnight and the incident was never discussed. You’ve got to love the englishness (sic) of this.
There is a wonderful scene in one of the Fawlty Towers episodes. Everyone is complaining about the food, especially two senior ladies. The owner, Basil Fawlty, comes around and asks “everything satisfactory ladies?” “Oh yes, Mr Fawlty, thank you”. This has to be one of the funniest comedies to find its way to the television screen. I remember my sister-in-law, who had spent a few years in England, laughing and crying so hard watching it during a visit; tears rolling down her cheeks and shrieks of laughter at the awful Fawlty.
We didn’t go back to Westbrook for our holidays after this – it wasn’t the meat, just the end of a very special time.
With thanks and in memory of Mr and Mrs Ward.