19 CHAPTER NINETEEN (The George Hotel).
John Oldham was headwaiter at the George in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. To the retired Admirals and dignified Widows he presented a respectable demeanor, dressed in his immaculate dinner suit and boasting a perfectly tied bow tie. His manner matched his attire and he was well liked by everyone, being jolly with an abundance of quick wit.
Outside of work was another matter. He had grown up in the small town and together with his one eyed friend nicknamed Nelson, he had a reputation amongst the older villagers, of being a bit of a scallywag.
It began to be noticed at the age of six, when the vicar’s wife discovered an enormous crab peering out of the font. It continued throughout his adolescent years and many suspected that he may have been the reason why the head girl in the mixed school appeared to put on weight and eventually moved back to the mainland with her family.
The George was always considered the place to be, especially during Cowes week when it was particularly busy. John never gave the impression of being rushed and like all busy people he had learned to multi-task.
The Saturday night of Cowes week was buzzing and the Restaurant was full. John, from his lofty position as overseer in chief, found time to take a telephone call. It was the Captain. Friendship demanded that he help the old seadog that had apparently landed in a friends helicopter near the Needles and wanted a lift and some sustenance.
John didn’t own a car so he borrowed the barmaid’s mini and drove at considerable speed to meet his friend. Nonplussed, may not adequately describe how he felt on seeing his friend who, as it turned out, was accompanied by two charming young ladies and alas, the seventeen stone pilot.
It is remarkable what can be done when there is no alternative, but the return journey was an experience that none of them would forget. Although the passengers did not suffer lasting damage, it is doubtful that the suspension of the car was so fortunate.
All John kept worrying about was whether the Lord of the Admiralty would notice that the rare steak that he had taken an order for before he had left, was a little over done.
The headwaiter found a table for his friends to the annoyance of a disgruntled retired Admiral who discovered himself without his usual place by the window and having to share a table with a talkative widow only slightly younger than him. It didn’t bode well when she asked him,
‘Is that badge on your lapel the Salvation Army?’
Excellent food was served in the busy dinning room. The candle lit tables enhanced the ambience of the bustling room with its huge open fireplace complete with smouldering logs. A talented pianist accompanied by a gifted clarinetist and a beautiful young blonde woman played the double bass when she was not singing, providing the live music.
It was a little after midnight when visitors rang for a taxi in Newport and arranged for collection. Newport is the capitol of the Isle of Wight and the only place where cabs were available
The taxi took only ten minutes to arrive and the driver was instructed to take them to the Lakeside Hotel near Ryde. He was promised a substantial tip if he picked the pilot up in the morning and took him to where the helicopter was parked near the Needles. The plan being that as there was a landing pad at the hotel, the pilot would collect the others or maybe join them for lunch before departing back to the main land.
The elegant lounge in the George overlooked the busy waters between the Island and the mainland, In the Summer, Ferries docked adjacent to the pier, twice an hour and were driven by great paddle wheels resembling Mississippi paddle steamers. First, the newly arrived passengers and vehicles disembarked and then the long queue of an assortment of various cars, lorry’s, and caravans, that had been patiently waiting, many of them all night, trundled aboard for the return trip to Lymington on the mainland.
The ferries didn’t run during the night so the darkness on the channel was only broken by the late night arrival of yachts and the occasional passing commercial vessel. The big passenger liners either left Southampton during daylight or took the route around the other side of the island.
The lounge was laid out with comfortable settees arranged around the grand open fireplace. The bay window overlooking the modest beach accommodated a table and chairs occupied by whist players. The sound of billiard balls striking one and other came from the next-door snooker room. Seated by the fire, two ancient Admirals relived the battle of Jutland and did justice to a decanter of Cockburn’s.
The Hotel was run along the lines of a fine country house. The staff was made up mainly from locals, who were long serving and extremely loyal. As a consequence the established hierarchy tended to be continued whenever they were amongst the general community.
For instance the junior waitress would stand aside for the housekeeper in the Post Office.
There was one exception. The headwaiter was master of all he surveyed. When he was on duty he was highly regarded by clients and management alike, but his personal life was something of an enigma.
He did not associate with his work companions but preferred the company of his old school friends. They were nicknamed by the villagers as the four musketeers.
Andy was the eldest and had progressed from being a fisherman to starting his own growing and lucrative business. Hitherto, Charlie, the Harbourmaster not only supervised the harbour from his clinker built rowing boat but acted as a ferry, transporting yachties to and from ashore.
Andy had purchased a flat bottomed tender with a powerful outboard complete with a steering wheel and obtained permission to use the stone steps near the ferry. He started business as a water taxi and relieved Charlie, the overworked Harbourmaster from his self appointed duties. Freed from the ferrying, Charlie was able to relax more in between his official responsibilities.
Andy’s wife continued to sell shellfish from their cottage that was decorated on the outside with thousands of scallop shells. Their produce was so fresh the crabs could be heard squeaking in the boiling tub.
The coxswain of the lifeboat was in John’s class at school and sometimes called upon Nelson and John when the normal crew was absent. Rumour had it there was a private telephone line between the Lifeboat station, the Hotel and the Pub opposite. Suffice to say Nelson’s cousin was the local telephone engineer.
John seldom used the Hotel other than for work and could often be found in the public bar of the Wheatsheaf Public House opposite. Some say that in the winter or other slack periods he could always be contacted on the special telephone, which he used when he was liaising with staff. It was probably true because everybody knew the number and more often than not he was to be found exchanging stories and jokes with the landlord and their mutual friends. The landlord of the Public House encouraged John’s presence as apart from being good company he felt it was good for business that his customers could see a well-dressed gentleman in a bow tie lending an air of opulence and order to his establishment.
The landlord of the Pub was very keen on the horses so it was natural for anyone wanting a bet to gravitate towards the public bar. Old habits die-hard so even the advent of a new betting shop, proved to be of little attraction. After all, the punters reasoned, you couldn’t get a drink in a betting shop and none of them had seen a nice log fire in one either.
The ‘Captain’ was a familiar sight in Yarmouth with his friends. Mostly young couples but sometimes stag. The authorities were curious at first, how he came to have so many different boats and it was particularly noticeable outside the summer months when traffic was light.
It turned out that as an ex seaman, he still hankered after the water and did a deal with the only blue water charter company operating in English waters.
He agreed to charter at a reduced price for a minimum of ten weekends a year. Six were to be out of season and the four in season were selected by agreed notice if certain dates were required. Very often a ‘Silver’ twin-screw cabin cruiser called ‘Mary Sheila’ fitted the bill, but another half dozen or so comprised the fleet including a pair of ‘Nauticats’ that had been bought by the charterers parent company to offset tax.
Before commercialism had set in, Yarmouth remained relatively unchanged for generations. Between the end of the Pier and ‘Black Rock’ to the west was a good anchorage. The eastern side of the Pier, opposite the George, was trickier and less secure. Money was short in those days so the anchorages were often free and by taking most meals on board, expenses were kept to a minimum.
The first time John, the head waiter met the ‘Captain’ and his guests,
was one ‘Good Friday’ when the Hotel bar had an extension longer than the neighbouring hostelries. It has to be said it was after the other places had called ‘time’ and years before ‘all day opening.’
On reflection it may have been the parrot on his shoulder that made him stand out in the crowd, for crowd there was, or in could have been the ravishing girls in the group.
John was helping out in the busy bar as one of the barmen had gone sick. The Captains opening remark amused him,
“A long way from Ascot aren’t you? Anyway Thursdays is ladies day!”
He replied without hesitation, noting the parrot and the beautiful girls in tow.
“Talking about ladies, I see your fond of birds.”
Though neither of the men recognized it, a bond was formed and thereafter the George became a favourite of the sailors and John enjoyed boozy parties aboard the Captains chartered vessels.
The jukeboxes on the Island were about six months behind the London scene of the sixties, but of particular interest to John, when not peering up the fashionable miniskirts, was news of the latest pop music. Sometimes they would bring him the latest disc and he would wallow in reverence from the local girls.
The following winter saw the George Hotel undergo extensive renovations and it was only natural for John to get involved especially as the local builder was an old friend. His elder brother worked as a master carpenter for the builder but apart from being brothers they were very different. The carpenter had spent over ten years with the
P & O Shipping Company but in spite of this was introvert by nature.
His main hobby was putting ships in bottles. His preference was a bottle of Gordon’s Gin. No other payment was expected. Simply give him a full bottle of spirits and a few weeks later he would return it on a wooden stand complete with a three masted schooner inside. The rigging and scenery so lifelike, it was a wonder how it was ever achieved, especially as the sky had been painted expertly on the inside of the glass.
Certain advantages resulted from having a brother who was a master carpenter and who had travelled to the Orient and was fascinated by the skillful creation of wooden boxes with secret compartments. John supplied his brother with several bottles of gin around this time but made it clear that he didn’t expect them returned when empty.
The first long weekend break, the following year, was at Easter, and the anchorage being already full meant that ‘Mary Sheila’ had to anchor opposite the George to the east of the Pier.
With plenty of chain out, their new ‘Kedge’ anchor held firmly, cutting through the weed that sometimes caused ‘dragging.’
The partying went on longer than usual due to the extended hours at holiday times and carried on once they were back on board. As often when the guests had gone to bed John would signal from the beach, with three flashes from a powerful torch, a the pre – arranged signal for the dingy to be sent to collect him. He was often accompanied by one of the bar staff or possibly one of the live in chambermaids.
They welcomed him on board as apart from being great company, he often brought leftover delicacies’ to share with his hosts, which included on this occasion, a whole roast chicken that was still quite hot.
About one o’clock in the morning, he announced he had a surprise back at the Hotel. Everyone had to be quiet so as not to disturb the guests.
It took two trips in the dinghy gently paddling to keep the noise down. John let them in by the back door and led the way to the sumptuous saloon bar that had been freshly decorated. The grating was down on the bar but he served them fresh coffee with real cream as they sat comfortably before a dying log fire. They spoke in whispers so as not to disturb the sleeping guests. John was a little more robust and explained that the building had fortified walls about two feet thick which were a very effective sound barrier. Next came his secret surprise. Excitedly he took hold of one of the ornate wooden pillars at the corner of the grating. He twisted this way and that and lifted at the same time. ‘Hey Presto.’ The pillar was free and John had access to the bar.
He didn’t bother with an order as, after all, the drinks would be free.
He lined eight cut glass goblets on the counter and filled them with Napoléon Vintage Cognac and returned the bottle to the shelf. All would have been fine, had he not propped the pillar up against the remaining grating. It all happened so quickly that before anyone could intervene, the heavy carved hardwood toppled reducing the glasses to splinters and setting off a piercing alarm.
They all exited much quicker than they arrived. Fortunately, the Captain was a proficient sculler, which is the quietest method of propelling a boat. He had thoughtfully left the outboard on the yacht which just about made room for his five crew. When they finally clambered aboard he was exhausted or at least that was the reason he gave for wanting a large nightcap.
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that they returned to the George next lunchtime but from his normal superior manner, the headwaiter, displayed an ‘everything as usual,” posture. It was only later when they went for lunch in the Pub across the road that they learnt what had happened.
John silenced the alarm, cleared up the broken glass and replaced the pillar.
He waited for about ten minutes in complete silence with a number of scenario’s being considered.
A blue flashing light illuminated the darkened bar. The police car from Newport contained two Officers, one man and a policewoman.
He invited them in and spent the next hour or so, swapping jokes with his sister in law and his second cousin.
Early next morning while surveying the scene of the supposed crime, the owner asked John why so many police attended the suspected burglary. Even allowing for John and the housekeeper, there were still another six used coffee cups on a tray in the hearth.