You know Betty. You’ve seen her a hundred times, and even though I haven’t yet said a word to describe her, you know Betty.
Betty waited tables in the public lounge in the old Grand Hotel in the centre of Glasgow in the last year of its long life. She’d be in her late forties, early fifties, short, and rounded, with boobs.
Betty had boobs ; matronly, but not shapeless and diffuse, big boobs, bullet-shaped boobs that pointed slightly outwards and not parallel, boobs that arrived ahead of her wherever she was going, like a scouting party. I mention these, not for any crudeness reason, not least because Betty was in the auntie zone and aunties ‘don’t have boobs’, but when you’re seventeen and a bit, all objects in the world are divided into one of two classes : boobs, and things shaped like boobs. And Betty’s boobs were part of the landscape. But you would not mess with Betty or speak inappropriately to her. I rarely saw her smile, and she had that demeanour that, if you spoke out of turn, she’d just look askance at you, cast her dry gaze down and up your length, and without a word said, you’d be reduced on the spot to nothing at all by The Look. Like I said, you know a Betty of your own.
But I liked Betty. She never talked down to me, never treated me like the gauche and inexperienced youth I was, but chatted to me about the comings and goings of hotel service life. She’d been a lifetime in service, and she liked her job and was good at it. She would stand by the porter’s desk, in black waitress skirt and top buttoned up for full modesty, with white apron and white hat, waiting for the next arrival at one of the tables on the left to take an order. It wasn’t standing, so much as a kind of lean on it from her right side, and she would hold her silver tray wedged between her dangling left elbow and her hip, with a boob overhanging the tray but not touching it. She was by no means as harsh-hearted as she could look, and though she would not have anyone try to put one over on her, she was also kind when it counted.
One day, while she was parked in her usual spot by the porter’s desk, where I too was standing, a tall fellow came through the revolving front doors, across the foyer, and turned into the public lounge, taking a table by the wall on the left hand side. Betty gave him a few moments to settle, then unhooked her tray from her elbow and hip mooring, and went over to him to take an order. Some seconds later, she returned, and went through to the Still Room, then came back with a pot of tea, a cup, and saucer, on her tray. She took it to the table and laid it out, then came back to her station by me. She looked at me sideways, and said, sotto voce, “Pot of tea for one and two biscuits. Just you wait.”
Some minutes later, the fellow at the table was joined by a companion, and he raised his hand and clicked for Betty’s attention. A brief silent look at me, and she went back to the table, then returned to the Still Room. She came back with one cup and one saucer and one teaspoon, and set it down in front of the companion.
“Tellt ye,” she said dryly, not having told me. I asked her what she meant. “Folks aye try this” she sighed. “A cup of tea is one and sixpence, a pot of tea is one and ninepence. Two cups in a pot. They ask for a pot, then they ask for an empty cup to get a second cup for threepence instead of one and six.” I said I could see their logic. Betty put me straight. “A’ the cost of the tea isnae in the tea, it’s in the service, me, an’ the Still Room an’ washing up. That second cup’s no free, I’m putting it on the chitty as a shilling and sixpence. The tea comes tae three and threepence, no’ one and nine.”
That’s what she presented in the bill, and they paid up. Nobody messed with Betty.
I’d made a mental promise not to mention Betty’s boobs again, so I won’t, but Betty also had opinions of her own on the appearance of women. There was another waitress who waited on tables in the public lounge. I think her name was Nancy, so I shall call her Nancy anyway. Nancy was in her mid thirties, and she had a figure. Specifically, a rear. She was tall, curvy, with a rear in a tight black skirt with no pleat, and when she walked, her rear rotated slowly from left to right and right to left, always one leg carefully placed in front of the other for the effect. One day, she crossed in front of the porter’s desk along the foyer towards the front door, obviously going down to the cocktail bar on the left. The foyer was in two levels, the area in front of the cocktail bar on the lower which was reached by two wide steps going down. Betty was at her usual station on my left, leaning against the desk, as Nancy walked towards the steps. She was walking, as Nancy always did, slowly and purposefully, rear end oscillating hypnotically (I was seventeen, remember), then descending the two steps. And as you watched her walk, you knew that she knew you were watching, and she knew you knew she knew you were watching, and you knew she knew you knew she knew you were gazing at her hips as they moved. Someone passed in front of us on the way to the public lounge on the left.
I could see Betty from the corner of my eye, looking dry and unimpressed in Nancy’s direction.
“Looks like her erse is chewin’ toffee” she said tersely, then turned leftward and away to take her latest order.
The hotel had regular day visitors, people of a ‘certain age’, treating themselves to fine dining in the restaurant, or perhaps high tea in the lounge. Among those was an elderly lady, who came in every Friday afternoon. You know her too, even though you do not know her name, and for that matter, neither do I, but we quickly named her.
She was short, perhaps five foot two inches, in her mid seventies, and she had that old lady makeup face, pasty white, painted on with a roller to fill in the lines, black thin eyebrows high on her forehead of pencil only, and gaudily drawn lipstick painted far beyond any realistic lip boundary. On her silver-haired head, an old lady hat, and an old lady coat with a thick collar. She always sat at a table on the right hand side. And every Friday, she asked for the same order in the same way : “Could I have a cup of tea please, and a chocolate cake?”
She had a thin old lady voice, with that affected poshness of accent that Glaswegians call ‘Kelvinside’, or ‘frait-fully Kaylvin-sayde’. The porters rapidly nicknamed her Mrs Chocolate-Cake, and I am now ashamed to reveal that out of earshot, we used to mimic her thin and twee voice : “Could I have a cup of tea pleese, and a chock-litt cake?”
Life changes how we see things, and experience and time give a new perspective, one that should have been there all the time, but was masked by our inexperience in looking for it. My admitting to our mimicking in public here is a kind of penance for that juvenile disrespect.
When Betty had turned to take her new order after her curt dismissal of Nancy’s rear end, it had been Mrs Chocolate-Cake who’d passed, making her way to her usual table for one.
In later years – and my perspective changed in the direction of maturity – I have many times asked myself what Mrs Chocolate-Cake’s back story was. Had she ever been a young girl? Had she been married, perhaps widowed? Did she live alone with just four walls and some photographs of a husband long buried? And was, perhaps, a highlight she looked forward to, an afternoon out to an afternoon tea in a grand hotel, where she might slap on her glam, as in the old days, put on her best togs and lippy, and step out to watch the world go by for an hour in the foyer of the Grand Hotel over a cup of tea and a chocolate cake?
Betty had taken Mrs Chocolate-Cake’s order. She’d been a little longer than usual in taking it, but eventually she returned to her spot to lean her elbow against the porter’s desk. I had not heard the conversation between Betty and Mrs Chocolate-Cake, her table had been half way down the lounge, out of earshot, but Betty casually told me.
“See that wee woman? aye has the same order every week. Cup of tea and a chocolate cake. Aye has a second, but nae second cake. I says to her, would ye like a pot instead, there’s two cups in a pot. Oh that would be lovely she says.” Then Betty added “Two cups o’ tea, a chocolate cake, and one trip for me.”
“And it’s one and threepence saved” I said.
“Oh I didnae say that tae her. Just asked if she’d like the pot instead. But a pot’s all she’ll be charged for right enough.” It was one of the few times I saw Betty smile.
I didn’t click straight away the significance of that. In fact, it was many years before it dawned on me. Etiquette. Betty knew what I didn’t, that Mrs Chocolate-Cake was having a special time out for herself, spending a little money on a Friday afternoon treat. It wasn’t about saving a little money, it was about lavishing it. Take nothing away from the event. Betty knew this from a lifetime in service in one of Glasgow’s best hotels. A hotel in the old style. Betty, nobody’s fool, but kind when it counted.
The hotel is gone, demolished the following year, and Mrs Chocolate-Cake will be long gone too ; but I do hope that she found somewhere else where, on a Friday afternoon, she had her “cup of tea, please, and a chocolate cake.”