When I was about fourteen, I got a Saturday job in Donna’s Café. Donna was a very rich young girl who’d been to all the right schools and who’d travelled a lot. She had plenty of money and wanted something to do with it, as opposed to just sitting around. It was an upmarket café, not your average greasy spoon – I think that’s why my mum allowed me to work there.
Lots of boys used to come into the shop and say, “You’re pretty, do you want me to take you out?” Caribbean girls weren’t allowed to have boyfriends before they were seventeen so I had to turn them down. They’d respond, “I’m going to stay here till you say yes!” Working in the café was the only way I could legitimately speak to boys in those days.
I came from a fairly sheltered background and at first I was shocked at the sight of the down-and-outs who used to congregate near the café’s back entrance. Now and again we were allowed to take food out to them and that would break my heart. Others with a few pennies would sit with one cup of tea for ages. I had to be assertive, “I’m afraid we need the table,” but I hated that responsibility – as a Christian it was really hard to turn those people out, especially in bad weather.
I used to go to Doll’s Café on the corner of the market. In those days Doll and her husband Fred owned it – they lived around the corner on Oakdale Road. The man that actually ran it then was a gentleman called Brian – a really big chap. He did a very good job and he didn’t take any prisoners! Of course there was lots of talk, and lots of smoke and steam from the urns. He used to pour boiling water into a huge aluminum kettle, and you’d wait your turn, standing there with your elbow on the counter. If Brian didn’t like you, or had any reason to want a bit of fun for the customers, he would put the aluminum teapot against your arm! You’d jump back and swear at him, and it caused great hilarity.
Then there was Thelma’s Café. You entered through a glass door, which you could never see through ’cause it was all steamed up. You’d go in and there was a long counter down the left hand side and seats in the windows which were absolutely running from the condensation that got caught inside. The urns were boiling water constantly. Thelma’s was always full of smoke – everyone smoked in those days.
Thelma gave as good as she got – in fact better than she got. She would know people expected it of her and she would give it, but if you didn’t want to curse and swear she could be ladylike just the same – she could turn it on and off. She was very much a Barbara Windsor type of character.
All the food was fried – there was nothing healthy in that café. I always liked a bacon sandwich – at home I always had it with the bread fried on just one side so I could hold it to eat it. I asked Thelma for this and she said she’d never heard of that in her life, but she’d do it for me. Every day after that when I went in she’d do me “Malcolm’s bacon sandwich!” Everybody was laughing and it was all good-natured. You’d see very little falling out in those days.
We went on a cruise, and while we was on it, a lady said to us that her son was selling the caff – not Bri and Doll Scar’s caff on the corner of the market, but the one underneath Peggers, with double windows. My husband said, “We’ll have that.” I said, “Don’t be silly, I’ve never served a cup of tea in me life!” He said, “Well, you can soon learn!” The lady who ran the caff used to work on the market at the same time and I knew her very well. I said, “We’ll have to keep Elsie on, and pick up from what she does.” Anyway, we did, and it was ever so quick how we moved in.
Me dad used to say to me, “Don’t be so bloody silly, giving cups of tea away, charge everybody and tek the money off them!” And the first person in the caff was me dad. He gave me a 50p piece for a cup of tea and I said, “No way!” He was brilliant. From the day I opened it, they were queuing at the door. They always used to come, the waifs and strays and say, “It’s freezing!” I said, “You can’t stay in here, you’re too scruffy, have a cup of tea, and I’ll order you a toast, then you’ve got to go.” And they used to sit on the floor outside the caff. I never, ever turned any of them away – I always gave ’em a cup of tea.
I used to have a beehive. My hairdresser said to me the other week, “I could always tell when you used to come in. I could smell you – the bacon!” I went, “Well, bloody hell, you never told me that!” He said, “And then it would be bleach. My God, the different smells that you used to bring in!” It just shows you how it lingers!