More than thirty years ago, when still a teenager, I left my parents’ small, comfortable, working class, terraced home in London to start my undergraduate studies at a very prestigious British University, alma mater to great and influential international leaders in industry, literature, science and the arts. I was young and I was short of money but long on ideals. I was going to change the world.
Before I did that, however, I needed to find out how the world worked. I lived in rooms which had a shared staircase, and quickly made friends with most of the undergraduates whose rooms were near mine. We were all living away from home for the first time, all shared common interests and backgrounds, and were full of ideas, enthusiasm and banter. All that is except for one.
His name was Robert, and he was an exceptionally intelligent scholarship student. He was, for sure, destined for a great career in politics, the media or maybe even journalism. He was very serious, quite quiet, tall, dark and had an aura about him that made you want to be in “his gang”, albeit he did not have a gang as he was, actually, quite detached from the rest of the students.
It came to my knowledge, about two weeks into my first term that Robert was a Trotskyite and a paid-up member of the Communist party. Thirty years ago, prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, this seemed very radical, very exciting and very interesting. Although I came from a liberal, hard-working, normal family background where I lacked nothing, I listened with great attention to Robert’s frequent ramblings and debates that the proletariat and the peasantry were trapped in a collective struggle to achieve self-emancipation from capitalists, feudal landowners, industrialists and ruling law lords. I found it all spellbinding, and as I was on the same course as his I found myself becoming an acolyte.
Roll the clock forward towards the end of the first term and I realised I was terribly short of money. I really could not rub the proverbial tuppence together, and I was too embarrassed to contact my parents, who I knew worked hard and were keen savers. I decided to get a job. So I applied with a rather dubious agency in the town for evening shift work a few times a week, so that after all my lectures and essay writing I would be able to earn some spare cash.
The obvious job for an undergraduate who wants cash in hand is to work in a restaurant. The Chinese lady in the agency told me that the most posh, fine dining restaurant in town was looking for two cleaners, and they asked me whether I would consider it, for around £2.50 an hour, arriving at 5 am and leaving at around 9 am when the restaurant kitchen staff and management would arrive to start preparing for service.
Well, not knowing a great deal about slave labour, the thought of earning £10.00 a day, three days a week, certainly seemed a good idea to me, so I said yes. By 9 am I would be free to go to lectures, and my tutors would know nothing of my moonlighting.
I arrived to be interviewed for the position the following evening, and from the moment I entered the back entrance of the restaurant I knew this was the job for me. The smell of fish broths, meat sauces, roasting vegetables, baking bread and chocolate puddings filled the kitchen air, the hustle and bustle of the chefs in full swing. It was mesmerising.
The owner of the restaurant was an extremely haughty, rude middle aged man with an expensive herringbone jacket, a very fine moustache and greased back grey hair, who barely said hello to me and waved me in the direction of his wife when I arrived. There was a small lady sitting in an office area, with a glass partition, at the side of the kitchen, with her back to me.
I knocked on the office door, which was wide open, and said. “Hello. I have been sent from the agency about the cleaning job.” She turned around to face me and I think my eyes drew wide open and my jaw probably dropped to the floor. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She had bleached blonde shoulder length hair, bright red lips, very long eye lashes, a cherubic round face and a body that was a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Diana Dors. I was spellbound, and felt immediately embarrassed that I had come about a cleaning job that paid £2.50 an hour.
She was totally disinterested in me, and barely glanced in my direction. “Right” she said “Let me show you where everything is.” This was not an interview, I realised, this was an induction. Obviously not very many people had applied for the job.
So she took me into the next door stock room where there was a wooden shelf full of detergent bottles, cloths, tea towels and bleach tubs. On the floor were two huge metal mop buckets on castors and two of those really old fashioned cotton mops.
She showed me round the whole restaurant, the loos, the entrance, the kitchens, prep rooms, fridge rooms and wine cellars. “There are only two cleaners, the other guy is starting with you at the same time. You need to get it all done in 4 hours. It needs to be really spotless. All the floors need to be done too and make sure you don’t forget the windows at the front either.”
She never even asked to see references, nor ask me where I had cleaned before. She must have thought that the agency would have checked all those details. The agency had, in fact, just asked me to fill a really short form, which went straight into a file without checking. Well, the truth of the matter was I hadn’t ever done any cleaning jobs before. I had never actually cleaned anything at home either, as my mother, an excellent housekeeper, did all the housework for the whole family. As an only child I never had to lift a finger. But how hard could it be, really, to clean an empty restaurant between two people? Piece of cake.
When I started my very first cleaning shift the following week, bright and early, I was absolutely shocked to find that the person recruited to fill the second cleaning vacancy was none other than Robert. He told me that he too needed the money, especially as Christmas was looming round the corner and he did not have even any small change left in his wallet. As luck would have it, Robert came from a huge family from up north, and his mother made him do household chores all the time.
So he took the lead and showed me how we would need to move all the restaurant chairs to one side of the room, dust them all down with the cotton cloths. Then we would need to vacuum the floors, beeswax the table tops, dust in the corners, clean the ashes from the fireplace, wipe the window sills and polish the mirrors and the trolleys.
The restaurant was beautiful: I had never been in rooms like these before in my life. The décor was quite dark and opulent, with red velvet, gold braided curtains, gilt framed mirrors, oil portrait and still life paintings, oak furniture and embroidered, patterned rugs and cushions. It was rich, showy and grand.
I used to look at the Menus and see the words “pate de foie gras”, “quenelle”, “terrine” and “sabayon”. There were oysters, there was lobster, fine meats, expensive wines and decadent desserts. There was an entire sideboard filled with port and sherry decanters, crystal glasses and velvet lined boxes filled with silver cutlery.
I always tried to stay late after work, I never left at 9 am when Robert left and the rest of the team arrived. I wanted to see the restaurant owner’s wife. She was so elegant, so beautiful, so sexy, I just wanted to stand and gaze at her. So I would always make sure that I did, at least, an extra half an hour, after she arrived. I would polish silver, wash the tops of the doors, tidy the contents of the stock room, pulling the mop bucket on wheels behind me, as it screeched its way across the flagstone floors. She never looked in my direction, except to dart me angry glances, as if to say “Why are you still here? Why have you not finished?”
The shifts came and went, and Robert soon became distracted at work. He seemed to have a great deal on his mind and hardly spoke to me. As the weeks passed after Christmas it seemed to me like I was doing the bulk of the work.
When I was in the main restaurant dining room, brushing soot and ashes on my hands and knees with the fireplace dust pan and brush, he would be downstairs in the wine cellar. When I was scrubbing the loos with bleach and buffing up the mirrors with chamois leather he would still be down there, with the second mop bucket on wheels, and I used to think “Why is he still down there? What is he cleaning in the wine cellar?” The floor in the wine cellar was always spotless because Robert washed it endlessly.
So, one day, fed up that most of the work in the main ground floor areas was down to me, I decided to grab the bull by the horns and I went down the cellar steps to have a few words. Intellectual he may be, I thought, but we were both being paid to clean. It was time that we worked together as a team.
Well, I was beyond shocked when I found out what had been going on during all the time that I was working like a Trojan upstairs. Robert was putting really expensive wine bottles in the rolling mop bucket, which was empty of water, carting them up the steps, hiding them in his rucksack in the back corridor, and then taking them home.
“It’s redistribution of wealth” he told me. He told me that the restaurant owners did not care about us, they were using our cheap labour, exploiting our youth and goodwill instead of hiring a professional contract cleaning company and this was our way of re-balancing the inequalities.
I was young, I was confused, I did not want to do anything to harm the pretty lady who sat in the office. But the more I thought about it the more I had to admit Robert had a point. For weeks and weeks I had worked over and above the call of duty, hoping that she would notice me, that she would say “Thank-you so very much for all the work you are doing. I really appreciate it. Let me give you a bottle of beer from the fridge.”
But no, none of that: it was all a one way exploitation street, and the resentment inside me was growing. She was as haughty and as cold as her husband. Both of them were making goodness knows how much money from this business, and Robert and I were the Domestos pawns in their empire.
So, the following shift, Robert and I whizzed through the restaurant main rooms like blue bottle flies, making sure we finished the cleaning well before 9 am. Then we spent a good twenty or even thirty minutes having a look in the cellar at which bottles were worth a good bob or two.
We did not really have a clue about wines, whiskeys, ports, brandies or beers, we just grabbed randomly what we could. We thought that if we took several bottles each of whatever looked really expensive and was covered in most dust and mould, the chances were those bottles would be the really valuable stuff. In addition, anything that had the words “Rothschild”, “La Tache”, “Chateau la Tour”, “Chateau d’Yquem” or “Single Malt” would be really worth nicking, according to Robert.
We were going to start a wine trading racket and sell the bottles to certain students who we knew had quite wealthy families and therefore did not mind spending money on seriously good plonk. We had made up a story amongst our friends that we were setting up a bona fide wine, spirits and liqueurs import business, and that we were going to open up a shop as soon as we graduated.
Over the course of the next few weeks, right into the third term, we made hundreds of pounds each, and could not believe our prowess, our bravery and our luck. We did the cleaning really quite well, so that the owners would not suspect anything, and only cut corners in those areas where we knew no one really looked.
Now that I look back upon those feverishly exciting moments I want to hide my face in shame and I still feel a shiver up my spine when I remember how close Robert and I came to being caught. Mr. and Mrs. Haughty Restaurant Owners never suspected a thing, because they were so busy running the understaffed kitchen, the Menus, the chefs and the customers. I don’t think they ever took an inventory.
We covered our tracks: we broke the cardboard wine boxes and placed them outside for the recycling lorries. We placed all the alcohol and spirit bottles at the front of the shelves and made the racks look as if they were always full. Whenever a new wine delivery came, we would quickly unpack it, using the excuse that we had to clean the floors and having boxes stacked there would prevent us from doing so. They never suspected a thing: Robert and I were always polite, on time, really keen, did our job and left everything spick and span and orderly.
Robert said that the owners must have thought “What good working class boys! So cheap and so hard working. How very useful they are to us. How lucky we are to have found them!” What we stole from the restaurant was our compensation, our chance to redress the balance of economic power. We were comrades in arms, and the pretty blonde woman was none the wiser. That is, until a week before the end of the third term.
We were getting too confident. We were running the operation too close to the wire, and taking too many risks. One day we spent far too long in the celler with the mop bucket. The blonde woman arrived at work too early, at 8.30 am. Robert was still carrying the mop bucket up the steps, as we never pulled it along its wheels in case the stone steps made the bottles bang together and break.
The noise up the stairs was always really loud: clank, clank, clank as glass hit metal up eighteen steps to the ground floor. Then we would turn right, down the corridor where our empty rucksacks would be waiting. Except she was there. Mrs. Haughty Restaurant Owner stood in the middle of the corridor with her coat on and her handbag on her arm, her hair blown about by the wind outside. I can still picture her there, that image freeze framed in my mind.
The back door was open behind her. She looked at me, I looked at her. She looked at Robert, Robert looked at me. Robert just let go of the bucket handle, ran down the corridor towards the open door, pushing her against the wall as she screamed with fright. I could see his lithe body scarpering out the door and left, down the alleyway where the bins were kept. I just did not know what to do. I did not want to go to jail.
My mind raced. She did not know where we lived, she had no phone number, she had no references. We had never heard anything from that agency again. Did we leave any record, written down, of where we lived, of how they could track us down? She lay on the ground looking up in total disbelief, the contents of her handbag spilled all over the floor, as I ran past her and down the street.
“Oh my God! That was such a close shave!” shouted Robert, laughing and holding his stomach from breathlessness as I entered my room, locking it behind me. I was really afraid: afraid that my parents would find out, that I would be thrown out of university, that I had brought shame to my family, an only son, a thief.
Robert was absolutely fearless. He said it served her right, she got what she deserved, we had made a good bit of wedge and, as long as we were careful and never set foot near the street where the restaurant was we would never be found. The agency had been negligent and the owners were greedy fools.
Well, I have never recovered, and to this day, a successful business career behind me, whenever I walk into a fine dining establishment, I feel the frisson of culpability, shame and embarrassment come over me. What I stole from that restaurant has never left me. I have paid back in remorse and shame umpteen times.
I look at my son, now going off to University, and have told him that if ever he needs anything he should ask me directly, he should not wait for his finances to go completely awry.
Needless to say, in my last three years of University I did not speak much to Robert. I avoided him and he did not seek me out. We both knew each other’s secret. When we left University we did not keep in touch. I come across him from time to time in the papers. He is now very rich and recherché by the members of the political class. His views on capitalism have evidently changed. He is now proud to back the Tories.