Torquay, England, August 1985
It was the summer holiday after my first year at university. Dreaming of being a writer, I wanted to run off to Paris and sit in cafes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford it. I got a holiday job in Torquay instead.
Torquay, made infamous by Fawlty Towers, is part of the ‘English Riviera’, a stretch of the south-west coastline, and among its many delights was a Pontin’s holiday camp. Holiday camps were big in the 1950s but by the 80s they seemed dated and naff. Holidaymakers arrived en masse for a ‘full-board’ stay, during which they lived in chalets, participated in group fun and games, enjoyed entertainment provided by professionally jolly ‘blue coats’, and sat down to three square meals a day. I applied for a job as a waiter.
“Ever been a waiter before?” the manager asked.
“I’ve got some experience,” I lied.
I don’t think she believed me, but a waitress had just quit and they needed someone to start right away.
Each waiter was allocated a ‘station’ of four tables with six guests apiece. The emphasis was on speed rather than sophisticated cuisine. You were expected to get your 24 guests in and out as quickly as possible, a race in which I usually came last.
Unlike me, most of the waiting staff were veterans of hospitality work. There was luscious Debbie Rainbow, with a name like a Thomas Hardy heroine, who was going out with Matt, a gentle giant of an assistant chef. There was firebrand Samantha, who early on gave me the bollocking of my life when I filled in on her station and left it a mess. There was gentle Judy from Birmingham who had her heart broken by a caddish kitchen-hand. And there was Clare.
Clare was Scottish and it was her accent I fell for first. She pronounced her own name ‘Clear’ and mine ‘Neck’. She pronounced fish knife ‘fesh knafe’ and called her favourite band ‘The Smeths’. She was clever and funny and pretty and utterly what I desired.
And yet I couldn’t tell her. During my breaks I’d go off by myself and read Jack Kerouac or The Crucible. I noted in my diary that Clare liked the novels of R.F. Delderfield, so we must have talked about books, but I don’t remember those conversations.
One thing I do remember is that some days between lunch and dinner we would pile into my car and I would drive a group of my favourite waitresses to tea in a nearby town. They were always in high spirits and Samantha would often burst into Summer Holiday by Cliff Richard, which we all joined in:
We’re all going on a summer holiday
On Claire’s lips it sounded like “summer holi-dee, summer holi-dee.” Just like Pontin’s, the song was old-fashioned and corny, but it felt exactly right.
In town we invaded a café called Bumbles where the girls had mugs of drinking chocolate and cream cakes. An elderly vicar was sitting at a table. “More tea, vicar!” Samantha yelled and they all screamed with laughter. There was excited talk about a boy they had known at school, who had just been arrested for murder. “He was quiet, but he was always a bit of a thug.” On the way back to Pontin’s we wound the windows down and sang Summer Holiday over and over.
I was besotted. I recorded in my diary “a palpable frisson when Clare sits next to me”. I should have asked her out, but was too shy to do so. I don’t know whether she found the frisson palpable – I doubt it – but romance was everywhere that summer. Lads from the kitchen wooed the waitresses by carrying out their water jugs. Judy, who loved the kitchen-hand, bought him an expensive knife to help him in his career. He repaid her by dumping her to go drinking with his mates. “I’d give him that knife between the shoulder blades, if I was you,” Samantha advised. I did nothing about Clare. I was as clumsy in love as I was with lasagne.
There were more trips to tea-shops, more laughter, more fevered diary entries. The summer drew to a close, and I had to go back to college. Clare left a “Sorry you’re leaving” card on my station. So did Judy and Debbie. Samantha inscribed hers with her catch phrase, “More tea, vicar!” On my last evening we all went to the Pontin’s disco, danced and got drunk together.
The next day we exchanged addresses and promised to stay in touch. I was daring enough to take Clare’s photo. Of course we never heard from each other again.
I’ve never liked Cliff Richard. But occasionally the tune of Summer Holiday pops unbidden into my head, reminding me of the summer I found out that working in a naff holiday camp was more fun than being a writer in Paris.
© Nick Gadd