When I had just turned 16, I got my first job. It was a 4 hours a week (ish) Saturday job at one of the pubs in the village, just waiting tables. From the moment I started I was on my way out, because the manager just didn’t like me. I learned later that they turned over waiting staff almost every six weeks – the length of their probation period – and I just think that they couldn’t find anyone who was a good fit with the manager.
There were two staff who had worked at the pub much longer, who were basically the full time waiting staff, and then there were a few bar staff who were on the more permanent end of things. One of the two waiting staff was the “maitre d'” though I think he’d given himself the title and really was taking it a bit far. He talked a lot and I learned absolutely nothing from him.
The other member of staff was a tiny woman nicknamed “Magpie”. She was totally lovely, about 5’3″ and as far as I remember had blonde curly hair. She was called Magpie because if we cleared a table and someone hadn’t finished their chips they went into a bowl and Magpie would snack on them for the rest of the night. Waste not want not. Everyone else clearly looked down on her for it, but I think I know where she was coming from.
She taught me how to pour out the huge bottles of ketchup without getting them everywhere, how to put together a plate of bread and oil and vinegar for dipping. She almost taught me how to carry more than two plates, and she helped me keep track of which table was which number. She was cheery and charming, and everyone who came into the pub really liked her (which was notably not the case for any of the other staff. The pub closed a few years later, and I don’t think it came as a shock to anyone).
One week, maybe about three weeks into my time working there (which as I mentioned was not long, maybe seven weeks in total) Magpie commented on how young I was. At the time I remember being a bit shocked, because of course to 16-year-old me, being 16 was being an adult. But I was also shocked because I hadn’t really considered that Magpie was much older than me herself, maybe 18 or 19. As we chatted it came out that she was actually in her late 20s, married with two children.
The thing which she noticed, she said, was my hands. We had been washing up cutlery (I think) and she pointed out that my hands looked “unused”.
I think about that conversation a lot. I remember looking down at her hands and seeing her age for the first time – because it’s true, especially when your job involves carrying burning plates, washing up in caustic detergents and going in and out of walk-in freezers, your hands do begin to show that you’ve worked. It wasn’t Magpie, but someone else in the kitchen chimed in about me keeping my hands nice for longer than “the rest of us”. There was a lot of classism at work in that kitchen, which at 16 I didn’t really comprehend. Looking back I know I was being singled out as the posh girl, who didn’t exactly need the Saturday job or to be slumming it with all of them. They were not-so-subtly pointing out that I wouldn’t ever need to “get my hands dirty”.
Of course despite the fact that I only stayed there for seven weeks, I did feel I needed that job. Being sacked (badly, by being left on the phone for 15 minutes as I tried to quit after yet another last-minute shift cancellation) was an experience I didn’t want to repeat in a hurry and so I waited a few months before my next job, but I can’t be accused of being work-shy. At one point when I was in my upper sixth year I was working two different jobs each weekend, volunteering at a youth centre, and babysitting on the side. The cruel comments from the pub kitchen weren’t necessary, and they weren’t accurate.
I didn’t work for the first year of my undergraduate degree. I was very worried about my academic performance, preparing myself for living abroad (10 years ago now, doesn’t time fly), and my dad in particular was very keen that I understand I didn’t need to work.
By the end of my year abroad I was itching though. I got a summer internship with the British Council, and realised that for all my resistance after my year 10 work experience visit, I could cope with working in an office. When I moved back to Leeds I got a job teaching science at primary schools, and then another as office manager for a web development firm. There are all kinds of stories about my various jobs strewn across this blog, though work isn’t something I write about often (after all, you never know who might be reading it).
I have done a lot of jobs, now. I’ve used my hands a lot, even when my job might not have naturally required it. My job now doesn’t require me to take apart steel deck, or count cash, or answer queries posed by concerned Spanish women. But I do all of those things anyway, when they are needed, and I think that my hands show it. I have always taken a lot of pride in my hands – I have nice fingers, and strong fingernails which are always painted, and I look good in jewellery. But underneath that, I do think my hands are starting to show my age and my story. It’s a decent story though, so maybe I don’t mind.