‘Oh. My goodness. I’m so sorry.’
The crash had reverberated around the café, bouncing off the walls and echoing around the tables.
My gasp and horrified expression said it all.
One minute I was heading towards the kitchen door, tray of carefully balanced dirty crockery in my hands, the next I was watching as the whole lot flew through the air and landed at Mrs Raysby-Smyth’s feet.
‘You stupid, clumsy girl, you’ve ruined my shoes. Not to mention my silk stockings.’
Of course, it had to be Mrs Raysby-Smyth. Notorious amongst us waiting girls at the Copper Kettle Tea Rooms, she was the customer who never left without complaining.
‘If she thinks it’s that bad, why does she keep coming back?’ Lily had whispered to me more than once.
‘You stupid girl. I’m calling the supervisor.’
Within ten minutes I was out on my ear. Four years’ dedicated service and nothing to show for it.
No amount of trying to explain how an elderly customer had pushed out his chair as I walked past had made any difference. Even the said customer had tried to defend my position, but it was all for nothing.
What would I do? It had been easier to find work a few years before, but now in 1925, jobs were more scarce. I tried my best to hold back the tears as I waited for the trolleybus home.
‘I thought that was most unfair. It wasn’t your fault at all, if anything it was mine for standing up at that moment.’
I hadn’t noticed the elderly man follow me from the café.
‘In fact, I think I may be able to turn this unfortunate interlude to your advantage. And mine, for that matter.’
I stepped back. I was used to male customers and their advantageous proposals.
‘I’m not interested.’ I said in a rather abrupt manner, turning away.
‘Please just listen to what I have to say. You’ve seen the Lyons Corner House cafes around London?’
I nodded. They were the envy of every waitress in the capital.
‘Well, young lady, we’re opening a new one on the corner of Regent Street. We’ve really finished hiring, but if you’d like to come for an interview tomorrow morning, I feel sure we can find something for you. I spotted you in the Copper Kettle and was impressed with your efficiency. That’s just what we require of our Nippies. You’ve heard of the Nippies?’
‘Oh yes. I read that Lyons asked the waitresses to come up with a nickname. Nippy was chosen because of the speed with which they nip about the café. I’d love to work at a Corner House.’
‘Then, we’ll expect you at 1015 tomorrow.’
He walked away, swinging his cane and dodging between carts as he crossed the road.
My mother voiced the misgivings I had attempted to push to the back of my mind.
‘All sounds a bit fishy to me.’
The following morning mother’s words resurfaced in my brain while I waited to be called in to interview.
On entering the office, I was confronted by the elderly man from the previous day and a very smart, rather frightening looking woman who introduced herself as Miss Pitkin.
‘Sit down, Phyllis. I have heard very admirable comments about your skills.’
‘Thank you. I’m silver service trained, too.’
There followed a series of questions and a practical test serving tea to them both before I was instructed to return to the corridor to wait.
‘You have impressed us, Phyllis, we would like to offer you a more senior role than waitress. As a supervisor, you would greet customers, check their bookings and allocate tables. As you may know, we insist on all Corner House customers having a prior booking. You would also occasionally be required to wait on our very special clients.’
‘It would be an honour.’
‘Well, you have Mr Lyons here to thank for your good fortune.’
I was speechless, it had been the famous Joe Lyons who had caused me to lose my job and who was now interviewing me. I was even more stunned when Miss Pitkin outlined my salary.
Since that interview there had been two uniform fittings and several training sessions.
‘Through thick and thin, a Nippy keeps on smiling.’ Miss Pitkin had repeated frequently.
Now it was the café’s opening day. I drew in a deep breath. Who was this elegant young woman looking back at me from the mirror? I turned sideways. I couldn’t help but admire the finished result. Beginning at my highly polished neat black shoes, my inspection continued past my black stockinged legs, up my black dress with its white buttons and stiff-starched apron to my equally stiff white cuffs. I looked every inch the sophisticated flapper of the day.
Now the finishing touch. I picked the black and white coronet from the bed and clipped it around my hair. It had taken me a few days to get accustomed to my new short hairstyle, but we had been instructed that the shingle style was best suited to a Nippy. Although my parents had been pleased at my securing the position at a Lyons Corner House, they had not been so thrilled with my new image. It was rather ‘too modern.’
The hall clock was chiming ten as I hopped down the front steps, checking myself as I landed on the pavement.
‘Remember, you are a Lyons Nippy now.’
Opening time approached and excitement in the café increased. All the staff were experienced, but this was a big event and we were all nervous. We had to get it right.
Even before the front doors had been unbolted, a queue had formed on the pavement. Ladies lunching; businessmen; elderly couples, the customers were a real mixed bag. I took to my role like a duck to water, enjoying this new level of responsibility. Most customers were polite and friendly and I greeted them all with a smile. The time rushed by and in no time at all the lull between lunch and dinner service arrived. On duty from 11am to 11pm, I took full advantage of the break.
Shortly after dinner service had begun, the door opened and a group of four, evidently prosperous, women swept in.
‘Good evening, ladies.’
‘A table for four and make it one near a window.’ There was no mistaking the voice.
I double-checked the diary, but there was no booking in the name of Raysby-Smyth.
‘Under what name was the booking made?’ I smiled my best Nippy smile.
‘We don’t have a booking, but of course you’ll fit us in.’
I politely explained the Lyons bookings policy.
‘I insist on speaking to the supervisor.’
I had heard that before.
Through thick and thin a Nippy keeps on smiling.
‘Madam, I am the supervisor and I would be only too happy to take a booking for next week, but I am afraid there are no free tables for this evening, nor for the rest of this week.’
Although, I am convinced Mrs Raysby-Smyth did not recognise me, that did not diminish my delight at refusing her entry on that special opening evening.